Having written and published 20+ short stories since 2016, I can say, with absolute conviction, that there is no single, universal process to how a short story comes together.
For several, I’ve even journaled through them, like Steinbeck with his Journal of a Novel while writing East of Eden. Though journaling through a story didn’t help me understand my own process and pin it down, it did help me get un-stuck several times. [Aside: Read both Steinbeck’s novel and that journal together. Quite a reading experience.]
This is also why, perhaps, short story writers are drawn to this form: the experience of writing each one is so different and unique that it is like exploring a new mystery every time. It is not, for me, an exaggeration to say that writing each of these stories has been like taking a new writing masterclass because I tend to focus on a different technical aspect or theme/subject each time.
Every time I finish a story, I’m also in some kind of awe. I look at the few thousand words and wonder: did I write this? It’s some kind of small miracle that an entire story and all those words came from my brain even if they had to be eked out haltingly and painfully at times.
So, while I’ve not developed any single blueprint for writing short stories, I have found a somewhat consistent pattern in the phases I go through. Here they are (and some of this is, I confess, with tongue firmly in cheek):
1. GREAT IDEA STRIKES. Oh wow. This would be a terrific and fun story to write.
2. GETTING ORGANIZED. Outlining overall plot, key scenes, character descriptions/motives, and so on. Yeah. This is fun. OK, that part is falling a bit flat. Not to worry. I’ll flesh it out when drafting. It’ll come to me. I know it will. Exciting story. Yeah. I’ll finish this in a couple of weeks, then edit for a couple of weeks. It’s doable.
3. STARTING TO WRITE 1st DRAFT: Oh my God. I don’t know anything about this stuff. It’s really not a good idea after all. I need to do a lot more research. Maybe if I read stories that are similar. Maybe I could put this one on the back burner and work on that other WIP that’s been sitting there for five years — I’ve finally got a great idea to make the latter move forward. Oh, wait, just got this writing article that speaks about the very thing I’m struggling with. Dammit. What made me think this was a good idea?
4. STARTING 1st SCENE: OK, now I’ve written the first few paragraphs about ten times over. Something has to stick here. What was that XYZ author said about how to open a story? Let me go read that essay of theirs first. OK, let it be. Just pick an opener and keep writing. Can always change it later. Oh God. This sounds so banal and uninteresting. Need to jump straight into the action. Need more descriptive/sensory detail. Is this the right POV? Am I doing too much telling, not enough showing? This is awful. I should start a new story. Had some better ideas earlier today — any of them would be better than this dead dog.
5. PROGRESSING 1st SCENE: I think I’ve managed to catch this one’s squirming tail now. It’s not slipping away so easily now. It’s nowhere near what I need it to be but I’ll keep working on it daily. It’s beginning to make some sense. Still not interesting enough though. Is this the extent of my imagination? Sad.
6. MOVING ONTO NEXT SCENE: this awful first scene is not done. But, even if I keep rewriting it for the rest of my life, it won’t be done. Maybe I should just try to finish the story first and then come back and improve each scene. Dammit. This story sucks. No one’s going to want to read it. I’m losing the excitement to write it. Why did I pick this? What do I know about all this anyway? [Repeat some stuff from points 4 and 5 above. Repeat 4-6 for remaining scenes.]
7. MOVING ONTO FINAL SCENE: No, it’s coming together. I’m thinking about themes that I had no idea would belong here when I first thought of this story idea. So that means it’s taking root or something. But ugh. I can’t fix on how to end this damn thing. It’s like a runaway train that doesn’t want to stop. Or, it’s like a train that just died on the tracks instead of pulling into the station. Why am I thinking of such metaphors instead of thinking of how to end this damn story? Need to go read XYZ author’s essay on how to end stories. Need to make the ending expected and unpredictable at the same time. Or is that the other way around? Jeez. What do I think I’m doing here? Maybe if I rewrite a couple of previous scenes, I’ll get a path to a decent ending. I’ve boxed myself in here. The ending is both predictable and expected. Who’s going to want to read that? There are real-life news stories that are way more exciting and interesting than this. What do I think I’m doing?
8. FINAL EDITS: OK. It’s not all that bad. I’d be interested to read this story if I hadn’t written it. So I’ll send it to a friend for a read and some feedback. Who have I not already asked? Who can I ask again without imposing too much? Who will get back to me in a timely manner?
9. READER FEEDBACK: Thank God. She/he liked it. Most of the feedback is good too. Makes sense. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to miss that POV switch in the middle of a scene. Easy fix, though. But that bit about how she/he didn’t care for that one character. Well, I don’t try to make my characters likable. I do want them to be believable. Maybe that’s what she/he meant? Maybe I need to give the character a couple of redeeming qualities? Yeah, let me go back to those two scenes and do a bit of tweaking.
10. SUBMISSIONS: This baby is ready for the world. I think. Still not convinced I should pay, as an author, for a lit mag to even look at my work, so those fee-based submissions are out. And the same goes for fee-based contests, though I understand they have to cover contest costs. Still, anything more than $10 as a fee is not fair. Dammit. Why do lit mags take so long to respond? I know that most of the folks running them don’t get paid enough, if at all. And they’re probably getting hundreds of submissions each week. But, really, anything more than three months means they’ve passed and just not gotten around to telling you yet. Why not just put us out of our misery instead of letting the ever-hopeful “In Progress” status keep showing in Submittable week after week? Sadists.