How to Write a Short Story

I’ve been meeting a lot of people who wonder, “How is a short story written, what is involved?” I figured I’d break it down into simple steps. They don’t have to be followed exactly, but, they’ll probably help you on your quest.

  1. Get an idea.
  2. Since it’s ready taken, don’t worry that it’s already taken.
  3. Masturbate to a photo of Flannery O’Connor.
  4. Have a cup of coffee.
  5. Start your story briskly!
  6. Briskly throw it away after 5 minutes.
  7. It’s the law.
  8. Restart.
  9. Write about life.
  10. Or death.
  11. Don’t let anyone else know that, make them think the plot is about as simple and carefree as having sex in a helicopter.
  12. The first sentence of your story should only take you about seven months.
  13. If you think it’s done any sooner than that, keep crumpling it up and throwing it in your bird cage.
  14. Have a bird and a bird cage.
  15. Maybe a cockatiel just cause that’s funny to say cockatiel.
  16. Write a rough draft of your idea.
  17. Keep it loose.
  18. Put in some of the key building blocks of life and humanity.
  19. Such as love.
  20. Betrayal.
  21. Trust.
  22. Typos.
  23. Grammatical errors.
  24. Explosions.
  25. The Pacific Ocean.
  26. You love the ocean but don’t get to go as often as you’d like.
  27. In the short story mention a bunch of other cool shit.
  28. You have a lot of options.
  29. Don’t mention anything lame for more than 3/4 of a sentence.
  30. Have you been writing on a yellow legal pad with a blue ball point pen? Go back to number 6.
  31. Ask everybody on the street for clues about who Alice Monroe is.
  32. Did they tell you? Perfect. Add some of her wisdom.
  33. Find out from the deli girl slicing your ham who Denis Johnson is.
  34. Insist on “thin sliced ham.”
  35. Back to the story. Add tension.
  36. Add more tension.
  37. Make sure there’s a conflict.
  38. Make sure there’s a resolution.
  39. Make sure your character undergoes some monumentous forced bullshit change.
  40. Does it feel forced?
  41. not working.
  42. Force harder.
  43. Add some love triangles.
  44. Also add an artistic scene of the narrator glancing out at the Pacific Ocean like the end of Barton fink.
  45. Was that a short story?
  46. I dunno.
  47. Maybe write Barton Fink as a short.
  48. Or whatever you want.
  49. It’s your story.
  50. You call out of your job for a week.
  51. You finish the first draft of your short story!
  52. Celebrate!
  53. Go out for a $250 steak dinner.
  54. Get a strawberry slushy from 7-11, add 13 shots of mescal.
  55. Get drunk in a random limo.
  56. Tell the limo driver to take you to Raymond Carver’s house.
  57. “Who’s that?”
  58. “Look her up motherfucker.”
  59. “Get out of my limo, you look like you’re gonna choke on your own vomit.”
  60. At home you hit your head on the mirror, slipping in the bathroom.
  61. Nasty.
  62. Get some stitches.
  63. “What happened to your head?” someone asks.
  64. “Art” you say. Not meaning it. You just think it’s funny to say.
  65. Submit your first draft to McSweeny’s!
  66. Get rejected by the mailman as you hand him/her the envelope
  67. Send it also to Esquire
  68. The Paris Review.
  69. Your mom.
  70. Get rejections from all the magazines in six months.
  71. Your mom whenever Thanksgiving is.
  72. Rewrite your story.
  73. Type it this time.
  74. I thought you had enough common sense to type your draft.
  75. you sent a handwritten story in an envelope without even an SASE? OMG?!
  76. It goes like this:
  77. Idea
  78. Yellow legal pad
  79. blue ball point pen
  80. Type it up
  81. Double space it
  82. 12 point times new roman
  83. Put your email and name on the top of each page.
  84. Don’t be a smug asshole in your bio.
  85. Be nice.
  86. Thank the editor for their time.
  87. That’s it.
  88. SASE if sending through snail mail.
  89. who cares if it’s digital.
  90. whew, alright, pressing on …
  91. Ok, you need critiques on your story
  92. It’s obvious
  93. Have your barber look it over
  94. “Make your protagonist a barber” he’ll say
  95. Don’t do it
  96. Spell check your work again
  97. It’s ‘your’ not ‘you’re’
  98. Or ‘it’s’ not ‘its’
  99. A bunch of other shit
  100. Delete all the Martians
  101. All the celebrity psychics
  102. All the werewolf detectives
  103. Write about regular people
  104. Give them regular names
  105. Or no names
  106. Make their lives interesting (kinda)
  107. But please don’t make them spies
  108. Or cops
  109. Or Jean Claude Van Dame
  110. Rewrite the first sentence over and over and over again until blood comes out of your eyes
  111. Then delete the entire story
  112. Say “Fuck why did I delete that?”
  113. Take your computer to a tech geek. Have the file rescued from wherever fucked up accidentally deleted files go.
  114. Take the tech geek on a romantic weekend getaway to a secluded bed and breakfast in upstate NY
  115. Screw loudly
  116. Get complaints from the old couple that run it
  117. Print them out your story on the printer by the chess board next to the fireplace
  118. “Lose the barber. Who wants to read about a barber?” the old lady says.
  119. “Make him a werewolf spy,” the old man suggests.
  120. Submit the second draft to university presses.
  121. Get rejected.
  122. Marry the tech geek on the beach.
  123. You both love the beach.
  124. Submit draft 3 to online websites like Pank and the Nervous Breakdown.
  125. Get rejected.
  126. Submit draft 6 or better to small press online sites.
  127. Get accepted!
  128. Say, “fuck them! One more draft”
  129. Resend to the New Yorker.
  130. Never hear back.
  131. Forget your story for a decade.
  132. Start a family with the tech geek.
  133. Get a condo.
  134. Take the cockatiel with you.
  135. Gain 24 pounds.
  136. Figure out how to make jello no bake cherry cheese cake.
  137. “Easy as shit.”
  138. Have two kids.
  139. Twins.
  140. Whatever non identical is called.
  141. Boys
  142. Kyle and Wiley
  143. Start growing your own weed in a secret room behind your bookcase
  144. Also, take your family on a vacation to see colonial Williamsburg in Virginia
  145. They’ll hate it
  146. You’ll hate it
  147. That kinda stuff is good for your writing. Hate.
  148. Also: crash your car into a telephone pole while fucked up on over the counter prescription medication that you crushed up and snorted
  149. It doesn’t matter
  150. It was a Mazda miata
  151. That’s also good for your writing
  152. Tell your kids “SHUT THE FUCK UP! I’m trying to write”
  153. Draft 8
  154. Draft 9
  155. Suffer at work
  156. Get the silent treatment at home
  157. Decide to enter into rehab for the prescription drugs you snort
  158. Adderal mostly
  159. This saves your marriage
  160. Your kids make the highschool soccer team
  161. Whatever
  162. Soccer sucks
  163. Take your first writings class!
  164. After the first class take the writing teacher out to the bar
  165. ask, “So how did you get published in the New Yorker?”
  166. Be surprised when the teacher says, “sheesh, I can’t even get a short story published in the local newspaper.”
  167. Send your story to the local newspaper
  168. It’s accepted!
  169. Reject them too.
  170. Laugh at the editor on the phone.
  171. “Sorry, bub” you say. “Bigger and better things, bub.”
  172. Do some research
  173. Get someone to hit you with rocks so you finally understand Shirley Jackson’s “the lottery”
  174. Workshop your story all that year at one of your six writer’s groups
  175. Shut up and Write!
  176. Write Prison!
  177. Write N’ Munch
  178. Scribble Fun
  179. The Leather Elbow Pad
  181. they’re all helpful
  182. Tighten up your troublesome short story with all that wonderful FREE advice from all those other aspiring writers.
  183. Get a twitter account.
  184. Follow people who hash tag #ThePenIsMightierThanGettingFucked
  185. Follow Raymond Carver.
  186. Finally read one of his stories.
  187. Tell me if it’s any good.
  188. Make your story sadder.
  189. Put in cancer.
  190. A car crashing into a train.
  191. Maybe some assault of some kind. People love that.
  192. Give everybody a pet dog with a wet nose.
  193. Set the story in Pittsburg.
  194. In a steel mill.
  195. The day it’s set to close.
  196. Give every character a ton of back story.
  197. Write it in third person present tense.
  198. Oh shit your story is 63,000 words.
  199. Lean what flash fiction is.
  200. Learn Hemingway’s 6 word story about the fucking baby shoes.
  201. Learn who Hemingway is.
  202. Cut your story by 61,000 words.
  203. Ditch the steel mill.
  204. Let your cockatiel go free.
  205. It dies in the snow.
  206. “Stupid” your computer geek spouse says.
  207. Your kids laugh.
  208. You think that’s a bad sign.
  209. Maybe they all need lithium.
  210. You don’t want any.
  211. You think psych drugs will take away your creativity.
  212. after work one day you stop in a your local seedy dive bar where bands and poets play/read and you are surprised to see a zine stuffed in the toilet.
  213. Fish it out.
  214. Rinse it off.
  215. what the hell, you send them your story.
  216. They publish your story!
  217. You are 55 years old, you feel accomplished.
  218. “I’m a published author” you scream from your home at the top of Mt. Everest which you climb up and down all the time to do all your goddamned errands and crap.
  219. That’s irony.
  220. Learn that.
  221. Put it in your new shit.
  222. Now, write a zillion more stories.
  223. About what?
  224. Anything but writing.
  225. Unless you don’t give a fuck.
  226. Just have fun.
  227. Go to the beach.
  228. Bring sandwiches.
  229. And an umbrella.
  230. And a blanket big enough for all of you
  231. Watch the blue sky.
  232. Jump in the green ocean.
  233. Feel good while you can.
  234. say, “I think this sandwich just gave me an idea for a story …”
  235. “About what?”
  236. “You’ll see. When they publish it.”
  237. “Who?”
  238. “Well, I’m not sure yet.”
  239. “There’s sand in my sandwich.”
  240. “Isn’t that exactly what life is?”
  241. The sun goes behind a cloud and a chill comes off the ocean.
  242. You lay down next to your love.
  243. You both cover up for a little with the big beach towel.
  244. That’s your favorite part.


Bud Smith wrote the novels Tollbooth and F-250, the short story collection Or Something Like That and the poetry collection Everything Neon. Follow the author on twitter @Bud_Smith & at