How I Write a Short Story a Week

Last year, I wrote two short stories and they came hard. This year I’ve written 35 short stories. Thirty of those were done in 30 consecutive weeks. Two of them won Honorable Mentions from Writers of the Future. I’m continuing on until I get a full 52 short stories in 52 weeks.

Here are my top tips for how to write a short story a week:

Set your challenge up, add some stakes and a reward. In my case I set a goal for the year of 40 short stories. Then in April/May, Dean Wesley Smith set up his Great Challenge of writing 52 short stories in 52 weeks due every Sunday. It matched my goal, so I signed up. Now I had not only good intentions but money riding on my success. If I manage to make all 52 stories in 52 weeks, I’ll receive a fantastic prize: lifetime access to writing courses from Dean. I love his courses so this is a great prize for me.

Set up a reward system for each short story you finish. Originally I rewarded myself with chocolate for each short story, but this didn’t work. Now I reward myself with time to do something I love: art. Every short story that is finished and sent to Dean is followed by time spent doing art.

Enlist support. In my case I have an extensive support system. My husband is my greatest supporter. In addition, I have a small writing group of people at my level (or a bit better). They’re my cheerleaders. They’ll listen to a few pages read and tell me what they think. It’s incredibly motivating. I also have a special friend who is writing with me. We have a shared score sheet in Google Sheets. Having a friend join you on the journey is invaluable. Sometimes they’ll text me and say, “Have you written today?” and I get up and write some words.

Be mindful of story time. One thing I discovered as I was analyzing short stories is that for a lot of them the action in a short story happens within about two hours. If there are several days covered, the story may just show four half hour periods. Or something like that. This is not any kind of rule, but I found it useful for me. Short cuts like this help keep me on track.

Calculate Your Word Count Per Hour. Figure out how many words you write in an hour. This will give you a more accurate understanding of how much you can actually write. Most people can write continuously for 5-15 minutes, but after that will have to stop and think a bit. My hourly word count is between 500-750 words an hour. It’s on the slow side.

Calculate how long your short story will be. Mary Robinette has a formula to do this:

Ls=((C+L) *750)*1.5Mq
(In English: Add the number of characters and the number of locations. Multiply that sum by 750. Then multiply that number by 1.5 times the number of MICE elements the story incorporates.)

From: Writing Excuses: 12.27 Choosing a Length

Check out the team’s discussion of the MICE Quotient as well.

Divide the length of the short story by your hourly word count to figure out how long it is likely to take and schedule that time. Use this figure to carve out time during your week. This is especially useful for travel. I say to myself, “This story is going to be approximately 3,500 words. Therefore I need to find 8 hours in the middle of my trip to write this story (3500/500 + 1 extra hour just in case). Once I know that I need 8 hours, I’ll schedule that time.

Use dictation to increase writing speed and to break writers block. I find that dictating stories, dialogue, or brainstorming breaks through my writers block and speeds my writing.

Dare to be bad. The goal of a short story a week is to finish short stories. It isn’t to write perfect short stories. I found that my writing improved as I finished stories. It’s practice.

Experiment with genres and techniques. This keeps things fresh and also forces you to improve as you struggle to learn new ways to write.

Create established settings and characters. Experimentation drives learning. Established characters and settings provide a comforting place to land when the going gets tough. I have three established settings: Thule (Arctic fantasy), Argosy City of Ships (ancient Greek maritime fantasy), and Quarere (space opera). It’s easy to fall into characters and places I love and write a new story there.

Save your false starts to reuse later. On weeks when nothing worked, I found that it helped to dig out the false starts from previous story attempts that went nowhere. I can often make them work now in ways that I couldn’t before. Never throw anything out. Even an awkward paragraph might spark something.

Learn the 7 Point Plot Outline for short stories: Stories start with a character, in a setting, with a problem. The character attempts to solve their problem and things get worse. They either fail to solve it, or they solve that problem and make things worse. Eventually they make a really big attempt and they succeed. This is followed by the validation, which is the resolution of the story and character’s arcs. I find it useful to test my story against this when I encounter problems.

May you meet your own challenges, friends!

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