Short Story Struggles?

by Joe Bunting | 50 comments

What problems are you having writing shorting stories and getting them published? Where are you stuck? What are you having a hard time with?

Writing Struggles

Ever since I interviewed Linda Swanson-Davies, editor of Glimmer Train, I've been thinking seriously about writing short stories for literary magazines. That's why today, I want to reach out to you to see your struggles with short stories?

It could be:

  • Story structure
  • Length
  • Themes to write about
  • How to get your short stories published
  • How to write stories more quickly
  • How to know if your story is good or not
  • How to edit
  • How to write serious stories
  • How to write entertaining stories
  • Which magazines should you send your stories to

I struggle with short stories, too. Specifically, I have a hard time finishing stories. I don't mean writing an ending, but actually getting my story to the point where I'm happy with it. I would also like to know more about story structures that work well.

How about you?

I'll take your questions and craft posts, interviews, and resources we can all use to write meaningful, publishable short stories.

Please share your questions in the comments, and if you feel like you know something about short stories that I don't, I'd love to hear from you.

 | Website

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

50 Comments

  1. cushionedasphalt

    I am very interested in this subject as well. I always have these short stories that come out quiet easily but I feel that every short should have something to say. Well, my stories never have anything to say really, they are just a plain ‘ol story. Let’s hear more!

    http://explanation-not-relevant.blogspot.com/ 

    Reply
  2. JB Lacaden

    I actually prefer writing short stories compared to writing full length novels, but the problem with me is I’m having a very hard time finishing stories I start.

    Aside from that though my other main problems are:
    How to get your short sto­ries published 
    Which mag­a­zines should you send your sto­ries to

    In our place, we don’t have a lot of literary magazines where you could submit your stories to. That’s why I try scavenging the internet for contests and such.

    Joe, aside from Glimmer Train, do you know any other magazines that accept online submissions?

    Reply
    • Marianne

      duotrope.com

      They have a filter so you can see which mags use the kind of stories or poems you write.  I also found some good ones to read there.   They are free but will email and tell you they need contributions about once a month.  I send them something twice a year.  

    • zo-zo

      this is great, thanks Marianne. 

    • JB Lacaden

      Thanks Marianne!

  3. Jim Woods

    I think length is my biggest issue. That and how much background to tell. If you make it too short, something is missing. If you make it too long and tell too much, the potential for boredom is greatly increased. 

    Reply
    • Marianne

      I’m in agreement on that.  Too much, too little background is really a quagmire.  

    • JB Lacaden

      I think the secret to this is to follow Joe’s advice of “Show and don’t tell”. You can reveal character background through the actions, behavior of your character as the story progresses.

  4. Angelo Dalpiaz

    I don’t know anything about writing short stories that anyone else doesn’t know, but I’ve had 3 short stories published in print, and 4 others in on-line magazines.

    I have a portfolio full of short stories that I write whenever I get an idea.  But I also check with publishers of short stories, both on-line and in print and they will tell you what they are looking for.  I use the information they give me as a sort of prompt and sometimes I can come up with a story.

    I’m on vacation in Cancun, Mexico right now, where my niece is getting married.  I haven’t seen her in years and it’s the first time I’ve met the groom to be.  I asked them about how they met and some of the history of their relationship that brought them to this point.

    It turns out they have an interesting story to tell about how they met so I have their permission to write it as a romance story.  Since it’s been raining here for 2 days I think I’ll have lots of time to write it.

    I don’t know that there’s a secret to getting a short story published.  You just have to have something that fits what a publisher wants to print.  It’s not hard to find out what they’re looking for, just visit the sites of magazines and publishers.

    Reply
    • Lisa Burgess

      Angelo:

      What are the names of the web sites and publications that have printed your work?  I just get so overwhelmed when I start looking . . . .

    • Bronson O'Quinn

      I was wondering the same thing!

    • JB Lacaden

      This is very helpful Angelo. Thanks!

    • Joe Bunting

      I love duotrope. So helpful.

    • Marianne

      I think I remember you saying that you have a fairly strict writing schedule, like both mornings and afternoons?  Isn’t that right.  You also seem to have lots of ideas for stories.  

  5. Bob Albrecht

    I think I struggle with length, Joe. It feels like you have to be very economical with a short story, and it can be hard to say everything I want to say. I’ve only written shorts since I committed to really giving writing a go, and not just saying someday (h/t Jeff Goins). I’ve finished one and I’m in the editing phase with another. A third I want to give up on but I’m fighting to push through. Wrapping up here, I feel good about the first and I’d love for it to be published, but I’ve no great concept of where it could go.

    Reply
  6. @writing_ninja

    What works for me with short stories is the same structure with any piece of writing: beginning, middle, and end (and not necessarily in that order). And the same rules: hook the reader, make a promise, then make good on that promise by following through with a great story.

    To know whether it’s too long or too short can always be answered by the question: “What effect are you going for?” I am by no means an expert, but find that these points have helped me to write better short stories. My best inspiration for the “economy” of short stories is the New Times 55 fiction series – a competition that’s been running since 1987! It will challenge the verbose 😉

    Reply
  7. Katie Axelson

    I’m excited about this! I think in terms of novels, so anything shorter is a challenge in that I want to drag things out too much. I also have a very limited knowledge as to where to submit pieces.

    Katie

    Reply
    • JB Lacaden

      I’m the opposite. My mind works for short stories. My problem with novels is that I tend to get draggy in the middle part.

  8. James Dibben

    I want to get great at writing 500-700 word short stories. My only desire is to publish these on my blog.

    Can short stories be this short?

    Here is one I wrote that is 620 words for a bi-weekly writing challenge I used to be involved with.

    “Pumpkin pie for David”

    http://bluecollarliving.com/pumpkin-pie-for-david 

    Ultimately I want to create a collection of short stories centered around a couple of men. One is an older mentor of the younger. 

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      That would be in the flash fiction range, James. Flash fiction is getting really popular, but not all magazines publish them. 

  9. Terry Cohoe

    I agree with cushionedasphalt,…my short stories seem almost more like scenes.  They have a start and end but I don’t know that they stand alone.  Is your character supposed to have an arc like in a novel? Some change? Doesn’t seem like time for that but the best stories I’ve read do seem to have some realization at least on the character’s part.  I would love to see more articles on short stories.  Great idea, Joe.

    Reply
    • Kathryn

      I share your uncertainty completely! Very few of my short stories come full circle. Most just seem like scenes that should belong to something bigger…which adds imaginary pressure to try and turn it in to something more. This unfortunately always leaves me feeling like it is unfinished. I’m glad to know I’m not alone! 

  10. Gabbyred

    I struggle with the structure and length when it comes to short stories. I find I just start free writing them and I either write myself into a corner or they come out as a scene of something bigger, like a novel. Either way, they feel unfinished and incomplete. I struggle with trying to make them one coherent piece unto themselves.

    Reply
  11. Suzie Gallagher

    give me a topic and I will write.

    give me the name of a publisher and I will forget

    I am just too darn scared to see my work in print to send it anywhere

    I was scared of people hearing my music – but they have heard it now
    I was scared of having regular readers of my blog locally – but I have them now
    I was scared of preaching – oh yeah still scared of that but doing it
    I was scared of leading worship- ditto above

    Now am being called in a totally different direction and it is scaring the inside of me out….

    the writing – I love to write and having you all reading it is enough for now.

    Reply
  12. Stephanie L. Bolmer

    I think my number one problem from your list is “how to know if my story is good or not?” I mean, this is the problem with all writing, right? But, with short stories, it seems like it might be harder to know, because you don’t have as many hoops to jump through to get to publication. You don’t necessarily have an agent you can pitch the idea to and get feedback from. You don’t necessarily have professional editors helping you make it the best you can. You have a magazine who takes weeks to give you a yes or a no….

    Reply
    • zo-zo

      This is exactly my thing too.  I have to fight against perfectionism – which can be good and bad in writing.  You sometimes have no clue as to the calibre of your work.  You actually need someone to mentor and guide you – this is great, this is really bad, work on this, so your pieces can go from OK to great.  Because isn’t great what we all want? That’s why this is a wonderful soundboard for writers, a safe one.  

  13. John Fisher

    As a relatively new hand at the short story, having completed only two, I struggle with all ten elements listed, especially length — my first story (written before I found this blog) was over 6,800 words, more a short novel than a short story.  Also with not knowing if it’s really good or not:   I personally like the 6,800 worder, but it may contain too much thinly-disguised  autobiography.   I  need to learn to get out of the way of the story and to be more open to different ideas and themes. 

    The whole marketing/publishing aspect scares me, I think because I fear that I’m just not good enough.  I want to believe I have something to say, but doubting myself, I lack the authority of KNOWING that I do.  I’m aware that that’s all up to me, and I think  — I hope — it will come with a lot more PRACTICE!

    Reply
  14. Wanda Kiernan

    I’ve been a short story fan – both reading and writing them – for as long as I can remember.  I like the idea of few words but big impact.   I guess I struggle most with how to write them more quickly.   I have plenty of ideas and love starting stories, but too often I don’t see them through to the end.  I think this is a great idea to include more posts and resources about short stories!  Thanks Joe!

    Reply
  15. David Hutto

    What baffles me to my knees about short story writing is why it’s so incomprehensibly hard to publish them. For me anyway. I love writing them. They are done relatively quickly, so the sense of accomplishment comes sooner, and you can PLAY, push the envelope, try things you’d never do in a novel. But I’ve only published about a dozen, and it ain’t for lack of trying trying trying. Consider me perplexed.

    David Hutto (writeortakeanap.wordpress.com)

    Reply
    • Marianne

      I think it’s because more people read novels, and the publishers need to make money. I think you’re doing well to have published about a dozen. I’d love to have one published, so maybe I should be writing instead of reading the blog.  

    • Joe Bunting

      Agreed, David. It’s easier to get into Harvard than to publish a short story in a reputable literary magazine. 

  16. mlhatcher

    If there was a problem, I have noticed, is I cannot seem to draw readers to my blog site. I know I have just recently started, however, I am excited. I am excited, because writing has brought so many emotions out in me and giving me the ability to express myself in a new way, quite a bit different, than I have ever done so. So, I guess my question is, how can I draw attention to what I am doing and this is, of course, after I have already let loose on facebook.

    Reply
    • Marianne

      What’s the name of your blog.  You might want to put a link to it when you post so that when people read you entries here they might go to it. 

    • mlhatcher

      Marianne,
      My blog can be seen at mlhatcher@blogspot.com, Please, if you have input, it is greatly appreciated.

      Sincerely,
      Mark Hatcher

  17. Steph

    I don’t actually like reading or writing short stories, but I see the value in both and my overall writing has improved as a result of practicing! I rarely care much about the characters in short stories that I read. I generally care about the ones I write about, but that is only because I have their extended stories, both back and future, mapped in my mind. So my question is: what tips do you have about character development in short stories?

    Reply
    • T. C. Glover

      Agreed. It’s hard to develop characters in a short story. I want to give them their time, and allow readers to develop a relationship. The best endings the ones where I sit there after I read the last word and say “and then what?”. Novels give you ample time to build up that opportunity, but how do achieve that moment in the minimal words of a short story?

    • Joe Bunting

      I think you’ve struck on the thing that makes short stories different from novels. Short stories are essentially event driven, whereas novels are character driven. Some people might argue with me on that, but for how many short stories can remember the name of the protagonist?

    • Steph

      Thanks, Joe. I think that considering events over character could really help me pull together short stories in the future, as I tend to work in the opposite direction. And you’re right: the only short story protagonists I can recall are from stories that are spin-offs of novels!

    • Marianne

      Well of course I have to argue with this. Two points.

      I think there are different genres in short stories just as there are in novel length works.  Literary short stories are usually character driven but there are fewer characters and usually only one crisis.  In detective fiction there are lots of flat characters and tight stories with fairly complicated and predictable plots.   I think most people read their first short stories from anthologies and remember a few that they liked of all the ones they read. Those are probably from a writer that they really would enjoy reading.  

      “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson is about as character driven as a set of stories can get.  

      Also  I cannot remember the names of a lot of characters in short stories. but I can clearly remember some characters, the crazy guy in Pumpkin Head by Joyce Carol Oates, the farmer in Mudman by Pickney Bennett (although I wouldn’t say that story was character driven), Miss Emily in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily” or Nancy in “That Evening Sun” by Faulkner, or the teacher in Baxter’s “Gryffon”.  Those are ones that come immediately to mind, and with the exception of Gryffon they aren’t stories that I read recently at all.  The Faulkner ones I read probably twenty years ago and again about eight years ago.  

      Try reading some things by Lorrie Moore Steph. I think she’s funny and very character driven and so is Margaret Atwood.  

    • Joe Bunting

      I think it depends on how you define character driven and event driven. I’m not saying short stories don’t involve deep, complicated characters with realistic lives. You’re definitely more versed in short stories than I am, but to use “A Rose for Emily” as an example, the discovery of her dead body is clearly the event at the center of that story. I think Denis Johnson is a good example of someone breaking the mold. They are more like mini-novels than tradition stories. I’ve only read Emergency, but even in it, there’s that moment with the rabbits that center the story. It’s not a perfect rule, but I do think it’s the rule.

    • lauren

      I totally agree with you. I guess that is why I have never liked short stories, because I am a character reader. I read books to fall in love with the characters. 

  18. DanielaDragas

    Short stories are like snap shots of life frozen in time. They
    are like postcards sent from writer’s dream vacation before (during or after)
    he/she embarks on another long road towards longer manuscript. This is how I
    have always thought of them. And this is exactly where the precarious balance
    lies in ambush! To starlet the poor writing creature struggling to make ever so
    gentle, so quite steps. No such luck! Short stories must have all the elements
    of much longer narrative only without luxury of a longer narrative. With short
    stories words must be chosen far more carefully, action and intrigue applied in
    just the right amounts, final conclusion drawn at just the right time … I know
    sounds like a lot of hard work. This is because it is a lot of hard work! But
    once you done it – reward is great too. One of the all-time best short story
    writers is Chekov. Reading his stories is truly inspirational.

    Reply
  19. T. C. Glover

    (First time commenter, but I’ve been reading for a while now. Thanks for all your hard work, and hours of practice!)

    I started writing short stories last year, but I only managed six of them written. I love the idea of short stories, but my number one problem is how do I know where to stop? I get so attached to the characters, and I fell I owe them a novel. I’m already invested in seven novels, and I’d like to be able to write short stories without feeling that guilt. I suppose it falls into the story structure category, since that would help me find my boundaries.

    Also, what’s the best method of publishing short stories? Submitting to magazines and such, or should I be working towards a collection for self-publication or possibly traditional publication?

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Good questions. Seven novels is quite a lot to be working on at one time! Yikes! 

      We definitely will talk about endings, because it’s something I have a hard time with as well. 

      The traditional path of publication for stories is to get them published by magazines,  and then create a collection of the published stories. However, in this day and age, almost everything’s fair game. Some magazines will even accept a story you’ve self-published as long as the audience was under 5000. I don’t think any traditional publishers would publish a collection that wasn’t already in a literary magazine though.

  20. Suzanne Williams

    I always feel like the odd duck when people say they struggle with short stories because I simply love writing short stories. They are by far the easiest thing for me to write. When I write nonfiction, when I respond to an email, when someone calls me, I can sum up what I want to say in only a few words. So writing short stories flows right with my style of writing. It allows me to leave things out and focus solely on plot and emotion, leaving out the “how did I get there” part of a story that always throws me off.

    Reply
  21. Debaparna Das

    Hello, I liked this article, and the fact that someone is finally interested in the problems people might face when writing short stories. The biggest doubt I have is about the length and structure of the short story. I read once that the story shouldn’t exceed 4000 words. But what if the theme is such that the story needs to be bigger in order to explore all the issues adequately? Also, the structure that a short story should have confuses me. I’d like some help in these matters.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 Elements of Storytelling - [...] you want to write a good (and pub­lish­able) short story, start by writ­ing a bal­anced one. There are five…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Vestige Rise of the Pureblood
- Antonio Roberts
Under the Harvest Moon
- Tracie Provost
Box of Shards
- K.M. Hotzel
2
Share to...