Just One Thing or How I Finally Managed To Write A Short Story

By Sherry in Northern Virginia where winter seems to be setting in.

IMG_7356Short stories have been the bane of my existence — hmm that’s a little dramatic, so the bane of my writing existence. It seems like everyone I know writes them. I like to read them, but when it comes to me writing one, well, I fall short. When I lived in Massachusetts I always planned to write a short story to submit to the Level Best Books anthology. When I moved back to Northern Virginia I planned to write one to submit to the anthology for the Al Blanchard contest. I even had an idea for a story and wrote bits of it here and there but could never get it to gel.

On the other hand, I have a short story contest to thank for starting me on my adult novel writing journey. I may have told you this story before so feel free to skip to the next paragraph. We were living in Dayton, Ohio when I saw a blurb in the newspaper for a short story contest. I’ll write one, I thought. My protagonist was a gemologist, the setting was Seattle, and there was a dead homeless woman. I sat down to write but just kept going, subplots, romances, and characters appeared. The short story contest was abandoned but my novel writing journey was born.

So along comes our very own Wicked accomplice Sadie/Susannah/Jane suggesting we do a short story anthology taking a well known author’s stories and giving them a cozy twist. “Sure,” I say, “I can do that.” (I’m starting to worry that I’m one of those people who  if someone came along and said we should all go skydiving I’d say yes. Writing a short story seems almost as risky to me.) The group decided to write riffs on Edgar Allan Poe stories and I was soon wondering what I’d gotten myself in to.

I spent some time going through Poe stories. I’d forgotten how dark they were. I finally settled on a story called “The Lighthouse.” But I didn’t start writing.

My first attempt -- at least I had a title.
My first attempt — at least I had a title.
Second attempt -- title and who wrote it -- this is progress.
Second attempt – title and who wrote it — this is progress.










The deadline came closer and I made many attempts but tossed them. I finally called story story writer and independent editor Barb Goffman and explained my problem: every time I started writing characters and subplots kept crowding my head. Barb said, “A short story is about just one thing.”

“But what about –”
“Just one thing.”
“But a romance –”
“Just one thing.”
“I thought of a character –”

IMG_7353Okay, I got it. A short story is about just one thing. That’s what I chanted to myself as I wrote. I batted away those pesky subplots and characters that weren’t meant to be there. I finished the story. The anthology, Edgar Allan Cozy, comes out tomorrow.

Readers: Have you ever tried to write a short story? Do you read them?

49 Thoughts

      1. Hi, I’m hoping this reaches Sherry Harris. I just finished “Tagged For Death,” and really liked it. I have your second book all ready at hand for the weekend! I just had to tell you something, and I hope you don’t find it too gross. I read your advice about garage sales at the end of the book, and I need to add something (GROSS ALERT GROSS ALERT GROSS ALERT). You probably mentioned something about having familiar people circulate through your sales, because people will do anything. we had a tag sale when my mother moved out of her house into mine. Long story short, one of the items for sale was an orange plastic ice bucket, vintage 1960s or ’70s. when everyone had gone, I located it on the floor behind the bar in the basement. someone — I think I know who, but had no way of proving it — had PEED in it. I automatically started to clean it out with bleach, and then thought, Oh, Denise, for God’s sake just throw it away. I have NEVER forgotten that! I hope nothing like that has ever happened at any of your sales. I guess it could have been worse. Ugh.

  1. Congratulations, Sherry! I feel your pain about writing short stories and admire writers who can. I have never been satisfied with my short stories, but honestly, I never heard the advice from Barb Goffman, which makes perfect sense. Maybe I’ll give it a go again. Looking forward to reading yours.

  2. I’m not a professional writer — yet — but I’ve written some short stories. Mostly for a writing group I belong to. I read short stories occasionally, but I’m not a big fan of them. I prefer my stories dense and complicated and peopled with many characters and containing plots and subplots and complications. The short stories I do read tend to be ones containing characters I’m already familiar with or set in universes that I already know and that expand on situations already implied or described in full-length books.

  3. I think you and Barb G. nailed the issue. I’ve always said that short stories are hard to write, because they have to be so focused, and you can’t stop and explain and add backstory and wander off on an interesting tangent. And, of course, if I like the story I want more of it!

  4. So proud of you Sherry! Can’t wait to read it! I used to write more short stories than I do now. Like you, I have a few started but haven’t finished. Time constraints, mainly, but I also think I need that spark of finding a really cool idea that grabs me. There hasn’t been room in my brain lately for those!

  5. I have the same problem with writing short fiction. I’ve tried several times, but have never been satisfied with the results. Strange, because I can and do write and sell non-fiction articles at any length an editor prefers. Several writers groups I belong to are doing anthologies but I just write a check to support their efforts and continue writing my mysteries!

  6. Welcome to the short side, Sherry!

    I love writing short stories. And reading them. My favorite short story author is Alice Munro. (Okay, my favorite and millions of other people’s favorite.) I also love linked short stories like in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and and Welcome to the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

    Someone needs to say to me, “Novels are about more than one thing,” because my word count is always too low.

  7. Sometimes it’s interesting to go right to the source. Poe, himself, explains, in his theory of composition, that a story must have one effect, and every word must support that effect. So I think you’re certainly walking in his footsteps!

  8. I love to read short stories. Sometimes they are just the thing when you don’t want (or have the time) to commit to a full novel. I had such fun writing “Within These Walls” that since the first of the year I also cranked out another super short piece and submitted it to a specific market, and now I think I may have been bitten by the short story bug. Thinking pretty seriously about attempting another one to submit to Al Blanchard and Level Best but I will need to get my butt in gear, LOL! And Sherry, your story “The Lighthouse” came out great! I loved it and I know everyone else will too.

    1. The Poe anthology was a great idea so thank you for pushing me to write a short story. I don’t think I’ve been bitten by the bug though. Let us know about the other story!

  9. I like short stories, good ones! When I have situations where I have a great deal of short-term waiting, I prefer short story anthologies to take along.
    There is a time and a place for writing them, too. Sometimes a story that needs to be told doesn’t need anything thing else to distract from the heart of it. I have seen too many novels that should have been good short stories; gilding the lily, as it were. I have been pressed to take some of my writings farther into novel/novella length, or poems into shorts, but a story that is short and full shouldn’t be overwhelmed or lost in the shuffle.

  10. I wrote a few short stories as a kid/teen. I think that would be my market if I were to write fiction now. I just don’t have the attention span to write a novel. I want feedback on what I’ve written now. (I also think it is the best thing ever. You see the problem with me and writing.)

    Congrats on this new anthology. I must admit I am not too familiar with the works of Poe, so I probably won’t get all the comparisons, but it still sounds like lots of fun.

    1. I wrote short stories when I was younger and I realized I wrote a couple when I took a creative writing class in the early 2000s. I have not idea where they are though. I hope you like the anthology!

  11. What a great idea for an anthology! I still don’t understand how writing a short story can be more intimidating than a novel but I keep hearing it! Congratulations on the new story. Good advice, Barb… good advice.

    1. Well, when you write as many great stories as you do, Eleanor, I can see how it would be hard to understand. It’s an art and one that you are very good at!

  12. I just went to Amazon and looked up Edgar Allan Cozy, thinking I would pre-order it. It’s already for sale and I just had it downloaded to my Kindle and my laptop app! Can’t wait to read it. Poe is one of my exceptions to not caring much for short stories and I can’t wait to see how the Wickeds cozy him up!

  13. Congrats, Sherry.
    Yes, the short story mantra, Just One Thing. I’m a victim of too many ideas as well, and am, as we speak, working on a short story to submit to an anthology (Deadline March 3) and that nasty distraction keeps popping up: “Oh wait! What if…?”
    What if not one person but all three have a secret in the past? What if they were all together at university and they SHARED the secret. What if….?
    And that’s just in the last 20 minutes.

  14. Recently I came across my first published short story “Viking Girl” – written when I was nine! It was for a contest the Pasadena Star News ran and I was paid two dollars. It has an arc, character development, a twist, and everything despite being only maybe 200 words. I guess I was ahead of the flash fiction curve!

  15. Sherry, I feel your pain! It’s a form that’s eluded me, too, as when I tried I kept longing for the length of a novel to explain people/places/ things more.
    So first, I’m super proud of YOU and second, thanks for sharing Barb’s sage advice. I just may give it another try!

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