November 22nd, 2019

12 Lessons Learned From Writing Short

by John Peragine

In the last year, short story competitions have helped focus my writing. I read many short stories in elementary school and always enjoyed them, but I believed they were some condensed form of a larger work. I never thought of short-form writing as something special on its own.

Fast forward to adulthood and the beginning of my own writing journey.

Over the years, I have written short stories, but mostly as a writing exercise. To me it was practice for long-form. I believe I was half right.

When I wrote the stories, I never really thought about word counts, genre, or anything else- I just wrote, and when I was done, I might tinker with it a bit, but then I would set it aside. It was not until the past year that I began to realize how wrong this was and how much I was missing.

I am a big Neil Gaiman fan and began reading his short stories, along with his book, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. In it he explains his process of writing the stories.

I was intrigued. Each story was the perfect length. They weren’t shortened versions of books at all, they were perfect miniature works of brilliance.

In my hubris, I thought I could try my hand at it.

In my typical (unfortunately too typical) fashion, I decided to try my hand at some serious short story writing. I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. It was one of the most frustrating and awesome experiences in my life, and I believe it is has helped improve my writing.

The lessons I learned from my experience:

1. You must enter to learn the lessons.

I had never entered a writing competition. I'd heard many people say they were scams and not worth the time and effort. They were mostly an exercise of ego inflation, and that everyone got some prize. Now while I am sure there is a fair share of those types of competitions, the NYC Midnight Competition was none of those things. It was legitimate and hard.

2. It’s harder when someone gives you the guidelines.

To break it down simply: you are given a genre, an object, and a character description. My first one was spy story, mountain, journalist. The rule was that you had to include those elements prominently. . If you didn’t, you were disqualified. To up the stress factor, I had to do the story in 3 days with 2500 words. Piece of cake, right? Not even close.

3. I suck at writing under guidelines.

I had to focus my creativity using the materials given to me. I felt like what contestants in the show Iron Chef must feel like when they are told to make a complete meal using an electric eel.

4. The gamification of writing is both fun and motivating.

A competition that I could get excited about, against other really good writers from all over the world. As a professional writer, I don’t get too many opportunities to pit my writing skills against others. I was hooked!

5. Ticking clocks trigger neuroses.

I felt the clock ticking. My inner fraud police were screaming loud in my head, “Are you nuts. You aren’t a real writer. What were you thinking? You will lose the first round- give up now.”

6. You must ignore self-doubt.

I ignored the little devil me on my shoulder and pressed on. I typed and typed. I could do this. When I was done- it was 5,000 words. Crap.

7. Editing is a blessing and a curse.

I began cutting and consolidating, and I quickly realized something. Something horrible. My story was not going to work in the 2500 confines. I had to start over- Over 24 hours were done.  

Writing Short Form

8. Write concisely and strategically.

I had to learn the efficiency of words. Working as a journalist meant I could write a column a certain length, but a fiction story was a totally different creature. I had to write more concise and strategically. Instead of spending 3 pages with a scene, I had to write the same information cleverly in two sentences. Every word counts. Some sentences took 30 minutes to work out. But I did it. I wrote the 2500 perfectly crafted words.

9. Appreciate editors and beta readers.

I had some insight into my soul over the next few hours. I learned that I really appreciate editors and beta readers, but I don’t always like them. Mostly because their suggestions are dead-on, which meant I had work to do.

Why couldn’t they just ignore my instructions and tell me my prose was Pulitzer worthy?

Instead, they eviscerated my draft. I could not add any more words, so I had to consider their suggestions (quickly) and tear my manuscript apart and rewrite. I barely made my deadline, and then I just waited.

10. Waiting is HARD.

Because there were thousands of competitors all over the world, the feedback took a couple of months for the judges to complete. It was torture. If I did not rank in the top five in my group, I would not move onto the next round.

Confession: I was so unsure of my ability to do well in the competition, that I used a nom de plume. That way if I failed miserably, nobody would know.

11. Critiques help you grow as a writer.

I have always encouraged feedback and criticism in all my writing. I like the praise, but I appreciate the critique even more. In those red pen reviews, I have the opportunity to learn and grow as a writer.

I felt that the three judges were spot on with their comments. I found out I was not as horrible as I imagined, while at the same time, there was a lot I needed to learn and practice in my short-form writing. I came in 2nd in my group, so I moved on to the next round.

12. The smaller the wordcount, the harder the writing.

I did not do as well in the second round (I came in 7th). The word count dropped to 1500 words and I had only 48 hours to complete it. Again the comments were spot on, and I loved to have been a part of the competition. I have entered two other writing competitions since, and I have had the same great experiences.

Writing short form has made me much more aware of the conservation of words in my long-form fiction. This in turn helps me in the editing and rewriting of my manuscripts. I’m also much more disciplined and willing to scrap an idea to make room for better ideas.

I would love to win one of the competitions but losing hasn’t deterred me or made me feel like I am a bad writer. On the contrary, I feel it is making me better at writing and editing. Also, it has taught me how to write with strict deadlines. I had no time for distractions, and it forced me to focus on just writing.

If you have never tried your hand in a short writing competition, try one. You will be surprised about how your perception and your writing skills will change.

Have you tried writing short stories? Have you entered writing competitions? What are your thoughts on switching up your writing every so often? Let's talk about it down in the comments!

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About John

John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.

John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, The No Frills Guide to Book Marketing, will be released in Summer 2020.

27 responses to “12 Lessons Learned From Writing Short”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Fascinating, John. I have a friend who got a 1st and 3rd in that competition! I thought she was nuts. Not for writing a short story, but for doing it in the confines of the rules. And, oh yeah, the ticking clock. You did well!

    But those things you learned? They apply to novels, too. So you learned more than you thought - you can use those lessons if and when you write one!

  2. Terry Odell says:

    Kudos. I've written a few short stories, but the closest thing to 'rules' was that it had to have a Valentine's Day theme. There was a deadline, but it was a couple of months away. And it wasn't for a contest other than it had to be good enough to meet the publisher's standards.
    I find the novella format about as short as I'm comfortable with. I wish I could write shorter. I've tried. It's hard, and I can't get motivated to take the time to master the format.
    But I love reading them!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Laura says this same thing, Terry! I wrote short way before I tried long, so the long-form has been one of the hardest things for me to master. The only way I can get through a book is if I divide it into a bunch of scenes. (Cuz they're short!)

    • It does take some tenacity to write short stories- and a different mindset. I think that doing it has helped me in my structuring of chapters.

  3. Eldred Bird says:

    Great job, John. It was an honor to be one of your betas.

    Short stories are a great way to learn efficiency in writing. I liken it using different crayons. Remember the big sixty-four color pack with the sharpener in the bottom of the box? You could draw whole worlds and amazing details with that box. That's novel writing. Now take the little twelve pack and try to draw the same picture. You're in short story country now. It makes you focus on the details that really matter to get the message across clearly and concisely. If you really want to challenge yourself, try flash fiction. That's the two crayons they give your kid at a restaurant.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I love this analogy, Bob! This comment is a post!!!

    • I did a flash fiction- 1500 words- 48 hours. Yes it was even harder than the short fiction.

    • Kristan Mazemke says:

      Bob, That's a great comparison of writing to the crayons you get at the restaurant. I envision a clumsy poem challenge written over paper place mats. I think Jenny nailed it - this could turn into a fun post!

    • Kristan Mazemke says:

      Hi, John. Trying a style outside of your bread-n-butter journalistic writing would be hard enough, but you picked a contest with very specific guidelines. It was fun to hear the process you went through - going through all-the-things even under the existentially tight time frame. This was a fun read. Thanks for the post!

  4. All of the reply note are as you say, spot on! Thanks for your honest "journal" of your experiences. You give permission to write the story; to just write it. You would probably have fun with NaNoWriMo, also. I know what to do with my three shorts, now: I'll put them in an anthology.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is great. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to include it in my next Notes for Writers email (https://notesforwriters.substack.com/).

  6. Julie Glover says:

    I have written several short stories, and it's a great experience! It definitely teaches you economy of words. I also had to focus on a single storyline, which was a good structural exercise as well. Thanks for covering your tips!

    • Thank you Julie. I learn something new every time I enter the competitions. I am not only forced to write in a short form, I am also forced to write in a genre I may not be familiar with- which in itself is tough.

  7. I write lots of shorts stories and some longer ones. Writing is the easy part. Editing the more difficult part. Getting feedback, well, that's the most difficult of all, because it means a commitment of someone's time and expertise.

    • That is true- I work hard to create a good group of writers around me. When it's time for input, I just put it out to my tribe and those with the time and inclination jump in. It prevents me from tapping the sames resources repeatedly.

  8. John, I love the breakdown of your experience. I have seen the NYC Midnight Competition and wondered if it was legit. It looks the answer is a resounding 'yes.' I will throw a story into the pot next time.

    I enjoy writing short, and my goal is to write a piece of flash fiction every day. The pieces run from 100 to 500 words, and they are challenging. Twice a week, I enter informal, judged competitions, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the results. The short format curtails unnecessary words and forces me to write concisely.

    Thank you for your encouraging words.

  9. ecellenb says:

    I have a friend who religiously enters the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. She's really seen great progress in her writing. Economy of words is a wonderful skill to develop and one I need to work on.

  10. dholcomb1 says:

    I've been published in short. I was runner-up in a short competition.

    I once entered the NYC Midnight Short Story competition, but I didn't make it through to the end.

    It is definitely a different animal than novel.

    denise

  11. rolandclarke says:

    I wrote a few shorts in my teens but abandoned them for the 'great novel'. I'm now re-discovering shorts and learning so much from writing them. I prefer competitions with feedback even if those are rare. I also take part in a bi-monthly 1,000 word flash on my blog site which gets encouraging comments. I've been entering an annual anthology competition for a few years with no success or feedback. However, this year my short story was among those selected - despite the genre/theme being Middle Grade Historical—Adventure/Fantasy so way off what I normally right. Seems I'm learning.

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