5 Short Stories That Will Make You a Better Writer

5 Short Stories That Will Make You a Better WriterI selected the five short stories below for their diversity in style and subject matter, but also because each one is a well-crafted story in its own right.

If you own any modern short story collections, some of these works are probably in there. Or, other works by these same authors will be.

Which, by the way, if you are a young writer and you don’t own any story collections yet, I highly recommend picking up one from your local bookstore, or finding a used copy online. Even if you’re a novelist, short stories provide great quick studies into the how to craft an effective story.

1. “Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace

What it’s about: There’s an accident, and a child gets hurt.

Why it’s awesome: It’s short and punchy. No, really, it will feel like someone punched you in the stomach.

What you should pay attention to:

  • What Wallace does and doesn’t tell us as readers, and the effect that has
  • The structure and style. There are only about seven sentences total in this story.
  • How the one short sentence used has a ton of impact

Where you can find it: On Esquire (for free!).

2. “How” by Lorrie Moore

What it’s about: A relationship, from beginning to end

Why it’s awesome: It’s a great example of second person POV done really, really well, and the details of the story make it feel true.

What you should pay attention to:

  • The way Moore balances dark humor and the serious subject matter
  • The devices used to show the passage of time and the progression of the relationship in the story
  • The way Moore plays with language

Where you can find it: Moore’s first short story collection, Self-Help.

3. “The Sun, The Moon, the Stars” by Junot Díaz

What it’s about: A break-up, beginning to end
Why it’s awesome: Díaz captures his narrator’s voice immediately, and although Yunior is a pretty awful person, we understand why he does what he does.
What you should pay attention to:

  • What effect does it have when Junior tells us up front, on the very first page, about his cheating?
  • How the Junior’s version of the break-up story reveals Junior’s character
  • Who or what are we, as readers, rooting for?

Where you can find it: Díaz’s story collection This is How You Lose Her

4. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates

What it’s about: A teenage girl attracts the attention of a less-than-savory man
Why it’s awesome: If you want a guide to writing a story that boils with suspense all the way through to the end, you want this one.
What you should pay attention to:

  • How the initial characterization of the main character, Connie, affects our reading of the rest of the story
  • How Oates goes about building tension

Where you can find it: Right here online (free PDF).

5. “Once in a Lifetime” by Jhumpa Lahiri

What it’s about: The narrator recalls a time in her childhood when her family hosted another family in their home; the close proximity makes tensions run high and brings secrets to light.
Why it’s awesome: Lahiri’s writing is beautiful and gripping, yet quite simple.
What you should pay attention to:

  • The language. Look at those beautiful sentences.
  • How this 2nd-person point of view differs from the point of view in Lorrie Moore’s story
  • The way Hema’s discovery at the end of the story shapes our own understanding of the piece

Where you can find it: Lahiri’s second short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth

Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any important stories. I’d love some recommendations!


Changing Gears: Senior Year & Short Stories

I’m back at school for my senior year!  Hence the brief hiatus.

To those of you who have also returned within the last month–it’s crazy as ever, huh?   And to those of you also embarking on your senior year–we’ve gotten this far, so that’s something!

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling some of this:

Also this:

And a whole lot of this:

Regardless of where your life is at right now, I hope you’re all taking some time for yourselves, away from (school)work and other commitments, to do something that makes you grin from ear to ear and lose track of time.

Now, writing update. Soon I will apply to write a creative writing thesis.  It will be a collection of a short stories, and I’m looking forward to it quite a bit! Short stories are rather manageable compared to novels.  But it’s been a challenge for me to come up with brand new plots and characters.  Some strategies I’ve used so far:

1. Read all the short stories

This is my go-to solution to any writing problem I may be having. Examining a masterful writer at work does wonders.

Collections I’m reading as inspiration:

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

2. Keep a writing journal

You know when you have that great idea for a story while you’re in the shower, or just as you’re falling asleep, and it’s so good you think there’s no way you’ll forget it?  Boy, will you forget it.  Write it down ASAP.

I mean this in the loosest of senses, though.  Personally, I use workflowy to keep track of all the sentences and little ideas I have that could potentially inspire short stories.

3. Listen to the People Around You

While my friend and I were catching up over dinner, she told me this really great anecdote about a sort of missed connection she had.  I immediately thought, Oh my god: this is excellent story fodder.

Don’t expect a full-blown plot to spring from anyone’s lips.  It’s your job to figure out what has potential and to discard whatever’s left.  I think it’s especially valuable to pay close attention when other people are talking about their childhoods.  Lots of great insights there.  And realistically, all you need is enough of a spark to get you writing the first sentence, right?

4. Read poetry

Full disclosure: I have not done this recently, but I’ve heard it helps. Focusing on word choice and details in the short story will help you use your limited space efficiently and pack a punch with every sentence.

5. Do writing prompts

Hate ’em or love ’em, there’s no denying that a decent prompt can make you think about things quite differently.

I’m in a writing workshop this term, so I’ll be posting some of the prompts my professor has used here over the next few weeks.

35 Things to Do Besides Write (Which Will Improve Your Writing)

Writers write, sure, but you can’t be writing all the time.  Take a break once in a while!

Here are a bunch of things you can do instead that will have you coming back to your desk reinvigorated and full of ideas.

  1. Read a book you love.  Pay attention to what makes you love it. Is it the author’s word choice? The suspense?  The rhythm?
  2. Read something you’ve never read before: new author, new genre, whatever.
  3. Play with a child (or a bunch of children)yerin park sled Continue reading

When to Let Others Read Your Writing (and When Not to)

Writing is usually a solitary endeavor.

But if you hope to have readers one day, who will be the first? When is your work good enough to share?when to share your writing

I doubt that any piece is ever “good enough,” especially if you ask its writer.  You could revise forever–many do, since there’s no progress bar, no flashing neon sign that tells you “THIS IS AS GOOD AS THIS STORY IS GOING TO GET.”

That said, there are few things more nerve-wracking than sharing a draft with someone you admire and respect.  Share too soon and you risk a blow to your confidence, and you forfeit your chance to really get the story settled.  On the other hand, if you refuse to let others read your work, it will undoubtedly suffer.  There comes a point when you are way too close to your story to be able to consider it objectively.

Consult this little guide to make sure you’re good and ready to let others read your writing, and that you’re sharing it for the right reasons:

Continue reading

12 Ways to Start Writing Again

More than two weeks ago, I finished up a one-act play–I did the final edit, hit the deadline, then heartily congratulated myself.
12 Ways to Start Writing Again

In the days leading up to the deadline, I was writing 3+ hours each day in order to get the thing done (yes, I procrastinated a bit).  Once the piece was complete, a short reprieve from writing seemed to be in order.  My current internship started the following day, and now that few days has grown into nearly 3 weeks.  Not cool. Continue reading