RC Peris & BP Coyle
Writing short stories is an excellent way to learn how to write. Ray Bradbury said that if you want to be a writer you need to read every day and write at least one short story a week. Your first short stories will be awful. Miserable. But as you produce more, you will get better. Your writing will improve and so will your confidence. Eventually, one of those short stories will be good enough to publish.
Don’t focus on getting published though because as Bradbury made clear, writing short stories, of any length, makes you a better writer so long as you keep producing.
Not sure how to write a short story? The best way to learn to write is to read (well, write too but you have to read). We have selected seven short story writers who are masters of their craft. These writers represent a breadth of writing across genres. Each one offers important lessons for budding and experienced writers.
Primarily a science fiction writer, Ellison is considered the genre’s most controversial author. He has written over 1,700 pieces of writing including short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic books, teleplays, essays, and criticism. Notoriously difficult to work with, he is usually described as abrasive and argumentative. He had a lot of odd jobs over the years and worked as a crop picker, tuna fisherman, short order cook, book salesman, door to door salesman, actor and floorwalker. He even served in the Army. He attended Ohio State for 18 months, where he was expelled for hitting a professor who criticized his writing. He ended up in Hollywood and wrote for The Flying Nun, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He was hired by Disney Studios but was fired the first day for talking about making a porn with Disney characters. Winner of too many awards to list, he is the only person to have won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story three times. His most famous short stories include ‘Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman’, ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’, and ‘A Boy and His Dog’. Ellison’s writing is feverish, unique, and thought provoking. His writing teaches how to be brave in your writing. If you are starting or even half way on your journey to being a writer you will write what you think will find an audience or you will copy form from other writers. Ellison teaches you to find your voice, dig deep for originality, and have the courage to design your own style. In the words of Micheal Crichton, his tales are ‘uncompromising, individual and exactly as he wants them to be.’
Collier, primarily a fantasy short story writer, was highly recommended to budding writers by Ray Bradbury. Most of his short stories during a two decade period appeared in The New Yorker. He won countless fantasy fiction awards. Born in London in 1901, he declared at a young age to his father, “I want to be a poet.” Collier was an admirer of James Joyce. Most of Collier’s stories demonstrate wit, irony, and are dark in tone. Like many writers, he was attracted to being a screenwriter and spent many years writing screenplays. He died in Los Angeles in 1980. Much admired by such noted authors as Anthony Burgess, Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon, Collier is proof that if you are passionate about your craft and work constantly at it, you can often find success. His most representative collection of stories is ‘Fancies and Goodnights’ (winner of the International Fantasy Award).
Flannery O’Connor was an American writer and essayist. She wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories. She was a Southern writer, born in Georgia, and her style was declared to be Southern Gothic with a focus on the grotesque. She was a devout Catholic and believed the world was “charged with God” and her characters were “open to the divine grace”. Her most famous stories are ‘The Geranium, ‘The Displaced Person’, and ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’. When she was 27, she was diagnosed with Lupus and moved to a farm in Georgia where she raised many kinds of birds. O’Connor was also actively writing while she was sick. She died in 1964, aged just 39. Her posthumously published ‘Complete Stories’ won The National Book Award. O’Connor was constantly rewriting and there were some thirty revisions or rewrites to ‘The Geranium’. O’Connor teaches writers that all writing is rewriting.
Lispector was a famous Brazilian writer. She is widely known in her native Brazil and in Brazilian culture there are many references to Lispector’s work. There is a recent compilation and translation of all her short stories in one volume. Lispector attended law school and began writing stories and working as a journalist. At 23, she published “Near to the Wild Heart”, which became a famous and award winning short story. She spent many years in Europe with her husband and then returned to Rio De Janeiro. It was then she began writing her most famous books such as “The Passion According to G.H.” and “Agua Viva”. Lispector was in an auto accident and experienced persistent pain, but she kept writing daily. She dies at 57 of ovarian cancer. Even though Lispector began writing early and was almost immediately popular, her writing practice demonstrates passion for words. She wrote daily despite constant pain. Lispector proves that to be a writer, you have to write. In her own words: ‘I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.’
Matheson was an American author and screenwriter. He primarily wrote fantasy, horror, and science fiction. He wrote ‘I Am Legend’ and the cult classic, ‘Somewhere in Time’. He also wrote 16 episodes of the Twilight Zone as well as ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’. He published his first story at 8 years old. Later in life, he branched out into westerns. He won the Bram Stoker Award for lifetime achievement as well many other awards. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice and George A. Romero credit Matheson for being an inspiration for their own creative endeavors. Matheson was passionate about stories and writing. He began young and wrote until his death in 2013. Matheson simply had to tell stories and he let nothing stop him on his creative road. He also wrote what he was passionate about and cared about and this is the lesson Matheson has for all writers. Stephen Spielberg wrote of him: ‘Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories.’
Jackson wrote over 200 hundred short stories in her lifetime. She mainly wrote horror and mystery. She attended Syracuse University, where she met her future husband. When he got a job at a college and they moved to North Bennington, Vermont. Jackson didn’t settle well in the small college town but small town life in America was highly influential to her writing. Her most famous story is ‘The Lottery’, which explores the sinister underside of American life. She also wrote the novels ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’. Jackson was reclusive and likely had an eating disorder. She shunned the public. She died of heart failure at 48. Jackson has influenced so many writers including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Sarah Waters, Joanne Harris, and Richard Matheson. What is most remarkable about Jackson is that she took her personal experience and dissatisfaction with small town American life, as well as her own mental health problems, and funneled it into crafting stories. She didn’t just write what she knew. She expanded her experiences.
O’Connor was an Irish writer raised in Cork. He published over 150 works during his lifetime. His father was an alcoholic and abusive, while his mother, a woman who had a profound influence on him, was hard working and stoic. He refered to his childhood as ‘those terrible years.’ When he was 15, he joined the Irish Republican Army and fought in the Irish War of Independence. He taught Irish and was at one time a librarian. O’Connor befriended writers and moved in literary circles. This helped him with his writing and publishing. He became the managing director of the Abbey in Dublin. Many of his stories were published in the New Yorker. O’Connor’s life and writing career demonstrates that writers need a community to foster creativity and aid in publishing. His contacts with writers and creatives enabled his first stories to be published. If you want to write, find other writers to befriend.
So, our advice is to never stop reading.
And never stop writing.
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