Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Guest Blogger Lydia Sharp on Revising a Short Story: Plus Giveaway!

By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy

Day Three of Short Story Week and we're on to revising the short story. Writing tight is a valuable skill in shorts, but it's also something even novelist can benefit from. Here's author Lydia Sharp to tell us how to keep our shorts tight and words focused.

Short Story Writing 101 for Novelists
Photo by Jeffery James Pacres via flickr
Novels are all about layering and multiple interwoven plot threads. With short fiction, a full story is sometimes told in the same amount of words as you would use for a single scene in a novel. So how do you do it?

First, look at how you can streamline your plot. Strip it down to its main thread--getting the protagonist from point A to point B--and then cut whatever elements you may have included in your first draft that don't change the story's outcome if they are removed.

For example, in my fantasy horror short story "The Blade of Tears", I knew I wanted the story to start with a woman being chased on horseback after she'd stolen a priceless rapier. In my original draft, she was chased by a group of men. But the first draft was about 1000 words over my limit (I'd originally entered it into a short story contest that had a 3000 word cap), so on the second pass, before I'd gotten down to the nitty-gritty of polishing, I had to look for larger things to cut.

The fact that there was a group of men chasing her caused more trouble than it was worth. But one man in particular was crucial to the story. Without him, the story wouldn't have the same outcome. Without the others? Hmm… It didn't take much contemplation before I axed everyone in that group except for the one I absolutely needed to move the story along, and cut all the interactions with them. This removed a good chunk of words.

While the extra conflict with the group of men at the outset would have been nice for a novel, it had no place in a short story. When I say short story writing necessitates being concise, I don't just mean your word choice. Extraneous plot threads are the first thing to go during revisions.

But word choice is crucial to keeping your word count in check.

A good way to improve your writing overall, and keep things concise, is to analyze your verbs. A strong verb will eliminate the need for an adverb.

Amanda walked angrily across the room.
The phrase "walked angrily" can be replaced with stomped, stormed, marched, plodded, etc. And whatever verb you select also creates a specific mood. Which word best fits the intent of the character?

Don't be afraid to use a thesaurus for this. It is an excellent tool to keep handy. Just be careful not to rely on it too much.

Going back to the example of "The Blade of Tears", shortly after the story begins, the sun sets and a thunderstorm rolls in. The mood I was going for with this story was creepy/scary, and I was able to emphasize that mood with both the setting (dark, stormy, forest) and my word choice.


Wind howled through the branches and rain mauled the ground.

Cracks of lightning created split-second visions of terror.
Use as many words and phrases that will fulfill more than one purpose. For example, in my sci-fi short story "Chasing Dreams", I used selective word choice in the opening to create a somber mood for the present scene, emphasize the main concept (cryogenics testing in outer space), and foreshadow later events.


My final week with her was melting away faster than an icicle in August.

I squeezed her closer but she still felt too far away.

"Unless I'm on my deathbed, I have to go."

Too many, already, had been lost.
The wording is still concise, even though that is a "longer" short story at 7400 words. The main reason for using a greater word count in "Chasing Dreams" was the plot. I needed more room in order to do the story justice, not because I needed to go into long drawn out descriptions or explanations.

You can tell full stories in short form if you keep the following points in mind:
  • Cut the nonessentials. The lower your word count, the less plot threads you can present. Most short stories only have room for a single plotline and character arc. 
  • One strong verb is better than a weak verb + an adverb, and it uses less words.
  • Choose words that can do double (or even triple) duty. If you can foreshadow something that comes later while describing something in the present, do it. If you can enhance the mood or emphasize your story's theme through dialogue and narrative that also moves the plot forward, do it.

Whether you're writing novels, short stories, or both, I hope these tips have been helpful, and wish you all the best of luck in your writing ventures!

Lydia will be giving away a free signed copy of her newest anthology, Shadows & Light II, just released this month, to one lucky commentor! Simply leave a comment to this post by February 25. Winner will be announced on her blog next week.

Lydia Sharp is a short story writer and novelist-- SF/F, women's fiction, and YA. She blogs about writing at The Sharp Angle with her husband and fellow SF/F author, Joe Sharp. She also tweets  her favorite writing links and logs her reading on GoodReads.


  1. Thanks for the tips, Lydia. While I'm always going to be a novelist at heart, I believe I'll get to the day when I can write better short stories than I do now.
    I've gotten better, but anything under 500 or 1,000 words is still hard for me.


  2. Excellent advice! Thanks ladies.

  3. Great advice! I'm just in the process of editing a short story that is 500 words over the word limit and I came to the same conclusions that are mentioned in the post. Thesaurus rocks, by the way.

  4. Cool tip on words for mood. Bradbury excels at that.

    And love the title of your story: "Spread Your Wings and Die."

  5. Very nice post, Lydia! It's great to hear your thoughts.

  6. As someone currently practicing the art of short story writing, this is excellent advice. Thanks Lydia and thanks to Janice for hosting the topic :D

  7. Thanks for sharing, Lydia! These points could totally apply to novel writing so this post is also pulling double duty, nice.
    - Sophia.

  8. Got some good examples of how to spice up the ordinary. Thanks!

  9. Thanks so much for coming by Lydia! Always good to have you on the blog :)

  10. Thanks, Lydia! I've been working on a Sci-Fi short story that has given me more problems than solutions. Now I know what I've been doing wrong! I've been writing it like I write my novels! Time to get out the ax. Thank you!

  11. I've usually had to slash and burn my word count to keep it under a certain amount. I didn't even think about streamlining the plot to help with this! Thanks for your suggestions!

  12. Thank you, everyone, I'm glad you found this helpful! And thanks to Janice for hosting. It's always a pleasure to be here. :)

    (Forgot to mention that the giveaway is for US residents only, sorry.)

  13. I've been enjoying the short story posts this week! Looking forward to more.

  14. I've been working on transforming some bits of my novels (that lend themselves well to it) into short stories, and something I keep struggling with is slimming out the extraneous plot threads that I love...but just don't work in a short. Thanks for this!

  15. Great advice! I've found writing flash fiction to be very useful. It forces my writing to be tight, and those adverbs are the first to go as I cut down the word count.

  16. Thanks for some great advice!

  17. I am interested in writing short stories and this was a great way to introduce us to their major points. Thanks, Lydia.


  18. Currently in over my head with revisions - great post to help keep me focused! Thanks!

  19. I appreciate how you used your own writing as a vehicle to explain your technique. Thanks!

  20. Thanks for your tips,

    I usually write with lot of sub-plots. The other day I completed a short story (9k words) and am gonna re-edit it with your tips now. They are very much needed.

    with warm regards

  21. Thanks for some great advice backed up with good examples!

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