How Do You Know When You’re Done With a Short Story?

Last summer one of my friends E-mailed a list of contests Glimmer Train has every month for short stories. This is pretty convenient; it helps keep me focused on writing and gives regular contests that provide opportunities for both publication and payment. I told myself I would write one short story a month and send it in.

Here I am, half a year later, and I think I only sent something in once. And now my college’s literary magazine is taking submissions for this year’s publication, and I don’t think I have anything I’d like to submit.

So what’s up? It’s true I’ve had some big obstacles get in the way of my writing this past year, but really? I haven’t produced one short story I’m actually proud of? What happened?

Well to be fair, I’ve finished a ton of drafts. I’ve written short stories, I’ve rewritten them, I’ve rewritten those, but honestly, I think I’m at a bit of a loss. I’m having trouble determining when I’m done writing a story.

I realized this a while ago, actually. Without writing workshops, I feel less pressured to have drafts done on time and to move on to other pieces. At first this was nice; I felt like I could finally pour my concentration into one piece at a time and make better stories.

However, without the workshops and other people looking over my work, my drafts are just left with me and my constant barrage of harsh criticism. As a result, I’ve locked myself into this cycle of never ending drafts. And I tell myself not to worry about it, to put one story aside and start working on a new one because I can always just return to a previous one. And the cycle continues, and now I have a bunch of short stories “in progress” that I’m just not finishing.

And at the end of every month, I convince myself that whatever I’m working on isn’t good enough, and I don’t send a submission out, and I keep saying next month. This past month was the most disappointing. I finally took one story I’d been working on since October, rewrote the whole damn thing, loving how different and better it felt than any of the previous drafts. It finally felt right. And then I read the whole thing over and just wasn’t crazy about it. Even though I said I would have it finished on January 31, even though I said this was going to be the last draft, even though I said it was going to be done whether I liked it or not and take it off my desktop… I told myself next month.

How do you know when you’re done, then? All my professors have said “when it feels right.” Which is great and true, but what if you keep working on it and it never feels right? That’s something I never asked. Well, maybe they’re not right, then. I hate to say that, I hate saying that something you’ve worked so long on was all for nothing, but if a story’s not working after several revisions then it just might not work.

The thing about short stories is, as much as I love them, and as much as I believe in their potential to be as good as longer pieces, they’re still short stories. I don’t think they’re meant to be mulled over for months at a time. I think they’re excellent practice for condensing words and ideas so that our future novels don’t turn into 600 page stories that only look deep on the outside.

So maybe that’s one way to look at this question. Think of them as practice. Even if a short story doesn’t work out, at least you have the experience of writing one and learning what wasn’t working, and both of these will help in your next one.

Okay, so now they’re doubling as exercises. How long should they last?

I think this depends on your writing experience and time available to work on them. Personally, I’m going to still try for one short story a month, but now I’m going to give myself another deadline of one finished draft a week. I’m hoping this will help me continue focusing on one story at a time while simultaneously leading up to a finished piece.

What if it still doesn’t feel right, but it feels like it still has potential?

Keep going for it! If you think you’re making actual progress, keep it up! Readjust your deadlines and see where you end up. And if it doesn’t feel right but you still want to work on it, keep it in a separate folder on your computer. Start a new short story, and after you finish that one, go back and see if some time away from it has helped.

Try not to get discouraged, though. And try not to juggle too many stories at once. Just keep at it. Eventually you’ll get to that point where you know when your final draft feels right. Happy writing! 🙂

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