Writing short stories is a great way to express yourself. A well-written story can have a huge impact on someone. It can move them, inspire them or make them look at the world in a completely different way.
Too many people who dream of being a writer never actually write anything. Those who do get that far are often unsure about how to improve their work, and ultimately how to get it published. If being a writer is your dream, this guide will help you to make it a reality.
Our guide is split into six sections. Each section focuses on an activity that you might be looking for help with: getting started, researching a story, planning a story, improving your writing, entering competitions and getting published.
1. Getting Started
This section includes advice and inspiration.
The resources in advice focus on the basic skills that you need to start writing short stories. Skills like characterisation and structuring a plot are vital if you’re just getting started. For the more experienced, returning to those basic principles can be a good way to refresh your creativity.
The inspiration section contains resources that will help you to come up with new story ideas. You could also try browsing the next section. Our story research resources might spark some ideas.
2. Researching a Story
Research is an important but often overlooked part of the short story writing process. It helps to give your stories an air of authenticity, and it can help to inspire you. You won’t necessarily want to research the background to every story that you write. However you really don’t want to spend days carefully crafting a deeply moving story only to have some philistine rip it to shreds because of some tiny historical or technical inaccuracy.
This guide can’t possibly contain every type of resource that a writer might want to help them research a story. The possibilities of fiction are truly limitless. We hope that the resources in this section will give you a useful starting point for your background research. They include history texts, myths, information about other planets, plans for time travel and so much more.
Our research resources are split into history, myths, and science.
3. Planning a story
Different writers have very different ideas about planning. Some of them advocate working out every detail in advance, while others prefer to leap in and see where the story takes them. The vast majority are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but it is a very individual thing.
Turn to this section for advice on key story planning tasks: naming characters, creating worlds and inventing languages.
4. Improving your writing
There is a wide range of resources available that will help you to become a better short story writer. Constantly striving to improve the quality of your work is the only way to get the most out of writing. This section includes courses, retreats, guides, magazines and online communities. They will help you to find the support that you need in order to progress as a short story writer.
5. Getting Published
Writing short stories for their own sake can be enjoyable but most writers feel the need to share their work. People often mistakenly think that getting published is the hardest part of being a short story writer. In fact there are a many ways that you can share your work with a wider audience.
The resources in this section will help you to get published. It includes advice on how to go about submitting your work to potential publishers. There are set professional standards for details like how to set out your story. The procedure isn’t always clear at first, but our resources will make it all very simple for you.
You will also find several different publishers. We have tried to include a wide range in every sense. Our selection covers a variety of genres, forms and media. We have included paying and non-paying markets. We can’t claim that this is a comprehensive list. It will give you a picture of the markets that are out there, but there are many more. With that in mind we have included other guides to short story publishers. Every magazine or website caters to slightly different tastes. If you’ve written a good quality story, then there is a place for it out there somewhere.
1. Getting Started
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
Widely regarded as a classic, this guide to becoming a writer is aimed at people who are just setting out on that journey. Doreathea Brande has unusual but interesting ideas about how to develop what she calls a “writer’s personality”.
Brande, Dorothea, (1981), Becoming a Writer, Jeremy P Tarcher
Creative Writing for Dummies by Maggie Hammand
This guide ambitiously tries to cover every almost aspect of creative writing. It’s a reliable guide to all of the core concepts that you will need to master. It also includes useful tips and helpful writing exercises. Like all of the books in the popular ‘for Dummies’ series this is very much aimed at beginners.
Hammand, Maggie (2009). Creative Writing for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons
Short Story Writing – Advice from a creative writing tutor
This site contains useful advice from a creative writing tutor, Ian Mackean. He provides guidance on all of the basic principles of short story writing.
Creative writing prompts
Suggestions for possible story ideas. They can be an opening line, a situation a character or something more obscure. This site has over three hundred. Pick a number and a prompt will appear.
Dragon Writing Prompts
This blog is a collection of writing prompts. The photo prompts are particularly clever. The focus is on fantasy and science fiction but other genres are also catered for.
What If? – Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Ann Bernays and Pamela Painter
This book contains a range of different writing exercises. The focus is on helping you to use your own life experiences as raw material for your writing.
Bernays, Ann & Painter, Pamela (1991), What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, HarperCollins
Seventh Sanctum – Story Generators
This collection of story generators will give you more detail than the other writing prompts that we’ve recommended. The system randomly combines different phrases to come up with a story idea. You can pick a genre. There are also character generators and setting generators.
Example story idea:
“The story is about a humble cab driver who hates a particular alien species. It takes place in a large city on a toxic planet. The story begins with the discovery of a lost item, climaxes with someone borrowing money, and ends with someone pretending to be someone else. The question of when a machine becomes human is a major part of the story.”
They Fight Crime
This service randomly generates pairs of crime fighters. The surreal crime fighting teams might give you an idea for a story.
Example crime fighter pairing:
“He’s a sword-wielding Republican librarian possessed of the uncanny powers of an insect. She’s a radical tempestuous traffic warden prone to fits of savage, blood-crazed rage. They fight crime!”
2. Researching a Story
Public libraries are the best place to go if you want to research a story. They have a range of resources on almost any topic that you might be interested in. They also have experienced staff who will be able to help you with your research.
If you are lucky enough to have access to an academic library then their resources will also be very useful.
This site will help you to find your local public library.
BBC History – website & documentaries
The BBC History website contains an array of historical information. It also provides information about, and access to historical documentaries. Many BBC history documentaries are also available on DVD.
British History Online
This is a digital library, which contains documents that will help you to deepen your understanding of British history. Its collection includes original historical material and more recent documents.
Researching an historical short story isn’t just about checking your facts and your dates. You want to try to get an idea what it was like to live in the past. The British Museum’s collection of historical artefacts might help you to do that.
The British government’s official archives contain documents going back over a thousand years. Many of their records are available on their website, which also features educational information about British history. Information like the census records might help you to build up a picture of life in past decades.
Some resources are only accessible if you visit the archives in person. You might also find seeing the originals helpful on a creative level.
A Dictionary of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts by Carey Miller
This is a thorough and detailed dictionary of monsters and mysterious beasts from all over the world. Some of the creatures are well known, while others will probably be new to you. Even entries about the better-known beasts often reveal new aspects of their myths.
Miller, Carey, (1974), A Dictionary of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts, Pan Books Ltd, London
This is an online encyclopaedia of world mythology. It is a useful reference guide to the world’s heroes, monsters and gods. It’s particularly good for looking up more obscure mythological references.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
This is a popular but controversial book about world mythology. Joseph Campbell argues that all myths share the same underlying pattern, what he calls the monomyth or the hero cycle. He has been criticised for downplaying differences between cultures. Interesting for short story writers because many writers have used his ideas as a framework for their own stories. Most famously George Lucas used it to give him the pattern for Star Wars.
Campbell, Joseph (1993) The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Fontana Press, London
Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology
This dictionary manages to provide a comprehensive reference guide to world mythology. Usefully split into world regions, it also includes an overview of the historical development of mythology in each area.
Cotterell, Arthur (1997), Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Ad Astra – Journal of the National Space Society
Ad Astra is the journal of the National Space Society, an organisation that campaigns for human expansion into space. It features articles that discuss the future potential of space exploration and colonisation.
Subscribers receive a print copy in the post. Older issues are archived on the society’s website. You can access them if you register.
Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life by David Lambert
Dinosaurs are perennially popular with readers, especially younger ones and those who love a good scare. If you want scientific accuracy in your dinosaur story this is a very useful reference book. It includes illustrations and details that might help you to describe these beasts effectively in your writing.
Lambert, David (2001) Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life, Dorling Kindersley
NASA’s website contains a wealth of information about space exploration. It includes details of current missions and future plans. Possible future technology is also discussed.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum contains collections that reveal a great deal about the natural world. Their dinosaur exhibits are very impressive. Other exhibits might also be useful for short story writers. What about the dramatic potential of natural disasters, or the creepiness of bugs?
SETI – Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
If you’re interested in writing science fiction then you might want to consider the arguments for or against the existence of alien life. You also might want to research what humanity is doing in order to find a definitive answer. In both cases the SETI website is a good place to start.
A wide ranging website about space. Includes more speculative ideas about the future exploration and colonisation of space.
Time Travel – A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel by Paul J Nahin
Specifically aimed at fiction writers, this book exists to help you make your time travel stories seem scientifically plausible. It outlines real scientific ideas about the possibility of one day travelling through time.
Nahin, Paul (1997), A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel, Writer’s Digest Books
What Does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart
This book explores the big questions about alien life. Is it likely that aliens exist? If they do exist what might they be like? This is a good place to start because the authors discuss the opinions of other influential writers. The also discuss the role of science fiction in these debates.
Cohen, Jack & Stewart, Ian (2002), What Does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life, Wiley
3. Planning a Story
A site intended for doting parents but there is no reason why it shouldn’t be useful for you. If you’re finding it hard to think up a name for a character this site can help. It includes the meanings of names. That might be useful if you want to give a subtle clue about a character’s personality.
Random Name Generator
This site uses data from the US census to come up with a random name. It takes first names and second names and randomly slices them together. As you’d expect it lets you pick male or female. The really clever bit is that you can specify how obscure you would like the name to be.
This is an online index of artificially constructed languages. It includes languages that have been created purely for the purposes of fiction. Don’t panic, very few writers go this far. However if you do need to make up some aspects of a new language this might give you some ideas.
Magic World Builder
This article site gives detailed advice about creating your own fantasy world. It includes a 30-day world-building course that takes you through the whole process step by step.
Spec Fic World – Resources
This online directory of world building resources will help you to create strange new worlds. It includes a range of useful websites that will help you to design various different elements of a fantasy or science fiction world. It also includes a bibliography of useful reference books.
4. Improving Your Writing
“The Arvon Foundation runs residential creative writing courses which aim to challenge, inspire and transform your writing” (Arvon, 2010). Arvon foundation writing courses are aimed at writers of all levels of experience. Participlants often find the beautiful countryside settings inspiring. The opportunity to work with professional writers could also give you a boost.
These residential courses last for one week.
City University – Short Story Writing
This course is one of several creative writing courses that are available at City University. This is a short evening course, which aims to help you develop “practical writing skills”. Students are encouraged “to gain confidence in exploring and developing their creativity” (City, 2010).
This course lasts for 10 weeks. There are 10 Weekly classes.
If you want to study fiction writing in greater depth City also offers a Masters in Creative Writing.
Open University – Creative Writing
Creative Writing (A215) is a level 2 course at the Open University. That means it would give you 60 points towards an OU degree. Studying from home makes your studies more flexible. This course covers various different aspects of creative writing. The activities are designed to “ignite and sustain the writing impulse” (OU, 2010).
This course lasts for 32 weeks. Students study in their own time with the support of a workbook and online tutorials.
You can go on to study a level 3 writing course. That module would also give you points towards a degree.
Travel Quest – Specialist Travel Listings – Writing Retreats
Some writers found that having a few days away from the distractions of everyday life helps them to focus. Writing retreats offer that opportunity. They also offer professional tuition, and a chance to bond with fellow writers. This directory includes writing retreats all over the world. Perhaps a bit of sunshine would help you to write better?
The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry by Julia Bell and Andrew Motion
This is one of the most respected creative writing coursebooks. Julia Bell and Andrew Motion both teach creative writing at the university of East Anglia. Their course has been very successful. In this book they outline the process that their students go through on that course. As the title suggests it also benefits from input from a large number of professional writers.
Bell, Julia & Motion, Andrew (2001) The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry, Macmillan Reference
Creative Writing – A workbook with readings by Linda Anderson Derek Neale
Please note that this is the coursebook for the Open University course mentioned above. Don’t buy it if you intend to take that course, you will be given a copy.
This book contains the activities and readings that OU students will use to guide them through their creative writing studies. It’s designed to inspire you and help you to develop as a writer.
Anderson, Linda & Neale, Derek (2005) Creative Writing – A workbook with readings by Linda Anderson Derek Neale, Routledge
Writing Magazine is aimed at aspiring writers. It contains features like ‘how to’ guides and interviews with successful writers. The magazine also runs regular competitions.
Writing News is Writing Magazine’s sister publication. It focuses more on keeping writers up to date with events in the publishing world.
Information about subscribing to either of these magazines can be found at:
4. Getting Published
Writers Digest is essentially an online magazine about writing. It has lots of useful articles but its best feature is its excellent advice about how to get published.
About.com: fiction writing – How to publish short stories
This site has lots of different ‘how to’ features for fiction writers. This particular section is a clear step-by-step guide to submitting a story. It covers issues like researching the market, formatting your stories correctly, tracking submissions and keeping rejection in perspective.
If you’re trying to get short stories published then Duotrope is a site that you will return to again and again. This online directory lists almost 3000 short story and poetry publications. It is regularly updated so that number is growing all the time. It allows you to refine your search in various different ways, i.e. genre, length, media etc.
Writers’ & Artists Yearbook 2010
A lot of successful writers credit this annual series with helping them to get published. It contains useful advice about various aspects of writing. It’s often advice written by grateful famous writers. However its most important feature is its huge directory of publishers. It includes useful information about the publishing habits of each magazine.
(2010)Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2010, A &C Black, London
Magazines & Ezines
The creative writing and film making ezine that I help to run. Obviously the best place on the Web to publish short stories.
Dream People is an ezine which is trying to carve itself a niche as a place for avant-garde, experimental fiction.
Make sure you read the site before submitting. You’ll need to develop your own sense of what their stated genre preference actually means in practise.
Dream people accept stories of up 1000 words but that’s very much an upper limit. They prefer writers to stay below 500. Payment is in their words, ‘the price of a cheap vodka martini.’ That’s $5 per story.
As its name suggests everyday fiction publishes a new story every day. By necessity that means they have a fairly high acceptance rate, so this might be a good place to start. The word limit is 1000 but shorter stories are preferred. Payment is $3 per story.
Interzone is an influential science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy magazine. They are open mined about lengths but longer stories are harder to sell. Contact the magazine for information about payment.
London Magazine is a well-established magazine, which aims to keep Londoners informed about the arts and literature. They are interested in literary prose. Their word limit is 2000 – 5000. Payment is by arrangement.
The great thing about the proliferation of short story ezines is that every possible genre is covered by one of them. If you enjoy writing and space westerns then this site is meant for you. Space Westerns submission guideline say that their word limit is 7000. In practise they seem to publish stories in the 1000 to 2000 range. They pay 1 cent per word, up to a maximum of $50.
Thaumotrope is part of a growing movement in online fiction. Some people think they’ve seen the future and it’s short, very short. This is a twitter-based ezine, so stories are limited to a maximum of 140 characters. It is an interesting challenge for a writer. They are looking for fantasy or science fiction and they pay $1.40 per story.