Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tips for Revising Short Stories, with Chris Kelworth

I have another guest today, Chris Kelworth, talking about short stories. He’s relatively new at writing stories for publication, but he’s learned a few things that can help when it comes to revision. And I think his advice applies whether you’re writing short stories, novels, picture books or anything else. Take it away, Chris:

There’s a lot to think about when you’re trying to revise a speculative genre short story. I’m certainly no expert, it’s not like I’ve been published yet, but I’ve been working on it for nearly a year now, so hopefully I’ve learned something that’s worth sharing.

First, of course, there’s a lot of value in getting critiques of your first draft, to give you some sort of feedback and perspective on what’s good and what needs work. You can get this from friends, (if they know how to be good readers and critiquers,) from local writers at a writer’s circle meeting, from people online that you’ve never met before, or some combination of the above.

The best critiques for a first draft, I’ve found, are the ones that don’t get bogged down too much in the ‘micro-writing’ – the small and sometimes more superficial elements of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word choice. You need to get feedback on the bigger picture - what the story is about, the plot, the characters, and the voice. What is the story trying to say, and how well does it say that?

As an aside, critiquing short stories from other writers is a good way to get a better sense of what will work in your own rewrites. I recommend looking at the Critters workshop – it’s a good place to get some decent feedback on your stories, and a great opportunity to critique other writers.

I had the opportunity to go to Lawrence, Kansas this summer, and participate in a two-week Short Science Fiction writers’ workshop held by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, along with seven other student writers and several established authors. The biggest thing I learned in Kansas was that the core of my story, what I really wanted or needed to talk about, might be something that I had to dig a little to get to. Again, this was something that critiquing the other writer’s stories helped me with; I got some practice in identifying the core of their stories by coming at them without preconceptions, (or not many preconceptions, hopefully,) and was able to apply that skill to my own stories.

Once I’ve gone over the critiques and thought about what the core of the story is, often my next step will be a total rewrite, picking a different take on the opening scene that will fit what I know I’m trying to write. Then I write to that, and to the core and the ending that I have in mind, not trying to edit the old draft until it works but build up something new. But if I get to a point when I’m writing the second draft where I think ‘Okay, this is a point where I can take this bit from the first draft and tweak it, and that’ll be great’, then I do that; usually taking shorter moments and beats as opposed to entire scenes, but whatever works.

A few other valuable lessons that I learned at the Kansas workshop:

* Every scene, and every beat within those scenes, needs to support the core of the story, the big thing that you want to say.
* Be very careful about how much information you dump on the reader and when.
* The main character needs to be proactive and overcome the central problem himself, not have it solved for him by an external agency.

Revising can be hard work, so don’t be afraid to put some effort into it – and don’t get too bummed if you need to put a project aside for a while because you can’t figure out what you need to do with it yet.

Having a supportive community of writers to encourage you on to your goals can be a great help, no matter what goals you’re working towards, from revising short stories to finishing your novel first draft. At Stringing Words forum, we’re looking for new members who want to share their goals and will support and nag us on ours. Drop by for a visit today!

Chris Kelworth lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and works in Burlington as a computer software developer under an assumed name. He writes science fiction and fantasy, stories and novels, and dabbles in the mysterious art of screenwriting. To find out more, visit

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