Mark Jervis’ top tips for short story writers

Short fiction may seem simple, but the length of the form often demands a very different skill set compared to novel writing. To help those who want to explore the medium, writer and tutor Mark Jervis gives us his top tips for making the most of your short stories.

Mark Jervis
Mark Jervis

I’m a big believer in short stories, they can really help a writer hone their craft.

Writing a novel can be a long, arduous ordeal — it’s quite a commitment. Gradually increasing your confidence with a run of good short stories can help you reach your goal, whatever that may be.

There’s also the satisfaction of actually finishing something! Here are my top tips for short story writers:

Start with a clear vision

This is a must for me. Make sure you know what the story is about and what you want the reader to take away at the end.

Novels have time to meander and take detours, but in short stories, there’s absolutely no room for wasted words, and everything has to be really crisp and relevant. Know exactly what you want to express to the reader and zero in on that.

Planning ahead is also useful if you — like me — find endings tough. I usually begin with working out what the message I want to deliver is and then work backwards from there.

I always carry a notebook and jot things down whenever they come to me.

– Mark Jervis

Hoard ideas (and use them)

The best way to start your journey into short story writing is to just jump in — consume and write as much as you can.

I always carry a notebook and jot things down whenever they come to me. It might seem like a jumbled mess but it’s amazing how many times these fragments have come in handy, even if it’s just a small thing like a character’s particular mannerisms or a snippet of dialogue.

When beginning a new piece, I usually start off with something from my notebooks. This could be a throwaway line of description, an insight or issue I want to address or something I want the reader to think about.

Having something to spark your imagination, however small or seemingly insignificant, can make the process much easier than trying to conjure up a masterpiece from thin air.

Structured learning like the Writing Short Fiction course is also a great way to find your feet and develop your skills.

Knowing the genre you write in inside out is important.

– Mark Jervis

Know your genre

Knowing the genre you write in inside out is important, so read a lot within it. This way you can identify tropes and cliches and avoid them — or try to subvert them.

Agents and publishers will specialise in particular genres too, so it’s important to research where you submit.

They’ll have just as deep an understanding of your genre as you.

This also leads us onto…

Give the agent what they want

If you’re at a stage where you’re ready to send your writing off into the world, always give the agents or publishers the kinds of books or stories they want to see.

This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people will just release their work into the wild and hope the right person finds it.

If you send a YA book to an agent that specialises in non-fiction, for example, they won’t even open the file. Agents are always very open about what kinds of submissions they want.

The Artists and Writers Yearbook is a good place to start, and there’s #mswl (manuscript wish list) on Twitter which also has a website profiling different agents and agencies.

Establish some decent, regular blocks of time where you will write, and only write.

– Mark Jervis

Enter competitions

When picking a competition to enter, have a look through the kind of things they’ve featured in the past — check what they’re offering to you as well.

If I’ve written something and I don’t know what to do with it, I’ll often try and find a competition or publication that might be a good fit and then adapt my work accordingly.

Alternatively, many competitions are themed, so that’s a good starting point for me to trigger an idea.

For some writers, working to a brief and a deadline can be the greatest source of motivation. If that’s you, find a decent competition with an achievable deadline, and get writing!

A word of warning, though: I would watch out for those charging an exorbitant entry fee. It can sometimes just be a way of making money for magazines or websites.

Make time to write

It doesn’t have to be a strict schedule, but try and establish some decent, regular blocks of time where you will write, and only write – no phones, no Facebook, no television.

Make sure you give yourself enough space to really make the most of your time.

For me, it’s all about finding my way into a state of mind (I think Stephen King calls it ‘falling into the page’) where you’re so involved that you don’t notice anything else around you.

It does take me a while to achieve that, but when I do, I try to stay ‘inside the page’ for as long as possible.

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Meet your Guest author

Mark Jervis

Mark Jervis

Mark Jervis writes all sorts of things but mainly fiction and narrative non-fiction. His short stories have featured at literary festivals across the UK and he’s currently putting the finishing touches to his first novel. He’s a lecturer at Falmouth University where he teaches a range of subjects at undergraduate and postgraduate level from narrative structure in short stories to science fiction and business writing. When he gets the time, he also works as a freelance copywriter and graphic designer.

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