How to Write a Ten Thousand-Word Short Story in Two Weeks and Not Lose Your Mind

The best advice I can give you for writing a short story is summed up in this article I wrote for a few guest blogs when my YA mystery released in 2019. I’ve never published it on my site before, so I hope it offers you some help on how to write a ten thousand-word short story in two weeks and not lose your mind.

In December 2018, I was faced with creating a short story that actually made sense in two weeks. While I got ready for Christmas, taught Sunday School, and prepared for a visit from my in-laws. And I don’t write fast. It took me years to get my YA crime novel in shape.

But I decided to go for it. I met the deadline, wrote a 10,000 word short story, got accepted, and my YA mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, was published in Christmas Fiction Off the Beaten Path. Along the way, I learned some very important lessons about writing under pressure.

Know your theme and ending before you start.

I wasted one whole day because I wasn’t sure what the theme and ending of my story was. I wrote fourteen pages that were pretty much worthless. Once I knew the theme and how it would end, I directed all my efforts to reaching that conclusion. If my writing seemed to veer off course, knowing where I needed to end up got me back on track.

Write a synopsis.

“A Rose from the Ashes” is about nineteen-year-old Rae Riley investigating who tried to kill her pregnant mother twenty years before and if the attacker is the father she’s never met. Because my mystery hinges on a twenty-year-old cold case, I wrote out exactly what happened, like book report. Then I could keep straight what Rae knew and what she had to discover.

Tell your story to someone.

After I’d wasted a day, I sat down with my husband and told him my story. I am blessed to be married to an engineer. He looks at my plots logically, which is so important when writing a mystery. He was able to tell me what made sense and what I needed to work on.

Write the basic story.

My first draft was getting down on paper the bare bones of the story. If inspiration hit for a description, I threw that in, but the point wasn’t to write well. I just wanted to write the story from beginning to end and see how it hung together.

Rewrite with description

After I got down the basic story with the basic plot, I rewrote it with the idea of adding descriptions, both for characters and settings. I did this several times because each time I read through the story, I saw places that needed fleshing out.

Ask readers, not writers, to read your story

Writers read a story differently than non-writers. Writers usually read with their professional hats on, diving into all the technicalities of the writing craft. While I needed to put my story under that kind of scrutiny later, what I needed first was how my story appealed to regular readers, who read simply for enjoyment. I have a good friend and several relatives who love mysteries. I asked them to read my story for things that didn’t make sense or made them pause. Two of my sisters read a description they took for an insult. That wasn’t my intent at all and completely changed the nature of a character. So I changed the description.

Get a handle on your main character.

This should probably be #4, but I didn’t get around to it until late in the process. I wrote the story in first person. My mind was so deeply rooted into my main character that I didn’t realize I wasn’t putting all those thoughts and feelings on the page. After several drafts, I realized Rae was the sketchiest of all the major characters. I needed to get a handle on her, a way to sum her up. I enjoy photography and thought amateur photographer was a good way to describe Rae. It covered how she responded to settings and saw the people around her.

Have you faced a tight writing deadline? What lessons did you learn?

5 thoughts on “How to Write a Ten Thousand-Word Short Story in Two Weeks and Not Lose Your Mind

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  1. I’ve been having a real problem buckling down and writing lately, so deadline is just…out there right now. I have no idea why either. It’s not like the words won’t come. I can work for hours on setting or character description or motivation. But writing a scene? Not happening lately.
    Great post!
    Would you write under that kind of deadline again?

  2. Hi JPCallen: I’m about to write a short story for a challenge given in a writer group on facebook. Question! You write “Know your Theme and Ending before you start.” I understand Ending. What do you mean by Theme? I have a sort of idea, for example, in my short story an amateur sleuth solves a local murder but it opens up a huge don’t-find-us covert group who are not happy about being found. My idea of theme for this would be “What at first appeared simple became more complex.” Is this Theme?

    1. Not every story needs a theme. A mystery can be a rattling good story without a theme. It depends on the kind of mystery you are trying to write. When I wrote “A Rose from the Ashes”, I knew it would be about a girl trying to find her father and if he tried to kill her mother when she was pregnant with the girl. As I worked I realized my story was also about mercy and forgiveness. That became my theme. When I understood this, it helped me shape the story. I hope readers can enjoy it as a mystery on one level and as something deeper if they choose to dig into the next level.

      If you want to include a deeper meaning in your story, I would call that a theme. Since I write YA, my main character should learn something or change in some way because that’s what is going on with some many teens in reality.

      If your amateur sleuth uncovers this covert group, maybe the theme is you shouldn’t go snooping unless you’re prepared for the consequences. Or justice for the local murder is important enough for the sleuth to put up with the unintended consequences. Or maybe you want to write a super entertaining mystery with great characters and surprise twists. I love Nero Wolfe mysteries and those don’t have themes.

      Maybe the best way to put is this: what do you want the story to do for your readers? What do you want them to remember about your story?

      I hope this helps. Thanks for following my blog and best wishes as your tackle your short story!

  3. Thank you for mentioning Nero Wolfe. I’ve heard about this for years but didn’t pick up a story. Great stuff!

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