Lesson 1: The Bear at the Front Door
It is a common saying among writing instructors that a good short story should begin with, “a bear at the front door.” This is taken by many to mean that a dilemma should be established for your main character immediately, a dilemma which will then have to be dealt with throughout the course of the story. However, this is a wide misinterpretation of this maxim.
The fact is that all short stories should literally begin with a bear at your main character’s front door. The bear should be ferocious and unreasonable. It should break down your character’s door and walk through his or her house. It should roar at floor lamps and end tables. It should knock over the refrigerator and make several half-hearted attempts to procreate with the sofa. The bear should then wander out of the house quickly and seemingly without purpose.
Lesson 2: The Gift of the Magi
Do not write a story in which the main characters are a poor young couple trying to buy Christmas presents for each other who end up spoiling the gifts they receive on account of the sacrifices they make to procure the gifts they give.
This premise has already been thoroughly explored by O’Henry in “The Gift of the Magi” and also later by William Faulkner in “The Costliest Hammer.”
Lesson 3: Perspective
When writing a story you should also think about your narrator’s perspective. Consider your options:
1st Person: a story in which the narrator is the character, “I”
2nd Person: a story in which the narrator is speaking to “you”—often with contempt
3rd Person Omniscient: a story in which the narrator is God
3rd Person Close: a story in which the narrator is a guy you were best friends with in high school, a guy whose wedding you were in, a guy with whom you’ve maintained a certain closeness, a guy with whom you sometimes go north to a lake where his family owns a cottage where the two of you drink beer until the sun comes up, a guy whose house you helped clean after it was ravaged by a bear.
Lesson 4: Length
Anything under 20,000 words is technically considered a poem.
Lesson 5: Maintaining an Artist’s Temperament
Remember to tell yourself that, even though no story is ever perfect, no story will ever be as completely not perfect as the one you’ve just written.
Burn everything you’ve ever written, move to Las Vegas, and make out with Elizabeth Shue.
Write some more.
Burn that and move to Tangiers. Declare that all writing is filth.