108 Engaging And Creative Nonfiction Writing Prompts
So you want to write a nonfiction book . Good for you! What are you going to write about ?
I know. That question stumps most everyone.
What indeed? Coming up with creative nonfiction ideas isn’t for the faint of heart.
Nonfiction is a big, broad genre of book writing, and narrowing it down to an area in which you have some expertise, background , or interest can be daunting.
And even if you kinda, sorta know what you want to write about , you’re not exactly sure how to begin or how to get your creative juices flowing.
That’s why we’ve created a varied list of nonfiction writing prompts for you — so you can narrow down your choices or pinpoint precisely the type of nonfiction you want to write.
108 Creative Nonfiction Writing Prompts
Ready to get started? Read through this list of creative nonfiction ideas, and make a note of any that resonate with you.
Or just start writing about one of the nonfiction prompts and see where it takes you.
If you’ve been wondering, “What are some nonfiction topics I might write about?” then these prompts can help you narrow down ideas for your next book project.
1. You’ve developed a new creative side-hustle, and you have enough business to bring in at least a few hundred (or even thousand) a month.
2. You know how to prepare for a specific kind of disaster, and you want to make others aware not only of the imminent danger of that disaster but how best to prepare for it.
3. The Missing Ingredient: What is one thing most people forget or overlook when making or doing something?
4. This is something most people don’t know about ______.
5. You could be more (or less) ______.
6. You need more _____ in your life.
7. Discontent is not (always) a lack of gratitude. Here’s why.
8. The right music can change everything for you. Here’s how.
9. Swap this for that and see how it changes your life!
10. Be your own devil’s advocate? Why would you want to do that?
11. What on earth does logic have to do with creative writing (or creative anything)?
12. Are your morning/nighttime habits keeping you poor? Or did they for a while?
13. How do you go on after your best friend dies (or leaves you)?
14. What one thing could you add to your workspace to make you happier and more productive?
15. What one thing in your life would you love to change? And what can you do to change it — and help others do the same?
16. Your doc says, “No more alcohol for you!” So, you look for ways to relax without it.
17. You used to take everything personally — thinking everyone was comparing you to someone else.
18. Why do bad things pile up the way they do? And what can you do about it?
19. Why would anyone want to live in < city /state/country>
20. Yeah, your desk is cluttered — and you’re okay with that.
21. Your oldest kid is driving you nuts, and you have to admit your role in that.
22. Your pets have all but destroyed an entire room in your home.
23. So, you want to do something dangerous (skydiving, parasailing, bungee jumping, learning parkour, etc.).
24. You’ve always wanted to travel to ______. How can you afford it, and what do you need to know?
25. Investing is a scary business. How do you even begin?
26. You’re moving, but you can’t find a buyer for your house. Why not rent it out instead — and how do you do that?
27. You have no Christmas budget, but you want to make this Christmas one your kids will remember fondly.
28. You learned something from writing your last book that has changed the way you write them.
29. Everything started to fall into place once you finally narrowed your focus to the kind of writing you really want to do.
30. When you changed this little thing in your diet, you started dropping weight faster than ever before.
31. Something you didn’t know about your body has been working behind the scenes, turning your own efforts against you.
32. Caffeine has always been one of your besties, but now your doc says you have to cut back — or even cut it completely from your diet!
33. Your path from the 9-to-5 job to full-time self-employment hasn’t been like the ones described by the experts whose books you’ve read, but you know you’re not alone.
34. Serendipity is nice and all, but something else is responsible for your success, and you want others to know what that is — and how they can make it work for them.
35. When was the last time you actually kept a New Year’s resolution? How did you keep it, and what difference did it make?
36. How big is your daily to-do list? And what kind of daily planning works for you?
37. What changes have you made to your monthly spending that have made a huge difference for you?
38. Desperation (i.e. lack of money and/or time) made you do it. You learned how to do something yourself, you did it well, and people are saying good things.
39. One of your kids has said, “I don’t read. I have ADHD.” You have ADHD, too, though, and you read plenty. You become determined to find out if something else is going on.
40. Adding this spice to every day’s menu has made a big difference in your health — as well as your enjoyment of cooking.
41. Only when you discovered and addressed a deficiency in a certain nutrient did you begin to feel more energetic, alive, and creative than you remember ever feeling before.
42. Your doctor suggests a new therapy for your condition but warns you that it could damage one of your other organs.
43. No one told you how hard it would be to withdraw from SSRIs (or how long it could take), but through trial and error, you found a way.
44. Everyone around you is telling you to quit taking your SSRI, but you know that — somehow — it has actually helped you.
45. Your kids have special needs, and you’re fed up with people making assumptions about their intelligence or their parenting when they act up in public.
46. You find an approach to homeschooling (or partial homeschooling) that restores your kids’ curiosity and love of learning and creating.
47. Your oldest wants to drop out of school, because so-and-so did it, and “Look how successful he is!”
48. Your marriage was deteriorating until you made this one, small change.
49. For years, all you had to do was look at a donut, and you’d gain weight. Then you changed one thing
50. You made a goal: “In the next 100 days, I will ______.”A hundred days later, you’ve exceeded your goal .
51. The first day of that “staycation” you wanted has arrived.
52. You went on a mission to where?
53. You’ve increased your own self-confidence and helped others to boost theirs, too.
54. Ditching both Netflix and your gym membership has changed your life for the better….
55. Changing your beliefs about something has caused some tension at home but has also made it possible for you to earn and accomplish more than you used to think was possible.
56. Childhood memories and the emotions attached to them have held you back for years, but not anymore.
57. Your high school education led you to college, which led you to a job you hated but felt stuck with for years.
58. What app or online tool has changed the way you do business?
59. Families can take a heavy toll on a house. What repair work have you had done to restore your home and what have you learned to do yourself?
60. Your second grader hates school and thinks reading is boring.
61. One of your kids is a writer and wants to take a page out of her main character’s book and dye her hair purple.
62. One of your kids has come out to you as gay, bisexual, or asexual.
63. One of your teenage kids has chosen a different religion and no longer wants to go to church with his family.
64. A brush with death has changed your priorities, and you’ve made some drastic changes.
65. You’ve hit your forties and found a list you made 10 years ago of the things you wanted to accomplish during your 30’s.
66. You’ve had an epiphany in the shower, and after exploring it with a journal entry, you’re thinking, “This could be a book!”
67. You’re looking at a goal and thinking, “What kind of person do I have to be to accomplish this goal in the time I’ve set for it?”
68. What does it mean to be neurotypical as opposed to neurodiverse?
69. How has marriage changed your perception of married life?
70. You learn that one of your kids is autistic, and you and your spouse have very different reactions to the news.
71. You and your spouse have opposing beliefs with regard to gender differences and sexual orientation, and it’s becoming a problem.
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72. You’ve just learned to fix something in your own house and have saved yourself thousands of dollars.
73. You can’t shake something from your past, but you’re not sure if you even remember it correctly anymore.
74. Your spouse doesn’t seem to really care about what you have to say, and it really bothers you.
75. Your significant other has started writing erotica and is making a nice, steady income with it, but you’re conflicted.
76. You’ve been writing books for years, and then your SO writes a book and sells more copies of his/her first novel than you’ve ever sold.
77. You’ve found the perfect quick remedy for canker sores, and it uses cheap and easy-to-find ingredients.
78. You’ve never really been a hat person until you saw a hat you liked on someone else.
79. You and your SO can’t agree on wall colors for your new home.
80. It all started when someone told you that you needed a professional photo taken.
81. Everyone should take a road trip, because…
82. Of all the superpowers, this would your #1.
83. You found the perfect secluded vacation spot/s with great food, and they’re not crazy expensive.
84. You’ve always had a knack for losing weight — right up until your mid-forties.
85. You have a gift for dismantling and countering other people’s arguments.
86. One of your kids has gotten her first job, and you want to help her budget her earnings without being too controlling.
87. One of your kids has just announced an engagement to a person you don’t particularly like or trust.
88. Your friend has challenged you to spend a week unplugged — no internet, no cable, and no phone.
89. Your in-laws have come over to help with house projects, and since your spouse didn’t tell you they were coming, the place is a disaster.
90. You really do want to lose that weight — really — but your daily wine habit is hard to kick.
91. Oh, the joys of pet ownership! Your new fur-baby has moved right in and claimed the house as his own — with multiple visual tokens of acceptance.
92. Your spouse wants to be intimate, but you’d rather avoid it.
93. Your friend wants to start a business with you. You spend hours talking about this and addressing the main obstacles, and finally, you go for it.
94. You’re so good at writing academic papers that your college classmates start offering to pay you to write their essays and reports for them.
95. Your in-laws vilify you as a traitor because of the way you voted, and their petty attacks even extend to your children.
96. Every time you go to a potluck, people come up to you and beg you for your recipe. You’ve decided to create your own potluck recipe book — with a unique twist.
97. You’ve attended a fascinating seminar about being “limitless,” and while you’re still a bit skeptical, you really want to believe in the speaker’s message. You go all in, and things start changing for you.
98. You’re fed up with your health-obsessed teenage son constantly telling you you’re out of the foods he likes, and when you ask him to try something else, he angrily reminds you that it’s not his fault he can’t tolerate those foods.
99. Your kid wants to eat nothing but croutons and potato chips, and you can’t get him to try anything else (ironically he’s the same child who later grows into the health-obsessed teenager in the previous prompt).
100. You’re out driving and your car has a flat. You call your spouse who basically throws up his hands, sighs dramatically, and tells you to call AAA. You get a tow, and your spouse (who is at home) suggests you learn how to change a tire.
101. After twenty-three years of adhering to your religious beliefs, you have more questions than ever, and no one can answer them in a satisfying way.
102. Your best friend, who never went to college, is earning much more than you are and is loving life more. You meet him for lunch and ask how he’s gotten to where is, and what do you have to do to get there.
103. The staff at your kid’s school have called to tell you they’re having trouble with your daughter again because she just doesn’t seem to respect the authority of her teachers or other school staff.
104. You and your spouse go to an IEP meeting for your son, who has been miserable at school and who is tired of being micromanaged by the staff.
105. You’re at a pre-wedding retreat at your church, and when the leaders announce a break, your fiance heads out the large glass front door and lets it close in your face.
106. Once again, you’ve played the peacemaker at home, and relative tranquility is restored, but your relationships with your spouse and with your kids has suffered, and you’re not sure which has done the most damage: the open arguments or the forced calm.
107. Throwing fancy brunches and dinner parties is one of your favorite things, and people come to you for ideas on how to make theirs better. You’ve decided to write a book on hosting unforgettable brunches and dinner parties.
108. You’ve never forgotten how you loved the food when you lived in, and you’ve collected a variety of recipes, along with the history behind them.
Did you find some nonfiction topics to write about?
We hope our list of writing prompts has primed your creative pump and that one (or more) of them is on the shortlist for your next book.
If you don’t feel confident that your topic is one that readers are looking for, check out our post on tools and resources to help you make the best choice.
Even if you use these prompts only as creative nonfiction writing exercises, you won’t be wasting your time.
You’ll not only have a better idea about possible book topics for the future but also you’ll improve your writing and hone your skills at fleshing out an idea.
All of your efforts contribute to your success as a writer and your sense of confidence as you begin outlining your next nonfiction book.
7 Writing Tips To Bring Your Nonfiction Content To Life
There is some general writing advice about how to write a book that applies to anyone. You can find ample blog posts about how to write better . Writing consistently, mapping out the trajectory of your book, and working through a thorough editing process is important no matter what you’re writing. And every genre or kind of book has its own hurdles. Today we’re going to look at a few types of nonfiction writing and strategies to overcome the unique challenges writing nonfiction brings.
The most important thing to remember about nonfiction books is that they are still a story . Even a math textbook is telling a story (about increasingly complex equations I guess? Okay, maybe this is a stretch). Great fiction authors know it’s the engaging story (alongside compelling characters) that drives a good read.
With that in mind, these writing tips will help you look at your next nonfiction project from a storyteller’s perspective.
1. Writing Creative Nonfiction
Once you have your subject and you sit down to start writing, consider how you might instill creative elements. This doesn’t mean making up facts or anything like that. Sometimes also called narrative nonfiction, the goal is to use a story to relate the true details you’re trying to share. Consider this passage from Susan Orleans The Library Book :
I grew up in libraries, or so it seems. My mother and I would take regular trips to the branch library near my house at least twice a week, and those trips were enchanted. The very air in the library seemed charged with possibility and imagination; books seem to have their own almost human vitality. But over time, I had become more of a book buyer than a book borrower, and I had begun to forget how magical libraries are. I never stopped loving libraries, but they receded in my mind, and seemed like a piece of my past.
Orlean is arguably a master of literary nonfiction, bringing to life vivid scenes built on historic events. If a journalist relays the facts of an event and an author relays the feeling, literary journalism attempts to do both.
This is the heart of creative nonfiction writing and it is the strongest way to grab and hold a reader’s attention. An effective way to get better at writing creatively is to use a daily prompt app or journal to write short stories or even just little anecdotes. It’s like a gym session for your writing muscles.
2. Make It Emotional
Building on the idea that creative writing elements can help make your nonfiction book more engaging, an appeal to the reader’s emotion can amp up the story’s impact. Note that I said story –you should think of your nonfiction book as a story with a plot, even if that plot is constrained by facts. Fiction writers know that creativity and emotional connection drive a reader to keep reading; nonfiction writers can use this.
From the NFAA, I found this quotation from nonfiction author Alexander Porter that resonates with me: “As a non-fiction author I am limited by reality.” I love this idea because, yes, nonfiction is bounded by reality, but the world is a messy, vibrant, and emotional place. You can tap into that messiness and instill your work with the kinds of emotions fiction authors rely on.
Imagine you have a book idea that centers on exploring language evolution. You could write and publish a highly academic piece that delves into the etymology of certain words as examples to prove your point.
Or you could tell a story about using and acclimating to social media dialects, the rise of modern short-hand, and maybe tie all of it together with a (real or hypothetical) story about language in a real situation. Like on a dating app that uses texting to communicate. Now there’s an emotionally charged situation!
Adding emotional elements makes your book more interesting while still conveying the information you want to share.
3. Use Simple Language
The words you use in your nonfiction writing matter. A lot. I love words and I particularly love exotic and highly-specific words ( Defenestrate ? Panivorous ? I could go on…). But let’s be real; no one wants to stop and look up words every couple of pages. If you’re writing a true crime book and you can work in ‘he defenestrated his third victim’ then yeah, you should do that. Because it’s accurate.
What you don’t want to do is riddle your book with complex words when simple words will do.
“Definition of the regulation spherical apparatus utilized to perform competitive interactions resulted in unwarranted and partisan advantage accommodating one competitor grouping at the expense of the other.”
Yeah, that’s nonsense when you could just say “Deflating the ball helped them win.”
Since the goal of nonfiction writing is to share knowledge, you should strive to make that knowledge as accessible as possible. That means simple, accurate language and clear sentence structures.
4. Write With A Linear Structure
A nonfiction book is not a personal essay or social media post. Based on the length alone, you’ll need to employ some structural design to your book that helps the reader follow along.
Remember too that you should be thinking of the book itself as a story (a true story) and aim to build your nonfiction writing with a story arc. The best way to achieve this is to prepare your writing just like a fiction author would; with an outline or story map . Plan how each section or chapter will link together and prepare an ending point you’ll be driving toward. That way, when you finish writing your book will have a natural flow or direction that holds to common story structures .
You can think about the physical structure of your nonfiction writing too; how will the book look when it’s published? Because the design of the book can also contribute to the flow of the story elements you’re incorporating. That might take the form of sections with clear titles or using your Headers to guide readers by reiterating the chapter title.
5. Write In Scenes
If you’re ready to buy into writing in a linear, story/act fashion, then you know using a scene-based design will be natural. Let’s say you want to write a book about the architectural design of banks over a hundred-year span in America.
You could write literal, technical information about the design, the prevailing norms in architecture, and how they’ve changed. Maybe you pick a half dozen buildings to focus on and tear them down to expose the bones of each in their own chapter.
Or you could tell the story of each building. The community they serviced, the people involved in designing the building, how they ended up on the job over other architects, and what that individual brought to the work. Most of the design details still have space in this version, but if the focus is on the people, you’ve humanized the story (and opened up the possibility to include some of the elements I’ve already mentioned).
More importantly, you might start in an earlier era and let the designs of one architect inform the designs of the next so that we can see the thread of similar ideas as they grow, change, and are used by generations. That’s linear storytelling; using scenes with human focal points to drive the narrative. All while giving us the information you wanted to share about bank design.
6. Speak To An Audience
Here’s an exercise I love (though I admit, I’m not consistently good at it); each night when I carve out time to write, I open my notebook and I write down the name of the person I’m writing for. Since I mostly write short fiction in my free time, this is either a friend, family member, or another author I think might like my story. That person is my audience for the writing session.
And so I spend an hour or so writing for that person.
The moral here is to always be writing for an audience. Think about who you want to read your book. Even for nonfiction writing that might have a very distinct audience, your writing will benefit from consciously thinking about individual readers.
7. Use Authoritative And Appropriate Sources
Finally, your sources. Might be kind of obvious, but you’ve always got to know your sources. And no, I don’t mean like personally know each source. But you should look into the history, background, and education behind the source.
Because you might be a spectacular storyteller who skillfully crafts an amazing nonfiction work, but if your sources aren’t reputable, the trust in your work is damaged. And without trust, all six of my previous tips are meaningless. Nonfiction writing hinges on your readers seeing you as a trusted voice.
So this might seem obvious, but spend some time digging into your source materials and developing a little historical perspective. It will help ensure you use the right sources in your book and may even give you some additional material to write about!
Nonfiction Writing Is Still Storytelling
There are academic treatises on topics and there is nonfiction writing. Don’t confuse the two. A textbook provides information and facts with only the most important context. When you take on one subject or set of related subjects to write a nonfiction book, you’re telling readers the story of that subject.
Using these tips and thinking like a storyteller will help readers connect to your book. The story will be more interesting and you’ll earn more readers if you wrap your facts in an exciting story.
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Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.
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Examples of Creative Nonfiction: What It Is & How to Write It
POSTED ON Jul 21, 2023
Written by P.J McNulty
When most people think of creative writing, they picture fiction books – but there are plenty of examples of creative nonfiction. In fact, creative nonfiction is one of the most interesting genres to read and write. So what is creative nonfiction exactly?
More and more people are discovering the joy of getting immersed in content based on true life that has all the quality and craft of a well-written novel. If you are interested in writing creative nonfiction, it’s important to understand different examples of creative nonfiction as a genre.
If you’ve ever gotten lost in memoirs so descriptive that you felt you’d walked in the shoes of those people, those are perfect examples of creative nonfiction – and you understand exactly why this genre is so popular.
But is creative nonfiction a viable form of writing to pursue? What is creative nonfiction best used to convey? And what are some popular creative nonfiction examples?
Today we will discuss all about this genre, including plenty of examples of creative nonfiction books – so you’ll know exactly how to write it.
This Guide to Creative Nonfiction Covers:
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What is Creative Nonfiction?
Creative nonfiction is defined as true events written about with the techniques and style traditionally found in creative writing . We can understand what creative nonfiction is by contrasting it with plain-old nonfiction.
Think about news or a history textbook, for example. These nonfiction pieces tend to be written in very matter-of-fact, declarative language. While informative, this type of nonfiction often lacks the flair and pleasure that keep people hooked on fictional novels.
Imagine there are two retellings of a true crime story – one in a newspaper and the other in the script for a podcast. Which is more likely to grip you? The dry, factual language, or the evocative, emotionally impactful creative writing?
Podcasts are often great examples of creative nonfiction – but of course, creative nonfiction can be used in books too. In fact, there are many types of creative nonfiction writing. Let's take a look!
Types of creative nonfiction
Creative nonfiction comes in many different forms and flavors. Just as there are myriad types of creative writing, there are almost as many types of creative nonfiction.
Some of the most popular types include:
Literary nonfiction refers to any form of factual writing that employs the literary elements that are more commonly found in fiction. If you’re writing about a true event (but using elements such as metaphor and theme) you might well be writing literary nonfiction.
Writing a life story doesn’t have to be a dry, chronological depiction of your years on Earth. You can use memoirs to creatively tell about events or ongoing themes in your life.
If you’re unsure of what kind of creative nonfiction to write, why not consider a creative memoir? After all, no one else can tell your life story like you.
The beauty of the natural world is an ongoing source of creative inspiration for many people, from photographers to documentary makers. But it’s also a great focus for a creative nonfiction writer. Evoking the majesty and wonder of our environment is an endless source of material for creative nonfiction.
If you’ve ever read a great travel article or book, you’ll almost feel as if you've been on the journey yourself. There’s something special about travel writing that conveys not only the literal journey, but the personal journey that takes place.
Writers with a passion for exploring the world should consider travel writing as their form of creative nonfiction.
For types of writing that leave a lasting impact on the world, look no further than speeches. From a preacher's sermon, to ‘I have a dream’, speeches move hearts and minds like almost nothing else. The difference between an effective speech and one that falls on deaf ears is little more than the creative skill with which it is written.
Noteworthy figures from history and contemporary times alike are great sources for creative nonfiction. Think about the difference between reading about someone’s life on Wikipedia and reading about it in a critically-acclaimed biography.
Which is the better way of honoring that person’s legacy and achievements? Which is more fun to read? If there’s someone whose life story is one you’d love to tell, creative nonfiction might be the best way to do it.
So now that you have an idea of what creative nonfiction is, and some different ways you can write it, let's take a look at some popular examples of creative nonfiction books and speeches.
Examples of Creative Nonfiction
Here are our favorite examples of creative nonfiction:
1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
No list of examples of creative nonfiction would be complete without In Cold Blood . This landmark work of literary nonfiction by Truman Capote helped to establish the literary nonfiction genre in its modern form, and paved the way for the contemporary true crime boom.
2. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is undeniably one of the best creative memoirs ever written. It beautifully reflects on Hemingway’s time in Paris – and whisks you away into the cobblestone streets.
3. World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
If you're looking for examples of creative nonfiction nature writing, no one does it quite like Aimee Nezhukumatathil. World of Wonders is a beautiful series of essays that poetically depicts the varied natural landscapes she enjoyed over the years.
4. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most beloved travel writers of our time. And A Walk in the Woods is perhaps Bryson in his peak form. This much-loved travel book uses creativity to explore the Appalachian Trail and convey Bryson’s opinions on America in his humorous trademark style.
5. The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln
While most of our examples of creative nonfiction are books, we would be remiss not to include at least one speech. The Gettysburg Address is one of the most impactful speeches in American history, and an inspiring example for creative nonfiction writers.
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Few have a way with words like Maya Angelou. Her triumphant book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , shows the power of literature to transcend one’s circumstances at any time. It is one of the best examples of creative nonfiction that truly sucks you in.
7. Hiroshima by John Hershey
Hiroshima is a powerful retelling of the events during (and following) the infamous atomic bomb. This journalistic masterpiece is told through the memories of survivors – and will stay with you long after you've finished the final page.
8. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
If you haven't read the book, you've probably seen the film. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of the most popular travel memoirs in history. This romp of creative nonfiction teaches us how to truly unmake and rebuild ourselves through the lens of travel.
9. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Never has language learning brought tears of laughter like Me Talk Pretty One Day . David Sedaris comically divulges his (often failed) attempts to learn French with a decidedly sadistic teacher, and all the other mishaps he encounters in his fated move from New York to Paris.
10. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Many of us had complicated childhoods, but few of us experienced the hardships of Jeannette Walls. In The Glass Castle , she gives us a transparent look at the betrayals and torments of her youth and how she overcame them with grace – weaving her trauma until it reads like a whimsical fairytale.
Now that you've seen plenty of creative nonfiction examples, it's time to learn how to write your own creative nonfiction masterpiece.
Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction
Writing creative nonfiction has a lot in common with other types of writing. (You won’t be reinventing the wheel here.) The better you are at writing in general, the easier you’ll find your creative nonfiction project. But there are some nuances to be aware of.
Writing a successful creative nonfiction piece requires you to:
Choose a form
Before you commit to a creative nonfiction project, get clear on exactly what it is you want to write. That way, you can get familiar with the conventions of the style of writing and draw inspiration from some of its classics.
Try and find a balance between a type of creative nonfiction you find personally appealing and one you have the skill set to be effective at.
Gather the facts
Like all forms of nonfiction, your creative project will require a great deal of research and preparation. If you’re writing about an event, try and gather as many sources of information as possible – so you can imbue your writing with a rich level of detail.
If it’s a piece about your life, jot down personal recollections and gather photos from your past.
Plan your writing
Unlike a fictional novel, which tends to follow a fairly well-established structure, works of creative nonfiction have a less clear shape. To avoid the risk of meandering or getting weighed down by less significant sections, structure your project ahead of writing it.
You can either apply the classic fiction structures to a nonfictional event or take inspiration from the pacing of other examples of creative nonfiction you admire.
You may also want to come up with a working title to inspire your writing. Using a free book title generator is a quick and easy way to do this and move on to the actual writing of your book.
Draft in your intended style
Unless you have a track record of writing creative nonfiction, the first time doing so can feel a little uncomfortable. You might second-guess your writing more than you usually would due to the novelty of applying creative techniques to real events. Because of this, it’s essential to get your first draft down as quickly as possible.
Rewrite and refine
After you finish your first draft, only then should you read back through it and critique your work. Perhaps you haven’t used enough source material. Or maybe you’ve overdone a certain creative technique. Whatever you happen to notice, take as long as you need to refine and rework it until your writing feels just right.
Ready to Wow the World With Your Story?
You know have the knowledge and inspiring examples of creative nonfiction you need to write a successful work in this genre. Whether you choose to write a riveting travel book, a tear-jerking memoir, or a biography that makes readers laugh out loud, creative nonfiction will give you the power to convey true events like never before.
Who knows? Maybe your book will be on the next list of top creative nonfiction examples!
How to write a book in 12 simple steps [free book template], how long does it take to write a book (2023 author guide), the only (free) autobiography template you need – 4 simple steps.
How to Write a Short Story in 5 Steps
Short stories are to novels what TV episodes are to movies. Short stories are a form of narrative writing that has all the same elements as novels—plot, character development, point of view, story structure, theme—but are delivered in fewer words. For many writers, short stories are a less daunting way to dive into creative writing than attempting to write a novel . This doesn’t mean writing short fiction is easy—it, like every other kind of writing, comes with its own unique challenges.
If you’re wondering how to write a short story , we’re here to help. We’ve got tips for everything from coming up with short story ideas to fleshing out a plot to getting your work published in literary magazines.
Here’s a tip: Want to make sure your writing shines? Grammarly can check your spelling and save you from grammar and punctuation mistakes. It even proofreads your text, so your work is extra polished wherever you write.
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What is a short story?
A short story is a short, self-contained work of fiction that generally falls between 1,000 and 10,000 words.
Because of this length constraint, short stories tend to be less complex than longer works—in certain ways. In a short story, you can build a world, but not to the extent you can build a world in a (longer) novel. Similarly, you can have multiple fleshed-out characters, but you can’t give every character a full backstory and meaningful character arc like you can in a lengthier work. Generally, long, intricate plots with multiple subplots are better suited to novel-length works than a short story.
Don’t take this to mean your short story’s theme can’t be as deep as a longer work’s theme. You don’t need an extensive world with a complex magical system and an entire cast of three-dimensional characters to express a theme effectively. While short stories have fewer words, simpler settings, and smaller casts than novels, they can have just as much of an impact on readers. If you’re looking to read a powerful short story and see how other authors communicate substantive themes in just a few thousand words, check out these famous, impactful works:
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
- “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
- “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
How long should a short story be?
Like we said in the previous section, short stories typically contain between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Stories longer than 10,000 (but shorter than 40,000) words are generally considered novellas . You might even come across the term novelette to refer to a story between 7,500 and 17,000 words. Once you hit about 50,000 words, you’re in novel territory (and you’ve won NaNoWriMo!)
Stories that clock in under 1,000 words are known as flash fiction and stories of 500 words or fewer are considered microfiction .
There’s really no limit to how short a story can be, though. Consider Hemingway’s famous six-word story:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In just six words, Hemingway evokes an entire scene and the backstory that led to that scene. This is an extreme example of a short story, and it relies on the reader extrapolating meaning from the words, but because it does so successfully, it counts as a short story.
What’s in a short story?
Every short story has these five elements:
Characters are the people (or animals, aliens, mythical creatures, or sentient objects) who do the action in your story. Your protagonist is the character who undergoes some kind of change (or lack thereof) as a result of the story’s main conflict. Your antagonist is the character (or something abstract) attempting to prevent the protagonist’s change. To clarify, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a person—it could be the protagonist’s environment, their society, or even an aspect of themselves.
>>Read More: What Is Direct Characterization in Literature?
Plot is the series of events that illustrate the story’s conflict. When you’re writing a short story, it’s generally best to start your plot as close to the end as possible. In other words, if your story is about an alien who visits Earth and then retreats, horrified, back to her spaceship, start your story just as she’s approaching Earth or just as she’s touching down. You can build up a backstory later through tools like dialogue, flashbacks, and the protagonist’s actions. With a short story, you don’t have space for a lengthy exposition, so drop your readers right into the action.
A short story’s theme is its central message. This is the point the author wants readers to take away from their work.
Conflict is the action that drives the story’s plot. It’s the obstacle the protagonist has to overcome or the goal they’re attempting to reach. A conflict can be internal, like our example alien setting out to prove to herself that she can manage a mission to Earth on her own, or it can be external, like the protagonist striving to prove to her society that Earth is a worthwhile planet with which to establish a relationship.
Setting is the time and place where a story’s action occurs. For example, our alien story’s setting might be Nevada in 1955.
How to write a short story
Mine your imagination.
Just like every other type of writing, a short story starts with brainstorming . In fact, the process for writing a short story is the same writing process you use for other kinds of writing, like essays and presentations.
Ask yourself this: What do I want my short story to be about? Jot that down. Do you already have a clear idea of who your characters are or the setting they’ll inhabit? Or are you starting with a theme you want to convey, and now you need to develop a story to express that theme?
Start your brainstorming session with the elements you already have, then flesh out your story idea from there. Write down your setting, your characters, the conflict they face, and any key plot points you have in mind. You can fill in details later; right now, the goal is to have some rough data to use for your outline.
Don’t move on to outlining until you’ve defined your story’s conflict. Without a conflict, you don’t have a story. Although all of the five elements listed above are necessary for writing a great short story, conflict is the one that drives your plot, shapes your characters, and enables you to express your theme.
The next step in writing short fiction is outlining your story.
When you outline your story, you organize the notes from your brainstorming session into a coherent skeleton of your finished story. Outlining your story is a key part of prewriting because it’s where you develop your story’s framework and sketch out how each scene follows the previous scene to advance the plot. This stage is where you determine any plot twists or big reveals and fit them into the story’s sequence.
Next, it’s time to write.
Don’t worry about grammatical mistakes—you’ll fix them later.
Don’t worry about your narration or dialogue being extraneous or not making complete sense—you’ll fix that later too. Right now, you’re working on a rough draft. Just get that story out of your imagination and onto the page without being self-conscious about it.
Keep that first draft as tight as possible. You’re writing a short story, after all, so be economical with your words. Keep these tips in mind as you write :
- You don’t need to explain everything. Give enough explanation so the reader understands what’s happening in a scene; don’t slow them down with paragraphs of backstory and exposition.
- Keep the ending in mind. As you write, determine whether each sentence ultimately progresses the plot. If it doesn’t, either cut it or rework it so it does progress the plot.
- Listen to how people speak. Then, write dialogue that sounds like real conversations. These conversations won’t necessarily be grammatically correct, but they will make your characters sound the way people naturally speak.
Once you have a finished first draft, let it rest. If you have the luxury of waiting a day or so to come back and read what you wrote, do that. That way, you can read your writing again with fresh eyes, which makes it easier to spot inconsistencies and plot holes.
Then it’s time to edit. Read your writing again and note any places where you can make the writing more descriptive, more concise, more engaging, or simply more logical. At this stage, it can be very helpful to work with readers’ feedback. If you’re comfortable sharing your work and receiving constructive criticism, share your rough draft with friends and family—and, if possible, with other writers—and let their feedback guide the revisions you make.
Move past creative blocks
So you’ve got writer’s block.
Writer’s block can strike at any point in the writing process. You might have a great idea for a short story, then find yourself struggling as you try to brainstorm ways to transform that idea into a narrative. Or you might have no problem brainstorming and creating a coherent outline, but then feel like you’re running into a wall as you try to write linear scenes and craft realistic dialogue that advances the plot. Or maybe you aren’t stuck in the sense that you don’t know what to write, but you’re having a hard time determining the most effective way to write it.
It happens to every writer.
Because writer’s block is such a universal condition, we gathered up a few helpful tips you can use to defeat writer’s block and write effective, engaging scenes:
Give a writing prompt a shot
If getting started is what’s giving you a hard time, consider using a writing prompt . A writing prompt is like kindling for your short story. They’re generally brief, at just a sentence or two, and describe scenarios writers flesh out into full-fledged stories. Run a web search for “writing prompts” and you’ll find a ton. You can even tailor your search to a specific genre, like “horror writing prompts” or “romantic comedy writing prompts.”
Skip the scene and work backward
When a particular scene is what’s making it difficult to move forward, skip it. There’s no rule that says you have to write your short story in order. Just move ahead to the next scene that you can write, and then when you’re finished, revisit the challenging one. In many cases, it’s easier to write a scene once you know what happens after it.
We’ve talked about writing sprints before. They’re a great way to make yourself write faster . When it comes to busting through that brick wall of writer’s block, sprinting can put you into a mindset where you’re writing words, any words, just to reach the word count goal you set. You probably won’t craft publishable prose this way, but you’ll likely find creative ways through the difficult scenes that you can build on later.
Where to distribute your short story
If you’re like most authors, one of your goals is to publish your story.
There are two main ways to do that: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
In the short fiction world, traditional publishing generally means having your work published in a literary magazine. There are thousands of literary magazines currently being published around the world, each with a unique combination of editorial focus, publishing schedule, submission process, acceptance rate, and payment for authors.
Some literary magazines accept nearly every story they receive. Others select very few—as in, a single-digit percentage of the stories submitted—to publish. You can find literary magazines and contests through resources such as Poets & Writers , Duotrope , and Writer’s Digest .
If you’ve got a collection of short stories that together are approximately book-length, you can also query agents to have your work published that way. A few well-known short story collections include The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin.
The other way to publish your work is self-publishing. With self-publishing, you don’t need to have your work greenlit by a magazine editor or a publishing house. Although that hurdle isn’t present, self-publishing can be a complex process. As a self-published author, you’re responsible for everything, including these elements:
- Your story’s cover art
- Professional editing
Whether self-publishing is the right route for your story depends on your goals for the story. If you’re looking to have your work featured in a widely circulated magazine, guaranteeing that thousands of people (or more!) read it, traditional publishing is the way to go. If your priority is to simply get your work out there, or if you want total control of every part of building your platform as an author, self-publishing can be the perfect choice.
Popular self-publishing platforms include Kindle Direct Publishing , CreateSpace , Apple Books , and Barnes & Noble Press . Each has a unique publishing process and royalty rate for authors.
You can also self-publish your short story on your blog . Blogs are personal (and professional) outlets for writing, and if you’ve got a story to tell and don’t want to go through the process of getting it published or going the “traditional” self-publishing route, you can create a blog and publish your work there.
Finding a writing community
For many authors, being part of a writing community is a key part of staying in regular writing practice and striving to grow as a writer. Writing communities exist online and offline, with some existing as simply places for writers to connect with each other and others offering up more structure, like a regular critique schedule. There are also writing communities built around writing challenges like NYC Midnight and NaNoWriMo .
If you think you’d benefit from being part of a writing community, find one that fits what you’re looking for—or start one yourself! You can find writing communities on social media and through websites like meetup.com. Other places to look for writing groups are local libraries and bookstores and if you’re a student, your university. Being part of a writing community can help you get your work published in two ways:
- You can have other authors read and critique your work, giving you direction that will help you make it stronger when you revise.
- Other writers can connect you with literary magazines, contests, and agents to potentially work with. If they’ve been published, they can also answer your questions and give you writer-to-writer advice on what to do (and what not to do) when you’re trying to publish your work.
Tell your story with confidence
We all have stories inside us. Writing your story is what makes you an author, and even the most accomplished authors need help catching grammar mistakes and other issues in their writing. That’s what makes Grammarly an ideal writing assistant. Write what’s in your heart and on your mind, then when it’s time to edit, Grammarly will catch any mistakes you might have missed, flag wording that isn’t clear, and suggest the right tone for telling your tale.
Most Read in 2021
We don’t publish a lot of lists. But this year, having launched this new website with nearly complete access to 30 years of magazine archives, we thought it seemed like a good time to look back at the stories that resonated with our readers.
In that spirit, we’ve compiled the most-read pieces published on our website in 2021, as well as the most-read work from our archives.
And for good measure, we’ve pulled together a few pieces worth an honorable mention; our favorite Sunday Short Reads ; CNF content that was republished elsewhere; and the best advice, inspiration, and think pieces from some of our favorite publications.
Finally, if you enjoy what follows, please know there’s plenty more! We have a soft paywall on our site, which allows for three free reads a month. To get unlimited access for as little as $4/month, simply subscribe today.
Top 10 Published in 2021
- Almost Behind Us A dental emergency interrupts a meaningful anniversary // JENNIFER BOWERING DELISLE
- El Valle, 1991 An early lesson in strength and fragility // AURELIA KESSLER
- Stay at Home All those hours alone with a new baby can be rough // JARED HANKS
- The Desert Was His Home There are many things we don’t know about Mr. Otomatsu Wada, and a few things we do // ERIC L. MULLER
- Just a Big Cat The dramatic boredom of jury duty // ERICA GOSS
- What Will We Do for Fun Now? Her parents survived World War II and the Blitz just fine … didn’t they? // JANE RATCLIFFE
- Harriet Two brothers and a turtle // TYLER McANDREW
- Rango Getting existential at a funeral for a lizard // JARRETT G. ZIEMER
- Mouse Lessons from a hamster emergency // BEVERLY PETRAVICIUS
- Roxy & the Worm Box Trying to recapture a childhood love of dirt // ANJOLI ROY
Top 5 from the Archive
- Picturing the Personal Essay A visual guide // TIM BASCOM
- The 5 Rs of Creative Nonfiction The essayist at work // LEE GUTKIND
- The Line Between Fact & Fiction Do not add, and do not deceive // ROY PETER CLARK
- The Braided Essay as Social Justice Action The braided essay may be the most effective form for our times // NICOLE WALKER
- On Fame, Success, and Writing Like a Mother#^@%*& An interview with Cheryl Strayed // ELISSA BASSIST
Honorable Mention ( ICYMI Essays)
- Latinx Heritage Month Who do you complain to when it’s HR you have a problem with? // MELISSA LUJAN MESKU
- Women’s Work Sometimes, freedom means choosing your obligations // EILEEN GARVIN
- Bloodlines and Bitter Syrup Avoiding prison in Huntsville, Texas, is nearly impossible // WILL BRIDGES
- Stealth A nontraditional couple struggles with keeping part of their life together private while undertaking the public act of filing for marriage // HEATHER OSTERMAN-DAVIS
- Something Like Vertigo An environmental writer sees parallels between her father’s declining equilibrium and a world turned upside down // ELIZABETH RUSH
Our favorite Sunday Short Reads from our partners
- What Joy Looks Like SSR #128 // DORIAN FOX
- How to Do Nothing SSR #156 // ABIGAIL THOMAS
- At 86, My Grandmother Regrets Two Things SSR #134 // DIANA XIN
- The Seedy Corner SSR #140 // KIMBERLY GARZA
from RIVER TEETH
- Waste Not SSR #131 // DESIREE COOPER
- This Is Orange SSR #141 // JILL KOLONGOWSKI
from SWEET LITERARY
- The Pilgrim’s Prescription SSR #122 // CAROLYN ALESSIO
- Leaves in the Hall SSR #160 // ANNE GUDGER
Our favorite stories from around the internet.
Advice & Inspiration
- In Praise of the Meander Rebecca Solnit on letting nonfiction narrative find its own way (via Lit Hub )
- What’s Missing Here? A Fragmentary, Lyric Essay About Fragmentary, Lyric Essays Julie Marie Wade on the mode that never quite feels finished (via Lit Hub )
- Getting Honest about Om A brief essay on audience (via Brevity )
- Using the Personal to Write the Global Intimate details, personal exploration and respect for facts (via Nieman Storyboard )
- Fix Your Scene Shapes And quickly improve your manuscript (via Jane Friedman’s blog)
The State of Nonfiction
- What the NYT ‘Guest Essay’ Means for the Future of Creative Nonfiction Description (via Brevity )
- How the Role of Personal Expression and Experience Is Changing Journalism On the future of the newsroom (via Poynter )
- 50 Shades of Nuance in a Polarized World An essayist ponders when to write black-and-white polemics that attract clicks, and when to be more considered (via Nieman Storyboard )
- These Literary Memoirs Take a Different Tack Description (via NY Times )
- The Politics of Gatekeeping On reconsidering the ethics of blind submissions (via Poets & Writers )
50 Short Nonfiction Books You Can Read in a Day (Or Two)
Sarah suffers from chronic sarcasm, and an unhealthy aversion to noise. She loves to read, and would like to do nothing else, but stupid real life makes her go to work. She lives in the middle of a cornfield and shares a house with two spoiled dogs and a ton of books.
View All posts by Sarah Ullery
I warn you, if you bore me, I shall take my revenge. —J.R.R. Tolkein
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is an excellent book. I have no doubt. But by the time you’re done reading all 916 pages, there’s a real chance you’ll have developed carpal tunnel in your wrists.
Big books are heavy! They take FOREVER to read. And you know there’s going to be boring parts. Nonfiction is intimidating enough without the extra worry of physical pain that might be associated with reading it.
That’s why it’s nice to have a good selection of short nonfiction books on your TBR. Books that are easy on the wrists. Books that get to the point and stay on point without the requisite “boring parts” of larger books. Books that can be read in a day (or two). Books that are fun, but leave you feeling like a better person or better reader for having read them.
Nonfiction does not have to be long to be important. In fact, many of the titles I’ve listed below are the absolute best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. All of the books (except one) are under 300 pages, and the books closer to the 300 page mark are so absorbing and fast-paced they can be read in a single sitting. I’ve also included graphic memoirs and other graphic nonfiction that can be read quickly. Nonfiction can be just as fun as fiction as long as you find a subject that interests you, and don’t feel bogged down by an endless number of pages.
I like my books short too! So let’s share the love…
Short Nonfiction Books Under 100 pages
Notes on nationalism by george orwell (52 pages).
“In this essay, Orwell discusses the notion of nationalism, and argues that it causes people to disregard common sense and become more ignorant towards factuality. Orwell shows his concern for the social state of Europe, and in a broader sense, the entire world, due to an increasing amount of influence of nationalistic sentiment occurring throughout a large number of countries.”
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (80 pages)
“In 1903, a student at a military academy sent some of his verses to a well-known Austrian poet, requesting an assessment of their value. The older artist, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), replied to the novice in this series of letters—an amazing archive of remarkable insights into the ideas behind Rilke’s greatest poetry.”
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (48 pages)
“ Civil Disobedience argues that citizens should not permit their governments to overrule their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing their acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, but the sentiments he expresses here are just as pertinent today as when they were first written.”
Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss, and Surviving the Titanic by Elizabeth Kaye (70 pages)
“One hundred years after that disastrous and emblematic voyage, Elizabeth Kaye reveals the extraordinary, little-known story behind one of the first lifeboats to leave the doomed ship.”
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (53 pages)
“With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness.”
The Art of War by Sun Tzu (72 pages)
“Twenty-Five Hundred years ago, Sun Tzu wrote this classic book of military strategy based on Chinese warfare and military thought. Since that time, all levels of military have used the teaching on Sun Tzu to warfare and civilization have adapted these teachings for use in politics, business and everyday life. The Art of War is a book which should be used to gain advantage of opponents in the boardroom and battlefield alike.”
Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe (56 pages)
“Electrifying essays on the history, complexity, diversity of a continent, from the father of modern African literature.”
Short Nonfiction Books Under 200 pages
Difficult women: a memoir of three by david plante (184 pages).
“ Difficult Women , the book with which David Plante made his name, presents three portraits—each one of them as detailed, textured, and imposing as the those of Lucian Freud—of three extraordinary, complicated, and, yes, difficult women, while also raising intriguing and in their own way difficult questions about the character and motivations of the keenly and often cruelly observant portraitist himself.”
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, Philip Gabriel (translator) (188 pages)
“While training for the New York City Marathon, Haruki Murakami decided to keep a journal of his progress. The result is a memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid recollections and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer. By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, here is a rich and revelatory work that elevates the human need for motion to an art form.”
Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (128 pages)
“Structured around the forty questions Luiselli translates and asks undocumented Latin American children facing deportation, Tell Me How It Ends (an expansion of her 2016 Freeman’s essay of the same name) humanizes these young migrants and highlights the contradiction of the idea of America as a fiction for immigrants with the reality of racism and fear both here and back home.”
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (106 pages)
“At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document. It consists of two ‘letters,’ written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.”
Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard (115 pages)
“At long last, Mary Beard addresses in one brave book the misogynists and trolls who mercilessly attack and demean women the world over, including, very often, Mary herself. In Women & Power , she traces the origins of this misogyny to its ancient roots, examining the pitfalls of gender and the ways that history has mistreated strong women since time immemorial.”
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (160 pages)
“The Tao Te Ching , the esoteric but infinitely practical book written most probably in the sixth century BC by Lao Tsu, has been translated more frequently than any work except the Bible. This translation of the Chinese classic, which was first published twenty-five years ago, has sold more copies than any of the others. It offers the essence of each word and makes Lao Tsu’s teaching immediate and alive.”
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison (114 pages)
“America’s foremost novelist reflects on the themes that preoccupy her work and increasingly dominate national and world politics: race, fear, borders, the mass movement of peoples, the desire for belonging. What is race and why does it matter? What motivates the human tendency to construct Others? Why does the presence of Others make us so afraid?”
Why I Write by George Orwell (120 pages)
“Whether puncturing the lies of politicians, wittily dissecting the English character or telling unpalatable truths about war, Orwell’s timeless, uncompromising essays are more relevant, entertaining and essential than ever in today’s era of spin.”
The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir (162 pages)
“In The Ethics of Ambiguity , Madame de Beauvoir penetrates at once to the central ethical problems of modern man: what shall he do, how shall he go about making values, in the face of this awareness of the absurdity of his existence? She forces the reader to face the absurdity of the human condition and then, having done so, proceeds to develop a dialectic of ambiguity which will enable him not to master the chaos, but to create with it.”
The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria by Helon Habila (128 pages)
“On April 14, 2014, 276 girls from the Chibok Secondary School in northern Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram, the world’s deadliest terrorist group. Most were never heard from again. Acclaimed Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, who grew up in northern Nigeria, returned to Chibok and gained intimate access to the families of the kidnapped to offer a devastating account of this tragedy that stunned the world. With compassion and deep understanding of historical context, Habila tells the stories of the girls and the anguish of their parents; chronicles the rise of Boko Haram and the Nigerian government’s inept response; and captures the indifference of the media and the international community whose attention has moved on.”
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman (160 pages)
“One of the first naturalists to observe live insects directly, Maria Sibylla Merian was also one of the first to document the metamorphosis of the butterfly. In this visual nonfiction biography, richly illustrated throughout with full-color original paintings by Merian herself, the Newbery Honor–winning author Joyce Sidman paints her own picture of one of the first female entomologists and a woman who flouted convention in the pursuit of knowledge and her passion for insects.”
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard (177 pages)
“Here, in this compelling assembly of writings, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard explores the world of natural facts and human meanings.”
The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry (151 pages)
“Grayson Perry has been thinking about masculinity—what it is, how it operates, why little boys are thought to be made of slugs and snails – since he was a boy. Now, in this funny and necessary book, he turns round to look at men with a clear eye and ask, what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone?”
Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place by Scott McClanahan (169 pages)
“When Scott McClanahan was fourteen he went to live with his Grandma Ruby and his Uncle Nathan, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Crapalachia is a portrait of these formative years, coming-of-age in rural West Virginia.”
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (143 pages)
“ Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.”
Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury (158 pages)
“Zen in the Art of Writing is more than just a how-to manual for the would-be writer: it is a celebration of the act of writing itself that will delight, impassion, and inspire the writer in you. Bradbury encourages us to follow the unique path of our instincts and enthusiasms to the place where our inner genius dwells, and he shows that success as a writer depends on how well you know one subject: your own life.”
A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape From North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa, Risa Kobayashi (159 pages)
“In this memoir translated from the original Japanese, Ishikawa candidly recounts his tumultuous upbringing and the brutal thirty-six years he spent living under a crushing totalitarian regime, as well as the challenges he faced repatriating to Japan after barely escaping North Korea with his life.”
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (165 pages)
“Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival.”
The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy (144 pages)
“The Cost of Living explores the subtle erasure of women’s names, spaces, and stories in the modern everyday. In this ‘living autobiography’ infused with warmth and humor, Deborah Levy critiques the roles that society assigns to us, and reflects on the politics of breaking with the usual gendered rituals. What does it cost a woman to unsettle old boundaries and collapse the social hierarchies that make her a minor character in a world not arranged to her advantage?”
Short Nonfiction Books Under 300 pages
Ain’t i a woman by bell hooks (205 pages).
“A groundbreaking work of feminist history and theory analyzing the complex relations between various forms of oppression. Ain’t I a Woman examines the impact of sexism on black women during slavery, the historic devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism within the recent women’s movement, and black women’s involvement with feminism.”
Can You Tolerate This? By Ashleigh Young (256 pages)
“A dazzling – and already prizewinning – collection of essays on youth and aging, ambition and disappointment, Katherine Mansfield tourism and New Zealand punk rock, and the limitations of the body.”
The Terrible: A Storyteller’s Memoir by Yrsa Daley-Ward (224 pages)
“From the poet behind bone , a lyrical memoir—part prose, part verse—about coming-of-age, uncovering the cruelty and the beauty of the wider world, and redemption through self-discovery and the bonds of family.”
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung (238 pages)
“From a childhood survivor of the Cambodian genocide under the regime of Pol Pot, this is a riveting narrative of war crimes and desperate actions, the unnerving strength of a small girl and her family, and their triumph of spirit.”
Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear (240 pages)
“A writer’s search for inspiration, beauty, and solace leads her to birds in this intimate and exuberant meditation on creativity and life—a field guide to things small and significant.”
Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks (200 pages)
“Teaching Community tells us how we can choose to end racism and create a beloved community. hooks looks at many issues—among them, spirituality in the classroom, white people looking to end racism, and erotic relationships between professors and students. Spirit, struggle, service, love, the ideals of shared knowledge and shared learning—these values motivate progressive social change.”
The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton (280 pages) (it has pictures!)
“The Architecture of Happiness starts from the idea that where we are heavily influences who we can be, and it argues that it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.”
Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (236 pages)
“On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred in Chernobyl and contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Voices from Chernobyl is the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy.”
Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today by Yoani Sanchez (256 pages)
“Yoani Sánchez is an unusual dissident: no street protests, no attacks on big politicos, no calls for revolution. Rather, she produces a simple diary about what it means to live under the Castro regime: the chronic hunger and the difficulty of shopping; the art of repairing ancient appliances; and the struggles of living under a propaganda machine that pushes deep into public and private life.”
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (273 pages)
“When the unconventional Durrell family can no longer endure the damp, gray English climate, they do what any sensible family would do: sell their house and relocate to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu.”
The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez (224 pages)
The book has pictures, which is so helpful in nonfiction! It chronicles the migrant trail through Mexico to the U.S. border. “The Beast” is the freight train that migrants cling to as they make their way north. Oscar Martinez is a fantastic writer. I love this book but I would also like to recommend A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America —both are harrowing and important stories.
The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail, translated by Max Weiss (240 pages)
“Since 2014, Daesh (ISIS) has been brutalizing the Yazidi people of northern Iraq: sowing destruction, killing those who won’t convert to Islam, and enslaving young girls and women. The Beekeeper , by the acclaimed poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail, tells the harrowing stories of several women who managed to escape the clutches of Daesh.”
What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? By Noemi Jaffe, translated by Julia Sanches (266 pages)
“A groundbreaking use of storytelling to bear witness to the Holocaust features three generations of women’s own voices—Liwia’s diary written upon liberation from Auschwitz; daughter Noemi Jaffe exploring the power of memory, survival, and bearing witness; and granddaughter Leda, Noemi’s daughter, on the significance of the Holocaust and Jewish identity seventy years after the war.”
Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath (224 pages)
“Funny and heartfelt, this amalgamation of memoir and essay collection tells the story of twenty months the author spent in Lesotho, the small, landlocked kingdom surrounded by South Africa. There he finds a spirit of joyful absurdity and resolve, surrounded by people who take strangers’ hands as they walk down the road, people who—with sweetest face—drop the dirtiest jokes in the southern hemisphere. But Lesotho is also a place where shepherds exact Old Testament retribution, where wounded pride incites murder and families are devastated by the AIDS epidemic.”
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (242 pages)
“The Professor and the Madman , masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary —and literary history.”
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (232 pages)
“In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.”
Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 by Albert Marrin (210 pages)
“From National Book Award finalist Albert Marrin comes a fascinating look at the history and science of the deadly 1918 flu pandemic—and the chances for another worldwide pandemic.”
Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and Schools Closings in Chicago’s South Side by Eve L. Ewing (240 pages)
An unflinching look at Chicago Public Schools and the damage inflicted on communities when schools are shutdown.
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt (224 pages)
“As an aging, tenacious Elizabeth I clung to power, a talented playwright probed the social causes, the psychological roots, and the twisted consequences of tyranny. In exploring the psyche (and psychoses) of the likes of Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Coriolanus, and the societies they rule over, Stephen Greenblatt illuminates the ways in which William Shakespeare delved into the lust for absolute power and the catastrophic consequences of its execution.”
Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug (288 pages)
“A revelatory, visually stunning graphic memoir by award-winning artist Nora Krug, telling the story of her attempt to confront the hidden truths of her family’s wartime past in Nazi Germany and to comprehend the forces that have shaped her life, her generation, and history.”
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (282 pages)
“In August of 1914, the British ship Endurance set sail for the South Atlantic. In October 1915, still half a continent away from its intended base, the ship was trapped, then crushed in the ice. For five months, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men, drifting on ice packs, were castaways in one of the most savage regions of the world.”
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by by Julia Pierpont, Manjit Thapp (Illustrator) (208 pages)
“This inspiring, beautifully illustrated collection honors one hundred exceptional women throughout history and around the world.”
Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, and Future by Lauren Redniss (261 pages)(Graphic Novel)
“Weather is the very air we breathe—it shapes our daily lives and alters the course of history. In Thunder & Lightning , Lauren Redniss tells the story of weather and humankind through the ages.”
Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, Jordan Stump (translator) (250 pages)
“Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches is the story of growing up a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda—the story of a happy child, a loving family, all wiped out in the genocide of 1994. A vivid, bittersweet depiction of family life and bond in a time of immense hardship, it is also a story of incredible endurance, and the duty to remember that loss and those lost while somehow carrying on. Sweet, funny, wrenching, and deeply moving, Cockroaches is a window onto an unforgettable world of love, grief, and horror.”
Over 300 pages (Bonus)
Arbitrary stupid goal by tamara shopsin (336 pages).
It’s my mission in life to get everyone to read this book! I mean, if the title didn’t draw you in, or the cover; well, maybe my mission is a lost cause…I can promise that it’s a really fast and funny read that you’ll have no problem finishing in a day!
I’ll admit that I’ve listened to a good amount of these books as audiobooks, so for more great, short, nonfiction audiobook ideas, check out 50 of the Best Short Nonfiction Audiobooks Under 10 Hours —or, if you’re just interested in more great nonfiction ideas, check out Book Riot’s nonfiction page !
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COACHING + PUBLISHING
FORMATTING + DESIGN
Where to Submit Short Stories: 30 Options for Writers
by Farrah Daniel | Aug 23, 2023
Good news! You can finally stop stressing about where and how to submit your short stories—we compiled a list for you.
Trying to find a sense of community comes with the territory of being a writer. Whether you’re looking for the right writing contests or residencies , it’s hard to know where to begin and how to find the right home for your personal work.
In this guide, you’ll find 30+ magazines and literary journals that publish short fiction (and nonfiction). Our list includes a mix of publications across various genres and styles, ranging from prestigious, highly competitive options to those specifically seeking new and emerging voices.
Plus, international writers, a lot of these are open to you, too!
Table of Contents
30 outlets that publish short stories.
While we’ll give you a brief idea of the flavor of each magazine and site, you’ll definitely want to spend some time reading your target publications before submitting to become familiar with the sort of pieces they prefer.
Many of these short story publishers accept original submissions that are simultaneously submitted elsewhere. Just make sure to withdraw your submitted submissions if you get your story published!
Ready to get started? Here’s where to submit short stories.
1. The New Yorker
Might as well start with a bang, right? Adding publication in The New Yorker to your portfolio puts you in a whole new league, though it won’t be easy. Author David. B. Comfort calculated the odds of acceptance at 0.0000416 percent !
It accepts both standard short fiction as well as humorous short fiction for the “Shouts & Murmurs” section. No word counts are mentioned, though a quick scan of the column shows most pieces are 600 to 1,000 words.
Payment: Huge bragging rights; pay for unsolicited submissions isn’t specified. As of this post’s publication, no rates specifically for short stories
2. The Atlantic
Another highly respected magazine, The Atlantic , publishes both big names and emerging writers in fiction and nonfiction. Submission guidelines advise, “A general familiarity with what we have published in the past is the best guide to what we’re looking for.”
Deadline: Open. Fiction stories are submitted to [email protected]
Payment: Unsolicited submissions are generally unpaid
3. The Threepenny Review
The 3P Review is quarterly arts magazine focuses on literature, arts and society, memoir and essay. Short stories should be no more than 4,000 words, while submissions to the “Table Talk” section (pithy, irreverent and humorous musings on culture, art, politics and life) should be 1,000 words or less.
Deadline: January 1 to April 30
Payment: $400 for short stories; $200 for Table Talk pieces
4. One Story
One Story is just what the name says: a literary magazine that publishes one great short story every three to four weeks , and nothing more.
Its main criteria for a great short story ? One “that leaves readers feeling satisfied and [is] strong enough to stand alone.” Stories can be any style or subject but should be between 3,000 and 8,000 words.
Deadline: January 15 – May 31 | September 3 – November 14
Payment: $500 plus 25 contributor copies
Thought-provoking is the name of the game if you want to get published in AGNI . Its editors look for pieces that hold a mirror up to the world around us and engage in a larger, ongoing cultural conversation about nature, mankind, the society we live in and more.
There are no word limits, but shorter is generally better; “The longer a piece is, the better it needs to be to justify taking up so much space in the magazine,” note the submission guidelines.
Deadline: Open September 1 to December 15; February 15 to May 31
Payment: $10 per printed page (up to a max of $150) plus a year’s subscription, two contributor’s copies and four gift copies
6. Kindle Vella
Rather than seeking a magazine or journals editorial approval, you can publish directly to Kindle Vella’s short story program. Here, your work will go directly to market and its success will be determined by the general public, not by an editorial team. You also don’t have to wait months on a response as to whether your short story will be published. You can upload and be published on Kindle Vella in under 48 hours.
For a full review of Kindle Vella, read this article .
Payment: Royalties on KDP reads
Published by an independent nonprofit literary organization, Barrelhouse’s biannual print journal and online issue seek to “bridge the gap between serious art and pop culture.” Its editors look for quality writing that’s also edgy and funny—as they say, they “want to be your weird Internet friend.”
There’s no hard word count, but try to keep your submission under 8,000 words.
Deadline: Currently open for book reviews only. Check the webpage to see all open categories and sign up for the email list to receive updates on submissions
Payment: $50 to print and online contributors; print contributors also receive two contributor copies
8. The Cincinnati Review
The Cincinnati Review publishes work by writers of all genres and at all points of their careers. Its editors want “work that has energy,” that is “rich in language and plot structure” and “that’s not just ecstatic, but that makes its reader feel ecstatic, too.”
Fiction and nonfiction submissions should be no more than 40 double-spaced pages.
Deadline: The review accepts submissions during three time periods, September, December, and May. Submit earlier in the month because they will stop accepting submissions when their cap is reached.
Payment: $25 per page for prose in journal
9. The First Line
This cool quarterly is all about jumpstarting that pesky writer’s block . Each issue of The First Line contains short fiction stories (300 to 5,000 words) that each begin with the same pre-assigned first line.
If you really want to get ambitious, you can also write a four-part story that uses each of that year’s first lines (which is due by the next year’s spring issue deadline). To find each issue’s assigned first line, check out the submission guidelines.
Deadline: February 1 (spring); May 1 (summer); August 1 (fall); November 1 (winter)
Payment: $25 to $50 (fiction); $25 (nonfiction) plus a contributor’s copy
10. The Georgia Review
Another one high on the prestige list, The Georgia Review features a wide variety of essays, fiction, book reviews, and more across a wide range of topics. You can read specific requirements for each in the submission guidelines, but the common theme among them all is quality, quality, quality.
Bear in mind submitting requires a $3 processing fee if you’re not a subscriber.
Deadline: Opens on August 15
Payment: $50 per printed page; contributors also receive a one-year subscription to the quarterly and a 50% discount on additional copies of that issue
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11. Boulevard Magazine
Boulevard Magazine is always on the lookout for “less experienced or unpublished writers with exceptional promise.” It accepts prose pieces (fiction and nonfiction) up to 8,000 words (note: no science fiction, erotica, westerns, horror, romance or children’s stories).
There is an online submission fee of $3. Free if submitting by post.
Deadline: Open November 1 to May 1
Payment: $100 to $300
Story Magazine is, you guessed it, all about the story, whatever shape it takes. Each issue—printed tri-annually in February, June, and November—is “devoted to the complex and diverse world of narrative with a focus on fiction and nonfiction.” Luckily, you don’t have to stick to any formal guidelines in regards to style, content, or even length; they consider all “short” narrative length work, from flash fiction to novellas. There is a $3 submission fee.
Payment: Regular payment rate is $10 per page upon publication
13. Vestal Review
Prefer to keep your short stories extra short ? Vestal Review publishes flash fiction of no more than 500 words. Its editors are open to all genres except for syrupy romance, hard science fiction and children’s stories, and they have a special fondness for humor. R-rated content is OK, but stay away from anything too racy, gory or obscene.
There is a submission fee of $2 for each submission.
Deadline: Submission periods are February to May and August to November
Payment: The author of an accepted print submission gets $25 and a print copy; $10 for accepted web submissions
14. Flash Fiction Online
Flash Fiction Online allows for slightly longer flash stories—between 500 and 1,000 words. Its editors like sci-fi and fantasy but are open to all genres (except for nonfiction and poetry!). As with Vestal, stay away from the heavier stuff like erotica and violence. What they’re looking for is developed, empathetic characters and discernible, resolved plots. Unlike many of the other publications, they will accept previously published work, which you’d submit in the reprint category.
Deadline: Open each month for submissions from the 1st to the 21st of the month.
Payment: $80 per story; two cents per word for reprints
15. Black Warrior Review
Black Warrior Review publishes a mix of work by up-and-coming writers and nationally known names. Fiction pieces of up to 7,000 words should be innovative, challenging, and unique; its editors value “absurdity, hybridity, the magical [and] the stark.”
BWR also accepts flash fiction under 1,000 words and nonfiction pieces (up to 7,000 words) that complicate western traditions of truth-telling, and “foregrounds the history of emotions rather than the history of facts.” There is a $3 submission fee.
Deadline: Submission periods are December 1 to March 1 and June 1 to September 1
Payment: A one-year subscription to BWR and a nominal lump-sum fee (amount not disclosed in its guidelines)
16. The Sun Magazine
The Sun Magazine offers some of the biggest payments we’ve seen, and while its guidelines specifically mention personal writing and provocative political/cultural pieces, they also say editors are “open to just about anything.”
Works should run no more than 7,000 words. Submit something the editors love, and you could get a nice payday.
Payment: $300 to $2,000
17. Virginia Quarterly (VQR)
A diverse publication that features both award-winning and emerging writers, VQR accepts short fiction (3,500 to 8,000 words) but is not a fan of genre work like romance, sci-fi and fantasy. It also takes nonfiction (3,500 to 9,000 words) like travel essays that examine the world around us.
Deadline: Submissions read July 1 to July 31
Payment: Generally $1,000 and above for short fiction and prose (approximately 25 cents per word) with higher rates for investigative reporting; $100 to $200 for content published online
Ploughshares’ award-winning literary journal is published by Boston’s Emerson College. They accept fiction and nonfiction under 7,500 words and require a $3 service fee if you submit online (it’s free to submit by mail, though they prefer digital submissions). You can also submit your significantly longer work (7,500 to 20,000 words) to the Ploughshares Solos series !
Deadline: June 1 to January 15 at noon Eastern Time
Payment: $45 per printed page (for a minimum of $90 per title and a maximum of $450 per author); plus two contributor copies of the issue and a one-year subscription
19. Carve Magazine
Writers are in for a treat! Carve Magazine accepts poetry, short stories and nonfiction submissions, not exceeding 10,000 words. They accept literary fiction only and are not open to genre fiction (i.e. thriller, horror, romance, etc.). They also accept novel excerpts but only those that can stand alone in the story. There’s a $3 submission fee, but you can subscribe to the magazine to skirt past it.
Deadline: Open all-year-round from anywhere in the world
Payment: Pays $100 and offers feedback on 5 to 10% of declined submissions
20. Daily Science Fiction
Sci-fi and fantasy writers, this one’s for you. Daily Science Fiction is looking for character-driven fiction, and the shorter, the better. While their word count range is 100 to 1,500 words, they might consider flash series—AKA three or more flash tales built around a common theme.
Deadline: Open except for the period between December 24 to January 2
Payment: Eight cents per word, with the possibility of additional pay for reprints in themed Daily Science Fiction anthologies
JMWW is a literary journal that publishes fiction stories with up to 300 words and flash fiction of no longer than 1.500 words, and it’s open to any genre as long as the story is well-crafted. To up your chances of catching the editors’ eyes, note that they like “strong characters whose motivations are not always known to us but can be explained within the confines of common sense,” as well as surprise endings (nothing gimmicky).
Payment: No pay specified
22. Smokelong Quarterly
SmokeLong , a literary mag devoted to flash fiction, publishes flash narratives up to 1000 words—and that’s a firm word limit, so be sure to stick to it. The SLQ aesthetic remains “an ever-changing, ever-elusive set of principles,” but it most likely has to do with these kinds of things: language that surprises and excites, narratives that strive toward something other than a final punch line or twist, and more which you can see in the submission guidelines. Think you can handle that?
Payment: $50 per story upon publication in the quarterly issue
23. The Master’s Review
The Master’s Review’s New Voices category is open to any new or emerging author who has not published a work of fiction or narrative nonfiction of novel length—not including authors with short story collections. Submit your flash fiction of 1,000 words or your piece of fiction or narrative nonfiction of up to 7,000 words. Though, editors are honest: There are no submission fees, but they’re highly selective.
Payment: A flat rate of $100 for flash-length stories; $200 for short fiction
24. Ruminate Magazine
Both emerging and established writers are encouraged to submit fiction or creative nonfiction stories that “engages the contemplative spirit of our journal and embraces curiosity and discovery rather than resolution.” Both genres are capped at a word count of 5,500 words.
Want another option? There’s no pay for this one (just contributor copies), but The Waking is Ruminate Magazine’s online publication space and they’re looking for short-form prose, fiction and nonfiction that is “holy, nutritious and crucial.” Keep your submissions to 1,000 words or less.
Deadline: July 2, 2020; fiction reading periods are April 1 to June 30; January 15 to June 30 for nonfiction
Payment: $20 per 400 words, plus contributor copies
25. Asimov’s Science Fiction
Have you ever wondered where George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen first appeared on the printed page? Well, this is it! An established market for science fiction stories, Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine has won numerous Hugo and Nebula Awards, and the writers they’ve published have led successful careers .
They want you to submit your character-oriented, “serious, thoughtful, yet accessible fiction,” but there’s room for humor as well. While science fiction dominates what the magazine publishes, you’re welcome to submit borderline fantasy, slipstream and surreal fiction—steer clear of sword and sorcery, explicit sex or violence. While there’s no specific word count, ASF seldom buys stories shorter than 1,000 words or longer than 20,000 words.
Payment: 8 to 10 cents per word for short stories up to 7,500 words; 8 cents per word for each word over 7,500
Check out this helpful video from our friends at selfpublishing.com for writing a short story.
26. Slice Magazine
Got a fresh voice and a compelling story to share? This one’s for you. To bridge the gap between emerging and established authors, SLICE offers a space where both are published side-by-side. In each issue, a specific cultural theme becomes the catalyst for articles, interviews, stories and poetry from renowned writers and lesser-known voices alike. Short fiction and nonfiction submissions should be 5,000 words max.
Deadline: Slice published their final issue in the fall of 2021 and are no longer looking for submissions
Payment: $400 for stories and essays; $150 for flash fiction pieces; $100 for poems
27. Cricket Media
Cricket Media wants to publish your finest quality writing for children of all ages in one of its four literary magazines—you have options! Open to submissions from writers of every level of experience, CM’s mags are interested in a lot of things, no matter what genre: realistic contemporary fiction, historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, folk tales, myths and legends, humor, and even westerns. Their advice? Focus on telling a good story that’s well-plotted, character-driven and has a satisfying conclusion.
Most stories are 1200 to 1800 words in length; however, they occasionally serialize longer stories of up to 6,000 words.
Deadline: Varies; check the guidelines to learn the deadlines for each lit mag
Payment: Up to 25 cents per word
28. The Dark Sire
Horror writers, you’re up! A fairly new literary journal, The Dark Sire is a quarterly online and print journal that “explores speculative fiction works for enthusiasts” of gothic, horror, fantasy and psychological realism in short fiction, poetry and art. Subjects of particular interest include: vampires, monsters, old castles, dragons, magic, mental illness, hell, disease and decay of society. No word count.
Payment: None, but they promote writers through author events , social media outreach and the (in development) TDS podcast
29. The Common
Based at Amherst College, The Common is an award-winning print and digital literary journal published biannually in the fall and spring. They seek fiction and nonfiction stories and dispatches (800-word notes, news and impressions from around the world) that “embody a strong sense of place: pieces in which the setting is crucial to character, narrative, mood and language.” Stick to a 10,000 word-count and you’re solid. There is a $3 submission fee.
Deadline: Reading periods are March 1 to June 1 and September 1 to December 1; subscribers can submit for free year-round
Payment: $100 for fiction and nonfiction submissions; $50 per dispatch
30. The Antioch Review
The Antioch Review is currently paused and not accepting submissions. Check back in the future.
The Antioch Review rarely publishes more than three short stories per issue, but its editors are open to new as well as established writers. Authors published here often wind up in Best American anthologies and as the recipients of Pushcart prizes.
To make the cut, editors say, “It is the story that counts, a story worthy of the serious attention of the intelligent reader, a story that is compelling, written with distinction.” Word count is flexible, but pieces tend to be under 5,000.
Deadline: When operational, open except between June 1 to August 31. No electronic submissions
Payment: $20 per printed page plus two contributor copies
31. Literary Orphans
Literary Orphans is currently paused and not accepting submissions. Check back in the future.
Fiction comes first for this short fiction and art magazine. Editors want your fiction of any genre, but they have a need for micro-fiction, flash, and short stories that are 2,000 words or less (but 1,500 is their sweet spot!). Creative nonfiction is also accepted for the bi-monthly Literary Orphans issue on the main website; just keep your story to 5,000 words max. Plus, teens under 19, there’s a category for you, too. Submit a story of no more than 3,000 words to its “TEEN SPIRIT” section
Because they receive a high volume of submissions, editors ask that you submit your *best* piece. But here’s where it gets interesting: If you can’t choose just one, send both! (As long as both stories combined don’t surpass 2,000 words.)
Deadline: Currently no open calls for submission, but check back in the future!
Payment: Not specified
Short Story Submission Tips
With hard work and patience you can see your short stories published!
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when looking to submit short stories
- Take time to read through the literary magazines before you submit . You will have a better idea of what they are looking and know which magazines fit best with your writing style
- Read the submission details before you submit . Each publication has different specifications for submissions – make sure you fulfill their requirements
- Be patient . Many of these publications have a small team and a lot of submissions. It is normal to wait several months before hearing whether an article will be published or not
- Keep track of which articles you have submitted to which publications . Because can submit the same short story to multiple publications, you will need to withdraw that article if it gets published. You don’t want to accidentally publish the same piece in multiple places
- Don’t give up! While you might receive multiple rejections before you get your first piece published, with hard work it will be worth the wait once you get your first piece in print!
The original version of this story was written by Kelly Gurnett . We updated the post so it’s more useful for our readers.
Photo via Nito/ Shutterstock
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Everyone has Googled themselves at one time or another in their lives. Even you, dear reader, I'll bet. Why did you do it? Curiosity? Validation? Finding your own LinkedIn profile? When Alfred did it, his reason was self-pity. He was nobody, he had nobody, and he had nothing. His immediate family had died years prior. His extended family did not remember he existed, nor did he remember the...
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“ anna ” by devon bostar.
Elizabeth O’Connor was someone that everyone in Rosewood just loved. She was a perky, thirty-two-year-old bank teller and mom to a set of eight-year-old twin boys named Ethan and Jared. She and the boys’ father, Rick, a well-respected deputy of their small town in Iowa, had married straight out of high school. They were known by the locals for being very much in love, and for being wonderful parents to their adventur...
“ The Observer ” by Amy Palmer
The Observer by Amy G. PalmerOnce again caught up in frustration and anger, sadness and hopelessness, I stood in front of my mirror to wash my freckled face. My eyes have become bloodshot and the green in them seems to glow, like the eyes of a mythical creature. A flood of mucus forces me to blow my nose once more, nearing the end of a tissue box. I am just starting to stop my tears from flowing when I start to converse silently in my head again. ...
“ Meeting My Doppelgänger ” by Hope Linter
“I saw someone, who looks exactly like you,” Janine, a friend in my running group said. She sat kittycorner to me at the end of the large dark table in the back of Starbucks. I nodded, deep breathing, I didn’t like being at that end, closest to the washrooms with the exit doors at the other end of the cafe. In fact it was a phobia of mine, I’d mentioned to Janine and a couple of others, but I’d made light of it myself, ...
“ Careful Fingers ” by K. A. Louderback
Maggie Tichborne looked up at her reflection in the mirror. Lying next to her, and looking up at her too, was John King. She passed his cigarette back as the nicotine squeezed her skull.“Who was the certified genius who thought ‘I have an idea for where we can hang an enormous mirror!’?” John asked, waving to the plate of glass with his smoking hand.“I know, it’s like...read the ‘body confidence’ room, why don’t you.”“Yes!” John chuckled and the ...
“ Marbles ” by Hilary Yelvington
Marley loved marbles. Four-year-olds are simple that way, tickled by things they can hold and collect. The promise of marbles was enough to get Marley to tag along with her parents on a never ending quest to fill their old Victorian home with period furniture. Once, at her mother’s favorite shop in Sandusky, the old woman working the cash register noticed Marley crawling on her hands and ...
“ Reflections in a Hall of Mirrors ” by Lilla Odinson
I’ll admit, I really had been excited to see my nephew. But when my sister left him with me so that she and her husband could have some alone time, it sparked worries in me. You see, my husband and I had been married for almost two years. We had always assumed that we’d have children by now, but one thing or another had always gotten in the way. Seeing my nephew would usually bring me so much joy, but today it only ...
“ Green Walls ” by Aaron Morgan
Kelsey stood staring blankly at the mirror in front of her. “What in the world just happened?” she thought, as her mind tried to connect back to reality. “Am I on something?” She tried to lift her foot to take a step toward the door but it felt like someone was holding it down. With a huge effort she pulled up one foot and moved it closer. Her head was spinning, eyes moving in and out of focus as she fell to her hands...
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Martha raced down the lengthy deserted corridor that stretched along the Relaxation floor of the Starship Enterprise. Usually reserved, she would timidly shuffle along, keeping her eyes glued to the floor to avoid any potential eye contact or smiles. As a Yeoman on the Enterprise, she was initially assigned administrative duties in the Canteen and Restaurant. However, seeking alleviation from the solitude of her...
“ The Reflection in the Closet ” by Oscar Lozano
All I remember of the mirror was my reflection reaching out and choking me in Mickey and Rosalind’s antiques store before I woke up in the hospital. I closed my eyes and thought back to what happened. I saw Rosalind scrubbing the window, suds running down their leg. Some homophobes had vandalized the store again. I helped them finish cleaning, and Mickey came out, thanked me, and asked if I wanted to look inside. I acce...
“ The Monaco Mirror ” by Andrea Corwin
2001 *** I had passed the boutique antique store many times and decided to go inside today. A bell above the door notified the store owner someone had entered and greeted me. “Please let me know if I can answer questions or show you anything. I’ll be over in the corner pricing some items if you need help.” Smiling, I said, “My name is Sabrina,” to which she replied, “...
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Trigger warning for eating disorder themes, self harm, mental health Maeve’s heart was still racing from her run when she pulled down her shorts and let them slide to the floor. Kicking them aside, she lifted her t-shirt over her head and dropped it next to the shorts. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath before turning to face the full length mirror.Maeve let out her breath slowly as she opened one eye, and then the other. She glared at the reflection in front of her, scanning from top to bottom...
“ The Canvas' Embrace ” by Kai Lawrence
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The Best Fiction Short Stories
Short fiction stories are a fantastic way to access the literary world in compact, bite-sized reading sessions. The short story as we know it today began in the 19th century, when the increasing interest in print literary magazines led to many authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens writing and publishing stories. Later, with the onset of modernism in the beginning of the 20th century, the fiction short story began to adopt more abstract forms, embracing ambiguity and inconclusivity. The later 20th century brought the increasing popularity of the short story as an artistic and literary undertaking.
Short fiction stories span every imaginable genre. From literary fiction (the likes of which you’ll see published in The New Yorker ), to crime, fantasy, and romance stories, the form is remarkable for its versatility and adaptability.
Looking for fiction short stories to read?
On this page, you can read fiction short stories for free! These are stories that have been submitted to Reedsy’s weekly writing contest, with shortlisted or winning stories chosen by our judges appearing at the top of the page for your convenience. And if you're looking for more of the contest's best entries, make sure to claim your free copy of Prompted , our new literary magazine.
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Whether you’ve been struck with a moment of inspiration or you’ve carried a story inside you for years, you’re here because you want to start writing fiction. From developing flesh-and-bone characters to worlds as real as our own, good fiction is hard to write, and getting the first words onto the blank page can be daunting.
Daunting, but not impossible. Although writing good fiction takes time, with a few fiction writing tips and your first sentences written, you’ll find that it’s much easier to get your words on the page.
Let’s break down fiction to its essential elements. We’ll investigate the individual components of fiction writing—and how, when they sit down to write, writers turn words into worlds. Then, we’ll turn to instructor Jack Smith and his thoughts on combining these elements into great works of fiction. But first, what are the elements of fiction writing?
Introduction to Fiction Writing: The Six Elements of Fiction
Before we delve into any writing tips, let’s review the essentials of creative writing in fiction. Whether you’re writing flash fiction , short stories, or epic trilogies, most fiction stories require these six components:
- Plot: the “what happens” of your story.
- Characters: whose lives are we watching?
- Setting: the world that the story is set in.
- Point of View: from whose eyes do we see the story unfold?
- Theme: the “deeper meaning” of the story, or what the story represents.
- Style: how you use words to tell the story.
It’s important to recognize that all of these elements are intertwined. You can’t build the setting without writing it through a certain point of view; you can’t develop important themes with arbitrary characters, etc. We’ll get into the relationship between these elements later, but for now, let’s explore how to use each element to write fiction.
1. Fiction Writing Tip: Developing Fictional Plots
Plot is the series of causes and effects that produce the story as a whole. Because A, then B, then C—ultimately leading to the story’s climax , the result of all the story’s events and character’s decisions.
If you don’t know where to start your story, but you have a few story ideas, then start with the conflict . Some novels take their time to introduce characters or explain the world of the piece, but if the conflict that drives the story doesn’t show up within the first 15 pages, then the story loses direction quickly.
That’s not to say you have to be explicit about the conflict. In Harry Potter, Voldemort isn’t introduced as the main antagonist until later in the first book; the series’ conflict begins with the Dursley family hiding Harry from his magical talents. Let the conflict unfold naturally in the story, but start with the story’s impetus, then go from there.
2. Fiction Writing Tip: Creating Characters
Think far back to 9th grade English, and you might remember the basic types of story conflicts: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. self. The conflicts that occur within stories happen to its characters—there can be no story without its people. Sometimes, your story needs to start there: in the middle of a conversation, a disrupted routine, or simply with what makes your characters special.
There are many ways to craft characters with depth and complexity. These include writing backstory, giving characters goals and fatal flaws, and making your characters contend with complicated themes and ideas. This guide on character development will help you sort out the traits your characters need, and how to interweave those traits into the story.
3. Fiction Writing Tip: Give Life to Living Worlds
Whether your story is set on Earth or a land far, far away, your setting lives in the same way your characters do. In the same way that we read to get inside the heads of other people, we also read to escape to a world outside of our own. Consider starting the story with what makes your world live: a pulsing city, the whispered susurrus of orchards, hills that roil with unsolved mysteries, etc. Tell us where the conflict is happening, and the story will follow.
4. Fiction Writing Tip: Play With Narrative Point of View
Point of view refers to the “cameraman” of the story—the vantage point we are viewing the story through. Maybe you’re stuck starting your story because you’re trying to write it in the wrong person. There are four POVs that authors work with:
- First person—the story is told from the “I” perspective, and that “I” is the protagonist.
- First person peripheral—the story is told from the “I” perspective, but the “I” is not the protagonist, but someone adjacent to the protagonist. (Think: Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. )
- Second person—the story is told from the “you” perspective. This point of view is rare, but when done effectively, it can create a sense of eeriness or a personalized piece.
- Third person limited—the story is told from the “he/she/they” perspective. The narrator is not directly involved in the lives of the characters; additionally, the narrator usually writes from the perspective of one or two characters.
- Third person omniscient—the story is told from the “he/she/they” perspective. The narrator is not directly involved in the lives of the characters; additionally, the narrator knows what is happening in each character’s heads and in the world at large.
If you can’t find the right words to begin your piece, consider switching up the pronouns you use and the perspective you write from. You might find that the story flows onto the page from a different point of view.
5. Fiction Writing Tip: Use the Story to Investigate Themes
Generally, the themes of the story aren’t explored until after the aforementioned elements are established, and writers don’t always know the themes of their own work until after the work is written. Still, it might help to consider the broader implications of the story you want to write. How does the conflict or story extend into a bigger picture?
Let’s revisit Harry Potter’s opening scenes. When we revisit the Dursleys preventing Harry from knowing about his true nature, several themes are established: the meaning of family, the importance of identity, and the idea of fate can all be explored here. Themes often develop organically, but it doesn’t hurt to consider the message of your story from the start.
6. Fiction Writing Tip: Experiment With Words
Style is the last of the six fiction elements, but certainly as important as the others. The words you use to tell your story, the way you structure your sentences, how you alternate between characters, and the sounds of the words you use all contribute to the mood of the work itself.
If you’re struggling to get past the first sentence, try rewriting it. Write it in 10 words or write it in 200 words; write a single word sentence; experiment with metaphors, alliteration, or onomatopoeia . Then, once you’ve found the right words, build from there, and let your first sentence guide the style and mood of the narrative.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at the craft of fiction writing. The above elements are great starting points, but to learn how to start writing fiction, we need to examine the craft of combining these elements.
Primer on the Elements of Fiction Writing
First, before we get into the craft of fiction writing, it’s important to understand the elements of fiction. You don’t need to understand everything about the craft of fiction before you start keying in ideas or planning your novel. But this primer will be something you can consult if you need clarification on any term (e.g., point of view) as you learn how to start writing fiction.
The Elements of Fiction Writing
A standard novel runs between 80,000 to 100,000 words. A short novel, going by the National Novel Writing Month , is at least 50,000. To begin with, don’t think about length—think about development. Length will come. It is true that some works lend themselves more to novellas, but if that’s the case, you don’t want to pad them to make a longer work. If you write a plot summary—that’s one option on getting started writing fiction—you will be able to get a fairly good idea about your project as to whether it lends itself to a full-blown novel.
For now, let’s think about the various elements of fiction—the building blocks.
Writing Fiction: Your Protagonist
Readers want an interesting protagonist , or main character. One that seems real, that deals with the various things in life we all deal with. If the writer makes life too simple, and doesn’t reflect the kinds of problems we all face, most readers are going to lose interest.
Don’t cheat it. Make the work honest. Do as much as you can to develop a character who is fully developed, fully real—many-sided. Complex. In Aspects of the Novel , E.M Forster called this character a “round” characte r. This character is capable of surprising us. Don’t be afraid to make your protagonist, or any of your characters, a bit contradictory. Most of us are somewhat contradictory at one time or another. The deeper you see into your protagonist, the more complex, the more believable they will be.
If a character has no depth, is merely “flat,” as Forster terms it, then we can sum this character up in a sentence: “George hates his ex-wife.” This is much too limited. Find out why. What is it that causes George to hate his ex-wife? Is it because of something she did or didn’t do? Is it because of a basic personality clash? Is it because George can’t stand a certain type of person, and he didn’t realize, until too late, that his ex-wife was really that kind of person? Imagine some moments of illumination, and you will have a much richer character than one who just hates his ex-wife.
And so… to sum up: think about fleshing out your protagonist as much as you can. Consider personality, character (or moral makeup), inclinations, proclivities, likes, dislikes, etc. What makes this character happy? What makes this character sad or frustrated? What motivates your character? Readers don’t want to know only what —they want to know why .
Usually, readers want a sympathetic character, one they can root for. Or if not that, one that is interesting in different ways. You might not find the protagonist of The Girl on the Train totally sympathetic, but she’s interesting! She’s compelling.
Here’s an article I wrote on what makes a good protagonist.
Also on clichéd characters.
Now, we’re ready for a key question: what is your protagonist’s main goal in this story? And secondly, who or what will stand in the way of your character achieving this goal?
There are two kinds of conflicts: internal and external. In some cases, characters may not be opposing an external antagonist, but be self-conflicted. Once you decide on your character’s goal, you can more easily determine the nature of the obstacles that your protagonist must overcome. There must be conflict, of course, and stories must involve movement. Things go from Phase A to Phase B to Phase C, and so on. Overall, the protagonist begins here and ends there. She isn’t the same at the end of the story as she was in the beginning. There is a character arc.
I spoke of character arc. Now let’s move on to plot, the mechanism governing the overall logic of the story. What causes the protagonist to change? What key events lead up to the final resolution?
But before we go there, let’s stop a moment and think about point of view, the lens through which the story is told.
Writing Fiction: Point of View as Lens
Is this the right protagonist for this story? Is this character the one who has the most at stake? Does this character have real potential for change? Remember, you must have change or movement—in terms of character growth—in your story. Your character should not be quite the same at the end as in the beginning. Otherwise, it’s more of a sketch.
Such a story used to be called “slice of life.” For example, what if a man thinks his job can’t get any worse—and it doesn’t? He started with a great dislike for the job, for the people he works with, just for the pay. His hate factor is 9 on a scale of 10. He doesn’t learn anything about himself either. He just realizes he’s got to get out of there. The reader knew that from page 1.
Choose a character who has a chance of undergoing change of some kind. The more complex the change, the better. Characters that change are dynamic characters , according to E. M. Forster. Characters that remain the same are static characters. Be sure your protagonist is dynamic.
Okay, an exception: Let’s say your character resists change—that can involve some sort of movement—the resisting of change.
Here’s another thing to look at on protagonists—a blog I wrote: https://elizabethspanncraig.com/writing-tips-2/creating-strong-characters-typical-challenges/
Writing Fiction: Point of View and Person
Usually when we think of point of view, we have in mind the choice of person: first, second, and third. First person provides intimacy. As readers we’re allowed into the I-narrator’s mind and heart. A story told from the first person can sometimes be highly confessional, frank, bold. Think of some of the great first-person narrators like Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. With first person we can also create narrators that are not completely reliable, leading to dramatic irony : we as readers believe one thing while the narrator believes another. This creates some interesting tension, but be careful to make your protagonist likable, sympathetic. Or at least empathetic, someone we can relate to.
What if a novel is told in first person from the point of view of a mob hit man? As author of such a tale, you probably wouldn’t want your reader to root for this character, but you could at least make the character human and believable. With first person, your reader would be constantly in the mind of this character, so you’d need to find a way to deal with this sympathy question. First person is a good choice for many works of fiction, as long as one doesn’t confuse the I-narrator with themselves. It may be a temptation, especially in the case of fiction based on one’s own life—not that it wouldn’t be in third person narrations. But perhaps even more with a first person story: that character is me . But it’s not—it’s a fictional character.
Check out my article on writing autobiographical fiction, which appeared in The Writer magazine. https://www.writermag.com/2018/07/31/filtering-fact-through-fiction/
Third person provides more distance. With third person, you have a choice between three forms: omniscient, limited omniscient, and objective or dramatic. If you get outside of your protagonist’s mind and enter other characters’ minds, you are being omniscient or godlike. If you limit your access to your protagonist’s mind only, this is limited omniscience. Let’s consider these two forms of third-person narrators before moving on to the objective or dramatic POV.
The omniscient form is rather risky, but it is certainly used, and it can certainly serve a worthwhile function. With this form, the author knows everything that has occurred, is occurring, or will occur in a given place, or in given places, for all the characters in the story. The author can provide historical background, look into the future, and even speculate on characters and make judgments. This point of view, writers tend to feel today, is more the method of nineteenth-century fiction, and not for today. It seems like too heavy an authorial footprint. Not handled well—and it is difficult to handle well—the characters seem to be pawns of an all-knowing author.
Today’s omniscience tends to take the form of multiple points of view, sometimes alternating, sometimes in sections. An author is behind it all, but the author is effaced, not making an appearance. BUT there are notable examples of well-handled authorial omniscience–read Nobel-prize winning Jose Saramago’s Blindness as a good example.
For more help, here’s an article I wrote on the omniscient point of view for The Writer : https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/omniscient-pov/
The limited omniscient form is typical of much of today’s fiction. You stick to your protagonist’s mind. You see others from the outside. Even so, you do have to be careful that you don’t get out of this point of view from time to time, and bring in things the character can’t see or observe—unless you want to stand outside this character, and therein lies the omniscience, however limited it is.
But anyway, note the difference between: “George’s smiles were very welcoming” and “George felt like his smiles were very welcoming”—see the difference? In the case of the first, we’re seeing George from the outside; in the case of the second, from the inside. It’s safer to stay within your protagonist’s perspective as much as possible and not describe them from the outside. Doing so comes off like a point-of-view shift. Yet it’s true that in some stories, the narrator will describe what the character is wearing, tell us what his hopes and dreams are, mention things he doesn’t know right now but will later—and perhaps, in rather quirky stories, the narrator will even say something like “Our hero…” This can work, and has, if you create an interesting narrative voice. But it’s certainly a risk.
The dramatic or objective point of view is one you’ll probably use from time to time, but not throughout your whole novel. Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” is handled with this point of view. Mostly, with maybe one exception, all we know is what the characters say and do, as in a play. Using this point of view from time to time in a longer work can certainly create interest. You can intensify a scene sometimes with this point of view. An interesting back and forth can be accomplished, especially if the dialogue is clipped.
I’ve saved the second-person point of view for the last. I would advise you not to use this point of view for an entire work. In his short novel Bright Lights, Big City , Jay McInerney famously uses this point of view, and with some force, but it’s hard to pull off. In lesser hands, it can get old. You also cause the reader to become the character. Does the reader want to become this character? One problem with this point of view is it may seem overly arty, an attempt at sophistication. I think it’s best to choose either first or third.
Here’s an article I wrote on use of second person for The Writer magazine. Check it out if you’re interested. https://www.writermag.com/2016/11/02/second-person-pov/
Writing Fiction: Protagonist and Plot and Structure
We come now to plot, keeping in mind character. You might consider the traditional five-stage structure : exposition, rising action, crisis and climax, falling action, and resolution. Not every plot works this way, but it’s a tried-and-true structure. Certainly a number of pieces of literature you read will begin in media re s—that is, in the middle of things. Instead of beginning with standard exposition, or explanation of the condition of the protagonist’s life at the story’s starting point, the author will begin with a scene. But even so, as in Jerzy Kosiński’s famous novella Being There , which begins with a scene, we’ll still pick up the present state of the character’s life before we see something that complicates it or changes the existing equilibrium. This so-called complication can be something apparently good—like winning the lottery—or something decidedly bad—like losing a huge amount of money at the gaming tables. One thing is true in both cases: whatever has happened will cause the character to change. And so now you have to fill in the events that bring this about.
How do you do that? One way is to write a chapter outline to prevent false starts. But some writers don’t like plotting in this fashion, but want to discover as they write. If you do plot your novel in advance, do realize that as you write, you will discover a lot of things about your character that you didn’t have in mind when you first set pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. And so, while it’s a good idea to do some planning, do keep your options open.
Let’s think some more about plot. To have a workable plot, you need a sequence of actions or events that give the story an overall movement. This includes two elements which we’ll take up later: foreshadowing and echoing (things that prepare us for something in the future and things that remind us of what has already happened). These two elements knit a story together.
Think carefully about character motivations. Some things may happen to your character; some things your character may decide to do, however wisely or unwisely. In the revision stage, if not earlier, ask yourself: What motivates my character to act in one way or another? And ask yourself: What is the overall logic of this story? What caused my character to change? What were the various forces, whether inner or outer, that caused this change? Can I describe my character’s overall arc, from A to Z? Try to do that. Write a short paragraph. Then try to write down your summary in one sentence, called a log line in film script writing, but also a useful technique in fiction writing as well. If you write by the discovery method, you probably won’t want to do this in the midst of the drafting, but at least in the revision stage, you should consider doing so.
With a novel you may have a subplot or two. Assuming you will, you’ll need to decide how the plot and the subplot relate. Are they related enough to make one story? If you think the subplot is crucial for the telling of your tale, try to say why—in a paragraph, then in a sentence.
Here’s an article I wrote on structure for The Writer : https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/revision-grammar/find-novels-structure/
Writing Fiction: Setting
Let’s move on to setting . Your novel has to take place somewhere. Where is it? Is it someplace that is particularly striking and calls for a lot of solid description? If it’s a wilderness area where your character is lost, give your reader a strong sense for the place. If it’s a factory job, and much of the story takes place at the worksite, again readers will want to feel they’re there with your character, putting in the hours. If it’s an apartment and the apartment itself isn’t related to the problems your character is having, then there’s no need to provide that much detail. Exception: If your protagonist concentrates on certain things in the apartment and begins to associate certain things about the apartment with their misery, now there’s reason to get concrete. Take a look, when you have a chance, at the short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” It’s not an apartment—it’s a house—but clearly the setting itself becomes important when it becomes important to the character. She reads the wallpaper as a statement about her own condition.
Here’s the URL for ”The Yellow Wall-Paper”: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/theliteratureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf
Sometimes setting is pretty important; sometimes it’s much less important. When it doesn’t serve a purpose to describe it, don’t, other than to give the reader a sense for where the story takes place. If you provide very many details, even in a longer work like a novel, the reader will think that these details have some significance in terms of character, plot, or theme—or all three. And if they don’t, why are they there? If setting details are important, be selective. Provide a dominant impression. More on description below.
If you’re interested, here’s a blog on setting I wrote for Writers.com: https://writers.com/what-is-the-setting-of-a-story
Writing Fiction: Theme and Idea
Most literary works have a theme or idea. It’s possible to decide on this theme before you write, as you plan out your novel. But be careful here. If the theme seems imposed on the work, the novel will lose a lot of force. It will seem—and it may well be—engineered by the author much like a nonfiction piece, and lose the felt experience of the characters.
Theme must emerge from the work naturally, or at least appear to do so. Once you have a draft, you can certainly build ideas that are apparent in the work, and you can even do this while you’re generating your first draft. But watch out for overdoing it. Let the characters (what they do, what they say) and the plot (the whole storyline with its logical connections) contribute on their own to the theme. Also you can depend on metaphors, similes, and analogies to point to the theme—as long as these are not heavy-handed. Avoid authorial intrusion, authorial impositions of any kind. If you do end up creating a simile, metaphor, or analogy through rational thinking, make sure it sounds natural. That’s not easy, of course.
Writing Fiction: Handling Scenes
Keep a few things in mind about writing scenes. Not every event deserves a whole scene, maybe only a half-scene, a short interaction between characters. Scenes need to do two things: reveal character and advance plot. If a scene seems to stall out and lack interest, in the revision mode you might try using narrative summary instead (see below).
Good fiction is strongly dramatic, calling for scenes, many of them scenes with dialogue and action. Scenes need to involve conflict of some kind. If everyone is happy, that’s probably going to be a dull scene. Some scenes will be narrative, without dialogue. You need some interesting action to make these work.
Let’s consider scenes with dialogue.
The best dialogue is speech that sounds natural, and yet isn’t. Everything about fiction is an artifice, including speech. But try to make it sound real. The best way to do this is to “hear” the voices in your head and transcribe them. Take dictation. If you can do this, whole conversations will seem very real, believable. If you force what each character has to say, and plan it out too much, it will certainly sound planned out, and not real at all. Not that in the revision mode you can’t doctor up the speech here and there, but still, make sure it comes off as natural sounding.
Some things to think about when writing dialogue: people usually speak in fragments, interrupt each other, engage in pauses, follow up a question with a comment that takes the conversation off course (non sequiturs). Note these aspects of dialogue in the fiction you read.
Also, note how writers intersperse action with dialogue, setting details, and character thoughts. As far as the latter goes, though, if you’ll recall, I spoke of the dramatic point of view, which doesn’t get into a character’s mind but depends instead on what characters do and say, as in a play. You may try this point of view out in some scenes to make them really move.
One technique is to use indirect dialogue, or summary of what a character said, not in the character’s own words. For instance: Bill made it clear that he wasn’t going to the city after all. If anybody thought that, they were wrong .
Now and then you’ll come upon dialogue that doesn’t use the standard double quotes, but perhaps a single quote (this is British), or dashes, or no punctuation at all. The latter two methods create some distance from the speech. If you want to give your work a surreal quality, this certainly adds to it. It also makes it seem more interior.
One way to kill good dialogue is to make characters too obviously expository devices—that is, functioning to provide background or explanations of certain important story facts. Certainly characters can serve as expository devices, but don’t be too heavy-handed about this. Don’t force it like the following:
“We always used to go to the beach, you recall? You recall how first we would have breakfast, then take a long walk on the beach, and then we would change into our swimsuits, and spend an hour in the water. And you recall how we usually followed that with a picnic lunch, maybe an hour later.”
This sounds like the character is saying all this to fill the reader in on backstory. You’d need a motive for the utterance of all of these details—maybe sharing a memory?
But the above sounds stilted, doesn’t it?
One final word about dialogue. Watch out for dialogue tags that tell but don’t show . Here’s an example:
“Do you think that’s the case,” said Ted, hoping to hear some good news. “Not necessarily,” responded Laura, in a barky voice. “I just wish life wasn’t so difficult,” replied Ted.
If you’re going to use a tag at all—and many times you don’t need to—use “said.” Dialogue tags like the above examples can really kill the dialogue.
Writing Fiction: Writing Solid Prose
Narrative summary : As I’ve stated above, not everything will be a scene. You’ll need to write narrative summary now and then. Narrative summary telescopes time, covering a day, a week, a month, a year, or even longer. Often it will be followed up by a scene, whether a narrative scene or one with dialogue. Narrative summary can also relate how things generally went over a given period. You can write strong narrative summary if you make it specific and concrete—and dramatic. Also, if we hear the voice of the writer, it can be interesting—if the voice is compelling enough.
Exposition : It’s the first stage of the 5-stage plot structure, where things are set up prior to some sort of complication, but more generally, it’s a prose form which tells or informs. You use exposition when you get inside your character, dealing with his or her thoughts and emotions, memories, plans, dreams. This can be difficult to do well because it can come off too much like authorial “telling” instead of “showing,” and readers want to feel like they’re experiencing the world of the protagonist, not being told about this world. Still, it’s important to get inside characters, and exposition is often the right tool, along with narrative summary, if the character is remembering a sequence of events from the past.
Description : Description is a word picture, providing specific and concrete details to allow the reader to see, not just be told. Concreteness is putting the reader in the world of the five senses, what we call imagery . Some writers provide a lot of details, some only a few—just enough that the reader can imagine the rest. Consider choosing details that create a dominant impression—whether it’s a character or a place. Similes, metaphors, and analogies help readers see people and places and can make thoughts and ideas (the reflections of your character or characters) more interesting. Not that you should always make your reader see. To do so might cause an overload of images.
Check out these two articles: https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/the-definitive-guide-to-show-dont-tell/ https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/figurative-language-in-fiction/
Writing Fiction: Research
Some novels require research. Obviously historical novels do, but others do, too, like Sci Fi novels. Almost any novel can call for a little research. Here’s a short article I wrote for The Writer magazine on handling research materials. It’s in no way an in-depth commentary on research–but it will serve as an introduction. https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/research-in-fiction/
For a blog on novel writing, check this link at Writers.com: https://writers.com/novel-writing-tips
For more articles I’ve published in The Writer , go here: https://www.writermag.com/author/jack-smith/
How to Start Writing Fiction: Take a Writing Class!
To write a story or even write a book, fiction writers need these tools first and foremost. Although there’s no comprehensive guide on how to write fiction for beginners, working with these elements of fiction will help your story bloom.
All six elements synergize to make a work of fiction, and like most works of art, the sum of these elements is greater than the individual parts. Still, you might find that you struggle with one of these elements, like maybe you’re great at writing characters but not very good with exploring setting. If this is the case, then use your strengths: use characters to explore the setting, or use style to explore themes, etc.
Getting the first draft written is the hardest part, but it deserves to be written. Once you’ve got a working draft of a story or novel and you need an extra set of eyes, the Writers.com community is here to give feedback: take a look at our upcoming courses on fiction writing, and check out our talented writing community .
Good luck, and happy writing!
I have had a story in my mind for over 15 years. I just haven’t had an idea how to start , putting it down on print just seems too confusing. After reading this article I’m even more confused but also more determined to give it a try. It has given me answers to some of my questions. Thank you !
You’ve got this, Earl!
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Anthony Veasna So’s ‘Songs on Endless Repeat’ offers a glimpse of the losses and challenges facing a California Cambodian community
The author’s posthumous collection of mingled fiction and nonfiction showcases passion and a generosity of spirit.
Anthony Veasna So’s debut short story collection, “Afterparties,” was published in 2021, just months after he died from an accidental drug overdose. The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller, as well as win the John Leonard Prize for Best First Book and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. “Songs on Endless Repeat: Essays and Outtakes” gathers a complementary selection of So’s essays and chapters of an unpublished novel, “Straight Thru Cambotown.” The fragments of fiction, as Jonathan Dee notes in his foreword, constituted So’s graduate thesis at Syracuse University where Dee was So’s teacher and adviser.
These chapters, which intermingle irregularly with new nonfiction as well as essays previously published in The New Yorker, Ninth Letter, The Millions, and n+1, offer immediate and immersive glimpses into So’s Cambodian-American community in California. There’s plenty of humor here, but it rubs intimate and sharp shoulders with raw, elemental depictions of the losses, challenges, and heartbreaks stemming from the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime.
The essay topics range from So’s youth and the music and pop culture that moved him, to his experience of losing a friend to suicide. “Manchester Street” limns the specificities of So’s family’s life, encompassing their community’s stories and the older generation’s efforts to remove themselves from poverty and offer their kids something more — education, social elevation — while keeping their own culture alive. (“All our parents do is push us. Pushing toward America, pushing for advancement. Pushing against America, pushing for preservation.”)
There’s So’s wild, wide-ranging, and visceral take on the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie: “… by the time the trailer was uploaded to YouTube, my expectations for it … were high. It would either blow my mind and inspire me with its exuberant diversity or enrage and offend me due to its total political failure. Supporting or rejecting this movie as an Asian American would be a complicated and tumultuous affair, like loving your tone-deaf grandparents while hating the idea of going out with them in public.” Happily, his feverish expectations and impassioned analysis of the film in no way prevent So from spot-on and beautifully worded assessments. (“Michelle Yeoh’s performance as Eleanor is tight-lipped intensity incarnate,” may be my particular favorite.)
In “Deep Reality,” a wonderfully expressive, unremittingly searing piece, So explores the vagaries of reality TV, exploring how it has insinuated and entrenched itself into our lives, an insidious analgesic. In one anecdote, he describes a university event that showcased “Queer Eye”’s Antoni Porowski. Later, discussing the event with a student, he asked what she thought of it.
“‘I loved it,’ she said. ‘He’s just such a nice person.’ ‘Well,’” So replied, “‘isn’t that the bare minimum of what people should be? … Nice . It doesn’t seem like that should be applauded, and it definitely isn’t something that makes anyone interesting.’”
His response launched a lively classroom discussion, leading So to realize that “it was clear that instead of engaging with challenging ideas, or ideas that had the remote possibility of being challenging, these students had cast their lot with niceness.”
Between these nonfiction frames, the engaging story of three cousins shines through in pieces of “Straight Thru Cambotown.” Looming large is Peou, a formidable matriarchal figure and community leader, and her relationship with her sisters’ kids, Darren, Vinny, and Molly. Even as the younger generation tries to navigate their mixed California-Cambodian life, Peou holds sway with her off-the-books loan-sharking business. But she also loves her niece and nephews with the fierceness of a determined mother. In one scene, playing cassettes in the car, the trio ask Peou to translate the lyrics of a Khmer song; losing herself in the instrumental music, Peou struggles to conjure the words. Instead, she blames the quality of the tape. “‘You mean we won’t ever understand the lyrics?’” Vinny asks. ‘No, I’m not saying that,’” she replies. “‘But you know, some things are just lost. So, don’t waste your life thinking about it.’”
Vinny is in a band called the Khmai Kong Rappers; Darren is studying the philosophy of comedy at Stanford. Molly is back home, aimless, after graduating from NYU. In the aftermath of Peou’s death and the frenzied preparations for her much-anticipated funeral, Molly wakes up one day to both real and metaphorical headaches: “At twenty-five, Molly still hated mornings with the same intensity she had as a teenager. She had resigned herself long ago to never being a morning person, had always woken up feeling the ridiculous shame of existing, the shame of taking up space in this corrupt world, the shame of not being grateful that she was indeed alive, that she had been conceived by her parents in spite of higher powers hell-bent on punishing some kinds of people and not others. And it didn’t help that this morning, louder than all that was crowding her mind, she heard her mother yelling, ‘Stupidhead! Stupidhead! Stupidhead!’” (This name-calling, in one of the novel’s funnier moments, heralds a disagreement between Peou’s sisters over whether or not to include Peou’s favorite dessert.) More hijinks ensue when Molly, Darren, and Vinny are dispatched to collect delicacies for the funeral, but So leaves plenty of breathing space for Molly’s eulogy, an unsparing testament to Peou’s life and clarity of vision.
In both his fiction and nonfiction, So’s generous writing spirit shines through, capturing a community of people in flux, all of whom are trying to make space for themselves — and each other — in a sometimes-claustrophobic world.
SONGS ON ENDLESS REPEAT: Essays and Outtakes
By Anthony Veasna So
Ecco, 240 pp., $28.99
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and critic. You can find her @daneetsteffens.