By Kevin Binder
Writing fiction shares a strange quirk with playing chess. Unlike most endeavors, which people usually get faster at as they improve, writing and chess both seem to take longer as someone gets better at them.
And, at a deeper level, in both activities, each move you make has significant consequences for how the rest of the story or game plays out. Just as one wrong move in chess can result in you playing from behind the rest of the match, one ill-fitting line of dialogue can skew the development of a character. In both cases, there are almost infinite ways any scenario can play out, making for countless ways it might go wrong. And so, veteran chess players and established writers alike learn to look multiple steps ahead, typically resulting in a slower, more methodical approach.
But I’ll admit that the parallel isn’t perfect. In fiction, after all, you can always go back and revise, a power you don’t have in chess (unless you’re one of those people who uses the “undo” button against the computer). But this ability only adds to the complexity inherent in writing any story and makes the task an even longer one. As many writers know, it’s possible to spend days staring at the same piece, tinkering with line after line, word after word, without knowing if you’re making the overall story any better.
All of this begs the question: How long does it take to write a short story? Or, perhaps, how long should it take? As a fiction writer, I’ve been asking this question more and more—of myself, of my peers, and of the writers I meet. I reached out to seven fiction writers who’ve recently been published in phoebe to get a sense of how long it takes each of them to write a short story. Specifically, I was interested to hear how long they might spend drafting, revising, and reworking a story, in calendar time, before they feel that it’s complete—in other words, ready for submission. While their answers understandably varied, their insightful responses give a telling peek at how each of them approaches the craft of story-writing and how their processes differ.
How Long Does It Take to Write a Short Story?
In terms of full-length short stories (over 1,000 words, according to phoebe’s definition, at least), our recently published authors noted that it might take them anywhere from a month to multiple years to complete a piece. Jocelyn Johnson—whose debut collection of short stories and a novella, MY MONTICELLO, is forthcoming from Henry Holt—explained that her stories typically take a year or more to become their final selves, adding:
Most of my stories start with an inciting event, something I’ve experienced personally or else heard about from friends or on the news. The story starts to form in my imagination so that I can usually write a full rough draft in a few days or weeks. After that, it can take several more weeks or months, with big breaks between actively writing, to build the architecture of the story.
Alyssa Quinn, whose chapbook, Dante’s Cartography, was published by The Cupboard Pamphlet in fall 2019, described how different her process can be for each new story, saying:
For me, some stories come out more or less in a single sitting, while others take years to become their final selves… The beauty and challenge of writing is that every piece is unique; you can’t approach it with the tools you used last time. Instead, you must be fully attuned to each new story’s specific needs, challenges, and affordances.
Meanwhile, Diana Hurlburt, whose work has been featured in The Rumpus and The Toast along with phoebe, noted that the time a story requires can depend on its genre, purpose, and intended audience, posing these questions:
Does the writer have or desire a critique partner? Does the story in question need a different reader (e.g., your usual partner reads litfic and you’re branching out into horror)? Has the writer done research on what journals might be looking for in a story of this theme/length/genre? Did the story come out of the blue, or did the writer see an intriguing call for submissions? All of these things can affect how long a writer stays with a short piece.
How Long Does It Take to Write Flash Fiction?
Understanding that flash fiction can present a writer with a completely different set of constraints and challenges, I also wanted to hear writers’ thoughts on this genre. Specifically, I was interested to see how their approaches to a condensed form might compare with those mentioned above.
Overall, the interviewed writers noted that flash tends to move faster for them, and the constraints of the genre allow them to develop a quicker sense of a piece’s “publishability,” so to speak. For example, Kevin Sterne, whose collection All Must Go is forthcoming from House of Vlad, noted the importance of momentum when he described his process with flash fiction:
I try to get a story out of me as quickly as life will allow. Usually with a piece of flash, that’s like a week. Any longer than that, and the piece loses steam. I like to try it out at an open mic, put some real pressure on myself and the story. That helps with the editing too. From there, I usually know if it’s ready, needs more work/time, or should be forgotten.
Erica Plouffe Lazure, whose flash fiction chapbook—Sugar Mountain: Stories—is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Press, also touched on the unique qualities of flash fiction and how that propels her writing process, saying:
There are times when I write a flash story in the span of an hour or so, and get the feeling it’s “on-point” within a draft or two. I always send a story draft to one or two trusted readers for feedback, and then start searching for journals, sometimes even on the same day. The compressed format of flash fiction offers me a little more control over the scope of the story, and I can feel more confident about whether it’s in the ballpark of being a publishable piece.
For Vandana Khanna—winner of the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize, The Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, and the Diode Editions Chapbook Competition, among others—the process is similar. When describing her process, and particularly the one she followed for her story “Bhuka,” which she had published in phoebe issue 49.1, she said:
With flash fiction, the constraints of space, like in poetry, add an extra layer of tension which helps push me to make decisions, to examine each word and phrase for optimum effect… For “Bhuka”, I think I worked on it for about a month or so and unlike other pieces I’ve worked on, I didn’t show it to anyone.
So, while the writers we interviewed sometimes spent a year or more on longer stories, flash fiction took much less time—anywhere from a single day to a month. From there, of course, it depended on the particular writer’s style and process, along with the needs of that specific story.
Spending Time Away from a Story
Through this discussion, one theme that kept coming up was the need to put a story aside at times. Many authors, of both longer stories and flash fiction, noted that taking time away from a work of fiction was helpful at multiple points during the writing process.
Hurlburt, for example, explained that once she’s drafted a story, workshopped it, and then made revisions for “clarity and precision,” she typically “sleep[s] on it for a week or so after that, give[s] it another sharpening with fresh eyes, and then look[s] into possible spots to submit.”
Shelley Wood—whose debut novel, The Quintland Sisters, made the top 10 list of Canadian bestsellers in 2019—likewise mentioned the need to step away from a piece at a similar point in the process, saying:
After getting feedback, I tend to set the story aside then come back to it with fresher eyes, and I think at that point it’s really good to hone that sense of what feedback you agree with and want to implement, versus what you believe in your gut needs to stay.
And it’s worth noting that giving a story some breathing room, or time to percolate, can be equally beneficial at the beginning and end of the writing process. For example, Khanna mentioned that the story “Bhuka” had been in her mind long before she wrote a word of it, saying:
By the time I sat down to write the story, I’d been thinking about those characters and those scenes for years…They’d been in the back of my mind, waiting for their moment to speak. I’d think about the story constantly—while I cooked dinner and did the dishes, when I went for a walk. I kept that story alive in my mind, living with it, breathing with it until it told me it was ready.
And when it came to Plouffe Lazure’s story, “The Duck Walk,” this time away actually came at the end of the process. She explained that revisiting the story after putting it away for quite some time allowed her to get it published:
“The Duck Walk” was written a while ago (almost 10 years!), and for some reason, after the first few drafts, I hadn’t seen it as “complete” or even publishable. This winter, I came across the story (I’ve been recently revisiting and revising older, unpublished stories as a pathway into generating new material), and I gave it a go-through and on a whim sent it to phoebe.
Above all, these writers seemed to agree that this time away was a necessary part of the process—wherever it might fall—to avoid overthinking a work or becoming too invested in the story to make beneficial changes. Ultimately, these breaks are a major reason why it takes as long as it does to produce a publishable work of fiction.
Conclusion – Taking the Time You (and the Story) Require
Overall, the above advice won’t give you a reliable formula for how long a particular piece of fiction will take to become “publishable,” because no such formula exists. Instead, the consensus is that each story should follow its own process and rhythm; what works for one story to reach “completion” likely won’t work for another.
And, to figure out what “completion” might look like, check out the second part of this series, in which these same authors answer the question: How do you know when a story is done?
is phoebe’s assistant fiction editor and a second-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. He typically writes satire and dystopian works, but his mind’s also been known to jump to places far beyond those genres. His work is published or forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Slackjaw, Weekly Humorist, SPANK the CARP, and Points in Case. When he’s not writing, Kevin is usually guilt-tripping himself for browsing social media instead of writing.