Writing short stories, by Stuart Evers

Stuart Evers shares his thoughts about writing short stories, from finding inspiration to the importance of practice.

Kate Alizadeh's books illustration

I'm wary about giving advice. Writing is such a personal thing that putting across a set of edicts that everyone should follow seems rather reductive. After all, I write in a certain way that would, for example, probably be of no use to someone writing an historical or science fiction novel. That said, there are some general things that I think do apply to all creative writing...

1. If you're a writer, you have to be a reader

I became a writer because I was a reader first, and I wouldn't have written anything without that grounding. When I was an editor, I used to receive cover letters from people proud of the fact that they hadn't read many books. They'd claim that, as a consequence, their typescript was undoubtedly original. They never, ever were.

Read as widely as you can, in the genre in which you wish to write, and far outside of it. Keep reading. Read some more. Ask booksellers for recommendations, read blogs about books, go to the library. Read some more. The best writers were and are readers; bestselling novelists are readers too. If you want to be anything in between - or preferably that rare bird that is both - you need to read too.

2. Do not compare yourself favourably or unfavourably to another writer

While reading is vital, it's just as important to not get bogged down by thinking too much about other writers. Reading a book like Austerlitz by W G Sebald, The Collected Stories of Grace Paley or The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro can be a debilitating experience: you read them and think, 'Well, I could never write as well as that'.

Similarly, you can read the hot new debut, or novel that has received acres of fawning reviews and think, 'I could do better than that; I'm a much better writer, why don't I get the plaudits?' Both responses are damaging. One can lead to a crushing lack of confidence; the other an unbearable kind of arrogance.

Your work is your work. It has nothing to do with any other writer. You need all the energy you can muster to write, so why waste it on railing against the system or other writers? Conserve the energy, channel it into your fiction. And if you do read something that so floors you that you can't imagine writing again, remember that someone might just think the same thing of yours at some point - but unless you keep writing, you'll never know.

3. You're a writer, so write!

Peter Cook - or so the story that I once heard goes - was at a party. He was talking to a journalist and asked him what he was working on at that moment. 'Actually,' the man said, 'I'm writing a novel.' Cook looked him up and down: 'How interesting!' he said. 'Neither am I.'

Writing is a slog. It takes effort, discipline, nerve and devotion. Haruki Murakami said writing a book is like long distance running, and it's true: you have to do a lot of training before you can attempt the marathon. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. Raymond Carver, at first, only wrote once his kids had gone down for the night; Jonathan Franzen hired an office and treated writing like a day job. How you do it is irrelevant: all that matters is that you're producing the work. Without that you might as well call yourself an astronaut, a footballer or Jon Bon Jovi.

4. Find an encouraging, but honest, reader

Of all my suggestions, this is the most difficult one - because this is the one thing you have no control over. I've been exceptionally lucky to have people who are sympathetic to what I write, but are not afraid to say when something doesn't work or could be improved upon. If you find such a person, or persons, hang on to them like you're scrabbling on the edge of a precipice: they are unbelievably precious.

5. Look around you: there are stories everywhere

Near the beginning of Robert Altman's film The Player, the new studio executive flicks through a paper and finds a story he thinks could make a movie. 'What do we pay the writers for?' he says (or words to that effect at least) and perhaps the answer is: to bring life to such narratives.

No matter what genre you're writing in, if you're alive to the stories around you - conversations in pubs or at the bus stop, the way an old woman dresses, the kids hanging about outside the school - you'll never be short on inspiration. Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but generating ideas should not be.