Storyville: How Do You Know When Your Story is Done?

You have a great idea so you rush to the computer to get it down, and there is the genesis of your next short story. You then read it over and think it’s crap. So you edit it, you push some scenes around, you fix the typos and grammar, do a little research on handguns and the avian flu, and even show it to a few friends. But how do you know when it’s done? Here are some tips for figuring that out.


No? Then you’re not done. Especially the dialogue, but really, the whole story should be read out loud. Mark where you get tripped up, where you lose focus, where you get bored, and wherever it just doesn’t sound right. You’ll hear a lot of things differently when you read it out loud.


Yes? Then you’re not done. In Word there are little squiggly lines that show up under words and phrases when something isn’t quite right. If it’s red, then you've made a typo or a spelling error, or maybe need to capitalize something. In the end, there should be NO red lines. Are there a lot of green squiggly lines? Then you may have fragments, run-on sentences, and other problems. Read those sentences and see how they sound. Maybe you need a comma, or a semi-colon, or an em-dash. If you are really committed to that one word sentence, then leave it. Seriously. But just be aware of how your sentences are flowing. Other writing programs may have similar items.


No? Then you’re not done. If you are not part of a workshop, a network of friends, or at least close with a couple of fellow authors, then you need to work on that. If seven people read your story and none of them understand that your protagonist is dead, then no matter how obvious you think it is, it probably isn't. Or maybe your friends are dense, who knows. In time, after you’ve written dozens of stories, maybe you won’t need that support group, maybe you’ll be able to see where you are weak and where you are strong, and edit on the fly, seeing the big picture and the up close mistakes as clear as day. But until then, it’s always helpful to get some opinions.


No? You just wrote it this morning and it’s simply brilliant and now you’re going to send it out? No. Wait. If at all possible, unless you are right up against a deadline, let it fade from your memory, forget it a little—hours, days, weeks, whatever you can stomach. And then give it a fresh read with new eyes. You may totally love it and not change a single comma or word. Or you may find that it’s not as strong in that opening scene as you thought, or maybe the ending isn’t as impactful, or maybe the feeling you're left with isn’t the one you wanted. So try to give it a little breathing room. You’ll be surprised by what you see when you pick it up again.


No? Then you’re not done. If you read that story again, especially if you’ve set it aside for a few days, and the logic is making you a bit queasy, then maybe it needs more work. Did you suddenly realize that the boyfriend would never (or could never) cheat on his girl because he has some serious issues—small penis, bad breath, no pick-up skills, an annoying habit of picking his nose, or maybe all he talks about is Star Trek? (My apologies to the Trekkies—live long and prosper). Does the plot fall apart at some point, losing its believability? Maybe your protagonist shoots a guard from across the room, but in reality, has never shot a gun before. If something doesn't sound right, make sense, or if you just aren’t buying it, maybe you aren’t done yet.


No? Then you aren’t done. Up the ante, take more risks, polish the prose, do something to take it to the next level. Why stop at good, when you can push it to great? That doesn’t mean kill, kill, kill and everyone gets naked and all of the lottery tickets win and your father finally says he loves you—don’t overwrite it, don’t be melodramatic. But what’s at stake here? Did you risk enough? If you don’t love your story—and really, some PART of you has to love it, or why bother—then push it. Figure out where it’s weak, where the setting fades away, where the dialogue isn’t quite snappy enough, where the fight scene isn’t gruesome enough—and kick it up a few notches.


Yes? Then maybe you’re done. It’s almost like the stages of grief, right? Put yourself through the wringer, do all of the big picture and up close edits, show it to friends, up the ante, put it aside, make sure Word is silent and then…what are you feeling now? Are you thinking to yourself that you just can’t read that damn story one more time, you can’t stand the sight of it, it gives you a headache just thinking about it, you’re going to vomit, or break out in a sweat? Well, maybe you’re finished. When I’ve done all of the obvious things, pushed myself as far as I can, and I’ve finally reached a place where I can’t look at it anymore, then I usually know I’m done. Now, don’t confuse this with writing a crappy story. If you’ve already worked hard on it, and you know it’s good, possibly great, eventually you will reach a point of saturation, beyond which you can’t do anything more without a major rewrite—in which case, you may just need to go write another story.


We go through these emotions when writing a story, right? We get excited about a new idea, we struggle to get it down right, we worry we’ve screwed it up, then we finally grab hold of something. So we start painting the scenes, we make it come to life, we show it to our peers and they respond favorably, we push it, taking more risks, we find nirvana, and then we are so over ourselves we have to move on. It’s okay—it’s all part of the process. Hopefully there is some useful information in this column, so now that you’ve penned another winner, send that bastard out into the universe so you can doubt yourself all over again.

Here are a handful of short stories I found online that I think you'll enjoy, by some of my favorite authors: "Tenth of December" by George Saunders; "Mirrorball" by Mary Gaitskill; “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” by Karen Russell; and "Catskin" by Kelly Link.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 175 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Lightspeed, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker (twice), Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. For more information visit or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading Adjustment Day June 24, 2013 - 11:50am

"Do you hate it yet?".... love that one! My personal benchmark for any project

Stuart Gibbel's picture
Stuart Gibbel from California is reading Angel Falls by Michael Paul Gonzalez June 24, 2013 - 5:46pm


Nice article. 


In my experience the more I work on a story the less I love it.  Even when I put it away for awhile.     The stories are not interesting to me anymore.  Perhaps it's just me, but I would like to hear from others. Have you ever written a story, even one that was published and just can't stand it anymore?  


voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin June 25, 2013 - 1:37am

Ah good timing... :)


Setting things aside for a while always works well for me.


Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from living outside of Albuquerque/in Minneapolis is reading Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks June 25, 2013 - 7:00am

Great advice, except for the Microsoft part. Yes, trust its spell checker. It won't always save you, but most of the time it does. Just don't uncritically accept its every suggestion. Look any sketchy words up. But, and this is a big BUT, never ever ever trust its grammar checker. Those green squiggly lines will mislead you far more often than they'll help you, and it's best to ignore them altogether. The solution, I'm afraid, is just to go out and learn grammar, if you're impaired that way. Why does Microsoft even bundle in this dubious "grammar checker" with Word? The English language is so complex, its rules so arcane, that it would take some sort of ginormous monster of an AI engine to do a grammar checker right--and that, of course, would be prohibitively expensive to develop. So why, Microsoft? WHY???? Is it because you guys are just that clueless yourselves? Or are you cynically betting that most of your grammar-impaired customers are too clueless to notice and will gladly pay for your product, thinking they're actually getting something of value? I blame Microsoft for contributing materially to the degrading of correct usage among writers of English.

Now, as I write this on my iPad, I'm holding my breath that I won't miss any atrocity that goofy autocorrect feature has perpetrated on this post. . . (Yep, just caught an it's that was supposed to be an its. Hope there aren't others.)

Donavaughn's picture
Donavaughn June 28, 2013 - 10:11am

"In the end, there should be NO red lines." Seriously? I'm sure not to take you up on your editing services.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 28, 2013 - 1:01pm

What do you mean, Donavaughn? A red line in Word means it's a mistake. Could there possibly be a word that is still "correct" and have a red line under it? Sure. But really, those are fairly few and far between. Not sure I understand what you mean about my editing services. I don't use a red pen on the computer, makes it hard to see the screen. :-) I think you're confused.