Self-doubt and the short story

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I’ve been writing speculative fiction for about six months now, and very much focusing on the short story.  The length of these new stories varies, but on the whole they’re between 4,000 to 6,000 words, the perfect length for submitting to magazines. But I have one that I keep returning to, and it keeps growing and growing. 

This story began as a challenge to myself to write a steampunk story, after reading Cat Rambo’s wonderfully inventive Clockwork Fairies.  I had a feeling that steampunk would be fun to write, an opportunity to explore a historical setting and invent some wild technology with plenty of adventure thrown in for good measure.  I haven’t been disappointed, and my protagonist is deliciously headstrong, fearless, and pretty handy with a welding kit.  I’ve now reached the point where I’ve had to relinquish control over her behaviour — she is fully in charge and seems to know exactly what to do at every turn.

This week the story hit 11,000 words, and I’ve got the Devil of Doubt on my shoulder asking picky and awkward questions. Can you justify spending this much time on this particular story, when you don’t even know if it’s any good?  Have you read enough steampunk to know if your idea is original enough?  What if it just keeps on growing, does that mean you’re actually writing a novel?

Questioning ourselves seems to be the perennial activity of creative people, an activity that takes up almost as much space as the creating itself. I do believe it’s an essential part though. How are we to know the best way, if we don’t evaluate all the ways available? Questioning keeps us open to possibilities, stops us from becoming complacent or lazy, and sharpens our awareness of the quality of what we’re putting out into the world. The difficult task is to keep the questions from crippling our dedication to the craft and maintaining the flow of work.

There are several ways to deal with the push and pull of this. Firstly, it’s important to maintain an awareness of the questions, either making mental or physical notes, and once the notes are made, it’s likely to be much easier to let them go. Reading the work of others helps too. Evaluationg the writing you like (or dislike), will help you to evaluate your own, and give you confidence that you’re on the right path, as well as giving you ideas for how to tackle any writing problems that might crop up. But I think the most important strategy is to keep focussed on the work itself. Be dogged. Be determined. Be clear in your vision and keep going, regardless of the hurdles and the questions.

So for the moment, I’m going to ignore the Devil of Doubt, in favour of letting the story evolve. I like my protagonist and I want to see where she’s going to take me, so I’ll wait until I get closer to the 20,000 word mark (the top word count that most magazines accept) before I start taking any of the questions too seriously.

While my back has been turned writing this blog post, I’ve got a feeling my protagonist has been evolving too, so I’m going back to see what she’s been up to, and keep following the story.

If you have any writing questions or problems that you’d like me to discuss on this blog, email me at  I also offer one-to-one coaching, so if you’d like bespoke advice and guidance, go to the Coaching tab for details.

One thought on “Self-doubt and the short story

  1. Ah HA !

    While avoiding my story and going over some of the unread hundreds of emails I came across this one.


    And back to my story I go – GALVANISED and inspired (even to count the words !!!)

    THANK YOU for your daily words of encouragement and letting go … x x x


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