Stephen Delaney

Writer. Editor. Manuscript Reader.

Writing Spurs

After I’ve finished a story—and submitted it to journals so I won’t read it “one last time” again—my emotions typically range from relief, euphoria, and nervousness. Nervousness because my next project’s unknown, and because (an inner voice nags) this nonwriting period might last.

To shorten it, I ask myself questions. The method’s not foolproof (and sometimes, I’ve learned, downtime is more helpful than it can seem), but it does make me feel more grounded and in control of my own process.

When between projects, consider these five questions. With thought and a bit of luck, they might steer you toward your next story.


1) What helped spur your previous work(s)? Was it a prompt word? A writing exercise? Did the piece start with an image or snatch of dialogue?

2) Rereading a finished story, consider what worked and ask why. The idea here is to find your writing’s strengths, which you can build on when starting your next project.

3) Kim Chinquee has said her longer works often grow out of shorter ones that seem to need “filling out.” Reviewing one or more piece, can you see situations, places, or ideas you’d like to develop?

4) Study a finished story’s notes or drafts, learning what you can from your process. How did the various elements (e.g., plot and character) emerge over time as you wrote?

5) What subjects do you keep returning to? Could you explore one from a different angle? Through different eyes or circumstances?

Small Stories

Mailboxes, 2001

Mailboxes at sunset


Recently at matchbook, I had a short piece published explaining my mixed feelings toward micro-fiction. If you have any thoughts to add, I’d love to hear from you.

You can read the piece and a new story here.


Below are some venues for small stories. I’ll update the list as I come across more journals.

100 Word Story



Cheap Pop


Cuento Magazine


Flash Magazine


Inch Magazine


Matter Press

minor literature[s]


NANO Fiction


New Flash Fiction

New World Writing

The Offing

Smokelong Quarterly


Sundog Lit



Vestal Review


Word Riot

Stretching the Story

Bridge, 1998

Bridge, 1998

Lately I’ve been thinking about the range of stories out there, and authors who changed what readers expect from the form. Writers who stretched and reshaped it, influencing later writers or (if obscure or contemporary) suggesting story shapes the future might hold.

What modern-day tale-teller, for instance, devoted to compression and unity, doesn’t work under the shadow of Poe? Joycean epiphanies are so ingrained in us it takes an extra effort to resist them. And who besides Clarice Lispector ever magnified scenes so fervidly, to the extent that despite their lack of plot they pull us in and don’t let go?

Good writers can be rebels, but it isn’t mere orneriness that leads them to break rules and find new ones. New forms, new rules are means of expression, tools to dig deeper, to approach problems specific to one’s time. “Stretching” a story can mean reconfiguring its building blocks, questioning accepted wisdom when the truths of the narrative—found in its characters, its emotional core, its subjects—lead elsewhere. A risky business, but one that when successful imparts vigor and diehard honesty to the prose.

Below are collections of stories (roughly chronological) that in some way or another shook the form. The list is subjective and incomplete, and I’ve left out many amazing authors whose work is, at least surfacewise, more traditional. Also, some stories might seem traditional now, but they weren’t at the time they were written. And note that a few works, such as those by Baudelaire and Michaux, are sometimes labeled “prose poems,” but they seem to me more “prose” than “poem” and even more like today’s “flash fiction.”

I hope these help you to discover what short fiction is—and what it can do and might be.


Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Tales and Poems

Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales

Anton Chekhov, Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov

Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen

Sarah Orne Jewett, A White Heron and Other Stories

Henry James, Complete Stories, 1892–1898

Gertrude Stein, Three Lives

Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories

Robert Walser, Selected Stories

James Joyce, Dubliners

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

D. H. Lawrence, Selected Stories

Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories

Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories

Henri Michaux, Selected Writings

Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass

Nathalie Sarraute, Tropisms

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style

Jean Ferry, The Conductor and Other Tales

Clarice Lispector, Family Ties

Julio Cortazar, Blow-Up and Other Stories

Janet Frame, The Selected Stories of Janet Frame

Paul Bowles, The Stories of Paul Bowles

Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Snapshots

Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Samuel R. Delany, Aye, and Gomorrah

Robert Gluck, Elements

Lars Gustafsson, Stories of Happy People

John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse

Raymond Carver, Collected Stories

Kobo Abe, Beyond the Curve

Lorrie Moore, Birds of America

Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower

Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

Peter Orner, Esther Stories

Carol Emshwiller, Report to the Men’s Club

Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble

Charles Baxter, There’s Something I Want You to Do

Story Lists

blog6-forest (2)
Loire Valley, 1999

While writing short fiction, I’ve started to create, in a plain white 4” by 6” memo pad, what I’ve come to refer to as “story lists.” Using these most likely stems from insecurity and my steadfast belief in method’s magic: I want to, if not clinch writing’s Theory of Everything, at least uncover guidelines that push me toward likely success. Then, once a story is written (with the guide posts I followed recorded), I can reuse my list to orient myself and make my next story’s process less wild.

Sadly, it’s not quite that easy. But I do find the practice worthwhile, with the caveat that what’s helpful for one piece may, for another one, be entirely useless, and that the lists be works-in-progress, always amenable to change.

What follows is part of a list I wrote for a completed (forthcoming) flash story. I’m including it to give you ideas for your own lists, but keep in mind that what worked for me might be wrong for you—at least wrong for the story you’re working on. Gut hunches, half-formed ideas, and experimenting all play important roles, and as such we only want to make the process more wieldy, not limit our freedom and range.

– Force change on Jack and Staci; disrupt their relationship routines.
– Accept “messy” feeling as write. It’s okay. I’ve felt this way before and passed through it.
– “Test” characters’ feelings by comparing their experiences to own memories. Any responses ring false?
– Style more subjective, skewed like Jack’s viewpoint.
– Be fair to both sides of the issue; make the outcome/winner uncertain.
– Are the characters different enough from me? Is there something about them to relate to?
– Style high-flown or poetic? Toward honesty? Ego? Both?

Now, the difference between story lists and notes. As I write, I also jot things down in a small ruled notebook—revisions, ideas for future scenes, questions I want to explore. Typically, these are more specific than what’s in my story lists, relating to one problem or scene, while list items tend to be general and higher tiered, worth reviewing many times. Of course there’s some overlap (and with either tool, some items are written and later nixed), but the idea behind story lists is to have something to fall back on, a place to reflect and refocus.

Also, note that some days the items were in the form of moral support (“I’ve felt this way before…”); some days they were writing tips (“Be fair to both sides…”), things I’d heard or read that seemed relevant; while other times they were more exploratory (thoughts about style), tracking my growing awareness of this specific story’s needs.

I hope you find story lists useful. Think of them as words of advice and support—ideas that can prod you through, and just maybe past, the unknown terrain that’s calling.

Recommended Books

Loches in winter, 1998

Here are a few books you might find helpful. I’m not too fond of labels, but most of these are more geared toward literary fiction (emphasis on character and language over plot) than typical genre writing. I’ve put asterisks by those titles that are more generalized or that apply to more than one mode.


Baxter, Charles, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

Baxter, Charles, Burning Down the House

Bradbury, Ray, Zen in the Art of Writing*

Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Butler, Robert Olen, From Where You Dream

Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Checkoway, Julie (editor), Creating Fiction

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow* (on creativity)

Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction

Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones*

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft*

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft*

Olmstead, Robert, Elements of the Writing Craft

Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer

See, Carolyn, Making a Literary Life

Strunk, William C., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style*

The Power of Thought

Loches, France
Loches, France

Here are two examples not included in my essay “The Drama Within: Uses of Thought in Fiction” (found on my website here). In the article, I show how writers weave thoughts into their fiction, making them both convincing and emotionally charged.

Barry Lopez’s story “The Lover of Words” relates an almost entirely inward journey. The unnamed protagonist is not merely a passive carrier of his own thoughts and feelings, but exerts some influence on them as well. Lopez sensitizes us to the mind’s quiet dramas by calmly directing our values: “he understood the power of words to draw forth feeling and to mesmerize. He understood how words healed.” In order for the story to work, Lopez must give thought its due—raising it to the level of character and action, where it can alter the narrative’s course. The man closes himself off from the prejudice of those around him (he “attended carefully to this remove”), immersing himself in his reading, gardening, and writing. Again, his mental life has consequence: “He had found, by a subterranean and labyrinthine route, some way around hatred.” Later, an inner crisis is the result of a mental shift: he begins to let the outer world in, becoming more self-conscious and judging himself by others’ standards. It’s finally through his own discipline, willingness to use words and ideas as guides, and belief in his own intrinsic value that he’s able to overcome his crisis. The story is remarkable in that it makes thought’s potency felt, and it’s a good reminder of what fiction can do.

In Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods,” the thoughts of Mrs. Grimes, a world-weary farmwoman, echo her hardscrabble life:

How was she going to get everything fed?—that was her problem. The dogs had to be fed. There wasn’t enough hay in the barn for the horses and the cow. If she didn’t feed the chickens how could they lay eggs? Without eggs to sell how could she get things in town, things she had to have to keep the life of the farm going?

Neglected by her community and family, Mrs. Grimes barely gets by. In a few strokes, thoughts reveal her motivation, the stakes at play, and the degree to which worry consumes her. Pragmatic and plodding, they form a bleak causal chain that must, we imagine, be ongoing. Unanswered, her questions taunt and nag, driving her on in a punishing loop from which death seems a quiet release.

Now apply these to something you’re working on:

1. What does your protagonist think to herself that she wouldn’t say aloud? How might she express her secret hatreds, fears, and longings inwardly as opposed to aloud to a teacher or friend? (Consider, for instance, the things we leave out so as not to hurt someone or be seen as foolish, or the words we might choose in public to be viewed in a positive light.)

2. Reread your draft marking any characters’ thoughts. Can some be cut—or replaced with gestures, facial expressions, or actions that convey them—without losing anything? Did you choose thoughts that feel dramatic and telling? Also, did you take advantage of thoughts’ “uncensored” aspect so they feel different from spoken words? If not, reenter the characters’ minds and go deeper.

The Third Sense

A field of colza (Loire Valley, France)
A field of colza (Loire Valley, France)

In a fictional scene, smells can evoke both places and emotions:

In the end, I go out to breathe in the morning, the street, the fog, all you can see in dustbins: fish scales, cans, nylon stockings; at the corner a Pakistani who sells pineapples has opened his shop; I reach a wall of fog and it’s the Thames.
– Italo Calvino, “The Name, The Nose”

Mushrooms were better. They didn’t care about having names. They had smells instead, strong, earthy smells, smells of decaying leaves, of heated iron, of oxidizing copper, some of them like rotting animals and some with mysterious smells that didn’t exist anywhere else.
– Lars Gustafsson, “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases”

He kept coming, bringing the rank sharp violence of stale sweat.
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Now try these exercises:

1. Imagine a character in an emotionally charged situation. (For example, a former runaway returns to her childhood home.) Focusing on smell, describe a place through this character’s point of view. Once you have a draft, expand on those details that seem especially significant (i.e., ones that create or heighten an emotional state, such as joy, longing, disorientation, or fear). Can you convey your character’s feelings without directly stating them?

2. Describe a setting—such as a hospital, amusement park, or woods—in which smell plays a prominent role. Using each of the following methods, create a sense of place by evoking its wide range of smells:

  • naming (“disinfectant,” “charcoal”)
  • adjectives (“pungent,” “musty”)
  • similes and metaphors (“like maple syrup”)
  • verbs (“waft,” “seep”)

Uses of the Small

Mushrooms in France
Bags of mushrooms in a troglodytic cellar in France

Here are two examples in which small details play a pivotal role:

Small things can be used to startle, to intensify an already troubled emotional field. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Ligeia,” after Rowena has died from a mysterious illness and the narrator stands by her corpse, he says, “At length it became evident that a slight, a very feeble, and a barely noticeable tinge of color had flushed up within the cheeks, and along the sunken small veins of the eyelids.” These details offer little reassurance, however, since his imagination and senses can deceive him. In an instant, these flickers of life are withdrawn: her “lips doubly shriveled and pinched up in the ghastly expression of death.”

* * *

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the appearance of Faith’s pink ribbon is the turning point of the story: “But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.” At this moment, he knows in his heart she’s lost. As in “A Rose for Emily,” an emotional bang is announced with a whisper. The reader closes his eyes, expecting a blow, a figurative punch in the gut, only to feel something else: something so light and airy, it’s even more unsettling. The ribbon is animated by qualities Hawthorne grants it—Faith’s innocence and gentle grace. But the fact that it’s found in the woods shifts its meaning, as it takes on the devil’s subtle guise.

Copyright @ 2006 by Stephen Delaney

Now try these as stand-alone exercises or apply them to a scene you’re working on:

1. Write a scene that takes place just before your main character discovers something (a body, a letter kept in an old chest, an intruder, etc.). Create an air of suspense and rising tension. Then, just before the expected discovery, have your character find something small yet even more startling.

2. Use a small or distant object to embody a character’s feeling of fear, uncertainty, or longing (e.g., a woman wears a locket to remember someone she loved yet eventually left). Draw out the passage by emphasizing the object’s miniscule features.

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