Writing the Gift Story by Alex Bernstein


No one likes staring at a blank page. Fortunately, many writers cultivate all sorts of prompts and tools to conquer that authorial vacuum as much as possible – whether it be leaving the previous day’s writing off on a cliffhanger – or maintaining an endless List of Ideas forever begging to be written.

As a perpetual short story writer, I’ve developed a number of similar tools. But here’s one of my favorites that’s particularly useful at this time of year – The Gift Story.

Why Write a Gift Story?

First of all, if the idea of giving a Gift Story sounds somehow silly or cheap – let’s just get that out of your head right now. If a painter or musician friend gave you an original piece of art or a brand new song they’d composed uniquely for you, you would quickly melt in appreciation. And…if that little artwork or song went on to become the Mona Lisa or Hey Jude – you’d always have the knowledge that that masterwork had once created exclusively for you! So, it is with the short piece that you’ll be writing as a gift. Your giftee will be stunned and appreciative. And maybe someday, they’ll write a gift story for you!

Gift Stories are extremely basic concepts. Often, however, they will take on a life of their own and the best ones can be transcendent.  The idea is simple – a holiday, birthday or similar event is coming up for a loved one and to honor that person, you’re going to write for them an original piece. There’s no specific prompt. You choose the format, context, everything. Does this sound daunting? With a few simple guidelines, the entire process should be easy.

Length and Format

So, let’s say for example that you want to write a piece for someone for Chanukah. First, establish a schedule for yourself, but you shouldn’t need more than three weeks tops. Then give yourself a very specific wordcount, e.g. 1,000 words max (ie., keep it shortish and avoid the gift novel or epic saga). You want a wordcount that you can hit by your deadline!

What are you writing about? Well, that’s up to you. I’m a big fan of preparation. So, instead of focusing on a single prompt, which might prove limiting, take a couple days (a couple hours tops each day), and do a brain-dump of all the things that Chanukah – or your giftee – might make you think about. Free associate. Don’t filter. Fill up a few pages with just anything your mind hits on – words, experiences, fragments – and see what patterns emerge. Typically, the patterns will tell you what your story is going to be. In fact, after a couple days, you’ll likely find that the patterns have given you multiple story ideas.

Is your story, then, about Chanukah? Or a Chanukah experience with the giftee? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe for this exact person, an adventure or crime story starts to take shape – and that feels more appropriate than a specifically holiday-themed story. Maybe a story about political intrigue starts to appear or a story about someone in crisis. Let your process be organic. Again, your only rule is to give this person a unique piece of writing written exclusively for them. In my years of writing Gift Stories, I’ve written the spectrum from sentimental holiday stories to true crime to weird science fiction to socially conscious pieces. I like to mix it up.

Once you’ve identified the patterns or ideas that you most like, and that you know can drive a 500-1,000 word story, start putting pen to paper and let the story work itself out. Give yourself time – a few days tops – to knock that out, but don’t think too much and don’t be too judgey on this first words draft. Focus on getting the words on paper, leaving  two-three days at the end for all your rewriting and sculpting.

My Experience with Gift Stories

I started writing Gift Stories way back in the ‘80’s, when I was a poor college student. Back then, I wrote the stories randomly and rarely, just every few years. But I always enjoyed the process and the final outcome. In the 90’s, after I got married, I decided to write my wife a Gift Story, a Christmas comedy piece called “The Unbreakable Toy” about competitive young elf-like toymakers, one of whom accidentally creates a toy that can’t be broken. Once I had the idea, the piece wrote itself. My wife loved the story and showed it to her parents, who loved it as much as she did. Win win!!

The next year, I wrote her another holiday story. It wasn’t as good as the previous year’s piece, but it was still incredibly well-received, and now I had the fever. The following year, I started experimenting with style and format, while unconsciously raising the bar for myself. Since those early stories, I’ve continued to write holiday stories every year for my wife. This year marks the 25th Gift Story for her. And after my son was born, I started writing Gift Stories for him.

Don’t worry they get lots of other gifts too.

Are all of these stories great? (or even good?!) Oh no. Of course not. Some are rushed, incoherent messes and/or just plain awful. But usually, the sheer inspiration of creating something for a loved one elevates the writing. Your motivation innately crystalizes. Some of the best pieces I’ve ever written started as Gift Stories.

And of course, after you’ve given the gift, you can always continue rewriting them. Another huge benefit: can submit all of these stories to the thousands of online literary hubs and magazines.

I’ve had numerous Gift Stories published in anthologies and online markets.

In fact, back in 2013, with several published gift stories under my belt, I decided to self-publish ten of them in a collection under the title Miserable Holiday Stories. The book had a nice, small run and got decent reviews on Amazon. In 2018, I self-published a companion volume, Miserable Adventure Stories, which went on to win a Best Indie Book Award for short story anthologies. In 2019, Skyhorse Publishing took notice and offered to become publisher of a continuing “Miserable” series. This year, around Valentine’s Day, they released Miserable Love Stories, and they just recently released a significantly expanded version of Miserable Holiday Stories. One of the featured pieces in the new version of MHS is a revised version of that first Gift Story for my wife The Unbreakable Toy.

Go Get Writing!

So, pick a loved one and put an easy, do-able schedule together. (If you think it’s too late for this year, remember Valentine’s Day is just around the corner!)

Gift Stories are a timeless, priceless gift you that can give any loved one. And most importantly, it’s a gift straight from the heart.

And that makes all the difference.

Alex Bernstein is the award-winning author of Miserable Adventure StoriesMiserable Holiday Stories, and Plrknib.  His work has appeared at McSweeney’s, NewPopLit, The Big Jewel, The American Bystander, Yankee Pot Roast, Swink, Litro, Back Hair Advocate, Corvus, BluePrintReview, Hobo Pancakes, Gi60, The Rumpus, The Legendary, MonkeyBicycle, and PopImage, among numerous others. Please visit him at www.promonmars.com.

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3 Comments on “Writing the Gift Story by Alex Bernstein

  1. Pingback: writing the gift story – Prom on Mars

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