When I sat down to start typing this past Monday, I opened the file and typed one sentence.
Blood always rusts the springs in my hand.
I had pulled this out of the air. It didn't mean anything yet. It had no context. There was no title. I was just typing.
So I typed another sentence.
Other people’s blood, to be specific.
At least now I knew whose blood it wasn't. And I had a wry tone to my character. So I'd begun to define the classic character in a setting with a problem, minus the setting thus far.
After that I typed a paragraph. Still pulling things out of the air, mind you.
It’s cold up here on the fly deck where I am cleaning my weapons. There is nothing around us but empty sky, stretching to the horizons and beyond. The good airship Entwhistle is two days and more from the nearest friendly port given our current heading and the nature of the winds in this airband. I can hear her engines straining slightly. They are running under just enough load to give them a workout without redlining. Which is good, because the rest of this vessel is about to fall through the sky, carrying us all with it.
(This is the straight first draft, by the way.)
At that point, I still didn't know what the story was about, not in the slightest, but I had a little direction. I'd set my pins because now I had character, setting and problem, along with some implied action. It occurred to me that the story's title was "Grindstone", though I didn't know why that was true, either. Then I typed about another page and finished the day at 300 words with a story stub.
Tuesday I sat down to write sgain. A second POV character presented herself immediately. She was watching Entwhistle dock, which gave me an opportunity to describe the airship from an external perspective. She had her own problems, every bit as severe as my first POV character's. It was decidedly non-obvious to me how these problem sets were linked, or how I was going to resolve either of them. By the end of that writing day, I had produced another 2,000 words.
Wednesday I once more sat down to write. I had 2,300 words, didn't know where I was going, and was aiming for 5,000 words. An hour and a half later, including various interruptions, I had 5,000 words with a fitting resolution that surprised me. I didn't know until the last couple of pages how it was going to all come out. I did find a very good way to use the grindstone concept in the middle, and it paid out at the end as well. The story needs some more attention, though so far my first readers have liked the piece.
Short stories almost always work this way for me. I start out with a nugget of an idea, sometimes as little as a single word or a simple concept. In this case, the nugget was "steampunk story about automatons and airships", plus those first two sentences, which I had utterly pulled out of thin air. I've jumped off the high board over an empty pool. I then begin filling the pool with water on the way down, so that when I land, the ending makes a proper splash. Or at least a proper enough splash that it can be fixed on revision.
It used to really bother me that I write this way. That's almost the ultimate in following the headlights. Short stories for me really are almost the same as free writing. Ruth Nestvold used to say I didn't write stories, I channeled them. And the way I do this matches almost no one's advice on how to write short stories. But it works. In my own opinion, I'm a better short story writer than I am a novelist; in novels, I more or less follow the generally accepted guidelines on how to write.
My point is, it doesn't matter how you get to the other end of the manuscript. There's tons of advice out there. Some of it is even from me. But it doesn't matter how you get there. It only matters that you get there. Hopefully in a way that is satisfying to you and produces a good narrative, but any finished story is by definition better than an unfinished story. (Exceptions include Ted Chiang and Howard Waldrop.) Because once you can and do finish a story, you can use that story as a tool to learn how to write a better story next time.
For me, it's filling the pool on the way down. Writing short stories is a leap of faith. Very nearly literally so. Even now, having written something like 500 first draft short stories over the past twelve years, I'm still surprised every time I land.