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TIPS ON…WRITING THE SHORT STORYEdit

Andrea Lowne


Despite the fact that the short story is renowned for being the most difficult form to work with, many aspiring writers decide to begin their writing careers thus.

While there is a huge magazine and online market for the short story, agents and publishers are, in the main, unwilling to go out on a limb and publish a book of shorts from an unknown writer.

Much of what I said in my article about non-fiction also applies to the short story; study your chosen market, be critical, plan your story, write a basic outline, revise, revise revise, and so on.

Add to that: does the dialogue seem natural? Is it easy to read? Will the reader’s attention be held throughout? Is the ending satisfactory to the reader, with no superfluous additions? Have you edited out all unnecessary adjectives and ‘purple prose’? Is the grammar/punctuation/spelling impeccable? The same applies here as to non-fiction; editors, everywhere, hate badly presented manuscripts.

My own modus operandi is to write a basic outline in a notebook. I can then add/correct/delete/juggle as ideas pop into my head and/or I realise that the story isn’t ‘flowing’ correctly. When I’ve got the ‘bare bones’ down to my satisfaction, I start typing the story proper. I find, personally, that I cannot easily spot mistakes onscreen. After every edit, I print out a hard copy and go through it with a fine toothcomb, marking all errors in red. I can print anything from five to 10 copies before I’m satisfied that my story is as good as I can make it. It doesn’t really matter, though, which method you use as long as it works for you. Some writers’ have to have an ending to work towards, while others only need the opening paragraph – the story flows automatically to its natural conclusion. Some have no problem typing directly onto the screen and chuck pen and paper out of the window. Others fill a notebook for every story before parking themselves in front of the PC. As I said, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re happy with the result.

Some tips that have certainly helped me:Edit

1. Because a short story is so short, don’t wander from the point. Everything you write has to be relevant to the story. There’s no room for extensive, flowery description and/or unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
2. Stick to one plot throughout – don’t introduce subplots. They’ll only serve to confuse the reader (and you, probably!). Besides, there’s no room for subplots; they just make the whole thing messy.
3. It’s a good idea to write the story from one viewpoint only. Again, switching viewpoints halfway may confuse the reader. And a confused reader is a reader who reads no further.
4. Some people find dialogue easy to write – for others it’s a nightmare. Dialogue has to flow and sound natural and convincing. I’ve found reading the story aloud helps to pinpoint awkward or stilted dialogue. Tip: if you decide to read your story to a friend, make sure you choose one who’ll give you an honest opinion. Flattery can be very nice but, in this case, it’s the last thing you need.
5. When your perfect story is completed and you can’t wait to stuff it in an envelope or hit the ‘send’ button, chuck it in a drawer for a few days. Go off to the beach, take the dog for a walk, do some gardening, read a book, anything to take your mind off it.  Then dig it out and re-read it. You’ll be amazed at the number of mistakes you made in that ‘perfect’ tale.
6. As with non-fiction, try to keep sentences short and punchy and don’t make your paragraphs (or your sentences either, for that matter) too long and convoluted.
7. Rather than describing your characters with the flat ‘…he had red hair, green eyes and a moustache…’ try to depict them by clever use of dialogue or mannerisms. Be subtle. 
8. Don’t give the ending away in the title! If you’re writing a twist-in-the-tale crime story in which down-trodden, long-suffering Doris pops off her violent, alcohol-swigging husband Fred, it’s no use calling it ‘Doris’ Revenge On Drunken Fred’.

A short story can be anything from a few hundred to a few thousand words long, but most markets have an upper limit of around 3000 words and many prefer their fiction much shorter (often no more than 1500 – 2000 words).

MARKETS.Edit

One way of getting a collection of short stories published is to offer it to an online publisher (see Global Publications) although, as yet, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly popular medium. This could well change, however, as technology advances and the next generation, weaned on computers and the Internet, mature into a book-buying public.

It therefore follows that your best bet is the magazine market, of which there are two main categories; the small press and the mass-market ‘glossies’.

THE SMALL PRESS MARKET.Edit

There are hundreds of small press magazines. The Small Press Guide, updated every year, is an excellent source, as is Light’s List (see Recommended Books). Some pay and some don’t, apart from a complimentary copy and/or free subscriptions. Circulation varies from between a couple of hundred to a few thousand, but publication in these, especially those with a wider circulation, looks very impressive on your CV. Expect to have to wait a while for a reply. It can take anything from two weeks (unusual) to six months. It’s considered polite to wait until about three months have passed before sending your first reminder

Most small press publications do, however, run competitions with cash prizes and are, in general, far more friendly and helpful than the mass-market magazines. It’s unusual to receive a ‘standard’ rejection letter; most will give their reason for rejection and, frequently, feedback on how, if necessary, you can improve your story. This can be quite comforting, as a rejection slip doesn’t automatically mean there’s anything wrong with your work. It could simply be that they have enough submissions for the next few issues and can’t handle any more, or your subject matter doesn’t fit in with their style.

THE MASS MARKET.Edit

The mass-market magazines are a different kettle of fish altogether. They have literally thousands of readers and, while payment is high, competition is deadly. Only a few are willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts (see Midland Exposure, an agency selling short fiction to mass-market magazines) and they each have their own set of house rules. Some allow hints at sex, others throw up their hands in horror at the mere mention of the word. Some are looking for romance and warmth, others for ghosts and mystery. Some want ‘twist in the tail’ stories, others a happy ending. It’s vital, therefore, to study the publication you intend to write for if you’re interested in breaking into this market. Layout is important too, as is an accurate word count. Grammar, punctuation and spelling must be, of course, faultless.

Having said all that, if you can break into this market (and are willing to adhere strictly to their rules), you’re on to a winner, as you can earn anything up to £200 (even more in some cases) for a 2000 word story.

In conclusion then, I’d say that if you prefer to write the more ‘literary’ or offbeat story and you’re more interested in kudos than financial reward, go for the small presses. If you think you can conform enough, and want to earn some serious money, aim for the mass-markets.

Either way, there’s no getting away from those two vital rules:

Edit, edit, edit and,

Study the markets.

Good luck!


© Andrea Lowne 2001

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