Almost every aspiring author writes with the expectation of eventually getting published. But to get published these days, a short story writer needs to jump past an almost insurmountable cascade of barriers – from the query letter stage to the submission stage, from literary agents to publishers, and then on to the general reading public, all in the hopes of one day selling your short story and earning an amount of money sufficient to pay down the mortgage.
Following are a number of handy tips for short fiction writers to keep in mind when seeking to make money by selling short stories:
EVERY STORY HAS A BEGINNING, A MIDDLE, AND AN END
This might seem like an elementary observation, yet many novice short story writers fail to plan their tales with a basic three-part structure. Where you begin the beginning of your story depends on what follows later in the middle and end parts. The key here is that you must integrate all three parts of your tale so that each part fits snugly like a puzzle piece with the others. Knowing where to begin depends on where your story is going, and knowing at what point to exactly end it depends on what has gone before. Too many beginners start far too early in their tale or end it far too late. So long as you don’t sacrifice the reader’s orientation as to what’s going on, the best strategy is to start as late as possible in your tale and get into the “meat” of it before your reader’s attention lags. And then end it as soon as your basic character, plot, and theme elements have truly played themselves out. Start late, leave early, engage, and don’t confuse. Serve those four goals in planning your three-part structure, and you’re on steady ground.
UNITE ALL YOUR STORY ELEMENTS
Most basic short stories contain elements of plot, character, theme, and setting. Novice short story writers have a habit of randomly dreaming up each element in isolation and then packing all of them together in a kind of forced marriage. The best strategy for your short story is first to settle on which of the elements is the primary driver of your short story. If it’s the plot, then make sure the characters, theme, and settings all work together in servicing that plot in the most engaging, sensible manner. If it’s character-driven, the plot, setting, and theme must all be chosen to highlight and reveal the kinds of character interactions you want to unveil. And so on with theme and setting. Okay, scratch that last element – you should avoid at all costs writing a short story that’s driven by setting, unless your aim is to write an engaging travelogue.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Too many amateur writers make the mistake of summarizing a key character reaction or series of events when greater emotional impact demands that a character reaction or event be dramatized. In other words, play them out as full scenes for greater effect. But of course, the key here is to employ this strategy only for unveiling those key character reactions or events that play a crucial role in the unfolding of your (unified) story elements. All of which brings us to…
CUT! CUT! CUT! (AND CUT SOME MORE…)
If any word, sentence, paragraph, piece of dialogue, or setting and action description does not advance your primary chosen story element(s), then cut, cut, cut them out! Do we really need to read extended descriptions about leaf texture, shoe brands, and the way the sun casts its rays on one’s coffee table in a scene where you’re advancing the plot or building toward a key character interaction?
Extraneous random descriptions will expose you as a card-carrying novice writer whose short story submission will go straight into a literary agent’s slush pile. Don’t be fooled by all those classic short stories that are filled with wonderfully descriptive asides about leaf texture and sun-cast highlights. In all likelihood, you’re not Charles Dickens or Steinbeck or Chekhov. You’re writing in an age of low attention spans, and you’re not working to be paid by word length. If you can cut out any and all portions of your short story that do not advance all or most of your story elements (and remember, setting should always be the servant to the other three story elements), then cut, cut, cut them out!
The sad fact is that the vast, vast majority of readers will make their decision about the quality of your short story inside of one paragraph (two, tops). So, put all the blood, sweat, and tears you can muster into crafting those first two paragraphs that will keep them reading on. In an age where time is money, don’t assume that there are masses of readers, literary agents, and publishers willing to stick with you for ten or fifteen more pages as you slowly build your short story to make its grand case. By the time your short story hits its stride after a mundane beginning, your only audience will likely be a chorus of chirping crickets.
DON’T COURT A DEATH BY TYPO
There is a reason why publishers are still in business, even in this age of so-called “self-publishing.” The fact is, readers depend on professionals to ensure that well-edited novels and short stories make it on to the book store shelves. That’s where literary agents, editors, and publishers come in. Yet novice writers often make the fatal error of assuming that literary agents and publishers will overlook short story submissions littered with typos, bad grammar, and poor spelling – so long as the gatekeepers are blown away by the writer’s great storytelling ability (embodied in those story elements mentioned above). But again, in an age where time is money, the gatekeepers employ the rule of thumb that typos are the mark of a sloppy craftsman. No matter how great your short story truly is, you will court a death by typo if you attempt to sell your short story with a poorly edited submission.
CHOOSE AN INTERESTING SUBJECT
If you’re reading this far into the article, chances are you’re truly looking for helpful tips to write short stories that sell. Writing short stories for self-expression is nice therapy, so long as you’re sane enough to realize that probably only a very limited audience is interested in reading a short story about the joys of fly-fishing among elderly villagers in Latvia. On the other hand, writing about pistol-packing, death-dealing mamas is not exactly guaranteed to spark reader interest, either. The key is to be interesting and different at the same time. Having your character take out a gun and blow someone away is not all that interesting or different. You need not always fall back on the Dead Body Strategy For Engaging Reader Interest.
The key to picking an interesting subject is to find an organically satisfying and engaging unity of all your story elements – a combination of plot, character, theme and setting that comes off as fresh and exciting at the same time. The interest will come from the manner in which you weave these story elements together.
Coming back to the joys of fly-fishing among elderly villagers in Latvia, you might very well pull this one off if it is a backdrop for a plot with an unexpected turn – one that unveils fresh character interactions while highlighting a theme that, say, provides us a new thematic perspective on, say, our common mortality fears. Not sure how the Latvian part fits in, though. But that, perhaps, is a lesson for another day.
by J. Leland Kupferberg