Writing Short Fiction (Part I)

Many writers choose to write short fiction to get their names “out there” since getting a novel published by a big name publisher is pretty freakin’ difficult (Trust me, I’ve tried/am trying/will continue to try). It’s a good way to build a readership while you’re working on your space opera that is really a metaphor for the Russian Revolution that will win you a Pulitzer and legions of fans and a six (No, seven! No, eight!) figure advance. Plus it’s a great way to build confidence as you perfect your craft. Hey, everyone’s gotta start somewhere, right?

I’m certainly not claiming to be Amy Hempel (Amazing short story writer if you’ve never read her) or anything like that, but over the past three years I’ve had an even dozen short stories published in a variety of online and print literary magazines. People I don’t know and who aren’t related to me have read my stuff. I’ve been paid for stories I wrote (which is a weird and rewarding experience). I can call myself a “published author,” which I think is the goal of anyone whose fingers tap dance over the keys of a computer in an attempt to be a writer.

Other writers have asked me how I got started writing short fiction since I always claim to be a novelist. I’ve tried to come up with some advice/steps to get your short fiction published. This post will focus on what you should do BEFORE you even type a single word of your first short fiction piece. More advice will follow in subsequent posts. Here we go:

Step #1: Figure out what you want to get out of writing short fiction

Before you do anything else, you should be honest about what your goals are for your foray into the world of short fiction. This is the “Why bother?” part of the process. Writing short fiction requires a completely different skill set than writing novels and the rewards are quite limited. When I started writing short fiction I had three goals. One, I wanted at least one writing credit to my name (This was more validation than anything else that all my hours spent staring at a computer screen were not totally in vain). Two, I wanted to build a readership. That way if I ever did publish a novel, at least SOMEONE would care. Three, I wanted to make my writing more focused and succinct by using a minimalist approach. My writing at the time was often rambling and unfocused, two qualities that are nonexistent in short fiction (Screenwriting helped with this more than anything).

If you have similar goals for your short fiction, go for it. If your goal is to make money writing short fiction, you’re better off playing the lottery. There is NO MONEY in short fiction…NONE! If that’s your goal you were born in the wrong century. Do people make money writing short fiction? Yes, but if they do they aren’t reading this blog post and most of them are established writers. I’ve had 12 short stories published and I’ve made a total of $35…and that was for four of the stories. Eight of the stories I received no monetary payment…none…zilch. And if you’re just starting out, that’s the norm. People don’t read short fiction the way they once did. Playboy used to publish some of the best short fiction in the country (if you can believe that). Now short fiction is limited to a few well-known print magazines and a plethora of online venues, most of which are run on just hope (most of their prayers have been repossessed) that enough people will read the magazine to justify them spending their time on a venture that pays them nothing and produces zero income.

So you cool with being poor? Ok good. You’re ready to start writing!

Step #2: To write it, you must read it

This rule applies to anything you’re going to write but especially to short fiction. As I mentioned above, short fiction is a unique art form that follows its own standards, rules, and style (not to mention word count). Just because you can write a chapter of a novel doesn’t mean you can write short fiction. The best thing you can do before you start writing short fiction is read as much of it as you can get your hands on.

But who should you read? I suggest starting with an author whose novels you already admire and seeing if they wrote any short fiction. A majority of classic 20th Century authors wrote short fiction, but many contemporary authors have tried their hand at it as well (with varying degrees of success). The best approach is to read someone who wrote short fiction in your genre or whose work represents work similar to your own.

You can always start with the classics. If minimalism is your thing read Hemingway. I’ve never thought much of Hemingway’s novels (I know, I know…), but his short fiction is amazing in its concise nature (Snows of Kilimanjaro). If you were a fan of Catcher in the Rye, read Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. Those stories nearly made my head explode when I first read them back in college. Then of course there’s the classic short story writers everyone reads in college like Joyce Carol Oates (“Where are you going? Where have you been?” is one of the best short stories ever written), Flannery O’Connor, and the pervert, D.H. Lawrence. Buy a collection. They’re all in there.

If you’re writing science fiction stories, read Bradbury and Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s short fiction is actually focused and coherent (unlike many of his novels and I say this as a huge Vonnegut fan).

If you’re writing horror, read Stephen King’s short story collections even if you HATE Stephen King (“Skeleton Crew” for the win, please).

Ask a fellow writer or someone who reads a lot if they have a favorite short story writer. That’s how I found Amy Hempel and she taught me more about writing short fiction than anyone else.

There’s a ton of it out there. You just have to go out and find it. Read as much of it as you can. Then when you’ve had enough, read more. Then after that you’ll be ready.

That’s it for now. More later.


~ by themoderntranscendentalist on April 30, 2014.

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