Writing Short Fiction (Part II)

Last month I blogged about the early stages of writing short fiction for anyone thinking of getting into the short story game. We covered…

1) Asking yourself what you want to get out of writing short fiction

2) The importance of reading short fiction

So now you have solid goals for your short fiction in mind and you’ve read every piece of short fiction written for the past century. Now what?

The next steps are the hardest (besides the last two steps). Now you have to write a damn story (that is at least halfway decent) and find a venue that will actually publish it.

Step #3: Write the damn story

This is the step where most people quit…and with good reason. Anyone transitioning from novel writing to short story writing will immediately discover why it’s such a ball-busting craft. You must be succinct and poignant and a master of the written word…and all while using between 1,000 and 7,500 words. Yup. Not easy.

First of all, make sure you know the basics of short stories. That means you have to know your words counts:

Flash Fiction = 100 – 1000 words

Short Fiction = 1000 – 7500 words

Novellete = 7500 – 20,000 words

There are certainly other categories like micro-flash fiction and novellas and such, but if you’re writing short fiction, your range is 1000 to 7500 words. Most short stories I’ve had published online and in print magazines usually fall between 2000 – 4000 words. It all depends on the venue (we’ll get to that next).

There are a few hints on how to stay within that limited range:

1) Focus on a single character

Certainly this isn’t a rule or anything, but it certainly helps. This is not the place for you to follow around six friends as they try to solve a murder at Woodstock, and each one saw the murder a little differently (would make a great novel premise, though). Focus on a single character and surround him/her with a limited supporting cast. Hell, stick him/her in a room alone. Even better. Most short stories focus more on character than on plot so put that protagonist on center stage and be prepared to dig deep.

2) Have the story take place over the shortest amount of time possible

I once had a short story published that spanned a total of three seconds (they were the three seconds right before a man’s life ended in a fatal car crash so they were three pretty important seconds). My favorite short stories occur over a relatively short period of time. This is not the place to follow a man from the womb to his grave. Give readers the 23 seconds the protagonist spends listening to his wife ascend the stairs as he lies in bed with his mistress. Having the story take place over a limited amount of time forces you to dig deep (once again) into your character.

3) Write the story and then eliminate every superfluous or extraneous word in the whole damn thing

One of the reasons I started writing short fiction was because my novels’ word counts were more bloated than a three-week old corpse in the East River. I wanted to trim down my manuscripts. There is no room for a single extra word in a short story. Every word counts. If you can describe the main character in one word instead of three, do it. Simpler is always better in the realm of short fiction.

As far as what you should write about, I leave that entirely up to you. You’re a writer, aren’t you? You can do it. What do you want me to do? Wipe your ass for you, too? Geez…

Step #4: Find a venue

So you’ve written the perfect short story that will bring you tidal waves of fans and have publishers beating down your door for your novel. Now all you have to do is find someone to publish it.

There are a lot more short fiction venues than one might think. Most of them are fairly obscure or working on a shoe-string budget, but they’re out there. Obviously you’ve got your heavy hitters like Tin House and One Story and Glimmertrain, but how do you find the other not-so-well known venues?

One word: Duotrope.

I promise you I have no stock in Duotrope and I am not associated with them in any way, but when I was looking to get started writing short fiction, Duotrope was there for me. Duotrope is a literary magazine database that helps writers find venues for their work. They keep stats like average response times, average acceptance rates, and who pays (and how much).

It’s simple to use. All you do is plug in some information about your short story and Duotrope will fart out a list of potential venues. They even have links to all their websites (which you should visit). It’s awesome. The only problem is it’s not free. It used to be. Now it’s five bucks a month. Totally worth it. You can have a running subscription or just sign-up for the month and bounce out. If you’re mecha-cheap or mecha-poor then just use a generic search engine and search for “science fiction literary magazines” or whatever and you’ll get the info you need. It just might take you a little longer.

Just a word of warning: It’s considered “dickish” to send a short story to a magazine without have read at least one issue of that magazine. I admit I’ve done this simply because I don’t have time to read all these damn lit magazines all the damn time, but I still want them to publish my stuff. Guess what? They usually don’t.  My best successes have come when I’ve been familiar with what a magazine is looking for and either wrote a story geared specifically toward that market or sent them a story that happened to meet their criteria. It’s smart and it’s part of “doing your homework”…which we’ll talk about next time.

Happy hunting.

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~ by themoderntranscendentalist on May 12, 2014.

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