magazinesMyths and Facts Surrounding Short Stories

by Vashti Farrer


Short stories, by definition, must be short, but that can mean anything from a 250 word vignette, to a 10,000 word novella.

I prefer 2-3000 words, but have written vignettes and stories of differing lengths in between. I have a friend who write stories of 5,000 words upwards and feels constrained when competitions ask for a maximum of 3,000.

Publishers maintain that collections of short stories, like poetry, don't sell, and yet, every so often they bring one out. Mind you, these are often collections by well-known authors, with a track record in novels. Many authors start off writing short stories because they find the thought of a full-length novel daunting. I did too, until somebody pointed out that a novel is a collection of forty inter-connecting 2-3000 word short "stories".

If you compare writing to art, the novel is the huge canvas, which makes you stand back to admire it. It can provide big ideas, a strong plot, bold themes, a sizeable cast, and several sub-plots. The short story is a little painting, that has you stepping forward to see it more clearly and enjoy it all the more. A vignette is the miniature you pick up in order to appreciate the tiny details. Each, in its own way, gives pleasure.

That's not to say a short story can't have a plot, it can, but only one; there's no room for sub-plots and it needs as few characters as possible. If you have five or more characters, especially in a very short story, you'll destroy the balance. For instance, romance always has a plot (effectively the same one) and it only needs two characters. There can be one, or two extra, but any more and it will start to become top heavy.

Novels allow you to ramble, to take your time getting to the point, or final paragraph. You don't have that luxury in a short story, you need to be concise and remove anything not essential. You have to be prepared to pare down, to go in with a scalpel, and be ruthless. Years ago I worked as an advertising copywriter and every Monday morning I had to reduce a 150 word radio ad to 100 words. I learnt not to cut whole paragraphs, but to find a clause to replace a sentence, a phrase to replace a clause, and a word to replace a phrase. That stood me in good stead when writing short fiction.
Loosely defined, popular fiction is plot-driven, whereas literary fiction is character based. If you want to write short stories, you'll need to decide where your strengths and weaknesses lie. If you excel at plots, then write stories, but make them simple, with a beginning, middle, and end. Sketch in the character's physical details by the odd reference to hair or eye colour, tall or short, and any distinguishing features. Never provide these as a list. Sadly, Dickens would be heavily edited today, but then he didn't live in an age of fast-grab info-technology.

In a romance, we need to know what the hero and heroine look like. Maybe it's the voyeur in us, but we want to "see" the happy couple for ourselves, to be able to sigh,  "Isn't that romantic!" But if you don't find it easy conjuring up a mental image of your character, try keeping a folder of interesting faces from magazines and newspapers, or else stick a picture of the character type you imagine above your desk as you work.

If you are better at creating characters than developing plots, and like to know their innermost thoughts and what's happening inside their heads, then their appearance won't matter as much, and what they do may matter even less. These short stories have little or no plot, but can be just as effective.
A simple story means you have to leave the full-on car chase on the cutting-room floor. A one-line plot might mean little more than an anecdote, or good yarn, but it can still work. Even in character based stories, with virtually no plots, there has to be a sense of time having passed, or a change in the status quo, otherwise the story will go nowhere. The change can be subtle, even minute, but the reader must feel the character is no longer, by the end of the story, where she was at the start.

I like to call these "cappuccino plots". By that I mean a woman sitting in a coffee shop, as she picks up the cup, she sees someone pass in the street. That's the plot. But was it her ex-husband with his new floozy? A lover she rejected years before? Or the weird man who has started stalking her?

In terms of action, nothing much has happened, and yet in between raising the cup to her lips and replacing it finally on the saucer, a whole range of emotions and images have gone through her mind, leaving her feeling drained (no pun indended).
Never forget the old rule of Show and Tell, especially in short stories. If your heroine has a phobia about spiders, stating that fact isn't nearly as effective as having her find one in her nightie. Clammy skin, hairy legs crawling up her arm, scuttling round the back of her neck and into her hair. You get the picture.
Eons ago, when I was sitting for school exams, I always ended up sitting behind a girl who twirled her hair round her finger as she wrote. Her results were always brilliant, but for some reason, the same trick never worked for me. My late father-in-law used to jiggle his foot up and down incessantly, which I found both fascinating and irritating. These are mannerisms and in a short story, can be useful in depicting character, but beware, they must be used sparingly. Elderly actors sometimes resort to mannerisms as short hand acting, but too many can make for a fussy character. Dialogue will also convey character. Try writing down snatches on bits of paper to find the "voice" of your character in your head. You'll convey them more realistically if you do.

A short story can only have one viewpoint. To have more will, again, alter the balance, and in a short story, balance is everything. Sometimes, if a story isn't working, it could be the viewpoint. Even if it happens to be the most logical one, it may not necessarily be the best. If so, try writing the story from another viewpoint to see if it works better.

Authors can take months, even years, to plan a novel, and on a lesser scale, the same applies to a short story, because the more you think about it before you start writing, the better. If you can write the opening paragraph straight down, the rest will flow.

Study the market. Unfortunately, a number of short story markets have dried up over the years. Magazines appear, thrive for a while, and then disappear. You need to do your homework if you want to submit stories. Check the shelves of your local newsagent to see which magazines publish stories, by reading the contents page. Find out the name of the editor and the address. Go online to see if their website mentions submissions and what length they require. For example: currently Woman's Day takes stories of 2000 words, but if it's a romance, they like their heroines under 30 and already successful in life.

Don't be afraid to adapt a story to fit a market. Years ago, a gay friend of mine wrote a romance about a man meeting a divine young man in Hawaii. He later sold it to the Women's Weekly by simply changing the sex of the divine young man!

There are magazines for sci-fi, and mystery stories, and some online magazines that take stories. Literary journals such as those published by universities publish stories, but these journals are sometimes themed, so you need to know well in advance what forthcoming themes will be.

Various writers' guides are on sale that list markets, here and overseas. Check that the guide covers short stories and not just articles. If it does, it might be worthwhile investing in one, not every year, but to tide you over a few years, bearing in mind that addresses can change. Information should indicate length required, and whether or not the publication pays. Sometimes magazines think the thrill of being in print will do it for you, but that is something only you can decide.

Include what is effectively a selling letter, especially with an unsolicited story. The editor might well have got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, and spilt his take-away coffee, and the mail room has just dumped a huge pile of stories on his desk. So what will make him read your story first? If you send an "enclosed please find" letter, chances are he won't read it at all, no matter how stunning your opening paragraph.

Try putting yourself in his shoes and ask why your story would appeal to his readers. Aim for a catchy approach. I remember one author saying she submitted an article with a covering letter that started, "There is very little known about the sex-life of whales. . . " 

The article was about the songs of the hump-backed whale, but her opening sentence was enough to make the editor read the article and publish it. I'm not suggesting you write a mini rave "review" of your story; that could put him off - but a bit of humour, or a sentence to make him sit up and take notice, might help. I noticed when I wrote for ITA that if I was lazy and only included an "enclosed please find" letter, the story was rarely taken, but if I made the letter funny and/or intriguing, the story usually found a home.

And finally, don't overlook competitions. Writers' organisations often run them, as do other groups, but make sure to observe the word length. A brilliant vignette of 250 words cannot compete with a story of 3000. I know, because I've judged short story competitions and sadly, I've had to put them on the NO pile. It's like comparing a diamond ring with an emerald necklace. Making sure you finish a story by the closing date is good writing discipline and after the winners have been announced, you'll have another story to add to your folder, and perhaps send off to a market somewhere.  

Who knows? You might even win!

© Vashti Farrer


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