In the world of fiction writing, most industry insiders heavily suggest getting some shorter pieces published before querying, or possibly even before writing a longer work like a novel. There are so many reasons for this, which I’ll delve into…although the most important question here isn’t why but how. Writing short stories is incredibly different than novel writing, even beyond the length of the story. With brevity comes a new set of problems and possibilities, and in many cases writing a good short story necessitates approaching it differently than you would a novel. As someone with several short story publications, here are my tips on writing them, and getting them picked up by magazines and literary journals.
Hands down, the number one tip I have to all writers at the beginning of their careers. If you don’t have the platform, make an account. It’s essentially a massive listing of literary magazines open to submissions, contests, and other applications like positions for editors at lit journals. It also allows you to easily submit and track these submissions. So my best advice, other than writing a good story (which I’ll get to), would be to get on Submittable and send out a bunch of stories. It will probably take several tries, even if you’re good, to get to your first publication.
Start with small publications.
Even if you’re a very good writer, it will be hard to get published in a magazine like the Atlantic or the New Yorker if you have no previous credits. Because of this, you’ll need to start with small zines and work your way up to middle of the road hipster lit journals, then after several publications start trying more major names. Because the publishing industry, even at the smaller level of short stories, is so hyper-competitive, there is often a small fee (usually $2-6) required to submit a story. So it’s not in your best interest to submit to places that you don’t have much of a chance with. Starting a career in writing is a slow and sometimes frustrating process. Deal with it appropriately, and do whatever you can to give yourself a good chance at success.
The first few paragraphs of your story are REALLY important.
I’ve heard from editors I’ve worked with that with short stories, if the first paragraph doesn’t grab them, the story gets tossed. I can’t say enough, although if you’re a writer you probably already know—this is one of the most competitive industries there is. There are a lot of good writers out there, so if you pick one part of your story to obsessively edit or place that genius line you thought of in the middle of the night, it should be the beginning. Bottom line with this—give the reader a reason to keep reading. Ideally both beautiful language and heavy tension (what happens next??), but you must have one or the other. And unless you’re incredibly confident in your writing abilities and said abilities have been confirmed by someone other than your mom, go with tension. Some books are carried by lyrical prose that in and of itself makes the reader emotional, and therefore invested. In a short story, this kind of writing may be closer to prose poetry. But it will probably be important, especially in a longer short, that the reader be very curious about the actual events of the story from the beginning.
Focus on the plot and / or thematic elements.
On that note, either the events of the story or the larger ideas behind them should carry the narrative. Good characters are important, as always, but in a short story, there’s less time for the reader to get to know your characters and become attached to them. A character-based short story almost always should be using the character as a device or symbol to get across a larger idea. Shorts are also a good place for action—not necessarily meaning physical, movie style action. Anything that happens in the story that excites or draws in the reader, particularly if it’s shocking or emotionally resonant. If you have an idea for a story but aren’t sure how to get it beyond an initial plot idea, or don’t know to parse it out into chapters, it might be best as a short story. Theme can also be a great center of gravity for a short. But if you’re going to write a meditation on time and aging, for example, you should still start by coming up with the plot, with the theme setting the tone. It’ll feel forced if you try to construct a deep, philosophical dive into any given topic without a spark of inspiration for the actual plot. Plot first, in conjunction with theme, then develop character after.
Keep it simple.
A novel can take a large number of characters, subplots, motifs, thematic elements, etc. A short story cannot, and clutter is never good. Your story will be more impactful if you zero in on a few main plot points, characters, and principles.
Make imagery and descriptions as vivid and true to life as you can.
Back to beautiful language—the more your reader feels transported, the better the story will be. Don’t go too heavy on description without action, particularly when it comes to physical descriptions of characters, but it’s important to paint a complete picture. Short stories are snapshots, and as such are naturally highly visual, or should be. When writing a story, if at all possible, spend some time in a similar setting to that of your short story and just write down what you see. People watch when developing characters. Take inspiration from real life, and make sure the writing is lush and visceral.
Short stories are a good place for provocative topics.
To be clear, provocative doesn’t mean bigoted or cruel. But if you’re interested in writing a particularly strange or dark topic, it might be more likely to be published as a shorter piece. Any taboo subjects, or stories likely to shock or unnerve readers can, with certain literary houses, be a tough sell. While this certainly isn’t always the case, literary journals just seem more open to dark and twisty weird-ness. Shorter pieces are also a good place to practice more experimental forms of writing. Free-write and see where you end up. This piece of mine started as a short story and totally transformed as I wrote into a long form prose poem. I thought it might be too winding and meditative, but it still got published. Many lit journals are interested in writing that cannot be easily categorized, so feel free to run wild here.
Short stories can be put into longer works like collections of short stories—if you intend to do this in the future, you may want to keep a common thread between stories.
Anthologies / story collections, unlike single short stories (generally speaking), fall under the category of full-length books as far as publishing (since that’s what they are). This is a very good thing, because it brings the possibility of much, much more money! If you’re thinking you may want to write a short story collection, plan beforehand what the common thread or underlying schema of the book will be. For example, the short story collection Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is made up of stories about gender and sexuality, with a focus on the role sex plays in female oppression, asking the question of what constitutes true intimacy, and whether intimacy is always “good”. The uniting factor between your stories doesn’t have to be theme, but in most cases there is a common thread, even if it’s broad. One of my favorite short story collections, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, is not an obvious themed collection, but on the whole it is a meditation on the human condition and love at its most mundane, difficult, and at the same time, extraordinary. Short story collections could also be tied together by setting, with, for example, each story set in a different decade or part of the same country. You might have character-based collections, with each story centered around sisters (or any other relationship or demographic). Really, the possibilities are endless.
Keep everything you write. You may want to use it later.
I have a document, which I add to constantly, of writing I haven’t yet found a place for. Everything from people watching observations / character inspiration to plot ideas to random paragraphs of rich language to little meta bits on the big questions in life. Everything. Even parts I’ve cut from my novels or other stories but still kinda like. It’s likely you’ll eventually find somewhere to put it, or can even build a short story around some of it. The first short I ever had published was literally built around an idea from a documentary I watched on YouTube (on people who have received donor organs mysteriously taking on characteristics of their donors), and a couple sentences of prose. You need something to build on, and random shower thoughts and scraps of poetry are often good foundations.
Short stories often come from bursts of inspiration—write spontaneously. Most of my short stories have been written in one sitting or at most a couple days. Not that that’s the only way to do it, but my point is that if you’re struggling to write a short story, try waiting. I find that they turn out best when they bubble out naturally, when you feel like writing them. Also, know that the first publication is by far the hardest. I spent months trying to get a story published, and after my first one I got another three accepted within a few months. Be patient—if you’re a good writer, it will eventually happen.