When I was younger, I don't think I ever seriously considered writing as something I would like to do. I really didn't think that I was any good at it, and throughout that time school teachers and counselors pushed me toward more "worthy" professions for my intellect.
My grades were always excellent in math and science, and it was a foregone conclusion to most people that I would enter some sort of engineering (computer, mechanical, chemical) as my chosen career. I listened to them, without even the slightest understanding what any of those professions entailed. I was smart enough for any of them, but as it turned out, I wasn't particularly interested in them.
I explain all of this because I think that many writers start out the same way. People tell them that it isn't a "real job", and there is a supposition that anyone can do it, it doesn't require any real skill. As much as it might cause me to bristle, I have come to accept that because a large segment of society views writing this way, it will never be seen as a primary skill worth paying for.
Most employers do desire people who can communicate well via the written word, but it's viewed as a secondary skill. The qualified candidate does something else really well, writing effectively is just a bonus. This is reality, and it is a powerful deterrent for most people who know that their primary talent is writing, but are forced to take some other job to pay the bills. The end result is that during the course of your life, you are forced to choose between something you like to do and are really good at versus something you can do, but feels a little empty in terms of personal satisfaction.
I reached a breaking point, luckily in some respects, in college, before I had real responsibilities to worry about. Amidst the piles of calculus that I understood but hated, the boring lectures of organic chemistry and the droll prattling of the physics professor, there was a shining beacon. My freshman English class.
It was a requirement no matter what major you had chosen, you couldn't avoid freshman English. To make matters worse, my section ended at 5:30 p.m., including...on Fridays. The teacher, a graduate assistant, vaguely masked her contempt for her own situation and channeled that onto her students. The first classes were borderline terrifying, as she gruffly laid out her expectations for us, and that good grades in her section were nearly impossible. I wanted to drop the class, but couldn't if I hoped to stay on pace for my education. I was stuck.
Our first assignment was to write a paper about someone we admired. My impish side could not resist the temptation to profile Rush Limbaugh, knowing that universities are well-stocked with liberal-minded people. If this teacher was going to make me suffer, I was going to make it rough on her. I chuckled as I churned out page after page of glowing prose about the conservative radio host on my typewriter (by god, yes I am old enough that computers were not ubiquitous enough for everyone to access).
I turned it in expecting to get slaughtered based solely on the subject matter, even though I knew I had done some of the best writing of my life up to that point. The grade didn't matter, I wanted to make a point that I wasn't about to cave to some overbearing grad student whose career path wasn't taking off they way they'd hoped. Then the "A-" came back, with notes about how even though she hated Limbaugh on a person level, the paper was generally very good. I was surprised, but mildly disappointed that I hadn't gotten under her skin the way I wanted to.
One of the other assignments in the class was to give our own lectures, around 15 minutes in length, about some principle of English writing that the teacher would choose. Mine was on exigency, about why a particular piece of writing should exist. I took the assignment to the extreme. I copied every last single one of the teacher's mannerisms: her bandaged wrist due to carpal tunnel, how she shook her hand when writing on the chalkboard, right down to the can of Diet Coke that she guzzled between sentences. Mouths were agape. My classmates looked mortified, and the teacher had her head down busily scribbling notes.
"Imitation is the greatest form of flattery," she wrote on her review of my performance. "Couldn't have done it better myself, including covering the material." Now I was confused, maybe I was good at this. The conversations with people in my class seemed to bear this out - they were struggling to pass, my grade was high.
Each time I turned in a paper, I was greeted with a better grade than I could have hoped for. I actually started trying to write well for her. For the first time in my life, I actually did revisions and turned in something other than a first draft. The fifth paper, an assignment to write a narrative about something that happened in your life, came back with no grade, only a note with a time for me to come to her office hours. I wasn't sure what to think.
When I got there, she handed me another copy of my paper, with an "A+" at the top and notes about improving a sentence or word here or there. She told me that she knew this was the best writing she was going to see all year (including the next semester) and demanded that I revise it for submission to a writing review that the university published each year. I was floored, I had never given a second thought to being good at writing. I had never even applied myself at it until that class.
I didn't know it then, but that was the point where I started down the path of pursuing a career in writing. It wasn't a cut-and-dry decision, but rather a progression away from "real jobs" and toward something I actually liked. I was published in the review magazine, just as my teacher had predicted. She asked me to seriously consider taking other classes in the English curriculum, even though they didn't align with my Computer Engineering major.
After a few other sour experiences the following semester, I came to the realization that she was right. She had said that she knew that I could do the engineering thing, and be good at it. But she said I was too gifted at writing to take up a profession where I would never get to use it or grow it. I quit the engineering program and dove into Communications. (Journalism to be precise, another story for another day.)
I know that "gifted" is in the eye of the beholder. Even great writers occasionally write stuff that is lousy for whatever reason. But sometimes it takes someone telling you that you're good at writing for you to understand that you actually might be. So what was your turning point?
In previous editions, I've talked about how to write short stories and edit them. Now you've got a fine-tuned story ready to take on the world. Let's explore options for getting your story out to your readers.
Magazines and Journals
The most likely path in terms of "traditional" publishing for you to release your short story is through a magazine or journal. These remain the most consistent places in terms of seeking out and actually publishing a short story. As such, they also remain one of the most consistent places from which to receive a rejection letter. They only have so much space.
Picking a journal or magazine for your story is akin to pairing a wine with a meal. There are ones that will "work", and then there are others that go perfectly with your style and story genre. You need to choose carefully, and do a lot of research into the publication to up your chances of success.
Reading examples of what the magazine does publish is a must. You have to know what they're looking for in the first place. Your experimental, avant garde style that's chock full of curse words and innuendo is not going to sit well with a traditional Christian magazine, for instance. You need a sense as to what the editor is looking for, and what they sit fit to publish. A rejection, in most cases, is about your story not being right for them. (Unless it is a place like the New Yorker, where sheer volume dictates that only the very best see publication.)
You're likely better off finding a smaller publication where your writing might be the best thing on their site than you would be trying to compete against established authors at large publications. Rejection letters from the New Yorker don't really mean anything to an author or anyone else, but having some publishing credits (no matter the publication) is something to hang your hat on.
Traditional book publishers
If getting into the New Yorker or another high-profile publication is tough, convincing a traditional publisher to include your story in their latest anthology is next to impossible. It's quite likely that you'd be up against authors who have sold millions of books. The payout might be huge in terms of having your story in the same book as a short story from Stephen King, but your odds really are almost the same as they would be if you drove to Maine and convinced King himself to co-author an anthology with you.
Every so often these publishers will look for submissions from new authors, but they are few and far between.
If your goal is to collect lots and lots of rejection letters, seek out only traditional publishers for your short stories.
More and more authors are turning toward publishing things themselves. There are no rejection letters in the world of self-publishing, but there is also no ready-made collection of readers, either.
Your work can appear on Amazon in less than a day, but getting someone to buy it, even download it when it's free, is challenging. You'll live and die by the number of reviews that you get, and you'll likely get buried by people who understand Amazon's search strategy and keywords better than you do. People can search for your name specifically and see 10 books by people who have parts of your name before your books and stories appear.
The chances of making money or getting noticed by anyone are marginal at best in this market. You have to prepare yourself mentally for a different kind of rejection in the self-publishing world: no one seems interested in your work. It's more soul-crushing than a rejection in many ways, at least you know for sure that an editor read your work.
Luckily, there are other opportunities to showcase your work. These generally don't pay anything, but you need to look at them as investments to build your brand and collect a few fans of your work.
There are many blogs, podcasts and other media outlets that may take your work. These people usually have modest fanbases, but probably more reach than you have. Making friends with bloggers and reviewers, submitting your work to them for consideration or penning guest posts is a good way to start building an audience.
Then you also have the option of sites such as Wattpad. Nearly everything is free there, so you wouldn't be posting work to make money. Converting those folks into paying customers someday will probably be a challenge, but if you're just starting out, having a few fans is not a bad thing. You're generally relying on word-of-mouth to build an audience, albeit one who doesn't give you a red cent in profit. You have to decide whether having any audience is worth giving away your work.
This concludes my first series on Short Story Writing. I'm sure I will have many other topics moving forward, so please stop again and see what else I've written about.
In my previous posts about writing short stories, I covered sticking to a single event or theme and choosing which details to include. Now I'm going to dive headfirst into the subtle art of editing your first (and any subsequent) draft of your story.
Polish, Don't Cut
Editing a short story can be a little more challenging than editing a novel, because a draft of a novel is almost always going to include subplots and exposition that doesn't necessarily advance the main plot of the story. Short stories are different, there are seldom subplots and the details included are often vital components of the story.
When looking over your draft of a short story, you need to be good at understanding whether there is a more concise way to express what you've written, or whether you've failed to include something that was in your head and didn't fully make it onto the page. Sometimes you'll find yourself adding elements to the story to round it out, other times you'll be reworking awkward phrasing.
I often find in the course of my editing that it's a break-even proposition. I tidy up unsightly language for shorter, more clean phrases, then add a sentence or two to complete parts of the story that need help.
End Your Relationship with Your Story
It's really difficult to resist the urge to jump back into a draft immediately after finishing it to start patching things up. But often times it's like tromping across wet concrete. You'll leave your mark, and it's not often a good one.
Stories need time to cure. You need to step away from your completed draft to give yourself some time to forget about all of the details you know but didn't write down. This is especially true with a short story, because it goes without saying that the writer knew more about the story than was translated onto the page. You have to "break up" with the story in a sense, in order to put on your editing hat. The writer is too close to the story, it is too sacred to them. Only an editor can do what is necessary.
Much like human relationships that end, it is harder to get over the writing phase when you keep steady contact with your story. It needs to go in a drawer, dropped onto a flash drive or simply ignored for at least a week. Write a rebound story to help you forget.
Then, when you do return to the story, you're able to read it. I mean, read it like a reader and not the person who wrote it. Giving your story some space lets you see its flaws and its warts, where it is weak and where it is strong, far removed from the rosy lens of the writer who's just given birth to bouncing baby piece of prose. Now you're not cuddling and cooing at the writing, you're changing diapers and wiping its nose.
Only then can you see whether you hit the mark with the single event or theme you were looking for, or whether you've got some work to get there.
Be sure to stop in next time to read my entry regarding the future of your finished short story.
In my previous post, I covered sticking to a single theme or event for a short story. In this post, I'm going to cover what details to include and what things to leave out within the limited confines of the short story.
The Devil in the Details
I remember reading someone on Twitter posting something saying that if you don't describe what your character looks like, they just imagine a blob. That might be something worth heeding for a novel, but you cannot take it to heart in a short story. Sometimes a description of what a character looks like might not be required, or could even detract from your narrative.
I always follow the rule that I only reveal the details that are necessary to advance the story to the end. It might be nice to talk about a character with blazing red hair that shoots lasers from his elbows, but if it isn't going to be used for some purpose in the story, it can be left out. In other words, if you've given these details, then your character better try to blend in with the natives in the jungle and use his elbow lasers to subdue a stalking jaguar.
The same goes for painting the scene around the character. If you describe the snowy wilderness in flowery detail, but then you fail to ever have your character marvel at it, comment on it, shiver or interact with it in any way, it's a useless detail. Details in short stories are like a set of stairs, they have to lead to the top. You don't build a table in another room and put up wallpaper when you're building stairs.
Most writers have a complete picture of the scenes they write in their heads, but short stories often do not demand those details get translated onto the page, which can be difficult for some writers to accept.
The Power of Inference
One of the great things about communication in general is the ability to say things without actually saying them. You can use words to imply a meaning without actually having to write them. (Which I could have done with the sentence immediately before this one, and you would have understood what I meant.)
In a short story, there is beauty in the subtle crafting of sentences that can open the reader's imagination and allow them to catch meaning when the words don't appear on the page. These can be simple things, such as carefully choosing a character's name to give away his or her ethnicity, or using language common to a certain area or historical era.
At the very least, it is a way to trim word count from your story, and follows the writing maxim of showing rather than telling. It gives your reader a little credit that they already know certain things that you don't have (and frankly, shouldn't) explain. You don't always have to hold the reader's hand the whole way through the story. This really applies to all writing, but it is especially effective in short stories, where words are at a premium.
There is a fine line you must walk in determining what details to include in a short story, and there are no hard and fast rules about them, save only that your details should always advance the story. Don't craft a paragraph about the protagonist's fear of spiders, complete with a short anecdote about why he or she is afraid if you don't plan on using that detail later on. Does the detail explain an attitude prevalent in the story? Does it present an obstacle for a character to overcome? These are the litmus questions you can ask yourself when deciding.
Don't miss next week's post about the tricky art of editing a short story.