Written in an Hour, Remembered for a Lifetime
Advice Column #3
My ultimate goal is to get my novel published. But I keep hearing in order to get published, I need a platform. That always feels like you can’t get the job until you have experience. But how do you get experience if they won't give you the job? Ok, I get it. I need to show I’m worth the investment. Most advise entering contests and submitting short stories. Earn my writing cred. What’s the best way to make this happen?
So you want to write a short story with the primary goal of getting it published? Then let’s start at that goal and work backwards.
First task: Know where you plan to submit.
There are several ways to get short story credentials: literary magazines, writing contests, and anthologies. Ask yourself the type of publication or contest are you writing for. This will help you decide what story to write. For instance, anthologies are often focused on a theme or genre. Think Chicken Soup for the Soul. This year’s MWA writing contest was to write a story/essay about why you love Maryland. This was an excellent opportunity for writers trying to build their platform. Literary journals will also be clear about what they are looking for on their websites under Submission Guidelines. Same goes for a genre oriented publications. Either way, know their requirements including genre, style, format, and word count, before you begin.
Warning: Contest wins can also round out your platform. But be mindful of overly high entry fees. Also, research how much they promote your story once you have won. It may not be worth the fee.
Next task: Read. Not only the publications you intend to query, but also try reading the classics: Poe, Hemingway, Lessing, Christie, Hurston, Fitzgerald, Munro, Vonnegut, and the O. Henry prize winners. Reading short stories is a wonderful way to spend an evening and is also a quick way to discover a new talent or visit with an old friend.
Next task: Write the story.
Stephen Vincent Benet said a short story is, “Something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.” The basic idea of a short story is to create a compelling character, one with a background you have crafted, and put that character in an interesting and/or problematic situation. The story is about how that person tries, successfully or unsuccessfully, to solve the problem. Remember a short story is like a novel with a story arc, climax, and resolution. A good short story creates a mood with an underlying tension and mystery as to how the conflict will be resolved. It should draw your readers in right away. Ideally in the first few sentences.
Edgar Allen Poe, the master of short story, said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”
The setting you choose is also crucial.
Try this: Imagine a conversation between a young man and a young woman. They are sitting close to one another holding hands. Now picture this couple:
In a prison.
On the edge of a cliff having run out of food after getting lost on a hike.
In a sunny park watching children play in a sand box.
In a dimly-lit bar at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve.
On the border between the US and Mexico.
Each setting creates a much different launching point for this couple’s story. How would it change if the woman was a little older? Or one of them was handicapped, a different ethnicity, or had three months to live?
Remember, as in all writing, get the first draft down and allow yourself to write badly. Try and write the story in one sitting so that you are completely immersed in the mood you are creating from start to finish.
Then edit, edit, edit. Read it aloud. Then edit again. And you know the rest: show don’t tell, engage the senses, and reward your reader for taking the time out of their day to read what you’ve written with fabulous writing. In poetry, every word counts. Same for a short story.
Don’t be afraid to ask other writers to take a look at it. Give it one last polish. Then check the submission guidelines (again!) and send that baby out into the world.