Last week, I mentioned to a friend that I’d been writing short stories, hoping to sell them to popular magazines.
‘Yeah?’ (Imagine the raised eyebrow and sidelong glance. He’s my financial adviser. He questions everything I do.) ‘How do you go about that?’
Now…we were in the middle of a meeting that involved copious paperwork, lots of rewriting, and fortunately, a couple of glasses of red wine. Explanations didn’t exactly roll off my tongue. I’m pretty sure he questioned my ability to speak, let alone write. But he certainly got me thinking. So I searched through my notes, hoping to unearth an old notebook I’d once labelled (optimistically), ‘How to Write a Short Story.’ I didn’t find it...so I'm winging it. :)
First and foremost, research your market
Every magazine has a unique flavour and specific audience appeal. Get to know your target audience intimately, and write specifically for their enjoyment. Virtually every publication has submission guidelines, available online. Some stipulate they will not accept stories on particular topics, like violence and murder. For instance, the ‘People’s Friend’, which is aimed at British residents in their golden years, is charry about stories that mention divorce. Most mags have rigid ideas about manuscript layout and mode of submission. Stick strictly to the publisher’s guidelines or you will be rejected, no matter how good your story is.
Target your audience
Read magazines in which you hope to be published. Understand the interests and preferences of your potential audience. Be aware of their age group.
Remember too, that most readers don’t have literature degrees. Popular magazines aren't looking for literary fiction but, instead, for rollicking good stories their readers will love. (You may need to dumb it down...but shshshsh...I didn't say that!)
Unlike novels, short stories are challenged to create believable, lovable, and authentic characters, without giving a lot of background or dwelling on description. Ideally, include no more than two primary characters, who take the starring roles, and no more than two support characters, who add ‘meat’ to your tale. There’s simply not enough scope to introduce a larger supporting cast.
Keep up the pace!
Your story should set a cracking pace from woe to go. Don’t attempt a life story. Short stories give a snapshot of your characters’ lives. Novels roll out the whole movie.
It’s all about the plot
It just is. A strong plot is essential for the purpose of magazines. Your task is to entertain and engage, for a small slice of time.
‘Succinct’ - the catch-cry
With short stories, you have no time to meander. In 500 to 2000 words you have to hook your reader, engross her in your plot, get her to resonate with your characters, and bring that engrossing plot to a satisfying conclusion.
Descriptive passages and adverbs are YOUR ENEMY.
Eliminate everything that’s not essential to your story, whether it’s scene description or character development.
Scene switching and moving backwards and forwards through time can work beautifully in your novel, but stick to chronological order when writing for ‘That’s Life’ or ‘Take a Break’. Exceptions occur when characters exchange letters or look back through diaries, but it takes unusual skill to pull it off in under 2000 words.
Don’t be disappointed
Exceptional stories, which meet all the above criteria, are often rejected. It may be that the magazine layout was such that your particular story wouldn’t fit. Or your story may have landed on the desk of an editor whose tastes run contrary to yours.
If you believe in your story and have polished it to perfection, then send it somewhere else.
Good luck! If you can crack it, the pocket money’s not bad.
Melinda Jensen is a writer concerned with social justice, equality, the environment, and the current status quo of pretty much everything. She has been published once or twice in fiction magazines and anthologies of both poetry and short fiction; and is currently putting her energies into two novels targeted to our nation's up and coming movers and shifters ie our kids. Jesus is very much her hero and her motivation.