Tweet chat 19th February 2021 The art of writing a short story

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Participants: Sandy Stuckless, Stephanie Barnes, Gerald Hornsby, Maria Johnson, Ian Wilfred, Kathleen Marple Kalb, Anita Belli, Rik Lonsdale, Lauren Crosby Medlicott, Beth Hudson, Bradley Galimore, Deborah Klée


Guest Sue Moorcroft: Hello and welcome to everyone joining #FriSalon! I began writing short stories for magazines as a way of gaining an audience and demonstrating I was good enough to publish. I read that getting 20 s/stories published in mags would encourage publishers of novels to look at me. Loosely speaking, this worked – though it was 87 published stories and a serial before I got ‘the call’ from my then agent to say I’d had an offer for a novel. I’ve never stopped writing short stories. I stopped counting years ago when I reached 150. I still write short stories for magazines but now I’m lucky enough that they will publish the cover of my latest or forthcoming book alongside the story. In fact, sometimes that’s the payment for the story! Short stories have been kind to me. My record with them led not just to publication but to editing, appraising, judging competitions and to writing the short story course for the London School of Journalism. I did finally impress publishers of novels enough to make my living from novels but it took 20 yrs from selling my first short story to being #1 on UK Kindle and later the Sunday Times bestseller list. My 18th novel comes out in May, I’m published in many countries and have won awards but it all began with short stories.

Sandy: make my living from novels but it took 20 yrs from selling my 1st s/story to being #1 on UK Kindle and later the Sunday Times bestseller list. My 18th novel comes out in May, I’m published in many countries and have won awards but it all began with short stories.

Sue: That’s great, Sandy. Where are you placing your work?

Sandy: I’ve worked closely with @CloakedPress, a small up-and-coming independent press. My latest publication, Fear the Moon, appeared in the inaugural Elizabeth River Press annual this past June. I’ve also self-pubbed on my website.

Gerald: Hi. When I began writing (properly) in 2003, I began learning to write short literary fiction. I wrote lots of 100-1000 word flash fiction pieces, and entered competitions and submitted to literary journals.

Ian: I have to say the short stories in @TheFriendMag are always so good there is a real art to writing them 

Sue: Hi Ian. I sold my very first short story to @TheFriendMag in 1996

Kathleen: I have to say the short stories in @TheFriendMag are always so good there is a real art to writing them 

Deborah: Hi I’m Deborah and will be facilitating! I won a short story competition years ago and had it published in an anthology by Chuffed Buff Books.

Anita: Hiya. I am Anita. My very earliest short stories were printed on the children’s page of Manchester Evening News. I was about 11 at the time. Won a Writer’s News short story comp many years later and had a story printed in women’s mag before moving on to novels.

Sue: Hi Anita, those Writers’ News competitions could have a huge entry, so congratulations. I was the submissions judge for some of those comps, which meant I read everything and compiled a shortlist.

Rik: HI I’m Rik. I’ve written about forty short shorts published in a local magazine and several that stack up in my folders and get revisited occasionally. Busy with the ‘big’ work just now though.

Lauren: My name is Lauren Medlicott. I love writing as an outlet, but have only done short, reflective pieces and features for publication.

Beth: Hi! I’m Beth Hudson. I’ve sold numerous short stories to various small sff magazines, and am waiting for Stupefying Stories to come out, as their current issue carries one of mine. I also collected a number of stories in an anthology, “Seeing Green” four years ago.

Bradley: hi, I’m Bradley. I write short stories through narrative poetry! If you click: #LENNY you can see examples.

Maria: Hi, I’m Maria! I mainly write novels, but I enjoyed writing a Christmas short story for my newsletter. I’ve also enjoyed writing a couple of other short story/flash fiction pieces as a response to writing prompts, I’ve posted a couple of them on my blog.

Why do we write short stories? Is this something all writers should practise?

Sue: I still enjoy writing short stories. I get the satisfaction of completing something quite quickly. On the other hand, I have to come up with ideas quickly, too. Short stories have a short, manageable story arc and provide the opportunity to practise. dialogue, description, character development etc. It worked for me but other writers happily omit the short story step from their route to publication. I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about whether writers ‘should’ write short stories.

Kathleen: I’ve never thought of myself as a short fiction person — but after I wrote the first one, I discovered that it really suits my pandemic-shortened attention span. So now I want to know what I can do with them…

Sue: I think maybe that depends what kind of short story they are. I wrote mainly for magazines so there was a strict word count and a known audience. Anthologies and websites are another alternative.

Sandy: I like that they’re pallet cleansers between novels or longer pieces. I also like that I can finish them relatively quickly, giving me a bit of a confidence boost that I can actually finish something! Novels are a long game and can be draining at times.

Maria: It helps us practise our craft in general and particularly it gives us the chance to experiment in different genres or styles, eg trying out present tense instead of past tense. It can also be a bit of a breather if we’re slogging with editing a novel. It’s also a great way for readers to get to know your writing, e.g., if you put short stories on your website/blog. Potentially readers might then be interested in checking out your books. 

Kathleen: Totally agree. I’ve definitely found it a breather…I wrote a holiday piece for my website, and it was a really relaxing experience!

Rik: Sometimes I have an idea that I know wouldn’t run to anything larger, but needs an outlet.

Lauren: Again, I haven’t written them, but I imagine it is a way to learn the craft of creating a detailed story with few words. Also, I find it less daunting to have a goal of forming a short story, instead of a hundreds of pages novel.

Deborah: It is a good way to use material and characters that are on the cutting floor of a novel edit. I started out writing short stories and did not think I could write a novel. A woman in my writing group at that time described them as working on very different canvases which I liked.

Anita: I agree with this metaphor. Not all ideas fit a big canvas.

Sandy: Yeah, I agree with this. I’ve heard it described as short stories are a single scene, whereas novels are the whole movie. Or, short stories are like Youtube clips, whereas novels are like watching the thing live. 

Rik: Sometimes I’ve written shorts to grow my understanding of a character by placing them in different surroundings.

Sandy: Same. I’ve written short stories using characters from my epic fantasy WIP. Helps me get to know them better.

Gerald: For me, it’s a great challenge – to write a story and sharpen and hone it down to a specific word count. It’s also an easy way to get feedback on your writing in your early days. People are more likely to read a short than a full novel from a debut author.

Kathleen: This is probably a silly technical question, but I bet I’m not the only one who has it. Can I submit pieces I’ve put up on my website for magazines or other things…or do those count as published?

Sue: I’m afraid most magazines would count them as published but it’s always worth enquiring. If your website doesn’t get many hits then maybe they wouldn’t mind.

Sandy: Typically, they count as published as rights of 1st printing are now gone. That being said, some pubs accept ‘reprints’ and you can sub to them. Just be sure to read their sub guidelines carefully first. Any publisher worth their salt will say specifically in their guidelines if they accept reprints or not and what they consider reprints. It’s a more common thing now with more authors posting stuff on sites like Wattpad.

Beth: I don’t know if all writers should do it; I started as a way to get my foot in the door for novels. However, I’ve discovered that being a good short story writer helps tighten up my novels considerably. As a result, it’s been great for my writing.

Bradley: writing short stories challenges your ability to edit out unnecessary details. I believe everyone should write short stories for a period of time.

What are the challenges of writing a good short story?

Sue: The biggest challenge in writing a short story is getting the structure right. In a short work, there’s nowhere to hide. My recipe is: problem for main char/turning point/resolution in which main char is instrumental. Or: puzzle/key/resolution. Open-ended short stories can seem like just a piece of writing rather than an actual story. Or if the writer tries to shoe-horn in more than 1 episode (more than 1 conflict/problem/puzzle) they end up with a novella rather than a short story. The biggest challenge of all can be selling short stories. Fewer and fewer mags take them and terms for those sales from some publications are not favourable to the writer. Competitions, especially with cash prizes, are a good alternative.

Lauren: I wouldn’t have thought of this. So are short stories more for personal consumption?

Sue: Oh, I didn’t mean to give that impression! Just that the market has shrunk so there’s more competition. If you’re interested in writing for mags you might like to look at a blog called Womag Writer. Tells you all about markets. Excellent resource.

Sandy: This is why I don’t push too hard to be paid for short stories. I can post them on my website and direct traffic there and people have a quick hit for free from me. I look at it as a brand builder.

Kathleen: That was the original intent with the holiday piece I wrote — and it definitely DID increase traffic.

Rik: Yes. I think that’s the nub. There are rarely sub-plots in short stories, whilst almost always in novels.

Sandy: The main things I keep in mind when I’m writing shorts is: One POV, one setting, one conflict. @MaryRobinette, who also teaches short story writing says that for every character/setting you add, you add 500-1000 words. When you only have 7.5k to work with, it’s a lot. 

Sue: I agree with one POV, one conflict, on the whole. I only like more than one POV if there’s a really sturdy reason for it

Beth: I think one of the biggest challenges is deciding what to leave out. You don’t have space for lengthy character development or for a plot to grow. You have to put in exactly what will tell a complete story in a limited amount of words, so each word has weight.

Rik: I think a big challenge is creating that sense of ‘completeness’, with character, setting and plot, within a tight framework. I know the shorts have tightened my ‘long’ work in this way.

Sandy: The problem I’m having with my latest WIP is that, according to one beta reader, it ends abruptly. It’s a valid assessment. Just not sure how to fix it. Yet.

Sue: I had an editor who called that ‘leaving the reader at the altar’. She wanted me to dwell on the ending a little more. This is easier if you write fully explored endings. If you like open or ambiguous then I guess it’s not so easy.

Sue: And also, there are writing competitions all over the place. If you get a win/placing it looks great on your CV. There are anthologies, also.

Deborah: Every word and sentence has to carry its weight in a short story. Even more so than a novel. It is a great exercise for honing your writing skills.

Rik: Well, I disagree here. I think the same weight should be given to each word in a novel too. I think that shows in the great novels.

Deborah: You are quite right but in a short story there is nowhere to hide!

Sue: I think you’re right, Rik, but I think of a short story as a single painting on the wall of a gallery with a spotlight over it. Your work is really laid bare. A novel is more like a gallery with lots of paintings on it. 🙂 I may be stretching my metaphor …

Deborah: You know how a really talented artist conveys so much with a few brush strokes? That’s what I would love to achieve in a short story

Maria: I’m getting a bit more used to it now, but it’s a totally different process for me than writing a novel. I’m a plotter so it can be tricky keeping the conflict, resolution etc short when my brain is used to trying to come up with enough stuff for 60-100k odd words

Sue: I tackle this by reminding myself it’s a single episode. One conflict or puzzle to be resolved.

Sandy: I love keeping the endings to my short stories open so if I want to revisit it later for ‘Episode 2’, I can. 

Kathleen: Totally agree about keeping it tight and “complete.” I’ve also noticed that when using characters from a book (as I have) that it’s REALLY important to remember that I know the characters, but the reader doesn’t.

Gerald: To bring an engaging story to the reader, and to create interesting characters the reader can empathise with. To tell a full, well-rounded story in a few words.Anita: I ran some workshops for Spread The Word in London Libraries. The programme was called City of Stories; a comp for short stories.

Anita: I ran some workshops for Spread The Word in London Libraries. The programme was called City of Stories; a comp for short stories. The tips I used for teaching that course can be found here.

Sandy: Fitting a fully developed world with the characters and setting into a condensed format. I really have to work to trim away the icing so the cake is the star, so to speak… 

Anita: Leaving space for the reader to bring their thoughts to your story. Use the title as part of the story. Let the ending resonate after the reader has finished the story …

Bradley: Understanding and TRUSTING what information needs to be focused on versus what information needs to be omitted. You may love one detail, but is it truly necessary to the story? That is the question we must face when writing short stories.

What are the most common errors in writing a good short story?

Sue: Common errors in writing a short story include a slow start, too many conflicts or no real conflict, not adhering to an agreed wordcount, having no structure, which equals having no satisfaction. Also, not writing to a market … if there is a market.

Rik: The temptation of the stereotype!

Sue: Like beginning your story with an author staring at a blank screen and wishing the words would come? 🙂

GeraldStarting too slowly. Having too many characters. Not leaving the reader with anything to think about.

Anita: good question. A story which is too big for the format and needs backstory to make sense. Too many characters; adding a subplot; unsatisfactory ending.

Maria: Interlinks with previous question, but it can be tricky to achieve the same depth you have the space for in a novel. Short stories can sometimes have the problem of not enough character development, for example because of focusing on finishing the plot.

Bradley: Unnecessary dialogue. It draws out a short story with details that the reader cannot connect to within the confines of a short story. 

Beth: One of the things I’ve struggled with, and see from others sometimes, is starting the story in the wrong place. Since a short story needs to be ultra-tight, if you do that, it’s not set up properly, and has extraneous material that detracts from the punch.

Sandy: I agree with most of what’s already been said. Starting too slowly and trying to fit too much in. With short stories you really have to identify your core message and focus on that.

What are the benefits of short story competitions? How do you find out about them?

Sue: Short story comps can be great. Prizes, recognition, good entries on your CV, publication (though watch what rights they want) and sometimes a critique. I would advise writers to choose carefully which comps they enter.

The writing mags run great comps and in other areas there are comps with big prizes. Look for info in writing mags and on social media. There’s usually a fee to enter but the judges do have to be paid! Guard against what looks too expensive, though …

Bradley: Judges have to be paid” is a GREAT point. I know in light of recent events with publications, paying submission fees is always a touchy subject. However, if you are judging a contest, wouldn’t you want to be paid?

Anita: Comps are really valuable. As @SueMoorcroft said earlier, the market for shorts has shrunk. Also, there is a discipline needed to submit a word count on time on a specific theme.

Rik: They’re fun. You put skin in the game. Gives a deadline and other parameters, there’s always the possibility, though slim (in my case), of winning.

Gerald: I like the competitions where they publish lots of the winning entrants. You can compare your work to the winners (if you didn’t win!) You improve by either having your work critiqued (and some comps will do this for the shortlist) or by reading better stories.

Maria: I haven’t ever entered a short story competition myself but I see the benefit for putting your work out there and the challenge of having a specific word count/deadline etc. Plus, they sound like fun!

Beth: I haven’t actually entered any short story competitions, though one of my earliest stories was a finalist for best story of the year from its small press publishing company. Ussually I finish the story and just sort of toss it out into magazineland.

Kathleen: Too much story for the space seems to be my problem, maybe because I think like a novel writer.

Bradley: We often discuss rejections, but entering these competitions forces us to: A: Write with rules. B: Evaluate how much of what we write is effective. C: Review other stories that are effective for the competition (this is the RESEARCH that SHOULD happen).

Sandy: I’ve been in some a few years ago, and I’ve published two collections myself, and bringing out a 3rd this year. It’s a great way to introduce people to your writing. It’s better than leaving your writing on your hard disk! They can be used as giveaways for signups etc.

What makes a good anthology? Have you ever contributed to one or considered publishing your own?

Sue: A good anthology is often based around a theme or genre. It can be print or digital but should be properly edited and professionally packaged. My own experience is that there’s not a lot of money in it and many of my own contributions have been made. A good anthology is often based around a theme or genre. It can be print or digital but should be properly edited and professionally packaged. My own experience is that there’s not a lot of money in it and many of my own contributions have been made. It can look great on a writer’s CV and provide a lot of satisfaction. It might even get you noticed by an editor or agent, if you’re really lucky. An anthology will be around longer than short stories in magazines.

Maria: I’ve never been in one. It was talked about at uni (a group of friends wanted to publish a short story anthology, all horror stories with the theme of fire) but nothing ever happened with it.

Anita: Anthologies linked by theme work well. Mine was a random selection of shorts about different types of love. I was included in a collection called Essex Writes. And I have compiled / published anthologies for projects I have worked on.

Gerald: I’ve been in some a few years ago, and I’ve published two collections myself, and bringing out a 3rd this year. It’s a great way to introduce people to your writing. It’s better than leaving your writing on your hard disk! They can be used as giveaways for signups etc.

Sandy: A good anthology has a running theme, but is diverse enough to attract a large audience. I’ve been a part of 3 to date, have submitted to another, and have plans to submit to at least two more this year, one of them being a shared universe anthology. 

Bradley: Subtle Interconnectivity. The reader should always feel like they caught something that very few may have caught. There is a difficulty to this, but the result is always beautiful. My manuscript (#ChromaticStudy) is written in an a anthology format

An extra question for you all – have you tried flash fiction? Any tips?

Maria: Yes, a couple of times as a result of writing sprints/prompts challenges. It’s a fun way to exercise your creative muscles, especially for me who is a plotter to then just start writing without any idea of where it is going.

Anita: Yes! I love it! Honing a story to as few words as possible is a skill I have yet to master! As for tips; make every word count and meet the word count precisely …

Gerald: I LOVE flash fiction. Tips? Get used to cutting precious words. I think this is a great lesson to understand how your words serve the story, and that they can be removed to make the story better. You can always make a story shorter and tighter.

Kathleen: Flash fiction is too tight for me — I just throw up my hands!

Maria: The only times it’s worked for me is during a prompt/sprint, where you just have to start writing. As soon as I start plotting my outline would be way to big for a flash fiction 

Rik: I like flash. I’ve had a couple of short listings and a couple of pieces in eZines. It’s amazing how much you can get in to few words when the limit is set low. I think flash really helps with word economy in all other spheres. Hemingway would have been good at it.

Jane Lo: They are lots of fun, and really motivating too! My favorite contest is #furiousfiction; they post the short-listed stories on their website, with comments, and I always learn a lot from them.

Sandy: Afraid not. It’s just too tight for me. I did write a 500 piece a long time ago about a tandem skydive, but it never went anywhere. 

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