Ah, the literary short story, that enigmatic form. You probably either love ’em or hate ’em, but there’s no question they take a great deal of skill to master.
Publishing short stories in literary magazines lends us credibility and provides the validation boost some of us need to really call ourselves writers. But if you’ve ever set out to write a publishable short story with little-to-no experience, you’ve probably found this process easier said than done.
What makes a short story good or even great? What makes it publishable? What makes readers want to continue reading?
I’ve been writing and publishing short stories for about 12 years now. I also have five years’ experience as the managing editor of a literary journal and two semesters’ experience as a creative writing instructor for adults. From these different perspectives—writer, editor, teacher—I can say that when it comes to short stories, beauty’s sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Once, in my role as a lit mag editor, I felt strongly we should publish a story that some of the other fiction editors didn’t like. In the end we did publish the piece, and that writer went on to publish a collection of short fiction—including the piece in question—to national acclaim.
Sometimes it’s all about taste.
As readers we can’t always agree on what exactly makes a story great. However, as writers we can take steps to improve our odds of writing stories that gain the good opinion of many readers . . . including, perhaps, the lit mag editors waiting for our submissions to turn up in their inboxes.
The following insights or steps are those that have made the biggest difference to my writing:
1. Study short stories you admire.
I’m not suggesting you mimic other authors. Rather, critically read short stories you admire to immerse yourself in the elements of their writing until you internalize them. Read incredibly slowly. Pay attention to absolutely everything. The storyline, characters, voice, form, point of view, tense, figurative language . . . every last detail.
When I recently cleaned up some old files on my hard drive, I came across several stories I wrote very early on. They were attempts made before I’d spent enough time reading short stories critically in the way I’ve just described, and the tone and style compared to my more recent work is far less sophisticated. I see this process as similar to developing an ear for music and then learning to play songs by ear. Study the form and content, internalize the form and content, and you’ll naturally become a better writer and storyteller.
Once I started reading the types of short stories I wished I could write myself, it honestly didn’t take long to start producing publishable work. Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Nathan Englander, Stephanie Vaughn, Anne Enright: these are just some of the voices I continued to hear in my head, long after I’d put down their books.
But don’t stop just at reading; listening to stories read aloud by others is also incredibly helpful for developing your writerly ear. Short story podcasts and audiobooks are a great way to kill time while you do housework, drive or exercise. I suggest The New Yorker Fiction Podcast and The Writer’s Voice Podcast.
2. Get ready to do some serious pantsing.
Some will vehemently disagree with me, but I feel strongly you’ll be more successful writing a great literary short story if you “pants” your way through it (i.e., fly by the seat of your pants), rather than plan ahead. Writing a short story is much different to writing a novel, and though some people do pants their way through novels, they’re more likely to have at least a general outline before they really get into the meat of it. There’s more at stake with a novel; you’re dealing with hundreds of pages instead of a few thousand words. With a short story, you can afford to go off on tangents and develop your story more organically.
Try discovering your story through the very act of writing your story. You don’t need to know where you’re going or how you’ll get there; you just need to have a situation, a conflict, a feeling, a character, or some other starting point to work from. Then, sit down and freewrite. Don’t worry about what comes out. Just write. Eventually, you’ll find something worth exploring more. If you get stuck, try some writing prompts. You’ll write hundreds or thousands of words you’ll never use, but you’ll also write hundreds or thousands you will.
Keep your manuscript or a notebook at hand, so you can write immediately when the mood strikes. If I’m away from my computer and don’t have a pen and paper on me, I take notes in my phone’s note app and transcribe them later.
3. Experiment with everything.
Form, style, point of view, past/present tense—there are so many aspects of a short story you can experiment with (once you have enough draft material to work with), and this experimentation is often what elevates your story beyond “blah.”
Consider the effect of moving dialogue, individual sentences or whole paragraphs around within a scene. Sometimes deleting, adding, or moving a line can make an enormous difference to how it all lands. You have to trust your intuition here. Listen for it. If you’ve taken some time to work on point #1, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Sometimes changing the point of view or tense of a short story affects its overall tone for the better. My most recent story out on submission started in the first-person present tense (e.g., “I walk down the street and look at the golden leaves falling on the sidewalk”). I started to experiment with parts of it in third-person present tense (“She walks down the street and looks at the golden leaves falling on the sidewalk”) before settling on third-person past tense (“She walked down the street and looked at the leaves falling on the sidewalk”). The story could have worked in another point of view or tense, but this one resulted in a subtle yet fitting change.
Check out Carol Shields’ short story “Chemistry” (you can read an excerpt for free here) and study the point of view. Then read Nathan Englander’s “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” and note both the POV and the story’s form.
4. Ask yourself, “So what?”
This is a tip I learned during my university days. I once took a course on Geoffrey Chaucer and had to write an essay about The Canterbury Tales. I remember managing to come up with some original insights, and the professor even commented, “Ooh, great essay!” in front of everyone as she handed me back my paper. Then I saw the mark, a B+, and wondered why she’d described the piece as “great” instead of just “good.” Her written comments shed light on my question: “The next step is to ask yourself, so what? You proved your thesis well, but why does this matter?”
It’s a lesson I never forgot. Why exactly does my story matter? Why does my character’s conflict matter? To whom will it matter?
There could be any number of answers to these questions, and some stories matter more than others, but if you can’t answer that question at all, keep exploring.
5. Find your “pow” moments.
Pick up your favourite short story. Go on, I’ll wait while you grab it. Ok, now skim over it (because you’re already familiar with it, right?) and find your absolute favourite moments, those phrases or paragraphs that make you wish you’d written them. They are the moments you personally consider genius. A small lifelike detail, a life-changing insight, a piece of striking dialogue—those are what I call “pow” moments. They sometimes defy description. They just are. But in any case, it’s sometimes these moments that transform a story from ordinary to extraordinary.
Here’s an example from Eden Robinson’s story “Traplines“:
In a few weeks, Christmas lights will go up all over the village. Dad will put ours up two weeks before Christmas. We use the same set every year. We’ll get a tree a week later. Mom’ll decorate it. On Christmas Eve, she’ll put our presents under it. Some of the presents will be wrapped in aluminum because she never buys enough wrapping paper.
Look at that interesting little detail about the aluminum foil. It’s a quiet moment, but something that really stands out to me as an original detail about this character.
How about the visceral images in Stephanie Vaughn’s “Dog Heaven“?
That day’s lecture was “What Happens to the Atom When It’s Smashed.” Miss Bintz put on the wall a black-and-white slide of four women who had been horribly disfigured by the atomic blast at Hiroshima. The room was half darkened for the slide show. When she surprised us with the four faces of the women, you could feel the darkness grow, the silence in the bellies of the students.
“And do you know what this is?” Miss Bintz said. No one spoke. What answer could she have wanted from us, anyway? She clicked the slide machine through ten more pictures—close-ups of blistered hands, scarred heads, flattened buildings, burned trees, maimed and naked children staggering toward the camera as if the camera were food, a house, a mother, a father, a friendly dog.
If you can’t find any pow moments in your story, go back and experiment some more. Maybe have a writer friend read your story and see what stands out most for them.
6. Speak your story.
The late Canadian author Richard Wagamese was deeply connected to oral storytelling practices. He taught his methods at universities and workshops:
People aren’t taught to write starting from oral telling, and particularly not from spontaneous oral telling. We’re taught in the traditional academic paradigm of writing, with the rules that are set down to make it happen on a page, Wagamese said.
The process of oral storytelling [ . . . ] is a much different experience from writing alone. We use our whole brains [ . . . ] in an effort to combine the physiology of speaking with stream of consciousness and the logic of a story. In the end, we also activate three major parts of our being — our physical, mental and emotional elements.
So, here’s my dirty little secret: I talk to myself.
When I’m driving alone, I speak my stories to myself. I start by choosing a line from my story I remember well and say it aloud. Then I try to take it further. I repeat myself and modify the line as I’m speaking. I say it again and add to it. I falter and skip over to other parts of the story. It’s a mess. But during this process, I always come up with at least one little gem. As soon as I arrive at my destination, I record the gem or at least make a note of it for later.
There’s magic in hearing your own voice speak your story aloud. It’s liberating and an out-of-the-box method of composing a story. I highly recommend you try it sometime, particularly if you feel stuck.
7. Aim for subtlety.
Here’s another lesson I’ve learned through several rounds of working with magazine editors who wanted to publish my stories. Often, my inclination was to go just a little too far. To explain just a little too much.
The second short story I ever published came with this feedback. “We love your story, but we wonder if you’d be open to a couple of suggestions. First, we’d like to change the title of the story from “A Terrible Beauty” to something more subtle, like “Perfect.” Second, we think the story works better without the final paragraph.”
But I loved my title! I loved my final paragraph! They were intense and raw and—in my mind— worked just fine. However, after careful consideration, I discovered that the editors’ advice was spot on. Removing the final paragraph meant removing my temptation to explain a little too much. The title was taken from a line from a Yeats poem and did tie into part of the story, so it could have worked; however, I do think the subtler, simpler title works better.
After publishing several stories and having similar feedback from other editors, despite knowing what I know and trying more actively to be subtle, I recognize that sometimes outside sources are better able to spot these moments in our work. Cutting and simplifying—a little or a lot—is sometimes the best thing you can do for your story.
8. Be sure you’re actually writing a story.
This is a tricky one for me, as plot has never been my strong point. What makes a story a story, exactly? Especially when you’re dealing with the literary short story, which often has a more subtle plot than, say, a murder mystery or sci-fi story.
I personally define story as the effect of conflict on one or more characters, or how characters interact with conflict. But do stories always have a resolution? Not necessarily, especially not in a literary short story.
Rather than telling myself I need a conflict and resolution, I instead aim for a beginning, middle and end. There are always characters and conflict in my stories (beginning and middle), but what constitutes “end” is so much more subjective than strictly “resolution”. End could be epiphany. End could be a moment of decision. End could also be your reader having to interpret the greater meaning or what comes next.
Sometimes story is very subtle. Take George Saunders’ short piece “Sticks.” At first glance you might say this is a non-story. Nothing much happens, there’s not much in the way of dialogue or shown interaction, and Saunders “tells” what happened in the past. The end is not earth-shattering. How, then, can this be called a story? In this instance, the story seems to be more in what’s left out. The gaps Saunders leaves for you, the reader, to fill in.
What you want to avoid is a non-story—a description of events with no purpose, no insights, no greater meaning. Again, if you’re unsure, ask some writer friends to read your piece and give you some feedback.
9. Take significant breaks between writing stages.
However long you think it’ll take you to write your short story, double it. Maybe triple or quadruple it. It’s not uncommon for me to spend more than three years on a single short story. Of course, I’m working on other pieces and projects in between or simply not working on the story at all, but often the process just takes that long. Literary writing is a long-term relationship.
Besides, short stories rarely pay well. If you’re writing them, you’re doing it for the satisfaction and credibility it provides, not trying to make quick cash. I’m not saying people can’t and don’t bang out magnificent short stories in a short period of time. Sometimes this does happen, even for me. It’s just not the norm.
One of the best ways to automatically improve your story is to put it away and forget about it for a significant period of time. Returning to a piece after weeks, months or even years always helps you identify improvements.
10. Print it out.
Remember point #1, about studying short stories you admire? Remember how I said to read incredibly slowly and study every last detail?
Well, now it’s time to do this again, but this time with your own short story. I can’t tell you how essential this step is to my own writing process.
At some point, usually once I have a somewhat solid draft, I print out my story and read it on paper. I use a pen to mark up the manuscript and look for connections I would have otherwise missed. I look for ways to enrich my story, and this happens when I take time to notice what’s already naturally there. I have to draw out ideas, symbols and metaphors that are meaningful to the overall work. This works best if I’ve taken significant time away from the work, as described in # 9.
You’d be surprised what seeds your subconscious will sow during the organic drafting stage. All you have to do is look for them.
11. Make sure it’s 100 percent polished.
Many, if not most, literary magazines defer to The Chicago Manual of Style, which lays out guidelines for consistent, clear writing, formatting, and more. You don’t have to have your work professionally copyedited before submitting it, but definitely give it a thorough amateur copyedit.
Here are a few issues to consider:
- Be consistent in your spelling choices. If you spell it “colour” in one paragraph, don’t spell it “color” in another.
- Use only one space after periods, instead of two. The two-space rule you may have learned in school is obsolete.
- Use title case for your story title. Check out this cool Capitalize My Title tool and click on the “Chicago” tab.
- CMOS recommends serial commas. If you choose not to use them (Canadians tend not to), be consistent in that; however, there are instances in which serial commas must be used to avoid misreading or ambiguity.
- Know when to put punctuation inside quotations and parentheses, and when not to. This varies according to style guide and country.
- Avoid comma splices. There are very few instances in which a writer can get away with a comma splice. I can’t think of a single instance in which I’ve consciously used one for a stylistic purpose. Just don’t.
- Follow the publication’s particular manuscript guidelines. They may specify requirements for layout, spacing, and font types and sizes. They may or may not want a short bio in your cover letter. Some also require the cover letter to be the first page of your submission rather than a separate document.
There’s definitely no one way to write a literary short story and no absolute way to guarantee success. However, if you have a burning desire to have your writing published and read by others, commit to a writing journey rather than a destination. Great writing happens as a matter of process. I’d encourage you to try each of these steps and see what works best for you. Given time, they can only lead to stronger writing.