Research your target market. Do they use the type of story you want to write?
Short stories can be of any length from a few hundred to several thousand words. Make sure you aim at the length required by your chosen publication.
Before you start writing decide whether you are going to write this piece in the first or third person. It doesn’t matter which as long as you are comfortable with your decision, but don’t switch from one to the other. It is important to remember that if you write in the first person you can only include what that person sees, thinks and feels.
If you are using the third person it is important that the author should stay out of the story. The reader should never be made to feel as if they are watching a play where they can see all the characters and events. Get inside the head of the main character and stay there. See everything from that point of view. In longer stories and novels it is OK to change your viewpoint from one character to another but only when the main character isn’t present. Don’t switch about from one to the other in the same scene, don’t do it too often and only do it when it is essential to the plot.
Don’t bother too much about length in your first draft, you’ll lose spontaneity. You can edit down to the correct word count when you’ve finished. It is better to do this than try to pad out a piece which is too short.
Having written the story the first thing you should do is read it out aloud. This will show you words and phrases that you have used too often. The most usual fault made by new writers is to name the characters every time they do or say anything.
E.g. ‘“What are you doing?” Mary said. Without waiting for an answer Mary went to the window. Mary looked out over the garden.”
“Just looking for a book,” John said. John went over to Mary.’
Too many Marys and Johns. Only use names when it isn’t obvious who is speaking or performing some action.
Limit the number of characters in your story. Two or three are perfect. Four is acceptable but any more are too many unless you are writing a long short or a novel.
What to Aim For
Most editors love humour. (That is humour – not slapstick comedy.)
They also like a work which ends on a hopeful or upbeat note. They like the main character to win out in the end because readers tend to identify with that person. The reason for this is that editors of magazines want their readers to go on buying the publication. They are not going to do this if, after reading it, they are left feeling miserable, deflated and depressed. Readers are not particularly interested in your skill as a writer. They are only interested in how the result makes them feel. Of course you have to be skilful but the important thing is how it leaves them feeling.
That doesn’t mean that if your inspiration leaves you with a gloomy story that you have to scrap it. Write it. Then read it and try to work out how you could alter it to make your main character a winner instead of a loser.
When you have written the first draft of your story you have to refine it.
Have you ever seen a dog ragging a new piece of blanket in its bed? It shakes it, chews it up, tears at it until it’s just right, then, when it’s nice and comfortable, it curls up on it and goes to sleep. That is what you must do with your story.
It is only when you get to this stage that you need to start editing for length.
At this stage it is better if it is too long rather than too short. Your end product will be better if it is pruned not padded. Ruthlessly cut out all the words you don’t need and all the things that aren’t necessary to the plot (very important – only include what is absolutely essential to the action). Still too long?
Look for long sentences and paragraphs. Could you re-word them so that the same information is given in a sharper and therefore more interesting way? TV is here. People don’t sit down for long periods with a good book. Verbal diarrhoea is not attractive. Don’t scatter adjectives and adverbs like confetti.
A short story should be a walk with a purpose not a ramble in the country. Keep working on your masterpiece until it has fulfilled all the criteria and is exactly the right length. Check it over one last time.
Print out your story. On the cover page put the title and word count and your name, address, phone number and email address. Write a brief covering letter.
Put all the pages together with your letter and a stamped, self-addressed envelope and fasten the together with a paper clip – not a fastener or staple. Put all this into an envelope which is the right size. Don’t stuff it into one that is too small or a large unwieldy floppy one. It is acceptable to fold your ms. once but no more. An envelope designed for A5 paper is fine.
Now address it to the fiction editor of your chosen magazine. Use the correct postage and send it off. Then you wait – and wait. Don’t expect a quick answer. Get back to the computer and start work on your next submission.
You Must Always
Save, save, save your work and always save a backup on a floppy disc at the end of every session on the computer and keep it somewhere safe.
Leave good left and right hand margins. Use double spacing. Use one side of A4 paper. Use a font like Times New Roman 12 pt which is pleasant to look at and easy to read. Number the pages. Put the title and your surname at the top of every page. Have a title page showing, apart from the title and the word count, your name, address, ‘phone number and e-mail address.
Keep yourself out of the story. Stay inside the head of your main character. Read your story aloud to see if it sounds right. Research your target market. Do they use the type of story you want to write? Stick rigidly to the word counts they accept. Don’t think they will make allowances for you. Remember that you are just one of a great number of hopefuls. Ensure that you give your manuscript the maximum chance of success. If it’s outside the guidelines busy editors will probably return it unread.
After you’ve finished editing and rewriting do a final spell-check. Don’t rely solely on the one run by your computer programme. Some words such as there/their/they’re, to/too, its/it’s may not be picked up. Also watch your apostrophes.
And once again so you don’t forget. Save, save, save your work and always save a backup on a floppy disc at the end of every session on the computer and keep it somewhere safe.
Be as professional in your presentation and approach as possible. Be prompt in sticking to deadlines. If you are commissioned to present a piece by a certain date be sure to honour it. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope with your ms. Never use paper fasteners or staples to hold your pages together. Paper clips are perfectly adequate.
Stick rigidly to the word counts they accept. Don’t think they will make allowances for you. Remember that you are just one of a great number of hopefuls. Ensure that you give your manuscript the maximum chance of success. If it’s outside the guidelines busy editors will probably return it unread.
You Must Never
1. Hassle the editor for a decision. If you do your ms. will probably come winging back to you unread.
2. Tell editors that you are a new author and hope to play on their sympathy. Your presentation and work should be so good that they won’t guess that you are a beginner.
3. Tell editors that your submission is so good that they are bound to want it. They will promptly be inclined to decide that they don’t.
4. Tell them what you expect them to pay. Wait and see if they make an offer. None of us can afford to be picky. There’s too much competition. Writing is a buyers market, not the writer’s. The time to negotiate for higher rates is when the editor knows you and your work and has accepted several of your submissions.
Wait and see if they make an offer. None of us can afford to be picky. There’s too much competition. Writing is a buyers market, not the writer’s. The time to negotiate for higher rates is when the editor knows you and your work and has accepted several of your submissions.
(c) Theodora Cochrane has been a published author for many years.