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Ten Top Tips for Writing Short Stories and Getting Them Published

November 9th, 2015

Short_Story_TipsDo you ever finish a job and think: ‘Ooof – that was hard?’ I do it all the time, most recently with a story I (eventually) entered for the Aeon Award just last week. As some of you may remember, I started The Little People for a competition in Writing Magazine way back in September last year, but when the first draft came in way over the word count, I had to find a plan B, and this was it.

So, with stories in the air, I’ve been looking for advice on how to make writing them easier, starting with an E-Zee Writer article by Lorraine Mace, but also picking up pointers from WB ol’boy Christopher Fielden. There’s even a couple of suggestions of my own …

1. FIND OUT HOW

The best way to pick up the craft of short story writing is to read loads of short stories. And don’t just paddle around in the shallows, get into deep water and see how the big fish do it. In collections by writers like Stephen King, Angela Carter, Roald Dahl or Tove Jansson, each tale is a lesson in itself.

2. STRUCTURE
This may sound like taking coals to Newcastle, but you’ll get nowhere without an old fashioned beginning, middle and end. These are stories we’re talking about, they need strong openings, something needs to happen to the main character, and you need a proper end that ties up most, if not all, of the questions thrown up along the way.

3. ALL IN A NAME
There isn’t a lot of space here, and if you’ve got Fred, Frank and Frea, readers will get confused. So keep individuals distinct and clear and, as with words, never use two when you could get away with one.

4. TRUST YOURSELF
When I have an idea for a story, or a song … or anything, I generally keep it to myself. If I tell someone about a thing before it’s written, and they don’t immediately get excited, it puts me off – makes me think that perhaps it’s a rubbish idea. So don’t go asking anyone else whether a story is worth writing. Write it, then ask if it’s any good.

5. AND GET ON WITH IT
Once the basics are sorted, don’t hang around – get that first draft down. Type it, write it longhand, record it as a voice memo … whatever, just get it out. Then …

6. EDIT, EDIT, AND EDIT AGAIN
The best piece of editing advice I know is from Kurt Vonnegut: “If a word can be taken out, then …” This works for me, and you’ll be surprised once you get started; sometimes you can lose whole paragraphs. This is also the time to replace clichés with your own expressions, check grammar and spelling, and pay particular attention to dialogue – make it real.

7. STAY IN CHARACTER, DARLING
Any fiction writer has to do at least some acting. To one degree or another you have to put yourself into the skin of your characters and make sure they stay true to themselves throughout the tale. Forcing them into decisions or actions because your narrative demands it doesn’t work. They must be consistent and believable, otherwise the whole house of cards collapses in a heap.

8. RULES IS RULES
When I was sixteen I sent a hand written first draft to a publisher – I thought it was great. Six weeks later it came back with a nice letter saying, “No thanks.” And OK, that’s a bit extreme, but if you’re submitting something and don’t follow the competition or publisher’s guidelines, that’s what happens. Nobody comes round to give you a stiff talking to, or calls to explain what you did wrong. You get a polite, standard rejection, or nothing. So never, ever send in hand-written work, but always research the house style, check the guidelines, and FOLLOW THEM.

9. WRITE A GOOD LETTER
If you’re submitting to an editor, make sure you know their name, and send your story in with a short, professional letter or email, showing that you know something about their magazine. Keep yourself in the ‘in’ tray as long as possible.

10. STAY IN SHAPE
This is from the always erudite Christopher Fielden: “Healthy body = healthy mind = better writing and story telling.” So if you want to write good stories, keep yourself fit. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat well and take regular exercise. The old movie cliché of the hard-drinking writer, burning the candle at both ends is just that – a movie cliché. Here in the real world it’s regular hours and graft that counts.

And a bit of luck … of course.

Keep on writing!

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