Get Started Writing Short Fiction That Sells

I recently posted a new YouTube video called, “Get started writing short fiction that sells & what makes a good short story”.

Here’s the transcript:

Hi everyone. I’m Ephiny Gale, and today I’m going to be talking about how to get started writing short fiction for publication and what makes a good short story.

In my last video I gave a step-by-step overview of the process of selling your short fiction to magazines, journals and anthologies, so if that’s what you’re after please click the link for that in the description below. THIS video is going to go into a lot more detail about the actual writing of short fiction.

So what makes a good short story? I tend to dislike a lot of prescriptive writing advice because what makes a story “good” is so subjective. For instance, let’s take what I would consider to be the most basic rules of storytelling. One, that you need a beginning, middle and an end. And two, that you need correct spelling and grammar.

For the first one, we’re taught in western society that a story is not a story if it doesn’t have this introduction, middle, conclusion structure that we’re taught from a very young age. But in other cultures they don’t necessarily have that as a rule. For them a story could be, “Timmy woke up. He saw the tigers. He went on a rollercoaster. He patted a dog. The end.” Now, for a lot of us in western society, we would say, “That’s not a story, that’s a series of events,” but in other cultures that could absolutely be a story. Is it a good story? A lot of people would say no. But if it’s your son telling you that story and you love him, and you haven’t seen him for two months, perhaps it’s an excellent story. Perhaps it’s exactly what you want to hear.

For the second one, don’t get me wrong, in 99.9% of fiction you want your spelling and grammar to be as pristine and perfect as possible, because it helps to portray your story to the reader as clearly as possible. It’s a communication tool. But there are some rare occasions where a writer will choose to deliberately use incorrect grammar to help them tell their story. The first piece that comes to my mind for this is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, which is told in the form of progress reports written by its main character Charlie. At the start of the story Charlie is significantly mentally disabled and he struggles to read and write, which is reflected in the progress reports that he writes. Later on, as his brain undergoes changes, so do the progress reports: the spelling and grammar in them steadily improves as time passes. So the differences in spelling and grammar throughout the story are used very effectively to convey character and progress.

My point here is that even the most basic and seemingly objective measures for what makes a story “good,” or even what makes a story a story, are not necessarily as objective as they might initially seem. The beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Have you entertained someone with your story? Have they gotten something out of it? Do they leave feeling like it hasn’t wasted their time? If a reader answers yes to at least one of these questions, your story is probably at least a reasonably good story for them. Other people might have a completely different experience, and you can’t please everyone.

Which brings me to: how do you write good short fiction for publication? I’m going to be talking about this with the lens of selling your short fiction to magazines, journals and anthologies, but if you have something else in mind like self-publishing, I think you could still adapt some of this video to suit you.

So, we spoke about how a “good” story is very subjective. The key to writing short fiction that sells is to understand your audience and to understand what they consider a “good” story to be. And the easiest way to understand this is to read a whole bunch of short fiction that has been published in the last couple of years.

So this is my best advice to you if you want to start writing short fiction that sells, especially if most of the fiction that you’ve read in your life has been novels, because novels are a very different beast. Find – let’s say six – find six markets that publish short fiction in the genre or genres that you want to write in, and read at least a few recent stories from each of those markets. This will help you to understand how short fiction works: how it works structurally, how it works in your genre, and what sort of things have been selling recently. Now, I’m not suggesting that you read just anything. These are my recommendations:

One: only read stories from paying markets. Absolutely, stories in non-paying markets can also be very good, but they haven’t sold, and you want to learn about what has sold.

Two: you don’t have to pay to read stories. There are plenty of stories that have sold for professional rates that are completely free to read online, at least in the science fiction, fantasy and literary genres. I’m less familiar with other genres, but my point is you shouldn’t assume that you have to pay to read. I do buy quite a lot of stories, especially if they’re in print, because I feel like it’s important to support the authors and publishers that I like, but i read at least an equal amount of stories online for free.

Three: don’t keep reading stories that just aren’t “for you.” By this I mean, if you’re a few paragraphs into a story and it really feels like work to keep going, feel free to close that story. There are plenty of stories that are published in some of the best magazines in my genre or that have won huge awards that just aren’t “for me.” It doesn’t mean that they’re not good stories, but they’re not good stories for me, and you don’t have to read stories that you don’t enjoy either.

If you’re having trouble finding markets to read, I would recommend doing a search on either Duotrope or The Submissions Grinder and seeing what comes up. For instance, I could pretend that I have a 2000 word science fiction story that I want to sell for at least semi-pro rates. What are the markets that come up in that search? Those are potential markets for me to read, because they’re likely to be markets that I’d like to sell my work to in the future.

If you read and write speculative fiction there are also a few reviewers who are fantastic resources for finding new stories. Charles Payseur, Maria Haskins, Vanessa Fogg and A.C. Wise are all excellent, and I will link to them in the description below.

As you’re reading a variety of stories, it might help you to take note of a few things. What stories do you really like? Why do you like them? What makes a short story feel satisfying? What sort of endings do you like? What story structures do you like and dislike? Are there structures you’d like to try in your own writing? For instance, some stories are written in the form of diary entries, or a list, or a scene every day, or a scene every year. Now, I’m not suggesting that you need to take literal written notes on all of this; they’re just useful things to be thinking about when you finish reading a piece.

As you read, you’ll also start to build up an impression of the markets that publish more stories that match your particular taste. 90% of what I read is speculative fiction, and there aren’t any speculative fiction markets that exclusively publish stories that I like. However, I do know of several that tend to publish more of the stories that are “for me.” Currently in the speculative fiction landscape those publications are Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction and Kaliedotrope. I don’t read everything they publish, and I read plenty of stories from other markets as well, but I do know that I’m more likely to enjoy the stories they choose.

This can also be a good indicator that your stories might be a good fit for those markets. I’ve been published in two of them. My points here are: if you find a market that publishes a lot of what you like, absolutely keep reading it, and… If you like a lot of what a market publishes, that could be a really good sign that you should submit your writing there. Not a definite rule, just a consideration.

So, to finish up this video, after spending a lot of time earlier telling you how good stories are extremely subjective, I AM going to give you a few solid, basic recommendations on how to write a “good” story that sells, based on my own experience. As with all writing advice, feel free to take it with a grain of salt.

First recommendation: it really does help to have a story with a beginning, middle and end. Almost anyone can tell a story like this. Let’s create a tiny, two sentence story together right now. “We went to the supermarket, but they were out of dinosaur birthday candles. When we got home Benny was dead, so it didn’t matter.”

In the beginning of this story, even if it’s not explicitly stated, the narrator wants to buy a dinosaur birthday candle or multiple dinosaur birthday candles. We can safely infer this from the first sentence. In the middle of the story, the conflict, they can’t buy the dinosaur candle that they want. And the end of the story is that Benny is dead, so the candles are either insignificant and/or the person the narrator was buying them for is no longer there to enjoy them.

Second recommendation: a story has a much higher chance of feeling satisfying to the reader if you answer the key question that was posed at the beginning. In the tiny story that we’ve just been discussing, the key question is “Will the narrator be able to get the dinosaur birthday candle?” The answer is: “No, but it doesn’t matter.” Other key questions could be: “Will Katniss win the Hunger Games?” or “Will Frodo be able to destroy the One Ring?”

Third recommendation: try to grab your reader’s attention as soon as possible. This could be from the first line, the first paragraph, or the first page. If you do have a slower moving story, that’s fine, but make sure to give the reader some kind of compelling reason to keep going, whether that’s an interesting writing style, or a strong character voice, or a cool concept. Readers are usually going to give short fiction less time to hook them than they would a novel.

Fourth and final recommendation: good spelling and grammar really does matter, both in terms of making your story look professional, so that an editor is more likely to buy it, and in terms of communicating your story to an audience. It’s the difference between, “Let’s eat, grandma,” and “Let’s eat grandma,” where one is a nice family dinner and the other is cannibalism. If you ARE going to break spelling and grammar rules it should be a deliberate choice that serves the story, like in Flowers for Algernon.

If you enjoyed this video I’d love it if you could give me a like to let me know, and subscribe if you want to see similar videos in the future. I’ll discuss other aspects of writing and publishing short fiction and probably some other mediums as well. If you’ve got any particular questions or topics that you’d like me to cover, please let me know in the comments.

Thanks so much for watching and see you next time. Bye.

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