Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Can't I Get My Short Story Published?

    Short Story Fiction
Part I

After having run a short story contest and read dozens of short story entries through the years, I keep seeing the same mistakes being made over and over. I decided to do a series of articles pointing out the big things that keep people from developing as a writer of short stories and share tips on what a good short story should and should not include.
I shared the dais with Ed Hock (well-known writer for Ellery Queen Magazine) on a short story panel at Left Coast Crime a few years back, won several short story contests and been published in short story anthologies. I certainly don’t think of myself as an expert, but after reading so many short story contest entries, I thought I could share some tips that might help you be more successful.
Whether you are trying to win a contest, or get your short story published, these will up your odds greatly. There is always the subjective element to contest judging and what a publisher leans toward for their platform, but if you have met all the guidelines and your theme is what is asked for, these will up your chances that you will be published or place in the top tier of a contest.
There are no quick to-do’s to accomplish success. But if you are serious about your writing and want to learn to write a good short story, follow these tips for success.
A.     One thing to remember above all else: STORY IS KING. Concentrate on being a good storyteller. It is the premier ability—not how cleverly you write, your beautiful prose or if you have all the commas in the right place (I know I'm going to catch some flak for that one). STORY is what people want to read. They want to be transported and enchanted, not preached at or bogged down by your beautiful or clever words.
B.     Don’t fall in love with your own cleverness.
This is a continuation of A. above. Fancy wording or phrasing is an intrusion into the story and often distracts, if it does not outright kill it. Beautiful prose is a good thing, but not if it interferes with the STORY.
“If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.” Elmore Leonard

Watch the cutesy ideas - some people love to be clever, they come up with cute scenarios or characters or dialogue to the detriment of STORY. They can be too clever for their own good—or the good of the story. Don’t get caught up in trying to be clever and have it come off silly. That is best left to the comedians, not the story tellers (unless you are a comedic storyteller). Though some pull it off, you probably won’t. So make sure the images you are painting are cogent and not silly.
C.    Keep your eye on the ball
When writing a fictional short story you should have only one idea. Don’t include more than the story needs. Don’t ruin your story with a political or social agenda that preaches. It can be spice but should not be a main ingredient. Write a non-fiction essay if that subject is important to you. Just like too much back story, it kills the momentum.
“You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.”
—George Singleton
So often when I start reading a short story, I almost immediately get hit with a back story info dump. When you want to fill in the reader with a bit of interesting past that you think the reader will be as fascinated with as you are, STOP. If not intrinsic to the story, don’t put it in. It should be directly related to the telling of the story and be integrated artfully, not dumped.
Again—as a reader, I ask, “Do I want to wade through this to read on?” If this information interrupts the flow of the story, I may decide it is not worth it. I want a story, not a history lesson or details of a character's past that I don't need to know. Only layer in what is necessary, when it is necessary.
The reader decides how much patience they have to wait for you to get back into the story. Sometimes the story picks up again relatively quickly and I continue, but sometimes not and I don’t read on. Don’t get lost along the yellow brick road, wandering around pointing out all the interesting things; being distracted by the flying monkeys.
D.    Be sequential  - Don't get your shorts in a bunch.
Keep things in order. Keep your feet moving forward while walking on the earth.
Some writers who are good with prose, stringing together events or ideas in what they think is a nice flow, but they are not sequential in how things happen in space and time. This throws the reader off, taking him out of the moment. Lay out the phrases in a sequential order. Don’t jump back and forth with information. 
Example of distracting structure: (D) Jane tentatively entered the room (B) after suffocating in the closet (A) all afternoon (C) waiting for the intruders to leave. 
Try instead: (A) All afternoon Jane had (B) suffocated in that damn closet (C) waiting for the intruders to leave before she grew brave enough to (D) open the door and ease out. 

Easier to follow when laid out in the order it happened. (A,B,C,D)
If the reader ends up having to re-read your last sentence or two—or five, to get clear on what you just said--to get back on the path you have distracted him off of, he may give up. Remember, one foot in front of the other along the yellow brick road.
And it is better and more interesting to have a variety of sentence lengths to keep the interest going, rather than lo-o-o-ng phrases strung together so we forget what the beginning of that sentence was about. Distracting!

Writing is changing. Structures that may have worked in years past are quickly becoming stagnant. Readers want to read faster, to the point, without a lot of unnecessary words. If you are writing a short story, especially a short short, say it and move on. 

Unlike writing a novel, short stories should be concise and to the point.

Any questions? Maybe you disagree. Put them in the comments and let's discuss it.

More to chew on next post--including writing for mystery/suspense contests.                                                            


elizabethfais said...

Great post, Cora. The points are important to all types of fiction.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Cora, and I couldn't agree with you more. I began my writing career, so to speak, with short stories, actually, flash fiction pieces from 250 to 1k words max, and still have difficulty writing anything other than a short novella length e book. I loved what you said about everything in essence serving the story, or story through line without detours along the way. This is especially important in the E age I think because readers read on the go and how a story flows will impact whether they stick with your piece or move on. I really liked this: "Readers want to read faster, to the point, without a lot of unnecessary words. If you are writing a short story, especially a short short, say it and move on." This is so important when writing for online journals. Short paras, short chapters and dialogue that moves a story along. Ditch the exposition that doesn't relate to the story through line. Great post. Think I'll share with my writer pals if okay. My best, Paul

Cora said...

Thanks Elizabeth. What you say is true. My Sister's in Crime chapter is starting a new theme for next year's short story contest and I wanted to offer some tid-bits for them to keep in mind.

Anne R. Allen said...

Excellent post. I've always found novels easier than shorts, and that's because I try to cram too much in: too much story, too many characters, etc. This is helpful to all of us who have trouble with "less is more."

And Paul Fahey is right that fiction writing styles have changed. People don't have patience for detours any more. This is the era of Elmore Leonard style.

jrlindermuth said...

Good advice, Cora. One idea. No sub-plots. Sub-plots are for novels.

Linda Maye Adams said...

I don't agree with the Elmore Lenard quote. It is way too easy to revise the voice right out of the story by trying to fix things.

Cora said...

Thanks so much Paul for your great comments. I know what you mean about writing short when trying to do a longer work. My critique buddies have to puuuuull more out of me when I begin a new novel. My WIP started out as a small backstory (another life), turned novella and finally into final 74000 (so far) word novel.

Cora said...

Love Elmore Leonard! Crisp to the point. Thanks Anne.

Cora said...

Glad yo agree on that. Thanks.

Cora said...

I have this discussion/disagreement with one of my critique buddies. I think there is some finer point in there that we would agree on if I knew what it was.(smile). I understand what it means for me and so I guess it's all good.

Anonymous said...

Love the Elmore Leonard quote.

Having placed in short story contests, even taking top prize in the Alice Munro competition in 2009. one would think I had the craft licked. Not so. Condensing characterization, reducing backstory to beyond minimum, keeping description sparse, concise, and precise, is always a challenge. A short story is a novel in miniature, all the elements have to be there in order to have a satisfying tale. But, as Raymond Bradbury said, if you want to write, spend the first year writing shorts, one a week, instead of writing a novel. That way, you will have practiced the art of story 52 times in one year instead of only once.

Mike Schulenberg said...

Timely post, Cora...since these days I'm concentrating on short stories to get more practice before going back to my novel.

Liv Rancourt said...

I'm totally on board with the One Idea thing, and with the Sequential thing. And for sure The Story Is King. As someone who writes funny, though, I bristle at your point about cleverness. Maybe I'm trying to have cake and eat it at the same time, but I don't think Mr. Leonard meant to pull all the color out of the words. I think he's just looking for fresh writing. If it's a phrase you've read before, then it sounds like writing and don't use it. It's always a bad idea to fall in love with your own writing, clever or otherwise, but if it serves the story, I say it should stay.

Eileen Obser said...

Lots of great information in here, Cora. I'll be back teaching in the classroom this weekend -- fiction and nonfiction workshop series -- and your words of wisdom will be with me. I'm a big Elmore Leonard fan; thanks for quoting him.

Cora said...

First off, congratulations on your short story successes. I hadn't heard that advice from Ray Bradbury before. That is really a great idea--only I can't write a short story in one week. I could do maybe 12 a year. I've been wanting to do a few short stories this year. Maybe this idea will help me get it done. Thanks.

Cora said...

Sherry's idea from Ray Bradbury is a good one to keep in mind. Breaking between novels to write a short story is always a good way to get more instant gratification from the long process of the novel-especially if you enter a contest or get it published.

Cora said...

I really hesitated making the cleverness point. But I've seen so many short stories fail because of the writer getting caught up in trying for a clever angle that falls flat.

On Elmore's quote, I know a lot of people disagree with that. The way I understand it, it to have clean, clear, crisp writing, (fresh, you said) removing all that does not serve STORY. That is not to say that I haven't seen people publish or win short story contests that don't write like that. That is the subjective part I mentioned. Just as there are many novels that are not written well but still there are people to read them.

Cora said...

Thanks Eileen. I'm a fan, too.

J. L. Greger said...

This was helpful blog. It's nice to know others think the plot si the most important part.
JL Greger
Author of Coming Flu and Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight and numerous unpublished short stories