After reading a story of mine on-line, two writers contacted me – one in India and one in London. The first one wrote: “Loved your story. Wish I could get some of my stories published. They lie dormant and dusty in my drawer, never to see the light of day. Any suggestions how I can go about it?” The second writer wrote:
“Thank you for sharing your story. I loved the way you fitted so much into such a limited number of words. I have a lot of difficulty in keeping my plots simple and uncomplicated and sticking within word limits.”
This is how I go about writing a short story. First I think about my heroine and give her a problem. It needs to be something substantial – not like choosing a dress or hair color; not just attracting some guy she likes.
It could be holding on to her job when one of the staff tries to sabotage all her efforts; it could be finding a way to evade her mother’s insistent match-making, desperate that her daughter is still single; it could be that her husband is jealous of her success in some area of her life and that the more she achieves, the more her marriage is in danger of breaking up.
Take out one of the short stories languishing in the drawer. Read the first paragraph – does it really hook you?
If it doesn’t, the editor will discard it without reading anything further. I like to start with dialogue. In “An Affair to Remember”, a 1600-word story for a U.K. magazine, my first sentence was: “Louise, are you having an affair?” That’s an attention-grabber, even though further on we discover it’s the catered kind of affair, not a love affair; but the shock tactic of the first sentence made sure that the editor’s curiosity was piqued. By the banter between two friends meeting over coffee, we discover that it will be a light-hearted, amusing comedy. I studied the magazines guidelines for writers, which are always available if you google the name of the magazine, so before I started I learned that the story must be less than 2,000 words; that the editor required a submission cover letter with a short synopsis and all contact details (not all editors require this, but you must check every medium and make sure you fulfil their conditions.) By reading the magazine like a text-book, I learned that the readership was mainly women in the 50 plus age bracket, so my heroine is celebrating her 50th birthday. The advertisements in the magazine were directed at quite affluent women, so that’s how I portrayed mine. It was an upbeat , quite sophisticated, magazine so my women were well-educated professionals, ensuring empathy from the readers.
Decide who you are writing for before you write your story, and make sure you comply with the kind of stories they publish. Don’t use cliches – find fresh ways to express yourself. Lots of dialogue and show, don’t tell are good rules. If you have a word limit, don’t write long blocks of description – editors hate them and readers skip them. Get rid of adverbs and adjectives wherever possible and use strong verbs instead. Instead of “she said angrily” you can say “she snorted”. The best way to test your story is to read it aloud to a friend who will be honest with you, not try to spare your feelings. When you see her looking bored, you know you have a weak spot that must be eliminated. If you are a member of a writers’ group, that can be helpful unless they are a mutual admiration society – you will never progress if all they do is tell you your work is great. A real friend will be an honest critic who will tell you the weak points of the story, why the ending is unsatisfactory etc.
So take out the discarded stories. Read them again and see if some of them don’t make you feel embarrassed. If a spark of interest is ignited, decide that is the story you will work on. Put in a joke. Freshen up the description. See if the conversation sounds natural or contrived. Will the problem be one that the reader can identify with? And make sure before you submit it that you have fulfilled all the editor’s conditions. Good luck.
In my next post, I will let you read my story “An Affair to Remember” and it may help you to complete yours.
Contact me if you need help with a writing problem; or locating my books. You can find my e-mail address above in About Me or My Books.