Short stories and personal essays have never been hotteror more crucial for a successful writing career. Earning bylines in magazines and literary journals is a terrific way to get noticed and earn future opportunities in both short- and long-form writing.
Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays capitalizes on the popularity of these genres by instructing on the two key steps to publishing short works: crafting excellent pieces and successfully submitting them. You'll learn how to:
• Develop different craft elementsincluding point of view, character, dialogue, scene writing, and morespecifically for short stories and essays.
• Recognize the qualities of excellent short works, using examples from recently published stories and essays in major journals.
• Understand the business of writing short, from categorizing your work and meeting submission guidelines to networking and submitting to writing contests.
• Master the five-step process for submitting and selling like a pro.
Featuring advice and examples from a multitude of published authors, Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays is a must-have for any writer's bookshelf.
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DEFINING THE SHORT STORY
Before we look at the building blocks of great storytelling, I'd like to talk about contemporary short stories and personal essays. We'll start with the short story. A short story is a short work of fiction. Many of the same craft techniques used to write novels are used to write short stories, but the short story stands apart as a separate form of prose — one delivered with concise language. The use of compression and microscopic storytelling makes short stories unique. A short story isn't a chapter from a book but a complete experience delivered in a small package.
Besides length, short stories are unique because the action usually revolves around a single dramatic event. It is a glimpse of a character's life — perhaps one year or even one hour. Every moment in the story is a dance between action and reaction that is related to a single dramatic event. These stories begin as close to the main conflict as possible, giving an unmistakable immediacy to the prose.
Short stories can be enjoyed in one sitting, but that time frame varies from story to story. Short stories can be as simple as six words or run eighty pages long. Most short stories published today fall somewhere between one-and seven-thousand words, but longer stories and shorter stories can still find homes. There is no hard rule to follow with word count.
The terms "flash fiction" and "microfiction" refer to the very shortest of stories. Microfiction is a story that tops out at one hundred words. Flash fiction is anything between one-hundred to one-thousand words. Anything above one-thousand words (and up to twenty-thousand words) is simply called a short story.
Well-written short stories are highly desirable pieces of prose. There are plenty of markets to place this type of work. You'll find short stories in literary magazines (The Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, etc.), genre magazines (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction, Lightspeed, etc.) children's magazines (Cricket, Highlights, Ladybug, etc.), and commercial magazines (The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest, etc.). Some are even sold as digital shorts on Amazon or other digital retailers.
I mention the caveat "well-written short stories" because even though there are many outlets for short stories, the competition to earn a space on the pages of a journal is quite stiff. For any writing project, you must create, revise, and polish your work until it meets the standards of the market to which you're submitting, and in the world of short stories, that standard is skyscraper tall. Short stories are some of the most clever, experimental, urgent, and fresh prose being written today.
Part of the reason is the long-respected history of great storytellers and their iconic short stories, such as Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," Flannery O'Connor's "Greenleaf," and William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." I could go on for quite some time before running out of names, but the point I'm making is that short-story writers still aspire to equal the masters. This category's authors and publishers will always hear the echo of notable writers in the distance. So today, editors search for contemporary yet barrel-aged stories that have been given enough careful crafting to mellow into greatness.
GET TO KNOW SHORT STORIES BY READING
Reading short stories is a great way to absorb the concept of condensed prose. There are many styles of stories being published today. Each journal has a unique aesthetic. Reading a variety of different magazines will help you understand what the current literary landscape looks like, and it will also help you see which ones publish work that is similar to yours.
You can find short stories online and in print at various literary journals. Several short-story writers have also published collections of their stories. I like to buy the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses anthology each year because it showcases stories from several different magazines.
To get you started, I've gathered some stories here as examples of what is being published in journals today. The first story is a piece of flash fiction by Kathy Fish called "Düsseldorf." I chose this story because it's a terrific example of the three dramatic elements of flash stories that Kathy mentioned earlier: emotion, movement, and resonance.
by Kathy Fish
Published in Yemassee 23.1.
I have not left the room in three days, and the maids are impatient to clean it. [From the first sentence, the mood is set.] It's October, and my husband has brought me along on his business trip. We've been to London and Paris. Now we are in Düsseldorf, and the sun never shines. I keep the drapes closed, order room service, nibble kuchen under the eiderdown. The room smells like rotten apples. [The emotion is clear by the end of this first paragraph: Loneliness pervades everything.]
There's an art museum somewhere. I could take a cab or walk to the museum, or I could lunch by the river. According to the map in the guidebook, we are not far from the river.
In Paris, in a smoky brasserie, my husband spoke at length about his client. He said she is smarter than any man and young but wise and savvy.
"I hate the word savvy," I said. "And all women are smarter than men. It is no great accomplishment."
When he talks to her on the phone, his voice changes register, as if he's been told he's won a major prize. I wonder what she looks like.
The maids pound on the door again. I go into the bathroom and lock the door. I can hear the rattling of keys, their stout, German voices.
The bathroom door knob turns back and forth. I wait for them to give up and leave me in peace.
There's nothing to it. I open the door, smiling, grab my sweater and my bag with the guidebook and an umbrella and leave them to the clutter.
There are no people on the street. It's Tuesday, the middle of the day. I walk a long ways. I turn corners and stop, forgetting which direction I came from. Nothing looks as it ought to. The gray and brown buildings stretch to the clouds.
I find a bench and flip through the guidebook. I don't recognize anything from the pictures. All the streets appear the same. Only chestnut trees. Only plain, boxy buildings. Maybe I should return to my hotel. Lying on the grass, not two feet away, I see a dead squirrel.
A little boy in wire-rimmed glasses comes towards me. He's eating a sandwich wrapped in foil. I ask him if he speaks English.
"Yes. I speak English," he says, around the bread and cheese.
"Good. Can you tell me where we are?"
He laughs and says, "This is the city of Düsseldorf." He offers me the rest of his sandwich. I decline.
"But where are all the people? Where are the birds? I haven't heard a single bird chirp or a dog bark. Where are the cars, the streets signs? If this is a city, where are the shops, the cafés, the restaurants, the bars? Where did you get that sandwich? Who makes the music and the art? Where are all the feral cats?"
The boy chews his sandwich and swallows.
I sniff the air. "Why, I can't even smell anything, can you?"
"Düsseldorf is a beautiful German city on the Rhine River. Its population is eleven million," he says.
"I don't believe you."
The boy crumples the foil into a ball and throws it at my face. He tears off down the sidewalk.
Maybe the squirrel is only sleeping, but I've never seen a squirrel sleeping out in the open. It seems a risky thing for a squirrel to do.
Early in our marriage, my husband brought home a rescue dog. A border-collie mix. We named him Rex. He mostly sat in the corner of the laundry room, chewing his paws. Gradually, Rex came to trust us, and we took him everywhere with us. He slept between us, licked our faces until we woke up. One day he simply disappeared. [The line about Rex the dog changes the story completely. It illuminates the narrator's fear. It's the movement moment of this short piece.]
The guidebook says that Düsseldorf is a city known for its fashion. If I can find a shop, I'll buy my husband a tie. I'll buy him a hundred ties in every color and drape them over our bed. I walk the streets for miles, but there are no shops and no ties. For one crazy moment, I imagine Rex bounding towards me, like: "There you are; I've been looking all over for you!"
Over the tops of the buildings, the moon rises. I am alone, and Düsseldorf is empty. I stand in the middle of the street with my arms raised, calling my husband's name. And it keeps coming back to me, over and over, like a verse. [This resonant ending is perfection. We feel the narrator's heartache. We understand that she is the one who is lost.]
This next example is a story by Alice Kaltman, who is a master at delivering a complete experience in a small amount of space. Her story, "Freedom," feels like a novel, though it's only seven pages long
By Alice Kaltman
Published in Luna Luna, January 2015
Republished in the collection Staggerwing in 2016
Oh, the burn. That searing pain squeezing his thighs like a vise grip. The supreme feeling. The most validating. Even more affirming than the heaving sensation in his gut. A smaller gut these days. But still a paunch, folded over burning thighs as Danny pedaled fast and furious through the Vermont countryside.
Danny had never been a big one for physical pain. But the past few months had changed that. Now he was a glutton for punishment, as long as it came via two wheels, multiple gears, and a padded seat. Biking had become his thing. It might smack of mid-life crisis, but no question, it was a healthy outlet. Much better than a trophy wife or sporty car. Not that either of those were viable options for an overweight New York City public-school English teacher recently dumped by his high-power-executive wife.
The super-steep Vermont inclines provided pure bliss. Now another magnificent hill was coming his way. Danny shifted expertly to proper gear. Like the little engine that could, he made his way to the top. I think I can; I think I can. ...
Four months earlier, [Kaltman's use of setting up a moment and then stepping back in time precludes the need to begin with boring backstory. She already has us invested in the main character. Now we're hungry to find out why this man is pushing himself so hard.] on a tepidly overcast April afternoon, Danny trudged like a tired refugee towards the subway. Meg had planted the bomb two weeks earlier. Her actual words: "It's not working, Danny. Our fighting is bad for Cody. You know it, and I know it. I want a divorce." The subtext: "I'm having the best sex of my life with Craig Gundersen. I'm not that interested in the whole parenting thing. I'm out of here, you fat fuck."
No question who Cody should end up with as far as Danny was concerned. What the courts decided was another matter.
Before descending the subway stairs, he lifted his eyes momentarily, hoping for a glimmer of sunlight, a ray of something akin to hope. It was then Danny spotted the bike, propped in the window of Urban Cyclist, front wheel slightly elevated, as if to create the illusion of flight: the Kestrel Talon. Maybe it was the name, the implication of speed and slice. Or maybe it was how the weak sunlight reflected off the bicycle's silver metal while it barely warmed Danny's disappointed soul. The Kestrel Talon gleamed. It downright beckoned. Danny hadn't ridden a bike in fifteen years. The damn thing set him back two-thousand bucks.
He trained every day. Got up at five a.m., headed to Central Park and did the loop, not just once, not just twice. By mid-May it was often ten times. Danny added extra workouts in the afternoons, snuck out of MS 115 like a cat burglar, skipped the useless faculty meetings, let his perpetually delinquent students off without detention. Why waste his breath?
All rides were cathartic, his earliest ones pointedly so. Danny's cycling was ferocious, if uncouth and energy inefficient. His pre-divorce imagination went vividly wild. Danny rounded the 110th Street hill and left a long tar-and-pebbled gash across the sloping asphalt which he fantasized was Meg's formidible ass. The downhill at 72nd Street provided opportunity to hyper-speed along the delicate bridge of Meg's lovely nose. Danny broke it, deviated her septum. Snap, snap, snap. Ah, but the sweetest musing of all came at the southeast corner of 59th, where Danny pumped his brakes to gouge a repeated pattern along the meat of Craig Gundersen's overrated cock.
[These breaks in time move the story along at the pace necessary to deliver a story in seven pages, no extra scenes or narrative passages here. Kaltman barrels us toward the next important story moment.]
Now it was August, with only a few niggling details of shared custody to work out. Danny had arrived at this remote corner of Vermont two days earlier with the Kestrel Talon secured to the roof of his Prius. He checked in to Olaf's Country Inn, an old farmhouse with a few musty spare rooms near the back entrance. Tomorrow uber-parenting would begin again. Danny would be sitting in the outdoor Arpeggio Lake Music Camp Amphitheatre, trying to covertly swat voracious mosquitoes while his brilliant flute prodigy of a son trilled his way through Mozart. Last year Danny and Meg had come together, sitting closer to each other than they had in years all for Cody's benefit. Meg would've rather died. She complained about the heat, the uncomfortable backless outdoor seating, the bugs, the humidity, the other parents. But it was Danny she most abhorred. Danny with his hairy, clammy thigh pressing against her wall of impenetrable smoothness.
But this summer, Danny was in biking heaven. Meg was out at Gundersen's East Hampton compound doing God knew what. Danny couldn't care less. He was in stellar cycling form. There was no more need for revenge riding now that he was such a cycling beast. No decline or coasting or resting before he got to the tippy top of this hill. Just. Going. For. The. Burn.
Hill, meet Danny. Danny, meet Hill.
He crested the top and gave himself a silent cheer. No pause, just an easy coast down, taking in the sights. Danny passed beauty; he passed despair. To his left, gold flowers sprouted through the broken window of a derelict home. Vines with deep purple blossoms twisted around yellow hazard tape on a rusted wire fence. To his right, a gorgeous green field was filled with abandoned car chassis. If Danny still wrote poetry, this contradictory Vermont landscape would provide inspiration. Better than teaching slow-witted eighth graders to churn out their own half-baked verse, that was for sure.
Danny hit a straightaway. Time to pour on the juice. He looked at the speedometer. Forty mph. Not too shabby. He couldn't help wondering if Craig Gunderson was capable of such a feat. But why think of such things? Danny refocused. Speed was his priority.
There was a minor obstacle just ahead, before another magnificent hill. A dog straining on a chain connected to a stake at the end of the straightaway. Imprisoned on a dusty patch of earth at the foot of a beautiful incline. Another countryside paradox. It looked like a mutt. But what did Danny know about dogs? He'd never owned one. His childhood had been petless. His Depression-era parents had had no extra cash floating around their Flatbush apartment to feed a mouth that wasn't even human. Cody, of course, had always wanted a dog. But Meg was allergic, which was lucky, because Danny was a wee-bit scared of dogs.
But Vermont dogs were tolerable, in large part because they were always behind fences, roped to mailboxes, leashed to barns, or chained to posts like this one. They were shackled, while Danny was free.
The dog edged its front paws onto the asphalt. Toenails click-clacked like castanets as it lurched and howled. It was female, emaciated but with a bunch of droopy teats.
Danny grunted as he did a clean little loopy loo around the poor, hapless beast. He moved onward and upward. The hill was mighty steep. Danny's breath was shallow. His gut lurched. His heart pumped. And joy of joys, his thighs were killing him! Perfection but for the continued, desperate yapping of that dog down the hill.
At the summit, Danny stopped to take a swig of Powerade. He took big gulps of the fresh Vermont air and told himself he was glad to be alive. He gazed behind himself, proud to survey where he'd come from. The dog stared up at him, quiet now. She knew her limits.
"Top o' the mornin' to ya, Ma'am," he called to her with a jaunty and terrible faux-Irish accent.
The dog barked once. Then, with canine decisiveness, she bounded up the hill at quite a clip, the chain and upended stake clanging behind her like tin cans attached to a newlywed's bumper.
Excerpted from "Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays"
Copyright © 2017 Windy Lynn Harris.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: Writing Short Stories & Personal Essays,
1: Defining the Short Story,
2: Defining the Personal Essay,
4: Scene Writing,
7: Point of View,
10: Crafting a Short Story,
11: Crafting a Personal Essay,
12: Finding Your Way to a Best Final Draft,
PART TWO: Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays,
13: Five Steps to Publishing Success,
15: Where Short Stories & Essays Get Published,
16: Cover Letters,
17: Formatting Your Manuscript,
18: Submitting Short Stories & Essays,
19: How to Deal with Rejection,
20: My Best Writing Advice,
APPENDIX: The Step-by-Step Submission Plan,