How to Write a Short Story that Sells
Other than two or three magazines aimed at women readers, short story publications don't sell well - even to writers who want to get published there. Short story collections sell poorly, too. Yet the competition to get short stories published is as keen as ever. To succeed, then, you need more than talent and luck.
Don't be put off, though, by writers who complain that 'You can't sell short stories these days -editors don't want them ....' Complaints like this invariably come from unsuccessful writers who don't - or won't - recognise the true situation: magazines that use short stories can't get enough of the well written, entertaining, satisfying short stories their readers want.
The Golden Rules
Every day, editorial desks sag under piles of dull cliched sermonizing stories, lifeless formless pointless stories, sad sordid despairing stories ... Editors don't want them. Their readers don't want them. A good short story needs:
- A single storyline, without sub-plots.
- Three or four characters at most.
- A single viewpoint, or two at most.
- A short time-scale.
- Consistent mood, tone and pace.
- Consistent writing style.
- Appropriate language.
- Brief descriptions.
- Minimum background.
- Concise dialogue.
- No lengthy preamble.
- No contrived ending.
- No preachy message.
Analysing the Market
Collect at least six issues of your target magazine - a glance through one or two copies is not enough. You need a clear picture of the magazine's readership and its overall tone and style.
Now concentrate on the short stories:
- How many words? The guidelines could specify '750 to 2,500 words', but you might find that most stories are between 1,000 and 1,500 words, with only one or two as short as 750 words or as long as 2,500 words. You could have a better chance with stories in the more favoured lengths.
- What viewpoint do the stories use? First person? Third person? More than one? If all the stories in your sample issues are written in first person, don't waste your time sending a third-person viewpoint story. A mix of viewpoints might suggest that the editor has no strong preferences, but it's worth assessing which viewpoint is used most.
- What kind of stories appear most often? Romantic? Mysterious? Suspenseful? 'Twist-in-the-tail'? Spooky? Other?
- How many main characters per story?
- How many stories have a female main character? How many favour a male?
- What age group are most of the characters in?
- Do the characters have anything in common? Are they mostly single? Married? Widowed? Divorced?
- What kind of names do they have? 'everyday'? or 'posh'?
- What kind of occupations do they have? Housewives? Shopworkers? Secretaries? Teachers? Media-workers? Models? Selfemployed? High-flyers?
- What kind of relationships feature most often? Harmonic? Difficult? Stable? Shaky? New? Settled?
- What kind of backgrounds appear to be favoured?
- Do most stories feature love scenes? How explicit are these?
Every editor lives in hope of finding a wonderful story in the morning post. The more you know about your target publication, the better your chances of making an editor's day.