Julie's Quest

Hello, and welcome to my blog. My blog is about the trials and tribulations of writing, where we celebrate successes and commiserate our near misses. We tell it like it is here and will do our very best to help you on the road to being published and pick you up after the rejections (they will come!) Whether you are a professional or amateur writer you will find something useful here.

I hope you enjoy reading my posts and will visit again soon.

Happy Writing

Julie Phillips - freelance writer - member of the Association of Freelance Writers - member of the Society of Authors

Friday, 31 May 2013

What does a publishable Short Story Need?

There are a lot of short story writers out there and some are more successful than others. So what does a short story need to stand a better chance of getting published?

1. A story not a linked series of events:

If you've spent any time with children you will know that they are prolific story makers. Their imagination and creative energy knows no boundaries! But, quite often, if you listen to them, particularly younger children, what they are telling you is a sequence of events and not an actual story. You will find a lot of, 'and then .......... and then ......... and then type sentences in their speech and written work. They are retelling a sequence of events rather than a story with a plot, conflict and well rounded characters.

So how do you turn a sequence of events into a compelling story?

* There must be a proper and intriguing conflict - something readers can identify with.
* The story must follow a sequence and have proper structure with a clear beginning, supportive and exciting middle and a satisfactory resolution.
* The key events that occur in the story must follow a natural progression and not just crash land into the story from nowhere.
*Your characters, dialogue, scene setting, plotting, etc, must have a place and be there for a reason. If it doesn't - cull the bit that bears no relevance to the story.

2. Characters

Characters need to be well rounded and not stereotypical. They must act always to the spirit of that character and not do something totally out of character. There shouldn't be too many characters or too few. Think carefully about your characters' names too - no stereotypes and don't use the names of people you know (I know it's tempting!) but you don't want a libel case on your hands.

One useful hint I picked up was to do a character study for each of your characters. You can use a page in a notebook or an index card/post card or notepad page on your computer  - one for each character and write down everything you know about that character: physical attributes, personality traits, likes and dislikes, where they live/work, their interests. Do they drive a car? If so what make/colour? What do they like to eat? Where do they go on holiday? Who are their friends? Do they sleep well? If not, why not? What is their relationship with the other character(s) in the story? Do they get on? How long have they known each other? What do they want? How did they meet?

These are just a few examples of the WHO? WHAT? WHEN? HOW? WHERE? WHY? questions you should be asking of your character to help you form a well rounded character. Of course, you're not going to put all of that information in your short story -  it's just for your information that will help you breathe life into your characters.

3. Point of view

Whose story is it? If you ask this question early on in the story production process it can save you a lot of trouble later on. Sometimes stories don't work as well as they should do because it's being told by the wrong person or from the wrong persons point of view.

There are basically two points of view for which are well suited to short stories for the women's mags market:

First person (The story is told by one person using 'I' or 'me.' )

Third person (The story is told using 'He,' 'she' they,' etc.)

Another point of view (2nd Person) uses 'you,' etc as though the main character is talking directly to the reader - this is not usually favoured by the editors of the women's mags who prefer first or third person.

Try writing your story from different view points to see which one suits. It could be the answer to why the story isn't going in the direction you want it to.

4.Dialogue / Show don't tell

Writing good, believable dialogue is a fine art - get it wrong and it can throw your story out of kilter. Try and make it as natural as possible and true to the character. You should be able to distinguish between characters by the way they speak - their syntax, verbal ticks, phrases, etc. But it can't be completely like people speak in real life. In real life we pause, backtrack, make grammatical errors, etc. You don't have enough space in your story to allow for this plus it would spoil the flow.

Don't get bogged down with different dialects either. A flavour of dialect is all you need not a continuous stream. A few well placed colloquial words works better and will be easier for readers to follow than a full on stream of dialect.

Good dialogue can drive the story along, helping you to 'show' the emotions, worries or events occurring in the characters' lives rather than telling us. Show the characters' being moody, difficult, happy or excited via the words coming from their mouth and their actions - not by narrating it. Dialogue is a handy tool for helping you do this.

Read the two versions of the same passage here and see which one you feel works best:

Sandra stubbed her toe on the kitchen table leg and hobbled to the chair. She rubbed her sore toe, wondering if she'd ever get to work on time after the disastrous start she'd had.

"Ouch!" Sandra yelled as she hobbled to the chair. "Who put that table there?" Slumping into the chair she rubbed her sore toe. "Billy, you'd better ring Mr Carlton."  She shouted up to her still half asleep husband in the bedroom. "I can't possibly go into today. I've got too much on what with Tilly and her hospital appointment." The words choked in her throat and she swallowed hard to stop the tears from falling. "And now this," she whispered, staring at her throbbing toe. "How am I supposed to drive now?"

The first version is clearly telling us a sequence of events in Sandra's life. There's no dialogue. We have no indication as to how she's feeling, or the kind of person she is. It's okay, but all a bit flat. In the second version the scene comes alive. We have dialogue - we now know how she's feeling and can get an inkling about the kind of person she is. We also have a better idea about what's going on in Sandra's life and we are shown why it's disastrous - not told. I think the second version is much more interesting to read. As a reader I feel connected with Sandra and can sympathise with her predicament - we've all had mornings like that! We've also been introduced to two more characters: her husband and Tilly. I want to read on to find out more about who Tilly is, why she has a hospital appointment and why her husband is still in bed and seemingly not as worried about Tilly as his wife is! I care enough about Sandra to want to find out what happens and if all will be okay. That's what a good short story should make readers feel! Now excuse me while I go and write that story up - I feel I may be on to something with Sandra and Tilly ;0)

5. Conflict

For a short story to work the main character has to have a problem they are trying to overcome. This problem also has to involve other characters. These characters interact and the main character has to work out the solution for themselves helped by other characters. The conflict has to be rational and believable and big enough to entice readers to write on. Most of the better short stories I've read in the women's magazines tend to have a good conflict - something the main character can really get their teeth into and just when they think they've resolved it, WHAM! Something else throws a spanner in the works which leads to more tension - will they, won't they make it through? -  and makes the main character have to work harder to reach that all important resolution.

6. A beginning, a middle and a satisfying end

There has to be structure in a short story. The structure is a skeleton upon which you hang the main elements of the story on. So the skeleton (your basic plot) has to be robust enough to take the weight of the story. The story has to follow a logical sequence too and (unless it's sci fi, paranormal or fantasy based) be grounded by the laws of physics and what is possible and known to be true within those boundaries.

The beginning has to grab the readers attention. The middle has to sustain that attention and the end has to make the reader feel something, that they're better off for reading the story and are satisfied.

7. Originality

It's time to think outside of the box for ideas on the theme of your short story. There are some story themes that have been done to death and these are usually listed in the submission guidelines of various magazines as what these editors don't want. But approaching something from a fresh angle will. Making your stories too generic and too middle of the road won't attract the editor's attention. It needs that added something to make them want your story -  a twist, an unusual problem with an unusual solution, engaging characters, sparkling dialogue and a theme that suits their magazine that readers will identify and sympathise with. Make the editor care about your characters and their predicament and you're half way there.

8. A good opening line

That first sentence might be all you have to grab those readers' attentions - so make it a good one. Something that intrigues, a puzzle, some enigmatic dialogue, a question are all good ways to hook the reader and reel them in. But don't make promises you can't keep. Provide readers with an all singing and all dancing razzmatazz first line that fails to deliver in the rest of the story then readers will feel cheated - that's if the editor publishes your story in the first place.

What do you think of these openers?

Tara slung the rucksack over her shoulder and quietly pulled the front door closed behind her. By the time he realised she had gone it would be too late.

"I told you it wouldn't work," Sally hissed as they scrambled down the embankment, the barks of the dogs and scuffle of feet getting closer and closer behind them.

Paul knew that today was never going to be a good day.

"What do you mean it's missing?" Annabel shrieked.

9. Sparkle

Dull, uninspiring dialogue, flat characters with little personality, an inconsequential problem or conflict, a floppy middle and an unsatisfactory ending all lead to a boring story that no-one will want to read and feel satisfied by. The elusive something else, that added dimension that all published short stories have is what your short story will need if it is to be published too. And that can only be gained by reading published stories and writing them. The more you read and write short stories, the better your stories will become. But don't try and be a carbon copy of a published writers' short story - editors don't want stories that are too similar - learn from these writers but let your own style shine through.

10. Appropriate subject matter/theme for the magazine you're writing it for.

A good short story that will attract the attention of editors is not an easy thing to achieve! Many short stories get rejected but there are still many that do get accepted. Reading those stories that do make it through is essential as it will tell you what kind of stories the editors are looking for. But make sure you read recent, up to date copies of the magazines  - you want to know what's popular now, not five years ago - magazines and editors'/readers' tastes change.

The types of stories People's Friend like are different to Take A Break Fiction Feast and what The Weekly News want will be different to what Woman's Weekly are after. So do read the stories in these magazines and see what the differences are.

One trick I picked up from prolific and successful writer Linda Lewis is to totally immerse yourself in the world of one of the women's magazines at a time. The theory is that you get into the particular style of story much better than reading several stories in different magazines which is likely to give you style fatigue and confusion!

11. The right setting

Setting is vitally important in the short story - particularly for the women's mag market. Readers like to feel grounded and in familiar territory when they read a story - they know about supermarkets, kitchens, people's houses, the garden, the woods, the town. the village, the city, work places, etc - places people often meet each other and problems occur. They also like to hear about far flung places - somewhere exotic, just outside of their own personal experience but not too far that they can't navigate around these unfamiliar surroundings with the characters.

Don't be afraid to take your reader to places they may never have been but don't leave them in the corner, uneasy, afraid to take that step - make your characters and conflict believable and approachable - people who will take the reader by the hand and make them feel comfortable in this new and strange world. Give the reader some new experiences through the eyes and actions of the characters.

The most important thing to remember if you want to get your short stories published is to never give up reading, writing or subbing them. If you give up, you will never know how close you were to getting published. If you carry on then you significantly increase your chances! As an example, I've had five short stories published in The Weekly News and That's Life (Australia.) I've had over 50 rejected, though. That gives you some idea as to how difficult it can be to get your short stories published. It was over a year between having my first and second stories accepted. The only reason I haven't had more published is that I don't write and sub enough of them and some of my stories just didn't have what the editors wanted at that time.

So my biggest tip for you is to read as many stories in the women's mags as you can and write and sub as many as you can too. The reason why you constantly see names like Teresa Ashby, Jo Styles, Linda Mitchelmore, Della Galton, Frances Garrood and Marilyn Fountain, to name but a few, is that they have studied the markets well and write and sub lots of appropriate stories. So next time you see their names two or three times in the same issue of the same magazine - imagine your name there instead and let that spur you on to writing stories the editors want.

Glean as much knowledge as you can from these writers and others whose stories feature regularly in the women's magazines. Put that and your own writing practise and experience together and you'll soon be seeing your short stories in print.

Next week we'll look at what Women's Weekly want in their stories.

Happy short story writing

Julie xx


Edith said...

This is wonderful! What a superb summary. Thank you so much for posting it. Really looking forward to your next post on WW. :)

Julie P said...

Hi, Edith and thank you. I think all short story writers and other writers for that matter get rejections - I've had plenty of them - so I decided to go back to the beginning and think about what it is that actually makes fiction editors want to publish any short story. Thinking about it has helped me and I hope it also helps others.

Julie xx