Writing short stories (and editing them)

So you want to write a short story and get it published. Easy. Not many words. No worries. The reality is that this isn’t necessarily true.

Johannes Jakob (of Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Hologram, JOMAD) spoke to our editing class about the issues around short fiction writing and editing them. With short fiction (which could range anywhere from 1000 words to 15000 words depending on who you are speaking to) there are some key things to consider and the first is having a little insight to how an editor sees the short story.

The main things that an editor considers are:

  • audience
  • structure
  • clarity
  • titles
  • beginnings
  • endings
  • cliché
  • dialogue
  • editor–author relationship.

Audience

Who are you writing for? Or, who would you ideally like this piece read by? If hoping to get published in certain literary magazines, the best thing to do is grab one (or more) and read them. Understand what that magazine or journal publishes. An editor will be looking at whether your piece is a good fit for that journal or that issue. It may be that it doesn’t fit this issue, but it might fit one at another time. Persevere.

Structure

A short piece needs to have forces running against each other to create enough drive and tension in a piece. You can get away with weird or experimental structures, and in fact these are often embraced by journals. Writers need to think about whether this is the best structure to bring the gems of their story out. Editors will be taking note on their first read through about how they feel, what they are confused about, what doesn’t make sense and whether there is an internal logic to it.

Clarity

Be careful to make sure you aren’t wasting words through repetition or summarising. Trust that your reader has got it in the first place. When you have finished writing it, read it out aloud as this helps to pick up these things. The editor will be making a note of all the parts that are unclear, repeated or summarised and asking if these can be removed or clarified.

Title

The most important thing to consider here is making sure that the title is not off-putting to the reader. It needs to entice the reader in . . . and needs to make sense.

Beginnings

This is much the same as the title in that it needs to be enticing, but you also need to make sure that it is what is at the heart of the story. As a writer you need to spend the most time on this. Write the piece and come back to the beginning and check that it is the heart of the story.

Endings

An ending needs to feel complete for a reader. This doesn’t mean that it is a summary of the story or that it is a nice clichéd Hollywood ending (. . . and they all lived happily ever after). Instead the ending needs to satisfy and surprise. Trust that your reader has understood the message in the story and leave them thinking about it rather than ramming it down their throat. The editor will be looking at how the ending can bring out the best of the story (and the author) so listen to their feedback.

Cliché

Other than just making sure your ending isn’t a cliché, it is important to make sure that you are not using clichés through the piece (. . . he cried a river of tears . . .). Clichés are like empty words (like the sugar in our diets). They are fill that people read over and have lost their meaning. Use metaphors and similes to surprise and that make sense to your story. The editor will run their pen through clichés and shake their head.

Dialogue

Make sure your characters are talking past each other. Keep the dialogue alive. People are thinking of what they want to say while someone is talking to them. Use internal dialogue to show insight into characters. Ask yourself: what purpose does this dialogue have? Make sure it does as every word needs to count.

Editor–author relationship

An editor of short fiction needs to consider the editor–author relationship. Their initial email to the author will be a considered one. They will have taken time composing it. Take time to read it and understand what they are trying to say. They will generally be nice at the start, explaining what they like about the piece. Depending on the writer, they may need to explain how to use ‘track changes’. They will be honest about what they are unsure of and ask the writer about any of these.

A writer needs to listen to what the editor is asking or advising. The editor isn’t telling the writer that need to make all of these changes; in fact a writer should stick to the words, sentences, characters or ideas that are very important to their story. The editor is just bring these to the writer’s attention (with the wisdom as an editor), but doesn’t expect the writer to accept all of them.

Fight for what is really special or important; it is your story after all.

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