June 17th, 2019

The Craft of the Short Story

by Anthea Lawson Sharp

Over the years I’ve made enough from selling short fiction on the side to help put my daughter through college, (though novel-writing is still my main income source). I’ve found that shorter works are enjoying a resurgence, and busy readers like having the option to read a smaller morsel before bedtime, or while waiting for an appointment. Think of writing short as providing a fine chocolate truffle as opposed to a full meal.

5 Reasons To Write Short in Today’s Publishing Market

Creative Freedom: Length is no longer a barrier to publishing your work – no need to fit into proscribed boxes about word count. The story can be as long as it needs to be, plus the short format gives the author a chance to explore new ideas or work with spinoff characters without the pressure of completing a full novel.

Loss-leader: By having a less-expensive or free work available, authors can reach a larger reader base. For many authors, running a loss-leader on a shorter work feels more comfortable than deeply discounting or giving away a whole book.

Visibility: For most authors, writing short takes less time, thus providing more titles released during the year. Courtney Milan releases 2 novels a year, and fills in with 2 novellas, for a new release every 3 months.

A Chance to Indie Experiment: Some traditionally published authors are able to start indie-publishing shorter work that’s not controlled by a non-compete clause. Going short can be a great way to test the indie waters. A smaller project is easier to manage during that initial learning curve of self-publishing.

Hybrid Possibilities: In addition to self-publishing, there is a good market for short stories, especially in magazine markets for SF and Fantasy, Mystery, and Literary. Also, keep an eye on calls for submissions for anthologies in various genres.

A Bit about Short Story Word Counts

Counts vary, as do reader expectations. In SF/F, the following are the word counts used to determine categories for the Hugo and Nebula awards:

  • Short Story: less than 7,500 words
  • Novelette: between 7,501 – 17,499 words
  • Novella: 17,500- 39,900 words

It’s important to remember that SF/F has a very strong short story heritage. Most magazines - Asimov’s, Analog, SF&F - want word counts between 4-6k. Readers of those publications expect that kind of length.

The Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards define a short story as anything up to 22,000 words, and a novel as anything higher. There is no novella category.

Romance Writers of America sets the following guidelines for the RITA awards:

  • Novella: Between 20,000-40,000 words
  • Novel: Over 40,000
  • There is no short story category.

Super-short lengths can be fun, and there is a magazine market for flash and micro fiction, but readers will be reluctant to pay for a super-short unless you bundle several together into a collection.

More word counts:

  • Micro-fiction: up to 300 words (the novel in 6 words or a sentence.)
  • Flash Fiction: 300-1,000 words (there are a number of flash fiction publications online.)

Romance readers and publishers, however, are not as comfortable with fiction that falls on the shorter side. The Mammoth Book anthologies require stories from 7,500-12k words, (although the RWA anthology asked for 5-7k word counts). Partially, this is because it’s more challenging to complete a Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happy for Now (HFN) in so few words. Still, it can be done.

How to Write Short

What myths are you carrying around about short stories?

  • They are harder to write.
  • They are easier to write.
  • A writer can’t make any money with short fiction.
  • The ideas are harder.
  • The ideas are easier.
  • They are literature.

Take a second to think about your own perception of what short stories are and aren’t, and how you might be setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.

What is short fiction?

Simply, it is fiction that is short. Short fiction gives the author a number of opportunities. Not only can a writer complete a project more quickly, you can:

  • Explore the kernel of an idea (O. Henry is classic for this – Gift of the Magi).
  • Write a vignette.
  • Play with spin-off or secondary characters from longer works.
  • Experiment and practice.
  • Use an unreliable or unlikeable narrator (villain’s point of view).
  • Set up a joke or emotional payoff (the shiver of a ghost story, the aww of a happy ending).

Short stories have patterns like novels do – just shorter. The narrative structure remains the same, but often in a condensed or simpler form. Algis Budrys, in his seminal craft book Write to the Point, lays out the 7 POINT PLOT OUTLINE.

(This is basically the structure of all Western narrative fiction.)

1. A Character

2. In a Setting

3. With a Problem

4. Tries to Solve

5. Fails, and Things Get Worse (4 and 5 repeat multiple times)

6. Climax – at last Succeeds

7. Validation (essential closure)

There are a few exceptions, such as the “story of revelation” or “punchline” model, but, especially in romance, the reader expects the above narrative form.

Quick Short Fiction Tips

  • Learn to CONDENSE.
  • Enter late, leave early.
  • Use jump cuts (quick scene breaks without a lot of exposition) wisely and well.
  • Limit POVs.
  • Don’t leave out the validation at the end, even if it’s just a sentence or two.

Drawbacks of Writing Short

Some authors find that figuring out characters and starting a story is the hardest part of their process. If you are a writer who needs a lot of time at the beginning and tends to do multiple drafts of your first few chapters, writing shorter may be difficult, and nearly as time-consuming as writing a full novel.

Writing short fiction can be so much fun it takes up all your writing time, and your novel languishes. 😉

What To Do With Your Short Fiction

Traditional markets

A large number of magazines are built around short fiction – many of them in the SF/F field, but in mystery and literary as well. If you have fantasy or SF elements, noir/suspense, or even straight contemporary with a bit of a literary twist, submit to these markets! Just don’t tell them you wrote a romance story.

Anthologies like the Mammoth Books publish short romances (generally invite only, although if you had an in, you could probably write something that fit the theme and submit it) or other stand-alone compilations. Watch for calls for anthologies and check out places that list such things. I’ve seen a number of calls for erotic romance anthologies in the last 6 months.

Two fine resources that list open anthologies are http://angiesdesk.blogspot.com/ and The Submission Grinder. There are also the Open Call groups on Facebook that are full of good information. These anthology calls can provide inspiration for the seed of a story, and can be a fun challenge to write for.

Advantages include a lump-sum payment either on acceptance or publication, excellent visibility and wider reach for your writing, and fairly quick reversion (2 months – 2 years).

Disadvantages are long waits on submissions, with the strong likelihood of rejection at the end. Decide how long you want to try and keep a story in circulation before pulling it to self-publish.

When selling to magazines and anthologies, don’t accept less than pro rates. I recommend .06 cents a word or better, unless it’s a charity project, you get the rights back almost immediately, or there’s incredible visibility for you in doing the project. Remember that miniscule payment often means miniscule distribution/readership.

Audiobooks

An increasing number of markets are acquiring limited audio rights on short stories for podcasts. Though the majority is still SF/F, they generally are not looking for first rights, which means you can submit already-published stories.

The Indie Route

Self-publishing a short work is a great way to “try out” indie publishing with a more manageable project. Although there’s a steep learning curve if you’ve never gone indie before, there are an increasing number of resources available.

Holiday-themed shorts are BIG. Christmas is the most popular, but other holidays like Valentine’s Day and even Halloween can give your story an extra boost, since readers are actively looking for themed stories around those times.

Advantages include much quicker time to market, ability to plan timing of your releases (filling in between novels to keep up visibility), and ability to bundle your stories into anthologies, which is another great way to increase your inventory of titles. And, of course, having a title you can set to free or .99 cents in order to draw more readers.

Pricing Short Stories

Check out your genre (erotic romance prices are generally higher than regular romance, for example), think about word count, and then experiment. Find what works for you – there’s no one right way. That’s the beauty of going indie.

However you want to approach writing short fiction, I encourage you to take the plunge! You never know what new opportunities await.

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Anthea Lawson

A USA Today bestseller with both her pen names, Anthea writes RITA-nominated historical romance as Anthea Lawson, and award-winning YA Fantasy as Anthea Sharp. She sold her first short story in 2009, and has never looked back. Since then, dozens of her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines, including collections from DAW Books, the groundbreaking Future Chronicles, Fiction River, and numerous other publications. Discover more at www.antheasharp.com and www.anthealawson.com

22 responses to “The Craft of the Short Story”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    This is timely and very useful information! I am so glad to see more on short story and the "new" other short forms like novelettes, flash, and short reads. I'm dipping my toe in this pond with a new prequel that is about 13,000 words. Thank you for your helpful and concise review of what's going on in that arena.

  2. Ann G. says:

    This article has encouraged me to try some short stories. Thanks very much.

  3. Eldred Bird says:

    Great article. I use short stories to try out new characters, genre, and POV. I also use them for promotion. I always offer a free story download for signing up for my newsletter, then put the stories up on Amazon for 99 cents. It's a great way to get exposure and give the readers a taste of your writing style without having to invest in a whole book. Of course, the hope is that once they read the short story, they'll want more and buy your longer works.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I think a short work is a great promo items for giveaways and to make permafree. And also a nifty way to entice new readers. I hadn't thought of using them to experiment though...that's a fantastic idea.

      • Eldred Bird says:

        It's a great way to try something new without committing to a book, getting 50,000 words in, then realizing it isn't going to work.

        • Jenny Hansen says:

          Yes, but many writers tell me it is more difficult for them to write short so it takes them just as long. I wrote short stories long before I tried to write long so it's different for me. But ask Laura and she'll tell you writing shorter is way difficult. I think writing long is hard as hell.

    • Perfect! Sounds like you have it dialed in. 🙂

  4. dholcomb1 says:

    Short story/novelette was my start in this business.

    denise

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Denise, I want to hear all about that! What was it that got you started??

      • dholcomb1 says:

        I wrote a long novel and I shared it with a friend for a peer critique, and she said the most horrible things. So, I quit writing for a while. Let her words break my dream. Then two writer friends told me similar things: I had two choices, write or not write. Make a decision.

        I saw a contest for a Christmas short story, I wrote and submitted it, and I was a runner-up. But, being a runner-up was a good thing. I received a token payment, but more importantly, I was published in an anthology. Internationally published in ebook and print. And, it won some blog-based "Best of" awards. It was published on my birthday!

        An author friend saw another small publisher was looking for short stories for a Valentine's anthology, and I wrote and submitted, and it was published. Then, I wrote a summer beach story for them, and it was published in another anthology; the Valentine's story was released as a single.

        I was working on my fourth short story, but there were things going on in my life which didn't mesh with their schedule, so I put it on the back burner. I also had some strange vibes about the publisher which turned out to be true--it folded, but I have my rights to those two stories.

        The rights the Christmas story are tied up as long as it's in print. That publisher put it in KU, so I guess I won't have my rights back for a long time, if ever. Because of the way the contest was set up, I only had a lump sum royalty, so I don't even get paid on the KU, but it's in print and I'm still out there.

        The Christmas story I started as the fourth short story has morphed into a full novel, and I'll be ready to pitch it soon. And, I'm willing to self-pub if no one is interested. I feel it has substance.

        I also pitched a different story (novel) to a publisher. Said no, but if I write it, to resubmit for consideration and the publisher noted a few things to address. I have a few chapters started there.

        I have another novel on the back burner, too.

        I have a friend willing to help me self-pub the two short stories as ebooks when I'm ready.

        I just need to get all my ducks in a row.

  5. LauraDrake says:

    Wow, what a great 'one-stop' blog for everything short story! Thanks for this - I'm saving it for the future!

  6. Christine says:

    Amazing blog on short stories! Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information- I write novels, but am considering short stories because of all the reasons you list. Thank you!

  7. Fae Rowen says:

    I've toyed with the idea of writing a novella as a prequel to my first series, but I write l-o-n-g. My books are over 400 pages, and that's with massive, painful cuts. Still, I'm going to use your article as a guideline when I have time to work with my schedule next year. Thanks, Anthea!

  8. lisarey1990 says:

    I love this post! Thank you. Very informative especially about a genre I'd like to write some more in but am unsure how to go about it. Appreciated the advice.

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