How to Write: Tips & Techniques to Have Your Short Story Published
So You Want to Be a Writer
If your heart skipped a beat thinking those words, "I want to be a writer," then guess what? You have the story bug. Welcome to the creative angst of the professional storyteller. Wherever you are on your journey—whether you're starting out, barely daring to dream that you could be a writer, or even if you've penned an epic masterpiece that's hidden in a cardboard box under your bed—we're all on the same road. Journeymen and women together. It can be a lonely road.
Welcome to the creative angst of the professional storyteller. Anais Nin said, "The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say."
You might be wrestling with this already—struggling to put actual words to your work-in-progress, to make the scenes flow the way you want, or to bend unruly characters to your will. Some authors write to exorcise personal demons, flooding the page with their traumas as a way to cleanse the soul. Or maybe you've realized fiction can provide the one thing that real life can't: closure.
It can be a lonely path, but if you have the bug, it's not a choice. Your feet will travel this road one way or another—either kicking and screaming or trotting smoothly with confidence. Either way, congratulations. You're now a writer.
These tips and tricks will help you put your story together and aid you in your quest to find a publisher.
Step 1: Write
It sounds deceptively simple. To some, it might sound repetitive and boring (if it does, this might be the wrong medium for you and that's okay too). But the first step in becoming a bonafide writer is to put pen to page, typewriter to paper, or laptop to Word document and make a series of words into one sentence after another.
As science fiction great Ray Bradbury said, "Don't talk about it; Write."
You'd be amazed at how many aspiring writers I meet who haven't written anything. Oh, they have worlds and galaxies planned out in their heads. They can tell you all thirteen books in their epic Tolkien-esque fantasy they're going to write someday. Only someday hasn't happened yet.
Maybe when you're a little older.
Or the kids are in school.
The kids are out of school?
The nest is empty?
Doug has retired.
This darn arthritis knocks off.
When Facebook stops posting so many danged cute cat videos.
The list is never-ending. And it never will end until you apply hind-end to chair and fingers to the laptop and begin to push keys.
Which brings me to Step 2.
Step 2: Write All the Way to the End
Writing advice is a lot like proper footwear: there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all. So if my advice doesn't work for you, by all means, ignore me.
Just don't come grumping at my doorstep when your fourteen volume space opera about pigs in silver trousers won't sell.
Write all the way to the end of your story without stopping.
Yes, you can stop for necessities like life and food and showering. Yes, you'll have to stop for work and family.
What I mean is: don't go back and begin the editing process until you've finished your story. Chances are, things are going to change before you reach the end. And when the plot deviates from the original, any changes you've made will be a waste of time when that character no longer exists, or you've decided to ax that chapter entirely or perhaps your main character isn't your main character after all. Stranger things have happened.
The temptation to go back and revise before you've finished will sometimes gnaw away at you like ants behind your eyeballs.
Don't do it.
Remember what happened to Orpheus and he turned around for Eurydice? If you need to go, look if up, take a fiver and do that. It didn't end well. Trust me.
Pretend you're Orpheus. Your story is Eurydice. The only way to save your lovely manuscript is to get all the way out of the Underworld before you look back. Otherwise?
Not really. But you know what I'm saying.
Step 3: Put Your Story Away
Wait. What? I don't want you to rush your newly-born story off to the submissions portal of your favorite magazine?
Nope. Nada. Nein. Nyet. No.
Put it away. Make a folder on your desktop and label it "My Preciousss" and leave your story document there for at least a week, preferably two. Maybe even a month.
DO NOT TOUCH IT.
Do not obsessively read it every day. Do not get up at night and read little snippets to yourself by candlelight while smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking wine coolers. That is sad. Stop that.
You have to let yourself forget. Let the words become foreign to yourself. You'll be a better editor, I promise. That story has to ferment. Age. Whatever you want to call it.
JUST BACK AWAY FROM THE FILE.
Step 4: Write a New Story
But, I hear you asking, "I thought we were going to get the first story back out now?"
Nope. Not yet.
Return to Step 1. Rinse and repeat.
Step 5: Edit for Content
Now you get to take your story out of its chrysalis, release the butterfly, and see the beauti . . . wait. What is this?
You have fresh eyes. Grammatical errors jump out of the page. Dora becomes Darcy after page eleven. And your romantic interest goes missing entirely for the middle of the story. If you're honest, does your plot make sense?
This manuscript has some problems.
Ask yourself as you read your first draft a few questions and make notes in the margin. Word and Pages have terrific "Track Changes" features for this that let you both edit the document and leave comments.
- Does this story make sense?
- Is it believable?
- Do I care?
If you find yourself answering "no" to any of those questions, then you've found the places that need a content edit. Don't stop and fix them now. Keep reading, making notes, letting a new story take shape in your head.
Have you ever been to Disney World and seen the crazy shapes they make out of the topiary hedges? Donald Duck, Mickey on a row boat, Minnie Mouse saving the world from aliens? Imagine your story is this giant, bushy, erratic overgrown hedge. With each editing pass, you're trimming it back, little by little, just as if you were creating your Disney character out of it. If you get too crazy and lop off an entire branch, you'll be sorry later when you realize Pluto has to be a three-legged dog. So go slowly.
Editing is every bit as important as writing.
Step 6: Apply Elbow Grease
It's now time to polish your story. As little orphan Annie said, make that thing gleam like the top of the Chrysler building. Or was that Molly? Pepper? One of them.
A line edit is the phase of editing where you go over the story line by line. This time, instead of major story edits you're looking for the small things.
- Grammatical errors
- Unnecessary or repetitive words
- Weaks verbs and adjectives
- Unclear pronouns
- Dangling modifiers and unclear antecedents and all those things your English teacher warned you about, oh my!
Deep breath. You're almost there.
Step 7: Hand It Over
This is probably the scariest part. You're about to get vulnerable. I call this the "handing your baby over to the hyenas" bit.
You're going to find a trusted friend who will be honest with you but not overly critical, who preferably reads in the same genre that your story is written in, and ask them to read your story. The courteous thing is to promise to reciprocate and read a story for them in exchange. If she's not a writer, perhaps show you're respectful of her time by offering to listen to her guitar demo or pick up a few groceries next time you're out. The big point is to realize you're asking a lot of your friend to read an unpublished manuscript and give feedback.
Ask your reader to answer the same questions from Step 5. Have him make notes in the margin about plot points he didn't understand or places he got confused. In the end, ask him if he cared what happened to the main character.
When you receive your manuscript back, DO NOT ARGUE. Just say, "thank you." Any response your reader gives you is valid. It is his opinion after all. And if your story isn't accurately conveying what you intended, you need to know so you can make modifications.
Caveat: Never ever ever ever ask your mother to be your reader. Mothers invariably give pats on the head and say, "this is beautiful." Mothers always lie. This makes their feedback useless.
Step 8: Submit
You've done it. You've polished and revised, taken feedback into consideration, and finally have a manuscript you're proud of. Now what?
Find the correct market to submit it to and always read their guidelines. Duotrope is a terrific search engine for submissions and has up-to-date information on markets' turnaround times, themed calls, and anthology listings. You can set up a free account or upgrade to a premium account for a nominal yearly fee.
Make sure you send your horror stories to horror markets, not romance publishers. Don't send erotica to magazines that say, "No erotica."
Write a simple cover letter:
Please consider my previously unpublished story, "My Great Story," for publication in your magazine.
(If you have prior publications here you can list them but only if they're professional sales. Don't clutter up your cover letter with your college lit journal articles or unrelated publications)
Thank you for your time and consideration.
That's it. Hit the send button and off it goes.
Step 9: Start a New Story
Do not hang out at the mailbox stalking the mail carrier.
Do not hit refresh on your email every four seconds.
Pretend as if your story didn't exist and carry on with your life.
Better yet, write something new.
Step 10: Don't Give Up
No matter what, rejection slip or acceptance, don't give up.
You're a writer. High five.
Now back to it.
Butt in chair, hands on laptop, make some words.
What's your favorite genre of fiction?
© 2017 Maryanne Parrish