How to Write (and Sell) a Short Story: Tips and Resources for Creative Writers

Tips and tricks to write short stories that sell

writing notebook

Welcome! If you’re here, you may be a budding author interested in writing a short story OR an established author looking for tips to freshen up your short story approach. For both cases–and everything in between–I have you covered. After the swells of interest in my workshop and talk “Big Punch in a Little Package: Creating Short Stories that Sizzle and Sell,”I thought I’d share an overview of some tips here for both novice and pro writers.

Introduction

collage of anthology covers

Before diving in, a little about me and my short story background. I’ve published dozens of short stories in magazines, anthologies, collectible card games, and podcasts, including Dark Matter magazine, Andromeda Spaceways, Aurealis magazine; Unnerving magazine, the British Science Fiction Association’s Fission Magazine; Colp magazine; Cosmic Horror Monthly; Typehouse Literary Magazine; Lovecraft eZine; Chromophobia; Dancing in the Shadows: A Tribute to Anne Rice; Six Guns Straight From Hell Vol 3; Field Notes from a Nightmare; Musings of the Muses; The One That Got Away; Shadowy Natures; Beyond the Infinite; Trembling With Fear; the Stoker-nominated Fright Mare: Women Write Horror; and many more. I’ve also given talks and workshops on the fundamentals of creating short stories and flash fiction that sells. You can read more about my work here.

In sum, I love short stories. In my day job, I write and edit nonfiction and have a background in journalism. This provided my foundation in writing short form and in understanding the value of brevity.

One quick caveat before you read further: my experience is with genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) as opposed to literary fiction, but many of these tips will still apply.

Why write a short story?

In terms of making it as a full-time fiction writer, novels are typically the path to success. So why bother with short stories? A few reasons:

1: Time

For those of us with very hectic schedules (I have a full-time job and two small children), short stories can be incredibly practical in terms of time efficiency. You can complete a short story draft in a few hours, days, or even weeks, and turn around edits and revisions far faster than a novel.

2: Practice – hone that writing muscle!

For novel writers, short stories are a new form with their own challenges and joys. Experimenting with short stories can be a great way to dive back into creative writing if you’ve taken a hiatus; if a novel feels too overwhelming; or if you need a productive break from your current WIP.

3: Connections

After writing and polishing enough short stories, eventually you will submit and publish those stories in magazines or anthologies (see below for more guidance on selling short stories). This is a fabulous way to connect with other writers, publications, and editors, especially on social media. For new writers, this can also be a valuable way to build up your writing resume, so to speak. And for pro writers, publication in anthologies and magazines can help you reach a new and untapped audience for your other work.

4: Fun

You can have a lot of fun with short stories. Because the time investment is relatively low, it’s easier to experiment. You can try new voices, genres, approaches, and POVs that you might not have a chance to in novel writing. Plus, I’ve heard from many writers–as well as experienced this myself–that short stories can often create a breeding ground for longer, successful works, including a novel. This happened with my debut supernatural western novel MELINDA WEST: MONSTER GUNSLINGER. I wrote short stories about these characters for years beforehand that were well received before diving into the novel.

Reasons NOT to write a short story

1: Money

Short story rates vary, ranging anywhere from $0 to pro-payments of $.08/word. Many places pay flat rates (from a token payment of $5, $15, $50), while others pay per word (from a fraction of a cent to $.08).

2: Fame

Rarely has a short story writer risen to the same level of fame as novelists. So if you crave that writerly recognition, telling someone your short story is out just doesn’t have the same impact as having a novel come out, unfortunately. Generally, author collections of short stories also tend to not sell as well as novels, at least traditionally.

Short story vs. novel writing: two key differences to keep in mind

1: Word count

While it’s fairly self-explanatory, the easiest way to define a short story is tied to word count. Short stories can range from exactly 100 words (called a “drabble”) or less, to over 8,000 (“novelette” territory). Generally the sweet spot for a short story ranges from 2,000-5,000 words or so, and around 1,000 for flash stories. Note: always check and adhere to the word count requirements of the place you submit to. 

2: Focus

A short story is much more focused than a novel. Instead of having a cast of characters, a short story narrows in on one, or a few, characters. Similarly, instead of many subplots or themes, you really want to drill down on a single pivotal event.

Because it’s so compressed, each part of the short story needs to be very sharp: the beginning and ending lines, for example, are critical. More on that in a minute. 

4 quick tips to make your short stories sing

1: Write a killer hook/opening

The opening is arguably the most important part of a story generally, but it’s especially critical in short stories. Slush readers often won’t get past a first sentence or paragraph if it is not engaging or unique in some way. Resist the urge to open with back story.

Similar to long fiction, the goal here is for the opening sentence to set the mood and hint at the conflict, while also introducing a question (or at least intrigue) in a reader’s mind. Google “best opening sentences” in books or stories and peruse some of the lists to get a sense of openings that are effective. A few of my favorites are in the image below. All of these introduce questions or intrigue in the reader’s mind.

A word of advice: avoid opening with someone dreaming, waking up, or looking in the mirror. I’ve seen editors again and again say they get too many stories that start this way. So skip those openings unless you have an extremely unique twist.

2: Make sure something happens

I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve read where nothing happens and it feels like a letdown. Just as in a novel, your character should face some sort of conflict and obstacle, and either rise to the challenge or fail in some interesting way. For inspiration (especially in the sci-fi and horror realms) think of Twilight Zone episodes. These short, snappy stories often have some interesting twist that creates momentum in the piece and leads to a satisfying resolution.

3. Make every word count

In short fiction, your word selection needs to be carefully considered and culled. Consider Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This example is almost overused, in part because it’s so effective at harnessing minimal words to indicate an emotional backstory. Making the reader’s mind work on their own to infer narrative can be an incredibly powerful storytelling technique.

One way to hone your skills in this is to practice writing stories that adhere to a strict word count, for example, that are exactly 100 words, or under 500 words. More tips on this below in the “formula” section.

4: Avoid this common pitfall

A short story is not a vignette, which is one of the most common errors I see when people are just starting in writing short stories. A vignette, like the photographic term it comes from, is essentially a description–painting a portrait with words. This can be a beautiful piece of writing, but it’s not a story. Again, in a story, something happens.

description of a vignette

Formula for writing sellable short stories

Quick note: Here I’m focused on a traditional short story structure, since it’s important to understand the basics. However, many short stories don’t follow these and can still be extremely effective. (It’s kind of like learning grammar or writing novels: once you learn the fundamentals, you are more likely to succeed when you deviate!)

This formula will help you write sellable short stories. I go into this in more detail in the workshop, but essentially I recommend starting with a basic plot structure. In a nutshell, take each of the points below and write one short paragraph. Better yet, take 30 minutes and try writing one sentence for each bullet below. Voila! You have the starting bones of a short story.

  • Hook: This is your opening sentence and paragraph that sets the tone, hints at the story’s conflict and introduces intrigue.
  • Setting: This paragraph fleshes out the character and their world, builds up tension and sets up the conflict.
  • Conflict: Your main character encounters their obstacle, equivalent to the climax in a novel. Whatever conflict they have been avoiding or trying to deal with comes to an immediate head. They are forced to make a choice.
  • Resolution: How does your character rise up, or fail to rise up, to the conflict? Just as with the opener, the ending line, or “kicker,” for a short story is critical. 

If you need ideas for a story, one method I encourage is looking at an image prompt (e.g., google “fantasy worlds” and click images) and completing the exercise within an hour.

Once you have a rough draft, there are a few things you can do to develop your story. Ask yourself: what would make this story more interesting? More stressful for the main character? More urgent? Can you expand the story, doubling its length? Can you shrink the story, halving its length? Can you tell the story in exactly 100 words (a drabble)?

Selling your short stories: where to submit and how to get paid

One of the advantages of writing in this form is that short stories can work for you long after you’ve completed them. What I mean by this is that many publishers are open to reprints (check guidelines to be sure). Once your story rights revert back to you, you can submit it back into the world again and get paid again, indefinitely.

Story rights will vary by contract, but sometimes rights immediately revert back to you, or you may have to wait a few months up to a year before you can sell that story again. In any case, make sure you track and log when your story rights revert to you, so you know when to get it back out in the submission circuit.

When you’re readying to submit your short stories, I recommend these sites to find what magazine and anthology calls are looking for short stories:

Resources

Here are three of my favorite resources to help you improve your short story game:

1-One resource I strongly recommend is this book: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders. This book is like taking a literary masterclass on short stories. It is brilliant, anything but boring, and a must-read for short story authors.

2-If you can swing it, I also highly recommend taking a class or workshop on short stories or micro fiction. There is nothing quite like getting direct feedback and coaching. LitReactor is an excellent place to find a variety of online writing offerings from professional writers.

3-Lastly, read short stories as much as you can. There are many wonderful online magazines and anthologies (free and paid) to name, but a few great ones to start with include: Uncanny, Nightmare, Apex, Clarkesworld, SF&F, Fantasy, Asimov’s, and so many more!

If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, one approach I recommend is looking at the previous year’s Stoker or Nebula award winners for short fiction. This way you can find some of the top tales and authors in the short story space.

Parting thoughts

Right now is a great time for short speculative fiction. There are loads of markets and anthology calls that have come up in the last year or two, and it seems like readers’ appetite for short fiction is continuing to increase. Hopefully these tips help you get some short stories out in the world!

And if you’re interested in my full workshop, message me or subscribe to my newsletter to get notice of upcoming events, here: https://mailchi.mp/a9f0d76bba28/welcome

Do you have a favorite tip, trick or resource for writing short stories? Feel free to drop it in the comments!

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