Sunday, May 19, 2013

The art of the short story

My main genre-related project for this weekend was to write up my notes from the seminar on short stories that I gave at the DFW Writers Conference on May 5. That seminar was relatively late in the conference (3-4 p.m. Sunday) and a number of people expressed regret that they missed it.

I have reposted it here from the web site for SASS, the Society for the Advancement of Speculative Storytelling, where I uploaded it Saturday.


The Short and the Short of It
By Lou Antonelli

Author’s Note: This is based on my notes for the seminar about short stories I gave at the DFW Writers Conference at the Hurst Convention Center May 5, 2013.

Most people think if you write fiction, you have to write a book.  The fact is, you can do as much with storytelling in a short story as you can with a book. For example, just like a book, a short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It helps if you write them in that order.

There are traditional lengths to short stories.  One thousand words or less is called a short short, or a flash.  Up to 7,500 words is a traditional short story.  Between 7,500 words and 17,500 words is called a Novelette.  Up to 40,000 words is a Novella, and then it becomes a novel – although novels between 40,000 and 80,000 words are pretty uncommon.

I once heard someone at a convention explain that in a short story you can tell a story, in a novelette or novella you can develop characters, and in a novel you can build a world.

Many people have trouble writing short stories – there are people who take 10,000 words to clear their throats.  Fact is, it’s easy to do if you are used to it, and I’m surprised more people don’t.

It can be an easy way to write a novel, anyway.  Look at the publishing credits of some of the most famous classic science fiction novels, and you may see multiple publication credits.  Many novels begin as a series of related short stories that are put together or edited together into a longer work. What started as a short story in a magazine becomes a chapter in a novel.

Writing a short story can also be a way to try out a novel.  If you write a short story and it does well and gets a good response, that tells you people may be interested in the story you are telling and they want to read more.

Yesterday I pitched a novel based on the short story “The Witch of Waxahachie” I wrote in 2008 that was published in Jim Baen’s Universe.   That story had a very good reception, and I’ve taken the time to expand it to book length.

My writing situation is unusual, I’m a journalist, so I write stories every day, and the average may be 300 words.  A story over 1,000 words is considered very long. That’s one reason I’m comfortable writing short stories.

You can still say a lot in a short story.  Ernest Hemingway supposed wrote a short story in six words:  “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never used.”

There’s an old saying you have to write a million words before you are any good.  I think that’s true.  One advantage I had was that my million words were in newspapers.  No one ever read my amateurish fiction, because my amateur stuff was published in newspapers.  I was first published in a local newspaper when I was 12.  I first started writing fiction when I was 46.  That’s why, after my first acceptance, the editor said, “You seemed to have skipped the novice stage.”

But I do think it is true, you have to write a million words, and you need to write every day.  Again, I’m, unusual, because as a journalist I write for publication every day – for a newspaper.  Because of that, when I sit down to write fiction, I’m never rusty.  I can go weeks or months not writing fiction, and sit down and come up with something perfectly acceptable.

I’ve never had a story rejected because the editor said it was poorly written.  hey have complained about little things like the plot, characters or believability – but never poor writing.

As far as the submitting, remember that short stories are like resumes.   Anyone who is taking them is getting tons of them, and like resumes, they will get kicked out of the pile for mistakes.  t’s sad, but editors, like people reading resumes, are looking for reason to kick your story out.  You need to get your grammar and English down cold.  One mistake may not kill your chances – if it is a good story - but a lot of editors, on principle, will stop reading when they hit a second error.

Because of the volume, your story must first off convince the editor or slush pile reader to turn the first page.  You have to hook them between your byline and the bottom of page one.  At a convention, Stanley Schmidt – who was editor of Analog magazine – once said:  “I read very fast. Your job is to get me to slow down.”

If you are an author trying to get established and don’t already have a reputation, you don’t have the luxury of slowly easing into the narrative, and quite frankly, I know a lot of editors who reject established authors if the story doesn’t grab them very quickly.

Back in 2007 I was asked to submit a story for publication in the souvenir book of another Dallas area publication.  t had a nice layout, with art in the two-page spread where the story began.  The way it was published, the beginning of the story was part of that starting layout.

I noticed that the beginning included with the art was exactly the start of the story as it was written on the first page of the original manuscript.  I had written the story to hook the editor and the reader, and whoever did the book agreed and used the exact same start in the layout.

Speaking of editors, one of the great things about writing short stories, if you are trying to break into writing, is that you don’t need an agent.  The vast majority of magazines don’t care about agents. N ow, there are some that don’t accept unsolicited stories, but I don’t know anyone who needs an agent to submit a short story.  On the other hand, there are very few book publishers who will take unagented novels.

It’s a matter of time.  It takes an editor or slush pile reader minutes if not seconds to tell whether you short story is worth reading.  There’s a lot more time invested in reading a book.

Also, a magazine will turn a story around in a few days or weeks, while a book publisher may take one or two years, if you ever hear from them at all.

In addition to writing grammatically and well, follow standard manuscript guidelines – which are easy to research online – unless the magazine wants it differently.

Take all editor comments to heart, even on rejections.  Especially on rejections.  If they ask you to try them again, they are not being superficially polite, they mean it.  That usually lets you know you’re making progress.   They get so many stories, they will not encourage someone they don’t expect to ever buy a story from.

Rejections come in different lengths.  The longer ones are the worse ones, because they say “Your story didn’t work because it didn’t do one or more of the many things listed below.”  The shorter ones are better, because they say your story didn’t make the cut, or there wasn’t any place for it.

When I first submitted to Asimov’s Science Fiction, I got the long rejections, then I started getting the short ones.  One day I got a short one, and noticed there was scribbling on the bottom.  When I looked, I saw the editor, Gardner Dozois, had written a personal note to encourage me. T hat’s gold, and maybe a half year later he bought a story from me.

Just because it is a short story doesn’t mean it has to be incomplete or unfinished. If you went to Lou Anders’ seminar on Scriptwriting for Novels this morning, you know of the types of roles of characters.  A short story still needs a protagonist, an antagonist, and probably a relationship character.

Where do you find short story markets?  There is a good web site called Ralan, run by Ralan Conley who keeps up on all the markets and market updates.  It’s at  You have to admire someone who is so dedicated to do all that work.  There is also a website called Duotrope; it used to be free, though, and they went to being paid at the start of the year.

What I’ve done myself is often to research other authors and see where they have been published, and try the same markets.

At the very least, if you write short stories you can find your voice or style without investing years writing a book – which may or may not bomb.  I’ve been writing short stories for ten years, and I’m just getting to the point where I’ve pitched a novel.  But like I said, to me – working at a newspaper – a short story is long.

There are very few authors who write short stories exclusively.  Ray Bradbury was one, but he was special.  Eventually most short story writers turn their hands to novels.

If your short story doesn’t work out or sell, at least you haven’t wasted so much time.  And if it works out, you know you’re on the right track.

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