The Writer as Microbiologist
There’s a story that Blaise Pascal once wrote a letter and apologised for its length. “I’m sorry it’s so long,” he said, “but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”
Those of us who write short stories know what he means. Brevity is tough.
Short stories can wreck your head. They can break your heart… but when they work, few things can give you greater joy.
Now, you probably already know this, but let’s get it out of the way: Not everyone can be a short story writer. It is one of the most demanding types of writing you can attempt. I’ve heard many successful novelists admit that they were never able to write short fiction.
What makes it so hard?
To begin with, the short story is a completely separate art form from the novel. Oh, there are similarities, of course. Both have characters, points of view, settings and dialogue (usually), but in terms of structure and objectives they are worlds apart. I would agree with Lorrie Moore who said the short story is, “a more magical form” than the novel. If the novel wants to reveal the entire universe, the short story knows that there is a world in a grain of sand. The short story writer is a microbiologist, finding life in a teardrop.
But you really have to want it. It’s a will-o-the-wisp and it’ll lead you across swamps and fens in the witching hour, as you try to capture it. And you never will. If you’re very, very lucky it may gently kiss your cheek before it whispers away.
A very good short story can take years to write. Sometimes you can’t find the heart of the tale, and the more you dig the more it eludes you. Worse, sometimes your clumsiness destroys, like a careless archaeologist destroying an ancient Greek vase with a wayward shovel. Then, oh! the tears.
On the other hand, there are few things to compare with the sensation when you get it right. It’s the boinnng of the tennis ball right in the middle of the racquet. It’s hitting a perfect high-C (I’m told. No singer, me).
Apart from the creative satisfaction, writing an outstanding short story has other advantages too. You can build up a reputation based entirely on short fiction. Frank O’Connor did it. So did Guy de Maupassant, O Henry, Saki, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver… Yes, some of these people also wrote novels, but it is for their short stories that they are remembered. But even if you’re a novelist at heart, you can garner the attention of agents and publishers who are drawn to your style and your insights. You can start to develop an audience for your work.
How to write a short story
Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut had to say:
To Mr Vonnegut’s eight rules, I would add the following:
Keep your characters very few. One well-rounded protagonist and a couple of secondary characters is probably all you need.
Likewise, this probably isn’t the place for multiple points of view. Not saying it can’t be done, but you’ll need to be very careful how you handle it. Until you’re proficient, I’d say select one viewpoint and stick with it.
There are exceptions — W. Somerset Maugham comes to mind, so does Frank O’Connor — but in general, the story should cover a very short period. An hour or a week, perhaps. It’s very difficult to do justice to a span of years in the space of 5,000 words.
Make every word count. You know how Stephen King tells you to slash every adverb and adjective? This is where you practice that art. I remember many years ago someone saying you should imagine you’re sending your short story by telegram and having to pay by the word. People don’t send telegrams any more, but the sentiment behind that advice hasn’t changed. The short story is no place to tell us about your hero’s yellow tie that his mother bought for his eighteenth birthday, and how he got mustard on it. Of course, if your hero ends up getting strangled by said yellow tie, have at it! (NOTE TO SELF: Stop watching Hitchcock movies!)
Read the mistresses and masters. I’ve already mentioned several and you can’t go wrong with any of them. If you prefer genre stories then find out who’s considered a master in that field. Buy anthologies — there are dozens on the market, all neatly categorized just for you. You’ll find Best Short Stories of the World; best English / Irish / American / Australian short stories; best fantasy / science fiction / crime / romance short stories.
You pays your money and you take your chances but you must read. Must. Let me put it this way…
Which leads me to this: when you’re practiced enough, you can experiment with the rules. You can break all the ones I’ve listed, all the ones Vonnegut listed, and any others you lay your hands on. But you better have a good reason for it, and you better be certain this is the only way to tell this story.
So let’s say you have been brave enough to try. You spend a couple of hours — or years — working on a short story and at last you’re convinced every single word is perfect. What next?
Well, now you have the unparalleled joy (not!) of trawling through the literary journals and magazines to find exactly the right match for your work. Some people suggest you have a specific market in mind before you start writing. I have three problems with that:
- The story must be true to itself first, not to any specific journal. No, not even The New Yorker.
- It can take years to write a story. The journal may have changed in scope or in editorial attitude in the interim. Worse, it may have gone out of business.
- What if your carefully selected journal passes on the story despite your best efforts? Will The Stinging Fly want something that has Granta written all over it?
That said, you do need to have a specific type of market in mind as you’re writing. Decide if your work is genre or literary. Know what’s being published in your category. If you’re writing about serial-killing werewolves, you should know how to avoid sounding like everyone else who’s writing about serial-killing werewolves. Give your werewolf a conscience. Give him an evil sense of humour. Make him gay or a cook or a politician. Turn him into her and make her a mother. Make him / her unique. And know exactly what five magazines will like your type of story even as you’re writing.
Which brings us to marketing.
Please, pretty please, with whipped cream and a cherry on top, don’t assume all literary journals are the same. There are differences, some of them pretty colossal, between one and the next. If you want to increase your chances of publication, you need to do a proper analysis of the market. Here are some of the things I look for:
Start with an easy question: Is this a commercial market or a literary one? If the former, they probably pay; if the latter they very likely do not. The former prefers their stories to be accessible: traditional beginnings, middles and endings. Sometimes they want genre fiction: Science Fiction, Mystery, Romances. There’s a short story magazine for each of them. Actually, there are dozens of magazines for each of them, and they all have a different focus. Your job is to find Mr Right-for-this-story.
Supposing you’ve written something literary. It may be avant-guard, or surreal or experimental. Obviously, you need to see if the market in question publishes that sort of tale. A dystopian tale about an entire race being wiped out probably won’t be published by My Weekly. Just sayin’. By the same token, a sweet story about a retired schoolteacher falling in love with her chimney sweep probably won’t be accepted by Atlantic Monthly.
The next set of basics is knowing when and how this journal accepts submissions. University presses only accept submissions during the school year. No point submitting in June if there’s no one to read it until September. Find another market.
An increasing number of journals want you to submit via their electronic site. Why waste your time (and the postage) mailing a manuscript if the magazine says they only accept electronic submissions? Getting published is hard enough without sabotaging yourself. Do your research.
You also need to do a close analysis of each market’s story preferences: Does this journal tend to go with ambiguous endings or specific ones? What point of view do they seem to prefer? Male or female protagonist? Rural or urban settings? Optimistic or nihilistic tone?
Who’s reading this journal? Are they university-educated professionals or teenagers still in school? What’s their income? What worries them? Are they married? Parents? World-travellers? Who has their most devoted allegiance?
Yes, it matters. It’s of huge importance to the managing directors of the journal because appealing to their demographic is how they stay in business. If you want to stay in business, you need to have some idea of the type of person reading this journal. Don’t panic, there are some fairly easy ways to tell:
The masthead: Who’s the editor? How many people are involved with this journal? Are any of the names familiar to you (I don’t mean did you go to school with them, but are they renowned?) Does this look like a cosy sideline for a couple of literary pals who only publish their friends and members of their writing group? Or is this a slick operation with people like Margaret Atwood on their board of directors?
Advertising: If you spent €7.50 on a glossy magazine in Easons and every other page is an advert for some cosmetic or designer purse, you’re probably reading a women’s mag. Vogue or Elle, or something of the sort. Now, leaf through: do they publish fiction? Most don’t. Move on.
Now pick up another magazine. This one has cheaper paper. The journal costs about €2.50. Adverts are for baby food and baked beans. Conclusion: the reader is a mother who is either a stay at home parent, or trying to balance motherhood with a job.
Next, you pick up a small journal, standard paper, costs about €4.00. Adverts are for literary festivals, poetry prizes, and writers’ retreats. You can guarantee you have a literary journal in your hand. This reader loves literature and may aspire to be a writer him- or herself.
Just from these few details, you have an idea of the sort of reader you’re dealing with. But wait, there’s more…
As you’ve probably guessed, I use a spreadsheet to help me analyse markets. In the far left I have a set of criteria, and against that I have the list for my top-20 markets (based on prestige, payment, past experience working with them, and so on). My criteria includes:
- What person is the story being told in? (First, third.)
- What tense is predominant? Some markets prefer the present tense.
- Is there a commonality of tone? Humour, loss, hopefulness.
- How stylized are the stories? Are they straightforward or surreal?
- What sort of endings are most common?
- Are the stories plot or character-driven?
- How image-rich is the language?
- Is the diction simple or elaborate?
- How ‘dense’ is the writing? (Big long paragraphs that are not broken by dialogue. Very sophisticated vocabulary.)
- Where are the stories set? Some American journals like Irish stories, for instance; others prefer tales that are specific to their state. Likewise, some Irish journals prefer Irish tales and won’t look at stories set in New York, for instance.
Ideally, you should read at least 2 or 3 copies of the magazine to get a feel for what they like. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but if you create a database of all the details you’ll be ready for next time.
While you’re learning your craft, you probably won’t get paid, or at least not much. Most literary magazines can’t afford to offer more than a few Euros. However, if the journal is respected it can be worth sending them your masterpiece. Even more so if there’s a chance of developing a wide readership and making important contacts. BUT make sure you keep the copyright to your work. You don’t want to give up the rights to republish your story in an anthology, for instance. You definitely don’t want to surrender all rights if you’re not being paid.
Stephen King says a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger. It’s a lovely thought. Just make sure that stranger doesn’t pick your pocket.