You want readers. More importantly, you want readers who will buy your books, and readers like to know the author whose book they’re buying has a track-record. But you’re an Indie, so you don't have a large publisher placing ads in the paper when you have a new release. How do you, as an indie, get your name out there and gain fans for your work?
You write short stories and submit them to magazines, anthologies, and contests. Every time your work is published, you stand the chance of gaining fans.
Plus, it’s nice to have a little cash in your pocket.
“But,” you say, “it’s tricky. They place so many limitations on what they want, and I might get rejected.”
Times have changed and so has the publishing industry. Despite the changes, writing short stories is still the way to get your foot in the door and not only gain visibility. Magazines that are respected and SFWA affiliated are springing up all over the internet, and they are accepting submissions.
Submitting to contests is good too. If you have a story that was a contest winner, you may be able to sell it to the right publication. Through the process, you will grow as a writer.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll imagine we are writing a story to submit to a contest where the genre is epic fantasy, and the word limit is 2000 words.
The theme for this contest is Truth and Consequences.
This means our story must adhere to that theme and word count or it will not make the cut, no matter how well it is written.
Our story is titled A Song Gone Wrong.
The Premise: Because he was a bit too specific when putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into song, our protagonist is now a wanted man. This means we have 2000 words to tell what happened.
Divide your story this way:
Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show these plot points
- setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
- the weather is unseasonably cold,
- In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is hiding from the
- Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated.
Your task in the first ¼ of the story is to introduce your main character in such a way that his personality is clearly defined at the outset. You must place him in the setting by showing the scents and sounds of his environment.
Remember the theme: Truth and Consequences. Sebastian has told the truth, and now there will be a consequence he was unprepared for. His thoughts and observations are critical here, but for the love of Tolstoy, only place the most critical of them in italics. Nothing is worse than a wall of italics.
In a story this short, I recommend you keep to either first-person or third-person omniscient point of view. I say this because the character herself or an all-knowing narrator can best report the facts, interpret events, and relate the thoughts/feelings of the protagonist and keep to the number of words allotted.
Act 2: First plot point: You have 500 words to tell how
- the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian, and
- he is thrown into prison, sentenced to hang at dawn.
Again, what your character sees, smells and hears are the critical means of showing his/her environment. In a contemporary piece, showing a woman opening a bottle of perfume says a great deal about her, and does so in very few words.
In the example story, we are still keeping to the consequences end of the theme. Sebastian is horrified by what he sees, smells and hears, and his reactions tell the reader a lot about him. Does he regret being imprudent in mocking the nobility, or does his punishment fire rebellion in him? This is another place where you can use the circumstances to show his personality, and still keep the plot moving forward.
Act 3.: Mid-point: You have 500 Words to explain how
- Sebastian meets a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die.
- Noli is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
- Noli and Sebastian manage to complete the escape route.
- But the guard seems suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape.
The whispered conversations between Noli and Sebastian will tell the reader the background because Noli will have information Sebastian doesn’t know. This is the point when the reader also needs to know that information.
And, this is the place where you set a final obstacle in your character’s path.
At the risk of repeating myself, I emphasize that when writing to a strict word count limit, you must choose your words carefully. You have to find words that convey the most about the situation but which do it concisely in one or two sentences. Everything the reader already knows must be said off-stage. On-screen conversations are critical as they will convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.
Act 4: Resolution–you have 500 words to show how
- The smart guard finally is relieved by a less wary guard, which
- allows Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route.
- They are spotted at the last minute, but
- Noli’s friends are waiting, and they make their escape.
The fourth act is where you wind up the story, and end it in such a way the reader feels it has a satisfactory ending but wonders what happened next.
Once you know what has to be done at what point within the arc of your story, you can get a grip on the structure of it. This is true for any work, from 2000 to 20,000 to 200,000 words. After a few times of creating short stories this way, you won’t need to think about it. Once you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.
I do recommend outlining for short pieces you plan to submit to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Usually, they have strict parameters for what they are accepting, so if you tailor that work to that particular publisher, you will have better success.
The difficult ones to figure out are publishers whose guidelines tell you the theme but give you no indication of what genre they are looking for. You have no idea if the person reading your work prefers hard sci-fi or romance, so it’s a crapshoot.
Once you have the story crafted to the best of your ability and sent in, forget about it, and spend your energy writing more short stories or working on that novel. Because you have no control over what a prospective editor likes or dislikes, rejections are more common than acceptance and shouldn’t be taken to heart. What one editor rejects, another will buy, so save it and submit it elsewhere.
In her article, Why You Should Aim For 100 Rejections a Year, Kim Liao writes that a friend told her to “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”
I have found this advice to be true. Last year I wrote one piece of short fiction in varying lengths, every week. During NaNoWriMo last year, I wrote 42 short stories. Two have sold, and a third was a finalist in the PNWA literary contest.
Not every story I write is worth submitting, but many are. If I hadn’t written them and risked rejection, they wouldn’t have been accepted, and those that are not worth submitting have good ideas I can recycle and use in a different form later.
Write short stories and submit them. Expect to have them rejected, and celebrate the few that you do sell.
Connie J. Jasperson is an editor, and blogger. An author of epic fantasy, she lives in Olympia Washington in a house full of books and craziness. You can find her blogging regularly at www.conniejjasperson.com .