Defining the terms
Recently I mentioned to a friend that I had received $350 for a new short story. He was impressed, but then asked, "So how long is a short story?" In this particular case the story was 1,800 words, which came to about nine doubled-spaced pages.
His reaction? "What? I thought short stories were more like 20,000 words!"
Different publishers and contests have varying notions on word count, but as a general rule in this article I'm going to make the following distinctions:
- Flash fiction: up to 1,000 words
- Short, short story: 1,001 - 4,000 words
- Long short story: 4,001-8,000 words
- Novelette: 8,001-17,500 words
Who reads short stories?
I have sold adult fiction, YA stories, middle-grade stories, and even a couple pieces to a magazine for kids ages 3-7. (This last category is a challenge for me, since I no longer have kids in that age range. I tend to forget how to target that age level.)
For some years, short stories seemed to have fallen somewhat out of vogue, but they never died out completely. Human beings seem to have a natural affinity for a well-told tale. Many of those who are too busy to read a novel will still pick up a Sunday school handout or a magazine and enjoy a miniature escape from reality with the aid of a short story.
How to get started
The one thing you do not want to do is say, "Wow, there's money in short fiction!" and then go home and conjure up a story without any publisher guidelines in mind. On occasion, new writers have contacted me and said, "I've written a story about ____________ . Can you help me to find a publisher who might like to buy that kind of story?" The fact is, no I can't. I honestly don't have time to do that type of research for someone else's project. The writer who makes such a request of another writer puts that person in an awkward spot. It's not thoughtful.
To state the case more strongly, if you're going to write a short story, the smart approach is to research possible publications in advance. If you don't, it doesn't matter how good the story is, you might be shooting yourself in the foot by writing it with no particular publication in mind.
What if your story is 1,300 words and is fantastic--but the publisher's guidelines specify, "No fewer than 2,000 words"? No sale.
What if you craft an exciting 1,800-word piece about a teen girl lost in the mountains of Colorado, but then send it to a magazine that accepts stories only about boys? No sale.
Maybe you have a truly creative idea for a story about a bird that watched from the rafters of the stable the night Jesus was born. But if you write it and submit the story to a magazine whose guidelines stipulate, "No animal points of view," the result will be a another rejection.
Saturday Evening Post, Boys Life, Clubhouse.... Each of these buys fiction, but each of them wants different kinds of fiction.
So my advice is that Step #1 should always be to research possible target publications. If a publisher accepts freelance work (some are 100% staff written), it will offer Writers' Guidelines, usually on the website. Then read samples of the publications that seem to fit you. Get a feel for the types of stories they print. Only after you have picked a target publication, studied their guidelines, and gained a feel for the style and tone of stories they accept will you be ready to sit down and begin writing.
To be continued...
Rick Barry has freelanced hundreds of articles and short stories, had two novels published, and has more projects in the pipeline.