Thursday, April 17, 2014

You Can Write Short Stories (Part 3)

by Rick Barry

(If you're interested in writing and selling short fiction, I suggest you begin with my first post in this series:

          Let's jump back into the exciting topic of writing short stories for publication. At this stage, you have some possible target publications in mind for your stories. You have studied them. Next, based on what you learned about the publications (magazines, journals, Sunday school papers, whatever), you have brainstormed some ideas that pump your creative juices.

          Even before typing your title into a blank document, you need to decide a few things. What genre is your story going to be? Horror? Humorous? Sci-fi? Fantasy? Western? Contemporary? You get the idea. Deciding this in advance will steer you in the creative process.

Recognize the target audience 
          Equally important is the question, "Who is my target audience?" Your short story, no matter how wonderful, cannot target everybody from pre-schoolers to senior citizens. True, some adults will read fiction geared for teens. Some junior high girls will read romances intended for adults. Still, the majority of your readers will fall into some particular segment of society. Decide up front who those people most likely will be. Your choice of publication should give guidance here.
          When I penned "Ronnie Right's Wrong Day," I targeted lower-elementary students and added humor appropriate to the age level. Clubhouse Jr. bought that piece. Could I have sold the same story to Saturday Evening Post? Not likely. The fiction I've seen in the Post aims at adult readers.
          Some years ago I volunteered to lead a critique session at a Write to Publish conference. When I asked who would like to read a few pages for us to discuss, one young lady shot her hand up.
          "Okay," I said, "but before you start, let us know who your target audience is."
          She went blank. "I have no idea who my target audience is."
          If you release an arrow without aiming at any particular target, you have an excellent chance of hitting nothing in particular. The same is true in writing. At least target one portion of society for readability and appropriate interest level. Then the editor can tell whether your work is likely to appeal to his typical readers.

Remember: this is not a novel
           A novel provides much greater opportunity for imbuing your creation with back story, with gradual character arcs that encompass an inner journey and an outer journey, detailed descriptions, etc. Short stories? Forget it. As I've stated before, short stories are the SWAT teams of literature. You jump into the situation, locate the problem, handle it, then pull back out. You're done. Short stories simply can't offer luxurious time and space to accomplish all that novels accomplish.
          A writing student once asked if he could examine a short-story manuscript I had just sold. I was happy to oblige. What he noticed is worth mentioning:
          "You didn't say anything about where these people were before the story started or how they got here. You just jumped into the action. It's almost as if this were one chapter pulled out of a whole novel."
          He was correct. With short stories, you can simply hop into the situation, present the key characters, and run with it. The implication is always that these people were alive and doing something before the reader happened along. However, you don't necessarily have to provide the history undergirding the story. In fact, you might not even need a full resolution to the problem, if you can pull it off.
          With short stories, your characters might not change as they do in a novel. I once sold a story called "Jacob's Cell." In it, teenage Jacob languishes in a dreary prison cell. His grandfather from Moscow had warned him about communists and the extent to which such cold-hearted people could hate and persecute those who sincerely love God. As the story unfolds, the reader assumes this is a historical tale that takes place in the old Soviet Union. At the end, though, Jacob rallies his strength to look out the window, and in the distance he sees a pale-green statue of a woman lifting a torch to the sky. Does Jacob change or grow in my short story? Not much. The real change I aimed for happens in the reader who suddenly realizes it's a futuristic story about the United States, not historical Russia.

Your turn! I've shared a lot of tips concerning short stories. Now I hope at least some of you will give them a try.

To be continued...

Rick Barry has freelanced hundreds of articles and short stories, had two novels published, and has more projects in the works.


  1. I started writing short-stories then published a couple books. I just completed a book of short-stories and although I'm into novels, finished my 95,000 word book recently, I still enjoy writing short-stories. I think capturing memories and sharing them are what I like most, Rick.

    1. Congratulations on being versatile enough to handle both, Diane. Not all short story writers can adjust to the differences in novels, nor can all novelists feel satisfied by "cramming" a story into a short amount of space. I applaud you for capturing memories. Those slices of life are worth preserving, both for ourselves and others.

  2. Hey Rick, I've been reading about copyright registration to protect original works, and I was hoping you could tell us a bit about that process. I looked on the government copyright site and it costs $35 to register an original work. Is that something we should do for short stories? Or is it safe to just submit them without registering? I understand that copyright is given automatically under current law, but how do I prove that I am the original author unless I pay the fee and register the work?