We all want to gain readers. How do you, as an indie, get your name out there and gain awareness of your work? You earn your “street creds” by writing short stories and submitting them to magazines, anthologies, and contests.
Despite the changes in the publishing industry as a whole, writing short stories is still the way to increase your visibility. Reputable magazines that are SFWA approved are seeking 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. By doing this, you learn how to write to a specific length and theme.
I have a system for this. The following story has been used as an example here before. I wrote the original story for a 2015 contest with the theme of Truth and Consequences. The genre was epic fantasy, and the word limit was 2,000 words.
This meant my story had to adhere to that theme and word count, or it would not make the cut, no matter how well it was written.
My story was 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. I had 2,000 words to show what happened.
I divided the story into four acts:
Act 1: the opening. I had 500 words to show these plot points:
- Setting: the weather was unseasonably cold.
- In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, hid from the soldiers of the lord he had humiliated.
My task in the first ¼ of the story was to introduce the protagonist so that his personality was clearly defined at the outset. I had to place him in the setting by showing the scents and sounds of his environment.
The theme, Truth and Consequences, had to be strongly shown throughout the story. Sebastian had told the truth and now faced consequences he was unprepared for.
My bard’s thoughts and observations were critical in this tale, but I had to be reasonable. At 2,000 words, I didn’t have a lot of room for mind wandering, especially in italics.
Another thing to consider was point of view—I went with first-person as I felt the protagonist could best show and interpret events and relate emotions while keeping to the number of words allotted.
Act 2: First plot point: I had 500 more words to show how:
- The soldiers surrounded and captured Sebastian.
- The irate lord threw him into prison and sentenced him to hang at dawn.
Those noises and odors helped drive home the consequences part of the theme. Sebastian’s reactions told us a lot about who he was as a person.
So, where was this story going to go? I asked myself, “Does Sebastian regret being imprudent in mocking the nobleman, or does his punishment fire rebellion in him?” This was an opportunity for the circumstances to reveal his courage and still keep the plot moving forward.
I went with rebellion.
Act 3: Mid-point: I had 500 words to explain how:
- Sebastian met a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die.
- Noli was a member of an underground society trying to overthrow the current lord. He was on the verge of managing an escape, but time was short. He needed help with one last thing.
- Noli and Sebastian managed to complete the escape route. Unfortunately, the guard seemed suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape.
The whispered conversations between Noli and Sebastian gave us the background information. Noli had information Sebastian didn’t know.
This was the point when the reader also needed to know that information. Everything the reader already knew didn’t need repeating. Conversations were critical as they conveyed the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.
At this point, I set the final obstacle in their path.
This is where I have to emphasize one of my mantras: when writing to a strict word count limit, you must choose your words carefully. Find and use words that are strong and evocative, words that convey the most information concisely in one or two sentences.
Act 4: Resolution–I had 500 words to show how:
- The smart guard was finally relieved by a less wary guard, which allowed Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route.
- They were spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends were waiting, and they made their escape.
The fourth act is where you wind up the story and end it so that the reader feels satisfied. You hope they are left thinking about it, wondering what might have happened next.
Once you know how many words you are writing to and what must be done at what point within your story’s arc, you divide it into 3 or four acts. That is the way I structure most of my work.
This is true for any story, from 2000 to 20,000 to 200,000 words. Once you know the length a given tale must be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.
I always outline short pieces that are intended for submission to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Magazines especially have strict parameters for what they accept, so you will have better success if you tailor that work to that particular publisher.
The contests and anthologies that are challenging to figure out are those 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 their personal preference can go against you.
That is a risk we all take. Remember, 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.
Write short stories and only submit your best work. Expect to have them rejected and don’t take it personally. Turn them around and submit them elsewhere, because someone will accept it.
And always, always—celebrate the stories that you do sell.