Monday, June 11, 2007


Over the weekend, I attended the Sisters in Crime Los Angeles NO CRIME UNPUBLISHED Conference and co-hosted a short story workshop with writer Gary Philips.

It was fun, but we were strapped for time and only had an hour. An hour is not enough, so I want to not only hit the highlights of the workshop for you here, but also to expand on it a bit and give you some of the information I did not have time to impart to the live class.

The Craft of Writing: Short Stories

Okay, how long is a short story?
Here are the official lengths from the Short Mystery Fiction Society (the folks who award the Derringer prizes each year)

Flash Story Up to 500 words
Short-short Story 501 to 2000 words
Mid-length Short Story 2001 to 6000 words
Longer Short Story 6001 to 15,000 words

Bear in mind that every venue in which you wish to publish will have their own idea of what lengths they will accept.

What makes it different from a chapter of a novel?
A short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is limited to one main plot point and the cast of characters is of necessity short. It tells a complete story with a resolution or revelation of some sort at the end.

A written scene without these completing elements is a snapshot or vignette, not a short story.

You may certainly use characters, settings, chapters or scenes from your novel in a short story, but your short story must stand alone as a complete story all by itself. It must have an ending, even if you – or the reader! – do not agree with the denouement or ending.

What's more important, setting, plot or characters?
They are all important. But while you may have the luxury of exploring settings in great detail in a novel, using multiple plot twists and turns, and an array of characters right out of Cecil B. DeMille, in a short story you must narrow your focus. The shorter your story, the more important it is to write concisely and to keep the telling of your tale simple while retaining its color, premise, style and voice.

First person? Third person? Omniscient Narrator?
Whatever works for your story. I have read beautifully-written short stories comprised entirely of dialogue. Beware when using a narration technique that you do not just dump the story on the reader by telling, not showing. Even a very short story must be interesting enough to hold the reader's attention, to make the reader care about the story. I like the way first person makes the reader an immediate part of the story. But I like the way third person omniscient can make the reader privy to every secret, every action as it unfolds.

I want to write a short story. Where do I get ideas?
Good – let's try writing a short story. Ideas come from everywhere, but I find that themed contests and exercises ("Write a story based on this picture!" or "Write a story about sheep!" or "Write a story with a lemon, a goat and an alien princess in it!") can be very good jump-starters.

Other ideas can be a childhood incident or other real-life event. Remember you are writing a short story – a piece of fiction – not a memoir, so make sure you have that old beginning, middle and end.

One of the best exercises you can do if you want to write short stories is read them. Read in the genres in which you want to write - and the ones you don't. Read the masters: O. Henry, Saki, Sommerset Maugham, Edgar Allen Poe. Read Guy de Maupassant, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson.
Go here for some great classics

You will not only get ideas, you will get a feel for the short story form. You will also see how language has changed over the last hundred years or so.

Now read some contemporary shorts: Ed Hoch, Stephen King, Raymond Carver, (here's a link to one of his, "Vitamins" in Granta) Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Chabon, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore.

Look at the differences, but more importantly, look at what is the same. Look at the "bones" of the story, the structure as well as the sheer reader's delight of total immersion in a good story.

Now, try to write a short story of your own. Don't hesitate - start writing now. Write until you have all three elements (beginning, middle, end.)

Tinker with that first sentence until it makes you want to read more. This is your "hook" - hook those readers up front. Remember those classic stories?

Help! I wrote a story, but…
You knocked out 180,000 words? Okay, maybe your wrote something between 100 and 10,000 words. Well, congratulations on writing a story - now let's tighten it up. Every first draft of a story can use some improvement. Take your newly-finished work and put it away for a few days. Write something else in the meantime. Remember - there is no limit to what you can write.

Some time later, take it out and read it aloud. You'll probably find a few things you need to fix right away.

Here's how I tighten a story - I have been known to successfully reduce a rambling 2,000 word story to a succinct 500 word short-short - without losing the essence of the story. I go through it and take out all the -ly words first. Adverbs are not your friends. (Okay, maybe I leave in one or two. But what do they contribute to the story?) Next, I look at the dialogue tags - the "he said, she saids." Do they make sense? Are they monotonous? Too colorful? Confusing?

Next, I read for extraneous phrases which do not advance the story. They may be beautifully-written pieces of deathless prose, but if they do not advance the story, out they go.

Finally, I read for pacing and continuity. Does the story unfold smoothly and at the right pace? Does stuff happen in the right order? Did I forget a name, change a hair color by mistake, forget that it was night in one part and day in the other? Do I need to change a few sentences around to make them clearer, smoother, more readable? Do I need to ditch a sentence or two entirely? And why did I name the heroine Gypsophylla when Lisa is a better fit? (Yippee for find-and-replace!)

With any luck, skill & effort, your story is now a better one.

Marketing your finished work
I want to devote a whole day in the future to marketing short stories, so this is going to be very short:

1. Know your genre. Do you write mystery? Science fiction? Romance? Contemporary literary? I write mostly mystery and science fiction, but I firmly believe that if you can write, you can write anything you want to. Look at your story and figure out where it might belong. Chances are, it could fit into more than one category.

2. Research your markets. Know what they want. Every magazine, anthology or contest has submission guidelines. Read them carefully and give them what they want. If they say under 1000 words, don't send 1001. If they say snail mail only, get out those envelopes. If they say no vampires, robots, brunettes, or cats, don't send your epic space opera vampire story about the furry dark robot cats. Keep on looking for a market that fits - or revise your story to fit the market. Either way works.

3. Polish your story again. Give it one more read, made sure it looks great and is in the right format.

4. Submit. Go on, do it. And keep a record of your submissions. A simple Word or handwritten document giving title, market, date of submission and date/type of response is perfect. That way you don't miss a market or submit the same thing twice to the same market.

A note about cover letters.
Short stories are usually sent with a short cover letter (not a query letter, which is something else entirely.)

Cover letters usually say something like this:

Dear Editor,

Attached (or in the body of this email) please find my original 750 word short story, "Lost in the Woods."

I am an avid reader of your magazine, and have had work published in "Sewage Monthly," "Cat Lovers USA," and "Coal Digest" (or leave credits out if don't have any - it won't matter if you don't have any.)

I look forward to hearing from you.


Avid J. Reader
123 Writer Lane
New York, NY 10000
(212) 555-5555
(Your name, address, phone number & email are important!)

Then you wait. But while you are waiting, write something else. Keep on doing that.

Where? Where do I submit?
Here are the links to 2 of my favorite online market guides.

Ralan's (look over on the far right for market listings)

There are others, of course. And if you post to any writers' forums (or fora for you linguistic purists) you will also find market info. Try these:

Absolute Write
The Mystery Writers' Forum

Okay - that's the Short Story Course for today - like I said, I'll cover marketing in more detail in the future (you can check the archives for a few more markets - and a lot more advice!)


The faces of everyone at the No Crime Unpublished Conference. Rochelle Krich, the keynote speaker brought me to tears. Sometimes that is a very sweet thing.

Two Barbara Karst bougainevilleas in my garden. Every week I see something new and wonderful.

No lines at the ladies' room at the conference. I really dislike waiting in line at a ladies' room when there is no line at the men's room. I have been known to dash into the men's in an emergency. There are more urgent needs for this as I get older…


Tia said...

What a beautiful summary! Now we don't have to attend the class (just kidding :).

We have a Sisters in Crime chapter in Jacksonville. And since my fantasy-espionage book has a good deal of mystery, it sounds like it would be valuable for me--as well as a lot of fun!

Diana James said...

Nice job, Kate! I enjoyed being there in person and am so glad you posted in such great detail on your blog.
Keep up the good work,
Diana James
Incoming President, Sisters in Crime/LA

Bernita said...

Clear and succinct.
Thank you, Kate.
~ am in the throes of one now~

Kate Thornton said...

Tia - thanks so much! And yes, by all means, check out your local chapter - ours is terrific and has been a help to me in so many ways.

Diana! - Thanks for stopping by! Your hard work made that great conference possible. I look forward to the next one.

Bernita - you are very welcome - I don't know what I would do without my daily dose of *your* writing brlog, especially now that Miss Snark is gone.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...


I heard your workshop went very well. Unfortunately, I was moderating another at the time and missed it.

Too bad, too, we had to limit the time, but time is so limited at these events.

Everyone did such a fantastic job!!!

Kate Thornton said...

Sue Ann - I know you were busy - the Prez can't be everywhere! Thanks, yes, it did go well - we'll expand it next time. Delighted to see you here, too!

Buffy said...

Wonderful! Thanks so much for this. I've really been trying to work on my short stories lately. I find them very difficult. This has been a tremendous help.

Kate Thornton said...

Buffy - thank you! Let me know if there are other things you'd like to see here.

Anonymous said...

Really? No lines at the ladies' room?

Kate Thornton said...

Anonymous - there weren't any during the times I went there - lunchtime *may* have been a different story. But there were several ladies' rooms at the hotel, so that was a good thing, too.

Dee Ann Palmer said...

Great summary on short story writing, Kate! I was in another workshop, but flipped a coin. Thanks for your time on this.

As for lines in the ladies room, yes, at times they were long. I asked about another restroom and was directed to one no one but me knew about.

And please note: I'm posting on your blog!

Dee Ann Palmer

Kate Thornton said...

Hey Dee Ann! What a pleasure to see you here! I recommend Dee Ann's site to anyone with an interest in writing - she is a very successful writer!

Evelyn said...


It was wonderful getting to know you at conference and attending your workshop. Thanks so much for expanding on your workshop here! I'm definitely going to use this as a reference for working on my first short story in progress which incidentally isn't really going to be a mystery in the truest sense. But I decided for my first real short story, that was okay.

I look forward to seeing you again and definitely hope you'll have one of those workshops later this year that you mentioned.

Evelyn Keolian

writtenwyrdd said...

Highly informative post, Kate. Thanks for sharing!