I prefer writing novels to short stories. Novels play well to my obsessiveness and hyperfocus–you get to work on them for hours a day for a month. You can build entire worlds for them and fall asleep daydreaming about your characters. It might take longer to finish, but you don’t need that much inspiration to carry you through because things work themselves out as you go.
But I’ve been trying to write more short stories, because they’re easier to get published and good writing practice. Writing a novel, or worse, a series of novels, can get you in a rut where you never practice making up new worlds or characters because you’ve been working on the same ones for years. Short stories are whole ideas, but in a couple of hours’ worth of writing.
Tips for writing short stories
The real secret, for me, is jumping on an idea right away and just writing something. If I sit on an idea, either I’ll forget about it, or I’ll flesh it out so much that it now has to be a novel. Ideas for short stories can be little, single concepts. I think them up on the drive to the grocery store or wake up remembering something from a dream, and I don’t really need much else. Little ideas that aren’t enough for a novel can be plenty for a short story.
It’s important that every story, no matter how short, still have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning should hook the reader right away, since there’s so little time to work with. The middle should have some tension. You want to have something unresolved–a plot, not just a description of your concept. The end is often a twist or a line with some resonance. You don’t have the emotional weight of having known the characters for a long time, which allows just their triumph to be enough. Leave an impression.
Characters can’t be as fleshed out, which is a big downside for me. I like to get to know characters really well. So the character should be somebody easy to relate to and understand: not necessarily a stereotype, but at least someone expressive. My favorite type of hero, the emotionally-repressed nerd who takes till act three to understand what she’s even feeling, doesn’t tend to work so well. It’s perfectly okay to flesh out a character with a brief flashback, their thoughts, and so on. You might not have a lot of room, but you don’t want to outright rush.
Short stories can be any length from, say, 100 words all the way to maybe 7500 words. (You can go longer, but then you’re flirting with a novelette.) I don’t decide at the outset how long something is going to be. I write till it’s done, and that shapes who it can be submitted to. If it turns into a novel instead, whoops.
Reading short stories helps you get a feel for how to pull it off. There are tons of fantasy and science fiction magazines out there, like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, or Lightspeed, and many of them offer at least some of their stories online for free. I recently subscribed to Daily Science Fiction (free!) and get a flash fiction story every day.
How to sell a short story
This part is pretty simple. You sign up for Submission Grinder (free) and use the advanced search options to find markets that want what you have. You can filter for whether they’re open for submissions right now or for how much they pay. If you’re a beginner, if they pay anything at all, they’re probably still worth submitting to. Because then you can have a paid publishing credit, which is worth more to you than whatever they pay.
One tip, though: many markets do not accept simultaneous submissions. So if you are interested in submitting to places that don’t, make a careful list of who you’ll submit to, in what order (unfortunately, SG doesn’t do this on its own) and send a new submission out only after you’ve been rejected by the previous one. SG will tell you which markets will get back to you in a timely way. It’s frustrating that some don’t want you to submit to anyone else, but at the same time take months to get back to you or never reply at all. Save those for the end of your list.
Format your manuscript nicely (this way is pretty standard) and write a cover letter. Unlike a query letter, this isn’t anything fancy. Please consider my short story X for publication, it’s Y words and Z genre. Here are a few details about me. Thanks for your time and consideration. You don’t need anything else. Some outlets will want something slightly different, and they’ll tell you what. At least one I’ve submitted to didn’t want any cover letter at all.
The whole process is a lot better if you have more than one short story you’re sending out. Because while you can’t send two stories to one market at the same time (usually) and you can’t send one story to two markets (sometimes), you can always send one story to one market and one story to another market. That way you’re always keeping things moving.
Because short story publishing, like all publishing, is a waiting game. Researching markets and submitting stories takes a few hours per month, but hearing back can take weeks. Don’t stress too much about your short stories being out in the world. Just write another, even better than the last!