Tuesday, 9 June 2009

What Am I Looking For In A Short Story?

I'm often asked what sort of stories I want to publish in The Yellow Room Magazine. It's obvious, if you read the magazine, I think. Market research is key when submitting to any publication and it's worth spending a few pounds to buy, study and read a magazine cover to cover. A creative writing tutor recently asked me what I was looking for, so I had a brainstorming session. Here are the results:

Firstly, I’ll consider short stories of up to 5,000 words, although most are around 2,500. Shorter pieces are welcome, too.
I like stories written on any theme, in any genre, although I’m not that keen on sci-fi and fantasy. I have published those types of stories in the past, however.
The first paragraph of a short story must grab me. The quality of the writing has to stand out. I can usually tell just reading that first paragraph whether the standard of writing is up to The Yellow Room readers’ expectations.
Plunge the reader straight into the action. We don’t want any sort of build up or preamble or being told what has happened leading up to the main event. Show the main event and flashback later, if necessary. I want to see character in action in the first paragraph. I want to know where we are and be shown. Think film. Give your work a visual quality.
I like writers to pay good attention to detail. Those who observe and record the minutae of every day life.
I like a story to have an interesting setting. I need to feel present at the scene. I don’t like stories which begin with a character waking up or getting out of bed. That has become a cliché and isn’t at all interesting.
I’m much more interested in character than plot. The stories I like best are those which show how a character changes, no matter how subtly during the course of the story. A change in perception; a new insight into their own lives or someone else’s or a fresh perspective on an experience.
I like writers who have fun with language and play on words.
I prefer those stories written from the perspective of a mature woman. Not necessarily mature in age, rather, mature in outlook. Women who question. Women who observe and comment. Women who like to push the boundaries; take risks; eager to learn more about themselves; who learn from past mistakes; women who grow.
I have to feel empathy for the main character. I can tolerate unsympathetic characters in a story as long as they have one or two redeeming features. No one is completely good or completely bad.
I think writers can sometimes restrict themselves to their own worlds. The old cliché ‘write what you know’ is partly to blame for this.
I’ve been accused in the past of only publishing stories with domestic settings. I don’t think this is true. The majority of stories I receive for consideration, however, do have a domestic setting. My advice to writers would be ‘broaden your horizons’. Sometimes it’s necessary to get well away from our comfort zones.
Latch onto a strong emotion you’ve experienced. Try to describe it. Now put it into a context. Create a brand new setting; create characters very different from yourself.
I like writers who make good use of the five senses. I like stories which are vibrant with colour. Show me the weather and make me feel that summer breeze or raindrops on my cheek.
I am always fascinated by how a story is structured. Unusual structures in a short story are appealing, if done well. I get a lot of stories set out in the form of letters or email correspondence. That isn’t so interesting.
I think because The Yellow Room publishes stories written by women, for women, I tend to get a lot of stories about relationships. There is more to a woman’s life! And not just work! Again, ‘problems with the boss stories’ are very common.
Does the main protagonist in the story have to be female? No. I enjoy reading stories written from a male character’s perspective and have no problem with it.
The best short stories have resonance. I remember them long after I’ve finished reading them. They have the ‘X’ factor – that certain something that I can’t quite put my finger on. The images remain in my head, as do the characters. I can still remember stories I read over ten years ago because they had resonance. There’s something unusual about them; or the images are so striking they stay with you.
Layout and presentation is important. I can usually tell from the lay out alone how good the writing is going to be. Please indent each new paragraph and only leave white space between paragraphs if indicating a gap in time or change of viewpoint.
A reader shouldn’t have to work too hard to understand a story’s message. If she does have to work hard to understand it, this usually means the writing lacks clarity. I look for a clean, economical prose style with no words wasted.
I get far too many stories about illness, hospitals, old people’s homes and death. While these things are all part of life’s rich pattern, they don’t make for an uplifting reading experience in the main. I want stories with a positive message and that have a feel good factor without being schmaltzy or twee. I don’t want stories you’d find in Woman’s Weekly or People’s Friend, simply because they don’t quite have enough depth and aren’t quite adventurous enough in theme(although some of the Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special stories are getting better in that respect). I like writers to take risks with their subject matter. Up the stakes. Make me care about your characters and their situation.
In a short story there is no margin for error. Your writing comes under the microscope. Every word must count. I think this is where short story writing differs markedly from novel writing. It is more closely related to poetry in this respect.
As Sarah Dunant put it, ‘There’s no place for the writer to hide in a short story, no room for failure, for sloppy writing or muddled thought.’
So often a good short story is spoiled by the ending. I know how fiendishly difficult it is to write an ending that fits. I feel that at the end of a short story your character should reach some sort of conclusion about themselves; their world; their experience. In some ways, the end should mark a new beginning, not necessarily in a dramatic way.
Remember less is more. Sometimes what is left unsaid has greater impact than hammering the point home.
Always remember to show. Show your character’s emotions; show your character in action; show the scene in question. Allow the reader into your character’s world by showing them the details. Avoid using passive sentences. Avoid indirect speech. Be direct. We need to be there and involved right from the start.
Good dialogue is so important. What your characters say must count. Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to dialogue. Get straight to the point.
What of the main things I look for in a short story is emotional truth. I want to identify with a particular emotion your character experiences. I want that light bulb moment, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about that, too!’.
To be a successful short story writer, ‘You have to be utterly vulnerable on the page, and utterly ruthless in revision.’ as Chris Offutt once put it.


Joanna said...

This is enormously helpful and I can imagine re-reading it many times. It serves as a reminder of all the most important factors to focus on. Thank you.

Joanna said...

In addition, I think the winning story in issue two, At The Launderette, ddemonstrates all the points you mention. That story haunts me. I thought it was perfect.

Oldrightie said...

From strength to strength!

Sue said...

That is so interesting Jo, and almost makes me feel like having a go! Thanks for sharing that :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this deluge of information, Jo. I wish other magazines' guidelines would be as complete as this!

Kath McGurl said...

Very useful article, thanks Jo.

Denise Covey said...

First time editor guidelines have been so inspirational! Thanks Jo.

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