Saturday, January 22, 2011



By Kate Thornton

Back when I first started writing, many years ago, I assumed because I thought I was a writer, I was a novelist. I just started writing, throwing in everything I could think of to tell my heartbreaking tales of timeless wonder, deathless prose and obvious genius. Heck, I didn't even really know what a short story was when I started writing.

I ended up with lots and lots of words, but still they were inadequate in conveying the grand ideas I thought I had.

Something was wrong. Well, plenty was wrong, but mostly I was trying to tell stories in too many words - way too many words. Fortunately, I discovered that I wasn't really trying to write novels, I was trying to write short stories. Once I realized that my ideas were better suited to a short form, I got better with practice. Maybe the things I learned about short stories can help you.

What is a short story?

All short stories share some similar basic characteristics. They all have a beginning, a middle and an ending. If your piece does not have all three, you may have a delightful slice-of-life or vignette, but without the basic form, you don't have a short story.

Your beginning is very important. You have only a few words in which to capture your reader and make him want to continue reading. You need a "grabber," an opening sentence that gets your reader's attention immediately.

There are lots of opening lines so memorable that we know them by heart. Go for an opening that won't let your reader stop, a specific event or idea that makes them want to find out what is going to happen.

The middle is where you expand on your idea, describe your setting or characters and get the reader to want to know more. It's where you tell the story. It's where the mystery or crime happens, where we get to know the good guys and bad guys. Ideally, a short story will have one central idea or plot line and no more than three main characters.

The end - especially in a mystery story - is where you hit your reader hard with what happened. It's the place where they either say, "Wow! I didn't see that coming!" or "Yes, that's exactly it!" Twist stories are designed to surprise the reader with an ending that is unexpected but satisfying.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get them from everywhere. I read, eavesdrop on conversations, skim the newspaper, mis-hear what people say on television and play the what-if game. What if that guy in line at the supermarket buried his wife in the basement. What if that person the cops are looking for is your husband. What if you heard someone planning a crime. You get the idea!

One thing that really helps me is my Idea File. Every time I think of an idea that might be of use, I stash it in my idea file. Then, when I'm staring at The Blank Screen of Death, I can rummage through my file until something starts to grow.

Getting the story written

I think there is nothing like the BIC method: Behind In Chair. Sit down and do it - get out that idea file and start writing. Don't worry about perfection, just tell the story to yourself and write it as you go. There will be plenty of time to edit once you have the basics down. And you can always write that killer opening line after you write the rest of the story.

What to do with a finished story

1. Revise. It's never really done, is it?

2. Get a sound critique.

3. Submit.

Revise. Write the story, then go back and rewrite it until it makes sense. Then rewrite it until it sounds good. Then go back and rewrite it until it sounds great. You might have to rewrite a dozen times to get it the way you know it can be.

Get a sound critique. Kiss your mom, but listen to your Sisters. As much as your mom loves your work, remember, it's probably you she loves and your work only by extension.

Sisters in Crime, however, is an example of a good writing group - there are many chapters worldwide and an internet-based chapter for those who do not have a local live chapter. The Short Mystery Fiction Society is an online group devoted to mystery short stories, and offers a wonderful list of markets, as does Absolute Write, a forum for writers of all genres.

These groups have writers who will let you have the benefit of their expertise. Take advantage of sound feedback and good advice.

Submit. Your story needs to find readers, so you must find venues for it and begin the submission process. You will discover paying and non-paying markets, anthologies, ezines, print magazines, even your church bulletin and garden club newsletter. And don't forget non-fiction venues - you may find one that will publish fiction.

Here are a couple of excellent market listings for mystery short fiction:

Remember to become familiar with places in which you wish to publish and read each venue's submission guidelines carefully - the guidelines will tell you exactly what that market will publish (subject matter, length, etc.) and the exact format they want, too. Also listed in the guidelines will be pay and rights information.

Rejection - we all get it. So send your story somewhere else. Then work on your next story while you're waiting to hear. Keep writing, revising and submitting. And let us know when you get published!

KATE THORNTON lives near Los Angeles and has over 100 short stories in print. She writes mostly mysteries and science fiction, teaches a short story workshop and has a new book of short fiction out, INHUMAN CONDITION Tales of Mystery and Imagination.