During my school days, I first encountered the exquisite stories of New Zealand modernist short story writer Katherine Mansfield. I’ve always found short fiction odd, varied and intriguing; one book of stories contains so many different glimpses of characters and lives. The best linger long in the mind and become more than the sum of their parts.
I began writing short stories because my writing time was limited by my personal circumstances. My first story was published in 2010 and in 2011 my stories won two awards: the Tom-Gallon Trust Award and SWWJ Theodora Roscoe/Vera Brittain Award. I’ve since had a pamphlet and short story collection published by small presses; a second collection is also on its way.
A short story can range in length from Hemingway’s famous six word story – For sale: baby shoes. Never worn – up to 20,000 words. In my experience, most literary journals look for stories of between 2,000 to 6,000 words as well as flash fiction of under 1,000 words. All of them will have submission guidelines on their website which are worth reading carefully. Your first chance to impress an editor is to show that you have absorbed and adhered to their rules, even if they seem a little odd. By doing so, you greatly increase your chances of having your work accepted for publication.
A large number of literary journals, magazines and anthologies are currently looking for new and exciting voices to fill their pages in print or online. Short stories also appeal to readers with limited time and, as we’re increasingly told, shorter attention spans in this digital world. Because of the popularity of short story collections in America, commercial publishers in the UK are considering submissions of short story collections in the hope of selling overseas rights.
Short stories are also a way of honing writing techniques used in longer work. Although they are made from the same elements as all fiction, the power of many short stories lies in what’s left unsaid. While there are countless approaches to writing them, there is also something a bit magical about a successful short story, some inner tension which holds a few thousand words together, rather like a little universe which you can’t add anything more to, or take anything away from, without it collapsing.
Short story competitions certainly helped me to see my stories published in book form. Some, like the Tom-Gallon Trust Award run by the Society of Authors, are free to enter. Others with high entry fees should be approached with caution. Presses who publish short story collections will want writers to have a track record of publication by literary journals and competition wins or placings alongside an involvement in the world of writing. Taking opportunities to read your work aloud to an audience at a local live literature event and taking part in literary festivals will add weight to any submission you make to publishers and agents.
It’s seven years since my first short story was published and the opportunities keep coming. I’ve been invited to be a reader for short story prize, have given talks and readings at literary festivals, attended some excellent events and met many other writers. I’d encourage anyone who is serious about writing to try this form and see where short stories take them.
By Emma Timpany