Writing short stories and personal essays is a marketable skill in publishing. These types of short pieces are submitted and accepted every week. And the great news about this kind of writing: Writers don’t need a literary agent to participate in the process. We can independently market our prose and land bylines that make us proud. It just takes sending our work to the right editor, at the right time, and in the right way.
In 2009, I founded the Market Coaching for Creative Writers program to help writers get their short stories and personal essays published in magazines. In that program, I teach writers how to create targeted cover letters, professionally format their manuscripts, and find hundreds of perfect markets to match their voice. They study magazine guidelines and submission etiquette, learn the difference between copyright and the rights available to sell, and set up a system for keeping their submissions organized. By the end of a Market Coaching session, writers are not only able to submit their work to viable magazine editors with confidence; they’re able to repeat the process for every piece of short writing they produce in the future.
Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays is going to teach you all of those things, too and more. This book is a complete conversation on the topic of publishing short works.
THE SHORT STORY
A short story is a short work of fiction. Many of the same craft techniques used to write novels are used to write short stories, but the short story stands apart as a separate form of prose—one delivered with concise language. The use of compression and microscopic storytelling makes short stories unique. A short story isn’t a chapter from a book but a complete experience delivered in a small package.
Besides length, short stories are unique because the action usually revolves around a single dramatic event. It is a glimpse of a character’s life—perhaps one year or even one hour. Every moment in the story is a dance between action and reaction that is related to a single dramatic event. These stories begin as close to the main conflict as possible, giving an unmistakable immediacy to the prose.
Short stories can be enjoyed in one sitting, but that time frame varies from story to story. Short stories can be as simple as six words or run eighty pages long. Most short stories published today fall somewhere between one-thousand and seven-thousand words, but longer stories and shorter stories can still find homes. There is no hard rule to follow with word count.
The terms “flash fiction” and “microfiction” refer to the very shortest of stories. Microfiction is a story that tops out at one hundred words. Flash fiction is anything between one-hundred to one-thousand words. Anything above one-thousand words (and up to twenty-thousand words) is simply called a short story.
Well-written short stories are highly desirable pieces of prose. There are plenty of markets to place this type of work. You’ll find short stories in literary magazines (The Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, etc.), genre magazines (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, etc.) children’s magazines (Cricket, Highlights, Ladybug, etc.), and commercial magazines (The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, etc.). Some are even sold as digital shorts on Amazon or other digital retailers.
I mention the caveat “well-written short stories” because even though there are many outlets for short stories, the competition to earn a space on the pages of a journal is quite stiff. For any writing project, you must create, revise, and polish your work until it meets the standards of the market to which you’re submitting, and in the world of short stories, that standard is skyscraper tall. Short stories are some of the most clever, experimental, urgent, and fresh prose being written today.
Part of the reason is the long-respected history of great storytellers and their iconic short stories, such as Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf,” and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I could go on for quite some time before running out of names, but the point I’m making is that short-story writers still aspire to equal the masters. This category’s authors and publishers will always hear the echo of notable writers in the distance. So today, editors search for contemporary yet barrel-aged stories that have been given enough careful crafting to mellow into greatness.
Personal essays are appealing first-person stories often found in magazines and newspapers. They’re true stories told by people willing to share their intimate thoughts and feelings about life. They are incredibly popular to read, with plenty of submission opportunities for writers.
These stories are nonfiction, but they stand apart from other nonfiction pieces because of their purposeful use of storytelling. We’re not talking about self-help, how-to, or informational articles, which all require the writer to slip into an invisible narrator’s voice. Essays bloom well beyond that informational tone. Well-written essays harness cadence, individuality, a narrative arc, and creativity.
Studying the craft of writing is essential to creating publishable personal essays. Writing the truth is important, but great storytelling holds equal weight. Personal essays have rising tension, compelling characters, and mini-plotlines that push the reader toward a conclusion or a realization. A personal essay isn’t simply an anecdote but an in-depth exploration of a subject.
Essay categories include travel, parenting, grief, humor, satire, nostalgia, divorce, friendship, personal growth, and much more. Essays can cover a trip with your mother-in-law to Las Vegas or a midlife moment in the mirror. They can explore the injustice of racism or the beautiful healing nature of butterflies. They can be filled with hope, anger, or angst. Essays have that delicious inclusion factor that grabs readers by the heart and makes them feel something.
Personal essays whose style strongly emphasizes literary elements (symbolism, setting, style, tone, theme, characterization, etc.) find homes in literary magazines like Tin House, The Sun, The Paris Review, etc. Reported essays—an essay that contains a personal narrative with some degree of reporting and statistical analysis—are found in news sources and lifestyle magazines like The Washington Post, Aeon, The Guardian, etc. All other essays, including well-written prose with any degree of literary emphasis, are found in nearly every other print and online publication.
Many places that publish personal essays will state clearly that they are looking for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is an industry term that includes literary essays along with other creative nonfiction, including travel essays, parenting essays, and pieces of inspired reportage, among other things. Outlets looking to acquire creative nonfiction are advertising, essentially, that they publish personal essays on a variety of topics that contain a large amount of scene development.
The key to well-written creative nonfiction is in the use of scenes to convey the story. Creative nonfiction essays use less narrative and more scene-by-scene storytelling—a technique that pushes the sensory experience for readers. When readers feel the action of an essay, they can make inferences, judgments, and emotional connections. They can experience the events with personal investment. Readers can then examine their own experiences in comparison.
Creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing area of nonfiction, with opportunities for writers in magazines and newspapers across the country. The genre allows for experimentation in a way that appeals to readers of fiction and nonfiction alike. Not every magazine is looking specifically for creative nonfiction, but if that’s the direction your work takes you, know that you will have many opportunities for publication.
Author Susan Pohlman has written creative-nonfiction essays for a variety of print and online outlets. She likens these essays to fiction, in terms of technique: “Creative nonfiction is an umbrella term. It is an easily accessible genre encompassing a multitude of forms such as the personal essay, the profile essay, participatory journalism, memoir, features, travel essays, biography, and inspired reportage on almost any subject. In short, creative nonfiction is the art of applying storytelling techniques to nonfiction prose. They are true stories that read like fiction.”
That’s right—they read like fiction. Don’t let that confuse you. They feel like fiction because they employ such a big dose of scene development, but creative-nonfiction essays are all accurate depictions of people’s lives. They are true stories crafted to elicit an emotional response.
Want to learn more? Grab a copy of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, available in bookstores everywhere.
My bio: Windy Lynn Harris is the author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published (from Writer’s Digest Books) and the founder of Market Coaching for Creative Writers, a mentoring program that teaches writers how to get their short work published in magazines. She’s a prolific writer, a trusted mentor, and a frequent speaker at literary events. Her long list of short stories and personal essays have been published in literary, trade, and women’s magazines across the U.S. and Canada in places like The Literary Review, The Sunlight Press, and Literary Mama, among many other journals. She is also a developmental editor-for-hire, specializing in short stories and personal essays. She teaches the craft of writing in person and online. More about Windy at her website: www.windylynnharris.com.