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From the Front Lines: 3 tips for your short stories

After reading 500 short stories three times a year, here's some advice from this side of the editor’s desk.

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As I write to you, it’s been about a year since I left a literary magazine where my team of two associate editors and I would vet 400 to 600 stories for each tri-annual issue. (That’s three times a year, not once every three years, and no, publishing has never really figured out how to best distinguish.) I thought it was time to institutionalize some of the advice I passed on most regularly to writers looking for feedback on their short stories.

Before we dive in, let’s lay out some parameters: Yes, we hope our tastes continue to evolve and change as editors and as writers. And yes, we continue to learn, no matter where we are in our individual creative journeys. One change I’m making is to phrase this advice in the form of questions rather than in the form of prescriptive advice. I’ve been nudged by Felicia Rose Chavez’s Anti-Racist Writing Workshop; Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World; Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, which is referenced by both Salesses and Chavez; and Letting Go of Literary Whiteness, by Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides. Boy, you might say. This is a whole lot of work in the same vein. And, yes, you’d be right. These books and resources have me revisiting the way I teach workshops, which in turn is changing the way I edit, and so I thought I’d pass these methodologies on to you. Ready? Here we go:

1. Does my story start in the right place?

This is a question every writer should ask themselves before they turn in a draft or a submission. The number of times we saw stories that felt like they began too early (that is, the first page or so drags until the reader is piqued) or began too late (this is where the reader feels like they may have missed something upon starting the story) was too big to count on all the fingers and toes of our staff. With that said, there is a caveat to this: Different storytelling cultures have different traditions to them. For instance, Asian stories tend to start way in the background – there is no me, goes the cultural knowledge, without all of this, and so short stories from this tradition might feel different from Western stories. The advice I used to give a lot of was from Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen: A story is the moment after which a character’s life is never the same. This advice appealed to my Western education and to things I’d learned like the Hero’s Journey and Aristotle’s three-act structure, and so I looked for stories that fell more into this category; they are what suited me as a consumer of literature and as a product of a Western literary education. But we are a global economy, with access to lots of different cultures, and so we ask ourselves as writers: “Does this story start in the right place for what it is trying to be?”

1a. Related, it was common for us to see short stories that didn’t suffer exactly from plot problems – i.e., the plot started in the right place – but that nonetheless felt as if they were dragging. This was often because the writer was engaged in throat-clearing. This is that thing that happens when you are struggling to start a thing, and your brain makes a noise like you’re trying to pull-start an old lawnmower. If you let the story sit for a while, you’re likely to “hear” it when you pick it up to read it again.

2. Does my narrator make sense for this story?

I used to see this most often in stories that were told from the point of view of a child or a teen. This is an admirable challenge to take on, as many literary magazines don’t take stories that would be categorized middle grade or young adult. The trick is two-fold. First, work on getting the voice right. And then, in tandem, we should work on getting the point of reference right.

Both have tried and true guides: ask yourself if your young narrator would use the words you put into their mouths at their age. (If not, then you need to establish personality traits or surroundings that would allow a young narrator, say, to use terms that might otherwise sound older or out of place.)

The point of reference thing is just a more in-depth version of vigilance around diction and vocabulary. Essentially, it boils down to what a character of a certain age and experience is likely to observe and how they’re likely to process that observation.

3. Which story do you want to tell?

We all know that flashbacks happen sometimes in stories. But using them requires a delicate balancing act. Sometimes when we are too close to a story, we fail to see that the balance is upset. Editors can see it, though, because we have fresher eyes on the thing. I’d say if you’re spending more than a third of your time in flashback, you’re probably going to tip my internal scales, which will lead me to wonder which of the two stories you’re telling – one past, one present – actually matters the most to you. And, by extension, which one we truly need to be reading.

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The caveat, of course, is that there is such a thing as a braided story, in which parallel narratives get told. If that’s what you’re working on, then don’t worry too much about the amount of flashback.

One great way to alleviate the amount of flashback is to ask yourself whether or not you really need the information you’re giving us in the flashback to tell the story. A lot of times, background information – which is often what flashback is – can be feathered into the current narrative. If it can, great. If you’re struggling to do that, maybe this is a good sign that you should be telling the story that’s now being told in flashback instead.

Short stories go through trends, just like anything else. But these are the litmus tests by which I’ve found myself measuring short fiction for years, even as my understanding of literature from around the world continues to grow and as my own skill set as a writer grows. Part of that consistency, I think, has to do with one’s capacity to re-interpret advice we may have heard before to suit our ever-changing brains and capacities as writers. And the other part of it has to do with that elusive part of the writerly craft: Sometimes you know a great thing when you see it, or write it, or experience it, and if it feels that way to you, someone else – an editor, perhaps – is likely to feel the same.

—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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