How to Write Short Stories for Magazines – and get published by Sophie King is a very practical guide to, as the title suggests, writing short stories and getting them published in magazines.
I will focus on the first eight chapters here, giving you a taste of what is on offer in the book. Although it does not come across here fully, most chapters discuss ideas in conceptual terms and in practical context, and feature writing exercises plus an actual short story by Sophie King in which she has applied the ideas.
The book is full of ideas which you can apply or adapt for your writing straight away and demonstrations of the ideas in practice.
1. Identifying Your Market
What kind of stories do you want to write? What kind of magazines do you want to write them for? Who reads particular magazines and what do they want in stories for the magazine?
Familiarise yourself with the magazines to maximise your chances of being published – not just the fiction pages but also the articles and ads, read the submission guidelines.
King gives a detailed examination of several specific magazines and how to determine what to write for each.
2. Good Idea!
Ideas come from life all around you, you just have to notice them and build on them by asking “what if?”.
Carry a notebook with you and write down anything interesting you notice. The things you notice don’t have to be extraordinary and exotic. They could quite easily be everyday things like clues from the laundry (grass stains, an object in a pocket such as a note), questions from the checkout (why did the customer react that way when they didn’t have enough money?, why did that guy buy 30 tins of sardines?) which might trigger a story idea when you explain them by asking “what if?”. Write these in your notebook as the seed of an idea and let them grow as you think about them and come back to add more detail.
3. Nice To Meet You
In short stories you have a small amount of space to establish your characters, so it can be useful to find ways of establishing characaters quickly.
Characters can be quickly established with the assistance of techniques such as a trademark behavioural habit, physical characteristic, or trademark phrase.
King explains that she puts a dog in her stories to bring out each character’s personality based on how they interact with the dog (A variation of this technique was also used in the film There’s Something About Mary when Magda says to Mary that her dog Puffy will tell them everything they need to know about Pat Healy. Pat decides he does not want to take any chances with Puffy, who hates him, so he decides to drug Puffy so he can make a good first impression.)
Set up the character, then move onto the predicament.
Make a list of your characters and write what their function in the story is and what would be missing if they were removed. If the answer is “not much”, then it may be better to remove the character or merge their function in the story with one of the other characters.
If you want a twist, set up a misleading impression of one or more characters, or the story predicament, and reveal the situation more fully later in the story.
4. Plotting Your Short Story
King covers how she plots her stories as well as how some of her writer friends do it, and encourages you to try different methods for themself to determine what you like most and works best for you.
5. Viewpoint: Whose Shoes Are You Standing In?
Avoid confusing viewpoint changes. You can change viewpoints as long as you indicate this clearly to the reader, usually by starting a new chapter or enough space indicate a clear separation.
Exercise: pick a story you know well and write it from the point of view of a different character. This will help you learn about multiple perspectives and ways they could fit together in the teling of the same story scenario.
6. Who’s speaking please?
Don’t get bogged down in dialogue. The reader also needs to know who is speaking , what they are doing and where they are.
Who is saying or thinking what (or reporting that another character is saying or thinking what)?
7. First person or third?
First person has more potential for hiding details to reveal in a twist later. However, third person “can alllow you to see and describe your characters in depth.” Stories with multiple points of view allow aspects of both.
Exercise: Write something in first person, then re-write it into the third. This will help you learn about different ways in which each can be used.
8. Beginnings and Endings
Exercise: Read the beginnings and endings of a number of short stories you have not read before. Take the beginning and the ending then fill in the middle. This will help you learn about how stories can progress from one situation at the beginning to a different one at the end. (Then you can compare your version of the middle to the real version of the middlefor more ideas on way to progress from a specific beginning to a specific ending.)
Chapters 9-18 cover writing different types of short stories, as well as other topics such as writing for short story competitions, writing courses, and the internet.
More on Sophie King and her writing can be found at www.sophieking.info. You can listen to her interview with Stratford Communty Radio here. She writes short stories and novels, offers a manuscript appraisal service for fiction writers, and teaches creative writing at Oxford University and privately. Sophie King also has an article on The Australian Literature Review called Taking the Pain Out of Plot.
The Australian Literature Review