In January, I started my own short story zine. Ever since, I’ve been reading my way out of a steady pile of submissions. What’s more, I’m reading these stories with a new perspective—while I usually read for pleasure, as an editor, I now have to make judgments about each story. What makes a story good? Which will appeal to my readers? What’s the difference between a story that’s truly awful and one that is simply not up my alley?
As I read more and more stories and wrestle with these questions, something unexpected has happened. Not only am I becoming a better editor … but I’m also becoming a better writer.
Here are five of the top lessons I’ve learned so far:
A Compelling Character is Not Enough
Nor is any other single story tactic. Following a character through a day of his or her life is not a story. A thousand words building a fantasy world is not a story. A description of a strange and unexplained occurrence is not a story. Following a character who experiences a strange occurrence in a fantasy world as she seeks out clues to discover what happened? That’s a story.
Pick Details Wisely
When you have just 2000 words to tell your story, don’t waste 200 of them describing the room or waking up your protagonist. Choose the details that build your world, reveal something about your character, or are pivotal to that plot twist you’ve got coming. No one needs to know what kind of flowers are in the garden unless your main character is a botanist.
Complete the Story Arc
No matter how short or long a story is, it is not complete unless it has a setup, a climax and a conclusion. This sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how many submissions overlook the importance of a complete story arc. Without all three, you leave your reader hanging. As an editor, I’ve come to hate this feeling, so I’m meticulously combing my WIP to ensure that not just my novel but each chapter of it has a complete arc.
Stop Trying to Be Artistic and Just Tell the Story Already
Some writers are in love with their words to the point of distraction. But all the lovely descriptions in the world are meaningless without a plot to back them up. Stop overdressing your stories and just show us the meat. I check everything I write for this now.
Write a good lede
The more I read with a mind for drawing in readers, the more I look at a story’s first sentence like a journalist looks at their lede. That first line has to have punch and get right to the heart of it. Readers have short attention spans these days, and a lot of other options. Give them a reason to click through and stick around. This is especially good advice if you plan to self-publish, since so much of this is done online these days.
Reviewing others’ work with a critical eye can give you a fresh perspective and help you see your own writing more clearly—and fortunately, you don’t have to start your own publication to reap these benefits. You can find other writers who want to share feedback almost anywhere. Find a partner to trade pages with or join a critique group. You can even connect online through a writers association or other sites (DIYMFA’s Community page is a good place to start).
Lit addict, movie junkie, and writer, Emily Wenstrom blogs about creativity in art and career at Creative Juicer. She is also the founder and editor of wordhaus, a short story zine built for the digital age, and now seeking submissions.