Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Can a First Chapter Make a Great Short Story Submission?

This is one topic I've been mulling over for some time. I like to read short stories; I'm not so good at writing them, and I've learned that many speculative fiction writers aren't either. I think our problem caters back to the necessity of world-building, the common practice of using a large cast of characters, and lots of plot and/or character development. Let's face it, most speculative novels are door-stoppers in size and scope.

So when a speculative writer wants to submit a short story for a contest, magazine, or anthology, all to often the train of thought seems to be: "I'll submit the first chapter of my novel and that will entice readers to want to read the rest of my novel!" Meh. Points for trying to be original about short-cutting your marketing strategy, the problem is, nearly everyone's trying to do the same thing - and I don't know of any first chapters being accepted as a true short story.

Because they're not.

The other form of logic may run: "I don't have time or energy to write out a short story because I'm working on my novel, but I really really want to be part of (insert whatever your submitting to), so I'll just submit the first chapter." You may want the writing credits or a prize to help boost your chances of landing something bigger with your entire novel down the road. Let's be honest, this is lazy. And it still falls back on the fact that a first chapter is NOT a short story.

Nope. There are no arguments to the contrary.

And there are a couple of good reasons why.

To start with, what is a first chapter? It is the beginning of a story, meant to draw in a reader and introduce them to your characters, your world, and the problem they are facing. First chapters don't resolve the main problem, they present it. First chapters don't reveal (or shouldn't anyway) your main character's entire backstory. They don't show off all the nuances of your novel's theme. You're just putting your story into gear and moving forward.

Now, maybe if you took your first chapter and completely rewrote it to the barest of barest bones, tacking on your ending chapter's resolution you could call it a short story. You'd have to pare your character list way down, skip nearly all of your world-building, chop out all your subplots, keep your action down to a minimum, cram your book's theme into one to two scenes, and still make it enthralling enough to read. But then, we've just destroyed your novel. And this grossly stunted version won't entice readers to want to go pick up and read the expanded form of the same story.

See what I mean?

So what is a short story? Let's turn to some resources for the answer:
From Merriam-Webster:
"...an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot."

From Wikipedia: (not my favorite go-to place as a resource, but I like this definition)
"A short story is a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood, however there are many exceptions to this."

From universalclass.com:
"Because of the length of short stories, most short stories just have an exposition, climax, and an abrupt ending. Short stories are known for having a "moral of the story" or a practical lesson, although this is not expected or required."

From liminalpages.com: (I recommend reading this entire blogpost, even though it's going in the opposite direction from short story writing to novel writing.)
"...let's think about the main difference between a novel and a short story:
  • A novel is a journey - not only for the characters, but for the writer and the reader.
  • A short story is an intense experience - something to linger over and savor (sic).
To capture these differences, you're going to have to write in a different way."

For a step-by-step guideline, you could take a look at this wikihow.com demonstration. It's pretty easy to understand and gives concrete examples.

From jerz.setonhill.edu:
"A short story is tight - there is no room for long exposition, there are no subplots to explore, and by the end of the story there should be no loose ends to tie up."

Just about every reference I've found or that you may find will also recommend reading short stories to get a handle on them. If you want to write fantasy short stories, find some legit ones to read, the same goes for any genre.

One strategy I thought of that might be helpful is to look at your novel and ask yourself if you have any side stories you could use as a short story, or any "episodic" parts with a beginning and a conclusion. There are lots of side stories that end up on the editing room floor as you revise. Why not pick one of them up and see if shows promise? If you have an "episodic" or short subplot in your novel, you could strip out the references to the rest of the novel at large and focus on that "episode" as a short story. Side stories are especially useful to garnering a readership for your story world.

To recap:
  • A short story has a limited number of characters and settings - really limited.
  • A short story has a conclusion. You don't leave the reader hanging, wondering where the rest of the story is. You don't entice readers with the idea of a full-fledged novel.
  • A short story is smaller in scope, but should pack a punch as far as reader experience.
  • A short story most often has one central conflict that is introduced and resolved. No tangents or subplots.
  • A short story is concise. You don't have room for elaborate world-building, tons of action scenes, lengthy character development, etc. No lengthy build-up either. You get right into the heart of the problem at the get-go.
  • Writing a short story is a different process from writing a novel and it will show if you're trying to get away with a first chapter. They are two different animals.
And there we have it.

You'll actually save time and effort on your part - and on the part of whatever contest, magazine, or press you're wanting to get into, by writing an actual short story. Sending in a first chapter usually means a polite rejection answer.

I hope this doesn't discourage anyone from wanting to write short stories. They're good practice at showing instead of telling, getting to the point, and being concise. All of which are great skills to have as a novelist too.

And I'm sure there are some anthologies, magazines, and contests out there that specifically want first chapters for the purpose of enticing readers. But don't they usually have a stipulation that the novel the chapter goes to be finished and/or published first? It makes practical sense.

If you know of any other good resources or references to the art of the short story, please share in the comments. Likewise if you've ever been on the receiving end of submissions for short stories and you'd like to share some friendly advice.

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