Short Stories – Writing Stories Readers Want to Read
Until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t a fan of short stories. I’d tried to read a few and they were either boring or I just didn’t get them – or often both at once! I think partly it is about mindset – I’d spent all my life to that point reading novels and even multi-volume epics. Compared to that, short stories just seemed too brief, with not enough time to get going. Then a couple of years ago, I joined a book club that reads a new short story a fortnight. I gradually came to appreciate and enjoy short stories, though inevitably there are still some stories I find boring, and some I just don’t get.
As well as reading short stories, I’ve started having a good go at writing them, and had a couple published in online small press literary mags. I’m trying to improve my craft all the time, to write better and better stories. Partly to help with this (and partly just for enjoyment) I’ve been trying to read around, survey the marketplace. Although my market is international, I’ve taken a keen interest in the UK market for short stories, because that’s where I’m from. The UK market for short stories is acknowledged to be quite poor, certainly as far as paying markets goes. More concerning however, not many people are reading short stories. When I look at what’s out there, I’m not really surprised. So what is out there?
Women’s magazines – There has for a long time been a lot of short stories published in so called women’s magazines, including Woman’s Weekly, Mslexia, People’s Friend etc. Some even have fiction specials dedicated to short stories. These stories are quite light, feel-good and to some extent cater for a predominantly older, mostly female readership. Which is great for them, but probably has limited appeal outside this demographic. If I was after maximising my chances of making a reasonable amount of money from short stories, I’d definitely look at writing for this market as they generally pay. As far as reading them? They’re okay, but they’re a bit too light and lacking in substance for me.
High brow literary magazines – These are the top echelons of the literary short fiction market in the UK. It’s still early days as far as reading goes, but my initial impression is of stories striving to experiment, write lush prose and be as literary as possible. Some are decent, some leave me a bit cold. Is the general fiction reader going to enjoy these? I’m skeptical.
Genre magazines – There aren’t many in the UK, but there is Interzone which has been a stalwart in the SF & Fantasy field in the UK for close to four decades now. They produce decent stories, and my impression is there’s less hard SF then there used to be in the magazine so perhaps would have a wider appeal (albeit you need to subscribe or at least buy an issue to find this out). There’s one or two other semi-pro SF magazines in the UK, and one or two crime fiction magazines. These are a good bet for enjoyable stories if you like that genre, not so much if you don’t.
Small Press literary magazines (including online) – Mostly amateur affairs, non-paying markets for writers etc. Some are weirdly experimental and don’t appeal to me, but others are good repositories of decent stories. I have a sneaking impression that these may just be some of the best places in the UK for a decent short read…
Another thought on the high brow literary stories. I’ve recently been working my way through ‘The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story’ edited by Philip Hensher. There’s a lengthy intro in which Hensher takes a look at the (literary) short story market in the UK, and laments how bad it is. He then goes on to say if anyone wants to make decent money from short stories, the competitions are about the only place. His view though is that writers winning the short story competitions are basically writing to please judges who are very divorced from the reading public, resulting in award winning stories that no one actually wants to read! He gives an example of an author who won a £15,000 national short story prize, but his anthology which has been in print for many years, has sold literally a handful of copies. Food for thought! I’m really enjoying the anthology, most of the stories have been good or very good, so his judgement is obviously not bad.
All of this leads me to the inescapable conclusion that there’s precious few places producing decent short stories that the mass market of readers actually want to read. Which really is a shame. For my part, I’m going to write the stories I want to write, and hopefully they’ll be the type that people actually enjoy reading.
The other thing I try to do (and you can too), is when I find a magazine or website publishing good stories, I’ll share it, tell everyone about it. The same goes for authors, if I find an author writing stories I really enjoy, I’ll try to tell them and then tell everyone else! I think short stories are a great form of writing that is a good fit for the fast pace of the modern day, and online makes it easier than ever for writers to get stories out there, and readers to read them. Lets get to it!