Write a Short Story That Gets Published with Laura Mae Isaacman
Laura Mae Isaacman
Laura Mae Isaacman is a full-time editor who runs a book editing company out of Brooklyn, New York. Among the writers she has worked with are Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle and Noam Chomsky. She has lectured on the topics of writing and publishing and is the co-founder of Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art.
This is a lightly-edited transcript of the live webinar.
My name is Laura Mae Isaacman, and I am here today talking about publishing short stories and writing the kinds of short stories that get published. To give you a little bit of an idea about my background, I've been editing fiction since 2009. My very first literary magazine was an online magazine called Four Paper Letters. Then from there, about two years later, I moved into print with my first print magazine called The Coffin Factory. Then about two years after that, I did my second print magazine called Tweed's Magazine of Literature and Art. Now I run a book editing company out of Brooklyn.
Four sections that I've broken down today's lesson into. One is uncovering the heart of your story. That plays into structure, which some of you had said you were wondering about. The second is building characters, which is my absolute favourite part, and I think it can be the trickiest so I'm really looking forward to talking about that. The third part is editing, which is how to edit down your short story, how to only put the most crucial elements in your short story, and how to make a really punchy and effective short story and how to recognise where and how to edit your work.
Then the fourth course is submission, and I want to talk a little bit about the differences between online magazines and print magazines and depending on what you're looking for out of your writing career which one might be more appropriate for you. I will stop for questions after every section, so if as I'm talking, you're thinking of something, please put it in the comments. We'll try to get to it. Like I said, if there's anything else beyond that, you can feel free to reach out to me after.
What makes for a great short story?
Okay, so what makes a good short story... Well, a couple things. One is that it's got to stay true to your unique voice and perspective. We have to think about writing as an art. It's an art form. The way that you are going to create the best art is to stay true to your unique vision, voice, and experience. It's not by imitating somebody else. It's not by trying to do what you think big magazines, big literary magazines are doing, you're not going to fail. Yes, it can be a great writing exercise to sort of emulate the style of one of your favourite writers and to see what about your writing matches theirs and where you're able to do what they're doing and where you fall short. Great writing exercise. Not actually useful for creating super short stories that are going to be effective and that are going to resonate with readers, right?
Because a good short story is not only told in your voice from your perspective, but it also really deals with this emotional base that all humans have. Good short stories are not just about a simple plot on the surface of the story. Every good short story has layers of emotion underneath, things that you as the writer are trying to work through. This could be as dramatic as past traumas in your life, and it could be as simple as things that bring you joy. It could be about sort of uncovering parenting, if you're new parent, and sort of what that means and the difference between your new life and your old life. It has to be things that are emotionally true to you.
We've all had similar experiences, and what I mean by that is we've all experienced similar emotions. Anger, loss, grief, joy, confusion, stress. All of those things are universal to all of us, even though they come out in different forms. So that, it has to be the core of your short story, for two reasons. One, you're going to write a better short story because it's the old write what you know, which I'll get to in a minute. Two, if you've now written a better short story, that means the reader is going to identify with that short story because they're going to see themselves there on the page.
If you're writing a short story that's about character that's dealing with loss, and he's a grieving character, well we've all dealt with that. So whatever your experience is, if you are honest, and you put it on the page, then as the reader, I'm going to say oh I've had that. I've dealt with that grief. I know what that writer is talking about. I'm going to immediately connect with the story, and I'm going to keep reading it. That's good writing.
So the most important thing is really you have to write what you know so that it translates to the reader. Just a quick note on writing what you know, I think a lot of people are confused with writing what you know and what that means. It does not mean that if you're an editor like myself that I'm going to write a story about being an editor. Not at all. It's exactly what I was just talking about. Writing what you know is writing about what you know emotionally and writing from your experience. It's never surface level experience. It's always writing about if you've ever had a breakup, and it's made you sad, well you know what a breakup is, so it's writing from those emotions that come out of a breakup.
One quick thing I do want to say about writing what you know is that when you're dealing with emotions, one really important thing other remember is the road from action to reaction is never linear. So if you study emotion, and let's say you're working with stress for example and how that affects a person or a character, you want to think about, let's take an example of you have a job, right, and you're really stressed out at work. Your boss is giving you hell. Well you can't yell at your boss because you're going to get fired, so what do we do? It's socially accepted that we take it, we take our boss yelling at us, we take that stress, we carry it down, and then maybe later at home when we're around our friends or our family or our children, where we feel comfortable, that stress comes out. It seeps out. It may not be directly, but we may start to snap at our kids when they're annoying us, where normally our patience would be up here, now it's down here.
To understand that stress in one situation doesn't always come out right away and will come out differently to different people in another situation is really important to dealing with the emotions that are at work in your story.
One exercise that I think is really helpful for writers to figure out whether or not you're doing this and how you can improve is if you were to take two of your favourite short stories, one that you've written and one that you've read by your favourite author, and reread them, and write a one sentence description for each for what actually happened in the story. What literally happened, the literal events of the story, and the second description is what you think was going on underneath the surface of the story.
Because you're going to find that although a story may be on the surface about a guy who's hanging out at a bar and talking to people that he meets, what it's actually about is him dealing with loss or self acceptance. So you want to think about how these undertones of the story come out through the story. Where are they subtle? Where are they obvious? How do they change the mood of the story?
One example that I think is really helpful is I'm not sure that anybody is familiar with David Gates. He's a great writer. He's a really dark, moody writer. A lot of his stories surface level are about a guy who's an older guy, who's screwed up in life. He's screwed up his relationships. Maybe now it's however many years later after a relationship has ended. He's alone in a cabin. He goes out to a bar. He meets people. That's what literally happens in the story. But if you start to think about the undertones of the story and what the story is actually about, it seems to be about a guy who's trying to figure himself out and working through a sense of self acceptance and sort of forgiveness for himself and these things that he's done and come to terms with the way he's screwed up his relationship and in a sense his life. It's really a story about acceptance more than anything else.
If you start to do that for a couple of stories, you'll realise the ways, and you could almost pinpoint the ways that all those subtle undertones come out in the surface level of the story. That's why we love them. That's why we read them and connect to them. It's not actually a story line by line about this guy trying to accept himself, which we're all doing, right? No. But you can see once you know that that's what the story is about, you can see in all the spaces that it is.
I'd like to get into my second point, which is my favourite point, which is building characters, and it's my favourite point because a lot of writers that I work with, believe it or not, don't go the full length to building up their characters. So what happens is they end up having these flat, one dimensional characters. So I want to show you today how to completely avoid that.
I'm sure you guys have heard of Hemingway's old iceberg theory, which is basically that there's 80% of the character is like what's going on underneath the surface. These are things that only you as the writer knows and the reader sees the top 20%. So how do you do that? How do you make this full realistic character come through the story without giving the reader every possible detail that you ever thought about of the character?
Well you create what I love to call a character bible. A character bible is the sort of list of seemingly unrelated information about each character that appears in your story, right down to the waitress who's just sort of passing through. You have to of course think about how in depth you go is based on what role they play and your story. But it's a question that answers the history about the characters. It answers things about their goals in life. If you're writing a short story about a breakup, you want to answer the questions for the history of the character that are surrounding breakup, loss, what that looks like for the character, when they experienced it. You want to have things about your characters, not only where they grew up, but what kind of household did they grow up in. Did their parents get along? Did they fight with their siblings? Are they an only child? What does that mean? What does that look like? How does that play out for them? With are their struggles? Those sorts of larger things.
But then, you want to get into what's called the lumpy parts, which I think are the best character attributes that you could possibly spend time on. These are weird things. There are things like is that character in mismatched socks, does the character have glasses, does the character constantly interrupt others, do they squint when they're confused? What about the lines of their face when they're confused? Do their brows furrow and they have that deep line on their forehead? You want to think about all of these things and the way they talk, their tics in language. Are they really repetitive? Do they keep using a certain phrase over and over again?
You want to know all those things.
You may be thinking well why does it matter if my character's in mismatched socks. That has nothing to do with the story of who they are. Well, it matters because when you have a section of dialogue it's pretty boring for a reader to read he said, she said, he said, she said, he said, she said. It'd be much more interesting if you layered between the "he said/she said" that when a character's speaking, he bends down to scratch a bug bite on his calf and the other character notices that not only is he in mismatched socks, but one's an ankle sock and one's a tube sock. Not only does that layer the actual he said she said, but it tells you something about your character. That character is not really interested in wearing the same kinds of socks. They don't really notice that. Maybe they're not really that attentive to detail. Those things, if you build all those sorts of details up about your character, when piled up on top of each other, they're going other come through to create a fuller character.
Two things also that I think you can sort of only get to through a character bible are gesture and dialogue. Character bible, same thing with gesture. How does a character speak? Like me, do they use their hands a lot? How can you use body language to convey what they're saying, how they're feeling. Are they relaxed and leaning against the wall with their leg up and a hand in their pocket, or are they really tense, and they're body is up tight. All of those things if you know your character really well and the situations that he's in, you're going to be able to use gesture to elaborate on your character and layer your character.
That sort of feeds nicely into dialogue because you also have to know these sort of quirks of your character so you can incorporate them into dialogue. One thing I think is really important when it comes to building characters is to be aware of the way that people speak to each other. I urge you to go in and eavesdrop on a conversation between two people anywhere, and you'll very quickly notice the way that people talk to each other, so they talk in snippets. They heavily use pronouns. They are talking about two different things at one time. They're sort of talking around each other and at each other. They're never directly talking to each other.
If you take an example of a guy comes home from grocery shopping, he's in the kitchen, and he's putting away the groceries, and his wife is in the other room, and she's watching TV, and the guy is saying oh I've got the bananas, oh were they on sale, yes, okay, did you get the peanut butter, okay, yes, did you get crunchy or smooth, oh I ran into so and so at the super market, and then you have a page of all the dialogue that he says that totally recounts this conversation of who he ran into at the super market. Well, that's not really how it happened. If he ran into someone that it's worth putting in the story, his wife is going to interrupt him and say oh I saw so and so the other day, or I can't believe she said this or oh come, look at this commercial, this is my favorite commercial. This is the one that I've been talking about for days. Now suddenly, the conversation goes from this linear conversation of this guy's replaying of the events of the super market, and it's interjected with what's going on in the TV in the conversations. Then they go back to the conversation about who they met in the super market.
Then the conversation is sort of layered, and that's realistic, whereas if it was just straight I say something and another character responds directly, that's not at all how people talk. You want to stay true to how people actually talk, and you want to put those things in your characters, because it's going to be a lot more interesting for your readers.
Editing your short story
Somebody asked earlier how long should a short story be. You basically have up to 20,000 words to tell a reader everything they need to know about your character, why he's there, what he's doing, what his challenges are, and why we should care. What this means is as a writer, it's really important for you to learn what sort of information is important and what is less important in your story.
This takes a little bit of skill, but more than anything, it really takes an honest detachment from your writing. It means not being attached to a really poetic line that you had or one really interesting section to a short story. It sort of is about looking at the short story as a whole, what you're trying to convey, and what really works and serves the story. If you break it down every single sentence in your short story should do one of two things. It should either advance the plot or reveal character. If it doesn't do one of those two things, it's got to go.
The word count for short story, as I said it before, I'll just say it again, it is anywhere usually between 2,000 and 20,000 words. You don't have a lot of space to convey your story and tell your reader, basically give the reader a reason to care.
A couple things with editing. First is you want to start a story as close to the end as possible. A story is not like a novel. You don't have 100,000 words to go into back story, details, side stories, histories. You don't have any of that. If you spend too much time as a writer leading up to the main event of your story, by that time, the reader will have closed the book and is off doing something else.
So you've got to figure out what the core of your story is about and start as close to the end as possible. Anything that comes before, any of that lead up has got to go because it's not going to serve the short story. Another really important point of editing is to trust the reader. Please trust the reader. We can read between the lines. We have a good memory. Short stories you have to remember are usually read in one sitting. The reader is going to be able to guess things that have happened. They're going to remember things that happened. We don't need every detail told to us. This is not that kind of novel.
To give you an example, it's one of my favorite examples. I made it up, but I think it really works, is the story of Jimmy's girlfriend. If you have two friends that get into a fist fight, the way you don't want to do the story is Jimmy finds out somebody slept with his girlfriend, his friend slept with his girlfriend. He's mad. He grabs his keys, he runs to his car, he opens the car door, he gets in the car, closes the car door, puts the key in the ignition, turns it on, pulls out of his driveway. He's driving to the bar. He's mad. He's gripping the steering wheel. His knuckles are all white. He pulls up to the bar. He takes the key out of the ignition. Can't leave it running, right? He opens the car door, he gets out of the car, he slams the car door, he walks up to the bar. The gravel's crunching underneath his boots. He swings open the bar door, and he says, "I heard you slept with my girlfriend, Jenny. Is this true?" Not at all how you want to do a short story.
I've seen things like that more times than I can count. Here's why. One, the reader knows, and the characters in the story know damn well who Jenny is. They both slept with her. They know who she is. We don't need the sort of, reminder that she's so and so's girlfriend. Second thing, language is totally unnatural. You don't need someone to say you slept with my girlfriend, is this true. That's not how people would talk. Third of all, all of the details to get Jimmy from his home to the bar are totally unnecessary. We can imagine he probably drove. He probably didn't fly. If he did, that would appear elsewhere in the story that it would be some sort of futuristic other-worldly setting.
So you don't need to put in all those details. The reader can understand all of the events, the way the car door opens and closes. We know how a car works. The real way to do that story is to start off with Jimmy swinging the bar door open and saying did you screw Jenny, right, that's what you really want. Then to immediately go into, not even waiting for an answer, the sound that his fist makes as it reaches his friend's nose, the sound of the cracking of the nose. Then go into talking about the temperature of the blood as it's rushing down from the nose to the mouth, and then the salty metal taste of the blood. That's a story I'm going to keep reading because that's a story that dives right into the action.
So you really want to make sure that you're not stating any obvious information for your readers, and you want to make sure you're using natural language and natural language will come if you've built a character bible, which we spoke about a little bit before. A couple other points about editing, which I think are really important, is you don't want to be repetitive, so that means analysing every sentence that you come across. If there are two sentences in a row that are saying the exact same thing but using different words to do it, one of them's got to go. I would recommend mostly keeping the simpler one. It'll serve your story better. Trust me.
Another thing is show don't tell. The old rule applies. Any point in your story where you have someone sort of scowling or giving a look, or so and so said in a mad way, don't do any of that. Don't let language do the work for you. It's lazy narrative. Be really descriptive in your element with the show don't tell. If somebody's angry, talk about, don't say they said this angrily or they yelled. Well what else accompanies yelling when you're angry? Usually your brows furrow, and you get that deep line. If you're normally a very angry person or you do that all the time, or that's your go-to facial expression, then your line's going to be really deep.
Or sort of talking about like I mentioned earlier if a character's really relaxed, like have them leaning against a wall with his leg up. Use that. Don't say he said it in a relaxed tone or that he was feeling really relaxed. Wherever you let the language do the work for you, you want to circle the points in your story and you want to see how you can replace them, and again, this too, goes back to the character bible because if you've done your laying out of your character features, you can just pluck them from your bible and plop them right in where they're appropriate.
Then the last thing is that don't let your dialogue tags do the work. It sort of relates to the lazy narrative. It's hardly ever appropriate to use anything more complicated than he said, she said, or he asked, she asked. Any time you find yourself doing that, see how else you can do that, how else you can convey that information. You'll have a lot stronger of a descriptive element for your character.
Getting your story published
I'd like to move on to the last point of short stories after you've created your short story, it's really emotionally true to you, you've built up your characters, they're really full and complex and multi faceted, and you've edited down your work, so you have sort of the essence of your short story. Congratulations, now you have a full complete short story that's ready to be sent out to publishers. What do you do with it?
Two kinds of literary magazines. I have experience in both, so I'm going to talk a little bit about what each means. There are online literary magazines and there are print literary magazines. One is not better than the other. It sort of depends what you're looking for in terms of your career as a writer. A lot of writers that I work with that are self publishing and their books are appearing on Kindle and Amazon, those writers, they have more of an online focus. They want to write short stories, and they want to get them into online publications because that's where their audience is.
For other writers, maybe who are going through the traditional road of publishing, maybe they want to get their names into print magazines for launching their writing career. It's not one or the other. You can do a blend of both and definitely there are good and bad things about both. I have worked with writers personally who have launched their writing career from a single short story because agents do read literary magazines, and there are fewer literary magazines, so there's more agent eyes sort of on print literary magazines than online ones. But there are really good online print magazines as well.
I do want to talk for a minute about the reputation of print magazines, because I think that's something that's really important to writers. Print magazines have a reputation of being the place for serious writing. The reason that that is, and I never realised that until I started publishing literary magazines myself, it's because there are so many restrictions in creating a print magazine, in terms of budget, in terms of space, and in terms of theme.
So depending on the print magazine, most of them publish anywhere from one to four times a year. Some of them are different. They do publish more frequently. Generally there's a certain amount of times that a magazine comes out each year. There's a certain budget for the magazine, their budget for paying writers, that's their printing costs, and that's their shipping costs. That number doesn't change. Maybe they make a little more money, great, and they got to pay a staff, too, and their budget increases slightly. But there's a set budget for every issue, and there's also a set amount of space.
So when a short story makes it into a print magazine, the reason it's considered more serious writing is because print magazines are much more selective because they have to be. They just don't have the budget or the space literally to publish every short story they come across. Whereas online magazines, they may publish once a week. But if they find they're getting more work that they really like, they can easily say hey this week we're doing a bonus, and we have two short stories every week this month.
There's less restriction with that. The only sort of restriction is if they pay, their budget for writers has to increase a little bit. So that's why print is sort of understood as a place for more serious writing. It really comes down to budget and space. That's sort of an important thing I think to realize if you're a writer. So if you've been writing to print magazines and you haven't been published yet, it's not necessarily a reflection on your writing. It literally might just be time and theme for the magazine and that your story like just didn't make the cut. Definitely don't give up, and don't feel discouraged even though I know rejection letters can feel like the worst. But pile them up, save them, put them away, and you can laugh at them one day when you actually are published in those magazines and you have a successful writing career. It does take a long time, so you got to definitely keep trying.
Just a note on where to find literary magazines and what's right for you, there are a couple of really good directories. Some that I can think of off the top of my head are Duotrope, which I think is still around, Poets and Writers, and New Pages. All of these websites will list a breakdown of literary magazines, who's publishing what, whether or not they pay, and how much they pay, how often their magazines come out. It gives you a direct link to their submission page, which is super helpful. It talks about their genre and what sort of things they're looking for. If you've got some short stories that are ready to go, you definitely want to check out those websites and see what's most appropriate for you and where you want to submit.
Just a quick note on the submission format, keep it simple, keep it clean. Don't try and seek out the editor's personal email. I know it seems like you'll be getting ahead of the game, but you won't. So just follow the submission process and follow the submission guidelines, and if you've been published in 50 other journals, that's super, but just list your top three, because a long list of where you've been published, it doesn't really make a difference on your short story. Many times when I was publishing and editing work for a literary magazine, I never read the submission letter until after I read the story because I didn't want to be tainted by where that person was previously published, and if it's magazines that I had heard of or not heard of or whether or not they had been published before. I don't think that's fair. I think that each individual story should be given a chance.
All right. Well, I think that's about it. I really want to thank you all for joining me today. I really hope that the information that I gave you is helpful. If you found it helpful, and you're looking for more in depth information on short story writing from beginning to end, I would suggest that you sign up for my Reedsy learning course called how to craft a killer short story, and if you guys have any short stories that you're looking for an editor on, I love short stories. I'm more than happy to talk to you about them and to help you edit them or if you have a novel that you're working on as well.
If you have any questions for Laura, feel free to post them below and she'll get back to you as soon as she can.