What’s the point in short stories?

100509152_c9ae6d3a94_zSometimes an author contacts me and my heart sinks.  I promise this is rare.  The heart-sink moment is prompted by the author telling me that they write in poetry or they write short stories, and that they have great plans to become traditionally published.

The trouble is, unless you’re writing in the nineteenth century, or are very very well-known for your poetry or short stories, a publisher is not going to publish you writing short stories or poetry.  The financial calculations don’t add up.

So if you’re a poet or your genre is short stories – what now?  There is one very useful element to writing short stories that may help you to get published.  The short story competition.

It’s good practice for a writer to get something to an acceptable standard where you’re happy to have it judged.  Or at least to a point where you feel you can’t look at the damn thing anymore..

Short story competitions normally charge to enter, but the costs are relatively low.  If you win this is exactly the sort of writing experience you can include in a covering letter. It demonstrates that someone has weighed your writing and found you talented.  This moves you to the top of the slush pile, for when the assessing editor or agent is feeling fresh and enthusiastic.

And poetry?  There are also poetry competitions and they do also carry a certain amount of weight, but even very established poets struggle to make money out of publishing poetry.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the world needs more poems and (probably) more poets, it’s just that the world isn’t prepared to pay for them.

Writing poetry is an excellent apprenticeship for writing generally.  You have to pack so much into such a small space, and let words do a lot of hard work to start the images spiraling out in the reader’s mind like oil drops on a puddle.

There’s an excellent short story competition run by Askance Publishing where a third of the entrance fee goes to help charity – Emmaus – an organisation that helps homeless people gain skills and self-respect.  Why not give it a go – and help others at the same time.

Do you write short stories or poetry?  Do you agree with what I’ve written or do you think I’m being unfairly gloomy?

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May 16, 2013

3 responses to What’s the point in short stories?

  1. Whirlochre said:

    Ok, I have to disagree – like a cat snuggling up to an unfamiliar blanket.

    The publishing rules for short stories are exactly as you say: no one is going to publish your short stories unless you’re Ian McEwan and time has gone into reverse. Poetry – oddly, given it’s relative popularity – is different. Slim volumes are published for slim profit margins thanks to an evidently fat readership for this nichey stuff.

    I don’t believe that either short stories or poems constitute writing practice – or competition fodder. They are legitimate forms of creative endeavour currently not favoured by a publishing industry under the kosh. They can’t help themselves at the moment, but thankfully writers can.

    In a few years time, things may change thanks to the advent of self-publishing and the freedoms afforded by zoomy downloads to pesky spectacles.

    But for now, your ‘gloom’ is in bloom.

  2. admin said:

    You have a very good point – they are writing forms in their own right, not just stepping stones.

    I’m glad to hear of a vibrant small poetry market – can you provide me with some links?

  3. Sandra Danby said:

    My first break was a short story published in an anthology. I have to admit though, I rarely buy short stories myself. The last was Kate Atkinson’s ‘Not the End of the World’.