Monday, May 13, 2013

Wordcraft -- An editor's take on short stories

I don’t usually dabble in literary fiction, but recent words from Matthew Limpede, editor in chief of Carve magazine, and prolific science fiction writer Lou Antonelli have made me think more about the importance and influence of short fiction, whatever its genre.

Once, churning out short fiction was something even great writers did as a matter of fact. Entertainment was scarce, paper cheap, and large format periodicals, even nonliterary ones, were hungry for words to fill their space.

Try earning a living now at the U.S. professional rate of five cents per word for short stories. Paper publications are shrinking faster than the real estate bubble. Worse, none of the agents I researched for the recent DFW Writers’ Conference expressed any interest in representing short story collections.

So why write short?

Two words -- internet and craft. On the internet, nobody charges a publisher for paper -- the single biggest cost for print publications. And short fiction lets us hone aspects of our craft at a fraction of the time and effort we’d spend writing novels. So I listened to what Limpede and Antonelli had to say.

This week, I’ll take Limpede. His magazine, Carve, is currently hosting a contest with a guest judge, so apply much of what he said at the recent “Editor’s Perspective” of the Dallas Public Library International Book Fair to the magazine’s day to day operations rather than the contest, closing this Wednesday, May 15.

Major caveats for submitting to any magazine, he said, are knowing what professional publication standards are, and following the particular publication’s guidelines.

After than, “what will really make your story stand out?” Limpede said. “A really good first line (but) less is usually more.” And although “it’s really important to read the
magazine you want to submit to, so you know if it’s going to be a good fit for you,“ he also wants writers to “show us something we haven’t seen before.”

(As in movie magnate Sam Goldwyn’s dictum, “Give me the same thing, only different!”)

Stories without a strong plot are a turnoff and the “all a dream” stories are “a huge no-no.” He also avoids father-son stories, military stories, and, conversely, stories with “office cubicle” settings.

And although his tastes have changed over the course of his editorship, he has a preference for “stories that surprise and have arresting images.” He illustrated “arresting images” with a story in which raindrops hit the protagonists “like quarters.” He also is open to violence, more so than some of his listeners, as long as the violence is intrinsic to the story and not overly graphic.

In the end, he cautions, “don’t take it personally if you’re not accepted. Sometimes I’ll read a great story that just doesn’t meet our MO. Do what feels right for you. Find a magazine that you like and can call home.”

For help with standard manuscript formatting, check with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (although advocating the Courier font may be out of date) at

The non-copyrighted Turkey City Lexicon of too-often-seen story ideas is available at

And for those interested in submitting to Carve, see

(Next Monday, science fiction writer Lou Antonelli has 80 published stories to his credit at last count. And he has a few things to say from an author’s side of the short story business.)

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