from the slush minion’s diary #9 long stories

I see the following question being asked a lot by writers: which magazine accepts stories over 10,000 words?

There are a few such magazines, including, if you’re Australian, ASIM. You can find these magazines on Duotrope.

But I would like to ask a counter-question: are you sure the story needs to be that long?

Because, you see, most stories I see of this length could be shortened. If not, the story is usually very good. In ten thousand words, you can do a lot of worldbuilding and character work.

Mostly, though, stories are that long because they’re too flabby. They’re overwritten, repetitive, or start in the wrong place or all of the above. Sometimes I feel that the effective content of a story takes up less than 50% of the total word count.

So, yes, there are places that accept stories over ten thousand words, but before you send your story to such a place, consider the following:

– Is your inciting incident (i.e. ‘where the story really starts’) in the first scene on the first page? Or does your story start with lots of backstory/character navelgazing and thinking about the past or otherwise sitting still and doing nothing in particular or going through boring, domestic tasks?
– Have you described everything, every place, every emotion, every action, only once? Or does your story contain dialogue that comes back to the same point in a circular motion? Does your description describe the same place/person/scene type/action twice? Also consider this within a sentence. I see a lot of sentences with two clauses that mean pretty much the same thing.
– Are your sentences taut and effective? Or do they contain lots of fluff words, which are imprecise, waffly and just words for the sake of words? I call this ‘that was what that was’ type of language.

By looking at all these things, you can often cut an awful lot of verbiage from the story. I can guarantee that if you cut a 10,000 word story down to 7000 words, you’ll end up with a far better story, and more places to submit it.

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what to put in a cover letter

In line with the workshop that will open for submissions very soon, a post about submitting short stories: what do you write in a cover letter.

At ASIM, we never look at cover letters, so they’re wasted on us. I’ve heard that at least a number of magazines are the same. Some magazines like to have a cover letter, and it’s probably polite to include one with your submission, regardless of whether or not the magazine reads it.

A basic cover letter for a short story submission:

Dear [editor *1],

Please find attached my story [story title] for consideration for [magazine]. *2

I have had stories published in [magazine/anthology] and [magazine/anthology]. *3

Thank you for looking at my material.

Me

email address
snail mail address
telephone number *4

That’s all! Seriously, you don’t need anything else.

Notes:

1. Do use the editor’s name if you can find out what it is. Some magazines, like ASIM, don’t list editors on their website, or have rotating editors. In that case ‘dear editor/s’ will do.
2. Sometimes a magazine also wants you to list word count and subgenre. Make sure you check the guidelines.
3. Only list your two or three best and most recent credits. If you don’t have any credits at semipro level or better, don’t list anything. Don’t waffle about your day job and how much your grandmother enjoyed the story. This only makes you look insecure.
4. It’s probably a good idea to give the editor alternative ways of contacting you.

Additional notes:
Don’t try to sell your story. The story has to speak for itself.
Don’t include parts of the story.
Attach the entire story, not a teaser or a query.
Make sure the magazine accepts stories of the word length and subgenre of your story.
Don’t diss other magazines or writers.
Check for typos.

how to write a good short story

Ha! Fooled ya!

I don’t think there is one single how-to in order to write short stories, but since I’ve been doing a fair bit of short story writing, I’d like to share some thoughts. Feel free to discuss and disagree.

In general, short stories work best if they contain the trifecta: plot, character and voice. Now I’m sure everyone can point at stories that lack one of these elements. Pieces that are all character where little happens, stories that are all explanation of some weird thing where there are no characters, but I’m pointing at the first two words of this paragraph. Have trouble writing a sellable good story? You might just make sure it has a strong plot, interesting characters and a distinct voice.

Plot. Obviously, when writing a SFF story, it has to have a fantastical element. The story is usually stronger if this element is integral to the plot, in other words, if the story resolution depends on it. Showcase your inventions here. I think it also pays to make sure your story contains a mix of scene types. Action, hiding, talking, a physical fight, a word fight, they’re all scene types. A story with all action tends to be just as monotonous as one with only talk, or only travel scenes. Try to order your scene types so that the most exciting one coincides with the climax of the story.

Characters. Which character are you going to use to carry the story? And does this character have enough at stake to carry the story? The character must have an interest in the fantastical element that forms the basis of the story, and must have the means to learn more about it. The choice of character is one of the most important ones you can make, I feel. The character also has to be appealing. I don’t necessarily mean sympatic, but the character has to interest the reader. A lot of readers dislike whiney characters. In addition, the character should have something else at stake besides the main plot element, something on a personal scale. But, on the other hand, you’re not writing an episode in the latest soap, so keep the soapy stuff in the background.

Voice. I feel voice is related to character, not half as much to the writer behind the keyboard. A different character (young, old, formal, uneducated) requires a different narrative vocabulary. Voice contributes heavily towards the tone of the story. You don’t need a strong voice, and voice is often very subtle, but if you write a story in a bland, cookie-cutter voice, it lacks a certain passion. Voice and character must match, which is another reason I point at character selection.

The most important thing I’ve realised is that you shouldn’t submit a story until all three of these elements are as strong as you can get them. Get the plot right first, then work on the character, then work on the voice. Edit each time. Take out words the character wouldn’t use, add little bits of colour. Only submit when you feel you have done the best by your story and you can’t possibly wring any more leverage from your idea.

Straight through the heart – flash fiction

Straight through the heart

Patty Jansen

This story was published in ZineWest 2007, and gained a Highly Recommended nomination in their annual competition. I also posted this on my Facebook profile a while back, but I think it will find a better home here. Enjoy.

 

One morning, Thomas prepared for work.

Mobile phone, jacket with big pockets, USB, matchbox, packet of cigarettes, balaclava.

He picked up his gun and caressed the length of the double barrel, the polished wooden handle. At a touch of his finger, the magazine opened. He slid open the matchbox and took out the bullets. Two of them, polished to perfection and gleaming in the morning light.

His phone beeped.

Damn it.

Holding the gun in one hand, he grabbed the phone and looked at the screen. SMS from  the boss. Target moving towards the station.

OK, time to roll. He tucked the gun under his jacket, slipped the phone, USB and cigarettes in his pocket and left the house.

Rain-slicked roofs glistened under a dead grey sky.

The pedestrian crossing in front of the station was a churning sea of umbrellas. Thomas waited next to the newspaper stand, the gun heavy in his pocket.

There he was – Andrew Macauley, the young accountant with the serious look permanently glued to his face. Clutching a black umbrella, he sprinted across the road as the light flashed red.

Thomas looked at his watch, sauntered to the traffic light and pressed the button. There was plenty of time. Andrew was always early; the train wouldn’t leave for another five minutes. Punctuality, grey suits, a copy of the Business Review under his arm. The man was such a bore. And such a delightful target.

Traffic roared across the intersection. A car honked and a bus splashed across a puddle. Splatters of water arced in a wide spray.

A high-pitched shriek and a female voice. ‘Oh – look at me!’ The woman had bright red hair tied in a ponytail. Spots of mud dotted her blue skirt and jacket.

Thomas grinned, stroking the barrel of the gun through his jacket. He inched through the waiting crowd, closer to the woman, who had opened her laptop bag and attempted to wipe herself with a tissue. Yes, she would do perfectly. How he loved his job.

The light turned and commuters spilled onto the road. Thomas followed. Into the station, through the turnstiles, onto the platform.

Andrew sat at a bench, his attention firmly on the magazine.

The young woman stumbled past, wiping her arm with ripped tissues.

Thomas inserted his hand under his jacket. Took out the gun. Aimed. Pulled the trigger. For a split second, the world went pink.

Andrew stretched out his legs. The red-haired woman tripped. Her bag went sailing, spilling newspapers, tissues, her phone and purse onto the concrete.

Red-faced, Andrew stumbled up. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ He scrambled to pick up her belongings.

She thanked him, wide-eyed.

His face still red, Andrew stammered, ‘Look, can I buy you a coffee?’

Thomas turned; tears pricked in his eyes. Best not to watch too long – he would start feeling lonely. He took his phone from his pocket and sent his usual message, Straight through the heart – next please.

Highway

by Patty Jansen

I wrote this story some time ago. It was published in 2005 in the Infinitas Newsletter. The story is about a real stretch of the Bruce Highway, about 200km where there is no mobile phone reception and no radio reception, 200km worth of virtually straight road through empty, grey-leafed scrub. In real life, ghost stories circulate about the road. I once left Rockhampton at dusk, and, like the main character in the story, found myself being tailgated by another car which would not overtake me. Not much fun when you’re in a tiny hatchback, alone, and female, and without mobile phone reception. Having arrived at Sarina, I pulled up at a service station. The other car came in behind me. I got all steamed up, until I saw that the driver was an elderly man, who’d probably been just as scared as I was.

Highway

Patty Jansen

 

There is a bend in the road and the last glimpse of the suburbs slides from the rear vision mirror: black hills strung with orderly pinpricks of light, like a Christmas tree.

The road ahead is empty. Three white lines – two unbroken, one dotted – meet somewhere beyond the reach of the headlights.

The milky way arcs overhead and witnesses my progress. Black shadows of bush lurk on both sides of the road. By day, grooved tree trunks guard its secrets, under a veil of grey-green leaves. Brigalow, I think it’s called, and its sapping monotony feeds the ghosts of imagination. If distances were measured in units of boredom, the stretch of highway from Rockhampton to Sarina would be the longest road in the world.

Old Bill from down the street swears that every time he drives along this road, he meets his wife. She waits for him at the spot where their car left the road and crashed into a fencepost; where he waited for more than an hour beside her mangled and bloodied body before help arrived.

Too late.

These days, he says he stops and offers her a lift. They talk about the kids and changes around town. Poor fellow.

A fuzz settles over the broadcast of the local radio station. I twiddle the dial, but I know it is no use. And I have again forgotten to bring my tapes.

Why did I tell Mum I’d be home tonight? Dad’s 50th birthday is not until Sunday. I could have left tomorrow morning.

I stare ahead, wishing I was turning into my parents’ driveway in Mackay. The clinking of beer bottles on the veranda, friends’ and neighbours’ voices, my sister’s piercing laughter drifting on the night air. Home.

A distant light appears in the rear vision mirror; it grows until it splits in two. A car coming up behind me. Yes, this Laser is not the fastest car around. When I finish Uni, I will get a proper job and I’ll buy a proper car. But then I won’t drive it on this road. Ever.

My gaze keeps wandering to the rear vision mirror – there’s nothing to watch ahead. The car approaches, its lights blinding me, but I cannot take my eyes off the mirror. Why doesn’t it overtake?  I speed up and so does the car behind. I slow down and it does the same.

Jesus, there’s no need to remind me how much I hate this road.

A deep, reverberating honk tears the silence; for a split second, time stops. A huge truck looms up before me, like a monster with shining eyes.

I hold my breath and stare past the blinding headlights, sweaty hands clamping the steering wheel, hoping the road is where I think it is.

Where did it come from? Yes, I was watching the car behind me, but this section of road slices through the scrub as if cut by a giant hand along an invisible ruler. My sister and I used to play games, guessing how long it would be before a vehicle we spotted passed us. In the night, I should have seen a truck this size ages ago.

When my pulse returns to normal the car behind me is gone.

A small white cross flashes past in the glare of the headlights of my car. A memorial erected by relatives for someone who never came home from their journey.

Dave Helms. I remember because he was the same age as me – about two years ago. A life wasted. Fell asleep at the wheel on his way to a mate’s wedding. Careened into the path of an oncoming truck. Bloody unlucky he was to meet a truck on this road. Traffic is so scarce that once when I was on a high school excursion, the bus driver stopped in the middle of the road and let us out for some star gazing. The milky way is beautiful out here.

The road goes on ahead; three white lines pointing to infinity. I try to sing a song, but my voice sounds hollow.

Half an hour later, another car approaches from behind. There are spotlights on the roof, a bullbar at the front. Hunters… young men with guns. And they are in a hurry. I slow down so they can pass. I look in the mirror. That is how I see it happen.

The car behind me swerves suddenly. Headlights flash, twist. Red sparks scatter in the dark as first the roof, then the side, then the wheels and the roof again connect with the bitumen.

In a moment of panic, I slam on the brakes and my car comes to a screeching halt. With trembling hands, I open the door and look behind me… into pitch darkness.

Nothing. The car behind me is gone.

On the road verge stands another memorial. A small white cross projecting an almost endless shadow in the headlights of my car. Written on it are two names. Young men, eighteen and twenty – brothers. I remember because their parents were on the news. I was in the living room at home. My mother stopped setting out the dinner things; she just stared at the screen without speaking and when she turned away, I caught her wiping her eyes. Two young lives wiped out in a second; their parents left with an empty house full of memories.

I lean against the car and listen to my wildly beating heart. It must have happened more than five years ago…

I stumble back into the car and drive on. I claw at the mobile phone on the seat next to me, peer at the screen to will it into action.

It is no use. Out here, there is no reception. The highway is dead; it is the domain of the ghosts. They are many; I am alone.

Three white lines point on ahead, towards Heaven.

All I see before me is an image of old Bill’s face, almost a ghost himself. He had climbed on a table in the middle of the pub. Wagged a crooked finger at us as silence rippled out from where he stood. ‘What I tell is true,’ he said, but no one dared look him in the eye.

By the time the next car appears in my rear vision mirror, I have made a plan. The car is not real; if I stop, it will go away. I take my foot off the accelerator, eying the rear vision mirror while my car slows down, slower and slower until coming to a stop. The car behind stops as well. With trembling hands, I push open the door, step in the dust of the road verge, expecting the car behind me to vanish into the night, like the previous two cars.

Except it doesn’t.

The noise from the engine sounds real; the dust swirling in the beams of the headlights is real, too. My gaze drifts to the windscreen, but I can’t discern anything beyond shapes in its blackness. Shit. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, facing some strangers on the side of the road. How much more stupid could I get?

As my breathing grates in the still air, the rear passenger door creaks open and a small figure emerges. A girl of about twelve. Glossy dark curls dance over her shoulders as she skips towards me.

I can only stare at her. In the glare of the headlights of the car, her skin has a peachy quality; it looks real. I reach out to touch her, but withdraw my hand. Somehow, I don’t want to know.

‘Who are you?’ I stammer.

Real, live green eyes look at me. ‘Evie Woods.’

She walks towards the passenger side of my car. ‘Can you give me a lift?’

I frown at her and gesture at the car behind us, too stunned to string together a coherent sentence. ‘But you just… What about them?’

‘Oh, my parents.’ She shrugs. ‘They don’t like going past here.’ She flaps her hand at another white cross at the side of the road.

Her parents? Were they…. I glance sideways, but Evie isn’t paying attention. She opens the door and gets in the car.

I am too stunned to think of objecting.

But I have to know. In a few steps, I am at the cross, kneel in the dust, squint at the letters scrawled in black felt pen across the white surface. A date, fifteen years ago, and two names: Terry and Susan Woods.

But then Evie… My gaze goes to my car, where I can see her struggle with the seat belt by the glow of the interior light.

Fifteen years ago… even if she survived the accident as a baby… she doesn’t look fifteen; she’s too young.

With a crunch of gravel, the car behind me reverses, turns, and leaves the scene, red tail lights vanishing around a bend. Leaving me alone… with a ghost?

Torn by indecision, I stand at the white cross, claw at the wood in hope of some heaven-sent idea. The night is still fresh; it will be hours until sunrise. Hours spent on the roadside in bitter cold. In front of my car, the three white lines reach into darkness. I wonder where they will lead.

No, I’m being ridiculous. I stumble back into the car.

Evie’s face is soft blue by the lights on the dashboard. She sits playing with her hair and looks very normal, very real. Her smile is real, too.

I slip behind the wheel and I keep on driving, wiping my hands on my trousers, glancing at Evie. Decide that yes, she is real. And  relax.

But then she holds up my mobile phone. ‘What’s this?’

My breath catches in my throat. ‘It’s a mobile phone,’ and this is followed by a silence in which I can almost feel her frown. My heart beating wildly, I make excuses. She must be from a poor family, or live in an area where there is no coverage… or… my skin puckers into gooseflesh… died fifteen years ago. The question is on the tip of my tongue, but I don’t want to ask.

Then she says, ‘Can you show me how it works?’

‘I can’t,’ I reply and when the disappointed silence lingers, I continue, ‘there is no reception here. I can show you when we stop in Sarina.’

She smiles wryly. ‘We don’t stop in the towns. We guardians are not welcome there.’

My heart misses a beat. ‘Guardians?’

But Evie smiles. ‘Those who guard the road. Those whose souls are bound to the road by events from the past.’

I open my mouth but don’t know what to say. There is another long silence before I dare ask the question, ‘Am I dead?’

She shrugs. ‘What is death but passage from one world into another?’

I’m not in the mood for philosophy. ‘Listen, I want to know. If I’m not dead, then why am I talking to you?’

She gives a wry smile. ‘Maybe I’d like to test your suitability as a guardian.’

It takes a few seconds before I realise the implication of her words and in those few seconds the three white lines in front of me twist like spaghetti. The car hits the dirt. It bumps and jolts for what feels like an eternity and finally comes to a grinding, sliding, gravel-crunching halt.

Gasping for breath, I look aside.

Evie holds up the mobile phone. ‘It’s working now,’ she says and then she’s gone.

I stare out the window, but I am alone, the running of the engine like a roar in my ears. The headlights of my car peer through a cloud of dust. Out the front window looms a large white sign with black letters. ‘Survive this drive’.

A laugh escapes my mouth. Survive? Surely, I must be dead! I laugh and laugh until I start to cry.

And slowly, it dawns on me. What did they call it again in the tv commercial? A microsleep?

I pick up the mobile phone from the seat beside me. Evie was right. It is working again. I put it in my lap like a cherished cat and return to the road.

Around the next corner, the street lights of Sarina embrace me with their warmth. Low timber houses, lush lawns like green fur in lantern light. Silent palms breathing tropical homeliness.

I stop at the very first service station and head for the food counter.

Coffee. Percolated, espresso, instant or a day old and reheated. I don’t care, as long as it’s black and strong.

Seated on a cheerless plastic chair in front of the window, I sip from a styrofoam cup and stare out into the night, gibbering into my mobile phone.

‘Yes mum, I know I’m late. Yes mum, I’m in Sarina. I’ll be home in about an hour.’

I head back to the car and stare in the direction from which I have just come. It hits me that in three days’ time I will have to go the same way back. I will travel by day; I will make sure I’m well-rested. ‘Test my suitability as a guardian’ Have I ever had a more ridiculous daydream?

A truck hurtles past on its way south. Black curls dance in the wind behind the open passenger window. A small hand sticks out and waves to me, and Evie’s voice drifts on the wind, ‘See you soon!’