My Foray Into Short Fiction…

In January of this year, after several years of struggling in the query trenches with several novels, I decided that 2022 would be the year that I learned how to write short stories. I didn’t even want to master them; I just wanted to learn how to write them. Hopefully, the publishing industry would be back on its feet by the time that I did so, giving my novels a better chance in the trenches. That was my logic. Give myself a breather from the trenches by entering another, slightly different, trench (I’m sure that’s logical, somehow, if you squint really hard).

At that point—back in January, I mean—the last short story that I wrote was probably in high school. I’m 31 years old, for reference. And it was probably in Danish, not in English.

As of this date, six months after I first began, I’ve written 17 short stories.

So far, four of them have been accepted into literary magazines/anthologies, three of them have made it to penultimate rounds, and over half of the places I have submitted to have requested that I send them more stories in the future.

I didn’t expect this response—at all—after my absolute failure in the query trenches for so many years with so many books. More to the point, this response has been an absolute life-saver this year, reminding me with tangible evidence that my writing is worth publication, reinforcing my belief that I’ve chosen the right career path (even if the industry still needs to get on board with that).

So, how did I approach this short story stint that basically saved my ass this year?

First, I had to realize that it was never really a question of my craft.

Not on the storytelling side, and not on the writing side.

It was a question of my brain’s creative habits.

It was a question of how I’ve conditioned my brain and its creative process for years on end. Ten years, to be exact. For ten years, I’ve roughly written one novel a year. To write short fiction, I had to deconstruct the way my brain had worked with narratives for a decade. I had to stop thinking about beginnings, middles, and ends. I had to stop thinking about character developmental arcs. I had to stop thinking about subplots. About side-characters. Instead, I had to use entry points to my stories that felt unnatural. Unnatural, because they were foreign to me as entry points.

Here are the biggest revelations I’ve had while deconstructing my brain’s creative habits:

  • “Ditch your primary genre and try a new one”

I can’t write a good fantasy short story to save my life. The second that I try, I instantly begin to worldbuild, and to character develop, and to create side-characters, and it just doesn’t work for me. My brain is too used to write fantasy novels. Instead, I’ve taken to writing horror, sci-fi, and historical short fiction. In fact, these are the genres I’ve had acceptances in. My few attempts in fantasy have been rejected from left to right.

  • “Identify the theme/concept”

I focused solely on themed submission calls in the beginning, unable to easily think of themes and concepts on my own, and feeling roadblocked by my own ineptitude and frustration over this. Theme/concepts are things that I normally dig out from a first draft of a novel, after all, so you can see why I might’ve struggled with this here.

And, no, it’s not cheating. You’re not a poorer writer for relying on themed submissions (yes, I had to explicitly tell myself this, over and over again).

Theme is a bastard to pin down in general. You can somewhat get away with not doing it for novels, but you absolutely can’t get away with not doing it for short fiction. That’s been my experience, at least. And if you’re looking for a good book on how to develop theme in fiction, then I recommend K. M. Weiland’s “Writing Your Story’s Theme.”

  • “It’s an emotional SHIFT, not an emotional JOURNEY” (alternately: The Twist)

This was a big one for me. I’m an extremely character-driven writer, meaning I have my character arcs down pat before I even have my plot. Always. Without fail. Without even trying, honestly. The thing is, though, there isn’t really room for an emotional arc in a short story, with ups and downs, and some more ups and downs, and some more ups and downs, and—you get my drift.

There is, however, room for emotional shifts. In particular, there is room for one big emotional shift that is the center of the story.

In “Write Your Novel from the Middle”, James Scott Bell talks about Mirror Moments. These are moments when the characters stop to look at themselves in the mirror, considers what have happened so far, and then decides what to do now based on that. Bell talks about these mirror moments as the middle of books, but I’ve also found that it works well as a framework for my short fiction. If I place the emotional center of my short fiction on these mirror moments, then I stop myself from writing a character arc that relies on the plot of an entire novel. I focus on an emotional shift, and not an emotional journey.

I also sometimes think of this as The Twist.

Not A Twist, but The Twist.

  • “Aim to provoke one emotion from the reader, not ten.”

This runs in the same vein as what I mentioned above, but I’ve found it extremely helpful to decide on the emotional tone of my story before I start writing it. On the emotion that I want my reader to experience from my story, that is. This counts for your characters just as much as your readers, really. There’s just not time/room to go on emotional journeys, and so it’s better to focus on a concentrated emotional shift within that journey. Like a snapshot.

Neil Gaiman once said that the only advice that worked for him was to write a short story as if it was the ending of a novel. This reminds me a little bit of that, but without the conclusive element/nature that I find strangely restrictive myself.

  • “There’s no room to pants this, sorry.”

I’ve found that I spend longer on brainstorming a short story than I do on writing it—and I’ve found that my success rate of finishing the story is much higher if I do this. My best guess is that more brainstorming stops me from pantsing and going off on tangents that lead to overwriting (or, in this case, writing novellas/novels rather than short fiction). Paradoxically, you’d think the opposite would happen (i.e. that more brainstorming leads to more writing), but if I center my focus on the emotional shift that I mentioned above here, then somehow it doesn’t lead to more writing. Not for me, anyway.

And that’s it (for now, anyway)!

Lastly, I’m not a master of short fiction. Far from it. I’m a rookie who’s only starting to learn the ropes, and this is me accounting for how I have approached this learning so far. I’ve had moderate success, leading me to believe that my approach might be helpful to others.

To you, perhaps.

The Thing About Character Agency…

You don’t get very far into publishing before you start hearing about character agency.

You’ll often meet it as a roadblock in some form of way. A shut door. A rejection. An R&R.

Character agency is really just a fancy word for the relationship between action and reaction when it comes to your main character’s behavior as it influences the plot of your story. It’s about how reactive and how proactive your character is. About the balance between the two.

Often, you’ll see character agency equated with (pro)activity.

In my opinion, this is a slippery slope to go down.

The “active over passive” advice is like the “show, don’t tell” advice. Or the “prologues are bad” advice. It comes from a place of merit and value, yes, but the understanding of it remains too narrow and exclusionary in scope. We, as an industry, need to do better at understanding that passivity is a way of life for many people, for many reasons, and these people relate to passive protagonists. Passivity can sell.

Still, the “active over passive” advice does have some merit. The idea that a character is engaging because they have an external goal that drives them forward in their story (aka makes them active) is valid enough…

…but I still maintain that we tend to think of goals in a narrow way that excludes neurodiversity, cultural storytelling differences, stories of trauma/survivorship, and much more.

Character agency isn’t a way of praising the best stories, to be perfectly frank, but a way of praising the stories that sell in an instant-gratification, mass-consumer, hustle culture. And I’m gonna make some people angry by saying this, I think, but I’m gonna say it, anyway.

Now, yes, the market is important. We all need the market to exist and for that market to be somewhat predictable—but it’s also our job to challenge the market. It’s our job to make sure that the market doesn’t only own us, but that we also own the market in return. We can influence the market. We should influence the market, being its main suppliers.

I don’t think that character agency is inherently bad or good. Rather, I think it’s important for every writer to understand how character agency is viewed by the industry and the market. In that way, we can figure out our own preferences for character agency and make the right choices for our careers and optimize our chances for a successful and sustainable future.


Adding Activity to Passive Characters:


I personally think of characters as passively inclined and actively inclined.

For me, it’s about how the main character approaches the action they take. A more passively inclined main character would weigh the pros and cons differently than an actively inclined one. They might try to manipulate the action from afar rather than entering the direct crossfire. They might deflect attention away from what they’re doing, while an actively inclined main character might carry more of the attention themselves. A passively inclined character works in the shadows, and an actively inclined one works in the limelight—but they’re both working, mind you.

When I teach my students how to write active characters, I give them what I call the Soup Advice. Or the Balcony Advice, in case they don’t like soup (soup is awesome; I love soup).

Basically, if you have a dialogue scene, then have your character make soup while they talk. Have them cut vegetables. Have them find a pot and stub their toe. Or have them struggle to scratch an itch on their back that they can’t reach. Don’t just have them stand and do nothing except for talking. It’s the same with the balcony advice. If you have an opening scene where the main character stands on a balcony, then don’t start the scene there. Start the scene five seconds earlier, when the character actively steps out onto the balcony.

Basically, the trick is to give the character a smaller external goal for the scene. Eventually, if every scene has a goal like that, they will add up to an overall feeling of activity.

If your goal is to write more active characters, then this is a solid practice as a starting point.


An Advocacy for Passive Characters:


I believe that character agency is flawed in that it can be exclusionary to specific types of narratives. Often, it’s the marginalized ones. Such as stories of trauma, stories of survivorship, stories of disability, stories of neurodiversity, stories of abuse, and non-western storytelling traditions on the whole.

First off, we need to accept that surviving (trauma and otherwise) is a decision. It’s a choice. It’s an action.

If we keep using my passively/actively inclined framework, then these characters are passively inclined in that they are working on overcoming trauma that has affected their mobility to act and make choices on a base level. They can’t make any active choices yet, because they first have to regain that ability. That is their active choice: regaining the ability to make choices. And someone who tries to survive will likely work in the shadows, unlike their limelight counterparts.

Additionally, character agency is built around a neurotypical framework that delegitimizes neurodiversity in that choices must “make sense”. Well, yes, they must “make sense”, but what’s “sensible” to a neurotypical character isn’t necessarily “sensible” to a neurodiverse one.

Lastly, not all storytelling is traditionally conflict-driven and linear like the western three-act structure. There are so many other story traditions around the world. We have stories-within-stories, braided storytelling, kishoutenketsu storytelling, daisy-chain storytelling, robleto storytelling, and much more. In an increasingly global world, with English as a lingua franca, it only makes sense that cultural storytelling traditions will cross over into foreign languages and that we should make room for that to happen.

To wrap this up, I want to talk about horror as a genre.

More specifically, horror as an example of a genre that relies on passive characters.

To be even more precise: horror as an example of a genre where the audience has no problem with passivity.

Horror relies on passive characters to a certain extent. It relies on getting reactions from the reader, via the lens of the character, and so a lot of horror stories have passive characters. They have reactive characters struggling to survive through their circumstances. Take King’s MISERY, for example. The main character doesn’t leave his bed for most of the book. Or take Moreno-Garcia’s MEXICAN GOTHIC. Or any other haunted house story, for that matter. Khaw’s NOTHING BUT BLACKENED TEETH, for instance. Or take Solomon’s SORROWLAND. The characters in these books are largely reactive—and it works just fine for the audience. The audience expects it, really, and they love it.

Passive/reactive characters can work just fine for all genres and stories, as long as the passivity is purposeful and representative of all lived realities, for all people, for all cultures.

Why A Query Hinges On Character

Querying is all about character.

You’re selling a character. Not a world, not a setting, not a plot, not a vibe—but a character.

Your character works as a direct arrow to the heart of the agent. The character is what makes them want more. Agents are only humans, after all, and humans naturally seek emotional connection in everything they do. Secure this emotional connection—and you’ll secure a full request.

So, how do you do this? How do you best sell your character?

I’ve written a lot of queries for myself in the past decade, and I’ve critiqued a lot of queries as well. For students, friends, and colleagues. I find that there’s something comforting about the analytical approach to a query. It’s an ingredient list; if you check off enough ingredients, you’re good. A query is not as subjective as a book. It’s safer, in a way. In this sense, it’s your job to give it enough experimental edge, while still keeping it safe, so that agents can’t resist wanting more.

In my opinion, you have two jobs to do for a solid query:

  1. Sell your story via your character.
  2. Keep the selling 90% on-script… and 10% off-script (that’s your edge).

Below here, I’ve compiled a list of the feedback that I often end up giving during my query critiques. I’ll happily and confidently call them universal query advice. As you read along, you’ll find that character is what drives the query forward. And that’s both your written characters, but also yourself as a sellable character.


What should I Include in my pitch?

This is where you want to sell your character. Paradoxically, the best way to sell your character is by investing the agent in the character’s physical journey. This sounds contradictory, I know. Like the best of both worlds. “So, Amalie, I have to emotionally connect the agent to my character… via the plot?” Yes. Yes, you do. Because the point is to show the external plot through the internal lens of the character. That’s two birds with one stone, baby (or two flies with one smack, as the Danish saying goes). You do this by asking three questions:

  • What does your character want? (external/internal goal)
  • What stands in their way of getting what they want? (conflict)
  • What do they stand to lose if they fail? (stakes)

By framing your pitch around your character’s goal/conflict/stakes, you will automatically hook the agent emotionally while also giving away the right amount of plot. You will end up with something along the lines of this:

  • Louisa wants to save herself from an unwanted marriage (internal goal), and so she decides to steal a specific jewel as blackmail material (external goal).
  • The owners of the jewel have it locked up in a vault, thus standing in Louisa’s way (conflict).
  • If Louisa doesn’t get the jewel, she will end up marrying against her will, losing her independence, unless she finds another way of escaping the marriage (stakes).

While I don’t believe that conflict-driven narratives (as they are prominent in western culture) are inherently better than any other type (see kishoutenketsu, daisy chain storytelling, robleto etc.), I can only advice you that most agents seemingly get invested in conflict the easiest and fastest. They get involved in drama. And no matter what type of story you write, I bet that it has drama which you can hone in on as a way of investing the agents.

This is also where I want to mention survival stories. There is a general misconception that the struggle to survive isn’t a choice/conflict in itself, but I believe that’s a lie. Surviving absolutely is a choice and conflict. These characters are working on overcoming trauma that has affected their mobility to act and make choices on a fundamental level. They can’t make any active choices yet, because they first have to regain that ability. That is their active choice, namely to regain the ability to make choices. And that does count.


How do I make my character instantly relatable?

Your fastest (and easiest) chance of making your character relatable happens during the first line of your pitch. When you introduce your character, try to add a key personality feature that immediately makes the agent feel as if they truly know this person. Something along the lines of these examples:

Do say: “Twenty-year-old Louisa, clumsy to fault, must…”

Do say: “Twenty-year-old headstrong Louisa isn’t prepared for…”

(By contrast, don’t say: “When twenty-year-old Louisa discovers…”)


How do I build up stakes in a pitch?

Ideally, you should have stakes weaved throughout your entire pitch, and they should gradually build up and expand in scope. It should be an organic escalation as viewed through the lens of the character.

I like to imagine these stakes as a blooming flower. Narrow to broad. Bud to bloom. To that end, it starts with personal/low stakes and finishes with global/high stakes. Again, narrow to broad.

If you focus on selling your character in your pitch, then this journey from personal stakes to global stakes will happen naturally. You will end the pitch with something along the lines of this: “But when Louisa’s steals the jewel to save herself from an unwanted marriage, she ends up embroiled in an international smuggling scheme that threatens all of her kingdom and not just her family.”


Should I start with my pitch, or my metadata?”

I personally think this is a matter of where your novel falls on the marketability spectrum. Typically, the books that adhere to genre have a stronger commercial appeal, which makes them easier to market, which means they often have a snappy hook. In that case, I’d say to put the pitch first—because it has that snappy character-focused hook.

If your novel adheres less to genre, plays with genre, or blends genre, then you might be better off putting your metadata first. I say this because the metadata helps set the right expectations for the agent, which means they’re less likely to make the wrong assumptions and are thus less likely to be disappointed. Novels that adhere less to genre are harder for agents to navigate in terms of expectation, so it can often be a boon to put the metadata first in your query, before your pitch, if you have a novel like this.

Please note that metadata includes the title, the wordcount, the agent personalization, and the published comparative titles for your novel (comp titles).


How should I add specificity to my comparative titles?

When it comes to comp titles, it’s once again a matter of setting the right expectations for the agent so they don’t go into your book assuming wrong, which leads to disappointment, which leads to rejection.

Firstly, you should always specify why you’ve picked your comps, and you should specify individually for each comp. Don’t bulk together in one sentence, but separate in the same sentence.

Don’t say: “My book shares an atmosphere and theme like C.L. Polk’s Witchmark and Stewart’s The Bone-Shard Daughter.” 

Do say: “My book has the wintry atmosphere of C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, and a similar thematic core of familial obligation as Stewart’s The Bone-Shard Daughter.”

You can also safely use the “my book will appeal to fans of Erin Morgenstern’s prose” framework. Here it’s important that you use authors who are universally known for excelling at something (such as Morgenstern’s prose), and that this author writes within the genre of your book somehow. Otherwise, the point of setting the right expectations for the agent is lost.

For comp titles, it’s also advisable to use ones that are less than five years old. This shows you’re active in the market of the genre you’re pitching. If it’s a book series, then you can go by the release date of the last book (even if the first one is older than five years). In this same way, you can go the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” route. That is, you can say “Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies!” or “the Great Gatsby, but in space!” or “The Godfather, but with fairies!”

I personally think the best comps are those that focus on either a) atmosphere/setting, b) characters, c) theme, and d) prose. The last thing you want to compare is plot and overall style. Ironically, this is because these are almost too specific to the individual books and individual authors. When it comes to setting expectations, too much specificity can lead to agent disappointment just as easily as too little specificity.


What should I include in my bio?

A lot of people think that because they have no publishing credentials, they have a bad bio—but that’s not necessarily true. Just like you’re selling your characters in your pitch, then you’re also selling yourself (as a character) in your bio.

The bio isn’t just about showing what products you’ve made, but also to show your determination and your discipline in your chosen career field. Remember, you’re asking an agent to work with you for years to come. You’re asking for a business partner to choose you. And business partners as just as impressed with your products as they are with your initiatives.

If you’ve been a host at a conference, or participated in a special workshop, or have edited an anthology, or is the founder of a recurring online writing event, or is a volunteer in a writing program… then put this in your bio because this shows involvement. It shows that you’re committed, and there’s nothing that a potential business partner admires more than that.


There’s more advice than this to be had, for sure, and it’s always important to cross-reference any advice you’re given, but these are the most universal tidbits that I can give you based on my own experience. I hope it can help ease some concerns of yours.

Happy querying!

I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines!