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.

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!

ARC Review: “Wind Daughter” by Joanna Ruth Meyer

(thanks to Page Street Publishing and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: Fairytales with a big F, Inuyasha (Kagome’s quest, specifically), Howl’s Moving Castle (the love story), atmospheric setting, sentient nature, sewing as symbolism, to cry both happy and sad tears, empathy/empaths as a thematic core, bees, wolves, snow, doorways, playing with time

Triggers: Death (non-graphic), blood (non-graphic)

Goodreads Summary:

In the dark, cold reaches of the north lives a storyteller and his daughter. He told his daughter, Satu, many stories–romances like the girl who loved a star and changed herself into a nightingale so she could always see him shining–but the most important story he told her was his own. This storyteller was once the formidable North Wind, but he lost his power by trading it away in exchange for mortality–he loved her mother too much to live without her. The loss of his magic impacted more than just their family, however, and now the world is unraveling in the wake of this imbalance.

To save the North, Satu embarks on a perilous journey to reclaim her father’s magic, but she isn’t the only one searching for it. In the snow-laden mountains, she finds herself in a deadly race with the Winter Lord who wants the North Wind’s destructive powers for himself.

Satu has the chance to be the heroine of her own fairy tale, only this one has an ending she never could have imagined.

A hauntingly beautiful fairy tale about love and loss, this Echo North companion novel is perfect for fans of the Winternight Trilogy.

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

Meyer has a supremely uncanny ability to get to the emotional core of her books within seconds. I know that if I read a book from her, I will cry. And, lo and behold, I teared up in the first chapter of Wind Daughter. To that end, it didn’t do much to dry my eyes that the main character is an empath. As the personification of the North Wind, she feels as deeply and volatilely as a wind sweeping across the unending tapestry of the world—literally and figuratively, mind you.

Meyer’s Wind Daughter is, at its essence, a fairytale about fairytales. Think “one story to save all stories.” Or “one story that ties together all the stories of the universe”. Love and empathy are at the forefront as the power that stitches all of these stories together until they become one. This is in large part due to Satu North’s nature as an empath. She uses her empathy as her greatest strength, which is also the thematic core of the book.

Meyer’s writing style in this book is slightly different from the style in her previous books. I believe this might be a conscious choice on her part. A stylistic choice. She uses a lot of telling rather than showing—perhaps to enhance the storyteller feeling of the narrative? I suspect she wants the reader to feel as if they’re being told this story orally by a storyteller of old, just like fairytales were told originally. And she achieves that just perfectly, in my opinion, helped along by the seemingly endless mythos of Satu’s world.

Because I promise you: this is as symbolically rich and imaginative a world as they come.

I mentioned before that the thematic core of the book is that love gives you strength—but it’s not only love. It’s all feelings. Meyer dedicates this book to everyone who feels “too much”, and the book truly is a lover letter to everyone who feels, unashamedly, and rejoices in it.

For Satu North, her primary character development lies in accepting that she can still be lonely even if she gets easily overwhelmed in crowds. She is allowed to feel lonely while also wanting to be alone. The greatest lesson that she learns is that loneliness is not the same as being alone. That existing is not the same as living. She also has smaller lessons to learn, such as the fact that her parents aren’t flawless, and that sometimes your worst enemy is really your best friend (yes, we have a glorious enemies-to-lovers trope here).

As a companion piece to Meyer’s Echo North (2019), we also have recurring characters in this book. I was most impressed by Echo North herself. While she felt familiar to me, she also felt like she was fully grown-up, thus presenting herself as a plausible mentor figure for Satu North.

But I also want to stress that this is a companion novel. That is to say, some of the worldbuilding and the lore may be difficult to follow if you haven’t read Echo North. And this difficulty is enhanced by the writing style that has a fast pace and rarely lingers, as in true “oral storyteller fashion”.

Lastly, if we talk comparisons, Howl’s Moving Castle comes to my mind almost instantly. The love story has the same tragic, but hopeful feel. Whimsical on the surface, but dark underneath. It also specifically centers around a love that is literally broken up by time, exactly as Howl’s and Sophie’s. And that’s all the spoilers I’ll give you for that comparison.

I also couldn’t help but be reminded of Inuyasha. As regards the plot, that is. Satu North goes on a journey to collect fragments of her father’s broken magic, exactly as Kagome went on a journey to collect necklace shards. And while Kagome travels through time, Satu North is chased by a magically unraveling universe (aka time).

And if you now want to be chased by Satu, then this is the time to pre-order this magnificently woven and tapestried book. It’s worth it. If anything, then only so you can fully understand my constant use of sewing terminology in this review. Apologies.


PRE-ORDER LINKS

AMAZON
B&N
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INDIEBOUND
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