How to Write Short Stories That Sell

Almost every aspiring author writes with the expectation of eventually getting published. But to get published these days, a short story writer needs to jump past an almost insurmountable cascade of barriers – from the query letter stage to the submission stage, from literary agents to publishers, and then on to the general reading public, all in the hopes of one day selling your short story and earning an amount of money sufficient to pay down the mortgage.

Following are a number of handy tips for short fiction writers to keep in mind when seeking to make money by selling short stories:


This might seem like an elementary observation, yet many novice short story writers fail to plan their tales with a basic three-part structure. Where you begin the beginning of your story depends on what follows later in the middle and end parts. The key here is that you must integrate all three parts of your tale so that each part fits snugly like a puzzle piece with the others. Knowing where to begin depends on where your story is going, and knowing at what point to exactly end it depends on what has gone before. Too many beginners start far too early in their tale or end it far too late. So long as you don’t sacrifice the reader’s orientation as to what’s going on, the best strategy is to start as late as possible in your tale and get into the “meat” of it before your reader’s attention lags. And then end it as soon as your basic character, plot, and theme elements have truly played themselves out. Start late, leave early, engage, and don’t confuse. Serve those four goals in planning your three-part structure, and you’re on steady ground.


Most basic short stories contain elements of plot, character, theme, and setting. Novice short story writers have a habit of randomly dreaming up each element in isolation and then packing all of them together in a kind of forced marriage. The best strategy for your short story is first to settle on which of the elements is the primary driver of your short story. If it’s the plot, then make sure the characters, theme, and settings all work together in servicing that plot in the most engaging, sensible manner. If it’s character-driven, the plot, setting, and theme must all be chosen to highlight and reveal the kinds of character interactions you want to unveil. And so on with theme and setting. Okay, scratch that last element – you should avoid at all costs writing a short story that’s driven by setting, unless your aim is to write an engaging travelogue.


Too many amateur writers make the mistake of summarizing a key character reaction or series of events when greater emotional impact demands that a character reaction or event be dramatized. In other words, play them out as full scenes for greater effect. But of course, the key here is to employ this strategy only for unveiling those key character reactions or events that play a crucial role in the unfolding of your (unified) story elements. All of which brings us to…


If any word, sentence, paragraph, piece of dialogue, or setting and action description does not advance your primary chosen story element(s), then cut, cut, cut them out! Do we really need to read extended descriptions about leaf texture, shoe brands, and the way the sun casts its rays on one’s coffee table in a scene where you’re advancing the plot or building toward a key character interaction?

Extraneous random descriptions will expose you as a card-carrying novice writer whose short story submission will go straight into a literary agent’s slush pile. Don’t be fooled by all those classic short stories that are filled with wonderfully descriptive asides about leaf texture and sun-cast highlights. In all likelihood, you’re not Charles Dickens or Steinbeck or Chekhov. You’re writing in an age of low attention spans, and you’re not working to be paid by word length. If you can cut out any and all portions of your short story that do not advance all or most of your story elements (and remember, setting should always be the servant to the other three story elements), then cut, cut, cut them out!


The sad fact is that the vast, vast majority of readers will make their decision about the quality of your short story inside of one paragraph (two, tops). So, put all the blood, sweat, and tears you can muster into crafting those first two paragraphs that will keep them reading on. In an age where time is money, don’t assume that there are masses of readers, literary agents, and publishers willing to stick with you for ten or fifteen more pages as you slowly build your short story to make its grand case. By the time your short story hits its stride after a mundane beginning, your only audience will likely be a chorus of chirping crickets.


There is a reason why publishers are still in business, even in this age of so-called “self-publishing.” The fact is, readers depend on professionals to ensure that well-edited novels and short stories make it on to the book store shelves. That’s where literary agents, editors, and publishers come in. Yet novice writers often make the fatal error of assuming that literary agents and publishers will overlook short story submissions littered with typos, bad grammar, and poor spelling – so long as the gatekeepers are blown away by the writer’s great storytelling ability (embodied in those story elements mentioned above). But again, in an age where time is money, the gatekeepers employ the rule of thumb that typos are the mark of a sloppy craftsman. No matter how great your short story truly is, you will court a death by typo if you attempt to sell your short story with a poorly edited submission.


If you’re reading this far into the article, chances are you’re truly looking for helpful tips to write short stories that sell. Writing short stories for self-expression is nice therapy, so long as you’re sane enough to realize that probably only a very limited audience is interested in reading a short story about the joys of fly-fishing among elderly villagers in Latvia. On the other hand, writing about pistol-packing, death-dealing mamas is not exactly guaranteed to spark reader interest, either. The key is to be interesting and different at the same time. Having your character take out a gun and blow someone away is not all that interesting or different. You need not always fall back on the Dead Body Strategy For Engaging Reader Interest.

The key to picking an interesting subject is to find an organically satisfying and engaging unity of all your story elements – a combination of plot, character, theme and setting that comes off as fresh and exciting at the same time. The interest will come from the manner in which you weave these story elements together.

Coming back to the joys of fly-fishing among elderly villagers in Latvia, you might very well pull this one off if it is a backdrop for a plot with an unexpected turn – one that unveils fresh character interactions while highlighting a theme that, say, provides us a new thematic perspective on, say, our common mortality fears. Not sure how the Latvian part fits in, though. But that, perhaps, is a lesson for another day.

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How Writers Promote Their Online Short Story Submissions

If you’ve ever been to a website that features an archive of submitted short stories, you’ll notice that certain story submissions and their authors attract a great deal of reader feedback and attention, while others hardly get noticed at all. So, what exactly is the magic element that attracts a great deal of reader traffic to some stories, while others remain unknown, unseen, and unappreciated?

The magic element is promotion.

Hopeful and novice writers often make the mistake of assuming that the simple act of posting their short story online will be sufficient to attract readers. Yet they fail to put themselves in the place of the reader. When faced with a large archive of posted short stories, the average reader will often look to the best rated, or most recently posted, short story. Some websites will merely showcase a random sampling of stories from its archive. Yet you’ll notice that, in some cases, there are posted stories that aren’t necessarily the best rated, nor are they the most recently submitted – yet they keep on getting an abundance of daily reader traffic. How do they keep bringing them in? The answer is that their authors are getting out there, spreading the word, and letting other readers on other websites know where their short story postings can be found. A few tips on what they do:

Tip One: Post Links To Your Story

Easier said than done, right? Well, actually it is quite easy. All you need do is to go where the community of readers and writers are. Do a search for online Groups and Forums that are set up specifically for people who love to read and write short stories online. Join those groups – which usually entails little more than registering a username and password – and then start letting your fellow group members know where they can find your posted stories: “Hey, guys, check out my newly posted short story at this link…!”

Posting links to your story also helps your short story to get better coverage on search engines. But first, make sure that your chosen story submission website is one that is set up to properly showcase your short story on search engines. To do that, simply do a search for your short story posting and see how it displays on the search engine. Ideally, you would want the author by-line to show up alongside the story title in the search listing, since your by-line is ultimately your branding mark as a writer.

Tip Two: Going Viral – Spread The Word On Social Networking Websites

As a writer, you should realize that a social network website can serve as a crucial weapon in your promotional arsenal. Websites, such as Facebook or LinkIn, allow you to set up friendship networks or to join Groups consisting of members with similar interests – in your case, groups with an interest in literary fiction.

On such websites, you can set up your own profile page as you concentrate on amassing a network of friends and contacts. Those contacts then follow your various postings and links. Again, you want to post messages to your network contacts and Group members along the lines of, “Check out my short story posting at this link…!”

Tip Three: The Value Of Excerpt Marketing

As you work to increase your social network of contacts and groups on these websites, you should take care to start posting choice excerpts from your story submission, accompanying it with a link. Again, check that your chosen story submission website is properly set up to attractively showcase such links on social network sites, providing your title and author by-line in the posted link. This strategy is what I dub Excerpt Marketing. The key is to pique the curiosity of your network friends with your excerpt, and to get them to click on the link that brings them to your posted story. For such purposes, choose a brief story excerpt that can stand on its own, that provides a hook, and that’s punchy.

You don’t have to stick with just one excerpt from your story, either. If it’s a strong short story with a great number of punchy, interesting passages to choose from, it will furnish you with more opportunity to provide a series of excerpt posts, with links, for that story to your network. Think of it as serializing your short story through a series of brief excerpts. But again, make sure that each excerpt is strong enough to stand on its own.

Tip Four: Suggesting The Story Submission Website To Your Social Network Contacts

Now that you’ve done the work to promote your short story submission to the social network that you’re building, you might want to consider whether your chosen story submission website has its own page on the social networking site that you’ve joined. Moreover, you would want to know whether the story submission site has a policy of promoting its participating writers on such a page. If so, then you might consider suggesting this page to your social network contacts. Invite them to choose that page as their favorite. They, in turn, might suggest that page to their own contacts, thereby increasing your prospective reader audience beyond the reach of your own immediate network. In such cases, you’ll have a web of contacts whose pages will contain various and interlinked references to your story submission site and your specific story posting. All in all, an excellent way to keep your posted story fresh in the minds of your contacts and their own extended contacts.

Tip Five: Extend Your Author Brand With More Story Postings

Keep in mind that your author by-line is your brand. If a reader likes one of your story postings, then it is likely that the next time they visit the story submission website, they’ll look you up as an author. Thus, it helps to have a regular schedule of story postings in order to give your fans a reason for coming back from time to time to check for updates.

When you post more short stories, you also have a further reason and opportunity to provide another fresh round of announcements, postings, and links for your social contact network, once more extending your brand as an author worth checking out.

Tip Six: Don’t Be Complacent

This last tip is the most valuable tip of all. Before, you might have scratched your head, wondering why the writers who amassed the largest fan base and the most reader traffic for their story postings were not necessarily the best. Well, now you know. Unlike the vast majority of writers who submit their short stories online, these writers weren’t complacent with their posted stories.

They understood that, in the end, submitting your short story online is only the first step to getting read.

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