5 Critical Tips for Writing Short Stories

How do you write a short story? What short story elements catch a publisher’s eye?

In my role as first reader of an online speculative fiction magazine, I have truly been blown away by all of the things that I’m learning about regarding the story selection process. So many well-written stories get rejected because they do not adhere to these 5 simple, but not all-inclusive, standards below.

1) Make everything that happens in your story matter

Eliminate extraneous details, if you say it once, it’s enough. And be concise with dialogue and descriptions, purple language and paragraphs of backstory doesn’t get brownie points if it doesn’t enhance the story/arc.

2) If it’s critical to understanding the punchline, make it clear in the narrative

The most unfortunate thing is getting a really well-written story with a fuzzy/muddled plot. Make it clear what you’re trying to say with your story, don’t veil it in mystery.

3) Foreshadow twist endings

It really sucks to read an amazing story with great characters and action and then BAM! Something crazy happens at the end that comes completely out of nowhere. While this may seem like something clever to do, it’s almost guaranteed to end in rejection. Foreshadowing is paramount to twist endings. Something in the twist needs to tie back to the rest of the story and tension build-up.

4) Avoid a setup that is too convenient or too disconnected

Too many well-written stories move the plot along in ways that feel too convenient to be believable or are too disconnected to make sense, and this eliminates the tension in the story. The solution really boils down to adequate foreshadowing. Anything can be written in a story, especially genres like speculative fiction or magical realism, but just make sure your critical plot points are adequately foreshadowed.

5) Make your character motivations clear early in the story

If I can’t connect with your character, then I honestly don’t care what they’re about to go through in the next 5000 words. Make it clear to your reader what your character wants early in the story so we can view what happens to them from their perspective and understand why they do/think/say/respond the way they do.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful in your writing and publishing journey! Thank you for being a member!

Happy Writing!

~MJ

Monthly Writing Prompt | April 2022

The screen in front of you riles so many emotions within you, you’re not exactly sure where to even begin sorting them out. Images of the past flutter up from somewhere you’ve managed to keep tightly locked up until now. And tomorrow weighs heavy on you.

***

Muse Stimulators:

What is the POV looking at?
Where are they?
What is the past event that happened to the POV?
Why are they worried about tomorrow?
What do they do next?

Happy Writing!
~MJ

Petey says hello!

Monthly Writing Prompt | March 2022

There’s a whisper on the breeze, and if your heart wasn’t pounding so hard in your ears you might be able to make it out. You fight to calm your breath and look around at where you are, hoping to find out what else might be here with you.

***

Muse Stimulators

Is this place familiar to the POV?
How and why are they here?
What is the whisper on the breeze?
Is something else is here with the POV?
How does this experience differ from what POV expected?

Happy Writing!
~MJ

Petey says hello!

ARC Review | Edgewater Road – By Shelley Shepard Gray

Edgewater Road by Shelley Shepard Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When Jennifer Smiley, a work-from-home introvert, moves into her late grandmother’s home, she’s unsure what to expect. Going through all the boxes, she discovers there’s more to her family’s past than she thought. Her ex-con neighbor, John Lincoln Bennett, seems to know a lot about it, which she soon learns has more implications for her heart than she ever could have imagined.

I received this book as an ARC, courtesy of Edelweiss. Light romance books hold a special place in my heart, as they were about the only thing available to keep a homeschooled adolescent growing up in a conservative Christian house during puberty sane. It’s been a while since I read one, so I was excited to be approved for this one.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s very well-written and both Jennifer and Lincoln’s character voices are very strong and engaging. I can identify with Jennifer’s character a lot, as I find myself exhibiting introverted tendencies and both dreading and craving the opportunity to go out and meet people. Jennifer is cooped up alone during the snowy season (reason enough not to want to venture out), but her neighbor, Lincoln, makes it his duty to make sure her driveway is shoveled, and no one bothers her or threatens her, and of course friendship, and then a romance, blooms from there.

There are some very endearing moments and some fun humor as well throughout the book. Shelley delivers a powerful message in that even ex-cons deserve second chances, and there is good to be found in people who have made mistakes. There’s also a nice dose of the opposite too, that there can be a lot of bad in people who have never gotten caught for theirs.

There’s even a cat named Clyde who I firmly believe is evil, but the author captured a strong character voice for Clyde too that managed to exert itself in the best of places, just like a cat would, with no apologies.

While I definitely see the good neighbor aspect of Lincoln’s actions, I felt on multiple occasions in the book that Lincoln was a bit pushy and condescending for my comfort, invading her personal space uninvited multiple times and just making her life his business without her consent. He even thinks a couple times that her naivete is attractive to him, which just screams misogynist. While we see from his perspective that he is very caring and has all the best intentions, he came off a bit controlling for my tastes.

There were a few threads in here too that didn’t seem fully fleshed out. Jennifer’s family is definitely a bit dodgy, there are a few things Jennifer finds as she is cleaning out the house and barn, and there are a few people who come into the story that are very brow-raising. These things seem to foreshadow some major reveals later on, but then they just kind of fizzle out and don’t go anywhere, which I found a little disappointing.

All in all, though, this book was very engaging, the characters are both strong, and it’s an immersive read. If you enjoy light romance with the protector/damsel trope, I think you will enjoy this one.

Edgewater Road is being published by Blackstone Publishing and is available for purchase tomorrow, 1 March!


View all my reviews

Happy Writing!

~MJ & Petey

Petey says hello!

ARC Review | The Mozart Code – Rachel McMillan

The Mozart Code by Rachel McMillan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book follows two former Bletchley intelligence operatives, Simon and Sophia, as they navigate their way around the spy-ring in cold war era Vienna and Prague. Both from aristocratic upbringing and sharing a complicated past, their secrets, and the dangers that pursue them will be the ultimate test for their bond of friendship, loyalty, and love.

I received this as an ARC, courtesy of Edelweiss, and was very excited to read it. I really enjoy reading historical novels, especially WW2 and spy novels.

Rachel McMillan has done a brilliant job painting the historical setting, weaving in lots of authentic imagery, culture, and political tension for these locations and times, and she has given us two main characters with backstories that fit really well inside this arena.

The story is well written and engaging, but I found myself a bit lost trying to keep up with all of the secondary and tertiary characters; at least five of which contributed very little to the story or plot in my opinion and could have been eliminated entirely to recover some word count to flesh out the two main characters a bit more. There were so many names and small “side quests” that it was hard to pin down what was important and what wasn’t, so by the end when everything started to get serious, I wasn’t as connected with these characters and invested in their safety and well-being as I wanted to be for this lengthy of a book. Especially Sophia, who is renowned for finding rare objects, but then we never get to see how she does that, she’s just asked to find an item and then she magically has it within the next few pages. I didn’t feel really grounded in what was happening, who was making moves, or what the stakes were.

The relationship between Simon and Sophia was interesting and complex, and I really enjoyed the flashbacks into their past and the little clues revealed there that played into the present tension and what they were doing there together. I thought that was done well and gave us a really nice picture of how lives can be completely upended by war.

There was a lot of exciting suspense and buildup to the main romantic entanglement that got me really turning the pages to see what happened next, but the culmination of that tension was a bit underwhelming. I can respect that an author wants to write a clean romance, but this one could have gone a little further and still remained well within those boundaries. Their relationship for the rest of the book followed that vein. These two went through one challenging ordeal after the other in the last 40 pages but Simon and Sophia’s response in each case was a bit underdeveloped for me and hard to connect with.

Rachel McMillan is clearly a very talented author who knows how to weave a very complex narrative with lots of players and create a beautiful, authentic setting to immerse the reader in, but this one wasn’t as engaging for me personally, but for readers looking for a well-researched historical narrative and light romance, this is a good read.

The Mozart Code is being published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing and hits shelves 15 March 2022.

View all my reviews

Happy Writing!

~MJ & Petey

Petey says hello!

Monthly Writing Prompt | February 2022

The field below doesn’t look how you remember. It smells different too. And maybe it’s your imagination, but it sounds different. There’s a stirring inside of you as you sweep your eyes across the scene.

***

Muse Stimulators:

What does the field look like?
What does it smell like?
Is there a sound?
What is the significance of this field to the MC?
Is the stirring one of relief, dread, horror, joy?

Happy Writing!

~MJ

Petey says hello!

I’m Editing my Novel | January 2022 Highlights

Editing is a painful, but necessary process. Blegh.

And to complicate matters, it’s not a process that is easily repeatable from one chapter to the next.

In preparing my manuscript to begin querying agents this year, I am dissecting each chapter, slashing content, adding content, moving content–everything I possibly can to make this novel the best it can be. And in this process, I am incorporating feedback from my critique group as well.

Objective third parties are amazing! If you don’t have a critique group, get one.

Here are my youtube shorts for this month describing the issues I discovered in my manuscript, what I decided was the best method to resolve them, and what my critique group thought about those methods.

There are a few general writing tips in there as well that you will hopefully find useful whether you are writing a new story or editing an existing one.

Please subscribe to my blog and youtube channel for future videos!

Chapter 23 was a total rewrite vs just an edit, which can be tricky when polishing a manuscript as a final draft. Predictably, my critique group found a few residual issues.

Chapter 25 went under the knife! See why moving half of the chapter to another character’s POV was necessary, and why I thought my characters needed major reworking here. This one made me nervous too because there’s a steamy sex scene in it!

What did my critique group have to say about my sex scene and my re-characterization of these two characters?

The small changes I’ve been making so far are beginning to amount to some pretty drastic plot alterations, resulting in another complete rewrite of a chapter, but for different reasons than chapter 23.

My critique group had some great feedback for my edit of chapter 26 here, providing an excellent example of “Author Blindness”. With the right tools, this writer’s ailment can be remedied.

“What do my characters do while they wait for the big battle?” Enter the mid-novel slog and exactly where this chapter lands. This is a BIG issue. Mid-novel slog is never a good thing.

Critique group comments on mid-novel slog and my solution to this problem: add more chapters!

Happy Writing!

~MJ & Petey

Petey says hello!

ARC Review | Promise Broken – K’wan

Promise Broken follows a seventeen-year-old girl named Promise as she navigates a gang-controlled neighborhood where drugs and violence are part of the status quo. To survive, she must confront difficult choices that will shape her future for better or worse.

From the very first paragraph, I was captivated by this story. It begins with Promise in a sticky situation with her friend and the law, foreshadowing more conflict ahead when her aunt finds out what happened. And from there, Promise’s challenging life story and her limited options are showcased brilliantly and intimately in ways that made me both shudder and cheer her on. I was engrossed and invested in her and could not put this book down.

The narrative occasionally shifts to the perspective of Promise’s two friends, Mouse and Keys, showing how a life of drugs and crime can begin because of desperate situations and good intentions, which I thought was one of the most powerful threads in this book.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed by the ending. My only hope is that the author has a sequel planned, which is certainly probable given that most of K’wan’s books are part of a series, and there are a few threads in this book that Promise enough substance for an intriguing second book, so I will maintain hope and keep an eye out.

The ending wasn’t my biggest issue with this book, however. Every female character was sexualized to the point that none of them really contributed much to the plot besides being sexual objects for male characters.

I get that this is a real-world issue women face so it didn’t bother me right away, but I kept waiting for the author’s voice to come through in the narrative that sexualizing women is wrong, but I never got that sense. Even Promise, the main character, did not escape being viewed through this lens and her main arc revolved around her attraction to a guy who only sees value in women through sexual conquest. Promise even acknowledges this about him but doesn’t seem to mind that he’s sleeping around while actively pursuing her.

I did enjoy this book in spite of this issue. K’wan has a unique writing style that can reveal all the complexities of the situation to the reader without sounding boring or overdone. His characters, with their flaws and passions, are relatable and engaging, and you can’t help but want to know what happens to them, even when you wish you could leap through the pages and slap them at times.

K’wan’s Promise Broken will hit shelves on 15 March 2022 and is being published by Blackstone Publishing.

Happy Writing!

~MJ & Petey

Petey says hello!

ARC Review | A Quaint and Curious Volume of Gothic Tales – Edited by Alex Woodroe

A Quaint and Curious Volume of Gothic Tales is a short story anthology published by Brigid’s Gate Press and includes 24 delightful stories embodying the gothic themes of mystery, horror, and gloom with plenty of magic, mythology, and otherworldly elements mixed in.

This collection is professionally compiled and organized, with cover art by Elizabeth Leggett that is a perfect swirl of enchanting and creepy, an excellent Foreward by Alex Woodroe, and a charming Introduction by Stephanie Ellis.

The stories are written by both new and established authors, and there is a story (or two, or three, or more) that everyone will enjoy and will want to read again. As with all anthologies, some stories moved me more deeply than others, but all of them had their own unique touch of intrigue and dread that kept me engrossed in the narrative and furiously turning the pages.

I will be acquiring a physical copy once it is available for purchase on Amazon. These stories are perfect to squeeze into that 5-15 minute window where escape from the real world of doom and gloom is a must just to make it through the day.

I’ll be keeping up with Brigid’s Gate Press, this anthology shows that they have an eye for quality and creativity that promises more great stories in their future publications.

You can follow them on twitter @Brigidsgate.

A Quaint and Curious Volume of Gothic Tales is available for pre-order today on Amazon! and officially launches on January 31st! It will be available in Kindle and Paperback.

Happy Writing!

~MJ & Petey

Petey says hello!

Monthly Writing Prompt | January 2022

The eyes are captivating, full of emotion. It turns them on you. Paralyzes you. If you look away it might…

But even if it doesn’t, if somehow you break away from it unscathed, you will not be unchanged.

Muse stimulators:

  • What is “it”?
  • How does the POV feel?
  • What emotions are recognizable in “its” eyes?
  • Why would the POV be unchanged?
  • What happened five minutes before?
  • What happens next?

Happy Writing!

~MJ

Petey says hello!

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