What Makes a Short Story Publishable?
How do you close the gap between the story inside your head and the one that’s on the page? Short Story Incubator instructor Ron MacLean shares the core ideas that drive a short story draft past “the last mile of the marathon that is writing a publishable short story.” Interested in learning more? Apply for the 2022-23 Short Story Incubator before the deadline on Monday, August 8th, 2022.
What makes a short story publishable? I’ve spent a lot of time answering this question as the instructor of the Short Story Incubator. Where most workshops, even lots of MFA workshops, leave a story at the place where a group finds nothing significantly “wrong” with it, they rarely ask the question, “is this story the best it can be?” In the Short Story incubator, that’s our entire focus, the last mile of the marathon that is writing a publishable short story.
Two core ideas drive that focus. First is the writer identifying and committing to what story they are writing. This includes the style, mode, and literary/cultural traditions in which the story operates, as well as the intended audience. But primarily, it means the character’s journey: where the protagonist is at the beginning, where the protagonist is at the end, what has transpired along the way, AND what will signal to readers the significance — emotional, situational, etc. — of that journey.
These are all things that we work with the writer to understand. It demands that writers be aware of what they intend to a degree that makes most uncomfortable at first.
What is on the page, we ask the writer, that you expect will convey these key elements, these key moments — these markers and changes in circumstance, in consequence, in motivation or desire — to readers? What are readers seeing and feeling on the page, and where (specific sentences, paragraphs, phrases)? What are readers NOT seeing or feeling that keeps the journey from resonating the way the writer wants it to.
As writers, we all know so much more about the characters and worlds we create than we write down.
The second core idea follows directly from this: deep, late-stage revision of a short story involves closing the gap between the story that’s in the writer’s head and the story that has made it onto the page. As writers, we all know so much more about the characters and worlds we create than we write down. Invariably, there are things we think we have conveyed — usually core aspects of motivation, or the emotional context for how and why something matters to the protagonist — that haven’t yet made it to the page.
Asking these questions of readers — where do you see/experience that on the page? And of writers — what is on the page that you expect will convey that to readers? — is the nitty-gritty work that helps writers close those gaps, so their stories pack full power.
I feel like I have the best teaching job in the country. In large measure, that’s because when writers take the time and space to focus on these things in depth and detail, through trial and error, stories are transformed. And that’s so satisfying both for the writer, and the cohort that surrounds the writer.
The 2022-23 Short Story Incubator runs from September to April. Applications are due Monday, August 8th at 11:59pm ET. You can learn more and apply here.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean