My Long Road to Short Fiction by Catherine Dilts

CDiltsphotofordirectoryOne favorite bit of advice given aspiring authors is to try your hand at writing short stories. If you become published in credible venues, your street creds are confirmed. Now editors and agents will take your queries seriously. Novel publication is imminent.

Wait! What’s wrong with this advice?

Number One is that it belittles the short story. The only reason you need to dabble in short fiction is to sell your novel length fiction? Don’t dismiss the short story. It is a unique art form, not a truncated novel.

The Number Two reason this advice stinks is because it is true, but not for the reason given. If you want to gain the attention of editors and agents, writing short improves your craft. You’ll be noticed for your crisp prose, swiftly developed characters, and smooth plotting.

What is the typical reply to that original advice? Ask me five years ago, and I would have said, “I can’t write short stories.”

What’s wrong with this answer?

The Number One reason is that you have just underestimated your talent. I have heard many people say they start a short story, and it turns into a novel. Maybe you had an idea too big for a short story, but maybe you let the story get away from you. Save those sub-plots and cast of characters worthy of a Hollywood epic for other stories. How many people have tried to write a novel, but just couldn’t make it work? An entire novel? What an investment of time, sweat and tears! A short story might only take you a month to launch and then abandon. It is a time risk you can afford to take.

The Number Two reason this is the wrong answer is because the era of the single-genre, single-form writer is over. The publishing industry is wide open with opportunity, whether you go the traditional or the independent route. The same author might create poetry, short stories, and novels. Name recognition increases with your exposure to a variety of reading audiences. You can’t afford to not try your hand at writing short fiction.

So, how do you test the waters, if you’ve never seriously attempted to write a short story? I have some ideas that might work for you. Is it easy? No, writing short is a challenge, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

Read a dozen short stories of the type you’d like to write. Many writers’ conferences publish short story anthologies. Goodreads and Amazon list dozens. Untreed Reads regularly publishes themed anthologies. Or pick up a magazine. I can’t tell you how many times people have commented, “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine is still around?” Yes! And you can subscribe on your electronic reading device! How easy is that?

Aim for a market. I began writing short stories when I decided I wanted to sell to Woman’s World magazine – the one you see in the grocery store check-out stand with the diet and the cake on the cover? They buy mini-mysteries and romance stories. Short, short short! I tried writing half a dozen stories of 700 words. None sold, but I learned to focus my storytelling skills.

Set a goal. Make it concrete. I will write a short story this year – it will be completed by July 22. I will write a short story a week for two months, then pick the two with the most potential to polish and submit to a magazine (or e-zine). I will submit a story to my local writing conference’s themed anthology. You get the idea. Your goal must have a deadline!

Cut without mercy. Writing short stories requires that every word count. Every character plays an indispensable role. Every action must tie into the plot. I tend to write way longer than I know the final story should be, then spend agonizing hours cutting unnecessary verbiage. In the spirit of full disclosure, I may spend six months writing a short story, concurrent with other writing projects. Some of you may be hammering out novels in that time. You may be much faster.

Don’t be discouraged. If you enjoy lengthy novels, and your writing tends to ramble, you may find it difficult to hold back the flood of language as you attempt to create a story of a set word length. Keep at it. By reading good short fiction, and working on your own, you’ll eventually hit the right rhythm. Don’t be discouraged by rejections. Yeah, I know, easy to say. Okay, shed those tears, but then move on. Submit the story elsewhere, save it for an independently published anthology, or post it to your website. Just remember, once you Indy pub or post publically, you won’t be able to sell the story to a traditional publisher. If that’s your goal, submit, cry, revise, submit again.

I began writing short fiction because I wanted my novel queries to get the attention of editors and agents with a quick and easy short story publication credit. Once that notion was utterly destroyed, I gained respect for the short story. I now read and write short fiction for the enjoyment of this unique and challenging art form.

For current news about mystery short fiction, consider joining the Short Mystery Fiction Society:



Catherine’s fifth published short story appears in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine’s May issue, on sale the month of April. Her second novel, StoneAHM-MAY2016[1] Cold Case – A Rock Shop Mystery, is available on-line via Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and in e-book for Kindle. With a day job as an environmental regulatory technician, her stories often have environmental or factory-based themes. Others reflect her love of the Colorado mountains, fishing, and running.

You can learn more about Catherine and her writing at:


12 thoughts on “My Long Road to Short Fiction by Catherine Dilts

  1. pamelasthibodeaux says:

    great advice!
    thanks for sharing.
    I love writing short….only most are either too short or too long…alas it’s always nice to find a market for them anyway.
    Good luck and God’s blessings.

    • Catherine Dilts says:

      Pamela, the nice thing is that there are markets for any length of fiction. When you can write both short and novel-length fiction, you have more flexibility in finding publication.

  2. Great advice, Catherine. I firmly believe that writing short stories can help writers hone their craft more quickly than jumping right into novel writing. Often the beginning novelist has trouble with endings, for example. Write enough short stories, and you will probably have an easier time with endings after that because there are fewer threads to tie up. Also, you can get quicker and better feedback on shorts because readers see the whole thing in one reading. A critique group and shorts stories are a perfect match. Good luck to you with all your future writing, being it long or short.

    • Catherine Dilts says:

      Jan, I agree completely. So many critique groups for beginning writers go chapter by chapter, sometimes meeting only once a month. You can’t develop continuity. I’m not saying some folks can’t jump right into novel-length fiction, or that short story authors have to aspire to writing longer stories. Some people are naturals at one form or the other, not both. Most of us, I believe, can learn and benefit from pushing our own comfort zones, whether that be attempting the short story or trying out novel writing.

  3. Good advice! I once sold a 1,000-word mystery to Woman’s World–they followed a very different format in those days, because those words had to explain the ending, without the “how did they know?” puzzle they end with these days!–and it was one of the most demanding things I’ve ever done. Write a paragraph, run a word count…write another paragraph, run another word count…

    Incidentally, I think another bad bit of advice given to new writers is the old “Write what you know.” What fun is that??? I think it’s more important that writers should “know (as in research) what they write,” rather than limit their writing to their own personal experience.

    • Catherine Dilts says:

      Sheri, Woman’s World is a tough market. Congrats on selling a story to them. I agree that writing short is a challenge. Ideally, in our novels every word should count, but it’s absolutely critical in short stories. I like your take on the write what you know advice. Even if you base a story on personal experience, you’ll most likely need to pump up the tension and action to make it interesting to a reader.

  4. EARL STAGGS says:

    You make some excellent points, Catherine. I write novels, but I started in short stories, still write them, and don’t intend to stop.. I love the ability to switch settings, plots. and characters once in a while. With novels, you’re locked in for a loooong time.

    • Catherine Dilts says:

      Earl, that is one of the best things about writing short stories. You can experiment with characters, settings, and plot without being locked into the long haul involved in writing a novel.

  5. I admit to having trouble writing short stories. It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep my plots from getting more and more complicated.

    • Catherine Dilts says:

      Karen, you might try writing a mystery for Woman’s World. The 700 word limit forces you to stick to tight plotting. No wandering off on tangents is possible!

  6. Kaye George says:

    Great post! AND a very nice story in AHMM–I just finished it. Congratulations!!

    • Catherine Dilts says:

      Thank you, Kaye! Dr. Charles Jerome Harrison is a character who popped into my head and demanded his story be told.

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