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Short Stories, Easier Than A Novel? by Kathy Otten

I wrote my first short story for a contest when I was sixteen. The story was one of the winners chosen for publication in a magazine for Christian teens.

Since then I’ve had several short stories published, in historical romance, historical fiction, and contemporary romance. The shortest piece I’ve written was 495 words and the longest 20,000 words.

Short stories have grown in popularity since the advent of ebooks. Years ago a reader was willing to wait a year or more for the next book from their favorite author. Today an author needs to keep up a fairly constant flow of product to maintain their presence on the web. If an author writes novels, like I do, and has a family and a full-time job, producing a full-length novel on a regular basis is not easy.

Short stories are a good way to fill the gaps between books and to keep your author name fresh in the minds of your readers.

With e-readers and smartphones, a short story can be read over a morning cup of coffee or while waiting at the dentist. A recent upswing in audio books means a short story can be enjoyed while riding in the car or while someone is out for a morning run.


Short stories are not just for magazines anymore.

However, writing a good short story is not as easy as it would seem and it can be a struggle to weave plot, characters, conflict, description, and backstory into a tighter word count.

Fifteen hundred words seems to be the most marketable length for magazines. But for now,  in today’s market there is opportunity for a variety of lengths. Still, to write short you must learn to write tight. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years.


Word Count

Unless you have a specific market in mind, which has a clear word count, such as 1500 words for a magazine, I wouldn’t worry about the count too much during the first draft. Many words and paragraphs will be deleted or changed and lines rewritten as you self-edit your story.



The shorter your story, the fewer characters. Because of your word count there is little time for character introductions. Most of the time your characters should already be acquainted and have some knowledge of each other’s backstory from the start. In a romance, any courtship or relationship building works best if it’s in the past. The only time it would work is if your short story is a basic cute-meet.



Limit your view-point character to one. If you have the word count you can get away with two, but be sure the switch is important to the story. The reader needs to bond with your main character as soon as possible and that takes time. Switching to another view-point runs the risk of your reader not becoming emotionally invested with either character. And you want your reader to care.



Keep the timeline as short as possible. Start your story right at, or as close to the climax as possible, depending on word count. Even for a short story, you have to know what your character wants and why he/she wants it. Remember your story arc: introduction, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The shorter your word count, the closer to the climax you need to start. Remember, conflict comes from the plot, tension comes from the character.



You should know your character’s backstory, but much of your character’s past and what happened with the plot prior to the start of the story can be implied. Only incorporate the bits necessary to move the plot forward.



Jump right into the action. Use strong verbs and avoid adjectives and adverbs if possible. Show don’t tell. A long paragraph of description will slow the pacing and use words you can use for something else. Condense your descriptions to a line or two. Use strong verbs and sensory detail as your character moves and reacts in the story. Replace as many speech tags as you can with action beats.



It’s a great way to increase the pacing of your story. You can also use it to convey back story and show character. Keep it natural and true to your character’s voice. Don’t use long exchanges of dialogue to dump in back story or retell plot information the reader has assumed. Make the conversation between your characters sound real. Even though you may have a tight word count, your characters should each have their own voice. Be sure they don’t all sound the same.

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” – Kurt Vonnegut

For more tips and suggestions on writing a short story, my workshop, Short Stories, Easier Than A Novel? begins August 13th here at Savvy Authors.


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Kathy OttenKathy Otten is the published author of multiple historical romance novels, novellas, and short stories. She is also published in contemporary romance and historical fiction. She is a Northwest Houston RWA Lone Star winner and Utah/Salt Lake RWA Hearts of the West finalist. A Place In Your Heart is her fourth full-length novel. Currently, she is putting the finishing touches on a contemporary young adult novel.

She teaches fiction writing online and at a local adult education center, and is a regular presenter at area events. Kathy also does manuscript assessments and editing. She lives in the rolling farmland of western New York where she can often be found walking her dog through the woods and fields. She has been married for thirty-four years and is the mother of three grown children and one grandson.

Kathy can be contacted at [email protected]

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A Civil War Romance from Kathy Otten and The Wild Rose Press

A Place In Your Heart

Gracie McBride isn’t looking for love; she’s looking for respect. But in this man’s world of Civil War medicine, Gracie is expected to maintain her place changing beds and writing letters. Her biggest nemesis is the ward surgeon, Doctor Charles Ellard, who seems determined to woo her with arrogant kisses and terrible jokes.

Charles is an excellent surgeon. He assumed he would be well received by an army at war. He was not. Friendless and alone, he struggles to hide the panic attacks that plague him while the only person who understands him is a feisty Irish nurse clearly resolved to keep him at a distance.

But Charles is sent to the battlefield, and Gracie is left with a wounded soldier, a box of toys, and a mystery which can only be solved by the one man she wishes could love her, both as a woman and a nurse.


A Place In Your Heart is available at Amazon


Kathy Otten is the published author of multiple historical romance novels, novellas, and short stories. She is also published in contemporary romance ...