25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story

Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd

Writing short stories is a great way to test the waters of fiction without making a huge commitment, or to experiment with different genres, characters, settings, and voices.

And due to the rise in e-books and e-magazines, length is no longer an issue for publication, so there’s a growing market for short fiction. You can submit your short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests, or publish a collection of three or four of your stories yourself in a short anthology. Or even one really good story, and price it at 99 cents. You can also get together with other authors in your genre and each contribute a story for an anthology, as did Kill Zone authors in 2010, with Fresh Kills, Tales from The Kill Zone. Time for another collection, I’d say, wouldn’t you? (Nudge, nudge.)

In fact, it’s a good idea to try to publish a few high-quality, well-edited short stories between novels to help with discoverability and growing a fan base.

Also, today’s busy readers (especially the young ones) have more distractions and temptations for their time, therefore shorter attention spans, so a short story is a nice escapism-byte for increasing numbers of people, I think.

I’ve judged short stories for several contests and anthologies, including for Writer’s Digest, and I’ve come up with some tips for writing a compelling short story that is worthy of publishing or submitting to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Of course, these are only guidelines—like any good cook with a recipe, you’ll tweak them to suit your own vision, goal, and story idea.


1. Keep the story tight. Unlike a novel or even a novella, a short story is about just a small slice of life, with one story thread and one theme. Don’t get too ambitious. It’s best to limit it to one main character plus a few supporting characters, one main conflict, one geographical location, and a brief time frame, like a few weeks maximum—better yet, a few days, or even hours or minutes.

2. Create a complex, charismatic main character, one readers will care about. Your protagonist should be multi-dimensional and at least somewhat sympathetic, so readers can relate to him and start bonding with him right away. He should be charismatic, with plenty of personality, but give him a human side, with some inner conflict and vulnerability, so readers identify with him and start worrying about him immediately. If readers don’t care about your character, they also won’t care about what happens to him.

3. Give your protagonist a burning desire. What does she want more than anything? This is the basis for your story goal, the driving force of your story.

4. Decide what your character is most afraid of. What does your hero regret most? What is his biggest fear? What is he most afraid might happen? Give him some baggage and secrets.

5. Devise a critical story problem/conflict. Create a main conflict or challenge for your protagonist. Put her in hot water right away, on the first page, so the readers start worrying about her early on. No conflict = no story. The conflict can be internal, external, or interpersonal, or all three, against one’s own demons, other people, circumstances, or nature.

6. Develop a unique “voice” for this story by first getting to know your character really well. A good way is to journal in his voice. Pretend you are the character, writing in his secret diary, expressing his hopes and fears and venting his frustrations. Just let the ideas flow, in his point of view, using his words and expressions. Then take it a step further and carry that voice you’ve developed throughout the whole story, even to the narration and description, which are really the character’s thoughts, perceptions, observations and reactions. (In a novel, the voice will of course change in any chapters in other characters’ viewpoints.)

7. Create an antagonist and a few interesting supporting characters. Give each of your characters a distinct personality, with their own agenda, hopes, accomplishments, fears, insecurities and secrets, and add some individual quirks to bring each of them to life. Supporting and minor characters should be quite different from your protagonist, for contrast.

8. To enter and win contests, make your character and story unique and memorable. Try to jolt or awe the readers somehow, with a unique, charismatic, even quirky or weird character; a unique premise or situation; and an unexpected, even shocking revelation and plot twist.

Captivate_full_w_decal9. Experiment – take a chance. Short stories can be edgier, darker, or more intense because they’re short, and readers can tolerate something a little more extreme for a limited time.


10. Start right out in the head of your main character. It’s best to use his name right in the first sentence to establish him as the point-of-view character, the one readers are supposed to identify with and root for. And let readers know really soon his rough age and role in the story world.

11. Put your character in motion right away. Having her interacting with someone else is usually best—much more dynamic than starting with a character alone, musing. Also, best not to start with your character just waking up or in an everyday situation or on the way to somewhere. That’s too much of a slow lead-up for a short story—or any compelling story, for that matter.

12. Use close point of view. Get up close and personal with your main character and tell the whole story from his point of view. Show his thoughts, feelings, reactions, and physical sensations. And don’t show anyone else’s thoughts or inner reactions. You don’t have time or space to get into anyone else’s viewpoint in a short story. Even the narration is your POV character’s thoughts and observations. Don’t intrude as the author to describe or explain anything to the readers in neutral language.

13. Situate the reader early on. Don’t forget the 4 W’s: who, what, where, when. Establish your setting (time and place) within the first few paragraphs, to situate your reader and avoid confusion. But as mentioned above, avoid starting with a great long descriptive passage.

14. Jump right in with some tension in the first paragraphs. There’s no room in a short story for a long, meandering lead-up to the main problem, or an extended description of the setting or the characters and their background. Disrupt the main character’s life in some way on the first page. As Kurt Vonnegut advises, start as close to the end as possible.

15. Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t use narration to tell your readers what happened—put them right in the middle of the scene, with lots of dialogue and action and reactions, in real time. And skip past transitional times and unimportant moments. Just use a few words to go from one time/place to another, unless something important happens during the transition.

16. Your character needs to react! Show your character’s emotional and physical reactions, both inner and outer. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke as many of the five senses as possible or appropriate, not just sight and hearing.

17. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, questioning, or anxiety. If everybody is in agreement, shake things up a little.

18. Dialogue in fiction is like real conversation on steroids. Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah, and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make the characters’ words and expressions sound as natural and authentic as you can. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds real and moves along at a good clip.

19. Build the conflict to a riveting climax. Keep putting your protagonist in more hot water until the big “battle,” showdown, or struggle—whether it’s physical, psychological, or interpersonal.

20. Go out with a bang. Don’t stretch out the conclusion – tie it up pretty quickly. Like your first paragraph, your final paragraph needs to be memorable, and also satisfying to the readers. Try to create a surprise twist at the end – but of course it needs to make sense, given all the other details of the story.

21. Provide some reader satisfaction at the end. It’s not necessary to tie everything up in a neat bow, but do give your reader some sense of resolution, some payout for their investment of time and effort in your story. As in novels, most readers want the character they’ve been rooting for all along to resolve at least some of their problems. But be sure the protagonist they’ve been identifying with succeeds through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck, or a rescue by someone else.


22. Hook ’em in right away. Now that you’ve got your whole story down, go back and grab the readers with an opening that zings. Write and rewrite your first line, opening paragraph, and first page. They need to be as gripping and as intriguing as you can make them, in order to compel the readers to read the rest of the story. Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.

23. Cut to the chase! The short story requires discipline and editing. Trim down any long, convoluted sentences to reveal the essentials. Less is more, so make every word count. If a sentence or line of dialogue doesn’t advance the plot, add intrigue, or develop a character, take it out.

Also, use strong, evocative, specific nouns and verbs and cut back on supporting adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “He walked heavily” say “He trudged.” Or instead of “She walked quietly into the room,” say “She tiptoed…”

24. Make every element and every image count. Every element you insert in the story should have some significance or some relevance later. If it doesn’t, take it out. You have no room for filler or extraneous details in a compelling short story. In fact, try to make all descriptions do double duty. Rather than listing their physical attributes and what they’re wearing, your description of a character should reveal their personality, their mood, their intentions, and their effect on those around them, and also the personality and attitude of the character who is observing them.

25. Pay attention to word count and other guidelines. Short stories are generally between 500 and 7,500 words long, with the most popular length around 2,500 to 4,000 words. If you want to submit your short story to a website, magazine or contest, be sure to read their guidelines as to length, genre, language, etc. Also, for your own protection, do read the fine print to avoid giving away all rights to your story.

For some great insights on creating a compelling short story, see James Scott Bell’s post here on TKZ, How to Write a Short Story. And check out Anne R. Allen’s great posts on the subject, such as “Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction.” Also, if you’re fairly new at writing short stories and would like more guidance, see my recent post, Some Quick, Basic Tips for Writing a Riveting Short Story. (Click on the titles.)

Do you have any suggestions to add to this list?

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.


Sometimes You Have to Write for the Love of It


There are writers who write only for money. There’s nothing illegal about that. Indeed, I strongly believe in writers making dough.
There are other writers who write primarily for artistic expression, and don’t seem to care about money at all. That’s not illegal, either.
And then there are writers who write as a source of income but sometimes just want to write something for love of the writing itself, even if it’s not going to generate revenue.
That’s how I would describe my new short story, “Golden.” 
This story is different from my other work. It’s not a genre piece. Let me explain.
I admire great short-story writers, because the form is so challenging. Among my favorites are Hemingway, Saroyan, Irwin Shaw and John D. MacDonald.
The latter author is not usually thought of as a short-story writer. He’s best known for his brilliant Travis McGeeseries.
But I contend that MacDonald was one of America’s great literary talents. That he chose pulp and paperback originals for most of his work had to do with his need to make a living as a writer, and fast, after World War II.
I have an extensive MacDonald collection. A few weeks ago I pulled off the shelf his volume of literary-style short stories, The End of the Tiger. I turned to a story I’d not read before, “The Bear Trap.” A man is on a road trip with his wife and children. When they stop at an isolated gas station a seemingly innocuous event triggers a memory in the man. His “shattering moment” comes back to invade his present. It tells us about who this man really is and, in the way of great short stories, something about ourselves.
It reminded me, once again, that a great short story can have an emotional resonance as powerful as a novel. I still remember the strong emotions I felt after finishing stories like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (Hemingway); “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and “A Word to Scoffers” (Saroyan); “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” and “The 80-Yard Run” (Irwin Shaw); “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carol Oates); “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (Raymond Carver).
And speaking of Carver, many of you know I got to be in a workshop with him when he taught for a time at U.C. Santa Barbara. What I recall most is that I couldn’t do what he did. Or what some of the “star students” in the class were doing. And no one was able to teach me. I felt like a failure, like I didn’t have any true literary talent at all.
It took me years to discover you could actually learn the craft. I’ve also written about how I came out of the movie Moonstruck wanting (needing, really) to write something that would make others feel the way I felt just then.
A similar feeling overtook me when I finished the MacDonald story. 
So I wrote “Golden.” 
I have no idea if it’s any great shakes. I feel a little of the old knee knocking I experienced in that classroom with Raymond Carver. 
But maybe that’s a good thing. If your knees aren’t knocking on occasion, maybe you’re not stretching enough as a writer. 
Maybe you’re not risking love.

So what about you? Do you write for love, for money, or some combination of both? 

How to Write a Short Story

James Scott Bell

A novelist friend recently asked, What is it that defines a short story? What’s the key to writing one? How is it different from a novel or novella?
My “boys in the basement” have been working on it, and the other day sent up a message. It said, “A short story is about one shattering moment.”
I pondered that for awhile. Could it really be so? What about the different genres? There are literary short stories (e.g., Raymond Carver), but also horror (Stephen King), science fiction (Harlan Ellison), crime (Jeffery Deaver) and the like. They couldn’t all be about one shattering moment, could they?

I decided to have a cheeseburger and forget the whole thing.
But the boys would not let me drop it. And now I think they’re right (as usual). So let’s take it apart.
When I took a writing workshop with one of the recognized masters of the modern short story, Raymond Carver, I found his genius lay in the “telling detail,” a way to illuminate, with a minimalist image or line of dialogue, a shattering emotional moment in the life of a character.
The story we studied in his workshop was “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” A married couple, middle class with two young kids, have a conversation one night. The wife brings up an incident at a party a couple of years before. Slowly, we realize she needs to confess something, needs to be forgiven. She’d slept with another man that night. That is the shattering moment in the story, the husband’s realization of what his wife did.
This happens in the middle. The rest of the story is about the emotional aftermath of that moment. Thus, the structure of the story looks like this:
This is the same structure as Hemingway’s classic, “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story about a couple conversing at a train station, the shattering emotional moment occurs inside the woman. It’s when she accedes to her boyfriend’s desire that she have an abortion (amazingly, the word abortion is never used in the story). We see what’s happened to her almost entirely via dialogue. In fact, she has a line much like the husband’s in the Carver story. She says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
We know at the end of both these stories that the characters will never be the same, that life for them has been ineluctably altered. That’s what a shattering moment does.
Structurally, this moment can come at the end of the story. When it works, it’s like an emotional bomb going off. Two literary stories that do this are “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. That structure looks like this:
Now let’s move to the genre short story. Here, the same idea applies. The shattering moment is usually one that is outside (i.e., a plot moment) as opposed to inside (i.e., a character moment). Often, that moment is a “twist” at the end of the story. The most famous example is, no doubt, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”
Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type (see his collections Twistedand More Twisted.) Get your hands on his story “Chapter and Verse” (from More Twisted) to see what I mean.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.
My recent crime short story, “Autumnal,” follows this pattern as well. We think the story is going one way, but at the end it is quite another.
This is also the structure most often used in The Twilight Zone. Think about some of the classic episodes:
“To Serve Man.” Remember the shattering shout at the end? “It’s a cook book!”
“Time Enough at Last.” Always voted the most memorable episode, because of its heartbreaking twist at the end. This is the one where the loner with the thick glasses emerges after nuclear war has killed everyone, but now has time enough at last to read all the books he wants. And then…
“The Eye of the Beholder.” This one blew me away as a kid. It’s the one where the surgeons, in shadows all the way through, are working to save the disfigured face of a patient. One of the all time great twists.
This pattern is just like the one described above for literary short stories, only now it’s a shattering plot twist at the end:

And, you guessed it, you can also do a story with the shattering moment somewhere in the opening pages, and work out the aftermath in the rest of the tale. Lawrence Block’s “A Candle for the Bag Lady” is like that (You can find this story in Block’s collection, Enough Rope). The structure looks like this:

So there you have it. If you want to write a short story, find that moment that is emotionally life-changing, or craftily plot-twisting. Then write everything around that moment. Structurally, it’s simple to understand. But the short story is, in my view, the most difficult form of fiction to master. So why try? Two reasons: First, when it works, it can be one of the most powerful reading experiences there is. And second, with digital self-publishing, there’s an actual market for these works again. The short story form was pretty much dead outside of a few journals. Now, in digital, you can make some Starbucks money with them. That’s what the Force of Habit and Irish Jimmy Gallagher stories have done for me. And when I put together a collection, I expect to make even more.
And nothing will give your writing chops a workout like a short story. Why not make them part of your career plan?

What Killed the Thriller Writer: Your Attention Span

by Matt Richtel

Today TKZ is delighted to host Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times reporter and thriller author Matt Richtel. His post today ties in nicely with a discussion Clare began on Monday: read her post here if you missed it, and let’s continue the debate…

Body counts are rising, blood spilling in buckets. It’s a conspiracy pandemic. Thriller writers entering an epic age of mayhem.

Credit the muse? Maybe.

For sure blame the Internet.

It is responsible for a fascinating new trend among, in particular, mystery and thriller writers. We are writing more than ever. No longer just a book ever year. In the last year, it has become au courant for us to also publish short stories at least once a year, between book releases.

Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, go down the list of the heavyweights. They’ve all getting into the short-story game, creating a thriller wellspring, or, if you prefer, a bloodbath. I enter the fray myself this month with “Floodgate,” a political thriller, my first short story.

But as with any good plot twist, there is well more here than meets the eye, a backstory, and some troubling questions, including, chiefly: is this a good idea? Or are we at risk of murdering something truly dear: our craft?

First, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the facts:

It’s long been tradition for thriller writers to put out a book once a year to keep audiences attached to characters and authors and, bluntly, to their brands. This was not necessarily an easy schedule for writers, especially those who really invested in depth, but it was doable and simply understood as necessary.

I’ve had some big-name thriller-writer friends tell me that when they didn’t write a book one year – say, because of a divorce or contractual dispute – they’d see a material decline in their sales.

Then along came the Internet, with all its mixed blessings (see, duh: Amazon). More competition, less shelf space, less control for publishers on distribution (see: almost none). How did short stories become a response?

The publishers (and we writers, by extension), began to fear that we’d get lost in the white noise of competition. Make a reader wait a year for a new book? Heck, by then even loyal readers might’ve made for the nearest cat video. So part of this is an effort to keep our names in the LED lights.
There’s also a more direct marketing reason. The short stories are “e-pub,” electronic only. They are relatively cheap, 99 cents or so, so there’s little incentive for a reader not to at least give it a shot, particularly if written by a favorite author. At the back of the short story, there often is the first few chapters of the author’s next book, and a “click-to-buy” button.

If readers like the story, they pre-order the next book. Pre-orders are great because they build the so-called “first-week sales,” which, if those mount, can get the writer on the bestseller list. In short: the short story as loss leader.

Writers privately grumble: you mean I gotta write something else, for free, while I’m already on a breakneck cycle of write, edit, publicize, repeat? Oh, and did I mention blog, Facebook update, tweet, repeat?

How good can these stories be if we’re writing on a treadmill?

So it all sounds like marketing, and nothing more, right? Like: gag me with a spoon (and put police tape around my utensil-strangled body). Not so fast. There’s, potentially, a lot to like here.

First of all, short stories, when done well, can blow the mind. Swift movement, concision, detailed and fast character development, a flurry of clues. A short story can make every word count, the language itself pregnant with clues.

(One great short story making a lot of rounds is “Wool,” if you haven’t read it; I’m told it has been optioned by Ridley Scott).

The medium also is a chance to introduce or try on a new character, not your usual protagonist. In the case of Floodgate, my latest, I’d long been aching to write about Zach Coles, a bitter, hostile out-of-work journalist who once punched an editor for misplacing an adjective; he’s tall and awkward, moving like a drunken Ostrich but fighting like a Ninja.

One friend with a string of bestsellers urged me to weave into Floodgate my regular protagonist, create a bridge, if you will, between short story and my other books. And creating, in turn, for my regular readers, a bit of an Easter Egg.

In the end, it was extra work I hadn’t contracted for. More bodies piling up. Another conspiracy I hadn’t expected to execute this year. An experience driven in the first instance by marketing, not the muse.

But she did take over, the muse, wrestling away what might’ve been a very cynical process.  I gave a damn (unlike Zach Coles, whose venom makes it very hard to save the world). No wonder. We, thriller writers, don’t kill because we have to. It’s because we need to.

Meantime, Harper Collins is doing its part, meeting me more than halfway, putting out some swanky videos, radio spots (Don Imus!) and banner ads they hope will make it viral (fat chance but not less-than-zero). So blame the Internet for mass murder. But hopefully we can rely on the muse to spare us and make the killings artful.

Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and bestselling thriller writer. His latest, Floodgate, a political conspiracy that puts Watergate to shame, comes out this month. He can be reached at mattrichtel at gmail dot com.

Short Stories Matter

James Scott Bell

As you know, we’ve been celebrating the release of Fresh Kills here on TKZ. It’s been a pleasure working with my blogmates, pros all, to bring you these new stories, at an attractive price. Look for Fresh Kills at amazon, scribd or smashwords.

My contribution to the anthology is “Laughing Matters,” a title that has more than one meaning, as you’ll find out. And that’s sort of what the best short stories do; they work on at least a couple of levels.

Certainly, the literary short story is like that. In college I got to take a writing workshop with Raymond Carver, and that’s what his stories are famous for. They have something going on up top, on the surface, but when you finish you realize there’s a rich layer underneath that you’ve missed (and I have to confess, I usually did, and would have to re-read each one a couple of times).

In the suspense or mystery category, you need to deliver a story that has a surprise in it somewhere, to keep the reader guessing. Jeffery Deaver has written two volumes of such tales in his Twisted series, and even challenges the reader to try to outguess him. It’s cool when it works, but it’s hard to do. Which is why this kind of story is every bit as challenging as the literary sort.

The germ of “Laughing Matters” came one day when I was thinking about all the standup comics in LA who never make it. I must have just seen some clip of a comedian doing post-Seinfeld observational humor (one of thousands) and just thought, this is dull. This is derivative. This guy’s not going to go very far.

Which reminded me of a time when I was living and acting in New York, and went to a comedy club for “open mike.” There were some funny guys, and then there was this one kid who was obviously onstage for the first time. The sort whose grandmother must have told him, “Sonny, you are so funny! You should go tell your jokes on television!”

Anyway, the kid comes out, he’s nervous, and tells a joke. It fell to the ground with a thud that echoed through the club. He got rattled. And you know what happens when you get rattled in front of the 11 p.m. crowd in New York City on open mike night? It was brutal. The kid made it through maybe two more jokes, neither of which worked, and then froze. As the crowd piled on with jeers and snorts, he stood there, choking the mike stand, unable to move or speak.

The emcee, noting what was going on, jumped in from the wings with his big smile, clapping his hands, shouting “Let’s hear it for _____ !” and then took the guy’s arm and guided him off the stage.

There must have been public hangings easier to watch.

So all of that came to me as I wrote the opening lines:

He died.

Pete Harvey, “The Harv” as he billed himself, just flat out died in front of the 11 p.m. crowd at the Comedy Zone.

Then I have Pete sitting at the bar afterward, drowning his sorrows, when a most interesting gent sits down next to him. And the story came to me in a flash, twists and all. This is, I’d wager, how the best short stories usually appear. But then you write, re-write and polish, and hopefully come up with something that works.

I’ve reclaimed my love of the short story, and have decided to keep writing them. Maybe I’ll put out my own collection sometime. It’s nice to have a market for stories again. Because short stories matter, it seems to me. A good story can deliver a hugely satisfying reading experience in small span of time.

FWIW, here are some of my favorite short stories, based on the wallop I felt at the end:

“Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway

“Soldier’s Home,” Ernest Hemingway

“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” William Saroyan

“A Word to Scoffers,” William Saroyan

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” J.D. Salinger

“The End of the Tiger,” John D. MacDonald

“Chapter and Verse,” Jeffery Deaver

Tomorrow, we return you to your regularly scheduled blog. It’s been a pleasure to offer you our wares in Fresh Kills. Thanks for taking us for a spin.

The Chicken Guy

by Michelle Gagnon

Excerpt from THE TUNNELS:

“So what do you think?”

Kelly looked up from her notes to find Morrow watching her, rocking back and forth on his heels with a half-smile.

“Not our guy.” She rubbed her eyes with a thumb and forefinger and suppressed a yawn.

“Told you. Long day, huh? Where’d they pull you in from?”


“Oh, right, the chicken guy. Nice work on that one.”


In my debut thriller THE TUNNELS, I made this oblique reference to FBI Special Agent Kelly Jones’s previous case. Over the years I’ve received several emails from readers curious to hear more about “The Chicken Guy” (although as we here at The Kill Zone know, by all rights that title belongs to Mr. John Ramsey Miller, who is currently breeding a chicken army for world conquest).

So when it came time to submit a story for our anthology, I thought this would be great material to mine.

I’ve probably only composed a few dozen short stories total over the course of my writing career. With this one, I decided to focus on a single setting, the scene that would mark the climax if it were a full novel. I wanted to write something that was almost pure action, where you really got to see Kelly do what she does best.

I enjoyed exploring my heroine through a prequel. Part of the story laid the groundwork for crises she’d face down the line, tests of her moral code that over the course of my series have become increasingly challenge for her to pass. Hints of that popped up as I was writing The Chicken Guy. Knowing where she ends up made it much easier to figure out where she started.

As I was editing, I caught myself wondering if I would have written the story the same way if I’d tackled it immediately before writing THE TUNNELS. And as I’m putting the finishing touches on my fourth novel featuring the same characters, I was struck by how much Kelly in particular had been forced to change. What I love about writing a series (and about watching a well-made TV series, as opposed to a film) is that it enables a much greater story arc. A character grapples with different challenges in each book, challenges that shape how they’ll act when faced with new situations down the line. I’ve put Kelly through the wringer over the course of these four books. She’s emerged far more damaged than when she started, but in a way stronger than she was at the outset. It was interesting for me to look back on her through this lens, to see how far she’s come in so many ways.

We’re discussing assembling another anthology later in the year. For that one, I’m toying with the idea of delving further into the life of a more minor character from the series, one I haven’t had the opportunity to really explore. What I’ve discovered through this process is that short stories can be a great tool for character development, a chance to see how a tangential story line can have an impact. As Joe said, this is a great format to do that kind of exploration.

The anthology is available on Amazon and at Smashwords for the bargain price of $2.99.

Final Flight: a one-way ticket

By Joe Moore

fresh-kills-cover-website1 As you probably have guessed by now, this is promote FRESH KILLS week. Our newly minted collection of short stories is available online at Amazon, Scribd and Smashwords, and may soon be making its appearance in other online stores. So why did seven established authors decide to put together a short story anthology and publish it ourselves? Remember that some of us (me included) have never written a short story before. Also remember that pricing our little shindig for $2.99 and splitting the net proceeds 7 ways will not make us rich. (John “Colonel Sanders” Miller is still going to have to sell a lot of those free-range eggs) Here’s why I think we did it.

It wasn’t that many years ago that publishing our own book would have been quite different. We would have placed it in the hands of an agent (7 to choose from), had her pitch it to all our publishers (another 7 among us) and if needed, other houses, hoped for a bite and maybe a huge advance that, after the 7-way split, would at least buy each of us a Happy Meal. Finally, we would have waited the 10-12 months for the book to hit the shelves.

Today, things are changing. That’s not to say that doing it the traditional way would not have worked. But in 2010, there are alternative methods of getting published. The route we took is NOT for everyone. But it is a route that is AVAILABLE to everyone. In our case, we are 7 published authors who make money writing fiction. Many of us have been on national and international bestseller lists. You can go into a bookstore and buy our books. We knew from day one that the quality of the contributed short stories would be good because we are professionals at our craft. We also have the highest regard for each other. With all that in mind, I think the reason we did it was because we could.

If FRESH KILLS sells well, great. If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too. We have virtually nothing to lose and everything to gain with this project. The point is, we banded together and within about a month, we went from a raw idea to a book published and available for sale to the public. We wrote the stories, designed the cover, formatted the text, opened the accounts, wrote the promotional blurbs and press releases, scattered the marketing announcements across the Internet, and maintained TOTAL control over our product.

Guess what folks? The publishing world is changing. And I think the seven of us feel some satisfaction that we are adapting to those changes.

So to give Miller’s chickens a break, download a copy of FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.

Now on to my short story contribution called FINAL FLIGHT. About 15 years ago, I had an idea for a novel about a pilot who was ordered to fly a secret mission with a mysterious cargo through a terrible winter storm. The cargo was an experimental nuclear weapon. He crashed in the mountains and the weapon was not found until years later when a group of terrorists located the wreckage and salvaged the bomb. I only wrote the first chapter before filing it away and moving on.

Now jump forward to last December when the idea of a Kill Zone anthology emerged. The first thing I did was start rummaging through my files for a story idea. Out jumped that first chapter from years ago. (Advice: never throw anything away) Of course, telling the original story would have resulted in 110k words and about a year’s worth of writing. So I thought, what if the cargo wasn’t a WMD but something even more devastating to one person in particular: the pilot. I quickly reworked the chapter and changed the ending. Problem was, I only had about 2k words. We had all agreed a minimum of 4k per story. I had a big hole in the middle to fill.

LBG1 That’s when I remembered an article I’d read some time ago about the disappearance of the WWII B-24 Liberator called the Lady Be Good. Coming back from a bombing run to their base on the northern coast of Africa, the B-24 became lost, over-flew the base, and crashed in the desert. This was in 1943. It’s a BIG desert. The wreckage wasn’t found until 1959, and the plane was still in pretty good shape 16 years later. After reading the article again, I realized I had my middle.

As I approached the writing of FINAL FLIGHT, I recalled my fascination for the old TV series The Twilight Zone. I loved the format, especially the surprise endings. So my goal was to write a story reminiscent of the TV series. The end result is FINAL FLIGHT.

Picture if you will . . . a lone C-47, a mysterious cargo, a clock and dagger mission, and a blizzard in which no pilot in his right mind would dare to fly. United States Army Air Corps Major Howard Murphy was under orders: fly the mission or face the consequences. But curiosity got the best of him as he left the cockpit for a quick look at what lay in the cargo bay. That’s when he got the shock of his life. FINAL FLIGHT is Major Murphy’s one-way trip to hell.


TKZ Short Story Collection ‘Fresh Kills’ Debuts!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Well, you’ve seen us discuss the e-book revolution, and now we at The Kill Zone have jumped right on in – producing our own e-book anthology of killer stories. All week we’re going to give you a sneak ‘behind the scenes’ insight into each of our stories – but the best thing you can do (of course!) is buy and download the anthology for yourself. Fresh Kills is available on Kindle at Amazon and in a variety of e-book formats at Smashwords.

The stories in Fresh Kills vary in mood and theme (as you can well imagine!) and I am just as intrigued, as you all are, to read my fellow bloggers‘ contributions. My own short story is entitled ‘The Angel in the Garden’ and it is, believe it or not, the first time I have written a story set in Australia. Here’s a brief description (it’s how I like to imagine the dust jacket would read):
When Constable Duff McManus is called out to investigate a body floating in an ornamental pond, he has to confront both the death of a childhood friend long considered a traitor, as well as his own war time memories. It may be a year since the Great War ended but for many in Australia, there are some wounds that will never heal and some secrets that will never be revealed, not even in death.

I was inspired to write this story after reading Juliet Nicholson’s book The Great Silence over the holidays. She deals with the immediate aftermath of the First World War, focusing specifically on the years 1918-1920, and incorporates first hand accounts from people across the social spectrum. The result is incredibly moving (I went through a whole box of tissues), especially when she deals with the decision to introduce a two minute silence to remember the dead (a hush literally fell across England as the 11th hour struck on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1919) and the return of the unknown soldier, who represented all the husbands, fathers, and sons who never made it home.
I don’t think many Americans realize the deep significance of the First World War for Australia. In many ways it was the event that defined and shaped our national identity and altered the way Australians perceived the British Empire forever. When war was declared in 1914 thousands of Australians rushed to enlist – it was considered every Australian’s duty to defend ‘King and Country’. The horrific debacle at Gallipoli and the slaughter of Australians on the Western Front, however, changed all that. The statistics are staggering: From a population of fewer than five million, almost 417,000 Australian men enlisted, and of those over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. At the end of the war memorials were erected in nearly every town across Australia – you can still see them today – and it is clear from the names of the young men listed that no community or social strata were spared.
In writing ‘The Angel in the Garden’ I wanted to capture a sense of what it must have been like for those soldiers who did return and how they reintegrated (if indeed they ever did) into the shattered remnants of Australian society. In Constable Duff McManus, I hoped to evoke the deep sense of bitterness and anger that permeated post-war Australia. Oh, and I also wanted to kill off someone (always a good idea in a murder mystery!) and I thought who better to target than someone who represented the anti-conscription, trade union movement in Australia. See, even in a short story I cannot help but get caught up in the history books…

I’ve blogged before on the challenges I faced when confronting the medium of the short story and now I face a surprising dilemma – whether to consider writing a longer story about Constable Duff McManus. As a character I find him intriguing. There is no doubt he returned from the war a scarred, wounded man – but what I sensed, from the moment he appeared on the page, was that he had also lost his ‘moral compass’ as a result – and I was fascinated by where that might lead. So now I have a choice to make…do I finally write a novel set in Australia?…

In the meantime, I am content to have a short story out in the e-book world as my fellow bloggers and I dive into the uncharted e-book ocean (hoping to swim of course!). I also can’t wait to read all the stories!

Happy Endings Redux (And Good News)

By John Gilstrap

First the news flash: I am thrilled to report that I have just re-upped with Kensington/Pinnacle for two more Jonathan Grave thrillers. That means he’ll be guaranteed at least four books to make his mark on the literary world. I can feel the bad guys in my head scurrying for cover already. Best of all, I will continue to own the lead spot for July (Hostage Zero this year, and the new books in succeeding years), which means I get to launch each book during ThrillerFest. I’m a very happy author right now.

Shifting away from shameless self-promotion, there’s a blessing and a curse associated with following Michelle Gagnon in the Killzone batting order. The blessing, of course, is that she’s very good at what she does, fielding thought-provoking questions and opinions. The flip side–the curse–is that her posts frequently spark something in my psyche that prompts me to sideline the post I was going to write to expand upon the idea she introduced.

So let’s talk some more about happy endings. But first let’s wrestle with semantics. The phrase, “happy endings”, is itself trite and cliched. It brings to mind blue birds and insipid hugs. I like “satisfying ending” a little better, but what works best for me is “respectful ending.”

Authors must respect their readers.

I make a silent pact with my readers to deliver a certain kind of ride. They can expect honest, dedicated good guys, bad guys whose badness is well-motivated, and a screaming pace from beginning to end. Where violence is necessary, the violence will be graphic, because I believe that violence must have consequence, both for the characters involved and for the reader who’s coming along on their adventure. If I do my job well, everybody’s going to be a little out of breath at the end.

I think it would be unforgiveable if, after painstakingly developing this fragile trusting relationship with my readers, I let the good guys fail and the bad guys win. I’m not above making victory hurt, but I can’t imagine creating a book-length story where the good guys didn’t prevail.

When I think of the stories that have most disappointed me over the years, the common denominator is the writers’ lack of respect for their audiences. Remember Hannibal? Terrible. Clarice Starling goes to the dark side. WTF?

Or what about the movie Pay It Forward? Forgive the spoiler, but they knife a little boy to death so that the producers can have the excrutiatingly cloying river of candles marching in his memory. Urgh.

Y’all probably have a thousand other examples where you’ve felt cheated or just plain pissed off by an ending.

In my book, if a good guy is going to die, his death had better by God be for a cause more noble than startling the audience. Do we really want to see Jonathan Grave or Winter Massey or Jack Reacher get dropped by a stray bullet just to make a point that life is capricious? That kind of thing happens in real life, but fictional realities have no allegiance to the harshness of the real world. I believe that people who read about bigger-than-life characters do so for the vicarious victory that they can reasonably count on.

Not necessarily a “happy” ending, but most definitely a respectful one.

That said, let’s tie this into the short story discussion we’ve been having here. In a short story, all bets are off, as far as I’m concerned. On that small canvas, I get to flex my irony muscle. My pact with my regular readers is null and void for the short story. I’m just sayin’.

A New Challenge

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was envious when I read John’s post on Saturday about how easy he found writing a short story because I had just the opposite experience – I found it incredibly challenging. My main difficulty? Stopping myself from turning it into chapter one of a new novel.

I view a short story as having a single transformative story arc – one told in the most concise and most powerful terms possible. All fine and dandy in theory but no sooner do I start than I fall prey to an overabundance of backstory and plot complications – and these little buggers have an annoying habit of multiplying, so by the time I reach around 4,000 words I realize what I really have is, you guessed it, chapter one of a new novel. Characters have already started taking control, offering me a range of complexities that I can’t help but want to explore, the setting demands detailed description which I cannot resist providing and the story arc takes on a much grander scale that will inevitably fail as a short story.

With this particular short story (which I’m hoping will pass muster and be published in the Kill Zone collection you’ll be hearing much more about) this dilemma created both opportunities as well as challenges. I had to rise to the challenge of paring everything down so it would succeed as a short story and I realized I had the seeds for a new series set in Australia which was quite exciting (oddly enough I’ve never written anything actually set in the land I grew up in).

My first step to transforming my piece into a ‘proper’ short story was to think about structure. I focused on the four main elements I thought I needed:
  1. Establishment of setting
  2. A trigger for action
  3. A build up of suspense and conflict
  4. A critical choice
  5. Resolution

When I found I basically had all these elements (albeit muddied by too much dialogue, description and backstory!) I knew my main focus had to be on paring everything down to its essential elements. This included character, setting, as well as plot and once I started this process I also found that I could focus on what the story was really all about.

Last Friday I took my short story to my writing group for their critique and they helped me identify areas of improvement and further ‘pruning’ – hopefully I’m now close to the final product and, more importantly, I feel like I’ve grappled with a new challenge that has improved me as a writer.

I can’t say I like the short story as a medium – I am a novelist at heart – but I do appreciate the intensity and power it can bring. I may not have enjoyed the process but as compensation I do have a new (male) protagonist that intrigues me. So who knows, this particular challenge may spur me on to develop a whole new series of books!

My question for you all is what was the last challenge you tackled head-on in terms of your writing (or anything else for that matter). Did it yield any surprising results or have a silver lining? I confess for me, I didn’t love the process but in the end I think it’s made me a better writer (that or just a more delusional one!).