Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cutting My Teeth on Short Stories by Kenneth Harmon, Guest Blogger

I became acquainted with Ken Harmon through critique groups, and now I'm happy to say he's part of Raintree Writers, the group I've been part of since it was founded at the end of 2003. Now that we have two members in our group who write stories about the dark side, I'm learning to appreciate the writing skill, as well as the out-of-the-box thinking (you can read that as demented thinking, if you want), that it takes to create such tales.

Links are included for several of Ken's stories but be forewarned some of them are not for the squeamish and not appropriate for those who prefer reading about light and sunny subjects instead of the slimy stuff that crawls out from under rocks.

Ken's post, however, is safe to read and contains great advice. So read on...


Cutting My Teeth on Short Stories by Kenneth Harmon, Guest Blogger

When I first starting writing, I read everything I could about the craft. Many of the books suggested that writers cut their teeth on short stories. Short stories allowed a writer to learn the craft and build up publishing credits. Like many “novel” writers, I had no interest in writing short fiction. I wrote short stories after I graduated from high school, but once I finished my first novel, I saw no need to pursue the craft. I pounded out several novels. One even managed to interest a couple of agents back in 2000, but publication eluded me. I took several years off from writing. In 2007, I decided to try my hand at writing again. Of course, I plunged into a novel, after all, why waste my time with short stories?

After finishing the novel, I entered it in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference contest. I was shocked when it made the finals. But I knew in my heart that I could do better, and so I decided not to market the book. Instead, I started working on another novel. Then something happened that made me reconsider my position on short fiction. We had a visitor to one of the local writer’s groups I belong to and as the leader of the group went around the table introducing everyone, he gave a brief history of their publishing credits. Of course, when he came to me, there was nothing to say. Self-doubt took hold. If I was any good at writing, why didn’t I have anything published? I felt challenged to get a short story accepted. My goal was to have six stories published within three years.

The first thing I did was sign up on the website Duotrope. I spent several days researching various publishers. I concentrated on publishers of horror/paranormal stories, with the idea that I would branch out into mainstream later. In January of 2010, I was still working on a novel, so I decided to make the weekends my time for writing short stories. Toward the end of January, I received my first acceptance. 69 Flavors of Paranoia wanted to publish my story, “Dark Justice,” a detective story in which the detectives are actually vampires investigating the murder of another vampire by a priest. Maybe, just maybe I told myself, I am not a bad writer after all.

To my surprise, more stories found acceptance. In June, I read about Justin Cronin’s novel, The Passage, a vampire tale set in the future. I noticed that Mr. Cronin had some success writing mainstream novels. I read an excerpt from one of these, “The Summer Guest,” which takes place on a lake. As I read the excerpt, an idea came to me for a short story about a vampire who retires at a secluded lake. That evening, I wrote the first five pages of “Mr. Howard Retires.” I finished the story the next day, and after giving it a quick once over, submitted it to three publications. The following morning, I received an email from one of the editors at Bewildering Stories. He thanked me for sending the story and said that it could take up to eighty-four days for them to make a decision. Two hours later, I received a follow up email from Bewildering Stories saying they had accepted “Mr. Howard Retires” for publication.

The rest of my year followed a similar course. I submitted a mainstream story to a literary website, Amarillo Bay. I received an email from one of the website founders saying he liked the story and had forwarded it to their fiction editor who would make the final decision. He ultimately rejected the piece. This only made me more determined to get a story accepted by Amarillo Bay. I came up with an idea for a story about a transgender cowboy who now worked as a waitress and struggled to find her place in the world. I targeted this story to Amarillo Bay and was overjoyed when they accepted “Amsterdam” for their November issue.

By years end, I had thirteen short stories accepted for publication by thirteen different publications, including three based in England. Do I recommend writing short stories for novel writers? Absolutely. My short story success has restored my confidence while giving me something to write about in that dreaded query letter.


If you'd like to read more of Ken's stories, try "Immortality" from the Deadman's Tome Anthology (page 7), "Death of the Rain God" from Dark Fire Fiction, and "The Shoe Thief" from Spark Bright (page 13).

So far he has been able to avoid building a website or blog, and pretends to know nothing about Twitter and Facebook, so I'll just have to tell you that he's a retired cop and a really nice guy. I think he was trying to look a bit mysterious, even sinister, in his photo, but honestly, he's a teddy bear. A teddy bear with a dark side.


Anonymous said...
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Jenny said...

Thanks Ken and Pat for this post. I love reading short stories and hope to write a decent one someday!

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Ken.

Ken - Thanks for sharing how you got your start in short stories. I think a lot of people separate short story from novel writing and of course they are quite different in many ways. But as you've shown, one can certainly inform the other!

Brian Kaufman said...

Nice column, Ken. A good personal story coupled with solid advice.

Mary Vaughn said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Ken.

I love short stories, reading them and writing them. Thanks, Ken for sharing your personal experiences.

April Moore said...

Well done, Ken! Great advice and your journey of short fiction is inspiring.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Well, that's what I get for not checking in early...obnoxious spam on my blog. If we get any more of that nonsense, I'll have to start using one of those annoying filters...

Anyway, good morning everyone. Thanks for coming by. Ken's post reminded me about the world of information available at Duotrope, so I'm bookmarking that site for future reference.

Thanks for being here today, Ken. You really are an inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Thank you everyone for the kind comments. And thank you Pat for allowing me to be a guest blogger, and for calling me a teddy bear with a dark side. My kids got a kick out that when I told them. They called me Darth Teddy all the way to school.


Patricia Stoltey said...

That's funny, Ken. And marketable! I think I'll send out a tweet about Darth Teddy. :)