For writers who love short stories, there are a few potential markets. Testing companies use short stories in reading tests, but connecting any given story to a testing company is close to impossible. Testing companies tend to either employ writers to write stories specifically for them, or they license stories that have already been published in magazines. Anthologies are another place for short stories, but very few anthologies for children are published in a given year, and they are often purchased from successful authors who already have a following. But there is one area of publishing the uses short stories regularly: magazines. Not only that, but a story sold to an online magazine could eventually end up in a testing program, an anthology, or even being made into a television show. For example, a story that won a Highlights fiction contest was once turned into a short cartoon for Disney, netting the author a tidy check through no extra effort of her own. So the first step for many short stories for children is magazine publication. With that in mind, what do we need to know to write short stories that magazines will love?
Know Your Magazines
First, not every story will work for every magazine. I sometimes see people post questions online like “I’ve written a kid’s story set in a summer camp, where should I send it?” or “I’ve written a kid’s story with animal characters, where should I send it?” Those kinds of questions are hard to answer because there are so many things you need to know before you can judge where to send your story for best success. And the best way to even know what questions to ask yourself begins with reading magazines for children, as many of them as possible.
Reading children’s magazines will benefit you in many ways. For one, you’ll get a feel for the magazine and the sort of stories that interest them. You’ll see which magazines will publish stories with animal characters (such as Ladybug, Clubhouse Jr, and Highlights) and which clearly do not (such as Cadet Quest, Keys for Kids, and Primary Treasure.) You’ll see what the age of the main characters tend to be (which is important since a magazine that says it targets a wide range of ages often consistently buys stories with main characters that are right in the middle of that range). You’ll see whether adults can figure into the stories, how many characters most stories have, and whether the stories seem to stick to only a few settings and a short time frame (both of which are common in children’s stories).
Reading short stories in children’s magazines will help you write short stories for children. You’ll see how different authors create plots and what sorts of things are limited. This can be surprising. Often newer writers trying to write short stories will do so by doing more telling, giving fewer details, and limiting action. This is often exactly the opposite of what makes an effective short story. Instead consider limiting number of characters, number of scene changes, and length of time the story spans. This will often result in much more manageable word counts.
Make Your Story Stand Out in a Good Way
Most magazines get a lot of submissions, more than they can buy or print. On the surface that can be fairly depressing, but many of the pieces submitted aren’t a good match to the magazine in age group, tone, or type of story run. And many magazines get what I think of as “medicinal” stories. These stories so strongly try to teach children a lesson that they are more of a fictional nagging than a fully plotted story. Piece like this clog the submissions lines and take up editor time, but they mean that if you do study the magazines and if you understand how to write a story instead of a nag, your piece is going to stand out in a good way. But there are other things you can do to make your work even more appealing.
If you ask editors why they buy specific stories, the answers tend to fall in predictable categories. “The story had such a charming voice.” “I felt like the characters were real.” I cared about the characters.” “The voice was lively, engaging and funny.” “The story had a strong main idea that didn’t eclipse the entertainment value of the piece.” Voice, characters, and big ideas are the three things that will most often push a story from the “maybe” pile to the “we need this” pile.
Voice and Character
I’ve written about voice before, so mostly you’ve probably read my nags on that topic, but for those who’ve missed out: voice is made up of the word choices and the sentences structures you use to build your story. Voice can be funny and bright simply by using zany words or unexpected comparisons. And voice can be a terrific way to reveal character. For example, consider the introduction of character through voice in the following:
When I woke up on that first morning to discover my mom’s suggestion that I sleep in curlers had resulted in a startled red poodle napping on my head, I knew my school year was starting off with a whimper, again. It’s not that I didn’t think sixth grade would be amazing.I thought every year would be amazing. So far, I was never right.
There are a number of voice choices in those few sentences, mostly intended to be funny. The main character lives a life of contrasts. She expects good things, but always gets bad. She went along with an effort to look her best for the first day of school and got crazy hair. The choice of “red poodle” also gives us some important visual information. The character’s hair is red, and her curls aren’t particularly becoming. She’s also maturing. She speaks in longer sentences than she would if she were a younger child. She’s introspective. She doesn’t indulge in big words, but we get the feeling she’s bright. To have the most successful story, you’ll need to find the unique voice that works for your unique character. When you match the two, editors notice.
Through-line, Theme, Big-Idea
Different editors have different ways to talk about what amounts to the purpose of your story. Stories exist to entertain. They introduce children to new situations and situations. They inspire the imagination. But they also often have their own truth. A story follows a main character through scenes, action, and dialogue, but the story also means something. The something is your big idea or theme or through line. It’s what’s going on, what the story is meant to do.
For example, I once sold a story about two sisters who had a big fight and weren’t speaking to one another. Neither one was ready to give in and apologize first. But both wanted to find that place where they could put the fight behind them and return to their usual sister bond. The story had the younger sister as main character and she was having these feelings. She didn’t know what to do. Then she began finding notes with clues on them. At first, she thought maybe her mother was leaving them since it’s a game her mother plays with them sometimes. She thought about taking the clue to her sister, but they were fighting so instead she used the clue to move on to the next clue and the next. And while she’s uncovered the clues, she missed the fun of working this puzzle with her sister. Then the last clue brought her face to face with her sister. It was her big sister who left the clues. And the process of creating them and following them gave both girls time to move on from their anger. They end up ready to make up. The big idea in the story is that fights happen and sometimes you need time to get past that, but the key to reuniting is to remember how much better you are together. The combination of puzzles, lively action, a main character that readers can relate to, plus a big idea made the story appealing for an editor and the piece sold.
For any short story you write, you need to have a big-idea. Highlights calls such stories “Fun with a Purpose” because both are important. All fun and no purpose leaves nothing for the reader to think about. A story like that doesn’t linger. But all purpose and no fun results in one of the medicinal stories that children rarely read when given a choice. It’s when the two are in balance that you have a story that an editor will love.
There is one more really important rule to magazine writing. If you send out lots and lots of stories, some of them will be rejected. This will happen even if you’re an amazing writer. Sometimes a story will be like something the editor has already bought. Sometimes a story will inadvertently include something the magazine doesn’t like. (For example, I once wrote a story about neighbors and friends who fight. Ultimately they make up because the main character reminds his friend of a fun game they’d played where they pretended to be pirates. I sent the story to Highlights who rejected it simply because they won’t buy pirate stories, period. So it wasn’t about real pirates, but even playing pirates or having a snowman dressed as a pirate wouldn’t work for them. It wasn’t a reflection on how fun or exciting the story was, it was simply an element they didn’t want. That kind of thing happens more often than you think.)
Rejection, isn’t personal. The editor isn’t rejecting you. Instead if you don’t get an acceptance, it merely means that that story didn’t work for that editor at that time. Now, sometimes a story works if you’re open to making some changes. Editorial requests for change are actually a compliment. They don’t ask people who cannot write to make changes. They ask it of writers who they believe will be capable of the revisions. Still, being told something about the story you love needs changing can be a bit of a poke in the ego and it’s easy to take offense. For the sake of your own success, try not to take them personally. (And even if you can’t help it, and you have to stomp around a little, be sure to get that out of your system so your reply can be pleasant and you can work out the changes needed with a good attitude.
Always be pleasant. You’re in a competitive field. There are many writers. Don’t make an editor feel like working with you is going to be a burden. The editor has more than enough burdens. Be the bright light in the day. Be the kind word and the thank you. Rejections really aren’t about you, but your interaction is. Be the best version of you, and remember that you and the editor ultimately have the same goal: to bring the best possible story to children. You may have different ideas, but you’re ultimately on the same team. Be sure you always act like you believe that. Some of my best publishing friends are editors. Eventually, some of yours will be too. I’m sure of it.