Heidi Pitlor Shares Short Story Writing Tips

picture of bestamerican short story bookcover

by Lynn S. Schwebach

Sometimes writers think they’re flexing their creativity when they’re actually rehashing story lines. Because we work so insularly, we fail to notice changes in writing and the world around us.

I learned that last Thursday at a workshop with Heidi Pitlor, series editor of “The Best American Short Stories” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Denver’s Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop sponsored the workshop.

Listening to Pitlor share her insights on overdone story themes, and what she looks for in short stories, I recognized that some of my stories had slipped into the too familiar; the ad nauseum category of writing.

What are literary journal and magazine editors tired of? Stories about marriage problems and children damaged by divorce, which I had already recognized. She added assimilation stories to the list, or those stories about people of one country living in or visiting another country and trying to fit in to a new culture. I agreed, tired myself of reading those stories.

When she said “coming of age” stories were overdone, I slid a story I had brought with me under my notebook. Ugh. My latest story, and come to think of it, my last few, could be classified as coming-of-age stories.

Short Story Tip: Divorce and Coming of Age Stories Overdone

Pitlor pointed out that it doesn’t mean these “overdone” stories are never selected, but writers must realize that they have been done so much that in order to stand out, these stories have to say something that hasn’t already been said. Slipping new characters into old, recurring themes turns off editors.

In other words, the stories must be unique and innovative — creative domain changers!

Workshops, such as Pitlor’s, bring to light literary traps and pitfalls. After all, the writing life is a solitary life. We have to seclude ourselves, glue our butts in the chair and write. It’s the only way to get the work done. Yet too often we slink into this solitary existence and wall ourselves off, forgetting to stay current with other writers, editors and publishers. When I attended workshops a decade ago, the coming-of-age stories still resonated with lit mag editors. The world changes and so must writers—especially writers. After all, as Pitlor said, writers need to reflect today’s trends.

Trending in Short Story Topics: Technology, Genetics and Economic Collapse

Current trends in short story writing, she said, are anything and everything having to do with technology, genetics, current wars, dealing with elderly parents, economic collapse and historical reimaginings.

Each year, Pitlor reads between 3,000 and 4,000 short stories along with a guest editor. Literary journals and magazines send their publications to Pitlor. She reads the journals and magazines and selects about 120 short stories to send to a guest editor, who is a commercially known and respected writer. From that 120, they work to deliver a list of about 20 stories that they consider the finest writing of the year. She has worked with Stephen King, Salmon Rushdie, Alice Sebold and Elizabeth Strout, among others.

Pitlor is also the author of the novel, “The Birthdays” (2006). Her second novel, titled “The Daylight Marriage,” is forthcoming in 2015.

This extremely busy editor, writer and mother detailed what she considers engaging stories. She looks for stories that answer an unknown question. “It’s amazing how many stories don’t go there,” she said.

She also wants to know a lot from the first paragraph of the story. From the start, she said, she wants character and story revealed. She doesn’t want long exposition about a landscape, for instance, in the first paragraph. She loves humor.

“Be brave, voicey, mouthy and ballsy,” she said. “Or, if you’re meek, be clearly meek.”

And don’t use “brown-nosing verbs.” Verbs should be natural. Not ones where you know the writer used a thesaurus.

This workshop lasted 2.5 hours, and I heard a few participants mentioning on the way out that they could have listened to Pitlor all night. I agreed. Instead of the dread I often feel when having to change a story, I was inspired. I went home and revised my coming-of-age story. I hope to turn it into something more interesting and relevant—perhaps even ballsy.

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