Writing Your First Short Stories by Orla McAlinden

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Orla McAlinden

Orla McAlinden

My children were going to grow up without a grandfather. I’d never known my grandfathers either, nor my grannies. All I had of them were a few snatched recollections, here and there, of stories I had heard. One of my grandmothers lived long enough for the toddler-me to give her a good, sharp kick in the shins for stealing my favourite seat. Or so I’ve been told. Who knows if it’s actually true, my mum’s quite fond of the classic Irish guilt-trip.

My children were going to grow up without a grandfather: never hearing my dad’s voice again; never wincing as they grew old enough to realise how politically-incorrect he could be; never laughing or gasping as he hurled a string of rich, vicious northern invective at the radio or television.

All his ways. All his words, that were quaint even in my childhood, and are almost obsolete now. All his detailed and precise insults. His magnificent cursing. All gone. Unless someone wrote them down.

And so, in the summer of 2012, I wrote my first story. It was a short memoir that my dad had relayed to me, about my grandfather; the only story I really know about him. The Jarvey and the GIs.

Not knowing the first thing about submitting, or publishing, or contracts, or how insanely difficult it is to have the slightest modicum of success in the crazy world of writing, I looked around for ideas of what to do with my debut opus. I found an invitation online to submit to a magazine — The Chattahoochee Review was looking for Irish stories. Three weeks later, the editor sent me a cheque for $75.  This is easy, I thought to myself, maybe I should be a writer? I’ll be rich by Christmas! Can you hear a strange sound, dear writing.ie reader? That’s the sound of shattering dreams!

Suffice it to say, I was not rich by Christmas. Many Christmases have passed, and my writing has not made me rich yet. That memoir in 2012 was the first and last time I was ever paid for a single, stand-alone story. The painful truth is that, after hundreds (literally) of rejections, there are many instances where I cannot even give my work away for free.

But do not fear, bold reader (if anyone is still reading) there are many ways of foisting your carefully wrought short stories upon the world. Did you note the two most important words in that sentence? That’s right: carefully wrought. The internet has created an almost endless appetite for the written word. It has never been easier, cheaper or faster to research suitable journals and e-platforms for short stories. And never, in the history of literacy, have the editors of those platforms been bombarded with so much material. Without even the price of a stamp, or a stroll to the post-box, writers can send their work winging to dozens of editors with a single click (these simultaneous submissions are often frowned upon, but almost everyone does it). Simply reading the first pages of these hundreds of stories would constitute a full-time job, and the saintly and patient editors of literary journals usually have half a dozen other “real jobs”, jobs which pay them enough to buy food and red biros. Do those exhausted editors a favour. Make your story the best story it can possibly be. Trust me, that story you wrote yesterday while playing the eat a bag of Maltesers without touching them with your fingers or teeth game, is not ready for submission yet. No really, trust me. I’ve tried.

Where can you learn to write a better story? Start in the library. Devour the short story collections there. Check out their literary journals, find out which ones appeal to you, who’s publishing work with a similar aesthetic to your own.  If you can afford it, take out a subscription or two (or the journal might be gone before they can publish your potential Pushcart Prize-winner.) Sign up to a few online journals and newsletters. Read, read, read and when you’re finished reading, go back to review your own work and be kind to yourself. Maybe you’ll realise it’s actually horrendous drivel? That’s ok, because you took my first piece of advice and you haven’t sent it anywhere yet. Revise, revise, revise. Seek out a warm, supportively critical writing group in your area. If they make you cry, don’t go back, that’s not what supportive means. Sign up to an online class. Join the class in your local Community College, or writing school, or if you have the time and the money head off to a retreat or a weekend course.

Now your story is as good or better than the work you’re reading in those journals you’re buying, right? Search out those kind souls who scour the web for contests and open submission calls in your genre, and who collate them into lists for you. Start right here on www.writing.ie, which keeps an up-to-date list of current contests and submission opportunities. Send your best stories out into the world and wait. And wait. And wait, what’s this? An email from the New Yorker? We regret that your submission does not fit our needs at this time. Maybe try somewhere else first, somewhere slightly less ambitious. Make friends with the Duotrope and Submittable search programmes, they will open your eyes to markets you didn’t even know existed. Have a penchant for writing about werewolves who love to salsa dance naked on the gnawed bones of their enemies? Duotrope will tell you where to send those stories.

Make friends. Make a community. Attend events. Support other writers. The world will not run out of readers because another author is doing well; congratulate her and buy her book. Review the books you love. Share the pleasure. Read at the open mic in your local library —nearly everyone else is terrified too.

Have fun.

(And if you get rich, please get in touch and tell me how it works, thanks.)

(c) Orla McAlinden

About Full of Grace:

Father Anthony O’Donovan has a secret he can’t reveal, not even to his best friend. Everyone knows Gemma McCann’s secret, as she tries to balance the sadness of a dream unfulfilled with the love that surrounds her. Aloysius puts his body on the line to keep his motherless boy safe, and his principles intact. A complex web of friendship, enmity, lies and kindly deceptions weaves through a small rural community. People face their troubles. And the Troubles. Which of them can keep their faith in humankind during these dark decades in Northern Ireland?

Returning to the beloved characters who populate Orla McAlinden’s award-winning debut The Accidental Wife, and introducing many new ones, Full of Grace probes deep into stories of love, betrayal, survival and belonging, in a changing land. Including The Visit, the short story that won the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year in the 2016 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, and Breathing, the Wasafiri New Writing nominated short story, along with 19 brand new stories, Full of Grace turns an unsentimental eye and prize-winning prose onto everything from Bloody Sunday to Brexit and beyond.


About the author

Orla McAlinden is a multi-award-winning short story writer and novelist. Her second story collection, Full of Grace, (available at https://amzn.to/2DWRehg ) was published by Red Stag, Dublin, in May 2019, and is a companion volume to her debut The Accidental Wife, (http://amzn.to/2csjFX2 which was the Armagh Big Read 2017 and which contains the 2016 www.writing.ie Irish short story of the year.
Her CD Lewis emerging writer prize-winning novel The Flight of the Wren about Irish women surviving the Great Irish Famine is available at https://amzn.to/2HeZTO9

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