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Paul Tremblay: How to successfully write short stories

paul tramblay By Mary Yuhas

Paul Tremblay, author of the novels The Little SleepNo Sleep Till Wonderland, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, and the forthcoming novels Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly (with Stephen Graham Jones) and A Head Full of Ghosts (coming in 2015 from William Morrow), talks to LitVote about how to write short stories. He has published enough of them to know: two short story collections, Compositions for the Young and Old and In the Mean Time. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Five Chapters.com, and Best American Fantasy 3. He is the co-editor of four anthologies including Creatures: Thirty Years of Monster Stories (with John Langan).

LitVote: You are a high school mathematics teacher and write horror/mystery/crime, an unlikely combination. How did that happen?

Paul:  I’m not quite sure to be honest. I didn’t even start messing around with writing until after I started teaching math.

Being a math geek in high school in college, I finally fell in love with reading while I was a mathematics graduate student at the University of Vermont. Stuck in the wilds of Vermont for two years, I started reading Stephen King, Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more. At the same time, I was trying to teach myself how to play guitar so I could become a punk rock legend. Or at least a punk rock hack who wrote and performed a few decent tunes.

Well, the punk rock thing didn’t quite working out but I still had a clear want/need for a creative outlet. So, I tried my hand at writing horror short stories. My first stories were imitations of my favorite writers, and poor imitations at that. Man, my first was this terrible Piers-Anthony-On-A-Pale-Horse meets a true crime serial killer story, with a personified death having it out with a serial killer. Yeah, awful stuff. But still, I wrote it, and managed to complete the story despite a portentous word processor setback. Lisa’s old Brother Word Processor with a screen smaller than a smart phone’s screen erased eight pages of the story from the floppy disk. I managed to soldier on and rewrite the story, and then moved on to write another story that didn’t suck as much.

And slowly, I got better, and hopefully, I’m still slowly getting better.

LitVote:  You’ve written a ton of short stories and accomplished the almost impossible…you published them. What’s your secret?

Paul:  Well, it isn’t quite impossible to get short stories published, thankfully. An advantage for someone like me who works mainly in the speculative fiction genres is that when I was starting out there was a vibrant horror/SF/F community that has a genuine interest in the short form. I was able to find markets to submit to, get feedback from, and eventually, sell to.

While undoubtedly the short fiction market is likely more competitive than it’s ever been, there are still opportunities to publish short fiction and publish it well.

LitVote: What marketing advice do you have for short story writers?

Paul:  I have to confess that I’m not as tuned in to the general short story market these days. I’m pretty much in novel mode now, and the only short stories I write are ones that are requested by anthology editors. That sounds obnoxious, I know, but it’s true. I’ve never been able to pump out short stories all that quickly (I’d say a month per story, on average), so when I’m writing a novel, it’s hard to take a month off of the novel to write a short story.

My advice would be to read as much short fiction as you can, particularly in the markets you want to crack. Seek out critiques from readers whose opinion you value, but make sure your readers can be brutally honest with you about your work. Finally, if an editor offers feedback, accept it happily and greedily, and resist at all costs the urge to write back and argue with the editor. It’s an argument that’s never been won, and you’ll only make your name mud with that editor.

LitVote:  What was your first break after you started writing?

Paul:  Jeeze, There were so many breaks. My biggest breaks: I was fortunate to find like-minded friends who also wanted to become better writers. Having their support and friendship has meant and continues to mean everything to me, really. I’ve also been fortunate to find other established writers who were willing to mentor and support me. The latter group includes Steve Eller and Stewart O’Nan. I remain in their deepest debt and gratitude for the patience and support they showed me.

From there, I think my biggest professional break was landing my agent Stephen Barbara. I’d submitted to a different agent entirely, one who no longer worked at the agency, but Stephen answered the email and we went back and forth on edits for a goofy comedy novel that I’d written called Phobia. The book never sold, but Stephen liked my writing and hung with me. I wrote The Little Sleep (my first published novel, about a narcoleptic private detective) and Stephen sold it to Henry Holt shortly thereafter.

LitVote:  Any advice to first time writers on how to write a query letter to a literary agent?

Paul:  It’s been a geological age (in publishing time) since I’ve had to query an agent, so take what I have to say with that caveat:  Quick introductory paragraph emphasizing any part of your bio that relates to your book.  Next write a one or two paragraph novel summary. Hit the high points. Having other successful books to compare your novel to (market comps) wouldn’t hurt either. The query is your first impression, but try not to stress out too much over it. No agent is going to make a choice on whether or not to take you on as a client based on your query letter. Ultimately it’s up to the book you wrote and how it appeals to an agent’s personal taste and whether or not she believes she can sell the book.

LitVote:  When you trade your writer’s hat for an editor’s hat – as you have done for several publications – what do you look for in a short story?

Paul:  As an editor, I tried my best to keep an open mind about content, style, form, theme, etc. My main guideline was whether or not a story moved me. Did it make me feel something, or make me want to make me feel something That probably sounds sort of nebulous, but emotional impact always made the biggest impression with me as an editor. I have to admit that I also tended to gravitate towards stories that had interesting style/voice, and stories that were character-driven.

LitVote: What do you think are the three most important attributes of successful writers?

Paul:  Persistence (which usually means the ability to keep fighting even after taking a punch, and those punches take the form of rejection and criticism and naysayers.)

Be cautiously opportunistic (knowing when to jump on a certain project that could lead to more projects and more opportunities and/or growth as a writer. Also: knowing when to say no to requests/projects that are wheel-spinners)

Hmm, having a hard time coming up with a third. Lucky? Be a little lucky. Or, how’s this: Be humbly lucky. Be humble enough to know that there are so many talented writers out there and if you do achieve some success that you realize, yeah, you put in a ton of hard work, but you were also quite fortunate along the way.

LitVote:  Any don’ts for first time writers?

Paul:  No don’ts from me. Just do’s. Do write. Do read. Read, read, read. Read everything you can.

Okay, fine, one almost-don’t. Let’s call it a try-not. Try not to be jealous of other writers. It won’t help you. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your jealousy is ambition. Worry about yourself and control what you can control.

LitVote:  Your titles are great, such as Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye. How do you come up with them?

Paul:  Well, thank you! And now I have to admit that many of my titles are inspired (yeah, inspired, that’s a much nicer word) by songs, record titles, and other books and stories. Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye is a piece of a song title from Neutral Milk Hotel. My newest novel is a riff on Bad Religion’s song “My Head Is Full of Ghosts.” In the Mean Time (collection) was inspired (there’s that word again) by a Helmet song from the same title. I guess I’m still the wannabe musician, and I get so much inspiration from the music that I love.

LitVote:  Everyone comments on your great sense of humor. Any plans to write a humorous book again or update Phobia

Paul:   Well, I am funny looking!

There aren’t any plans to update/renovate Phobia. There are some parts of PHOBIA that are still good I think, but most of it makes me cringe now (I wrote it over ten years ago). That book did its job. It got me an agent!

I do love jumping around to different genres, for sure, and I’d love to write a straight comedy novel someday. My next two books are straight horror novels, though, so no funny stuff for the foreseeable future.

LitVote:  Paul recently signed a six-figure deal with HarperCollins’s William Morrow imprint.  A Head Full of Ghosts with a release date of summer 2015. With five novels and two books of short stories behind you, what are your future plans?

Paul:  The immediate future is figuring out what the heck the novel after A Head Full of Ghosts is going to be! The bulk of the next calendar year will be spent working on that as-yet-undetermined novel. I have a few ideas that I’m playing around with now. Hopefully I settle on one soon. Beyond that, more novels hopefully, and another short story collection.


Paul is the president of the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, has a master’s degree in Mathematics, has no uvula, and he is represented by Stephen Barbara of Foundry Literary + Media.


Author Mary Yuhas, has over 80,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.

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