Writing Children’s Short Stories for MG or YA

I had reader Dave write in and ask about writing children’s short stories and the market for this type of work. This is a popular form of writing, whether you want to do a short story collection that features a lot of disparate work or a linked short story collection that tells one cohesive narrative over the scope of the manuscript.

writing children's short stories, short story for teens
Before you sink a ton of work into writing children’s short stories, or a short story for teens, do some research first. Is there market appetite for your idea? Would it work better in another format?

Writing Children’s Short Stories: A Hard Sell

It is arduous to break into publishing with a traditional novel as your debut. It would be exponentially more difficult when you’re writing children’s short stories or a short story for teens. When we go to meetings with editors to discuss their tastes and acquisition needs, short story collections have almost never come up, except for in the sense of, “Please don’t send me any.”

An Exception

There is an interesting new series coming out from Balzer + Bray and Walden Pond…the GUYS READ anthologies, edited by Jon Scieszka. I’ve read the first one, the humor anthology, that comes out this fall, and it does indeed feature a handful of short stories meant to be consumed in 20 minutes each and to encourage reluctant readers. I’m very curious to see how this line of anthologies does since, yes, short stories are more accessible to some readers, and they do have a place in the school curriculum.

Not My Speciality, But Your Work May Still Find a Home

But for someone who wants to sell to a wider market, for the trade, I would say that placing a debut manuscript that’s a short story collection would be extremely difficult. And, you know what? I’m perfectly fine with saying that something isn’t my specialty and that I wouldn’t be a good advocate for people who are writing children’s short stories or a short story for teens. This is definitely the case here.

I can’t dissuade any writer, obviously, and certain writers may find a home with a more curriculum-oriented publisher, but I wouldn’t represent a short story collection unless it was just the most brilliant thing I’d ever read, and then I’d probably ask if the author could turn it into a novel.

There are lots of other market options for people who are writing children’s short stories or a short story for teens, though, from curriculum-based publishers to magazines. A lot of the time, the novel premises or picture book ideas I receive read more like short stories than stories that deserve a longer execution. I know that’s not what any short story writer wants to hear, but there are lots of avenues that might not be trade publishers.

When you hire me as your developmental editor, I can help you decide if a story idea works best as a novel, short story, or picture book.

13 Replies to “Writing Children’s Short Stories for MG or YA”

  1. This is way off-topic, but I just wanted to say I really like the list of blogging clients in your sidebar. I think it’s great for agents to advertise their blogging clients that way, because so many people read agent blogs. Great idea!

  2. Huh! This post answered a question I had been wondering about. So, thank you for this useful post!

    I have to say, while short stories take less time to write, you really have to pack it full of meaning to actually affect the reader. So in a sense, SS are harder to write and not as fun as a long novel.

  3. I love short story books. Graham Salisbury’s Island Boyz springs to mind immediately. But I’d imagine they’re harder to write because you have to have many hooks within one book, each different enough to excite you but similar enough to be part of the book (ie it has to some kind of theme linking the stories).

  4. I took a whole course in college about the composite novel. We studied books like LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and THE THINGS THEY CARRIED and BAILY’S CAFE. Essentially, they were short story collections tied together by a common theme or setting. They did tell a complete story, but it was very episodic. Was that just a fad or is there still a market for composite novels? Or can you get away with it in adult literature but not YA?

  5. I started writing short stories purely for practical purposes — to build a list of publications to include in a query letter. I figured it couldn’t hurt to show potential agents that there are some paying and non-paying markets who liked my stuff.

    As it turns out, becoming a short story writer was the best decision I ever made. Writing short stories allows you to keep the creative juices flowing; gives you the satisfaction of quick placement that is largely out-of-reach for novels; helps you build a list of credentials; and teaches you to polish basic writing techniques. Also, in writing short stories it’s essential to research short story markets, which means you’re reading literary mags (both online and in print) that you may not have discovered otherwise — which consequently means that you’re exposed to all sorts of writing styles, genres, techniques and (my personal favorite) unknown writers of amazing talent who are unsung in the mainstream.

    I have written a novel that I’m about to query to agents, so it’s still “the big dream,” but I absolutely love writing short stories and having the freedom to try different things that wouldn’t necessarily wash with a first novel. I started writing short stories begrudgingly and with a rather uncreative purpose, but it turned out to improve my writing in so many ways.

    I’ve never really considered trying to sell a collection (for the reasons you listed, Mary); but I view all my short stories as a priceless commodity — they all made me a better writer.

  6. Nice comment Erin. I was very reluctant to try a short story (not really sure why,) but I wrote one for a class recently, and I loved it. It was extremely helpful with my writing. Looking forward to the next one!
    My favorite short story is “Barn Burning!”

  7. I love short stories. I started there and thought I would never move on to anything bigger. Turns out bigger is actually easier : )

    Short stories are amazing and there are tons of great magazines willing to pub the unpubbed writer. It’s a great discipline to practice for a full-length piece.

  8. I’m the Dave mentioned in this post, and, despite the lack of enthusiasm from Mary (it’s OK, though – I get it, short stories are not blockbusters), I hope to complete a collection of stories by year’s end. Hopefully.

    In the meantime, I’d love to see a list of these great magazines (Cat’s post) that publish MG short stories!

  9. Short Stories are a great way to hone one’s craft. Plus, as long as you only sell first rights, you can later give them away on your website.

  10. Dave,
    For a quick list of some great MG mags, go here: http://www.scbwi.org/Registration.aspx. This is the link for a person to register for membership in the SCBWI. Scroll down to “Professional Information.” On the registration form, they ask the applicant to list the magazines in which they’ve published. A drop-down menu is provided that lists the YA mags that cater to the SCBWI writer crowd. You’ll find a good list there.


  11. Mary Ann Duke says:

    Australian author, Paul Jennings, writes quirky, short stories for MG, compiled into a paperback. Quirky they are and are loved by 4th graders. He has several books published and I think each title begins with the letter U – like Unmentionable, or etc.

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