MEA’s Guide to Short Fiction and Nonfiction

Military Experience & the Arts will work with any author who comes to us with a submission, but we will only publish quality work. Writing is an art form, but there are conventions that writers should follow to produce an effective story. The advice below should help beginners, and it should also serve as a good resource for more seasoned writers.  

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Advice from Daniel Buckman, MEA’s Managing Editor of Fiction:

You must read.  You will find reading is the steadfast rule of writing well.  Fiction is more complex than visual mediums of narrative because it allows a definite voice to speak without distracting images.  You can only learn writing through reading.  I suggest you start with Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. These are staple texts in teaching the craft of short story writing and readily available in libraries, Amazon, used book stores, and a million other places.  You need to have something to steal from to get yourself started, and these writers are always good for boosting ideas about technique.

You must know the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist and how their tension results from the conflict that must be resolved or not resolved by the story’s end. In any of the story collections that I suggest you read, there will be an identifiable protagonist and antagonist and their friction, or stirring the pot, that creates the dramatic situation for the real conflict to present itself.  You need to identify these literary devices clearly in any of the stories you read.

You must describe your characters.  Show me them, but don’t tell me about them.  They must be round, not flat.  Remember, you know these people and we don’t. Your job is to sell us on the characters and their struggles. Any undercover cop will tell you that details sell the character. This doesn’t mean a mad insertion of adjectives and updates on clothing changes, unless clothes are relevant to the story. After reading, you will see the narrative tricks employed in rendering telling details that create a character in a sentence; do your best to emulate in order to learn. I must repeat a very important fact about describing your characters: 

You know these people, we do not, and if they are stick figures talking, they will quickly become uninteresting. If you keep this is mind, you will have a long future as a writer.

You must create a setting that is identifiable in the story and also adds dramatic effect to the story.  Think about what Tim O’Brien is saying about his characters and the Vietnam War by how he describes Vietnam itself.  

I am willing to work with any writer who wants to be edited and learn the craft of fiction.  We have published fiction “as submitted,” but 90% of what we receive must be revised and deeply edited.  You must know certain rules through reading good fiction so that you have a community of “ghost advisers” to consult as you write.  Once you cover the basics, an editor will bring you through the deep editing of your characters and story. I have written eight drafts of each novel I published to make New York happy.  Editors will have had extensive experience editing and being edited for publication.  We are passing those tricks onto you and the most important trick we can teach is learning how to be edited so you can emerge a more powerful writer. 

Exemplar Short Fiction (Open Access)

The works linked below were selected by MEA’s fiction editors as ideal examples of good fiction. Refer to these works, and specifically the listed qualities alongside each, as you prepare your draft for submission.

Writing Soldiers: The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

Setting as Story Device: “In Another Country,” Ernest Hemingway

Antagonist/Protagonist/Conflict/Resolution Example:  “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver

Describing Character: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor

Efficient, Smooth Introduction: “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway 




Advice from Brian Mockenhaupt, Managing Editor of Non-Fiction

Creative nonfiction incorporates tools of fiction–narrative, scene building, dialogue, character development—to describe events. So the advice above will also be useful in life writing. That said, MEA strives to maintain a strict genre boundary between nonfiction and fiction, so that readers will know that a story is relaying actual happenings, as near as the writer can recollect and convey, and is not based on interpretations and substantive adjustments or imagined scenes and dialogue.

Remembered events are of course fallible and very specific to the person, influenced by an individual’s past experiences, perspective on the moment, follow on events and so many other things. But there is real value in trying to convey events as they’re remembered, being true to events as the writer understands them to be. These recollections can always be rounded out or complimented by talking to others who were there and including their perspectives.

There may be at times be a need to change a name or detail to protect someone’s identity or not to violate OPSEC, but that’s a narrow band. Writers are asked to be forthright when working with editors about any alternations made.

Writers should aim for pieces that are less than 5,000 words.

More important than overall length, the pieces should be concise, with every sentence written in service of its theme.

After you’ve submitted your piece, you’ll be paired with an editor who will work with you on revisions. You’ve invested time and emotion in writing your story; their job is to help you get your piece in the best shape possible for publication.

Editors may make bigger-picture suggestions such as reordering a sequence of events, more fully developing a theme, elaborating on or trimming some sections. They’ll also be looking at the paragraph and sentence level, and may, for instance, make requests and suggestions for more details in a description, a more fully developed scene, or trimming of extraneous information that slows the pace or distracts from the overall theme of the piece.

Exemplar Short Non-Fiction (Open Access)

Every word serves the theme: “The Bear that Stands,” Suzanne Rancourt

Action: “Men in Black,” by Colby Buzzell

Scene: “Hounds of Hell,” by Eric Hannel

Dialogue: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver