I began my series of short story posts with the question, “Why write short stories?” This time, I want to look at the other side of the coin and ask, “Why read short stories?”
This one should be obvious. This blog is mostly about becoming a better writer, and we all got into this whole “author” mess because we really enjoyed a good story, right? (If you got into it for the fame and fortune, well…maybe you should consider letting someone else make your career choices for you?)
As I mentioned in the last post, novels have become the default unit of fiction. If you chat someone up at a social event and discover you both like science-fiction, you wouldn’t be surprised to be asked, “What’s your favorite book?” But it seems like it would have to be a very specific crowd of people to get asked, “What’s your favorite short story?”
And yet, there is a smorgasbord of great short fiction out there. There are still fiction magazines, even in this very non-magazine-friendly era, but there are also piles of short stories out on the internet, many of them available for free. If you’re the sort of person who reads dozens of novels a year but never reads short stories, I’d encourage you to go out there and try some. You can read a lot of short stories in the amount of time it would take to read one or two novels.
Recently, I’ve been savoring the anthologies of short stories I got from the Martian Year 2 Kickstarter. They’re great, because I can pick up one of these little books and read a story or two when I have a spare ten minutes. When I’m reading a novel, I much prefer longer reading sessions, where I can really get into it. Short stories are more like literary snacks. I can just pop one or two whenever I’m in the mood.
To Feed The Compost Heap
One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read widely, both inside and outside of your chosen genres. Short stories are a great way to survey the scene and expose yourself to the ideas and techniques that other authors are using.
I haven’t been able to find the attribution, but some author suggested that the writer’s subconscious is like a compost heap. You put bits and pieces of stories and style and weird ideas and the nightly news into it, and every once in a while you turn it over with a pitchfork. That mix of stuff becomes good dirt, a fallow base to grow your own stories from.
Short stories give you a lot of good fodder for the compost heap. You expose yourself to so many more ideas and styles by reading an anthology or an issue of a lit magazine than by reading a novel. Of course, short stories are necessarily smaller and less complex than a well-crafted novel, so there’s certainly value in both.
By reading more and more varied stories, you can cover more ground. One of the nightmares that keeps some authors up at night is the idea that they’ll finish their perfect novel, only to discover that an almost identical book was written in the early ’80s. Honestly, I think this is an overblown fear, and that for pretty much any story you can find something similar in the past, if you try hard enough. However, the more aware you are of the “story landscape” that you exist within, the more likely you are to come up with ideas that go beyond what others have done with a particular topic or style.
To Learn Technique
For the most part, we all have the same words available to us, whether you work in the deeper or shallower ends of the vocabulary pool. And yet we manage to have incredibly different styles of writing. Compare three semi-random examples from my bookshelf: Hemingway, Vonnegut and Tolkien. They’re all writing in English, but in a side-by-side comparison, they certainly feel like they’re writing in different languages.
By exposing you to more variety, short stories let you experience more varied techniques and tones. In the span of an hour, you could experience stories with the tight, simple language of Hemmingway, the lush descriptions of Tolkien, and the sly, comedic-yet-depressing viewpoint of Vonnegut.
Short stories also tend to be distilled and concentrated. A novel has some room to meander. A short story needs to be tight; it needs to know what it is and what it’s trying to do. If a novel is a big, bright search light, a short story is a laser.
To Research Markets
I won’t get into this too much, because we’ll talk about it in a later post, but if you’re writing short stories and you want to submit them for publication, it’s always good practice to read some of the stories from that publication before you submit. Magazines and anthologies usually describe in some detail the kinds of stories they’re looking for, but you’ll get a much better idea of the things the editors like by reading some of the stories they actually picked for previous issues or editions.
When you get into the short story submission grind, it might feel onerous to research a lot of different markets like this, but really it’s a great opportunity—you get to target your stories to markets that are more likely to accept them, you get to read some good stories, and the magazines get more readership and maybe a few bucks if you buy a sample issue or two.
Whether you want to publish short fiction or not, don’t overlook short stories in favor of novels. There are a lot of great stories out there, and you’re going to miss out on so much if you only read the ones that are hundreds of pages long.
If you want somewhere to get started, check out my page on drabbles. These are super-short stories of exactly one hundred words. That page has links to ten of my favorite drabbles, as well as a couple of my own stories.
Beyond that, a simple google search for free short stories will turn up more than you could ever read. If you prefer reading words on paper, pretty much every genre has a few short story magazines you could subscribe to. Or you could visit your local library where the librarians would no doubt be delighted to help you find anthologies in the genre of your choice. Once you start looking for short stories, they’re not hard to find.