Recently, I’ve been looking for ways to write more. I’m currently in the middle of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. A novel is a huge commitment, and while it can be immensely satisfying, it can also feel like a slog sometimes when it’s all I’m working on. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done in years—start writing short stories again.
This is the first post in a series I’ll be doing about short stories—reading, writing, editing, and submitting. Modern fiction has become really fixated on the novel as the most prestigious form of fiction, but novels are just one of the many shapes a story can take. Short stories have a lot to offer.
This week, let’s get into some of the advantages of writing short stories.
At the risk of controversy, I think that great writing is more about execution than ideas. A great idea is the foundation of a story, but we’ve all read stories with an interesting premise that just fell flat. Likewise, a master of the craft can sometimes make a great story out of a very mundane premise.
Most writers have piles of ideas and just not enough time to figure out the story for each one, let alone actually write it. Even very prolific writers usually don’t manage more than a couple novels per year. For slow writers like me, that kind of pace is impressive. But how many of us only have a couple story ideas per year?
One of the joys of writing shorter stories is that you can write them quickly. A thousand-word flash fiction story can be drafted in a single sitting. Short stories are easier to outline and prepare, if you’re the sort of writer who prefers to do that. Even if you would never dream of jumping into a novel without a thorough outline, you might be tempted to try exploratory writing on smaller stories.
Listen to your crazy writing uncle, Chuck Wendig, and finish your projects. Finishing your stories forces you to practice every step in the writing process, and practice is what helps you become better.
Of course, if you’ve ever played a sport or an instrument, you’ll know that the best way to practice is through purposeful repetition, especially of the basics. That’s why you run drills at football practice or play your scales and arpeggios every day.
The truth is that it’s hard to practice writing through novels. Short stories are great because they take you through the full cycle of writing, from ideation to draft to editing and critique and final polish. The shorter the stories, the more you get to practice all of these things. And beyond honing your skills, you can also develop a better understanding of what you like and dislike; what your strengths and weaknesses are; what styles and themes you enjoy.
Short stories aren’t only an opportunity to practice your craft and explore more ideas. They also represent more chances to publish.
If you’re going the traditional publishing route, it can take months or years to write a novel, then months or years more to get an agent, go through revisions, get an editor, go through more revisions, and (hopefully) actually get published. If you’re self-publishing, you need to take on the editing and publicity yourself. Either way, a lot of effort goes into the publication of a novel. Even scarier, many authors write several books before they come up with something that catches an editor’s eye or climbs the Amazon lists. Each novel takes a lot of effort and carries a lot of risk of failure.
By contrast, there are hundreds of active publications, anthologies and contests that accept short story submissions. You don’t need an agent to represent you, and the turnaround time is typically measured in weeks, not months or years. Because each story takes less work, it represents less risk of failure. Authors who write a lot of short stories aren’t phased by rejection letters. They know that they can just submit that story somewhere else. They might have five, ten, or more stories out for submission at any given time. And while some of those stories might never find a home, others will, and may even find a long life through anthologies and reprints.
Short stories are not as lucrative as books. You’d have to sell a lot of stories to match the a single mid-list advance. But they provide more opportunity to get your work, and your name, out there for others to see. There is a small (but not insignificant) advantage when you’re able to list a few recent publications in that cover letter for your novel submission.
For better or worse, modern authors tend to measure success by novels. But if you think short stories are beneath you, you’re wrong. Great short stories can be every bit as artful as great novels, and while building a big cohesive story in a novel can be challenging, the brevity of short stories can be equally demanding.
If short stories don’t sound fun to you, you might be surprised. Short work provides the opportunity to play, and to try out all sorts of new ideas and techniques. And if you’re trying to get better at writing (as I think we all are, perpetually), each short story is an opportunity to level up.