The Long and Short (but mostly long) of Writing Short Stories
By Chris Mandeville
Many writers begin their careers with short stories—they’re easier to tackle and faster to complete. But not me. I dove into novel writing right out of the gate, so I’m a late-comer to the short story. Recently I had the opportunity to submit a story to an anthology that benefits the scholarship fund of a writer’s conference I really believe in (Superstars Writing Seminars). I’m happy to say my story was accepted for publication! (You can see the previous anthologies in this series: One Horn to Rule Them All, A Game of Horns, and Dragon Writers.) Yes, that’s cool, but what’s even cooler is what I learned in the process of writing the story—that short stories can be a great tool for writers of any length of fiction.
Whether you’re a seasoned novelist or just starting out, writing short fiction can help you in two main areas: improving your “craft” (i.e. fiction writing skills) and enhancing your career as a professional writer.
“Short story writing has allowed me to explore more characters, plot arcs, and worlds than I otherwise would have, as well as getting experience with the publishing world, including rejection, publication, and working with contracts and editors. All of this in a shorter period of time than I’ve seen in the novel-writing world.”
– Shannon Lawrence
Let’s look first at how writing short fiction can help you improve your craft.
IMPROVING YOUR CRAFT
As Lawrence shares above, short stories allow a writer to explore more in the way of characters, plot arcs, and “worlds” (setting) than novel writing. With short fiction you spend a day, a week, or a month on a project rather than the months or years spent writing a novel. This means that with short stories you have the time and opportunity to create more characters, plots, and worlds—new characters, plots, and worlds for every story!
For me, with my recent short story I was able to take time out from thinking about all the various elements of a novel and focus on a specific area where I felt I could use more practice: creating a detailed, sensory-rich setting. It was a great exercise because it was a bite-sized project where I could afford the time and energy to focus on just one aspect of the story. It also built “muscle memory” so that my improved skills will hopefully carry over when I return to writing setting in my novels.
Multi-published novelist and short story writer Gama Ray Martinez likes to use short stories for world-building.
“You’ve probably heard of the ‘iceberg effect’ where you, as a writer, know far more about your world than the reader ever sees. Writing short stories can provide an avenue for exploring the background of your world, which will ultimately make your stories fuller and richer.”
– Gama Ray Martinez
Using a short story to explore a fictional world can be a great trial run for the world you’re building for your novel. You can get a feel for how to create an ecosystem, a political network, history, geography, religion. Use the opportunity to try on a complex system of magic to see how it hangs together. Further, use it to test if all your world-building components come together and are internally consistent.
Going beyond the primary elements of craft—character, plot, setting—you can use short story writing to explore and improve your voice. You can even try on a new one! Same for style, point-of-view, and tense. Heck, you can try out writing in a new-to-you genre and see how it feels without investing a lot of time or making a big emotional commitment to a project.
No matter the style or genre, writing “short” mandates you use fewer words. If you practice at this, you can become a master in the economy of words. Multi-published short story writer (as well as novelist), Travis Heermann, finds this to be a great benefit:
“Any time you can say more with less, do it, no matter what length you’re shooting for. The length restrictions on short stories really force you to do as much as you can with as little as possible. Honing your craft at short stories will make your novels better.”
Importantly, if you write short stories you’ll have more opportunities to finish a writing project. This can be invaluable for the novelist because it teaches you how great it feels to write “the end” – this can be really motivating when you’re writing the never-ending novel.
Finally, if place your story in the marketplace, you may have the opportunity to work with an editor. Working with an experienced, professional editor can be a huge boon to your writing as that editor imparts wisdom on the craft that can carry over to everything you write.
In addition to all these ways that writing short stories can help you with the craft of writing, it also has potential benefits for your career as a novelist, specifically building your resume as a professional writer, and building your readership.
BUILDING YOUR READERSHIP
Let’s look at how short stories can help build your readership—the consumers of your body of work.
First of all, let me say that this is the perfect time to be considering writing short stories because the marketplace today is full of people who want bite-sized things to read. Right now there are tons of readers out there who want the product you’re creating—short stories. If you reach them in the short story marketplace, and you succeed in hooking them with your writing, you can take that opportunity to “funnel” these readers to your other works.
Successful author Quincy J. Allen writes short fiction specifically to reach new readers and bring them to his other works.
“I wrote the stories in Out Through the Attic with the specific intention of creating a short story collection that I could use to drive traffic to my other writing as my career grew. Taking that a step further, all of the novels in The Blood War Chronicles are derived from the first steampunk short story I wrote. Readers who enjoy that short story often go on to read the novels. Based on that success, I’ve written several more shorts specifically because I have plans to do related novels.”
– Quincy J. Allen
BUILDING PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE
Going back to the Shannon Lawrence quote at the outset of this article, she mentions that her efforts in the short story market have garnered her experience in the publishing industry, including rejection, publication, and working with contracts and editors, all in a shorter period of time than is typical with novel writing.
So not only is writing a short story faster than a novel, but the submission process is also quicker. This is huge. Ask any novelist who has waited months—even years—to hear back from an agent or editor about a submission. Want quick feedback on your work? The wait for a response on a short story submission is typically shorter than on a novel. It’s often faster from submission to publication, too.
In addition, the short story market can be much easier to break into than the novel market. If you’re unpublished, you’re much more likely to get your first publication credit for a short story than for a novel-length project. That short story publication goes on your resume, which then can help get your foot in the door with a publishing house or agent for your novels. And speaking of agents, you typically don’t need one when submitting to the short story market. Awesome!
As a final professional benefit, you might get paid. Yes, that’s right. You might earn some cash for that short story submission. Granted not all short story publications render more than a few author copies in payment, but many do pay actual money. It may not be a lot of income, but a publication at professional rates establishes you as, well, professional. It’s a great addition to your professional history, and can even qualify you to join a selective professional writer’s association, like Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Then bam, you’ve got yet another bullet on your resume.
I’m not getting paid for my story in the anthology Undercurrents: What Lies Beneath, but there’s definitely a payoff:
- I got to work with a top-notch editor who I loved learning from
- I earned another publishing credit
- I have a new title for my byline, bio, and website
- I get to display a pretty new book on my table at book signings
And the bonus: proceeds from the anthology funds scholarships that bring promising writers to Superstars Writing Seminars who would not financially be able to attend otherwise. How cool is that?
So whether you write short fiction as a goal in and of itself, or if you use it as a tool to achieve your other fiction goals, it seems to me that there are lots of benefits to be had from writing short. Not only can it help you learn and grow in the craft of writing, but it can also help grow your readership, expand your writing resume, and gain experience in the world of publishing.
Though I’m clearly a new convert to short story writing, to be fair I should mention that there are some drawbacks that may offset some of the benefits to novelists. First, a short story is a different animal than a novel. While the two formats have a lot in common, a novel is not simply a longer version of a short story. The required writing skills are not exactly the same. Also, another drawback to short story writing is that it takes time away from novel writing. Even though short story writing and submitting is quick, it does still take time. If what you want to be is a novelist, you may be better served spending your writing time writing novels.
Do you write short? Why or why not? What benefits and drawbacks do you see for novelists who write short stories? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
P.S. Are you a deserving writer who would like to attend Superstars Writing Seminars? The window for applying for a scholarship is now open! Click here for more information. The deadline to apply is September 10, 2017, so don’t delay!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about Chris at chrismandeville.com