Why should authors write short stories?

A recent post on one author’s experience with short stories inspired this post, though I am not writing (mostly) from a personal point of view; I am writing from an editor/beta/publisher point of view. And I am defining short story as anything under 20k words. (Over 20k is novella, over 50k is novel. These are the definitions I generally go by.)

Short stories are invaluable. They are worth their weight in something more valuable than gold: experience.

Of the two new beta-partners I have acquired lately, one of them is a new(er) author and has no love for short story format. She asked me why she should be writing short stories, when all of her ideas were novel-length, and I told her: because it takes a hell of a lot longer to finish a novel.

You can write 100 short stories in two years, but 100 novels?

Let’s do a numeric breakdown, since numbers are pretty hard to argue with. Even if you only counted a novel as 20k words, that would mean writing 2,000,000 words in that two year period. One. Million. Words. Two years in a row. That’s just under 2.75k words a day, 19.2k words a week, 82k words each and every month. Forget NaNoWriMo’s 50k–you will be going for the long haul. For two years.

Even if you did manage to write that much, the novels would probably be worse for having been rushed. When you are writing that much you have no time to stop, to plan, to let ideas ferment in your mind. Never mind any kind of editing experience; the only experience you will be getting here is novel-writing experience.

We’ll go back to the numbers, now. 100 short stories. I will use 5k as my number, here. That is 685 words a day, 4.8k words a week, 20.6k words a month. This is much more manageable!

Not to mention that you would have plenty of time to plan out short stories, edit them, submit them to publishers (if you are that brave), and hone your craft. You will have enough time to join a critique group and have your stories critiqued by others, or to do something with the crit that your personal beta has given you.

So, yes, short stories are experience because you can churn them out and edit them much faster. They are also experience because you really have to make every word, every scene, count.

You will learn pretty fast (Or I know I learned pretty fast) that when you try and make your writing conform to certain word counts that you will have to sacrifice some element, or elements, of the story in order to have a narrower focus. Part of the joy (and the pain) of short stories is that they are snap-shots, and while they can be very complete and finished, they can also be a glimpse at a much larger world.

Both of these things are okay in my book, as long as the author learns the art of writing a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and doesn’t leave readers going “That’s it? But what about this? And what about that? And this other thing!” You really don’t want this, even if you are intending your short stories to be some kind of single-author anthology. It is fine for readers to want more of a character, but if they want more of the story you were trying to tell, you were trying to tell too much story for a short story.

That’s what writing short stories is really good at: making you figure out what the fuck you are doing. It becomes harder to get two characters and throw them in a room; there has to be some conflict in order to make the story interesting. Oh, yeah, you know me: it all goes back to conflict. Short stories are not, contrary to what I have heard some people say, too short of a medium for real conflict.

They are too short of a medium to tell all sides conflict, but they are just the right length for other, shorter conflicts, or for specific parts of a larger conflict, especially one where the beginning and middle of it are boring. Just show us the end, if all else fails. I have seen authors do this to great effect!

So, short stories: good for experience with finishing and editing, for learning how to focus a narrative, and one last thing: mistakes tend to show in stark contrast in short stories.

If the author is inexperienced, it will show. If the author isn’t used to finishing things, it will show. If the author rushes the ending, if the conflict is unclear, if there is no conflict, if the narrative is disjointed, if… any mistake, you name it, it will probably show more in a short story than in a novel-length. The only two things I can think of right now that you can tell more with novels than with short stories are pacing and keeping characterization consistent.

Consistent characterization throughout a story is a post in and of itself, I think, but I also think that writing short stories can help you a lot with your pacing, especially stories in the 10-20k range.

One last thing that short stories are good for is giving out presses a test-drive. Submitting a short or submitting to anthologies is a good way of seeing what their contracts are like, seeing what their editing is like, seeing what their general feel is. You don’t want to sign your novel over to a press and find out that their editing is horrible after the fact. You don’t want to find out that they withhold royalties after you have already sold your book. You don’t want to find out that they are uncommunicative only after months of spotty e-mail exchanges.

These are things you want to know before committing a piece that you have poured months of hard work into, and there is no better way to do that than with a short story. Not to mention that anthology deadlines give you goals for when you will be finishing things–I know this is something that helps me a lot!

Why should you be writing short stories? The important question, to me, is why aren’t you writing short stories already? There’s not a singe author who can’t stand to improve their writing, and short stories are an easier way to go about that than novels.

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