Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Writing Wednesday: Are Short Stories Worth It?

Today's topic of commonly held writing advice is a question I've been hearing tossed around writing circles since I started this crazy business. As you will soon see, I have very strong opinions on the subject.


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Now, on with the post.

Writing Wednesday: Are Short Stories Worth It?

Way back in the day (2004) when I first got serious about this writing thing and started researching How to Get Published (TM) as a Fantasy writer, there was one bit of advice that kept cropping up over and over again, and that was the idea that road to being a Fantasy author starts by writing short stories and submitting them to the SFWA approved short fiction magazines. The idea behind this advice was that budding authors could practice on short stories first to "hone your skills" and "get your name out there" before moving on the lengthier and more difficult world of novel writing for their main career.

As you've probably already guessed from the quotation marks in the paragraph above, I thought this was pretty bad advice even at the time. I mean, the idea sounds good in theory--short stories, being shorter by definition, do require far less overhead and have a faster turnaround time than novels--but anyone who's tried both knows that novel writing and short story writing are completely different animals. Sure they're both genre writing, but a good short story is NOT a novel in miniature. 

The art and purpose of the short story genre is all about brevity and artistry combined with perfect execution. A true-to-form short story delivers its one big, hooky, sublime idea or character moment like an unfolding treasure box that, when it ends, feels like it was exactly as long as it needed to be. A novel, on the other hand, is all about the journey, the change and scope of characters and events over time. A short story and a novel can be related. They can occur in the same universe or even feature the same characters, but the storytelling format, expectations, and markers of quality for each are fundamentally not the same. It's the difference between a picture and a movie, delivering a monologue vs putting on a play, baking a cake vs cooking a banquet, and so forth.

This fundamental difference is the reason I roll my eyes to the point of pain every time I read or hear anyone telling hopeful novelists that they should write short stories as a warm up to novels. As though short stories are somehow easier than novels purely by virtue of being short. Friends, this is absolute bullshit. Sure, the final product may contain fewer words, but a quality short story is infinitely HARDER to pull off than a quality novel precisely because you have less to work with. It's just like how, on my new favorite show The Great British Bakeoff (SHOUT OUT!), the final, most difficult challenge is always a miniature version of whatever they made for the first round, because doing things in miniature is harder. Just as there's more room for little mistakes in measurement and technique in a full cake than a cup cake, there's a lot more room for error in 100,000 words than 10,000.

But wait, there's more! 

Not only are short stories not like novels and harder to pull off, but the market itself is smaller. Novels are far and away the most popular form of written fiction. Short stories are a far more niche market. There are just fewer readers who care. Also, as any short fiction editor can tell you, a large part of the audience for any short story publication are the very same authors who are trying to get published

And that's just for traditional markets. In indie publishing where authors are trying to sell short stories directly to the public, short fiction generally under performs longer fiction by a huge margin. (I'd say always under performs, but I just know there are one or two authors out there making bank of short fiction because there's always one or two authors out there making a living doing what should be impossible. Such is the nature of the writing biz. But you can safely assume the wildly successful short fiction author is the edge case exception rather than the rule). 

So, to review, short stories are 1) different from novels, 2) harder than novels, 3) have a smaller market than novels, which means they 4) make less money than novels. With that in mind, you might be wondering why anyone bothers to write the things. They're finicky, they're unforgiving, and they're very hard to sell even to your established fans (just ask any Best Selling author with short fiction out how it's doing compared to their novels and wait for the long sigh). And yet, despite all of this, talented writers still write short fiction in copious amounts for the same reason writers write anything: because they love it, and because they had an idea that wouldn't stay down.

This simple reason is why short fiction has endured for centuries and will continue to thrive despite never really being profitable or popular--because the short story is in itself an artform. This is especially true in Science Fiction, which is all about big ideas. Anyone who's read Asimov's short fiction knows that these little stories are gems of precisely the right size. They are not cut up novels or practice stories, but works of storytelling mastery specifically created for and to the limitations of the short story format. The brevity is the point. The limits are the art. That's what short stories are about: the perfect crystallization of powerful ideas and emotions into a few minutes of unforgettable reading.

So are short stories worth it? Well, like everything in writing, that depends on you. 

If you enjoy reading short fiction and you're bubbling over with ideas for your own short stories, then absolutely yes. So long as you are writing the stories you love in the format that interests you, you will always do well and be fulfilled! BUT, if you're writing short fiction for any reason other than you love the format--including as practice for novel writing, trying to build your name as an author without having to commit to a full novel, or to generate sales for your longer work--I'm afraid you're just wasting your time. The only possible exception to this I can think of is if you got invited to be part of an anthology with some other, much bigger authors, In that case, there's a possibility a few of their fans might like your story enough to look up your other stuff. But even this best case scenario is a percent of a percent of readers, so unless you had a short story you really wanted to write for that anthology anyway, it's probably still not going to be worth time that could otherwise be spent on writing your novels.

At the end of the day, the best rule I've ever found for building success as a writer is that you should write what you 1) enjoy and 2) want to be known for writing. If you like novels and dream of being a novelist, then write novels. If you love short fiction and dream of writing that perfect, award winning gem of a story, then go do that. If you want to write for movies, then write screenplays. 

Whatever you do, though, don't write in one format with the idea that you'll just switch it to another. I can't tell you how many writers I've seen on forums talking about how they have a great idea for a novel, but they're not ready to write the whole thing yet, so they're just going to write and publish/submit the prologue "as a short story" to test the waters. 

No. Stop. If you want to write a novel, then suck it up and write the freaking novel. You can still hook people in with the prologue by putting it up as a free sample with a link to buy the rest. If you really want to write a short story, that's fantastic! Write it and revel in the limitations as they force you to hone your ideas and prose to a perfect edge. If you love both novels and short stories, then write both. Tons of authors do so with great success. Godspeed and good luck! But whatever you do, whatever you write, do not conflate the two on the idea that one is somehow a smaller/easier/faster version than the other. It's not, and trying to make it into that will only lead to disappointment and a very mediocre short story that reads like an advertisement for a novel rather than real short fiction. 

Because, yanno, that's what it is.

Here endeth my weird psuedo-rant on short fiction. I told you I had strong opinions on the subject! Fingers crossed you enjoyed it anyway, and I hope I haven't put you off writing short fiction in general. It's a wonderful format that deserves absolute respect, because good short fiction is both sublime to read and super hard to pull off. This is why I have so much admiration for authors who do it well, because a great short story is the combination of great writing, thoughtful ideas, and epic amounts of work and editing, and if that doesn't deserve a salute, nothing in this business does.

Thank you as always for reading! If you enjoyed the post, I hope you'll consider subscribing to the blog or following me on the social media of your choice (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+). I post new writing stuff every Wednesday along with publishing business posts inbetween (when there's news to post, of course. I'm between books right now, so there's not actually much business talk going on, but the business posts fly fast and furious when I have a release!). As always, if you'd like to read my novels, you can find them all at Thank you again, and I'll see you next week!

Yours always,


Kessie said...

What I learned with short stories is that the editing and revision cycles are much shorter and faster. I learned loads from having some short stories edited and published. But you're right, the structure and focus are different. Same with flash fiction--it's essentially one scene. Hard to write! Useful experience to take into novel writing, though.

Tami Moore said...

I agree with Kessie. Everything you said in the post is completely true, but the editing/revising of a short story (especially if done within a group, so YOU are learning to crit and offer edit/revise advice to others, which you then learn to apply to your own work) can offer gains much faster.

That's less on a "how to become a published author" line than it is "how to write better so that one day you can become published" though. =]

(I will say our writing group also revealed a few folks who realized they didn't WANT anything to do with editing/revising. Doesn't mean they can't possibly hack it as writers (they were quite good) but it definitely taught them something about themselves they were surprised to learn)

It was a learning experience I treasure ... and not the least of which because although I -can- write short stories, they're not where my heart lies.

BG said...

One of these days, could you write a Writing Wednesday post on dialogue? I love to write dialogue and it occupies a big part of my writting. However, I sometimes struggle with how nuch dialogue is too much, characters voices, and, also, if that dialogue is realistic, since my novel is contemporary. I would like to know your views on it, especially since the dialogue in your novels is very well written.

Ken Hughes said...

Nicely summed up. This is a fine description of what makes short stories actually work, and also how limited they are as marketing tools. I'll file it next to Twain's famous "I'm sorry this letter was so long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter." :)

Still, I sometimes think the day will come when the internet puts a real twist on the shorts/novel "wars." Now it's no longer necessary to ship and buy "a book" or magazine to get a good short story... so some day the forces of marketing and social proof may align themselves to the point that an author can put some of those "gems" out there and people will understand that they can get Reliably Good Fiction of the kind they can read in half an hour. Or tell friends to read in half an hour. Or put up in contests and collections with other half-hour gems. Or...

It's not the same as the deep impact a novel can have, of course. But, how many people had even heard of flash fiction before the net took off with them?

Anonymous said...

I think kindle unlimited might be changing the market for short stories. I generally won't even consider buying short stories or novellas from anything but my top 10 favorite authors, (you're on the list), but I will read them if they're part of kindle unlimited, cause it costs me nothing. If a short on KU is good, then I will end up checking out the author's novels.

I have no idea how common this is though, I'm a pretty big reader and might be part of a tiny minority of kindle unlimited subscribers.

Anonymous said...

The things you talked about are exactly the reason why I love reading short fiction. Good stories, no boring parts, to the point, and I get the whole experience in a single 1-2 hour sitting. I don't even remember the last novel I read. KU has brought the short story market back to life, and let me tell ya, there's a lot more people than you think making bank with 'em.

Great post and great advice as always.

L.C. McGehee said...

It's always been my understanding that the fact that short stories are more challenging is precisely why novelists are encouraged to write them -- the idea is that crafting short fiction forces you to improve your style.

Of course, you're right that just how important that is depends on a writer's goals; an author might aim to be a good storyteller but not have ambitions to become a master stylist, and in that case it might not be the best use of their writing time. But for a novelist who hopes to polish their style to the nth degree (which probably applies to most authors who write literary fiction, for example), it still makes sense to work on learning to write successful short stories, too.

Although I'm sure I've written at least two dozen short stories, and I've sold a couple of them (and I'm proud that both were bought by editors who made a point about being discriminating when it comes to style), I've always thought of myself as being primarily a novelist. It's the medium I'm most comfortable with, so I'm sympathetic with anyone else who has that preference as well. I love being able to thoroughly develop the world and the characters, and to give a story depth in a way that's hard to do in a short piece. (And my short stories tend to be on the long side, anyway -- I've never pulled off anything approaching flash fiction!)

But it's also true that my two favorite authors (whose impressive skills with prose make me positively swoon when I'm reading their novels!) have both been prolific short story writers over the years, and one is also a prolific poet. So while I understand that it may not be helpful for everyone, I'll continue to push myself to rise to the challenge of trying to write good short fiction. (In between working on novels, of course!) :)

Athena Grayson said...

Funnily enough, I think the internets are changing our perception of short stories already. Ask any young person weaned on or tumblr or wattpad, where stories are posted by chapter and wear hats of both episodic fiction and short story contained in each chapter (skill of execution notwithstanding, as some of the work is quite good, and some clearly from the exuberantly inexperienced).

I've been in the craft profeasionally for almost 20 years, always understanding that novels and shorts were different animals, and I only recently discovered an affinity for telling novel-length stories in episodic form. Which meant I had to take a crash course in short fiction because the skill set is vastly different. But by no means "easy" or "practice."

Muppster said...

Valid point: short stories aren’t worth it in the monetary sense compared to novels for a good writer...but I don’t think that means they have eye-rolling amounts of negative value. I think the advice (begin with short stories) is meant more as this is a path to learning to write well enough that the novel is successful—some people can skip that step and some maybe would be less wise to.

My thoughts, anyhow:

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