Even if you’re focused on writing a novel, writing short stories can be a wonderful creativity tool to help you strengthen elements of your fiction, experiment with characters and simply stay loose. Make sure to submit your finished short story to our 19th Annual Short Short Story Competition.
BY JULIE DUFFY
In the right hands there’s more oomph in a gram of short story than in almost any literary form,” Pulitzer Prize–winner Junot Díaz has said.
When writers talk about short stories, it’s often as a stepping-stone on the way to a career in novel writing. But this vibrant, explosive form is more than something writers “graduate” from. Rather, it’s a type of storytelling all writers would do well to practice for its own sake. Even if you don’t aspire to publish short work, trying your hand at brief, complete stories can help you refresh your creativity, refine specific techniques and rediscover your love of writing for the fun of it.
As the founder of the popular online short story challenge StoryADay (in which participants write a short piece every day for the month of May), I’ve seen firsthand how writers of all stripes can supercharge their creativity and revitalize their writing lives by incorporating short fiction into their routines. Let’s investigate how (and why) you can benefit, too.
Cleanse Your Palate
Writing a short story is a different experience from weaving the dense fabric of a novel, and it exercises different muscles. “Short stories are often like complicated locking mechanisms, while novels are more like tapestries,” says Fran Wilde, author of Cloudbound.
If you’re typically more of the tapestry type, writing short stories can refresh your creativity between other projects, or even during them.
Sarah Cain, author of The 8th Circle, used this principle to get writing again after completing her first novel and finding herself in “a real creative slump” as the rejections poured in. “I was working on another novel, but wasn’t happy with the progress,” she says. “So when the StoryADay challenge came up I thought I could manage to write short pieces for a month and it would be a change, [and] give me a chance to get some creative energy flowing, which it did. I had great fun with it.”
In the midst of the challenge, she did in fact secure an offer from an agent who went on to sell that first novel manuscript. She credits the fluidity of her continued short-story practice in helping her to not only persevere through her agent search, but to regain and sustain the momentum of her second novel, slated for release in March.
Not every idea needs to bear the weight of a book. Some-times we just want to mess around, toy with words, have a little fun. A short story, says Hugo Award–winning short-fiction writer and novelist Mary Robinette Kowal, allows writers to tell stories that simply couldn’t exist in any other form. “They’re perfect little jewel boxes. It’s like a Fabergé egg. You would not want a ginormous, house-sized Fabergé egg. At that point it … loses what makes it the egg.”
Experimentation and play with your own carton of eggs can take many forms.
- Trying something new: Short fiction allows you to try new styles, genres, points of view and themes without investing swaths of time on any given one. Sometimes what you think you want to write turns out not to be what comes naturally. You may aspire to write grave, literary works, only to find out that you’re unexpectedly hilarious on the page. You may think first person is the only perspective that works for you, only to find out you have a natural hand for omniscient. As they say, you never know until you try.
- Digging deeper: Wilde sometimes uses the short form to explore alternate ideas and approaches relating to parts of a larger work—a practice which, she notes, “has the exact opposite effect from the palate cleanser strategy.” Short fiction can be a toy box for your novel’s secondary characters, “offstage” action and locations. Outside the realm of your larger manuscript, you can do things like mine the protagonist’s past to find the source of her inner struggle, then use what you’ve learned to add a richness to your novel. (As a side benefit, these stories, if you’re pleased with the results, can later become great marketing tools: Sell them first, to prove the related novel has a receptive audience, or use them as a “bonus” read for novel fans who join your mailing list.)
- Failing small: Not every story idea works out. “I [often] put in a bunch of work on a decoy story while waiting for the real story to sneak up and announce itself,” says Chris Adrian, winner of the O. Henry Prize. Short fiction allows us to pursue dead ends in a low-stakes way—saving time and angst.
When writers continue to practice individual techniques in short fiction, it can show up in their later writing as a secure mastery of form and language.
“[In] other arts,” Kowal explains, “you learn a single technique at a time. Once you’ve mastered that technique, you’ll add another technique. So, with violin, there are fingering exercises, there are bowing exercises ... You don’t immediately say, ‘I’m going to play Rachmaninoff.’”
Writing short stories, she says, helps you “learn how to handle an individual thread.” If your dialogue needs work, spend a couple of days brainstorming and writing a short story told almost completely in character conversation. Show it to friends. Read it out loud. It might not be salable, but that’s not the point: The point is to help you strengthen a weakness and then apply your new skills to your other works.
“There’s a huge value for me in practicing craft elements of world- and character-building in short stories, with tight word count and the freedom to focus on a single problem,” Wilde says.
Kowal agrees. “When you go to do a novel … it becomes easier, then, to work on the new skill, which is [simply] pairing [those techniques] together.”
Maximize Your Words
Specific details bring alive every story, from War & Peace to that famous six-word missive about the baby shoes. (You know the one: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.” Think how weak it would be without the word baby.)
In novels there is leeway for broad strokes. The stories of any length that really hook readers, however, do so with exquisite, specific details that paint a scene or evoke emotions. Short fiction is the perfect place to practice laser-targeting of details. Every image in a short story must convey its reality and, ideally, a secondary meaning too.
The opening line of the short story “The Fish Merchant” by Tobias S. Buckell illustrates this beautifully:
Li Hao-Chang, standing in front of a colorful array of fresh-caught fish, bargains with a Cantonese peasant over the price of yellow-tailed snapper.
Consider the sentence phrase by phrase, word by word. “Cantonese peasant” suggests we’re in China and not, say, San Francisco, and also that economic and ethnic differences exist. “A colorful array of fresh-caught fish” is a vivid image that also tells us this is not a period of scarcity. “Bargains” suggests that Li and the peasant are careful with their money. This makes us wonder why. Do they need to save money, or is it just tradition for them to haggle? “Yellow-tailed snapper” tells us they know their fish, suggesting that this is life as normal—which is in fact where most stories start. The reader anticipates the status quo will be disrupted soon, and is probably already anticipating ways that might happen. Buckell, skilled in the short form, doesn’t make the reader wait long to find out more.
This level of complexity doesn’t have to happen in the first draft. Which brings us to another aspect of writing that’s different in the short form: revision. With a novel, it’s easy to shy away from revision. It can be daunting to spend months, even years, looking for things that are wrong with our own writing. Doing such revisiting on a more manageable scale teaches you revision approaches that do and don’t work for you, thus making the prospect of revising longer work less overwhelming when the time comes.
Finish What You Start
“In the long years of working on what looked as if it was turning into two novels, I simply wanted to finish something,” novelist Susan Minot once said of her short work.
It’s easy to get lost in the “mushy middle” of a longer story. The confines of shorter fiction can help writers develop a process for pushing through the imperfect and finding the shape of the narrative until it’s complete.
You’d be surprised how often people don’t know what their story is really about until they’ve reached the end (that goes for plotters, pantsers and everyone in between). Finishing something (anything!) is important so you can look back and learn—and it doesn’t hurt morale, either.
Don’t put pressure on yourself: Finish need not mean polish. “If your goal is to be a novelist,” Kowal says, “don’t stress about learning how to write a salable short story.” No agent or editor is going to turn away your killer debut novel simply because you didn’t first publish short fiction in Granta or Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. This is about stimulating creativity, not stifling the creative acts you feel most drawn to.
Read Short, Too
Short stories have been through an evolution from their messy birth as literary histories, to the golden age of pulp and popular press, to a suffocating near-death in the ’80s and ’90s when it seemed as if the only people reading them must be writers, trying to figure out how to get published in the same handful of literary journals.
Then came the World Wide Web: People started writing and self-publishing in e-zines, blogs, fan-fiction communities and, increasingly, in curated (paying) digital markets. The form isn’t just breathing again; it’s on its feet, singing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and grabbing editors by the throat, shouting “Hey! This writing is really fabulous. Wouldn’t you like to offer the author a contract?” Aside from the implications for writers, this means that reading short fiction could just introduce you to your next favorite novelist.
We writers are constantly told to read in our genres: But with your writing and other commitments, how many of the books in your “read pile” do you get through every month? Short fiction is easier to fit in. If you’re hanging around waiting to pick up your kids from practice, you can pull out your phone, surf over to tor.com or flashfictiononline.com or pick up a Kindle Single, and fill your brain with some of the most entertaining, breathtaking, funny, fascinating stories you’d never come across otherwise.
You’ll see experimental writing that you’d never have thought of; you’ll learn about obscure cultures and historical events; you’ll imagine worlds you never knew could exist. You’ll see the world with fresh eyes. And you’ll likely be inspired to try something new in your own writing. All in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee, eat your lunch or unwind before you fall asleep.
So read. Learn. Practice. And write what you love—at any length you like.
Submit your story or poem to the Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition
for the chance to win $5,000 and more!
For a short story reading list handpicked by Duffy and Kowal to spark your own creativity, visit writersdigest.com/apr-17.
Julie Duffy is the founder and host of StoryADay (storyaday.org), a writing challenge and online community for writers aiming to try short stories as a creativity tool.