The Short Story is having a bit of a Moment these days. After a lengthy period of being overshadowed by longer-form fiction, readers, critics, and (most importantly) film and television producers seem to be waking up to the unique old-school pleasures of a short piece of fiction. Writers like George Saunders, who largely specialize in short stories (Lincoln in the Bardo was his first published novel), have bubbled into the mainstream—Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is composed of interlocked short stories, and it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. Some of the biggest movies of the past few years—like Arrival or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—have been based on short stories. And Amazon just picked up Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,an anthology series based on the short works of the famous sci-fi author.
A lot of writers shy away from short stories. Stories don’t earn a whole lot of money, as a rule, and so can be seen as a poor use of a writer’s time. Plus, they’re tough to write; unlike a novel, where you can spin words upon words as you write through problems, the format is tight and constricted, requiring ruthless cutting and efficient plotting.
This is also whyevery writer who aspires to write and sell a novel should be writing short stories—and a lot of them.
George R.R. Martin, a man who has managed to make writing huge, wordy novels look easy, once offered this piece of writing advice: “I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft.”
The fact that writing a coherent short story that’s an affecting, complete piece of work is difficult is your first clue that you should be doing it. In fact, writing a short story exercises several writing muscles that will benefit your novel writing:
Finishing. Probably the hardest part of writing any piece of fiction is getting to The End. Books often begin with a blaze of inspiration and excitement, then get bogged down in characters that don’t seem interesting, plots that go nowhere, and the slow creeping sense that you are a fraud and an impostor. Short stories train you to get from the beginning to the end without investing months or years of your time—and like any muscle memory, physical or mental, the more you get to The End the easier it becomes in the future.
Efficiency. The open-ended expanse of novels (first drafts can be as flabby and overwritten as we like, after all) encourages experimentation and, to use a scientific term, noodling. All that noodling can bulk up your word count without actually moving the story forward or clarifying your characters’ motivations. Word count is a satisfying metric, making you feel like you’ve achieved something regardless of the quality of those words. But in a short story, there’s no room for noodling. Writing the short form forces you to cut your plot, your characterizations, and your world-building down to the essentials, making your game that much tighter.
Creativity. Short stories also offer a way of capturing ideas when you don’t have time to work on a longer version of an idea. Haruki Murakami, the author of Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84 among many other amazing novels, once said “A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, 'Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can't forget me, there's still more to write!' Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel. In this sense, too, my short stories and novels connect inside me in a very natural, organic way.” In other words, sometimes a short story is just a short story, and sometimes it’s the tip of a novel-length iceberg.
When discussing the craft and process of writing, you’ll eventually hear that if you want to improve you need to write every day or as near to it as possible. The more you write (and the more you read), the better your writing will become because practice is an essential part of any skill or craft. Most of us have to work pretty hard to find the time to write every day, making that time precious. Your choice of what to work on during those precious hours (or minutes) is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a writer.
I strongly suggest you use that time to work on short stories unless you have a very clear concept and way forward for a novel.
I’ve completed 35 novels. Many of those are awful, some are mediocre, and nine have been published (so far). One reason I’ve been able to plan, compose, and sell so many novels is that I write at least one short story every month, without fail. I started doing this thirty years ago, and I now have more than 500 stories written in long-hand in notebooks. When I finish one, I immediately start another.
As with my novels, most of these aren’t great; I’ve sold about 40 over the years, and most of them never make it out of the notebooks at all. My goal isn’t necessarily to write a brilliant, publishable short story, though—those come as a side-effect of my true goal, which is to practice. To try different things. Working on a story each month means I can play around with a narrative device for a month, then capture an idea that’s been buzzing inside my head the next. After that, I can write a story focusing on a dialog trick I’ve thought of, and the month after that I can write my version of someone else’s story so I can tear apart their style, their mechanics, their tricks, and tics to see what can be seen. Every story I write, month after month, I’m trying something new, something that maybe I’m no good at, something that won’t work at all—but it’s low-risk, because at the end of the month I write The End and move on to the next idea, the next experiment, the next challenge.
This has had an incredibly positive effect on my longer works. First of all, some of these experiments lead to ideas and scenarios that grow naturally into novels—my book We Are Not Good People ultimately sprang from a pretty awful short story written a long, long time ago when I thought a mullet was an acceptable hairstyle. And every time I push myself to write a story in a new way, or using new, unfamiliar tools, I get a faint echo of that first crazy energy that drove me to write in the first place. And the fact that every day, without fail, I’m working on a new story means that my mind is always focused on writing and the mechanics of telling a tale, keeping me sharp.
The TL;DR version is: Short stories for the Win. So, writers, how do you keep your skills and mind sharp even when your novel only exists as 4,000 Post-It Notes and a dream journal?
Jeff Somers (www.jeffreysomers.com) began writing by court order as an attempt to steer his creative impulses away from engineering genetic grotesqueries. He has published nine novels, including the Avery Cates Series of noir-science fiction novels from Orbit Books (www.avery-cates.com) and the Ustari Cycle Series of urban fantasy novels. His short story Ringing the Changes was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2006,his story Sift, Almost Invisible, Through appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight edited by Charlaine Harris, and his story Three Cups of Tea appeared in the anthology Hanzai Japan. He also writes about books for Barnes and Noble and About.com and about the craft of writing for Writer’s Digest, which will publish his book on the craft of writing Writing Without Rules in 2018. He lives in Hoboken with his wife, The Duchess, and their cats. He considers pants to always be optional.