I go to a lot of conferences and talk to a lot of writers, and one of the most common things that these aspiring novelists don’t take advantage of is writing in the short form.
“But I write novels. Why should I write short stories?”
It’s a fair question, and I wouldn’t recommend writing shorts unless it helps you find success with your novel. It does, both from a technical and a business standpoint. Read on, Grasshopper.
When you break down a novel, each chapter should push the story forward, contributing to the overall arc. Ideally, it does this in a similar fashion to how a short story operates. It introduces or delves deeper into a character or plot element that faces rising tension and requires action in order to resolve or alter the current situation. In short, each chapter has its own little arc. Writing short stories is an excellent way to practice creating the types of structures that will end up becoming the foundation of your novel.
Another way that short stories act to improve your writing is their calling more attention to the language itself. In a commercial adult novel, you generally have around 70,000 to 90,000 words to tell your story. In the short form, you have less than 20,000. And if you distil even further and enter the realm of flash fiction, the definition varies from under 5,000 words to the mere hundreds and below. For the story to maintain all of the necessary elements of plot, character development, tension, etc., you as an author rely on your ability to choose only the most powerful words in the most skillful of combinations. You can’t meander around and hope something grabs the reader’s attention. This is training to become a literary ninja. You must get in, strike swift, strike hard, strike with purpose, and get out. Leave your reader out of breath and wanting more. Harness that kind of power and then deliver it in your novel.
As an agent, I’m always looking out for authors that have a mastery of the language and can elicit a strong response with the right combination of a few words. But the fact of the matter is, I can’t always know for sure whether or not you have that magical combination. I can’t read everything people want me to. I get so many submissions that it sometimes takes weeks for me to respond to a query letter. And well over 90% of the works that I reject are rejected from the query without me having read any of the manuscript. Though the story itself is the most important deciding factor for me in a query, being able to provide an impressive list of short fiction publication credits increases your chances by showing me that figures of literary authority have found your writing to be exceptional. I can then feel better about investing the time into requesting and reading your manuscript.
“Oh, man. This is like homework.”
Don’t let the need to come up with new material stress you out. It can be an important part of your writing process for your novel. If you look at the short stories F. Scott Fitzgerald was publishing in the early ’20s, you can see him working out the characters and situations that would eventually find their way into The Great Gatsby. And we all know the result of that.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve already written your novel, you undoubtedly have scenes and characters that you’ve cut for the good of the overall piece. They don’t have to sit unused in an old Word doc in an obscure folder. Bring them out and let them play around. You’ve done a lot of the writing already.
“OK. I’ve written a dynamite short. Now what?”
Revise (read my previous post). Once you’ve revised and your short is truly dynamite, now you must search for the appropriate venue. Not just any venue will do. You must know who you are pitching to, how they accept submissions and when to submit. There are countless literary magazines and journals available. They will be your primary targets. Newspapers and large publishers don’t publish shorts from unknown authors anymore, but litmags do. The best place to start is www.duotrope.com or Writer’s Market. These update fairly regularly with information regarding what type of writing they specialize in and various requirements. I highly suggest you check out these resources, the magazines’ websites and the actual, physical publications before you submit. It will save you from a lot of general, “Not right for us” responses.
“Are online litmags reputable? Will anyone read it if I go digital?”
If you would’ve asked me this several years ago, my answer may have been different. But today, many reputable publishers have entire online divisions, like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. There are also plenty of quality digital-only litmags, like Smokelong Quarterly. And if you’re wondering whether or not people actually read the digital stuff, you should ask the current owners of 4.19 million iPads and over 3 million Kindles.
“Sweet. I’m going to be rich.”
Slow down. Don’t expect your short stories to make you any money. True, you may have heard stories like Fitzgerald writing shorts to pay the bills while he worked on his novels. But there are two main reasons why you shouldn’t compare your own situation with his:
- He was already a well-known writer at the time. His breakout success with This Side of Paradise had established him as a prominent literary figure and created a commercial demand for his work. It’s like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman writing short stories. People will pay to read their work, regardless of the format.
- These days, litmags don’t make money. Since they don’t sell as many copies as, say Twilight, they usually can’t afford to pay their authors much more than a free contributor copy (and the all-important prestige of publication). They keep their costs low in order to encourage sales and sell ad space to cover some of the necessary costs of printing and shipping. The staff generally works for free, donating countless hours for the sake of the written word.
“But what if they turn me down? Will all of my work have been for naught?”
Of course not. It’s ninja training, remember? You will have improved as a writer and a novelist. And if you need to get your work out into the public, plenty of avenues are available for you to do so yourself. In fact, I recently finished editing a collection of shorts that the author is self publishing. They showed promise, and I hope he does well.
Questions? Comments? Have an opinion on DiCaprio being cast as Gatsby? Let’s talk.
This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.