Working in Miniature: How Short Stories Help You Hone Your Craft and Gain Recognition
Have you ever watched a Facebook video where an artist builds a tiny, perfect model of an ordinary object like a refrigerator (complete with tiny food!)? The exquisite detail, the technical precision, and the use of limited resources to produce a marvelous effect, all keep an audience spellbound. Did you know writers can do a trick just like that?
Short stories are one of the most challenging fictional formats to write. With 10,000 words or less to work with, there’s little margin for error. They strip away many of the tactics novelists use to engage readers, requiring you to ensnare your audience with nothing but the momentum of your central plot. Despite these intense technical demands, they’re seen as a critical part of an author’s portfolio.
Looking for the good news? While short stories ask a lot from a writer, the rewards you reap from learning the form are huge. Just like a four-inch-tall bookcase with microscopic gold leaf titles, short stories are tiny, perfect, eat up minimal resources - and people love to see them online.
Feeling intimidated? Don’t be. Let’s break down the benefits of adding short stories to your authorial portfolio. You’ll see that even the challenges you face when working in miniature are actually rewards in and of themselves.
Quick to Write and Quick to Read
In our busy world, time is a precious resource. While we all hope to support ourselves with our writing alone, the reality is you almost certainly have a “day job”. You may also have hobbies, pets, friends and family. You might even need to eat or sleep. While short stories can be tricky, they’re definitely the 30-yard dash of the writing world. If you’re aiming at 3,500 words, you might potentially knock out the first draft, from opening image to climax and resolution, in one sitting. Trying to build a regular writing practice but miss chasing the fiery passions of that fickle friend, inspiration? Unlike a novel, a short story can be completed in one brilliant burst of enthusiasm!
Short stories also fit more easily into a reader’s busy schedule! This is important for a new author. It’s hard for readers to find the time and mental energy to dive into a new novel. It can be daunting to gamble those precious resources on a budding author’s debut. Short stories can be read on a lunch break, or in the precious hour after the kids are in bed. They require less from readers, so they get more attention.
Low Maintenance, High Satisfaction
For writers who enjoy them, short stories offer a lot of emotional benefits. Short stories are “low maintenance”. With a novel-length project, you can spend months on pre-writing work. You do weeks of research and world-building. You invent new languages, new religions. You spend so much time with your characters that you know them better than your real friends - and you love them just as much. You’re basically living half in another world.
Do you ever find yourself tired of thinking about your novel? You’re not exhausted by the work, you’re just drained from having been in the same fantasy landscape, or the same deep space war for months. We all need a change of mental scenery once in awhile and short stories can certainly do the trick. Spend an afternoon tracking down a murderer, then get back to your novel!
Do you ever freeze up when you get near the finish line? You desperately want the story to be done, but you’ve put so much of yourself into it that it’s hard to face moving on. Short stories help you practice letting go, and give you a taste of sweet success. You reap the rewards of a good “The End” without the emotional turmoil.
Short stories are also great for perfectionists. If you’re the sort of writer who lovingly polishes every sentence, you don’t need me to tell you how long bringing a novel-length project up to your exacting standards can take. It may be harder to tell a compelling story in 500 words, but the shorter drafting time and the lack of complications like subplots and big casts still makes the writing process a satisfying sprint.
The Opportunity to Hone Your Craft
Short stories are not easy to write. Flash fiction weighs in between 500 and 1,000 words. But you still have to tell an entire story. You have to let the reader know what’s going on, bring the action to a climax, and wrap everything up. It’s almost like you have to entertain readers with an outline. The shorter the story becomes, the less space there is for anything other than the plot.
A lot of writers struggle with plotting. At novel length, a highly conventional plot, an overly simple plot, or even replacing your plot with a long string of coincidences, can be concealed. Writers who excel at world-building can still amaze readers with their originality when the plot is a cliché. Those who thrive on characterization can make readers fall so in love with a protagonist that it barely matters that there’s only enough plot to fill 2/3 of the chapters. An aesthete can turn the raw beauty of their prose into all the spectacle required to bring the story to life.
All of those writers will find the short story format mercilessly strips away everything they rely on. Just like your fish-out-of-water protagonist, you are in a brand new world, where your skills and experience are irrelevant. You have to face and overcome your flaws, or you’ll never master this format. In a short story, there’s simply no substitute for a strong plot. But the sink-or-swim nature of plotting short stories can be the key to finally mastering that nasty plotting problem!
Similarly, that word count can serve as a teaching tool for writers whose style runs to what polite readers call “verbose” and ruder critics term “blousy”.
Editorial Attention and Professional Respect
Name recognition is the engine on which a writing career runs. The editors who work on fiction magazines are professionals with major industry clout. The editors who put together anthologies are often staff editors for publishing houses. If they read one of your stories, they may not remember your name. If they read one of your stories every time they put out a call for submissions, that’s a different. Doggedly submitting short stories for publication is an oft-overlooked aspect of literary networking, but it can make a difference when you’re looking for a home for that novel-length project.
And that’s without ever having a story accepted! Most professional writers collect their rejection letters like badges of honor. And if you do sell a story - congratulations! You’re a published author with a brand new line in your resumé.
There are tons of competitions, magazines, and anthologies open for submissions year round.
The most comprehensive and up-to-date list of genre fiction markets I’ve yet found on the web is at: http://www.ralan.com. (Don’t let the deeply nineties web design put you off, this is an invaluable tool!)
Whole Worlds from Tiny Seeds
The wonderful thing about creativity is that even the most disciplined mind never fully tames it. You may think 500 words is all you’re getting out of that priestess who completes a harrowing ritual, sanctifying an enemy citadel to her god just in time to change the tides of a war. You don’t know anything about the war, and epic fantasy isn’t genre. A week later, though, you’re still wondering about the silver knife whose mysterious history you had to edit out to keep to your word limit.
From the tiniest flash fiction, you might get a whole novel! Did you know 2001: A Space Odyssey grew out of short fiction? If you’re not ready to commit to a novel-length project, there’s no harm in writing a series of linked short stories. You might eventually publish them as a collection, like Sarah Monette’s horrific The Bone Key. Or, you might experiment with marrying the novel and short story formats, as in Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country.