“So, why write short stories?”
It was an innocent question and an understandable one, at that. I’d just completed a panel on navigating the world of short story submission. I’d told the crowd that short story writing is a tough gig.
Acceptances are the exception. Rejection is a constant reality. The money is pretty much non-existent. You could make more money working anywhere else, doing almost anything else. It’s not exactly a popular format. Market’s open and then shrivel and die quicker than roses after prom night. You end up at the mercy of publishers and editors who may or may not know any more about writing or publishing than you do–especially if you are a newer writer.
So…why? I rattled off some quick answers to the attendee in the hallway, but I wanted to expand upon them here.
There are LOTS of reasons to write short stories.
- They are a great way to learn writing. Ray Bradbury swore by learning through short stories. In most writing workshops, the short story is still the preferred format. The process is sped up remarkably. First draft on the first day. Re-write on the second. Polish on the third. Ship it to your writing group on the fourth. If something you did sucks, you spent a few days on it, rather than a few months. You go back to the drawing board the next week and try again.
- They are built for experimentation. Sometimes, you need to push the envelope and see what you can do. Write an entire story in second-person. Write it all in iambic pentameter like one of my friends. Write the entire thing from the perspective of a pair of pants, which another friend of mine did very successfully. Get ridiculous. Get weird. If it doesn’t work, you never have to speak of it again. Pieces of writing are like relationships. Short stories are flings. Novels are long-term. Until you know that the kinky shit works, save it for the flings.
- Short stories are like cookies. You like cookies. Some culinary historians believe that cookies were first invented in order to test the heat of an oven prior to baking a cake. They would throw a little batter in their to see if it baked. That’s not all that different than what you are doing with a short story. Sure, they are great for testing out all of the tools in the writer’s toolbox, but they are pretty damn delicious on their own. As much as we complain about the market, the short story has a very long and proud tradition, particularly in horror.
- Because you can…or because you can’t. Short stories are an art form. Some people are fantastic at them. My hero Ray Bradbury was a master of the short story but had a hard time making the transition to longer work. Some people rarely, if ever, write short stories. If you have problems writing in one form or the other, ask yourself why that is. Short work tends to expose errors very easily. All that bloat that you should have cut out of your novel becomes PAINFUL in a short piece. If the reason that you have trouble with writing one or the other relates to some flaw in your process, then that would be a great thing to know. Self-awareness is key to a writer’s development.
- The industry reads them. I read once that most of the short story market is comprised of hardcore readers, other writers, editors, and publishers. These are all people that it would pay to have on your side as a developing writer. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but publishing is a team sport. That reader who likes your style could someday be championing you to an agent or publisher.
- Everyone likes samples. When you go in for a tattoo, you look at the artist’s portfolio. You wouldn’t let some guy carve your skin up just because he said he knew how to do it. When you want to paint your house, you don’t go throw random paint colors on the walls, you look at samples. You buy an album because you like the single. You are the guy in the apron standing in the corner of the supermarket. The idea isn’t to just get them to try a bite of sausage, its to sell the whole kielbasa. If someone finds your story and it speaks to them, they might seek out more of your stuff. Or they might not. Damn grazers.
- You need a palette cleanser. Sometimes, you just need to get away from that monster novel of yours. The grind can be relentless. Months or even years of work can wear you down. Popping out a short story is like a bite of a good pickle. You’re able to appreciate that sandwich, again. It also creates some distance between you and your last narrative, which is an essential part of the revision process. It’s the fling that gets you over your broken heart. You need to come back to that manuscript as a stranger.
- They are fun. Short stories are just damn fun to write.
So go, write them. You probably won’t find fame or fortune, but you will find something out about yourself as an artist. You may even become a better writer. In this business, that is really what we should all strive for.