Many beginning writers think the novel is Mount Everest. The place we start for proving our writing chops. But the problem with novels is they’re long.
Thank you, Captain Obvious. You can labor on this monster for months or years, never sure if it’s any good.
Ray Bradbury said (paraphrasing from a lecture):
“(Bradbury) explains the problem with setting a goal of writing a novel to begin with is that you can spend a whole year trying to write one, and it might not turn out well. After all, if you’re just starting out you haven’t learned to write yet. Beginning and intermediate writers should write short stories; that way, you can write one short story a week.”
If you’re diving into fiction writing and not sure where to start… short stories are a sure bet.
The short story is the perfect place to get in your 10,000 hours and build your fiction chops. It’s where I began, and where most writers start, and where many authors still live.
A short story isn’t the minor leagues for writing. Maybe someday if you can hit the curve, you’ll move to the majors and write a novel. No way.
Some of the greatest writing ever done was less than 20,000 words. Old Man and the Sea, anyone?
Short stories can move us in ways longer works can’t. Think about a two hundred thousand word tome, and what you remembered from page three to six hundred and three. Very little. A line here, an idea there, a character we liked, you get the point.
Shorter works stay with us, and work on us in ways novels simply can’t. Mostly because we’ve read them in one sitting or two. Novels can take weeks or months to finish.
Now maybe I’m preaching to the choir. Maybe you’re convinced short stories are a great way to build writing muscles and learn the craft. But let me give you a couple more reasons for writing short stories:
1. Short Stories help you learn how to write a tight story.
Get a character in trouble, beat him up, get him out, and end. It’s hard to write a short story and keep the reader engaged with a short writing runway.
Short stories won’t let you meander. You have to make every action and dialogue of the character count. Backstory must be minimal and you can’t wander off with subplots.
Short story writing can help your longer works have more punch and teach you how to pace your novels.
2. Short Stories allow for experimentation.
Short stories aren’t long. So have fun and try new things. What’s lost? A couple thousand words, days, or weeks?
Try a new genre, style, character, or tone. Short stories allow for experimentation that longer works simply can’t handle. Some will work, some won’t.
Ray Bradbury said: if you write a short story a week for fifty-two weeks one is bound to be good, right? So experiment away!
3. Short Stories are often seeds for longer works.
Shorter works can be an incubator for a novel. Get a character in a setting, with a problem, and see what happens. After you play in the story sandbox a bit, you realize, a revelation from the writer gods, you have a seed for a novel.
A lot of times that short story leads to a bigger world that needs the breadth of a novel. Hugh Howey, the popular Sci-Fi writer of Wool, started his series with a short story. When his readers loved it, he wrote more.
The shorter work became a five volume omnibus that sells like hotcakes.
You never know how a simple idea can grow into something more. Short stories are often the seedbed of something bigger.
4. Short stories are built for our modern world.
Your life is busy, so is mine. A thousand page epic fantasy novel would be nice to ingest if I didn’t have small humans crawling all over me.
But time is precious and we all have the same amount. A short story fits our modern world. We’re busy, and life is demanding, and short stories can be written, and read, in the cracks of our lives.
Not to mention in a bite-sized-social-media crazed world, it’s how people read. They read on their phones and devices. Shorter works will become more and more important in our digital and mobile age.
You can read a short story while waiting for the kid’s in the car line. Write a short story while in the doctors office. The compact story is a great way to keep our reading and writing habits flowing simultaneously.
And I love the short story for an after novel cleansing of the pallet. When I’m done sweating out a novel for months, it’s good to write something in a week or two. Short stories keep the words flowing on the page while not wanting me to pull my hair out.
52 Short Story Challenge
Okay, maybe I’ve convinced you short stories are worth a shot. Why not take the Bradbury challenge and write one short story every week for a year? I bet you can’t write fifty two stinkers.
I’m taking the challenge, you in?
Ryan J. Pelton is a teacher and genre-nomad author with over seventeen fiction and nonfiction titles to date. He also hosts a popular writing and publishing podcast, The Prolific Writer. Ryan reads, writes, naps, and nurses a Diet Coke addiction, with his wife and four children in Kansas City, Missouri. Buy a book and send his kid’s to college.