On Writing: A Novelist Takes on Short Stories


What is the hardest part of writing short fiction? Or more to the point, what is the most difficult adjustment a novelist needs to make when writing a short story?

These are questions I’ve been grappling with for the past couple of weeks as I work on a series of short stories that I’m writing in the Thieftaker universe. Before I address those questions, though, maybe I should address a different question: With one Thieftaker novel already written and in production, and a second finished and in revisions, why am I bothering with short stories?

Well, for one thing, it’s fun. I’m playing with story lines, experimenting with descriptive passages and stylistic approaches, polishing the series voice. Writing the stories is also giving me a fresh perspective on my lead character, his past, and his relationship with other characters. More to the point, the stories will help me promote the series as the July 2012 release date draws closer. Some of the stories I will submit for publication; others I’ll make available for free on the D.B. Jackson website. (http://www.dbjackson-author.com) And finally, I believe that writing short fiction improves my craft by forcing me out of my comfort zone.

And that brings me back to those first questions: What are the challenges for a novelist in writing short stories, and what am I doing to overcome those challenges?

1. Length: Yeah, I guess this one is kind of obvious. I’m used to writing 100,000+ word manuscripts. Telling a complete story in 6,000-8,000 words is a totally different creative experience, right?

Well, actually, no. What I’m finding is that writing to short story length is actually similar to planning out a chapter or two in a novel. My novels might be fifteen times longer than the short pieces, but each chapter is somewhat shorter — about 4,500-5,000 words. I try to give each chapter a rhythm and arc; I want a chapter to build to an ending that keeps my reader turning the pages. And so when I turn to short stories, I already know how to pace that shorter work. It’s not exactly the same, of course — if a chapter in a novel simply can’t accommodate all it needs to, I can find an ending point and pick up the action in another chapter — but still, it is analogous.

When writing a short story, I watch my word count far more closely than I do when writing a novel. If I’m 3,000 words into the story and have yet to introduce the key characters and set up my conflict, I know that I’m working too slowly. If I reach 5,000 words and I’m nowhere near the story’s climax, I need to adjust my pace.

2. Narrative Aim: A short story is, by definition, a less ambitious work. This is not to say that short fiction needs to focus on smaller issues, or that short pieces are somehow less significant than longer ones. Some of the most weighty and thought-provoking tales in our genre have come in the form of short stories. By less ambitious I mean simply that, in most cases, a short story is going to cover a more limited time frame; it’s going to involve fewer characters; it’s going to have only one (or perhaps two) point of view characters. And rather than covering a complete story arc, it will often describe a vignette that points to something of larger narrative significance.

Consider, for instance, one of the most famous short stories ever written, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The story begins on the morning of the lottery; it explains precious little about what is going to happen, but instead allows the horror to unfold without preamble, without set-up. The power of the story, the brilliance of it, lies in that shock value. Had “The Lottery” been written as a novel, it wouldn’t have worked that way. We would have gotten far more background; and the story wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — ended the way Jackson’s does. There would be ramifications beyond that one day. There might have been a character who resisted and sought to stop the lottery from ever happening again. In a way, the novel version of “The Lottery” probably would have looked a lot like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which, thematically speaking, is a direct literary descendant of Jackson’s classic.

I’m not passing any sort of value judgment. Truly I’m not. Stories like “The Lottery” or Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” manage to do so much in such a limited framework. Reading these stories, one can’t help but be struck by the power and economy of a fine short story. And yet, my favorite novels in the genre — Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, Tim Powers’ Expiration Date, to name a few — have a richness and texture that no short story can replicate. My point is simply this: In making the transition from writing novels to writing short pieces, I have had to frame my narrative goals differently; I have tried to accomplish more with less.

3. Description: My brother paints for a living, and recently he has been experimenting with larger canvasses. He likes working on big pieces, because he feels that they give him the opportunity to be bolder and more aggressive with his brushwork. The larger the piece, the broader the strokes. I like to use painting analogies when I talk about writing, but this is one case where the similarities simply don’t hold. When I write short stories, I paint with a broader brush; I leave the more detailed work, the smaller brushwork, for my novels.

Why? Simple: word count. When I’m writing novels, I can take the time and space to describe certain things in elaborate detail. I can make my setting and my characters come alive by lavishing attention on a few choice aspects of history or tradition or appearance. When I’m trying to fit my story into 7,000 words, I don’t have that luxury. Here my search for economy means creating impressions rather than polishing details.

4. Method: We’ve been on something of a “Write Fast” kick here at MW, and I think that for novels it’s sound advice. But when I write short fiction, I slow down a bit. I take between seven and ten days to write a short story. Working at my novel pace, that would be 14,000 to 20,000 words. So essentially, I write my short fiction at about half the pace I’m used to. In part this is because I am trying to be as economical as I can be, and so my word choice is more deliberate.

Also, while I may be writing with that “broad brush” I just described, I am also working with finer tools; I’m trying to make certain that I hit every narrative marker, that I fit every piece into this tiny puzzle I’m putting together. Whatever metaphor you wish to use, the result is the same. The minute details might not be there, but still this is delicate work I’m doing, and so I feel more comfortable going at a slower pace, constructing it all with greater care. Yes, I will go back and revise, probably several times. But I want that first draft to be as polished as possible. This might be a product of my own creative predilections. I feel more comfortable in the larger medium; I’m familiar with the revision process as it relates to novels. I’m still relatively new to short fiction, and like a new driver who is intimidated by highway speeds, I prefer to take these tales slowly. Writing short stories more slowly has made the transition easier.


When was the last time you wrote a short story? When was the last time you read one? There are some truly outstanding short fiction collections out there: The Starlight books from Tor are terrific. Andy Duncan, one of the best writers in SF/Fantasy, writes almost exclusively in the short format. His collection Beluthahatchie, is one of the best you’ll find anywhere. There are also terrific short pieces published every month at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (edited by our own Edmund Schubert), in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in Analog and Azimov’s. Some of the best work in our genre is being done in short format; you owe it to yourself to read some it.

But more than that, you owe it to yourself to write short pieces. I can’t tell you how often I hear novelists — professional and aspiring alike — say “Oh, I can’t write short stories.” Bull. The fact it you can. Is it challenging? Absolutely. Does it force you to approach your storytelling differently? Of course it does. But if you’re interested in improving your craft, then doing the same thing again and again can only take you so far. Step out of your comfort zone. Try something different. It’s fun. Really.

So what are you waiting for?

David B. Coe

27 comments to On Writing: A Novelist Takes on Short Stories

  • I have written a few short pieces over the years, mostly to support novels that are already published. I find that my greatest challenge in short fiction is identifying an idea of the proper size. There’s no way to cover all the ground that a novel covers; rather, I need to select a nugget of “truth” to convey, relate it in an interesting fashion, and finish.

    Sometimes, the initial nugget that I mine is just too large, and I need to set it aside, for its own novel (or, I suppose novella – a length that I’ve never attempted.) But every once in a while, the perfect idea presents itself…

  • I can’t write short stories. Partly it’s the length/scope issue, partly it’s the constraints of genre. When I do write short fiction it tends towards the literary, because if I stay in a recognizeable genre I find my story–and the key stuff, like character–gets overwhelmed by world building. It seems to take so much less time to establish that my story takes place in a contemporary appartment and centers on ordinary people than if I have to establish the rules of a fantasy world. I see how writing within a world you’ve already built in a longer story (like Thieftaker) could get you round this, but how do you do it in a stand-alone? Or is this a non issue for you?

  • I’ve written a number of short stories, a few I’ve sent out with no luck so far. Haven’t written any lately though–nothing since Taera’s Hope, which was several months ago. I used to have the same problem AJ mentions, not being able to get it to the proper size based on the scope of the work, but I seem to be much better at it now. I tend to look at it as a small window to a single, short point in time that has to have a conclusion in the end, though not necessarily a final conclusion. Like looking at one small point in a war. Maybe the enemy is foiled at that one point, but the rest of the war is still going on, and that’s okay. It took a lot of practice for me to try to fit things in less words. I tend to be wordy. 😉

  • Total aside, but I loved how the new SF show, Terra Nova, referenced “A Sound of Thunder”. 🙂

    Last year, my writing friends and I all submitted 200-word entries for “AE Micro”, a science fiction microfiction zine put out annually by AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Only five entries are selected. I was a bit irked when I didn’t succeed because I thought my idea was really cool. But that made me figure out what I’d done wrong, and I realized 3 characteristics of those chosen. When my friends and I submitted this year’s, two of ours were chosen—one of them mine.

    What really helped was that I encountered a quote from Edgar Allen Poe that a short story should have a “single effect”. It made me focus on what mattered—such as not spending so much time on description.

  • Mindy, I agree that the key to getting the story right lies in the initial idea — the nugget, as you put it. But I also think that even a big idea can be handled in short form, as long as you come to the story recognizing that you can hint at the larger issues and still create a satisfying vignette. The beauty of a short story is that it doesn’t have to wrap up as completely as does a novel. Read on . . .

    A.J. and Daniel, I think that what I should have said in the post, what I thought I was hinting at with what I said about narrative aim, is that, unlike a novel, you don’t have to wrap everything up or even reveal every key aspect of the worldbuilding to make a short story work. Think about “The Lottery” again. There is no explanation of why the lottery exists. It just does. And the story works because of the power of the idea. The worldbuilding is incomplete, to say the least, but that doesn’t matter, because Jackson hints at something so sinister, so deeply entrenched in the traditions of the village, that you don’t need to understand it in order to grasp it. In many ways, the worldbuilding conundrum that you both bring up is no different from the one we face at the beginning of a book. We can’t convey everything in the opening chapter, or even the opening five chapters. We have to give our readers enough to understand what’s happening in the moment, knowing that we’ll fill in the blanks later. With a short story, we do much the same thing, except we make the narrative satisfying enough that the lack of “later” doesn’t matter. I could write a short story about World War II without explaining all there is to know about the course of the war, and that vignette would work. Now you can argue that we all know about WWII, that it’s part of the received culture and so doesn’t need explanation, but I would respond by saying that if the story is effective enough, if the characters and their emotions are real, and the conflict compelling and resolved in a satisfying way, it wouldn’t matter if someone knew the history of the war or not. So take the next step. It’s no longer WWII; it’s the ancient war between Eandi and Qirsi in the story “Night of Two Moons,” which was my very first short sale. This is a story of a traitor, who betrays his people in order to prevent a slaughter. His betrayal, though has consequences he couldn’t foresee. Now you don’t get all the history behind the wars or the tactical situation. But it’s a story of treachery, of regret, of deception, of bitter disappointment and miscalculation. You don’t NEED the worldbuilding to understand that. Does this make any sense?

  • That’s great, Laura. Congrats on having your story selected. You’re spot on with what you say about narrowing the scope and the focus of your writing. The key is to cut it down to the essentials, to write something that works with the tools you have at hand. With a novel, we can let our narrative sprawl; with a short story we have to tell the tale in a confined space. We can still tell a complete story; we just have to make choices in order to fit in the essentials.

  • Yeah, that’s kinda what I was trying to get at with the second part of my comment, but you just said it better. 😉

  • I am in the middle of a short for the anthology An Apple for the Creature, and I am still writing fast. Nine pages on Friday. As I read your post I realized that I’ve never written a short Fast, for all the reasons you went through. But I am.

    As I look back, I think that the reason that am able to still write fast (and *very* spare), is that I worked on the outline for so long. It’s only three single-spaced pages, but I spent maybe 10 days working on it — 5 in my head while I did other things, 2 on layout (the bones of the structure) after each day’s writing, and 3 (again after each day’s writing) on fleshing it out. I had to keep up the page count on the novel, so all the thinking was hind-brain stuff, letting the brain work on the back burner. All while I did other pages on other projects.

    You know, David, I didn’t start MW with the thought of teaching myself something new each week. I thought of MW as way to *pay it forward*, giving to the universe because I was having some success. Instead, MW always takes me deeper inside, where the creative process is still evolving. I think it keeps me fresh on a creative level, one I don’t inhabit consciously. This post did that.

    I’m still learning how to write, and MW is a huge part of that. I’m still honing my craft. I hope I’m still getting better and will able to keep up the writing and learning for another 20 or 25 years.

    Okay. Gotta put deeper thoughts aside. Gotta work. Hugs!

  • Ken

    This was a really interesting article. I struggle with short stories because I have a hard time thinking smaller scale. Not in terms of theme or anything like that, its just that I get this idea and I’m like a cat in a sunbeam. I want to get down and roll around in it all and before I know it, I’m ten pages in and I’m running at a novel pace and not a short story pace.

    I continue to keep at it though because it does take me out of my comfort zone and forces me to adopt a bit of creative discipline.

  • Thanks, David. That helps.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the timely post, David. You said, – ‘I can’t tell you how often I hear novelists — professional and aspiring alike — say “Oh, I can’t write short stories.” Bull. The fact it you can.’
    Thank goodness for that because I think I can’t write short stories. Being someone who struggles to keep novels shorter than 90 000 words, I find it incredibly hard to wrap my mind around a short story. I want to write a good short story and see if I can get it published, mainly for the experience since I’m guessing it’s less of an epic quest than publishing a whole novel, but this is proving to be harder than I thought it would be. A *lot* harder.
    My main problem is character development. How do you create a character *and* get him/her to grow in such a short space? How do you create a whole cast of believable characters that develop properly in just a few thousand words?
    P. S. I really enjoyed the tragic and beautiful “Night of Two Moons”, by the way.

  • David, Glad to hear you’re enjoying writing short stories. Writing them is so different from writing novels that a lot of novelists avoid it. And having published one of your stories (and read several others I would have happily published if you had sent them to me (no that’s not me chiding you)), I can testify that your right about all this. The one tweak I might is the point to the difference between painting short stories with broad strokes vs. more detailed strokes in novels. I think with a novel you can get by with a bunch of details that are 90% spot-on, simply because you’ll have a certain amount of overlap with multiple details, so the big picture will still be just right. With short stories you have to be laser-like in your focus, but because there is only room for one (or two at the most), they HAVE to be 100% spot-on. To me that’s one of the great challenges of writing short stories: considerably less room for error. But if you can really nail the small details, it will make the whole thing feel much bigger and fuller.

  • Daniel, I have to admit that I didn’t read your first comment as closely as I should have, and I apologize for that. Especially because you were spot on with what you said, and I kind of co-opted your point and made it my own without realizing it. Again, my apologies.

    Thanks for the kind comment, Faith. I am trying to write these stories fast, or at least faster than I have past shorts, and I think I am doing a bit better. But I can see where a detailed outline would be enormously helpful. I’ll try that with the next one. And yeah, I know exactly what you mean about MW. I learn all the time from you guys.

    Hi, Ken. Thanks. I know just what you mean about luxuriating in the details — I think the phrase “creative discipline” is key. You have to force yourself to streamline. It’s something I struggle with, and I think that the short story work I do is actually improving my novels.

    Unicorn, that’s a great question. I think that in a way character arc in a short story is similar to story arc. You can’t show the same growth for a character in a 6,000 word story. But you can show a turning point in his or her life that hints at both where s/he has been and where s/he is going, if that makes sense. As to the cast of characters, a short necessarily has a far more limited cast than a novel, allowing you to avoid the larger problem while giving the development of the small number of characters in your story the attention it deserves. And thanks so much for the kind words about “Night of Two Moons.” It remains one of my personal favorites.

    Edmund, thanks. As always, it takes an editor to help me say what I should have said in the first place. Your points about focus and room for error are exactly right. In the story I’m writing, I manage to describe my character’s love interest in two lines, by skipping almost every detail about her appearance except a small dimple that appears next to her mouth when she smiles. I don’t need the other details and I don’t need to elaborate on his feelings for her because the fact that he notices this, the fact that this small detail is fixed in his mind, says everything. I didn’t find that detail in the novels, but working on these shorts, it came to me. I think that’s the sort of thing you’re getting at.

  • Ryl

    Ah! I think I finally got it: microscope, not telescope.

  • mikemunsil

    Hi David!

    Thanks for the post. You make a lot of sense.

    Writing short can help a novelist in many ways. You have laid out a number of those ways above. At Liberty Hall we help people become novelists by challenging them to write a complete short story, a very very short story, in 90 min. from start to finish. Yes, it is doable. Sometimes it isn’t fun, but it is doable.

    The essence of our method is to post a trigger, which can be a word, a phrase, a sentence, an image or a poem. The writer is then timed from the point at which they see the trigger to the point at which they submit their story. There are extra benefits for doing this within the 90 min., but every story submitted gets critiqued.

    Some of our writers have learned to write every story that they write by this method, within the milieu of their longer work in progress. This gives them a chance to test out characters, scenes, description, dialogue etc.

    If you or anyone else are interested in trying this approach please feel free to join us at http://www.libertyhallwriters.org. These challenges are free and the only requirement that you have is to put on your big boy trousers and have a go even if you are extremely intimidated by the format.

    Thank you again for your post. Our writers read these posts on a regular basis and we appreciate the effort put into them.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you so much for this timely and informative post. I have several ideas for short stories set in the world of my WIP, but have a lot of learning to do before they can be properly realized. The question I’m currently working on is how to make each little corner that I want to explore in a short interesting without continually re-referencing the entirety of the world. I guess I need to work on polishing my nuggets. 😀

  • Razziecat

    I can write short stories, and actually enjoy doing it. There’s something intoxicating about condensing the magic and mystery into a shorter piece, where every word counts. My only problem is the endless tweaking I tend to do after I finish the story. I have two stories now that are on the back burner while I prepare for NaNoWriMo. One is related to the NaNo novel, a piece that was originally intended as a prologue for the novel, but could be expanded a bit to make a short story. The other may end up as a novella, but it has to wait until after NaNo.

    One of my favorite short stories is one that CJ Cherryh wrote on a postcard as a convention challenge, “The Last Tower.” Hauntingly beautiful.

  • *bangs head against short-story wall*

    Bookmarking this post FFR.

  • I guess I’m the odd-ball out for this discussion. I find the short story form much easier and more comfortable than novel-length, but not for any of the reasons stated above. I can write the first draft of a short story (no outline required)ranging from 1000 to 8000 words (usually) in a single sitting. One or two revision passes a day or two later and it goes out the door.

    Transitioning to novel-length has proven difficult. Learning to outline, developing multiple, interweaving plot arcs, pacing, character development,etc. are all so different for a novel. I’m doing it. It isn’t easy, but I’m doing it.
    The hardest part of the novel for me – a long time short-story writer – is attention-span. After working on a novel every day for a month I get tired of it. “I’ve seen this movie so many times, I can’t watch it again,” and I have to go work on something else for awhile. To keep me in the writing habit, I have three novels, totally different from each other, that I work on in rotation. It seems to be working – and if a short-story kicks me in the ankle and says, “Write me!” well, that’s something new and fresh that I haven’t seen before.

  • that’s exactly what I was getting at. The editor points the writer in a direction and the writer nails it down. I do believe I’m getting the hang of this… *grin*

  • Ryl, yes. 10 words to say what I said in 1,000. Well done!

    Hep, thanks. I think the key is remembering that you don’t need to explain the world, just the corner your working in and whatever relevant features the reader HAS to know. The toughest thing sometimes (and I’m grappling with this now) is separating the cool stuff I WANT to show my readers from the necessary stuff I NEED to show my readers. Some cool stuff is going to get left out, but the story will be leaner and better for it.

    Razz, thanks for the story recommendation. I’m coming to enjoy the short pieces, too. Best of luck with NaNo.

    Careful, Scribe. Don’t hurt yourself. Hope the post proves useful at some point.

    Lyn, it’s so interesting how different we writers can be in our preferences and habits. I LOVE immersing myself in a book, going back to the same characters and world day after day. When I’m in the middle of a novel, I resent every distraction, every interruption. I can totally see the other side of it, the boredom that you experience, but it’s not what I feel. Thanks for the comment. I envy your facility with the short form.

    Ed, cool.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the answer, David.

  • I’ve been working more in short stories, recently, than in novels, although I consider novels to be my “natural” form. Although there are many paths to breaking in to the industry, I’ve sort of selected the short-story path for myself, so I’ve focused on honing my short story craft.

    I do find it difficult, sometimes, to contain a story into the short form, though. My best work, so far, has been in novelette form – which is a format too long for most short story markets and too short for anything else. I just completed a novelette last week (or rather, finished the last round of edits) and I think it’s my best work yet.

    I’ve also tried my hand several times at the <1000-word flash fiction format… I've occassionally even actually succeeded in telling a whole story in that length. The secret to that, I've learned, is what Mindy said in her comment. The other keys: focus more narrowly on fewer characters. Focus narrowly on the exact moment of a character's transition or change. Leave worldbuilding to the reader's imagination. Play with genre tropes, while leaving tropes intact. By that last one, I mean: I can often take one genre trope and play with it and find a small moment and a small story that examines that trope in detail or subverts it. But other common tropes of the genre can be assumed to exist unchanged, or handwaved away.

    All that said… the novelette I just finished started as a flash story that I wrote in just over 1,000 words. I extrapolated the idea of the story just a little to try to flesh out a more traditional-length short story (my goal was 6-7k words)… and found that I had quite a bit more on my hands than that…

  • David – I think part of the reason I fare better with short stories is that I’ve never really had the opportunity to immerse myself in a world and characters. I’ve always had to squeeze writing time in between family and work demands. The short form was easier to fit into the time available.

  • My pleasure, Unicorn!

    Stephen, it sounds as though y

  • Okay, the site is ticking me off a little bit right now. Stephen, I was going to say that it sounds as though your ideal length right now is either 1,000 words or 20,000 words, which is a little inconvenient from a marketing standpoint. But it sounds as though you have a good handle on ways to limit your focus for the purposes of writing short fiction.

    Lyn, that’s totally understandable. But I think you should think about trying to take a different approach. It’s not always about time. Make your worldbuilding and plotting and character work big, ambitious, and then the immersion will happen, even if you don’t have huge chunks of time to devote to the work. Each time you go back to the project, it’ll be a little easier to drop into that world. Quality over quantity, as it were.

  • MissjuliaMiriam

    I have a hard time writing long, properly connected, chronologically-sound things like a novel would normally be but most of the ideas I have swimming around in my head are far too complex to be shown in short story format. It’s my eternal dilemma. I love both formats quite a lot and I have two projects on the go right now. One is a novel and one (though I haven’t started this yet) a series of closely connected short stories that occur in the same universe and revolve around the same characters but are isolated events. Would it be better to stick to one format or is trying stuff out better? I’m a fairly new writer so… I don’t know.