On Writing: Why I Love Writing Short Fiction

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I sold my first novel in 1994 — it took three years for that first book to find its way to print, but that’s a topic for a different post.  The sale itself came in ‘94.  My first short fiction sale came seven years later, and in the intervening years I met many aspiring writers who had sold short stories but were still waiting for that first novel sale.  They envied me my contracts with Tor.  Some of them probably resented me just a little.

I was grateful for the novel sale — even from the small advance on that first book, and even with my agent at the time taking his 15% of that tiny advance, I still made way, way more on my one novel than some of those folks did on four, or five, or even six short story sales.  But the truth is that as much as they envied me, I envied them even more.  Because I believed at the time that selling a short story would legitimize me as a writer.  I felt like a pretender, a guy who got lucky with his first book, but had yet to prove himself as an artist.  A short story sale, I believed, would do that.  Now, I have since learned that even a half dozen short fiction sales, more than a dozen published novels, and all the other trappings of professional writing are not enough to overcome entirely impostor syndrome.  But that, too, is a topic for another post.

My point today, is that I still believe writing a successful short story to be the pinnacle of prose fiction achievement.  I think that structuring a short story and executing that creative vision is the hardest thing I do as a writer.  And though I am in the final stages of writing a novel, and I have several long projects waiting for me when this one is done, I would really like to chuck them all and work on another short.

In many respects, writing a short story and writing a novel would seem to be similar endeavors.  Both need to have a strong beginning that includes a powerful hook; both need to build through the middle pages, ratcheting up the tension, and drawing the reader ever deeper into the tale; and both need to close with an effective and satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader thinking and that ties off crucial plot threads.

Yet, within those broad similarities lie stark and crucial differences.  When it comes right down to it, writing a short story is a fundamentally unique challenge, as is writing a novel — just as writing an episodic television show is different writing a movie. (Assuming that the movie in question is not also episodic; do people still make movies that are not part of a larger franchise . . . ?)

Some of the differences between writing a short and a novel are obvious.  Short stories tend to focus on a smaller cast of characters, they tend to have only one or two point of view characters, they have more compact story arcs, and at times will have only a short section of an arc that hints at events that have come before or will come after.  It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but (to use an artistic metaphor) shorter fiction tends to be rendered in broader strokes.  With a novel, the writer can use a finer literary brush to fill in small details and portray every aspect of a narrative thread.  But when working under a tight word limit, the fine strokes need to give way to more impressionistic writing, using fewer details and less specificity to suggest contour and shape rather than finely drawn texture.

Let me give an example that I have referred to before in a different context.  I see the Hunger Games novels as the literary progeny of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery.”  The Hunger Games, book one of Suzanne Collins series, begins with a lottery that has a similar feel to the one in Jackson’s story.  But because Collins is writing novels, she gives us background on the Hunger Games lottery, she shows us the consequences of it, she fits it into a larger dystopian world that she has created, and she follows the story through two more books so that we begin to see that world unravel.

Jackson does none of that.  She shows us a single morning — the morning of the Lottery.  She conveys the trepidation it brings, she hints at traditions, at a larger purpose beyond the concerns of this single day.  But in the end what makes the story work so well is the mystery of it all, the very fact that she does NOT take the time to explain background or purpose or even larger consequence.  Her story arc is abbreviated, but it is no less powerful for its brevity.

This is the essence of writing a compelling short story:  taking a situation, a moment in time, and giving it narrative structure so that it becomes something greater and more meaningful, something that feels complete.  It is what I strive to do with my short fiction.  When writing a short piece, I know that I can’t explain everything about my world or my characters or even my magic system.  So I tell my readers the bare minimum of what they need to know and I try to allow my story to exist on its own terms.

There are trade-offs in moving from one medium to the other.  I like novels because they are rich.  I can sink into them for days at a time, losing myself in those descriptive details, in the intricacies of worldbuilding and character development.  I like short stories because they are spare, concise, powerful.  One is a classic record album, the other a great song.  One is a three-course feast, the other the perfect nosh.  Insert your analogy here.

If you are interested in reading (or in hearing me read via an mp3 file) a short story I wrote in the Thieftaker world, go to this page and click on the link for “The Witch of Dedham.”  The story you’ll find there is, in my mind, one of the best things I’ve ever written.  It is a moment in time, a snapshot, if one can use such an anachronistic term to refer to a Colonial Era story.  But it feels satisfying and complete because the trajectory of the story is made clear literally from the opening sentence.

What challenges do you find in writing short fiction as opposed to novels?  What do you like or dislike about reading short stories?

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://magicalwords.net

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21 comments to On Writing: Why I Love Writing Short Fiction

  • Thank you for the free short story! This was a very timely post for me. Having just finished my first novel I decided last week to write my first short/novella. So far I’m about 4000 words into it and I have enjoyed the difference between the two disciplines. I really like the world that is emerging so I was tempted to turn it into a novel but instead I think I may do a collection of stand alone shorts all set in the same universe. At this point I’ve faced less challenges writing short fiction than writing my novel but again, I’m less than a week in and this is my first attempt.

  • It’s strange, the shorter the short story, the better I seem to be at fitting my concept into it, the less wordy I become. I’ve been doing some flash fiction challenges over on Chuck Wendig’s site for fun and practice and I’ve noticed that I have an easier time with 1000 words or less than I do with 2000 or less. I almost always go over at 2k, but am right within 1k. No clue why. I think it’s good practice to impose a word limit on yourself, getting you to think about telling a story as concise as possible when working in short story form. The most challenging was 350 word flash-fic I did a while ago, but fun. A lot of it’s on my site and a search for Chuck Wendig or Grim will probably find ‘em if you’re bored and need some time filler. I’ve also noticed that without imposing a limit on myself, my short fiction usually tops 5k-9k words which can be a harder sell in today’s market.

    I tend to think of short stories as a window into one point in time, rather than the panoramic view of a larger work like a novel. Both still need that beginning, middle, end, but the short work is a precise moment in time and in that, somewhat more personal. I love the disciplines of writing both short works and novels.

    Oh yeah, and speaking of selling works, I just received an acceptance letter for a novella. *Snoopy dance!* :D Some of those details are on my blog too. ;)

  • [...] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “On Writing: Why I Love Writing Short Fiction.” It’s about the different approaches I take to writing short stories and novels. I hope you enjoy [...]

  • For short stories, one of my problems is keeping the story focused on the goal. Oftentimes, I get sidetracked on tangents and must pull the story back into line.

    Dislike about Short Stories: They are too dang short! I want more!
    Like: They are short enough to read a quick story on my commute home or airplane flight.

  • Kevin, you’re welcome! Glad to hear that you’re enjoying writing in the shorter format. So much good can come of writing short fiction — you can use them to work out character issues or explore worldbuilding themes, you can use them to establish a voice for your novel, and you can sell them and thus advance your career while trying to market your novel. Best of luck with the short you’re working on.

    Daniel, congratulations!! Talk about burying the lead, that should have been the first thing you told us!! Very cool. Looking forward to seeing your work in print. I need to try writing really short pieces. Most of my “short stories” actually come out around 7,000 or 8,000 words, which is approaching novelette length. I’d love to put together a few stories of 2000-3000 words, just as a challenge to myself.

    Mark, that is the danger for all of us I think: keeping focused and making certain that the story doesn’t spiral beyond its natural scope. I don’t think that there’s a trick to it. It’s just something you guard against as you write.

  • Thanks, David! It’s just a 36k work, but it’s accepted and I’m crazy excited about it. Got my foot wedged in the door anyway. ;)

  • Daniel – Congratulations! Exciting news, indeed.

    Mr. Jackson, ;-) Good to see you writing about the short stuff. I approve! Short stories are so much fun, yet simultaneously so challenging on so many levels. I’ve heard many novelists–David Drake sticking in my memory as the first I heard utter this idea–say that writing a good short story is harder than writing a good novel. I think the biggest challenge is packing a truly satisfying emotional punch into the tight little window that is the short story. If you don’t deliver the emotion punch, then you’ve missed the target. It’s like the difference between throwing bulls-eye on a dart board from only 10 feet away–hitting the smallest inner circle–vs. hitting the entire dart board from across the room. On the surface it doesn’t seem like it ought to be be harder to hit the smaller target when you’re that close, but it definitely is.

  • David – You nailed it on the head with “explore worldbuilding themes” and “establishing a voice for your novel”. I never thought I’d do a post-apocalyptic zombie story or have a humorous/snarky main character, but that is what this little experiment has brought out.

  • Like Daniel, I sometimes play around with flash fiction. I find I’m pretty good if it’s under 100 words, but the more words I’m allowed the less effective I am. Perhaps it’s all those years of writing short, concise memos in the working world . . . Trying to narrow my focus is problematic for me even with a novel, so I think that’s my problem with short story/novella length. If it’s only 100 words, I know I can’t do much so I have a narrow focus to start with.

    Daniel–congratulations!

  • David, such an amazingly timely post.

    I used to hate shorts, both reading and (I assumed) writing them. Then I actually tried to write one and my preconceptions were ripped away. It was hard, and fun and now I love them, which is a good thing because I am (last week and this one) in the middle of editing an anthology — Kicking It (These Boots are Made for Stalking). I am getting the see the process from the inside out and upside down. And I am falling in love with shorts in new and different ways.

  • As someone who has mostly worked on novels in terms of prose fiction, I can’t agree more.

    I’ve never been able to successfully finish a short story. My mind doesn’t seem to deal well with that kind of scope. It always wants more, more, more.

    But having written a lot of poetry, much of it speculative, I think that I actually prefer the resolution–or lack thereof–found in shorter pieces.

    Something I think is relevant is that a novel allows you to make more mistakes. They’re buried within so much other material. You can have a “meh” character, or a silly subplot in a novel. But try to get away with that in a short story and it fails dramatically. It’s so much easier to hold a whole short story in your mind that any mistake becomes glaring. Reading comments on online short story zines, I see that there’s more of a love it/hate it dichotomy in terms of reactions, whereas people can often find something to like in a novel even if it may not be their favorite as a whole.

    I love, love, love reading short stories, but writing them is a nightmare for me. And yet, I have that same feeling as you, David, that getting a story published in a magazine that I love would make me so much more legitimate as a writer, especially if it’s paid. Then I can point out that credit to people who criticize me for calling myself a writer while not having sold a novel or five.

    I think the best praise I can give short story is “Damn, I wish this were longer.”

  • I’ve heard so many novelists say that they found writing shorts difficult, and yet for me the short story – 2500 to 6500 word length – have always been the easier medium. My writing started with poetry and stepped up to short prose. I still struggle with novel length work. The nicest, easiest thing about short stories is that the new shiny is only on the back burner for a few hours. :-)

  • I forgot to mention in my previous comment, but the Hunger Games has also been compared, most famously, in my experience, with Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. Having read Jackson’s short story, I think there is a strong resemblance, but the Battle Royale comparison, especially since it’s a novel, seems to hit more closely to the themes in The Hunger Games.

  • Wow. Okay, I am not reliably receiving notifications of comments. I’ll have to talk to our webmaster about that . . .

    Daniel, a sale is a sale, and it’s great news.

    Edmund!! So good to see you here. I like the target analogy, and I agree entirely. The precision of a short is both the allure and the challenge. Looking forward to getting back to writing short stuff soon.

    Kevin, sounds like a cool project! Hope it goes well.

    SiSi, I have never written flash, and I would really like to. Actually, I shouldn’t say never — I have written really short scenes while teaching writing workshops (and asking my students to do the same) that have a full narrative arc. I should do that more.

  • Faith, glad to know the timing worked. I have read some of your short fiction and (not surprisingly) you’re very good at it. Looking forward to seeing the antho!

    Atsiko, I think you’re right about novels being able to hide certain weaknesses. We all strive to make every scene and line in a novel work. But it is difficult to maintain that level of focus over 100,000 or 120,000 words. With a short, there is no place to hide. If you have a weak scene or section of dialog, it is glaring. Well said. And yes, the short story sale is a good feeling. I’m sure you’ll experience it soon. :)

    Lyn, I like that point about the new shiny. I think that different people have different ideal writing lengths. Some folks thrive in the short medium, others prefer the long. I definitely feel that novel length is more natural for me. But I have grown to love both.

  • Razziecat

    I’m doing the White Rabbit thing today (“I’m late! I’m late!”)…LOVE this post, David. I love writing short stories. There’s something intoxicating about the process for me, something delicious about fitting all the story elements into a shorter piece. When it works well it can be more satisfying than a novel.

    I don’t know what the market is currently like for short stories. Mine are fantasy and space opera, I’m not sure if publishers are buying much in those genres. But I surely enjoy writing them. I think writing short stories teaches a writer how to be concise, and hones one’s skills in description, dialog and plotting. Larry Niven said, “You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.” :)

  • quillet

    Oh my, I’m even later than the White Rabbit.

    Thanks for the free story, David. It was beautifully written and…it’s going to haunt me (in a good way).

    Personally I find it difficult to write short stories. My brain seems to want to go longer, develop things further. And when I do write them, I get told they read like first chapters of novels, even when they are meant to be stand-alone in every way. *sigh*

    Daniel: Woooo! I’m so happy for you! *high five*

  • I’m with Daniel in being able to fit a concept into smaller mediums. (Not that it stops me from wanting to write more in every single universe of which those stories are microcosms.) You’re right about it feeling more like a snapshot, David. For me, the trick is remembering that only so much can fit in the picture, and panning out for a bigger shot is what the feature films are for.

    I haven’t written many shorts in some time, being focused on revisions and bigger projects and all. I’m starting to get a hankering to want to write some again. What I really like about short stories is that if I’m having a seriously hard time working in time to read, they’re helpful because they’re small enough for me to finish (hopefully) in one short sitting, like a lunch break.

  • Megan B.

    I’ll have to make sure I read your short story later! In the meantime, I have several thoughts about your question.

    First, I think it’s worth considering that a short story set in a larger universe (e.g. the Thieftaker world, which you have established already in longer form) is a different beast than a stand-alone short story. It has it’s own advantages and challenges because it uses some people, places or concepts that the reader may or may not be familiar with. I’d love to hear any comments you have on that.

    For myself, I realized recently that short form is my natural and preferred medium. I love writing flash fiction, and I’ve even had a one-sentence story published. I decided that my novel needs to go back to its roots as a series of novellas. I also decided to focus more on my short stories. I had been putting them on the back-burner, which created a certain amount of stress and dissatisfaction. For me, the shorter pieces come more easily, and I have a lot of trouble writing anything as long as a novel. Admitting that full-length novels are not my thing was a huge relief.

    This is a great topic, and I could yammer on all day, but I’ll stop here :)

  • Razz, thanks for the comment. Glad you liked the post. The market for shorts is always tight and it’s always in flux; it’s hard for small ‘zines — print or electronic — to stay alive. The bigger markets, like Tor.com and IGMS (which Edmund edits) tend to be more welcoming of all sorts of stories. The smaller markets are sometimes more specialized. But all of them offer guidelines, so that you can search and find the right venue for your particular story. The important thing is to send our your work and try to get it published.

    Quillet, thank you very much. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. Even if in writing shorts you only end up with first chapters for longer projects, that’s still a good thing. Keep working at them!

    Laura, I agree on all counts. I don’t read nearly enough short fiction, but I always enjoy it when I do.

    Megan, you raise a great point. Writing in an already-established universe is a different animal than writing a true stand alone. Each presents unique challenges; I’m not sure that one is harder than the other. But they are different. This could actually be a post in and of itself — something I’ll consider for my next MW post (Monday, April 1). Admitting to yourself that you are more geared to the shorter form must have felt great. As I say, we all have our preferences and tendencies, and knowing them is a big first step toward success, and also toward working to make the “weaker” medium into a strength.

  • [...] to short stories, a while ago I read David B. Coe’s post on Magical Words comparing novels vs short fiction in terms of the writing process. I wish I could learn to do this [...]