Short Fiction Revisited



I recently was asked to write the introduction for an upcoming fantasy anthology (Blood and Devotion:  Tales of Epic Fantasy, edited by W.H. Horner, from Fantasist Enterprises Books).  In writing the introduction, I spent a good deal of time thinking about short fiction and how writing it differs from writing novels.  This has been on my mind anyway recently, because I’ve been asked to submit to two anthologies in the next couple of months and I’m working on the first of my stories right now.

Here’s an excerpt from my introduction:  


Think of a novel as one of those towers of amethyst crystals that one sees in a mall nature shop or mineral store.  It’s huge, it sparkles; looking at it, one can’t help but be impressed.  But if a novel is such a tower, then a short story is a single crystal.  It doesn’t need to be part of the larger piece; it shines on its own.  It’s small, but multifaceted; simple, but brilliant and captivating.

I truly believe this.  I’m awed by successful short story writers.  Most of the books I’ve published have been parts of larger projects — we call them extended story arcs, which is really just another way of saying that I take several hundred thousand words to create my worlds, establish my characters and resolve my plot points.  But when I turn to short story writing I have to do much the same thing in fewer than 10,000 words.  There are differences, of course — a short story is not merely a miniaturized novel.  And I’ll discuss these differences shortly.  All I’m saying for now is that writing a successful short story is, at least for me, far more difficult than writing a successful novel.  I sold my first short story back in 2002, and I was every bit as proud of that sale as I was of my first book contract.  In many ways more so.  Until then I had felt that my failure to sell a short story reflected poorly on my skill as a writer.  Selling that first short piece confirmed for me that I had finally begun to master my craft.

The differences between writing short pieces versus longer ones are fairly predictable, and probably don’t need much elaboration.  The clearest difference for me is that a short piece is simply more directed.  Part of what I love about novel writing is the weaving together of narrative threads, the use of subplots that feed the main story and maintain the forward momentum of the entire project.  Subplots are largely absent from shorter works.  The story focuses on one narrative conflict and follows it to its resolution.  Short stories also tend to have fewer narrative voices; they can have more than one point of view character, just as a longer work does, but the number will usually be limited.  One also has to be more subtle and concise in conveying background material, be it for character development, worldbuilding, or the explanation of some dynamic in the narrative.  For me, this might be the greatest challenge in short story writing.  A couple of weeks ago I posted here at Magical Words about conveying such information in novels without the use of info dumps.  Well, in writing shorter pieces, obviously, one has to be even more careful with explanatory passages.  Worlds and magic systems need to be drawn with broad strokes — much of what the reader needs to know has to be implied rather than explicitly stated.  In many ways, I believe that when I’m writing short fiction I wind up placing more trust in my reader, having faith in her/his abilty to catch the subtle hints, the narrative breadcrumbs that I leave along the way as I write. 

Other differences:  I find that I write slower when I write shorter.  Lately I’ve been shooting for 2,000 words a day when working on my novels,; while working on a short piece, I’m satisfied with half that amount.  I take greater care with each passage; I work harder to make the most of every sentence, every word.  I think I also keep my characters on a slightly shorter leash.  I still allow them to direct the narrative some.  If a character begins to lead me in a direction I hadn’t anticipated, I’ll follow for a while.  But I won’t be as indulgent as I would be in a the midst of a novel or series.  In part this is because with the shorter work I have a better idea from the outset of where I intend to wind up.  But I also know that I don’t have the time or space for the more leisurely pace of storytelling that one can establish in a novel.

A lot of novelists I know don’t write much short fiction.  There is far less money in it.  Selling a short story can get you some exposure and help you sell a novel, but short story pubs are no longer the near-prerequisite for selling a novel that they once were.  And there are fewer markets now, so selling the short work is that much harder. 

But there are benefits to writing short fiction that all writers should consider.  For one thing, they offer a venue (a marketable one at that)  for exploring themes, developing characters, and discovering more about one’s world that can prove enormously helpful in the writing of a novel.  But even more important, those differences I catalogued before actually improve one’s writing for all media.  Learning to be more directed, more concise, more subtle in the conveyance of background information, more careful in the crafting of each passage, more trusting of my readers — all of these things improve my writing.  

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as I’ve written and sold more short fiction my novels have improved, nor do I think it’s a coincidence that as I’ve become a better novelist I’ve grown better at writing short work.  The two skill sets reinforce one another.  And maybe that’s the best reason of all for writing short stories.  Learning to do different things as a writer can only serve to make us more versatile, more comfortable with the written word.  In the end, that’s the most important goal we can have.  The market is unpredictable; what sells one month might languish the next.  But good writing is its own reward, and so I’ll continue to write short work as long as it’s still fun, and as long as I feel that it’s making me better at all the writing I do. 

David B. Coe



16 comments to Short Fiction Revisited

  • Tom Gallier

    Interesting post. I write both short stories and novels. I’ve only sold short stories (small press and to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies).

    I’m much more comfortable writing novels. Novels seem to flow out. Short stories are more difficult, but not much more. The thing is I have to be in the right frame of mind. I can’t write short if I’m in the middle of a novel, and viceversa.

    I tend to write in spurts. Novels for a while, then short stories for a while. Lately it has just been novels (for a good three year period, in fact.)

    Even stranger, while writing novels I only have novel ideas, and viceversa. I know, I’m an odd fellow.

  • David,
    I used to detest short fiction, wouldn’t read it except for school assignments. In recent years I’ve read quite a lot and your description of the best of the genre is spot on. I am intrigued by your blurb. Can’t wait to read it!

  • Interesting comment, Tom. I know what you mean about ideas coming in flurries for whatever medium you happen to be writing in at a given time. When I get into writing short fiction I suddenly find myself with lots of story ideas. Most of the time though, I write longer stuff, and the ideas come in swarms there, too.

    Faith, I’ve always loved short fiction, but doubted my ability to write it. As you say, the best of the medium can be quite amazing.

  • I used to be terrible at writing short fiction. I always wondered how you could tell an entire story in so few words. I was always much better at writing the longer prose, and so my short stories usually ended up being around 10k plus words, which quite a few places won’t take. However, it’s gotten far easier over the years. I now can just crank out 2800 word short stories at the drop of a hat. My problem is finding their niche in the magazine and anthology market. Which magazine might take this story or that story? Will this or that fit their genre requirements? And so I have a bunch of them now just kind of sitting around until I can find the right place to send them. I prefer to send to places that sell hard copies. I like the idea of actually having a real magazine on my shelf and being able to sign a couple for my friends and family. Can’t do that well with an e-copy, unless you print it out first, which just doesn’t feel the same.

    Your crystal analogy fits pretty well, but I see them as one of those little pewter statues of a dragon twined around a castle holding the little crystal. 😉

    When I think in short story I have to think more in terms of a moment in time. Instead of a movie it’s one episode of a TV series. It could be one piece of a larger whole, but this moment in time is resolved by the end. I’ve seen short stories that could have made interesting novels if the rest of the world were expanded upon, but it’s just a moment in time. A window that’s opened for a short time and allowed us to look into it before closing again.

  • You raise a great point, Daniel, one that we might want to explore in future posts, because it has implications for novels as well as short stories. It’s not enough merely to write an effective story or book. If we want to publish, we need to understand the market, and that means knowing what kind of stories are likely to be published by which magazines. Just as we might not send hard military SF to Roc or romantic fantasy to Baen, we wouldn’t send certain types of stories to some magazines. The best way to learn the market is to read the magazines, to familiarize oneself with the types of stories each magazine’s editors tend to buy.

    As to your other point, I actually think that short stories lend themselves to movies far better than novels do. Novels are so big, and so dense in terms of character development, backstory, and the rest that making a good movie from one is often impossible. (See David Lynch’s version of DUNE, for a perfect example. Also the Harry Potter movies — as the books become better, more involved, the movies get worse, at least IMO.) On the other hand, some truly marvelous movies have been made from short stories: Stand By Me, A River Runs Through It, Field of Dreams, 2001. There are exceptions, of couse — The Godfather being the most obvious. But still, I think short fiction lends itself to cinema.

  • Yeah. That is true. Analogy *fail*. 😉 I was actually thinking more in terms of one standalone episode of a TV series as compared to the whole series.

    My only problem with buying a magazine and reading it to familiarize myself with the types of stories they accept is my horrid luck and track record with buying mags in general. Nearly every mag I’ve picked up for that purpose has been just not very appealing in the exact issue I buy. I think it’s some horrid voodoo curse that was placed on me as a child. That’s part of the reason why I like companies that put excerpts of each issue on their website, so it’s less of a gamble.

    My latest short is awaiting my search for either a mag that wants zombie-centric fiction or another zombie anthology.

  • Every now and then I try my hand at short stories but more often than not they end up being scenes instead, especially if they are related to my second world fantasy setting.

    I’d like to try and hone my short story writing skills but, as I’m concentrating on writing novels, it is hard to make the time. I find I need a very different mind set for short story writing than the one I have for novels.

    One thing I have been thinking about using the short story format is to introduce entirely new stories (be they new worlds or even new sub genres). I think the short story format would be quite useful there. My writing at the moment is all Epic Fantasy, and yet I’ve had this Urban Fantasy idea rolling around for about a year.

    I think writing a short story to get to know the main character and his situation will be quite helpful. Now, whether I could shape that into a publishable short story is something else altogether.

    I have a lot of respect for the short story author. I’d love to be able to write with that level of focus and sharpness. All I can do is work at it when I can.

  • Daniel, it is true that magazines can be uneven, from issue to issue, and even from story to story. That said, to get a feel for a magazine editor’s tastes, it probably makes sense to read it over the course of several months rather than just one. I’d also say in response to your first posted comment that while I understand the desire to hve a hard copy of a magazine, there are some excellent e-zines out there that pay writers well and publish high quality fiction. One that comes to mind immediately is Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, which is edited by FOMW (Friend of Magical Words) Ed Schubert. Google it and check it out. You’d have to sign your friends’ and relatives’ computer screens, but it’s a great market….

    CE, I understand completely, because I was exactly the same way for a long time. When we’re writing our novels it’s hard to shift focus to short pieces that a) feel like something of a distraction, and b) have little potential for making money. But I’ve come to love the time I spend writing short fiction, and I think it has improved my writing a good deal. Yes, do it when you can, when it doesn’t detract from the novel writing. My problem was always that I SAID I’d handle it that way, but then, even when I had the time, I avoided short stories because I found them far more challenging. I hope you’ll avoid that trap.

  • I find Short Stories easier to write because they match my personality more. I tend to have short attention spans, so being able to put a story in 5000 or less words is just my cup of tea. You get into the meat of the plot and get resolution quickly. My problem is drawing the story out to novel length.

    I have found that the main difference between short stories and novels is number of points of view/number of plots and subplots. Short stories deal with one or two POVs and between one – two plots.

    So I find short stories an ideal way to write, but I am forcing myself to complete a novel. Hopefully it will work out.

  • Mark, I have many friends who insist that different authors write to different lengths, and that some are especially suited to one type of story or another. It may be that your natural strength as a writer is short fiction. You should use that to your advantage. The short story to novel publication route is no longer as prevalent as it once was, but it still works. Get those stories out there and get yourself published!

  • I write novels and short stories too, and love to read both. I think some people are more suited to one than the other, while other people are equally comfortable in either. I agree with David that novel skills and short story skills both improve if you work hard on both disciplines.

    My concern is that it’s a bit sad lately that so many short story markets are drying up. A lot of magazines are going under or going on hiatus due to a combination of the financial situation at the moment and the prevalence of online magazines. (On the upside, online magazines are getting better and better!) I always write what I want to write and then try to research very carefully where it will fit and try to make sales that way. But it’s never easy to get these stories bought – I was as happy as David describes when I sold my first one.

  • Alan, the same thing has happened with story markets here in the States [for the rest of you: Alan lives in Australia; I met him there back in early 2006.] And that’s the right strategy to marketing your story. Write what you want to write, and then find the appropriate market for it. Don’t try to write for a particular magazine. Anthologies are different, since they tend to be by invitation, or themed, or both.

  • I’m late to the party, so much of what I was thinking of saying has already been said or asked. Way to go gang!

    Anyways, great post. It just happens to correspond with my first real stint into short stories while waiting on novel feedback. I’m excited that Black Gate Magazine is going strong even in economic decline, and recently they opened their door to subs. Very exciting stuff.

  • Good luck with the short work, Dave. And yes, it’s a very good thing that Black Gate is opened to subs again. Actually, that first short story sale I mentioned was to Black Gate.

  • Thank you, David, for this marvelous post. I am sad to say I have just discovered this blog, but I am thankful that I have and will read as many back-posts as I can.

    I have always admired short story writers and wonder how can they convey all that emotion, weave so tight a story in so few words? I’m a novelist and tend to be on the “wordy” side, however, I see how important to the craft of writing short story writing can be. Taking on the challenge has always been a bit frightening as I do not like feeling limited and always panic because, inevitably, sub-plots abound. Forcing myself to abandon them for a more disciplined story-telling leaves me feeling a bit dry.

    I have completed two short stories and, as I know they still need some editing, I am pleased with the results. I also agree with your comment about taking more time to tell a shorter story. I found myself musing over each word as I wrote, paying careful attention to how I was saying everything. This may be constricting, but I also found it helpful in developing vocabulary as well as technique.

    Thank you again for the wonderful information and I look forward to becoming a regular reader of this blog.

  • Welcome to our site, Jennifer. Hope you enjoy it. I’ve come to love writing short stories as a different kind of creative challenge. I’m not sure I’m that good at it yet, but I do feel enormously satisfied when I finish a story that I like.

    Thanks for the comment, and again, welcome.