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