But I’m a Novelist — Why Write Short Stories?

Short stories? Really?

G’day, inklings! It’s a beautiful day in the Oklahoma City neighborhood! Remember that horrid heat dome thing I recently vented about? IT’S GONE. As I type this, it’s 11:29 a.m. and 72ºF. My windows are open, and my a/c is off. CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH?!?

But I’m not here to talk about the weather, much as I am in it rejoicing. Today, my lovelies, we’re back to short stories. My recent post Get Shorty elicited the following comment from reader Heather:

I am still terribly confused about the purpose of a short story. Why on earth would we want our stories to be short (unless, of course, they are children’s bedtime stories and then they cannot seem to be short enough for my tastes!).

As I pondered Heather’s question and posted my reply, I realized that others might have the same question and that it was worthy of its own blog post. Why write short stories? What’s the point of creating a world and then only spending a few pages in it? And as I pondered, I also realized that I’ve done a 180 on the subject since last I gave it thought. Oy vey!

So, in case you missed it, here are my thoughts on:

Why Short Stories?

1. I’ve always enjoyed long fiction far more than short. If I’m going to make an emotional commitment to a piece of fiction, I want a full return on my investment! It always seemed like short fiction couldn’t compensate me enough.

But since I’ve started writing my own short stories and reading others’ and reading what others have to say about short fiction, I’ve discovered that some readers feel the exact opposite about short stories. They want the short fiction, because it lets them know if they’re going to like a particular author or not. They can commit a short amount of time to a short piece. If they like it, they’ll invest more time in a longer work. But if they don’t like it, they haven’t lost a lot of time, and they can move on to something else.

In this article, Charlie Jane Anders writes,

You start every story with a certain amount of capital, and that capital is your readers’ attention span. You need to spend that capital wisely.

This rule of thumb applies well to short stories. Short story readers donate only a certain amount of capital. But if we spend it wisely, we can get them to donate more — and it’ll be enough to buy an entire novel.

2. Writing short stories hones our craft. I’ve only recently started realizing this. In a short story, I’ve got a very limited amount of word-space in which to establish character, develop character, develop plot, and transition from scene to sequel to climax to denouement. Since I can’t take my good ol’ easy time about it, I’m more focused on choosing the right words and on cutting unnecessary material.

It’s kind of like blogging vs. Twittering. On my blog, I can expound at length. On Twitter, I’ve got 140 characters with which to say something meaningful. Each tweet must be lean and to the point. The same, I find, applies to short stories: They’re lean and to the point, because they can’t afford not to be.

So, as I learn to fine-tune my short stories, I’m also fine-tuning my skills as a novelist.

3. ________________________________________.

Readers and writers, this one’s for you! Fill in the blank: What benefit do you see in writing short stories?

Or, if you disagree with me on the merits of penning short fiction, you can use #3 to hold forth on that, as well. ; )

Fling this post into the ether of internetted winds, that it might implant itself in a bazillion other consciousnesses and hasten the onset of my world dominion. ...Wait -- did I say that out loud?Buffer this pageDigg thisEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookFlattr the authorTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

10 thoughts on “But I’m a Novelist — Why Write Short Stories?

  1. Heather Sutherlin says:

    Excellent reply! Thank you for the clarity. As a reader I feel the same as you, that I want more bang for my buck (or for my time, effort, etc.) as a writer, I could certainly be convinced that the short story is a worthwhile endeavor. It is certainly a challenge for me to be “concise” and efficient with my words. I will have to look more kindly upon the humble short story in the future. Perhaps you’ll convert me yet.

    • Heather, I’m only a very recent convert myself, so keep that in mind! ; ) I doubt I’ll ever be a primarily short-story writer; my storytelling flows far too easily into the so-called “epic.” But I’m definitely seeing the merit in using short story writing to train myself in precision. I just wish I’d learned this before trying to tackle the epic! ; )

  2. Nick F says:

    Hi,

    I’m a sometimes reader of your blog and finishing my (first) work in progress. But what do you think of this….I am slogging out at least 80 thousand words but….what if, with all of this technology and people reading on mobile devices, and with all the multi tasking going on and the faster pace of society in general….well, what if going shorter becomes the new normal because thats the way people’s attention spans seem to be going? Possible? I think so.

    You know as I grew up as a rock and roll fan in the late 70s and 80s, my favorite bands like say Rush, Led Zeppelin, Yes (bear with me) and others had songs that typically lasted a good 5-9 minutes, sometimes even longer ( whole album sides even)….But then came the day when the record companies told them all that they wanted shorter songs….like 3-5 minutes…because, they reasoned, people no longer had the attention spans to listen to a 20 minute song or a whole album side….and they were right about that.

    What do you think of this comparison? I think its fair. Everyone is so fast and furious these days. Can I hold em for 80-100 thousand words? I would like to hear your opinion. Thanks and keep up the good work–Nick

    • Nick, it’s lovely to have you here! I’m happy this post has drawn you from the reading into the commenting section. Thanks for letting me know that you read the blog! : )

      As to your question, Jessie already beat me to most of the punches. So, in short, my answer to you is: YES, definitely! Attention spans are getting shorter, but the audience for the 110k-word novel is still out there. And — dare I say it? — I think there’s still an audience for the 150k as well.

      It is true that most traditional publishers are looking for works around the 80k range, especially from new authors. I guess this could be partially due to readers’ shortening attention spans, but it also has to do with publishing costs. When publishing a work by a new author, publishers are taking a risk: This author is untested; will this book sell, recoup its production cost, and generate a profit? If the word count is low, the publisher doesn’t risk losing as much money as they do when they publish a 110k-word novel.

      That said, your best bet is to follow what Jessie advises above: write your book well and don’t plump your word count, but only cut your word count if you’re cutting unnecessary material. Also, pay attention to genre standards. A young adult novel, for instance, probably shouldn’t run above 80k. But in epic fantasy, you should be able to get away with 100k. My Christian fantasy novels in the Demons of Saltmarch series [Colors of Deception, Shadows after Midnight (October 2011), and Stains of Grace (April 2012)] all run 80-90k. I haven’t heard any complaints about the length.

      And Nick, you don’t need me to “bear with you” on Rush, Led Zep, Yes, and the like. You named some of my favorite bands right there, so you are in good company. ; ) I’m not sure about the comparison of shorter songs to shorter novels, though. I agree that the record companies were right about the attention spans and 20-minute songs…but readers have always been willing to invest more time in a book than listeners are willing to invest in music. An attention span that’s short for music might be very long for reading. I’m thinking also of how people’s attention spans for movies don’t seem to be getting any shorter. I did some research, and the average movie length has been over 120 minutes since the 1970s. Maybe the fast pace of society affects music much sooner and far more than it does books and movies?

      Nick, please let me know when you finish your work-in-progress and what your plan is for the novel! I’d love to hear how it all goes. : ) Thanks for providing such good fodder for discussion!

  3. Pamela Davis says:

    I don’t have a comment about short stories, but I wanted to let you know that this blog post has made me realize I need to capture my readers’ interest faster in my second novel. Time to rewrite the beginning.

    • Pam, you just paid me a huge compliment. It’s a joy to hear that something I wrote sparked an idea for connecting better with your readers. Thank you. : )

      In return, you’re making me think I should post something about my faith in the “get in late, get out early” approach to story beginnings!

  4. Nick,
    As a book editor, I see a lot of books come through here that are often 80k-100k, sometimes even 110k. We try to keep the word count down to 80k, but honestly it’s for price and weight reasons, but for readers’ attention span reasons. If the book is that long because it needs to be that long, then let it be that long. Don’t try to buff up your word count unnecessarily, but if your book is well written, you will find readers who want to stick with you for the entire 400+ pages. It will probably take you longer to build up a fan base and you might lose a few readers due to size, but in the end I think it would be worth it. Look at Robert Jordan, JRR Tolkien, Diana Gabaldon, and GRR Martin. People take the time because they also know they will be highly rewarded.
    As for short stories, they have their merit as well. They are there for people whose attentions spans are waning, as well as for other reasons. I’m not a big fan in general of reading short stories, but I’ve discovered that I like writing them. If for nothing else than for what Courtney mentioned–they force me to hone my skills.

    • Jessie, you said it. ; ) Thanks especially for mentioning the possibility of losing a few readers along the way. It’s good to think about that, weighing out whether or not we want to risk alienating a portion of our fan base, even if it’s a small portion. If we’re starting out, it’s likely to be a small fan base, as well — so maybe it’s best to keep the epics tucked away until the fan base has grown a bit!

  5. Kay Weger says:

    Teachers of writing appreciate short, focused, to-the-point submissions from their students. A teacher’s time is critical, and if not for those teachers, there would be fewer writers out there. A short story is a vital teaching tool.

    • It’s always nice to get a blog visit from a parental. Thanks for commenting, Mama! I know that I certainly wouldn’t have gotten my start as a writer if you hadn’t coached me in short stories when I was a kid. It’s taken me a long time to come full circle…but I think I’ve come quite a ways from “My Littel Pigeons.” ; ) I think you’re quite right that most writers wouldn’t be writers if not for the teachers who encouraged and schooled them.

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