There are many bad reasons to focus on short fiction and one really good one…and both present their own problems. Stick with me as I show you how to adapt your writing to short fiction OR expand your short stories into novels.
Bad Reasons to Write Short Stories
Short stories are great for your career, they say. Start with short fiction, they say, to
- Build your publication credits
- Help new audiences find you
- Let editors know you’re serious
- Raise your profile by winning contests
- Keep your novel fans happy in between books
The problem is not everyone loves short stories. I’m talking about readers and writers, here.
Writing short, while undeniably a useful skill, just isn’t something everyone loves. Maybe you’re in that group.
The bigger problem for you is that the mythical ‘they’ who tell you short stories are a great tool in your toolbox aren’t wrong.
But don’t worry, I’m going to explain some of the reasons you find it hard to write short, and I’m going to show you some techniques for stopping your story’s attempt to become an epic 14-part novel series.
Good Reasons To Keep It Short
If you love short fiction, that comes with its own set of problems:
- Nobody has made a living selling short fiction since 1959. (OK, I made up that date, but do you know anyone your age who has earned a decent hourly wage for a short story?)
- The majority of readers read novels, not short fiction.
- When you show a story to your fellow writers, 98% of them say “this would be a great first chapter” or “I really want to know more.”
- You feel like you ought to be writing novels (because that’s what most people read and buy), but the thought is terrifying: like the difference between the fun of decorating a single room vs. committing to building a whole house with underfloor heating, a solarium, and a bathroom for every guest. You have no idea how to get started and you’re not even sure you want to.
- When you try to ‘add words’ you get the feeling you’re just adding words, not actually adding to the story.
Fear not: in this article I’m going to show you some of the ways short stories and novels differ so that, no matter which one you’re trying to build, you can read the blueprints and create something that stands on its own.
Divided By A Common Language
I’m from the UK but I’ve lived in the US my entire adult life. There’s a funny-not-funny line about the two countries being divided by a common language.
(In Britain, ‘momentarily’ means ‘for a moment’ whereas in the US it can also mean ‘in a moment’. Next time you’re on a plane, watch the faces of your British companions as the American pilot blithely announces that “we’ll be in the air momentarily”…)
Short fiction and novels (or even book-length memoir) are similarly bifurcated.
We use the same ingredients, and some of the same techniques to tell stories that entertain readers. But we do it in different ways, depending on whether or not we’re writing novels or short fiction. And we don’t talk about those differences enough.
Guidepost 1: Consider The Reader
This January I decided to read at least one short story every day to catch up on some of the best of last year’s writing. It was a dizzying experience but one I enjoyed.
At the same time my husband decided to get back to reading more fiction and plunged into a novel which he dutifully finished and rated: “hmmm”. He passed it on to me to see what I thought.
I enjoyed it, and I think I know why we reacted differently to it.
Coming off a month of reading short fiction, I was very comfortable with the novel’s fractured timelines and puzzle-like structure. Coming back to fiction after a break, my husband found it harder to get invested in the story as it jumped around. (In retrospect, he probably should have picked something more linear.)
Novel readers, in general, want to be immersed in the world of the novel, to be swept away by it. A novel is a languid soak in a deep, bubble bath with an endless supply of hot water and somebody else on hand to watch your kids.
People don’t read short stories for that. They read for the gaps, for the puzzle, for the quick, emotional hit. A short story is a bracing, polar bear plunge that leaves you intellectually invigorated (and probably a little bit smug).
Readers come to short and long looking for a different experience.
You, as the writer, must remember which experience you’re trying to create.
For novelists writing short: you’re probably telling us too much. Try lopping off the opening paragraph (or two) of your story. Then do the same with the end. Jump around in time with no transitions and see what happens. Leave entire characters off the page.
For short story writers trying to go long: Slow down and let your gaze linger on your characters and their setting. Immerse us in key moments. Don’t keep pushing the plot. Play with paragraphs that link one scene to the next (thematically or to demonstrate the time-jump)