This year I did a panel at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, along with Fleur Bradley, Shannon Lawrence, and Stant Litore, titled Short Stories: Good for the Novelist, Good for the Career, Good for the Soul.
The panel went by too quickly and we all but ran out of time singing out praise and reasons for writing short stories. I had several people come up and ask questions afterwards, so I thought I would put up some of the things we went over on the panel. I hope it gives you some nourishing food for thought.
Short stories are an oft-overlooked gateway to many advantageous things in a writer’s career. Here are some good reasons to consider writing, and maybe even publishing, some short stories:
If you can’t finish a short story, what makes you think you can finish a novel?
Seriously. You have an epic decalogy planned but you think you can’t handle a measly two to eight thousand word short story? Think about that for a moment.
And just what exactly is a chapter in a novel? It’s a short story. Or it should be. Each chapter needs to have its own smaller story arc to keep the momentum of the story moving forward. This translates into the need for a hook, a conflict, and a resolution. The only real difference is that at the end of a chapter, something should happen that keeps the story moving forward instead of resolving and ending the story. (Until the last chapter, of course!)
Writing short stories can be good practice for controlling the pacing of the chapters in your novel. Outlining short stories can be good practice for outlining your multi-generational epic space opera. Editing short stories is just good practice for any writing you do.
Limiting the space you have in which to tell the story can help you learn to condense a story and avoid being unnecessarily verbose in your novel, such as finding ways to make sure you’ve described a scene without over-describing it, or learning how to include a “message” or a “moral” in the story without having the moral be the story. It can also help to increase your focus on dialog and characterization and help you learn to take advantage of preconceived and even stereotypical notions to surprise readers.
You can use short stories to explore ideas that you think might make a good novel. Perhaps you’ll realize that the idea really only merited ten pages and not four hundred after all. Short stories can help you to establish copyrights to your Intellectual Properties. A copyright is a copyright whether it is for your decalogy or for a short story. You will have established, and protected, the basis for the world your stories take place! (Remember, although you don’t HAVE to register a work to have copyright, it makes a BIG difference should problems arise. Don’t take chances with your big ideas. $35 is cheap compared to some of the headaches of the future.)
You can use them to create the backgrounds for your secondary characters, helping you to better understand their motives and desires. You might even end up with content good enough to use to promote or accessorize your novel! Or you may end up with enough to publish your own collection of short stories.
Which brings me to reasons not necessarily directly related to writing novels.
You can sell your short stories for money! Really! There are places that buy and publish short stories. Not only that, it’s possible to sell your short stories multiple times! When your rights revert back to you on your short stories (which depends upon your contracts. Always read contracts!* See notes at the end of this!) you can publish your own collection of your short stories or maybe re-sell them as previously published to venues that might really want your story again!
Publishing short stories can also kick-start your writing career. Having published short stories shows you can write and work with editors, and having several short stories published can show you are in this for the long haul. Agents and publishes notice this, and the exposure adds up, and can be kept up between your novels being released. Editors and publishers may even start asking you for stories. Contests can be great exposure as well, but beware of the entry rules! *See the links to the warnings below.
This can lead to making new connections. Many local authors and publishers get involved in local anthologies, and that becomes a great way to meet and get involved in your local community. (Contrary to what many people say and would like to beleive, a huge part of getting published really is who you know. Just like most other jobs out there.)
Writing short stories can also help you break out of “writer’s block.” A short story doesn’t really detract too much from the novel you are working on, and it gets you writing again. Sometimes that little push is all you need to start that motor up again. Not to mention that actually selling a short story feels great and is a huge boost to your self-confidence.
You can also use short stories to learn how to outline or, conversely, learn how to “wing it.” You can try out new genres, experiment with new writing styles and perspectives, and maybe even see if a new pen name fits you well.
No matter how you look at it, there is a little something for everyone to gain from trying their hand at short stories.
* see more on contracts here:
Thoughts on Contracts from your friend Sam Knight http://samknight.com/?p=2564
Also, please heed this warning:
What Every Writer (and you, too!) Needs to Know About Terms of Service RIGHT NOW! http://samknight.com/?p=2201