Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Five Reasons to Write Short Stories

By David E. Sharp

When I survey the contents of bookstores and libraries (I do that a lot), I find the ratio of story compilations to full-length novels is one for every fifty billion. I've never counted, but I'm sure it's in the ballpark.

We writer-folk tend to picture our names on the spine of a single work rather than wedged into the table of contents in a collection. Why should you spend time writing short stories when you could be making headway on your magnum opus? 

Tired of being ignored in favor of novels and epics,
disenfranchised bands of short stories began roaming the stacks,
preying on unsuspecting readers and inflicting them with papercuts.

1.) Short Stories Train You to Be Concise.

It's crucial in good writing to use words efficiently. Readers (or agents, or editors) aren't going to read far before they develop an opinion of your book. We've got precious few pages to make a good impression.

Containing an entire story arc within five-thousand words or less will train you to be frugal. It helps you develop the flow of rising action and culmination. Chapters of a long narrative should have all the elements of storytelling on an individual level even as they feed into the longer arc. 

2.) Short Stories Are an Idea Mill.

Many of my favorite books, I later discovered, were elaborations upon short stories their authors wrote on a lark. They sat in a dusty filing cabinet for a few years to percolate. You never know what nutty ideas will end up taking you for an epic ride.

Short stories let you experiment. You can try out the new and weird on them without worrying they're ruining the other 70,000 words you've got on paper. If the story doesn't work, hey it killed a dull afternoon.  If it does, then you've got something new to submit, or you can let it age until you're ready to develop it into something else. Or dismantle it and use the newly-tested ideas in your other works. Nobody said you can't steal from yourself.

Short stories give you the freedom to put your fever dreams on paper.
You'd be surprised how many great ideas came from fever dreams!

3.) Short Stories Are Easy to Shop.

There are numerous calls for short stories, both fiction and narrative non-fiction. You could submit to journals, competitions or compilations. And the beauty is, the process doesn't take very long. Getting one accepted could happen in a matter of months. Compare to the three years it took me to land a contract for my novel, and that's not bad.

It's a great way to spruce up your writing resume and maybe will tip the scales when you've got an agent interested in a longer masterpiece.

4.) They're Short.

You can get from once upon a time to happily ever after in a single inspired afternoon. Feeling like you're getting nowhere sometimes? Give yourself a feeling of accomplishment. Create something new to get the creative juices flowing.

You can practice the gamut of editing and revision within a few pages. Develop your abilities to make a story the best it can be without spending significant chunks of your remaining years on each individual work. Then revel in your accomplishment in the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.

5.) They're Difficult

Don't feel above short stories. Just because they don't spend as much time in the limelight, doesn't mean they're simple. Short stories are lean. They are the sprinters of the literary world. They have little time to establish characters, set a tone, develop a voice, create tension, bring about a climax and resolve it.

Behold this metaphorical embodiment of the short story!
See the power and grace with which he ties his shoe.

The hard truth is if we can't do that in five pages, we shouldn't expect to do it with five-hundred. Many successful novelists tell of having written countless smaller works besides. When you look at those bookstore shelves, imagine for every novel represented, there are numerous short stories that aren't. 

I suspect the ratio is about one for every fifty-billion.

1 comment:

Ronda Simmons said...

Your thoughts on short stories are dead on, David. A great way to get into the world of short story writing is by entering short story contests. April Moore, the Director of Northern Colorado Writers, lists a plethora of contests every month at the end of her “Write Stuff” newsletter. Sign up at www.northerncolorodaowriters.com.

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