A Short Bit on Short Stories
I never intended to write much short fiction in my writer-ly life. I, like a lot of writers out there, set my sights on the big prize – the novel. The thing is, though, that in the time you write one decent novel, you could have written at least a half-dozen short stories. As I journeyed down my long road to professional publication, it occurred to me that writing short fiction was a good way to get your toe into the market, so to speak. It was a good way to hone your craft, get publication credits, and make connections in the industry without having to wait years and years between novel drafts and agent responses and so on.
Short stories, though, aren’t really anything like novels. Well, not really, anyway. Some of the basic writing craft is identical – a good description or a good character in a short story and a novel are more or less the same. The trouble with short stories is, though, that they’re, well, short. What’s more, the shorter they are, but better odds you have of getting them published (as they represent less investment and less risk on the part of the publisher and, furthermore, everybody these days has short attention spans for such things). If you tend to write stories in the upper end of the story world (7500 words), publication opportunities dwindle. God forbid if you’re most comfortable writing short stories in the novelette range (7500 to 14000 words or so), because then you’re looking at a rather short list of markets, especially if you write science fiction and fantasy, as I do.
The difference between a short story and a novel is analogous to the difference between a joke and an anecdote. An anecdote has many ups and downs, several good laughs, several turns of phrase, and so on. A joke has, essentially, one moving part. Maybe two. You don’t edit it from the inside out, you just rewrite the whole damned thing – it’s like building a bicycle frame: there’s not much to it, but every last part of it is important. That’s pretty damned hard, when you come right down to it. I can plot out epic adventures across a couple hundred pages of a novel, but a twenty page short story can stump me like nothing else.
Then, of course, there’s the interesting fact that people just don’t read a whole lot of short fiction, on average. Even in the science fiction world, which has a very healthy short fiction market, sales are low and competition for publications is very, very high. You won’t make a living at this. These days its tough to even make a name for yourself.
So why do it? Well, because short fiction gives you an opportunity to experiment in ways a novel doesn’t. You don’t have to worry about sustaining a new voice through hundreds of pages – just a few dozen. You learn a lot about what you’re capable of as a writer. While I still don’t consider short fiction my first love, I have come to appreciate how much it has done for me, both in my career and in my personal development. Yeah, I’m not exactly sitting on top of the writing world (yet…), but a lot of where I am has come from deciding to buckle down and really take a serious swing at writing the short story. I’ll keep doing it, too, as they let me grow, and growth is essential for any healthy artist (if that’s what I’m calling myself these days, which seems pretentious for a guy writing about robots and wizards).
Now, I think I might have to take a crack at the short-short. That, I fear, brings me down a road that strays so close to poetry I’m might burn myself. Still, if Daily Science Fiction wants it…