People often ask me…ha, I can’t even write that with a straight face. Nobody ever asks me. But the beauty of a blog is that I can answer questions that nobody asks me.
Nobody often asks me whether or not they need to write short stories to begin building their writing career. Lately I’ve heard this topic get a lot of negative press; a lot of authors are saying that short stories aren’t necessarily important to a writer. While there’s always the caveat that it might be a good idea, very few writers will then explain why. The result is that short fiction has a negative stigma around it that might be giving the wrong message to new writers. The wrong message being “don’t bother with it.”
When I say I’ve only been writing “seriously” for the last 3 years, what I mean is that I’ve only started seriously trying to get better instead of just sort of throwing words out. I’ve been studying the art of writing, I’ve been writing novels and trying out different things, I’ve been submitting my pieces to magazines and editors and agents. And here are some stats for you:
- I have written over 1.1 million words
- I have written 5 novels of varying lengths
- I have written 48 short stories
So why the hell did I write almost 50 short stories if it’s not worth it? There are a couple of reasons.
They Help You Establish a Reputation: This is the contentious point. “Nobody cares about your short stories” is something I hear a lot, and I think it’s hogwash. It does a couple of different things for your reputation. First, it helps you test the waters. Are those stories getting published? By whom? Are you reading that particular market correctly and sending them stories that will suit that magazine? It’s helping you learn the market and learn the business without a huge time commitment. Second, if you are getting published, walking up to an editor and saying “I’ve written 2 novels, would you like you read one?” is significantly different from “I’ve been published in Asimov’s – and I’ve written 2 novels, would you like to read one?” You’re showing that you’re serious about your craft, and that counts, damn it. Third, and this is purely personal, it’s quicker than a novel and I enjoy the back-and-forth and the suspense of waiting for another rejection letter or the thrill of seeing my story get picked up and published. Purely validation, but I’m not ashamed of it.
They Are Your Playground: How many concepts can you play with and experiment with in a novel? Probably one, and you have to spend months doing it. That’s kind of like saying “You know what? I’m going to build this house, but I’m going to built it out of those twisty straws and just see what happens.” In the end, you’re going to have wasted an awful lot of time constructing something that doesn’t work, and there are going to be a lot of people who are pissed off at you because they can’t find any twisty straws. Try building a lego-sized house out of short straws first. In a short story, you can see what happens when you tell a story in second-person flashback in a story-within-a-story format with an unreliable narrator. And when it crashes and burns, you self publish it on Amazon (NO DON’T DO THAT IT’S AN AWFUL IDEA AND I AM KIDDING).
Personally, My Short Game Needed Work: I was writing awfully verbose and expository prose when I started out, and I needed a mechanism to help me fix that. When you have a maximum word limit of 5,000 for Magazine X, you learn to be economical pretty damn quick. No, Joe, you don’t need 3 paragraphs of description before you introduce a character. No, Joe, you don’t need to follow a character’s train of thought from the girl in front of him to why parmesan cheese is so salty. Writing short stories helped me tighten up my language, so that now, when I go to edit a novel, I’m cutting 5-10% of the length for verbosity, not 30%. I learned to deliver ideas quicker and more efficiently without sacrificing the poetic nature of prose (don’t listen to people when they tell you that modern readers don’t have time for beautiful prose. It just has to be beautiful, effective prose.)
The point that writers and editors are making, I think, is that you don’t absolutely, positively need to write short stories in order to make it. But I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that it can’t hurt. In fact, it’s probably going to help. I challenge you to find successful authors who say “I’ve only ever written stories greater than 20,000 words.” If you do find one, though, don’t tell me, because I prefer continuing to think that I’m right.