I think I might be accidentally writing a book. About a year ago, I wrote a short story, just on a creative impulse. I was in a weird place personally and emotionally, and having dark, off-kilter ideas, and one night I just opened a Word document and started transcribing them. A character voice emerged, and then the character’s situation, and then somehow aliens got involved in the plot, and then I did another draft and kicked the aliens out, but sooner or later I ended up with a short story. It was a medium I had only ever attempted a few times in my life, mostly for assignments back in high school. And I got hooked.
I’ve written other, longer projects over the last year, but between those, I’ve found myself returning to the short story form. Each time, I’ve really tripped and fallen into the story more than approached it with intent. After all, I never thought of myself as a short story writer, and perhaps I’ve undervalued the form because it has less of a place in the world of traditional publishing than the novel. But right now, these stories are the outlet where I feel most creatively fulfilled.
Now I have drafts of eight short stories, and have begun sending some of those out to literary magazines. Three have been picked up for publication so far. Critique partners have asked if I’m putting together a short story collection, which has led me to ask myself… am I putting together a short story collection? I didn’t start with that aim, and I hesitate to even set that goal because part of the charm of this practice has been its lack of any endpoint other than the artistic. But who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll cobble a book together.
For now, it’s May, which is National Short Story Month! So I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned to love about this form. Maybe you’ll give it a try and find yourself tripping into a short story too.
- Short stories are lower stakes. I don’t mean that the stakes for the characters within your story should be lower—please do still make us feel that something is in the balance that matters very much to your protagonist, whether it’s a flat tire or the fate of the universe. But for you as a writer, the time and energy investment is much smaller for a short story than a novel, so if you try writing a story and it doesn’t get published, or gets negative reactions from readers, or just plain doesn’t work and you shelve it or give it up halfway through, that’s not as painful of a loss. This means:
- You can experiment. Short stories are a fiction writer’s playground. Those genres, tones, characters, topics, voices, or plot twists you’re afraid you can’t pull off in a novel, or afraid that readers won’t respond well to? Try them out here. You have a lot less to lose. It’s also easier to diverge from the “write what you know” principle in a short form. It doesn’t take as much research to convincingly portray characters who are very different from yourself or situations that are far outside your own life experience.
- You can leave a bit of mystery. I often enjoy an ambiguous ending that poses as many questions as it answers—but endings are a polarizing topic, and in a book, many readers are frustrated if they leave without a full sense of closure. Because a short story offers just a glimpse into a character’s life, a brief ride together rather than a whole journey, readers tend to be more accepting of loose threads at the end of a story than a novel. So if you like some ambiguity, or want to try calibrating the ends of your plots in different directions, the short story form is a good place to play around with that.
- They’re a great creative exercise. All that experimentation will help you grow as a writer! By undertaking the process again and again of creating a set of characters, a situation, and a plot from scratch, you’ll deepen your understanding of the mechanics of story. If you normally write in third person, try writing a story in first, or even second. If you normally write in present tense, try writing in past. You’ll expand and strengthen your skill set, and possibly discover a voice or technique that feels natural to you along the way. I’ve found myself falling more and more into the speculative fiction realm in my shorts, just by not worrying about genre and giving myself permission to detach from reality.
- Shorter is better for many writers. One of the biggest struggles for so many writers is just finishing a piece of work. These writers have inspiration. They have desire and motivation to write. They’re willing to put in effort. But partway through, the inspiration dwindles, or the writer hits a creative roadblock, or life intervenes for a while and the writer has to step away and the idea loses its luster… and then there’s always a shiny new idea just up ahead, saying “Hey, put down that other project that’s giving you a hard time, aren’t I more interesting? I will be your bestseller!” You’re more likely to reach the finish line with a short story than a novel, and if finishing projects is a challenge for you, just getting into the practice of typing that last word (then getting notes, and revising) can help build the muscle memory that will make that process easier to repeat. And finishing is motivating! It feels good to know you have written an actual, entire thing.
6. Shorter is better for many readers. Writers’ attention spans are shorter and shorter, and so are readers’. There’s an appetite for shortform content these days. Just look at how TikTok is overtaking YouTube. Readers are overloaded, and may appreciate something they can digest quickly. Many readers start but don’t finish books, and the rate of non-finishing is getting higher and higher with younger generations. Plus, journals are increasingly looking for not just short stories, but short short stories. Many have categories for flash fiction (generally under 1,000 words) or microfiction (generally under 300 words).
- The path to publication can be easier. Speaking of literary journals—there are tons of them out there, so you have plenty of outlets to which to submit a story. And unlike traditional publishers, most magazines take submissions directly from writers, and they often don’t care as much about your background or platform, and don’t expect you to help promote the magazine and sell copies. The turnaround time is also usually shorter than it would be for a novel, with a much less intensive editorial process. You can even bypass traditional publication and upload a story directly to your own blog or website, or post microfiction straight to social media. The downside of short story publishing is that most literary journals have small audiences, and publishers have less of an appetite for short story collections than for novels. But if you just want to see your name in print, and be able to share a published piece with family and friends, you are much more likely to get there with a short story than a book.
Ready to trade your writing pants for some writing shorts? (I had to get a shorts pun in there somewhere). Here are some prompts to get you started: https://thewritepractice.com/short-story-ideas/.