Every single writing teacher, instructor, coach, editor, and (for that matter) other writers will tell new, fledgeling writers that it’s vital for a writer to write every single day. Another significant piece of advice floating around out there is to take time off between drafts. Days, weeks, maybe even a few months between the end of one draft and the beginning of the next draft/edits/revisions/final read-through.
So what do you do in the meantime? You could start another novel, of course. But I have a better idea: Write a short story.
Now, back when I started writing, I didn’t understand short stories. I learned to appreciate them in college, but the process of writing them, especially stories that wouldn’t fit in the “pulp” category, just didn’t make sense to me. How could so much be said in so short a period? What about world-building? What about sub-plots, character-development, in-depth setting descriptions? I loved the in-depth process of developing worlds, building long, arching plots with deep characters filled with back-story. So I thought, “What’s the point of writing short stories?”
Last year I successfully wrote my first real, well-written short story. I didn’t send it out to get published, and I don’t know if anyone would publish it (regardless of the fact that it’s “pulp” and there’s almost no market that I’ve found for “pulp” short stories). But I loved it, my critique group loved it, and the folks who read it on my blog loved it. More importantly, I want to write another one. Scratch that–I want to write a dozen more!
I learned something very important during the process, and answered my “what’s the point?” question at the same time. Short stories are a great way to keep writing sharp in-between projects. During the downtime when you’re letting the story stew so that you have a fresh perspective during the next round of edits. And it’s one of the best techniques I’ve found to sharpen one’s writing abilities! Short stories have to be concise. My first story was nearly 10,000 words long. Just shy of a novella! And keeping it that short was a serious struggle for me. My critique group thought I got a lot of information out in such a short period of time, but it could have been better. I could’ve made it shorter, fit as much story into roughly half the length, and spent less time delving into back-story.
This is an important skill to learn because long novels are hard to sell, especially with commercial fiction. Short stories give writers the opportunity to learn how to catch the reader’s attention very quickly. If those stories get published, it gives the writer credits, which is helpful for catching the attention of agents and editors. If the stories don’t get published, it doesn’t hurt as bad to “throw it away” as it would be with a full-length novel. You learn the lessons of an unsold story with less “loss” of time and effort. Moreover, stories abound of aspiring authors griping about how hard it is to sell a 500,000 word novel without any credits to their name. Learning to keep the story short and simple makes it easier to write a book that’s likely to sell. When readers are consistently paying for the shorter novels, they develop an interest in the longer books, making editors more willing to take a risk on epic novels. But until that happens, it’s important to keep the novels within the standard length.
Aside from the lessons that can be learned through the process of writing a short story, it’s also a great way to come up with GREAT ideas for novels. The story I wrote last year was something I just threw together for fun. Something to give my blog readers, as well as a writing exercise. But I had a lot of fun. I took a shot at a genre I’ve never touched before. And I created a universe that’s fun with many options for novels that take place both before and after the short. My critique group pestered me to turn the short story into a novel. That’s just not something I wanted to do. There was a story there, both before and after the pages. But not something that I think I could turn into a novel I would want to read. However, it did give me ideas for the novel I’m working on now. It’s a book that I love, and I’m enjoying every minute of the process. The short story gave me the building blocks for this book, and without it, I would be stuck with a flat world that I’d need to build from scratch. The short story helped me build a world without putting in nearly as much effort as I normally put into world-building behind the scenes.
There are many other reasons to write short stories, but these are the lessons I learned over the last year. I encourage all of you to sit down and write a brief story. Somewhere between 300 and 3,000 words. Take some time with it, edit it, and get it critiqued. Then see if you can get it published. If you do, congratulations! If not, think about what you learned and apply those lessons to your next project. Most of all, have fun!
Giles Hash is a writer living in Colorado and brewing beer in his free time.