As a Lulu author, you most likely use Lulu to publish and print long-form books. For a fiction author, this probably means novels are your main form of content. Stemming from this, you might think that you should just keep writing novels. Writing short stories is basically just practicing for writing a novel anyway, right?
In a way that’s true. Writing short stories is a great way to prepare yourself for a longer and more involved project. But just because you’ve written a novel, it does not mean you should eschew short fiction entirely.
Short Fiction Matters
On the contrary, short fiction will remain some of the most important and beneficial work you can do. Not only does it keep you writing, it demands a number of structural limitations a novel can often avoid. Writing short fiction often is like exercise for your writing muscles.
Think about it like this: does a professional athlete achieve a spot with a pro team, or win a competition, then simply stop training? No, of course not. These athletes train relentlessly. If you want to take your writing to the next level, you’ll need to train for it. Short fiction is the training regimen you need!
You can think of short fiction as exercise, but that’s not the only reason to write short pieces, nor does your short fiction need to be relegated to a dusty folder. Some authors specialize in short form writing, and a multitude of publications exist that will accept submissions and publish selected works.
Reasons to write short fiction
As a self-published author, the credentials and notoriety of publishing short fiction may not carry as much weight as it once did, but there is still and will continue to be value in having a long list of publications attributed to your name.
Short fiction is the kind of exercise you can do while between novels, while your current manuscript is being edited or design work is underway, or maybe even if you’re just burnt out with working on your book.
If you’re writing on a schedule with daily word goals, doing a short story now and then is a terrific way to mix up the monotony. Or prevent monotony from forming at all. You can continue to hit those word count goals without forcing yourself to work on a story that’s stalled, or buy a few days to think about a tough scene while writing a short story to keep those writing muscles strong.
One very real struggle for writers is motivation. Staying with a story, being consistent and writing every day. It’s not easy. A novel doesn’t make it any easier and some days you just can’t work on that book.
So write a short story.
One of the great things you can do with a short story is to take an idea you’ve had floating around and see what comes of it. I love writing short stories to explore a character or a theme.
The short form is generally going to be more restrictive and structured because you’re trying to tell an entire story in a few thousand words. Word economy and concision are valuable skills and not ones that come naturally for most. Short fiction lets you explore form and design within a highly-structured format. This might sound unnecessarily confining but it’s not. Working within tightly confined structures forces you to think differently about the work. Looking at your stories with a fresh perspective is one of the great gifts short stories offer.
The best part is, short stories are useful themselves. Maybe now and then you’ll find a short piece and want to dig deeper into it. That short story could be your next book!
Short Fiction is Fun!
Laboring over a novel can be invigorating work, but it can also be crushing. Sometimes you can’t get a scene just right, or the characters will start behaving badly, or the tone will drift. When I struggle with a longer piece, my go-to solution to keep writing is short fiction.
Writing short stories should never be a chore (though editing them might be). You want to have fun, explore a unique story idea, play with form and design, and practice the basic tenets of good writing.
Okay, so there are some really good reasons to write short fiction even if you are primarily interested in longer writing projects. If you’re not thoroughly familiar with writing the short form, let’s look at a few best practices.
Short Story Best Practices
If you’re just writing short stories to explore ideas and amuse yourself, maintaining best practices won’t be as important. I still encourage you to consider best practices while you write those short stories, and in doing so think about how your author brand can benefit from your short stories.
Start in the middle
I often make this common mistake. A short story is (naturally) short. You’ve got to get to the action quickly. A reader will accept a little exposition and slow pacing in the first fifteen or twenty pages of a 300-page novel. But a short story is likely to fill only a few printed pages. If a reader has to read even a paragraph of exposition, they might lose interest.
To avoid this, I like to go ahead and write a couple paragraphs of exposition. Set the scene, describe the place, introduce your characters. Then take that writing and set it aside. You’ve done a little work to get to know the story. Now you can write.
Start in the middle. If your short story is about two characters at a sporting event, don’t start with them going to the stadium. Dive right in. Put us in the moment. We don’t need to know how the characters got where they are. We need to know what the conflict these characters face. What we do need to know why this story matters. And we need to know quickly.
If a novel has upwards of 100,000 words, you have a fair amount of leeway in the words you elect to use. Some authors will insist that every word in a novel should serve the character development or the plot. But even those authors can’t avoid a little fluff here and there. A description that lingers on some flowery language, a conversation with too much dialog and not enough action – in a novel it can be hard not to include some of this kind of writing.
In a short story, the exact opposite is true. You cannot use even one excess word. Each and every word you commit to the short story must do work. You’ve got maybe 5,000 words to tell a complete story. Think about how you’re putting words to work. Scrutinize each line and ask yourself “what am I trying to say?” and “does this line serve that goal?”
If there is one express reason I think novelists should write short stories, it’s for the exercise in word economy explicit in short fiction.
Think Like an Editor
This category might even be more accurately labeled “Write Like an Editor,” but that sounds silly. Writing like an editor would be…trying, to say the least. You shouldn’t write with the constrained frame of mind editing requires.
But you should think about how an editor would respond to your creation.
The frame of mind you write in for short fiction is naturally going to be different than for longer pieces. Doing in-line editing is one aspect of this I think many don’t appreciate. Because your piece will be so short, there is time and space to review and consider language and structure while you write. For a novel, anyone would tell you (and I emphatically agree) that you should just write. Get the story on the page and perfect it later.
Short stories happen fast. The last novel I wrote took over two years to complete a second draft and I’m still editing it. I’ve changed since I started that story. So have my characters and my plot. When I write a short story, I lay down the entire story in a matter of days. Not much time to evolve during that creative process. As such, I can spend time getting in my own head and questioning my own story in the moment.
Learning to be immediately critical of your own work is a useful benefit of short story writing. I wouldn’t call it a reason to write short fiction. Story exploration and writing exercise are the reasons, getting out of your writer’s mind and into your editor’s mind is just a bonus. Or, to put it differently, you may find it useful to think like an editor while writing short stories, but I wouldn’t start a short story to force this kind of critical thinking on yourself.
Bring your Short fiction to Life
I’m going to come back to a point I made earlier and harp on it a little more.
If you’re writing a book, you’ve got ideas and stories as well as that need to share those stories. The size and scope of a novel are such that you cannot possibly hope to explore and flesh out every idea you have.
For the most part, this is fine. I flip through my notebook of story ideas and to be honest with myself, most of those ideas are trash. But some of them are interesting to me. A neat idea that needs to be explored and nurtured. There might not be a full-length book behind the idea, but that doesn’t mean the story can’t be told.
Short fiction is a powerful way to explore your ideas while practicing and honing the craft of writing.
Value Value Value
But wait, there’s more!
Short fiction may be best viewed as an exercise to add to your writing regimen, but it does have a number of ways to add value to your author brand. Prior to self-publishing, unpublished writers used short story submissions to add publication credits to their name. And even with the advent of self-publishing, the value of multiple publication credits is still relevant.
Your marketing goal is to promote your author brand and grow your audience size, right? Well, one surefire way to build your credentials is to accrue publication credits. A new reader coming to your author website is going to look at the layout and design of the site of course. This is 2017 and design matters. If they like what they see, the next natural place a reader will venture too will be your products page.
If all you have there is a single book, you run the risk of losing the readers interest. They might buy that volume, but they might not come back for more in the future. Now imagine listing not only your book but also links to a handful of online literary journals that publish your short fiction. This is value. That reader (or potential reader) can find your work online and learn more about you as an author through these examples of your work.
Think about it the same way a musician might release a song or two before they release a full album. Those songs are teasers for the longer, more involves work. Short fiction can be a teaser, not for a specific book, but for your author brand.
Stay in Shape
Doing anything well means doing that thing often, consistently, and consciously. Writing is a unique artistic endeavor and staying “fit” as a writer demands unique training. Find ways to make yourself write, to work in different forms and mediums, and to continually enhance how you tell your story. Short fiction writing won’t be your only means of exercising – you might try poetry or writing prompts – but it is an excellent way to explore ideas, develop and hone skills, and potentially come away from the exercise with more than just improved writing skills.
Paul is the Senior Copywriter at Lulu, writing weekly blog posts and helping guide content for the company’s marketing. When he’s not deeply entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person, but considers himself cat tolerant.