Monday, February 21, 2011

Size Can Matter: Novels vs Short Stories

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's not uncommon to hear "write short stories first to build your skill and gain a few publishing credits." While this advice is good for some, for those who don't know how to write short or even like to write short, it can be a road to frustration.But there is good news. Not everyone has to follow this advice.

Cut It Short

Short stories can be a great way to earn publishing credits and develop your skills, but if you find yourself banging your head against the keyboard at the mere thought of writing one, you might not be a short story writer at heart.

And that's okay.

Short stories take different skill sets. Just like you wouldn't feel bad for not being able to write in a genre you don't read or like, don't worry if you don't like writing short stories (or novels if you happen to be a short story writer). You don't have to writer either if you don't like doing it.

I wrote shorts in the beginning of my writing career, mostly because everyone said I should. But it didn't take me long to realize I wasn't a short story writer. It's much harder for me to craft a short story than a novel, and 70K words is where my skills shine the brightest. So I stopped trying. You'll see the occasional short story from me, but I focus on novels. They're what makes me happy as a writer.

I have friends who are just the opposite. They write wonderful shorts, but novels drive them crazy. Too many plots, characters, too much to worry about and keep track of. Their talents lie in the shorter form, and they're much happier under 10K words. I also have friends with skills in both, who can jump back and forth seamlessly and write whichever format suits their ideas best. Some use their shorts to help flesh out their novel worlds, or to craft histories for their characters.

For those who enjoy shorts, or are thinking about trying shorts, this week if for you. Yep, it's Short Story Week! I'll have guest authors visiting all week to share their tips and tricks on how to write, edit, and even sell your short stories.

But don't you novelists fret -- shorts are all about writing tight, so there are things to learn even if you prefer the long form.


  1. I think we've talked about this before, but I just can't write short stories. Everytime I try, it ends up being "chapter one." I do like to read them, though. There's something masterful about fitting a whole story, character arc and world into the space of a few pages.

  2. Thank you for posting this! Like you, I was told for years to write short stories because "that's how you get your name out there." But I just found it so hard to commit to something that I knew I couldn't flesh out as much as I wanted.

    I do come up with some ideas that I think will make good short stories, but they tend to be snippets of characters and events that are somehow related to a larger project.

  3. I usually like short stories, but I have trouble getting an idea that won't be too long or too short, and like Sarah, won't end up sounding like Chapter One.

    Yay for Short Story Week! I'm going to write a short story for the Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition, and it will be nice to have some tips. :)

  4. I absolutely adore the short story form and it was my first literary love. Unfortunately, they're a labor of love, as there isn't that much of a paying market for them.

  5. Looking forward to this week! I write short stories too, although they usually tend to be longer short stories (e.g. spilling over 5-6 thousand words) which makes them a little harder to find markets for. Shorter shorts seem to be the fashion these days.

  6. I'm really looking forward to Short Story Week, I hope it encourages me to sit down and flesh out some of my short story ideas!
    - Sophia.

  7. Sarah: That's me exactly. But there's never enough for an actual novel, so I get these great stories ideas that really don't go anywhere.

    Paul: Most welcome! I knew there had to be more of us out there :)

    Brittany: Awesome, I hope my guest authors spark lots of ideas and light bulbs for you.

    Fawn: This is true. I have several writer friends who publish a lot of them, but I don't think it's anything they could live off of. Which is really a shame, since it's so hard to write.

    Elisabeth: Seems that way, from what I hear from my friends. They are out there though.

    Sophia: I do, too. Light bulbs and ideas for everyone. :)

  8. Try going the other way: from novel to short story.

    Take a secondary character or perhaps a sub-plot you've minimized in the Great American Novel. Expand on it -- you've already got the storyworld written -- and make a short from it. Now, when you publish the Big Book on Amazon for $7.95, put out the short story for .99 (or free if you're a "publisher"). Of course, there are several links to your store with all the other novels.

  9. What about making short stories to compliment a series? I'm working on a fantasy series, and instead of filling in unnecessary details in the main stories, I'm letting my readers learn more on the side. Charlaine Harris does it with Sookie Stackhouse. Do you think that this might help to build stronger characters and a more realistic world?

  10. Bruce: That's a great marketing tip. You'd have to check any rights issues of course (to make sure you could publish a short in the same world/story as your novel), but that could be a good way to attract readers.

    Jessica: That's what my crit partner Juliette Wade does. I think it's a great idea.