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Tuesday, January 29

New Market – New Game: Defining Short Fiction

short fiction, short stories, sarah dahl, vikings
By Sarah Dahl, @sarahdahl13

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series


JH: A few months ago, I was chatting with Sarah Dahl about short fiction, discussing how little is “out there” about this side of the craft: writing shorter, and publishing it, and I asked her to do a series to focus on this growing market. In this (roughly) monthly series she'll discuss why writers might want to consider writing shorter – and how they can make the most of it. 


Sarah Dahl lives on the edge of the rural German Eifel and writes historical fiction (novels and short stories) primarily set in the Viking age. She was an editor in several German publishing houses and managed a translation agency. The magic of writing re-entered her life at UCD Dublin, where she sat in J.R.R. Tolkien’s office every day, while working on the ‘Dictionary of Hiberno-English’. Tolkien’s spirit must have done something to her creative muscles – it sure wasn’t the bland view from his office. She became a full-time writer soon after and still works as an editor, translates, and coaches new authors. She is interested in everyday life in bygone centuries and the human stories that may have occurred behind the hard, historical facts. Sarah just released her collection Tales of Freya, seven sensual short stories set in the Viking age.

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Take it away Sarah...

So I ask: Are short works less valuable and publishable today, OR are they the future with time-pressed readers these days? But then:

Is the writing of short works actually a new idea?


Of course not.

Mara Purl writes, “’Everything old is new again,’ says the Peter Allen song. Novels, novellas, novelettes (and short stories and flash) have been around for decades. Make that centuries.’”

It just seems that shorter works fell out of fashion with publishing companies for a while, maybe because a print run needs more flesh to the bone than a few pages. Novels were the thing. But with the digital age things are rapidly changing and short forms of fiction see a revival. They are not only an old idea made new; they are more than that.

Short fiction today is a whole new literary form


writing short stories, kindle short reads, short fiction
Sarah Dahl
John Dopp and Nicky Fusco write about ebooks, “this creative freedom, together with new technologies, is giving rise to new literary forms: books as apps, Kindle Singles, novellas, multimedia books, books as online courses, cell-phone novels, and many more.” And what I find an especially fascinating point is, “they allow stories to be exactly as long as they want to be. And it seems many of them want to be between 10,000 and 35,000 words long. This has the makings of a whole new genre in both fiction and non-fiction.”

So what they are saying is that shorter works go hand in hand with the new digital and indie publishing age, in two ways: their modern packaging and their flexible size. Now I see why I struggle to classify my stories with the old definitions: They all seem to be around the 8,000-10,000 word mark. Some shorter, some longer. So what are they? What is the stuff YOU are writing in today’s terms?

According to Kassandra Lamb “technically, a short story is under 7,500 words. There is this thing called a novelette that is 7,500 to 17,500 words, but the reality is that readers have rarely heard of this term.”

(Here's more on whether or not to write short)

You might know that a novella is usually defined as 17,500 to 40,000 words (and a novel starts at 40,000 words).

A problem of definitions: What is this shorter thing that I wrote?


So writers ask: What do I call my short work, when it lies between short story and novelette (like mine)? And what about old terms in modern times, in which readers don’t seem to care about the classic definitions of what “makes” a short story or novelette? They might only be confused as to what they are buying, no?

Lamb reports this problem too: “The 12K novelette I published several years ago is almost always referred to as a short story in reviews, and even my 25K novellas are sometimes viewed as short stories by readers.”

Maybe in digital times we have to admit that the old, paper-related terms don’t serve their purpose anymore.

We have a new literary form outside the old definitions.

How about we look at content, not word count


Mara Purl agrees with Lamb’s definition of word count for short stories and novelettes, but adds: “What a short story must have is a plot twist, one that turns on a dime. (…) It contains an inherent tension, and if it’s true to form, you can trust that the tension will be resolved by the end of the story. (This is not necessarily the case with other forms.) Another feature of short stories is they contain no sub-plots, and as few characters as possible—perhaps only one, or two.”

Given Lamb’s definition, length-wise my stories are novelettes instead of short stories. But I call them short stories, because I agree with Lamb’s finding that readers don’t necessarily know the term novelette. I want to be clear with them. But according to Purl’s definition, my stories surely aren’t “simple” short stories. When looking at the content, it’s more complex: I always have several characters, they all undergo a change for the better, there is twists and development, and a satisfactory ending. In other terms, I have arcs. Story and character arcs, all rolled into one short work of novelette word counts. I don’t plan stories with a certain word count goal. I plan them with depth, with layers.

So what could be the new terms for this new literary form?


As we can’t exactly pinpoint what a short story is (word count, and which, or content, and which), let’s find other terms for the shorter stuff authors publish today. How about short fiction, or just “shorts”. Kindle had this idea of Kindle Short Reads. They let the reader choose the time or page amount they’d like to invest in a story. Maybe this is how modern readers buy?

“Shorts” for me is a cool term in today’s digital market, where indie authors can blur boundaries and definitions, and drag readers along with them. I like the term “shorts” to indicate anything below novella length, i. e. less than 17,500. And let’s not fret too much about numbers … an 18,000 word piece won’t suddenly have more depth and arcs just because there are 500 words more.

The focus in our series will be on “short fiction” – or just “shorts”, without distinguishing between short story or novelette too much. We can spend ages defining the differences in content between both, but again indies will only break rules (as we do, and rightly so) and write very short works with depth or novelettes without arcs ….

As you can see: the boundaries between short stories, novelettes, and novellas can’t be defined as clearly anymore. And they don’t have to be. Writing AND buying stories is not a rational thing. It is about the gut. I don’t write a story with literary requirements in mind. I let it take me (and the characters) where it needs to go (and where it wants to end up word count-wise). And neither will my readers choose and read it with the old definitions in mind (“I need something under 17,500 words!”). They will hopefully buy because the content spoke to them, not the length alone. And I claim from my own experience:

Readers today decide with their guts, not brains


Isn’t it beautiful that indies can now breach those old boundaries and write what they feel like writing, with less concern about literary requirements? And that readers have this wide choice? They don’t only look at long vs. short, or novels vs. short story collections these days. The digital age means that they have so much more choice – which we can supply them with!

Readers can ask their gut like they would ask an empty belly: what kind of “literary food” do I want now? The several courses-meal that is a full novel, a commitment with a lot of depth? Or do I need something smaller, like a snack, something easier to digest? And which cuisine should it be, in general: French, Asian, Italian (i.e. which genre, romance, sci-fi, or maybe memoir)? I believe shorts are an added choice for readers’ stomachs.

Snack vs. full meal: What does the size of the plate say about the quality of the food?


A hungry reader will start their search for food within the cuisine they crave: their favorite genre. Then they browse the chosen menu for something smaller or bigger, depending on the space in their bellies (or brains, that is). They might not need to know exactly how big their plate will be, down to the last ingredient (word). They will go for a more general size, big or small. Then see what entices their appetite. Today, there is something out there for every belly and taste. Which means decisions to buy aren’t made with the literary brain so much – but with the gut (grin).

Are the days of belittling short fiction over? Can writers today proudly say they write short?


I certainly do. I add choice, without lacking quality. Sometimes readers need fodder that’s better to digest, easier to handle. Plate by plate, my “Tales of Freya” collection is like a tapas menu: many small plates in the style of “Nordic” cuisine (Viking times, Nordic setting). Bound together in a collection, like several small courses would form a hopefully (ful)filling sensual experience. And after every plate, you could take a break to digest before reading on.

According to the above given comparison with food choices: who would dare say snacks are not “good food” just because they are smaller than a three-course meal?

What does the size of the plate say about the quality of what’s on it?


Over to you: do you write short works, or “shorts”? What has your experience been so far, writing them, and with readers or publishers? Do you agree that new times require new literary forms, and less strict literary boundaries?

Next time, we’ll look at how saleable short fiction is in today’s market.

Happy reading & writing!

About Tales of Freya

short stories, vikings, A collection of sensual short stories set in the Viking Age

In this collection of adult bedtime stories, Sarah Dahl pulls back the curtain of history to depict the erotic lives of Viking men and women. Amid the stark landscapes of fjords, forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, her characters search for love and passion. Dahl authentically illuminates the sensual side of a world of battle and plunder in an alluring collection perfect for every lover of gritty Viking romance.

A warrior recovering by a river is drawn into an unforeseen skirmish with a beautiful shield maiden. An enslaved Christian monk is entranced by his captors’ pagan allure. A dissatisfied housewife finds that her home holds an unexpected and liberating secret. An injured farmer is captivated by the magic of his irresistible healer ...

In a world of crackling fires and rough landscapes, long winters and bloody raids, the immediacy of life and death ignites undeniable passions. Warriors and monks, healers and housewives – all follow the call of their hearts and bodies to indulge in pleasures that may forever change their lives.

“Vikings meets Last Kingdom with a huge dose of the ‘feels’”

Amazon | Amazon UK |

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