Reasons to write short stories

I’ve written two short stories this year. This is big news here at the coffee pot, because short stories aren’t really my thing. They’re tricky suckers, so tight and concise and punchy; no rambling, multi-plotted story with an epic cast of characters here. I envy those who can do them well, and who can do them consistently and frequently. It sucks that shorts, mostly, don’t pay that well. It sucks that the short story struggles for acceptance in the broader community.

But why the flurry over here (two does not a flurry make, granted, but I’m counting the wee outbreak from last year as well) where the long form is by far the norm? I think it’s possibly, partly, mostly, procrastination, but it’s good procrastination. Sure, I’m not working on a novel — pick one, the hard drive’s littered with carcasses and infants — but I am writing.

And that’s one of the beauties of shorts — they’re short. The procrastination will only last so long (I promise).

Here’s my justification, in answer to those whispered accusations of neglect from those aforementioned bits and pieces of novel:

1. Shorts are short. There’s more to this than meets the eye, and not just a pair of knobbly knees sticking out either!

a. Because short stories don’t have a lot of room, they help hone craft. They demand that extraneous matter be discarded. They require a singular devotion to the point of the exercise, without cluttering up the place with overblown description, secondary characters, waffling dialogue, and so forth.

b. Short, theoretically, means they don’t take as long as a novel to write. Some might gestate for ages, but in the actual writing, more often than not, a short should fall out of the oven a whole lot quicker than a novel. Bask in that warm glow of accomplishment. Just think: beginning, middle and The End in just a day, or two, or a week, maybe a month… However long it takes to get it shiny, do then take the next step: send it out to a market. And, if the factors align, score an acceptance. The warm glow is now a roaring fire complete with wine and chocolate.

My short stories are infrequent visitors, so I like to send them to a home made of bricks and mortar. Or dead trees, if you want to be strictly accurate. It might not enjoy the accessibility (and, arguably, the exposure) of a half-decent online mag, but it does look good on my shelf. Ego stroking is important in the depths of discouragement and narrative black holes, when the decision to sit at a keyboard making up stuff seems a stoopid career choice compared to, oh, watching telly, going to the pub and otherwise doing “real” stuff.

c. Because they’re short, you can play. Try different voices, different tenses, different structures. And when they don’t work, you don’t have to spend six months changing it all back to third person, past tense. Shorts are a great sandbox; raking it over and starting again doesn’t hurt quite so much.

d. Sometimes, short is just the right length. How long is a great story? It’s as long as it needs to be. Sometimes, that means short. If you can get your point across in 1000, 3000, 8000 words, then go for it. Don’t waffle. Don’t wander. If it needs 160,000, well, that’s fine, too. You can pretty much always tell when a TV show has been extended halfway through the first season; likewise, a written story can suffer from over-reaching.

e. We now interrupt this program with a news flash … There are times when you hear about an anthology and the theme or the title just zaps you: pow! Instant idea! Run with it. The novel, or whatever other project you’re suddenly neglecting, can wait — it’s only a short break, ain’t it. You don’t wait for those lightning bolts to strike twice. And even if you do miss out on getting into that title, well, maybe you can send the story somewhere else. Anything that gets you enthusiastic about writing must be good.

2. Shorts are fashionable. There are lots of markets for shorts, both in print and online (look at ralan.com and duotrope as starting points for spec fic markets). It means you probably won’t have to wait too long to hear if the baby has found a home. You’d think the commuter set would be lovin’ the shorts, especially when delivered on a wee screen. They should. Everyone should. Because of point 4 (below). But first, there’s another fashion statement to consider:

3. Shorts look cool. Not as cool as a fez, perhaps, but cool, nonetheless, when they’re racked up on a CV. You don’t need them to get a contract for your novel — hey, everyone has a story to tell about how they cracked that first book deal, and not all of them involve a razzle dazzle set of short credits — but it can’t help, can it? To show that you’ve been writing, learning, engaging with the market and the writing community.

4. Shorts can punch above their weight. Oh, how a good short story can leave you gasping. I must’ve been only knee high to a grass hopper when I first read Arthur C Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” and I still hark back to that final line as one of the best ever. A short is an idea, so very sharp, and when it hits the spot — intellectually or emotionally — it really digs in. I’ve heard it said that a short story makes a great movie while a good book makes a great TV series. Sounds about right.

5. Shorts can value-add. So you’ve got a novel in the works, but that character is a bit of a mystery. Whack him or her or it into a short and see how they fare. It might not go any further, or you might end up with not only some revelation for your long work, but a neat little tie-in. Back story might not fit in a novel, but it might make a handy piece of cross-promotion — if it stands alone as a great little yarn. Fans of the novel will love the extra info, and other readers might gain a yen for finding out more about the world and its characters.

6. Take a short break. Hit the wall in the novel? Even better, finished the first draft? Take a break, go on a literary holiday and write a short. Or two. Explore a new world, a new voice, a new style. Revel in writing something fresh that isn’t the novel. It’s a working holiday and, at the end, you may even have a souvenir acceptance to show for it. Refreshed and ego-stroked, it’s back to the big game. And who knows? That short might, down the track, grow into a novel of its own, now that you’ve planted the seed.

I’m sure there are other reasons to write shorts, other than the sheer love of the form — feel free to share. But I think I’ve procrastinated enough. Writing about writing shorts is probably taking it a step too far. I should probably go write something. But something short or something long? Hmm. I’ll have a coffee and think about it…

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