One favorite bit of advice given aspiring authors is to try your hand at writing short stories. If you become published in credible venues, your street creds are confirmed. Now editors and agents will take your queries seriously. Novel publication is imminent.
Wait! What’s wrong with this advice?
Number One is that it belittles the short story. The only reason you need to dabble in short fiction is to sell your novel length fiction? Don’t dismiss the short story. It is a unique art form, not a truncated novel.
The Number Two reason this advice stinks is because it is true, but not for the reason given. If you want to gain the attention of editors and agents, writing short improves your craft. You’ll be noticed for your crisp prose, swiftly developed characters, and smooth plotting.
What is the typical reply to that original advice? Ask me five years ago, and I would have said, “I can’t write short stories.”
What’s wrong with this answer?
The Number One reason is that you have just underestimated your talent. I have heard many people say they start a short story, and it turns into a novel. Maybe you had an idea too big for a short story, but maybe you let the story get away from you. Save those sub-plots and cast of characters worthy of a Hollywood epic for other stories. How many people have tried to write a novel, but just couldn’t make it work? An entire novel? What an investment of time, sweat and tears! A short story might only take you a month to launch and then abandon. It is a time risk you can afford to take.
The Number Two reason this is the wrong answer is because the era of the single-genre, single-form writer is over. The publishing industry is wide open with opportunity, whether you go the traditional or the independent route. The same author might create poetry, short stories, and novels. Name recognition increases with your exposure to a variety of reading audiences. You can’t afford to not try your hand at writing short fiction.
So, how do you test the waters, if you’ve never seriously attempted to write a short story? I have some ideas that might work for you. Is it easy? No, writing short is a challenge, but the rewards are well worth the effort.
Read a dozen short stories of the type you’d like to write. Many writers’ conferences publish short story anthologies. Goodreads and Amazon list dozens. Untreed Reads regularly publishes themed anthologies. http://www.untreedreads.com/ Or pick up a magazine. I can’t tell you how many times people have commented, “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine is still around?” Yes! And you can subscribe on your electronic reading device! How easy is that? https://www.themysteryplace.com/ahmm/
Aim for a market. I began writing short stories when I decided I wanted to sell to Woman’s World magazine – the one you see in the grocery store check-out stand with the diet and the cake on the cover? http://www.womansworld.com/ They buy mini-mysteries and romance stories. Short, short short! I tried writing half a dozen stories of 700 words. None sold, but I learned to focus my storytelling skills.
Set a goal. Make it concrete. I will write a short story this year – it will be completed by July 22. I will write a short story a week for two months, then pick the two with the most potential to polish and submit to a magazine (or e-zine). I will submit a story to my local writing conference’s themed anthology. You get the idea. Your goal must have a deadline!
Cut without mercy. Writing short stories requires that every word count. Every character plays an indispensable role. Every action must tie into the plot. I tend to write way longer than I know the final story should be, then spend agonizing hours cutting unnecessary verbiage. In the spirit of full disclosure, I may spend six months writing a short story, concurrent with other writing projects. Some of you may be hammering out novels in that time. You may be much faster.
Don’t be discouraged. If you enjoy lengthy novels, and your writing tends to ramble, you may find it difficult to hold back the flood of language as you attempt to create a story of a set word length. Keep at it. By reading good short fiction, and working on your own, you’ll eventually hit the right rhythm. Don’t be discouraged by rejections. Yeah, I know, easy to say. Okay, shed those tears, but then move on. Submit the story elsewhere, save it for an independently published anthology, or post it to your website. Just remember, once you Indy pub or post publically, you won’t be able to sell the story to a traditional publisher. If that’s your goal, submit, cry, revise, submit again.
I began writing short fiction because I wanted my novel queries to get the attention of editors and agents with a quick and easy short story publication credit. Once that notion was utterly destroyed, I gained respect for the short story. I now read and write short fiction for the enjoyment of this unique and challenging art form.
For current news about mystery short fiction, consider joining the Short Mystery Fiction Society: http://shortmystery.blogspot.com/
Catherine’s fifth published short story appears in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine’s May issue, on sale the month of April. Her second novel, Stone Cold Case – A Rock Shop Mystery, is available on-line via Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and in e-book for Kindle. With a day job as an environmental regulatory technician, her stories often have environmental or factory-based themes. Others reflect her love of the Colorado mountains, fishing, and running.
You can learn more about Catherine and her writing at: http://www.catherinedilts.com/