the long and the short of it

I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction recently. Quite a few writers do this, and the saying goes that a writer’s output of short fiction goes down markedly once the writer sells a novel. Some writers never write any short fiction at all. I think, though, that you can learn from writing short fiction, and some lessons come from unexpected angles.

Here is what I’ve learned from writing short fiction:

1. A couple of short stories make a novel. Well, not literally, not unedited, but writing short stories allow you to explore story ideas and build background information for a novel.

2. Short stories allow you to experiment with different techniques and styles before committing yourself to a longer piece. This also shows you the importance of finding the right voice for the main character, and the fact that this is probably more important than your personal voice as a writer.

3. Short stories are just like novels, but only shorter. Yeah – duh, that’s rocket science. What I mean is that you can use the same techniques. Since I’ve been writing short stories, I have a lot more novel drafts where, when I hit a spot that’s hard, I simply skip it and write something later in the story. I started doing this in short stories and found it an easier way to write. I work on my drafts by nibbling away at it a sentence at a time in a whole number of scenes at the same time.

4. One big difference: short stories often end up going into the world much more polished, simply because there’s not as many words to pore over again and again. Yes, I get that we should send all our work out at polished as possible, but the reality is that a 5000-word story gets a lot more attention per word than a 100,000-word novel. What is the lesson for novels in this? Getting things right the first time. Because short story editing attunes your brain to style issues (such as word repetition), you simply don’t make the mistakes as often in first drafts.

What have you learned while writing short stories?

4 comments on “the long and the short of it

  1. Yay for short fiction! I’m always a bit taken aback when novel writers say they CAN’T write short fiction. Why not? It can’t but help your writing, right?

    Now, since my specialty thus far has been flash fiction, will I be able to transition up? That’s the real question…

  2. My experience too, writing a novel after having written short fiction for a while, I am so much more aware of not this word, yes that word, and think I’ll be able to get away with a couple of drafts.

    Where with my first, second and third novel I probably did five or six drafts, none of them sold yet, and me about the rewrite number one.

  3. I agree and would like to add that shorts are great also for genre hopping. I heard Iain Banks interviewed recently and he said he ‘can’t’ write shorts anymore because his brain keeps turning them into novels!

    • this is totally true. You can experiment with short fiction.

      I also agree with IB. If a short story works well, you can turn it into a novel. The trick is, though, distilling it into a tidy story before that happens. You can then work on the novel. You can sell the same idea twice 😉

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