When I started writing I was a bit dismissive of short stories. I enjoyed reading them but I didn’t want to write one. I was going to be a novelist so why should I bother writing short stories? However, for one reason or another, I’ve written a whole pile of short stories – 88 at the last count – and it’s turned out to be really helpful to me as an aspiring novelist – for all sorts of reasons:
1 Getting feedback on your writing
Try out these two sentences on a friend or relation. ‘Would you read and make comments on my 150K word fantasy novel?’ and ‘Would you read and make comments on my 1.5K word short story?’ I would guess most friends would be happy to do 2 but not 1. It was the same when I went to creative writing classes. Other people in my class were willing to critique a short story but they were never that interested in reading chapter 12 of a novel they didn’t know anything about. Even professional feedback is easier to get for a short story. Many short story competitions offer the option to send you a critique, for a small additional fee on top of the entry fee. Getting professional feedback on a whole novel is EXPENSIVE!
2 Experimenting with your writing
When you write a novel you have to decide fairly early on how to write it – first person or third (or second if you’ve brave), past or present tense. Getting it wrong can mean a whole lot of painful editing and rewriting. So it makes sense to try out these different methods in a short stories. Find out which one you’re most comfortable with, which one you can sustain for a whole novel. If you end up writing from different points of view you’ll need to give your narrators difference ‘voices’. Short stories are a great way to practice different narrative voices.
3 Improving your writing
Are you struggling with one aspect of your writing? Dialogue, description, pacing? If it’s dialogue, you could eavesdrop on a conversation (from a covid-safe 2 m distance of course), focus on what’s been said, how it’s been said, what’s not been said and the body language of the people having a conversation, then let your imagination run riot and turn it into a short story. If it’s description, you could write a story where the landscape or surroundings play an important role. If it’s pacing, you could see how fast or leisurely a pace you can get away with. Writing short stories is a great way to find out what you’re good at or bad at; it’s better to find out half-way through a short story than half-way through a novel.
4 Finishing your writing
Who doesn’t have a half-written novel in a bottom drawer, or pages of notes for a novel you’ve not got around to writing? Lots of novels are begun, but not so many get finished, and endings are tricky things to write. After you’ve finished reading a novel what do you remember? Yep, the ending (amongst other things). So write short stories and FINISH them. No only is it good practice at writing endings, there’s something deeply satisfying about pulling all the strands of your writing together, and having something to show for it. Something that’s finished.
5 Practicing editing your writing
I’m a chronic over-writer and really squeamish about killing my darlings, but editing a short story is a really good way to learn how to edit. Every word needs to have a reason to be in a short story. Additionally, for stories destined to be entered into writing competitions, there’s usually an upper word count that you have to stick to. Editing a 5K story down to 3K forces you to edit like a pro. Quality counts too and if you want to catch the eye of a judge or a magazine publisher you need to really focus on your language, cut out clichés and find new ways to describe something – all skills that will stand you in good stead when you write and edit your novel.
6 Validation of your writing
Can I actually write? That’s something a beginner writer asks (or should ask) themselves. Even seasoned old writers suffer from imposter syndrome. We all want ‘proof’ that we can write but asking your friends and family isn’t always the best idea because can you trust their judgement? Even in creative writing classes you’re never sure you’re getting an honest opinion. But getting something published or winning a creative writing competition is REAL. The buzz you get when something is accepted or wins a competition is fantastic.
7 Getting used to your writing being rejected
Of course, not everything you send off will win a competition or get published. Often you hear nothing back so you never know if you only just missed a prize or if your story was so bad it came last. A publisher might write back, if you’re lucky, and say that your story isn’t for them but give no reason for that decision. That’s life for a writer. Get used to it. However, it’s easier to get used to it when it’s just a short story, and you’ve ten or a hundred more, than when it’s a novel you’ve worked on for ten years. You don’t need to care so much about a short story. You can always write another. Or you could send the rejected story to another publisher/enter another competition. Very few of my short stories got published or won when I first sent them off, but after a few tries, about half have been published/shortlisted/been placed or won competitions.
8 Building up a resume of your writing
If you keep writing and sending off your stories, eventually you’ll get published/win. You’ll be able to build up a writing resume that you can use to convince an agent/publisher to take a closer look at the novel you’ll eventually send them (if that’s what you plan). A resume of writing achievements, no matter how modest, tells an agent that you have some talent, that you’re persistent and willing to put in the work. I once sent my novel to an agent who’d been a judge in a writing competition which I’d won and I reminded him of this . He didn’t take my novel on himself, but was kind enough to ask me to send the full manuscript to a colleague. Would he have done that if I hadn’t won that competition? Probably not.
9 Using your writing as a reader magnet
This is a bit of a new area for me but I gather it’s a good idea to have some sort of freebie to encourage people to sign up to your website/blog/newsletter. A short story, perhaps related to your planned novel, might be just the thing to showcase your writing. If it’s well written and engaging it might encourage a subscriber to look out for your longer fiction.
10 Practicing self publishing your writing
If you go down the self-publishing route you’ll probably end up publishing on Amazon. It’s pretty straightforward to do this, even for a technophobe like me, but there are still some technical issues you need to get your head around, and things you can get wrong. But you can test it out by publishing one of your short stories as an e-book and if you mess it up it isn’t a disaster. I did this with one of my longer stories, and tacked on an extract from my novel as bonus material. I didn’t really market it – it was an experiment after all – but recently I made it free for a few days and quite a few people downloaded it and I got some lovely 4 and 5 star reviews. Since then, I’ve compiled a whole lot of my short stories into a collection and self-published that, not only as an e-book but a paperback. I learned a lot about paperback publishing (formatting!!) and made a few mistakes but, hey, it’s only a collection of short stories, and when I finally publish my long-planned novel not only will I be in a better position to get it right, I’ll have a track-record of publishing other writing. a not insignificant plus in a year when shopping wasn’t something I wanted to do.)
Check out my stand-alone short story and my short story collection here.
I’ hope I’ve convinced you short stories are worth writing, editing and publishing. So, do I take my own advice and still write short stories? Not so much these days, but recently I was asked to contribute a short story to an art/photography/writing book. I wrote a story about an old man with dementia, and someone who turned out to have experienced dementia in her family thanked me for having written it. That gave me a really good feeling and, in the end, that’s the best of reasons to write any story, long or short.
© Barbara Lennox, 2021
(Image credit Pixabay)