Now that I have more time to write (Toddler started preschool), I have been trying my hand at short stories. This is a new format for me, but I am enjoying learning the new skills for this format. Even as a novelist, I am finding many benefits to exploring short fiction:
I can play around with things I would not be able to with a novel-length work. For example, if I want to dabble in a genre I usually don’t write, I can test it out quickly. If I have a new or existing character I want to explore more in-depth, I can concentrate on just them.
2. Practicing one particular writing technique at a time.
When dealing with a novel, it is often hard to go back and look at things such as dialogue, to make sure each character sounds different. Even when doing a dialogue pass, it is easy to lose focus when skipping through 80,000 words. With a short story, I can focus on dialogue or characterization or description or setting with much greater precision, since the story is only a few pages long.
3. Examining structural elements easily.
Since a short story usually holds most of the same structural elements as a novel, just compressed, it is also an ideal venue to examine my use of structure. Does it have an inciting incident? Is this a three-act structure, or something else? Does the beginning tie into the end? Does everything in the story feed into the main premise? Again, with the whole story contained in a few pages, these elements are much clearer than in a novel.
4. Exercising my idea “muscles.”
I’ve been working on brainstorming new ideas lately. Since my child came along, I have often felt a bit fuzzy-headed, mostly because I’m tired, but also because I am not spending as much time as I used to in my creative zone. I was never the quickest brainstormer in the world before Toddler, and I feel positively glacial now. By writing short stories, I can brainstorm concepts and explore ideas more quickly than with novels. While I might not “need” a new novel idea for a year, if I am determined to write short stories regularly, then I will need a new idea every week, or maybe two at the most. It’s great practice for strengthening your creative brain functions.
5. Learning to use language more precisely and concisely.
Perhaps most obviously, short stories are…short! Brief has never been my strong suit—thus the novel-writing. But learning to write lean, to sketch a character or setting or emotion in few but vibrant words, is a necessity for short stories. This skill will also help in my novel writing, helping me to keep word count down and the pace up.
I never really got into short stories before, because most of my ideas tend to grow into novel-length epics. But I am finding a freedom in writing them that I did not expect. I think that, although I do take them and the craft of them seriously, writing a short story feels more like “playing” to me. Instead of wrangling 80,000 words, I am wrangling less than 5,000.
I experience a wonderful lightness when writing them, not because they are “easy” (indeed, I find the craft difficult in a whole different way than novels), but because they are “finished” so quickly. I get instant gratification by writing a first draft in an hour or two, and then polishing over a few days rather than months.
Are any of these short stories publishable? I think so, but I am soon to test the waters by sending the first couple out. Meanwhile, I will continue to learn and hone the new skills needed to master the short story form.
What about you? Are short stories a freeing experience for you? What have you learned from short fiction that you have applied in your long fiction?