by Angel Leigh McCoy
If you want to make a living one day as a creative writer, whether that be as a novelist, game writer, screenwriter, playwright, or whatever, then building a body of short works will serve you well in the long run. Here’s why.
Time vs. Payoff
Because short stories don’t take as much time to write, you can write them in the cracks between periods of work on your longer projects. You can research a short story while on vacation, plot and outline on the airplane, or write the first draft while waiting in the dentist’s office. You can revise on the bleachers at your kid’s baseball game. Short stories are portable.
In many ways, short stories are the low-hanging fruit. I’m not suggesting you write them haphazardly and without due diligence, but there’s no denying that they’re less of a commitment than a longer work. If you try something new, a technique you wanted to explore, and you botch it, it’s much easier to move on to the next story than with a novel or screenplay. You don’t have so many eggs in your basket when you spill them. And next time, you’ll know not to swing the basket quite so rambunctiously.
No one is born with the ability to write well. Those who make it look easy have spent years practicing and studying. Writing short fiction challenges you in ways that long fiction, screenplays, and plays do not. It exercises the mid-range writing muscles.
When you write a screenplay or play, you reveal everything in dialogue, set, and direction. You have no other tools to use. If you focus entirely on screenplays, your prose muscle may atrophy.
On the other hand, when you’re writing long fiction, you have much more space to move around in. You ramble and explain, give backstory with relish, and take your time to build up to the climax. If you focus entirely on long fiction, your skills at being concise and tight could unravel.
When writing short fiction, you have to concentrate your story, but you can embellish it as well. You learn to recognize fluff and how to cut it out of your story without damaging the reader’s experience. You find a list of words that do nothing more than fatten a story unnecessarily, like that, so, very, really, etc. And, you discover that every word counts. Using generic words in a short story kills its buzz much more obviously than if you used them in a long work.
All these things you learn, and then, you take the lessons and translate them into your other work, and suddenly you’re holding it to a higher bar as well.
From a purely practical standpoint, short stories fill out your publication list. They prove you write well enough to entice an editor to choose your work from the slush pile, and they are—by far—the easiest to get published. NOTE: I didn’t say “easy to get published.” I said “easiest.” You still have to hone your skills, come up with awesome ideas, and put in the hours and hours of work.
When you create your author website, though, you’ll have credits you can list. Even if they’re not in your chosen medium (not screenplays or novels), they still say a boatload about how serious you are about your writing. It shows that you’ve spent time hunched over a keyboard, thinking about words, and practicing how best to put them together to create those special feelings readers enjoy.
The first time a publisher chooses your story, it’s a thrill. That feeling never goes away. With each successive publication, you grow more and more confident. As your confidence builds, so does your voice. You begin to find your best writing. If all you ever do are long works, the steps on those confidence stairs are tall indeed. With short stories, they’re much more manageable.
Writing short fiction naturally draws you into contact with publishers and other writers. Your name goes in front of them when you submit and when you publish. You gain name recognition. Many publishers publish longer works as well, and many who don’t publish short fiction do read it or have spouses/children who read it. They’ll come to know who you are through your writing, and then when a script or novel submission hits their desk, they’ll recognize you.
One day, when you’re famous, you’ll find that publishers come to you looking for something they can publish. If you already have a stock of previously published or unpublished material, they will be delighted. You can continue to spread your legend without having to write something new every time.
Short stories are little gems in any writer’s jewel box. With the growth in popularity of flash fiction, they don’t even need to be more than a thousand words. I highly recommend that anyone serious about writing as a long-term career goal master the art of the short story. In the long run, it will have been worth it.
- Poe wrote only one full-length novel in his entire career.
- Ray Bradbury believed in the power of writing a short story a day. In his lifetime, he published 11 novels and more than 400 short stories.
- Chuck Palahniuk subscribes to Bradbury’s ritual of a story a day, according to some sources. He incorporates some of his shorts into his novels.
- Stephen King has had at least 35 short stories made into movies, including the famous “Stand by Me.”
- J.D. Salinger’s only published novel was “Catcher in the Rye,” but he has three short fiction collections and more than twenty shorts published individually.
- O’Henry wrote flash fiction before it was called “flash fiction.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald published only four novels but a bunch of short stories.
- Others known for their short stories as well as long fiction include H.P. Lovecraft, Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Hemingway, Aesop, Robert Bloch, Oscar Wilde, Philip Roth, Voltaire, Raymond Carver, P.G. Wodehouse, Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville, John Cheever, Diderot, Flannery O’Connor, and so many more.