Sometimes it seems that the short story is a rather under-appreciated writing form. They can be hard to get published on their own (especially if you don’t already have a good publication history – but how can you get that if they’ll only consider stories from established writers?) and it’s almost impossible to get anyone to even consider a collection of short stories written by a single author (anthologies containing stories from a range of authors around a common theme are, on the other hand, a very different case entirely and can often prove quite successful). This means that many writers will concentrate on writing novels without even considering working on a short story or two.
I think this can often be a mistake. Despite being difficult to get published, short stories are a great way of developing your writing skills or keeping them sharp between longer projects. They’re also a good way to explore individual themes or to try out different styles (this is especially useful if you’re still developing your writing skills). Similarly, you can use short stories to test whether an idea you have might be worth taking further (you can often explore a basic idea in the short form and if it works, expand it out into something longer). For example, while I primarily work with post-apocalyptic fiction, I recently used a short story to explore an idea that hinged around the witnesses to a crime having prosopagnosia or face-blindness (a condition that would mean they’d be unable to recognise the suspect if they ever saw them again and they’d be unable to describe the person’s face to the police – I liked the idea of eye witnesses who’d be able to say exactly what happened but not necessarily who did it). It seems to work and at some point I may revisit the basic idea in a longer form.
Working on a short story can also be the perfect way of getting round a bout of writer’s block (or at least some of its more minor forms). When I’m working on something longer and progress grinds to a halt for whatever reason (and lets face it this will happen at least once during the writing of any novel) rather than bang my head against a brick wall, I often find that if I take a break and work on something else for a while, whatever obstacle was there will have melted away when I return to the project at a later point with a fresh pair of eyes. By working on a short story during such breaks, I don’t feel that the time off has been completely wasted (at least I have something I can point to and say ‘Look what I did today!’) and this really helps take the pressure off.
Similarly, many people who write (and this includes me) have to do other things to supplement their incomes so they can pay the bills. This means that making time for writing can be difficult. While a novel can take weeks or months before you feel like you’re getting anywhere with it, a short story can often be pretty much completed in a day or so (they might still need some editing but you’ll at least have most things in place). This means they are the perfect writing form for fitting into busy lives. If you can’t get even a day off every now and then to devote to writing, there’s other even shorter forms out there, including flash fiction (stories between about 100 and 1,000 words long), micro fiction (stories of less than 100 words) and even twitter fiction (a story told in just 140 characters or less). But be warned, just because they’re short it doesn’t mean that they’re easy to write. For those used to working on longer forms, it can be quite a challenge to successfully encapsulate an entire story in so few words.
Finally (this is a tip I picked up from another author recently and it’s one of the things that has encouraged me to revisit this writing form after many years away from it), short stories and other forms of short fiction are perfect ‘tasters’ for potential readers and future fans. By making short stories you write available for free (or at least some of them), people can get an idea of your writing style and the way you think, and this may well encourage them to part with their hard-earned cash when it comes to any full length novels you publish. After all, you’re much more likely to take a chance on a debut novel if you already have an idea of what the author’s writing style and it certainly beats having to give whole books away for free (even if it is only for a limited time!).
If you’ve never tried writing a short story before or if (like me) it’s something you haven’t tried in a long time, hopefully this posting will show you that there’s a lot going for it as a writing form. If it has, why not set yourself a short story challenge and see what it might be able to do for you.
If you’re interested, you can find some of my short stories here.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.