I like big things, don’t you? I like a big house, a big car, and when it comes to writing I really enjoy a giant story world. I am probably one of the many writers suffering from what I call the “Silmarillion” syndrome. That’s that thing when you want to feel like a God and create vast things so that people can look at them and go ‘wow’!
But ask anyone who ever tried to build an Eifel Tower from Legos– it’s not the easiest of tasks. It requires a lot of concentration, attention, ability to split the large into small parts, have each small part make sense on its own, and then find its place inside the big picture. And everything must flow like music, be catchy and relevant, pleasant looking and emotional, wonderful, amazing and great. No pressure there, none at all…
But the truth is that’s what I always thought a writer’s life should be– about creating big things. I dream of the novel that becomes a trilogy and the trilogy that becomes part of a multiverse Saga that spans space and time. A Saga that later becomes a movie, then a series, then a… Ok, I’ll stop, you get my point– I am a megalomaniac, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you show that behavior at the right moment and at the right time.
First Things First
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t start writing the Saga of the Century right of the bat, but what I am trying to say is that it will be a bit harder. One way to ease the pain is to learn how to focus on those little pieces down at the base. Learn how to build your basic Lego structures and soon you will have enough skills to put them together into a massive architectural wonder.
I am talking, of course, about short stories. Just like (I assume) many other writers, I started by totally ignoring short stories. I thought that I would waste good ideas that could become a novel in just a few pages, and I thought that instead of being focused I will become completely scattered. I wasn’t totally wrong, but I soon learned that that was not necessarily a bad thing.
What is a Short Story?
A short story is a fully developed story, with plot, setting, and characters, but significantly shorter than a novel. There are some discussions on the proper length of a short story, but I usually consider a short story anything between 1,000 words to 10,000 words. Note that those stories shorter than 1000 words typically fall into the flash-fiction category.
In my opinion a good length for a short story is between 2,500 and 5,000 words. At an average of 250 words per page, you get a story between 10 to 20 pages, double-spaced. Keep in mind that these are not set in stone, just guidelines to give you some idea.
Length is the main aspect that differentiates a short story from a novel. All other aspects are more similar than different. A short story will follow a mini three act structure, will have a developed plot and a climax, will have characters, dialogue, description and narrative. Unlike novels though, in a short story the brevity is paramount. You must get to the point and get there fast; there’s no space to waste, you simply cannot afford it. Make each line, paragraph and page count; be stingy with words and you will develop the ability to say more with less.
Why Should You Write Short Stories?
Now I am finally getting to the point of this post. Let’s look at the pros and cons of writing short stories:
Lower Complexity – Short stories are easier to write, hands down. Unlike the novel where you need to track what happens over 300 or more pages, here you need to keep track of what happens on 10 pages. Every time you work on your short story you can read your story again in entirety to refresh your memory. It’s far easier.
Multiple Projects – You can easily work on a lot of short story projects at the same time, just because they are smaller and that allows you to move your focus from one to the other without damage to either story. With novels, you might work on more than one, but each requires a lot of concentration, so switching gears, whereas possible, will not be that easy.
Quick Brainstorming – When you brainstorm for ideas, turn those ideas into a short story, even if the idea was designed for a major novel. This will train your brain to take a kindle of an idea and turn it into living words. You can do this many times a day, and you can have as many stories as you have ideas.
Learn Different Techniques – The short story is a condensed novel, a very brief novel if you will. If you want to improve on certain techniques, use short stories to practice them. Do you have trouble controlling your point of view? Write the same story from different points of view. Having trouble with a fiction element? Maybe dialogue or description? Write a few short stories and focus on those aspects only. Each story will add knowledge to that particular building block and in time your overall writing technique and style will get better.
Create a Name – This is one of the most important ones, especially for the beginning writers. As a beginner, you have no name. Nobody heard of you, so what they have to do is take your word for it and a few pages of your work and decide if they want to publish you. That’s why publishing your first novel is a hard, hard job. So, look at short stories as little stepping stones toward your novel publishing. First you will start with smaller, less known publications. Once you publish a story, and another story, and another, then you move to the next level. Larger, better known publications, wider distribution, and so on. By the time you are ready to publish a full novel, your name is now floating in the atmosphere. You can refer agents and publishers to your short story works. Maybe one of the editors that published your short story is willing to give you a testimonial. Either way, you are no longer a nobody in the eyes of the book publisher. You are somebody that wrote stuff that made it to print already. That’s a huge step.
Competitive Market – As in any industry, when things are easy to do, there’s going to be a lot of people doing them. Short stories are easier to write, so a lot more people will be writing them. Some of them really, really good. So, you will compete with a lot of others trying to publish stories in limited spaces such as magazines or anthologies. One advice I can give you is to look for niche genres, things that are not as popular, places where the competition is less fierce. This may give you the advantage you need to break out of the pack.
Low Pay – The average pay for short stories is between 0 and 5 cents per word. I am talking about new writers, not about Stephen King, ok? So, it is virtually impossible to live as a writer just from short stories. Sad but true.
Time Away from Big Projects – As always, the more time you focus on short stories, the less time you have to dedicate to your larger projects. But that is a matter of time management. Organize your work and your time in such a way that balances between your short stories and your novels.
So, in conclusion, I think that short stories will help your writing development process. They will be fuel for your imagination and will help train your fingers. Writing them will allow you to circumvent writer’s block that happens in large works and will teach you how to quickly switch gears and focus between projects. They will help you create a name for yourself and will pave the way to your novel publishing career.
If you are a writer, I am very curious if you feel the same about short stories, and if you are a reader, let me know how many short stories do you read every year, give or take? I am just curious…