Focus on Short Fiction

From Writer Unboxed:

There are many bad reasons to focus on short fiction and one really good one…and both present their own problems. Stick with me as I show you how to adapt your writing to short fiction OR expand your short stories into novels.

Bad Reasons to Write Short Stories

Short stories are great for your career, they say. Start with short fiction, they say, to

  • Build your publication credits
  • Help new audiences find you
  • Let editors know you’re serious
  • Raise your profile by winning contests
  • Keep your novel fans happy in between books

The problem is not everyone loves short stories. I’m talking about readers and writers, here.

Writing short, while undeniably a useful skill, just isn’t something everyone loves. Maybe you’re in that group.

The bigger problem for you is that the mythical ‘they’ who tell you short stories are a great tool in your toolbox aren’t wrong.

But don’t worry, I’m going to explain some of the reasons you find it hard to write short, and I’m going to show you some techniques for stopping your story’s attempt to become an epic 14-part novel series.

Good Reasons To Keep It Short

If you love short fiction, that comes with its own set of problems:

  • Nobody has made a living selling short fiction since 1959. (OK, I made up that date, but do you know anyone your age who has earned a decent hourly wage for a short story?)
  • The majority of readers read novels, not short fiction.
  • When you show a story to your fellow writers, 98% of them say “this would be a great first chapter” or “I really want to know more.”
  • You feel like you ought to be writing novels (because that’s what most people read and buy), but the thought is terrifying: like the difference between the fun of decorating a single room vs. committing to building a whole house with underfloor heating, a solarium, and a bathroom for every guest. You have no idea how to get started and you’re not even sure you want to.
  • When you try to ‘add words’ you get the feeling you’re just adding words, not actually adding to the story.

Fear not: in this article I’m going to show you some of the ways short stories and novels differ so that, no matter which one you’re trying to build, you can read the blueprints and create something that stands on its own.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

11 thoughts on “Focus on Short Fiction”

    • Well, some people also think ebooks are a fad that will go away any day now.
      Any day…
      Received “wisdom” from The Ancients dies harder than John McClane.

  1. In the old century it was easier to sell shorts to the magazines (and thus gain exposure) than finding an agent or selling a novel. Even after the heyday of the pulps.

    It made sense up for a couple decades but magazines started to fade (and most genres dried up for short fiction) and then ebooks came out and “start with shorts” got dragged out as folks tried to graft old print practices onto digital. Stuff like separate pen names for different genres, word counts, etc. Didn’t work any better, despite a few noticeable outliers.

    Then KU 1.0 came out and the same folks brought it out again as a way to game Amazon. “Break your 60k novel into 10K bits and get paid six times!”.

    Amazon caught on and KU brought per page read payouts and serializing a novel lost its lustre. So did fretting word counts. For a while the opposite, padding, was the recommended way to game the system. But Amazon put limits.

    Meanwhile, in the print world, the last magazines kept on fading going from monthly to bimonthly to quarterly and… a couple are still hanging on. Barely.

    Over in video, a bunch of big hollywood names just blew a couple billion of investor money betting people would pay for short form video. Uh, no. It took all of six months to fold. They’re trying to blame it on the pandemic but the reality is people are moving in the opposite direction when it comes to entertainment; long form serialized narratives rules. Even for movies, linked multi-year series are killing it. (cough*Marvel*cough) Don’t even have to be terribly good, either.

    Annoys the heck out of the auteur directors.

    Artificial constraints, especially on length, are vanishing. Readers don’t reject a good story (or movie) because it’s too long. It’s only theater operators and critics who care and neither is terribly important these days.

    What people should be telling writers is to tell their stories and let the length fall where it will. If their story is short, then short it is. If it needs to go long, that is fine, too. Trimming is as bad as padding. Just tell the story as best they can. And trust themselves.

  2. I went over and read the OP. As I did I kept remembering someone describing how it is to write a short vs novel and eventually tracked it down to Patricia Wrede. She is careful to say this is how it works for her but it seems more likely to lead to a decent story than the advice in the OP. The if you want the whole thing search on Wrede and Cinderella at the Rock Concert. Or maybe it’s the way she puts it. Anyway, here’s a bit:
    “Starting with a simple idea: “I’ll do Cinderella set at a rock concert!”, a short story writer might lay out one scene to establish Cindy and her rotten roommates and the coming concert; another showing Cindy’s godmother arriving with tickets; the concert scene itself; […]A novelist, with the same idea, elaborates on just about every piece. “OK, I need to start with Cindy and her rotten roommates …”why are they rotten? Why don’t they like her? I know! I’ll give one of the roommates a jealous boyfriend … and I can do a whole mix-up where she dislikes Cindy because she thinks Cindy is trying to steal the boyfriend, when Cindy is just trying to convince him that he has no reason to be jealous. …”

    And so on. I can SEE the novel developing from those examples, whereas with the OP all I got was … stuff. Padding.

  3. I use short stories as a tool. It lets me see the character better. Like in the Cinderella example above. The more you see through the characters eyes the more you see story.

    – A short story is not just 7,500 words or less, it is a short—>Story.

    (That’s strange I tried to link to an earlier TPV post to show an example of what I do, and it was gone.)

    This is the link that was referenced:

    18 September 2018
    Colorful Statements: The Art of Illustrator Eliot Wyatt

    This is the article PG pointed to:

    This was my comment:

    My initial sketches are developed further in to larger sketches, which allows for more focus on creating a solid composition and framing of the image.

    I start with an everyday object, or everyday action, and then look around to see where “I” — the character — am.

    An old Writer’s Digest article started me seeing that way.

    The author would have her character step off a bus, then describe everything around them.

    – This is an old school bus, in a decaying inner city, the character is a little girl wearing hand-me-down clothes, knowing that she has to walk home on her own ’cause moma is still busy cleaning Ms Burnett’s apartment and can’t be there to see her home.

    – This is an airport shuttle bus and the woman stepping off is tired from a long trip, wearing the no nonsense polyester suit dress that’s standard for FBI. Polyester doesn’t pick up the smell of decay as easily as natural fabrics. The stench of the ten bodies that they found decaying in the walls of the drug house will linger long in memory.

    – This is a city bus that has seen better days, and the old woman struggles to lower her wheeled shopping dolly down step-by-step. “See you next Thursday, Myrtle”, said the Driver. Myrtle catches her breath a moment as the bus pulls back into traffic with the sad sigh of air breaks.

    She would write these moments to get started, yet they may never appear in the book. You can fill pages that way, suddenly seeing people/places/things/events, building background for you the writer.

    Another author would describe the character getting dressed, the room they are in, the kind of clothes, looking in the vanity mirror to comb hair, put on jewelry, planning the day, remembering the past evening. And again, these scenes may never appear in the book, but fill page after page letting you see the character.

    A kid can take an object and see it in a dozen different ways without trying. I figured that if I could do this as a kid, I might as well keep doing it now. I will go for a walk and see objects, then spin them into story.

    I pick up a red lava rock that the tourist train uses for ballast, and hold it in my hand as I walk along.

    – I see The Rock far from the Sun. They have hollowed it out, carefully, leaving no trace that it is now occupied as a smugglers transfer point.

    – They crack open the skull of the bum and remove the rock that grew as a tumor in his brain, careful not to crush it. The rock works best undamaged. You let the rock deliquesce in your mouth to release the Smart Drug(tm) that gives you the cutting edge over your competitors.

    – You place what looks like a small red rock on the chest of the young man lying asleep on the stone table. Once there the rock starts to pulse with light, in time with the beating heart. In a moment, it will sink through the skin, corrupting the heart, starting the transformation, letting the demon seed take over the body.

    It’s easy enough to start it with a phrase:

    – I see…

    – I hold…

    – I pick up the…

    and then just run with what you find.

    On a good day you can run this stuff through your mind on to the page, and have something to build from. Story grows organically, like a seed.

    The process is like this.

    Bean Time-Lapse – 25 days | Soil cross section

    BTW, The video is more terrifying than I can possibly explain. HA!

    This is an example I use:

    by Mark Strand

    A beautiful woman stood at the roof-edge of one of New York’s tall midtown apartment houses. She was on the verge of jumping when a man, coming out on the roof to sunbathe, saw her. Surprised, the woman stepped back from the ledge.

    The man was about thirty or thirty-five and blond. He was lean, with a long upper body and short, thin legs. His black bathing suit shone like satin in the sun. He was no more than 10 steps from the woman.

    She stared at him. The wind blew strands of her long dark hair across her face. She pulled them back and held them in place with one hand. Her white blouse and pale blue skirt kept billowing but she paid no attention. He saw that she was barefoot and that two high-heeled shoes were placed side by side on the gravel near where she stood.

    She had turned away from him. The wind flattened her skirt against the front of her long thighs. He wished he could reach out and pull her toward him. The air shifted and drew her skirt tightly across her small, round buttocks, the lines of her bikini underpants showed.

    “I’ll take you to dinner“, he yelled. The woman turned to look at him again. Her gaze was point blank. Her teeth were clenched. The man looked at her hands which were now crossed in frond of her, holding her skirt in place. She wore no wedding band.

    “Let’s go someplace and talk“, he said. She took a deep breath and turned away. She lifted her arms as if preparing to dive.

    “Look“, he said, “if it’s me you’re worried about, you have nothing to fear.” He took the towel he was carrying over his shoulders and made it into a sarong.

    “I know it’s depressing“, he said. He was not sure what he had meant. He wondered if the woman felt anything. He liked the way her back curved into her buttocks. It struck him as simple and expressive; it suggested an appetite or potential for sex. He wished he could touch her.

    As if to give him some hope, the woman lowered her arms to her sides and shifted her weight.

    “I’ll tell you what,” the man said, “I’ll marry you.” The wind once again pulled the woman’s skirt tightly across her buttocks.

    “We’ll do it immediately,” he said, “and then go to Italy. We’ll go to Bologna, we’ll eat great food. We’ll walk around all day and drink grappa at night. We’ll observe the world and we’ll read the books we never had time for.”

    The woman had not turned around or backed off from the ledge. Beyond her lay the industrial buildings of Long Island City, the endless row houses of Queens. A few clouds moved in the distance.

    The man shut his eyes and tried to think of how else to change her mind. When he opened them, he saw that between her feet and the ledge was a space, a space that would always exist now between herself and the world.

    In the long moment when she existed before him for the last time, he thought, How lovely.

    Then she was gone.

  4. Nobody has made a living selling short fiction since 1959.

    That’s actually a pretty good guess. The critical date is actually 1957.

    That was the year Collier’s magazine abruptly went out of business, and the other general-interest ‘slick’ magazines started changing their content to survive. Paying thousands of dollars for a short story suddenly became terribly unfashionable.

    What mattered a lot more for most working writers, 1957 was also the year the American News Company folded. That was the largest single distributor of magazines, paperbacks, and comic books in the U.S.A., and the only one with a full national network of regional rackjobbers. (The other distributors, combined, supplies another national network, known in the business as the ‘Independents’.) When the A.N.C. went out of business, the number of rack slots for magazines was effectively cut in half overnight, and hundreds of magazines perished. The toll was highest among fiction markets.

    After that, there weren’t enough high-paying fiction markets to keep a good writer’s bills paid, and there weren’t enough low-paying markets to support an industrious hack. The short story has been moribund as a commercial form ever since.

    • Last I heard, the commercial short fiction market has been pretty much just SF&F and Mystery for decades. And neither has been enough for anybody to live off like tbe olden days. Not even for the pulp speed guys.

      Dunno about mystery, but the SF mags have been cutting back even more the last few years and with the BPHs phasing out mass market originals, the anthologies are also shrinking. Makes the market even less favorable.

      Fortunately for alert writers, going Indie and doing bundle promotions are proving to be useful alternatives.

      It’s not the end of tbe world; just a new one.

      • To put it in perspective, there were something like 30 regularly published science fiction magazines during the boom before the American News Company shut down. By 1960, if I recall correctly, only four were still around, and a couple of those had cut back to bimonthly publication. The situation was similar with mystery magazines.

        So while SF and mystery did survive, even they were much smaller after the 1957 crash.

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