Writing Short Fiction

The major magazine markets for short F&SF are dying. Pretty much everybody agrees on that. The reactions range from please help save them (slushmaster) to so what (Scalzi). People have talked about causes, among them: the writers aren’t stretching enough (VannderMeer) and the short markets have become a bunch of writers writing for other writers who edit and put out stories for writers who read writerly stuff–see point four here (Bear). I tend to favor the club scene theory Bear is talking about plus a dash of the idea that the internet has really changed the way people digest small chunks of content, i.e. substituting blogs for shorts.

2013 update: Though the print magazine continues to decline, the online market for short fiction has really expanded into a much more viable scene in the years since I originally wrote this post. Many authors with an established fan base have also started publishing shorts either stand alone or in micro anthologies via Amazon and other ebook venues. At this point, only six years on from the original, I am no longer giving advice on what to do with shorts in terms of publishing, as my focus on novels has left me hopelessly out of date. OTOH, my main point about shorts from the writing/learning to be a writer point of view still stands…I think.

I give you all of that as a sort of background to what I really want to talk about, which is why I write short stories and I why I think any F&SF writer who can* write shorts should. Sarah Monette talks about some of the same things here in terms of why she writes them, and that’s definitely worth a read. One place where I disagree with both her and Scalzi is in terms of what shorts can do for a career, so I’ll start there.

Both Scalzi and Monette mention that there are better ways to raise your profile for readers–blogging is mentioned–and I agree on that. The thing that shorts can do for you career-wise that blogs and many other venues don’t do, is establish you as someone who has been vetted by some sort of serious professional editorial process. While that may not sound like much, it means a lot in terms of bona-fides for agent queries. And getting an agent is becoming ever more critical in breaking into the novel biz via the large houses, which necessity is something I’m going to talk about in its own post later. Beyond that, Monette’s point about learning how to be a professional writer through the short story markets is a great one.

Monette also talks in brief about the risk-taking element, the fact that you can try things in a short that you wouldn’t dare try in a novel. I’d go beyond that to say that short stories are one of the best venues a new F&SF writer has for learning the craft, because in addition to being daring you can afford to be mundane–to practice the simple things.

You can write ten or dozen shorts where you focus on mastering a single aspect of craft like plot or character and let the rest of the stuff go hang. The brevity of the form allows for a lot more of the try/fail cycles an artist need to master the craft.

A short also forces the writer to pay attention to things they might not have to in a longer piece. If you’ve got a 5,000 word cap on how long the story can go, you have to make the hard choices about what elements of the story are important enough to keep on the page. You have to go for late entry and early exit. You have to make damn sure that every single word is important. You can’t have extraneous scenes that don’t advance the core of the story. In a short a writer knows that they must catch the reader’s attention right now and hold onto it–there’s no time to do anything else.

And, guess what? Those things are all true for novels as well. Sure, in the longer form you can get away with earlier entry and later exit and longer chunks that don’t do anything more than show off some cool side bits, but the question is: Should you? The answer: Maybe, but you should never do it unawares or unweighted. Short story writing helps teach the balancing skills a writer needs to decide when and where to go long.

*Some writers simply aren’t suited to the medium, and that’s fine.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 29 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)