Write short stories? But I’m a Novelist!

Get your short stories published, win a couple of contests, then reference them all in a query letter to convince an agent to convince a publisher to take a chance on your novel – that is the path to a traditional book deal, said all of the articles I read.

But don’t they require different skill sets, I wondered: generating an experience in a few hundred words vs. building a world over several hundred pages? What if you’re good at one and not at the other? What if you have limited time to write? Don’t you need to choose?

Fast forward six or seven years to today’s bigger and braver world of indie publishing, and the idea of selling a novel with a portfolio of short stories can seem like an archaic and unnecessary paradigm—and worse, a waste at the expense of the World’s Greatest Novel. But writing short stories can be a good use of time for novelist, budding or otherwise. Below are ten reasons why:

1. Better blog content. As an indie you may not have to prove yourself to a gatekeeper agent or publisher, but you do have to prove yourself to the public. Even amateur readers want to know that a writer can produce a good story and a kick-butt ending before spending their hard-earned cash. So when they read a sample chapter of your novel and visit your blog to find out more of what you can do, they probably aren’t looking for yet another diary entry about your self-publishing journey.

2. Rust prevention. When you pitch the World’s Greatest Novel out the window because it didn’t turn out as great as you had hoped, you will still need something to write each week to keep your fingers oiled and ready for the next big idea. Who knows, maybe that flash fiction exercise will turn into the novel you were always meant to write.

3. Free samples. You could give whole books away and hope the recipients invest the time to read more than five pages, or you could give away short stories as a taste, to provide an instant beginning-to-end experience that leaves readers confident in you and wanting more–maybe even wanting enough to buy your novels. Finding places to post free short stories online is one way to go (such as swapping short stories on blogs with other writers), and you can use them as in-person freebies, too. For example, for a recent book signing event, I didn’t have much of a budget, so I polished and printed a short story written for an IU challenge and affixed it to colored cardstock then bundled it with bookmarks to hand out as a thank-you to people who made eye contact as they walked by my table on the sidewalk. I was surprised at the positive responses, which reminded me that even short stories have value.

4. Sales portfolio. If you have a collection of short stories that can be tied together with a theme, why not publish them? When I met an artist who could illustrate my animal stories, we published a collection together. Or maybe you have one long story that has value in and of itself. I have bought single stories on Amazon for the price of a candy bar, and several were at least as satisfying and a lot fewer calories. There is only one thing I would advise or beg: Please publish more than one story or preferably a story between two books. As a reader, I find it frustrating to be left wanting more when there is nothing more to be found. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Don’t frustrate your readers.

5. Anthologies. Lin Robinson wrote a great article on the value of contributing to an anthology.

6. Exploration. A novel is a commitment but with short stories, you can get an idea out of your system and see how it ends up without spending years of your life on it. You also never know what revelation might be sparked by letting your mind go in a different direction for a while. Even if the idea doesn’t help out your WIP right now, one day it might be just what you were looking for.

7. Chapter development. Writing short stories puts your mind in a groove of building a full journey arc in a few hundred words. Every sentence has to matter and advance to the end; there is no room to stall in a short. This thought process can be applied to lackluster chapter to pick up the pace. Also, if you are lucky enough to have a reader check out a sample of your book, you need the first chapter to quickly engage them and move them into the journey, and good short story writers know how to pack a full experience into a few pages. It is important, however, to remember that a chapter is not in itself a short story and a short story is not in itself a chapter; there are different skill sets that make each work as what they are. For example, I once read a 99-cent purchase that had a beginning but no end. It would have been a really good chapter but the full book didn’t exist. That annoyed me. Then I read a loudly-touted book by a traditionally published author, and it turned out to be three stories that would have each been good alone but together had no cohesion. That annoyed me even more. Don’t annoy your readers.

8. Protection for your ending. When you’re working on a novel, the limited number of writing hours in your day is a legitimate concern. But say you devoted all of your precious writing time to your novel. It is likely that at some point you will just want that book to be done. Taking some time out to write a short story and polish it beginning to end can make you feel like you have accomplished something, which can provide your brain with permission to give your novel the rest of the time it needs. There are few things more disappointing to me as a reader than to be fully invested and trusting in a great book only to be rushed through an ending. Say it with me, kids: Don’t disappoint your readers.

9. Fun. If writing is all work, it’s not worth it.

10. Fame and fortune at the box office. The following entertainment blockbusters all had their origins in short fiction: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Brokeback Mountain, The Birds, Psycho, Minority Report, Guys and Dolls, All About Eve, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Author: Krista Tibbs

Krista Tibbs studied neuroscience at MIT. She once had a job that involved transplanting pig cells into live human brains. She had another job that gave her clearance to the White House. Her books, The Neurology of Angels and Reflections and Tails, are mostly not about those things. Learn more about Krista from her blog, and her Amazon author page.

19 thoughts on “Write short stories? But I’m a Novelist!”

  1. Greta post Krista – and timely. Someone just suggested I put out some short stories until I think about the next ‘great novel’. Is the universe telling me something?

  2. Food for thought, Krista. Thanks for the post. I love to write short stories. The form teaches you to leave out unnecessary information. Kate Jones (Bad Spirits) began as an online serial and bloomed into a full series. You never know which ideas will take root until you try them.

  3. Excellent post, Krista, thank you. Short stories make me nervous. I like the luxury of those hundreds of pages. But it’s good discipline to give it a run once in a while, for all the reasons you mentioned. A couple of my stories have even resulted from “dormant” novels, making me feel like I didn’t completely waste my time on them! (Another excellent short story (The Baster) that became a somewhat-decent movie (The Switch) was written by Jeffrey Eugenides.)

    1. Ah, yes, wrapping up a novel into a short story is another great use of time, I think. Sometimes the idea just didn’t have any more pages in it, but it was still worth the effort!

  4. Excellent post, Krista, and very timely. I just got done with my second book and I’m antsy, not sure which way to head. Fabulous advice!

  5. Excellent article, Krista. Now, more than ever before, short story collections are viable outlets for writers. Stephen King, no slouch in the novel department, is also famous for his short stories; in fact it’s his shorter stories that inevitably become movies.

  6. Though this post is excellent, those who write short stories and have had them published, may take a different view. Short stories are not shortened novels. At times a good short story with something to say may take a lot more time to get just right and polished than one would at first envision. The art of short story writing, especially in this day and age, when the “short story” no longer has the “romance” or “market” as it did in the days of O’Henry and Cheever and I.B. Singer, should not be only seen as a stop gap or stepping stone to the “next great novel” or simply a way to wrap a novel idea into a short-version. The art of true short story writing is an art in and of itself, and I think it may be a mistake to consider it a simple stepping-stone to the publication of a novel. They are two different animals, indeed two different worlds of writing. Yet those serious about the craft of writing, may do well by trying their hand at various short stories, even if it is just to strengthen tight writing and getting the entire story and/or message through by being forced to limit the number of words and making every word count.

    Fifty years ago and more the short story writer had hundreds of markets to chose from for their submissions. That number has currently dwindled to just a handful of legitimate and worthwhile markets (even by Indie standards). Writing an excellent short story for many authors, may turn out to be a much more challenging experience then they first thought it would be.

    1. I absolutely agree. That is why it always seemed strange to me that writing short stories was the commonly advised path toward getting a novel published, because in so many ways they require different skill sets. But as you say, writing a short story can be challenging and enlightening particularly because it is a different type of craft. Thanks for your comments!

  7. I have thought for a while now that the short story is a better foundation for a movie script than a novel. Either too much of the novel gets left out of the movie, or the movie has to be made in three parts (*cough*The Hobbit*cough*) in order to get everything in — and either way, you annoy the fan base.

    I agree with Ted that short-story writing uses different muscles, if you will, than novel writing. But that doesn’t mean one can’t infuse the other. 😉

    1. That’s so true, isn’t it? With a short story, there is no concern about what has to be cut *cough* house elves *cough* and more room for synergy. The movie medium actually can enhance the story without worrying about veering from it.

  8. Actually, short stories never were a hot route to a book deal. Much less so now, I’d say. But I’d like to toss this thought out… instead of doing short fiction for all this stuff, why not chapters of novels? Online serials, or just blog chapters? I think that can fit into almost every number in this post. And can be much more progressive toward a book catalog.

    1. Oh, yes, chapters definitely would satisfy a number of these uses. I’d say one difference with short stories have is that they are a complete experience, beginning to end. I sometimes prefer the closure of reading a short story rather than a teaser of a chapter that by its very nature is incomplete. But it depends entirely on the purpose and what ideas are in a person’s head. Certainly, neither one is a waste of time!

  9. Great post Krista. I’d just like to add that although I’m not great at short story writing, I have found it a great way to improve my ‘show don’t tell’ skills – precisely because you have to distill the essence of something into a very few words. Different art forms yes, but the cross-over is very rewarding.

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