Use Short Fiction to Help Your Novel Writing

Typewriter - Once upon a timeI don’t know about other novel writers, but something happens to my brain between drafts. It’s tired, but it’s too revved up to stop. The state reminds me of my brief long-distance running career. After a major race, lying around “resting” was anything but restful. My body preferred short jogs for a few days, to recover and refresh for the next goal. So when I was going a little stir-crazy waiting to begin the second draft of one of my novels, a friend suggested I try writing a few short stories to keep myself out of trouble. I’ve always found the form intimidating—novel writing gives me the luxury to delve deep into characters and story, and many of my attempts earned me the same response from critique groups: “That sounds like the beginning of a novel.” Sigh. Also, when the subject comes up among writers, you always hear examples of such-and-such author who is better at one length than another.

But I’m usually up for a new challenge, so I tried. I started with Indies Unlimited’s own weekly flash fiction prompts. The 250-word constraint was tough at first, since my brain was accustomed to 250 pages. The craft, however, fascinated me. I’d pound out a rough first draft and spend hours carving away words, trying to get more bang for my buck, so to speak.

Then IU alum and flash-fiction master JD Mader began “2 Minutes. Go!” a kind of Friday happy hour for writers on his blog: timed flash fiction freewrites. Set a timer, write whatever’s in your head for that week’s time limit, and post your results in the comments section of his blog. I’ve been participating nearly every Friday since he started, and the time limit has evolved into more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s changed my writing. I often move from project to project, and I’ve noticed that since I started the Friday flash fiction, I can switch back and forth easier and drop deeper into a story faster. It also keeps my “writer brain” happier between novel drafts and it’s freed me up to try new things.

But enough about me. Aside from giving your brain a good workout, how can you use short fiction to supplement and even help market your longer work?

  1. Give it away. A portfolio of short fiction gives you the option of a providing a bonus for potential readers who subscribe to your newsletter.
  2. Publish a bunch of them. Add another title to your credits. JD Mader has done a couple of these. So has IU minion LA Lewandowski. I’m working on one now. A few authors have published collections of their IU flash fiction pieces.
  3. Win big money…or at least exposure. You will have a bunch of stories ready to submit to contests and anthologies.
  4. Generate ideas for new novels. If you truly don’t identify as a short story writer, use the process as an exercise to give you seeds for other, longer stories. One of mine that began as a two-minute piece is in the process of becoming another novel. Several more lie in wait.

Want to try some writing prompts to help you get started? Along with IU and JD Mader’s challenges, I’ve also found inspiration from writing prompts by Morgen Bailey and Ryan Lanz.

What do you think? If you write, what’s your preference? Any writing exercises or sources of prompts you’d like to share?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Use Short Fiction to Help Your Novel Writing”

  1. Laurie, I enjoy writing short stories occasionally and am part of an anthology with 13 other authors. In my case, however, writing of any kind is not a respite for my brain. I have to work as hard on those short stories–about the length of a book chapter–as I do on my books. I’ve searched for ways to ease the tension I experience while tackling 2nd, 3rd, & 4th drafts of my books, but unless I break with the writing process completely, the stress remains. I know that a lot of authors like revising and editing. I am not one of them!

    1. Agreed. Short fiction requires brain power–more than many people realize. When you’re limited to 1000 words and you’re trying to create a complete story, you have to razor away every word that doesn’t contribute to your plot.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Especially the ability to drop into various projects and having quicker access to your writing in general. That’s a huge advantage. And it’s fun. 🙂 Excellent post.

  3. Very good analogy Laurie.

    Exercise for your brain is just as important as exercise for your body. As far as writing our work needs the extra challenges.

    I love your flash fiction stories, by the way. Love how you are able to go from one style to an other. It’s a real craft. One that anyone can see that you have nurtured. 🙂

  4. Good post, Laurie.

    I have a file on my computer filled with ideas for short fiction. Every room in the house has sticky notes. My cell phone has audio and text files. A notebook in my purse contains scribbles. The inspiration comes from everywhere, including recent news stories and social media.

    With today’s fast pace, many readers don’t want to take the time to sit down with a novel, but they’ll read flash fiction or short stories.

  5. I started out with a real love of language. I mean, I was the most facile, glib, razzle dazzle sort of B____h. While others would groan and tear their hair over a 20 page creative writing assignment, I could pull metaphors and simlies outta my butt on a moment’s notice, turn a phrase and leave ’em shaking their heads. Yes, friends, I made it look EASY. Of course, there was a lot of drek, but readers never remember that. It’s the dazzling one-liners they like, kinda like the one hit tune you leave humming after a really bad musical. Talent is one thing; craft is another. Blessed with all that verbiage, it took me an embarrassingly long time to come to the short form….It’s HARD.(especially for me) It takes genuine discipline to sit there and figure out what NOT to say, to pare a story or scene down to its absolute essentials in the interest of maximum impact. I recommend it, though. Absolutely. It teaches you a lot.

  6. I love writing short fiction. My first novel started as a short story in 1998. Even in the midst of novel writing, I’ll break and write a short story. It’s mental floss, helps dislodge the useless novel bits that get stuck in my brain, then I can go back to the longer fiction refreshed.

  7. IU started me on the micro short fiction path, which led to a small book of small stories, but as others have said, short is hard.

    For relaxation, I write short posts for my blog, and play long hours on my favourite games. 😀

    1. Short is hard, deceptively so, since each word carries so much weight. Sometimes I’ll take a longer piece and slice and dice, just to see how compact I can get it.

  8. Thanks, Laurie. No 4 has got me thinking that short stories would be a great way to distill a longer story into what really counts. Ooh, or maybe a first person POV to find out what a character really thinks and why. Ha, I’m sitting here coming up with a whole bunch of different ways writing short stories could improve a longer story.

  9. It’s funny how short stories can boost our creativity, isn’t it?

    It’s funny, too, how you mentioned giving away some stories as an ebook; I’m actually working on an ebook to give away to my subscribers on Laying It Out There — and it’s going to include a bunch of “story starts” to help with this process!

    Watch for it in the coming weeks!

  10. The level of fluff of today’s novels, in my opinion, is out of control. All this talk about editing and books are just enormous. I refuse to beta read another 900 page crime novel. I’m starting to agree with Ian McEwan who said, ‘Very few really long novels earn their length.” And every fluffed up book these days is part of a fully-fledged fluffed up series. I think a lot of writers should stick to shorter fiction. There’s no shame in writing short. In fact, because of the changing publishing world, I think (I hope and pray) the novella or longer short stories are due for a major comeback. Leave the phone books to Tolstoy.

    1. Dean Wesley Smith had a blog post about this recently. He blames the trad publishers’ accountants, who forced publishers to force authors to pad out their novels to longer and longer lengths — all to justify higher prices for their books, in order to pay the publishers’ increasing overhead costs. He had some info in that post about the average lengths novels *used* to be. Most, especially genre fiction, used to be in the 35k-50k range, if I recall his post correctly.

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