Size Matters: The Benefits of Writing Short Fiction

Sometimes smaller is just better.
Sometimes smaller is just better.

Six months ago, I wrote a post about what I would do if I was starting over as an indie publisher. One of the things I said I would do was to consider writing shorter. I’d like to expand on that.

First, I love to read short stories. I grew up reading O. Henry, Mark Twain, James Thurber. As an adult, each new Stephen King short story collection has been must reading. With the popularity of eReaders today, the lines are now blurred of what a novel, a novella, and a short story are in the minds of our readers. They all weigh the same on a Kindle. I markedly promote my shorter works as short stories to avoid a rash of “It was too short” reviews, but I notice that a number of reviewers just refer to them as “books.”

Like most writers, I hang out in a lot of writers’ groups – message boards, public and private Facebook groups, etc. When I make a new friend in these groups, I do what most of us do – I go and check out their books. I like to see how many titles they have, how they are selling, what their covers look like, and read the “Look Inside” from several titles. It’s not stalking if you’re friends, right?

When authors message me, one of their first comments often is, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of books out.” That makes me happy, because I think that’s a great impression to give someone, be it a fellow writer or a reader. In reality, I don’t have all that many books out for one simple reason: I’m kind of a slow writer. I got one and a half books done last year. This year, I’m shooting for three, but that’s counting the one that I half-finished last year.

In truth, I only have four relatively full-length books available. But, if you search my name on Amazon, there are eighteen titles listed there. That’s because I write short stories and have gotten in the habit of publishing my novels as serials before bundling them all together into the finished product.

Why? Let’s talk about that strategy. Why break a novel up into five or six shorter pieces and publish them before putting out the full novel? It’s not a cash grab. I do a little better than break even on each episode, but by the time I pay for editing and a cover for each one and sell them for $.99, I’m not making a ton until I bundle them altogether. I do it for three reasons – to make my readers happy, to grow my title backlist, and to stimulate the Amazon algorithms. Instead of six or eight months of silence about my writing, followed by a big push when the novel comes out, I give myself six chances to talk about a new episode coming. I’ve also found that each new release has a stimulating impact on the rest of my backlist. Not to mention it has that “Hey, he’s got a lot of stuff out,” effect that I touched on earlier. I think of these serial entries as something I can do to keep my readers interested and involved in my writing in between novels. If I was Elle Casey, publishing a new book every six weeks or so, this would be an unnecessary strategy. Like most of us, though, I’m not capable of that kind of output.

Standalone short stories bring the same benefits, but the stand-alones have other benefits, too. I tend to write all over the place; I have two memoirs, but I also have titles that can be classified as fantasy, romance, horror, and thriller. Writing short stories in these varying genres may not help me sell a lot more, but it goes a long ways to helping me to figure out what I enjoy writing and where my strengths are.

Plus, some ideas are like the wild-child girlfriend or bad-boy boyfriend. They’re great to spend a few days or a week with, but I wouldn’t want to marry them. A short story is a vacation fling, while a novel is a long-term commitment. If it turns out you can’t get them out of your head after you’ve written them, that’s probably a good sign. Two years ago, I realized I wasn’t going to have anything new for my readers for December, so I wrote a short story called Second Chance Christmas, thinking it was a standalone. It sold well, I got a lot of email about it, so the two main characters, Elizabeth and Steve, got a second chance of their own and they starred in four other novellas that I eventually grouped together as a novel called Second Chance Love. My readers and I have grown so fond of them, I am spinning off a series of cozy mysteries in 2016. I never would have started any of this without that first little short story.

One other benefit is that once you get enough standalone short stories, you can always bundle them together into a collection. I will be publishing my first this spring, consisting of already published stories mixed with new ones written just for the collection.

The next time you breathe a sigh of relief for having finished another novel, maybe give life to one of those smaller ideas that nips around your subconscious. The more short stories I write, the more ideas I find lining up to take their place. I bet you will, too.

Author: Shawn Inmon

Shawn Inmon is a full-time author who lives in the bucolic town of Seaview, Washington. He is married to his high school sweetheart, and they are privileged to share their home with two Chocolate Labs and a schizophrenic cat named Georgie. Shawn is the author of the twelve book Middle Falls Time Travel series, which has been produced in audio by Podium Publishing. He has eight other books, including travel books, romances, memoirs, and a collection of short stories. He promises to settle down and write in one genre. Someday. Learn more about Shawn on Facebook or his Author Central page

27 thoughts on “Size Matters: The Benefits of Writing Short Fiction”

  1. Shawn, really glad to see your post. I started releasing my first serial novel at Christmas and I’m finding some of the same benefits you mention, esp keeping folks interested in what I have.

    Have you or will you post something about your serial process, or anything else serial related?

    After reviewing the serial novels I could find on Amazon, I found they ranged from novella size to short story size. Because it worked, I chose shorter and am releasing a new book each week, each 2500-3500 words in length.

    It’s my first experiment, so I’m very interested in learning more.

    Oh, and also liked your comment re short stories, which I love – “Writing short stories in these varying genres may not help me sell a lot more, but it goes a long ways to helping me to figure out what I enjoy writing and where my strengths are….”

    Thanks so much, best wishes 🙂

    1. Thank you, Felipe. Best wishes to you as well.

      I haven’t written yet about the process of writing and publishing a serial, but I am always looking for new topics to write about, so I will try and put something together. They are a bit more complex than simply writing and releasing a novel, especially if you start publishing before you’ve finished the story, which is what I do. I find it exhilarating – akin to walking a high wire without a net. 🙂

      Thanks for the suggestion

  2. Interesting stuff, Shawn. Thanks for sharing.

    I’m doing something along similar lines without actually publishing the shorts.

    When writing my crime novels in the The DCI Jones Casebook series, (excuse the promo), I often include smaller cases as side bars to the major case covered in the book. Often, these minor cases don’t make the final novel due to space constraints, but they are still referenced in the published novel.

    I plan to publish the shorter cases in a collection before too long.

    The characters will be familiar to my readers, but probably be in different situations, and the collection will have the same word count as my novels– between 90-105k words.

    We’ll see how it goes.

    1. I think that’s a great idea.

      Another possible use for a short like that would be to send it out as “exclusive content” to your mailing list. If I’m a fan of a writer, and I see that the only way I can read a story they’ve written is to join their mailing list, I’m signing up!

      I’ve been contemplating writing a few shorts just for that purpose, but it remains on my To Do list and not my “Done,” list. 🙂

  3. Slow??? I’m slow – two years per book.

    I’m not sure I have what it takes to write shorter works. I have thought about it but my books tend to find their own level and all are full length novels. Mybe I need to think some more.

    1. I know this sounds odd, Yvonne, but here’s how it works for me: I give myself permission. When I am out walking my dogs on a beautiful morning, I think, “Okay, brain, I am open to whatever you are ready to throw at me. Any idea – novel length, short story, flash fiction – whatever. Inevitably, I come back to the house with at least an idea or two to jot down in my notebook. Often, they are just scenes that don’t have a story, but fairly regularly, they will be a world, or a setup that I am interested in pursuing.

      Plus, you never know until you try, right?

      1. Right! I do that, too, walking or gardening – or unable to sleep. But my ideas seem to grow past the short stage. ???

        And I usually work on only one idea at a time – but now, after beginning my memoir I have an idea for a medieval romance. The mind is a wonderful thing – or not. lol

        1. I used to do the same – work on only one idea at a time. I was afraid I would evolve into one of those writers with fifteen stories started, and none of them finished.

          What I’ve found is that with a little discipline, that doesn’t happen. I always have my primary project – whatever novel I am working on. I won’t let myself work on any of the other ideas until I’ve made progress on the day on that story. Once I get my word count for the day on that project, though, then I let myself play with the other ideas. It’s been working.

  4. Great stuff Shawn.

    That’s the reason I wrote my short story collection. I have several novels in progress but I kept having these other stories pop into my mind and I couldn’t get them to shut up until I wrote them down. Some will stay shorts. Others will eventually be turned into something longer.

    It may have taken time away from my other WIP but they were a lot of fun.

    1. For a new writer, I think writing short has so many benefits. I am the first to admit that when I started, I didn’t have a good grasp on what made a story great – characters, conflict, a goal for our protagonist. So, a lot of my original ideas had one or two of these elements, but not all three. I’m glad I did my learning on shorter stories, rather than full novels.

      Good luck with your collection!

  5. Interesting idea to post several short episodes and then pull them together for a book. I’m a slow writer, too; didn’t publish anything for a year and a half but just put one out and almost done with another. I just never know how they’re going to flow. But I’m going to give some thought to this. Thanks, Shawn!

    1. Welcome, Melissa.

      I do know this: there are people out there that like to read short.

      Part of it might be that there are so many things competing for our attention, or attempting to read things on our phones, reading while standing in line, but I know they are out there. By writing short occasionally, I have a chance at grabbing those readers, too.

  6. I wrote my first novella (30,000 words) for Christmas last year, and I enjoyed the experience a lot. Truthfully, the story idea lent itself to a smaller-sized book rather than a full-size novel. If I can keep that in mind, I might be able to come up with more novellas in the future. Like you, I’m a slow writer. Revising takes me even longer!

    I’ve written many short stories, but I’ve published only one in a multi-author boxed set. Short fiction helps hone writing skills. For that reason alone, it’s worth trying your hand at the literary genre.

    Thanks for the sharing your thoughts on the subject, Shawn!

    1. What was it Mark Twain was purported to have written? “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I will have to write a long one?”

      Each word has to carry so much freight in a shorter story, I think it is wonderful training for all of us. 🙂

  7. This is an interesting idea, Shawn. I like the idea of writing short as a way to build a greater presence of books. My trouble is that I tend to write long. I don’t often have ideas that are short and pithy and make a complete story.

    I took the few shorts I had and bundled them into a collection, just so that it wouldn’t be too short.

    However, your post has definitely got me thinking. At the moment, I’ve got a serial I’ve started, but I don’t want to release it until I finish the others, as I hate to keep the readers waiting. But, it’s taking me so long to finish the others, I’m keeping the readers waiting (this is some type of paradox, right?). Anyway, definitely good food for thought.

    1. When I first started publishing stand alone shorts, I was warned I would get a ton of “This is too short!” type of reviews, but that never really materialized. My shortest story is around 6,000 words.

      I also made sure to write at least one short around each major holiday, so I perennially had something to promote when they rolled around.

  8. Shawn,
    This comment is unrelated to the current article, but I did not know how else to reach you. Back in Jan 2015 you wrote an article about Amazon Marketing Services for KDP Select Titles. In that article, you indicated that you were going to be writing a follow up post on your experience. Did you ever write that post and where could I find it?

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