Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How short-story writing can improve your long fiction

I cut my writing teeth on short stories. It's quite possibly the one thing that has most shaped and improved my writing.

Here are some reasons why writing short stories will help your long fiction.

1. It's plotting practice on a miniature scale
Many new writers plunge straight into novel-length fiction. Most of those first novels are fraught with beginner's problems and end up in the desk drawer. Usually, it's the plot structure that is flawed. Let's face it, it takes time to master the intricacies of plot on a grand scale in a full-length work.

Short stories give a writer the benefit of perspective.

It's plotting in miniature. The same backbone exists - ordinary world, inciting incident, conflict, complication, climax, denouement. But where a writer can easily get lost in the complexities of full-length fiction - subplots, character arcs, POVs, backstory, secondary characters - and lose sight of the overarching structure needed to bring strength to the work,  a short story allows the writer to drill those basics over and over on a manageable scale, until the shape of story is so ingrained in their consciousness that they are able to add more flesh onto the bones without compromising that core structural integrity.
Image by Grant Cochrane,
2. Economy of words is key
A short story says a lot in a few words. The ability to do this is an essential discipline for novel-writers, who tend to be... well... verbose. In a short story, every word has to carry its weight. It must drive the story forward. Capture the correct shade of meaning. Sing to the reader.

Some writers take the long word limits in novel-length fiction as license to ramble, meander, and use five words where one would do. This weakens your writing. In novels, as in short stories, every word should count.

Writing short stories will teach you the art of being concise, but more than that, it will teach you to select your words with care, choosing words for their sound and color and association and shades of meaning, instead of merely settling for the first word that springs to mind.

3. You'll learn to convey character more powerfully
In a novel you have chapters and chapters to "get to know" your characters, and in turn, make them known to the reader.

In a short story, you have mere pages to do the same job.

Short story writers become proficient at conveying character quickly, often in just a couple of well-chosen sentences. The ability to do this is a great advantage for a novelist. A writer who can sketch a character in a few vivid strokes and bring her to life on the first page will stand out amid a sea of novelists whose characters don't begin to breathe on their own until well into the story. Let's face it - most readers won't make it that far.

4. You can experiment with lots of ideas and styles
A novel requires an enormous investment of time and effort. In a way, this knowledge can stifle your creativity. You may be less likely to experiment with different genres or ideas that interest you if they don't seem "saleable".

Short story writing gives you the chance to try something different with minimal risk. If it doesn't work out, what have you lost? A few hours of your time, rather than a year or more.

The freedom to play with words and experiment with new ideas is what will keep your writing fresh. In the process, chances are, you'll discover a voice that is authentically yours - one that you can bring in turn to your longer-length fiction.
Image by Just2shutter,
6. It enables you to experience short-term success
Novel-writing is a long term commitment with precious little reward along the way. Writing short stories on the side may just gift you with enough small successes to keep you going for the long haul.

Why not try your hand at it? Enter some short story contests. Submit to journals and magazines and anthologies. Who knows? You may be lucky enough to make a little money to fund your writing habit. Even if there's no monetary compensation, contest wins and short story publications look very good on a novel proposal, which could otherwise (for an unpublished author) look embarrassingly bare.

Don't be discouraged, however, if you don't experience success straight away. As with any type of writing, it's not easy market to break into. Short story writing is an art form in itself. In order to submit short stories, you need to read short stories. Immerse yourself in the genre, learn about it, and practice, practice, practice.

Even if you don't win any contests or get accepted by any magazines, the process of writing short stories, researching markets and submitting is an excellent discipline for any unpublished author. There is no better way to learn than to jump in and give it a go.

Have you ever written a short story? Do you think you would give it a try?


How mastering the art of the short story can breathe life into your novels: Click to Tweet

Short story writing can improve your long fiction. Here's how: Click to Tweet

Bonus News:
My article "Creating Atmospheric Contrast", which first released here on the Alley, has recently been published in Short Story Writer magazine as a cover feature! If you're interested in learning the craft of the short story, this online magazine looks to be a great resource.

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia, where she juggles writing with being a SAHM to three small kids. She's had short stories published in Idiom 23 and Relief: A Christian Literary Expression, and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on her website, Twitterand getting creative on her home-making blog, A house full of sunshine.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

How did I not know you wrote short stories? Wow! I have thought short stories would be fun, but I don't read them so I know nothing about them! I do believe I might need to research it and do some practicing.

Thanks for the info!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

You totally should, Sherrinda - you would rock it! It's a good way to ease back into writing because you can do it in short bursts and still feel like you've accomplished something.

Krista Phillips said...

While it's not a "short" story per say... I've been working on novellas recently and it's been interesting. The BEST part is getting that feeling of being "finished" with a rough draft much quicker! My novellas are around 30k.... so at 1k a day, that's one month to finish a rough draft... and yeah, this momma who is short on time, it was a super nice feeling!!!

It is definitely a challenge though, to get a full and dynamic plot into less word count.

Pepper said...

Your talent constantly amazes me, Karen! Writing short has been a REALLY good practice in writing economy for me - because I'm long-winded by nature ;-)
I have two short stories (less than 2K), both I'd like to work up the courage to submit some day. If nothing else, to see if I can DO it - write it well enough.
The biggest thing I noticed was making each word COUNT. (which I should do in my longer fiction, btw)
GREAT tips here.

Tessa Emily Hall said...

I've been meaning to start writing short stories recently, so this post was very inspiring for me. The only reason I haven't yet is because it does seem a bit intimidating. But you're right, it'll definitely stretch my writing muscles. =)

Thanks for sharing!


Ashley Clark said...

LOVE this post, Karen! I've actually been thinking lately about writing short stories/novellas and offering them for free on Amazon Kindle. I had SUCH a great experience writing that short story with Guideposts, and I think they're a great exercise for novelists.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

KRISTA, a novella is such a great example. I can see how it would feel ridiculously rewarding to pump out a complete book in a month - that is awesome! And yep, it is so good for us mamas to be able to write in small doses and experience a feeling of success.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

PEPPER, well, I dunno about talent - I've written an awful lot of short stories that have never been published! My only real attribute is that I'm terribly stubborn and just keep trying. ;) YOU should definitely submit! It's just like any other type of writing - it took me years of submitting before anything of mine got accepted, so if you don't break in straight away, don't take it as a verdict that you're not good enough. You are super talented!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

TESSA, yes, it's a valuable writing workout in so many ways! I would go for it - what have you got to lose? I learned more from having short stories rejected than I would have if I'd been accepted straight away - so either way, you win! Great to have you here!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

ASHLEY, that is such a great idea! You'd be awesome at this! I thought of you with the Guideposts anthology when I wrote this. That was such a good opportunity for you to get your name out there and get some industry recognition. And it will look GREAT on your novel proposals. :)