Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Short Stories For Inspiration and Experimentation

Most of our comments seem to come from people writing or attempting to write novels. But, this week, we are focusing on a different writing form: the short story.

The best thing about short stories is that they're short. Okay, okay, obvious, right? But, the reason the short length is so helpful is because most of us can hold the events of an entire short story in our head, while we can't hold the events of an entire novel in our head. That means that we can visualize an entire short story, evaluate it as a whole, and really see what works and what doesn't with one, albeit focused, glance.

By writing short stories, and writing A LOT of short stories, we are forced to practice all the elements of a traditional story. We also get the chance to experiment with less-common points of view, voices, characters, and other elements--things we may not be as willing to tinker with in a novel (even though that would be healthy too). So, while a novel is a different species than a short story, some components, such as basic story structure are relevant to both, and the more we practice this, the better.

The result of this ability, or willingness, to be more experimental is that we also tend to work with less strain when we write short stories. Ideas that we never dared to explore can suddenly show their real potential in the short story. So, short stories have the power to inspire. They can be the stepping stone to a longer work, if that is what you prefer to write. Sometimes we dip our toe into the water, but our whole body shivers.

All writers should at least dabble with shorter works. Give yourself something to work on when that novel is burning you out. In fact, many writers I know are constantly juggling around a hundred ideas. Why not put those into short stories instead of huge complicated novels? See what happens!


  1. Picture books are like short stories. You need the same basic elements.....a full story that fits neatly (but not too neatly) within the universe of one reading. You need the right language (sometimes it is fun language, sometimes it is spare, it just has to be the right language for the story). You need a setting, characters, problems, solutions, themes...all of the stuff a good story needs, but you have to take even more care in deciding what to include. For, because of the length, you can't include it all.

    The task is often one centering on choice......what to reveal, what not to reveal.


    Seriously...no one else writes short stuff around here?

  2. Thanks for that great comparison, Shelley! Honestly, I really admire picture books, and I love reading and collecting them. But, they're also intimidating. I think I'd have a hard time trying to write one.

    A few people here write short stories for sure. Me, Scott, and Michelle all do. I know F. P. and Justus do. Annie does--in fact, she sent me a great one of hers.

  3. I like the idea of taking one of my many ideas floating around and turn it into a short story

  4. Ah...short stories. Love them.

    My current novel actually started out as a short story....

    Wait- that just means I need more work on my short stories!

  5. Shelley: I write short stories too even though I spend most of my time writing juvenile lit. In fact, my middle grade novel that won second place in a contest that had multiple categories and the short story I entered on a whim won first place. Don't know what to think about that, if anything.

    I find that writing short stories allows me to do a different type of thinking; when I write shorts, my mind seems to inhabit a more expansive space. Maybe that's what Davin means by the willingness to experiment. Although for me, I've never re-considered any of my shorts as beginnings to something longer.

  6. Megan, yeah, sometimes just getting it down onto paper is good. It may be a short story, or it may be something longer, but at least you don't have to hold it in your head!

    Mariah, I think that happens a lot. It's pretty cool when you realize an idea you thought was small was actually much bigger and deeper! Not to say a short story is a limited form. But, it is shorter.

  7. Me, me, I write short stuff, sometimes flash, the really short stuff. In fact, I have no desire to write a novel. Analogy time--I'd rather sprint a mile than slog/jog a marathon.

  8. Yat-Yee, that's interesting what you say about an expansive space. I don't quite get that, but maybe it is that freeing feeling I mentioned. There's less pressure for me to write a short story. Not because it's a lesser form, but because if I mess it up, I usually haven't spent 6 years of my life on it.

    Congratulations on that contest! That's amazing! What's going on with your book now? Is it published?

  9. Rebecca, Ah, and all shorts girl. I can respect that. Some of my favorite writers usually write shorts: Alice Munro, Kathy Fish, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rebecca Nazar...

  10. I wrote a 500-word picture book that I expended to a 4,000-word chapter book.

    I don't write short stories that often, though. I have two manuscripts that have my deserved focus for the time being.

    I jot ideas down frequently, capturing enough to remember them in their basic scope and shape, but not polishing them into readable form.

  11. I find it rather difficult to write short stories. Most of the ideas I seem to come up with just lend themselves better to longer stories.

    But, I have been dabbling, and I have to say it's quite satisfying to finish something so quickly. And some of the characters I have created could very well lead to a longer story!


  12. Short stories seem underrated today. I've always loved reading them: many of my favorite works are short stories; I also like novelettes and novellas. When I first started writing seriously, I never intended to write short stories, but then I suddenly found myself doing just that. Don't know what happened there!

    I do find short stories more enjoyable writing because they don't take so long to finish. I think you and Yat-Yee seem to be saying the same thing with the expansive/experimental terms, at least they both fit when I write short works, like I can try out a wide variety of ideas, simply by putting at least one of each in different whole but short works.

  13. I actually just wrote my first short story! I submitted it, along with a poem, to the Surrey International Writer's Conference competition. This is the first competition I've entered and I'm biting my nails, hoping to maybe even just get an honourable mention. I find out in October. Now I'd better get working on my novel, since I took the entire summer off, making me drastically behind schedule.

  14. Aw, thank you, Davin, for saying you liked my story here! I am grinning all over.

    And, I'm so excited about this week's theme! I agree that short stories offer more room for experimentation and wandering-around in.

    Originally I was going to focus on short stories before novels, but then I did a novel in college and then got caught up in NaNoWriMo. But, I think it will do me good to finish more things. So, I'm going back to focus on shorts, and I'm excited!

  15. Sorry about the convoluted sentence that didn't make sense in my last comment. Note to self: always re-read before publishing comment.

    F.P and Davin: I too think that we're expressing the same feeling about writing short stories vs. novels.

    Davin: I've been submitting that novel. Right now I have two fulls out and some partials. Not holding my breath; don't want to pass out.

  16. Justus and I were discussing short stories once and wishing (or wondering why) books made up of hundreds of short stories never sell as well as single-story books. I personally love the short story books. And I love to get my thoughts out in short stories. Plus, as you suggested, it's great practice!

  17. I actually just started working on a short story after I reached a point in my novel where I know I'm not ready to try continuing yet.
    I'm finding it pretty fun, seeing if I can keep the story within the word limit and make it interesting at the same time. Maybe when this one is done I'll try out some more short stories.

  18. I write picture books. I have several that I need to write cover letters for. They are ready. I love writing them, but now editors want picture books 200 words or under. Mine are longer. One is 800 words. I do have a picture book under 400 words. Then there are picture story books. They can be up to two thousand words. Publishers don't want many of those anymore. Too expensive to make(because of the illustrations in a longer text).

    But I want to write some short stories, other than my picture books. I need about 10 more hours added to my day. :)

  19. Oops late to this party. I write everything--haiku, flash, shorts and novels. Just sent a short off to a magazine; fingers crossed but not sweating it.

  20. Shorty, I just wanted to remind you that short story collections are actually doing quite well these days. I've been doing a little experiment with Amazon sales rankings and both Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection and Elizabeth Strout's short story collections are doing quite well. Plus, both of those collections won Pulitzer Prizes!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.