Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Shorts Are Lookin' Pretty Good

As a writer who worked only with short stories and poetry in college, I learned a very important thing about finishing projects - it builds confidence. I now have a large portfolio of finished, polished poems and short stories. I have a small folder of unfinished projects, but the numbers are scanty. I only have 3 novels completed, and none of them are ready for querying. The truth is, they take a long time to write.

A short story doesn't take nearly as long as a novel, and like Davin says, you can experiment with short stories and not waste an entire year or more of your life.

I think 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!

The novel I'm working on now is a mixture of three short stories. One I wrote in high school, one in college, and the other is an unfinished short story. Now I have a full-fledged novel. I wouldn't have had those ideas if I hadn't taken the time to work on some shorter works to develop ideas and see where they go.

So What's So Great About Them?
I love the Pixar Shorts. I have the collection on DVD they released awhile ago. My three year old daughter loves to watch them. She'll sit through the whole 54 minutes without budging. But she won't do that with a normal-length movie. So what makes the difference?

They're short. They keep her attention and string her along. Oh, one more. One more. One more.

Like the Pixar short, For The Birds, that I have pictured up above, short stories keep our attention. They're fun to read, and usually fun to write. They are also pretty basic in characteristics, dealing with a small cast of characters, usually one setting, rarely much exposition (if any), one plotline, and a small window of time. There are always exceptions to these characteristics, and once a short story moves beyond a specific word count, it enters into other realms.

I'll post this here again, as I did in my The Misunderstood Novella post. The generally accepted word counts for fiction are:

Micro Fiction
up to 100

Flash Fiction
100 - 1,000

Short Story
1,000 - 7,500


7,500 - 20,000

20,000 - 50,000

50,000 - 110,000

Epics & Sequels
over 110,000

Don't know about you, but a flash fiction piece is lookin' pretty good to me right now. I'm sitting at 52k with my current novel, and the beast is overwhelming me. Each chapter is like an intense short story, but it has to connect with 35 other chapters on about 20 different layers and a huge cast of characters.

Besides, I make a lot of writing friends online. It sure would be nice to get a taste of their writing style from a complete, polished short story than beta reading a huge complicated novel. I love novels, but my time is running short these days. Ironic, since I think it has to do with the long novel.

Gear up, everybody! Tomorrow's a big day!

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. I always enjoyed reading Stephen King's various compilations of short stories and novellas. It's great to be able to get from beginning to end in one short sitting.

  2. For some reason, writing short stories is actually MORE difficult for me than writing novels. I don't know why. I TRY to write short stories...and they come out as novels. Or, if I force myself to finish early, they're too contrived. I really appreciate good short stories, though, as I find them so hard to do myself!

  3. The big day is tomorrow? Shoot! I dont have a thig to wear and my hair is a mess and the house.....

    oh, you mean the announcement ;)

    I'll definitely be tuning in.

    Interesting week over here today with these discussions on shorts. Good stuff.

  4. I have conflicted feelings about shorts. I love to read novels because they take you so deep into story, but a great short can tweak your head or heart in far fewer words. Eudora Welty and Ray Bradbury are two very different writers who excel at it. I love a literary story by Mary Robison called 'Yours,' while Kelly Link takes fantasy to a whole new realm with PRETTY MONSTERS. As I mentioned before, I have a file drawer full of some I've written and am now dusting off. Thanks for the nudge.

  5. Rick: I need to read some of King's stuff. I've heard he's a master at the short story.

    Beth: Oh, I can understand the more difficult thing. But as far as time wise goes, you have to admit it's a shorter time line if you can stick to the short and not turn it into a novel. I think mastering both novels and short stories will make me a better writer. I haven't mastered either yet, but I'm working on it. Do you have any short stories in your files, that haven't turned into novels?

    Tess: Just wear your jammies, it's all good. Glad you've enjoyed the week!

    Tricia: Novels and short stories definitely satisfy different needs for the writer and the reader. I hope I can see some of your short stories soon! They are a lot of fun to share.

  6. i had no idea what constituted what type of fiction. thanks for this post, glam. :)

    The Character Therapist

  7. These posts are awesome. I've been out of the writing loop all summer (kids/visitors) and am just now ready to get back into it, and what a great week to check back in.

    I still try to figure out why I am so drawn to short fiction as a writer. I do read short fiction--Lahiri is my favorite author and not for "The Namesake", and my all time favorite piece of writing is Annie Proulx' short story "Brokeback Mountain"--but I definitely read more novels than short fiction.

    I always have this feeling that I *should* be working on a (barely started) novel, but if left to my own devices, nine times out of ten I will work on a short story. I think I am drawn to the economy of it, the need to "make every word count" kind of thing. I have studied and studied Brokeback Mountain, and am in awe at how much has been done there in so litle space.

    I don't think it is always true to say that short fiction takes less time. Lahiri has said that she worked on the stories in "Unaccustomed Earth" for years as they kept evolving. I have a "long" short story that took me a year to write (although I did not work on it exclusively) and now, after leaving it for the summer, I don't think it is done. In fact, it has me with another question for you guys, but I'll save that for another time. :)

    Thanks for these! Great set of posts and I'm anxious to tune in tomorrow!

  8. Jeannie: You're welcome! Those are generally accepted numbers for fiction word counts. I think many people disagree, and there's always exceptions, but it's just to give an idea.

    Jennifer: I'm so glad to see you around again! Summer can be so busy.

    I love that you write shorts! Novels are a huge thing to tackle, but as you say, shorts can be JUST as much work. I know this because I would spend months on a short story in college. Some of them I came back to later, as well, and worked on for more months. I can see how all of that can turn into years.

    The truth of the matter is that writing is writing, and some of us obsess over some stories longer than others - whether they are novels or short stories, or even poetry. In general, though, I think short stories take less time.

    Can't wait to hear your question! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  9. Interesting. I've never tried to write a short story and I don't really read them either maybe I should check some out.
    Strangely though one of the very first blogs I read posted flash fiction, which I loved.
    Intrigued for tomorrow!

  10. I've always thought that writing short stories is technically harder than writing novels; same thing for screenplays--technically harder than novels. In novels you can wander about off-topic, you can pontificate, you can bombast and usually get away with all this; in a short story, you can't usually get away with any of that. You've got to economize your words and this isn't easy, especially if a writer's long-winded (like me lol).

    However, novelwriting seems physically harder than both short-story writing and screenwriting because novels seem to take up more time. Also, because of that, there's more time for messing up the narrative flow. You really must remain in the same narrative place all along for a consistent-sounding narration, which isn't easy, and then if you're unsuccessful there, your novels can wind up having too many "voices."

  11. Jennifer has a good point, that a lot of writers feel they "should be" working on a novel. There's an idea that longer forms are more serious than shorter forms, which is just a silly idea.

    One thing I miss about writing shorts is that, as Davin said on Tuesday, I think, you can hold the whole thing in your head at once. Writing takes a tremendous effort, and sometimes it's near impossible to sustain that effort for years while writing a novel (see, for example, Glam's excellent post today about sustaining the writerly effort in the face of real life).

    Writing, as Michelle says, is writing, but perhaps the short story requires a different sort of discipline than a novel. A lot of novelists really hate the idea of writing short stories, and find them impossible. Maybe that's because the short story form is more open than the novel, and the freedom to experiment means that there are fewer rules. It's less clear, sometimes, what a story is in short forms than in novels. Which is, perversely, one of the many beauties of the short story. We have the opportunity to "breathe the air of alien worlds" more often, to catch but an intriguing glimpse of something and still be profoundly affected by it.

    Tomorrow's announcement is way cool, by the way. Stay tuned.

  12. A while back, I thought every idea should be a novel. That madness came to an end once I realized how long a novel takes to complete. Sure, some novels are written quickly, but most are not. Also, many ideas are stronger in short form. It's true!

  13. F. P. brings up a good point about the novel being physically demanding. I can feel that. Sometimes, when I think about finishing my current novel, I feel out of breath. I can see myself on the pavement, ten miles into a marathon. I also personally think writers can be more adapted to one form or another. I personally enjoy writing a novel more than a short story, but writing a short story feels easier--and maybe that's because I never feel as invested in it. It's not as emotionally taxing for me personally. Ha! As a result, I've never felt totally moved by any of my short stories the way I can feel with my longer work.

  14. I adore Pixar's Shorts. They are some of my favorite films of all time! You made such a good point using these. Short stories (and films) are great for kids... and people with ADD. Ha!

  15. Alexa: I think you should look into short stories. It amazes me that you jumped into writing with a novel! That's dedication, but you did it, and it's working out beautifully. I would love to see some short stories from you!

    FP: You have some excellent points! I think short stories can be really difficult because they are so short. There's more to get RIGHT. Not really much margin for error or sloppy writing.

    I agree that novel writing is physically harder, even emotionally. It drains on me. The characters wear and tear on me more.

    Scott: I agree that it's silly to think a longer form of writing is more serious. It's probably the money factor, which is still silly.

    Writing in the face of "real life" as you put it is very difficult. Sometimes that novel seems absolutely insurmountable, so a short story can get me over the little humps until I can reach the top of the mountain with the bigger work.

    I love how you explain that short story writing can take a different sort of discipline. I think any writer can benefit from short story writing because it takes your brain and skills to a different level. Not better, just different. It helps me grow, that's for sure. And it's very rewarding.

    Justus: I'm wondering if you have any short stories to share! And how is that novel coming along?

    Davin: I think writers can be adapted to one form over another. I know some writers even have a hard time figuring out which they're better at or like more. It just takes experience and trial and error to figure it out. And some writers are just good at both. Novels, for me, seem to be my favorite - for the reason you give. I get more emotionally invested. It feels more rewarding.

    Shorty: I love the Pixar shorts, too. I can't wait for more and more to come out! They should do a whole movie in the theaters of just new shorts. I think it would get a lot of attention!

  16. It's interesting that Davin says he's more invested in his novels than his short stories. While I love my novel, I feel most proud of "The Solicitor's Clerk," a short story I wrote a couple years ago that's been published and subsequently anthologized. It's perfectly balanced and nicely self-contained, with a lot of personal emotion in a very short space. I was able to do things with images and language in it that would be impossible (for me, anyway) in a book-length piece. The novel (which I love, I repeat) is a different sort of accomplishment.

  17. I like to write my picture books and novels. I may try to write some more 'adult' short stories just for fun. I think it would be a great exercise if nothing else.

  18. Scott: I'm pretty proud of some of my short stories, as well. And poetry. I've got some good ones that fill me with more satisfaction than my novels have so far. It's a strange experience sometimes, although, as you say, it's a different sort of accomplishment.

    Robyn: Maybe you should do a short story for children. I don't see many of those floating around!

  19. Just this morning I had a little chat with myself (not out loud) about focusing on finishing projects one step at a time. Your post is exactly what's been going through my brain all this week.

    Short stories, I am not too keen on. I have tried few, and I may try a few more, but they just don't appeal to me very much either as a reader or as a writer. However, I am in favour of short projects alongside novels.

  20. Novels are definitely emotionally taxing, the most emotionally taxing of all, in my experience. I've complained about this before compared to screenwriting, which I think is the least emotionally taxing of the three as the very specific formatting interferes with the emotional experience. Whenever I'd see a slug line, that would pull me out of the narrative.

    I can't write novels nonstop; when I have, I seriously feared for my sanity....

  21. Lost Wanderer: I used to hate short stories, so there's hope for you! I think once you write one you're very satisfied with, you start to fall in love with them more.

    FP: I've never thought of screenplays as being less taxing emotionally, but I can see where you're coming from.

    Every time I work on my novel I get tired. Davin says it's because it's emotional, but I also think it has something to do with my three year old and lack of sleep. Hah.

  22. It's interesting how rarely I read short fiction but when I do, I love it. Shorts can have just as much emotional impact (sometimes more) than full length novels, maybe because of the intense focus on a single character and issue. The next idea that pops into mind I may consider for a short.

  23. MG: I hope you do write a short soon! I feel the same way about shorts - that the intense focus can have a profound impact.

  24. Hooray for shorts! Jennifer mentioned "Brokeback Mountain." All Annie Proulx's stories in Close Range: Wyoming Stories are AMAZING. I recommend that book to everyone.

    I love the short stories of Lorrie Moore, which I've mentioned before.

    Sometimes I think my NaNo novels are actually short stories. My first NaNo attempt did turn into a short story in the end.

  25. Annie: Both short stories that I've read of yours in the past are excellent examples that you can master the craft of the short!

  26. captivating short fiction in a feat. Thanks for laying it out for us.


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