Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Write A Short Story? How Hard Can It Be?

I recently wrote a short story called "Berlin." Although I spent very little actual time on it, I thought it was a pretty good story and so I decided that I would send it out to a couple of literary journals and see who wanted to publish it. I've gotten back a couple of rejections already, and assume that the other fine publications to whom I've submitted will eventually reject the story as well. It's not, I realize, a very good story. And that's pretty much the case with all of my short stories.

Sure, whenever I have finished one I think it's the greatest thing that I've ever written and I am proud and excited and I want everyone I know (and all the strangers I can round up) to read it. And to congratulate me on my brilliance and insight. And to throw cash at me. I can dream, can't I? Anyway, I finish these stories and then I try to find homes for them and usually I don't. Part of that is perseverance; it's really time-consuming and annoying to submit to literary magazines, who all want exclusive submissions (I ignore that) or want to be told if it's a simultaneous submission (I ignore that, too), and also want 4-6 months on average to decide. Four months? I could be dead by then.

Anyway, I only read a handful of literary magazines on a regular basis, and most of those don't take unsolicited stories so my submissions are mostly to places I don't read. Maybe that's part of the problem, and I'm just pursuing the wrong markets. But I don't think so. I really think that I don't understand the short story and so I don't write them well.

What occurred to me last week while reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, is that when you write a short story, you have to throw yourself into it with the same passion, energy and commitment you use when writing a novel. It can't be something you hastily scribble out in an afternoon if you expect it to be of the same quality as those stories written by people who take the short story seriously. I do not constantly revise and tinker with and otherwise improve my short stories. I dash them off and then give them one revision and then maybe tweak a sentence here or there and then call them done. That's not the way the professional short story writers work.

Which is why I should stick to novels: I will spend years revising, I will rewrite novels from the ground up and I will get to know my novels far better than I will ever get to know one of my 2,000-word stories. I take my novels seriously, far more seriously than I ever take my short stories. Until that changes, I may as well get used to my short stories not finding homes in the handful of literary magazines I read. My stories aren't ready to rub elbows with the stories in those magazines, because I'm not putting in the work those authors are putting in. That's just the way it is and so, while I have fun writing the occasional short story, I don't deserve to have any of them published.

If you write short stories, do you expect them to be as good as (or better than) the published stories you read? Do you labor over them obsessively the way some of us do our novels? If you write both short stories and novels, is there a difference in the amount of work you put into the two (aside from novels simply taking longer to draft because of the length)? Do you take your short stories as seriously as you do your novels?


  1. The main problem I have with many short stories I read is that they qualify only in terms of word count; they are incomplete as a story. They can be as simple as a prolonged scene (which may be a great scene, but in my opinion it does not count as a short story), or they can be more complex but fail to establish and resolve a conflict in the plot.

    Failures in short story writing are similar to failures in a query: the elements that are revealed raise more questions then they answer. While the tendency in literary writing is to leave much to the interpretation of the reader, I think some are fooled into thinking an incomplete work serves in this regard when it doesn't. It's just incomplete.

    I don't try my hand at short stories very often, for many of the same reasons that Scott doesn't. I know my novels are better, and as much work as it takes to complete a novel, and with the number of novels I have planned to write, I simply don't want to take the time away to work on the shorts.

    I still enjoy reading a great short story, though...

  2. my short stories always turn into unfinished novels. I just can't stay in a 7,500 word barrier.

  3. You already know how I feel about this, but I suppose everyone here doesn't, so I'll repeat some things.

    I spend a lot of time on my short stories, and I take them very seriously. I tend to write them quickly, but I try and spend a lot of time on them after the initial draft is finished. I owe Davin a thank you for getting me into longer short stories. I have one brewing in my head at the moment that I'll begin eventually.

    I also think that novellas are a great way to "break into" the short story because it's like moving backwards from a novel, making things a bit more simple and shorter. Davin keeps teasing me that Cinders is going to to turn into a novel. I don't want it to.

    I think Rick has an excellent point about many short stories not really counting as stories because too much is left out. It's a fine balance between including enough and not putting in too much, and that makes short stories freaking difficult to write well.

  4. I didn't used to put as much effort into short stories, but I do now. That comes mostly from me finding short story writers that I really admire. Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, and many of the classics really remind me of how beautiful a short story can be and what sort of impact they can have. I think in many ways, publishing a very strong short story can open up an entire literary career as far as publishing opportunities go.

  5. Gee, I enjoyed "Berlin" quite a bit.

  6. Loren, I enjoyed it a lot, too. I've had a lot of rejections on stories that I know are good - they just weren't a good fit for where I sent them, and sometimes they were, but it depends on the editor and what else was submitted and all that jazz.

  7. Loren: I enjoyed "Berlin," too, but it's not up to the same standards as the stories in Glimmertrain or Firebox500 or NOON or ZYZZYVZ or Zoetrope-All Story or the Paris Review or any of the other things I actually read, and those are the standards I'm aiming for. I know that I won't work on the story to bring it up to those standards. Maybe someday I'll get serious about my short stories, but for now they're just things I do for a lark. The "six birds" prompt was way cool, though. Don't get me wrong. I would never have written "Berlin" otherwise.

  8. Scott, many times I write short stories just to get something out and for the fun of it. I hope they bring you some sort of satisfaction, even if they don't end up in print.

  9. I start writing intending to do a short story then go off on tangents and wind up with the start of a novel, much like Taryn said. My only published work so far has been the short story you all were kind enough to put in the Genre Wars anthology.

    I would guess that I put more effort, proportionately (is that a word?) into my short stories though I enjoy writing novels more.

  10. I've written only a handful of short stories. I find it nearly impossible to be that succinct. Also, I rarely ever read them. "Write what you like to read" applies here, and I like to read novels. I've sold four stories (over many, many years) and three of them had this in common: they were basically a one-shot clever idea (fantasy/SF based) told in a humorous manner. I didn't spend much time on them, considering them "one-offs."

    The fourth story was autobiographical and came fairly easily. As a writer friend likes to say, "If it isn't easy, it's impossible." There are many ways you can interpret that statement. Mine is not "write only in a facile manner", but rather, "If it doesn't come naturally, it probably won't come at all." Which is not to say that you can only write well if you're a natural-born storyteller -- writers can certainly improve with effort, classes, books on writing, writer's groups etc. What it means to me is that if there's no innate passion for what you're doing, it will show. I have no innate passion for writing short stories for the most part -- but every great once in a while, an idea that wasn't novel-length took hold of me strongly enough that I wrote one. Those were rare occurrences.

    Way back in 1992, I attended the Clarion West writing workshop, whose sole focus is the short story, in the hope that I might improve (on the misguided notion that selling short stories is a route to novel publication). But though I did learn a lot about writing in general, the passion wasn't there, and I turned out stuff that wasn't easy in the "it comes naturally" sense. I turned out stuff that was easy in the facile sense. One of our instructors, Gardner Dozois, told me that my work was "slick, but empty." At the time, I wanted to throttle him. Looking back through the mists'o'time, however, he absolutely nailed it.

    To make this long post short (told you I had trouble being succinct): Scott, you should stick to what makes you feel passionate, and that obviously is the novel.

  11. I'm still excited about my most recent short story. I banged it out in a weekend, then sent it off to some folk for critiques. I wanted to send it out immediately, but waited a while to see what my CPs had to say about it. I'm glad I did wait.

    The story dropped from 3100 words to 2500, became tighter, more focused, and lost none of the language I really wanted in there. A week and a half of pretty solid editing got it to the point where I felt I could happily send it out. I read it again now and I'm still pleased. It'll find a home somewhere, and I believe this because I put a good deal of work into it, and got opinions on it from some excellent writers. (Hi, Michelle!)

    On the other hand, I tossed off a flash fiction piece a while back that I was excited about, and made the mistake of submitting it to a few markets without even printing it out to edit by hand. Yeah. Jumped the gun a bit. I've now learned that no matter how excited I am about a piece, it's better to wait, edit, get feedback, and polish as much as humanly possible.

    So yes, I expect my short stories to equal the quality of those published in journals. But only if I put the right work into them.

  12. It's wonderful to stumble across a short story discussion, nice to meet you all! I only write short stories, but I also write flash fiction, very very short stories, which for me is an entirely different process. These stories, under 500 words or so, tend to come out in one go, one sustained "blast". Longer stories I might work on over years, leaving them for a long time after I first write them until I can see them more clearly. I always think I can rush this - but turns out I can't! I think we probably all adore something when we first write it, but that's definitely not the time to send a story out. Last year I sent a brand new story which I thought was brilliant to four short story competitions. It got nowhere, and I then realised I'd left out the middle of the story. So: a waste of four entry fees. And time.

    On another note, there are many many fantastic literary magazines, online and print, to check out and see if you love what they publish. I am based in the UK and spent a while compiling a list of UK & Irish lit mags that publish short stories, it's here in case you find it helpful.

  13. Rick: As a challenge to myself, I am going to do more work on "Berlin" to see if I can actually make a story out of it. It's really just some images and impressions, all surface and no depth. I want to see if I can find what's below the surface.

    Taryn: I have a similar problem with flash fiction; I can't write that short. I can do 2,000 words and get a story, but I can't do less than that. I'm more comfortable when the wordcount is five-digits.

    Michelle: Thanks for repeating what you've already told me. I admire writers who can go back and spend real time and effort on short stories. They've always been things I dash off and to my eye I've only written one decent story, which took me about two weeks and involved a lot of rewriting. Goes to show.

    Davin: Hopefully I can skip building my career up from short stories and go straight to being a published novelist. Though reading masterful short stories has made me want to spend more time/get serious about my own stories. We'll see.

    Chuck: I have a hard time finding ideas that are concise enough to be short stories. I am just lately finding out what a short story actually is. Most of my ideas for fictions are novel-length.

    Mizmak: "slick but empty" is a good way of describing most of my short stories. I think that the language is there, and I can write lovely images, but there's not core to almost all of my short stories. I've liked the short stories of yours that I've read.

    Simon: See? You're another writer who takes his short stories seriously, and I admire that. I'm going to try to work harder now.

  14. You are absolutely correct. Short stories are extremely difficult to write. No, scrap that. They are hard to edit. That's the crux of the issue here. You can write streams for a short story but the key is to cut it down, to shape it into a short story. That's what is difficult.

    Saying that, i'm a huge fan of flash fiction because if i allow myself to focus on one aspect of a story rather than its whole conclusion, you can create some wonderful snippets of story. It's when the word count goes above 500- that's when i struggle!

  15. I get rejected so often it's practically a national past time.

    But I think I'm on the right track because I have an ever growing collection of not right for us but it doesn't totally suck.

  16. I'm trying to start writing short stories, and I've already discovered that if I want to be any good at them, I'll have to take them as seriously as I take my novels.

    My first short story, I wrote in an evening, because it had been toying at my brain. It was bad. To make it not bad, I'll have to treat it like a novel: Assess flaws, determine best way to ameliorate said flaws (in this case, almost a complete rewrite), tweak, think is good, give to betas, learn better, revise, rinse and repeat.

    Short stories are not 'easy.'

  17. I agree that short stories are NOT easy to write at all. I can write a complete novel faster and with more ease than a short. That said, I really really love reading shorts and write them often. I edit for an online lit mag and the quality of stories out there is amazing, but I agree with whichever poster said that oftentimes it's not a complete story, which I think is where we separate the good from the bad. Anyway, great post.:)

  18. There's a little deja vu all over again. I'm thinking I should do more short stories to improve my writing.

  19. I just wrote a Pilgrim Soul post about the difference between the short story and a novel and found myself speaking in simile because I couldn’t come up with something other than word count to really evoke the telling difference between them. I wrote novels before I ever wrote a short story, but have come to love the short form because the shorter length forces me, almost like a haiku does, to get to the essence of a story/character/conflict. It’s a mind-bending exercise, a challenge against oneself to reach the point when one more word excised cuts off the life support of the story. When I finish a novel, I feel profoundly dislocated that I no longer reside in that parallel world where I stayed so long that I have grown old. When I finish a short story, I feel sharp regret that the promise of a world I found so intensely tantalizing has now been denied me, but I’m still the same age.

  20. If you write short stories, do you expect them to be as good as (or better than) the published stories you read?

    I expect them to be as readable, but I expect them to be in my voice.

    Do you labor over them obsessively the way some of us do our novels?

    Obsessively is my honorary middle name. ;)

    If you write both short stories and novels, is there a difference in the amount of work you put into the two (aside from novels simply taking longer to draft because of the length)?

    I read both short stories and novels, and I write as time allows.

    Do you take your short stories as seriously as you do your novels?

    When I don't, I am rejected.

    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  21. This is a great post, Scott. You ask the question I asked myself when I contemplated taking a writing class. I decided that it is more challenging (for me anyway) to write a GOOD short story, and so I enrolled in a class for that very thing. I can tell you that my thoughts on the subject have proven true. Writing a story in such a short time frame that has impact, good characterization, and keeps the reader compelled to continue reading is hard. You have to do the same wonderful things in alot less time. But I will say that if I can figure out how to master this part of my craft, I believe I will be a better novel writer. Optimistic and possibly naive perhaps, but I'm hopeful.


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