How Writing Short Fiction Can Enhance Your Novel (and Your Career)

Today’s post is by author Audrey Kalman.

Intense arguments occasionally erupt over whether you can be both a great novelist and a great short story writer. (Yes, writers get riled up over such things.) Certainly, some writers are known more for one than the other. But I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. In fact, I think these forms can complement and enrich each other.

If you consider yourself primarily a novelist, you can become a stronger writer by adding short fiction (stories ranging from 100 to about 7,500 words) to the mix. Here’s why you should and how to get started.

Writing Short Fiction Makes You a Better Writer

It exercises your muscle for economy. You get great practice in leaving things out—backstory, needless exposition, and ornate description.

It’s like shopping on a budget. You have to be sure every item in your basket really matters. If you want to train extra hard, try your hand at flash or “micro” fiction—stories as short as a few hundred words.

It lets you finish something. This is a great perk for those of us accustomed to laboring over a novel. Yes, sometimes a story requires months of work. It may need time to stew and develop through multiple drafts, but the process rarely takes years.

For writers accustomed to struggling through the rough patches of novel writing (for example, the slump in the middle), completing a short story is enormously satisfying. And satisfied writers keep writing.

Short Fiction Is Good for Your Career

It can enhance your credibility. Most writers don’t become overnight successes. The road to publishing a novel is necessarily long, often involving years of searching for an agent or publisher or mastering the ins and outs of self-publishing, followed by years of promotion.

Publishing short fiction can play a role in building your career in the meantime by giving you credibility among professionals and readers.

The short stories and flash fiction I published while working on my latest novel, What Remains Unsaid, helped me attract a publisher. You can tout your short story credits in your bio and link to the published stories from your website.

It can help you brand yourself. Beyond enhancing credibility, writing short fiction can be valuable for positioning, branding, and platform building, all of which are indispensable for writers.

Writing and publishing short fiction helps readers get to know you. Your short fiction—ideally in the same genre and style as your longer fiction—builds recognition and demand for your longer work.

It can help you build up your giveaway stash. Your short fiction also can play a more direct role in marketing. Giving something away is part of a smart marketing strategy. In fact, if you’re building an email list, subscribers now expect something in return for parting with their email addresses.

What do writers have to give away? Words, of course! However, you don’t want to give away your whole book. Instead, offer a short story or story collection. Not only are you making readers happy, you’re letting them know who you are as a writer—branding again.

For Novelists, There’s the Comfort of the Familiar . . .

The good news for novelists who are ready to make the leap is that writing novels shares many basic elements with creating short fiction.

Whether you’re working on a 1,500-word story or an 80,000-word novel, you need to create characters, choose a point of view, put your characters into revealing situations, structure your writing to engage readers, and convey a theme.

Whew, nothing so strange here.

. . . And the Challenge of the New

The most obvious difference between novels and short fiction is that short fiction is, well, shorter. The implications of that reduced length are what interest me. Short fiction must convey meaning and emotional impact with exquisite efficiency.

Of course, you shouldn’t waste words in a novel either, but longer works afford a more leisurely pace.

Often this means that short fiction has specific concerns that novels don’t share.

  • Usually POV (point of view) is limited to one character. Though, this isn’t always the case, and multiple POV short stories are becoming more common.
  • Short fiction tackles a less complex topic and covers less time. If you’re going to cover a long period, you may have to do it with some kind of device, as I did in my story The Bureau of Lost Earrings, in which I used the main character’s earrings as a touchstone to tell a story spanning more than forty years. Generally, it’s easier to start simply, with limited time periods and narrower perspectives.
  • Short fiction leaves out more than it puts in. With 7,500 or fewer words to work with, you can’t afford a lengthy ramble down exposition lane.
  • The reader is immediately thrust into the conflict. Limiting backstory and setup is always a good idea. And it’s crucial when you have only ten or twelve pages to tell your story.

Arguably, the last two apply to longer works as well. A short story, though, must abide by these principles, or risk becoming something else.

Diving In

As with any type of writing, the best way to learn how to write short fiction is to read, read, read, and write, write, write. Study short-story writers like Alice Munro, Robert Olen Butler, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Get a copy of Best American Short Stories. Write your own stories and get feedback from a critique group. Find open mic reading events in your community and read to an audience. Find an editor to help you polish the story before submitting.

Again, nothing earth-shattering here—this should be familiar territory for novelists too.

Where to Go to Submit

Just as with researching book publishers and agents, researching markets for short fiction is easier than ever.

I remember the days when finding short story markets meant a trip to the library to look at a book (not to mention a trip to the post office and a self-addressed envelope).

These days, you can use an online service like Duotrope, New Pages, or Writer’s Market (also available in book form).

The purpose of research is matchmaking. Poets & Writers lists about 1,300 literary magazines. Duotrope lists 3,650 markets for fiction. Among those, there’s sure to be at least one that’s a fit for your story in terms of content, genre, length, and style.

You don’t need to be a regular reader of every publication to which you submit, but you should read the guidelines and at least a story or two to make sure your work matches the publication’s criteria.

Submitting, too, can happen from the comfort of your computer. Most publications accept—and encourage—electronic submissions. Many use the popular service Submittable, which is free for authors and allows you to track the progress of your submission. Some publications use proprietary systems, but most are straightforward and easy to use.

But wait! Before you click that SUBMIT button, review the submission guidelines one more time. There’s no surer way to eliminate your story from consideration than to ignore the guidelines.

Whatever method you use to find places to submit, I urge you to keep at it. I aim always to have four or five short fiction submissions out to publications. Over the past five years, I’ve submitted 26 stories 120 times. Of those, 14 have been published.

The lesson? The more you submit, the greater the chances that your story will find a home.

And the more you exercise those short-fiction-writing muscles, the better your writing—short and long—will become.

Have you written any short fiction? Had any pieces published? What short-fiction writers inspire you? Share in the comments!

Audrey Kalman is the author of two novels: What Remains Unsaid and Dance of Souls, both available on Amazon. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online journals. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or her website.

 

 

13 Responses to “How Writing Short Fiction Can Enhance Your Novel (and Your Career)”

  1. Scott Adlhoch June 8, 2017 at 4:43 am #

    Very informative article for beginners, it will help them in getting experience and they get more insight regarding their field. Thanks!

  2. Scott Hunter June 8, 2017 at 8:26 am #

    Hi!

    Yes, I had a short story published in The Sunday Express, a national UK newspaper. I was also shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Margery Allingham short story competition last year. Short stories are my favourite fiction-fix – reading or writing.

    My influences? Conan Doyle and M R James!

    I think that the market for shorter works is opening out. The novel will always be top of the tree, but novellas and short stories have become very marketable. I would certainly recommend that authors write both novel-length and shorter works, whatever the genre.

    • Audrey Kalman June 9, 2017 at 9:12 pm #

      Congratulations on your shortlist! It is definitely heartening to see the market for short fiction growing. Best of luck with your continued writing and submitting.

  3. Maggie Smith June 8, 2017 at 8:42 am #

    Very thoughtful article – I’m in the middle of a novel but recently did decide to also write a few short stories on the side for precisely the reasons you mention. Nice to see all the positives laid out so succinctly. It will help me answer the questions from my writing friends as to why I’m taking time away from the novel. I’ve signed up for a week-long Iowa Writer’s Workshop on writing short stories and it was fun to try my hand at one. One thing you didn’t mention was the chance to try out a different genre through the short story mode. Stretching your muscles through a change of pace. Who knows? you might find a new genre is a better fit.

    • Audrey Kalman June 9, 2017 at 9:14 pm #

      Thank you for pointing out one of the benefits I missed. Yes, trying one’s hand at a different genre is certainly less intimidating in a short format than in undertaking an entire novel. I hope you return from your workshop refreshed and with new energy to tackle your novel. And I’m glad I can help dispel doubts among your writing friends.

  4. Alejandro De La Garza June 8, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    I imagine some writers feel they’re not REAL scribes unless they compose novels, just as some actors don’t believe they’re bona fide thespians unless they perform strictly on a theatrical stage. Some stories are simply to direct and concise to flesh out into full-length novels; thus, the short story format is more appropriate. Writers shouldn’t quibble over such inane things. Fiction writing is self-explanatory. As with most artworks, the issue is not so much quantity as it is quality.

    • Audrey Kalman June 9, 2017 at 9:16 pm #

      Ha! I hadn’t thought of the comparison with acting, but that sounds right. And thanks for pointing out that some ideas fit better into one form than another. A talented writer will let the idea guide the form.

  5. Richard Mabry June 11, 2017 at 10:33 am #

    In my case the transition was from a non-fiction book to short pieces on the same subject, then eventually to novels. I will occasionally go back to short pieces, even devotionals, to keep my hand in and my name before the public. Good advice.

    • Audrey Kalman June 14, 2017 at 8:41 am #

      The same idea certainly applies to nonfiction. In fact, I think it’s even more helpful for nonfiction authors to write and submit short pieces, since it helps establish you as an expert on a topic. Keep up the writing!

  6. Heather Stegelin June 12, 2017 at 11:06 am #

    Great article with perfect timing. I recently decided to take a break from editing my novel and focus on a short story that has lodged itself in my brain. I’m always on a budget, so I love your shopping analogy. Like scoring a hidden thrift shop gem, this exercise in economy has been fun and worth much more than I “paid”. I have no doubt the time I spent on this short piece will pay off twofold or more when I return to my WIP. Not to mention, finishing something is fun!

  7. Victoria Marie Lees June 14, 2017 at 8:40 am #

    I’ve had several short stories published. They were mostly YA adventure. I also wish to share that backstory is a necessary part of EVERY story, be it fiction or non-fiction or memoir. Our past defines our present and who we are. It is an integral part of any story. In short fiction stories, it’s done more concisely, a line, or a paragraph/dialogue maybe.

    I’ve shared this post online and enjoyed your earings short story, Audrey. All best to you.

    • Audrey Kalman June 14, 2017 at 8:44 am #

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Backstory does get a bad rap, possibly because it’s so easy to do it in a way that interferes with a story’s momentum. But absolutely, “our past defines our present.” Being in the moment without any context may be a great Zen practice but it doesn’t do much for art.

      Wishing you the best with your writing as well.

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