This post originally appeared on Terra's website, terraluft.com, on July 12, 2015.
I know you. You’re a novelist, an aspiring writer of the next great novel. Forging ahead through the jungle of self-doubt and rejections. I know, because I am just like you. Only I found a shortcut to success in the most unlikely of places: writing short stories.
Short fiction is an amazing avenue—even for those of us novelists who would never dream of writing short stories. Online magazines beg for content. Open calls for anthology submissions abound, hoping to find the next great thing. Many small presses use quarterly anthologies to find new novelists to sign. Flash fiction sites boast daily publishing for readers who want their fiction in tiny snippets. Land any one of these opportunities and that query for your novel just gained legitimacy—the kind that only comes from publishing credentials.
Opportunities aside, the best reason for aspiring writers and seasoned veterans alike is short stories hone your writing craft. Beginning novelists can take years to complete a first draft, then must repeat the process multiple times to polish their skills enough to land a publisher or sell well in today’s indie market. Why not learn all that on a microcosmic scale instead? Take months, not years, to learn the same lessons.
Can you never get from the dreaded middle to a neatly wrapped up ending? Write a short story. Do you struggle with dialogue? Write a short story using only dialogue. Not sure if you can pull off first-person present tense? Try it out on a short story. Do you avoid the overwhelming, often dreaded, prospect of editing your work? Write a short story, then edit multiple times to perfect it. My first published story went through eleven drafts. Imagine the time that would have taken with a novel! But once you’ve acquired these skills in an accelerated way, you can apply the experience gained to your longer fiction.
Veterans can use short fiction to further refine established skills. My editor’s favorite question is this: Does your writing do more than one thing at a time?
For example: The pendant hung from Susan’s neck where it always did. She loved the intricate scrollwork surrounding the pearl in a starburst pattern. She walked down the street, worrying about the events of the morning. Three sentences, thirty-four words.
Instead of separate sentences describing the pendant and the action, an experienced writer will combine the two: Susan eyed the storm clouds, thumbnail caught in the scrollwork of her mother’s starburst pendant like it always did when she was worried. One sentence, twenty-three words.
In that single sentence, we have tone, setting clues, action, and description. Plus, this shorter version shows us a characteristic when she’s worried, instead of breaking the cardinal rule of telling us she’s worried. Writing succinctly will set you apart in the eyes of readers and acquisition editors alike.
Terra Luft is a speculative fiction author and prolific blogger. An overachiever by nature, she tackles every project with coffee and sarcasm, and believes all rules exist to be broken. She works full time by day and writes by night; always searching for that ever-elusive work-life balance people tell her exists. A member of the Horror Writers Association and a founding member of The United Author Association, she lives in Utah with her husband and two daughters, their naughty dog and a cat who stole her heart.