Why write short stories?

[April 2008] When I started writing in 1999 after a long hiatus, I didn’t plunge straight into a novel. That probably sounds logical, but some writers skip the short story and cut their teeth on books. John Grisham hasn’t written many short stories, for example. Some successful novelists claim they have trouble with the short form.

For me, it was a no-brainer. I had written short stories in college, and I felt the need to exercise my writing muscles. I took many twenty- and thirty-mile bike rides before I embarked on my first century (100-mile) challenge. That was the analogy I used for writing, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I have no regrets.

I had another motivation, though. If a person writes a bunch of short stories, he stands a better chance at getting published a bunch of times, provided he is at least a proficient storyteller and can string together words into proper sentences. It’s the old “get your name out there” theory. Success breeds success. Earning a reputation with short stories would boost my chances at having an editor pay attention to my eventual novel submissions.

That notion isn’t entirely without merit. My short story in Borderlands 5 attracted the attention of the editor who handled the paperback edition. She called me out of the blue one Friday evening to tell me how much she liked the story and to ask the magic question: Do you have a novel I could look at? Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t, so it was a missed opportunity.

I’ve now published over fifty short stories, some of them in the sorts of places that look good on a cover letter. I also have a backlist of another twenty currently seeking good homes. However, unless I happen to get published in The New Yorker or Playboy, it’s hard to imagine much that would enhance my resume significantly. I’ve demonstrated to myself and to some others that I can write. Now I have to finish novels and get them in front of editors.

So, why do I still write short stories? Why do I spend weeks on something that will bring in, at best, a few hundred dollars in income, when I could be writing novels?

I am writing novels. I finished the first draft of my fifth novel a few weeks ago, and am about to embark on the first round of revisions prior to sending it to my agent. He thought one of the earlier manuscripts was good enough to shop around, but editors didn’t snap it up.

But I’m still writing short stories, too. Why?

Because I love writing them. When I’ve finished drafting and revising one, I feel like I’ve accomplished something special. I’m much better at it than when I started nearly a decade ago. Not only has my writing improved, my editing has as well. Writing and revising short stories continues to make me a better writer. Working on novels develops different skills: Plotting and sub-plotting, characterization on a grand scale, pacing over the long haul. However, I seldom feel like I have improved as a wordsmith after working on a novel. Books are about big things, like sections and chapters. Short stories are about smaller things, like paragraphs and sentences. With a short story, I can (and do) agonize over every word, moving sentences around in paragraphs for maximum effect. If I spent as much time (proportionately) revising a novel as I do for a short story, I don’t think I’d ever finish one. That might change once I spend more time with novels, but at present short stories are where I am continuing to learn to write better.

When I’m working on a novel, I can seldom divert my attention from the story to do anything else, although I did knock out one 5000-word story during the course of writing this latest book. If novels become my daily routine, there might come a time when I have to put short stories on the back burner.

I can only hope that I end up in a situation where I have to make that choice.

Why do you still write short stories?


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