I recently heard from a writer who said she felt disrespected by her writing group. They were all working on novels and memoir and didn't take her short fiction work seriously.
I saw another writer on Google Plus asking for help because his work kept coming in at around 40 pages—like that was a bad thing.
They were dealing with a common problem: short stories (up to 30K words) and novellas (30k-50K words) haven't been getting much respect since the demise of the fiction market in mainstream magazines two decades ago.
(Those word counts are from Writer's Digest.
Some people use the term "novelette
" to mean a story in the 10K to 30K range.)
For the past twenty years or so, most writers have treated short stories as practice pieces for classes and workshops—like the finger exercises piano students do before they graduate to playing real music.
And many of us have been treating novellas as unfinished, failed novels that need "fleshing out."
But that's so last century.
Shorter fiction is having a renaissance in the digital age. In fact, this may be the new golden age of the short story.
The New York Times reports
, "Stories are perfect for the digital age...because readers want to connect and want that connection to be intense and to move on. That is, after all, what a short story is all about."
Book marketing guru Penny Sansevieri said in the HuffPo
: "short is the new long. Thanks to consumers who want quick bites of information and things like Kindle Singles, consumers love short."
Short stories can also be a marketing tool for longer works. Digital Book World's Rob Eagar
said, "Selling your book means writing effective newsletters, blog posts, short stories,
free resources, social media posts, word-of-mouth tools, magazine articles, etc."
So it's definitely time for fiction writers to start re-thinking the shorter forms. I wish I'd never left them. It's hard to get those "writing muscles" working again when I've been focused on novels for so long.
During the early part of my career when I was writing and re-writing my “practice novels” I could have been building an inventory of short pieces that would be a gold mine now.
Traditional publishing still isn't interested in story collections from new writers, but collections of previously published shorts by big names like George Saunders are reaping awards and making money for the Big Five.
And Amazon welcomes short fiction in both their Kindle Singles
program and their new literary magazine Day One.
Self-publishers are finding success with shorter fiction on all retail sites.
People talk these days about the novel as if it's the most "legitimate" form of fiction, but it's a relatively new art form. It was perfect for the age of Gutenberg, but perhaps it won't dominate the market so completely in the digital age.
Cervantes is generally credited with inventing the novel with the 1605 publication of Don Quixote, but the form didn’t make it into English until a century later—and for a long time it had to masquerade as “history” as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe did in 1719.
Non-factual narratives were considered frivolous and time-wasting even into the Victorian era. In the 20th century, the novel finally surpassed the play as the most revered form of fictional artistic expression in English.
But who knows what will happen in the 21st century? The times they are a-changing, especially in the publishing business. The popularity the novella, short story, and serial is on the upswing.
Here are some reasons why writers might want to rethink short fiction:
1) Smaller screens and shorter attention spans are changing the way we read.
We're a multi-tasking world. As bestselling short story writer Amber Dermont told the New York Times
: “The single-serving quality of a short narrative is the perfect art form for the digital age…Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screens.”
When the Kindle Singles program launched in 2011, they sold 2 million "singles" ebooks in the first year. And you don't have to be accepted into the highly competitive Kindle Singles program
to publish stand-alone stories as ebooks. Many indies are doing it too. And agents are assisting their clients in self-publishing shorts.
Cal Morgan of Harper Perennial said in the same NYT
article: “It is the culmination of a trend we have seen building for five years…The Internet has made people a lot more open to reading story forms that are different from the novel, and you see a generation of writers very engaged in experimentation.”
As I mentioned above, Amazon is actively promoting short fiction with Kindle Singles and its new Day One magazine
. Kindle Singles are mostly for established authors, but Day One
is actively seeking debut authors. (Info on submissions in the "opportunity alerts" below.) Amazon knows that the e-reader has ushered in a new kind of reading that favors brevity. More on that in my post last week on the 21st Century Reader
2) The success of serial fiction like Hugh Howey’s Wool
Hugh Howey made history (and a nice chunk of change) by self-publishing his sci-fi novel Wool
as a series of shorts—like the Saturday matinee cliff-hanger short films of the early 20th century. He put his first episode—a stand-alone that’s also a teaser—perma-free on Amazon, and the fans ate up the succeeding chapters, offered at 99c each.
Howey is now a superstar with a top agent, a deal with Random Penguin, and a movie deal with Ridley Scott. And it all started with one little short story.
I know many writers who are now serializing their work for free on Wattpad
, which is a great place to showcase short fiction and get new fans. And Readwave
is a story sharing-site that looks like a promising alternative to Wattpad.
Note: not every author can do what Howey did. I know some writers have had negative feedback when they sold each chapter for 99c, since so many full length books can be bought for that price these days.
So make sure each installment gives value—I'd say at least 10K-20K words, maybe divided into chapter-lets—and make the first one perma-free. Some novels lend themselves to serialization and some don't. You want each installment to work as a stand-alone story arc with a cliffhanger to keep the reader coming back.
3) Story anthologies are a great way to get your work in front of fans of more established authors in your genre
Short story and personal-essay anthologies are one of the best ways to increase your visibility. Especially for indies. They're inexpensive to put together as ebooks. They usually don’t pay, and often donate proceeds to a charity.
But if you can get a story into an anthology with some well-known authors in your genre, you’ll be paid in publicity that would be hard to buy at any price. All those authors' fans will be exposed to your work. For more on anthologies check my post on how to tell a good anthology from a scam
Being in an anthology also gives an unpublished writer some great cred as a writer. Many successful authors I network with were first published by the Literary Lab anthologies
, which also gave me a leg up when my career was in freefall.
Another plus for anthologies: some of the biggies, like the Chicken Soup series, also come out in print and are stocked in bookstores. So some anthologies can get you noticed by the old-school reader, too.
4) Published stories identify you as a professional.
Your website or blog has much more cred if you've got some publications to link to. And no matter what your genre, agents will be more likely to look at your pages if you've got publishing credits.
And it’s still pretty much the only way to a publishing contract if you write literary fiction. I don't know of a lot of successful literary writers who didn't also publish short stories in places like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the Atlantic
But they didn't get the first story they wrote published by The New Yorker
. First they had to place dozens in small literary journals—those tiny labors of love that used to cost a ton to produce and often had under a hundred subscribers.
In the old days we often had to pay $25 or more to subscribe to find out what kind of writing they wanted and get the info on how to submit to them. But these days, most literary journals are available online. They have larger readerships and you don’t have to pay a fortune to read them or find out what the editors are looking for.
And if you write genre fiction, you don't have to start your career getting endless rejections from the ultra-competitive print magazines that still buy short stories, like Women's World, Ellery Queen and Asimov's.
Now there are are lots of genre story online zines. Here's a link to a great list of genre story markets
put together by Romance author Cathleen Ross. Writer's Digest
has contests exclusively for genre fiction.
5) Networking with editors at small magazines can get you a leg up.
Editors at literary magazines do their work for the love of their craft. Often they have connections in other parts of the publishing world. If you impress one of them, you can get an "in" with publishers you might never find otherwise.
I found my first publisher because one of their editors also volunteered for an online litzine that accepted my short fiction. The litzine went under before my story went up, but the editor liked my writing so much, he asked me if I had any novel manuscripts he could take to the publishing house where he worked. Two months later I had my first publishing contract.
6) Indie films are often adaptations of short fiction.
Stories are easier to adapt for the screen than full-length novels. Cheaper too. They tend to have fewer crowd scenes and more small interior settings.
Cost matters in the growing indie film world. Just as indies are revolutionizing the publishing industry, they are also the life-blood of the film industry. While the big studios concentrate on huge comic book spectacles and remakes of old TV shows, the more emotionally rich, award-winning films are coming from small-budget indies.
Some of our most enduring films have come from short stories. Classic films like The Birds; Breakfast at Tiffany's; Don't Look Now; Double Indemnity, Flowers for Algernon
—and I’d need a whole post to list the stories of Stephen King and Philip K. Dick that have been made into great films. More recent Oscar contenders like Brokeback Mountain, Away from Her,
and the Squid and the Whal
e were originally short stories. And I just heard on NPR this morning that the new Jesse Eisenberg film, the Double
, is based on a novella by Dostoevsky.
7) Online retail sites favor authors with more titles
The more titles you have in an online bookstore, the more visible you are. You can write and publish a lot of shorter titles and have a bigger presence in the marketplace than with one long book.
Most writers can’t turn out more than two or three books a year, but they can turn out a lot of short stories and novellas.
8) Contests raise your profile and can win big bucks
Winning a story contest is a great way to promote yourself as a writer and create visibility for your books. Win a well-known contest and you can crow about it in social media and send press releases to the local newspapers to get some ink in your own hometown.
Story and creative short nonfiction contests are easy to discover and enter in the era of the Interwebz. Hope C. Clark's Funds for Writers
, Poets and Writers
, and the website Winning Writers
are good sources for vetted contests.
For a list of fee-free contests and opportunities, Erika Dreifus has a great list on her blog called The Practicing Writer
. Writers Digest
has a number going on throughout the year.
And, ahem, I always list a few good ones in the "opportunity alerts" in these posts.
Entering short story contests is also an excellent way to get your career started. A big win for one of your pieces looks great in a query or a bio. Plus you might even win a money prize.
A lot of those prizes are bigger than the advances publishers offer on novels these days.
Plus some of the biggest prizes in literature are still for short fiction, like the Pushcart and the O. Henry award. And the venerable "Best of…" anthologies give huge prestige to those included.
9) Shorts keep your fans interested between novel releases
Forward-looking agents are now encouraging their authors to self-publish shorts
to fill in the gaps between novels. They especially like shorts that are about characters in your novels. They keep your fans interested while they’re waiting for the next book.
(Note, if your publisher has a non-compete clause, you won't be allowed to do this. Another reason to have a legal professional look over your contract before you sign.)
Consider writing a couple of shorts about your main characters while you're working on the novel. It may get you through a tricky spot in the big work as well as giving you a saleable product for later down the road.
10) Short stories make money and hold their value
In terms of labor, a short story can make more money than a novel. Not only does it take less time to write and often sells for the same price as a novel in an ebook, but it can be re-purposed many times. Also, as I said earlier, contest prizes for short fiction can be substantial
I have stories that have been published and republished up to six times litzines and anthologies. And I can always self-publish them again in a collection sometime down the road.
11) Writing short keeps your writing skills honed.
Writing poetry and short stories keeps your writing from getting flabby and verbose. You can't spend three pages describing the wallpaper in short fiction. You have to learn to sketch with a few broad strokes.
In these days when readers demand "just the good parts" writing, learning to write short can help no matter what genre you're writing in .
12) May is Short Story Writing Month
Inspired by April’s National Poetry Month
a group of writers supported by the StoryADay
writing challenge, deemed May to be International Short Story Month.
They say short stories:
- Make the perfect intro to a new author’s work
- Are a great way for readers to get a top-up from their favorite authors between novels,
- Are a perfect impulse purchase on a phone or e-reader.
So isn't this the perfect time to write one?
Like any other skill, your ability to create short fiction will atrophy if you don’t use it. I find it a lot harder to write a short story now than I did when I wrote them regularly.
I admit I've always preferred reading and writing longer fiction. Most writers do gravitate to one form or the other. I know my ideas generally spool out in about 80,000 words. Shorter is harder for me.
The reverse is true for other writers. Some great short story writers have a hard time writing good novels. One of our greatest short story writers, Katherine Anne Porter, only wrote one novel, Ship of Fools
, which was more like a tapestry of many short stories woven together without a compelling story arc. Critic Elizabeth Hardwick said it was " too static" in spite of "the flawless execution of the single scenes."
There's nothing wrong with preferring one form over the other. But these days, it will pay off to work on fiction in a variety of lengths. Not just short stories. Novellas, once taboo in traditional publishing, are soaring in popularity in the e-age.
I don't encourage newbie writers to self-publish your very first efforts at story-writing. To succeed in publishing—whether self- or traditional—you need to put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours
. But you can maximize your efforts by spending more of those hours writing short fiction and creative nonfiction shorts.