By Wendy Tyson
I remember my first non-form rejection letter. It was sent to me in a self-addressed stamped envelope, and had been handwritten on a small rectangle of light green paper. At the top was a polite rejection. “Your story was better than most I receive. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
“Feel free to submit again” was scrawled across the bottom.
That short story, “Linden Street,” was picked up by another literary journal a few weeks later. A few more sales followed. I still have that tiny green rejection note tucked somewhere in my fat manila rejection file. It serves as a reminder that short stories, no matter how brief, require enough context to be meaningful. They’re not simply miniature versions of their longer cousins: novellas and novels. Rather, they’re their own art form, deserving of respect and presenting a unique set of challenges.
An aspiring novelist recently asked me whether he should be writing and submitting short stories while trying to get his novel published. His argument—a good one—was that he could practice craft while building a publishing history. The short answer I gave him was yes. Writing (any writing, really) helps. When you aspire to be an author, you must sit your ass in a chair and write, whatever the form. But the long answer is much more complicated. Short stories are different beasts. They require a different skillset, offer different benefits to authors and readers, and demand a different level of time commitment.
I recently reached out to several authors who’ve had success writing short stories and novels to see why they write short stories—and what practical advice they might have for other writers.
Award-winning author B.K. Stevens has published over fifty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. She’s also published two novels, Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press) and Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books). This year, B.K. was nominated for an Agatha Award for her short story titled “The Last Blue Glass.” B.K. admits to writing short stories because, quite simply, she loves the short story form. “I’ve always enjoyed reading short stories and admired how much some writers can accomplish in a relatively small number of pages—sometimes, in only a few pages. Short stories give me opportunities to write about characters and situations that might not work in novels. For example, protagonists in mystery novels are usually smart, energetic people who take decisive actions, devise clever plans, and solve problems. Some of my short story protagonists are like that, but some don’t understand what’s going on, feel overwhelmed by circumstances, or fail to act even when they know they should. I enjoy the variety, enjoy spending a little time with interesting characters who might start irritating me (and readers) after twenty pages or so.”
B.K. also notes that short stories have a concentrated intensity she finds appealing. “As Edgar Allan Poe says in ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ short stories have a ‘unity of effect’ that works too long to be read in one sitting often lack. Maintaining a mood throughout a short story can be an interesting challenge. And mysteries that hinge on one good twist are probably better suited to short stories than to novels.”
B.K. thinks it’s a good idea for writers to try their hand at short stories before they write their first novel, or while they’re working on their first novel. “Short stories and novels have many elements in common; writers can learn a lot about developing characters, working out a plot, and so on by writing short stories. And if they can get their stories published in reputable magazines and anthologies, they can build up some writing credits. But I don’t think writers should see short stories as no more than a stepping stone, and I don’t think they should assume writing short stories is easier than writing novels.
As to the question of whether short stories are harder or easier to write, B.K. quotes Lawrence Block. “In Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Block says, ‘Novels aren’t harder. What they are is longer.’ I know several successful novelists who admit they can’t write good short stories. Short stories present their own particular challenges, and you have to relish those challenges and have genuine respect for the short story form if you hope to succeed.”
Will B.K. continue with short stories now that she’s also writing novels? “I’ve published a couple of novels now, and I hope to publish more. But I know I’ll never stop writing short stories.”
Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has also won two Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction. His short story “Parallel Play” was recently nominated for an Agatha Award. Art’s passion for the short story form is apparent in his work—and his teaching.
Art is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. When Art teaches fiction workshops, he prefers to focus exclusively on short stories. “In that shorter form, aspiring writers can still work on honing those building blocks of fiction—character, point of view, plot turns over a full narrative arc, setting, etc.—while also developing their own style. But while I always insist on short stories for workshop, there’s a troubling implication in the whole process; namely, that it’s a stepping stone toward writing longer works, when really it’s not.”
Art points out that novel writing and short story writing are quite different. “Beginning writers think of short stories as an apprenticeship to writing novels, but the two forms often require different approaches, and what you need to write one can’t be applied to writing the other. At their best, short stories are about cutting away anything that doesn’t belong: engage the reader quickly in the action rather than risking a slower build-up; find the detail that speaks volumes rather than the paragraph that explains too much; keep the focus on a central story line or a central perspective rather than a flurry of subplots and a chorus of characters; cover a short but important span of time rather than try to tell a sweeping saga; and trim away anything that doesn’t earn its keep as part of what Poe (our master!) called the tale’s ’single effect.’”
Art notes that in a short story, every word counts. “Meanwhile, the process of writing a novel often requires accumulation: a larger cast of characters, a layering of plots and subplots, etc. It’s been argued that it’s a more forgiving form—not incidentally because of its size. A single error in a 10-page short story glares; a single misstep in a 300-page novel…. well, readers might recover their footing more easily.”
Are the rules governing each inflexible? Art doesn’t think so. “Everything here is subject to exceptions, of course. Short stories can indulge several perspectives or cover many, many years, while a novel might unfold with a single couple over a short weekend; but economy of storytelling is the requirement in short fiction in ways that it’s not in a novel.”
But Art agrees that writing short stories still makes sense for aspiring novelists. Novelists can learn a lot about craft. And like B.K., Art points out that from a publication standpoint, getting work out in magazines and anthologies is a way of building up both a list of publications and a brand. “And this holds true for veteran authors as well,” Art points out. “Something between books to keep fans satisfied, and a breather perhaps between those big projects.”
In the end, Art says, “the short story and the novel are two different animals—but lucky for all of us, they can get along well in the same community.”
USA Today bestselling author Gretchen Archer, whose short story “Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story” was recently nominated for an Agatha Award, shared some practical reasons for writing short stories based on the characters in her full-length mysteries. “There were two reasons I wanted to write short stories between full-length books for my Davis Way Crime Caper series. One was to stay in, and true, to my series, but have the opportunity to write in a different voice. While I love my main character, it was glorious, after five full-length books released nine months apart, to get out of her head for a minute and into another narrative character’s head. The other reason was because I’ve always wanted to write around holidays. I love holiday-themed books, and short stories are the perfect length for a holiday adventure.”
As Gretchen points out, short stories don’t have to be focused on new characters. More and more often we see novelists who write shorter stories (or novellas) between full-length books in order to engage (and tease!) their audiences, experiment with different characters’ voices, and be playful and creative in ways novels don’t always allow.
I ended my queries with The Thrill Begins’ Managing Editor, author Ed Aymar (E.A. Aymar). Ed is the author of a number of short stories and two novels, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and You’re As Good As Dead, and he writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Ed is also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music.
I asked Ed bluntly why he writes short stories. “I didn’t used to, even though short stories were primarily what I studied in writing workshops and I love the form. But I wanted to write novels, so that’s what I focused on. The thing was, once my novel was completed and on submission, I had nothing to do but wait, and get rejections, and the rejections were maddening. I needed someone, somewhere, to accept my writing and tell me I was pretty. So I wrote short stories, and had some success getting them published in places I respected. And then I kept writing them, in between novels. It’s a form I respect and savor and eagerly read, and some tales are perfect for the form. And it makes me feel pretty.”
Bottom line? I think all authors agree that writing novels and short stories makes sense. Each form can improve a writer’s craft, add to their publishing history, and enhance their brand. And writing (and reading) short stories is just plain fun.
Besides, in the end we all want to feel pretty.
Wendy Tyson has written five published crime novels. The first in the Campbell series, Killer Image, was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by Examiner.com. Wendy is also the author of the Greenhouse Mystery Series, the latest of which, Bitter Harvest, will be released in March. She lives with her family on a micro-farm near Philadelphia.
To learn more about Bitter Harvest, click on the cover below: