Get your short stories published, win a couple of contests, then reference them all in a query letter to convince an agent to convince a publisher to take a chance on your novel – that is the path to a traditional book deal, said all of the articles I read.
But don’t they require different skill sets, I wondered: generating an experience in a few hundred words vs. building a world over several hundred pages? What if you’re good at one and not at the other? What if you have limited time to write? Don’t you need to choose?
Fast forward six or seven years to today’s bigger and braver world of indie publishing, and the idea of selling a novel with a portfolio of short stories can seem like an archaic and unnecessary paradigm—and worse, a waste at the expense of the World’s Greatest Novel. But writing short stories can be a good use of time for novelist, budding or otherwise. Below are ten reasons why:
1. Better blog content. As an indie you may not have to prove yourself to a gatekeeper agent or publisher, but you do have to prove yourself to the public. Even amateur readers want to know that a writer can produce a good story and a kick-butt ending before spending their hard-earned cash. So when they read a sample chapter of your novel and visit your blog to find out more of what you can do, they probably aren’t looking for yet another diary entry about your self-publishing journey.
2. Rust prevention. When you pitch the World’s Greatest Novel out the window because it didn’t turn out as great as you had hoped, you will still need something to write each week to keep your fingers oiled and ready for the next big idea. Who knows, maybe that flash fiction exercise will turn into the novel you were always meant to write.
3. Free samples. You could give whole books away and hope the recipients invest the time to read more than five pages, or you could give away short stories as a taste, to provide an instant beginning-to-end experience that leaves readers confident in you and wanting more–maybe even wanting enough to buy your novels. Finding places to post free short stories online is one way to go (such as swapping short stories on blogs with other writers), and you can use them as in-person freebies, too. For example, for a recent book signing event, I didn’t have much of a budget, so I polished and printed a short story written for an IU challenge and affixed it to colored cardstock then bundled it with bookmarks to hand out as a thank-you to people who made eye contact as they walked by my table on the sidewalk. I was surprised at the positive responses, which reminded me that even short stories have value.
4. Sales portfolio. If you have a collection of short stories that can be tied together with a theme, why not publish them? When I met an artist who could illustrate my animal stories, we published a collection together. Or maybe you have one long story that has value in and of itself. I have bought single stories on Amazon for the price of a candy bar, and several were at least as satisfying and a lot fewer calories. There is only one thing I would advise or beg: Please publish more than one story or preferably a story between two books. As a reader, I find it frustrating to be left wanting more when there is nothing more to be found. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Don’t frustrate your readers.
5. Anthologies. Lin Robinson wrote a great article on the value of contributing to an anthology.
6. Exploration. A novel is a commitment but with short stories, you can get an idea out of your system and see how it ends up without spending years of your life on it. You also never know what revelation might be sparked by letting your mind go in a different direction for a while. Even if the idea doesn’t help out your WIP right now, one day it might be just what you were looking for.
7. Chapter development. Writing short stories puts your mind in a groove of building a full journey arc in a few hundred words. Every sentence has to matter and advance to the end; there is no room to stall in a short. This thought process can be applied to lackluster chapter to pick up the pace. Also, if you are lucky enough to have a reader check out a sample of your book, you need the first chapter to quickly engage them and move them into the journey, and good short story writers know how to pack a full experience into a few pages. It is important, however, to remember that a chapter is not in itself a short story and a short story is not in itself a chapter; there are different skill sets that make each work as what they are. For example, I once read a 99-cent purchase that had a beginning but no end. It would have been a really good chapter but the full book didn’t exist. That annoyed me. Then I read a loudly-touted book by a traditionally published author, and it turned out to be three stories that would have each been good alone but together had no cohesion. That annoyed me even more. Don’t annoy your readers.
8. Protection for your ending. When you’re working on a novel, the limited number of writing hours in your day is a legitimate concern. But say you devoted all of your precious writing time to your novel. It is likely that at some point you will just want that book to be done. Taking some time out to write a short story and polish it beginning to end can make you feel like you have accomplished something, which can provide your brain with permission to give your novel the rest of the time it needs. There are few things more disappointing to me as a reader than to be fully invested and trusting in a great book only to be rushed through an ending. Say it with me, kids: Don’t disappoint your readers.
9. Fun. If writing is all work, it’s not worth it.
10. Fame and fortune at the box office. The following entertainment blockbusters all had their origins in short fiction: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Brokeback Mountain, The Birds, Psycho, Minority Report, Guys and Dolls, All About Eve, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and It’s a Wonderful Life.