Storyville: Why Write Short Stories At All?

I encourage every author to start with short stories, and to master the various lengths and genres long before attempting a novel. Here are my top reasons why.

TO FIND YOUR VOICE

When you are first starting out, you need to find your voice. It could take you months, or years, to figure out who you are, exactly. You may start out sounding like Stephen King then Chuck Palahniuk then Cormac McCarthy, but you need to practice. In time, you will figure out who you are. By starting with shorter stories, playing around with your voice, there is less pressure to succeed, less pain if you fail. You may find that you transcend genre, and that the only common thread across your stories is a darkness, or a humor, or an uplifting center, but you need to experiment to see what sticks.

TO MASTER THE BASICS

It takes practice to figure out HOW to write a story, the classic dramatic story arc—hook, conflict, resolution. Start out writing short fiction, even flash, then work up to a standard length, and then even longer. Whether it's 500 words or 2,500 or 5,000—those are all lengths you need to practice mastering. You wouldn't walk outside and run a marathon, right? You need to take those muscles in your head and work them out, not just on the bench press, but curls, and sprints, and push-ups. Now, take those exercises I just mentioned, take those words and replace them with setting, dialogue, plot, and character.

Writing a novel is hard. It will take you YEARS to write, and possibly years to submit, then a few more years before it comes out.

IT DOESN’T TAKE AS LONG TO GET ACCEPTED

Yes, publishing short stories is hard. But so is publishing a novel. I've had stories accepted in a day, but the average time is maybe 30-60 days, and I usually have each story out to 5-15 markets at a time. I've had some out for over a year. Yes, the tough markets are lottery wins, but I've broken into <1% markets, and so can you. Selling a novel to a publisher or agent is JUST as hard, if not harder. By setting these short term goals, by sending out work to a variety of places, both elite and approachable, you will most likely find some success, and in a shorter period of time.

IT CAN ACTUALLY PAY MONEY

How much you get paid is ultimately up to you, and how high you aim. The toughest markets tend to pay the best, pro rates of about .05/word. So for a 4,000-word story that's $200. Not bad. And that goes all the way down to .01/word, or less. I don't usually like to talk about money, but I'll give you a few real world examples. I was involved in a project that Brandon Tietz was talking about in one of the forums, and yes, we were paid $800 for our short stories—long stories. But, I also had a story accepted by Cemetery Dance that in time earned me hundreds of dollars. I've had enough pro paying stories accepted to get into the Horror Writer's Association. I'm also editing an anthology that is paying more than double the standard pro rates. You can get paid, you just have to write well and place your work appropriately. And get a little lucky.

THE EXPOSURE ADDS UP

The exposure of having your work out there, it adds up. Whether it's for free online, or in a print anthology, a literary journal or a genre rag, it all matters. I have 75 stories published, a wide range of stories, genres, and pay rates. That body of work IS valuable. People come up to me and ASK ME to submit work, sometimes even for pay, ask me to be in anthologies, ask me to judge contests. That all looks good on my CV, when applying for teaching jobs. Having free work online means people can read my work, people that have never heard of me, and THEN they can decide if they want to buy a book. Building your network is hard, but you need to have work out there. It’s not just about the money, it’s about building up a fan base, getting your name out there, and expanding your body of work.

NOVELS ARE HARD TO WRITE

Writing a novel is hard. It will take you YEARS to write, and possibly years to submit, then a few more years before it comes out. I've been working on my second novel, Disintegration, since 2009. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I have an agent. It took me 2 years to write, over 100 agent queries to get one (and another year), and she's been shopping it a year. If it got accepted TODAY, it'd be another year before it hits the streets, at a minimum. The crushing feeling of failing at a novel can end your career. What if you spent years writing it, and it sucked? My first novel, Remembering, IS HORRIBLE—it will never be published. But I had to start someplace. Failing at a short story is no big deal. Write another one. Write five more. In time, when you feel you have a sense of who you are, what your voice is, and can show that you have mastered the basics of storytelling—then write a novel.

YOU CAN TRY OUT DIFFERENT GENRES

With the short form you can try out different genres, even after you figure out your voice. I write horror, fantasy, science fiction, noir, crime, thrillers, neo-noir, transgressive, magical realism, grotesque and even literary. Those stories rarely go to the same markets. Why limit yourself to 20 horror magazines, to the 10 that actually pay well? That's niche writing. Why make it even tougher on yourself? Why limit the markets for your work? I know my voices tends to be dark, that I tend to focus on these moments in life when a mistake has been made, a crossroads, a tipping point. But, how I apply that philosophy across different genres is different. A mystery story is typically different than horror, which is different than literary. The conventions, the expectations of a genre need to be addressed in some way, right? To write a horror story, you must terrify and disgust, create fear and tension. To write a mystery story, there must be something to solve, clues and crimes and investigation.

PEOPLE IN PUBLISHING DO CARE

Agents DO care. Publishers DO care. They DO notice. Obviously, Stinky Fish Magazine isn't as prestigious as The New Yorker or The Paris Review, but a body of work DOES mean something. At a bare minimum you've proven that you have impressed 10, 20, DOZENS of editors—and shown that your work is above average, extraordinary. One story in a top magazine can get you an agent and get you a book deal. Not just the big guys, but other literary journals, they can get you noticed.

YOU CAN PUT THEM IN A COLLECTION

You can also, in time, publish a short story collection or two (or three). Those are books, and they tend to get noticed as well. I just had one of the top editors in horror fiction today ask my current press (Kraken Press) to send her a copy of my latest collection, Staring Into the Abyss. She is reading it because she edits a “best of” anthology every year, and to get in there? Wow, that would be amazing. It all adds up. It builds my credibility. I'm speaking at a high school on Thursday, they found me online—they discovered my stories. Who the hell am I? I'm nobody. But I'm speaking there, getting my $100 appearance fee, and a room of high school kids will hang on my every word. That's pretty cool. It inspires me when I can give back, when I feel like my experience is worth something, of value.

IT FEELS GOOD

Write short stories because it feels amazing. You have a short goal, you write it in weeks, you send it out, and it gets published. The whole process can take days, weeks or months. And you learn so much in the process—about who you are, what your writing is about, how to submit, how to query, and you make connections, as well. It’s a process that is relatively short—days and weeks, not months and years, and you’ll reap the benefits immediately, you will grow, and evolve with every story you write.

I hope this helps. Now go write a story, dammit.


I just read two really good books on storytelling by Donald Maas, one of the best literary agents out there: Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling and Writing the Breakout Novel. Whether you check them out from the library or buy them, I cannot recommend them enough, especially his newer one on high impact techniques.

Image of Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling
Author: Donald Maass
Price: $14.22
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages
Image of Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level
Author: Donald Maass
Price: $14.19
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 1, 2013 - 12:28pm

It looks like Stinky Fish Magazine is closed to submissions. I'll keep an eye out.

Saul Aguilar's picture
Saul Aguilar from Tucson, AZ is reading Waking Up May 1, 2013 - 1:02pm

Great article! 

It seems like there are plenty of books on how to write novels, but few on how to write short stories. Do you recommend any books dedicated to the craft of short fiction? (Aside from the recommendations you provided)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies May 1, 2013 - 7:05pm

lol...stinky fish. ha.

um, saul, nothing that i can think of right now. the same things that the best novel texts talk about apply to short stories only...shorter, yeah? i'll see if i can find/think of something.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 1, 2013 - 9:15pm

If nothing else, I can get a reaction. 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts May 2, 2013 - 4:34am

I really dig Donald Maas, looking forward to picking up that new book.

As far as craft books on short stories, I have a couple written down in my list of ones to get;

Frank O'Connor - The Lonely Voice

Damon Knight - Creating Short Fiction

Alice LaPlante - Method and Madness

I've flipped through the Frank O'Connor book, but I think the first one I would buy out of those is the Alice LaPlante book, based on reviews of its content. I'm trying to read a craft book every couple months this year, the next ones I really want to read being  Roger Rosenblatt's Unless It Moves the Human Heart and Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream.

Food for thought.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago May 2, 2013 - 5:19am

Thanks again for yet another helpful article.  One thing I like about short stories is that they are so easy to study.  You can learn a lot from a well crafted piece of short fiction.

Johann Thorsson's picture
Johann Thorsson from Reykjavik, Iceland is reading Echo Lake May 5, 2013 - 2:19pm

Dan Simmons has the following to say on the subject: 

One of the problems of today’s crop of would-be writers is that the great majority of them want to go straight to writing novels (or long sequences of novels, the dreaded Chronicles of Sha-na-nah) without ever mastering, or perhaps even writing, a short story. While it’s certainly true that some writers are novelists at heart rather than short-story writers (I found out that this was true of me), just skipping the short-story form is too much like a young would-be filmmaker announcing that he or she is ready to be paid to do a big-budget major motion picture even though he or she has never picked up a movie camera.

I'd have to agree.

Stuart Gibbel's picture
Stuart Gibbel from California is reading Angel Falls by Michael Paul Gonzalez May 5, 2013 - 5:52pm

IT FEELS GOOD GREAT

 

Richard, why do I always have to correct you?

 

Stuart