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This Writing Life: How I Learned to Love Short Stories

31 May, 2011

Back when I started writing, novels were all I was interested in. Unlike many writers, I didn’t start by writing short fiction and move up to novels. I’d always read novels and, when I started writing, it seemed obvious that I’d write them too. And I did – several of them, from the age of about fifteen onwards.

Flash forwards a few years, and I’d decided it was time to take my writing more seriously. Reading through writing advice online, it was impossible to ignore the mantra that runs ‘Sell a few short stories first, so that you can mention them in novel queries to agents and editors’. Reading this, I despaired. I couldn’t write short stories. My ideas were too big, my plots too complex. My short stories always become sprawling and messy. I decided, after a while, that writing short stories just wasn’t something that I would be able to master – and writing short stories for the sole purpose of gaining enough recognition to sell a novel seemed both mercenary and a slog – so I should just put them aside and concentrate on novels. Which I did.

So, what changed? Put simply – I didn’t have time to write all the novels I wanted to write. Too many ideas, not enough time. I began to think more seriously about short stories again. Here, I thought, was a medium in which I could get a multitude of ideas and settings down quickly. From the ones I liked best, I could develop novels. It was a good idea, and I set to this plan with gusto. Still though, I began to run into the same hurdles. Plots too big, characters too complex, settings that needed three chapters of backstory to really function.

Thankfully, I quickly realised what my real problem was, and it was twofold. Firstly, I didn’t read enough short stories. I’ve always been in the habit of reaching for novels first, with shorts getting… well, short shrift. I always told myself I didn’t really enjoy reading short stories, but trying to write them myself made me think again. Reading more of them quickly gave me a better idea of why my own were going wrong, and it’s an education that’s still ongoing. The second problem was that learning to write reasonably well wasn’t enough. I had spent years learning to write novels – but writing short stories, whilst encompassing many of the same skills, really required a whole set of new ones.

I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve learnt them all yet, but I am learning, and that’s the important thing. I’ve also discovered a whole arena of SFF that I had neglected before, and it’s one in which there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had both reading and writing.

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2 Comments
  1. 3 June, 2011 10:26 am

    Like you, I delved straight into the world of novel writing without even considering short stories. It wasn’t until I started up my blog and participated in a few flash fiction challenges that I realised how enjoyable short story writing can be (and the shorter the better, I find the 250 word variety particularly challenging but hugely enjoyable). The difficulty I am now finding is getting back into the saddle of novel writing.

    • 3 June, 2011 10:52 am

      Hi Jody!

      It certainly is difficult switching between writing novels and short stories. I haven’t tried much flash fiction yet – I’d imagine that uses different skills all over again. Trying to cram a whole story into fewer than 500 words is a challenge that I’ve yet to manage!

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