The Short Story and Me

I’m in the midst of some final polishing on a short story I’ll be shopping around soon. This is something of an occasion for me because I don’t actually write all that many short stories.

Coming up with short story-sized ideas has always been a challenge. Part of it is my natural inclination to keep asking “what happens next?” Which often leads my attempts at short stories to feel more like the opening chapter of a novel than stand-alone tales. My current novel project, Sheep’s Clothing, actually grew out of such a circumstance.

For a long time, I was told again and again that the route to success in science fiction and fantasy was to start out publishing short stories, build a name for yourself, and then move on to novels. But the evidence suggests publishing short fiction has at best only a marginal impact on selling your first novel.

In 2010, author Jim C. Hines conducted a survey of more than 240 published novelists about how they broke into the industry, coming up with some valuable insights. He found that among the authors surveyed, over 100 had published their first novel with no prior short fiction sales. It seems pretty clear that having short stories published can only help your chances of getting a novel picked up, but it’s far from the mandatory career path that had been drilled into me for a long time.

Which was a huge relief.

As a reader, I’ve never particularly warmed to short stories. I studied and practiced the form in college and I continue to read plenty of them, but more out of a sense of professional obligation than true passion. Which is not to say that there aren’t fantastic stories out there–I mentioned one previously that had a big impact on me–but even in those cases, I’m almost always left wanting more. Not in the comfortable “always leave them wanting more” fashion, but rather a frustrated sense of incompleteness. It adds an unpleasant edge to the experience of reading short stories, as I keep getting yanked out of a world just as I’m getting used to it.

There are certainly stories that avoid having this effect on me, ones that walk that careful balance of telling exactly what they needed to tell and sketching just enough of the universe for me to believe without feeling cheated by the ending. And of course, there are short story series that satisfy my desire for more, more, more. But all too often, when I really engage with a piece of short fiction, I’m left asking “what happens next?” and feeling cheated that there’s no answer.

This probably helps explain what I have such trouble writing short stories that stay short.

And it’s also why I get so ecstatic when I do hit upon an idea that fits the needs of short fiction. The story I’m polishing up right now has gotten some great feedback from early readers, tries a bunch of new things for me, but most importantly it tells a complete, contained story. I keep asking myself “what happens next” and find that I have no answers worth writing about. The protagonist’s journey is complete by story’s end.

…Unless I come up with something better down the road.

(Quick reminder to check out my writing contest, “What’s in the Box?” which concludes on August 31, 2013.)

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