A Short Shrift to the Short Story?


I have written and had a few short stories published in various anthologies, but am yet to finish a novel. Often, I’m told I would never arrive as a writer if I stick to writing short stories—a novel is the true test of a writer’s mettle.

When I look at my novelist friends, I tend to agree. Some have been writing their novels for over an year. Others, much longer. The plots are long and convoluted, the character arcs difficult to keep track of, maintaining timelines and consistency nothing short of a nightmare.

But be as it may, I do think the short story gets a short shrift.It does not receive  major awards, nor recognition. To write a short story may not take as much physical and mental energy as a novel, but it needs a different kind of skill. Sometimes, I begin to write something one year, don’t seem to get it right, and then have a moment of epiphany an year later (because the story keeps simmering at the back of my mind), when I finish the draft. There are stories I’ve written and got accepted for publication in a matter of two weeks, but they’ve required a tremendous intensity of effort.

I think the following excerpt from an article by Chris Power in Guardian last year sums it up well:

“The short story…acknowledges the vastness and diversity of life by the very act of focusing on one small moment or aspect of it. The story is small precisely because life is so big. Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity. The short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different.”

Where do you stand in the novel vs short story debate? Have you written more short stories or novels? Which do you prefer as a writer, and as a reader?

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26 thoughts on “A Short Shrift to the Short Story?

  1. I like short stories. A good one really can push boundaries. SciFi world does honor short stories, and many great SciFi writers did/do excellent work in the short story format. If not, we wouldn’t have a Harlan Ellison or many of the great Roger Zelazny words to read.

  2. The problem is that the market for short stories has shrunk to a few dozen a year that are worth reading and most are genre fiction. (Nothing wrong with that. I love genre fiction.) If your novelist friends give you a hard time about writing short stories, tell them that it was what Raymond Carver based his entire career on and it was where John Cheever did his best work. It may not change their minds, but you’ll certainly have made your point.

  3. I love short stories, full stop. I love them and I love anthologies of them. I can pick and choose and weed out and enjoy. As a writer, I love to write them precisely because I don’t have to expend the time and energy it takes to work out a full-length novel. In addition I can touch on as many different areas/genres/ideas as I’d like. I don’t have to spend as much time world-building and don’t have to keep track of knowledge (who knows what at which points and such). So they’re a boon.

    The problem seems to be short stories collections/anthologies don’t sell as well. I don’t know why; I’d think our microwave generation and ADHD societies would rather have bite-sized stories than full novels, but it’s not so. And unless you’re established with legacy publishing, it’s difficult to have short stories published (so I hear).

    You, however, have done very well! Bravo, author.

  4. I think it would be just a difficult to write a short story as things must happen faster and wrapped up sooner. There’s not time for tons of detail or the character development that comes with a novel. I’m impressed by people like you who are successful writing short stories.

  5. As a reader, I like both. When I was traveling, I could finish a couple of short stories on a one-hour flight, while I could barely finish a novel on a coast-to-coast trip. After leaving the road, I typically read novels, mostly because I couldn’t find collections of short stories, because, as a friend of mine pointed out, no publisher wants to mess with short stories. That may or may not be true, but until e-readers became available it was hard to come by them.

    As a writer, I haven’t written a novel yet (aside from a couple of NaNoWriMo dashes to 50K words that I never had the desire to revisit). I had a long hiatus from writing and haven’t had the time or the inclination to plan one. Until I do, I’ve been writing short stories for practice and to have something to give my writers’ group. I like the self-contained nature of shorts, they’re fun to write and easy to critique.

  6. I have finished many short stories, but have several novels started and never finished. Don’t know what that’s about. The short story is an art that requires economy and intensity to get the point across. The novel can afford more leisure which is perhaps where I get stuck.

    Lee
    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out
    Twitter: @AprilA2Z
    #atozchallenge

  7. I’ve written way more short stories than novels. I recently had a post about feeling rather bad about that, but I’ve realized a lot of great authors wrote short stories before they wrote novels. Not everyone can write short. :)

    Plus, short stories are brilliant for a quick read.

  8. If I’d been asked which I preferred a year ago, I’d have said short stories. Six months ago? Novels. Now? Back to short stories again. I find both kinds of stories appealing for very different reasons, and like writing best whichever one I’m NOT working on at the moment.
    With novels you can take your time, whether as a writer or a reader. When I crack one open, I ease into it like I’m getting into a just-too-hot bath. If it were a meal, it’s a great Thanksgiving feast with plenty of gravy to go around.
    A great short story is more like a deli sandwich eaten on the run. It might be delicious, but they’re consumed too quickly and the best ones always leave you hungry for more.

  9. I love to write short stories. I’ve written some that will never see the light of day. And I have written some that have been published. I am now trying my hand at the novel. I’ve always wanted to do both. but the novel scares me. It’s so overwhelming. But I am tackling my fear. I do find that the short story offers and plays to my desire to leave the reader asking more questions. I don’t know how this will work in a novel though. Like you said, many people require you to tie up those lose ends. Sometimes it’s fun to see where the questions from your readers will lead. :)

  10. As a teacher, I rely heavily on the short story because of the aforementioned attention span deficit issues and because I have so little class time with my students.
    As a writer, I went through the same conundrum of preferring the short story format but desiring a broader appeal. Having written two novels now, I enjoy the format of the latter as much as the former.
    For me, the analogy that suits best is that of the sprint and the marathon…different skill sets, different challenges and different rewards (I like the deli sandwich comparison as well!). Of course, I’ve yet to write an epic which is like what? An Ironman?

  11. I started out writing short stories, but found they kept growing longer and longer. Now I’m working on my second novel, but once finished, I plan to rework some of my older short stories. I’ve heard it’s easier to get your work noticed (and get an agent) if you’ve published in small presses and anthologies. As a reader, I enjoy both.

  12. Novels and short stories are different and require different skill-sets. Short stories teach brevity and conciseness, though, which is very important for a novel.

    That said, I prefer novels. My short stories always want to morph into something longer, or feel like something longer even when they aren’t. I’m working on that…

  13. As a reader, I prefer novels. No, scratch that, I prefer epic series that go on for many novels. Sword of Truth, Song of Ice and Fire, Alvin Maker, Pern, The Lost Fleet, Harry Potter, Temeraire, etc. I’m a fast reader and it feels like it takes those long series to really satisfy me.

    However, short stories got me through a tough time when I was young, stuck in a body cast after hip surgery. In among the Archie magazines at the hospital that I found myself addicted to, I found these magazines of a similar size called Azimov’s and Analog. The short stories were exactly what I needed at the time.

    So when I decided to try to start writing with the intention of trying to be published, I found myself dreaming of being published in those magazines. Then, when I discovered Writers of the Future, that sealed the deal for me. I’m sticking with short fiction while I try to enter that contest every quarter.

    I do plan on venturing out to novels eventually, but for the time being I’m sticking with short fiction.

  14. I write short stories – and I love reading them. As a matter of fact, I’m currently reading The Beacon Best Of 2001. It’s true that the market has shrunk – many older magazines that used to feature a story every month no longer do so. Still, I think the slack is beginning to be taken up by more online journals and mags, and self-publishing will allow more writers to put together and market their own collections.

  15. I am definitely in the short story camp. Hopefully I’ll be able to step up to writing a novella this year, but for right now I am perfectly happy with my short stories and flash fiction.

  16. Thanks, everyone for such long and thoughtful comments. The short stories seem to be the favorite across the board on here :) —but I guess each genre has its place in the literary world.

  17. Overall, I agree there’s more focus on novels. They do tend to drag on compared to the crispness of a well written short story. I’ve published a number of short stories on Amazon and am happily surprised that people are buying them. Maybe there is hope after all.

  18. I love reading and writing short stories. I love the purity of one idea explored, and I love a good twist – which is much easier to pull off in short story form. I’ve made it through the process of self-publishing a book of my short stories (“Cracks in the Ceiling”), and I’m now working on a series that will be long shorts (about 12000 words) to sell individually.
    BUT I am also working on a novel, It’s longer and more complex, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m interested in the comments about shorts writing building conciseness as a skill that serves you well when writing a novel. My novel will NOT be a 120000 word epic, but a hopefully a 50000 word page turner.

  19. I love reading and writing short stories, but my brain seemed to be wired to write the shorts. However, I will eventually stretch my wings and try a novel, just to say I did.

    Short stories have definitely been given the short end of the stick in the world of traditional publishing, but their popularity seems to be on the rise with the explosion of ePublishing. However, I’ve noticed the price discrepancy in eBooks can hinder shorts because many readers don’t see the point in spending a buck on a short story when that same dollar can purchase a full-length novel.

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