What Novelists Should Know About Short Fiction

Stack of magazines

When I first started writing seriously, all I wanted was to publish a novel.

I thought my intentions were honourable—that I wasn’t just another wannabe with dreams of making it big—but there was always that little part of me that still wasn’t ready to put in my dues.

I wanted it all, and I wanted it right away.

Then, something life-changing happened. An opportunity fell into my lap. I was asked by the publisher of a print magazine (who had been following my blog) if I would consider submitting a short story to their next issue. I hadn’t had much luck with my previous attempts at publishing short fiction, but I thought I’d give it a try.

A Writing Revelation

In order to be sure I was writing something that wouldn’t be rejected, I read and deconstructed a lot of short stories, listened to them on podcasts, and spent a painfully long period of time perfecting my piece. I really began to appreciate the things that short stories do best, and in the process of writing that story, I fell in love with short fiction.

My piece was accepted. It was then nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and later it was included in an anthology.

All of this changed the course of my writing forever. I put the novel aside for a while and focused more on short fiction. I still received plenty of rejections, but the acceptances became more and more frequent. Now that I’ve tackled some of the smaller indie mags and mid-range university journals, I have a much better chance of breaking in to some of the larger, more well-known publications.

And that could have a huge impact on my ability to write, sell, and market a novel.

If you consider yourself strictly a novelist, have you given some thought to whether short fiction can help you achieve your goals? Or, have you dismissed it as something that’s ‘just not for you’?


1. Reading short fiction can make you a more knowledgeable writer.

You know how sometimes you hear the same authors’ names over and over, but have no real concept of who they are or what they write?

Short fiction gives you the opportunity to experience the work of some great writers without the commitment of reading through weighty novels each time. You might yawn at the prospect of reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, but you can still get to know his work by reading the short piece “Agreeable” (which is actually an excerpt from the novel, but it stands on its own). You have no time or inclination to push through Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace or The Handmaid’s Tale, but in half an hour you can read “Stone Mattress.”

Reading short fiction offers an opportunity to become more widely read in less time. There are plenty of short fiction collections at your local library, and thousands upon thousands of stories available free online.

Start today: For one week, read a short story per day. You might do this during your lunch break or before bed, or you can even download an audio recording and listen to it while you exercise or commute to work.

Here are some stories I’ve enjoyed recently:

2. Writing short fiction can make you a more accomplished writer.

Writing short stories requires economy with words and focus on technique. Think—maximum learning experience with minimum time commitment.

Taking the time to write short fiction, set it aside, and polish it, all give you opportunities to work on your craft and get used to the feeling of completely finishing a piece of writing.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from writing short stories is the art of subtlety: how to be less obvious with symbolism or themes, how to choose subtle titles, and when it’s better to leave things unsaid.

Short fiction teaches you to make each word count, and that’s a definite advantage in writing a novel, especially when you need to hook your reader from the very first page.

Start today: Read the following first short story lines and use each as a starting point to create a piece of micro or flash fiction:

  • “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” (“Man and Wife,” by Katie Chase, The Missouri Review)
  • “For weeks, the rumours circled into town as if carried by wind.” (“Viaticum,” by Lauren Groff, Open Letters Monthly)
  • “What a burden it is to have seen wondrous things, for afterwards the world feels empty of possibility.” (“A Lovely and Terrible Thing,” by Chris Womersley, Granta)

3. Publishing short fiction can make you a more marketable writer.

With a portfolio of published work to my credit, when I do have a novel ready to submit to literary agents, my query letter will sound more confident and experienced than it would have a couple of years ago.

Getting your work published in just a few respectable journals can be a real asset to you as a writer. It shows you’ve put in the time to learn and practice your craft, and that you have the tenacity to keep submitting until you find a home for your work.

If literary fiction isn’t your thing, many popular authors are just as active in writing short stories (think about Stephen King, Jennifer Weiner, Neil Gaiman). For whatever genre you love, there are short-form markets to match.

Start today: Start a spreadsheet of places where you can publish short fiction. You’ll probably want to start with ones that don’t charge reading fees, do accept electronic and simultaneous submissions, and publish work similar to your own writing. Continue adding to the list as you come across new venues. When you’ve polished either one short story or a suite of micro/flash fiction, you’ll already have a tailor-made database of markets.

This post is reblogged from Writer Unboxed, written by Suzannah Windsor Freeman.



  1. Most excellent advice!


  2. Paul McVeigh says:

    Great post. 🙂


  3. Seyi sandra says:

    I’m a novelist and my first short fiction was a delicious experience. The positive reviews I received from readers was worth the effort! Great post!! 🙂


    1. fcmalby says:

      That’s really good to hear. I believe short fiction can bring out a certain something in your writing that is unique to the short story form.


  4. I’ve always struggled with reading short fiction… I’m one of those people that is drawn to big, chunky books! I think that’s the reason I’ve always stayed away from writing it. But this post makes some excellent points. Might have to give it a go.


    1. fcmalby says:

      I would highly recommend it. I spent a couple of months at the beginning of the year solidly reading and writing short fiction before I began the next novel. Quite a few pieces have just been published online and it has tightened and honed my writing skills in a way that novel writing seems to miss. Readers are also keen to read your work in between publications and publishing short stories puts your work out there for people to read. There are a few short story posts on my blog so have a browse and see what you find. Let me know how you get on.


    2. Have you read Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” beautifulorange? You can really sink your teeth into that one!


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s