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.


A Library Snapshot

I have been reading a mixture of books recently and many of them are too good not to share, so I’d like to dip into each one and give you a glimpse of what makes the books stand out in a crowded bookshelf. I haven’t finished all of them so these are just outlines and glimpses.

101 days            orkney       amity and sorrow    first-light-charles-baxter-paperback-cover-art     irish short story

A Hundred and One Days by Åsne Seierstad

Author Åsne Seierstad is a freelance journalist and who writes about everyday life in war zones. From her first hand experiences, she has written about Kabul, Baghdad and Grozny. I particularly enjoyed The Bookseller of Kabul, so I have finally picked up this gem, A Hundred and One Days, set in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq. I enjoy non-fiction and stories set in conflict areas so her books appeal to me. Seierstad focuses on the lives of Iraqi citizens, providing an insight into their days lived under the constant threat of attack, first from the Iraqi government and later from American bombs. She also describes in vivid detail the frustration felt by journalists in their attempts to sort truth from propadanda. The book looks at the ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after,’ of the war without casting moral judgement on the situation, and looks at everyday lives with a sharp understanding of human nature, a trait in her writing which I have enjoyed in her other books.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville is a creative writing teacher at Kent University, and this is her second novel, set on a remote island in Orkney. It is a poetic and lyrical story of an unusual couple: a 61 year old literature professor and his pupil who is never actually named. The  book spans their fortnight honeymoon in this barren landscape and, as she spends an obsessive amount of time by the sea, he realises how little he knows her. We don’t know why his wife is so obsessed by the sea, but it has something to do with her father, who disappeared when she was young. The language of the book is beautiful and intriguing, and I couldn’t put it down.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Riley is a writer and a playwright. There is so much to say about her but I’ll save it for my upcoming author interview next week. Released on March 28, this book is shocking and gripping story of a mother who rescues her daughters from a cult, their father and a fire,  driving for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can’t imagine what the world holds outside their father’s polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. This is an unforgettable story which I was fortunate enough to receive as an advanced reader copy. I would recommend picking it up when it is released in the next few weeks. It has already had some wonderful reviews.

First Light by Charles Baxter

I discovered this out of print gem and managed to find a second hand copy. Charles Baxter’s short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories and in two of his own collections. This novel, his first, was supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He takes us backwards through the lives of Hugh and Dorsey Welch who are brother and sister. We meet them as adults, while Hugh is a Buick salesman and Dorsey is an astrophysicist, and discover their dark and difficult pasts. The author traces their paths back to the day of Dorsey’s birth with an unusual subtlety. His opening paragraph includes this vivid description: ‘Hugh keeps both hands near the top of the steering wheel the way cautious men often do, and he does not turn to argue with her, not at first.’

The Grant Book of the Irish Short Story

I am reading both the Irish Short Story collection and the Best American Short Stories, but I wanted to focus on this collection in particular, edited by Anne Enright. Ireland has produced some of the world’s most celebrated short story writers and this, a collection of the best works of contemporary Irish short fiction writers, includes works by  Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Kevin Barry. It  begins and ends with a road accident. The first, which proves fortuitous, involves an out-of-work labourer and a carload of nuns; the second – which is fatal – occurs when a mechanic decides to earn a few extra euros ferrying tourists to a shrine where a statue of Mary is said to weep. Between these two tales we meet a mother who finds her son suspected of abuse and we glimpse the consequences of Irish abortion law. The subjects are heavy and, sometimes dark, but the writing is tight and distinctive. My favourite story so far is John Banville’s Summer Voices. His book, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and his short story is carried off with the same elegance of style with phrases such as these: ‘The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him.’ The story follows a young boy and girl who discover a body in amongst an almost eerie description of the landscape.