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.


The Magic of Short Stories

Today’s guest post is written by author Carys Bray, winner of Salt Publishing’s 2012 Scott Prize. Thank you, Carys. I am really enjoying the complexity of these short stories which are honest and gritty accounts of family life, bound up in a collection which leaves its mark long after the pages stop turning. Highly recommended. Carys also had a recent piece of short fiction published in Literary Magazine, Litro. My Brother is Missing is an emotionally charged story and just as gripping as her collection.


I gate-crashed an undergraduate seminar a couple of weeks ago in order to listen to guest speaker, Chris Beckett. Chris’ collection The Turing Test won the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize and his novel Dark Eden was the Sunday Times SF novel of the year. During the seminar Chris talked about the way he approaches short stories by combining seemingly disparate elements in order to make his fiction three-dimensional. I once heard short story writer Adam Marek say something similar – I can’t quote him exactly, but he talked about how he often takes something fantastic and combines it with something ordinary.

I don’t believe there’s a ‘recipe’ for writing successful short stories, but I suspect Chris Beckett and Adam Marek are on to something when they talk about the way they mix their ingredients: short stories need depth and many of my favourite stories blend the mundane with the magic of the impossible.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is about a father whose son’s Tamagotchi has AIDS. On the surface, the story is about an impossible thing – a terminally ill toy, but it’s really about a father’s relationship with his son and the fundamental helplessness of parents. The father in the story can’t fix the Tamagotchi and he can’t ‘fix’ his son’s developmental issues. There is clearly a connection between the Tamagotchi’s illness and the son’s development – the metaphor may sound laboured as I attempt to dissect it, but it isn’t. The story is touching and funny, a beautiful exploration of a father’s need to make everything right.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is about an elderly woman who is both fascinated and repulsed by new technology. Clarissa is an Outsider in the Urban Consensual Field, a virtual city constructed in the image of London as it was when it ‘still seemed feasible for millions of physical human beings to casually consume what they wanted of the world’s resources.’ As one of the few physical people left, Clarissa can view the consensual world via an implanted switch. Old and frail, she embarks on a journey through the ruins of London to see the lights of Piccadilly Circus as it was in her childhood. It’s a wonderfully clever story set in an extraordinary world. Beckett addresses aging, our perception of reality and whether something is real if it can be turned on and off with the flick of a switch.

I think there’s something wonderful about these impossible stories. At first glance they’re entertaining, but they’re also illuminating; the blend of the familiar and the impracticable can challenge a reader’s perspective and assumptions.

When I started writing short stories I had tremendous fun creating improbable scenarios; supermarkets where children are bought, a baby carved out of ice, and an old lady constructing a gingerbread house. But in each case I suppose I was also writing, or at least thinking, about something else; the commodification of children and childhood, infertility, and the way outsiders are treated.

I’ve been working on a novel for some time now, but earlier this week I spent a day editing a short story I began last summer. It was lovely to handle something small again, to attempt to blend seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Tobias Wolff said, ‘There’s a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.’ I agree, and I think that same joy can be experienced when reading short stories, particularly the kind of stories that illuminate the everyday with a little bit of impossible magic.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is found in his new collection The Stone Thrower, published by Comma Press.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is found in his collection The Turing Test published by Elastic Press.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Remember the Bride Who Got Stung’ is available to read at Thresholds, the international short story forum.

Read about Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden in the Guardian.

Author pic from EH Prize edited Carys Bray’s short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines. She currently teaches at Edge Hill University and is a co-editor at Paraxis. She is working on a PhD and a novel.