Short stories: a love letter

October 27, 2011 § 4 Comments

I have an embarrassing admission to make. Several actually.  The first is that until recently I generally thought short stories were dull and only good for English textbooks.  I didn’t even realize that short story markets existed outside textbooks and if you’d asked me if I’d ever read an anthology I would have had to find a dictionary. The second embarrassing thing is that the only reason I started reading short stories is because I wanted to write short stories, and the only reason I wanted to write short stories was to get the practice was to publish a novel.  I have since learned the error of my ways.

Why I love to read them:

A good short story is like lightning in a bottle.  It packs a punch with a clear theme, a lot of character, and no wasted words.  I love that when my life feels too busy to tackle a novel, I can pick up one of my anthologies and read a short story before bed with no obligation to read the next day. Often these short stories leave a bigger impact on my than most novels. Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, Ted Kosmatka’s N-words (only kind of what you think), The Erdmann Nexus by Nancy Kress, Crystal Nights by Greg Egan, and more Arthur C Clarke than I can name, all left such distinct impressions on me that I still find myself thinking about the stories years later, and those are just the first that come to mind. On top of all that, short stories are a great way to discover new authors and worlds.  My first encounter with Anne McCaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern was through a short story we read in the seventh grade (another story that obviously left an impression on me).

Why I love to write them:

To be perfectly honest, the first stories I wrote when I embarked on this authorial adventure were embarrassingly bad. I’m not just talking about stories I tried to write when I was a ten-year-old, I’m talking about my first concerted attempts to write something publishable. The most entertaining thing, now that it’s years behind me, is how proud I was of that first short story I finished. It was a big step for me to see a story through to the end and it gave me invaluable experience in writing a well-paced story with a beginning, middle, and end, but I am so glad that it wasn’t a novel that I’d spent months on.  Short stories are a great place to practice your craft and experiment with different characters, settings, voices, etc without a huge commitment.

George R. R. Martin recommends that every writer start with short stories, and when they’ve mastered that, move up to novellas, then to standalone novels, and finally to a series. That’s not to say that writing short stories is easy; in some ways they are much harder than longer works because of the efficiency required of your words. Rather, the reason to start with them is that it’s important to finish what you start so that you get practice with the whole process and have the benefit of looking back later at the completed story to critique your own work and learn what to focus on in the future, and it’s easier to finish short stories.

Short stories serve as more than stepping stones to novels.  They are truly an art, and fortunately, there are paying short story markets.  Submitting your work is a great way to not only gauge how your writing is progressing (and grow accustomed to submitting work and collecting rejection slips) but if you do decide to tackle a novel eventually, it’s great to have some writing credits.

Whether you’re looking for a good read or writing experience…

So go and explore some of the great short fiction out there. Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine is one of the best respected genre magazines out there, but a Google search will reveal two dozen more, and of course on November 11 don’t miss my short story “How to Run a Five-Star Restaurant in the Capital of the Elf Kingdom” in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

What has your experience been with short fiction?  What are some of your favorites? What do you think about what e-readers might mean for the future of short fiction? Are there other magazines, e-zines, or anthologies you would recommend?

Housekeeping detail: in case you missed the memo, my blogging schedule has changed to three times a week, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday

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§ 4 Responses to Short stories: a love letter

  • kat says:

    I haven’t written much short fiction. I enjoy Stephen King’s short stories a bit more than his novels (maybe because lately they all seem to top out at 1200 pages, and that is not an easy weight to carry around). John Connolly has an excellent collection of short stories titled Nocturnes.

    And as for what e-readers may mean . . . I honestly do not know. I don’t own one, but I might buy myself a Kindle Fire for Christmas.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I feel the same way about Arthur C Clarke. I love his short fiction consistently, but haven’t found a novel by him that reaches that same level (though admittedly I haven’t given him as much of a chance as I should). I really need to go out and find some of Stephen King’s short fiction, especially because he talks about it so much in his book On Writing. Thanks for the comment!

  • This was a good piece.

    My confession: I never realised this either! Hahaha! And I haven’t read that many short stories. The most I did last year for my Fiction class. And my instructor chose good ones. So I read P.G. Wodehouse in class for first time. Also read Flannery O’Connor – truly brilliant, coming from such an inexpert such as myself! Also, read Borges and it left such a big impression. I remember some other other really good stories too but can’t remember their specific names or authors :p

    I love writing short stories. I don’t think I can ever move on to writing novellas and novels and series; unless I seriously take writing up as a profession – or maybe when and if I actually sit down to write something? Last I wrote a piece of fiction was for the said class. These days, the only writing I’m doing is for my blog.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I love that short stories take so much less time to write. Sometimes I’m feeling really passionate about something and want to express myself, but it doesn’t necessarily fit into the themes of my novel, so I sit down and crank out a short story. Sometimes those short stories turn out great, sometimes I never look at them again, but either way it’s cathartic.

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