Friday, September 26, 2008

Learning Craft with Short Fiction

I have a confession.

Several years ago, fed up and burned out after a long series of disappointments, I gave up. At one point, I even threw away all of my story ideas, manuscripts, rejection letters, and research. Yup, I gave up.

Sorta. When I stopped writing novels, I still wrote. Every so often, I'd get an idea for a short story, I'd pound it out, I'd put it away. I submitted a few of them, but I didn't put pressure on myself. Writing short fiction gave me the opportunity to craft a story without having to commit to a long-term project - no pressure. It also allowed me to learn the quick and dirty route to telling a story.

Arc a character and bring the plot full circle in just twenty pages? No prob.

Give two characters the means to overcome their conflicts and find a happy ending within 5000 words? Piece of cake.

Were my stories good? Mostly not, but I can read a few of them today and not want to hide under my desk. Did they teach me how to write fiction?


There are so many pros to writing short fiction. As I've said, it's a fast way to nail a story and move on. If you learn best by seeing the big picture before the details, short fiction gives you the chance to get a good grip on the mechanics of storytelling - write the big picture and then have a limited number of pages to deal with in revisions (the details).

Recently, I attended a class on writing short fiction, and the lecturer (Dr. Lee Tobin-McClain) pointed out a few other benefits.
  • Experimentation. If you've had an itch to try a different genre or sub-genre, try it short first. See if you feel confident in the result. Try a new style or play with POV. Learn from the experience.
  • Improve your craft. It's easier to toss a failed attempt when you're talking about 10 pages. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can play around and learn from both the mistakes and the successes. Do you have trouble with world building? Write a short fantasy. Not sure if your voice shines through? Try out a literary story. Need help with plotting? Give mystery a shot.
  • Break open a creative block. There's no pressure in a short. It's short. There's very little lost investment of time if it bombs. You're a writer, and that gives you permission to pull out the most outlandish characters, plots, conflicts, and settings you want. It's your world. It's your story. Do whatever you want. When you're writing a short story, you can be as crazy as you want, and there's no loss because at the very worst, you'll have learned that something doesn't work for you (and maybe even why).
Dr. McClain also pointed out the career benefits of short fiction. Is your current WIP based on a town you've created or a whole other world? Write a short story based in the setting you've built. When you publish it, you'll open up the opportunity to draw in a larger audience for your novel. Have secondary characters who want a story, but you don't have much to offer them? Give them a novella. Some authors got their start in short fiction and broke into long fiction after establishing an audience and a track record.

Now that you've considered the benefits of writing short, head over to Duotrope and look at the markets that are available. Read a few issues and get inspired. Then give yourself permission to write a quick story. Go nuts. Unleash the muse. You might be surprised at the result.


Julie Rowe said...

KL, your post is soooo true!!

I've been writing medical romance for several years now and have gotten really close, but still no sale.

Then HQ Historicals came out with their new novella program and I've always wanted to try my hand at a WWI medical romance, so I thought, "What the heck, it's only 15,000 words!"

I LOVED writing it!! I haven't sent it in yet (doing some line editing cause I can't spell worth beans), but I will be very shortly.

Writing short was a refreashing change for me and I feel re-energized!

Cheers, Julie Rowe

Delta Dupree said...

Wow, KL, this hit the nail on the head for me. I'd only written full-length novels. I did make a sale :), which opened more doors. Then, my editor asked for a novella. I just about sh*t my pants. Novella? I hadn't written anything under 70k words! Lots of leeway in bigger stories.

My first piece of short fiction was the toughest work to write because it came with a deadline. There was no room for subplots. Secondary characters were in short supply. Lead characters were in every scene. I so wanted to make this story bigger. And couldn't, but I've finished the first draft. Yea, me!

I'm thinking of trying it again. Actually, it was fun. You're right, though, a writer can toss it away without losing too much time or effort.

KL Grady said...

Julie - I am so in love with the Harlequin shorts program - erotica, paranormal, and now historical. I think it's a wonderful opportunity for writers to break in, the marketing opportunities are fabulous, and the quick break from writing longer fiction is just the ticket for someone stuck in a creative rut. Go for it, and best wishes that you knock the socks off the editor!

KL Grady said...

Delta - LOL. Do you find the revisions on a short work are easier? I think so - I can keep the details in my head easier and will see the inconsistencies or the flaws better. Almost like they stick out more in a short piece and aren't swallowed up by a bigger story. I'm not sure if I'm alone in this opinion, though. :)

Tell us more about the novella. Does it tie in with other works, or is it stand-alone?

Mary Marvella said...

I write short stories or short fiction when I need a change, too. I've also learned it takes thought to create empathy toward characters in 3,000, or 4,000 words. good post.

KL Grady said...

Great point, Mary!

jwhit said...

KL, three of us in another forum have been working through a book of exercises to test lots of techniques: POV, tense, emotion, character types, settings, etc. We're using a book titled The 3am Epiphany, by Brian Kitely. We post them in a closed LJ and critique, but also reflect on what we've learned through the process. Some of the exercises have resulted in characters and plots that could grow into full shorts or even larger works.

One caution: writing short stories that work is quite a different mind set from writing novels. It's not quite the difference between poetry and prose, but close. I started by writing novels. I found that writing these shorter pieces uses a different part of my brain and level of perspective. BUT, I do agree that writing short pieces is a great way to try new things and knock off the technical rough edges.

thanks for the post on the topic!

Donnell said...

I always, always learn so much from K.L. Someone who's already a professional with a computer engineering degree,and yet so passionate about writing that she pursues a masters in it, when she speaks I pay attention. Okay, KL, you're on. In between finishing my current WIP, which I'm extremely happy with, I'm going to try a short story that's been bouncing around in my brain,,, but I've been afeared because it's too short :) Thanks for the informative, post and to everyone who assures us it can be done!

KL Grady said...

Jwhit - Sounds like a fun book. I'll have to look into it. And what a cool idea to use LJ for private group crits and discussion. Thanks for commenting!

KL Grady said...

LOL Donnell. You're such a sweetie. I learn oodles from you guys, too.

Leslie Ann said...

What a novel(ella) idea! Sorry, couldn't resist the pun, terrible I know. But truly, time is one thing I'm so afraid to waste and that fear keeps me from trying new ideas, but this may be a way to try plots and characters out before I go on to writing the full script.

Hey then I get a novella and a script. Maybe I need to look for editors....hehehehe.

Great post.

KL Grady said...

LA - some really awesome movies have come from shorts. Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain, A Christmas Story. So, yeah. Kill two birds!

Delta Dupree said...

Um...I start edits tomorrow. LOL. I needed to let the story marinate for a few days. Although, today, I had problems remembering my lead-character names. Geez. Too much going on.

Working title: Hot Pursuit. It's my first stand-alone, erotic romance novella for a cop anthology with two other authors. Now, I'm thinking of doing a sequel--with two more novellas (sequels to full-length stories)--for a new anthology on my own. There're all these ifs, buts, ands and maybes first. I'm still in the editing process (with Donnell's good eye for problems) on one full-lengther. The other is STRIP, which will hit the stands the end of Oct or first of Nov.

We'll see what my editor says about my goals. I'm hoping she likes the idea.