“Short stories help you learn your craft.” – George R.R. Martin
These days writers think they need to start with a novel length work, or even design a series. I call it the gospel according to Amazon.com. Well if you are an up-and-coming writer, I want you to take a moment. Yes I know you are in an all fired hurry to get out there. You must be the next Stephenie Meyer or J. K. Rowling, but bare with me for a second.
Have you ever written a short story? Have you ever taken a short story and made it better than your original? If not, I want you try. Not because umteen million writers like Gaiman, Poe, Bradbury, or Welty will tell you to start with shorter works, but because you owe it to yourself. Your readers deserve to be enchanted by a true wordsmith.
A friend and fellow writer once told me that they need at minimum 5,000 words to just get started. I thought if it takes that long to set the bait then the reader will have already swam past. You see my friend had never written a complete short story. Her writing suffered for it.
“Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality. I know how tough they are as a form, but they’re also a total joy.” – Ali Smith
The reason most new writers back away from short form literature is because it is hard to do right. It all comes down to brevity, as Ali Smith said. Taking that a bit further, we all know King’s famous ‘kill your darlings’ quote, and you have to be willing to bleed. Non-writers say that is a dumb way of looking at things, and a bit morbid to boot. They are so wrong.
Take a Project Manager for example. The PM has to cut away any unnecessary steps or process that slow production. There isn’t a PM on Earth that hasn’t heard the lament of older management saying, “But we have always done it that way!” So what! There is a better way. A clearer approach.
Story writing, short or long form, has much in common with a production schedule. The first thing on the block is extraneous words. If a word can be left out and you retain the meaning, cut it. If a paragraph has no plot moving element, remove it. If you can skip a whole chapter and the plot still works, get rid of it. Yes, this sucks! Just try. Short stories a worth their weight in gold. Often they create in us new pathways of looking at the world and how we, writers, fit into it.
“A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, ‘Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can’t forget me, there’s still more to write!’ Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel. In this sense, too, my short stories and novels connect inside me in a very natural, organic way.” – Haruki Murakami
Try your hand at short stories. Truly trim them down to the barest essentials of storytelling, you will find in you new depths, and your words with literally leap off the page!
This article originally ran as Learn Your Voice. Writing 101. The Short Story.