Anyone can write a short story (except me)

It’s a piece of advice I’ve heard on many occasions:  At writing workshops in college.  In an enrichment session with book editors at Gen Con.  During conversations with accomplished authors.  While perusing countless website articles on the ever-popular topic of how to get published:

Short stories first, then novels.

There’s an undeniable logic to this “start small” progression.  Agents and book publishers are bound to take a writer more seriously after he or she has writing credits from journals and magazines under his or her belt.  Anyway, perfecting a story of a few thousand words must be easier than whipping a full-fledged novel into shape…right?

Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been much of a short story guy, not as a reader or a writer.  In both instances, I prefer the extended opportunity to get invested in a group of characters (make that “people”) and to become infatuated with a wide-scale world, as opposed to sampling a bit-sized plot.

Call me ambitious—or maybe naïve—because I decided early on that I was going to skip the short story phase of my fiction-writing enterprise and jump right into a novel.  No, make that a trilogy.  Better yet, an epic series that could spawn ten or more volumes!

When Book 1 didn’t get picked up, however, that brought me back to the drawing board.

But did it stop me from pursuing book-length fiction?  Nope.  Even as the first installment of a new series was (and still is) being considered by a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy fiction, I began work on the sequel.  Meanwhile, I created a website (even though I hated blogs), started following other writers’ blogs, and made  Facebook and Twitter accounts for David Michael Williams, the author.  In short, I did everything I could think of to give myself a leg up in my quest to become a published writer of fiction.

Everything except for writing short stories.

To be honest, a lack of interest in short fiction is only half of the reason why I seldom dabble in the medium.  The fact is I’m not very good at it—in part because of a lack of practice and in part because it’s difficult for me to think small.  My stories are seldom self-contained.  The conflict is consistently complicated; the stakes, always higher.  Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself I couldn’t write a good short story because of my penchant for complexity.

However, at a serendipitous meeting with the very editor who has expressed interest in my novel If Souls Can Sleep, I heard the familiar refrain: If you want to break into the business, try to get some short fiction published.  And this time, for whatever reason, it struck a chord.

Instead of continuing to try to be the exception to the so-called rule, it was time for me to do as I’d been told time and time again…

Last week, I made my final edits to a sci-fi short story I had written just for fun a while back, a tale I’ve found myself tinkereing with and updating every year or so.  “Going Viral” is the best of my handful of attempts to write a simple, straightforward story.  Therefore, it was the prime candidate to accomplish my ongoing mission of getting something—anything—published in the fiction arena.

In up to eight weeks, I’ll know whether the good folks at Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine will be the ones to give me my first break.  If not, it’s on to the next publication.

Ironically, even as I’ve been researching possible publications to submit my short story to, I’ve come to enjoy reading short fiction more than ever before.  Maybe it’s because my leisure reading time is sporadic at best, and indulging in a handful of pages in a single sitting is more satisfying than letting days pass in between chapters.  Or maybe I’ve come to appreciate the unique and creative challenge these writers face when stripping a story down to its essential parts.

And just maybe I’ll find the inspiration to further hone my skills at writing short fiction.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Anyone can write a short story (except me)

  1. Everything you expressed here takes the words right out of my mouth. We think EXACTLY alike on this whole issue from the not liking or wanting to write short stories to complex epic story lines for my novels that MUST be a trilogy (at least). My characters must be classified on levels (not just ‘major’ and ‘minor’ characters). Subplots are major events in my books.
    To be open-mined I forced myself to buy a few short story journals and even a Stephen King book of short stories . . . they’re still in the B&N bags from months ago. So you’re one step ahead of me.

    • I think the fact that I’m “one step ahead” of you has more to do with being too busy to read longer fiction (It took me several months to get through King’s “11/22/63”!) and too intimidated to do all of the major repairs needed to my sequel-in-progress. I’m digging the de-emphasis on large-scale commitments. But it’s only a matter of time before I sink my teeth into something meatier again.

      P.S., I’ve enjoyed all of Kings’ short fiction anthologies to varying degrees. Give ’em a chance! 🙂

    • I just picked up 11/22/63 last weekend which will take me awhile due to busyness, too. I think if I get one sequel work out of my system, I’ll be drawn to the other end of the spectrum. Good to hear the anthologies are great. I dug out the one I have which is Everything’s Eventual.

    • I haven’t read that one, but Just After Sunset and Full Dark, No Stars were good. Once I’ve had my fill of short fiction, I’ll be ready to pick up George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows, which promises to be as ponderous as its predecessors.

    • Thanks for mentioning his name. I’m embarrassed to say I’m not familiar with his work. From what I’ve just realized, his work is the type I want to do, but likely on a slight smaller scale. I certainly don’t have the writing experience he has. And he started out writing short stories . . . (sigh).

  2. Thomas P. Ramirez

    Davido,

    Just finished reading this excellent piece. As you may recall, at one of the AA meetings you did read a quickie short story you’d dashed off. I was entranced, excited. Sounded great (publishable) to me. But rest of the group was not so welcoming.

    During my long career (mostly novels) I have written and sold a gang of short stories, most to the gentleman’s magazines. Always think of digging them out, and creating an anthology.

    But as you well know, I am the original “woulda, shoulda, coulda guy. Spoke to Jack Byrne about such and he asked me to send a few samples. Well old WSC hasn’t done an effing thing about the project. Perhaps one day soon, before the brain turns to Camembert.

    But don’t hold your breath.

    Warm regards,

    TOMASO

    • Thanks, Tom. I know the story you’re referencing: the one about a late-for-class college student speeding up the Lake Road while otherworldly powers battle for his life: a reassigned demon and old-school angel whose hatred date back to the Crusades. That one was fun to write, though I’m gun shy about editing it, given some of the critiques.

      Well, if you need a break from current projects, it’s nice that you have something to dig into…you know…in all that free time of yours… 🙂

  3. I USED to think I was only a novelist, too. I have written short stories and poems but for a long time I despised the limitations of short fiction because there was so much accountability in short stuff. But then I wrote a story I am revising right now and I really like it. I think this story will find a home one day and it has served as a break-through in my writing voice and style. There are dozens of short stories I really admire, and the form itself is fantastic. It was my self-doubt that kept me from embracing the form. But now, as I discussed elsewhere, I just write because that’s what I do. I also have a new idea for a drama. I say open up and let it all in (and out).

    Good luck with your projects.

    • Yeah, it’s easy to rigidly label oneself. I’m a novelist, not a poet. Or I write screenplays, not short stories. Life’s too short to limit oneself simply because one does something well. I, too, am trying to get out of my comfort zone more and more often.

      I still fantasize about creating/writing for a video game…

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