There I sat in front of the computer monitor late at night, my family sleeping and dreaming of faraway places, my mind eager to visit a faraway place of its own. My brain teemed with ideas and my fingers tingled, anticipating the clackety-clack of the keyboard. I was ready to embark on my indie writing career, ready to write the epic fantasy novel that would put me on par with Tolkien and Brooks and Martin. I typed furiously, fingers barely keeping pace with thought. And then, after the first page, I gradually slowed, my brain not running as hot as before. Another half-page. I stopped, my head wracked by one powerful thought:
I have no idea what the heck I’m doing.
“Ok,” I said aloud the aether (I often speak to myself when nobody is looking), “maybe a novel isn’t a good place to start. Perhaps I should start with something smaller. Let me practice with short stories. They should be much easier than a novel!”
One year later, I have published four short stories, two novelettes, and one collection of five stories, all professionally edited and proofread. It has been a wonderful ride. The genesis of my love affair with short fiction came after attempting that epic novel (which someday I may tackle again). I learned a powerful lesson along the way, something that I never expected.
Short fiction is not easier to write than a novel. In fact, one can make a case that it is harder.
When writing short fiction, story is key. It is vital to a novel as well, but novels have the luxury of allowing a story to develop over a longer period of time. With short fiction, if the story does not grab the reader from the outset, it fails. The opening sentence or paragraph of a piece of short fiction must take hold of a reader, or it will leave disappointment in its wake. Openings for novels are also important, but readers are more apt to give a novel a longer chance to develop because of the length.
Short fiction also needs to be “tight,” a term used in writing to describe a story that pulls you in and wastes no words or time with exposition or complex backstory. The story flows and moves like a river chugging downstream, with no fluff or filler. Novels are often chock full of exposition and background, which can often slow down a story, interrupt its flow. Exposition and background are writing techniques often necessary in novels to set the stage for what is to come. But in short fiction, unless minimized, they bring stories to a halt. Short fiction is about flow, moving from point A to B to C. Heck, a writer can make a short fiction piece go from point C to A to B, as long as the writing is tight and no words are wasted.
Characterization is something that novels are often chock full of, and because of their length, writers have plenty of time to work it in. That is not the case with short fiction. If a reader does not like or identify with or “get to know” a character, be it in a novel or short fiction, the story will fail. A writer has little time in short fiction to provide some characterization. It is incredibly important, but difficult to do in such short work.
Short fiction requires a slightly different writing skill-set than novels. It is a very challenging form of writing, but an incredible joy to write and read when done well.