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In praise of short stories

May 13, 2013

The first real short story I wrote had the word garbage in the title and that was appropriate. My critique group at the time first alerted me to that fact–and it was cool that we had a relationship that allowed them to be so blunt.

I had long dismissed short stories as training wheels, unnecessary for talented writers who could ride a big-boy bike. After all, I was the guy who kicked butt at every single prompt-writing exercise. All I had to do was figure out a way to capture that magic for 300 pages.

That’s all I had to do.

That’s all.

It turns out, that’s quite a lot. The prompt-writing magic was pure inspiration. It was me at my best, creating a different world out of nothing in the space of twenty minutes or so, playing upon my readers’ emotions like Yo Yo Ma. But getting from that to a salable book isn’t about inspiration. It’s work. It’s going over the damned thing again and again. It’s testing every word to make sure it’s right, then testing it again. Then, when you get done with that, you test it a third time.

Then you get to work.

That’s how you turn from 20 minutes of inspiration to a book people want to read. But life is about learning and that’s something I didn’t really learn until I got to writing short stories. The 20 minutes of inspiration were just the beginning. Even the things I wrote that I thought were good–and they were, for first drafts–had little flaws that required me to go over then time and again. Under a microscope, this character wouldn’t have done that. And that little detail I threw in to add some depth really just added confusion.

I spent five or six times the amount of time editing and changing things than I did writing. And that’s for a 1300-word short story.

There’s a reason some of the top authors around, guys like, you know, Stephen King, cut their teeth writing short stories before graduating to long fiction.

It turns out short stories aren’t just training wheels. But if your goal is to write a novel, they are a good place to cut your teeth and learn more about the craft.

It can’t hurt.

  1. Peggy Lambert permalink
    May 13, 2013 7:17 am

    Chris, this is wonderful. I love the training wheels analogy. It’s where to learn the importance of point of view, character development, making every word count, and mostly, how to focus on the story. It may turn out that short stories are the author’s true calling, but at the very least, it is a way to practice our skills. Who does anything well without practice?

  2. May 13, 2013 8:24 pm

    Authors love short stories, but short stories can’t be marketed for profit. So, I will add a short story as a bonus to the end of a novel. That way the short story does not go to waste, and the reader gets something extra for their money.

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