Bring on the Short Story

On Saturday, I spoke to the Alberta Romance Writers Association about short story writing. To prepare, I took out a couple of books on the subject from the library and learned a few things.

Apparently, as late as the 1950s you could earn a good living as a commercial short story writer. Magazines like Redbook and Good Housekeeping published five or six short stories per issue and paid well. Now, they publish one, if any.  Other short story markets have also dried up during this time frame.  Two magazines that published my work within the past ten years are gone (Storyteller and Green’s). The cause of this demise is probably TV.  Today, people would rather turn on a drama or comedy than spend a relaxing evening reading magazine fiction. In contrast, literary fiction still flourishes thanks to journals produced by universities and literary groups. These magazines tend to pay poorly and are rarely read outside of the literary community.

If there’s little money in them and relatively few readers, why do people still write short stories? I came up with eight reasons. The class added two more.

  1. If you take a creative writing course, you’ll be encouraged/required to write one. During the length of a six-to-fourteen week course it’s possible to write a short story, have it critiqued by the class in an evening and revise it for submission. Novels, in contrast, are difficult to critique in a course, since you can’t cover the whole work.
  2. You like reading short stories. It’s always best to write what we read. You can have a fine writing career as a literary short fiction writer – and a spectacular career if you reach the top like Alice Munro.
  3. Short stories and novels employ the same fiction techniques – character, plot, theme, setting …  By writing short fiction, you learn these elments and how to complete a story without getting bogged down for years working on a novel.
  4. You can try out genres, types of characters etc. in a short story that you don’t want to tackle in a larger work. This can stretch you as a writer.
  5. Characters, setting, plot, themes you’re comfortable with in a short story might morph into novel material.
  6. You can get a story written and published in a much shorter time than it would take you to do the same with a novel. Publication feels good and validates you as a writer.
  7. Short story credits create a track record that will help you get into writing programs and, when you submit your novel, will encourage publishers to look at it more seriously.
  8. Short stories often translate better into screenplays than novels, where much material must be cut. There’s more money in film than in publishing any kind of fiction.
  9. A short story track record can lead to gigs like teaching and speaking to the Alberta Romance Writers Association.
  10. When you’ve written enough short stories you can collect them into a book of short stories –  that few people will read.

A comment by a member at Saturday’s session made me wonder if short stories are poised for a revival. Harlequin publishers has a call for short stories (upwards of 7,000 words) that they will sell in digital form with books they release. Likewise, anyone can sell a digital story on sites like Amazon or Smashwords. People who like a particular author or, in the case of Harlequin a particular type of book, might be willing to add 99 cents to their order for a story to read when they’re looking for something … ah … short.