I’ve often heard writers of nonfiction complain that they’re the Rodney Dangerfields of the literary world. Not that they don’t sell a lot of books and articles (because they do) or that they don’t make money from their writing (because they do). Their complaint is that they aren’t recognized as “real” writers until they’ve published fiction.
The same might be said of short-story writers. Some feel they aren’t truly fiction writers unless and until they’ve sold a novel. Many people who are not themselves writers have asked me, “Why waste your time writing short stories?”
Well, I’ve written three novels—two are out with an agent and the other is sitting here at home aging like tobacco leaves, or (as I prefer to think) fine wine. But mostly I write short. One reason, honestly, is that since I’ve sold so many short stories and have never sold a novel, I just feel more comfortable with the short stuff. It’s safe ground for me, and I’m as reluctant as the next soldier to venture far from my foxhole unless someone orders me to.
Does that mean I’m not a real fiction writer? Maybe so. But it’s not a question that bothers me much.
Having said all that, what possible advantages could there be to writing short stories instead of novels?
Well, here are a few:
(1) They can be resold. I’ve had some of my shorts published half a dozen times each, in different markets. If you’ve not signed away “all rights,” you can sell reprints over and over again.
(2) They give you a sense of completion. Finishing a story and writing THE END is a great feeling, to me. I can write a short story in a matter of days, and then turn around and write something else, something completely different.
(3) There’s less time invested. A novel takes months or even years to write, and if it doesn’t sell, you’ve spent an enormous chunk of time with those characters and that plot.
(4) They can help build a résumé. Story credits in quality magazines and anthologies can make you more marketable to agents and publishers of longer works.
(5) They’re good practice. Crafting publishable short stories teaches you how to write “tight.” Novels might be long, but the best novels are still focused and compact, with few wasted words. Writing short also gives you experience in creating the story arc that is so necessary in novels, screenplays, etc.
(6) You don’t need an agent. I had a wonderful agent for several years who represented my short fiction (he passed away in 1999), but few agents now will take on short-story authors, and the truth is, you can probably do as well without them.
(7) It’s fun. I think the process of putting together a good plot and believable characters in only a few thousand words is a thrill as well as a challenge.
A final note. Some writers don’t write short because they don’t think they can. Several novelist friends (one a New York Times bestseller) have told me they think short stories are extremely difficult to write. Lawrence Block once agreed, saying: “Novels aren’t harder; they’re just longer.” And Faulkner said he tried writing short stories when he found he couldn’t write poetry, and then turned to writing novels when he found he couldn’t write short stories.
I’ve also heard that writing a good novel requires a better storyteller, while writing a good short story requires a better craftsman. Is that true? Beats me.
It doesn’t matter anyway. There’ll always be room for both.
John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 250 different publications, including The Strand Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Mississippi Noir, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner and an Edgar Award nominee. His sixth book, Dreamland, was released in October 2016. www.johnmfloyd.com