If you’re writing a novel and are nowhere near the end, why spend time on short stories? Doesn’t that distraction delay getting to the end of the current draft, a moment that always feels months away? I thought so once. One year, I wouldn’t let myself touch any other project until I’d worked on my novel every day. This lasted five months until I revisited “The End.” Again.
Why should a novel writer devote precious writing time to short stories? After five novel drafts, two years of submitting shorter fiction, and seven publications, here are my reasons.
Do Something With All Those Ideas
Not every idea deserves a novel. And there’s something cathartic about expressing an idea soon after inspiration strikes. I’m not holding my breath and suffocating the idea because I have to focus elsewhere. As powerful as some ideas feel in the moment, most are quite happy as short stories or flash fiction or poems, or being expressed at all. I now tend to start each idea in the shortest possible form. I only expand the word count if my gut and reader feedback suggest there’s more to say. In the meantime, I grow my list of stories and drafts, not only my list of ideas.
Understand the Impact of Every Edit
An effective edit rarely moves me in the same way as what inspired the story. Revising a longer work can be a dreary process because it’s difficult to grasp the impact of my efforts. This is not the case with flash fiction. Try changing a word in a 100-word story, swap sentences in 250 words, or drop a paragraph among only 1,000 words. You’ll notice an immediate impact on the entire piece. This inspires me toward better revisions by reminding me how powerful each change can be.
Feel A Sense of Completion More Often
Novel drafts take months or years to write. Short story drafts can take weeks. Flash fiction, anything under 1,000 words, can be even briefer. I’m not saying shorter work is easier to write, or requires any less thoughtful revision. But the satisfaction of reaching the end of a draft will happen sooner with shorter fiction. This can prevent listlessness after always having the same answer for “what are you working on?”
Practice Finding Comps
I read every market to which I submit. If I want a literary journal to publish my story, I not only follow their submission guidelines, but I prove I’ve engaged with what they’ve published. I do so by including the stories I read and liked in my cover letter to the editor. If they overlap with my subject matter or appeal to a similar audience, all the better.
In practice, this is akin to finding comparative titles, or comps, for a novel and citing them in your query letter. Prove that you’re thoughtful and have an understanding of the market.
Strengthen Your Query Letters
Every market where I’ve submitted short fiction requires a cover letter. Writing cover letters has taught me how to address editors, present myself, discuss my work, and highlight my accomplishments. This builds confidence in writing and revising query letters to literary agents. Growing my publication history also strengthens my credibility for the next stage of my writing journey.
Give More Than One Story A Chance
I no longer believe I have to withhold myself from other creative work to finish an ambitious project like a novel draft. Novels do take intense focus and persistence, but the reasons above led me to a new strategy.
I’m currently working on a novel during the weekdays and shorter projects on the weekend. This means that by default, the hardest thing gets the bulk of my time. Sometimes, my weekends are writing-free and the stories have to wait, but I’m always making progress.
Though my novel may take a while before it’s ready, all those shorter pieces are out there, being submitted, rejected, accepted, and in any case, read. Don’t withhold your words from the world because your magnum opus isn’t ready.
What’s been your experience juggling short and long projects?
Do you avoid multiple ongoing things at all cost?
How has one form of writing informed another?
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