Short stories are a passion of mine, so any chance I have to talk about them with fellow authors is a privilege. At Pikes Peak Writers Conference 2017, I got to be on a panel with Sam Knight, Fleur Bradley, and Stant Litore called Short Stories: Good for the Novelist, Good for the Career, Good for the Soul. Each of these authors has had short stories published, in addition to novel length works. The audience was wonderful, asking so many questions that we could have easily gone on for two hours.
Though I can't recall everything we talked about or who said what (it can be a blur after the fact when you're sitting up there having this great conversation, but not taking notes!), I wanted to talk a little about some of the topics discussed over the course of the hour.
First, the inevitable question is: Why? Why write short stories?
There are a ton of reasons, probably many beyond what we even thought to say, but here are a few:
1. It helps hone your craft. By writing short form, you get to write a story in miniature, which allows you to learn characterization, pacing, plotting, story arc, character arc, and so much more. You can write a short story in a week, even a day, which means a lot more practice than when you write a novel.
2. It can earn you pay and publication credits. There are many publications that pay for short fiction, which varies from token payments (a set amount, like $20 per story) up to pro-payments ($.05/word or more). For each of these, there is, of course, a publication that doesn't pay or that pays with a contributor copy. Some pay in royalties. It's up to you to look at your goals and decide if you want to be paid for your stories or if you're happy having them published without pay. No matter the pay (or lack thereof), if you get a short story published, that's a publication credit! You can put these credits in your query letter when querying a novel.
3. It gives you license to explore. Not only does it benefit your writing, but it gives you the opportunity to explore different worlds and characters. Maybe you need a break from novel writing. Maybe you need to work through backstory for a couple characters or situations in your novel. Maybe you're suffering from writer's block. Maybe you don't write novels and you want to write the stories in your head in short form. Whatever your reason, you can have fun and dive into those worlds with short stories. It also allows you a safe way to try out different genres and techniques that you wouldn't want to explore in long form over several months to a year.
4. It can teach you brevity. If you have to fit a story into 6000 words or less, you learn to trim the fat, to offer concise descriptions that get the point across with less verbiage, to find ways to introduce a character well enough to make them familiar to the reader without a ton of backstory, etc. Working with word count limits can help train your brain to accomplish what you need to within constraints.
I could keep going, but let's hit on a couple other topics. One of the questions asked was how you know if a story is meant to be short or novel length. General consensus was that it developed naturally into one or the other (or into novella, novelette, flash fiction, etc.). If you try to write a short story, and it insists on growing into a novel, obviously it was meant to be a novel. If you struggle with a story line, perhaps because you can't manage to develop secondary topics or plot points, try it as a short story.
Other than that, short stories tend to focus on fewer characters and simpler story lines. Though they are not simple in themselves, the focus can often be narrower, with the intention of addressing a specific plot point, character arc, or lesson. There's no need to force a story to be something it isn't. Go with your gut when writing, and don't worry if it becomes something you hadn't intended.
To find markets that take short stories, you can use resources like Duotrope.com, Ralan.com, and Submission Grinder. Duotrope is a fee-based service, but the others are free. Both Duotrope and Submission Grinder allow you to track submissions, as well as find markets. Be sure to only submit to markets you're comfortable with; to research whether they are legitimate markets; and to carefully review submission guidelines, contract terms, and the rights you retain for your story. Don't sign any contract unless you understand it and agree with the terms. And make sure you only submit to markets that want your type of story.
Finally, for formatting information, William Shunn is a great resource. If a market's submission guidelines don't lay out how to format the story, it is safe to default to Shunn's standard manuscript format (SMF). However, always follow any specific guidelines the market gives, even if they disagree with SMF. Sometimes you have to change the story's format each time you submit it, because each market has their own request.
While we covered much more, this post would be far too long if we tried to go over it all. If you follow submission guidelines, do your research, and carefully edit your manuscript, you're ahead of the game. Keep writing, keep submitting, and, most importantly, have fun with your writing. There's less pressure when it comes to short stories. If one doesn't work out, chances are you wasted far less time than you would have with a novel that didn't pan out in the end.
Have you tried writing short stories? Submitting them? Do you have any questions about short stories? Did you attend the panel?
A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in anthologies and magazines, including Once Upon a Scream, Dark Moon Digest, and Space and Time Magazine. When she's not writing, she's hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there's always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.