Short stories are what got me writing seriously. And yet until recently, I almost never wrote short stories.
My writing career started with the In Places Between: The Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Fiction Competition. A contest seemed like a good (and safe) place to try to actually write and finish something. And so instead of talking about writing (someday, when I had the time), I actually wrote. One day a week, I wrote for two hours or so before I had to go to work in the evening. It took me a month or two to finish that damned story. But I also noticed that each time I sat down, I put more words on the page than I did the time before. Each time I sat down, I spent less time staring at a blank screen wondering what I’d write next and more time actually writing. When I was done, I passed the story on to a couple people for feedback, and then sent it off.
My story didn’t win.
Didn’t even place.
I don’t know why I expected it would. I hardly even read short fiction back then, I was always a novel reader. It was incredibly vain of me to expect I knew how to write it. (Lesson One: You’re never as good a writer as you think you are (unless you’re Neil Gaiman (not that I think Neil is vain–what he is, is awesome).))
The feedback I received from the contest judges was hard to take (but in hindsight, very, very fair). What the story did, was help me create a routine, a routine that helped me to finish my first novel (set in the world of that short story). It hasn’t sold yet, and it may never sell. In a nice piece of symmetry, my first fiction sale (First Light, which appeared in On Spec’s Summer 2011 issue) was a short story also set in that same world. Seeing a story through to completion, even if it was only twenty pages, made the idea finishing a novel a little less scary. After drafting several novels, it was the short story that became scary. All of my ideas seemed so big, so impossible to squeeze into five thousand words.
There used to be only two anthologies I’d try for every year. Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing’s venerable Tesseracts (still trying to get in there) and Sword and Sorceress (ditto). It felt like there was cache to being in a book. So I’d write at best two stories a year and then after the rejections rolled in, send those off to whatever markets would read them and go back to working on my novel. I usually set these stories within the worlds of my novels, so they wouldn’t feel like wasted effort if the story didn’t sell.
But now, because I travel to more and more conferences, and meet more authors and editors, I find that I’d love to work with them. When someone like Hayden Trenholm is editing an anthology, I’m excited to try to get in. When an idea as deliciously weird as a collection of Fungi-based Fantasy comes along, I find a story I need to write. Oddly enough, it only took reading more short fiction to realize they can hold some pretty big ideas. Short stories allow me to stretch, to play with ideas, to cleanse my writerly palette before starting on a new novel, to find that next novel.
Short stories can be anything.
In the past two months I’ve already written a handful of stories, more than I have in entire years past. We’ll see how my efforts turn out, but hope abides.
I used to dread and loathe short stories. Too limiting, can’t say everything I want, that sort of thing. Like yourself, I’ve done more in the last while than in my life-to-date, and I’m actually beginning to enjoy them. There’s definitely an art to telling a good yarn in a scarcity of words.
And you do it well.