Are Short Stories Necessary?

Justine Larbalestier is thinking about short stories and whether they are a necessary part of every writers’ writing diet:

Given that I can’t write a decent short story to save my life and have sold three novels I don’t think short stories are not necessary to build a career as a novelist. Short stories and novels are very different kinds of wrting. Being good at one does not mean you’ll be good at the other. There are the folks who are genius short story writers whose novels are well, um, not anywhere near as good as their stories. Like I said, they’re different forms.

On the other hand, I wrote hundreds of (broken, crappy) short stories before I wrote my first novel. Every one of those stories taught me something about writing. So as I began that first novel I’d already had a lot of practice writing dialogue, describing magical anvils, blowing monsters up. All of which came in very handy when I started writing the fictional form that I’m much better at.

My own opinion about short stories is that I’ve found them useful and fun, but that they’ve been entirely optional in terms of my writing career. Not counting juvenalia, I wrote a complete novel before I ever tried to write a short story, and even now my entire short story output can be counted off on two hands — one hand, if you only count in-genre work. Seriously: “Alien Animal Encounters,” “New Directives for Employee – Manxtse Relations,” “Questions for a Soldier,” “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story” and now “The Sagan Diary.” That’s it (technically, “Sagan” is a novelette. even so). And, again, all of this was written after I started writing novels. It wasn’t part of the ramping up process of writing novel-length work.

As I briefly discussed in The Money Entry earlier this year, there’s a fairly simple and straightforward reason why I’ve tended to write so little short fiction, which is that genre fiction payscales are generally substantially less than what I get paid for writing other stuff. I can get paid seven cents a word writing short fiction, for example, or I can get paid a dollar a word writing about corn flakes for a business magazine (which, in fact, I’m doing in the next couple of weeks) or even more doing business consulting. Given that writing is my day job, I have a fiduciary duty to my family and mortgage to prioritize my time. It’s not that short story markets are underpaying, incidentally; I think they’re generally paying what they can. But genre fiction has never been a brilliantly-paying market overall, either taken in isolation or compared to other writing venues.

What this means is that I have a tendency to write short fiction under one of two conditions: one, the story’s already been bought, and now all I have to do is write it; two, I’m doing it for fun, and I don’t particularly care whether I sell it or not. The first case is generally unlikely, since there are (quite properly) more people willing to go through the standard submission process than editors who are willing to chase me down for a story, particularly when I have so little track record in short fiction. There have been a couple — it’s not a coincidence all my short fiction to this point has been published by Subterranean Press — but in those cases they’re editors who have worked with me before. There’s a history there.

In the second case, such a story is more likely to show up here on the Whatever, than in a magazine, because I find submitting a hassle. At Worldcon this year, an editor of one of the major SF/F magazines let me know he was looking forward to seeing a short story from me, and I admitted to him I was unlikely to submit something to him because the magazine didn’t accept electronic submissions, and I neither had a printer nor knew where my wife kept the stamps. He looked at me a little like I had brain damage, which to be fair to him was a not unreasonable response. But when you’re coming from the point of view that short stories are to be written primarily for fun, one’s priorities shift. I did promise him that if I got a printer (and, I guess, find the stamps), I would submit something to him. But he really shouldn’t be holding his breath.

Let me take pains to note that my point of view regarding short stories is rather deeply irregular as regards the SF/F community, and reflects in part the fact that as a writer, I came into SF/F from the outside rather than growing up in it, and in part reflects that generally I’m a bit of a freak. I also want to make pains to note that one can indeed achieve notoriety and success in SF/F through short stories: Watch how every SF/F writer gets all hushed and respectful speaking Ted Chiang’s name, for example, or see how Jay Lake has ably leveraged his short story fame into a career as a novelist. Short stories can make a difference for one’s writing and one’s standing as a writer. But whether they are necessary for one’s development as a writer really depends on the writer. I got along fine without them; your mileage may vary.

Now, having said all of that, I do plan to write more short fiction in 2007; I want to get better at it than I am now. Some of it may show up here; some of it may show up other places. No matter where it goes, hopefully it’ll be worth reading.

37 Comments on “Are Short Stories Necessary?”

  1. Veeeerrrryyyyy interesting.

    Personally, I think – and I am not a professional writer though I did go to school for it which means little – one should be able to work in either long or short form. I think one helps the other, supplies the other if you will.

    I write music as well as science fiction prose and I found that I really had to work hard at keeping songs down to a certain length. Like 7 minutes is my usual song length, if I work to keep it a certain length at all. So I set about doing a bunch of songs at only 4o ro 3 minutes in length. It really made me cut out the unnecessary stuff and look for what was at the heart of the matter.

    Now I’d never written a short story, until this past spring. I sat down to see if I could write something small, a contained universe, a snapshot of a world. Did it. Gave it to some people and they said, “It’s good. only we’d like to see more. There’s plenty here for a full novel.” Woo. Great. What if I don’t want to write a novel?

    It makes sense that for you, Scalzi-sensei, there is more of a financial incentive to write larger works or non-skiffy. I guess I was raised or taught that from a craft point of view, one oughter be able to write it short as well as long.

  2. [Not sure how much my opinion counts as I still haven’t made a sale yet, unless getting into Viable Paradise is a “sale.” But here goes…]
    I think anyone who writes a lot of short stories does it more for the love of the craft than anything else. If it’s extremely hard to make a living as a novelist, I suspect that it’s impossible to do so solely as a short story writer. The economics don’t work out.

    Also, as Jay Lake points out, writing short stories requires some specific skills which don’t transfer to writing novels. I don’t know if the idea of writing short stories as training for writing the novel makes sense. So I have to think, sadly, that short stories are not necessary. (Although, as you say, they may be helpful and useful for some writers. I think I may be one of them.)

    I should mention where I’m coming from. The longest story I’ve ever written tops out at 9500 words. (I’ve since cut 2000 words from it while adding more plot, world building and characterization.) I am one of those who worships Ted Chiang. OTOH, the feedback on the story I workshopped at VP was that it read like the first chapter of a novel.

    I’ve always wondered if what I do is take ideas and force them into short stories. After reading Jay Lake’s LJ entry, I think it’s possible that this is exactly what I’m doing. I still have to figure out what, if anything, to do about that. (I should thank him at his blog.)

    This is something which has actually been on my mind recently as I’m on my second draft of a short story which I think may not really be a short story. Thank you for writing about it.

  3. If you only want to submit electronically (for fun stuff), perhaps check out You could search for genre markets with pro pay rates that accept electronic submissions. More and more places are accepting electronic submissions.

  4. As somebody who’s invested most of his literary time and energy in the novel form, as opposed to the short story form, let me just say that this is immensely reassuring.

  5. I believe it was Larry Niven who said that short stories were exercises in technique, & harder to write than novels.

  6. Blasphemous as it may sound, John. I’d love to see you do some shorts that are more fiction than science fiction. Some of your previous posts about your wife, family, growing up poor, really seem to touch a lot of people that visit the Whatever. I’d be curious how you can squeeze the heartstrings. Hey, it might even get you on Oprah.

  7. As a reader, I’ve never been able to get into short fiction. It seems no matter how tasty the morsel might be, my brain just finds it unsatisfying. This may or may not have something to do with my hellaciously fast reading speed. At any rate, I’m not going to complain if an author eschews the format to concentrate on scrumptious novels.

  8. Steve Thorn:

    “Hey, it might even get you on Oprah.”

    Been there, done that, got the “Thank You” mug.

  9. Hmmm… I think you have to start by clarifying the question. Necessary to what, exactly? A stepping stone on the way to writing novels? Based on what I’ve read so far, it looks like the answer is ‘no.’ Necessary to making a career? Apparently not that, either. Necessary for learning how to write?

    I did that through online roleplay. For that, you don’t even write an entire story at a time. Basically you have an endless series of prompts, and you fill in what happens next from your particular character’s POV, a paragraph or two at a time. (In some games, a sentence or two at a time.) At most, the biggest unit I’ve ever written was a scene. And the largest of those was around 20 paragraphs. But it does give you all the same practice with line-level basics (sentence structure, word choice, convincing dialogue, etc.) as people are claiming for their attempts at short stories. The instant gratification of having completed something is also a lot more immediate.

    So at least for me, the answer to “necessary for learning how to write?” is also no.

    Necessary as a valid length/form in the world of writing? I’d have to say that a lack of short stories would make the world a poorer place. But then it becomes a question more of “…to the reader” and not the writer’s diet.

  10. I’m fascinated by the possibilities of the form, but I find it hard to seperate my expectations for novels from my expectations for short stories. It’s not intentional, it’s an automatic reaction from reading more long form fiction for personal enjoyment, and being exposed to short stories almost exclusively in classroom settings. I’ve been taught by experience and repetition that it takes a few chapters before I’m comfortable and involved, and by then the short story is over. Accessibility is another thing; usually they’re included in magazines, as part of larger compendiums, or on the internet, not the context in which I really like reading fiction.

    Why not try tagging them onto the front of novels, as a sort of appetizer? This would be more enjoyable context to find them in for me, because I’d have them in book form and still get the long-form fiction my brain seems to expect and appreciate when I settle down somewhere to read for a while. Has this been tried by any publishers before? I’d be surprised if it hasn’t.

  11. Another reader’s point of view (I’ve got story ideas, but no sticktoitiveness to actually write… I used to do a lot of RPG dungeonmastering, but I consider that closer to standup/improv than writing):

    I overdosed on short stories around 10th grade, after working my way through just about every “Best SF” collection in the public library. There are few authors that I will seek out short stories from, and it’s a shame, because I *know* I’m missing out on new authors I’d like to get to know better. I try to read the Hugo noms posted most years, but not much else in short works.

    But the treasured ones:
    The grand masters of Ellison and Bradbury: they’re impressionist painters of words, more similar than dissimilar except in tone. Ellison is best sipped in small doses, or you can break your brain. (For someone who’s a master of short fiction, he also excels at long-form oratory. Go figure).

    Paul Difilippo (please pardon me if I miscounted the f’s and p’s): Whimsy and wonder in equal doses. And because he seldom writes long-form, I’ll take what I can get.

    Joe Lansdale. Read everything he writes. Now.

    Stephen King: Skeleton Crew and some of his other collections are among the tightest stories ever written. It’s hard to believe this stuff is written by the same guy who in the ’80s wrote some of the most bloated horror fiction I’ve slogged through. He’s gotten much more prosaically lean and mean in recent years’ novels, but I still like his short works.

  12. As a would-be-paid fiction writer, I confess (as I’ve said before) I am using short stories to hone my skills before tackling the novel. I’m doing this for the reason Justine Larbalestier gives, “Every one of those stories taught me something about writing.” Now that I’m some years down the road, and have written the word count equivalent of 1.5 short novels (about 150,000 words) of “finished” prose, I can say that I would rather have done the short stories first than the novel. Those first shorts I thought were finished are awful. I would hate to have gotten to the end of my first novel and see the growth I’ve exhibited. Why? Because that would mean I would need to toss that first novel and start a new one. As Tobias’ survey shows, that’s not a bad way to go (write a bad first novel, chuck it, do the next one). For me, I think that would have caused me to, “if at first you don’t succeed, give the frick up,” to paraphrase one of the comments Tobias quoted. Also, I can now “see” how novels are different from shorts. That was something I didn’t get from my Creative Writing Minor, although, to be fair, that was focused on poetry. The proof of my experiment, of course, will be in the quality of the writing.

    I think I have enough tools to tackle the first novel now. Who knows, I may end up chucking it as my bad first novel, but I know that I would then try the next one.

    All writers are different. Your path may vary. At every con panel I’ve asked the question the overwhelming response from editors is, “if you have a novel in you, write it and submit it. Don’t think you need to ‘progress up a ladder.’ If the novel is good, and the editor can convince the publisher it’ll make money, you’ll have a sale. Even if you don’t have a name.”

    For me, I needed to finish stories (they haven’t sold, yet). I needed to pound out that style and sharpen the edges. Now I’m ready to run with those scissors.

  13. I started out writing an 800 word travel column and have yet to publish anything much over 1,000 words. I find that with most of the publications that I target, the quicker I get to the punch the better.

    If I sat down to write you all a story it would pretty much plop right out of my head at 800 words. The bad thing is that if you wanted that story to be 1,200 words, I would have to do some head scratching first.

    The good thing is that sometimes scratching my head feels pretty good and I find the longer formats challenging and rewarding. Maybe, I’m at that stage where I’ve learned from the short stories and an entire book is about to plop out.

    I’ll keep you posted.

  14. Aaron Haynes said: Why not try tagging them onto the front of novels, as a sort of appetizer? This would be more enjoyable context to find them in for me, because I’d have them in book form and still get the long-form fiction my brain seems to expect and appreciate when I settle down somewhere to read for a while.

    Would the short story be part of the same setting as the rest of the novel? Or would it be something completely separate?

    If the former: I don’t think that works out so well on the writer end of things.

    If the latter: There are anthologies of short stories already. Those are in book form, aren’t they? Why don’t those work?

  15. Patricia Wrede likes to tell on rec.arts.sf.composition how she thought you had to start out doing shorts and eventually graduate to doing novels. So she struggled for years trying to do shorts, always having trouble, never selling, often being told “this reads like the first chapter of a novel.” Then she finally tried to do a novel — and it turned out she was a natural novelist; she finished one relatively quickly and easily, and it sold.

  16. Okay, because I am a cranky bitch I’ll say, crankily, I think it’s a load of hogwash that you MUST start in short stories to become a novelist. (And I’ve heard it put that way). In short, I’ve sold 14 novels (6 of which are now published) and the only short story I’ve written was a commissioned piece for the official Stargate magazine, and I don’t count it as a ‘true’ short story.

    I don’t read short fiction, it doesn’t really float my boat. I don’t write it because I don’t enjoy it, my brain doesn’t work that way. I profoundly admire the folk who can write a good short story but it is indeed a very different animal from a novel, and suggesting that one automatically prepares you for the other is, at the very least, disingenuous.

  17. Even though one writes short stories mainly for personal pleasure (I do too), one can always collect them into a book later.
    (What A.E.Van Vogt dubbed a “fix-up”.)

    So short fiction is never a waste. (An unsold novel, on the other hand, cen feel like a yoke around one’s neck… ;-))

  18. I think that the market for short fiction is disappearing (by market I mean ‘that which pays’). I think this is happening for several reasons, one of which is these here internets. It used to be that in order for your short fiction to be read, you had to get someone to publish it, and prior to ten years ago that meant paper.

    It’s different now, and with the barrier to entry so low, almost nobody is paying living wage money for short fiction. Which is too bad, really, because good short fiction is difficult to write and rewarding to read.

    I continue to write both forms, and while I would say that it isn’t necessary to write short fiction in order to write long, in my case, it has sure helped.

  19. There is one good reason to write short stuff and that is advertising. I’ve got my first novel coming out next summer. I’d like to have a short story come out somewhere about the same time. I’m not going to get a lot of advertising as a first novelist, so getting my name in front of a few thousand more eyeballs can’t hurt.

    I’m comfortable at any length from about 3000 to 200,000 words. (No flash and no massive tree killer series for me.) I’ve gotten so I can tell right away if an idea is fuel for a short, a novelette, a novella or a novel. I’m usually right about my guesses.

    Michael Swanwick and Robert Reed are two great writers that I know mainly through their short stories in Asimov’s but who have done quite well at novel length. I don’t think the short stuff is essential to their careers, but I can’t imagine it hurts.

  20. I can only comment as a reader, but as I’ve aged, I’ve found that I get less satisfaction from reading short stories (novellas are a different animal).

    While a novel can meander, have multiple payoffs and revelations and build to a satisfying conclusion, short stories seem to be the written version of “The Twilight Zone”. They are almost always a buildup to one final paragraph or sentence that REVEALS ALL.

    Y’all may have a different take on things but that’s my two cents.

  21. For the advancement of one’s novel writing career, I’ve found that there’s no correlation. There used to be, as attested by many out-of-date HOW TO books–books I took as more or less gospel when I began. Ironically, I didn’t like short stories then. I always want MORE of the good ones and the less than good ones felt like a waste of my time. I preferred novels. But all the received wisdom said, start in short stories, sell a few or several, then move on up to novels.

    As I say, there was a time when that was true. In a very limited sense, a vestige of this remains, in that to tell an editor that, yes, you have sold fiction to XYZ markets suggests that said editor ought to take you a bit more seriously, but the reality seems to be that readers of novels are not the same people who read short stories. There’s overlap, certainly, but…

    If you like writing short stories, go for it. I think publishing novels will draw more attention to your short stories than the other way around. There’s a kind of bootstrapping involved for some writers, obviously, but except for learning craft, if your goal is to be a novelist, write novels. I published over thirty short stories before selling a novel, and the publisher who bought the first one was pretty much unaware that I’d been publishing short fiction–didn’t care. Those editors who knew I was a reasonably well published short story writer who nevertheless rejected my novels knew the market no longer worked the way it used to and that readers of my short fiction would not cross over to my novels. That reality has been born out anecdotally (there are people who have read my short fiction who have never picked up one of my novels and vice versa). It is, as they saw, a paradox. A conundrum.

    Ironically, as I said above, having begun as one who didn’t like short stories, I think I got fairly good at them. I’m quite proud of many of them now. But I don’t think they helped advance my career materially.

  22. Would the short story be part of the same setting as the rest of the novel? Or would it be something completely separate?

    If the latter: There are anthologies of short stories already. Those are in book form, aren’t they? Why don’t those work?

    Because then I think of each one in comparison with all of the others included in the anthology. It’s part of the same conditioning that gets me expecting long-term characterization and comfortably drawn-out pacing. Short story anthologies feel like really fragmented novels, they tend to blur and lose their unique impact because I’m thinking about them in context with all the other ones I’ve read, usually in the same sitting. I wish this weren’t the case, but I’ve just always found it hard to adapt to the form in the ways it’s usually presented.

    At the front of a longer work of fiction, possibly even by another author, I’d be able to parse the two and enjoy them on their own terms. They’d have to be on the shorter end of the style, but it seems like it’d be an effective way to present them to me, so I’m not reading them in the context of a magazine, or a literature textbook, or an anthology with a bunch of others.

    I wish the content delivery of written fiction didn’t affect the experience of reading it for me, but I guess it’s just an association thing. I have no trouble watching TV shows on my computer, on the other hand.

  23. Speaking for myself, I had the impression for several years that you had to break into sff thru the short story route. That impression arose from reading industry mags and newsgroups. It took me a long time to realize that what I was reading was a subset of people (notable people–we’d all recognize their names) who, while certainly talented and important writers, in and of themselves did not define the business side of the field.

    For a long time, the novelists who were published did started out as short story writers, but it was correlation, not causation. Prior to the sixties, there was almost no sff novel industry to speak of. When that industry grew, a natural pool of talent was there to jumpstart it—the short story writers from the pulps. And I think that lingering impression of the short story requirement remains because some of those authors are still with us and are looked up to as career role models. But the business model for publishing has changed dramatically since those folks were starting out.

    As I said, this is all my impression, so it could be wrong.

  24. I really think, again, there’s a disconnect here between the idea of career and the idea of art. You should write whatever you’re moved to write, in whatever form, without caring whether it’s the financially or career-best goal. I’ve seen too many writers try to fit their writing to some idea of a career that doesn’t work for their particular talent…and wind up writing stuff that’s mediocre. Not everyone is a good novel writer. Not everyone is a good short story writer. The two talents are sometimes found in the same person and sometimes not.

    It’s also always deadly for discussion to mix up aesthetics and economics.

    But, honestly, between this thread and Justine’s I feel like most everyone is thinking in commercial terms primarily, which is very depressing.


  25. Jeff,

    Unfortunately, it’s the economics that determines one’s ability to do the art, as in securing you the time, first and foremost. If I have to spend eight hours a day (not including travel time) at a “job” and write in my “spae” time, I am necessarily not going to as much or, possibly, as well as I would if I were at home writing during that same eight hours. In my case, I have some evidence to this effect, and it is indeed depressing.

    Besides, the “success” is a way of telling you how well you’re connecting with your audience. Crude and imprecise, true, but a way.

  26. Jeff VanderMeer:

    “You should write whatever you’re moved to write, in whatever form, without caring whether it’s the financially or career-best goal.”

    Well, see. This is what I’m saying. Short fiction is so far outside the realm of my economic considerations that pretty much the only time I write it is when I’m moved to play in the form. If I want to write a short story, it gets done. But there’s really not a time when I look at short stories as a realistic portion of my income pie, and natively I’ve not felt too much of a need to play with the form.

    Now, as it happens I do think I’ll probably write some more short stories in the next year, and the impetus is not economic, but just interest in exploring the form. Will I bother trying to sell them? We’ll see.

  27. Anybody giving a short story that they wrote as a gift this year?

    There’s some value there. Sure, you might not be getting paid, but at least you didn’t have to spend 30 bucks on Aunt Berta.

  28. In fact, there are a lot of writers who send out chapbooks around this time of year as gifts.

  29. Jeff…

    I didn’t necessarily mean to imply it’s simply commercial. Yes, we should write what we love, but if someone wants professional validation of their work, the commercial inevitably comes into play. Of course, there’s always the internet….

  30. The estimable Mr. VanderMeer brings up another point that I’ve seen made many times. Write what you love, especially if it’s a novel. If you’re writing for a market (that isn’t your own, i.e. your reading public or for something you have a commission for) you’re a fool.

    (paraphrased from several editors from talks at cons) Let’s say you’re writing a novel to take advantage of what you see is going to be hot in 6 months (to give you some credibility). Unless you’re publishing the book yourself, it’ll be at least two years before your book is in stores (writing, submitting, acceptance, editing, press scheduling, printer catalog for sales, and that is fast track. Again, this is not from first hand experience, other writers can correct me on this). Is what you think might be hot still going to be hot then? If you can say yes, and make it stick, I’m sure the publishing houses would rather give you an editing job. You would be more valuable to them in that capacity.

  31. I tend to use short stories when trying out a new voice or style that I’m not comfortable with…with the knowledge that those stories may or may not ever see being published.

    I’m new to your blog. From one writer to another, thanks for being here!

  32. I avoided short stories for a long time because of the economics. On the other hand, though I’ve had 2 non-fiction books published, my first completed novel is still in search of a publisher. So…well…I have *no* *nada* *zilch* economics going for me, currently. ;-)

    I had written a handful of short stories over the years, but only as the whim struck me. I tended towards longer stories. Even though I didn’t write most of *those* either. Go figure.

    It was realizing how much I had improved from the beginning of that first completed novel to the end, and further realizing that I needed to improve much more (though I still like that novel) that made me decide to use short stories in 2006 as “writing practice”. Lots and lots of *short*, *snappy*, done-much-faster-than-a-novel practice, where I could experiment willy-nilly with POV, genre, tense, and more, and see how I did almost immediately.

    In February, I started with the goal of writing a short story every day. The “every day” part has suffered a bit, but I’ve written over 200 stories as of this week. I don’t think any significant percentage of them are salable. But, still, like NaNoWriMo, it’s been great practice–which was The Whole Point.

    So…as writing practice for beginners, I’ve decided that short stories are great. Some aspects of novel writing can only be learned by writing novels. But much of writing technique, I think, can be learned and practiced in short stories, with a much faster rate of return because of the shorter format.

    I’m planning to write more (and longer) stories and try to sell some them in 2007. But mostly because, like I needed “writing practice” this year, I figure I need “submission practice” next year (which could lead to “rejection practice”). My real plan for 2007 is to tackle this novel thing again, leveraging what I’ve learned.

    So, yah, I agree: short stories are great as labors of love and writing practice. =)


    Great blog. Found this tonight, and plan to be by regularly.

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