Why and How to Write Short Stories (Even If You Normally Don’t)

Arthur-C-Clarke-The-Sentinel
The legendary Stanley Kubrick films Space Odyssey: 2001 and Space Odyssey: 2010, along with their four companion novels, all started with Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.”

I am one of those writers who has more trouble writing short than long. Several of my most beloved novel concepts started out as short story concepts – and then just kept growing.

I’ve had other writers tell me the same thing – that they just don’t see any point in writing short stories because novels are their true passion.

Well, that may be so. But short stories represent some important perks for aspiring writers.

For one, they’re shorter – which means much less investment of your time in playing with a new concept, instead of instantly embarking on a full novel draft.

Because they’re shorter, it’s also much easier to get them published and read; publishers have to dedicate far less page space to a short story than a novel, so they can afford to gamble. In the same way, readers don’t have to make a twelve-hour investment to read a short story.

Short stories are also likely to cost readers less to purchase because of the factors discussed above – so they’re a better impulse buy. All of this makes short stories a great way for an aspiring writer to build readership, reputation, and finances.

Although short stories were not the easiest thing for me to write, they have always been arguably my favorite art form to read. The reasons are precisely those discussed above; you get exposure to, and exploration of, a lot of brand new concepts in a short period of time.

Really good short stories are also efficient uses of words, much like poetry; in a novel it’s almost impossible not to have filler that the reader can skip without losing much, but in a shorter work a really good author wastes no words.

I have often heard people express surprise to learn that some of our most famous movies and novels started out as short stories. Space Odyssey: 2001 started out as a short story by Clarke called “The Sentinel.” Enemy Mine started out as a novella that was actually more moving and complex than the film. Bicentennial Man was a short story by Asimov (also more graceful than the film, I hear).

So, if you’re one of those writers like me who isn’t inclined to short story writing, how do you make it happen? Here’s a formula I’ve found that has been working well for me:

  1. Read lots of short stories. The good news is, this is easy to do; there are dozens of publications, paid or very low-cost, that publish high volumes of high quality short stories.In reading short stories by others, you will get a sense of what works and what doesn’t – particularly of how to begin and end this abbreviated art form, which was always hard for me.For those specifically inclined to science fiction like I am, here are some online resources I have found helpful:

    http://aescifi.ca/index.php/fiction – A truly wonderful publications that pays its writers professional rates and publishes much of its content online for readers for free.

    http://www.openculture.com/2014/04/read-hundreds-of-free-sci-fi-stories-from-asimov-lovecraft-bradbury-dick-clarke-more.html – A collection of short stories by great and famous science fiction authors available to read for free in PDF form.

    https://www.analogsf.com/ – A long-running science fiction periodical that occasionally offers special deals on purchasing back issues – I spent $10 to get 60 short stories in printed form from these guys once.


  2. Anything that is a scene can be a short story.They say there’s a rule in fiction: start as close to the end of the story as you can. For me, I’ve found that starting with the most scene I’m most interested in in the short story works well. Short stories especially are no place to spend time on exposition before you have the readers’ interest – jump right into the most interesting part of the action.

    My first success writing a short story came from simply beginning to write a scene. I had a climactic scene that I wanted to do something with, but I hadn’t figured out the necessary setup to allow it to make sense in a novel yet.That dense action and sparse setup, however, was perfect for a short story. As my writing progressed I found that my brain naturally filled in the information that readers needed to deduce what was going on; it also naturally spawned scenes to carry the story from its opening scene to its conclusion.

    This success, and a series of subsequent successes, came after binge-reading back issues if Analog Science Fiction and Fantasy as well as The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Without that background, I’m not sure I would have known how to take the scene from an isolated scene to a complete short story.


  3. Always, always, always revise.My method for writing short stories now includes a mandatory revision phase. With my first aforementioned success, I initially felt it was ready to submit right out of the gate – but being a nervous Nancy, I requested feedback from friends anyway.

    My friends’ suggestions were mostly mechanical wording changes – because I’d written it in such a hurry, the story switched from past to present tense in some places.But while I was going over it to fix that, the story grew a whole new subplot which strengthened it enough to change where I was planning to submit it to one of the publications I hold in highest esteem.

    So always give your brain a chance to give the story another once-over – even if you think it’s just going to be for mechanical edits.


  4. Looking for publication? Sign up for DuoTrope.

    DuoTrope is a wonderful website which lists thousands of publications that are looking for submissions of various types. Its search function allows you to search for publications that fit your preferences by parameters including genre, type of submission (short story, poetry, essay, or book), and payment level (professional, semi-pro, token, or none).

    DuoTrope’s $8 per month subscription fee has been more than worth it for me. They also offer a 30-day free trial for new writers to check out their database without having to pay!


  5. Planning to self-publish instead? Do your research first!I hope to have more tips specifically for self-publishers available in my upcoming article, shockingly titled “Tips for Self-Publishers.”
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