Short Stories - Why Write 'Em?

Short stories - until recently, they were the place new writers were told to cut their writing teeth, and make their writing debuts. In some circles, this is still true. The idea is that the process of searching out, writing for, and submitting to a short story market is a good way for writers - and all writers, not just new ones - to develop the writing habits and story-telling skills that will carry them through their writing careers. In many ways, this 'cracking the short story market' was seen as a vital apprenticeship in a writer's journey.

With the coming of independent publishing, many newer (and successful) writers have bypassed the short story phase, and skipped ahead to write, and publish, their first novel.Some of the older hands would argue that skipping this apprenticeship stage has had obvious results in the resulting quality of independently published books. Others will point out that writing a short story, and writing a novel, are two different specialisations of the base skill set, and that being able to write one well, does not automatically lead to success in writing the other.

As with many arguments, there is value in both sides. It is true that writing a novel is different to writing a short story - just as it is true that writing flash fiction is different to writing poetry to writing a novel or short story. It is also true that valuable skills can be developed in honed in short stories that stand a writer in good stead for writing novels. However, it is not true that you need to be able to write a short story before you tackle a novel. There are some excellent novelists out there, who haven't written a short story in their lives, and many who claim they can't fit a decent story into that few words.

With many independent writers finding that short stories don't sell as well as novels, and the magazine and anthology markets just as hard to crack as they have always been, many writers - new and old - ask what the value is in writing a short story. Why would you do it, if you're not going to receive a commensurate return? What purpose does it truly serve?

Sure, they'll say, there are plenty of readers out there who read short stories - and even a few who prefer them - but there aren't enough of them to guarantee a livable return, so writing and publishing short stories is just a waste of time. They are both right and wrong. Every writer has to look at the form and decide if it's something that suits what they're trying to achieve - and they have to do that from at least three angles: the cold-blooded business and marketing angle, the purely creative angle, and the hard-headed skill-building angle.

We'll explore each of these over the next few weeks.