If you’re anything like me, the very suggestion that you consider writing a short story could send you screaming from your safe and cozy writing space in abject terror. Some words that you manage to form in the midst of your screaming might include:
Writing a short story is EVEN HARDER than writing a novel! Or a picture book! Or anything!
I don’t know the RULES of writing a short story and I never will!
Why would I take time out from writing BOOKS to bother with a SHORT STORY THAT NO ONE’S EVER GOING TO READ?!
I’ve thought—or screamed—all of these things at one time or another. And then I wrote a short story. And another. And a few more.
I want to tell you why. I want to convince you to write one yourself. Even if you’ve never had the slightest inkling to before. Even if you consider yourself an illustrator and not a writer. Even if no one ever sees it.
I wrote my first short story as a warm-up to writing a full novel. In flipping through the excellent craft book Wonderbook, by Jeff Vandermeer, I came across an essay that suggested writing a short story about something that happens to your main character just before the start of your novel.
“Well,” I thought. “That’s not so bad. That’s not really a short story. That’s just a writing prompt.”
I chose first person, even though I tend to write novels in a close third, so I could hear my protagonist’s voice. She told me things I didn’t know. She revealed herself to me without my having to worry about the plot of an entire book. I didn’t even need much of a plot to write the short story. Just a day in her life. A day, it turned out, that profoundly influenced the person she was at the beginning of the novel.
It’s a tool I use all the time now, this version of the short story. It helps me avoid a lot of those words that are really just me figuring things out, words that don’t belong in the actual novel and that I’ll have to cut out later, after I’ve lost a few fistfuls of hair trying to figure out why the story is dragging so much.
Spend a few days writing a short story where your characters tell you who they are. I guarantee you (and your head of hair) won’t be disappointed.
Writing a short story can also help you figure out your plot. Plot is a tricky thing in the best of circumstances. When you spread it out over the time it takes to write a full novel, it can be a beast.
But condensing your novel into a short story makes it possible for you to work out the plot in a few days or weeks. You get to concentrate on one, clear, primary plotline, leaving your B-plots, your secondary characters, your false starts and stops aside. You can breathe. You can see if it works. And then, short story in hand, you can add all the complications you want to the novel-length version of your story.
Best of all, no one ever has to know about that short version sitting unpolished and unexamined in your drawer unless you want them to.
Here’s the funny thing about using the short story as a craft tool in service of longer works of fiction, though. You might find that you like it.
You might, as I did last January, want to take a quick and fun breather between longer works. You might have had a strange dream featuring a zombie that you can’t quite get out of your head. You might not be into the idea of writing an entire book about a zombie apocalypse, but not averse to tackling it in a short story.
Which, ultimately is the most important reason for trying to write a short story—writing for the simple joy of it.
Unless, of course, you decide that the low-stakes short story you just wrote for fun is actually pretty good. That you might even enjoy spending some time polishing, revising, editing it. Loving that little world you’ve created.
You may, in fact, discover that it’s quite nice to have a polished short story or two in your pocket. You never know when you might need one.
Which leads me to the final encouragement I’ll share about short stories. There are lots and lots of places to get them published. So many that you may just find a call for submissions that describes what you’ve written perfectly. No agent necessary. No long, winding path to publication. Just that email saying that someone wants to publish the short story you always thought you were afraid to write.
Melissa Cole Essig is the author of the short story “My Zombie Apocalypse Boyfriend,” appearing in the anthology FORNEVER MORE, edited by Jonathan Lambert (Jolly Horror Press, forthcoming summer 2021). She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes both YA and MG novels … and short stories.