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What I Learned Writing Short Stories

You may have heard before that switching up formats — from novels to short stories, for example — can help you grow as a writer. The reason I’ve most often heard cited for this is that it teaches you to write more concisely. To say more with less. I whole-heartedly agree, but in my own short-story-writing adventure I learned much more than that.woman-41201_1280

 

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve gotten serious about short stories. I tried my hand at a few when I was entering the Writers of the Future Contest, back before I realized I was writing romance and entered my first Golden Heart competition. But my early shorts all read more like the first chapter of a novel, and in fact my debut (and GH finalist) novel GHOST PLANET grew from a short that I entered in WotF.

 

But after I turned in my third sci-fi/paranormal romance to Tor Books, I decided I wanted to try my hand at erotica. My first story was about 11,000 words, and I thought I’d see if I could get it published via Kindle Singles, or maybe indie publish. My agent liked the story and encouraged me, so I wrote more. She pitched them to a few publishers as sexy vignettes, and to make a long story short, they’re being released in an e-anthology by Penguin Random House (BEFORE SHE WAKES, July 2016).

 

Writing those stories has turned into the next phase of my education as a writer. In the process, I’ve:

  1. Learned to write something that actually works as a short story (they’re all novelette length, 11-15K words)
  2. Had a blast (in other words, learned to take myself less seriously)
  3. Gained tremendous respect for my process
  4. Increased my confidence

 

I’ve already addressed #1, and now I’ll look at each of the others.

 

Had a blast

 

I considered this an experiment when I began. So I didn’t constrain myself in any way. The first scene I wrote was kind of like a painting. Lots of colors and textures, and a focus on sensation. Even when I realized that if I wanted to do something commercial with the piece it would most likely have to have some kind of story to it, I didn’t force myself into any formula or plan.

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Visualization of what my brain did when writing that first story. I enjoyed creating something pretty. I had to wrangle it a bit to make it commercial, but I refused to let go of having fun and giving my muse free rein.

 

As a writer, this is very liberating! And the result was not a long, rambling mess as I might have feared if I’d been writing something for a contract. Even letting go of my process in this way, the piece still shaped itself into a story just fine — without the help of my internal editor thank you very much.

 

So now when I’m working on something and feel my inner critic closing in, constraining my process and limiting my options, I think about that first story and I remind myself, “Have fun!”

 

What this simple reminder helps me to do is kick fear in the teeth. Sometimes my muse will throw out an idea and I’ll think, “No, no, I couldn’t write that.” I’ve learned to answer that statement, as soon as I hear it in my head, with “Why not?” Sometimes there are good, plot- or character-based reasons. And sometimes it’s just plain old fear. (I blogged about overcoming fears in writing erotica on Smart Girls Love SciFi Romance.)

 

Gained tremendous respect for my process

 

Before I started this story collection, I confess that I had a bias against the research required for my stories. Even knowing that research was critical, part of me didn’t actually consider it real work. I always felt I had to get on to writing the actual story as soon as possible.

 

When I’m starting something new, I may spend anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks doing research. Some of that will probably be serious reading. I write stories with nerdy science bits, so often I’m reading things like books on quantum physics. For this anthology I did a lot of historical research.

 

But there’s lots of more frivolous information gathering, as well. Vaguely targeted Internet surfing, for example (that ends with me baking Scottish oatcakes because I’m writing a story set in Isle of Skye). I also may spend hours on Pinterest, feeding my mind with visuals and getting my muse excited about the work ahead. (On my Pinterest page you can find hero and setting inspiration boards, and fantasy casts for my books.)

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My writing setup. Pinterest images of my hero and heroine on the left. (“The Dragonfly Prince,” from the BEFORE SHE WAKES anthology.)

 

As a result of cycling through my creative process in short, rapid bursts (due to the stories being short), I gained true appreciation for all that stuff I’d labeled “not real work” and “procrastination.” It’s as important as the writing itself, because “the writing itself” couldn’t happen without it.

 

Gained confidence as a writer

 

This also has to do with “cycling through my creative process in short, rapid bursts.” In repeating these steps over and over, I was reminded that certain bad things always happen at some point, and more importantly, they are always temporary.

 

There will always be days when I get stuck and don’t know what comes next. There will always be times when paragraphs I thought were great the day before suddenly seem ridiculous and amateur. When you write novels exclusively, you can forget from book to book how you always go through this stuff. Just like mothers tend to forget the pain of labor, because otherwise they’d never do it again.

 

The problem is, if you’ve forgotten the same old stuff happens every time, these issues can seem more significant. Like true blocking issues. In writing a series of shorts, I learned that they’re just the daily mental ups and downs of being a writer. If I’m blocked, I’ll go for a walk and, nine times out of ten, I’ll have it worked out before I get home (and heaven forbid I’ve forgotten to take paper or my phone!). If passages I was proud of before suddenly seem silly, I forge on, and take another, more objective look the next day.

 

As a result of all this, I’ve encountered less block, self-doubt, fear, and overall frustration than at any time in my life.

 

How about you? Do you enjoy writing/reading short stories? If so, what is it you like about them? Do you experiment with other formats (poetry, flash fiction, etc.)? 

28 responses to “What I Learned Writing Short Stories”

  1. Gwyn says:

    Can’t say I’m a fan of shorts. Novellas, okay–sometimes. Shorts, not so much. For me, they’re like a fun-sized candy bar; enough to tease your tongue but not satisfy your craving. Despite that, this is a great post. Self-discovery can be enlightening on so many levels. As for other writing, I haven’t written anything besides letters outside the stories. Maybe I should get back to doing local pieces. 😉

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    • Thank you, Gwyn! I think you are not alone in that. I worked for a publisher of short romance for a year and we got a fair number of comments from people who loved the stories but wished they could have read more about the characters.

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  2. Wonderful post!
    I wrote a flash fiction story once, under 500 words. Whew! Every word counts. It was fun, but mentally exhausting.

    I also wrote a 13,000 word story for an anthology. I didn’t think I could do it (I struggle to stay at 100K), but I did. It was quite a victory.

    Your post makes me want to try it again : ) Thank you for the inspiration!

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    • You’re welcome, Heather! Thanks for reading and commenting. Flash fiction is fun, isn’t it? I’ve only done it once. And I have to confess that the story wasn’t finished for me at that length. I ended up extending it out novella length, and am still working on it! I’ve really enjoyed writing that 11-15K length though.

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  3. jbrayweber says:

    Great post, Sharon.
    Before I really got serious about writing, all my stories ranged from 1500 to 6000 words. I had to teach myself to write novel-length books. Now I find it harder to write novellas. LOL.

    A couple of those very short stories liked like to expand just a little on and maybe someday do a novelette anthology. Sounds like fun.

    Congrats on your July anthology release next summer!

    Jenn!

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    • Thank you, Jen! And thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I’m wondering whether as novelists, we don’t get well and truly sick of a characters until we’ve given them a whole book. 🙂

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  4. Emily Allen says:

    Great post. Gave me some idea for my own short stories.

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  5. Great post, Sharon! I’ve never been a short story kind of reader, but I do want to try writing a novella (or 3) in 2016. And stories with “nerdy science bits” sound awesome! 😀 And I’d love to write a screenplay someday, but feel woefully unprepared. At some point, I may start taking classes in that. I attended a one-day conference in Albuquerque this weekend where Alexandra Sokoloff talked in great detail about the 3-act structure she uses and it got me all excited—both for writing books and screenplays! LOL

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    • I am super intrigued by screenplays. I’ve also heard they do the same thing for your writing that shorts do. I’ve been intimidated about them, because my stories are all SFF and/or paranormal, so there’s a lot of worldbuilding. I think I would’t know what to do with myself if I couldn’t write fanciful descriptions! 🙂 That’s great that the class got you excited about writing in general. A sign of a good class, I think. It’s all storytelling after all!

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  6. Sharon this sounds so fantastic!!! I’m so excited for you. Already pre-ordered and chomping at the bit. I have to admit, part of my writing journey involved writing sexy shorts for my husband. He loved them and begged for more every time I handed him one. I loved it and it really helped both my confidence and my ability.

    YAY FOR YOU!!!!

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  7. Rita Henuber says:

    SUPER CONGRATS.
    I think being happy with your writing is so important. I generally write a short story for my characters. That count? 🙂

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  8. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Sharon. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing some short stories, however, my muse insists on coming up with conflicts that would take at least 40,000 words to do it justice. Can you give us some examples of the sort of conflicts that work well in short pieces.

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    • I know what you mean, Laurie. I’ve read far more novels than short stories, so I think my brain just tends to work that way when coming up with ideas. One of the fun things about the shorts is you really don’t need much of an idea. It’s kind of like you’re writing the first conflict in a romance novel, but when it’s resolved, instead of moving on to a bigger one, you’re finished.

      The first few stories I wrote started with ideas that went like this …
      – A woman in a steampunk setting goes after a jewel (given to her mother by her father before he died) stolen by a crow-man.
      – A dragonmaid who’s captain of the guard in a wealthy Provencal village is confronted by an enemy who’s a dragon shifter.
      – A woman attending a Garden of Earthly Delights fair in modern-day Portland takes a recreational drug and wakes up in a fantasy world where she’s the sub of a sexy faun.

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  9. Vivi Andrews says:

    Welcome to the club! I love writing at all different lengths. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a bite-sized story. And as a huge Sharon Fisher fangirl I’m excited to read your new vignettes! 🙂

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  10. Elisa Beatty says:

    Jamie, I love so much that you took this leap!! And the lessons you learned are incredibly valuable ones. Accepting the idea that a work-in-progress is almost inevitably going to seem like trash at some point along the way is so liberating…when it happens, you can just say, “Oh, yes, here’s this necessary step in the process. Let’s just keep going.”

    Very Zen.

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  11. Liz Talley says:

    Fantastic piece, Sharon.

    You know, I’ve written four novellas. One was right at 11K and it was tough for a writer who normally writes 85K. But I loved editing for brevity. When every word counts, a writer ups her game to find the exact right word that is a vehicle for emotion. I loved that aspect more than I thought I would.

    Oddly enough, I’ve written two shorter stories this year and as I started on my newest book (which is much longer) I found myself rushing the plot. Had to pull back because I needed a leisurely build in order to build my characters. It was so odd how pacing is different between stories. Really enjoyed your take on writing short.

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