When people think of writing fiction, whether it’s a multi-novel sword-and-sorcery epic or a contender for the Nobel prize in Literature, they picture long, drawn-out stories. They picture manuscripts that, when printed out, could be used to bludgeon someone to death.
And they’re not entirely wrong.
But fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be these long, drawn-out, elaborate things. There is such a thing as short stories and I’m here to tell you guys why it’s awesome to read and to write short fiction.
You could say I “discovered” short fiction recently, but it’d be a bit wrong. I read a few short stories in my high school English classes by Faulkner, Vonnegut, Bradbury and Poe, but in my mind, I think they registered more as “ugh homework” than as short stories. In my free time, I stuck to novel-length books and didn’t really find anything wrong with it until my adulthood and my thesis work at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Writing program. It was there that I was introduced (shamefully late, I’ll admit) to short story greats like Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Sandra Cisneros and Raymond Carver. Through them I discovered other authors that followed in that short story tradition, like Dagoberto Gilb, Oscar Casares, and two UTEP professors, Daniel Chacón and Benjamin Alire Saenz. And though initially reluctant to enjoy a genre I had once considered busy work as a sophomore and junior, I ended up liking it. I think what helped was that I had my MFA work in the evenings. I was working over 40 hours at my desk job, and was so generally busy that I didn’t have the time I once did to just plop myself down on a couch and read until my eyes bled.
Short stories were the perfect solution. I could read a short story during my lunch break at work, for instance, or I could read right before bed and not be caught up in wanting to see what happened next in a story.
If you wanted to start on short stories, I highly recommend any of the following authors: Benjamin Alire Saenz, Sandra Cisneros, Daniel Chacon, Neil Gaiman, Oscar Casares, Raymond Carver, Connie Willis.
Now, when it comes to writing short stories, that comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities that long novels don’t have and also with a lot of similarities with “long” fiction. At the heart of it, you’re telling a story. You have to have characters. You have to have a plot and you have to have conflict to drive said plot. The differences can be funny at times. Talking with some of my writer friends who write longer fiction, their main gripe with short stories is how limiting they can be because you’re looking at 7,500 words to play with. To me, that’s not a limitation; that’s an opportunity. To me, I believe that limitlessness in longer fiction is paradoxically very limiting because you’re spending all this time world-building and creating something ex nihilo that it can be very easy to lose sight of where you’re going.
Like Carl Sagan said, if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
The advantage short stories have is that you have an end goal and you can’t dilly-dally. It challenges you to use that short amount of time and takes away all of the excess baggage. It’s minimalism at it’s best. And you can even go smaller with flash fiction, which is incredibly fun to write because that’s stripping even more of the fat from a whipcord-thin story.
Take Don Shea’s Jumper Down (http://don-shea.com/jumper-down.html). It comes in at 642 words and is such a great story. Neil Gaiman’s Nicholas Was… from one of his collections (https://www.amazon.com/Smoke-Mirrors-Short-Fi…/…/ref=sr_1_1…) comes in at 100 words and it is just as good.
And speaking of Gaiman, the cool thing about short fiction is that it’s blind to genres. Hell, look at all the creepypasta out there. That’s microfiction/short stories. I’ve written about thirty or so short stories and they’re just about half speculative fiction/magic realism or “dirty realism”.
So, give short stories a try!