David Kubicek

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Writing Short Stories Teaches Discipline


During the first decade of my writing career I wrote short stories as if I had a patent on the form, about 200 of them, and that’s only the ones I have a record of. There were many more that I deemed unworthy of being submitted and took a direct route to obscurity–the trash can.

After that fairly prolific period, I moved into other areas, and my short story writing slowed to a trickle. I wrote two novels (unpublished), three screenplays (not produced), started a publishing company (published five books), and finally became a photojournalist (published more than 3 million words). When I again focused on fiction writing, I concentrated on the novel.

But the other day I came across an interview with a fellow named Stephen King, who is not only a prolific novelist but a prolific short story writer. King said that when writers concentrate too much on novels, they tend to lose interest in writing short fiction. I would add that the short story is a good laboratory for learning discipline.

Every story has a perfect length. College students often want to know how long their assignments are required to be. I had a writing teacher in college who, when asked what length a story must be, said “As long as it needs to be.” A story could be 1,000 words or 100,000 words, as long as it does what you intended it to do. That’s pretty much what King said.

If you are focusing only on novels, you may be missing lots of good ideas for shorter fiction.

For me there are a couple of obvious advantages, not in any particular order,  for writing novels over short fiction:

  • The pay is potentially better, and you will be paid a royalty per copy sold, whereas selling a short story to a magazine is a flat fee (although you may be able to pick up an occasional reprint fee if someone likes your tale well enough to include it in an anthology).
  • You can develop memorable characters in novels; this is the part I like–developing characters with depth and reading stories about characters with depth. In a 5,000-word short story this is an almost impossible task.
  • A novel may be easier to sell, and there are more markets for novels–although this is an arguable point.

Plenty of magazines (including some online mags) buy short stories. Start with Writer’s Digest, which publishes several Writer’s Market directories. You can even subscribe to Writer’s Market online. If you write in a particular category–science fiction, mystery/crime, literary, etc.–there are many magazines that publish those types of fiction. Glimmer Train is one magazine that not only pays well for fiction, but also has several contests each year.

Writing short fiction is more difficult  than writing novels.  You must focus on a single, defining event, and any wasted words or other mistakes will jump off the page. But for those of you who are starting out–and even for seasoned novel-writing pros–writing in the short form will teach you discipline.

In the past ten years I’ve written a total of three short stories, even though I’ve had plenty of ideas that I jotted down for future use. But  the Stephen King interview has inspired me to start writing some of those stories, although I certainly will not neglect my current novel.

To watch the Stephen King interview as well as comments from a couple of other prolific short story writers:

Stephen King

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Ray Bradbury

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2 thoughts on “Writing Short Stories Teaches Discipline

  1. Great post — Short story writing can teach you so much about pacing and purpose in your writing. I love writing AND reading them. Also, a short story can always ended up growing into something bigger down the line.

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  2. sallyjwalker on said:

    The singular focus of a short story does discipline the writer to sternly ignore all the “fluff n’ stuff” that can pad a novel (even though it shouldn’t). The thing lots of writers, especially first-time writers, overlook is the main event the short story is about needs to be something pivotal in the character’s life. There is no time and space to evolve multi-layered jeopardy or contributing characters, but the events still need to depict a desired goal being blocked by some opposition. That goal needs to be something IMPORTANT enough to the main character to make a worthy fight, important enough that the reader will develop concern and seek the answers to questions. Otherwise, why waste time reading? Some character angst needs to be resolved, not left wandering in the imagination’s wasteland. At the other extreme, it should NEVER be about “the happy people of the happy village.” Obviously, I’ve read examples of both that came off as mere writing exercises and NOT solid storytelling. Beginning-Middle-Ending structure is even MORE valuable in the precise focus of the short story discipline. What’s the old adage? Get him up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down the tree. And enjoy the whole cycle!

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