The Problem with the Short Story

I figured I’d put in my two cents about an article Stephen King wrote for the New York Times entitled “What Ails the Short Story.”  He stated that part of the problem is the market for short fiction is drying up–short story magazines usually relegated to the bottom shelf of the magazine rack and all.  

I agree because it’s something I’ve seen personally.  I’ve always wanted to write novels, but for a while I followed some (now I believe bad) advice to write short stories first and get them published.  When I went to law school, I had to put the writing on ice for a while.  After I graduated, one of the first things I did was update my magazine submission database.  All but five of the magazines were defunct, and there were no new magazines that I could find.

That would be discouraging if I hadn’t come upon some good writing advice, courtesy of Holly Lisle, Miss Snark, and others that if I wanted to write novels, I should write novels.  I never felt comfortable writing short stories.  It would take me months to write one, and it would be agonizing.  Even when one was revised and critiqued and “finished” it still never felt right, and sure enough, whenever I sent one out into the world, it always came back rejected.  I got encouraging letters from editors.  They liked my writing, just not the story.

I’m now 70,000 words into the first draft of my novel, and the experience is completely different.  I enjoy the luxury of being able to tell a story from multiple points of view and having the room to do it.   I enjoy the flexibilty in structure the length of a novel allows.  It’s also a lot easier for me to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule, because I know that I can spend 4,000 words showing istead of only having 400 to spare. 

Imagine my surprise when I started up this blog and I discovered that I’m also pretty good at writing short-short stories–1,500 words max.  Ironically, for me the short-short format is less restraining than the traditional short story.  When I was writing traditional short stories, I felt like I had to explain everything.  In a short-short, there’s just not room, so I don’t even try.  Again, I guess it’s just makes it easier for me to show rather than tell.

But that gets us back to the market problem.  There is no market for short-shorts.  Magazines don’t publish them (unless you’re Stephen King), and even if they did, at an average pay rate of $0.05 per word, that’s a whopping $50 for a 1,000 word story.  So I just put them on my blog and continue to slog through my novel.  Next time I’m in a bookstore, though, I’ll look for the fiction magazines, even if it means crawling on the floor.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with the Short Story

  1. JT October 6, 2007 / 1:42 pm

    My problem is just the opposite. I get 70-80,000 words into a story, and my mind explodes, not wanting anything else to do with these same circumstances. The short story gives me a breath of fresh air, I guess. Although, according the the article that I also mentioned on my blog, there appears to be much less of an audience.

  2. Gnorb October 17, 2007 / 1:50 pm

    It’s interesting you mention a sense of freedom at the level of a novel. Quite the oposite, I find that freedom for me comes in the form of the short story. Sadly, King is right, and while I do one day wish to write novels, the pleasure of writing short stories (and developing my writing chops with these) to me is second to none in the area of writing.

    I had heard the same advice as you, to write short stories first. I’ve not yet published anything — not fiction, at any rate — but I can’t say it was all that bad: it gave me the freedom to tell stories which were as short or long as they needed to be.

    Alas, the short story is indeed dying, at least in the publishing industry, replaced by things like flash fiction, short-shorts, and blog posts.

    Quite sad, really.

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