Novels have room for words, lots and lots of words. That doesn’t mean you can spend them unwisely, but it does mean you can loosen the cinch on your story a “bit” without losing your saddle. Not so with short stories. I’ve heard that writing novels and short stories are two different art forms, and I believe it. Short stories require a ruthlessness that most novel writers seldom need to match.
I was talking to a young writer not long ago about short stories. She was explaining how all her stories ran long because there was just so much to tell. One idea led to another, one twist to the next. And then she found herself wanting to explore every quirk of her characters.
My advice to her was to: “Stop that!” I said: “Such distractions rear up in my own stories sometimes. I beat them about the head and ears until they go away.”
“Distractions!” she said. “But those are the kinds of things that made me want to write the story in the first place.”
“Then you’re thinking primarily like a novelist,” I responded. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s different than thinking like a short story writer. Short stories are hard enough to publish for money as it is. But when you trowel in sub-plots and layers of characterization for multiple actors in the story you’re virtually assuring that you’ll never sell it as a short.”
Nine and ten thousand word short stories very, very seldom sell. Unless you already have a big name, which you probably got from writing novels. I wish this wasn’t true. I enjoy reading longish short stories and novellas, but there isn’t much market for them today. In fact, there hasn’t been in my memory, because in my early days of writing, my stories used to run long too. Especially my fantasy stories. And selling them proved extremely tough.
So what’s the solution? How do you tell the story completely in the way you want to tell it and still sell it? The solution for me was to take those long stories and rip their guts out. Sub-plots? Gone! Full character development for secondary characters? Gone! World building? Minimized! Description? Intensified but minimized! Twists? Leave one or two and throw out the rest!
I still have story files on my computer with titles like “Riderorig,” which stands for “The Evening Rider, original version.” Then there’s a second file just called “Rider.” The second version is three thousand words shorter. Guess which version sold.
You can always write a story for yourself, save it, then revise it under another file name strictly for the reader. The existence of one doesn’t hurt the other. So have your cake. And eat it too.