A Quick Guide to Writing Short—Part 1: Fiction

You don’t have to look far to realize that short is the current trend in writing and publishing — especially for digital. Online advice abounds: write a short story, write a novella, tweet your novel. The options are many. 

Why write shorter?

Well, there are a few reasons. For self-published authors, there’s pressure to write faster, and obviously shorter lends itself well to this process. Books like Write. Publish. Repeat. recommend that writers should produce several books a year to get a foothold and to find and retain an audience. 

Authors are also told to write a short story or two while working on a novel to keep readers interested and to keep the production line moving. Similar advice tells beginning writers to publish some short pieces early, to get themselves out there.

There’s also a new place to publish your shorter work. Amazon has recently launched Short Reads: Great Stories in One Sitting, where you can browse by your desired reading time. 

There’s the theory, too, that because of their splintered attention spans, readers are looking for shorter pieces — especially for reading on small screens. We also have less time for reading, and with shorter books we can experience the satisfaction of actually finishing one.

Finally, some topics naturally lend themselves to shorter forms, but in traditional publishing they haven’t worked well, because (at least in part) a published book needs to have enough of a spine on which to print a title and author. Not so in digital — length doesn’t matter, because ebooks are spineless.

Some options for short fiction 

Regardless of the reasons, a whole range of short writing options is available. Here’s a breakdown of some of the typical forms of short fiction and a suggested word count. I’ve listed the novel first because, although it’s not short fiction, its length is often what we measure the others against. 

Novel: length varies widely — from 40,000 (Wikipedia), 50,000 (NaNoWriMo) to 100,00 —175,000 words according to Jane Smiley (13 Ways of Looking at the Novel).      

Novella: 17,500—40,000 words (Wikipedia)

Novelette: 7,500—17,500 words (Wikipedia)

Short story: under 7,500 words (Wikipedia)

Short short story: 2,000—7,500 words (Writer’s Digest forum)

Flash fiction (micro-fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction): usually under 1,000 words, but length varies wildly depending on what it’s called and where it’s being featured. For example, on the site 100wordstory.org, you get — you guessed it — 100 words.

Serial fiction is making a comeback, too, and I wouldn’t want to leave it off this list. Jane Friedman has written extensively about it — Serial Fiction: How It’s Changing Publishing is a good article to begin with if you want to learn more.

These suggested guidelines have been around for a long time and they’re just that — guidelines. Digital publishing is changing the way we define books, literature, genre and form.   

Tips for writing short(er) fiction

Study the form. Don’t fall into the “how hard can this be?” trap. If the novelette is new to you, for instance, find out who excels at it and start reading their work. Identify the distinguishing features of the form you want to try. Differences between these various forms of short fiction go beyond word count. 

It better be good. Especially if you’re writing a shorter piece to self-publish for the first time or to find new readers. This will be the first thing they’ve ever read by you — and it could be the last, if you rush to publish it. For all you need to know about writing a quality book fast, look no further than Corina Koch MacLeod’s Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast

Think of these as exercises. Experimenting with a new form is a great way to stretch your limits and develop your style. You’re probably familiar with the famous six-word story attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Some of the very short forms can be especially challenging — can you keep cutting and cutting and still communicate a meaningful story?

Further reading

There’s a wealth of information available about writing short fiction and where to publish it. This article at TheReviewReview is a good place to begin if you’d like to try your hand at micro-fiction. And in his article at WritingWorld.com, Jason Gurley provides a nice description of and list of resources for flash fiction. On his blog, what a lot of birds, Paul M.M. Cooper has posted short story writing tips from four leading writers. And finally, if you’re interested in the history of very short fiction, this 1989 piece from the New York Times describes postcard fiction as “a new vogue from Canada.” How about that?

Image: Counselman Collection

Related Posts

4 Reasons to Write Short Stories, by Stefan Bachmann 
The New Golden Age of Short Fiction: 12 Reasons to Write a Short Story This Month, by Anne R. Allen 
How do we read now? And what does this mean for writers? 
If fragmented is how we read now, then how should we write? 
How to Write a Quality Book Fast 

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