On the Value of Short Stories

Magical Words contributor Edmund Schubert recently asked readers about their habits regarding short stories and the value of anthologies/collections.

What a wonderful topic, right? And coincidentally, it’s a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately for more than a couple reasons, both as a reader and a writer.

The Writer’s Perspective

In the giving unpublished writers advice corner, there’s so much rhetoric from people saying that the only way you can publish a novel is to publish short stories first. It hones your craft, it gets your name out there, and it teaches you the industry.

Which is true! But…

You’re learning short stories and not novels. They are two entirely different entities in terms of craft and industry and only the most general skills transfer between them.

Spending your time writing short stories is time you’re not writing novels, and if the only reason you’re writing them is to eventually publish novels, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. You should like short stories if you’re writing them; you should appreciate the form. If not, you’re not really doing yourself any favors.

Which is why I’m still working on short stories–because I like them. A lot.

They’re harder to plot, write, and focus, but the final product can be something special that simply cannot exist in a longer form.

I consistently keep a working list of short stories I’m writing/editing. When I feel one is ready, I put it in my submission rotation and start collecting rejection letters from publications. I’m taking Tobias Buckell’s advice from Nascence and only submitting to professionally paying markets, and if my story isn’t good enough for them, I’ll retire it and start again, learning from the mistakes that kept that one from being published.

My current short story WIP is something special. I call it “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” and it is very high concept. It’s also almost completely character driven. It has a very hard science fiction foundation, but deals with faith and religion on a personal level. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write, and not only because of the content.

Length is a major issue; anyone who’s read my notes and research has said they don’t see how it can be a short. But in my mind, it’s very tight, very focused. I feel as though a novel would just detract from the point. I am aiming for a sub-17k word count because of the Writers of the Future contest. If not, it’ll end up being about 30k, and I’ll submit it to publications for serial consideration.

I love short stories, and I think they have a place for writers–just not every writer. Too many people are stuck in the old paradigm of novels and shorts being two parts of one whole, which isn’t the case anymore.

The Reader’s Perspective

My short story reading habits are abysmal. I love short stories. I love them a lot.

Tim Pratt’s “Impossible Dreams” struck me so hard that I worked it into my world literature course last year as part of my postmodernism section. Tobias Buckell’s Nascence shaped my view of just what the heck I’m doing with my own fiction, and Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” really made me reconsider what contemporary SF really is.

I never make time to read short fiction, though. I never read collections. I am too concerned with finishing all the novels I want to get through. I love the idea of short story periodicals; I want to sit down every month and read the new issues of Analog and Asimov’s and IGMS. But I don’t. I never make time.

That’s going to stop, though. A commenter on Schubert’s blog mentioned EscapePod, PodCastle, and Pseudopod, which I had all but forgotten about despite Pseudopod holding the honor of giving me my first professional rejection letter.

I listen to audiobooks as I commute. A couple of years ago, audiobooks counted for maybe one-third of the books I got through in any given year. Since my commute has significantly shortened, that number has dwindled, but I still get through a couple listens every semester.

Thanks to the comment jogging my memory, I’m going to set up the three podcasts as iTunes subscriptions to listen to as I drive. I’ll finally be able to make time for short fiction and not miss out on any of the novels I want to read.

And since the EscapePod et al are free, I won’t have to worry about subscribing to Audible when my backlog of audiobooks dwindles.

It really is full of win.

Long story, short

So the value of short fiction anthologies, Mr. Schubert?

High, but those stories need to be the highest quality, and the rewards for authors need to be the same.

The value of short fiction isn’t something a reader can decide, nor is it something the authors and industry can, either. It’s a system of checks and balances that has been out of whack for a very long time.

No one makes a living off just short fiction (alas), but the current markets are so elite–not in the bad way–that unless you’re making the pro rate ($0.05 a word, generally), the time might be better spent working on more profitable writing endeavors.

In the end, that hurts readers, too, because unless your favorite authors just love the format, you most likely won’t have the library of short fiction to choose from that you do novels. If the pickings are slim or not what we want to read, then of course collections and anthologies are going to sell worse than novels.

What are your thoughts on short fiction?


By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.

1 comment

  1. I adore short fiction. I love to read it, and I love to write it. But I do always find it hard to parse down my thoughts and words to fit the short story recommendation. My idea usually gets too big and I have to reclassify it into a potential novel idea.

    But I admire the authors that can write short stories and write them well. For example, I’m not a fan of The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick, but Hawthorne’s and Melville’s short stories like “Rappaccini’s Daughter” or “Bartleby, the Scrivener” are, in my opinion, true written works of art.

    Less can be so much more.

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