Different kinds of bliss

I’ve read a lot of blog posts lately about the question of whether aspiring novelists ought to write short stories. The old wisdom was that yes, of course they ought to – that was the recognized way to get a toehold in the field, and it was almost a prerequisite to publishing novels.

In my own case, though, I know for a fact that my published short stories for adults had no influence on the sale of my YA trilogy. I’ve even wondered whether it is really a good idea to publish my funny historical fantasy novels for young teen girls under the same pen name as my adult short stories, some of which are pretty dark, others of which include jokes about sex and other topics that might worry conservative parents. And when you combine that issue with the fact that, after selling almost 30 short stories, several of them to pro markets, I’ve made a grand total of around $2000, putting my salary for them WELL under minimum wage…well, you have to wonder whether they’re worth writing at all, especially now that I’ve started selling my novels. Surely the smart thing would be to just write novels fulltime, focusing on where the real money lives. Right?

Well…

Here’s the thing. Before I went to Clarion West, in 2001, I thought I wasn’t a natural short story writer. I loved novels; I read novels; I wrote novels. It was very simple. But I wanted to become a better writer, so I went to Clarion West, where I was expected to write one short story a week, for six weeks. It sounded terrifyingly impossible, but I gritted my teeth, started reading short stories, started writing them…and discovered something astonishing.

I love writing short stories. I don’t love them more than novels – but I love them almost as much as novels, and writing them gives me a particular kind of bliss that feels distinctly different from the bliss of writing a novel. In my favorite method of short story-writing, when I have the time and opportunity, I get to sit down and write through the entire story in one joyful burst of inspiration. I might not finish it in a day, but I will probably finish it within a week or less. Inspiration – effort – satisfaction – done, all in one perfect package.  And then, when I’m really lucky, the story will sell and be published within a few months of the sale. (Of course, that might be after 2 or 3 years of marketing…but still.)

Today, my alternate-17th-century historical fantasy short story, “The Five Days of Justice Merriwell”, has been published in the online magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I wasn’t planning to write this story when it happened. But my husband and I were watching the DVD box set of Simon Schama’s brilliant TV series, A History of Britain, and one night we watched two episodes in a row: an episode on the British Civil War, and an episode about the rule of Oliver Cromwell afterwards. I’d always been fascinated by that time period – when I was a kid, I adored the 1970 movie “Cromwell”, with Richard Harris and Alec Guinness, watching it over and over again – and after we watched those episodes, I went to bed with my mind whirling.

That night, I had an intense, vivid dream. It was set in a world that was partly Cromwell’s post-Civil War world, but the Others that Cromwell’s party had fought and feared weren’t Catholics but something very different, something ominous and beautiful and terrifyingly appealing. And one sixteen-year-old girl had been left in charge of the shattered country in the wake of the Lord Protector’s death…

I woke up and started writing. I never come up with story ideas from dreams, it’s just not something I do; but that time, I did. I wrote and wrote in a fever of inspiration, and I finished the story within 3 days. I could have used it as the basis of a novel, and if I had, it would have felt wonderful too, but it would have been a different kind of bliss. If short stories are like brief, passionate affairs, novels are more like marriages, where you have bursts of intense happiness mixed with longer stretches of calm contentment (and, of course, occasional bouts of frustration or conflict, followed by joyful resolution).

Seeing this story published fills me with a different kind of thrill than I expect my novel publications to give me. But it’s a thrill that I couldn’t possibly give up. So even though it makes no practical career sense, writing short stories as well as novels has turned out, after all, to be the smartest thing I could possibly do.

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  1. 1. Tara Maya

    I always felt I wasn’t a “short story” writer either, but you make me think perhaps that’s just an excuse.

  2. 2. Stephanie Burgis

    For me, it all came down to reading a ton of short stories in a row so that my mind was really saturated with the form. When I’m reading only novels, I only think of novel ideas, but when I’m reading lots of short stories, those ideas start leaping out at me, too. (Kind of like when I spent 4 months working at a daycare reading picture books to the kids every day – completely unexpectedly, and for the first time in my life, I started getting lots of ideas for picture books of my own…)

  3. 3. Mindy Klasky

    I tend not to read short fiction, and therefore I tend not to *write* short fiction. I do, though, think that short fiction can be a great “advertisement” for a novel writer – readers who discover the author in shorter form may decide to make the crossover.

    Heading over to BCS, to check things out…

  4. 4. Stephanie Burgis

    Oh, thank you, Mindy – I really hope you enjoy the story!

    And you’re absolutely right that a great short story can also work as a great recommendation for a writer’s novels. I’m not sure that it’ll work as efficiently in my case just because the main audience for my novels – 12-14-year-old girls – isn’t a massive consumer of adult F/SF magazines – but I do know that short stories have led me to a lot of my favorite novel writers. (And of course I hope that any adult readers who like my short stories will try out the novels, too, despite their different location in the bookstores!)

  5. 5. Eugene

    The same thing happens to me: when I’m writing and reading novels, the short story ideas just don’t come to me. I also haven’t had as much success selling even my best stories, let alone to pro markets, so it seems like my time might be better invested in longer work. But I do love short stories and I hope that I will still work on them from time to time. I have nearly a dozen pieces that need varying levels of revision, but I am more caught up in the energy of the novel-length work in progress at the moment.

  6. 6. Stephanie Burgis

    Eugene, you’re absolutely right to keep your priorities sensibly straight – I think writing short stories would stop being good for me the moment it started interfering with my novel production, which is of course my actual career (and also my main passion). I’m very lucky in that I only owe one 70,000-word novel a year to my publishers, and I am a stay-at-home mom with all the time I can manage to wrangle away from my baby to write whatever I like, but I would never say that anybody else *should* write both forms. It’s all about working out what feels best to you.

  7. 7. attackfish

    it’s weird, I write two different genres when I write novels and short stories. I do full out secondary world fantasy in my novels, and mostly magical realism and urban fantasy when I write short stories. Every time I’ve tried to write a secondary world fantasy short story, it turns into a novel. Anyone else have genre differences between their short and long writing that way?

    I started writing short stories when I started writing fanfic because all the world building was done for me and I could focus on whatever minute I wanted to zero in on. Great way to start.

  8. 8. Stephanie Burgis

    It’s funny how those different forms can tap into different parts of the imagination, isn’t it? I’ve written a bunch of contemporary fantasy short stories and even a few science fiction short stories, whereas with novels I’m purely a historical fantasy girl – nothing else works to tap my inspiration for such long projects. I love that we have the freedom to explore all our different sides in our writing!

  9. 9. Merrie Haskell

    I’ve run into a couple of these blog posts, too, but not more than Greg Van Eekhout’s and… crap, I can’t remember the other person. Do you have links to any of the others?

    I was wondering where the conversation began…

  10. 10. cedunkley

    I’ve tried my hand at short stories and they mostly turned into scenes or snippets of world building.

    I have been given them more thought lately, though, even if it’s as a vehicle to write and submit, as opposed to just write for a long time, which novels require.

    And to break into publishing. Though in reality I don’t think breaking into the short story market is any easier than getting a novel published.

    I know I’m a novel writer. I think in long term when it comes to characters and plot. But the short story is something I need to think about more. I do believe that improving my short story form writing will improve my novel writing overall.

  11. 11. Radish

    cedunkley sez :
    “I’ve tried my hand at short stories and they mostly turned into scenes or snippets of world building.”

    That’s my problem. All my little stories want to grow up and become novels. And then the novels want to sprawl into frakkin’ epics. Is there any way to corral this rampaging expansion?

    It’s the characters’ fault, really — they insist that *I’m* the figment.

  12. 12. Stephanie Burgis

    I used to have that problem – short stories that were really just openings of novels – all the time, I think because I read mostly novels, and therefore that was the structure that my subconscious wanted to fit ALL my stories into, all the time. Really, at least for me, it all comes back to reading tons and tons of short stories, until that form is completely absorbed into your subconscious, which then sighs and gives in and starts giving out real short story ideas instead of wannabe novels.

    And of course if what you really want to write is novels, then there’s absolutely no need to write short stories – there are plenty of successful novelists who’ve never published (or even written, as far as I know) a single short story…but yeah, for me, short stories did teach me a lot about writing in general, even if not how to write a *novel* in particular.

  13. 13. Stephanie Burgis

    Hi Merrie! Now’s where I have to rembarrass myself by admitting that, when I sit down and really think back on it, my sleep-deprived mommy brain is completely failing to toss up the details of those other blog posts….I remember Greg’s entry clearly, and I remember seeing various other entries on the subject…but alas, none of the others have stuck with me. *hiding head in shame…*

  14. 14. Alexander Field

    Great post, I totally relate to your thinking here. In fact, coming from the nonfiction writing world where I’ve spent a lot of time, I have leapt straight from nonfiction writing to working on a novel and writing short stories didn’t occur to me until more recently. I’ve knocked out a few of them and have recently discovered the burgeoning world of online short fiction mags. So thanks for your validation of the form (as I’ve recently finished a new story!) and I will also be heading over to BCS to check out your work! : )

  15. 15. Stephanie Burgis

    I really hope you enjoy “The Five Days…”, Alexander! And have fun with your short stories. I think that as writers the best thing we can do is stretch ourselves in ways that challenge and delight us – it’s so important to keep that element of joy and fun in our writing!

Author Information

Stephanie Burgis

Stephanie Burgis is an American writer who lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband, fellow writer Patrick Samphire, their son "Mr Darcy", and their crazy-sweet border collie mix, Maya. Her Regency fantasy trilogy for kids, The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson, will be published by Atheneum Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2010, 2011, and 2012, beginning with Book One: A Most Improper Magick. She has also published short stories in a variety of magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. You can find out more, or read/listen to her published stories online, at her website. Visit site.

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