Depending on whom you ask, short stories are either sweet morsels of brevity or pieces that are forgotten and overshadowed by the bigger, longer, and more familiar novel.
I am one of the former, and today I’d like to share with you how fabulous short stories really are.
While flash fiction pieces tend to run less than 1,000 words, short stories are traditionally described as 1,000 to 10,000 word tales (that’s 4 to 40 pages, if you’re working with the standard 250 words per page theory). Most markets set shorts in the 3,000 to 7,500 range, with some variance depending on the submission guidelines. No matter what the length, though, one thing remains the same: these magical little pieces manage to wrap the reader in an oft complex journey despite a surprisingly small number of words.
Though I wrote lots of smaller pieces growing up, I didn’t write what I considered my first true short story until a college Creative Fiction class. When I finished, I yanked my fingers off the keyboard with a gasp—I’d literally found myself in a trance for the course of 15 pages, my mind churning and my heart racing as this entire story unfolded in such a short amount of space. It felt magical and fantastic, and it occurred to me that writing shorts might be the path I wanted to take.
I didn’t, of course, but after years of toil over Kyresa and learning that I needed to write more often (from start to complete finish), I’ve spent a lot of my energy writing short stories lately. I’ve also been reading them incessantly, for which the purpose is three-fold. First, I’m looking for great short stories to share with my English students as we begin to study narrative writing, since they make excellent between-text reads to discuss. This in turn is good for my second reason: I’m often only able to accomplish short bursts of reading, and the joy of a short story is that I can finish it in that miniscule chunk of time.
The third reason I’ve been reading shorts, however, is the most important to me. Reading always makes one a better writer, and I’m finding that reading short stories that follow the entire narrative path in no more than 10,000 words is actually starting to strengthen my ability to write them. My first drafts are getting cleaner, and I’m finding myself in that same college trance—except now I’m knocking out 4,000 to 5,000 word stories in a two to three-hour sitting. It feels cohesive, empowering, and quite fun! It also makes it easier to not get so darn attached to one piece, and to circulate many pieces in the world while I work towards getting something published.
On the reading side of things, I wanted to share the list of short stories I’ve managed to tackle in the last two weeks. The list below is in no particular order, but most of these pieces are first person, since that was my initial focus for my students in our narrative unit. I’ve included a very brief description as well as a link to the anthology so that you may track them down. My advice? Read them all. 🙂
From The Essay Connection:
(The following are first person narrative essays.)
“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan — a first person account of Tan’s changed perception on her mother’s “broken” English.
“The Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders — a tale of father and son bonding through tools, and the pain of losing that connection. (Loved this one!)
“Learning to Drive” by Ann Upperco Dolman — a funny tale about the author’s experience learning to drive a standard transmission car alongside her extremely patient father.
From The Writer’s Presence:
(The following are first person narrative essays.)
“The Problem with T-Shirts” by Thomas Beller — a little ditty on the comfort (and eventual death) of t-shirts.
“Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self” by Alice Walker — Walker’s path toward acceptance of an obvious facial scar. (This was one of my favorites!)
“If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” by Geeta Kothari — thoughts on the integration of Americanized foods in an Indian home, and the questions of cultural identity that follow.
From Push of the Sky, by Camille Alexa:
(The following are first person speculative fiction stories by the fabulous Camille—I met her at the Cascade Writer’s Conference, and I’m absolutely loving her work!)
“The Italian” — a woman’s connection to a past incident through her Italian bicycle.
“The Taste of Snow” — a woman in a dystopian future adjusts to losing her aging family.
From The Best of Talebones, edited by Patrick Swenson
(The following pieces are all speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, and I also met the awesome Patrick Swenson at my conference. I really enjoyed each of these.)
“Cats, Dogs, and Other Creatures” by Steve Rasnic Tem — cats, dogs, and other creatures have more control than you might think.
“Snow on Snow” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman — a man hopes to draw his wife back to him from an unusual place.
“Seepage” by Caterine Macleod — an agoraphobic adjusts to her interesting house.
Okay, I admit it—nobody throw anything at me!—I somehow fell under a rock while everyone else read the work of speculative fiction author Neil Gaiman. But I’m hip to him now! I enjoyed the first piece I read in Fragile Things: “A Study in Emerald,” where a detective must solve an unusual royal murder (in a unique setting). Lastly, from a textbook our freshmen use that I particularly enjoyed, and have found on the internet for your reading enjoyment is “Marigolds.” It’s a contemporary piece by Eugenia Collier, where a girl has a tantrum—and a slight coming of age—in her neighbor’s beautifully symbolic marigold garden.
I hope you have a chance to check out some of these fantastic pieces, and now I’m curious—what do you think of short stories? Writers, do you enjoy writing them? Readers, do you enjoy them as much as novels? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!
September 26th, 2012 at 6:59 am
I love “Marigolds.” Such a great coming-of-age story. Some of my other favorites are “A&P” by John Updike, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” a stupendously creepy one by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve written many short stories myself, but I’ve never had any luck with the lit mags. I’m going to keep trying, but like you mentioned, I’ve gotten sucked into novel writing. The short story is fabulous thing so. It takes such craft to get it right. Oh, side note, I also love Alice Munro’s short stories. So good.
September 30th, 2012 at 9:48 am
My students had very mixed feelings about “Marigolds,” it turns out. Must be a teen thing—I loved it! I’ll have to check out some of those, though I have read “Where Are You Going.” Oates is amazing. I’m loving the short story process, and being able to craft so many pieces in a shorter time is inspiring. If I wasn’t in the process of moving, I’d be writing one today! 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Katherine!