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Writing Short Stories Is Hard

I’m just going to file that title away in my folder of “obvious statements everyone instinctively knows,” but I thought I’d spend a bit examining why I personally find writing a series of short stories more difficult than writing an actual novel. But before I do, some background: Book three should come out February 6th, and is already available for preorder. Also, Amazon has some algorithms that bump your visibility when you put out a book. Authors often talk about the 30, 60, or 90 day cliff at which point your new release drops out of the mystery box that is Amazon algorithms which suggests it to browsing buyers, which is why you get a lot of rapid release series – the authors are trying to ensure they remain within the 30 day cliff and always at the top of the algorithms.

This 30 day rapid release schedule is completely unfeasible for me, but the 90 day window isn’t impossible. And so I thought I’d have an easy book made up of short stories available to bridge book 3 & 4, composed of all those short stories I’ve supposedly been writing as my Payday Stories.

And I have to say, I still think the Payday Stories were a great idea that I executed terribly. The concept was to give away two short stories a month to my true fans, which revealed more facets to the world as well as have some bearing on book four (seriously, I think y’all will be impressed when you see how tightly wound this whole series is upon completion).

Two problems with this though: I never had any die-hard fans, and I couldn’t get the stories written regularly.

Mind you, I did spend a lot of time on the world building of these stories, with entire cycles of myths mapped out as well as their actual holy texts. I even had extra characters that would act as the editors/ translators of these texts that had their own sort of tertiary arcs.

But if you look at my Payday Stories updates, you’ll see I never really got past the planning stage on them. And I think this has a lot to do with the medium of short stories being so hard to write. At least for me.

This really hit home when I sat down to write a short story for an upcoming anthology. The whole thing was only 3,500 words, or what SHOULD have been a single writing session. Instead it took three full days.

Part of this might be my process, which is pretty unchanged for my novels/ scripts in that I brainstorm, take notes, and then beat it out in a treatment before I even open up the blank page that will become my rough draft. I recognize that this is an incredibly inefficient system, but it seems to work well for me in novels because it’s a capital investment, so when the time comes to actually write the novel, I don’t have to do anything but write. But this investment only really pays off when you’re writing 100,000 words. When it’s 3,500, you find you’ve spent more time and words on your notes than on the finished product.

And I’ll also posit that we authors spend more time focusing on the prose of short stories. With such a smaller canvas to work with, you can’t spend pages upon pages describing a character or setting; you have to get the audience right into the action. Each and every word counts because there are so few of them, which means there’s going to be more focus on them individually.

Now this here, this is an image worth at least a 1,000 words.

At least that was my take after taking part in Mark Lawrence’s 300 word limit pop up story competition a while back, in which I submitted a version of The Boy Swallowed by the Sea. Suddenly the prose was on full display, which has never been my strong suit. And as much as I didn’t appreciate counting the words to see where I could cut, I do think it made the prose stronger as a result.

I should also probably point out that I don’t really care for short films or anthology series (sorry, Black Mirror, I never could get into you no matter how ingenious people say you are), probably because I could never really invest in the characters since I unconsciously knew on some level that I wouldn’t see them again. Short stories are like one-night hookups when I’m looking for a more long-term literary relationship.

Which is what I ultimately had to do with my short stories for my book 3.5: I’ve grouped them into types and am writing them as such. This gives me some reoccurring characters and themes that can carry over from story to story even though they’ll appear split up in the book itself. Which I guess means I’ve learned nothing from this process since it began with me treating short stories like novels and ended the same way.

But at least now I have the illusion that I’m harnessing my bad habits…

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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