and wind sprints, and x*y=52, and batting cages, and bending that note 30,000 times until you sound just like Slash. Short stories can be great practice. In some ways, I think they’re the best practice for writers.
Setting the immense practicality of short story writing aside for a moment, they’re also just a blast to write. The freedom of knowing that if this story sucks, you’re only out a few hours to a few days work makes you bold. It makes you fearless. I’m revising and polishing my first ever novel and beginning a second. I can still feel some couch cushion armor tied around my body and I still haven’t taken the wok helmet off my head quite yet. I’m getting better at taking risks but still, it’s scary.
Short stories? Those little itty-bitty things. That’s where I can go crazy. I can let my freak flag fly. I can try a bizarro situation on for size and see how it fits. I can concoct new story telling recipes and see how they taste. If I make a delicious cake, I can serve up slices to anyone who wants to read. If I make a turd sandwich, I can quietly slide that one-off the counter and into the garbage. It’s much harder to trash a turd sandwich when it’s as big as a novel.
Okay, back to short stories as practice. Unlike a novel, where you are bound to a set of characters with specific voices, in specific settings for 50,000 to 150,000+ words, short stories allow you to create new people in new worlds and new situations every 1,000-ish to 30,000-ish words. This opens up a lot of opportunity for practice in all arenas of writing. Think about it. A new world to build every few thousand words. That’s a dozen unique worlds you’ve created in the time you would have built one for your novel. New villains, new heroes and heroines. New problems to solve. New mysteries to weave. All with much less investment.
When you only write novels or novellas, it’s like practicing for a full marathon by only running full marathons. Not my idea of useful. Plus, there’s all that awkward nipple chaffing. Who wants that, even metaphorically? Taking breaks from your magnum opus to tell the story of Danielle Danger and the Quest for the Hidden Jackalope can be refreshing and get you in the groove if you need to write some humor into your novel. Maybe you’ll stop to pen Terrence Tango P.I. : The Case of the Confiscated Corpse when you need do limber up for some mystery writing. Just like weightlifting, you can focus on individual writing muscles and make sure they are fit and healthy.
Now, please don’t think I’m trying to prescribe any sort of specific regimine here. I’m still a noob in the world of writing. I’m wading through the same shallow sea of extremely personal writing tips and advice as everyone else. It can be confusing and contradictory at times. I’ve seen these tips delivered as helpful suggestions and as gospel. “Try this out and see if it works for you” vs. “If you don’t do exactly _____ in exactly _____ way, you should probably just unplug your laptop because you will never amount to anything and you are not worthy of the title of writer.” I am firm believer in the former. From what I can tell, most successful writers are too.
Finally, don’t forget to read short stories. That way you can learn from the mistakes and successes of others. You don’t have to take all the lumps by yourself.
*Before anybody grabs their well-worn, “I’m so offended” megaphone and starts ranting and looking silly, let me settle your insecure little heart. Yes, short stories are unique and complete pieces of writing in and of themselves and are not solely a means of practice for the mighty novel. You are absolutely right. The fact remains however, that we learn through practice and practice is repetition. The shorter the duration of the activity, the more practice cycles and variety you are allowed. Thus, the utility of short stories as practice tools.