Experimenting With Short Stories

Last month, Julie wrote an excellent blog post about “Choosing the Best Length for Your Story”, and I thought I’d offer another possibility for some writers: experimenting with short stories before writing a novel.

My friend N.K. Jemisin (author of fabulous fantasy books you should read like the Inheritance trilogy and the Broken Earth series) often writes a short story as a “test run” for a novel she’s thinking about writing. For example, her story “Stone Hunger” allowed her to play around with some concepts and settings that she refined in The Fifth Season and its sequels.

Famously, Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon began as a short story by the same name. There are plenty of other examples of novellas that were later expanded into novels, such as Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress and The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko. Those earlier, shorter works were probably meant to be complete in themselves, but once you get some acclaim and win some awards, it’s only natural to contemplate going back to the well, and often those stories succeed because they have rich potential for a much longer work or series. Why “waste” a brilliant idea on a short story?

And there may be value in trying out a character, premise, or setting that you think will make a great novel as a short story first. A novel of 80,000 to 100,000 words will take a lot longer to write and edit than a 5,000-17,000 story, which you can finish, edit, and submit in a matter of weeks. Sometimes it will scratch that story itch, and you’ll see that your fantastic idea can’t be sustained over the course of an entire novel, or maybe it’ll inspire the rest of the story and you’ll want to keep going. If you don’t yet have enough material for an outline, you can instead focus on a character in a specific moment of what could be a novel and learn about them and their world that way. But, of course don’t forget that even a short story needs to tell a complete story, with your character initiating and/or undergoing change–usually.

As a personal example, during a critique of a short story I wrote years ago about teenagers remembering their previous lives, with their entire futures dependent on who they were in the past, one author said I either needed to shorten it or expand it. A little while later, I decided the idea was too good to “throw away” on a short story–especially one I couldn’t get published–so I adapted the short story into a YA novel titled Who We Used to Be… uh, which I also couldn’t sell :-/ But hey, the idea is still a good one, so I haven’t given up on it yet.

On the other hand, I’ve been kicking around a YA novel idea called City Girl for years. When K.M. Walton invited me to submit a story to her upcoming Behind the Song anthology (Sourcebooks, September 2017), I decided to audition the novel idea as a short story–and I think it actually works just fine as a short story. I’m glad I decided to write it as a shorter piece rather than attempting a novel that couldn’t support the idea! (Not that I’m ruling out a novel version if people like the story, naturally.)

I also know other writers who may write short stories set in the world of their story, perhaps from a different character’s POV, just as an exercise to generate ideas, get into the head of a character, or work through writer’s block–without intending that story to appear in the novel or ever be published, sort of like a deleted scene. In fact, this approach applies just as well to film and television; a television pilot episode is a sort of “proof of concept” that a series should be greenlit, and many films began as an indie short film or a demo scene, including District 9, Sin City, and Napoleon Dynamite, which convinces producers and studios to invest in a feature film and trust a new writer or director with a more expensive, higher profile project.

Many authors start out as short story writers, myself included, but you need not limit yourself to one or the other, and novelists can still learn from writing at a shorter length. Besides, if you can sell the same idea twice, as a short story and then a novel, why wouldn’t you? 🙂

Do you have any other examples of shorter works that were expanded into novels? Which version did you like more? Is this technique something you’ve tried yourself or would consider doing?


2 Responses to Experimenting With Short Stories

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 28 2017 at 8:57 am #

    The first chapter of my novel Ghostkiller can work as a standalone story. In fact my publisher suggested releasing it as a standalone, to whet interest in the expanded story to come. I didn’t plan it that way, I just wanted to do a chapter to introduce the concept and practice of Ghostkilling and it ended up having a beginning-middle-end all its own.
    To me a short story is a very different sort of creature than a novel, the pace is different, the number of people and plot threads is less, the overall complexity is much reduced. In short I see a difference in kind between shorts and novels, not just a difference in degree. The novel version would be a very different thing. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that a collection of shorts cannot be collected to make up a quasi-novel, if they have enough themes and characters in common. Daniel Jose Older has such a thing in his Salsa Nocturna collection (https://www.amazon.com/Salsa-Nocturna-Street-Rumba-Collection-ebook/dp/B01KKDAI3K/) and I’m planning one of my own, collecting up my Chasing His Own Tale stories (once I get around to writing them).

  2. Julie Apr 28 2017 at 11:24 am #

    Hi E.C.! I loved this post. I do write short stories, but I always think of them as the one moment in the character’s life I want to focus on. This post made me think about whether some of those characters should be given more territory. I also really like the idea of writing a short story from the POV of another character in a novel, even if it’s just for exploration’s sake. Thanks for this!

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