The English practical turn of mind produces a few reasons without too much thought being needed. Authors who need the satisfaction of producing a finished piece of work without years of thought and effort are obviously most likely to find it in short stories. Both the effort and the risk are less draconian.
But it does have to be remembered that short fiction is a distinctive genre. Short stories are not little novels, and great ability in one area doesn’t necessarily mean the same in the other. Many novelists, including Hilary Mantel and Patrick Gale, have at some time produced a volume of short stories, and the reverse often applies, but there are also writers who have made their name and reputation largely from short stories. The Americans Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain was a short story) and David Leavitt spring to mind, and in Britain, Alan Bennett is probably as well known for his stories as he is for his plays.
The great Canadian writer Alice Munro, who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a short story specialist. Short fiction writers may not be as numerous or as successful as novelists (see Section 3, ‘Getting published’, for some of the problems), but they do exist – see Directory for some of the better known names. Why? Well, because the skills and strengths of the short story teller are not necessarily those of the novelist. Short fiction writing, as we shall see, is a highly disciplined, pared down business where verbosity, elaborate characterisation and page after page of scenic or climatic description are simply not affordable. Words are at a premium, quite literally, especially if the writer is seeking to do well in U.K. fiction competitions where the typical word totals tend to be quite low. Other countries’ competitions, particularly those of the U.S., tend to be more generous in this respect, but almost all British competitions seem to range between 1500 and 5000 words, with 2000 and 3000 words the most popular totals.
Word totals are much lower, perhaps as low as 250 words, for ‘flash fiction’, which has gained currency in recent years. There are now a number of publications and competitions devoted to it, though publishers, sites and competitions continue to regard short fiction and flash fiction as separate. I don’t profess to be an expert in this field, and contributions to the site from those who are will be welcomed. Making enough happen to get and retain the interest or curiosity of the reader in 2000 words or so is not easy. While the physical activity of writing 2000 words is not particularly demanding, the business of writing them into a coherent and self-contained piece can be very challenging. It should not be concluded that, because the writing of short fiction is less of a commitment, it is necessarily easier.
However, for anyone wishing to become a published writer, the short fiction route is one which needs to be seriously considered. As the agents and publishers now say constantly, people with no publishing record of any kind will have no chance at all of being accepted by them, and getting short fiction into print is one of the best and most effective routes towards acquiring publication records. Short fiction is also a viable way of self-discovery for a writer. The restraints of word limits will indicate rapidly enough tendencies towards verbosity, irrelevant tangents, over-elaborate descriptions, and circuitous plot developments. Every writer will have personal pitfalls. I recognised fairly soon my tendency to ‘front load’ a story, meaning the initial stages used up too many words and the endings did not have enough room to credibly resolve all the issues thrown in the air earlier on. I also had to learn to re-write and re-check, at least several times for every piece, because however adept writers consider themselves to be, gremlins of various types will always insinuate themselves into the written text.
Characters might start with names which the author then decides to change, and then forgets to alter all of the references in the story. Weird spellings and bizarre grammatical constructions will twist the story’s shape. Red herrings of various kinds, calculated to puzzle and even infuriate the reader, will detrimentally affect the piece’s chances of competition success or put editors off publication. If the eventual plan is to produce a novel, bad habits need to be expunged, or agents and publishers will be writing off the manuscript within minutes and a lot of work, thought and effort will count for nothing. Even if the author intends to stick with short fiction for ever afterwards, there will little headway made in the way of publication or competition success if the same failings are being repeated over and over again.
Short fiction is generally more likely to provide feedback. Impartial feedback is like gold dust to a writer, hard to find but precious to have. No amount of being patted on the back by friends and family is going to make success any more likely. Hard-pressed agents and publishers, many of whom will not now even look at unsolicited manuscripts, are extremely unlikely to offer detailed critiques; self and vanity publishers will offer glowing comments if suitable sums of money are offered up front. The process of paying for a critique brings the motivation of the organisation or individual producing it immediately into question. Editors of magazines and e-zines can be just as curt and unhelpful as any, but because the work is briefer and more easily assimilated, the chances of them saying something useful are rather better. And, of course, if they accept the piece, they will usually be willing to say something about why they considered it publishable.
Finally, short fiction, unlike many other pastimes and pursuits, is a broad church with very few rules. The range of what can be said to work varies enormously. Short fiction is an open and experimental field where there are few restricting regulations but space; what readers or editors deem to have worked works.For all of these reasons, short fiction is an attractive option for all writers from novices to veterans, and if the result of this is a crowded and highly competitive field, then achieving success is all the more rewarding. Success in short fiction can come in a number of forms; wealth is unlikely to be one of them, as the next section outlines.