Why write short fiction? Traditionally, the advice has been that you should write short fiction to get writing credits, which will open the doors for you to get a literary agent and write long-form fiction. I have certainly been given this advice, and I have heard it spoken from luminaries such as George R. R. Martin. However, there is another school of thought on this. At a recent panel at Worldcon/Chicon8, the very experienced @jabbermaster Joshua Bilmes stated it was unnecessary. He commented that short fiction was a distinct art form from long-form fiction and each required unique skills. That in order to get your novel published, there was no required apprenticeship. Joshua Bilmes is one of the most experienced SFF literary agents in the business, so certainly we should pay attention when he speaks.
So, given there appear to be two conflicting views on whether it is helpful, are there other reasons to write short fiction? I would say it is definitely valuable as an end in itself. As this year’s Hugo award-winning short-form editor Neil Clarke @clarkesworld stated in his table talk, the short story is often one of the most exciting areas of fiction. He believes it is the lab, where all of the experiments are run.
As an emerging writer, this is quite an attractive prospect. Even if writing and publishing a novel is your dream, writing a novel will take a sizeable chunk of time – depending on the author a year or perhaps several. But writing a short story should take significantly less time. You do not want to get three months into a novel to suddenly decide you dislike the first-person point of view and wish you had written it in third-person limited. Or that as a straight cis male you are unable to portray the identity of a trans lesbian convincingly for six hundred pages. Those are both certainly things you could have tried out in short form.
For myself, my interest in the short form is also about genre. As a scientist, when writing hard science fiction, I am excruciatingly slow at writing as I painstakingly verify each aspect of the science that I am writing. It would likely take me a decade to write a full-length hard science fiction novel. However, I enjoy that genre and like to write in it. The solution is to do shorts, obviously. The other aspect for me is identity. Saying that I am an SFF writer, I feel somewhat like a fraud. Even with three completed novels, I do not have a literary agent, my work is not on sub and none have yet been published. But getting my short fiction accepted, and being paid for it, gave me that internal stamp of authenticity that enabled me to assume the title of author, without depending solely on getting a literary agent to like my book, then a publisher to buy it, and then waiting out the two-year process before it ends up in print. It makes you feel legitimate. As a querying author it is also true that you receive many rejections. Although acceptance of a short story is not guaranteed, putting multiple short pieces out there increases the possibility of receiving a ‘yes’ on at least some of your work and igniting a light amongst the darkness of ‘no’s. As a new author, this mental help from the ‘sprint’ of short-stories was game-changing to my attitude towards the longer ‘marathon’ of novel querying.
It also gave me a platform. It meant I felt able to speak on writing. On writer’s block. On submitting and getting published. On story development. Before being published I felt like I had no right to speak to others about this. While it may not mean much to literary agents whether I have short stories published or not, I can’t imagine it is viewed as a negative thing, and for some literary agents it may be a positive. However, as with all things writing, if you want to write short fiction it should really be about you. Whether that is so that you can work on aspects of the craft, even recognizing that the short and long forms of fiction have different rules, different limitations, possibilities, and techniques. It also, quite frankly, is nice to get your name placed in known SFF magazines alongside bigger names and shore up your own self-esteem in this sometimes challenging world of publishing. I would say the true value is not therefore as an accessway to writing a novel, where it may or may not help, but in developing as a writer, and in the joy of the short story as a fiction form in itself.