Thursday, 24 October 2013

Words Are Not Gasoline: The Art Of The Short Story

There has been some discussion on the net lately about something Hugh Howey (author of 'Wool') said on a Facebook Chat

It's point #5 "More short works are better than one long work" that seems to have everyone's knickers in a twist. And despite the fact that Hugh adds a point #6 that says, "Ignore everything I and everyone else says and discover your own truths", a lot of focus is on that point about short vs long works.

I've even seen people comparing the 'price per word' of a short story vs the 'price per word' of a longer work. Let's get one thing straight right now. Words are not gasoline. You don't just go looking for the most words for the least price do you? If so, your buying choices as a reader wold be easy. Simply go to Amazon and look for the longest books in the free category.

That way, you can  fill up your tank with words and not pay a penny. Sounds great right? After all, if the argument is that short stories suck because readers are paying more per word, then the solution is to get the longest books for the least price. That way, you can pay the least per word as possible.

Ideal, right?


If you don't agree that the best books out there are the longest ones for the least price, then you recognise that there is another factor that needs to be considered.

Quality. Enjoyment. A gripping read.

The fact is, all writers are not created equal. If they are, then why are there Stephen King fans? James Patterson fans? Fans of any particular author? It's because certain writers speak to certain readers in a way no other writer can, whether through brick-sized novels, slim novellas or quick-bang short stories.

So, if any author says, 'My work is better than yours because it's longer and readers pay less per word,' they are missing the point of what writing is. What stories are. They are unaware of the art of the short story.

Readers don't read stories with 'cents per word' in mind. They want a good story. They want to be transported to a world where they can lose themselves and their real-life problems for a while and identify with an author's characters.

And if you still think money comes into it, consider this: a well-written short story can give more enjoyment to a reader than a cup of coffee for less money.

Some writers have an aversion to short stories and the writers who write them, stating 'value for money' as the cause of their hatred.  I think there may be more to that. for some of these writers, the aversion could be caused by the fact that they cannot master the art of the short story.

In many ways, writing a novel is easier than writing a short story. Yes there is more time investment but there is also a lot more room for weak scenes and poor description. A novel is much more forgiving of these things because a few weak scenes are a small percentage of the whole. In a short story or novella, everything has to be tight and concise.

Brevity does not mean laziness. It means using powerful words to achieve a level of precision.

I won't listen to writers who say they are 'better' because they write longer works than writers who use the shorter forms to tell stories. they aren't worth listening to because they are wrong. The length of your work has NOTHING to do with how good a writer you are. There are good and bad short story writers and there are good and bad novelists.

That said, here are a few reasons why short fiction rocks:

1) For beginning writers, short stories are an excellent way to practice. Yes, writing does need to be practised just as any craft does. Ray Bradbury advocated writing a short story a week and he sometimes wrote a short story a day. Are you going to argue with Ray?

2) Getting a large number of titles out increases your chances of getting noticed. That is easier and can be achieved more quickly if your pieces are shorter.

3) If you become good at short stories, you have mastered an art that eludes many writers. Those 'I wrote a five hundred thousand word epic so I'm better than you' writers will never get it. But you will.

4) One of self-publishing's greatest success stories, Hugh Howey, got his break through writing a series of short stories. Other successful self-publishers have had great success with shorter pieces...H.M. Ward for example.

5) If you write in shorter forms, you can explore more of your ideas. You won't be tied up for months writing a novel for each idea. You can explore everything you can think up. And if something hits big, one word: series.

So, decide for yourself if you want to write short or long (or both) but don't fall into the trap of thinking that one is better than the other just because it is longer.


  1. This is both timely and perennial. I love to read and write shorts. And a few people even buy the short stories I write. Thanks a bunch!


  2. I agree with everything you wrote. I enjoy both reading and writing short, and although I have written a few longer novels >60,000 words, I much prefer writing stuff that is <50,000. My favorite writing length seems to be about 12,000. As for reading, I love stuff that's about 3,500 to 25,000 best. Longer than that and sometimes I get frustrated with the middle and end up bailing before I reach the end, definitely not always but definitely more likely to happen. :) Price rarely plays into what I buy, simply because I'm looking for good stories. Not just anything will do to satisfy my story cravings! :)

  3. I had no idea anyone looked down on short story authors. I've written a couple of full-length books and came up with a bunch of ideas that didn't seem like they'd make it as novel-length stories, so I'm writing a short(er) story collection. It's been a lot of fun.

  4. Hi TSSL and thank you for producing an article that blows away several myths in a tight objectional style. I write both novels and short stories, so not surprisingly I also read both.
    I have one stipulation with the selling of my short stories - they are only published for sale when part of a collection. I'm not a fan of the 'short story' fad that seems to be creeping into the eBook market. Fine, if you are a novice writer who wants to see if you're capable of writing something cohesive and entertaining, but not if there is no concept of length and structure.
    I use 1800 - 3000 words as a personal guide to short story length, and I only publish a collection when it contains 12 stories. I also keep the price low, because short story collections are not as popular as novels. This means that the person who buys into my short story collections gets around a novel length to read for half the price of an actual novel. I'm pleased to say that my reviews so far would suggest I'm getting it right.
    As you have pointed out, the short story and the longer pieces require different disciplines. Although I enjoy writing both, I must focus on structure before starting work on either. A writer must know where they're going before setting off.
    Once again, good work on the post.