Why Bother with Short Stories?

By Ian Whates

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Paradox, an anthology. Artwork by Sarah Anne Langton

I love short stories. Always have done, both as a reader and as a writer. From the reading perspective, a well-crafted tale delivers a short, sharp punch of satisfaction, by no means a replacement for the slow burn of a novel but rather a complimentary experience. If I were a drinking man (ahem), I might speak in terms of the instant hit of a shot as opposed to the more leisurely pleasure of a pint. You don’t have to forego one to appreciate the other.

When I first started NewCon Press nearly ten years ago (now there’s a frightening realisation), one of my prime motivations was the fact that nobody published anthologies anymore – the big publishing houses found them uneconomical. This struck me as a great shame. I first discovered many of the writers I’ve read avidly over the years in the pages of anthologies, where assorted authors are represented each by a single story. Invariably, any reader of such a volume will like some of the component stories, fail to connect with others, and be really impressed by one, two, or maybe more; and that’s where the anthology comes into its own. Rather than having to read the novels of twenty different authors to stumble across one or two you really enjoy, you need read but a single book to sample the work of many, moving on from there to the novels of those writers that impressed you.

Thankfully, the publishing scene has changed in the past decade, and there are now a number of imprints, many of them independents such as NewCon, regularly releasing anthologies into the wild. By doing so, they open up new opportunities for readers and writers alike.

I mentioned at the top that I also like short stories from a writing perspective (which is just as well since I now have 60-odd of the things published in various arenas). There are two main reasons for this. First, again, it’s the brevity of the whole process, the immediacy of the pay-off. You get an idea for a story. The first draft can be written in a day or at most a handful of days. With a novel, on the other hand, it invariably takes months before the concepts that have galvanised your imagination take shape on the page.

However, my appreciation of the shorter form goes beyond simple gratification. In a very real sense, short stories are the ideal tool through which to hone your skills as a writer. In a novel, you have room to be expansive, the luxury to establish your setting in detail over the course of chapters; you can introduce your reader to a cast of characters and reveal their history and motivations along the way, fleshing out your narrative and instilling a sense of depth. In a shorter piece, you have to do all this with a few deft, carefully crafted sentences. You can’t afford to dawdle or indulge your fancies; you have to move the plot forward, taking your reader with you. Your prose has to be lean but not bare; giving the reader sufficient for them to care about the character, to want to know what happens next, enough that they can take the details you do provide and extrapolate the rest in their own imagination. Judging this is a genuine skill, and one that can prove invaluable in helping you to progress as a writer. You don’t necessarily have to be this disciplined when it comes to writing a novel, but it’s a tremendous advantage to know that you can be. That knowledge helps you to recognise when you have over-written or spent time exploring an irrelevant sidebar, enabling you to trim away the excess fat before exposing your work to an agent or a publisher.

So, quite apart from the inherent pleasure of reading parcels of intelligent, well-crafted fiction that can be digested at a single sitting, I love short stories because they have helped make me a better writer. I will always value anything that can do that.


Ian Whates
Ian Whates

Ian Whates writes science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror. To date he is the author of six published novels and over sixty short stories. He is also an editor, and runs multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press, which he founded by accident in 2006.

www.ianwhates.co.uk/          www.newconpress.co.uk/

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