Friday, July 2, 2021

Scared of Short Stories • by Roxana Arama

What do you do when you’ve written a novel, found an agent for it, submitted it to publishers, but the novel didn’t sell? The obvious answer is: you write another novel, find an agent for it, and go on submission to publishers again. But what if the new novel doesn’t sell? Again?

If you’re like me, your knees get wobbly because you’ve just spent years of your life working hard and putting up with heartbreaking rejection, but you have nothing to show for it. Nothing. Working on another next novel doesn’t seem so wise now.

At least, not just the next novel. At the beginning of this year, I knew I needed to branch out. The basket and the eggs and all that.

In my more than fifteen years of writing classes, including an MFA program, short stories ruled: Jorge Luis Borges, Octavia E. Butler, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor… I read many short stories but wrote only a few because I didn’t know how. I could start them, yes, but didn’t know how to keep them short. My first short story turned into a novel after the class ended.

Everyone knows writers start short, then move to novels, but I preferred the long form because of my studies in computer science and the years spent as a software design engineer. Writing code means developing systems of diverse entities that interact in complex ways. Sometimes you write a short script that automates a task, but mostly you envision, develop, and test a big machine with many moving parts. Switching from software to novels hadn’t been a dramatic shift for me, but from novels to short stories? I didn’t have the required writing skills.

A novel allows for multiple characters and themes, while a short story seems to focus on a salient aspect. A short story forces you to leave stuff out, while a novel makes you bring stuff in. The author’s voice is important in a short story, but in a novel, a strong or eccentric voice can be hard to sustain for hundreds of pages.

Then there’s research. When I wrote my historical fantasy, I read dozens of books about Ancient Rome and the history of religion. For my immigration thriller, I interviewed an immigration lawyer and combed through court documents. Now that I’m drafting a sci-fi novel, I’ve already read eight books on neuroscience and artificial intelligence. All that reading informs my world-building, gives me plot ideas, and alters my story assumptions, though over many months and sometimes years. It’s also pure brain candy.

How would my lengthy research regimen work for a short story? Do I forget about it and only write from my personal experience? Do I write about subjects I’ve already explored in my novels? (Ugh.) Or do I rely on minimal research and hope for the best?

As I contemplated these questions, my knees got wobbly again, but I had to try. The first thing was to start reading short stories again: Ted Chiang, George Saunders, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020, edited by Diana Gabaldon. I began critiquing short stories. I asked short story writers about their process. That was when I learned that some writers were intimidated by novels because of the complexity. I was intimidated by the precision with which a short story squeezed the essence of a fictional universe into a few pages.

Then a writer told me she didn’t need to know everything about her characters and world-building in order to write a piece of short fiction. That was my “ah-ha!” moment: The key to writing a short story was… staying small. Forget about exploring the whole story world and extracting its essence. Find one character, one setting, one problem—and explore only that. I wasn’t sure I’d have the discipline, though.

That’s when I saw Pete Wood’s Challenge on Codex for a 500-word time travel story. The title was “For Sale: Used Time Machine. No Refunds!” Of course, when I put pen to paper, I couldn’t just write about the moment someone sells a time machine. I reverted to my novel-writing self. I needed to know who my character was from an early age. Who were his parents? Where did he grow up? What was his biggest regret? What was his origin story? His turning points? And what did he want at the beginning of the story? All those important questions Lisa Cron talks about in Story Genius.

I spent a few days writing pages of notes and diagrams, glad I didn’t have to capture them in scenes of decent prose. By the time I opened my laptop to write, I knew my protagonist pretty well. Especially his anger. But I didn’t know much about his parents, and that made me anxious. I had to remind myself: stay small. Think of this short story as the first scene of a novel that will never be written. I wrote a first draft, cut it down to 500 words, then revised it until I couldn’t change another word. I sent it in, still unsure what had happened to the parents, but proud I’d managed to let go of my need to know. Soon, I received word that the story would be published here, in Stupefying Stories.


“For Sale: Used Time Machine. No Refunds!” • by Roxana Arama


Since then, I’ve written three more pieces of flash fiction, and each time, I managed to leave more and more unexplored. Where before I’d labor to create a unique character with universal appeal, now I focused on creating characters that stood in for recognizable categories of people: the hapless lovers, the annoying customer, the rebellious teenager. Next, it’s working on a 4,000-word short story for a class. 

And in the process, I’m discovering the joy of capturing a single moment, instead of painstakingly building the gigantic machinery of a novel, then waiting for years to see it come to life—if ever. The creative experience might be just as good.

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Roxana Arama is a Romanian-American writer and a member of Codex Writers’ Group. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, her work has been acknowledged in several literary contests and magazines, and she maintains the website Rewriting History: How writers turn history into story, and story into history at She lives in Seattle with her family. On Twitter: @RoxanaArama.




Jason D. Wittman said...

I have the opposite problem to Ms. Arama. I've published around 20 short stories, but when it comes to novels, I can barely get my manuscripts over 40,000 words. (Mr. Bethke talked about this in a previous blog post.) Maybe the fact that I do my rough drafts in longhand has something to do with it.

Arisia said...

I've forgotten how to write short stories. Every one I start ends up part of my novel's universe. Need to learn all over again. That's probably a good thing.

~brb said...

@Jason, @Arisia: Why not adopt the Unix philosophy: make one small piece that does just one thing, and does it very well. Later, you can fit the pieces into a larger framework and come up with an I, Robot or Martian Chronicles?

Abby Goldsmith said...

I believe that short fiction, novels, epic series, and screenplays are all different forms of storytelling, and require different skillsets. Some writers are good at 2+ forms (Stephen King, George RR Martin), but many are not.

Short fiction is super challenging for me--and not always worth the sweat and time I put into them. I've written a few. But I lean towards epics.