Five Tips for Short Works That Sell
by Sabine Berlin
“The novella has become the Rosalind Russell of American literature,
liked by all the guys but never taken out on a date.”
When I first started writing, the thinking above was still in vogue, and the advice to avoid novellas came at a pretty constant rate. But times are changing! Rosalind Russell, as the metaphor goes, has found her man. Traditionally, short stories and novellas have always been a harder sell in the publishing world. Between the costs of printing and marketing, a story of only 20,000 words just didn’t sell for enough to make it worth a publisher’s investment.
But the e-reader has changed all that. Production costs are down and reader demand is up. Today’s world is filled with a love of fast food, speed dating, and high-speed Internet. People want things faster, and with the invention of e-readers, faster stories are now included on that list.
Shorter spin-offs of larger books, stand-alone novellas and novella series (or anthologies with other authors), and short stories as writing samples are a great way to keep fans interested between book releases and drive fans to your other works. Even the old serials from days of yore (segments of novels and longer works released in sections to tease readers) are making a comeback. You can sell these shorts as stand-alones or offer them as freebie teasers for your novels and series, then repackage them to sell as collections, then rebrand them yet again and sell them in themed anthologies with other authors. Quicker to write—and cheaper to edit—these shorter stories may be your number-one hat trick when it comes to keeping your audience engaged.
So How Long Should Your Story Be?
Word count—the dreaded number every writer hangs on. As with different genres, different story types have their own set of guidelines when it comes to word count. Your basic short story will likely fall somewhere between 3,500 and 7,500 words (any shorter than that and it draws closer to the short-short story or flash-fiction category). A novelette will fall between 7,500 and 17,000 words, and a novella will go from 17,000 and taper out at just under 40,000 before it becomes a full-fledged novel. (Serials can fall anywhere within those ranges, but the idea is to create an ongoing series of mini-stories related to the same group of characters—each mini-story ending on a cliffhanger until the series is finished—pretty much like TV miniseries.) Deciding which one you want to write can be a little nerve-wracking, but if you research what’s selling (or trending) in your genre and why, then follow the five tips below, you may just end up with the exact number of words you need.
Top Tips to Give Meat to Those Shorts
- Don’t worry about word count. This is probably the most important thing you can do when you’re writing your story. We’ve all read those trilogies where we sit back and wonder what the point of book number two was, besides turning it into a trilogy. Instead of focusing on a marketing goal or magical number, let your story be told. This may take 100 or 60,000 or 120,000 words. Don’t stop because you’re worried about word count. That’s what editing is for!
- Beginning, middle, end. Some things never change. No matter the size of your story, you still need to have a beginning, middle, and end. Your inciting incident still needs to come at the end of act one. Your climax still needs to show up at the end of act two. And act three still needs to wrap everything up. You can’t tell a short story by only telling half the story. All the same elements are needed.
- Trim it. And some things are not the same. Shorter doesn’t make it any less of a story, but there are some things that can’t be included. In a short story you should only have one viewpoint character (this can move to possibly two in a novella, but not any more, really). You will have fewer characters altogether, doing fewer things, in less places. Take a romance, for example. You could have a novel where your main characters meet, fall in love, have difficulties, break up, go their separate ways, and then meet again twenty years later only to find out that they were always destined to be together. Turning this into a novella may mean cutting out the first meeting altogether. Now we start after twenty years and only see the second-time-around romance. If you want to make it a short story you, could take off the beginning and end parts of the novel and just have that moment when star-crossed lovers meet again after twenty years. We will see the attraction, get the promise that this may be the start of something new, but we don’t get the details of their romantic past or how the happily ever after will go (see our article on doing summary well). Like I mentioned in step 2, each of these will have its own beginning, middle, and end; it’s in the execution that you reduce your word count.
- Every word counts. In short stories there is no room for embellishment. You can’t wax philosophical for three pages about the protagonist’s cat. Your character should be immediately interesting. If your character needs some extra buildup to grow on readers, then you probably need to give them a novel.
- Capture the moment. In short (pun intended), a short story is all about capturing the moment. It is one scene, one brief glimpse into your characters’ lives and world. If you need days to pass, then you’re not writing a short story, and if you need months to pass, then you’re probably not writing a novella.
If you’re interested in self-publishing (which even traditionally published authors should be when it comes to shorts), short stories and novellas are a great way to get a lot of content out there at once—a must if you want to keep a fan base satisfied or pick up new fans. So if your next story only takes 35,000 words to tell, don’t worry, because novellas and short stories are back, and they’re more exciting than ever!
Do This Now
- If you’ve never read a short story or novella, read one.
- Anthologies: Many popular books now have extras to their story lines, such as Veronica Roth’s book Four, which is a collection of stories related to her original Divergent novel series.
- Individual shorts: In addition to collections, you can break up the series into individual stories, like “The Transfer,” which tells a story from the title character’s POV.
- Flash Fiction: For a great piece of flash fiction, check out an entire story told in less than a thousand words; read Eric James Stones’s They Do It With Robots.
- Novellas: Night of Cake and Puppets is a perfect romantic novella spun from the Smoke and Bone novel series by Laini Taylor (an excellent study for structuring shorts and what to focus on—plus fantastic writing).
- Serials: H. M. Ward has satisfied her fan base with saga serials that are making good use of Kindle Unlimited. Her blog lists several of them and explains more about serials.
- If you are serious about building a base for your self-publishing career, make sure you have two or three books or novellas and even a handful of short stories ready to publish around the same time.
- If your goal really is to write a short story, then practice. This likely freebie should be leading people to your other work, so don’t shortchange your readers—make it good. Pick one scene (or a couple), and make it a story (with all relevant parts and a story arc). Try these resources to help you break down the process:
For a quick novella-writing analysis, try this article by Barbara Monajem.
And here’s a book list for further resources:
Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight
Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction by Douglas Smith
The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn
Practice, get feedback, and do it again. You can’t succeed if you don’t try.
If these ideas have helped you, please share!
Sabine Berlin is an avid reader of everything from Asimov to Zusak. She has a degree in history, edits in both a full-time and freelance capacity, writes YA fiction, and was selected to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, where she studied writing and critiquing. She has been with Eschler Editing since 2012. She invites you to visit her blog.
Your turn: Have a favorite short story or novella? What makes you love it and how will you use that inspiration in creating your own short works?