I was recently talking to (read: complaining to) a friend who is also an editor and a fiction writer. I had just gotten a no from an agent who had been looking at my book, and very excitingly, she had just signed with an agent to represent her historical suspense novel.
“Have you considered selling some short fiction to work on your byline?” my friend suggested.
I didn’t explain right then that I have never enjoyed writing short stories. I write largely for my characters’ emotional, interior journeys, and I take a while to really get to know my characters and get invested. So writing short stories has always felt a little forced to me, like I’m trying to produce a strong emotional connection and a satisfying twist ending (what James Joyce called an “epiphany”—no pressure at all to make the conclusion feel significant!) in two thousand words.
My friend gave me the name of a magazine she enjoys, and not expecting much, I trolled around the submission page. They stipulated that they do not accept scenes from novel-length projects but they have no problem with characters or locations developed in larger works.
Perhaps stupidly, writing short fiction with characters from my novels hadn’t occurred to me. But once I considered the possibility, a few ideas came quite easily. What if I explored what happened to one character after he’s separated from his companion who’s the POV in my novel? Or what if I developed more of what another character got up to during her weeklong stay in a city? Not only was I already curious about these situations and the inner conflicts, but the characters feel psychologically fleshed out in a way that’s always been hard for me in short fiction.
As mentioned in my post last week, I’ve been obsessively watching a BBC art show, and so I’ve been thinking of these short fiction pieces as kind of like the preparatory sketches that artists make when leading up to a big oil painting. My novel is still the main piece I’m working on right now, but I’m learning more about my characters by having them interact with different people, or by seeing them from other points of view. And at the same time I’m working on creating what feel like complete pieces in very controlled word counts.
Working on short fiction also makes me feel a bit like some of my favorite modernist writers, who began with short fiction before publishing their novels. I think particularly of Hemingway, who described writing some of his early stories in Paris in his retrospective memoir, A Moveable Feast. Of course, he was writing with rose-tinted glasses about a much earlier time in his life, and he was largely living off of his first wife’s money when he was starting as a writer.
I clearly don’t live in Paris, and I rarely go out to cafes to write, but I’m still enjoying the challenge of writing short fiction, honing my craft, and maybe even breaking into the market.