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The long and short of the short story form

The short story is a classic for a reason – and editors say it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Here’s a look back at the form from its origins to the present, plus tips and fresh insight on where to find homes for your stories in the future.

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New era

All of this leads us to where we are today. Short stories are still thriving, although they are not as lucrative as they once were in the golden days of the form. There are still plenty of places to publish and plenty of reasons to write in this market. As Windy Lynn Harris, short story writer and author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, says, “In the time from 2006, when I started writing and publishing short stories, to now, I haven’t seen any change whatsoever. It’s always been this secret underground. For the past 15 years, it has been this wonderful showcase of writers where people are trying new things, and writers get noticed by literary agents. It’s a way to show what you can do and also try something new.” 

Established in 1956, The Colorado Review continues to thrive as a short fiction market. Steven Schwartz, the journal’s fiction editor and a creative writing professor at Colorado State University, says short stories are here to stay. “If our submission queue at Colorado Review is any indication, more writers than ever are submitting, writing, and presumably reading stories. We may never return to the golden age of short stories when writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald made a living at the practice, but the readership thrives in classrooms, with literary journals, and amongst devotees who prefer the form in our hurried times. And although our print readership at CR has remained stable, our online readership has swelled with the work we feature, reaching many readers in the U.S. and internationally.”

The Vestal Review, the longest-running magazine dedicated to flash fiction, launched in March of 2000. David Galef, the current editor, has been with the magazine for a year and a half and during this time has seen the number of followers for The Vestal Review increase. He defines flash fiction as stories that are “compressed but dramatic, short but packed with life” – and they seem to suit web audiences. He has noticed that short stories have held steady while the popularity of flash stories has zoomed upward. “They’re everywhere, in anthologies and magazines and classrooms and contests. Even The New Yorker started publishing a flash fiction section a few years ago,” Galef notes. 

Why write short stories?

Even if short stories are not as lucrative as they once were, there are still good reasons to write and publish in this genre. Harris believes it’s still a worthwhile place to improve your craft and to find your voice. “It’s about earning your chops and getting better. With short stories, you are taking all the [crucial] storytelling moments like beginnings, middles, ends, and epiphanies and zooming in and zooming out over and over again.”

Short stories allow you to take risks and try new styles and techniques without committing to a full-length novel. For example, Harris notes that if you want to play around with omniscient, which is not nearly as easy as third person but can be really compelling, you can play around with that in a short story. “If it works, do another short story that way. Then, when you understand what you need to know about it, you can step into your next novel idea with it, and you understand what you are getting into – and how it can serve you, so you won’t get lost along the way.” 

Look at your writing goals. Think about what you are trying to accomplish with short stories. Do you just want them published? Do you want something cool on your writer resume? Do you want to experiment with different styles? Do you want to impress literary agents? Do you want to make some money from your stories? These are all good goals to have, but you have to be savvy and realistic about how you go about achieving them. 

If you want to make money from your short stories, only submit to paying markets. If you want to experiment with your writing, seek out publications open to unique styles. To build literary credentials, seek out prestigious literary publications. There are plenty of short story markets to submit your work to, and it’s easy to get lost in the literary woods, so find the path that best fits your goals and stick to those.