I often advise aspiring writers to step away from their novels now and again and work on short stories. Why? Well, for one thing, writing successful short stories is challenging. The short form demands an economy of style that those of us who write primarily novel-length work often don’t have. I have found that writing short work hones my craft, makes my prose leaner, my plotting and character development more streamlined. Yes, there are times when it’s fun to delve into descriptions the way one only can with a novel. But there are also times when more efficient writing equals better writing.
I also find that setting my short stories in the worlds I’ve created for my novels, allows me to delve more deeply into the backgrounds of my characters. I can learn things about them by writing episodes from their pasts, and I can also sharpen my voice and point of view work for the novels. And finally, those short stories give me something else to market from the worlds I’ve created for the larger projects, allowing me to publish new work AND promote the novels.
I bring this up because I’m in the process of writing a series of short stories about Ethan Kaille, the main character in my Thieftaker books. I’ve completed two so far — one that takes place soon after Ethan returns to Boston from his imprisonment and forced labor on a sugar plantation in Barbados, and a second that describes an incident mentioned in passing in book I of the series (Thieftaker, due out in July 2012 from Tor Books). Writing the stories has been great fun, and has revealed aspects of Ethan’s past and his personality that I hadn’t fully understood before.
I intend to write more stories in the weeks and months to come. Some of them I will submit for publication in various short fiction markets. Others I will make available for free on the D.B. Jackson website, where you can already find the first three chapters of Thieftaker. And in case you didn’t know, I have already published one short story from the Thieftaker universe: “The Tavern Fire,” which appeared in the anthology After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar, edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray.
If you’re in the middle of novel and find that you need a break from your work, or if you’re just starting a longer project but worry that you don’t have enough background on a character or your setting, think about writing a short story or two. Doing so will help you with the novel, it will improve your craft, and it might leave you with something you can sell to a magazine or anthology. And on top of that, you might find that’s a good deal of fun.