How long is short?

I’ve been reading some Mary Higgins Clark short stories recently. Well I say short, but the first story in the volume is 50,000 words long. The others incline more towards the 4-5,000. Which begs the question, how long is short? I’ve heard of people e-publishing ‘novels’ of 5,000 words, which isn’t even a novella, but I suppose that’s the beauty of an e-book: it can be any length you like. And if you’re writing material that feels natural at this amount of words, where else are you going to get it published? Certainly the old, established markets for the short story are gradually drying up – women’s magazines are a prime example. More and more magazines are dropping their fiction pages in favour of real life, how-I-overcame-this-dreadful-situation-and–lived-to-tell-the-tale type stories.

There’s no way a publisher would be interested in producing a collection of short stories, or a novella, from an unpublished fiction writer. But when you’re established; when you have a name and a following, then they might be interested. Someone like Stephen King.

King had several short story and novella collections published and very good they are too. I would recommend ‘Skeleton Crew’, ‘Nightshift’ and ‘Different Seasons’ if you can find them. This last one includes one of my favourite stories, ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,’  which the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is based on.

One avenue open to the novice is self-publishing. Vanity publishing used to have a bad name – authors paying to have large numbers of books printed which they would then market themselves – but the landscape changed dramatically with e-publishing. Amazon, Smashwords etc have made it easy to sell your books or stories electronically; Lulu and other similar self-publishing sites have brought print-on demand services within everyone’s grasp without creating a huge pile of unsold copies to store in the garage.

And there is hope. Writing magazines run monthly short story competitions and there are opportunities on the internet. The BBC runs an annual short story competition. Look at this

So, to get back to the long/short issue. The beauty of a short story is surely that it encapsulates one idea told succinctly in around 5-20 pages. As with longer works of fiction, most short stories have a climax or a turning point. But there may not be any room for exposition and the ending is often abrupt and open-ended, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusion. It’s an art form in itself.

I’ve got to go now. I’m off to read a short story, believe it or not, on my local community radio station.


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