Most of us probably started off writing short stories, either on our own or as class assignments as kids. Some may still write short stories for our own enjoyment, or maybe to sell to magazines or for contests. But short stories are sort of the red-headed stepchild to the novelist, aren't they? Agents don't generally rep short story collections. They aren't the most lucrative market. (If you are looking for places to publish short stories, Duotrope is a great place to search.) I'm here to tell you that short stories may be more beneficial to you as a novelist than you think.
By now we all know that the digital side of publishing is a huge part of the market and that it's easier now than ever to put together your own eBook. Self-publishing is well within reach for all of us. (Agented authors with book deals may need to check with their publishers and read the fine print of their contracts before self-publishing anything, to avoid any fiasco like this one.) Any of us can self-publish a few singles, or a collection of short stories. This makes the short story a relatively quick and easy tool in your arsenal. Here are a few ways to use short stories to your advantage.
Are you an indie or self-publisher about to release your first novel? You've written a great book, have a nice cover, have carefully crafted your short blurb and product description, have been working on your social media presence and building a following, and have decided on a price you feel is both competitive and fair to you as the writer. But you might still be worried about how to better entice readers to buy your book–the one by an author they've never heard of—instead of, or in addition to, the latest release by one of their favorite, well-known authors. Readers can certainly "look inside" on Amazon and sample some of your writing that way. Or you could offer a little something else.
Our own Pete Morin took this approach before the release of his novel, Diary of a Small Fish. The month before he published Fish he released a free short story on Smashwords. I plan on using this same approach when I self-publish my first novel late this summer. A free short story or collection of shorts gives potential readers a way to read something of yours, from start to finish, and get a feel for whether they'd like to read more. Hopefully the answer is yes! And once they know you can satisfy their imaginations through an entire story arc, they won't be as hesitant to spend money on your novel. You're no longer an unknown to them. Some authors will offer the first book of a series for free, then charge for the rest, banking on this same theory that the free book will lead to more sales for the others. If, like me, you aren't writing a series, consider writing a short story or two to offer for free.
Between Books in a Series
YA author Elana Johnson's debut novel, Possession, was published in June of 2011. The sequel, Surrender, was released yesterday. During the year between the two books, Elana released two shorter stories related to the series. The first was an exclusive short story, available as a free download through her website, and the second was what she calls a "bridge story," which is an eBook exclusive. Both of these were her own ideas that she executed with her publisher's support. She explained to me via Twitter
The first one (Insider Information) was my idea. We needed their permission to use butterflies and ice on the cover. They liked what I was doing, and so we (me and agent) pitched the idea of a "bridge story" to them. They ran with that, and produced the second story (REGRET). So one is free (my self-pubbed one) and one is $1.99.It's hard to tell for sure, but she believes "it seems to have worked a bit" in terms of keeping readers interested in the series and keeping up the excitement prior to the release of the second book. Elana shows that using short stories to renew and sustain interest in a series isn't for self-publishers alone. You can make it work with traditional publishing as well.
Do you ever watch the deleted scenes or alternate endings from movies when you get the DVD? I do, when it's a movie I really enjoyed. Have you ever read a book and wanted to read more about the character's lives after the book was finished? Maybe you wanted to know more about some of their back story, stuff that wasn't really related to the novel itself. Or maybe you wondered how it would've turned out if a character had made this choice instead of that one.
You've wondered about it with books you've read. So why don't you write it for your own books?
If you've gotten good feedback that readers love your characters and your story, it's not too far-fetched to think they might enjoy some bonus material. Maybe you had to delete some scenes you liked but that didn't suit the novel for whatever reason. Or perhaps you've been dying to write an alternate ending. Or a short story about one of your characters as a child. There are a lot of possibilities there. If you're self-publishing, there's really no limit to what you can do. If you have a contract with a publisher, you'll need to work out what you can and can't do on your own, and what they would or wouldn't be willing to work with you on.
You may be a novelist, but don't discount the value short stories could add to your career. They can help you entice readers if you're relatively unknown, sustain the enthusiasm for your writing and characters between releases, and help you continue to satisfy readers even after they reach THE END.
Have you used short stories to complement your novels in these, or other, ways? Do you have any tips for others looking to use this technique?
J. Lea Lopez is a writer with a penchant for jello and a loathing for writing bios. Find her on Twitter or her blog, Jello World. She has had some short stories published, most recently in the Spring Fevers anthology.