Say you’re writing a novel. Say you send it off to agents, indie publishers, friends, your neighbor, and no one wants to give you dollars for it.
How do you know you’re done?
If you’re a novelist, and you hate writing short stories, or “don’t” write short stories, I have words for you. They’re not idle words either, as I also dislike writing shorts. I feel you, I do.
What we do is as much about craft as it is about expression. There are certain tools we need classes to use, certain skills we need to hone, and we need to develop the instincts to say when something is good — and when it won’t work where it is.
This is why writing short fiction is helpful.
Short fiction is an exercise that helps you learn those tools much faster, because you’re applying your skills in new situations one after the other. Like Arley said (while schooling me on structure) some people are born with good instincts, and while that’s awesome, that’s not enough. If you’re able to recognize how and why it’s good — you’re more likely to apply that technique intentionally and mindfully next time.
Isolate one event, one turning point, one moment, and focus on just that. Don’t worry about a long build-up and denouement. Every time you write a short, you’re not just learning about beginning-middle-end story structure, you’re learning narration. Scene-setting. Character development AND characterization. Decorative word-choice. Tone. Mood. The texture of language as it rolls off your tongue and how that informs all the other bits.
Even if they’re totally mundane stories, even if you would never submit them (try anyway) keep pumping them out. Practice the revision stage. Learn to identify your own strengths and areas for learning — and exploit them…
KatanaPen… Right… Here’s the martial metaphor. Short stories are individual forms. A combination of stances, strikes, and finite patterns. Your practice over the course of years is like your novel. Drilling the hell out of the small stuff will improve your ability long term.
Because once you’ve done that five, 10, 30 times (and you’ll also take the opportunity to learn how to EDIT YOUR OWN WORK, an often overlooked skill in an editor-rich environment)… You’ll be able to take all of that practice and knowledge and apply it to the story you REALLY want to tell.
So, no. You’re never done. Not with that piece. Not until your ability catches up with your taste.
Now toss the pile into a drawer or sub-folder, and get back to work. You’ve got honing to do.