Why I Write and Read Short Stories (Plus Some Ancient Gossip About My Love Life)

When I began writing seriously in high school, the first pieces I wrote were short stories. I had a few reasons for this:

  • My English teachers made us write one every year.
  • I had no idea where to even begin writing a novel.
  • I am impatient and like to finish things quickly.
  • Anthologies often include short stories. Textbooks are often anthologies.

I had no intention of publishing any of the short stories I wrote. Mainly I wrote them for the smiley faces from my teachers.

I also wrote them to work out my very complicated feelings about the long string of boys I went on one or two dates with, who, to a man, either liked me way too much and wanted to put a ring on it right then (No, thank you, but I will enjoy these delicious homemade chocolate-dipped strawberries. Oh, you picked the movie? Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes? You too have seen Titanic four times in theaters?) or stared silently across the table at Applebee’s (the Greenville one, not the Simpsonville one, EITHER because we were fancy OR because he didn’t want to be seen with me OR, more probably, because he asked where I wanted to eat and I said not the Simpsonville Applebee’s because it will be too crowded and we’ll have to wait forever so we went to the Greenville Applebee’s instead) like a deer in the world’s largest headlights while the waiter (whom I knew from another school) lectured him about how lucky he was to be on a date with me. Yes, this actually happened. Why did said waiter never ask me out? Why did I never ask him out as, ever a glutton for punishment, I was prone to do? These are mysteries for the ages.

Somehow I very rarely went on dates with boys I might have had a good time with, but I frequently went on dates with boys I know for a fact I did not have a good time with. My first real boyfriend identifiable as such broke up with me on my birthday. Fortunately I was a Jane Austen fan and could see the humor and the narrative possibilities in this even then. For about a year, my favorite song was “Think of Meryl Streep” from Fame. Also, I cried a lot. Sorry, Mom. Also, I printed a ton of emails and AIM conversations for later perusal and analysis with friends. No doubt this is what made me such a great literary critic. (But what is the subtext? What does the writer mean?)

So now I am way off topic and have forced you to read far too many parentheticals, but this has given me an idea for a hilarious novel and reminded me that one of those short stories I wrote was kind of good, and maybe I should revisit it. The lesson here is that no writing is wasted, not even wandering blog posts.

ANYWAY, I was talking about short stories, which I have been reading a lot of lately. The reason I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately is because I am in heavy research mode. This means that most of my reading needs to be research-related. If I get into novels at this point, I will never do the research reading because I will be too into the novels, and I will spend my research time pretending to work but secretly reading novels instead. I am so sneaky, but I have an unfortunate tendency to tell on myself. (See above.)

I recently dipped back into writing short stories to revisit two characters from The Last Sister, in “The Quickening,” a free holiday read you can access by clicking here.

Ahem, and now for the original purpose of this post:

I want to share with you two sets of short stories I’ve been reading.

The first is the Forever Finley short story cycle by my fellow blogger at YA Outside the Lines, Holly Schindler. Forever Finley is a series of interconnected short stories set in the fictional small town of Finley, Missouri. Stories release once each month throughout 2016. I have read the first four: “Come December,” “January Thaw,” “Forget February,” and “Dearest March…” I love these because I love seasons and calendars and holidays and other passage-of-time things. All of the stories work as standalones, so you don’t have to read January to understand March, for example. As a reader, I look forward to the release each month. As a writer, I’m excited about the possibilities Holly is exploring for hybrid publishing and non-traditional formats.

The second is a posthumously published collection of Irish writer Maeve Binchy’s many short stories, A Few of the Girls (2015). My great-aunt, who was from Ireland, got me hooked on both Binchy and British television at a young age, and I was greatly saddened to hear of Binchy’s death in 2012. But I was delighted when A Few of the Girls popped up in iBooks. It was like a present I didn’t expect. Binchy is best known to American audiences for Circle of Friends (1990), thanks to the movie and to Oprah’s Book Club. I also recommend The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club (2008), a collection of her lectures, to writers. Though she breaks almost every formal fiction rule there is, reading Binchy, both her fiction and her lectures, feels like sitting at the table with a cup of tea listening to a friend tell you all the latest gossip.

I hope you will check out these and other short stories. If you have any great recommendations for short story collections, please leave a comment and let me know. I’ll be in research mode a good while yet.



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7 Responses to Why I Write and Read Short Stories (Plus Some Ancient Gossip About My Love Life)

  1. I have always admired those who could write short stories. It is an art entirely separate from novel writing. To be able to handle all that character development and story arc-ing in such a short space is too much for me; I need my hundreds of pages to get it all done. So, sorry, I don’t have any recommendations for you.

    I do love Maeve Binchy too, though I’ve never read her lectures. Definitely adding that to my list for summer reading!

    • Courtney

      I really like her lectures on writing. For one thing, she is so overwhelmingly kind and encouraging, which I need as a writer. That tone is sometimes hard to come by.

  2. Laurie Hartshorn

    I don’t always love short stories, but I am learning to appreciate the skill of those writing them. In the last 2 years I have taken study groups on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and those of Alice Munro plus one on vintage American short stories which I am still involved in monthly. I think what I have learned from the studies is how exacting the writing must be in order to pack a lot into a little space. I admire the skill of that spare writing technique with nary an unnecessary word, but I don’t always “like” the final product.
    I am firmly with you on Maeve Binchy. I think I have read almost all of her fiction. I think Alexander McCall Smith has that same kind of underlying kindness and sweetness plus a sense of humor that resonates with me.

    • Courtney

      I hear you, Laurie. In general, I prefer reading novels, but sometimes a short story can pack a quick punch. I have read a couple of Alexander McCall Smith’s books, and I’d like to read more. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Agreed that short stories are a different technique.

    And I love the idea of interconnected short stories so that regular readers can get more out of the stories as they get further into the series.

    There’s an extra possible bonus as well – lots of movies are adapted from short stories (or even a theme park ride if you count the Pirates of the Caribbean series) so you might get the bonus of seeing your work on the silver screen. We can dream 🙂

    • Courtney

      I hadn’t thought of the movie adaptations, but you are right. I also didn’t realize Pirates of the Caribbean was adapted from short stories. I’ll have to check that out!

  4. Pirates of the Caribbean was “adapted” from the Walt Disney theme park ride – not even as long as a short story!