Friday, May 25, 2012

The Long and Short of It – Stories, That Is

As a writer and editor of novels, I found May’s theme to be challenging. Even after completing a Writer’s Digest course in short-story writing twenty-five-plus years ago, I favored the longer, more complex content of the book-length tale—and I still do, both for reading and for writing. 

Recently, however, an author whose fantasy novel I had edited decided to write companion short stories to give her readers some background on the main characters in her published book. The shorts, which range from 30 to 40 pages in length, will be made available to readers who want to know a bit of the back story that led up to the moment where the book started. It was an interesting idea to me, and I found myself quite taken with the history and events that shaped her characters into the beings that populated her novel. 

The more I read, the more I saw the value in these peeks into a character’s past—particularly in the case of life forms from alien worlds. Having said that, I believe such pieces could also be great marketing tools for books in a variety of genres. Those who might never choose our work in an online or brick-and-mortar store might well be intrigued enough to buy it by reading a compelling short that hooked them into wanting to know what happened next. But is such an e-format-only deviation from our typical novel writing a shot in the dark? 

British author Lee Child, who is published by Delacorte Press (part of Random House), wrote such a short about the teenage years of his enduring Jack Reacher character. Now he is planning a second short in response to his publisher’s urging. To learn more about this and other marketing strategies being employed in the increasingly competitive book sales market, you can read a very informative New York Times article. See also for an example of what another writer did.

The world of book sales is changing dramatically. Old strategies no longer produce the desired results, and new ones challenge us to think outside that proverbial box. Creating short stories (which might cost 99¢) to captivate potential readers sufficiently to sell our more expensive long ones adds another element to book writing (as if we don’t have enough to do already). However, we’re not starting from scratch. We know our characters and plot very well, so the “development” process has been completed. Also, we typically will be focusing on one character and one point of view. In other words, a complex novel with multiple POVs can be promoted by a simple, single-POV prequel. 

Hmmm. It’s an intriguing idea, don’t you think?


Linda Lane focuses on teaching writers to write well, a skill that will enhance a lifelong writing career. Read about her professional team and her work at

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  1. That's very interesting. I just finished a novel and felt sad about I character who had been cut from the original draft. I wrote a blog post about her and how she'd fit into my novel, kind of as a way to 'honor' her. It would be fun to write scenes about characters at other times in their lives.

  2. This is an interesting approach to why it could be beneficial for novelists to write short stories. I did not know so many published authors were doing what Lee Child did, but that makes perfect sense. Thanks for pointing this out, Linda.

  3. Oh goodie ... another marketing idea that I'll probably never follow-up on and, as a result, feel guilty about. Can't these people just give it a rest, for Pete's sake?

  4. That's the whole idea, Susan. Giving the reader a glimpse of a character's past promotes connection with that character, as well as a desire to learn more via the novel. What's fun for the writer then becomes a marketing tool to hook the reader. Now that's a real win-win.

  5. Maryann, I was privileged to edit the short companion pieces as well as the book of an author. Even knowing the characters and plot as well as I did after several edits and proofs, I was totally intrigued by the bit of back story the companion pieces offered. IMHO, this is a really cool way to make the characters real and promote a book.

  6. Hey, Christopher, you know we're not going to give it a rest. This is our job, remember? LOL

  7. Definitely an intriguing idea. I may have to break down and write some short stories! LOL

  8. I've also heard many instances of people who, while shopping their complete novels to agents, also submit short stories centered on their protagonist and novel situation for publication in e-zines or journals.

    I once heard an agent say that "any sort of pre-approval" you can include in a query letter strengthens it—someone with clout has judged your writing worthy—and the publication of such a short story definitely would count as such.

  9. Me, too, Heidi. This article grew out of an e-mail I received that felt worthy of passing on in this format. The idea of creating or enhancing a character through a short of some sort to hook readers definitely has merit.

    Kathryn, your comment is right on. Even posting such on a website as a download -- either free or at a very small charge -- may help to build a fan base that boosts book sales. Or it may even garner the attention of an agent.

  10. Good idea to post a short for free at a website for fan development and agent attraction, Linda—I hadn't thought of it. My agent did say that when you send her a query she likes to see a link in the signature line to a website where she can click and see what sort of other writing you've done.

  11. I think that this is one of the reasons that fan fiction sites are so popular. Everybody wants an extra taste; one more bite to round out the meal. Authors will have to be on guard against the possibility of giving readers *too* much insight into characters. If you already know what's going to be said, what's the point of the conversation?

    Then again, I'm one of those people who will read the same book fifty times, just because I love the way it's written. More to love doesn't strike me as a bad thing. ;)

  12. Silfert, you make an excellent point. A companion short should never reveal too much, but instead be a savory appetizer that draws its reader into the full meal. Our purpose, of course, is to sell books, and our intent is to make the reader want to buy our book. A well-written short can be our calling card that invites the reader to dinner.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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