I find that long-form works like novels seem to match well with the sorts of stories I like to tell — multiple characters, various sub-plots, threads to be woven together. I wouldn’t dare try to keep two novels going in draft simultaneously. It would be like listening to two engrossing conversations at once, and impossible to keep track of.
But sometimes you just want a break. For me, that means writing short stories. Any shorts I write for my ongoing series will probably go straight to publication, but I’m also beginning to produce stand-alone short stories. Since the current series are in the fantasy genre, I’m doing the shorts mostly as science fiction, just for a little variety. Some are truly stand-alone (Second Sight), but others (Buntel Mayit, Monsters) are intended for a story collection called There’s a Sword for That, all of the stories for which will involve some sort of edged weapon. (Since swords are usually associated with fantasy, I thought it would be a challenge to produce science-fiction sword stories instead. That involves a wee bit more than just declaring, say, dragons to be aliens and getting on with it.)
You won’t see these stories for a while, since each one is going through the magazine submission process, and that takes quite a bit of elapsed time (more than a year, maybe two). But I expect to put a dozen or more stories out this year, and I entertain myself prior to publication with getting their covers done as I write them, so that there won’t be anything left to do after they come back unbought or their rights expire, if bought. At least I get to put the covers and blurbs up that way. And if I keep this up every year, there will soon be a regular stream of submissions coming back for publication — I’m just filling the pipeline this year to reap in the future.
Paring it down
Aiming for a certain size in a short story is not something I can control. They’re as long as they need to be, seems to me, and each one is different. Monsters, the latest story destined for the sword collection, surprised me by being only three pages long (1000 words), just two scenes, what they call “flash fiction”. My beta reader wanted to know what happens next, and perhaps you could spin a long story or novella out of it, or it could be the start of a longer character-based novel — sure, I could see that.
But sometimes a molehill is just a molehill, not a mountain. If the characters come back and start explaining their life story to me, well, maybe there will be a followup. Meanwhile, I like the unanswered questions that spin off from the brief encounter. Gives it a concentrated flavor, like a wound-up spring.