March 12, 2010

Subject: How to Read Short Stories

One of the most common tips given to aspiring writers is read, an easy rule for me since I love reading. I read middle grade novels, YA, mysteries, magazines, recipe books, memoirs, the New York Times, writing books, articles about education reform, blogs, The Horn Book, and research materials for my novel.

But I don’t typically read short stories. Why? Probably for the same reason that many people don’t:

  • Limited time to read a large and constantly growing pile of books.
  • The disappointment that lingers after reading a dissatisfying story.
  • The sense that some short stories seem pretentious or contrived.
  • And most importantly, to me, the frustration of connecting with a character just before the story ends.

However, I feel compelled to read short stories given my goal to write two per month. The problem is that whenever I pick up a collection of stories, I invariably set it aside for something else.

I discovered that I am not the only person who doesn’t read a lot of short stories.

In a September, 2007, essay that appeared in the New York Times, Stephen King bemoaned the shrinking audience for short stories. He wrote,

In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines… not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.

An audience of writers and would-be writers. That audience category would include me, only rather than conducting market research, I am more curious about what a short story looks like.

  • How long is a good story?
  • What makes it different from a chapter in a novel?
  • And the big question, when I find a short story I really like, what makes it work? Why do some stories hold my attention while others don’t?

In search of answers, I pulled a few short story collections from my shelf.

Then, after weeks of guilt when looking at the unopened stack of books, I decided on a new approach, one inspired by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. She says that

“By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished," and
“What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.”

I decided to read one short story a day.

It’s an easy commitment to make, just fifteen to thirty minutes out of the day. A short story is perfect reading for a solo lunch or while waiting for my daughter’s gymnastics class to end.

Since taking the story-a-day tack, I’ve read—and enjoyed—more than thirty stories. Turns out that just like chocolates from a box of See’s Candy, short stories aren’t meant to be consumed one after the other. Instead, they’re individual treats, bon-bons to be savored in the moment.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you some of my favorite collections of short stories as well as some of the writing lessons I’ve learned from the stories.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: Do you read short stories on a regular basis? Why or why not?


  1. I do read stories, and like you, I've learned not to read a collection from beginning to end. As for the whole reaction to the self-referencing and pretentious label, I have to agree that I've read many stories like that. But a good short story is like nothing else. The impact it can make with the relatively few words!

    I am primarily working on my MG and YA novels, but I do have a file of short stories that I revisit often. Writing short stories, just like reading short stories, is a very different experience for me. I am not intent on capturing a particular feeling, or mood, or a very fleeting and perhaps even unformed thought.

    I don't think I can write two short stories a month, but I applaud you for doing so.

  2. Hi Yat Yee--
    Well, I'm still working on the two stories a month thing... It's definitely a goal but not one I'm meeting yet! I like working on something different from my novel, though, and I'm hoping the experience of getting through the entire writing process with stories will help me as I move into finalizing my longer work too.

    Do you have any favorite short stories that you can recommend? I'm going to post a few of mine here. Would love to find other great stories to read.