It's the writer's dream: have an agent, sign a book deal with a big publishing house, see our work on the shelf at the local airport. But writing novels takes time. And revising them takes a whole lot more. We need something along the way to boost our creative energy and remind us why we started writing those 300-page tomes in the first place: to share our work with readers.
For the past four years, I've been writing and submitting short stories for publication. No agent is necessary, you can build your audience and compile publication credits, and you'll get paid for your work. Some novelists think they can't do short fiction, that their stories are too big. But my favorite authors have done it: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, China Mieville, and Alastair Reynolds. If they can, so can we.
There are so many short fiction venues available now: magazines, anthologies, online 'zines, and eReader publications. Writing and selling short stories is an excellent way to build a portfolio of your published work. Pay varies widely from token to pro, but there are other benefits, such as exposure. Having your story published alongside a well-known author in a themed anthology will introduce new readers to your work. And once the rights revert to you, the story can be republished elsewhere as a reprint, expanding your audience even further.
One of the greatest benefits to writing short fiction is the ability to develop characters from your novels, giving readers some insight into their backstory—or creating characters that will someday appear in their own novels. I wrote 7 stories about Captain Bartholomew Quasar, sold 6 of them, then had an editor approach me about writing a novel-length adventure. I've sold other tales with recurring characters—Coyote Cal & Big Yap (weird westerns), Mercer the Soul Smuggler (supernatural noir), Charlie Madison, private investigator (future noir), and Brawnstone & Dahlia (urban fantasy)—and it's been a blast to learn more about them with every story I write.
This is a great time to be a writer. Don't pigeonhole yourself. Branch out, stretch those wings, and see what you can do.