Must you begin your fiction-writing career by writing short stories so that you can “pay your dues?” Or is it OK to just start writing novels?
Neil posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy: I want to write novels but I have read that you should start with short stories. I have read short stories but I have never been interested in writing them. Should I start with writing short stories for several years or should I start by writing novels which is my end-goal?
Randy sez: The short story is a somewhat different art form than the novel. If you want to write a novel, then write a novel.
Way back in the bad old days, there were a lot of markets for short stories, and if you wrote a short story, you had some prospect of getting it published. A lot of those markets have dried up for various reasons. You can still sell short stories, but your prospects of getting paid are lower than ever.
The advice that writing teachers gave writers in the bad old days was to start with short stories. Part of the theory here was to “fail quickly” although that particular buzzword didn’t hit the world until the 1980s, and the advice on writing stories goes back long before that.
Personally, even in the late 1980s when I started writing, I thought it was bad advice. I have written very few short stories in my life. I started right in learning the novel as an art form. After nine years of working on novels, I still hadn’t sold anything, but I was getting close.
One day I got an idea for a geeky short story, “Computers in Hell.” The question I asked myself was, “What kind of computers do they have in Hell?” I figured there had to be plenty of good puns that could be made out of “wicked fast” and “blazing speeds” and all that.
So I wrote the story and submitted it to a local computer magazine in San Diego that took one short story per week. What do you know! It got published and I earned $150 for it. So it turned out that my training as a novelist fitted me to earn a few bucks writing a short story.
Shortly after that, I sold my first nonfiction book and then soon after, my first novel, and I was off to the races. I’ve not looked back to short stories. Don’t see why I would want to.
If you wanted to write short stories, I’d say to go ahead and do it. If you wanted to write haiku, I’d tell you to do that too. Write what you want to write.
Neil, since you want to write novels, write novels. And have fun! If this fiction game isn’t fun, then it isn’t a game, and the pay’s just not good enough to do it as a job.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: My freelance editor, Meredith Efken, answers a really interesting question today on her blog at the Fiction Fixit Shop: “Must every scene end with a disaster?” The short answer is of course, “Yes and no.” The long answer is . . . longer than that. Check out Meredith’s blog to see what she wrote and my comment.
Richard Mabry says
Obviously too late, but I saw a great cartoon that could be used to illustrate your story about computers in hell.
Panel 1: St Peter says, “Welcome to Heaven. Here’s your Mac.”
Panel 2: Devil says, “Welcome to Hell. Here’s your PC…with Vista.”
Thanks for great advice, not just in this post but on a regular basis.
Kat Heckenbach says
I have to jump in and say that short story writing can really benefit a novelist. One thing newbie novelists tend to do is over write. They try to pack in everything (and I include myself in this generalization!). Writing short stories is a great tool for learning how to CUT OUT the unnecessary. It’s also a great way to learn how to write well-structured scenes and chapters with definitive beginnings, middles, and ends.
True, getting them published is not the easiest thing–definitely not if you expect actual payment. But they can be good for exposure. And they’re something to work on when you’re taking a break from the novel writing, either because you’re blocked or you need to force yourself away from the novel between edits.
It’s pretty cool seeing stuff you’ve written actually published, either online or in print, while you’re waiting to find a home for your novel. Rejections from agents and publishers can be discouraging. Getting acceptance letters for short stuff is a nice little confidence booster.
Alright, I’ll shut up now :).
Even with all that said, a person (writer) can write whatever they want to write. Sure, practicing short stories can benefit a writer, but so can other forms. It’s not a necessity for success, or for developing one’s talent. I know of great novelists who never published a short story in their life (written them to test things out, maybe, but it didn’t aid their growth, it was simply a practice tool). Everything you said about short stories being a way to learn certain things in the craft can be learned writing novel, or films, or poetry. I’m all for using whatever means you have to get better but short stories aren’t NEEDED to do that.
I always say…do what you feel helps you progress, and if writing shorts do that go ahead. If not, don’t let others tell you this or that is the best way to learn something, because it’s not true, and is only said by a person who that specific practice worked for.
Ken Marable says
My impression of the “write short stories first” advice was more for:
1) Faster paychecks – selling several short stories over several months gets money in the bank long before the advance on a novel you won’t finish for a year, and
2) Faster skill improvement – supposedly writing several shorter works all the way to completion cycles and improves the skills faster than taking longer to finish a larger single piece to completion.
However, I agree that this is pretty much bunk. #1 certainly isn’t true anymore, and I have my doubt of #2 ever being true. Maybe it was “failing faster” but no one wanted to say that out loud.
On the flip side, what Kat says about short stories being less forgiving of over-writing and forcing a tighter focus in your craft. So, sure writing short stories (whether you want to bother trying to publish or not) can help build novel-writing skills. Just like novel-writing can help develop short story writing skills (i.e. needing to sustain an entire novel’s worth if interest make deep characterization extremely important, as one random example). Poetry can help all other forms of writing as well with its extreme emphasis on word selection and imagery.
So any form of writing focuses on particular aspects that can carry over to the others.
That being said, I think writing in a medium that doesn’t interest you probably cancels out any benefit you might have gained. So write what you want and what the story demands.
Maybe if there is a weak area in your skill set, do some practice in a format that emphasizes that area – especially if you do it for skill-building/fun rather than as something necessarily aimed at publication.
I would agree with Kat. If you at least like reading short stories and have even a little interest in writing them, I think they can prove immensely beneficial in developing the craft. Most of the principles of novel-writing apply to short stories too. It can help a writer learn how to gain a reader’s interest and sustain it.
I think that the advice to write short stories first is still perfectly valid. Do you have to go that route? No. That doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial.
There are a lot of things you can learn by writing short stories. Just think. You can create 20 5k stories in the time it takes to create a 100k novel. That means 20 3-act structures you’ve developed. You’ve probably had to think about dozens of characters. But one of the biggest learnings is self-editing. You can write the story in a week, and do 4-5 revisions the next week. That’s a lot of time spent on improving your writing from a wholistic sense early on.
There are other benefits to consider. You don’t have to stick to a single genre. The feeling of accomplishment with completing a written work. And most of all, there is less risk when experimenting with your author’s voice because you won’t have six months invested in a project.
I do believe computers make this advice less necessary today than say 35 years ago when people were still using typewriters. Back then a re-write meant re-typing an entire manuscript instead of highlight, delete and update. But the benefits of writing shorts are still there and tangible if you just look for them.
Lois Hudson says
When I was an avid young reader/writer (aeons ago), there were many magazines that published four or five short stories each issue, and usually a short short. I had a zillion story ideas, but I (make that a great big capital I) was going to turn each of those ideas into its own full length novel.
I learned that every good idea does not a novel make, and when the inspirations came for the novels in progress now, they had nothing to do with those old adolescent ideas. However, I kept all those ideas in a notebook, and I have discovered that the concepts behind them could be translated into current work – not as the basis, but as backstory or subplots or even character development. The thinking and dreaming process is never wasted.
I think Randy is right – just write.
Adam Leigh says
I tend to agree with Randy. The advice to young novelists to start with short stories seems akin to telling an aspiring Tennis player that they should start with ping pong.
Short Stories and Novels are different types of writing and require different skills. The creative writing classes I took in college were aggravating to me because I never wanted to write such short tales. I always ended up just writing the first handful of chapters of a longer idea in my head and then reworking it to have a conclusion while still leaving in the hooks to the rest of the tale.
My teacher said I should write for television…
@Adam: “The advice to young novelists to start with short stories seems akin to telling an aspiring Tennis player that they should start with ping pong.”
What a spot-on analogy! lol, nice one. 🙂
In my view the short story is a VERY particular art form, and it is a mistake (and an insult to short story writers everywhere) to consider it some sort of warm-up writing exercise for the main event.
Please, Neil, if you have never been interested in writing short stories, then for heaven’s sake don’t begin your exploration of the writing process – which will be filled with challenges enough, without the additional burden of personal aversion – by writing a short story. Why?
First, because it isn’t as easy as you think – not to write a good one, anyway. Plenty try, that’s true, and there is something to be said for trying ANY kind of writing insofar as you will actually be putting words down, but having said that, you might just as well try journal writing or personal narrative. Or haiku perhaps, if it’s brevity you have in mind.
But Neil, what if you ARE a novel writer? (And this is a quite different species, really, one that thrives on taking the long view and has the temperament to deal with the years of commitment a novel generally demands). You did say that this is your “end goal.” Why then not begin as you mean to go on – by writing a novel? This, far more than sullenly assailing the short story, will tell you whether or not you are a novel writer.
I know that for myself personally, I had to try novel writing first (and more than once, I might add) before discovering I was definitely a short story writer. But at least I attacked novel writing with enthusiasm, believing at the time that it was what I really wanted to do.
And just a side note on Luke’s comment, “You can create 20 5k stories in the time it takes to create a 100k novel.” Well, maybe YOU can Luke, and that’s great. But for me, a single well-crafted short story can take up to a year to write and edit. Using the math in Luke’s formula it would take me twenty years to write a novel. Now I’m not saying it wouldn’t; I’m just saying math formulas of this type (you know, like, write x number of pages each day and you’ll be this or that within this or that amount of time) have never been helpful to me in discovering the kind of writer I needed to be.
Go with your deepest desire, Neil. Write a novel. Fail. Try again. And again. Keep trying until you find out what it is that satisfactorily complements your need to write. Go Niel, go!
Terry W. Ervin II says
I’ve written both short fiction and novel-length works and had some success at getting them published.
There is some crossover skills when writing short stories to prepare for writing novels, but the notion that the former will ensure you can do that latter better doesn’t necessarily follow.
One thing to be aware of first is that some ideas are only short story appropriate. Second, thinking that writing a short story and then expanding it into a novel doesn’t seem likely to work. Yes, some of the characters and the setting can be carried over, but not not likely the plot. The short story and novel structures are too different.
I’m in agreement then with much that has been posted before I popped in to read and comment. In the end, write short stories if you have an idea worthy of the effort, but if your heart and desire isn’t in it, going straight on to novels insead. Nothing wrong with that.
Frank Luke says
I have tried and enjoy writing both short stories and novels. The short stories I am working on now are the background to characters from the completed novel. I’ve concluded that if this collection ever gets published as a complete work, that having different POV characters for the different stories is ok. Each one is a complete episode. So I can use Derke as the POV character in one story, Shylocke Averyson in several, and Granish and the others get to be POV in their own stories. The problem is that Derke and Shylocke are very strong personalities and I found that their stories work best in first person. Granish stories (not as strong of a personality but a fun character) work well in the third person. Do you think readers would have a problem with this back and forth POV in different stories? (I would not dare do such a switch in a single story.)
Also, these stories often involve the characters meeting for the first time or otherwise interacting. For example, “The Home”* tells how Granish met Karina when they were in their teens. In “The Pick,”* Granish and Shylocke have teamed up as bounty hunters (after meeting in “Pursuit”) and track the elusive cat burglar known as “the Pick.” It’s Karina.
*Title still in the works.
Will it confuse readers to have characters who were the main chars in 1st person stories appear in third person stories?
Cecelia Dowdy says
I started off my writing career with short stories. I used to write romance confessions in first person. I sold dozens of these and was gleaning a check roughly every month for about two years. That market has dried up – although it’s still there, some of the mags I wrote for have since folded. I was writing novels at the time, too, but my novels were HORRIBLE, unpublishable stuff, but, for some reason, I was able to crank out and sell those short stories!
I think whatever you guys are telling is right and wrong at the same time. Short stories are a different genre. Short stories have made legends like Saki, O henry, Dahl modern day writers like Archer, Murakami, Ruskin Bond. These authors have written more short stories than novel. I would ask everyone of you was it a warmup for a novel? Nopes guys, you got it all wrong. Writing short stories is a skill which cannot be compared to novel writing. I know all can’t become Dahl and Archer, and also not all can become Dan Brown or John Le Carre. Short story writing is a very different talent, not all have it. And be assured they have a good and ever increasing market in this busy world where lesser and lesser people can afford the time needed for reading a novel.