In Defense Of The Road More Traveled: Novels and Short Stories

The other day I was on a friend’s page and I saw a debate raging on whether writing short stories is a necessary, or even a desirable step, toward learning to write novels. I didn’t weigh in then because I didn’t have the time, but I kind of wish I had, because the debate seemed to miss the point from my perspective.

To summarize the arguments that I admittedly skimmed, the perspective generally expressed seemed to be that 1) short stories really only help you write more short stories because b) the pacing required in a novel is completely different, and includes iii) much more worldbuilding and the inclusion of subplots that cannot be present in the short story. So if you want to write novels, you’re going to have a lot of unlearning to do. Also, there was brought into the discussion the examples of many people who wrote chiefly novels and had enjoyed success without ever writing a short story.

Let it first be admitted that such people exist. They are slightly more common than the Harper Lees and J.K. Rowlings of the world that publish their first manuscript to worldwide acclaim. But not a LOT more. I would like to set forth my rebuttal to the above points, and add some experience of my own.

Is it true that short stories only train you to write short stories? And the answer to that, in my experience is absolutely NO! It’s completely wrong. For one thing, too many of the same skills are involved. Short story writing and novel writing both demand clarity of writing, good prose style, the construction of a coherent plot and the depiction of engaging characters. AND good short stories include excellent worldbuilding as well.

Arguing that short stories don’t help people become good novel writers is a bit like marathoners looking down their noses at people running the mile. THAT won’t help you run a marathon. To a certain extent, that’s true: the pacing and running style will be different and in may ways, more demanding. But what running the mile WILL build is basic athleticism.

However, isn’t there some truth to the idea that you should do what you want to do? Isn’t the best training for running marathons, well, marathons?

And the answer to that question is “yes and no.” Because we always have to remember that the VERY first rule for writing books that sell is, “If it results in books that sell, then it was a good method.” So, if you want to write novels, and you write a novel without any trouble, and it sells, then none of this applies to you. But for MOST of us, that’s not how the process starts. Most of us encounter great amounts of difficulty even finishing a BAD first novel. And for most of us, the first novel IS bad.

The major advantage of writing short stories (and I will admit to stealing this list from Steven Barnes) is that it is MUCH easier to finish a short story, to receive criticism on a short story, to re-edit a short story, and to sell a short story professionally. The sheer time and effort that goes into writing a novel precludes those processes from being as easy. And in the event that you write a short story that is an irredeemable pile of shit — which you are likely to do at least a few times — then you lost only a fraction of the time you would have lost writing a novel that is an irredeemable POS.

Bear in mind also that marketing short stories takes much less time than marketing novels, except for small presses and places you might already have an in with. Even for very good stories, go back and read DJ Butler’s story of how he came to sell Witchy Eye to Baen Books if you don’t believe me. It took me 2.5 years to get a rejection from one major house. They’re still considering another one of mine, four years later.

If you can stomach a decade of rejection with NO successes and few hints as to whether you are on the right track, then perhaps writing novels IS your best strategy. But if you need some success to keep going, and want some evidence as to the general caliber of your writing, then short stories are the way to go.

A minor advantage of writing short stories is that they can be bridges to novel contracts. My first novel that I get prorates for (which should be coming out later this year) happened exactly this way. I got noticed by Digital Fiction Corporation, a fine, if small, publisher, because I wrote a story that performed well for them. And many, many writers still do this today. As I understand it, that’s how Brad Torgersen got picked up at Baen, primarily because he’d been wowing the readers of Analog with awesome shorts. Now it sure as hell isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be noticed, but it is not uncommon.

Now, obviously, this advice is going to be more for people who are looking at trad pub options than for those who are determined to go indie. If you’re not looking for a publisher, then this doesn’t really matter a darn. But if you are publishing indie, and the books aren’t selling, then I have to wonder how you know the work was ready to publish.

Admittedly, that question can be asked of any work written by any author: you might ask me, “then how do you know that your unsold novels are ready to publish?” And that’s correct, I don’t until they sell. But having a dozen or so pro short-story sales under my belt means that I can look back and say that there is some evidence that I have achieved a certain level of professional expertise in writing in general. And that can be very important indeed. So if you’re having trouble writing and selling novels and don’t know what to do, I very much suggest that getting short stories out there is the way to go.

 

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One thought on “In Defense Of The Road More Traveled: Novels and Short Stories

  1. The ideal length of a particular story is a combination of factors, some having to do with the depth and complexity of the story, some having to do with the economy and richness of the author’s prose style.

    Part of learning the craft of writing is learning how to pace a story, what to include and what to leave out, and also learning your own style, your own personal narrative rhythms.

    I think that deciding on word count before sitting down to write a story is counterproductive, particularly for a beginning author. Once you have a body of work you’ll be able to estimate the final word count of a story before you begin it, because you’ll know your own voice.

    Personally, my work tends to cluster around two final states–I have the 3-5 k word stories, which are usually lighter in tone and faster moving, and then I have more atmospheric and moody stories that tend to range from 10-15k.

    It’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with my own process and a big part of that was giving myself the freedom to just let the story be as long or as short as it needs to be.

    The traditional publishing model of drawing every story into a novel and every novel into an epic and every epic into a series has done a great disservice to fiction in general and genre fiction in particular.

    I read a fair number of hopeful authors’ manuscripts and I’d say at least half of the novels people ask me to read are good short stories spoiled by fifty-thousand words of padding because the author thought that she or he “should” be writing a novel.

    Don’t ask “Am I writing a short story or a novel?” Instead, ask, “Is this story engaging? Is it dragging here–does it need to be cut? Is it unclear there–do I need to add more details?”

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