I speak to a lot of aspiring fiction writers, and I find that the majority of them want to write a novel (or are already writing one). My advice to them is to write at least ten short stories first.
Let me explain.
Ed Hoch passed away on January 17, 2008, at the age of 77. For those who don’t recognize his name, Ed was one of the pre-eminent short story writers of all time. He wrote close to 1,000 short stories, most of them in the puzzle mystery genre. For over 35 years, he had at least one story in every issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
He was certainly one of only a handful of authors in recent years able to make a living strictly by selling short stories. Those who knew him found him to be a very kind, likable man.
He had tried writing novels, but realized he was better at writing short stories. And no, not everyone needs to write a book!
Here are my top 10 reasons why short stories are a great choice—especially for a new writer.
10. Writing a novel can take a year or more. A short story can be written in a short time—a month, a week, maybe even a day. You can write a lot of short stories in the time it would take to write a novel.
9. The most important part of any great novel or short story is the characters. When you write a novel, you’re stuck a long, long time with a few characters. You may find you don’t like them. Or you may find they don’t work well for you. If you write short stories, you can invent new characters for every story. You can try a lot of different kinds of people. Or aliens, animals, even rocks that talk…
8. Every story and every novel need great openings. When you write a novel, you get one opening. You might end up rewriting your opening fifty times, and then throw it out in the end. When you write short stories, you can try a variety of different kinds of openings and see what you like and don’t like.
7. When you write a novel, you get one plot-line. If it doesn’t work, too bad. When you write a number of short stories, you can try a variety of different genres, different kinds of plots, and different resolutions.
6. If a short story isn’t working, you can just toss it into the trash without feeling you’ve wasted too much time and energy. If a novel isn’t working, it’s a lot of investment to throw away.
5. A short story can later grow into a novel if you find you really like the characters and see that the plot could grow. You might even use the original short story as a scene or chapter in your book.
4. Most people write to say something they feel is of importance, whether it’s about their faith, saving the environment, or encouraging everyone to practice safe sex. Because new writers often don’t know how to send a message without having it take over, some novels become very little more than propaganda. Writing a number of short stories, each with a tiny aspect of your message, will not only help you learn how to include a message in an acceptable way, but also help you find markets for your work and readers with similar interests.
3. Some people are natural short story writers. They have tons of ideas, like to work quickly and finish things up, and don’t have the patience to spend a lot of time on one thing. You can read what Ed said about why he wrote short stories here. On the flip side, some novels are really short stories with a whole lot of unnecessary padding. Better to learn how to trim and streamline than how to add unnecessary verbiage.
2. More people will read a short story in a magazine or on an internet site than will ever read your novel.
1. Writing a novel before you’ve written some short stories is like marrying the first person you date. Usually, it’s better to meet a few people before you make a commitment. Writing a number of short stories in a variety of genres will help you hone in on both what you enjoy and what you write best.
Bonus Reason! It’s possible to spend a great deal of time and energy writing a novel without learning a great deal about the craft of writing. Time and effort alone don’t equate to gaining skill.
I’ll be the dissenter! Writing short stories is very different from writing novels. I might wish I could tell a complete story in 1000 words, or 4000, or whatever length he’s calling short, but I can’t. I just don’t think short. I find the skills to quite different though, of course, related.
Hi Valerie, thanks for your comment.
Well, to each his or her own, I guess. For me, writing a short story is very much like writing one or a few scenes of a book. The story has only a few characters, limited settings, and of course a lot less happening. But those are the very reasons I think writing short stories will help any novelist learn the tools of fiction.
I’ve read entire novels that were filled with repeated mistake after mistake (or bad writing after bad writing) simply because the author didn’t know any better. I always feel so sad for those writers. They’d have wasted so much less time and energy if they’d first learned the skills of writing a short story, all of which could then be used in writing the novel.
Of course, while some people seem to be able to write any length of fiction, there are people (e.g. Ed Hoch) who are more comfortable (or better) with short stories, and others who are better with novels. I’d rather write a 125,000 novel myself, but I started out with some short stories and I still write one now and then.
And yes, I do have a first novel that’s never been published, although I still think of it fondly and maybe one day I’ll pull it out and see what I can do with it. 🙂
And 12, you can use your short stories as promo for your longer works; like a free giveaway on your website.
13 You can produce and anthology as your first book, or sell it as an e-book to get your name out there. Just make them the very best they can be.
Oops! Numbers were never my thing. Ah well, better to give one too many than one too few. 🙂
You realize that you’ve actually listed eleven reasons, right?