Short Stories vs. Novels

David W. Barbee writes:


Your Sideburn-ness,
I have an assload of prospective novels, and I’m coming up with more all the time. But I often struggle with short stories. In your opinion, are some writers just drawn to one or the other but not really both?

It definitely seems that there are short story writers and novel writers. Personally, I got started with writing because I wanted to write novels. I didn’t care about shorts. I didn’t even like to read them. I didn’t start writing shorts until after I already had 13.5 novels written and was trying to start getting published. Short stories are far easier to get published than novels and novels are far easier to get published when you have a lot of good story credits to your name, so I started writing shorts. They were terrible though, compared to my novels. But, as a writer, you really have to do both.

You have to realize that short stories and novels are two completely different art forms. As different as drawing is to painting. If you draw (or write short stories) your whole life until you get really good and then switch to paintings (novels) your paintings are probably going to suck at first. It takes a long time develop new skills. You might even have a different painting style than you would for drawing. I know my drawing style was different from my painting style, just as my short story style was different from my novel style. You are more likely to be drawn to the form that you feel you are better at, or which one you enjoy to do more. But you shouldn’t avoid other forms just because you are better at one than the other.

Short stories are bad because they won’t really make you any money. You’re not going to become a successful writer only writing short stories. You might even feel like you’re just messing around when you write them. You might not want to waste any of your good ideas on them, which makes them not as fun to write. However, you can get your name out there quicker with short stories. You can develop a reputation and a professional list of credits. Also, and more importantly, you will learn more about the craft of writing if you write a lot of short stories. With everything you write, you learn something new about crafting a story. However, you learn about the same amount whether you are writing short stories or novels. So, you’ll learn more by writing 30 short stories in a year than writing 1-2 novels. It depends on the length of story though. If you are writing flash fiction that doesn’t really have anything to do with plot and character, you likely are only to get better at writing flash fiction. Still, people recommend you start out with short stories because you’ll develop your skills as a writer quicker and also have tons of opportunities to get the stories published. Also, you’ll learn a lot just by submitting stories all the time (especially if you get editorial feedback). Once you have perfected the short story, you can move on to writing novels. At least that’s what they say… though most people who do this end up finding it incredibly difficult to move to novels, especially if they become successful with their short stories. I think it’s better to do both at the same time, all the time.

Novels are better, of course, because more people read them. Anthologies and short story collections hardly sell at all. I think it’s because people are more used to movie-lengthed stories. There are people who really like short films and short stories, but they are pretty rare. Still, I think writers need to do both. If you are better at short stories, still write one novel or novella a year. If you prefer novels, still write 1-5 stories a year. You’ll become a better writer for it, even if you end up just throwing that stuff away.

Eventually, once you get used to it, you’ll learn that you’re not actually just a novel-person who can’t write short stories (as I used to think I was). You’re just more practiced in one art form and need to learn how to do the other (even if the material you write sucks for a while). Someone who learns how to paint before they learn how to draw is missing out on a lot of basics they could really use to improve their paintings. Someone who only draws has to know that if they want their work displayed in galleries they’ll have to start painting.

When I was an art major in college, my dad (who came from a family of artists) used to tell me that to be a successful artist you have to start out by doing a drawing a day and a painting a night. Every day. Not only because of the quantity = quality argument, but because you’ll learn more by working on both art forms. Of course, you can’t do a short story a day and a novel a night, even though that would be pretty impressive, but perhaps you can write a short story a month and a novel a season…or something like that. Or, more realistically, spend 1-3 months out of the year writing only short stories. At least one a week. Then spend the rest of the year on your novels.

PS – yes, it is possible to become successful writing only novels or only shorts, but you’re kind of handicapping yourself if you can’t do both. If you are an up-and-coming novelist who gets invited to submit a story to a big magazine that offers a ton of exposure and high pay, you’re screwed if your short stories suck. If you get a good reputation as a short story writer and a big publisher wants you to write a novel for them, you’re screwed if your novels suck. Dig?

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