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This Writing Life: Novels vs. Short Stories

7 June, 2010

[Note: I suspect I may have covered this in a blog post some time ago, but as I’m writing both at the moment, it seemed like a good time to look at the issue again.]

There seems to be a piece of writing advice that, as a new writer, you find cropping up every now and again: that the best way to break into the fiction market is to publish a few short stories first, then move on to novels once you’ve built up your name. Now, regardless of how true that is any more – and regardless of the state of the short fiction market, which is a whole other blog post – there’s something about this piece of advice that has never rung true for me. The simple problem is that novels and short stories feel, to me, to be entirely different beasts and just because you can write one, there’s no guarantee you can write the other.

Certainly, there is crossover. Any ability to string a sentence together, hone a plot or create a character is going to have some bearing on both. The problem I’ve found, though, is that you really have to learn the two art forms separately and that learning to write decent short stories is every bit as difficult as writing novels. I’ve spent close to eight years writing novels now, and I think I’m finally approaching one or two that are of publishable quality. Short stories though? I’ve only taken those up seriously in the last year and, although I think I’m learning fast, most of what I’m producing is still pretty dire.

Some of this comes down to reading. I’ve been an avid reader of novels all my life, but short stories are something I’ve barely scratched the surface of. As I read more short fiction and study in more depth the way good stories are put together, I have no doubt that my own will improve immeasurably.

I really do think some study will be involved. It just seemsĀ  that short stories are harder to write, or at least to write well. Writing a novel is an act of perseverance above all else, but short stories seem to require so much more skill – to fit a whole plot, with fully developed characters and world (or a least a sense that all these things are fully developed in the background) into a few thousand words seems beyond me – and then there’s the skill of coming up with ideas that will fit comfortably in that few thousand words in the first place, which is one I’m struggling with too.

So, if some improvement in my short stories will come from reading more of them, what about the rest? That looks like it’s going to have to come from sheer bloody-minded practice – simply writing as many short stories as I can. Eight years to get reasonable novels? I suspect it might take me twice that to manage a decent short story. Good thing I like a challenge!


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