Writing Short -- At First


One of the many debates which comes up repeatedly among writers is whether or not you should start out with short fiction when you first start writing. Now, I'm certainly not going to be an absolutist about this, and I know there are many people who have only written novels and learned the craft writing long. By inclination, I'm more suited to writing long forms. But I also think you can learn faster by writing short in the beginning. Hey, it's short. It doesn't take as long to fix.

And then there's the very practical consideration of how much heart and soul you've put into it and are going to have to give up when it gets torn apart and rejected again and again. Think about it. In a year, you can easily write five to ten stories, and each one will be better than the last. You won't be putting as much energy into each one either -- it won't be quite as hard to admit to yourself it's not there yet and relegate it to the trash bin once you've learned so much you can see for yourself everything that's wrong with it. But a novel -- a novel you can easily put years of your life into. It's a lot harder to distance yourself from, a lot harder to take rejection, etc. You're going to die a few thousand less deaths when you realize the story is crap that took you a month to write.

Another reason I think you can learn a lot from writing short stories at first is because you have to be more disciplined. Instead of a hundred thousand words to present the major characters and their conflicts, get them into hot water, and let them get themselves out again, you only have about five thousand.

I didn't start with short stories myself. I wish someone had told me to, though. I always thought my ideas were too big for shorts, thought I would just bumble along in my own merry way, taking my plot and my characters wheresoever my inclination (and theirs) led me.

By now, I've finished one novel I tossed, one novel-length hyperfiction, and one time travel. I've been at this seriously for about ten years. I now have two pro short fiction sales, a couple of pays-in-copies sales, and two hyperfiction works on the net for which I sometimes get "payment" in speaking engagements. My first novel (if you don't count the novel-length hyperfiction or the one I tossed) has been requested four times and rejected three times. I'm not counting the ones who didn't even want to look at the complete manuscript.

I didn't start seriously writing short fiction until I went to Clarion West, and I am convinced I've learned more in the few years since than I did in all the years when I was writing long. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I suspect I might have been able to learn the basics faster if I'd started short -- and gone on to long forms when the learning curve was no longer quite as steep. You can learn the craft either way, though. The point is that most of what you're going to produce initially is practice -- so do you want to practice by writing a novel or by writing short stories? That's what it really comes down to.


Other pages of mine:

Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat
in Budapest
| The Aphra Behn Page | ECHO

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Ruth Nestvold, 2001.