Short story writing and the novel-shaped head

Alt Fiction was a while ago now, but the panels and interviews are coming online now. I’m reminded of one particular discussion about what you need to do to get writing and get published.

Some people think that starting out with short stories is a good way to hone your craft. Some people think it’s good practice. I agree, to a certain extent, although I’d argue that short- and long-form fiction are so utterly different that writing twenty 5,000-word stories won’t tell you much about writing one 100,000-word one. But I don’t have much beef with the advice. If you like it, listen to it.

But then some people think that it is a compulsory path to publication, that you must earn your dues in the short story market before anyone will take you seriously with a novel. It’s a natural, logical, and standard progression, they say.

The one problem with writing advice – any writing advice – is that people tend to listen to it and follow it to the letter. Writing is one of those things where there are rules and basics, and once you’ve got a handle on them you can pretty much do what you like. If something works for you, wonderful. Chances are it won’t work for the next person along, but that doesn’t matter. Write how you want to write, what you want to write. It might take you a while to work out the nuts and bolts of it – and that’s where writing advice and guidebooks can help – but eventually you’ll fine your own routines, and habits, and practices.

But the perception that short stories are a compulsory starting point sticks in my craw a little. Because – and here it is, brace yourselves – I don’t like short stories.

This is, of course, not true.

My favourite author is HP Lovecraft, who wrote nothing but short stories and a few novellas. I’m halfway through Night Shift, Stephen King’s first published collection of shorts, and a couple of pieces in there might be the best things I’ve ever read. I have plenty of friends who write a lot of short fiction – I’m lucky enough to be a beta-reader for Jennifer Williams, and nothing she has ever shown me has failed to amaze and delight. Some people have a knack for short fiction, and when short fiction is good, it’s great. You’ll get no argument from me on that point.

But mostly it’s not. Or at least that’s what I’ve found. Every now and again I go on a splurge, convincing myself that I need to pay more attention to short fiction, and go and buy a stack of short fiction magazines – American ones, British ones, famous and long-running titles, obscure and new ones, online magazines and electronic magazines and printed magazines.

After a couple of weeks of reading, I’m back at the beginning again. All I’ve done is prove, yet again, that I don’t like short fiction, and that more often than not, short fiction doesn’t work. At best, it leaves me unsatisfied and disappointed. At worst, it makes me curse the fact that I’ve spent an hour desperately hoping for a good resolution or twist or just an ending that works. Usually it never comes.

And then I think about Quitters, Inc, or The Sea, The  Sea, The Sea, or The Whisperer in Darkness, and about how wonderful short fiction can be, when it works. A perfect short story is a glittering jewel.

Now, if I don’t like reading it, and I sure as hell don’t like writing it.

This is, of course, not true.

I’ve written a fair bit of short fiction, and had some published. It’s quite a privilege to be accepted by Hub magazine, and I’ve had great comments from people who have enjoyed these stories. I’ve got some more pieces coming up too, and the excitement that comes when an idea strikes is a marvelous thing.

But as a rule, I don’t write short fiction. I don’t exactly fold my arms and huff and puff and turn my nose up at it, but I certainly never sit down to deliberately write one, unless that magical idea has arrived (usually fully formed) in my mind. When I’m roughing out ideas and plot, it’s always, always for novel-length fiction. I never deliberately try and plot out a short story, because I’m just not interested. My short stories are accidents and coincidences. Sometimes they even work!

But the angst is still there. Other writers posting on Twitter or their blogs – how many short stories do you have out circulating right now? asked one. I have 12, they said, the fewest all year! Another friend posted an update on their blog – this week I sold story A to magazine B, story X to magazine Y, and story 71 to magazine 98.

Wow. For some, it seems, its easy. A short story a week is a common personal  target for a lot of writers. I’m lucky if I can write one a quarter.

But then it clicked. Yes, sometimes the penny takes a long while to hit the ground.

I’m not a short story writer. I write novels. I like novels. Novels give me satisfaction to write and enjoyment to read.

Importantly, there is nothing wrong with this. It’s the style and form I have found myself drawn to quite naturally, without any particular conscious decision. Novels. I like ‘em!

But what about this road to success from short to long fiction? Sure, a lot of writers – a lot of big, famous, successful names – have followed it and for a lot of writers its a very good idea indeed. But it’s certainly not compulsory. Some people – like me – are just not wired for short fiction. I don’t like the saxophone or olives either. It doesn’t matter. All that means is that I don’t try and learn the saxophone and I don’t eat olives. So when it comes to short fiction, I usually don’t read it and I usually don’t write it, unless there is a very good reason to do either.

So when someone tells them that you must spend a decade writing short fiction before you try a novel, stop and think about what you want to do. This may be absolutely ideal. Or, like me, it might make you recoil in horror. I think it’s important to note that short and long fiction are completely different forms, and while starting with short fiction would certainly teach you the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, etc, diving straight into a novel will probably teach you more about the long form. Sure, at the end of it you might not have something worth a damn, but it’s the experience that counts. Get those million words out and then write something great.

Always approach writing advice with caution. Including this!

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  • Agree with pretty much everything except the olives (quite partial to them with the right lubrication). I hate writing short stories. I seldom enjoy reading them. I generally find them shallow and frivolous (especially my own).
    “So when someone tells them that you must spend a decade writing short fiction before you try a novel, stop and think about what you want to do.”
    Totally agree. If you want to write a novel, just do it. Sod the short stories. And if that seems like a stretch, aim at a novella. That’s good practice and it’ll get it out of your system. You probably won’t be able to get it published…but hey ho. Maybe add another character arc and you’ll have your novel.
    Meh. I dunno. Writing advice and all that.

  • I'm the same. I'm very proud of my short story acceptance if only for the fact that I'm not a natural short story writer and I really have to work at short fiction

  • I think you're right Adam.

    For me as a writer of mostly short fiction (currently), I find that short stories are almost a way of purging the multiple ideas in my head and seeing if they form into anything worth reading. In a way, it depends on how you 'concieve' of your ideas; whether they come as flash images around which a story could be built, as they do for me, or if they brood and develop into long story arcs more suitable for novels.

    Of course, as ever, it comes down to individuality, and probably goes as deep as the sort of person you are by nature or by nurture, how you recieve and respond to the stories that occur in real life. Fortunately, there are these two accepted story lengths that any budding writer can work within.

    And again you are right about endings. i reckon 90% of short stories do not have good enough endings. being good at writing short stories is all about being able to write endings – and that probably accounts for the many abandoned short tales gathering electronic dust in my files.

    I found writing a short story every week for a year helped with this. I was able to learn to write succinctly and to force a satisfactory ending to something that started as a vague concept – usually by working backwards and working out the ending first. Having said that, out of the 52 I wrote last year only about 10-12 had decent endings and only about 5 of those was I actually completely happy with.

    anyway, despite the various shortcomings of advice for writers, reading stuff like this is very helpful for forcing idle hands back onto dusty keyboards…


  • I agree, but because I come from the other side as a short fiction writer. I'm drawn to the shorter lengths, even down to flash fiction! My heart warms for a story that fits in a twitter post. For the writer in me, a novella can feel a bit on the long side because the majority of my ideas simply turn out to be for short story length.

    It's not that I can't write novels — my first novel was over 100,000 words. But then, that novel has sat in the proverbial drawer for years because writing and editing novels is very different from the short stories that I love, and because this particular one would have to be part of a series. A series of novels! For me, that would be like being hit with lightening three times, and in the exact same location.

  • Jennifer Williams

    Aw, thanks for the embiggening Adam (I can use that word here, right?) – a rather groovy start to my Saturday to be mentioned in the same line as Lovecraft and Stephen King! I remain totally chuffed that you enjoyed The Sea, The Sea, The Sea so much…

    I know what you mean about short fiction, and we've had this discussion before about endings. It appears we get two types; those that end with a revelation or a twist (generally satisfying) and those that are actually more about setting a mood or character development. Like you, I think, I'm more of a fan of those stories that give you a little chill at the end, and that's certainly what I try to write. The other sort are probably too literary for me. 😉

    I just wish I had the ideas for often! The Sea and London Stone are the only two I've written that came out fully formed and kicking- everything else was slow and awkward. But I love short stories so I'll keep on trying, I guess.

  • I'm with you on the twist/revelation sort of story. The problem with a mood/character piece is that if you don't, as the reader, get it or like it, it can feel very much like nothing has happened. I read a string of stories in a well-known publication recently that were just that. Nothing happened.

    Maybe I'm just being old fashioned 🙂

  • All good advice; there is surely no “right way” to be a writer. I find I enjoy writing everything from novel-length fiction right down to Twitter length (which I'm thinking you really, really wouldn't like!)

    Sure, these forms are all very different, but, in some ways, they are also very similar. They all just consist of words, carefully crafted and assembled. I say, feel free to tackle them all!

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  • You must have missed my Twitter link in the right hand panel there. Twitter is the single most useful, powerful tool I have as a writer!

  • Adam,

    Oh, I know you're on Twitter – I'm a follower – I just didn't imagine you'd post any #vss.


  • I'm not a writer but for me short stories always end too soon. Just as I am getting interested they go and end. I agree as stated here that really really good short stories are perfectly formed little gems. I love reading the ghost stories of MR James and LTC Rolt and, like Adam, think that Stephen King is a master at the game but given the choice would always pick up a novel. My wife on the other hand LOVES short stories and is currently ploughing through the collected stories of Hanif Kureishi… The best short story I have ever read is Michael Marshall Smith's 'Everybody Goes' from his 'What You Make It' collection. Its still haunts me to this day

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