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Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Should you start with short stories?

Amaryllis asks:

This is also a "just curiosity" question. I heard a novelist say recently that when she began to think seriously of writing fiction for publication, she was advised to begin with short stories. The implication being, I guess, to start small and work her way up. But she tried writing short fiction and hated it, feeling more at home with the novel form from the beginning.

So, did you begin with short stories and move on/up to novels? I see you've got two excellent stories posted here; do you still write short stories for publication? for practice? For fun? Would you advise an aspiring young writer to begin with shorter fiction?

I did begin by writing short stories - but that doesn't mean anyone else has to.

Commercially, there's no need to start with short stories. In fact, starting with novels is probably the better idea: the market for short stories is notoriously bad, for the simple reason that most readers prefer something longer. Reading anything new requires getting your head around some new concepts, and short stories demand a higher mental-effort-to-story ratio than novels, hence most people don't buy them and it's quite hard to sell them. People will advise short story competitions, and while there's nothing wrong with that, and it might make an agent view you with a little more interest if you send in your novel with some short story credits, if your aim is publication you might as well jump in the deep end as not. (And as far as getting an agent goes, the only thing that really matters is whether they like your book. It can be the first or the fiftieth thing that you've written; it's the book that counts.)

In terms of convenience, it can be easier to find writing classes that handle short stories, for a simple reason: short stories can be written and read quickly, which makes it easier for the teacher and class to absorb the work and give feedback. Feedback on a novel extract is something I've seen tried in varying classes, almost invariably with limited success: getting hung up on a single section is the last thing a first draft needs, and it's hard for a class to give sensible advice about writing they haven't read. In a class of twenty, it would be demanding, to say the least, if everybody had to read everybody else's novel in its entirety, so if you're looking for a class to get you started, short stories are the form best adapted to that environment. That's another reason why people often begin that way. (Though having said that, it's important to stress that just because people often begin with short stories, it doesn't mean they're a 'beginner's form'; good short stories take just as much investment as novels in terms of passion and concentration, and some people argue they take more, because you have to do more in less space.)

Artistically? Well, how long is a piece of string? The usual reason people recommend short stories is that they're, well, shorter. If you've never written anything before, a short story may feel less intimidating than starting on a novel. The amount of verbiage is limited; the amount of plot you have to juggle is small enough that you can keep it all in your head without having to refer to notes; you'll have a finished piece quicker; friends may be more willing to read it; it can feel less high-pressure than beginning a whole book. If you've never tried it before, betting on finishing a hundred thousand words may seem like worse odds than finishing five thousand, and 'Will I ever finish it?' is one of the plague questions of the first-time novelist. So yes, a short story often is how people start, because it's less scary. And there's nothing wrong with that: writing is scary, and finding ways in is a good thing.

On the other hand, I find short stories more nerve-wracking in some ways. Some people are starters and some people are finishers, and I'm definitely in the latter category; unlike some of my friends who have a new idea every other week, I have about one good idea every two years or so. Consequently, I hang on to them with limpet-like tenacity: as long as I'm in the middle of a novel, I don't have to worry about what I'll write next week. Writing short stories, you're going to need a steady supply of new ideas, and not everybody is an ideas man. So short stories can test my nerve because I run up against the 'what do I do next?' anxiety much more often.

Probably because of this, I've written about three short stories in my life, and once I got started on novels, that's where I stayed. But really, it's a question of how long you need to tell the story. The first few ideas I had could be told quickly; subsequent ideas have needed a novel to work them out. If I have a short idea tomorrow, I'll write it into a short story; if not, I won't. No big deal.

The main thing is this: any work of fiction should be as long as it needs to be and no more. I remember being in a writing class where a novice got quite upset at the teacher for saying this in answer to her question about how long a short story should be, but he was right. Some stories need a lot of expansion, some fit into small spaces. Hapax commented in the last thread:

I have found, to my horror, that my "natural" writing length seems to be the novella -- which is fine if you're already a successful author, but impossible to get anyone to take seriously if you're not. So I slice, and lose the heart of a piece; or I pad, and bloat the thing into verbal gas. Neither of which is a happy ending for me OR my stories.

And that's the problem: trying to force a story away from its proper length does it no good at all. Procrustean editing is bad for fiction. If you're hoping to sell a novel, the best advice is probably to keep writing stories of whatever length seems right to the best of your ability and just see what happens. Not every story comes out the same length; Bareback was 195,000 words in its first draft and 145,000 in its final; the second novel was 119,000 in its first draft and about 135,000 in its final (I think). That's a substantial difference, especially when you look at the first drafts. A story that's naturally fifty thousand words long will never make a novel; the choice is between a bad novel and a good novella, and the latter is preferable. So it's better to finish it, pat yourself on the back for finishing a work of art (no small feat), pat yourself again for putting art ahead of market considerations (for commercial as well as artistic reasons, in fact: the market primarily wants good works of art), and then move on. Maybe the next story will be forty thousand words, which means another pat on the back; maybe the one after that will be seventy thousand - and that's just about long enough for a novel.

There's a strong temptation with writing, which is to believe that this story has to be the one that sells, this has to be the one that makes it through. But that puts too much pressure on the story; it becomes about the end result rather than the work itself. Better to approach each new work as an experiment and let it play out how it will. If you want to write a novel, odds are you'll eventually hit a story that'll come out more or less novel-length on its own.

So should aspiring writers begin with short stories? Yes, if they feel like it. If they don't, they shouldn't. It really is as simple as that.

I'd be glad if I could write decent short stories. I've tried more than once, but I find them hard to write. So much has to be packed into a small space that I wind up doing more editing than actual writing. I have a tendency to second-guess myself as well, which really doesn't help the process.

My talent seems to be... *gasp*... poetry. Talk about no commercial value at all. I've won a couple of regional poetry awards and had good comments from professional writers, but there's just no way I can turn a talent for poetry into anything resembling an income, no matter how modest.

I can write poetry and not worry about my audience or be distracted from outside influences, because I don't expect my poems to go very far. That seems to take away a lot of the pressure and I just enjoy creating. But if I start writing a short story or novel, I get all bogged down in deciding who my audience is, how well I've developed an idea or how poorly I've constructed a certain paragraph, and I give up in despair. It's extremely frustrating.

I wish I could have the same devil-may-care attitude to writing a larger piece that I have when I write poetry, but my inner editor is a real bitch.
Thanks, Kit.
I have about one good idea every two years or so
Really? A good idea being strictly defined as one you can live with for the two years or so it takes to write the novel, then?
I suspect that the majority of readers of short story magazines (usu. sci-fi/fantasy) are aspiring writers who are looking for markets to submit their work to.

It was a trap I fell into for a while, myself, trying to hash out short stories to 'make a name' for myself before advancing to the novel. The manuscript I'm currently hashing out, in fact, I'd originally attempted as a short story, focusing on one crucial scene and using exposition to fill in the rest. Did. Not. Work.

Then again, my two publication credits of any significance were both poems, so I also know something about fitting large concepts in small spaces.

You really have to let the idea itself dictate the initial form and not the other way around.
Really? A good idea being strictly defined as one you can live with for the two years or so it takes to write the novel, then?

Yeah; when I say 'good idea' I mean good idea for a complete novel that I myself could picture writing. I have other ideas as well - ideas for stories I can't be bothered to write myself, ideas that don't make up a complete story, and so on - but those just have to get dropped back on the compost in the hopes that something will grow out of them.
Kit, I've been told that for first time novelists, anything over 100k will be almost impossible to sell, as will anything 70k or less. Obviously this wasn't the case for Bareback, so do you think it's a hard and fast rule, or is it just a bit of publishing folklore?
Folklore. The bit about over 100k sounds like total nonsense to me: a over-long book by an inexperienced author might not sell because it was rambling - Bareback was certainly too long in its first draft, and got turned down a few times before I tightened it up - but no sensible publisher will turn down a longer book they think is brilliant.

The 70k thing is a bit different, as much shorter than that and it starts to be a novella, which is a trickier market even for successful authors. But then again, I believe The Catcher in the Rye is only about 55k. Publishers will make exceptions if the book is exceptional. And such lengths assume an adult market; young adult and children's books are often shorter, but you'd still call them novels.

There's also the question of markets: mass-market epic fantasy novels are positively expected to be long and chunky, while cosy murder mysteries usually need to be shorter. But that's true whether the novelist is a newcomer or on their twentieth volume.

Alfred Hitchcock remarked, 'The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.' The length of a book is curtailed by how heavy a volume a reader can pick up, and that can become a factor - I'd heard great things about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, for example, but delayed buying it until the paperback edition because the hardback looked difficult to handle. (Another first-time novelist selling a long book, nb.) A publisher seriously strapped for cash might conceivably hesitate over longer books as well, because you have to buy more paper but you can't charge more, but that's an extreme example, and certainly you wouldn't expect a major publishing house to make such a calculation. Those are about as close as I can get to picturing a situation where a publisher might decide against a book on the grounds of length alone.

If a publisher reads a book that's over 100k and decides not to publish it because it's too long, it's not because they have a rule about word counts, it's because they couldn't be bothered to read it all: it felt long. But that's about the writer failing to hold their attention.

I don't know who started the first-time-novelists-can't-sell-anything-over-100k rumour, but I doubt it was a publisher. To me it smacks of a rumour invented by an unsucessful author, either to explain the rejection of their own work or because people often do invent 'rules' about unpredictable situations where at lot is at stake, because it gives them more of a sense of being in control of their own fate. But the decision to publish a book is such a case-by-case one that it's hard to conceive any publisher using such an arbitrary and pointless rule. They'd just miss out on too much good stuff.
That's good to know. It's something I've heard again and again since I started writing with the aim of publication, from various sources but rarely from an agent or publisher. I write urban fantasy and I often see other writers say they HAVE to hit 80 - 90k before an agent will look at their work. I know that's not necessarily the case, because my agent took on with a book that was around 75k ... Having said that, that book is yet to sell and I did start to wonder if I needed to pump in another few thousand words or something!
Doubt it; 75k is short, but just about over the line. 80k is a figure I've heard a lot, including from an actual publisher I was working for, but the difference between 75 and 80 isn't that much. Probably publishers wouldn't want most of the books they published to be under 80k, but a bit of variation is fine.

Especially considering that the word count you submit is not the final figure. It has to go through the editing process, and that can change things. The book I'm currently proofing gained about three short stories' worth of material because my editor kept asking, 'What about this or that?' That was a book that needed to be longer, not because of word counts but because there were areas I'd touched on too lightly. Same thing with Bareback: it didn't need cutting because the word count was too high, but because it lacked some polish. If someone reckons your story could do with more exposition here or another scene between the characters there, that's a reason to add more words, but padding generally leads to dull scenes where the reader is just waiting for the plot to start again.

Good luck with selling it!
Thanks! :)
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