Short Stories: Yes or No?


We’re past the half-way mark in the twelve rules of writing, and entering the shady grey area of becoming a writer. As it says in the Twelve Rules of Writing:

7. Start with short stories before graduating to novel-length pieces

There is no point in trying to write a novel before mastering the short story.  As John Steinbeck said: ~
“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances..”
If Mr Steinbeck isn’t ready to write a novel then you certainly aren’t.

That last bit is the key part. What it says is that because someone else – even someone as erudite and literary as John Steinbeck – found the path to becoming a writer through writing short stories, then you must also. Encapsulated in that sentence is the assumption that there is only one way to become a writer.

I have been told to my face that it is impossible to be a published author without a string of short story credits to your name, which is interesting because I had two books in print before I released anything at all in the short form and I do not have a drawer full of short story drafts waiting for daylight.

The response to this? I am the exception that proves the rule. But as we are rapidly discovering , they’re not so much rules, as guidelines.

My choice of Steinbeck’s quote was deliberate, for if you read the advice from John Steinbeck you will find that although he wrote many short stories he never said that this is the only way to become a writer. Indeed, later in the same article he says:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.
~ John Steinbeck: Advice for Beginning Writers

There you have it – there is no recipe, no formula, no path mapped out or way described. The whole point is that you have to find your own way and you have to do it for yourself. So where does the short story advice originate? Why in so many places does it say that you should write short stories before you write a novel?

There is a good reason to write short stories, and it is entirely practical.

It is much harder to criticise your own work than someone else’s. As the author of a piece of writing you are blind to its weaknesses because you created them. If I were to offer a single piece of advice to anyone with ambitions to write it would be this – get involved in critique. Join a critique site, form a writers group, find other people struggling with the same issues and share your writing. Critique theirs and get them to critique yours.

And if you’re going to critique work and have your own work critiqued, you’re going to find that’s much easier with a short story than with a novel. People don’t have time to read 100,000 words for you, particularly if the same mistakes are repeated over and over, which they likely are.

Having short work to review means that time can be spent giving and receiving feedback, helping you to overcome your weaknesses and helping others to mitigate theirs. Yes, you could critique a chapter from the middle of a novel, but you’ll be missing out on anything which relies on an understanding of the whole piece and you’ll be able to use the excuse – “it was just before/after this piece”

And there is a good reason not to write short stories too.

The short story is entirely different in structure and nature to a novel. They have the basics of grammar and punctuation, voice and technique in common, but writing short stories will not teach you how to plan, structure and execute something of novel depth and length. There are things you can do in a novel that are not possible in a short story and to learn how to do those things you will need to practice novel-writing.

Writing short stories will reach you the basics, and the skill of constructing short stories, which is an honourable pursuit in itself. It will allow you to short circuit the long and painful experience of writing a novel only to find out it’s rubbish and you need to start again. However, if you are a novelist, and not a short story writer, then that is what you will have to do. You will write, and re-draft, and write again to perfect your art, because that’s what novelists do.

They write novels.

  1. #1 by Gill Shutt on January 30, 2011 - 6:19 pm

    Having written a few short stories and a novel, all be it an unpublished one, I would say the style of writing is totally different.. with a short story you find yourself cutting back and trimming down, weeding out the excess whereas a novel requires a lot more detail and dialogue.
    Often I get an idea for a story which then goes unwritten because it develops a mind of it’s own and I know I couldn’t do it justice in short form… the same applies in reverse as you realise you have not enough meat for the bones.
    To get published as a ss writer first means a publisher already knows you can master the basics and may look a little harder at your MS but it doesn’t necessarily follow that because you can do one you can do the other.
    A great story by the way, it gives you the basics and leaves you some leeway to fill in the blanks yourself. I hate stories or books which give you every little detail and leave nothing to the imagination… it’s half the fun of reading and gives you plenty to moan about when they bring out a film.

  2. #2 by Evon Davis on January 28, 2011 - 1:50 am

    I thought it was a fine short story, but it also has the seeds for a novel, or perhaps the succubus will become a character in one of your up-coming novels. The message on the mirror made sense later (once I knew who and what Tee was). Of course, that was your intention.

    If you are looking for more short story ideas, I’d love to know the story of the vine creature from Road to Bedlam (from its POV), or the faerie/artist who lives in the cave (from his POV). Sorry, but if you create great characters, it’s your own fault that I want to know more. 😉

    I’m currently turning the Persephone myth into a short story. Hope to have that finished in a few weeks. Thanks for all the great stuff on your blog!

  3. #3 by Mike on January 26, 2011 - 7:52 am

    Well, if you’re interested, my first short story ever to be published (albeit online) is up at http://www.shadow-writer.co.uk/afterimage.htm. I’d be interested to know if you think it meets the criteria for the form as it was an experiment for me.

    Also, feel free to highlight your own best short story efforts for comment.

  4. #4 by Matthew S. Dent on January 25, 2011 - 11:26 pm

    Mike :
    Thanks for these.
    Is it the case that short stories tend not end cleanly but are intended to leave the reader with more questions than answers?
    And is Twitter the ultimate short story, or is that Haiku?
    Thanks for the contributions.

    That’s an interesting point. Is open-endedness a stylistic feature or a product of the form? Personally, I tend to end my own short fiction pieces in an open fashion, but I like to leave the reader wondering, make the story stick in their mind and make them think about the themes of my story.

    As for Twitter, I think it certainly has the potential to be. I haven’t seen it used particularly effectively as fiction yet, but maybe I’m just not looking in the right places.

  5. #5 by Evon Davis on January 25, 2011 - 10:56 pm

    Re your second questions, in the case of short stories and narrative essays, what I appreciate most is when an author can capture a moment in time so thoroughly that I don’t care what happened before or after. To have some of those moments in a novel is desirable too, like in Road to Bedlam, the two scenes where Niall encounters the vine creature in his dreams — they are integrated into the novel, and yet have an encapsulated quality as well.

    Novels are a way of capturing many moments that string together in cause and effect relationships. The character begins to see a pattern, and through that awareness, learns and grows. A short story can usually only offer one brief glimpse of awareness for the character.

    Re Twitter, it could be as artistic as haiku. Some people are really good at it… you sort of get into their mini-stories. Others not so good (I am definitely not claiming to be any good at it).

  6. #6 by Scooter Carlyle on January 25, 2011 - 7:22 pm

    I started with novels because it simply didn’t occur to me to write short stories. When an editor at a conference asked me to send him any short stories I had written, I said a mental, “DOH!” I promptly began two when I got home, and have enjoyed the process. It’s helping me with my novel writing, as well.

    Good advice! Thanks! Your posts are always very thought-provoking.

  7. #7 by Dolly on January 25, 2011 - 6:52 pm

    I started with novels, because that’s what I loved to read. Wrote various drafts to various levels as a hobby before I got serious about writing. Then I read the advice about writing short stories, so I wrote them – and I found that they are not for me. And that made perfect sense, because I don’t really like to read short fiction, so why would I love to write it? So I have now decided to ignore that advice. Majority of what I read are novels. That is the form of story telling that I love, so that’s what I am writing, and hoping that with enough hard work, with enough practice, I will get there eventually.

  8. #8 by Mike on January 25, 2011 - 5:40 pm

    Thanks for these.

    Is it the case that short stories tend not end cleanly but are intended to leave the reader with more questions than answers?

    And is Twitter the ultimate short story, or is that Haiku?

    Thanks for the contributions.

  9. #9 by Evon Davis on January 25, 2011 - 5:14 pm

    They’re completely different forms, and people who’ve written A LOT know that (it’s not surprising that all the comments so far agree with you). I see it as cross-training. Each writer has a form that comes most naturally (mine is the novel), but I push myself to practice other forms as well (memoir, essay, poetry, blogging, screenwriting, etc.) What I learn from any writing informs my novel writing.

    Even Twitter (which I hate because it’s too damn short!) but then I learn something: stop rambling!

    I agree with Anne, it takes too much time to craft and submit short stories (and it doesn’t pay well). Why do it if I’m not enjoying it? I can write novels (which I love) and continue to live in poverty and obscurity (ha 😀 ) May as well enjoy myself. No need to go the short-story route. 😀

  10. #10 by Anne Lyle on January 25, 2011 - 3:34 pm

    I totally agree. “Start with short stories” made more sense back in the Golden Age of SF when the short format ruled (and even novels tended to be no more than 50-70k long). Nowadays, getting a short story published is often harder than getting a novel out there, and pays less money pro-rata.

    Things are changing again, of course, thanks to epublishings’ independence from the limits of paper – but that doesn’t change the fact that the short story form is a different discipline. Marathon runners rarely make good sprinters, and vice versa.

    I have one short story out and another looking for a home, but really I prefer to write novels. I mostly write about characters whose lives are affected by large-scale cultural conflicts, and the short form just doesn’t give me enough space to explore those themes, at least not in a historical fantasy setting.

    FWIW, my current (5-member) writing group was formed with the specific remit of critiquing entire novels, because that’s what we want to get published. Critiquing stories and chapters sorts out the men from the boys and is good for beginners, but there comes a time as a wannabe novelist when you have to up your game or resign yourself to hobbyist status…

  11. #11 by Matthew S. Dent on January 25, 2011 - 3:30 pm

    I must admit, as I was reading this I was getting a little worried, until the third from last paragraph.

    The seemingly widespread opinion that short stories are merely novels in miniature is fallacy I often find myself riled up by. There are, as you mention, similarities in grammar punctuation (but then again, there are similarities with that in most forms of writing), and also with dialogue, but I think most of the other constituent elements are very different.

    Short stories are a good way of learning to be concise. When your word limit is 5,000 rather than 95,000, then you can’t afford to be overly verbose and go on about irrelevancies. Not that a good novelist would do that, but there is a lot more scope for forgiveness within a novel.

    The shortness of a short story also requires a different approach to characterisation and scene-setting. In a novel, you aim to ease the reader into a familiarity with the characters, and immerse them in your world, but with a short story you don’t have the time to do that. What you have to do is make the characters matter, the events significant, and avoid over-explaining the situation.

    Whilst I can certainly see that short stories can be a leg-up to writing novels (particularly, I think, in terms of the writer’s confidence in their own abilities), and it’s a route that many writers take, I have a problem with it as a hard and fast rule.

    Aside from it being a completely different art, I feel it has the potential to denigrate short story writing as just “training wheels” (to coin the American term) for novel writing, when *good* short story writing is something so much more.

  12. #12 by C Scott Morris on January 25, 2011 - 3:15 pm

    Beautifully said.
    I think the assumption that you must cut your teeth on a few shorts first is somewhat outdated. Publishers are too eager for the Next Big Thing to reject you outright for not having enough shorts. Not having a polished, edited, edited and edited manuscript certainly.
    Starting with shorts does give two advantages that I see. One you touched on, writing shorts teaches you to construct a story: beginning, middle and most importantly the end.
    The second advantage is it proves(in theory) that your styled of writing, your prose, is publishable.
    I’m not taking chances, I am trying every route I can.
    I have one short credit in the token paying market so far. One completed manuscript shopping for agents. And this year’s goal? One short written a week, and two more completed books. So far so good, 4 for 4 and 46k words…

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