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.