If you want to write a novel, is it best to develop craft through short stories or jump straight into writing the novel?
- Short stories build craft through a short cycle of writing and feedback, building skills that can be applied to novels.
- An inexperienced writer is unlikely to write a readable first draft of a novel.
- A writer attempting a novel from scratch can succeed if they anticipate a lot of rewriting.
Jenny wants to write a novel but she hasn’t written fiction since middle school. She doesn’t feel ready, so she’s going to write a few short stories to hone her skills before tackling the novel.
Jimmy wants to write a novel but he hasn’t written fiction since middle school. He wants to write a novel so he’s going to jump straight in and bash it out.
Who is more likely to write a good novel and keep their sanity intact?
I’ve known a few Jimmies and Jennies, so I can make a reasonable guess at how their stories will play out.
Jenny writes a story of a few thousand words fairly quickly, and gets feedback on it from a critique group. She then
rewrites or refines story, depending on what was in the feedback. The cycle of write, feedback and revise is fast enough that Jenny finds she’s rapidly improving her craft. Every time she gets feedback on a story, she uses it to revise the story but also finds she’s learned something she can apply to the next story.
She finds it takes a couple of months to take a story from concept to first draft to feedback. There’s a gap between finishing working on a story and receiving feedback, so she uses that time to start the next story.
After two or three stories, she’s writing stories that are good enough to publish, although the slow pace of the publishing industry ensures that by the time her first stories are accepted, she’ll have moved on so far she’ll regard them as novice efforts and may find them embarrassing by the time they appear in print.
She won’t make much money but she’ll be gratified to know that an editor thinks they’re good enough to warrant space in their magazine, anthology or webzine.
As Jenny gets better, she realises she’s climbing a steep learning curve. It’s exhilarating and she’s loving turning out better and better stories. Before long, she’s found she can be confident that her stories will get published and she likes the validation she gets from that. She wanted to be an author and now she’s an author.
She doesn’t realise she’s falling into a trap. If her objective is to write a novel, she’s going to have to stop writing short stories and dive into the novel. She’s always going to have more to learn, and the more validated she feels by getting her stories published, the harder it is to commit to the dauntingly massive project that’s a novel. She knows nothing about the novel publishing world and she’s haunted by the prospect of spending a year writing a novel that may not be publishable. She could write a dozen short stories instead, and perhaps one of them will win the Pushcart Prize she’s secretly coveted since she heard of it.
Jenny is a woman of fixed purpose, and she’s never lost sight of that novel she wants to write. By now, she’s finding the short form too restrictive for the stories she wants to tell. She knows novellas are difficult to sell, but she writes a couple to get some experience with something longer.
Now the time has come so she brews a large pot of coffee and sits down to start her novel. She very quickly finds that there’s more to a novel than simply a longer short story. She’s never tried to wrangle so many characters and subplots into 80-90,000 coherent words before. She feels she’s fallen all the way back to the bottom of the learning curve.
It’s hard work and she makes mistakes, but she has the craft she learned from the short stories to help her as slowly, so painfully slowly, her novel emerges into the light.
Meanwhile, Jimmy knows the novel he wants to write and he can’t see any reason not to sit down and write it.
The first pitfall that awaits him has swallowed more than half the novels ever started. After hammering out 10,000 words in a blaze of enthusiasm, Jimmy’s novel peters out. He doesn’t know it, but the choice he makes now will decide whether he ever finishes it.
Jimmy is in grave danger of deciding he’s got writer’s block. He’s heard the term bandied around enough to know it’s an occupational hazard for writers, even if he’s not sure exactly what it is. He’s a writer who can’t seem to produce words, so that must be writer’s block? Right?
Writer’s block has the ring of the tortured artist about it. It’s the sort of thing that might have afflicted Hemingway between marriages. It carries far more gravitas than staring out of the window sucking his thumb, which is what Jimmy is actually doing. If Jimmy is a true disciple of Hemingway, he’ll try to shift it by downing a couple of bottles of neat whisky and finding someone to box. More likely, he’ll end up on the sofa bingeing on X-Factor and hoping for his genius to return from its holiday.
Eventually, he’ll realise he’s been telling his friends he’s writing a novel for the last ten years but his genius has yet to inspire those 10,000 words into 11,000.
Fortunately, Jimmy is serious about his writing and practical enough to resist being seduced by the false romanticism of writer’s block. Instead, he takes a step back and realises that his problem is that the idea he started with was never enough to carry 80,000 words on its own. He’s going to have to expand the idea and decide where it’s going.
It’s a slog, and Jimmy has to discard those first 10,000 words and start again. Six months to a year later, Jimmy has his first draft. He’s ecstatic to have finished it and in his more optimistic moments, he dares imagine his novel on the bestseller shelf of his local bookshop.
He’s realistic enough to know his first draft might be a little rough around the edges. He sends it out for critique, hoping someone else’s perspective will help to polish it.
And learns it’s a mess. How much of a mess depends on how much raw talent he has. He hasn’t spent any time building craft to cover the areas where his talent won’t carry him so unless he’s some sort of prodigy, his first draft is likely to be terrible.
Facing the fact that his magnum opus is not the masterpiece he thought it was is devastating. It takes Jimmy a few six-packs of beer and a lot of X-Factor to come to terms with it.
A lesser man might decide that he shouldn’t pay too much attention to critiques. A critique is only one person’s opinion, after all. They must have been the wrong critiquers because they just didn’t get it. He may as well send the manuscript to a few agents as it is. They’ll get it. Won’t they?
As we’ve already seen, Jimmy is made of sterner stuff than that. There’s only so much X-Factor he can take before it drives him to conclude there’s a big difference between finishing a draft and writing a good novel. He may decide to refine the novel he’s already written, which is likely to involve a complete rewrite. He may decide to treat that first novel as a learning experience and apply what he’s learned to a new novel. The advantage of the latter approach is that he can apply what he’s learned from the very beginning of the process rather than trying to do remedial work.
He may take comfort from Iain Banks’s belief that he had to write a ‘million words of rubbish’ before he became an ‘overnight success’ with The Wasp Factory.
To Jenny or to Jimmy?
Ultimately, both Jenny and Jimmy get their novels written, but whose path is the one to follow? Jenny encountered less frustration as she made her biggest mistakes on short stories, in which she’s invested mush less time and effort than Jimmy did in his disastrous first draft. It won’t save her from all Jimmy’s mistakes, but she approached her novel with a lot more craft than Jimmy so her mistakes are more likely to be correctable.
Is Jimmy kicking himself for not honing his craft with short stories?
Alternatively, he may not be able to think in terms of short stories. Many writers can’t, and it doesn’t stop them becoming accomplished novelists. Perhaps the novel Jimmy wanted to write had such a hold on him that he couldn’t see past it to write anything else, and he accepted the frustrations he encountered along the way were part of the labour of love.
As ever, no one path is best for everyone. The best we can do is to make our choices with as much knowledge of what lies ahead as we can gather.