Are short stories necessary?

Now this is interesting, the comment thread on Tobias Buckell’s survey results has turned into a debate about the efficacy of writing short stories for learning how to write novels and for establising your reputation so that it’s easier to get your novels published.

Given that I can’t write a decent short story to save my life and have sold three novels I don’t think short stories are necessary to build a career as a novelist. Short stories and novels are very different kinds of writing. Being good at one does not mean you’ll be good at the other. There are the folks who are genius short story writers whose novels are well, um, not anywhere near as good as their stories. Like I said, they’re different forms.

On the other hand, I wrote hundreds of (broken, crappy) short stories before I wrote my first novel. Every one of those stories taught me something about writing. So as I began that first novel I’d already had a lot of practice writing dialogue, describing magical anvils, blowing monsters up. All of which came in very handy when I started writing the fictional form that I’m much better at.

Then there’s the publishing side of things. Science fiction has long had a very strong and vibrant short story market. So many well-known sf writers started out publishing short stories: Asimov, Pohl, Silverberg, Russ, Delany, McIntyre etc. etc. So it used to be true that a great way to break into sf was to make a name for yourself as a short story writer. It’s not nearly as true as it used to be. Though if, say, Ted Chiang had a novel to sell I imagine the editors would be lining up around the block.

Romance and young adult and crime and other genres do not have anywhere near the same kind of short story market so that path into publishing is not available. You want a name as a romance writer then you have to publish novels because there’s pretty much no one publishing romance short stories.

So here are my questions: How many of you write both short stories and novels? How do you see the relationship between the two forms? Is one harder for you than the other? Or does it depend on the kind of story you’re telling? Do you read short stories as frequently as you read novels?

37 comments

  1. tobias s buckell on #

    I dunno, Justine, you should do a survey!

    Kidding. I found short stories to be useful in teaching me a lot of technical stuff. Yeah it can’t teach me how to form chapters, arcs, or paint the large novel landscape. But for dialogue, narrative, handling exposition, and getting myself up to a publishing level quality of line prose, it was invaluable for me.

    But I’m not too terribly invested in either approach. If anything, the fast you can get to novels the better, that’s where the money is.

  2. Jay Lake on #

    I write both. I absolutely broke in from the short fiction side. I’m told I’m one of only two people to ever win the Campbell without either having a major novel come out or being in the digests with short fiction, so I not only did it from the short fiction side, I did it from the small press end.

    That being said, the metaphor I use is comparing cabinet making to framing carpentry. Many of the same tools, many of the same behaviors, very different outcomes. Some people do one, some people do the other, some people do both.

    It’s a shame, really, that we have a prejudice that says novels are more real, more important, than short fiction.

  3. Susan Marie Groppi on #

    Hey! Speaking as someone who’s published your short fiction, I can’t let that “can’t write a short story to save your life” claim stand. It may not be your preferred mode, but you’re certainly capable of it.

    I’m not a writer, so I can’t really answer the question that you’ve asked, but it seems pretty clear to me that short-fiction writing and novel writing are related but not entirely overlapping skill sets. Some people can do both well, but some people are clearly just more comfortable (and more proficient) in one form or the other. I’ve never understood why people are told to write short stories to improve their novel-writing skills.

  4. megan crewe on #

    I used to split my time pretty much equally between short stories and novels, but in the last few years I’ve realized that I’m much more comfortable with the novel format. Most of my story ideas are big–best told chapter by chapter, developing characters and conflicts gradually. Most of my short stories are novel-esque ideas compressed.

    That said, I’m glad I spent time on those short stories. I worked on a lot of skills I needed for novels–sentence-level writing, scene structure, beginnings and ends, etc.–in a format where I could write several stories in the amount of time it’d have taken me to write a novel. And they also forced me to practice being concise, chosing the words that really did the job, and parring a story down to the most essential bits.

  5. Dan Goodman on #

    I think there are actually more markets for short spec-fic than ever. Most of them — including the highest-paying one (Baen’s Universe) — are electronic rather than print.

    That aside: Patricia C. Wrede tried for years to begin by selling short stories. They didn’t sell. She sold the first novel she wrote, and has sold all novels since then. She now sells about half her short stories — most of which she’s been invited to submit.

    I can think of one spec-fic writer whose natural length seems to be 100 words; and another (no longer writing) whose natural length seems to be “And I thought Robert Jordan’s series was long!” number of volumes.

  6. sara z on #

    Short stories are difficult for me. I think in novels. i’ve heard people advise aspiring writers to start with short stories before trying a novel, but is that like telling a runner to train for a marathon with sprints? I don’t know. The two forms seem radically different to me. being good at one doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. i love short fiction, though, and would love to write an amazing short story.

  7. simmone on #

    short stories is how I learned to write. I love ‘em. I love knowing what the end is and having all my ducks in a row and then, you know, shooting out some ducks and letting others get a good go around. Short stories also allowed me to believe that I was ‘worthy’ of being read ‘Internationally’ – and in fact I’m pretty sure I’d have more chance getting published somewhere other than home – in the end I didn’t even bother to send stories to aust journals… but I’m making myself sound prolific. I think Raymond Carver-y said something like ‘get in get out’ and that’s the other beauty of the short form – it teaches you to not waffle… which is kind what I”m doing now…oh.

  8. Edward Willett on #

    Having grown up reading SF anthologies, I always think of the short story as the real lifeblood of the field, and so I’d love to be a truly great short story writer…but I’m just not. I’ve sold a few, but typically they start to get kind of long-winded and I wonder what happened before them, and after them, and…well…

    Then I write a novel. My DAW paperback Lost in Translation is a published-short-story-converted-into-novel. And the new book I’ve sold DAW (and will, God willing, hand in in the next couple of weeks) grew from a single opening sentence written in a writing course Robert J. Sawyer taught at the Banff Centre, which I really really tried hard to turn into short story…and which is now 105,000 words.

    And maybe it’s cynical or not, but I’m with Tobias on this: I’m a fulltime writer. I’d rather spend my time on something that has a better chance of paying the bills, at least now that I’m actually selling the things.

  9. Simon Haynes on #

    Memory is a weird thing. I could have sworn I had short fiction published before turning to the Hal Spacejock novels, and yet the first draft of Hal 1 was completed in 1999 and my first short story pub was 18 months later.

    However, before I wrote the novels I DID knock out plenty of incompetent incomplete and unpublishable pieces of … something. I regard them as my compost heap.

    It’s funny, but when I was scratching through the folders yesterday I came across 15,000 words of a novel I’d completely forgotten about. Interest stirred, and I’m seriously thinking about completing it.

    First, though, I want to write a new short story. It’s been 5 years since the last, and my novel-length thought processes could do with the exercise.

  10. scott w on #

    before my first novel, i appeared to be writing lots of short stories. but it in retrospect, they were all actually novel chapters. (alas, none were from the same novel.) so i thought i was starting with short stories, but i was really practicing by writing fragments of novels.

    as tobias said up top, these efforts did teach me necessary line-level skillz. and as megan pointed in comment 4, they did so without taking a year each to write.

    the hardest trick was figuring out why they sucked (because they were novel chapters, not short stories) and that i had to switch forms.

    that’s my only worry about telling beginners that they should start with short stories. because if they’re like i was, they’ll pound their heads against the good-short-story issue instead of realizing at some point that it’s time to go long.

  11. Maggie on #

    Yeah, I jumped into writing by starting out with novels too. I’ve never had a short story published, and any I try to write seem like novel chapters.

  12. Diana on #

    i didn’t mean to start a debate, but I do think it’s an interesting distinction between the genres, and likened it, on tobias’s blog, to how many romance writers start their careers writing the shorter, more circumspect category novels for Harlequin/silhouette, and then later branch out into single title.

  13. Matt Doyle on #

    I write both as well. But i don’t think it is just a question of form.

    I think it is also a question of effect…short fiction has the ability to punch you in the gut, kiss you softly but ever so sweetly, or rip your heart out of your chest.

    novels, i think, tend to be more torturous…stretching the emotion and power of the narrative out further and in a less direct manner. i suppose, you could say then, that it is form after all, but the effect of the form is also a key difference between them too.

    as for the actual writing…short stories allow you to economise plot, character, setting and style, which is a good skill i think, and are also great venues for experimentation. novels allow you to wallow in your own literary filth (I’m sorry, i just liked that metaphor…I’m not meaning to imply novel-writing is inferior or anything), which is to say, you can enjoy it, linger and develop things; things you may not have the space to do in a short story.

  14. matt on #

    as i read this comment string, i can’t help but think of the big-time pianists & composers.

    now, i’m not a full-time writer – heck, i’ve never even been a paid writer – so i can’t really speak from experience or anything, but it strikes me as rather sad that the craft has to be approached by so many as an industrial task as a means of survival.

    back to the pianists: i love rachmaninov’s third piano concerto more than a helluva lot of pieces, but darned if i wouldn’t rather be locked in a room ’til the end of time with naught but a cd of chopin’s nocturnes. my point is, the big arena pianists make their money showing off their skills on the big pieces (concertos, sonatas, what have you), but some of them are flat out more skilled at playing the shorter stuff. granted, the analogy breaks down in several different places, but my gut feeling is the same. i just find it sad that to climb to the top of the billing, a pianist has to do it playing concertos (and won’t be able to, if only showing off the nocturnes), and i find it just as sad that writers have to climb to the top of the writing world using novels. i mean, i simply adore “for whom the bell tolls”, but darned if i wouldn’t rather be locked in a room with only “the snows of kilimanjaro” to keep me warm. there are just so many forms to use that it strikes me as ridiculous for one, the novel, to be so elevated as the primary measuring stick against which writers are graded. sad. we’re just so indoctrinated to think that the novel is the pinnacle, and it doesn’t make sense to me.

    again, i’m not earning my keep with words, so i can’t speak from experience – heck, it’s probably not my place to begin with. if i were paying the bills by writing novels, i’m sure i’d be just as cynical as some of the people commenting here claim to be (although i’d think it’s more like realistic), i just wish it weren’t so.

    novel on.

  15. Kellie Hazell on #

    My ideas tend to be of the multi-book saga variety, and for a long time the entire concept of “short fiction” baffled me. Then I became a working mom and the amount of time I had to write anything lessened significantly. I started turning to short fiction as a means of maintaining sanity. Multi-book sagas are fun but highly frustrating if you barely have the time to complete a chapter a month–I got sick of feeling like I was never going to finish any piece of writing. Short fiction provides a nice sense of accomplishment. And in writing the shorter pieces, I’ve been able to see ways to make my novel writing process more efficient.

    Of course, I have yet to sell anything, so… :)

  16. Justine on #

    Tobias Buckell: the faster you can get to novels the better, that’s where the money is.

    Cynical bastard! :-)

    Jay Lake: It’s a shame, really, that we have a prejudice that says novels are more real, more important, than short fiction.

    There’s at least one solid reason for that prejudice: As Tobias points out if you’re trying to make a living as a writer you have to write novels. If I only wrote short stories there’s no way in hell I could be a full-time writer. Such little amount of money as can be made writing fiction is made at the novel end of the pool.

    Susan Marie Groppi: Hey! Speaking as someone who’s published your short fiction, I can’t let that ‘can’t write a short story to save your life’ claim stand. It may not be your preferred mode, but you’re certainly capable of it.

    Hah! You got me.

    It took me just as long to write that short story as it took to write my first published novel. I find writing short stories much harder and just as time consuming as writing a novel yet I get paid way more for the novels. Thus I stopped writing short stories.

    Megan Crewe: Most of my short stories are novel-esque ideas compressed.

    Me too! Or they’re actual chapters of novels.

    Dan Goodman: I think there are actually more markets for short spec-fic than ever. Most of them—including the highest-paying one (Baen’s Universe)—are electronic rather than print.

    Good point. But most of them do not pay well. Very hard to make a living writing short fiction.

    But leaving the making money part aside, I do love how much good short fiction I can read online at places like Strange Horizon. One of the many beautiful things about the intramanet thingy.

  17. klages on #

    I love short stories. They’re like scrimshaw or tiny lacquered boxes. I’ve written one novel, The Green Glass Sea, and it came out of a short story. (And I’m working on the sequel.)

    The one advantage novels have is that they become objects. You can hand someone a book. Short stories are more ephemeral, unless they are collected into an object themselves. (Shameless self-promotion: As mine are about to be. Tachyon Publications, a volume called Portable Childhoods, next spring.)

    I don’t think of short stories as appetizers to novels’ entree status, more as exquisite pastries.

  18. Edward Willett on #

    Justine,

    Nope, didn’t miss the smiley–just forgot to add one of my own! :)

    Off-topic, sort of: do you ever find yourself wishing you could use smileys and such in your regular fiction? ‘Cause I occasionally do.

  19. may on #

    i haven’t sold anything.

    so far, all my short stories have morphed into novels, bar one which was an exercise in ripping my hair out and stress.

    i think it’s not the length that makes it difficult. it’s that i’ve not found any ideas small enough for a short story, if that makes sense?

    to answer justine’s original question, i’m not sure. as a reader, i enjoy the odd short story, though i believe that the novel is a better test of a writer’s mettle (i emphasize, from a reader’s point of view).

    as a writer, i see that they are different animals altogether. so far, for me at least, the lure of the novel is greater, probably because of the larger scope it offers.

  20. Tim Pratt on #

    I write both, and I also write poetry, and all three are totally different forms. It took me a while to realize good novels were just more than really long short stories, but once I finally figured that out, my novels started to sell. I still write stories and poetry, and enjoy both for different reasons. I find novels more difficult, but mostly because they *take* longer. They’re easier in some ways — I don’t have to compress as much or leave as many things out. Digressions are easier to do well in novels. I like digressions.

  21. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    As soon as you confuse art and commerce, the conversation becomes muddled. The economic need to write novels has nothing to do with whether short stories are necessary or not. And the fact is, neither your (the general you) novel nor your short story is “necessary”. the world will survive just fine without either. nor does the world particularly care about your economic situation.

    These are two distinct art forms. They require different things from the writer and the reader. To say that one is better than the other is to say that a whale is better than a horse. Meaningless.

    JeffV

  22. tobias s buckell on #

    Me, cynical? Heh, I just want to eat. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and all that, and short fiction doesn’t quite help me keep a roof over my head :-)

  23. Justine on #

    Edward Willett: I have learned to always use the dread smiley when I’m being even the teeniest bit dry. Saves much heartache. :-)

    Jeffv: As soon as you confuse art and commerce, the conversation becomes muddled. The economic need to write novels has nothing to do with whether short stories are necessary or not.

    The orginal question (which was obviously poorly expressed) was a two parter:

    a) are short stories necessary to develop as a novelist?

    and

    b) is publishing short stories necessary to breaking into publishing novels?

    The first is your mystical art. The second your demon commerce.

    No one on this thread is saying that one form is superior than the other. A lot of us are saying we’re better at writing one than the other. And that you can earn more money from one than the other. (For the record I love reading short stories, but despite more than twenty years of trying I’m not very good at writing them.)

    For those of us who are trying to make a living writing the second is a matter of considerable importance.

  24. Justine on #

    Edward Willett:And maybe it’s cynical or not, but I’m with Tobias on this: I’m a fulltime writer. I’d rather spend my time on something that has a better chance of paying the bills, at least now that I’m actually selling the things.

    Looks like you missed the smiley, Edward! And all my other comments. You know, like this one: “As Tobias points out if you’re trying to make a living as a writer you have to write novels.”

  25. margo on #

    But Jeff, a whale is better than a horse. *scratches head worriedly*

  26. Justine on #

    Margo: C’mon! It totally depends on the individual whale or horse.

  27. Penni on #

    I have to say the reverse is true in my case – writing novels has helped me write short stories (or one anyway). I wrote one this year for the first time in years and it’s pretty much the only uncrappy, unbroken short story I’ve written (and damn, I wanted to turn it into a novel – it was freaking hard stopping at 3000 words or so). I know so much more about narrative and structure than pre-novel writing, I understand more about the ‘shift’ – in the short stories I used to write nothing really happened. Or I relied too heavily on the climax alone to deliver the story.

    Personally i think it’s a totally different artform. I don’t think it’s essential preparation for novel writing except for the fact that you do have to practice writing on something and it’s time consuming to practice on novels. I practiced on poems. Though in many ways novels are much easier than poetry, far more forgiving.

  28. Justine on #

    Penni: I think it’s definitely true that writing anything teaches you something about writing that can (with luck) be usefully applied to other kinds of writing.

    I’m hoping that if I ever try to write another short story I’ll be better at it than I was before, on account of I’m a better writer than I was before.

    But they are different forms. I mean you never see people suggesting that mastering the art of the sonnet is necessary for becoming a novelist . . .

  29. Rebecca on #

    i am mas crap at short stories. in general, it’s rare that I particularly enjoy reading them, although that could be b/c i’ve been reading the wrong ones. :P i dunno. i mostly don’t like ‘em. and every time i try to write one, people say one of two things. a) it sucks, or b) “this sounds like part of a novel!” to which i can only groan loudly in response. i’m much happier writing lonnnnnnnng complicated stuff. but, that’s personal preference, of course. :)

  30. Karen Miller on #

    I am the crappiest short story writer who ever lived. Just ask the folk I did Clarion with. *g* But I’ve now published 7 novels, with the 8th due out in June. Short answer, no, I don’t believe it’s necessary to have a short story career in order to be a novelist. As has been pointed out, they are profoundly different art forms. Neither is superior to the other. Some folk are supremely talented and can switch between modes (if only I were one of them) and others, like me, find themselves drawn by inclination, temperament and interest to the longer format.

    For anyone to claim definitively that a novelist must commence a career with short stories, that you can only learn to write well by doing that, is a nonsense.

  31. David Louis Edelman on #

    I can think of one really, really good reason to write (and publish) short stories first. And that’s so when your first novel makes the rounds of the agents and publishers, they don’t all instantly throw your manuscript into the discard pile. They might actually take a look at the thing.

    I had absolutely no story credits to my name when I sold my first novel, and I got form rejection letters from just about everybody before I could get someone to even crack it open.

  32. Penni on #

    I have to say though as someone who has read unsoliciteds for years, I rarely pay a lot of attention to short story credits before I read a novel. It is true if someone has significant publishing credits I might sit down to read it instead of standing up ;) but the reality is, when it comes to short stories, publishing opportunities are so variable and of course writing a novel is so different from writing a short story, that it doesn’t necessarily serve as a representation of a writer’s ability. The exception to this is if you win a major short story competition – publishers and agents will probably contact you to find out if you have a novel in th works.

  33. David Louis Edelman on #

    Thanks for that, Penni. I must say the selling-short-stories-helps-you-sell-the-novel thing is really only a theory on my part, since I’ve really only ever finished one short story to my satisfaction, and that was in 1995.

  34. Danny Adams on #

    I love reading and writing short stories, but the reason I started writing short stories again three years ago was utilitarian: I needed to teach myself brevity. My novel at the time was an oversized, sprawling mess, so I turned to short stories as an extra means of teaching myself what I did wrong.

    At this point I’ve sold fifteen short stories and one novel, so maybe there was something to the idea. :)

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