When I first started writing, I was told many times that I should start with short stories rather than trying to jump right into a novel. I didn’t want to do that. The story arcs that I had in mind would not fit into a short story. I had tons of ideas that I wanted to writer about, but every single one would require at least one novel to do it justice. Heck – in some cases it would have required an entire series! Besides, I enjoyed reading the epic tales and wanted to create something on that scale.
After all, I had been writing for years, taken writing classes, and read quite a bit. I knew about story arcs and could create characters that would be cared about. So, I was going to jump into it and create a novel. I was ready, right?
No. I was not.
But writing short stories is only a way to get your name out there. You can bypass that step by creating an amazing novel. If you write a wonderful book and get it into the hands of publishers, you’ll be set. If you aren’t trying to build your name, you can skip the short story step.
All of that was wrong.
After I published my second novel, I started writing short stories and getting them published. Each short story that got published opened up more opportunities to get more stories out there. Over the years I got my writing in front of more and more people. And while I was building an audience, that was not the most valuable part of writing the short stories. What was the most valuable part? It made me a much better writer.
Don’t get me wrong, building an audience is a very important part of becoming an author – which is more than just being a writer. Maxwell A. Drake wrote a wonderful post about that in this blog a couple of weeks ago. I highly encourage you to go read it if you haven’t. But, building your audience is not going to carry your career as an author unless you have the writing skills to back it up. And writing short stories will make you a much better writer.
Why do short stories make you a better writer than jumping directly to a novel? Both of them require you to write compelling stories and find a way to entertain your readers and make them want to move on to the next line, the next page. Both of them require you to create and pull the reader through a full story arc. So what makes the short story superior in this respect? Quite simply, they’re short.
When you create a short story, the amount of time that it takes to bring the tale from its initial conception to final submission-ready draft is significantly shorter than the time it takes to create just the first draft of a novel. Depending on where your strengths are and how much planning you do before writing, you might even be able to complete a well-thought out short story in less time than it takes to create the background for your novel. There is much less scope to be concerned with, and this can work to your advantage.
It becomes a numbers game.
Let’s look at an example. For my next novel that I have planned, I spent over a month thinking about the entire world and taking notes about history, how magic works, why the world is the way it is, and so on. I have pages about the world to make it believable, and to make sure that I follow the rules I’ve created. And all of this time invested is before I even began thinking about the main character, and what he or she might have to go through. How many short stories could I have planned and written in that time? Let’s estimate conservatively and say two.
So on one hand I could have two short stories, or the beginning of a world where a novel will take place.
Let’s add on another month for planning the outline of the story. And let’s say I am extremely productive and write a chapter a day for a 30 chapter book. For the record – that is an insane pace to set, at least for me. But, for the sake of estimates we now have three months to take a novel from raw beginning to completion of the first draft. Then comes the cleanup, the editing, and the sending out to beta readers to get and incorporate feedback. Again, let’s set up an insanely productive timeline and say I manage to get all of that done in a month (which is not going to happen, but humor me). We are now at four months of a “nearly kill yourself” pace for me (and my beta readers) to get a novel into a state where I might consider sending it out.
How many short stories could I have completed in that time? Eight.
Now here’s the key. Why is this important? Why does churning more stories become a critical part in your evolution as a writer? Because there are things that you will learn telling an entire story from start to finish that you will never learn from writing pieces. Writing something from beginning to end is critical, and will teach you so much. It is one of the spots where many writers get stuck. You need to have the full cycle to see how the story moves and evolves over time.
And with short stories, you will see that more often.
Every story that I have written – short, novella-length, or novel – I learned something about storytelling. I learned a different way to craft a tale. I learned where you want to add suspense, how much action is too much, or how you needed to wrap things up to give the reader a feeling of satisfaction. I learned where a story arc needs to be steep and how it needs to get to where it needs to go.
Not only that, but with each of these stories, I also got feedback. I heard from readers, and not just my beta readers. I heard about things they liked, things that worked, and things that in some cases made them tune out of the story and move on to the next one in the anthology. Each of these lessons required an entire tale to learn them.
Each of these lessons that I learned is a small step towards becoming a better writer. Each completed story is not a notch on the belt – it is a collection of lessons I learned and an opportunity to refine my writing technique. With short stories, these lessons come faster, and my writing improves at a much greater rate than if I was writing novels exclusively.
Another advantage of short stories is that it has given me an opportunity to experiment with different writing techniques. For example, I just had a short story published that was my first submission where I told it in the first person. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but it fit with the way that I wanted the story to unfold. So I tried it, refined it, and now it is published. Could you imagine trying that with a full novel and investing that much time before knowing if it would even work? How demoralizing would it be if the fundamental flaw of a novel was something that required rewriting the entire thing? Unfortunately a simple Search and Replace for “I” with “he” or “she” won’t quite cut it.
Now I love writing short stories. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy telling the epic tale and very much have several of those stories to tell. But, I like creating the smaller pieces because I know that they help make sure that my epic tale will be that much better.
Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying here to think that I am implying short stories are easier. They are most definitely not. Then again, they are not harder than writing novels either. It is comparing two similar but very different skill sets. It is like comparing someone who does stage combat with someone who does tournament martial arts. The skills are very similar and many of the lessons translate from one to the other, but they cannot be directly compared. All I am saying is that short stories are shorter. And because they are shorter, I firmly believe that they serve as a wonderful writing tool to make you a better writer.
So the next time that you have a friend tell you that maybe you should start with short stories first, don’t have a knee jerk reaction to just ignore them because you have this great epic tale to tell. You may have a great epic tale, but if you take the time to refine your skills first, it will make that tale even more magnificent and enjoyable to read. Writing is just like any other skill – the more you practice, the better you become.
About the Author
Dylan Birtolo has always been a storyteller, for as long as he can remember. No matter how much other things have changed, that aspect has not. He still tells stories, in whatever format he can. He currently resides in the great Pacific Northwest where he spends his time as a writer, a gamer, and a professional sword-swinger. He has published a couple of fantasy novels and several short stories in multiple anthologies. He has also written pieces for game companies set in their worlds and co-authored a gaming manual. He trains with the Seattle Knights, an acting troop that focuses on stage combat, and has performed in live shows, videos, and movies. In addition he teaches the academy for upcoming acting combatants. Endeavoring to be a true jack of all trades, he has worked as a software engineer, a veterinary technician in an emergency hospital, a martial arts instructor, a rock climbing guide, and a lab tech. He has had the honor of jousting, and yes, the armor is real – it weighs over 120 pounds. You can read more about him and his works at www.dylanbirtolo.com or follow his Twitter at DylanBirtolo. His most recent project is a kickstarter to write and release a trilogy of modern fantasy novels about shape shifters. You can read about it at tinyurl.com/BirtoloKS