Should an aspiring fiction writer start with novels or short stories? Don’t look to this blog entry for a concrete recommendation for your situation. I can only tell you the path I took and my reasons for choosing it. For you, success could well lie on a different path.
When phrased as an either/or choice – novels or short stories – the question itself is too limiting. There are a variety of other avenues for the creative writer of prose, including flash fiction, novellas, podcasting, television and movie scriptwriting, and playwriting. I’m sure I’ve left out some options and many more possibilities remain to be discovered, or forgotten ones rediscovered. Some writer will have to be the pioneer who leads these expeditions. Why not you?
While serving aboard a submarine many years ago, I thought of an idea for a story. So grand was this story idea, I was certain it would make me both famous and rich. To truly capture this story, only the novel format would do. I was sure my tale would seize the attention of the country and even the world. I could already see myself resigning my commission in the Navy, doing the talk show circuit, and traveling to book signings.
Though chock full of enthusiasm and energy, I was less well supplied with writing experience. I’d heard all the arguments for starting with short stories, of course. But such well-meaning advice could be safely ignored. It simply didn’t apply to my case, I was sure. Undeterred by these considerations, I set to work.
Actually writing the novel proved harder than I’d counted on, which surprised me at the time for some reason. There was a lot to think about, with plots and subplots, characters, settings, even a theme. How to keep it all straight? Confident that my future fans would patiently await the great opus, I struggled on.
The struggle filled some time, like two decades or more. At the end of that period I found I’d created a manuscript of which even my desk drawer was—and still is–ashamed. To this day, the desk’s immune system occasionally rejects it and I have to gather up the pages, force them back in, and nail the drawer shut again.
In truth I had more to show from all the work than just an unpublishable manuscript. Without knowing it, I’d been honing my skills in a harmless way, practicing the craft and making all my early mistakes.
Abandoning that first novel, I started another. But doubts had set in about whether I was cut out for this. A novel is a daunting task and a significant investment of time with very uncertain payoff, particularly for the beginning fiction writer. It’s easy for discouragement to build up and eventually overwhelm enthusiasm.
I then read The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley and Eric Brown, published by Carroll and Graf in 2005. It’s a marvelous collection of short stories inspired by Jules Verne, all written by modern authors. As a Jules Verne fan, the book inspired me. I wrote my own short story, a work that would have fit well in that collection, or would if they decided to put out a second anthology in a similar vein. That story, “The Steam Elephant,” appeared in Steampunk Tales issue #5.
That started me off writing more. There are several reasons why I’ve enjoyed my switch to short stories. I can churn out many more of them per year. They keep my ever-fickle muse interested and focused. It’s easier to test out different genres. Short stories represent a good method for further growth as a writer while getting the positive feedback of more frequent acceptances.
At some point I’ll return to the novel length story. The average non-writer doesn’t regard an author as serious until she or he has published a novel. Certainly the pay for a published novel is greater as well. Who knows, one of these days I may dust off the two novels I started, rewrite them, and send them out for consideration. If you’re engaged in writing a novel equally as good, perhaps I’ll join you on the talk show circuit! Until then, I’ll remain a short story writer, and—