Why I don’t write short stories (except when I do)

By March 27, 2013Comms

In a recent tweet, I wrote: “Writing short stories because you want to be a novelist is like learning to ride a motorcycle because you want to drive a car.”

I knew it would be provactive, and it was intended to be. I find that the best way to get a healthy discussion going is to skate the edge of dickishness. Problem is, it’s pretty easy to skate across that line, and 140 characters doesn’t allow a lot of room for explanation.

So, here’s an explanation.

I knew I wanted to be a professional fantasy novelist pretty much from when I learned to read. I only realized that I could actually do it in 1998. So, I did what most folks do, I hit the Internet, read all about how folks became professionals in the field.

There was an overwhelmingly uniform narrative. To become a professional fantasy novelist one must:

1.) Win the Writers of the Future contest. RESULT: You have a professional credit and associate membership in SFWA on your cover letter. The “Tier I” magazines will now seriously consider your work.

2.) Make 3 short story sales to SFWA qualifying markets. RESULT: You are now an active SFWA member, and are invited to the “closed” parties.

3.) Go to said “closed” parties and meet your agent. RESULT: You have an agent. Without one, you can never ever sell a novel.

4.) Have your agent take your novel out to market and sell it. RESULT: Dream achieved.

I bought this like it was on sale. It was the exact process I followed to where I am now. It took almost 15 years. I repeated it to everyone who would listen.

It’s all wrong.

Notice what’s not on that list? LEARN YOUR CRAFT and WRITE AN AMAZING NOVEL. It’s all cart-before-the-horse-stuff, focusing on the ladder climbing, the networking, the who-you-know.

That stuff is important, but it’s the sizzle, not the steak. The steak is writing the best book ever, and nobody likes to focus on that because it’s really really fucking hard. A friend once told me that he wanted to be a writer like Hank Moody in Californication. I responded: “You know what you never see Hank Moody doing on that show? Writing.”

I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe that if, instead of writing short stories, I had focussed on my novel writing craft, I would have achieved my dream of becoming a professional writer at least 5 years earlier than I did. I don’t think it matters what credentials you do or don’t have. Quality wins in the end. The much derided gatekeepers at the Big 5 in New York City (and the little 3 in San Francisco, Amherst and Nottingham) know their business. They miss a few, but by and large, they back winning horses.

So, here’s my message to the aspiring novelist. If you like short stories, if you want to write short stories, then write short stories. If you want to be a novelist (and, honestly, if you ever want to have a snowball’s chance in hell of making a full time living from your fiction), then write novels.

Some arguments I don’t agree with:

“But writing short stories makes you a better writer! It teaches you craft! The skills translate to novels!”

No. They don’t. Or, at least the translation is so small that it makes no difference. Writing short stories teaches you how to write short stories. The novel is a different animal. They plot differently. Characters develop differently. Pacing is different. Even dialogue is different when you have virtually unlimited space to explore it.

“But selling to short story markets means I’m getting better as a writer and will be able to sell my novel!”

No. Editors of short story markets know how to spot great short stories. They do not necessarily know how to spot great novels. Some of them do, but that’s not what they’re looking for in their current position. Getting great personal rejection letters (I HATE rejectomancy, but that’s another blog post) is telling you that you’re getting better at writing short stories, not novels.

“But without the credentials, nobody will even read my manuscript.”

Wrong. If you write a dynamite query letter, you will catch an agent’s interest and they will look at your book. I’m not saying that they’ll look at much of it, but that’s on you. It’s your responsibility to take the doors off from paragraph 1. Same thing for slush readers if you hit a publisher unagented (which I am also strongly against). Even if you have sold 50 short stories to F&SF, Asimovs, Realms of Fantasy, Analog and . . . hell, even if you’ve sold 50 short stories to the fucking New Yorker, if you write a lousy novel, nobody is going to buy it. Because editors can spot suck from space. They’ve been at this for years.

Sure, you MIGHT be that undiscovered genius, and if you are, you’ll self-publish your book and make wheel-barrows full of money. And then publishers will see the error of their ways and give you a multi-million dollar contract. But let’s face it, odds are, if your book got rejected, it’s because it wasn’t good enough to sell, and you need to lock it up, lock it on, and get better. I did. For over a decade. The book that finally sold was my 4th novel.

And honestly? I hear all these stories about how great novels were rejected 8 hojillion times before they finally sold. But here’s the rub, THEY FINALLY SOLD. In the end, good books find homes. I can’t think of any novel I know of that was amazing, that didn’t eventually get a deal. I can think of a few self-publishing successes, but they are as rare as four leaf clovers, the shining exceptions that prove the rule.

And here’s what worries me about aspiring writers trying to tread the same path that I do. I firmly believe that, if you’re dedicated and willing to go the distance no matter how long it takes, you’ll get published. But you’ll also delay your career, just as I did.

Some thoughts on that:

– Short stories have a very limited audience. Even the most prominent short story magazines have tiny circulations. I almost never discuss short stories with people, have them recommended to me, find them reviewed. I don’t know anyone who reads them who isn’t an aspiring writer. I almost never read them. There are some great ones out there, like Greg Van Eekhout’s In the Late December or Dale Bailey’s Death and Sufferage, but the only reason I came across them in the first place was because I was an aspiring writer who was hunting for a magic key.

I know of only two exceptions to this: People are drawn to anthologies featuring big name writers who made their names WRITING NOVELS (like the Warriors series of anthologies). There are also certain topical anthologies that attract a lot of readership (like zombie story collections, etc . . .)

– Here’s the real danger for an aspiring novelist. Short stories can be addictive, because they offer a quick feedback loop. You write the thing in a month or two, edit it, and send it out. Depending on the market, you get a reply in 90 days or so. You get to enjoy all the EASY stuff (submitting, being hopeful and excited, counting response times on a discussion forum, crowing about personal rejections), and you avoid the HARD stuff: sweating and bleeding for 2 years over a novel before you’re even ready to get first reads on it from your friends.

I worry that many aspiring writers stick to short stories because they have a subconscious voice that says: “I’m frightened to invest 1-2 years of my life in something only to have it rejected. With a short story, I can justify the rejection. It stings less, because it’s only a month of my precious time.”

I know that’s how I felt. Overcoming that little voice was the first step on the path to my vision of success.

– Following the “set path” as I did tends to get you obsessed with all of these BS so-called “rules” of writing that ultimately stifle you. Show, Don’t Tell (bullshit. Show AND tell, and be good enough to know when to do which). Said Bookisms (Sometimes, using “said” constantly sounds dumb). The Turkey City Lexicon has a lot of good stuff in there, but it also has a lot of bad stuff in there, and like any system of rules, if you adhere too closely to them, you can turn good into evil. People will tell you that you “have to learn the rules before you can break them.” Fuck that. If you’re smart, and you know your craft, you can figure out which rules to break and which to follow. And don’t even get me started on the obsession over “proper manuscript format.” If you write an awesome novel and use Times New Roman instead of Courier? If you use italics instead of underlining? Your novel will still sell, because it will be awesome and nobody cares about that crap so long as they can read the thing.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am NOT bashing short stories. If you like to read short stories, if you like to write short stories, more power to you. I *do* enjoy the very occasional short piece. I also *do* write the very occasional short piece.

But if what you really want above all else is to be a novelist, then for the love of all that’s holy: FORGET short stories. FORGET conventions. FORGET SFWA. FORGET money. FORGET connections and an online presence and proper manuscript format and all the other bullshit that gets thrown out there to avoid the bottom line, the ONE thing that you must hold sacred above all else:

Craft.

There is no end run. Want to be a great novelist? Write a great novel. It’s as simple as that.

 

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

More posts by Myke Cole

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • J.t. Evans says:

    I see your points, Myke. I really do. I went from the short story craft to the novel-length craft. Why? Because I knew I’d screw it all up. I wanted to screw up short ideas with short efforts rather than screw up large ideas with massive efforts. I knew that if I wrote a novel out of the gate, I’d turn it into my critique group and want to quit because I knew I didn’t want to go back and rewrite the novel. Hah! Turns out I’m having to rewrite (several times over) both novels I’ve finished.

    However, during my times of cranking out short stories, I learned to use the right mental muscles in the right ways. Sure, there were some adjustments to going from the “sprint” of a short story to the “marathon” of a novel, but the same basic ideas persisted in my head. By training with lighter weights, I was able to work my way up to the heavy lifting of doing a novel. Damn. I think I just mixed some metaphors there. Ah. Screw it. I think you get my point. 🙂

    I guess I’d close out this comment by saying everyone’s journey is different. I know of people that have gone through steps 1-4 as you outlined them above. I’m not one of them. Heck, I’m still in the early stages of my journey as an author despite being at it for about 7 years now. I would advise each person to review all routes between A and Z and see which one appeals to them. Then explore that route. If you get to G and decide it’s not for you, head back to A and start over. Sometimes that’s what it takes to find the correct route.

    Thanks for the post, Myke!

  • Mike Douton says:

    You’ve put words to a lot of things churning around in my noggin. I’ve been dabbling in short stories, but you are absolutely right, they are different beasts from the novel. I haven’t forsaken them completely. I use them to shake out ideas. More and more, they’re becoming a test run / backstory for my next novel.

    This is refreshing to hear from other writers. Too often people assume anything with words is game for writers.

    • MykeCole says:

      I should have added that spinning off deleted scenes is good fodder for shorts. You might as well use the material, fans will appreciate it and speaking just for myself, I cut a LOT out of my novels before they go to print.

  • Anne Lyle says:

    I agree with most of what you say, Myke, having sold my first novel straight off the bat after an unsatisfying flirtation with short stories (I sold a grand total of 1, to a semi-pro market). I do however think conventions are a good way to learn about the business side of writing, but they work best if you focus on making friends rather than desperately trying to “network”. That’s how I found my publisher – I just hung out with other writers, and one day one of them introduced me to his editor 🙂

    Ironically, now that I’m a published novelist people invite me to contribute stories to anthologies more often than I ever used to write them on spec! Funny how things get turned on their head…

  • If there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to writers over the years, it’s that everybody makes their own, different path. What works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another. For myself, I was writing novels from the get-go, but there were some critical structural skills that I was missing, and I did learn those by writing short stories – by managing story structure on a smaller level. Maybe it has to do with the way that I understand discourse structure in a fractal manner, but it did help. There’s no question that working on craft is the key to success. More experience with writing makes it easier for you to judge when you have a “great novel,” because many beginners find it hard to judge that. It’s an interesting question, certainly. As a person who writes short stories, I find it unfortunate that we get dumped on so much by novel writers. I hope that the current age of internet technology puts more short stories in the hands of readers, because it’s certainly an ideal form for the busy lives that many people lead.

  • If there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to writers over the years, it’s that everybody makes their own, different path. What works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another. For myself, I was writing novels from the get-go, but there were some critical structural skills that I was missing, and I did learn those by writing short stories – by managing story structure on a smaller level. Maybe it has to do with the way that I understand discourse structure in a fractal manner, but it did help. There’s no question that working on craft is the key to success. More experience with writing makes it easier for you to judge when you have a “great novel,” because many beginners find it hard to judge that. It’s an interesting question, certainly. As a person who writes short stories, I find it unfortunate that we get dumped on so much by novel writers. I hope that the current age of internet technology puts more short stories in the hands of readers, because it’s certainly an ideal form for the busy lives that many people lead.

  • Mike Douton says:

    You got me thinking. Made that full on blog post of my own. Woo discussion! http://wp.me/p2dkpJ-5J

  • Chris LItes says:

    I missed this post last week. I agree with you on everything except the skillset. There is a tremendous overlap in writing craft from a short story to a novel. There isn’t any particular reason to start with a short story other than the sense of finishing something.

    I just got out of a grad program in writing, and I’m querying on a novel. I’ve written shorts, but concluded as you did that they aren’t necessary to the ultimate goal of being a novelist. That said, it’s much easier to find other writers who will workshop a short over an entire novel.

    Dialogue shouldn’t be all that different IMO. Pacing certainly can be and character development is. However, there’s plenty of techniques [show, don’t tell. Concrete and significant detail] which spans both mediums.

    Does one need to write short stories to later write novels? No, but doing so will help develop crossover skills. That said, I certainly don’t think a genre author needs to build up a name in the shorts market. Agents really only need to see
    a platform if you’re doing non-fiction.

  • Chris LItes says:

    I missed this post last week. I agree with you on everything except the skillset. There is a tremendous overlap in writing craft from a short story to a novel. There isn’t any particular reason to start with a short story other than the sense of finishing something.

    I just got out of a grad program in writing, and I’m querying on a novel. I’ve written shorts, but concluded as you did that they aren’t necessary to the ultimate goal of being a novelist. That said, it’s much easier to find other writers who will workshop a short over an entire novel.

    Dialogue shouldn’t be all that different IMO. Pacing certainly can be and character development is. However, there’s plenty of techniques [show, don’t tell. Concrete and significant detail] which spans both mediums.

    Does one need to write short stories to later write novels? No, but doing so will help develop crossover skills. That said, I certainly don’t think a genre author needs to build up a name in the shorts market. Agents really only need to see
    a platform if you’re doing non-fiction.

  • Chuck Workman says:

    Thanks for your take on things. It’s especially nice to get the fresh perspective of someone who has been there, done that. For well over a year now I’ve been thinking “if only I could get my brain to produce short stories, I could get into SFWA, then get an agent, then write a novel, then SELL of novel”. But my brain works mostly for cranking out character bios and long sweeping arcs of their past, how it determined their present, and how that will determine their future. Any advice for one such as myself?

    Thanks for what you do, both the blog and the service.

  • Kater Cheek says:

    I stumbled on this by googling “I don’t write short stories” to see if anyone else was in the same camp.

    My comparison of writing short stories and writing novels is that they are like singing and acting. Being a good singer will help your acting career, and vice versa. They are both performance, they both deal with voice, etc. but they are different beasts. The best way to learn to write novels is to write novels.

    I nodded in recognition when I read this blog. I too bought the exact path “like it was on sale.” I knew I wanted to write novels, but I thought that you had to join SFWA to get an agent, and you had to sell short stories to get into SFWA. So I learned to write short stories, with the specific goal of getting into SFWA so I could use my contacts to find an agent.

    In retrospect, learning to write short stories wasn’t a complete waste of time. It got me into Clarion (Which was AWESOME), and into a few well-respected markets. It did get me an agent, sort of, in that I was introduced to her through a fellow Clarionite. I can’t say it got me any closer to being a novelist. Alas, in this tough market, even having a good novel and a good agent is not a magic ticket.

    The one thing I disagree with in your otherwise spot-on blog post is the “cream will rise to the top” theory. If you don’t write a good novel, you are not likely to get it accepted by a publisher. (I have read exceptions). However, just because your novel is good, doesn’t mean you WILL get accepted by a (advance-paying, reputable) publisher. There are many more good manuscripts than there are good publishing slots. To use another analogy, ugly girls won’t get picked as homecoming queen, but some of the girls not chosen are still very pretty.

    • MykeCole says:

      Disagree. There are as many slots as there are great novels. There are certainly more novels whose authors *think* they are good than those that actually are, but again, I’d challenge you to show me a truly brilliant manuscript that didnt eventually find a home. The cream absolutely rises to the top. While there are exceptions, they’re rare. While its always possible to be an exception, I’d challenge authors whose “great” novel couldn’t sell to take a long look at it. Might be there’s room for improvement that could take it over the top. The market has always been tough. This isn’t new.

  • A.M. Clark says:

    I came across this post while trying to find out why people don’t tend to read (or buy) short stories. I love reading and writing short stories. Short stories are (often) about a moment in time. I love being pulled into that one moment. They often don’t have the same detail as you would expect from a novel – so you can use your imagination.

    I don’t desire to be a novelist. I read novels but I prefer short stories. I write short stories because I love that medium. I struggle to find good short stories because, as you said, most short story writers use short stories as ‘practice’ for writing a novel – which as you also pointed out, is not a good path.

    I agree that if you want to write a novel – then write a novel. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more writers who love the short story genre for what it offers and even more of shame that not a lot of readers seem to enjoy short stories. It’s funny – while we live in a world where everything is getting shorter and people’s attention spans are declining – readers still prefer the novel over the short story. I wonder if it’s a ‘value for money’ type thing?

  • Joe Ser says:

    Thanks for the tip. I should continue my path to get published some day.

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