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