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Writing short stories is absolutely the fastest way to gain skill. Amateurs will say "but I only write novels!" Pros know better.
--Advice from a published writer, offered on Twitter

I am obviously an Amateur.

My first two professional sales were novels (to Ballantine Del Rey). Did I try to write shorts? Well, yes. Two. The third attempt was a novel. And, since "Pros know better" and my opinion is that writing short stories is the fastest way to gain skill at writing short stories, I suppose I would still be classed as an Amateur.

For my writing process, novels and short stories require two different skill sets.

If you've never written any fiction, short stories might be a good place to start, because you have to learn a basic toolset (grammar, English, viewpoint, etc.), but when you polish it up, what you have is a toolset geared to the writing of short stories.

There is nothing wrong with this. All of the very excellent Ted Chiang's output to date has been in the short form. But if you, like me, tend to gravitate toward stories whose definition of short spans two volumes, I don't see any reason why the piece of twitter advice on display above should apply to you.

The idea that Amateurs balk and Pros know better is not actually materially true. In the survey from the numbers-obsessed-and-we-love-him-for-it jimhines, just under half of the respondents made zero short sales before selling their first novel. While it is possible that they honed their craft writing short stories that they were never once able to sell, I mostly doubt it.

So if short stories are not your natural inclination, why, you can be an Amateur too!

You can write a novel and sell it well before you've sold a short piece. My first published fiction was a short story that I'd sold two months before its publication; my first professional sale was a novel, which took almost two years to see print. There were eighteen months between the sale of my first novel and the sale of my first short story, and between that time, I had sold two more novels. More germane, however, is that I wrote that short story after I finished three novels worth of writing.

It's possible that in my case, I had to write the novels to begin to approach the toolset necessary to write short fiction.

If you love short stories and the short form, learning aspects of craft while writing short stories makes good sense. If you don't even read short stories, and so many readers in my store don't, starting a career attempting to write them seems about as germane to professional development as attempting to write a Romance without reading them at all.

So if you are even the tiniest bit concerned about your ability to be taken seriously as a writer if you aren't starting with short stories? You can come stand in my Amateur corner, where I promise not to shake my head while you practice your craft writing novels.

Edited because "being" and "begin" are not the same words, even if they contain the same letters.


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 8th, 2010 11:42 pm (UTC)
For my writing process, novels and short stories require two different skill sets.

This is sooooo true. I learned to write short stories because I'm a stubborn cus and was determined to master the genre. I did and now...not so interested. And I hate trying to get them out to markets, it's aggravating, and especially for us unknowns, not even remotely financially worth it. I still write a short every now and then, but I definitely plan to focus more on novels. It's my natural length and more enjoyable. It also seems less...boxed in than shorts. Most my short stuff is hard to find markets for, much less markets that pay something even halfway decent.
Sep. 8th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
Yes yes yes. I abandoned dozens of short stories while laboring under this daft notion, that you must learn short stories first and only then approach the lofty heights of the novel. Piffle. I finished my first novel and I sold it. I am still pretty bad at short stories.

Sep. 9th, 2010 12:16 am (UTC)
I spent years writing short stories because I thought it was what you were supposed to do. I got better at it ... I can even write, sell, and enjoy short fiction these days ... but for the most part, I'd rather be writing novels. And I wonder how much sooner I could have broken in as a novelist had I ignored the advice and just written what I *really* wanted to write.
Sep. 9th, 2010 12:39 am (UTC)
Jim, do you still have that raw survey data lying around somewhere? I keep meaning to ask if I could putter around with it, but then again, I don't really have the time to do much with it right now.
Sep. 9th, 2010 12:43 am (UTC)
Sure! There's an Excel spreadsheet with the numbers. Link is in the third paragraph of the write-up, at http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/survey-results/
Sep. 11th, 2010 12:48 am (UTC)
I wonder that about my career too, although I was lucky, if that is the word, to have been so very bad at short stories that I finally gave myself permission to work on a short story AND a novel at once. When the novel took off galloping and the short story behaved as they all did -- either they went nowhere or they became more novels -- I felt I had given it a good try and could break the rule.

Sep. 8th, 2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
I saw that advice. I hurt my eyes because I rolled them so hard.

Sep. 9th, 2010 12:04 am (UTC)
It's utter rubbish, on a par with saying that to win the Olympic marathon first you must compete in and win at the 100 metre sprint.

Spare me.
Sep. 9th, 2010 12:37 am (UTC)
Hey, I'd show up to watch Usain Bolt fail at running a marathon. We could even have a betting pool on what his final time would be. (Dibs on 3h 45m!)
Sep. 9th, 2010 06:04 am (UTC)
Heh! Yes, but we'd be watching Bolt for, you know, other reasons. *g*
Sep. 9th, 2010 08:58 am (UTC)
My wife said the same thing. I have no idea why. ;-)
Sep. 9th, 2010 11:12 am (UTC)
Heh. Uuuummmmm.... *g*
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:44 am (UTC)
I think what really irritated me about the tweet -- and given the limitation of 140 characters, it's hard to get useful/meaningful information there -- is the way in which the words "Amateur" and "Pro" are used.

Piling on blanket advice while trying to make new writers who don't agree with you feel insecure by making what is an inaccurate and artificial division just...no. It's social bullying. While you really can't make a rational argument for your particular stance in so few characters, relying on the cue cards of "Amateur" vs "Pro" to dun new writers into doing something which may not in any way aid their development of their craft seems almost schoolyard.

i.e. If you can't make a reasoned, rational argument for your belief in the generality, it's probably better if you blog rather than tweet.
Sep. 9th, 2010 06:01 am (UTC)
There is something about this business that really gees up certain people into proclaiming themselves the be all, end all authorities about everything. Drives me bugshit crazy. There are many, many ways to successfully write a book. Me doing it my way does not negate you doing it your way. So why the constant need to be the One True Authority???? I swear, it takes on this insane religious fervour that makes me want to wield a great big bat.

You're right. It's bullying. And rampant egos gone wild. And it breaks my heart that some folk who are still new and tentative buy this drivel and then break their hearts because they're being told to do something that will never work for them.
Sep. 9th, 2010 12:28 am (UTC)
Just how long ago was it when that writer sold that first story?
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:49 am (UTC)
The author has been around for a long time. Oddly enough, the first short sale was a collaboration with a Big Name Author (1979); the second short (1995) was after the collaborative novel sales (1981, 1982), also with Big Name Author; I believe there was a solo novel in 1983.

So...it's not clear to me that the author followed their own advice.
Sep. 9th, 2010 03:59 am (UTC)
Shouldn't hooking up with a Big Name Author be the advice?
Sep. 9th, 2010 12:35 am (UTC)
Patricia C. Wrede says she spent years trying to write and sell short stories, because that was supposed to be The Way. Didn't sell any. Wrote and sold her first novel, went on from there.

I advise anyone looking for writing advice to read the Mystery Writers of America handbook. Different writers say different things. For example, in every edition I've seen, some writers talk about their meticulous outlines. Others say that they can't continue on if they know what's going to happen later.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
This is why I'm so hesitant about any writing advice: it's usually fitted best to one person, and one only, and that's the person giving it.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:12 am (UTC)
Yes, this. I definitely own my own process (although it evolves), but I really hesitate to lay down writing rules for anyone else because writer-brains are like fingerprints.

Sep. 9th, 2010 03:14 am (UTC)
I think my writer brain has sticky peanut butter fingerprints all over it. I agree that there are two or more different processes to writing shorts or novels but someone I met once said, "Go with what works for you." I think it works for me but we shall have to see.
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:27 am (UTC)
People are still looking for the magic button.

Film at 11.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:03 am (UTC)
I used to read short stories. I used to write short stories. Now I tend to read and write novels. I did sell some short fiction, mostly because I figured out how to rewrite short stories, but I haven't figured out how to rewrite a novel yet.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
This thing with this advice is that it SEEMS intuitive, no? People who have little experience doing things are encouraged to do simple tasks that work up to the larger task. Short stories are shorter, so therefore they should be simpler. If you don't have a story idea big enough for a novel, try to write it as a short story. Presto! I think it is appealing as advice because it seems to follow the logic that dictates learning almost ANY OTHER SKILL. ;) Possibly people also give this advice because it's easier to get discouraged and give up in the middle of a novel, one might be more able to stick with a short story.

However all of that is moot if writing short stories is more discouraging than trying to write a novel, and I think people defeat the purpose of their own advice by phrasing it as This Is The One True Way Of Writing.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:23 am (UTC)

Perhaps they're different skills sets. But if you're trying to sell a novel, does it help if you've already sold many short stories, from the point of view of establishing your credibility? I imagine it at least demonstrates that you have some writing talent...
Sep. 9th, 2010 03:23 am (UTC)
Perhaps they're different skills sets. But if you're trying to sell a novel, does it help if you've already sold many short stories, from the point of view of establishing your credibility? I imagine it at least demonstrates that you have some writing talent...

The thing is, to sell your novel, someone has to read at least part of what you wrote, so your ability to handle basics is going to be clear from the sample. It's probable agents will pay a little more attention to the queries you send out if you have relevant publication experience - but they really are different skill sets, and in the end, they're going to go by the partial they request, not by the resume in the query.

Although it is true if you attain Connie Willis or Ted Chiang status, you will have editors chomping at the bit to see what you can do in long form.

A better answer: it doesn't hurt. It's not (demonstrably) necessary, but it doesn't hurt.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:56 am (UTC)
I'd love to be an amateur like you! I'll come and stand in your corner.

My most recent attempt at a short story is now 36,500 words long (and counting).
Sep. 9th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
I'd love to be an amateur like you! I'll come and stand in your corner.

There's lots of room :).
Sep. 9th, 2010 09:42 pm (UTC)
If amergina has a 36,500 word (and counting) short story, doesn't that put her in your corner by default? ;)
Sep. 9th, 2010 04:24 am (UTC)
I suffer from a Monty python-esque difficulty wrapping things up and ending a story (see also: Robert Jordan) so writing short stories has been good practice for me... Which makes me wonder if this "Pro" has a style at all like mine. That said, I, too, tend to come up with bigger ideas than a short story can easily contain.THAT said, my only fiction sale (to be fair, also the only piece I ever tried to sell) was about 4000 words before I trimmed it down to fit the required word count of 3,000 words.

I don't think I actually have a point in all this...just mulling the thoughts around and sharing the resulting mélange.
Sep. 9th, 2010 04:39 am (UTC)
Pfft! That author's advice was completely wrong! I will now counter it with my own sweeping generalizations, along with implied insults for everyone who disagrees with me.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 9th, 2010 05:31 am (UTC)

I hope this author lives near an organic farm. The crops would never need for fertilizer again.

Seriously? Like, really? I thought this old saw went out in the '90's.

Let's call this what it is: horse hockey pucks.

What short story writing does is teach honing of prose. Steven Erikson was holding forth on the Tor reread of Mazalan boards about this topic, and I think he has some good points. But for storytelling purposes? Short stories and novels are different animals in the same class of beasties.

Here's the link http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/09/the-malazan-re-read-of-the-fallen-gardens-of-the-moon-chapters-16-and-17#127676
Sep. 9th, 2010 06:03 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for that link.
Sep. 9th, 2010 07:16 am (UTC)
The more "writing advice" I hear, the more I start to believe that everyone should do it their own way and just see if it works or not. I think anyone who says that they know what works and what doesn't is a very closed-minded person, to say the least. And since I write fantasy, I don't like closedmindedness.
Sep. 9th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC)
Yes! Do it your own damn way. There are no absolutes but this: Don't be boring.

Whatever works for you is the right way to do it.
Sep. 9th, 2010 07:36 am (UTC)
If you're an amateur, it utterly frightens me what you would write like once you finally become a "pro". I mean, uh. Yeah. ;)

Stuff like this just boggles me. This has been so very solidly debunked. Back in high school (a million years ago), I took a creative writing class. In said class, we wrote a novel. It was our whole grade, the whole thing that we did, etc. We discussed this very point at the beginning of class, broke it down, and went through lots of info on many various authors. Isn't true! Wasn't true then!

The world is flat!
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 9th, 2010 09:19 am (UTC)
Oh. My. Lord.

Hm. The first short story I sold was...technically one Luna commissioned, I suppose, though at 10K it's not officially a short story, is it? Anyway, I'd sold Harlequin six novels and one novella by then. Let's see. *thinks* I think the first short I sold independently was in about 2008, when I had, um, about seven novels out. After a while I decided I needed to get better at writing shorts, so I deliberately sat down and wrote a bunch of them, but yeah, no. I'll be right here in your Amateur corner, happily hanging out with people who write novels instead of short stories. o.O
Sep. 9th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)
I cut my writing teeth on poetry. Years and years of reading and writing it. Then I jumped to novels. After completing 6 novels, I still can't write a solid short story to save my life. I guess I'll always be a failure then. Oh, well. Looks like your amateur corner is going to get really crowded. :)
Sep. 9th, 2010 09:47 pm (UTC)
Technically, I sold two short stories before my first novel. Although, as they were written at the same time I was writing the novel, I have no idea what this means.

Actually, there's a chance I sold three, maybe four before the novel only because the publisher, who had the novel, took a while to decide to buy it.
( 42 comments — Leave a comment )