Why Writers Should Start with Short Stories
They’re easier to finish
Writing is a feat. There’s no doubt about that. The idea of writing a book is appealing to many, but the reality of sitting down and fleshing out a full-length story can be quite overwhelming. It’s especially overwhelming if its your first time writing fiction. In order to write a good book you need to possess several skills: stamina, vision, style, and most importantly, if you want to leave a mark, that is, a voice.
Some of these things people are born with and that’s what we call talent. Vision is an easy one as most writers have good imagination. At least, they have enough imagination to make up a story that is worth writing down. Stamina many are born with too. That’s just how some people are wired, to work and work and work until the job is done.
Style and Voice, however, I believe are developed over time. They are developed through writing. And lots of it. The best way to write a lot without having to commit to the long road that is writing a novel is writing short stories. Here’s why:
You’re more likely to finish them
Like I’ve said, everyone’s got a story in them. But start small. You can write a short story in a day or two. You just have to know how and that comes from failing. Write a bad short story and then move on to the next, happy in the knowledge that you’ve finished a story, no matter how bad it was. Then, learn what went wrong from that first story. As Ursula K. Le Guin states:
Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together.
Start small and give yourself the space to learn how to write fiction.
They’re easier to write
There are many ways to write short stories. My favourite way to approach a short story is to imagine it’s the middle chapter of a much bigger story.
This way you can write the characters like they’ve existed for longer than the beginning of the story and through this learn how to subtly give the reader information they would have known had they read the story from the beginning. Hemingway’s The Three-Day Blow is an excellent example of this. In Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass, he recommends that the short story should be the climax of the bigger story. That way, it’s the most exciting part and you needn’t bother with the hassle of writing the less interesting parts of the bigger story. He says:
Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They’re journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
They teach you about your own craft
Writing short stories will help you figure out how you write about characters, how you describe scenery, what your dialogue sounds like in a digestible format. J.G. Ballad said:
I am very grateful that I did start my career writing short stories because you really learn your craft. You can also learn to explore yourself; if you write a huge number of short stories it doesn’t take long to realise you have certain strengths and weaknesses and that your imagination leans toward one corner of the compass. I think young writers are tempted into writing novels far too early.
This is how you learn your style. At first, it’s easy to just imitate writers you admire. To just copy how they do it, how they flesh out the small world they’ve created. In fact, it’s a good exercise. Then, the more you write, you will find yourself moving away from ‘their’ way of writing and developing how you would say it.
You can take risks
Think Kafka’s Metamorphosis. After Gabriel Garcia Marquez read it he wrote:
…I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately writing short stories.
You take risks and write scenes that may not hold up in a larger novel, but would be interesting to read about nevertheless. You take take the reader to the craziest places with the maddest characters and not worry that they have to make sense. You may find you suit storytelling that doesn’t include the absurd, but at least short stories gave you the freedom to try.
They help you find your voice
You can write short stories in a variety of styles, but as Gaiman states, ‘your voice is the stuff you can’t help doing.’ You will only really be able to recognise your voice, however, after you’ve really let it speak. And that comes from lots and lots of writing.
Try reading a variety of short stories from different writers. Can you recognise their voice? Anyone will recognise Hemingway or Austin very quickly. That’s the level of voice each writer should aspire to.
The quality of their literary voice is the crucial part of the writer’s legitimacy, and their authenticity cannot come from mimicking other writers’ style, but must evolve naturally from their inner sanctity and must flow effusively from an inner necessity. — Kilroy J. Oldster
People often start with a novel because they have that image in their heads of receiving the fresh-smelling copy of their published book. But the truth is that, unless you self-publish, it’s actually quite hard to get a book published the ‘traditional’ way. You not only need to have the perfect, commercial story, but you also need to find the agent or publisher that loves your story every bit as much as you do. And even if you have those two things, you can still be turned down if the writing isn’t good enough.
So, give yourself a chance and learn your craft. Good writing will always be appreciated in whatever format it comes in