Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nope, Nope, and...Nope.

Every now and then, someone writes an article about how all novelists should "learn to write" by writing short stories. Some people even go so far as to say you shouldn't even consider yourself a writer until you've written and sold short stories...and that it's good preparation for novel writing. Saw another one of 'em referred to today,  by a writer who ought to know better, and figured the time has come for someone to speak the other side.

Because that entire notion is BUNK.

People, people, people. This isn't like moving up in school, okay? You don't start with short, "small" things because they're manageable, and then gradually move on to bigger things until you're finally "grown up" enough to write a novel. If that's the case, then all poets should start with haiku and publish lots of that before they think in terms of free verse or even iambic pentameter. (I knew that lovely term would come in handy some day!) But take that notion to its logical conclusion: Imagine if someone had told Shakespeare (or, for you conspiracy theorists out there, whoever-really-wrote-Shakespeare's-stuff) that.  (Of course, knowing Will, he would have had a much better comeback than "bunk," and it would have been unprintable in polite society.) Would we have some of the richest stuff in the English language today?

Probably not.  And it isn't because haiku hadn't been invented yet.

It never ceases to amaze me how this mindset continues to spread and influence young writers. There are probably writers out there who would love to do novels, who have novels burning inside them waiting to get out, but they're forcing themselves to "do their apprenticeship" and write short stories.

Chances are, they'll never get out of that apprenticeship, either. Especially if that's where they're trying to start as newbies.


First of all, because it's much, much, MUCH harder to write "short" than it is to write long.
If you ever doubt this, try writing a bunch of those 200- to 300-word articles that content sites want so many of. There's a reason most of them are awful, and it's not just because they tend to be written  by non-English speakers; it's because it's hard to condense a decent, solid amount of information into a small package and have it work well. Skilled writers can do it. But notice that word. SKILLED. As in, not newbies.

"So what?" say the purists. "That's good training. If you can't write your story in a couple thousand words, you don't know it well enough anyway. Get the thing concise. Get it focused. Then you're ready to actually write a book the way it should be written."

There is a whole host of things wrong with that attitude, not the least of which that it's snot-nosed arrogance. But the main thing wrong with it is the second reason that "write short stories first" is bad advice:

Because short stories and novels require two entirely different skill sets and approaches.

"That can't be," moan the pundits among us. "Good writing is good writing. You need to start small and gain command of the language first.  You need to learn how to write short and sharp and..."

Yeah. Sure. Right. You betcha. 

If you're a columnist, that advice is spot-on. If you write for the Web, it's even spotter-onner. But what if what's burning to come out of you is a series of sprawling, multi-generational stories about a family with several children, inlaws, outlaws, sisters, cousins, and aunts?  
No matter how skilled you are, telling that story's gonna take more than short story length. Yes, you could write some other "practice" pieces that are shorter, just to "get your feet wet." But why? Why waste your time, your creative juice, and your energy writing something just because someone told you you had to do it that way, when a story is stomping its way through your veins begging to get out?

There is no good reason to do this. No. Not one. NADA. EVER.

You need practice to become a good writer? Of course you do. So practice--but do it in the medium and the word count in which you plan to ultimately make your mark. You'll have plenty of opportunities to do so, and you will learn how to write just as well by focusing on what you love as by focusing on what you're gritting your teeth and telling yourself you have to "get through first" before you can do what you really want. In fact, you'll learn faster doing what you love, because you'll seek out guidance in how to do it properly. You'll hang with other people also wanting to learn how to be novelists. And you'll avoid the tragedy of waking up one morning discovering your writing "juice" is gone because you spent so much time becoming the writer equivalent of the best marathoner in the state...when all you really wanted to do was learn how to perfect the 400-meter hurdles.

Don't do it.

Unless you want to write short stories from day one, and you long for those short-story checks to come in, don't get trapped into thinking one length of story is a necessary prerequisite for the other. Not only is that not true; it can totally screw up your novel-writing learning curve, sometimes forever.

Which--it has to be said--may sometimes be the very point of some of these people telling you to do it in the first place: it removes competition for their novels, also sometimes forever. 
Yes, it's mean. Yes, it's underhanded. But, yes, it also happens. Don't let 'em get away with it.

Write what you want to write, and learn as you do that. If in the course of writing novels, you also discover that you'd like to try your hand at another length, there's time enough to do so. But this isn't grammar school.  You don't have to start with 100 words and "work your way up." That way lies madness, and you'll encounter enough madness in a regular writing career without volunteering for more.

Here's to telling the story in "as long as it takes."


1 comment:

Deb said...

This is leftover advice form the 20s-50s, when there was a healthy and active market for shorts. Many of the great SF authors cut their teeth on writing for magazines such as Amazing Stories, True Detective, Asimov's, and the like. Some of them then decided to write novel-length fic. Did they do this because their learning curve required short stories? No. It was merely because back in the Day, shorts were easier to sell. Heinlein, IIRC, wrote shorts under half a dozen pen names so he could make some sort of a living.

But today? I'd be willing to bet you could count the paid short-story markets on the fingers of both hands and end up with change. This is advice out of the day of the dodo bird. Consider it extinct.