The Epic Battle Against Short Stories

Any aspiring writer, once they get past the “Oh this is fun” stage into the “Oh, hey, maybe I could actually do something with this” stage, invariably starts reading writing advice.  And, invariably, they come across something that will tell them that they should write short stories so that they have some writing experience to dangle in front of potential agents/editors when they get to the novel submission phase of the process.

I have to wonder…really?  I mean, I get that it’s good to show that you can write competently enough that someone was willing to say “Here, read this” about something you wrote, but to me, comparing short stories to novels is like comparing wombats to bananas.  There’s nothing that says because someone can write a moving 5000 word piece that they will be able to pull together the plot to write a longer work.  (Alternately, there’s no telling if someone being able to write a 100K word magna opus will be able to be concise enough to pull off a story in 2000 words.)  If you’re trying to get someone to buy your novel, it seems like a synopsis and  the first chapter or so would be more useful for showing that you can string words together in a manner that makes sense and even occasionally use commas.

It may just be my bias because I tend to work on much longer projects.  It may be because I can’t quite justify spending the time and effort to hone a skill that I just don’t really care about.  It may be because I honestly believe that not everyone can be good at both.  But I just don’t get the point.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy short stories.  Occasionally plotbunnies do appear for them, and sometimes they are even coherent enough that I let other people read them.  I own several short story collections (especially science fiction, which I feel lends itself exceptionally well to the short form).  I just don’t understand the logic that says that being able to write short stories leads to be able to write novels.

Sometimes I buy into the hype and decide that I should hone the skill just because, but these phases tend to last a few weeks at best, and invariably I either end up with scenes, not complete stories, or odd little flash fiction bits, because I can’t figure out how to get any real depth to them without expanding things to novella/novel lengths.  In the odd case that something turns out useful, I typically am so shocked nothing ever comes of it.  And many times I get bored in the middle, wander off, and never return.

So what do you think?  Are short stories a necessary step to novel publication?

2 responses to this post.

  1. As far as short stories go, I think they were a necessary path to publication at some point in time…but not necessarily now.

    My feeling about writing advice is that those writing books that we do pick up (Writing Down the Bones, On Writing, etc) tend to be penned by authors who broke into the field ten, twenty, thirty years ago. And what worked ten years ago may or may not be what’s going to work now. It’s really a many roads to Oz issue- we’re all trying to get to the same place but we’re all going to take different roads to get there.

    I can’t write short either, but I don’t worry about it effecting my ability to publish. Also I want my career to be in novels, so why not spend my time perfecting my long-form skills? Just my two cents. 😉


  2. Posted by wonderer on 2010/09/14 at 12:55 PM

    I’m with KA. Short story credits have been useful for certain genres and at certain times, but they’re far from necessary now.

    I agree with you that SF can make for excellent short stories…but writing one requires a “high-concept” idea, and not every writer thinks that way. (*ahem*)


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