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Should Novelists Also Write Short Stories?

There is this age-old idea that in order to be better at writing novels, a writer should either begin with or practice writing short stories.

It’s fallen out of fashion because there are even less markets now-a-days that publish short stories, and even fewer that actually pay the writer for them. It used to be true that authors could find a good way into the industry through being published by short stories, but it is way less likely now.

So, is this actually worth doing? I say YES, but of course there are caveats.

In my experience, writing short stories are perfect as practice. They’re “short,” to-the-point, and you can usually get an idea out onto paper within a day. It won’t be polished, but it helps you develop your voice and style and also flexes your vocabulary muscle.

It’s also less emotionally devastating to write a short story using a new technique and do poorly at it, than it is to write a full-length novel and find out you need more practice.

Plus, short stories are the NUMBER ONE way to discover worthwhile novel ideas. If you write a bad short story, you’ll live- you have some practice hours under your belt. But if you write one and think, “Hm, I could build on this,” then do it!

I don't think that writers need to start with short stories, though, in order to get into writing novels. Short stories are not the same as novels structurally or even in terms of substance. You leave a lot of things out in short stories that would otherwise by crucial to novels. I know a few writers that dabble in both short stories and novels, and the whole outlining AND writing process is different for both. It’s a different writing strength you’re developing when you write short stories, so if you want to be a novelist, take the time to get better at writing actual novels. You can’t just transfer your approach to short stories to novels.

For example, when I write a short story, I start with a single idea. I just grow off of that and stop when I think I’ve told a story.

But for novels, I have to have that idea AND the ending AND the character(s) fleshed out. Otherwise, the growth of the story is stale and ruminating.

Short stories are like ponds. They are little examples of a bigger world, a tiny version of what a body of water could be, and you can just write circles around this pond.

But novels are like rivers. They flow on and on and erode the things around it and change with the weather and the season. They’re forever shifting, and so should you be as a novelist. You can get better at moving with these shifts when you practice writing novels, but you can better identify each stretch, each little part of the river, at a much more personal level because of your experience writing short stories.

Does that make sense?

I’d love to hear about your experience in writing. Do you stick to just novels? Do you prefer to write graphics novels instead? Or maybe screenwriting? What other mediums have you dabbled in and which do you find strengthen your ability to write?

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