My shameful lie about short fiction

From time to time I get asked if working to establish oneself as a short story writer is helpful when trying to write and sell novels. My stock answer is that, while it can’t hurt, it’s hardly necessary, and that the only really good reason to write short stories is because you love writing short stories. Shorts pay too little and require too much labor to make them worth writing for any reason other than you love writing them. Writing them doesn’t teach you how to write novels any more than running sprints trains you to run marathons. Also, the audience for them is small, and in talking to book editors and agents, I’ve come to the depressing conclusion that many of them, probably most of them, don’t follow the short fiction field.

In thinking about it, though, I’ve come to realize that my stock answer is a load of horse poo. I was lying. Short fiction totally helped me sell my first novel.

With the exception of a few anomalous print appearances that nobody read, I date the start of my short fiction career to 2001, and while I’ve never been the most prolific writer around (I mean, I’m not a freak like Tim Pratt), I’ve been able to count on a handful of publications in good anthologies and magazines every year. A few years ago, I started to get occasional inquiries from book editors wondering if I had a novel in the works. In each case, the conversation began with them mentioning some specific story of mine they’d read. Indeed, Juliet Ulman, the editor who acquired Norse Code for Bantam, initially wanted to know if I had a novel based on my story, The Osteomancer’s Son, which she’d read in Asimov’s. I’d like to believe that Norse Code is so brilliant that it could have radiated right through a manila envelope and compelled an editor to lift it off a slush pile and write me a check, but that’s not really how it happened. My short fiction publications helped.

And, no, writing short stories is not like writing novels. Novels are longer, obviously, but they’re also shaped differently. They require different rhythms, different approaches to pacing, to weaving plot and character. More than that, though, they require a different degree of faith to complete. If you finish a short story only to find that it’s a big pile of suck, you’ve wasted a few days or maybe a few weeks. It shouldn’t be devastating. But do the same with a novel, and you’ve squandered your ENTIRE YOUTH.

Which is why it’s useful to work on short stories, at least until you’ve done it enough and failed at it enough and garnered enough rejections that you move beyond that point and start to sell some. Because then, even if you squander your better years on unsaleable novels, you can take some satisfaction in the success you’ve experienced as a short story writer. And the science fiction and fantasy genres have long, proud traditions in short fiction. Success in the continuum of those traditions ain’t no small thing. It’s good to be able to feel good about something when you’re in the depths of novel despair. So, yes, while the best reason to write short fiction is because you enjoy writing short fiction (life’s too short to spend it doing non-mandatory things you don’t enjoy), I can say that short fiction helped launch me as a writer of novels.

And if my novel career withers and dies before it’s had a chance to really get going, I know I have a form and a field and a home for my other writing. And since I enjoy writing short stories, I’ll be okay. Now, if you hate writing short stories, most of the preceding is probably irrelevant to you. Short fiction is by no means the only path to novels. But it was mine.


6 Responses to “My shameful lie about short fiction”

  1. March 24, 2009 at 3:47 am

    I squandered my entire youth but I don’t think I did it writing novels. I think I just squandered it. Then I wrote novels.

    On the short story thing, I started writing novels and I wasn’t very good. Then I switched to short stories and I also wasn’t very good, but I could try more things faster. And I got better. So now maybe I can finally write a novel (well, I could always write one, but now maybe I can write a publishable one).

  2. March 24, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    One big plus for writing short stories and getting them into decent publications is that you gain a following. I imagine that most editors realize that someone with a following has the possibility of selling more books than a complete unknown.

  3. March 25, 2009 at 2:20 am

    I think some agents and editors do like to see authors come with already existing audiences, but I’d be curious to know how many of them really follow the field the way my editor does.

    Deb, you’re touching on an interesting question: If you’re writing short stories, how do you know when it’s time to try to take those lessons and try to write a novel? I would have liked to have gotten all my bad novel stumbling over with a lot sooner!

  4. March 25, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks for this. As someone who likes to do both, I often wonder if my eggs are in the right basket, so to speak. It’s good to know that slogging through the short story field can help out on the novel side of things. Of course I’m still trying to establish myself on both fronts, but thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. March 26, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Speaking as a reader who doesn’t have time to read everything, sometimes I feel I only have time for short stories.

    Sometimes as a reader a good strategy is to see whose shorts you like and then read their longer stuff.

    Maybe that’s true of that editor too.

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