A lot of writers talk about how they only write novels — they’re only able to write novels. They only write long, and can’t imagine writing something under 5000 words. I’ve heard the reverse as well, writers who only write short stories and find the idea of writing long an almost impossible feat. Lots of writers break into publishing only writing novels. Lots of writers start with short stories and may never write a novel.
I write both. I started with short stories because that’s just what I wrote, to begin with — little one-scene vignettes. As I got better and more involved in my writing, the stories got longer, until one day I realized the story I was working on had passed the 20,000 word mark and still had a ways to go. Holy cow, I was writing a novel! I feel incredibly fortunate that my early writing developed so organically and that I never much agonized over writing one or the other. I know that isn’t true for everyone.
I think there’s great benefit to be had from writing both short stories and novels. Short stories are a great format in which to experiment — with a new point of view, a new setting, a new character, or an idea that doesn’t seem complex enough for a novel. Submitting and publishing short stories can help you get your foot in the door. And if you’re just starting to write, the learning curve is tremendously steep. You learn about characterization, plot, and so on, but even better you learn about writing beginnings, middles and ends — and you can do it in a few thousand words in a week or two rather than in 100,000 words over the course of a year.
At the same time, if you want to make any kind of splash as a writer — and especially make a living at it — you really need to write novels. However, once you get a novel out there, you might get invited to write a short story for an anthology. The original short story anthology is alive and kicking, and these can be a great way to find new readers. I’ve had plenty of people tell me they picked up an anthology for another writer’s story, but they read mine, liked it, and sought out my books. So even if you’re one of those writers whose natural length is the novel, and you’ve never written a short story, I think it behooves you to develop that skill.
How do you go from one to another? For novelists trying to write a short story, the key is to limit yourself. Short stories only have room for a couple of characters. So no meandering digressions where you describe everyone in the room. We don’t need to know about the character’s whole family. You pretty much get only one plot — no flashbacks about the main character’s sordid past, no dwelling on the failed romance and chance for redemption. But short stories also give you a chance to experiment. Is there a secondary character that you’ve always wanted to know more about, but don’t have the time or inclination to write a whole novel about? A short story can be a great way to pursue that. Is there an episode in one of your characters’ pasts that you’ve always wanted to explore? Is there a favorite concept that you had to cut out of a novel because it just didn’t fit? Limit yourself to one thing, and just a couple of characters. Avoid digressions. Be ruthless and stay on target.
Examples abound of writers who’ve turned successful short stories into slam-bang novels, but I don’t think every short story has that potential. If you want to expand a short story into a novel, it’s important to pick a story that has a lot of potential. Is it an idea that can be looked at from several perspectives? Would adding more characters and more plotlines make the idea richer? Does the story hint at a complex background that can be expanded on in a longer work? If you’re used to writing short stories, writing a novel is a matter of adding layers, of exploring every thread and possibility, of giving your characters room to have many more relationships, and to grow and change in ways that aren’t always possible in a short story. Instead of a single episode of a TV show, you’re writing an entire season.
I think there are short story ideas, and there are novel ideas. I’ve learned to recognize the very cool, but simple idea that I can develop in just a few thousand words. Only a few characters — no more than three or four — are involved, and they’re centered on one core concept. That’s going to be a short story. Novels happen when the story has a whole cast of characters, and the core idea spawns several more ideas in long tangled threads, or when I can combine a couple of core ideas to great effect. Being able to write both is important because it expands your writer’s toolbox — and your opportunities.