Friday, January 8, 2010

Are short stories practice?

The conventional wisdom in the literary field, in speculative fiction anyway, used to be that beginning writers began by writing short stories. Once said beginning writer had done enough of that, sold enough short stories to have a "name" in the business, then and only then could said writer write a novel. It's conventional wisdom that is still being passed on. At this past WorldCon, I was in a group of newbie writers who were lucky enough to be getting writing advice from one of the giants in the field, and he told us to publish lots of short stories.

But this post by (amazing short story writer, whose first novel I am so looking forward to reading this year) Mary Robinette Kowal makes me wonder how much the conventional wisdom still holds, and whether it should. Because here's the thing: I don't consider writing short stories practice for writing a novel.

Maybe this sounds odd, considering the amount of flash fiction that I wrote while I was alternating between work on my dissertation, and work on my recently completed novel. But writing the flash wasn't practice, it was a sort of palate cleanser, a way to switch mindset and writing style. And yes, I've written short fiction as five finger exercises - using a short form as experiment in voice, in pacing, in style. But that was practice for writing, full stop.

A short story and a novel are two completely different things. To begin with, a novel is much longer. To be nominated for a Best Short Story Hugo, your story must be no longer than 7500 words. Most speculative fiction novels are between 90-100K. Writing a novel means sustaining a story for a much longer time, and that brings a set of perils and pleasures that are quite apart from those of short story writing. It means working with a whole different set of ideas, a different way of looking at things like character development, and pacing. You learn, then, to write a novel by writing a novel.

And so I think that if you want to write a novel, you should write it. And if you want to write short stories, you should write those, too. But write them because you want to, because that's the kind of idea you had, because you want to see if you can speak of grace and redemption in 4000 words, not because you see the form as the literary equivalent of a learner's permit.

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