David vs. Goliath

Here’s a question I’m asked relatively frequently at cons and other gatherings of fledgling writers: “Is writing short stories first a good way to start ‘breaking into’ writing novels?”

It’s a question to which I really don’t have a good answer. For the writers of my generation (I’m old, after all…), yes, many of us ‘broke into’ the field by first writing and publishing a body of short fiction, then eventually moving on to novel-length work. For many of us, that strategy worked — at least I can point to several people who are still regularly publishing novels who followed that route. For me personally, I found that the ‘short’ fiction I was writing just kept getting longer and longer, that the tales I wanted to tell needed more and more room.

But… I do have some doubts as to whether deliberately starting with short fiction is a good strategy or not. As with every other strategy to learn an art, it has its advantages and disadvantages. Here’s how I see them…

The advantages should be fairly obvious: short fiction allows you to learn the basics of the craft of fiction, and has the added advantage of letting you do so relatively quickly. You can experiment with voice and structure, with different genres and different stylistic devices — and if the experiment fails (as many will), well, you’ve ‘lost’ a few weeks instead of the few years it took you to write that deformed and hopeless lump of a novel. (You never really ‘lose’ anything from a failed experiment; there is knowledge in failure…) With short fiction, you can find your own individual voice before you try writing something as time-consuming and monumental as a novel. Publish a bunch of short fiction, and you have a built-in audience for your first novel; publish a bunch of short fiction, and you have a nice set of credentials to lay out in front of that agent or editor when you’re shopping your book — heck, you may even have an award or two to toss in there. This is all good.

Yet in many ways, short fiction and novels are different beasts. The skills you learn in short fiction don’t necessarily translate into equal skills for writing long fiction. The pacing is different: a short story needs to start as close to the end as possible while a novel may start much further back from the climax. The way you build a novel is often not something that you can duplicate in short fiction, as novels use a more intricate structure (and on the flip side, short stories can often use wildly experimental methods that work within the confinement of a short story, but which would get deadly tiresome to the reader in a novel). Scope is different, since short stories tend to use a microscope while a novel uses a wide-angle lens: you can tell the tale of a battle in short fiction, but you can’t give us the whole five-year long war. Setting is different: you generally have one or two setting in short fiction; in a novel you might have dozens — which means that the worldbuilding has to be much more in depth; you won’t get away with a painted backdrop in a novel. Plotting is different: short fiction tends to have a ‘straight-line’ plot; a novel’s plot is generally more complex, and has the added complexity of sub-plots supporting the main plot. Characterization is even different: the character arc in short fiction will usually show the ‘top’ of the arc — that defining moment when the protagonist’s life is changed — while in a novel, the writer can show much more of the arc. Characterization is generally slower and deeper in a novel.

You don’t learn to play piano by learning to play guitar. Yes, they’re both musical instruments and in learning one you do gain some fundamentals about music that you can take with you to the other instrument. But if you want to really learn to play piano, you need to sit down at the keyboard and play. Ultimately, if you want to write novels, you have to write a novel.

So I give the question to you out there: “Is writing short stories first a good way to start ‘breaking into’ writing novels?” What do you think?

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  1. 1. Steve Buchheit

    I’m one of those that have asked that question. When I decided I wanted to write for publication my first story was a novel length project and it kicked my ass. So I dropped back and started writing short stories, honing all those skills you talked about and more (for the reasons you’ve mentioned). Now, while I’m not published for short stories, I am ready to tackle a novel. While they are different beasts (having finally learned how to tell a story with less than 5000 words, I understand this), many of the improvements I’ve seen writing short stories will translate (voice, grammer skill, story telling skills, focus, POV, etc). If I had written the novel out and realized the difference in my writing that I’ve seen by bringing 12 or so short stories to finish, I probably would have chucked it all and not started a new novel. In addition to the writing tool set I’ve expanded, there’s also the industry knowledge I’ve gained by writing the shorts that I probably wouldn’t have if I had just gone into novels.

  2. 2. Kelly McCullough

    I tell people that if the can write short fiction they should. For all the reasons you list above, plus several more. It allows the writer a chance to learn about the professional side of the field in a lower risk way. Screwing up and taking a bad contract for a short story is much less painful than doing the same with a novel. It’s easier to sell short fiction and it can help boost the self-confidence so that the writer keeps writing on the road to novels. It allows you an earlier point of entry at cons and other professional events so that you can make the friends that matter so much in a loner’s business.

  3. 3. S.L. Farrell

    To Steve: Industry knowledge is important, yes — though again the part of the industry that publishes most of the short fiction isn’t generally the part that publishes novels. Still…

    To Kelly: Excellent point about learning how to be a ‘professional’ and an earlier entry into events for professionals.

  4. 4. Karen Wester Newton

    I’m not sure the guitar/piano analogy works for me. A better one might be sculpture vs. painting. Yes, they are both visual arts. Yes, they both require a knowledge of design and composition. But in technique and execution, they are fundamentally different. (Hmm. This observation might be because I’m not musical but I was in visual arts when I was young.)

    I once heard a panelist speaking on this topic deride C.J. Cherryh for writing 17 novels before she published one, like that was somehow a dumb thing to do. Hello, she’s C.J. Cherryh! It worked. She learned what she needed to learn.

    I think most writers have a natural bent to write either short or novel length, just as they have a natural speed (not everyone takes years to finish a book). A writer trying to force himself against that natural bent is counterproductive. Yes, a novelist can learn from writing short stories, just as a sculptor can learn from painting, and a painter can learn from occasionally working in three dimension instead of two. But after you’ve learned what the other form has to offer, go back to what your brain/heart/mind wants to do, because that’s where your energy will work for you instead of against you.

  5. 5. SMD

    Well, I’ve always been under the impression that one of the ‘easiest’ ways to get into the SF market is to start with short stories. A lot of great authors started out that way. I’ve mostly gone that route because of time constraints. I can write short stories faster than novels, I can submit them faster and get responses faster, etc. Being at Uni makes writing novels and submitting them on any sort of regular basis rather hard at this point. Yes, I can do it, but I’d prefer to write short stories. Plus, I love the short form. It’s so incredibly difficult to write and I find that by doing short stories I’ve learned a lot in how to write novels. I finished my first ever novel last year, which as fantasy, and am working on another (at a slow pace) right now that is SF, which I hope will end up being published.
    So, basically, I write short stories because I like them, they have worked for other writers to get their foot in the door, they’re faster to write, and they’re a lot of fun.

  6. 6. bob charters

    I’d say it depends on the orientation of the writer — what works for you. I started with a novel which I finished in about six months, but continued editing and researching for about ten years, even while writing my second (unsuccessful) novel, and third (has promise). Both of those are still doing hardly more than taking up space on my hard drive and back up CDs.

    I wrote a few short stories and a novella during that time, but more on a whim. I only posted them on my website, but never seriously tried to get anyone else to publish them.

    Later, I read Harry Potter, just to try to figure out why it works (how the good lady could turn a generation of video-heads into readers with the swish of her wand). I applied it and started writing novels I believe are marketable. One has been accepted (pending more edits), so I feel better about my writing career now.

    In the mean time, I’m making use of the research from my first novel for one I’m working on now. So my answer is, in my case, writing the novels has been the best practice.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Interesting tidbit I heard at a recent con. Last year more new novels were published than new short stories. Don’t know if this is true, or how the ‘published’ stories were defined, but thought it an interesting assertion. If true, the idea of it being easier to publish stories may no longer be valid.

  8. 8. S.L. Farrell

    “Last year more new novels were published than new short stories.” That would be a definite paradigm shift if it were true, but I find that I’m skeptical. I’d have to see the source material for that statement… Yes, the print magazines are declining in our genre, but there are several still around that are putting out maybe ten stories a month, and the web-based markets out there publish even more, and there are the book anthologies… Heck, DAW seems to put out 10 or more anthologies a year themselves, and if each one has fifteen stories, that’s 150 short stories right there, a lot more short stories than the 24 or so novels they publish in the same time frame.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    Interesting note on the shorts vs. novels in terms of total numbers published. I suspect that it’s wrong or that I would disagree with the definitions of what constitutes publishing. My guess would be this is talking about the big three magazines and ignoring a lot of the smaller venues like Weird Tales.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    I think the idea of more novels being published than short stories lies in how you define ‘published’. In the context of print magaizines only, it might be true. Daw may only publish 24 books a year, but Tor publishes ten times that many. And anthologies don’t count – most of those stories are reprints. The quote I heard was about first publication only.

  11. 11. Stephen Leigh

    “And anthologies don’t count – most of those stories are reprints.” That’s certainly not true of the DAW anthologies that I referenced — those are entirely original anthologies. I’ve also been involved in writing for other anthologies recently publishing original work, not reprints — and not from DAW. SFWA’s BULLETIN usually has original anthologies listed in the market report as well.

    Locus lists close to 80 magazines, both print and online, as having published sf/f/h short fiction in 2006 (http://www.locusmag.com/index/yr2006/cln1.htm). If those 80 averaged 2 publications a year with ten stories in each issue, that’s 1,600 stories…

    Understand, SC, I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m saying that I’m dubious about the veracity of what you heard. You’re right — part of the issue becomes a definition of ‘published.’ It’s possible this *is* true, and as I said, if that’s the case, then we’ve seen a paradigm shift and it would affect the “it’s easier to sell short stories” advice.

    All the rest about the differences between writing short vs long fiction would remain viable, however.

  12. 12. Kelly McCullough

    It’s certainly fascinating, and I’d love to see the data the comment draws on. One of the things that might be affecting it is the explosion in small press books, which could possibly offset the smaller magazines.

  13. 13. NewGuyDave

    I think the above post was done really well. The comments here are also quite interesting. As a new writer it is nice to hear the opinions of established writers.

    I am working on my first novel right now. Initially I was thinking I would just push through to get a first draft of the novel completed. I was not sure if I should write any short fiction.

    I was thinking of writing pieces of short fiction here and there to help me explore my characters in situations that are not present in my novel. Kind of a feeling out process. I suppose I could also try to publish these to build up my following of readers.

    Any comments? If not, thanks for your posts.
    Dave

  14. 14. Kelly McCullough

    Hey Dave,

    I’m a big fan of writing short stories, a topic I’ve covered here, but I’m an even bigger fan of finishing the book. I would recommend being very careful of doing anything that takes time away from that first draft. It’s way too easy to get derailed.

  15. 15. S.L. Farrell

    Dave — I’ll echo Kelly’s thoughts: get the novel done. Short stories (assuming it’s a form you enjoy writing) are fine, but not if they impede you from getting the novel done.

  16. 16. NewGuyDave

    Thanks for the opinions. Perhaps the desire to write a short story was a well disguised procrastination. Thanks for helping me catch the scoundrel, I’ll put his head on a pike for other procrastinators to see.
    Take care,

  17. 17. ChestertonianRambler

    Just a question:

    A few people mentioned how authors have gotten started in print through a short-story collection. How often is this the case? I ask because I have found a couple of stories that I really want to tell, but that virtually require a novella length–and magazines tend to (wisely) avoid the expense of publishing novellas for non-established authors. Would it be possible to get such stories published, say, in a first-book collection of previously-published short stories?

  18. 18. S.L. Farrell

    In response to CherstertonianRambler: It would be a tremendous rarity to break into print via a collection of short stories. Short story collections are almost invariably previously-published stories by an established author (and since they generally don’t sell all that well, are often published as a ‘courtesy’ to an author who is publishing novels at the same house.) I’d say your chances are practically nil at the big NYC houses, but would be better with the small presses, who sometimes do produce short story collections by an author (though again, those are usually previously-published work.)

    OTOH, if you publish several short stories to great acclaim, it’s possible that someone would be interested in putting out a collection of your short fiction — and then, yes, you could include an unpublished novella as an added incentive.

  19. 19. David de Beer

    re: easier to break into short fiction topic.

    Without precise data, I’d still have to say no, not really. It depends on the markets you’re aiming for, of course, and sure there are always new low-paying to non-paying markets if you really want to get your name in print.
    But, even restritcting the entire SF, Fantasy and Horror markets down to a list of, for argument’s sake, 80 venues, it’s still not that easy.

    I did the math at the start of the year – very rough math – for Realms of Fantasy and Fantasy &SF; for both of them, it came down to something like between 900-1500 subs per year [each]competing for on average 5 slots per issue.
    Now, both of these magazines give preference to their stable of authors, in other words those who’[ve passed the slush and been published via them already.
    These authors comprise the bulk of publications at these mags; new writers coming through the slush and actually getting published has about a 2% chance max.

    ok, now for the field as a whole: disregard amount of venues and try and figure out how many writers there are, ranging from veterans seriously producing short fiction, to veterans dabbling in short fiction, to neo-pro short writers getting steady and consistent sales and making names for themselves in the medium, to newer writers still struggling but hitting the occasional pro sale, to new writers just starting out with hardly a single sale to their name.
    I’d guesstimate at any moment there must be between 500-5000 short story writers.
    On average, most short story writers [who don't have novels out] have 10 stories circulating.
    f you drop their number to just 200, then that’s still roughly 2000 stories circulating at any given moment. All those writers inevitably are working on producing more.
    This is just the most active segment of the short story submitters; and right there they have in circulation enough stories to fill the top 80 mags for an entire year.
    Important to remember: one can try and calculate that there is x amount of slots in short fiction in the higher paying mags, but that doesn’t translate into an equal amount of writers. The amount of writers used to fill those slots will be decidely less than the amount of stories published. Mike Resnick, Robert Reed, Nancy Kress, Lucius Shepard, Leah Bobet, etc. These are all names who can and do make multiple appearances at the same magazine in the same year.
    So, again, that ups the competition level on the newbie.

    anthologies: a lot of anthologies are by invite only, although they do produce original work, the invitation excludes a lot of writers.
    The open anthos from what I’ve seen appear to be published by smaller presses, and there are limits to how many they can take. In addition, writing for an antho creates an even greater glut on the market proper when the rejections come in, and not all of those rejections are due to bad writing, simply space.
    Jim van Pelt is editing an antho and posted some stats while he was reading for it – about 300 submissions total; roughly 29 stories kept in the hold file, and about 10-12 of those will be published.
    That still leaves a minimum of 280 stories which are/ will be circulating the short field.

    Chizine publishes 3 stories per issue; they get well over a 100 subs per issue.
    Same with Clarkesworld, and more likely even fiercer competition.
    Some stats for Fantasy magazine’s first month online:
    http://oldcharliebrown.livejournal.com/166851.html

    Submissions: 190
    Acceptances: 6

    this is for one month only. They publish once per week, 52 stories max in a year then.

    ASIM uses a 3-tier reading system; when you make the 3rd round, you’ve basically been approved for publication with the only catch being an editor has to pick up your story.
    6 issues per year, rough average of 5 stories per issue = roughly 30 per year.
    At any given moment, there’s between 90-110 stories in the 3rd round. They estimate about 1 in 4 [?] get published, this is for stories that have already passed the slush.

    It may have been true once, but it’s more doubtful to me right now that it’s easy to break into short fiction.
    It may actually be easier to break into shorts if you have novels published/ contracted, improves odds of getting invites to anthos and a succesful novelist can command attention due to Name factor.
    Mike Resnick, from the JBU, at least seems to place a lot of premium on Name and pulling power.

    If somebody were to ask me this question, re: should I write short stories first to break into novels?
    I’d tell them no, both writing and publishing shorts is by no means easy, at the very least it is not easier than writing and publishing a novel is. If you want to write novels, then write novels. Don’t write shorts unless you really want to.

    Sorry, I am going to disagree on one this point, that short stories are easier to break into.

    The rest of the article is very good, though, thanks.

  20. 20. S.L. Farrell

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, David, and disagreement is good (as long as it’s done politely!) You’ve some interesting figures there and some good ‘meat’ for people to chew on. A couple comments that come to mind, though…

    I tell my students in my Creative Writing classes that there *aren’t* any ‘odds’ in publishing, that asking “What are my chances of getting my story published?” is a meaningless question. If a story is badly crafted, or if it’s presented poorly (not in proper manuscript form, riddled with errors, etc.), then your chances of getting that story professionally published is 0%. Period. It won’t matter how many times you send the story out or how persistent you are. That story has no chance whatsoever.

    On the other hand, if the story is properly presented, if the characters are three-dimensional and compelling, if the worldbuilding is solid, if the plot is interesting, if everything meshes into one seamless whole with depth and passion, well, then I’d say your chances of getting the story published approach 100%. It may not be to the first or even the tenth market to which you submit it, but a stellar story will eventually sell.

    The problem is that the vast majority of stories are somewhere in-between stellar and fatally flawed.

    No sane editor is going to reject a story that grabs them by the throat and refuses to let go. They all want their magazine or anthology to sell — that’s what they’re there for. That’s why, yes, they will publish stories by Big Name Authors when they can, because Big Names have selling power. But they’d all LOVE to be the editor who first published the *new* Big Name Author before they became a big name. Therefore, markets are *always* open to new authors.

    You mention Mike Resnick specifically as someone who places “a lot of premium on Name and pulling power.” I know Mike very well, and I can tell you that while, yes, if a Big Name offers him a decent story, he’ll grab it (he’d be a fool not to do so, and Mike’s not a fool), he is also *extremely* open to new writers. In the anthologies he publishes, he generally leaves a slot or two open for new writers. He will go out of his way to invite an unknown or little-known author to submit a story. Mike is responsible for literally dozens of new writers getting their start.

    And in another sense, the number of markets and ‘slots’ open doesn’t matter. One reason I’d still contend that “it’s easier to break in via short fiction” is the issue of time and effort. A new writer can conceivably produce, let’s say, a dozen or even two dozen short stories in a year. Yes, most of them will be of the ‘fatally flawed’ variety and will end up entombed in your file cabinet one day. But maybe one or three of them will be “OK” and might — with persistence and dedication — end up selling one day, maybe after some comments from editors and a few more revisions.

    But if you focus only on novels… well, you might produce one a year, or *maybe* three in two years. For a new writer, the chance that they’re fatally flawed is high… and with only one or two novels to shop around, well, getting published is of necessity a much longer process unless you get lucky right out of the gate.

    For that reason, regardless of the stats for the number of ‘slots’ out there, I’d say it’s *still* easier to break in via the short route: because you can produce more stories that way; because you can experiment more quickly with voice and characterization and setting and plot; because short fiction is generally less ‘complicated’ a process than novels; because you have the chance to hone your craft on many more ‘finished pieces’ in a far lesser amount of time.

  21. 21. David de Beer

    well, no, i didn’t intend for this to come across like I’m dissing Mike Resnick, was thinking about some of the articles he’s written for the JBU, and looking at this purely from a starting writer’s pov – now, in those articles Mike said for a newbie to place a story, that story cannot be as good as, it has to be better than a story by a Name.
    That’s Jay Lake’s unfair meritocracy at work, and unfortunately the way it is.
    See, I’ve seen this advice given a lot, to writers whose main intent is to write novels: “write and sell some short stories first.”
    What’s not mentioned, or what’s glossed over is Mike’s comments about newbies have to be better than a Name to sell at the same spot.
    Personally, I think that is both true and much needed info that a newbie should be given and precisely because of the volatile nature of shorts.

    back later, need to go now.

  22. 22. David de Beer

    >that there *aren’t* any ‘odds’ in publishing, that asking “What are my chances of getting my story published?” is a meaningless question

    heh, that i will agree on:) beyond “you have a chance” looking at data and odds makes for morose reading and are not as indicative as they look.

  23. 23. S.L. Farrell

    Don’t worry, David — I never had a thought you were dissing Mike… Yep, Mike (like probably every editor out there), if given a choice between two equally well-written stories, one by Big Name Author or Unknown Newbie, will choose the story by Big Name Author every time, for purely pragmatic reasons. I suspect that’s Mike’s saying when he states that a newbie’s story has to be *better* than that of a Name writer. But… if he has one slot still open for the month and has on hand a mediocre story by Big Name Author and a stellar tale by Unknown Newbie, my bet is that Mike is buying the stellar story.

    Remember, too, that every Big Name Author was once the Unknown Newbie. They all managed to break in…

    I agree with you that if you want to write novels, you should write novels, though. The short and long forms of fiction are largely different beasts, I would contend, and if you don’t *like* writing short fiction, then you probably shouldn’t be writing it.

  24. 24. Kelly McCullough

    One more note on short markets. There are a number of them that are aimed completely at new authors (Writers of the Future), or that hold slots for new authors (Baen’s online magazine). Between just those two they break 18-30 new writers a year in a high profile professional venue. Combine that with even as many as 2 more broken by each of the significant markets (and I’d include places like Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons in that list, not just the big three) and you’re looking at something like 40-60 new writers breaking into shorts in a given year.

    Compared to the most recent novel numbers I’ve heard that’s on the order of double the number of new novelists breaking per year (I could be wrong, I don’t have the numbers handy and they may have changed). When you combine that with production time factors–1-6 weeks for a short story and 4 months to 3 years for a novel–the odds shift even more dramatically toward the likelihood of being able to break into the professional world faster via shorts.

    Does that mean everyone should start by writing shorts? Absolutely not. There are people who can’t write them, or who hate writing them. There are also advantages to showing up as a completely fresh face with a debut novel. Still, I think that for many writers shorts offer a better way to learn the craft, art, and business of F&SF at lower cost in terms of time and energy and with a faster path to reward.

  25. 25. David de Beer

    Kelly, how are you defining break into shorts? if you’re talking about just getting a sale, then yes and no. Yes, you can get it easy and quick, but no, not everyone does.
    Bradbury – 1000 rejections before a sale.
    but ok, we are talking about a debut writer yes? someone with no previous sales record? cause, there’s plenty of writers who get their first pro sale in a year, but not very many who get a debut [first story sold ever] at a pro market.
    For the record, I’m defining pro market as including anyone offering payment of 5c and up, and being in existence for over a year.

    >There are a number of them that are aimed completely at new authors (Writers of the Future), or that hold slots for new authors (Baen’s online magazine).

    that’s not entirely correct, sorry.
    JBU – initially, I was in favor of the Introducing slot since my understanding was that it is meant for any writer who does not yet have a pro level sale. On the forum, this question was asked and answered by the JBU staff: the intro slot is for any writer who has not previously been published by the JBU.
    A lot of people competing for that slot have had previous sales; on the Baen forum where these stories go up, you do tend to spot the difference between someone who has some writing experience one those who have none.
    Yes, they have published debut authors, but writers with previous sales records are still allowed to submit here, provided only they have not pubbed at the JBU.

    Writers of the Future:

    “The Contest is open only to those who have not had professionally published a novel or short novel, or more than one novelette, or more than three short stories, in any medium. Professional publication is deemed to be payment, and at least 5,000 copies, or 5,000 hits.”

    A lot of the writers submitting here have made sales,just not sales that qualify as professional [or disqualify them from WOTF, more to the point].
    They are new, but hardly noobs.

    Realms of fantasy: speaking under correction, but I think Doug Cohen has been the slush reader for at least 2 years. In that time, he has passed 17 writers who went on to be published in ROF. 3 of them were first ever sales, all the others had previous sales records.

    Strange Horizons: has published 1 definite debut sale in the lat year, possibly 2.

    Helix: is worth mentioning, since they cater exclusively to writers who already qualify for the SFWA. In other words, they are a market but not one a new writer will break into.

    I’m all for advising someone to writer shorts to improve their writing, and if they do have an enjoyment from it, but sorry, no, the idea that “shorts are easy” from a publication point of view is wrong and you can end up doing damage to a new writer.

    you mentioned the professional aspect; the writer who debuts with a professional short story sale is very rare indeed. By far the majority of pro debutants will have previous sales records at other markets.
    That takes time, it takes work, it takes a hell of a lot more stories sent to the waste basket than stories that ever make it to a submission round, nevermind stories that get published.

    Also, you cannot equate one short story sale with one published novel.
    Different mediums and they run to very different beats.
    One short story sale, even one pro short story sale, does not break you into the market. Not from a professional point of view.

    >and with a faster path to reward.

    depends on how reward is defined. To see your name in print? maybe. To get a paycheck, even a peanuts one? possibly. To make a career, with a focus on novels one day? no. start writing novels now.
    Yes, you can writer 10 shorts in the same amount of time to write 1 novel. There is no guarantee you will sell any of them. In which case, you might as well have written the novel that never sold.
    Further, focusing on getting short sales and leaving the novel for one day when you have had a fair amount of sales – takes time. Takes years. Years in which a novelist could have been writing a novel. And when is that moment going to arrive? you may never get the consistent short sales record, and the novel is still not written.
    Further, when you do finally turn to the novel, after beign lucky enough to have spent the last 3 years writing 50 shorts and publishing a dozen, that novel may still not sell. Nor the next, or the one after that or the one after.
    If the goal is novels only, then you have wasted 3 years pursuing shorts which a writer could have spent getting the non-selling novels out of the way and progressing closer to the one that will sell.

    briefly, let me touch on resources allocated for new writers:

    of agents and publishers this is my understanding – primary focus goes to existing clientele. But, the agent and house that wants to thrive, has to look for new blood. @Depending on available budget, resources will be allocated accordingly and new writers signed. Maybe not as many as the agent/ house would like, but the best of those available and new blood nonetheless.
    In short, resources must be budgeted towards finding those new writers and taking chances on them.

    Short fiction: no such thing. Magazine has [example] 20 slots for the year. Those slots will be filled by somebody. If by a debut author, great. If not, tough. 20 slots will be filled, that’s where the resources go and every writer competes for those slots, the total fresh noob head to head with Michael Swanwick and Robert Reed.

    Novels: you get a 3 book contract. The publisher expects to lose money on you, but hopes not. The publisher is looking towards your future potential for growth. You are measured in what you can bring to the table now, today and possibly the future.
    You are not signed on the basis of being measured against the new Neil Gaiman novel.

    Shorts: How good are you right now, right this instant? Noob has sent me a short story, but so has Neil Gaiman. Which one is the better story?
    99% of the time the nod will go the Gaiman, if for no better reason that Gaiman has the years of experience that makes him the better writer.
    That is the reality of publishing in short fiction.
    “You have a chance, ” but the odds are stacked against you.

    “Breaking into shorts is easy” – begging your pardon, but that is very bad advice to give a new writer.

  26. 26. S.L. Farrell

    David –

    I’ve had twenty novels and about twice that many pieces of short fiction professionally published over the last (god, I hate to say this, as it makes me feel *old*) three decades. I have to say that my perception of the publishing world isn’t the same as yours. I’m not going to go through your post point-by-point, but here’s the summation:

    As I see it, there’s little difference between the short fiction and novel markets. Both of them require new blood; both of them actively seek new blood. Both of them have a certain numbers of slots to fill each and every month, and they *will* fill them — and they will fill the great majority of them with previously published writers. Both of them only care how good you are, right now, with the piece you’re submitting.

    You say “Gaiman has the years of experience that makes him the better writer. That is the reality of publishing in short fiction.” That is the reality of *publishing*. Period. For both short and long forms.

    You also say “You have a chance, but the odds are stacked against you.” I’ll repeat this mantra: there *are* no odds. None at all. If publishing were a lottery, they would put all the submissions into a big bin, spin it, draw out a random unread story and say “This is the one we’re publishing this month!” That’s not how it’s done. Write a great story, and you have an excellent chance of getting published; write a terrible one (or fail to follow the guidelines, or let it be riddled with grammatical mistakes) and you have no chance whatsoever.

    That’s true (again) of both short and long fiction.

    I would tell a newbie who hates short fiction but loves novels that they should write novels, then. I would tell a newbie who simply wants to learn how to *write* and who enjoys both short and long fiction that it would probably behoove them to write short fiction first — simply because they’ll have the chance to finish and market 10 – 20 separate pieces a year rather than one… and thus have a better chance of getting published, as well as having an opportunity to experiment with different voices, different styles, with all the variations of how to best tell a story.

    I also guarantee you that having five or six professional short story sales under your belt will help you when it comes time to find an agent or publisher for your novel — because it tells them that you already have a certain level of competence. I *know* because my first agent told me that the reason she agreed to look at my manuscript was because of the short fiction sales I had.

    Breaking into fiction isn’t easy — for either short or long form. However, I still think it might be (slightly) easier for short fiction: because of the number of manuscripts you can produce, and thus the number of pieces you can have out circulating; because you can gain ‘experience’ writing in many more different styles and voices, and thus may discover the style and voice that best suits you.

  27. 27. Kelly McCullough

    What S.L. said. Right down to the part where my agent took me on in part because of significant short story sales.

    Other points:

    1) Without the agent I got in part because I had a demonstrated track record in shorts I wouldn’t have the novel sales that I do.

    2) I didn’t say breaking into shorts was “easy” I said it was “easier.” It’s a comparative not an absolute. And yes, “Breaking into shorts is easy” would be terrible advice to give a new writer, which is why I didn’t give it.

    3) This bit “Novels: you get a 3 book contract. The publisher expects to lose money on you, but hopes not. The publisher is looking towards your future potential for growth. You are measured in what you can bring to the table now, today and possibly the future. You are not signed on the basis of being measured against the new Neil Gaiman novel.” might have been true twenty years ago. It’s not the case any more. If you get a three book deal and all three lose money, that’s it for your career under that name. Though they might give you a new contract under a new name, so that you can start from scratch with a clean sales record, that’s not terribly likely either.

    4) Writers of the Future. I am aware of the rules and how it works, I guarantee you, since my second short story sale was a Writer of the Future winner.

  28. 28. Kelly McCullough

    What S.L. said. Right down to the part where my agent took me on in part because of significant short story sales.

    Other points:

    1) Without the agent I got in part because I had a demonstrated track record in shorts I wouldn’t have the novel sales that I do.

    2) I didn’t say breaking into shorts was “easy” I said it was “easier.” It’s a comparative not an absolute, and one which I still believe. And yes, “Breaking into shorts is easy” would be terrible advice to give a new writer, which is why I didn’t give it.

    3) This bit “Novels: you get a 3 book contract. The publisher expects to lose money on you, but hopes not. The publisher is looking towards your future potential for growth. You are measured in what you can bring to the table now, today and possibly the future. You are not signed on the basis of being measured against the new Neil Gaiman novel.” might have been true twenty years ago. It’s not the case any more. If you get a three book deal and all three lose money, that’s it for your career under that name. Though they might give you a new contract under a new name, so that you can start from scratch with a clean sales record, that’s not terribly likely either.

    4) Writers of the Future. I am aware of the rules and how it works, I guarantee you, since my second short story sale was a Writers of the Future winner.

    5) This bit Further, when you do finally turn to the novel, after beign lucky enough to have spent the last 3 years writing 50 shorts and publishing a dozen, that novel may still not sell. assumes that one can only do one or the other. Most of the pros I know who write shorts do both in parallel and did so before they broke in.

  29. 29. David de Beer

    Most of the pros I know who write shorts do both in parallel and did so before they broke in.

    and that is fine, and actually to be preferred advice, IMO. But this is not the way the question and answer to date has been framed.
    this is not my assumption, I was discussing the issue which had been raised and commented on, as in – write and publish shorts first and then move on to novels.
    It is that last idea that I disagree with, and my comment was directed as a caution against that idea.

    I do agree with your comment, re: do both in parallel
    and would perfectly fine if this was part of the advice given to young writers.

    quote:

    many of us ‘broke into’ the field by first writing and publishing a body of short fiction, then eventually moving on to novel-length work.

    implying the concept of working on shorts first, breaking into shorts, and then eventually moving on to novels.
    This was stated in the original argument, this I have disagreed with.
    Working on both at the same time was commented after the orginal statement.

Author Information

Stephen Leigh

Stephen Leigh (aka S.L. Farrell) is a Cincinnati author with 25 novels and several dozen short stories published. Booklist called his Cloudmages trilogy "Good enough to cast in gold." He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, and is a frequent speaker to writers groups. Visit site.

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