Wait — Don’t Write that First Novel Before You Try a Short Story
How to get started as a new writer without committing to a full novel yet
Maybe you don’t have the attention span. Maybe your time is so limited a full novel will take you years to complete. Maybe you want to write, but you’ve never dipped your toe in fiction. Maybe you don’t have a comfortable-enough chair to sit for six hours a day.
Whatever the reason, my friend, there’s still hope for you.
Instead of going face-first into a novel, there’s a better choice for cutting your fiction-bearing teeth. Novels are cool and all. You’ll probably want to write one eventually, but for now we’ll refer to Ray Bradbury for this advice.
Bradbury said no one can write fifty-two bad short stories in a row.
This is exactly what you’re going to do — write a short story a week. You don’t have to stop at fifty-two either, but we’ll start with that. We don’t become better writers without the writing part. Shorts are great, because there are so few rules. There are few expectations. And you can finish them in one sitting.
You don’t need to stick with a genre. No one has to read them. And they accumulate fast.
There’s also a bonus with shorts: If you write a handful of good ones you can use them as an opt-in offer for your reader’s list (please don’t call it a newsletter).
Short stories aren’t easier to write. No story is easy to write. But they’re faster to get wrong than a novel is. You’ll spend less time screwing up and more time learning. If you screw up a novel you end up with a single, screwed-up novel. If you screw-up a bunch of shorts, well, you’ve got a nice little library to learn from.
Short stories help us fail faster. And writing well is all about failing fast.
How to write a short story
There aren’t many rules. But I’ll give you a few tips I’ve learned after writing hundreds of them. Start small. Give yourself a 500 word count to begin. You don’t need to fill fifty pages to write yourself a nice short. They’re called short stories for a reason.
You can always boost your word count later.
Here’s the method I use to write short stories. You can always make your own, but this will help you get started:
- One location — Pick one place and keep the entire story inside. This is a beginner’s guideline. If you’re an old saw at this, go nuts and build a whole world. This is the method I use.
- Use as few characters as possible — I like one, two, or none. You can write an entire short about a toaster. I guess the toaster would be a character, but you get the idea. Fewer folks give you more room to develop one story.
- Start really late. Finish really early — This is a novel-writing technique too, but you want to start and finish your short right in the middle of the action. No room for long car trips here. End the short with the reader filling in the blanks.
- It’s got a beginning, middle, and end — Shorts generally peak their action in the middle. The story’s tension looks like a triangle.
- The main character must go through some kind of transformation — You may not have time to unroll the entire Hero’s Journey (although you can). But your MC better come out the backside different than she walked in the door.
You can get as complicated with short stories as you want, but why? I like to picture shorts as a piece of a novel under a microscope. We grab a scalpel, place a sliver of story on the glass slide, and zoom-in until nothing but a few cells come into focus.
That’s your short.
A blink in time.
You’re in and you’re out.
No one can write fifty-two bad short stories in a row, unless you try.
I did most-everything the wrong way over the course of my writing education. I spent the majority of the time learning and little time writing. I’ve learned to flip the ratio, but I hope you’ll learn from my mistake.
We get better by doing and screwing-up, not by reading more about writing.
You can read all the grammar and plotting books you want, but until you hit the one piece of dialogue, or the giant plot hole you’ve dug, the learning won’t happen unless you’re ankles-deep in it.
What do I write about?
This question is easier-answered the other way. What not to write about. If you’re getting started (or if you’ve written awhile) don’t limit yourself to one genre.
Shorts are your time to let it all hang out.
You don’t have a lot of writing time invested, so these stories are a great lab for experimenting. I just wrote a sci-fi short. I’m not a sci-fi writer at all. I haven’t read sci-fi since I was twelve, but I thought it’d be fun. It was.
Maybe you don’t know your genre yet.
Don’t guess. Try a little of everything. Write a western. Write a romance. Write a space opera, or a murder-mystery. You may find new excitement in a genre you’ve never tried.
Remember to start small.
Get the microscope and zoom-in to the story. I’m tempted to give you writing prompts here, but I won’t, because I think they’re pandering. Pick two people, one object, and one location.
No one has to read this stuff if you’re not ready.
These early writing moments are fragile. If you give your work to a second reader too early you may get discouraged. Most of your earlier shorts will be terrible. If you don’t think they’re terrible you may need a brutally-honest second set of eyes.
I don’t know of any author worth her pepper who isn’t her worst critic.
If you’re a beginning writer and you think your work is awesome, it’s time for a second opinion. If you finished a few stories and you hate them, you’re on the right track.
I know how backward this sounds, but mental resistance is a key component to craftsmanship. If you can’t summon the self-critical muscles to objectively dislike your work you need to keep writing until you do.
I realize how contradictory this sounds, so I’ll take a left-turn. If you finish you first story and you hate it, you’re on the right path. No need for a second reader yet. Just start the next story. If you finish your story and think it’s the best thing since Homer, you better find someone who will knock you down ten pegs before you embarrass yourself in public.
Writing is hard. This is why it’s so rewarding.
Not all stories work. This is what makes shorts so great. They’re short. We try. We fall. We win. We try again. We add more work to the pile. Over time — with cumulative effort — we learn to fail faster.
Finish what you start
I learned this the hard way. Since I write on my phone a lot, I’ve got a graveyard of short story ideas in there. I use codes in Scrivenir to let me know the stage of each story (in-progress, done/needs editing, complete).
I’ve got too many ‘in-progress’ shorts and too few ‘complete.’ If I don’t complete a short within a small window of starting it, it’s hard for me to summon the discipline to finish them.
Don’t do what I do.
Finish the first short before starting the next one. This builds your body of work. If you don’t finish a short it doesn’t exist, remember this. Unfinished stories are just that — incomplete. Your body of work only grows with the done stuff.
Never stop experimenting.
The way I write today is different than the way I wrote yesterday — and last week. We are creators. If we’re not growing, we’re shrinking. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I have few. What I do know is we can never rest on the next project. We’ve got to write each piece one-percent better than the last.
Think of shorts as novel seeds.
There will come a day — maybe not your first or tenth — but one will come when you write a short that’s bigger than a short. Maybe you let a few people read your story. Maybe you get really brave and email it to your new readers. You ask for feedback. You can a bunch or replies from people who say they loved it, but wished for more.
Boom. Novel seed.
Instead of forcing your conscious mind to try and think of a full novel concept you can use your best short as a starting point. Maybe the short was a snapshot. Your novel becomes the bun around the proverbial hot dog.
It’s easier to start a tree from a seed than to wish the tree from nothing.
Don’t get fancy
Remember, we’re in the entertainment business. If this isn’t fun — if you take it too seriously, it’s time for a step back. There are no rockets. No surgical tools. Nobody dies, unless it’s part of the story.
All you’ve got is paper and ink.
Nothing you write is sacred. We’ve got a blue-collar vocation. Like plumbing or floor-waxing. We show up. We do our best. We do better tomorrow. Some days the work hits. Some days the work misses.
The day we get fancy is the day our writing sucks.
There are too many fancy writers — you know the types. They treat writing like it’s some kind of spiritual, artistic journey. They put too many self-imposed rules on the process. They work on the same novel for years, never finishing it. Because the muse hasn’t struck today.
You’re not one of these people.
You know you need to keep writing. To fail forward. To finish what you start. You know tomorrow’s writing will be better than today’s. And next year’s writing will donkey-kick yesterday’s in the teeth.
I don’t have all the answers.
I don’t have most answers. But I’m in it for the long haul. I’ll keep failing-forward as long as you keep reading. It’s time to get the paper. Begin you first short story — or one-hundredth. Every finished piece adds to your body of work. We want to read your best work.
We’re waiting for you.
August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.
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