I believe firmly in the idea that one way to learn how to write prose is to write and finish and share a bunch of short stories; you can even try to market them; the rejection of those first few stories is always a bracing experience, letting one know that one hasn’t gotten the hang of the thing. Yet.
Some folks stick with the short format, (in Science Fiction I think of James Tiptree and William Tenn; in the mainstream I think of Raymond Carver), but most branch out and write at longer lengths. Dean Wesley Smith’s thought experiment aside, there are virtually no professional short story writers anymore, and haven’t been for decades, so for those pursuing prose as a paying career, the short stuff is for training and marketing and experimentation.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King explains why writing short stories, for him, makes no financial sense.
And he’s Steven King.
When should one start writing at length? When should one write novels? As soon as possible. One handy thing about the novel is that, once started, many have a kind of inertia which can keep you writing, carrying you through your first few million words, your first five years, or 10,000 hours of writing. (Gladwell’s Outlier metric for success.)
Really, I think, it doesn’t matter what you write, just that you do write, and read, and get feedback, for 10,00o hours. I do think that short stories have the ability to let one write, and let go, of a lot of things quickly; a novel will hold you, in a tone, in a voice, in a milieu, in your own understanding of what writing is and isn’t. If you are anything like me, and you sucked horribly when you started , it’s best that you pass through a series of mental models for the activity, as quickly as possible.
There is a magic moment, in between writing THE END, and staring at the blank page once again, during which something inside you can shift, recalibrate, reset itself. Every ending; ever beginning, resetting; recalibrating.
You need to get through the “I have a neat idea and the story exists to illustrate it’ phase, the “I have a wonderful plot and a series of robot like characters trapped inside obeying the Plot,” phase, the didactic, “I have a message about how to live” phase, the “playing dungeons and dragons by yourself, the living breathing characters in search of a story” phase, to the integrated phase, where you do all of these things at the same time without really thinking about it.
Because you don’t really write by thinking about it. Writing isn’t really thinking. It’s something else. I’m not sure what.
Writing contains ‘thinking about it’ phases, of course, research and notes and editing, which are all think-intensive activities. But the writing is something else again.
So, Mr. Miyagi has us wax the floor and paint the fence, do All The Things, separately, and then, somehow it comes together in the end and we kick the bully in the face and we triumph and write a book that we sell and live Happily Ever After.
My problem is that I haven’t figured out how to write anything longer than a short story, yet. I’ve internalized a set of rules, for starting the story close to the end, for paring back the list of characters to a few, for revealing worlds in a few choice lines of exposition, and through the Edges of Ideas (I always have to cheat some, and use some exposition, but I try.)
Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t already read the Turkey City Lexicon, please, just go and do that and get back to this if you feel like it.
So, I write, I slip into the dream and I keep waking myself up, my short story alarm keeps going off, saying, “This is backstory. You can’t get to the end in 7000 words at this rate!” “You are spending too much time in someone who is not the protagonist or the antagonist. Stop!”
I’m afraid the only way through it is going to be write a shitload, and throw away half of it.
So. I guess I better get writing.
Wish me luck.
I’m working on my second novella now, God help us. Ms. Williams at Asimov’s told me to write at this length; they publish a lot of novelettes and novellas.
Hopefully, one day, mine.