The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Writing “Machine” Part Five: Don’t try a novel until you’ve sold ten short stories.

One of the most common problems I run across is that people try to write novels before they’ve published anything at all.   They ask questions about plotting, characterization, sales, editing, agents, finances and more…questions that they often would have answered themselves if they had written short work first.

There are a whole raft of things that cannot really be taught…but they can be learned, if you place yourself in the arena of conflict.   Things that cannot be put into language, things that cannot be planned in advance, things that are too individual.  Things tht are too dependent upon the time and place in which you begin your struggles.   And such things are best learned in small lessons, without huge things at stake.

If it takes an average of  a year to write a novel, it is reasonable to consider that a “huge” expenditure, capable of straining even a healthy ego.  Rejection or failure on that level has crushed many a writer.
On the other hand, a short story is, or should be, the expenditure of a week’s effort, or a month at most.    But 100,000 words of short stories will teach you FAR more than writing a 100k novel.   Novels are just larger more complex expressions of the same patterns that exist in stories, and therefore short work is the perfect practice for the larger.  What other reasons are there?

1) The most common response to this idea is that “my ideas come out novel sized.”   Nonsense.   Core ideas have no length.  EXPRESSIONS of an idea have a length.

2) Novels can spin out of control easily, becoming longer and longer until they become trilogies and worse—before they are ever submitted.  I watched one person work on an idea for DECADES, before finally realizing the whole thing didn’t work.   It would have been better to find that out in a month, don’t you think?   That’s when you can adjust and decide to do something else with your life.  Or try another tactic.  Your demons are tricky.  There are many ways to be “blocked” and some of them involve keeping you too busy to notice you aren’t accomplishing anything.

3) You don’t need an agent to sell a short story.  But selling short stories will definitely impress a potential agent more than a blank slate.

4) Editors know agents.   Sell a few short stories, and you will have made connection with the “other side” of the game.   Editors and agents in New York have lunch together, run into each other at parties and conventions.  An editor who likes your work can be a powerful ally in getting yourself hooked up with good representation.

5) Short stories allow you to explore new and different stories and approaches, styles, genres and so forth.  You can literally try out a whole new personae, and if it doesn’t work…you’ve only invested a week or so.

6)  Short stories are how you develop your skills.   Novels are how you get paid.  

7) Asking  a pro to read one of your short stories is asking a LOT less than asking them to read an entire novel. 

8) Reading one of your short stories gives an experienced writer or editor a MUCH better sense of your skills than reading a comparable chunk of a novel.  

When someone asks me to read their novel, I decline.  I might be willing to hear a pitch or read an outline (and usually can detect problems in such a fashion).   But reading a short story is an EXCELLENT diagnostic of their skills.

9) Writing stories teaches you to complete your projects. How to create an ending and work toward it.   The most common error people have is not knowing how to end what they have begun.  Might as well apply your greatest efforts to what has the biggest bang for your buck.

10) Short stories are fun.  You can literally write the whole thing in a single burst of passion.  Re-writing is “work.”  When I say “write with passion” I promise you that nothing exemplifies this more than the joy of creating a complete project in a single sitting, you haven’t touched one of the purest experiences in all of art.   It is wonderful, often taking you into a flow deeper than anything you’ve ever experienced.

11) And what if you’re a screenwriter?  Writing short films like little Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes is a great way to practice the same things.

No matter  what your excuses are…I’m standing firm on the same advice I’ve given people for twenty-five years.
For these, and many many other reasons…if you haven’t published short stories, PLEASE don’t try to write a book.  I’ve seen too many people crash and burn going that route.  On the other hand, I’ve never seen anyone who tries the story route fail to publish, if they just don’t quit, do the work, and continue to model the success of professionals.

Write with Passion!
Just got a note from a student I thought I’d share: 


 I bought your Life Writing course about three years ago after attending your lecture at a Creative Screenwriting Expo.  Your ' s is the best writing course ever.   A true life-changer (I've been meaning to tell you that for a while now though I'm sure you already know).  I was the " computer guy " at the expo, helping Bill keep it together behind the scenes.  Anyway, since I got your course, I've written a pilot for a Sci-Fi series called, Gary-X, and a full series bible.  I will be pitching it later this year.   I'm now living in Portland, OR and hoping to do the show here as a web series.  I'm so looking forward to your forthcoming info on writing, producing and distributing !  Again, congratulations and thanks for all the great, life-changing work you do.

-Gentry S.
I love hearing things like that.   The “Lifewriting For Writers” course is just spectacularly good, and I don’t say that because I created it.  I say that because I get notes like this all the time, every week, sometimes every day.  It is unique, unlike any other writing course in the world…and if you don’t have it, you’re cheating yourself.

Order your copy today…and you’ll be helping us make DANGER WORD…and the experience from DANGER WORD will feed right back into the education process, helping me be a better instructor for all of you.  And that’s something we all want!

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