Start with short stories, not novels

“Like many science fiction authors, I began by writing short stories, which isn’t the norm any more, at least not among British authors today. Today young authors would rather write novels straight off—and that’s precisely why these novels are mostly so poor. In every job you need a certain amount of practice, whether you’re a violinist or a joiner, and short stories offer writers a wonderful chance to acquire the necessary tools. The Mona Lisa, was, after all, not exactly Leonardo da Vinci’s first painting. In any case I learned what it meant to be a writer by writing short stories; what my weaknesses and strengths are.” J. G. Ballard, author of Crash and Empire of the Sun

I wholeheartedly agree with Ballard here. In fact, I wish I’d read his advice 15 years ago, when I wrote two novels that never found any love in the slush piles. As he said, you have to acquire the necessary tools first, and the only way you’ll do that is to start writing, even if it’s junk. As Chuck Jones once put it, “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.” Ya gotta pay those dues.

As different as long works are from short ones, both share the same essential features, including:

– sympathetic characters who have agency
– the protag’s goal, or elusive desire
– that thing or person preventing the protag from getting what he desires and
– a satisfactory conclusion.

And of course, to varying degrees, there are those more elusive and more difficult to define factors, such as style, believable dialog, foreshadowing, and all the other literary devices that make the story work.

Even flash fiction must have the same essentials listed above, plus as many of the supporting literary devices you can pack into 1,000 words. And in an age where people are drowning in too much information, it’s vital for a writer to learn how to say more with less. What better place to learn than in short literary works?

23 thoughts on “Start with short stories, not novels”

  1. I wish I could have read that quote much earlier. I began writing my novel without knowing that much about the craft. I never wrote longer projects before, and I still had so much to learn. Fast forward a few years, I go back and forth between my “side project” and I just keep on changing. It’s much easier to ‘control’ a shorter story. 😀 Perhaps one day my novel will be complete. With every year I keep on adding and changing…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A wonderful and encouragingly written post about obtaining skills in art of any sort. Your quotes are great and so is your own open advice.

    I have never tried to write a book but believe me, even the shortness of poems leave them open to so many mistakes.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. JoHawkTheWriter,

      Flash fiction is demanding. People who haven’t wrestled with the challenge of telling a story in such a restricted space imagine it’s easy. In fact, it’s harder.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I can’t imagine launching into a long form work without cutting my writing teeth on shorter forms first. It’s not that short stories are easier: it’s just that they aren’t as daunting in terms of stamina.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jan,

      Yes, short fiction is daunting. But I like how it allows me to both sharpen my chops and get feedback faster than I could with a novel or two a year.


  4. this needs to be heard! I wanted to be a writer in such a quick and short amount of time. I had the desire of writing a novel in less than a month of no experience. Then I realize I need to set realistic milestones to reach my dream. This is it! Thank you❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very true. It is fascinating to consider how the format of stories will change with time, too, as they seem to be getting shorter and shorter. I am interested to see how storytelling will evolve with so much information being so easily accessible to many people.

    Liked by 1 person

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