Whenever I talk to aspiring fiction writers who are just starting out, I always recommend that they begin by writing short stories. There are several reasons for this.
Short stories allow a writer to experiment within a small package. First person, or third? Past tense, or present? Ratio of dialog to narrative to description. High fantasy or science fiction or urban fantasy or romance or mystery? Character or plot driven? Vignette or full story arc? Short stories let you test yourself, practice, and improve in a shorter period of time. You can write a short story in a week, a day if you’re a fast writer. It takes most of us at least a few months to write a novel. During the same time you could try out a dozen ideas in short stories.
Writing short encourages you to make every word count. To know what the essence of the story is and not to wander. It’s a great challenge to accept a very tight word limit, say 500 words, and tell a story within it. When you do “graduate” to writing novels, you won’t be as profligate with your words.
You can hold the whole story in your mind. With a novel you have plots and subplots, secondary characters and red herrings. When you’re just beginning that’s a lot to juggle. Make it easy on yourself. Start small. Learn to juggle just a couple of balls before you try to keep half a dozen flaming torches in the air.
It’s easier to get good feedback on short stories. You’re critique partners don’t have to wonder if you’re wandering off on a tangent or setting up something for later in the book as they might with a novel fragment — it’s all there. They can tell you if you pulled it all together or if the story fell apart in act three. And once you’ve got that feedback, it’s quicker to revise a short story.
You can learn most of this from writing novel chunks, but using the short story format encourages you to complete a whole thing, with a beginning, middle, and an end, not just a piece. Storytellers need to know how to start, sustain, and finish their tales. It’s easier to start learning that with a single plot line instead of a sprawling epic.
For a while, the market for short stories was shrinking; only a few print magazines still bought them, and only in a few genres. Now with people turning more and more to the internet for entertainment, there are an increasing number of markets online for short stories, some of which pay quite well. You can even sell your stories yourself on Kindle and Smashwords if you’re so inclined.
On this last point, I’d like to digress a little. There are some authors who suggest that you not spend too much time revising. Give it a light once over, then out the door it goes. They publish their shorts on Smashwords and Kindle and feel that reader reviews are good teachers. That’s true as far as it goes, but I can’t agree that this is the best start for beginning writers.
Every piece that goes out the door with your name on it is your ambassador. It may be the first thing of yours that someone reads — and it could be the last. Every story should be the best you can make it right now, within a reasonable amount of time. And that understanding comes with experience. And that experience is something you can get from writing multiple short stories.
Yes, if you foul your name by self-publishing work that’s really not ready, you can always continue your career under a pen name. It’s not a fatal mistake. But I think waiting a bit to publish while you learn your craft will be time well spent.
Start by writing several short stories and see how your work improves. Then you can decide if you want to go back and fix your first efforts, or trash ’em. Then push whatever survives out the door, and start another story.