When I sent out a request for authors to do a guest post on my blog, the first one to respond was Ed Robertson. I want to thank Ed for his immediate response, and with that being said, here is Ed to discuss how writing short stories can help you write better novels.
A few years back, I finished my third novel. While I was revising and gearing up to start querying it around, I decided to take a break from writing books to focus on short stories. Not to try something different or anything as noble as that: but because agents, so I’d read, perked up their agent-ears when they see some nice publication credits in a query letter, and because, so I’d read, the sci-fi/fantasy field in which I was writing had a fine tradition of new authors establishing themselves with stories before moving onto books (which were often expansions or combinations of their short works).
Basically, I was looking for a shortcut. Thing is…have you ever tried to write a short story? And sell it to a professionally-paying market? That task is as hard as a rock that’s been looking at rock pornography. When you’re used to telling stories in 100,000 words, it’s virtually impossible.
Still, within a few months I made my first sale, at semi-pro rates (a penny a word! Riches!). I kept writing, sending stories to the big markets, sporadically landing a few at smaller zines. A couple months back, after nearly three and a half years of trying, I made my first pro sale.
But when I sat down last year to write a new book, I discovered something odd: I had become a better novelist. Rather than taking a paragraph or more to establish a setting, I could do so in sentences. Sometimes just a single clause. Working out my sci-fi universe was pretty easy when I’d already established it through several loosely linked short stories. After practicing specific techniques through some twenty-odd stories, I was now doing them automatically; plugging in nonvisual sensory details in the first draft, ruling out repetitive internal monologue before I’d even written it, etc.
Best of all were my plotting and pacing. I’d always struggled with coming up with ideas and plots, but now I had an established process. After experimenting with some flash fiction, with telling a complete beginning, middle, and end in 1000 words, I had a much sharper understanding of which moments had to be shown, to be dramatized, and which could be skipped through, told, summarized. The result was the sleekest, best-paced book I’d written to date.
The thing I liked most of all? Robbing myself blind. I ransacked my short works for anything I could use–narrative tricks, details, a whole character. Eventually, I wound up taking an entire short story, reworking its perspective, chopping it into snippets, and inserting those before each chapter to build a parallel narrative. Who was going to stop this widescale plunder? Nobody, that’s who. Because these were all things I had made or learned for myself through the process of telling dozens of different stories in a very limited space. I don’t think improving as a writer is just about how many words you’ve written. I think it’s also about how many stories you’ve told.
I thought writing short fiction would help me sell books. Instead, it helped me write them.
© 2019, Steven R. Drennon. All rights reserved.