How Writing Short Stories Can Help You Write Better Novels
Updated: Mar 16, 2019
Several years ago, I was lurking some writer's forum somewhere when I came across this advice given to a new writer: If you're stuck and you want to improve your writing, stop writing novels and write some short stories instead.
I was skeptical at first. Short stories are...well, short. For me, that meant simple plots, rudimentary conflicts, and a handful of flat, detached characters. I wanted nothing to do with that - not when I was trying to write much longer and "more complex" stories. And let's not forget the harshly limiting word count; I had no idea how to tell a good story in less than 10,000 words.
Upon further consideration, I decided there might be some merit to this advice (in a what's-the-worst-that-could-happen sort of way). I periodically dabbled in writing short stories over the next several years, but wasn't until the beginning of 2015 that I decided to get serious. I'd hit rock-bottom with the novel I'd spent the last five years of my life on, and I turned to short stories more out of desperation than anything else. However, throughout this process, I've seen a lot of ways that short stories that can help a person write better novels. Here's how.
1. Writing short stories allows you to go through the entire writing process much faster than you can with a novel.
This one is pretty obvious when you think about it. Short stories are shorter, so it makes sense that they aren't as time consuming to write, revise, and edit as novel-length works. What might not be so obvious is just how much you can learn by doing this. Chances are you can go through the entire writing process multiple times with multiple short stories in the same amount of time you'd spend on a single novel.
Every time you go through that process, you become a little more efficient at it. Maybe you make fewer first-draft mistakes because several rounds of revisions on a few short stories have taught you to spot and fix your most common errors. Maybe you're better able to maintain concentration when you've just got 4,000 words to get through instead of 100,000. Whatever the case, this efficiency will carry over when you go back to that novel you've been working on.
2. Writing short stories will get you in the habit of finishing something once you start it.
I see so many writers start a novel only to lose steam half-way through and give up, whether because their plot gets stuck or they lose the passion they started with or they look back a few pages and get discouraged by all the things that need to be fixed. I've been there myself a time or two (or three...or, you know, fifty). That's understandable. Writing a novel is a mammoth task, and sometimes it seems impossible to finish anything once you start it.
This is where short stories come in. Writing a few and seeing them through to completion will help you practice the discipline needed to finish a longer story. As an added bonus, you get the same sense of satisfaction when you get to the end, and that can be a big confidence boost. I'm not saying that you have to finish every short story you start. Sometimes that's just not realistic, and I admit I've abandoned more than my share on the wayside. But I don't feel half as guilty about them as I do about some of the novels I've abandoned simply because I haven't invested nearly as much time in them.
3. The word count limit forces you to eliminate any unnecessary details, plot points, characters, backstory, etc.
This is perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned from writing short stories. When you only have 10,000 words to tell your story (and if you intend to publish traditionally, many markets set the limit at 7,500 or even less), there's no room for anything that doesn't move the story along or tell the reader something they need to know about the characters. You don't have the luxury of explaining the history of why the various religions in your fantasy world forbid the use of magic, or why your main character has a scar the shape of an "X" across one eye. If you feel like you absolutely have to include such information, you'd better have a good reason for it. Learning this lesson can be beneficial when you go back to writing novels. World-building and backstory and all of that can be great, and they all have their place in stories at some point. Writing short stories will help you learn how to see the difference between what details and information are actually necessary and what's just fluff.
4. Writing short stories can help you become familiar with the publishing process.
I think this is true regardless of whether you intend to self-publish or publish traditionally. If you're self-publishing, then writing a short story, polishing it to near-perfection, and putting it out for the world to see will help you learn valuable skills and gain experience that can help when you decide to self-publish a novel in the future. You'll learn how to format your story, how to market yourself, how to attract readers, and everything else that is crucial to successful self-publishing.
If you decide to try having your stories traditionally published, you'll learn basic skills such as how to to format a manuscript properly and search out the most appropriate markets for your work. You'll get some rejection letters, which is an unavoidable part of traditional publishing and something you'll need to get used to. If your writing is solid and you're fortunate enough to receive a personal rejection, you'll gain valuable insights that might help you improve your story. If you do manage to get an acceptance, the fact that you've been previously published in an established magazine or anthology can help you land an agent and/or publisher for a novel later on. Whichever route you decide to go, you're sure to learn some important lessons in the process.
5. Writing short stories can be a huge confidence boost.
If nothing else on this list has convinced you to give short stories a try, this last one should. Let's face it - we writers have fragile egos and enough self-doubt to fill oceans. As the saying goes, you're your own worst critic. This one really surprised me when I started. I didn't go into writing short stories expecting to feel better about my work, but that's exactly what happened. Every time I finished a draft, I gained a little confidence. I realized that I could do this - I had the ability to finish something and still like it afterwards. When I went back and revised that draft, seeing how much the story improved boosted my confidence a little more. When I sent my first story to a market I was terrified, but also excited and proud of myself for trying, for putting myself out there despite my fears. When an editor emailed me expressing an interest in my story, my confidence soared. It didn't matter that the story ultimately got rejected - the fact that it had gotten anything more than the typical form letter was enough to tell me that maybe, just maybe, I was on the right track here.
Confidence can do wonders for a writer. It can carry you through the hard times, encouraging you to keep writing when you start thinking you should quit. It will get you through the bad days when you hate every word you put on the page and you've got an inbox full of rejection letters. I'm not saying you'll never have those creeping feelings of self-doubt again, but it can be easier to deal with those feelings when you have some successes to look back on.
So, will writing short stories miraculously make you a better writer? No. It's still going to be a ton of hard work, as anything worth doing is, but I firmly believe that it can help. Also, writing short stories is just fun. Short doesn't have to mean "simple" or "boring" or "flat characters." I've read some short stories that are stronger than most novels in terms of plot and character. And ideas are easier to come by than you might think. Got a brilliant idea for a plot that you're not sure is long enough for a novel? Write a short story. Got a cool character concept but no story to stick that character in? Try something shorter to start with. Got an interesting setting that you want to explore a little more? Write a short story, or a few all set in the same world.
Go ahead and try it. I think you'll be surprised by how much you can learn.