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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » short stories versus novels

   
Author Topic: short stories versus novels
tesknota
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Since the early days of my pursuit of writing, I have only wanted to write novels. I'm talking junior high here, so that was quite a long time ago; however, throughout the next decade, I have really still only wanted to write novels. All the projects I've thought through or started have been novels. This trend ended my senior year of high school, when I decided to take a creative writing course in which we could only write short stories (for obvious time-related reasons). Even so, I cranked out the assignments without real pleasure. I liked writing them, but it just wasn't fulfilling. Too short? Maybe. I dunno.

Fast forward through college; same old same old.

Now that I've been perusing though the Hatrack treehouse, I've gained a better appreciation for short stories. In particular, I've noticed two things about them. First, it easier to explore and improve your writing craft through revising a short story as opposed to a novel. Second, there are more markets to sell short stories to; I assume this, because they are cheaper to produce.

It now seems to me now that to start with writing a novel isn't the best route. There's less room for improvement because you're more focused on the story/plot than the way you're writing. And honestly, if you write an entire novel's worth of a brilliant story but terrible presentation, you're still not going to reach a market or an audience.

Here are a few questions I want to put out there:

Short stories or novels, which do you prefer? I know that some members here prefer longer works, but are there any of you who prefer and stick with writing short stories? Also, for those of you who know a bit about the publishing industry, is it easier for first-time novelists to get picked up by an agent if he/she has sold short stories first?

And of course, let me know if you disagree on my entire premise.

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InarticulateBabbler
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1) I prefer reading novels, but much of that may be for that fact that I was at one time a slush reader, and have seen short stories which made my eyes bleed.

2) There are quite a few writers who exclusively write short stories.

3) I believe with the state of publishing today, it matters far less if you are able to sell a short story and far more that you can tell a good story.

I think it's a mistake to think of short story writing as an easy way to build writing credits. I know many short story writers spend almost as/as much time creating their worlds and characters and writing their stories as novelists. Also, you have less room in a short story for verbosity--you have to accomplish much in a short span. There are many markets for short stories, but there is stiff competition for those who pay professional rates.

That said, I agree with Brandon Sanderson in that if you love to write novels, write novels; if you love short stories, write short stories. Not many writers can do both. If you don't enjoy the writing, don't do it.

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wetwilly
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Personally, I don't care for short stories. Reading them is OK, but a good short story doesn't give me anything like the thrill a good novel does. Because of that, I'm really not interested in writing them. It's not where my passion is. Also as a result, I don't think I'm all that good at writing them.

"It now seems to me now that to start with writing a novel isn't the best route. There's less room for improvement because you're more focused on the story/plot than the way you're writing."

I do not find that to be the case. Whether I'm writing a short story or a novel, I focus a lot on both plot and style.

What it comes down to is, even if I have great success writing short stories, then it's not that great of a success for me because I'm just being successful at something I don't really like. Basically, if I can't achieve success with novels, I'm not really interested in achieving it.

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axeminister
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Novels. Reading and writing.

Yet, I primarily write shorts stories and flash fiction. The main reason, is the Writers of the Future contest. I'm totally addicted to it. However, I'm also learning oodles about writing, and I apply that knowledge quickly to the next story.

I write flash fiction to try to sell them, get them out there, and because it's challenging, practice, and allows for my ideas to get out of my head.

Plus, there's the social aspect. Writing only novels is lonely and kind of boring. Not much to talk about or exchange with others. And learning is slower.

Only recently, in the past few months, have I been able to work on my novel and short stories at the same time. That might be my maturity as a writer, or it could be my desire to reach my goal of 10k words a month. For the first time, I'm able to completely compartmentalize the stories, the voices, and the plots.

This is like heaven for me, because I'm adding page count to my novel, which is all I want to do ever, and I'm getting my WotF entries done, the Hatrack contest, and when an idea strikes, a flash.

I hope it continues.

Axe

[ June 23, 2013, 01:05 PM: Message edited by: axeminister ]

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History
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What's a short story? [Wink]

My first writing in 30 years was a novel, and I enjoyed writing it. The development of characters, the cascade of scenes elevating the conflict (both internal an external), the selection and depiction of numerous settings and themes, etc.

Question: As a complete unknown, how can one attract an agent or editor to read it?
Answer: Prove you can write well enough to be published.

Thus, the need to write short fiction.

This has been the traditional way for many authors, particularly in f & sf. Yes, there are break-out novelists (and break-out copy cat authors for "the new big thing"--e.g. boy wizards, demigods, vampires, zombies, etc.); but for most, I believe, the published short story has allowed more feet through the door for novelists.

Too bad I have such a struggle writing them
After writing my novel, I sold two literary flash pieces right off the bat. However, I found short works (less than 5K)* difficult to achieve the depth of "story" I desired. With rare exceptions, I find most short stories (reading or writing them) as satisfying as eating celery when I desire a juicy burger. When I do enjoy them, it is because they possess an idea that inspires my awe (e.g. The Star by Arthur C. Clarke. Read it here: http://www.bing.com/search?q=The+star+clarke&qs=n&form=QBLH&pq=the+star+clarke&sc=1-15&sp=-1&sk=&ghc=1 ).

Therefore, with rare exception, I find my "short" story writing gravitates to the novelette (7.5K to 17K) almost exclusively and occasionally a novella (17K to 40K).

The problem is there are nearly no markets to which to sell such story lengths.

Thus, I am in a sort of Catch-22 and need to write less than 7.5K (ideally less than 5K) stories for which there are many markets; or after three years of attempting to write "short", give up and merely write what I enjoy regardless of length. I am inclined toward the latter, but as in the tree-woods analogy: if no one reads what I write, am I an author?

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

* By SFWA standards, a short story is less than 7500 words. However, many markets now request or "prefer" stories be less than 5K ( http://www.ralan.com/m.pro.htm )

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Owasm
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When I began writing four 1/2 years ago, I thought I'd start out with a novel. After joining a few online workshops (including this one), I found that I needed to learn more about writing (still do, but that's another post). So I wrote about two hundred short stories. I learned about putting meaning into stories and that included flashes.

My real love is novels. That's what I read and that's what I write. However, I still am a sucker for WotF although I haven't submitted a short story to a market in a couple of years. I've never really liked short stories. You won't even find an anthology in my library. But for honing one's craft quickly, you can't beat writing short stories.

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MartinV
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We are the same kind of people, tesknota. I can't read short stories - I bought the WotF anthology last year and only read about half of the stories. I try writing them because I'm an adult now and time has become a different thing [Big Grin] But I honestly suck at it. The one short story I finished turned into a novella which I published on Smashwords but now I know it's only a part of a greater story I am obliged to write some day.

It is reassuring to know that novels thrive on Smashwords which will probably be my main choice of distribution. I will offer my novels to a conventional publisher at some point but that's a different chapter of my life and it can wait.

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History
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And yet, "the experts" state the novel and short story are two distinct species. Thus, how can one truly "hone one's craft" for writing novels by penning short stories?

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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extrinsic
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Addressing the question from a different approach, what do readers want, short or long? Both. One market segment prefers short narratives. That's what they have time for. Another market segment prefers novels, or books anyway. Another market segment wants both and more.

Publishers used to know word counts equalled time spent reading. The heyday of digests, when circulation numbers numbered into the hundred thousands for the big three and similar genre pulp magazines, before color television, before the Internet, before cell phones, self-entertainment meant reading digests. Those days are gone.

The average English language reading rate is equivalent to the average speaking rate. One hundred fifty words per minute. A two thousand-word short story averages fifteen minutes reading time: about how long a morning coffee break, an afternoon coffee break, a waiting room wait, a wait for a taxi, bus, train, or plane, used to last on average.

Four or five thousand words: thirty-minute lunch break. Eighty thousand words, one hundred twenty-five pages, about nine hours. Reading-time budgets.

I'm a reading omnivore: short, long, fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, scripts, scholarship, journalism, cereal boxes; words draw my eye. I choose what to read according to my time budget, my sentiments at the time, and what product and who's generathing buzz.

I read as plain reader wanting to fill time meaningfully and entertainingly, to closely analyze for craft and expression, to evaluate the competition, to keep abreast of the cultures social, reading, writing, editing, and publishing; perhaps the states of literacy and composition skills as well. I read to spot social trends, like the recent trending of young adult literature toward anti-adult: Suzanne Collins; Hunger Games. I read to confirm whether a narrative that's generating buzz contains the subtext that it's signaling yet has been overlooked by fans, critics, denouncers, like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, John Grisham's The Confession.

Literature's function anymore is by and large on its surface entertainment. Yet literature's functions are very much more. As writer, editor, critic, publisher, I feel I have a privilege and a duty to both evaluate those functions and decide for myself whether they meet their intents. Most times, they come close. When a narrative fulfills more than one function, say both entertainment and portraying a socially meaningfuly example, noble or wicked, both or neither dominant, then I am fulfilled.

[ June 23, 2013, 02:58 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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Every story comes in its own length. My first novel started life as a short story. As I got into it the characters took over and decided to tell me really happened. All I could do was document their report. Alternatively, sometimes all you are telling is a fishing whopper. Either way, you are writing, and that's what counts.
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MAP
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You should write what you want to write and what you enjoy reading. There are stark differences between short stories and novels, and if you are not reading short stories, you aren't going to know how to write them. It's like someone who watches films and thinks he can write a novel. Sure there are similarities, but if you want to know how to write a good short story, you need to read lots and lots of short stories that are selling today.

I think it is old school advice to start with short stories. That market is as tough to crack as the novel market (meaning both are really tough). There was this awesome link a few years back here that had some stats on Scifi/fantasy writers who traditionally published novels, and I remember there was a very low percent who started with short stories. You can break in just as easily only writing novels (not that either route is easy). Also I've read on agent blogs like Miss Snark and Pub Rants that short story sells don't really mean that much to them. What sells them on your book is your book. If the query letter sounds interesting, they'll bite whether you've sold short stories or not.

I don't understand the idea that you hone your craft faster writing short stories. You are learning how to write short stories, but there are enough differences between short stories and novels that you will have to relearn aspects of story telling when you switch to novels. I'm not sure in the long run if writing shorts is a faster way to go.

My advice is to write what you want to write, what makes you excited. If you love short stories, write short stories. If you love novels, write novels. If you love both, then write both. And if you really want to polish your wordsmithing skills, write poetry. [Smile]

But I think you will become a better writer by just writing.

[ June 24, 2013, 12:03 AM: Message edited by: MAP ]

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Meredith
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Well, my last attempt at a novelette came in at 75,000 words. Yeah, I'm a novelist.

My one HM in WotF doesn't change that.

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LDWriter2
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Much to say here so there might be a second part later...I'm warning you all so prepare yourselves.


Now though:

I seem to be a rare creature, at least around here, I love novels and short stories; both reading and writing. I can even dig flash. There have been stories of less than 500 words I want to shout about. I thought one story so good I asked a unpublished writer if I could out one of her flash tale on my blog even though it wasn't my usual type of story. She said no for a couple of different reasons.

For the most part I believe the writing of novels is different than from stories. You can explain things further in novels, show; more action, more background, more of the personality of the MC. In a short story that all has to be done quick or leave it to the reader to figure out.

However the writing in both should be active not passive, the five human senses still come into play, the basic elements are the same. Beginning-middle-conclusion. In novels you have the time for longer middles and even longer conclusions sometimes you can even include an after scene to explain what happens next for the MC and to answer an unanswered question or two.

In novels you have more time to describe an event or object. In short stories the more you leave more of the description to the reader---one qualifier here, David over at WotF likes descriptions. He used one example where one writer left a description of the MC's older sister out completely. Even though I have a feeling even he wouldn't demand a complete description of everything from head to toe. Other pros writers talk of giving a basic description but leaving something for the reader's imagination. In novels the descriptions can be longer. That goes for describing the weather of a certain day.

Okay that went on a bit longer than I intended but that's how I see certain points on this subject.

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tesknota
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Oh wow, so many replies! Obviously, there are a bunch of us here who are opinionated on this topic!

I've also thought about what I like to read. Funny thing though. I grew up reading 95% novels, and 5% short story compilations from either my favorite authors or the recommended summer reading lists my the library. Now, I like reading novels, but I'm actually gravitating to reading more short stories. I guess I'm checking for style, for ways other authors present their work. And, as extrinsic mentioned, reading a short story just takes less time.

One of my short stories could never become a novelette, much less a novel. I'm too impatient for my short stories to last past 5000 words or so! It's not a good habit. Maybe I'll change with more practice.

I think that the general consensus here is that even though short story sales don't really influence a novel sale, writing short stories is still writing, and writing in itself is good. We should at least agree that making short story sales is validation that your writing doesn't suck. =D

Even though short stories and novels are structured differently, writing either type will still lead to you discovering what works and what doesn't, your preference on semantics, your personal style, etc. That is improvement in itself.

As for myself, I think that I will put my novel on hold for a bit and work on some short stories. I need to practice finishing things. Obviously, if I can't finish a short story, I will have a very difficult time finishing an entire novel! They might not be my preference, but I enjoy them enough to try to write out a few. Who knows? Maybe I'll even try to submit something I'm not embarrassed of. That'll be my next big step: actually submitting a finished work.

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rcmann
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The Martian Chronicles.

Is it a fragmented novel or a collection of short stories? I have often wondered. I somehow doubt Bradbury spent a lot of time worrying about trying to define what he wrote. He just wrote. Not a bad example to follow.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
The Martian Chronicles.

Is it a fragmented novel or a collection of short stories? I have often wondered. I somehow doubt Bradbury spent a lot of time worrying about trying to define what he wrote. He just wrote. Not a bad example to follow.

The Martian Chronicles is a collection of Bradbury's short stories previously published singly in serial digests and reimagined as a loose episodic novel. Interstitial frame story interludes loosely connect the episodes. Bradbury did spend some time avoiding being defined as a genre writer. As Margaret Atwood does. As Kurt Vonnegut did.

[ June 24, 2013, 04:18 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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A very loose episodic novel...and some of Bradbury's Martian stories lie outside its covers, too. (For another example, I'll suggest Silverberg's The Alien Years.)
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extrinsic
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Collecting and frame-story connecting priorly published short stories into episodic novels is a time-honored tradition for fantastic fiction.

Doing so is one method for tying together a short story collection and incorporating new content that appeals to audiences and generates new revenues. Nor are short stories the only collection form; the L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz Omnibus seventeen-novel saga, Kindle version, was released in 2008 ($9.95, 2200-plus pages). The print editions are forthcoming and slated for final release this year.

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Robert Nowall
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quote:
...the L. Frank Baum Wizard of Oz Omnibus seventeen-novel saga...
I count just fourteen novels by L. Frank Baum in the Oz series---there were many officially-sanctioned books by others, not Baum---plus some collections. (I read them when Del Rey reissued them in paperback back in the 1980s.) Don't know what's in the Kindle version, but it's all in public domain now, I gather.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
The Martian Chronicles.

Is it a fragmented novel or a collection of short stories? I have often wondered. I somehow doubt Bradbury spent a lot of time worrying about trying to define what he wrote. He just wrote. Not a bad example to follow.

IMO a better example of the loosely-connected shorts reimaged as a novel: Chris Anvil's stuff.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by History:
And yet, "the experts" state the novel and short story are two distinct species. Thus, how can one truly "hone one's craft" for writing novels by penning short stories?

I agree -- they are in the same genus, but different species. They don't crossbreed gracefully. Shorts have to concentrate on the immediate; novels can delve into backstory and side trips. These are different skills.

I can write either, but I prefer the novel all around. I rarely read shorts, because I'm just not interested in what strike me as isolated incidents. Same reason I prefer series TV to film.

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InarticulateBabbler
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Robert Nowall is dead-on with Robert Silverberg. Roma Eterna is also a novel comprised of short stories.

As to:
quote:

Thus, how can one truly "hone one's craft" for writing novels by penning short stories?

That answer is simple. Writing short stories tightens your prose.

Publishing short stories is an entirely different matter. In today's political climate, it's not enough to just have tight, clean prose and a good story.

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posulliv
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Quote:

"Short stories or novels, which do you prefer? I know that some members here prefer longer works, but are there any of you who prefer and stick with writing short stories? Also, for those of you who know a bit about the publishing industry, is it easier for first-time novelists to get picked up by an agent if he/she has sold short stories first?"

Here's my take on the subject.

I prefer them both, although 90% of my reading is of novels. I write both short stories and novels, and here's why.

Ever writer has their own strengths and weaknesses. My weakness has been telling a good story in a clear, intelligible manner, and getting every necessary part of the story out of my brain and into the manuscript in a compelling, memorable way. Not writing pretty words and sentences but telling the whole story in a way that resonates and sticks with readers.

For me, the fastest way to getting better at telling a story seems to have been writing short stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like a novel, but they take a lot less time to write. Writing stories into manuscript form forces me to think about the story in story terms. This practice has taught me to spend less time thinking about the words and more time thinking about the story, and more importantly, the story's effect on the reader.

I figure if I can tell a good story in a few words I probably can tell one with a lot of words. I read for story, and I believe that most readers do, too. A great story is a great story, and the story itself dictates the length.

In answer to your agent question, I don't care about agents. I want every reader, the ultimate consumer of what I write, to think, "Damn, I'll never forget that story as long as I live." I figure if I can write a story like that the question of how to take it to market becomes a secondary consideration. (When I figure out how to write that story I'll let you know.)

Lately, I've been writing stories and just letting them be as long as they need to be. Not every story I want to tell deserves to be a novel. So I write the story as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Then I figure out what to do with the finished manuscript. Sometimes that means hanging onto the manuscript until market conditions change. Sometimes it means publishing it myself.

If I had to do it all over again I don't think I'd change anything. I've won a couple awards (First Place in Writers of the Future and Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest). I think these awards may help my short stories get past the slush in some cases, but that's not why I wrote them. I wrote them to learn how to tell an awesome story, one that resonates with readers that share my values. I don't think they help at all when trying to sell a novel, except maybe in the same way, skipping past the ugliest parts of the slush. In any event, I think editors are smart enough to judge each work on its own merits, since that's what readers do, and good editors are proxies for readers. (I don't know anything about agents. It's distant enough from readers for me when dealing directly with editors.)

Ultimately, I want to be able to tell that unforgettable story,the one you'll stay up all night thinking about and tell all of your friends, "You have to read this." I don't care if that is a short story or a novel. I do think that writing short stories has moved me toward that goal faster than only writing novels would have.

This is kind of a long answer, and since every writer is different it probably isn't much help. Most of the writers I know write both short stories and novels. I suspect some of their reasoning may be different than mine, but then every writer is different, thank goodness.

I hope this helps.

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History
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Well, you certainly achieved this with Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee (Adventures in the Fogbound Realm) [http://www.amazon.com/Maddy-Spelling-Adventures-Fogbound-ebook/dp/B00AG2P2DW ], Patrick.

And to subsequently win the Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest demonstrates that many agree you know how to tell a captivating story. So, yet again, "mazel tov!"

The question is: Did these achievements open more doors for you than just getting your "short stories...past the slush in some cases"?

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

P.S. And can we look forward to any more tales of the Fogbound Realm?

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posulliv
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Thanks for the kind words, Dr. Bob.

Quote:

"Did these achievements open more doors for you than just getting your "short stories...past the slush in some cases"?

Definitely, but not in the direct way you might imagine. The best thing to come out of winning is the friendships. I now have friends with a lot more industry experience than I have. Their doors are open, and I feel like I can get the sort of straight career advice that is priceless in any field.

If you are the outgoing sort and can afford to attend cons you could probably build these relationships over time. I'm an introvert so that wouldn't have worked for me. And if you're living outside the U.S. the expense to attend the major U.S. cons can be prohibitive. Writers of the Future pays travel expenses.

I think this is one of the big things that separates winning Writers of the Future from say, selling the same story to a pro paying market. In retrospect, this alone should have motivated me to try my hand at short stories, just for a shot at attending Writers of the Future.

Quote:

"And can we look forward to any more tales of the Fogbound Realm?"

Definitely, but I'm not sure when. The wheels grind slowly, but they grind.

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mayflower988
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Online, I prefer reading short stories. Maybe it's just that I don't like staring at a computer screen for very long. Offline, I prefer novels.
So far, I've only written/attempted to write short stories. That's mainly because of my ADD and the difficulty I have with finishing a longer project. But I just signed up to do Camp NaNoWriMo next month. Hopefully I can finally finish this book I've been working on.

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legolasgalactica
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quote:
Originally posted by posulliv:
Quote:

"Short stories or novels, which do you prefer? I know that some members here prefer longer works, but are there any of you who prefer and stick with writing short stories? Also, for those of you who know a bit about the publishing industry, is it easier for first-time novelists to get picked up by an agent if he/she has sold short stories first?"

Here's my take on the subject.

I prefer them both, although 90% of my reading is of novels. I write both short stories and novels, and here's why.

Ever writer has their own strengths and weaknesses. My weakness has been telling a good story in a clear, intelligible manner, and getting every necessary part of the story out of my brain and into the manuscript in a compelling, memorable way. Not writing pretty words and sentences but telling the whole story in a way that resonates and sticks with readers.

For me, the fastest way to getting better at telling a story seems to have been writing short stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like a novel, but they take a lot less time to write. Writing stories into manuscript form forces me to think about the story in story terms. This practice has taught me to spend less time thinking about the words and more time thinking about the story, and more importantly, the story's effect on the reader.

I figure if I can tell a good story in a few words I probably can tell one with a lot of words. I read for story, and I believe that most readers do, too. A great story is a great story, and the story itself dictates the length.

In answer to your agent question, I don't care about agents. I want every reader, the ultimate consumer of what I write, to think, "Damn, I'll never forget that story as long as I live." I figure if I can write a story like that the question of how to take it to market becomes a secondary consideration. (When I figure out how to write that story I'll let you know.)

Lately, I've been writing stories and just letting them be as long as they need to be. Not every story I want to tell deserves to be a novel. So I write the story as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Then I figure out what to do with the finished manuscript. Sometimes that means hanging onto the manuscript until market conditions change. Sometimes it means publishing it myself.

If I had to do it all over again I don't think I'd change anything. I've won a couple awards (First Place in Writers of the Future and Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest). I think these awards may help my short stories get past the slush in some cases, but that's not why I wrote them. I wrote them to learn how to tell an awesome story, one that resonates with readers that share my values. I don't think they help at all when trying to sell a novel, except maybe in the same way, skipping past the ugliest parts of the slush. In any event, I think editors are smart enough to judge each work on its own merits, since that's what readers do, and good editors are proxies for readers. (I don't know anything about agents. It's distant enough from readers for me when dealing directly with editors.)

Ultimately, I want to be able to tell that unforgettable story,the one you'll stay up all night thinking about and tell all of your friends, "You have to read this." I don't care if that is a short story or a novel. I do think that writing short stories has moved me toward that goal faster than only writing novels would have.

This is kind of a long answer, and since every writer is different it probably isn't much help. Most of the writers I know write both short stories and novels. I suspect some of their reasoning may be different than mine, but then every writer is different, thank goodness.

I hope this helps.


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