Short stories versus novels versus quitting

Someone over on Chuck Wendig’s blog has a problem that I’ve struggled with myself: should I write short stories or novels? Except in some ways, the real question is, why does my writing suck so much and should I give up already? Here is my answer, with some modifications.

I think the allure of short stories, in a sense, is the instant gratification. You get an idea, you write it, and BAM! Story. It’s not like a novel, where you write and write and oh my god, I’m still writing, when will this be over? You can show it off to people and not have to worry about explaining that, okay, this is chapter 15 and before this a bunch of stuff has happened and… At the same time, this can also lead to short stories becoming disposable like tissue paper. You can make a masterpiece out of it, with effort, but mostly you use it and trash it and move on.

So, deep question: what do you really want? Do you want to write better short stories? Do you want to write novels instead? Do you want someone to tell you it’s okay to write short stories that never go anywhere and are just for funsies? Do you genuinely want to stop writing and take up some other hobby, like gardening or spelunking?

Let’s go in order of easy answers. The simplest thing is to give up and move on. All it requires is that you not write. It’s okay to not write. A very limited number of people will be affected if you stop, mostly you. We can talk about how you’re depriving the world of your stories and stuff, and while true, the world won’t miss what it never had. But again, is that REALLY what you want? I doubt it.

Is it okay to write short stories for fun? Of course. Writing can be fun. It’s like sex that way. Or masturbation. Whatever. The point is, if you just want to write a thing and you enjoy doing it, there’s no requirement that you show it to anyone else, or edit it, or do anything but bask in the afterglow. So if all you need is someone to give you permission to do a thing that you like, then voila. Permission granted.

If you want to write novels instead, that’s okay, too. We all have a limited amount of time to work with, and we have to make choices about what we do with that time. If you write 350 words a day, then you have to decide whether that will be 350 words of short fiction or long form. At that pace, you can write roughly one novel a year, or roughly 20 short stories. As a wise Myke Cole once told me, there aren’t many people out there building a career or making a name for themselves on short fiction. So if that’s where you want to go–money, fame, mobs of screaming fans, or any muted variation thereof–novels are the car to take you there.

If you want to write better short stories, it won’t be easy, but you have many options. Classes. Critique groups. Books on writing. You have to really internalize the notion that writing this stuff is as much work as writing novels. A shiny idea is just an egg. You have to learn to sit on something a while after you write it instead of getting super excited and kicking it out of the nest like a newborn bird–it will not fly, as I know from experience. You have to learn how to take a thing apart and put it back together so that it works, to build the mechanical bird that soars instead of flopping around on your table. You have to learn how to take rejection, grit your teeth and keep submitting. Don’t worry about the suffering of the editors too much; they’re doing their job. Worry about sending them something worth reading. Worry about your bird, not the color of the sky.

I say all this as someone who almost stopped writing recently because of a really rough critique of a story I poured my soul into. It sucks like a Dyson. But I dug around in the pockets of my soul and came up with enough change to get my ass back on the train to Writertown, population: People Who Write. So if that’s you, here’s a dollar. See you there.

One Response to “Short stories versus novels versus quitting”

  1. Yep. I am right (or write) there with you. I’ve had a critique rip out my soul, but it was mostly because I thought I was brilliant and the crit was so dead on it damn near killed me. But eventually you get up and put the pen to paper again. It’s what we do. Validation or not. Published or not. We write.

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