Alice Soon

My Literary Life & other obsessions…

Why Do Most Writers Start with Novels?


 Instead of writing novels, shouldn’t aspiring writers focus on short stories or flash fiction first?

I came across an interesting article in GalleyCat which posed this exact question and forced me to think about my decision to write novels FIRST.  Why had I decided to write novels first?

After all, this article made the very good point that if you were a musician, “No composition teacher would recommend that a beginning composer write a symphony. The idea is laughable to say the least. A symphony is something that is considered almost sacred, the level of craftsmanship, talent, dedication, and discipline required to write one—let alone one of any merit—is unprecedented. A beginning composer first works on technical exercises and then writes short pieces with limited instrumentation. Over time, as their craftsmanship and personal voice develop, they begin composing more technically impressive and expansive works. Why is it not the same for writing?

Why are writers encouraged to set themselves up for disappointment by beginning their journeys with a novel they will most likely not complete—or will most likely be of poor quality? Flash fiction, letters, writing prompts, short stories, why are these not the tools of a developing writer? … Why is there a focus on quantity over quality in the world of writers?

We found the question evocative. How did your writing life develop? Should writers consider working with smaller building blocks before heading to the novel?”

So this had my wheels spinning – Why had I chosen to write the great Canadian/American/British novel first, without even attempting short stories or anything smaller in nature?

Butterfly Book

The truth is, I have never even considered writing anything else besides novels.  I love books, I read books and all I’ve ever wanted to do was write one.

That being said, although I completed my first adult novel in my 30’s, I have been writing all my life.  The boxes in my office are full to brim with little stories from childhood, random chapters, snippets, ideas, poems, and yes, even novels written during high school in pencil.  So technically, I did not just write a 85,000 word novel from scratch once I turned 30 years old.

And frankly, I never really thought about writing short stories or flash fiction because I just didn’t like reading them.  I’ve hardly read any short stories that I’ve liked (with the exception of a few), so why bother?

On top of it, writing a short story is a completely different craft than writing an entire novel.  The purpose and the execution are VERY different.  You don’t have a whole lot of time and space to get into character development, huge intricacies of plot, back story, etc…A short story is almost like a snapshot: This is what’s happening here and this is what I need to tell you.  That’s it.  Not much room to elaborate about what happened before this particular snapshot or afterwards.

That’s why I never liked short stories in the first place.  I find for the most part, they are unsatisfying and much too brief.  I like the commitment and the arc that happens to a reader as they bind themselves to the exercise of reading an entire novel.

So while it may work for other writers to do their “warm-ups” with a short story or something similar, it just never worked for me.  Although, funnily enough, I have been working on 2 stories lately that are terrible and driving me crazy, but I started them because most literary journals only accept short fiction and I wanted to work at that aspect of the writing craft.

And I definitely feel that writing short fiction is much harder than writing an entire novel.  The reason writing a novel was easier for me is just because I read so many of them.  And if you read enough, the various components of a novel just comes naturally…at least, for me, it does.  (With a healthy dose of hard work, of course.)

What about you?



2 thoughts on “Why Do Most Writers Start with Novels?

  1. I really like short stories as well as novels. I had written dozens of short stories ( a couple of which were published) before I wrote my first novel. You make a good point that short stories and novels are different art forms. Also, as you say, how much you read of one particular form of literature does impact upon which form you write. “Snapshots” is a good way to describe short stories. I’ve had over 20 of mine published now but I still get criticized by editors for open endings which apparently make the reader work to hard. The bottom line is that I write what I like to read in the hope that I am not alone.

    • Hi David,
      Thank you for your insightful comments. But you’re absoloutely right…I too write what I want to read…Didn’t Toni Morrison say “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it”?
      But stick to your guns…I like having open endings…Especially in short stories…sometimes you have no other choice, due to the length, but why does everything have to always be neatly tied up in a little bow? I thought the reason we love literature so much is because we get to argue with other smart people about what we think of it and what it’s supposed to mean? I love & appreciate open endings because life isn’t always black and white. In fact, it’s mostly the “grey” areas which interest me and I think it’s the ambiguous part of life that’s the most important to capture in literature…Who wants everything spelled out for them, right??
      Thanks again and Happy Writing!

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