So, as I said in my “Writers are like snowflakes (Part 1)” post, we’re all unique, and I think we each have to find what works for us and not slavishly follow anyone else’s advice. Last time I ranted a bit about advice on what to read. Today I’m going to rant a bit about advice on what to write.
2. Choosing what to write
I’m not quite sure where I found this piece of advice (I didn’t bookmark it, because I didn’t agree), but at some point somewhere I ran across a well-established author who stated unequivocably that the only way to become a published author was to start with short stories first. Master the art of the short story and then you could possibly consider writing a novel.
I, unpublished nobody that I am, disagree. And this is why: I think, especially as a beginning writer, you need to write whatever it is that will keep you writing. For me, I had an idea that had been percolating in the back of my mind for a few years that I finally decided to put down on paper. The idea was not a short story idea. It was a novel. I can sum up the idea in two sentences, but to make people feel it requires them to live the experience. (Ironically, what I’m writing now is completely different from that initial idea, but that’s a whole other post.)
If I’d tried to write short stories initially I wouldn’t have made good progress. One of my early struggles was coming up with ideas. (I now have pages and pages of them because I finally started writing down all the random thoughts that drift through my brain, but before I got started writing, I didn’t know where I would come up with that next idea.) So, the thought of writing a short story and then coming up with another idea for one and writing it and coming up with another idea and writing it, would have been too much for me. I would’ve probably managed one or two short stories and then moved on to something else.
I understand the argument that writing a shorter piece allows you to practice with beginnings, middles, and ends. But if what you need to write or want to write is a novel, then I say write it. Because what all authors do seem to agree on is that the more you write the better you’re going to get. So whatever gets you writing, write it.
On a somewhat related point, I’ve seen lots of advice and discussion about how long something should be (don’t write novellas, they’re very hard to sell; any novel by a new author over 100,000 words is likely to get rejected, etc.). My English teacher in middle school used to say that a story should be “like a girl’s skirt – long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting.” A bit sexist in hindsight (and used in many contexts as a quick web search will show you), but accurate. I say write the story that needs to be written. If it’s novella length, then it’s novella length. Better, in my opinion, to write a novella than try to turn a story that should be a novella into a crappy, too wordy novel or try to cut it down into an underdeveloped short story.
And I suspect as someone grows as a writer they get an instinct for these things. They can tell which ideas are novel-length, which would make a good short story, etc. But the only way to develop that expertise is to take that idea, shut out everyone else’s opinion, and tell the story the way it needs to be told. And then, when you have a finished piece, you can find a market for it.
Or, you can look at it, realize it isn’t that great, take the next idea, and write it. Because here’s a hard truth – most of the advice you read out there for newer writers is because they’re in over their heads. The guy who said start with short stories has probably seen far too many really bad first novels that don’t have a good beginning, wander off into nowhere somewhere in the middle, and then end with a whimper or with five plot threads still blowing in the breeze unresolved. And I’ve seen enough “what do you think of this” posts on writer forums to know that some folks out there have a long ways to go until they can get published. (And I’m sure there are folks out there that think the same thing of my writing at this point…or would if they ever read this. How we perceive others and how we are in turn perceived is yet another thought for another day. Or maybe a nice theme for a novel. Best add it to the ideas list.)
But the bottom-line answer of what to write: Anything. Whatever makes you sit down every day and write. Novel, journal, poem, satirical news story, short story, flash fiction. Anything. The key is to keep writing (and to occasionally re-read what you wrote after enough time has passed so you can scoff at yourself and thereby grow, because writing the same convoluted, painful prose for umpteen years isn’t going to help much either.)
As they like to say on one of the non-writing forums I read – that’s my 2 cents worth and you get what you paid for it.