Should You Write Short Stories First?

The “Your Questions Answered” Series

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What are your thoughts on writing some short stories before you jump into your first novel?

I don’t recommend writing short stories before jumping into your first novel IF your goal is to be a novelist. Writing where you don’t want your success to be is akin to the dieter craving a chocolate candy bar but eating a container of yogurt instead.

I’ve written articles, devotions, nonfiction books, novellas, short novels, and long fiction; and I can tell you that these projects have almost no relation to one another. For one, the shorter the project, the tighter the writing must be. And the longer the novel, the more intricacies and subplots you’ll need.

Also, the markets for each type of project differ. You’ll be pitching short stories to magazines and collections. You’ll be selling novels to book publishers. Most editors will be interested in demonstrated success in what you are writing for them, not someone else. A byline in a major magazine should be mentioned and is a plus, but a well-received magazine story doesn’t necessarily translate into sales of a novel. And even though book publishers publish novellas (typically around 30,000 words), generally editors choose the top authors from their list that they want to appear in any given collection and offer them the opportunity to write a novella for the set. A writer submitting a random novella probably won’t find a market in traditional publishing. The publishers who’ll consider a novella collection sent on its own by relatively unknown authors are few; and even then, those publishers won’t necessarily buy novels from their novella authors.

Some authors are successful across a kaleidoscope of projects. However, those authors started with one book; and for the most part, have a history of success and a large fan base willing to buy any book bearing their name.

Bottom line? Write where you want your success to be.

Your turn:

What authors do you see as being successful over many types of writing?

Who is your favorite nonfiction author who wrote a novel?

For the entire series, click here: “Your Questions Answered.”

34 Responses to Should You Write Short Stories First?

  1. Avatar
    J. Lynn Thomas August 20, 2020 at 5:20 am #

    Thanks for the insight. Wondering if having e-books online is a plus or not to a traditional publisher.

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    Brennan S. McPherson August 20, 2020 at 5:21 am #

    These are great points. Although I think it might be helpful to add that it could be helpful to write a short story first if you intend to establish faith in yourself over whether or not you have any ability to write a story at all. And finishing a project can give you experience editing/polishing a story before tackling the marathon that is a novel.

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    Sally Ferguson August 20, 2020 at 5:53 am #

    Who is your favorite nonfiction author who wrote a novel? Liz Curtis Higgs has successfully navigated both.

    • Avatar
      Glenda Zylinski August 20, 2020 at 6:07 am #

      Hi, Sally-

      I love Liz Curtis HIggs! 🙂 But my favorite nonfiction author who wrote a novel? Jerry B. Jenkins. Been waiting two years for his second book in the series, Dead Sea Rising.

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    Loretta Eidson August 20, 2020 at 5:56 am #

    Great insight, Tamela. However, I had several short stories published in anthologies before the desire to write romantic suspense gripped my heart. I’ve still continued to write short stories while writing my novels. The “acceptance” of these stories helps comfort the sadness of “rejections” of my novels. Should I discontinue writing short stories? Is it better to write guest blogs for ACFW, BRMCWC, Almost an Author, and others or should I zero in on novel writing only?

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    Joey Rudder August 20, 2020 at 6:11 am #

    “A writer submitting a random novella probably won’t find a market in traditional publishing.”

    Oh my goodness. This was a hard sentence for me to read. Is it even possible to have a career writing novellas? What if the author’s brand is a specific type of novella? Should the author start with a novel to get her foot in the door and hope the publisher will “offer the opportunity” to write novellas later?

    Thank you, Tamela. I always appreciate your advice.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 20, 2020 at 8:34 am #

      Yes, Joey, writing a novel and working toward the chance to sell novellas is a good strategy. Also, it’s possible to use novellas to help sell your books as well. Readers love promos!

      • Avatar
        Joey Rudder August 20, 2020 at 1:09 pm #

        Thank you, Tamela!

        Does the novella need to be linked to the novel (by a character or setting as in a series), or is it possible for the novella to stand alone?

        • Avatar
          Tamela Hancock Murray August 20, 2020 at 1:19 pm #

          I imagine both ways can work. I’d talk to your publisher’s marketing team to see their thoughts.

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            Joey August 20, 2020 at 5:48 pm #

            Thank you so much!

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    Yvonne Weers August 20, 2020 at 6:31 am #

    Good morning!

    While I subscribe to most of your reasoning for why an inspiring author should concentrate on writing long if their goal is to be published in novel-length books, there are some benefits to writing short stories. For instance, writing short teaches you how to tighten your prose for editing purposes. And although the structures are much different, as you’ve pointed out, they still share basic elements of fiction, like a three-act structure, happy endings, well placed hooks, and a first line that grabs the reader.

    I had been writing novels for more than a decade when a prolific author invited me to mentor with her in a group with other aspiring authors. This mentor had also published short stories for a major magazine and encouraged the group to submit short stories as well. A couple of us actually broke through the massive slush pile through dogged determination, which in of itself is a valuable lesson, to have our stories published by the magazine. This not only bolstered our confidence but paid us an excellent wage for our trade. And let’s face it, getting paid is a good thing when you’ve been honing your craft for so many years without a paycheck.

    This particular magazine also offers romance writers an ad spot on the page for their latest novel. Given the demographics of the readers, this sort of exposure is worth its weight in gold, especially for a new author trying to get established.

    So, there can be benefits to writing short stories, in my humble opinion. Cutting my teeth in writing shorts has given me exposure I didn’t have before and the self-confidence to know my work is worthy of being published.

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      Susan Sage August 20, 2020 at 7:38 am #

      Yvonne, thank you so much for this. I agree wholeheartedly. I write flash fiction but have just finished my first novel. The shorter writing taught me to be concise to find the heart of the story, then I could better fill in more details that enhanced the novel instead of starting with the novel and having my extra details actually distract from the heart of the story.

  7. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 20, 2020 at 6:34 am #

    Short fiction for the learning?
    It seems a place to start,
    but heed ye, friend, this warning:
    it is no lesser art.
    Description must be clear, concise,
    and language fresh and tight,
    with dialoguge like sculpted ice,
    crystalline and bright.
    Arc of plot, swift and sure
    night unto the end,
    must the reader onward lure
    as through the tale you send
    characters, each one a jewel,
    sure-footed as Grand Canyon mule.

  8. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca August 20, 2020 at 7:40 am #

    I opted to write a novel as my first attempt because it was the area I wanted to concentrate on. Although I’m glad I made that decision, I suspect some aspiring authors may become discouraged and give up because of the length of time and amount of effort it takes to turn out a good novel.

    However, for those of us who are determined enough (i.e., stubborn enough) to persevere, there is great reward in completing and publishing a novel.

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    Carla M Zwahlen August 20, 2020 at 7:42 am #

    Thank you, Tamela, for your thought-provoking article, Should you write short stories first? Many of your comments, I think, are valid. To read that you don’t recommend short story writing surprised me.

    I think writing a 2500 word article, essay, or short story disciplines one to edit out unnecessary words and use working-horse verbs. The added plus to write short stories, essays, or articles, one receives a check.

    I have participated in masterclasses for non-fiction writers that encourage short story writing. Does your opinion to stay away from writing short stories also apply to non-fiction writers?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 20, 2020 at 8:32 am #

      Carla, if you are benefiting in that your nonfiction sparkles more after you’ve worked in fiction, then go for it. Even when people are desperate for the knowledge offered in a nonfiction book, they still prefer an easy read over one that is a substitute for a sleeping tonic.

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    Thomas Allbaugh August 20, 2020 at 7:49 am #

    I admit to having no success in the Christian markets. But I have published poetry and have a collection of short stories coming out from a publisher this fall–short stories I’ve worked on over the last 28 years while writing novels. Some of them are interconnected. I have found it true, as you have said, that short fiction requires tight writing. It is a challenge I love, and I love finishing a story in a month or two rather than in a year or two. I have always loved short stories, from Mark Twain and Hawthorne and Hemingway’s first collection to Sherwood Anderson’s _Winesburg, Ohio_. Recently, I’ve been reading Elizabeth Strout’s short story “cycles,” which are interconnected stories that build into loosely structured novels that feel more like life and don’t have a cause-effect plot line. I love her work, and as I’ve said, my short stories have some interconnections between them. I used to really look for short stories published by Christians and the Evangelical market, but I’ve never really found anything. I know my short story collection will never help me with Christian publishers–or, apparently, Christian readers, for that matter. But the short story a form I love, and I find it fits the ideas I want to work with. I now have three published books–a novel, a chapbook of poetry, and a forthcoming short story collection. I’m really thankful for the short story collection, and while I’m still trying to figure out how to market it, it represents some of my best thinking.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray August 20, 2020 at 8:30 am #

      Thomas, maybe you can use your short stories to promote your books. Giving away short stories won’t be a direct payment for those stories, but could result in more book sales.

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        Thomas Allbaugh August 20, 2020 at 8:39 am #

        Tamela, thank you for this great suggestion. I will follow up on it. I am working on a story right now that is an extension of my novel. Perhaps posting it on Amazon will direct attention to my novel.

        Thank you!

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    Tamela Hancock Murray August 20, 2020 at 8:26 am #

    Hi all: Great discussion. I appreciate all the comments!

    Yes, if you are publishing and being paid for short pieces, by all means, write those and keep cashing checks! You are being successful in that category!

    And if you are finding blogs and other places to be published where you are donating your work and you find that process helpful and fulfilling, go for it! There’s a lot to be said for giving away some of your writing. For example, we agents are writing this blog as a service to you. We are not paid money (or even gift cards — LOL) for this, nor do we ask to be paid. Note: unlike on some other blogs, I never see ads on this one, because Steve is not monetizing this blog. There’s nothing wrong with monetizing a blog, but we aren’t doing that. We enjoy sharing knowledge and opinion, and interacting with all of you. So thank you for being here for us.

    Yes, I agree that writing different types of forms can be a helpful exercise.

    What I am emphasizing here is that, if, for example, you have written and published 100 devotionals, that is great, but won’t necessarily translate to selling a Western contemporary romance novel. So, if you ultimately want to sell a Western contemporary romance novel to a traditional publisher, that’s what you need to write.

    I hope this helps!

  12. Avatar
    Martha Rogers August 20, 2020 at 8:58 am #

    Great advice as always, Tamela. Thanks.

    I started out writing short stories in elementary school for school assignments and for fun until high school when my English teacher encouraged me to be a writer. I wrote my first novel at the age of 17 as a freshman in college. Then I was hooked and wrote whenever I had the chance. Writing articles and shorter works for collections kept me in the writing mode waiting to be recognized.

    I love Liz Curtis Higgs’ books, and James Scott Bell and Brandilyn Collins are two writers who write great fiction as well as non-fiction. Of course, their non-fiction works are writing related if that makes a difference. Jennifer Slattery is another one who is successful in both fields

  13. Avatar
    Megan Schaulis August 20, 2020 at 9:06 am #

    I’ve noticed a lot of authors, specifically in YA, using novellas or even single additional scenes to promote their series. Veronica Roth (Divergent), Veronica Rossi (Under the Never Sky), Kiera Cass (The Selection), Scott Westerfeld (Uglies), and more have used this technique.

    I can see the appeal for the author. It would be so fun to explore a single scene from another character’s perspective, fill in a touch of backstory, or just expand on the world through a novella. But, I agree, it wouldn’t have made sense for these authors to start with the short story.

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    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU August 20, 2020 at 2:36 pm #

    Thanks Tamela, that is very good advice. And may God bless you all richly for not monetising this blog in Jesus Christ’s name, Amen.

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    Melanie August 20, 2020 at 9:32 pm #

    Does anyone remember Beth Moore’s novel? I forget the title, but I enjoyed it as well as her nonfiction work. Also, for a novelist writing nonfiction, my favorite is Cindy Woodsmall. Her Amish stories are a little different than most, and her “Plain Wisdom” book on Amish principles is co-written with an Amish friend.

    I haven’t written a short story since college, which was over 20 years ago. But I have written hundreds, if not thousands, of news and feature articles, columns and personal essays for newspapers and magazines. For the past few years, I’ve been a full-time designer/copy editor and part-time writer, but it has taught me to write tight and capture attention in the first sentence, or what we call the “lede.”

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    Margaret Hamlin August 21, 2020 at 4:58 am #

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been working on the same novel for 30+ years now. It’s my only passion. I’ve had people say to me that I should write short stories first. It’s refreshing to hear differently.

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