I learned a lot about writing novels from writing short stories.
Now, they're a medium in their own right, and should be treated as such. Short stories can be very touchy about this matter so be careful even bringing up novels in their company. But, and say this quietly, short stories are a great way for a novelist to improve, experiment and find their voice, as well as learn about the publication process in general—all without the baggage that comes along with writing an 80,000-word-plus epic.
One obvious reason for this is that while short stories might, in some cases (glances Ted Chiang's way admiringly), take as long to research and plan as a novel, generally the process of completing a short story is much less time-consuming. Usually, a short story is anything between 1,000 and 7,500 words. This makes them less risky, so you can take bigger gambles and try new things—a cheeky 50p bet rather than staking the whole mortgage. It frees you up to take chances you might be too timid to try in a novel, a different voice or a new character or a batshit tense. Again, not necessarily, but on the whole, second drafts of short stories are easier to fix than second drafts of novels.
You can play with genre, too. Be a crime writer one week and a romance writer the next. All without having spent months or years discovering that you actually prefer writing sci-fi after all. Novel writing can end up pinning you down in a particular genre, at least if you're trying to sell to a publisher. So short stories can help you find which genre is the best fit for you. Both what you enjoy and what you're good at. And if you don't believe in genre at all, and think such labels are arbitrary and restrictive—even better, and go you. You can write lots of different pieces without any genre at all, and find out what works, what doesn't, and what from all that lot you can actually sell to someone.
Sometimes short stories can even become novels. I expanded one of my short stories into a novel, which ended up being the book that first found me an agent. While that novel never saw the light of day, some really great novels started life as short stories: Karen Russell's Swamplandia! and Sharma Shields's The Sasquatch Hunters Almanac are two that spring to mind.
Short stories are also a great way to learn about the editing process. Personally, short stories were what first gave me the courage to show my work to other people—a step I consider to be one of the most vital if you want make the move from being a writer to being a published writer. With a novel, you spend so much time with the characters, and living in their world, that, understandably, emotional attachments develop that can make you feel overly protective. Maybe even a little bit defensive. But as Stephen King puts it, a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark with a stranger. I was terrified of ever showing anyone my first novel and asking for comments. But once I'd written a few shorts, I found the attachment I had to each of them wasn't the same as the attachment I had to the novel. I could set them free from my laptop. And in doing so, I learned it feedback wasn't that scary at all. In fact, it was vital.
And think of it from the other side, too. If you actually want really useful, constructive feedback on your writing when you are first starting, short stories can break the back of that without too much pain. If someone reads your 170,000 word quadrilogy opener that took you eight years to finish, they're going to have to be quite hard-nosed to break it you that your masterpiece doesn't work. But give someone a little piece of flash fiction your wrote, and tell them it's one of ten you dashed off half asleep on a Sunday morning with a raging hangover while playing football in the garden with your toddler, and they'll be more than happy to point out your adverb abuse and your less than subtle foreshadowing.
When I started writing seriously a decade ago, I was very fortunate to find a forum dedicated to the Ray Bradbury short story approach, Write One, Submit One (essentially writing and submitting stories in a set timeframe such as once-a-week or once-a-month and sticking to it rigidly). It was here I learned to deal with one of writing's inevitabilities: rejection. Guiding the Write One, Submit One forum was the idea that you weren't a proper writer until you'd been rejected multiple times. We openly shared our many rejections. Bragged about them, even. We wore our short story rejections as badges of honour, and it was through sharing our rejections that we learned not to take rejections personally.
That's hard to do that with novels though. You invest so much more time in them. I have more than one friend who has written a novel, received a rejection for it, and never submitted or written anything again. And having received one line form rejections for both novels and short stories over the years, I understand that reaction. But short story rejections are a lot easier to take—and more, they can build up a healthy rejection immunity a lot faster than novels can.
If you manage to find a market for your short story (and there are still lots of brilliant venues publishing short stories, which you can search for on free submission tracking sites like The Submissions Grinder), it's a great way to prepare yourself for selling a novel. You'll get to experience having your work edited, signing contracts and learning all about rights and territories. I found it really useful, as by the time I sold my first novel I perceived these formal and potentially scary things as being a normal part of the publishing process, rather than a corporate intrusion intent on crushing all my artistic hopes and dreams.
And while having short stories published isn't necessary for getting an agent or a publisher, it can help. Some agents are actively looking for writing they like, and lots keep an eye out on short story venues for new writers. Short stories can be a way of finding an agent who really gets your writing. They can also be helpful getting an agent's attention the old-fashioned way, too. Anything that increases the likelihood that your novel manuscript will be picked out of the slush pile by an agent is worth considering, and while it will be the synopsis, cover letter and opening chapters that do the heavy lifting, seeing that you've had short stories published shows that you love writing, are serious about it, and are capable of writing more than just a single work.
Once again, short stories are their own thing, and writing them is always a reward in and of itself. And despite all of the above, I have to admit there are some short stories I've written that I've been more attached to than some of the attempted novels now gathering digital dust up in the cloud. Which is to say short stories are not a means to an end, but if you want to write novels and don't know where to start, they can serve as a great novel writing apprenticeship.
S R Masters is one of 14 authors involved in the short story anthology Afraid of the Light, out now with all proceeds going to Samaritans. Get your copy here.
S R Masters is an internationally published short story writer and novelist. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Shock Totem, Lamplight, The Fiction Desk, and the Press Start to Play anthology. His debut novel, The Killer You Know, a coming-of-age murder mystery, was published in the UK by Sphere/Little, Brown, and in the US by Redhook/Hachette. Originally from the West Midlands, Masters now lives in Oxford with his wife and two children. He keeps a website at www.sr-masters.com and occasionally tweets at @srmastersauthor