“Build your publishing credits! Start with short stories while you finish your novel!”
This advice is all over the Web. But is it good advice? On the face of it, it seems like a good way to go. Crafting a solid short story means developing strong characters who are motivated by something, which drives them to take action (or not), which changes their lives. These are the essential elements of any good fiction.
So you work on your short story, revising and polishing it until it gleams brighter than any dream of a bestseller, and you send it off to get it published.
One of three things happens:
- It’s rejected. This is the most common result of a first attempt.
- It’s accepted by a major publication — like the New Yorker magazine, the epitome of short story publishing for many writers. This is the least likely thing to happen on your first attempt.
- It’s accepted by a little-known, small-circulation print or online magazine. This is a possibility, if you’ve done all the right things in selecting a potential market for your story.
Because the odds are you’ll make your first publishing mark in the smaller magazines or e-zines, let’s say you’ve persisted and gotten three or four stories published in some tiny publications with small readerships.
Now let’s say you’ve managed to somehow get your novel written and you’re ready to submit it to an agent for representation (or the rare publishing company that still reads un-agented manuscripts). They get your packet of materials, including the results of your hard work in publishing those short stories.
Will those credentials make a difference in whether they decide to represent or publish you?
Nope. Believe me, I know.
As a former fiction editor for an international literary magazine, I didn’t even read cover letters until I’d read the short story. I didn’t want to be lured by some fabulous credentials into taking a sub-par story and ended up rejecting crappy stories by writers all of us have heard of. If a famous name can’t sway an editor, little-known publication credits won’t help at all.
Some writers are exclusively novelists. Others are exclusively short story writers. A short story is not just a novel with fewer pages — it’s a different fictional form entirely. Learning to write a great short story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll write an awesome novel. Or that you’ll be able to publish either one. Editors and agents know this.
So if you want to be a novelist, write novels. If you want to write short stories, write those. If you want to do both, do both. But don’t assume what you learn writing one form will transfer easily into writing the other.
You don’t have a lot of time in this world. Write what you want to write, not what someone else (mistakenly) thinks will get you farther down your path to publication.
[Next time… more on the Myth of Starting Small… Another bit of bad advice you shouldn’t follow, despite how popular it is.]