8 Reasons to Avoid the Novel and Focus on Short Stories

I was twenty when I started writing seriously. “Seriously,” as in I wanted to write, publish, and get paid for it. In my mind, monetary compensation was the dividing line between this being a hobby and a career. So, I did what I assumed was the next natural step in being a writer and wrote a book. Man oh man, was that a huge mistake. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Concepts like basic story structure and character development were barely familiar to me. I was learning everything about writing through trial and error, which is one of the worst ways to learn how to do this. It took me six years and two aborted novels before I cranked out one that was worth a damn (and was subsequently published). That, of course, begs the question: “What would I have done differently?”

If I had the Delorean time machine to go back and give myself advice, I would’ve stressed reading more books and essays on craft. I would have told myself that having your friends read your stuff isn’t the same as a writers’ workshop critique. And finally, I would’ve said, “Put the novel down, kid. There’s a much more time-effective way to work out your fuck-ups.”

Here are the eight reasons why all aspiring authors should stay the hell away from the novel and stick to short stories.

A Shortened Trial & Error Period

Like Liam Neeson in Taken, authors have a particular set of skills. They have a voice and style. They have a command of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. They can hook you, tease you, and blow your fucking mind. Authors are the reason people say “I liked the book better than the movie.” Here’s the kicker on that…it takes practice to get to that level. Years. Many years. And you will make mistakes. You’ll grind the shit out of those writing gears like a fifteen-year-old driving stick shift for the first time. Better you make all your screw-ups within the smaller, more manageable confines of a short than an entire novel. Trust me on this. Fixing a seven-page short is way easier than fixing a three-hundred-page novel.

Even if your novel’s concept sounds cool, it’s difficult to get first-time readers of your work to commit to buying outside of friends and family.

Test Drive Everything

A novel is a commitment. You commit to the time it takes to do it. You commit to a point of view, a voice, and a structure. For the sake of consistency, if the novel is told in third person past tense, it should probably stay that way for the entire duration. If your main character has a Southern accent, you probably shouldn’t drop it one hundred pages in. Short stories have those same commitments but on a much smaller scale. This means that you can try out all the different voices, genres, and POVs your little heart desires. The freedom to not commit—to essentially test drive different story vehicles—is going to allow you to find out much quicker what style of writing works for you. 

The Bail Out Clause

I mentioned that writing is a commitment, and it is, but sometimes a piece just doesn’t work. It’s boring. It’s convoluted. The plot is stuck in idle and the characters aren’t interesting. Ask any author and they’ll tell you, “Yeah, I’ve bailed out on few pieces.” The reasons as to why are endless, and it sucks when you have to do it, but some stories are destined to be euthanized. In the beginning, you’re going to have a lot of bail-outs. A ton of clunkers. That’s fine. That’s part of the learning process. As you keep doing this, you’re going to get better at recognizing which ideas you’ll be able to see through to the end and which ideas sound good in concept alone. Take it from someone who’s written two abandoned novels—your heart will be a lot less broken scrapping ten pages compared to a few hundred. Practicing failure is just as much part of the process as anything, so keep your failures small.

Ease of Critique

When I have a novel manuscript ready, there’s a short list of people that come to mind that I can reach out to for beta reading. Very short. Like, less than five. And that’s mostly due to the fact that it’s extremely difficult to find people willing to read and critique an entire manuscript. This isn’t like helping a friend move apartments or picking someone up from the airport. At minimum, critiquing a novel is a few weeks of work, so it’s kind of a huge favor to ask. Short stories aren’t that way. In fact, at the height of my writers’ workshop activity, I was probably getting between fifteen and twenty critiques on my stories, and most of that feedback was within the first week of the story being posted. So not only is the turnaround time quicker, but you’re also going to see a higher volume of feedback from a wider pool of readers by keeping it short. Obligatory LitReactor writers’ workshop plug. 

Beefing Up the Resume

One day you might seek the representation of a literary agent. Well, here’s the thing about agents: they like writers with credentials. And that’s exactly what short stories are. Each one you publish makes the case that you’re a legit author worthy of their time and representation. Repping an author’s first book is a big leap of faith on the agent’s part. I can tell you this, though, they’re more likely to take a serious look at you if your query letter is littered with publishing credentials rather than nothing at all. Do yourself a favor and get some experience under your belt. It’ll make that whole finding-an-agent process easier in the long run. 

Better, Quicker Money

Let’s talk about money for a hot minute. I’ve put out three novels. On two of them I got paid every six months, and on the third, I got cut a check once a year. I’ll be honest, the money wasn’t anything to get excited over. Once the publishers, booksellers, and my agent got their cut, there was very little leftover for me. On average, I was getting less than a dollar for every copy sold. Short stories, on the other hand, have easily brought in more cash on an exponential level. My short story “Dietary” that appeared in Burnt Tongues paid out more than all the royalties of my first two books combined, and it only took a couple weeks to write compared to the many years I spent on those books. Another great thing about short stories is the turnaround time on getting paid. In most cases, the publishing venue remits payment within thirty days of acceptance. Also, there’s no third party taking a cut, so the author doesn’t have to share their money. And let’s not forget about reprints. Since most of the publishing venues will only have exclusive rights to your story for a limited amount of time, that allows the author to sell the piece again once those rights expire. I actually just published “Dietary” again with Great Jones Street for a decent chunk of change. The short story game is extremely advantageous to the author because of the reprint market. Novels get reprints, too, but it’s a more generous market for short stories.   

Building an Audience

When you’re an author just starting out, you’re your own best (and usually only) promoter of your work. You start with no audience and no fans and slowly build a pool of readership. This is tough when your first release is novel. No one’s heard of you. You’re in a sales competition with other authors who are already established. Even if your novel’s concept sounds cool, it’s difficult to get first-time readers of your work to commit to buying outside of friends and family. That’s where short stories come in. They are the gateway drug to getting people hooked on you. Publishing online makes this easy because you can chuck links out on social media at no cost to you or the reader. People are more likely to check out your work if they don’t have to pay for it. In the event that you publish in an anthology with other authors—even better—because now you’re cross-pollinating audiences. Some of the people who are only buying anthology because “so-and-so” is in it might just become a fan yours. When I had one of my stories included in the Warmed and Bound anthology, I knew authors like Stephen Graham Jones, Craig Clevenger, and Paul Tremblay where going to be the main audience draw. People bought it for those guys—not me. But I did pick up a few new readers by having a story adjacent to theirs. 

Live Reading Fodder

One day you’ll read live, and take it from a guy who’s read live more than a few times…reading novel excerpts sucks. Nine times out of ten, you end up giving the audience an out-of-context clip rather than the nicely packaged trailer you originally intended. Yet again, this is where short stories come in handy. Something fully developed with a beginning, middle, and end is always going to play better than a fragment, regardless of how good you believe that fragment to be. Every author needs that 7-10 minute piece specifically written to be read aloud, so get to work.

In Conclusion

Just a friendly reminder this column is intended for those just starting out. If you’ve already got publications under your belt, then I’m probably preaching to the choir. If you’ve got nothing, these eight steps (tips) or whatever you want to call them—they’re a solid blueprint. Short stories, although not as grand as a novel, have many advantages in regards to the expediency of learning to write, publish, and get paid for it. They are the avenue to building the skills to attempt a full-length work and building a resume worthy of an agent’s attention. The novel is boss level shit. Short stories give you the skills and experience you need to take it on.

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Luke Kondor's picture
Luke Kondor March 24, 2017 - 7:51am

Great article. Is there a good place to find quality publications to submit to?

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On March 24, 2017 - 8:35am

Luke, give this column a look. It's a few years old, but most of these journals are alive and kicking...




Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books March 24, 2017 - 9:17am

Totally agree. This approach has worked well for me so far, and is much more emotionally and monetarily gratifying. Novels are for suckers!

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies April 5, 2017 - 1:12pm

You could have just said "because they're shorter" and saved the reader 8 paragraphs.

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break April 15, 2017 - 11:23am

It's good to know you're still keeping an eye on me, Conley.

Austin James Hatch's picture
Austin James Hatch from Boise is reading multiple short story collections April 29, 2017 - 7:45pm

@SConley:  Bwahahahaha!


@BT:  And here I thought I write short stories because I'm don't have enough ideas to write anything longer.  Who would've thought this was a strategic move on my behalf?

adamsonreviews's picture
adamsonreviews November 18, 2020 - 2:10am

I think you should focus on short essays because nobody will read your huge novel until you have a bit of fame. Even reviewing your work with essaypro here will be complicated. And there are much more platforms to post a short story than it is for novels. People will read and give feedback.