Beginner -- Don't Write That Novel!

by Alex Keegan

My usual advice to beginners is not to strike out for the Great American (or British) novel but instead to concentrate for a considerable time, maybe as much as a year, writing short stories and doing exercises. I'd like to try and carefully outline why I think this is a solid and justifiable ideal.

Beginning Writing -- Short Stories vs. The Novel

Writing short stories allows the writer to experiment and find himself. Beginners very rarely have their natural voice when they begin writing. By learning about themselves, through writing many separate pieces, they find those styles, points-of-view, viewpoints, and language that are more natural to them. Commonly, beginners try to write like those authors they admire or authors who have written books similar to the kind they hope to write. Often this style may not be the one best suited to the particular writer. It is also common to see beginners change styles WITHIN books.

Burn Off the Autobiographical Urge

A common failing with beginning writers is that they write too close to themselves, producing autobiographical or near-autobiographical work. Though some great autobiographical novels have been written, most creative writing teachers are well aware that the autobiographical urge needs to be spent before the beginner learns that good writing needs to be generalisable. The writing of many short stories usually burns off this rarely desirable tendency and should some of the material be noticeably special it is still available as the basis for a longer work.

Variety of Experience

If students are writing a single novel, perhaps two in their first year, though this would be rare, they can, at the most, explore writing in two genres. If, on the other hand, students are writing, say, one short story a week they can try many many genres, styles, viewpoints; they can explore the terse hard-boiled Ford/Hemingway approach, the lyrical styles of Laurie Lee or Dylan Thomas, John Irving, and many points in between. This is not the case if they are writing novels.

Beginners Get Used to Completing Tasks.

One major advantage of writing short stories to begin with is that the one or two thousand word task seems less intimidating than the novel and far more achieveable.

Quicker, Better Feedback.

It is easier to get proper feedback on a short story because it is a complete entity. Thus, by writing many shorts the student gets repeated feedback and learns more quickly about his strengths and weaknesses.

Easily Focussed Teaching/Learning.

A sympathetic teacher can design short story tasks to develop those areas seen as weakest. This is virtually impossible if the student is writing a novel.

More Meaningful Cross-criticism

Students writing short stories can be encouraged to exchange works and learn by cross-reviewing each other's work. Though this can be done with novel extracts, the story, by being complete, being finite, is more easy to judge. Further, where same-subject shorts are being exchanged, it is easier and clearer to understand how different approaches to the same intial subject alter the final work. With differently-titled novels, approach may well be obscured by subject matter.

Comparison and Identifying Voice and Style

In classes, getting students to produce shorts has the advantage of compare and contrast. This is obviously less easy with novels on often vastly different subjects. By creating a single subject task, the teacher has the advantage that all students are working in roughly the same area, and, since the initial subject matter is the same, s/he is more easily able to note the student's individual characteristic set against a constant.


The discipline of the short story, the need to say as much as possible in a few words as possible is an excellent teacher. The ability to paint briefly is not wasted but makes the eventual novelist a better one. John Gardner was very keen to emphasise the usefulness of small focussed exercises in which the student could concentrate on selected areas of his art. Teachers can shape and point far easier when the target is an exercise or short story.

Less Waste, More Material

A wasted novel is for most beginners a wasted year. A wasted short story is typically a few days or a week. Though it is true that theoretically a student could write 52 consecutive wasted short stories, experience tells us otherwise, since, after every story, finite, complete, the student has usually learned something. In the case of the novel the student does not learn much until he has completed his long and arduous task and submits.

Nothing Wasted

Novels are rarely honed down to short stories. The reverse is not true. Short stories have been made into novellas, short stories made into novels, and short stories have been made into films.

Short stories contain all the major elements of good writing.

Beginning, middle and end, dialogue, characterisation, conflict and change. It is easier to teach for example, the idea of premise/theme on a single short than on a novel. A student can be asked to write a 2,000 word short illustrating a proverb without ever referring to it or proving a statement such as "All men are pigs". It hardly needs saying that a teacher cannot realistically ask students to produce a novel to do the same.

Why Learn to Paint While Painting the Sistine Chapel?

Let us just imagine a student with a truly great idea for a novel; a story idea that might change the world or earn the writer fame and fortune. Why, why on earth would that writer embark on the great novel and IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING IT, learn his skills? Why not first make sure of those skills before risking a great concept to inexperience? Every single word he writes before he embarks on the precious expansion of that wonderful idea makes it more likely he is a competent writer and less likely that the fabulous idea be wasted. Imagine if Michaelangelo had STARTED by trying to paint the Sistine Chapel!

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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