Begging to differ
George R.R. Martin has the following advice for writers who are starting out:
Given the realities of today’s market in science fiction and fantasy, I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft. They are a good place for you to make the mistakes that every beginning writer is going to make. And they are still the best way for a young writer to break in, since the magazines are always hungry for short SF and fantasy stories. Once you’ve been selling short stories for five years or so, you’ll have built up a name for yourself, and editors will start asking you about that first novel.
Speaking as a comparative newbie myself, some of this is good advice: it is easier to spend several days or weeks working on a short story than years on a novel. If what you’re doing isn’t working, you can simply stop a project and start on something else. While Martin would never agree, I also think fanfiction has a role to play in terms of encouraging people to put pen to paper. Because at the end of the day, a writer is simply someone who writes.
My issue with the above quote is instead twofold:
(a) Writing short stories helps you perfect the art of writing short stories, not novels. There’s an overlap in skills, of course, but it shouldn’t be pushed too far – dressage and horse-racing both involve riding a horse, but one isn’t good practice for the other. Ultimately, to get good at writing novels, you need to write novels.
(b) I think Martin is operating out of a seriously antiquated view of “breaking into the genre”. Because these days it’s arguably easier to find a home for a novel than it is to get a short story published in one of those big magazines. With short stories, the comparative ease of writing them means the competition is much tougher, and when it comes to the top magazines (the ones that actually get you noticed, rather than the token or non-paying ones), you’ve got thousands of writers – including the very best – trying to fill a small handful of slots. If your aim is to get a novel published, I think you’re better off spending five years on a novel than spending five years writing short stories.
My own experience? My writing background is mostly a mishmash of fanfiction (gasp), poetry, and academic work, prior to Wise Phuul. I’ve been working on short stories this year (and finding them lots of fun, even if I’ve had no luck with the magazines), but am under no illusions that this is somehow a magical “break in” point. It isn’t. It’s just another form of writing.