In a recent GalleyCat blog post, Jason Boog commented on an online debate about why new writers start with novels. One participant in the exchange mentioned that composers do not start off writing symphonies, but instead begin with smaller pieces. The analogy is interesting and suggests many new writers are overambitious. However, I think it is a reflection of current literary tastes, and how they motivate writers.
The short answer to the question is that we want to write novels because we read novels. I love novels because they become a part of my life and capture my imagination for days or weeks at a time. It is a pleasure to live with stories and characters to distract me from my own preoccupations—and help me to reflect productively on my own life. The best stories stay with me and shape my thinking. Short stories, on the other hand, may interest me at the time I am reading them, but they are so often forgettable. Years ago, I wrote several forgettable short stories, but it was the idea of writing a novel that motivated me to dedicate more time to writing over the past decade. My first novel, Blind Girl’s Bluff, remains unpublished, and whether or not it becomes available to the public, I will always be grateful for the lessons I learned in writing it.
I sometimes envy MFA students who have the opportunity to focus on the craft of writing in an academic context with talented mentors. However, one of the drawbacks to such programs is their emphasis on writing short stories. Students learn to write well-constructed short fiction and often go on to publish their stories in literary journals. In the past, this sometimes led to book contracts for the best short story collections, but this is becoming far less common. Why? Publishers prefer novels because readers prefer novels. As independent publishing becomes more common, many writers are turning short stories into e-books, but novels remain more popular in this new literary marketplace.
I do not have the first clue about how to compose a symphony, but I know that once a writer has read plenty of well-written novels, the best way to learn to write a novel is to write one. Equally important is to share one’s writing with various audiences. It helped me tremendously to have the support and constructive criticism of my writing group. And now that I am sharing Au Pair Report with a wider audience—that is, anyone who has an e-reader or is willing to read a PDF (email me to request)—I invite you to share your own constructive criticism with me.