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Learn to Write Novels by Writing Short Stories

When I was in college a well-meaning English professor read one of my short stories and encouraged me to expand it into a novel. I wholeheartedly agreed. I thought it would make a good novel then, and I think so now. But at that time I wasn’t ready to write a novel. I’d only been trying to write professionally for a short time and was just becoming comfortable with the short story form. I didn’t realize that a novel is an entirely different animal, and it takes much longer to write.

So I started pounding the keyboard to transform my 5,000-word short story into a 50,000-word novel. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just add scenes. Piece of cake. Unfortunately, at that time I had never heard of Elmore Leonard or his one-sentence explanation of the driving force behind his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Long story short, my first novel was mostly made up of parts that even I skipped. I finally put it out of its misery at 47,000 words because I couldn’t stand working on it another minute, not even to reach my goal of 50,000 words. I never submitted it anywhere. I tried to throw it away, but the garbage man rejected it. He suggested I call the hazardous waste people. I put it on a shelf in the closet where it gathered dust and dead flies–who died instantly once they landed on it . . .

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the best thing I can say about my first novel is that it stunk to high heaven, and the worst thing I can say about it cannot be published on a family blog. Mercifully, the thing was lost over the years as I moved from one place to another. I hope it won’t show up to haunt me when I least expect it.

Why should you care about my first novel-writing experience? I’m glad you asked.

Regular readers of this blog know by now that I have a man-crush on Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers is to write short stories to learn their craft. You can write one short story per week, 52 short stories per year, but it will take you months to write a novel. You get more practice, and more chances of getting it right – and you learn more about writing – by writing short stories.

Except for my one deviation described above, I followed Bradbury’s advice. I wrote 200 short stories before I wrote my next novel. Most of them were clinkers, but among the coal were some gems. I finally got it right and was prepared to tackle a longer form.

And judging from comments I’ve gotten from readers and reviewers, I did a much better job with my second novel, In Human Form, than I did with my first.

Self-Publishing: Is it for You?

For perhaps as long as publishing has existed self-publishing has been stigmatized. The terms “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” often are used interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. We’ll get to that shortly. For now, here are a few writers, established writers, who have self-published some of their own work:

  • Willa Cather, author of such novels as My Antonia and the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, paid to publish her first book.
  • Early in his career, L. Frank Baum – author of  the Wizard of Oz books – self-published pamphlets on chicken farming.
  • Stephen King published the first installment of his novel The Plant on his Website (http://www.stephenking.com) on July 24, 2000 and the second installment a few weeks later.
  • Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs formed a publishing company which published a variety of books, some of which were his own.
  • Bestselling author Pat Conroy spent thousands of dollars to print and promote his first book, The Boo.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, paid to publish his first book.
  • Mark Twain grew tired of the “foolishness” of his publishers, so he self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Edgar Allen Poe – often called the father of the modern short story and the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” and many others – self-published some of his works.
  • Richard Paul Evans self-published 8,000 copies of The Christmas Box, which he later sold to Simon & Schuster for a $4.2 million advance (including the rights to a prequel). Evans even wrote a book about his incredible journey, The Christmas Box Miracle.
  • In 1901, Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies of  The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The following year, publisher Frederick Warne, who had initially rejected the book, published a commercial edition with color illustrations. Since then, the book has sold more than 40 million copies.
  • Henry David Thoreau self-published Walden in 1854.
  • William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White self-published the writer’s Bible, The Elements of Style.
  • Other famous poets, authors, and playwrights who published some of their own works include:  T.S. Eliot, Lord ByronThomas Hardy, Louis L’Amour, Walt Whitman, Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Amanda Brown (Legally Blonde), Stephen Crane, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw.

This list just scratches the surface.

The Pelican in the Desert

The Pelican in the Desert: And Other Stories of the Family Farm, edited by David Kubicek

I have, technically, published some of my own work. In 1988 I established Kubicek & Associates to publish an anthology of farm stories I had collected. The book contained one story I had written, about 3,50o words, and 13 stories by other writers. I thought publishing was cool, so I went on to publish three books by other writers and, in 1989, an anthology of horror stories which also contained one of my own stories (again, about 3,500 words) as well as 19 stories by other writers (including a classic story by Henry Kuttner, originally published in 1939).

October Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Mason

October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, edited by David Kubicek & Jeff Mason

Self-published books differ from vanity published books by being of a higher quality. They achieve that higher quality by going through a similar process as a traditionally published book. A vanity book, on the other hand, is a book that the author considers to be good enough to publish and pays to have it published – there are no checks and balances, no feedback from other reliable sources, and minimal – if any – revision or copy-editing.

Many years ago during my brief stint in publishing, a copy of a self-published novel came across my desk. The author was selling the thing door-to-door with the goal of making enough sales to impress a major publisher, who would then buy the rights and turn it into a bestseller. In the first place, he would have had to sell lots and lots of copies – we’re talking tens of thousands – to impress a major publisher. Second, the writing was horrid. It was the kind of manuscript the garbage collector would reject. That novel was an example of a vanity-published book;  the author thought his book was good, but others didn’t share his opinion.
Not everyone will like your book or your writing. This is true of every writer, including the likes of Stephen King; but whether you like King or not, he does know how to write and he does know how to tell a story that touches the readers’ emotions.
Here are some guidelines that will keep you from falling into the vanity publishing sludge heap, only a few, but they are important:
  • Make sure your work is well written and that others besides yourself like it. Give the manuscript to a few people you trust to give you honest feedback (don’t give it to friends or family members who will choke back their revulsion and tell you what you want to hear). Soon I will be self-publishing a collection of my short stories – some of them have been published previously, but others haven’t. My wife, Cheryl, is reading the manuscript. So far, she’s found two stories that “don’t do anything” for her. Those stories were immediately deleted, deep-sixed, sent to Mr. Recycle Bin.
  • The book must look and feel professional. It must have an attractive cover, well-written and provocative cover copy, and a bar code (if it is a physical book rather than an ebook), etc. You get the picture.
  • A blurb from a reviewer, author, or expert in your field – while not be essential – may lend credibility to your book and help it sell.
Today with inexpensive publishing services like iUniverse  and free services like those offered by Amazon and Barnes & Noble it is much  easier  to self-publish and sell a book than it used to be.
A self-published book is not the stigma it once was. A well-written book that looks profession will be able to hold its own with all of the traditionally published books that are released each year. Keep in mind that you must market your book (if no one hears about it, no one can buy it), and keep your expectations realistic – although you may sell some copies, possibly even a good number of copies, it’s highly unlikely that your self-published book will shoot immediately to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, or even come within rock-throwing distance of that list. Although such things have happened, the authors invested much blood, sweat, and tears to get there.

Editorial Comments: Keep Them in Perspective

When I was a novice writer I lived for editorial comments. Occasionally they came, scrawled on a standard form rejection slip, just a few words to let me know if I was on the right track, if what I was writing was any good. I would bet that most aspiring writers long for that coveted editorial critique.

Receiving editorial comments is great, but keep them in perspective. Fiction editing is a very subjective business, and what one editor doesn’t like, another might rave about.

I’ll give you a few examples from editorial comments I’ve received over the years.

“New Beginnings”

  • “. . .  a fairly enjoyable story, very simple, but enjoyable. But it was also one of those that comes very close to the borderline for acceptance  . . .  ” – Alpha Adventures Science Fiction and Fantasy.
  • “Your story is interesting – a touch of Bradbury – but it just didn’t grab me.” – The Argonaut.
  • “John was right that I like it; unfortunately, it doesn’t fit what I’m trying to do with the magazine.” – Bifrost.

“Keeper of the Shrine”

  • “This is carefully and persuasively written and keeps a reader intent on what’s going on, but in spite of the existential metaphysic it generates we still find ourselves doubting the inferential conclusions it proposes. And we can’t make it all fit together.” – Kansas Quarterly.
  • “It had three readings here, two of which were praising. The third reader suggested you consider [changing]  the title . . . One reader said the story ‘is a little too heavy on the symbolism’ but I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” – Prairie Schooner.

MY NOTES: I took this story back to my Beta Reader, an English Professor at the University of Nebraska. He re-read it, and we decided that I should change the title (“Of Life, Death, and Spiders” seemed a bit pompous), but I shouldn’t touch the symbolism because we believed it was right for a story like this (and apparently two other readers at Prairie Schooner agreed.)

“That Time of Year”

  • “This is a well-written story, and I enjoyed it. However, we are very selective on fiction as we use only two or three pieces per issue.” – Proof Rock.
  • “‘That Time of Year,’ exhibits a good control of the subject matter, but I have to say that we didn’t find the subject matter particularly engaging.” – Pulpsmith.

“The Moaning Rocks”

  • “. . . The blending of legend and impending doom works nicely. Your imagery ranges from trite to splendid. There are moments where you approached Bradbury’s October Country. . . ” Fantasy Macabre.
  • “…May I suggest, too, that you think about putting the information in Maria’s legend in some other way (if it’s really necessary at all), because this is where what happens later is telegraphed. Up until then the suspense holds.” – Shadows Anthology.
  • “[Although we’ve already met our quota for this year] . . . the title intrigued me enough that I read it anyway. The beginning could be tightened up and shortened a bit, which I believe would strengthen it, but even as it is it is a powerful story and perfect for the magazine. If it should still be available in April, please send it back; I’d love to have it.” – Antithesis.

MY NOTES: Unfortunately, by April Antithesis had ceased publication, so the story went out on the submission trail again. It garnered a wide variety of comments – mostly positive, some not, but most editors to whom I submitted commented on it. I  published it finally in October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. Also, note that Fantasy Macabre liked the “blending of legend and impending doom,” but Shadows wondered if the legend is “really necessary at all” because it “telegraphed” the ending. The part about telegraphing the ending may be true for some readers, but I know of one reader who was so startled by the ending that she threw the book across the room.

Also:

  • My novel In Human Form excited an agent enough that she suggested some rewrites and then offered to represent it [didn’t sell, unfortunately], while the same novel “didn’t grab” other agents.
  • One of my screenplays was optioned recently  [see the News page]. It had been shopped around quite a bit and even received a page-and-a-half critique from the story editor at NBC. One of his concerns was that the dialogue was “somewhat archaic,” which was true, but I had a reason for it, and the screenplay was readable and the dialogue was sayable (yes, I know that’s not a word) and moved the story along, so I didn’t change a word.

The point of all this is that editors are just readers, and stories strike every reader differently. As I hope I’ve illustrated with these editorial comments, one editor may like something about a story while another may dismiss the same thing. It is nice to get editorial comments because they are a window into how others –  particularly, others who read stories for a living – view what you write.

But the best advice was given by the editor of Prairie Schooner in her comments on “Keeper of the Shrine:”  “. . . I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” If you have any questions about your work in view of an editor’s comment, take it back to your readers – and every writer should have a few readers he or she can trust to give honest feedback – and ask them if they think the the story might be improved if you followed the editor’s advice.

Some things you may choose to change, other things you may choose to leave alone. But take editorial comments in the spirit they are given: as one person’s reaction to your story. The next person’s reaction might be completely different.

Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career

For a business to succeed, four things are necessary:

  • Financing
  • Research and development
  • Production
  • Marketing

To build a successful writing career, you must use the same principles.

  1. Financing. What this means is: don’t quit your day job. You will need money to support yourself and your family while you are struggling to break in. The financing may come from your job, your spouse’s job, a trust fund, or the lottery, but it must be there until you’ve established yourself. A WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t quit your job as soon as you get an advance for a novel, unless it”s for a million bucks or so; a first novel usually won’t bring an advance anywhere near that, but it’s not unheard of (i.e.-Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook).
  2. Research and Development. Applied to novel writing, R & D is thinking up story ideas and developing plots and characters. Many success gurus recommend setting aside an hour a day to think about how to improve your work. Lots of writers use this method to plan stories. Sit at your computer or with a notebook and write down everything that comes into your head about the story you’re working on. Everything. There will be lots of garbage, but you can eliminate that later. For that hour, don’t reject anything. Write it all down.
  3. Production. Writing the novel. Sit at the keyboard and type and revise and polish your manuscript. Although some writers claim that you’ll know your novel is finished when you’ve revised it so much you’re sick of it, I maintain that you will know when it’s completed, and you won’t be sick of it. There’s a thin line between doing the best you can and being a perfectionist; at some point you must let go. Perfectionism may seem like a good thing, but it’s not. Perfectionism can stall a budding career because the writer is trying to make his or her novel perfect, and that is impossible. You’ll only be tinkering with it–tinkering that won’t make any difference in the long run–when you could be trying to sell it. You must sharpen your ability to sense when you have crossed the border from revising to tinkering. After all that work, you’ll be too close to your novel and your judgment may be impaired. Send out 10 queries, and if you get 10 rejections, your manuscript will have cooled off enough for you to take another look at it (also take another look at the query letter; that could be the problem, not the story).
  4. Marketing. Send out queries. Send them out to 10 or more agents at a time. If you have a good story and have written a good query, chances are good a few of the agents will ask for partials or the complete manuscript. If none of the first 10 agents offers representation, send out 10 more queries–possibly rewriting the query slightly. Repeat this process until you sell your novel. Don’t dash off your query; take your time, make it as good as you possibly can. A query that grabs an agent’s attention may be all that stands between your novel being published  or being shoved to the back of your closet where it gathers dust. For some good insight into writing queries, go to agent Kristen Nelson’s blog and scroll down the right side of the screen for everything you need to know about submitting to agents.

For your writing career to prosper you must not neglect any of these areas. And don’t stop. After you’ve gone through the process with one novel, begin again with another. Keep repeating the process. And never give up. The first novel you write probably will not be the one that is published.

To see how one best selling author did it, read Nicholas Sparks’ account of how he found an agent and a publisher for The Notebook.

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