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Story writing... where do you start?

Story writing can certainly begin with short pieces, but it's not essential. Many writers feel more confident of writing short stories first. Because they're short, they'll be finished quickly! Also, when you're learning to edit it can be very daunting to see a ream-sized stack of paper and know you have to work through the whole, book-length manuscript. A short piece is less overwhelming.

Much depends on your own courage as you tackle your early projects. Story writing is as demanding as painting, sculpting, playing an instrument. Do you have the love of what you do, can you make the commitment to work the number of hours needed to finish a novel?

If you love writing and are never happier than when you're fiddling with editing and propelling your characters into this or that hair-raising situation, there is a much better question. We shouldn't be asking if you 'can' write a novel. Of course you can. Who's going to stop you? The only thing to impede you will be your own boredom, which is not likely to happen, because you enjoy writing the same way someone else enjoys baseball.

The question is: which form of story writing suits your plot line?

You'll be looking at your notes — the plot outline you wrote, when you were hit by the plot ideas for your new work. You'll read through them, and in your mind you'll go over how much space, how many pages, it should take to do justice to each plot element without over-doing it.

You don't want to over-write. You also don't want to under-write. You're aiming for the 'just right' mark, which is somewhere between the two. Your writer's instinct will tell you when you hit the mark. If it doesn't, or if you're 'off,' a good beta reader will tell you where the book is 'too long' or 'too short.' This instinct is one of the skills you soon develop in the art of story writing. Don't worry, it'll soon come to you.

So, here's the question: do you have enough material to make for a novel of at least 45,000 words? That's a very short novel. In fact, it's probably too short for most non-pulp publishers to consider. They would be looking for something at least 80,000 words, and on up to a maximum of perhaps 160,000 words.

(You won't know what they want until you visit their website in search of information, or write to them with an initial query. You can do this before you begin to write, if you feel that your book is really only suited to one publisher. Caveat: if your book has such a narrow playing field, you might have a problem. If you're writing to earn royalties, narrow-interest subjects don't make for big sales ... and you only get paid when you sell copies.)

If you don't have enough material for a novel, then you're looking at a short story. Writing a novel around too little material involves padding out the themes. Extremely good writers can do this, and get away with it; but critics and editors can almost always see what was done. If the book seems to be padded out, an editor could easily reject it for this.

'Padding' is largely irrelevant material that's pushed in between the 'real' scenes to make the book longer. It can take the form of 'character development,' or a sub-plot, but if the scenes stray too far off-topic, they're likely to be deleted by your pro editor before publication.

Here's the downside: if the editorial cuts make the book too short ... the fact you padded it out to get a novel becomes obvious. You actually had the material for a short story! Writing to please editors should always be in the back of your mind.

If you have the material for a novel — go for it. Understand the time it will take to write so much, and then edit and proofread. Do it for the love of writing. Fall in love with your characters and situations, dive into the realm you've created, and play! Story writing should not be about work. It should be 70% play, 20% natural skill (all of which you can develop on this site), and 10% work. We should be able to survive 10% work.

If you don't have the material for a whole novel, you know right now, you're writing a novella or a short story. Writing in the shorter formats is quite different from writing novels. It's actually a unique discipline. You approach the writing style differently, the characters tend to be created differently, events are described differently, in a short piece. (Story writing has its 'departments,' just as picture painting can involve oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, mixed media.)

To get a feel for short story writing, read some. Look at anthologies and fiction magazines, find a writer whose work you like and respect ... and pick his or her brains. Be analytical. Can you see what the writer did, and how? Take the the story apart and put it back together. Where is the beginning, what's the McGuffin? At what point does Jack get up in the tree?

Is it easier to get published with a short story? Possibly ... which doesn't mean it's simple, or a dead cert! Writing for professional magazines is a field which obeys its own ground rules, and you'll need to do your research there, just as you would before you approached a book published. Short fiction is often generic — science fiction, crime, mystery, horror, romance.

There are magazines and ezines devoted to many niches. You'll need to find the best place to send your material, query the publisher to discover exactly what they want in a story. Writing according to the guidelines you receive provides your best shot at getting into print. (It's also very true that some very nice royalty rates are paid for short story writing at the professional level, whereas entry-level authors of full novels can be surprised by the modest nature of the first check.)

Do you have to start with short stories? No. But be sure you have enough material for a novel, and be sure you have the time and patience to write, edit and proofread a whole novel. You might find that you enjoy the short story writing experience so much, you stay with it. Some writers rarely produce novels.

Story writing demands as much of you as learning to dance or play the flute. The trick is to enjoy the process as much as the contracts at the end of the road!

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