A piece of advice given to young writers by Ray Bradbury is to leave novel writing for later, and instead aim to write a short story a week.
The logic here is that at the end of the writing year you’ll have produced plenty of material, and at least a fraction of this material must be usable, editable, in order to be publishable. (Lots of -ables!) Because out of 52 stories, yeah, you’d think a few would turn out to be real gems.
Last year I set out to take such advice because I couldn’t imagine being my age and churning out enough writing daily to produce a first draft in the time I would like to – which is a year. And though my would-be novel-ish project is nowhere near as complicated as a book like Cloud Atlas, I baulk when an author like David Mitchell talks about writing hours:
‘I could probably do ten if I had them, but I’ve got two young children, so I can either be a halfway decent dad or I can be a writer who writes all day. I can’t really be both. As things stand, I might clock in three hours on a poor day, and six or seven on a productive day.’
– yeesh! Ten hours if you could?! For me, three hours is a good day. Ha! It makes me realise how I’ve really gotta up my ante.
So it’s obvious why I wanted to follow Bradbury’s advice. I’d wind up with more material that way, I thought. But a couple weeks in, a near-complete short story just wasn’t reaching completion. I couldn’t pinpoint the ending because I wanted to keep ‘fleshing it out.’ The next week, I had a dream which provided a substantial idea for a new story, and decided to keep on with the previous week’s story at the same time. But then these stories turned out to feel connected, even though they were very different; magnetic strands of something I could feel would turn out to be one big short story.
It turned out there was more to both, and a third strand to come in a couple weeks later. By then I was ignoring the weekly story endeavour. I had already written beyond the scope of a short story, and then, more than what makes up your average novella.
Does it matter that the short story deal failed? It’s a wonderful swing of luck or fortune, I think, that an idea blossomed so pervasively, incorporating three different concepts lurking in mind, driving me to create so much material on a regular basis that I do feel, if I work as hard as possible on my actual writing, could be a viable piece of work.
It could be a project that takes a year to complete or ten – may have to restructure it many times, rework the story itself, maybe it is a complete slab of crap – but it’s still worth the effort, and the failure to keep on path with an original plan.
I still produce a complete draft of a story every now and then. I just don’t think they’re that good, my 'best work.' I feel much better about the bigger project.
I imagine most writers have an inkling of whether they’re more invested in short stories or novels early on. Here’s my guestimate at this point in time: I’m in this for whatever novels I can write. I like what I’m doing now much better than my short stories. But Bradbury’s advice was still worth following, and will be in future, when I’m free and loose and without direction, waiting for the next idea to hit me on the head, then whisk me away.