“The first draft of a novel is supposed to be terrible.”
We’ve all heard that charming advice, and it’s usually true. But why do many first drafts fail? Because writers lose steam halfway through. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve abandoned after hitting a rough patch somewhere between the midpoint and the final act. Only a handful of my novels have ever reached “the end,” and the most structurally sound one came from a short story.
I wrote that story two years ago, in one sitting. A woman poisons her husband at the altar, and after she returns from the wedding, her motives slowly unravel. I gave the story to several friends and read it aloud to my writing group. Almost everyone had the same feedback: “I want more.”
This might appear to be a failure, but it’s not. A captivating short story invites further thought and analysis. The world is so well-developed that it’s a microcosm of larger possibilities readers will (hopefully) be curious about. When you write out a premise in miniature, you have a chance to test its power and appeal so you know whether it can be stretched to full size. Even if you can’t enlarge it, you’ll still gain from the experience.
1. You’ll Learn Whether Your Idea Is Broad Enough
A short story is a complete narrative consisting of fewer than 10,000 words. You have no room for error in how you address setting, character development, and worldbuilding. This enables you to gauge whether your concept is viable for novelization or only suitable for short fiction.
How do you measure the scope of an idea? First, keep in mind that a short story is a small piece of a bigger picture. It tends to be the ending—and if you struggle in that area, this exercise might be especially helpful. As you’re writing, look for signals that your short story could be extended:
- The core element has interesting backstory that can’t be explained inside the word limit.
- The characters immediately grab you (and readers), and you’re sad to see them go.
- The themes are compelling, and you feel like you’ve only skimmed the surface.
Essentially, writing stories is about discovery. If your first dip into the water is successful, a deeper dive might lead you to more wonders. That said, the short story itself is a valid format that I think we could all benefit from tinkering with more often.
2. You’ll Get to Preview Your Story’s Trajectory Before Fully Committing to It
You ultimately save time by writing the shorter version of a story first. When you have an ultra-condensed first draft (of sorts) to refer back to, the full version may come together more quickly and with less superfluous content. And if you’re uncomfortable with outlines, you’ll have the freedom to explore before making any directional decisions.
As I mentioned before, the most coherent (and fastest) novel I ever wrote was inspired by that spooky short story. I had all the main events laid out in front of me, so I didn’t have to worry about stopping to plot. Plus, more cohesion in the first draft reduces revisions later on.
3. You’ll Be Forced to Finish a Project
Remember what I said about writing the ending first? Our brains crave completion, though beginning writers have a habit of obsessing over a single project or flitting from idea to idea. According to Neil Gaiman’s masterclass, The Art of Storytelling, finishing a story motivates us to keep writing, whereas slogging through a work-in-progress for years on end has the opposite effect.
Short stories can be a cure for these slumps. Whether you revisit your short story or not, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. And if you decide to pursue novelization, the finished short story will in turn encourage you to finish the book. Gotta keep that momentum up!
4. You’ll Have a Piece You Can Share
Short fiction is perfect for submitting to literary journals, critique groups, beta readers, and, of course, friends who are kind enough to ask for samples of your writing. People simply don’t have the bandwidth to process hundreds of pages on a regular basis, and a collection of polished short stories is invaluable when building a writing career. Plus, if your story receives positive feedback—or, better yet, questions and requests for more details that mimic the points above—that’s an indication it can stand as a novel.
You can also experiment, then step back to watch how readers react to different combinations. Set multiple short stories in the same universe, switching out characters and situations. Find out which aspects are the most intriguing to readers, because those are the ones you’ll want to carry into a novel.
5. You’ll Prove Your Idea’s Marketability
Fahrenheit 451 originated as a short story called “The Fireman.” Virginia Woolf followed a similar strategy with Mrs. Dalloway. And that’s not all. Authors sold these short stories to magazines, journals, and newspapers to get exposure (and pay the bills) while they worked on longer projects. Nowadays writers offer short stories as freebies in their newsletters or as posts on their blogs. Although the mediums have changed, the goal is the same: to grow your skills and audience through an easily digestible adaption of your idea.
Novelization Tip: Be Open to Change
As writers, we cling to our “darlings”—characters, scenes, dialogue, descriptions, and other inventions of our imaginations that we like but aren’t useful. You’ll produce a stronger novel if you recognize that tweaking parts of your original short story is both acceptable and expected.
In my short story, my protagonist’s father was alive and implicated in the murder. But when I set out to expand the narrative, I realized he was a hindrance to my protagonist’s arc and goals—which meant killing him off about a hundred pages in. Although I was attached to him, he needed to be cut. The story underwent several other adjustments as well, including tonal shifts, new side characters, and a totally different murderer.
Holding onto your raw idea too tightly can prevent it from evolving into what you need it to be. Again, you’ll always have the completed short story. But the novel will play by its own set of rules.
Not Every Short Story Should Be a Novel, but Every Novel Can Start as a Short Story
Although this method hasn’t been effective every time, it’s showed me how important short stories are to my own writing process. Likewise, your takeaways will be unique to you. Above all, keep trying new tactics to see what boosts your creativity and productivity. And if something flops, well, give it another shot (or three or four) to make sure. Each story forms in its own way, and you can’t predict what may shape it.
First drafts don’t have to be terrible. Sometimes they’re just…short.
Quinlyn Shaughnessy’s writing journey began at age eleven with her first blog about American Girl dolls. In 2010, she discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that novel writing was her calling (along with giving NaNo free advertising by plastering posters on her walls and discussing it with everyone she met). Since then, she’s forayed into short stories, poetry, and professional blogging. Although she’s made a commitment to try writing every genre at some point, her favorites are historical fiction, biography, sci-fi, and YA lit. She holds a BA in Mass Communication & Media Studies and plans on going back to school for a graduate program. When she’s not working at her media literacy internship, she enjoys watching TV, singing, pretending she’s going to take up painting, and rearranging her desk. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about how to make character playlists on Spotify or just want to say hi.
I really enjoyed this post! I write short stories a lot for practice on creating strong scenes, but I’ve never considered using any as mini first drafts for my novels. I want to give it a try sometime.
This is such a wonderful idea, Quinlyn! I suppose I did this on accident with my debut novel, lol. I started it when I was around thirteen, and it was very short, but now five years later it’s about 153,000 words.
Oh man, I’m definitely bookmarking this article to refer back to later! I want to write one of my ideas as a short story now!
For anyone who has doubts about whether this article will “work for me”, or is worried about the extra effort required to first write a short story then turn it into a novel –
Granted, I did it before this article came out (hipster points for me, I guess), but the process of breaking down my “grand novel” into 10k – 25k chunks and writing individual segments with a priority on brevity and “simplified” storylines turned a skeletal outline with nothing to show for it over 4 years of “work” into 130k of continuous narrative broken up into 3 sub-novelas over the course of a single summer. The short-story / novela format will force you to identify what is truly essential and most powerful about your story, in both characters, plot, structure, even down to techniques for mood and atmosphere.
That said, the biggest help was really in having an accountability partner. Not just someone to check in with once a week and commiserate over lack of productivity – although ANY partnership is better than lone-wolfing, don’t get me wrong –
but having someone who will pester you and harass you into producing more stuff because they want to read your stuff that badly. If you don’t think you can find that person, then BE that person for someone else, and you’ll find a partner soon enough. The break from your own writing to examine others will sharpen your own critical skills of editing. And if it sounds like too much work – we are all siblings in Christ together here. If we have even a spark of our own, we should use it to kindle others.