Advice from the Slush Pile: Start Short, if You Can

(This post is adapted from a newsletter article I sent out last October. If you’re not getting my newsletter, you can subscribe here.)

This advice may seem quaint, and like any advice it won’t apply to everyone, but if you’re thinking of writing as a pastime or a possible career, I suggest you consider starting with short stories and working your way into longer and longer pieces — because time is precious, and you want to use it to your best advantage. I offer this suggestion as the “slush” reader for Baen Books, having now examined literally thousands of submissions.

After the Edit
(I can honestly say I’ve never treated a manuscript like this. And thankfully never received one back with quite so strident a rejection. Image: “After the Edit,” by Laura Ritchie, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I am frequently surprised — and sometimes shocked — at submissions in which the author appears to have poured out their storytelling heart in 100,000 or more words without having practiced writing anything shorter. It’s not that they have a bad idea, or sometimes even that they write poorly (although this happens more than I’d like), but that they haven’t written enough to know how to tell a complete, coherent story.

It’s as if a would-be doctor tried to perform thoracic surgery without ever having dissected a frog.

That’s one reason I suggest that people start writing short stories and work their way to longer, more complex stories. But the other reason is even more basic: write short stories because you get to “THE END” faster.

Instead of taking months to produce a disjointed, confusing, lengthy text, learn how to write a smooth, straightforward narrative in days or weeks by limiting yourself at first to shorter forms. Then try longer forms that take weeks or a month to write. Learn to switch smoothly between points of view as your narratives grow in scope, and learn to tie up the threads of parallel narratives as your stories grow in length and complexity. Work your way up to forms that take months to write. Time is precious: spend it wisely!

And in keeping with the principle that time is precious, I’ll wrap this up. Thank you very much for spending part of your time here. Good luck to you!

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