Ray Bradbury

Ditch the Novels for Short Stories

Many beginning writers think the novel is Mount Everest. The place we start for proving our writing chops. But the problem with novels is they’re long.

Thank you, Captain Obvious. You can labor on this monster for months or years, never sure if it’s any good.

Ray Bradbury said (paraphrasing from a lecture):

“(Bradbury) explains the problem with setting a goal of writing a novel to begin with is that you can spend a whole year trying to write one, and it might not turn out well. After all, if you’re just starting out you haven’t learned to write yet. Beginning and intermediate writers should write short stories; that way, you can write one short story a week.”

If you’re diving into fiction writing and not sure where to start… short stories are a sure bet.

The short story is the perfect place to get in your 10,000 hours and build your fiction chops. It’s where I began, and where most writers start, and where many authors still live.

A short story isn’t the minor leagues for writing. Maybe someday if you can hit the curve, you’ll move to the majors and write a novel. No way.

Some of the greatest writing ever done was less than 20,000 words. Old Man and the Sea, anyone?

What Are You Filling Your Mind With?

Every writer will face the blank page with varying degrees of resistance, fear, and occasional diarrhea. The blinking cursor staring back at you with demon eyes speaking lies of:

“You’re an imposter, hack, your past successes mean nothing. You’re a phony. You have no talent or skills. What are you trying to prove?”

Sometimes the writer-demon manifests itself in other forms. A mind that simply lacks ideas.

The passion for a story or article that flowed with ease now hits a metaphorical brick wall. Your brain an empty vessel scratching for anything that resembles an idea. Anything that will keep the work moving along.

Regardless if you’ve written hundreds of articles and published a dozen novels, the writer-demon is real. But there’s hope my friends. And we find the hope long before you ever put a word on the page.

Legendary prolific writer, Ray Bradbury, suggested in a lecture three things for what he called: writer hygiene. What are the things you can do to keep your mind healthy before you sit and write?

“What you’ve got to do from this night forward is stuff your head with more different things from various fields . . . I’ll give you a program to follow every night, very simple program. For the next thousand nights, before you go to bed every night, read one short story. That’ll take you ten minutes, 15 minutes. Okay, then read one poem a night from the vast history of poetry. Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap. It’s not poetry! It’s not poetry. Now if you want to kid yourself and write lines that look like poems, go ahead and do it, but you’ll go nowhere. Read the great poets, go back and read Shakespeare, read Alexander Pope, read Robert Frost. But one poem a night, one short story a night, one essay a night, for the next 1,000 nights. From various fields: archaeology, zoology, biology, all the great philosophers of time, comparing them. Read the essays of Aldous Huxley, read Lauren Eisley, great anthropologist. . . I want you to read essays in every field. On politics, analyzing literature, pick your own. But that means that every night then, before you go to bed, you’re stuffing your head with one poem, one short story, one essay — at the end of a thousand nights, Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff, won’t you?”

-from “Telling the Truth,” the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University, 2001

Ray Bradbury on Half-a-Writer

“… if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.” (from Zen in the Art of Writing, page 4)