I'm an aspiring fantasy and sci-fi writer and I my goal is to write a novel that is to be the first in a series within the same setting. I'm getting to a point where I can feel "the world coming together" and images are floating around in my mind. I know what I want my book(s) to be about (as in overarching motives) but don't have characters yet. Would you suggest writing short stories first to get a feel for the setting and explore a couple ideas for characters? I'm asking because I myself have never been interested in reading short stories and I keep telling myself that if J. K. Rowling jumped into her first novel successfully without prior training, I can do it, too. For now I'm limited in the time I can devote to writing so a short story becomes more attractive than plunging into a novel headfirst because finishing it seems that much more achievable.
I'm tempted to tell you that writing some short stories is the "right" way to proceed, but the reality is there is not "right" or "wrong" on this issue. You need to find what works for you.
The most common path to getting the first full-length novel completed involves plowing right into it with little idea of what you are doing, who your characters are or why you are willing to waste vast spans of time filling pages with drivel. Then after a week or a month, with rage and self-hatred in abundance, to throw those first pages into a box and ignore them for a time. Then, when the itch eventually returns,open the box and get back to work.
At that point you have two options. Throw out what you've already done and now hate, or try to fix it. In either case, in a month or so, you will have a slightly larger pile of paper which you like a little bit more than the original, but you will have wandered down into a plot hole and gotten stuck about with what to do next. Back into the box goes all your hard work.
When the itch returns as it always does, you will decide that it is time to seek advice on how to survive this insanity. Writing books, magazines, groups and forums will become your new obsession. You will learn about plot design and character creation and how to attack writer's block. You will start to tool up for the long road ahead.
- Maybe you will outline your story down to the smallest detail.
- Maybe you will develop each of your characters to a point where they can act on their own with only occasional references back to your plot.
- Maybe you will combine those methods into something uniquely your own.
Somehow you will find for yourself a method for putting quality words down on paper and then assembling those pages into art.
Whether you write short stories or epics is not that important. That you keep writing is. Some people win the lottery with the first ticket they've ever purchased, but I wouldn't bet my future on either the lottery or the first time win. Better to learn how to push the pen across the page, even when it doesn't want to go there. Build your skills and your novel will come.
Find your voice. Learn your methods. Feed your muse.
In retrospect and realizing that I didn't actually answer your question during that rant, here are the advantages of short stories over longer works...
If writing quality remains constant between the two, short stories are easier and can be completed quicker than long stories. This allows you to experience the entire literary life cycle in a shorter time and to discover what post-writing procedures (editing, packaging, promoting and marketing), work for you.
Short stories can work with smaller sets of characters, allowing you to focus on the individuals without having to fill up the ranks.
Short stories can each be rendered with a different writing style and voice; allowing you to discover your preference and proficiency.
How to use short stories to explore the world? I'd say design the world according to the logical incentives that drive the structure of a society. Address the people (workers? Slaves? Castes? Indentured servitude? Free citizens?). Address the leaders (Oligarchs? Chieftans? Elected officials, aristocracy, feudal lords, revolutionary leaders?). Address the scale of the society (tribal, regional, national) etc.
Once the important questions are answered you can use short stories to explore the setting you've built up. Make sure each short story demonstrates something essential about the fictional society to the reader. Then, make sure each short story has no plot contradictions with any of the other short stories. Once you have enough short stories, you have an established setting with a rich lore. This lore can be drawn from, for your novel.
This is somewhat a matter of opinion and personal preferences. So for me, I would not write short stories. If you want practice, write scenes. Then leave them alone for about a week (do not look at them). This is enough time for most people to forget all but an outline of what they wrote. Then try to read them as a reader. Once you have read the scene, immediately start figuring out what you think is wrong with it. What is unclear? What is confusing? Where did you go wrong?
If you think nothing is wrong with your first draft, chances are you should not be a writer; every commercially successful writer I have ever heard talk about it (or read what they say about it) thinks their first draft needs work. Stephen King rewrites five or six times. I have rewritten passages more than thirty times.
But don't be discouraged by this; it is training for what you will need to do.
A book is recursive: It has a beginning, middle and end. Each chapter has a beginning, middle and end. Each scene has a beginning, middle and end. Even the sub-parts of a scene, like a conversation, have a beginning, middle and end!
Write scenes for practice. Plan to throw them away or put them aside, they probably cannot be used in the actual book, but it will help you to learn writing. Write a dozen of them, planning to throw them away.
THEN start thinking about your characters, drawing on your scenes. Who is the hero of this story? Who do you like writing about in your scenes?
You need a WHY for this hero, what do they want, so much they would be willing to sacrifice almost anything (or straight-up anything, including their own life) to get it? (e.g. a woman saving her child, a boy avenging his parents, a slave escaping slavery.)
Depending on how you like to write, you do not need the whole story in your head. Stephen King comes up with such situations and just starts writing, he gets so attuned to each character he has each of them do what they must do, and figures the story must resolve itself somehow. He says his stories come from developing characters readers will like, and then "putting them in the cooker" to see what happens next.
To me, what you need is Act I: The setup, the introduction of characters (including the hero and villain or the hero's big ass problem if there is no villain), and the setting and rules: For example you can't introduce magic in Act II (the middle) or Act III (the resolution of the big ass problem), you can't suddenly make your hero a consummate marksman or martial artist or able to speak Chinese if that was not introduced in the setup.
Write a scene. Put is aside, write another. Repeat. come back in a week and figure out what is wrong with it, how it could be better. Rewrite it, put it aside, repeat a few times, until you think you are on par with a pro. All while planning to push it all aside when you begin the novel. Still, this will help to acquaint you with your characters, both the ones you have in mind and the ones you discover are needed while writing these scenes.
Writers learn to write by writing and rewriting and rewriting again. Plus you must have the ability to criticize your own writing (at least after letting it fade somewhat from memory).
You can start with your first work intended for publication being a novel. But I wouldn't start writing a novel until you have some experience writing at least scenes that can span several pages. Practice that first.
Added due to commentary:
There is some question about whether I really mean to write something with the intention of discarding it. Yes, I really mean that. I said "they probably cannot be used in the actual book," but I'd go further: They won't be used in the actual book, or screenplay or whatever.
The way I write, I probably write three pages for every page in the final work. I am used to that. Do the math: A 250 page books means I wrote 750 pages and threw away 500. Now if I know stepping into this mud I am going to throw away 500 pages, why not do some of that intentionally, to save time?
Here is an example. I have a female character in mind; Annie. (I may rename her later, at first I tend to give my characters names starting with A,B,C...). Annie is a 28 year old private pilot, single and unattached. She learned to fly in the Marines, doing six years. She's flown in combat, she's been shot down and ejected, parachuting into the border of enemy territory. She escaped to friendly territory, but shot and killed three male enemy combatants in pursuit, one she shot in the head while wrestling for a gun. From her aircraft, Annie has bombed and killed dozens of people; probably of all ages and genders and more than she can know. Annie remains Marine fit; she works out religiously wherever she is, and continues her fight training two days a week if not away on work. She is average in looks, not a stunner or even close to a model, but attractive in the way that strong and healthy looks sexy. She is a heterosexual.
She isn't suffering from PTSD. She's a patriot but a political cynic, and thinks lives are being wasted. She doesn't hate the Marines. They got her through college, taught her to fly in the worst possible conditions, they made her who she is.
Now the big question (for me) is: Why? How did Annie get to be THIS Annie? When did she know she would join the Marines in war time? When did she first know she wanted to be a pilot? Who inspired her? What are the parents like that produced a girl like this?
As an author, I want this Annie to fall in love. Will it be her first time? It is very rare for a 28 year old to be a virgin; I don't see Annie as one. What was her first consummated romance like? Did she plan to lose her virginity, or was that an impulsive act? What was her partner like? What was Annie like in high school?
I am not a fan of deep back stories; they bore me. But pivotal scenes do not, and writing some of those pivotal scenes in Annie's early life, before she was a Marine, even though I do NOT want them in this book, can help me see who she is, if my sketch needs to be revised, and can even help me find the next character: The man with whom she will fall in love. Perhaps like the father she admires, or the boyfriend she had in high school. Perhaps Annie the Warrior falls in love with Bryce the architect that has never been in as much as a fist fight. I don't know what turns her on, but I can find out by looking for those pivotal life scenes and trying to write them, and discovering the core qualities of a young girl that will become Annie the Warrior, and Annie In Love.
To me the point isn't to include these scenes in the book, they are fragments without a plot and outside the plot I want to write, about an adult Annie. I don't like flashbacks, either. So I'll put them aside. The point is to write a novel that could be a screenplay that is good enough to sell. Not to write a novel fast, not to write a novel from start to finish without a mistake, not to make sure every word I write gets sold. The goal is not efficiency, the goal is good coherent writing people can believe. The spirit of what I write will end up informing my treatment of the Adult Annie. In that sense the time and effort and pages are not wasted at all, I built a "real" girl and we meet her in the middle of her story without fumbling around.
For a science-fiction and fantasy writer in particular, there is one very good reason to write short-stories: There is a market for them. There are a number of prestigious and well-read media outlets, both print and online, for speculative fiction. For that reason, the majority of sf writers "serve an apprenticeship" as short story writers, which helps them perfect their craft and build an audience. Many of the best known science fiction books started out as stories, that were either collected (Asimov's I, Robot) or expanded (Card's Ender's Game).
With that said, short and long fiction are very different forms, and it is possible to excel at one and not the other. Even so, given your chosen genre, I think it would be worth a try. One possible way to start would be to pick a key incident from your proposed novel, and try to give it its own compressed story arc (beginning, middle and end). Or, pick a backstory from the world you're building, one that might not make it into the book, and bring it to life. That way, even if it doesn't work on its own, it still contributes to your larger novelistic goals.
I don't now about you, but when I have written something it is "done" for me and the need to write it again is so low that I would never turn a short story into a novel. Also, a short story is work, and you might want to save your time and energy for your novel.
You might be different, but either way you can do what writing short stories would do for you, without actually writing them:
What I would do is what people do in all walks of life, that is, generate ideas. How you generate story and character ideas will depend on the kind of person you are, and I cannot tell you what will work best for you. What works for me is:
explore the world (mentally): What are its characteristics? What is interesting and fun about it? What aspects of it do I want to feature prominently in my narrative? How do these aspects affect the inhabitants of that world?
explore possible characters: What kinds of characters and relationships am I interested in? How would these people live in the world I have devised? How would the aspects that interest me about my world affect those characters?
Either your exploration should lead you to the one single story that you feel you want to tell, or a couple of possible stories should present themselves. Evaluate them in the common manner, i.e. talk to others about them, research your market, etc.
Actually, my novels are by and large a collection of "short stories" where each chapter is a typically self contained story or adventure by a consistent set of heroes, which is building up towards the conclusion which takes place in the last few chapters. This is mostly because much of my writing takes inspiration from semi-serialized TV where the conflict of the day might be related to the main antagonist of a series or might just be an excuse to explore the setting or just a stab at humor. That said, my genre I best use this in is a superhero/scifi setting, which I feel needs to establish a good rogues gallery, rather than a single hero vs. villain which tends to happen in the movies and books.
Also, with the rise of e-publishing, I love the idea of serialized stories and making the readers come back time and again for payoffs and the books will more be a collection (think watching a new TV show vs. Binge watching on Netflix).