(or, how about giving short fiction a try?)

Guest post by Sharni Wilson

Writing a novel: no one said it was easy. It takes a long time and a lot of headspace. With a relatively longer piece of writing, small problems can be magnified and take more time and effort to overcome. Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, the learning curve is steep. It’s quite possible to write 50,000 words and then decide the whole concept is a no go and chuck it in the bin.

The first novel I wrote clocked in at over 80,000 words, but it still isn’t finished, and the amount of revision it requires makes my eyes water. I managed to write this many words without having a very clear picture of where I wanted to end up: it had enough material in it for three or four books, but it didn’t hang together in a coherent way. Trying to fix it felt like trimming the hedges of a vast, sprawling labyrinth full of dead ends.

So I decided to leave it be for the foreseeable. It needed serious, developmental editing. It needed to be reinvented into a completely different version of itself. I needed a break from it, and my parenting life took up so much headspace I had hardly any of that to spare, either. The writing time I had was mostly snatched in half an hour if I was lucky. And while I struggled with this unwieldy novel, there were so many other things I wanted to write that were clamouring for my attention.

I switched to short fiction with the idea of getting a clearer focus about where I wanted to end up. To write about lots of different things and see what worked and what didn’t. To practice the kind of self-discipline needed to pack an idea into a short span of words, as opposed to sprawling out into chapter after chapter. In a shorter piece, you can go completely wild without worrying about how to sustain it for hundreds of pages. You can have dramatic switches and cuts, kill off your characters without worrying about needing them later, and hint at things that never need to be spelled out explicitly.

But no one said writing short fiction is easy, either. More is demanded of the writing itself: it should be distilled and concentrated until only the most important parts are left. I found out that to get a story I was at all happy with would take at least 17 drafts.

I submitted to countless slush piles and racked up hundreds of rejections before getting a break (thanks, takahē!). Since then, I’ve had the chance to work with amazing lit mag editors who I learned a lot from, and had a couple of pieces solicited recently, so I feel like I might have poked one toe out of the slush.

Any kind of writing, short or long, is all about graft, persistence and keeping it real, in my opinion. Acceptance rates for fiction are very low, regardless of length. Novels may be easier to sell and have more status attached to them. But short fiction allows for a greater degree of experimentation and iteration, plus practice at dealing with rejection, which can really come in handy. As John Maxwell said, ‘Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.’ Experiments that don’t work can even be recycled later on.

If you’re struggling to write a novel, it doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be a writer. I recommend starting with something shorter to test the waters and experiment with different ideas. There’s no one set path, so why not take a short detour and see what it can offer?

Born and raised in Kirikiriroa, now based in London, Sharni Wilson is a writer of fiction and a Japanese-to-English literary translator. Her work has appeared in Landfall and Newsroom, among others.

Forthcoming in 2024: One to Many by Sharni Wilson, winner of the inaugural At the Bay | I te Kokoru award for a hybrid collection 

Open for pre-orders: Swan Knight, by Fumio Takano, translated from the Japanese by Sharni Wilson (publication date 30 April 2024)

Latest work: A framework for understanding entropy in clique networks, a surreal, mythical flash fiction

For more information and to contact: https://www.sharniwilson.com/