The long and the short of it
Most writers seem to consider themselves either short story writers or novelists. Before I knew anything about writing, I always thought the only real difference was length (or, as Elizabeth Bear likes to say: novels are works of fiction, longer than short stories, and flawed).
When people ask me why I write short stories when I seem to prefer (and be more comfortable with) novel-length fiction, I usually say I think writing short stories is good practice for writing novels. But how true is this? Short stories require a tight plot and coherent structure, and they need good character development and character arcs. Developing these skills will improve your writing, regardless of length. Plus, since it takes much less time to complete a short story, you can practice writing complete works more often than if you were writing only novels (in which you could invest a year before realizing their fundamental flaws).
Despite some overlap, however, short stories and novels make fundamentally different demands on the author, especially with respect to world-building and pacing. In a short story you have neither the time nor need to create a complete world (though generating the illusion of reality still remains important). The pacing, too, is totally different. Even though both short stories and novels need beginnings, middles, and ends, the way you structure and build towards each will be very different. Finally, with novels you not only have a broader, deeper canvas to work on, but you must fill it with sub-plots and a larger cast of characters.
So, does writing short stories really help you prepare for writing novels, or are the two forms of fiction too different to be truly comparable?
Even if the answer is no, there are still good reasons for novelists to write short stories. For one thing, many critique groups are less inclined to workshop novels. If you write short stories, you can remain active in your crit groups and garner valuable feedback from (and interaction with) your peers. Another advantage I’ve found is that having short stories out to market keeps you feeling engaged while you toil away on novels. Novels take a lot longer to come to fruition, and its easy to feel as if you’re not making progress. Completing the occasional short story and submitting it to markets gives me (personally) a feeling of short term accomplishment. This might seem like a poor reason to take time away from your novel, unless you consider the very real impact your emotional state can have on your writing. If you’re feeling productive and upbeat, it’s going to be a lot easier to keep that novel draft moving forward.
I know others feel differently, though. So, tell me, do you consider yourself a novel writer or a short story writer? Do you write exclusively one length of fiction, or do you do both? Do you see the necessary skills sets as complementary or divergent?