So the question has been posed: why do so many writers start out with novels? (Thanks GalleyCat for the link). The author, identified only as So_nat_a_composer, asks this on Reddit, positing that really, beginning writers, like beginning composers, should start out small and work up to something as large and time-consuming as a novel.
I have a few thoughts on this. First, how do we know “most” writers start out with novels? Is there some survey we can look up to verify that? Sure, my experience has shown me that many writers do just that, but what percentage of total writers they represent is not clear.
For the sake of argument, let’s just leave the numbers out. We can all agree that some writers indeed start writing by writing (or at least attempting) a novel, so let’s move on from there.
The question is, then, is it a good idea? Some say that a novel is its own genre, and that writing anything else – short stories, essays, articles – isn’t relevant because novels are totally different than any other style of writing. Others, like myself, disagree. Yes, novels require some different skills: you have a lot more time to delve into characterization, plots can be much more complicated (and numerous), etc. However, whatever genre you are writing in – novel, essay, short story – you must have a basic set of skills that is common to all good prose.
First and foremost, you must have a good grasp of written English. Just because you grew up speaking English doesn’t mean you can write it well. Believe me; I have seen far too many college English students who can’t put a coherent sentence together to save their lives. If you struggled (or still struggle) through English class, you could still be a writer, but it’s going to take a lot more time for you because you have to learn this ground-level skill. Reading a lot will help you overcome this; like learning to speak any language, being immersed in written English will allow its unique style to gradually sink in, in a way listening to lectures and doing comma exercises don’t.
Second, you have to have a good eye for detail. That means you have to be observant, and not just visually: what does this place sound like? How does this place or person smell? Does the sun warm your back or is a chill wind blowing? If this is a weak spot for you, one way to overcome it is to practice describing real people and places in your writing journal. Like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Next, you need to understand the basics of story structure and how to establish setting, create believable characters, build suspense, and write appropriate dialog. Again, this is where reading lots of other novels really helps. Read critically: how does this author reveal the characters? What details about the setting does she use? What makes it suspenseful? There are also many books on each of these topics; read them and practice.
Finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have objective feedback from others. The usual stand-by is the writers’ group, which is invaluable (and free!). However, if you’re writing a novel for publication (either traditionally or self-published), you must invest in a professional editor. No matter how good you are (which is never the same as how good you think you are), you will make mistakes. You’re human. And no matter how great your writers’ group is, chances are they aren’t professionals.
Obviously, this is a lot to handle. Why wouldn’t you want to practice with shorter pieces that might only take a day or a week to finish? Why jump into a project that might take years, when you haven’t practiced these skills before? To me, it’s like the carpentry metaphor I always use: just because you can hammer a nail doesn’t mean you can build a mansion. So start with a birdhouse, then move up to a garden shed, before you start a mansion. You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration, but more importantly, you’ll be a better writer/carpenter.