The "ah-ha!" moment in my case was realizing that if you want to learn how to write professionally, you should probably start with the short form. I don’t think I'm alone in this, but I spent years writing novels, producing two manuscripts that aren't publishable in their current form. I'd encourage aspiring writers to spend a year on short fiction. Starting with the novel is foolish. There's a reason the papers you write in school start short and get progressively longer. You can spend years on the down draft and preliminary edits of a novel before you get to the tough revisions and polishing necessary to produce a quality manuscript with a good chance of selling. After 20 – 25 short stories you will have practiced the full process of draft, revision, polishing, submitting, editing, and re-submitting over and over again. Working on a first or second novel for the same period, you may only be able to practice the draft and first revision once, and never get to the rest of the process. After 100,000 words in 3000 – 5000 word packages, you'll have a much easier time making hard choices, cutting elements that you like but that work against the story, and thinking like an editor. It's a more efficient learning curve.
The other advantage of spending a year on short fiction is that you will learn how good your work is. We learn best when we get frequent and accurate feedback. When you concentrate on novels, you get feedback only occasionally. You can't learn how pro editors really view your work or how it compares to your peers' based on one or two submissions per year. If you write just two shorts per month, and are diligent about quickly re-editing them and resubmitting them when they get rejected, you can easily have 50 – 100 responses in that same year. It's better feedback, giving you a more accurate sense of where you stand as a potential professional. Some of those rejections will even have a line or two about what the editor liked or didn't like, which is invaluable. This assumes, of course, that you are submitting to competitive markets. If you send those 20 stories to author mills and non-paying markets you can get a lot of mediocre work in print and a false sense of "making it." You still get the practice of writing the pieces, but you aren't getting good feedback on the quality.
Frequent rejections also stop hurting. You need to develop a thick skin and get your head around the fact that publishing is a business and not a referendum on you as a person. If you can't, it becomes easy to dismiss the feedback you do get. When a writer starts complaining about how editors don't "get" their work, or readers "can't handle" it, it's a bad sign. Short stories are product; a first novel is a lovechild. A hundred rejections and a few sales in, and you move well past taking it personally. I can imagine the heartbreak the aspiring novelist endures, sending out that manuscript and waiting with hope and yearning for 6 – 12 months before the rejection slip. It's a formula for personal misery and professional stagnation.
K. H. Vaughan is a refugee from academia with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. In his other life he taught, published, and practiced in various settings, with particular interest in decision theory, forensic psychology, psychopathology, and methodology. He is an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association and a member of the New England Horror Writers. He lives with his wife and three children in New England. Updates on upcoming publications and occasional articles on writing can be found on his website www.khvaughan.com