Andrew G. Cooper
Start with the Short Stories
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
I have a tip for aspiring writers and I think it can be translated to aspiring creators of many kinds of art: start with short stories. I don't mean a short story, as in writing prose fiction of a certain word count, I mean stories (plays, fiction, films, etc.) that are short in length and duration. Before you take on your magnum opus as an artist, you're likely going to have to craft a few shorter stories on your journey.
I like writing a lot. I started writing fiction when I was about eight years old. By the time I was seventeen, I had completed my first novel (about 110,000 words) and was working on the revision process. Writing a novel takes a lot of work but I pushed through and completed a first draft. And you know what happened with that novel? Nothing. Well, nothing yet. I'm still waiting to revise it and turn it into something publishable. But now I've got a myriad of other projects on the go and even more ideas for new works to start. When I was a teenager there were so many things about writing that I didn't know. Looking back, I thing the main one is that I should have started small.
Before you tackle that hit play, try writing some one-acts or 10-minute plays.
Before you crack your novel, try your hand at short stories or flash fiction.
Before you write your brilliant screenplay, give short films a try.
And the same goes for artistic work as a director, filmmaker, painter, etc.
So why start small? Well, it's easier.
Have you ever started a big artistic project and not finished it? Did you start the novel you want to write but can't get past the first few chapters? Started planning a film you want to shoot but things fall through before you get into production? Began writing a play but can't seem to figure out how to end it? Well, maybe try starting smaller to make things easier.
It's a lot easier to complete something when it's ten pages long rather than one hundred ten pages long. I'm an idea person. I think a lot of people are, we have a lot of good ideas. I have a folder on my phone that's overflowing with new story ideas. But the toughest things about taking on a new art project is actually completing it. Taking an idea you have and pushing it all the way to completion gives you a sense of accomplishment and it gets you much closer to doing what your art is meant to do: being shared with others.
Writing 10-minute plays is what helped me get so many international productions of my work as a playwright. (You can see a full map of productions of my plays on my playwriting page.) I've had multiple plays produced in Sydney, Australia and even one staged as far as Dubai, UAE! I've also had a one act play produced in Chicago at a festival and an episode of the (exp)lore podcast anthology I created was screened at a film festival in New Jersey! How, you may ask, did this all come about? You guessed it! The key was to have short stories to submit to these international opportunities.
Once you have your small pieces (whether short stories, 10-minute plays, or paintings), you can start submitting them for publication or contests or galleries or for production. Usually, you need to have a finished product before you can share it with the world! This really ties into me aiming for 100 rejections every year. Having more work to submit makes it easier for people to reject those works but, it also increasing the chances of getting a "yes!" and having your work shared with the world. And also getting paid for your work. That part's important too.
You may be thinking, "But I don't WANT to tell short stories! I WANT to tell BIG stories." Of course you do. I do too. But short stories don't have to be small stories, let's be clear about that. Even in a short amount of time, you can tell epic tales, have a huge cast of characters, or address large themes. A short story is about time. And intention. So throw out your smart goals and dream big! One surefire way to get on the road to achieving your goals is by starting small.
Really, telling stories is the same at whatever level or length you're doing it at. The key thing about completing shorter works is that they really help you to master the craft. When writing short things, remember that all the rules of storytelling still apply. You need a beginning, a middle, and an end. That seems simple to do but when you're writing with only 10 pages (or sometimes one page!) it gets tricky. This forces you to really know your technical aspect of storytelling and will give you time and space to practise your skills as an artist.
Here's one more thing to consider: when you're constructing larger works, they're really made up of small pieces. A novel is made of many chapters. Plays and films are made up of many scenes. And guess what? Every chapter and every scene is also it's own short story. They need to tell their own story, need to have a beginning and middle and end, and need to have characters that progress and change. Are you a fan of musicals? Listen to your favourite songs from a musical and you'll realize that each great song has it's own story and takes its own journey as well. Once you're good at writing and constructing shorter stories, the goal, and the fun part, is threading each of these together until you have one larger story.
So go ahead. Give yourself permission to start small. You never know where it will take you.