Lit Reactor recently published Brandon Tietz’s 8 Reasons to Avoid the Novel and Focus on Short Stories and I think it’s mostly sound advice, though I don’t fully agree. I wrote a novel before I’d written more than just one or two short stories. It was a decent first attempt and I had some interest from literary agents who liked it but said they couldn’t sell it. (One even asked me to send her anything else I wrote!) A few years ago, and after no takers, I set my novel aside in favor of writing short stories, but I definitely don’t regret the years I spent on it.
Even if nothing ever comes of a novel you write as a beginning writer, I think there are definitely reasons to keep working on it if it really moves you. For a lot of writers, their first novel is often full of their most vocal demons: the pain, heartache, fear, trauma, guilt, regret, anger that drove them to write in the first place–no matter the genre. (Here are some examples, though not all are first novels.) Some writers use short stories to sift through that, but I think a lot of healing happens when you are immersed in writing a novel. It was true for me. Those characters I got to know so well resembled me and endured my traumas. It can be useful, or even necessary, for a writer to dig that far down in order to get out of feeling trapped by a negative experience. Then again, for some people, putting an experience into just the right words (and so very many words, if it is a novel), can be very discouraging. And there are also writers who balk at wanting their novels, first or otherwise, to be associated with autobiography, as Jami Attenberg writes in the NY Times.
Writing a novel first and getting to know your main character that deeply means the trial and error you undergo writing that person teaches you about characterization very thoroughly. Yes, you probably have to scrap a lot, but always coming back to the same person can teach you about what is believable and what works. Of course, for that to happen, you need to be able to have some perspective on your own writing and be able to ‘kill your darlings,’ as they say. That, I think, is the hardest part of revising a novel (or anything creative) and why focusing on short fiction is usually the best path. The less investment you have in something, the easier it is to face that it’s crap (or just doesn’t belong). There are, of course, people who are better novelists than they are short story writers, so to make a very obvious point, everyone needs to figure it out for themselves.
I doubt my own first novel (and only–for now) will ever be published. But I think at some point I’ll write those characters a new story. I loved them so much and they still have plenty to say.