The Long on the Short

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Before I get started, I want to thank all the folks at Magical Words for the warm welcome.  Thanks.  I also want to let you all know that I’m at Philcon right now and have limited/no computer access, so my responses to any comments might not come until Monday.  Sorry about that, but I will respond.  Now on to business:

Writing short stories can be every bit as artistically rewarding and frustrating as writing novels.  To do them well often takes a large commitment of time and energy, when it’s finished it never comes out as good as what was in your head, and then you get to face lots of rejections.  What a wonderful business we’re in!

Short stories are a great place for beginners and seasoned pros to explore what you can do with your writing.  It’s a place to experiment, to learn, and to develop or hone your personal style.  It’s a great form to tell a compact story without forcibly padding the tale to make it fit a longer form.  It can teach you not to waste words, to understand why three adjectives is two too many, and it can be a way to build name recognition and even a small following.  Oh, and did I mention that many editors do take note of what is being published in the genre magazines?  Did I also mention that if you win an award for a short story (a Hugo or Nebula would be nice) that just might, you know, help you get an agent?  Not a guarantee but think of it this way — when an agent or publisher sees you’ve had several short stories published in decent venues with good responses, you have become a tested material.  You’ve proven that you can write something people enjoy.  Whether you can translate that into a novel-length work will remain to be seen, but in some cases, it’ll get you a reading of your ms that otherwise would have been rejected.  All good things towards a longer career.  Also in the good news category, there are tons and tons of outlets to place your work.  Check out ralan and duotrope.  These sites are excellent, up-to-date sources for anthologies, magazines, and e-zines in genre publishing.

What short stories can’t do — make you rich.  Or, for that matter, make you much money at all.  The short story market is not a place for lucrative financial fulfillment.  There are a few venues — Playboy use to pay around five thousand dollars for a short (if your name was Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, etc) — but for us mere mortals, you’ll be lucky to get five cents a word with a cap at two hundred or so dollars.  When I’m paid for a story, I get to take my wife out for a fancy dinner and, perhaps, a movie.

But the point with short stories isn’t the money.  It’s simply a unique form of storytelling that, for some of us, demands to be written.  Some writers hate the form.  Some love it but can’t write it to save their lives.  And some can turn it into a wonder.

Finally, anyone who has been involved in publishing novels in anyway for even a short period of time learns fast that publishing is slow.  Sometimes very slow.  Glacial might be too rapid a word.  Well, the world of short stories can be just as slow.  I’ve had short stories sitting with magazine editors for over a year.  Of course, when I do hear, if the answer is “Yes, we’ll buy it,” then I forgive them.  If the answer begins with “Alas…” I grumble and curse and send it back out.

And then there are the truly slow moments, the moments that shine a light of perspective on this crazy business.  I found out a few weeks back that my story “Mrs. Donovan” had finally made it to print in the anthology Under the Rose. It came out in October.  Nobody told me.  I just stumbled upon it while having a little ego time googling my name.  Hopefully, I’ll get my contributor’s copy within a year (did I mention this is a slow   business?).  What makes this tale so odd is that I sold this story in 2004.  That’s right.  Five years ago.  And since short story authors generally don’t get paid until the story is actually published, I’m hoping a check will come along soon.  Probably around the same time the contributor’s copy comes.  Now, in full disclosure, the editor had told me of various production problems and offered me an out back in 2005, but the story was a hard sell (it’s a bit too R-rated for most magazines), I liked the editor (still do), and I figured the anthology might take another year (okay, I was off on this one).  I let him keep the story, and I forgot about it.  So, sometimes, the monumental slowness of this business can deal you a little surprise — as in Surprise, you got published this year!

What does this mean for all of us?  It means that when you send that story, query, partial, full, or completed work, don’t go marking days on the calendar.  Get moving on the next thing.  If you’re lucky, you’ll hear back in a reasonable amount of time.  If not, who knows?  But don’t bet all your heart on hearing back in a week or a month.  I know that’s hard.  You’ve slaved over this work for so long, and you just want a crumb of feedback from somebody with an unbiased, professional opinion.  Unfortunately, if it’s a rejection, chances are you’ll get no such crumb.  The best thing to remember is that you are a writer.  Your job is to produce stories.  So forget about that work you put your heart and soul into.  It’s out there.  It’s speaking for you.  Now, you need to get moving on the next story burning in your brain.

And maybe you’ll hear back in one to five years!

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11 comments to The Long on the Short

  • April W

    Hi Stuart, thanks for this post. By the way, your short at weird tales was the funniest thing I’ve read all year. Keep up the good work.

  • Stuart, very good post! And I am delighted to have you contributing to the site. Most wannabe-published-writers have no idea that it takes so long to get a book (story) sold and into print. While the 5 year story is an extream time frame, it doesn’t fall *that* far out of the normal bell-curve of pub times.

    My AKA wrote Delayed Diagnosis in 1997, my agent started marketing it in 98 and it was pub’ed in 2001, after 2 years with MIRA Books. Two very long years.

    Writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, though I am still hoping. Just like I keep hoping that a money tree will sprout in my back yard…
    Again, glad to have you here even if you don’t see this till Monday.

  • Looks like I got free WiFi in the hotel! So, I’ll be able to check in!
    April — Thanks. It’s amazing what a little one hundred word piece can do. I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses to that Weird Tales bit, and it was one of those rare, magic times when the whole thing just came out of me in about fifteen minutes. Now, if only I could harness that power…..hmmmmmmmm…..

    Faith — Whenever somebody mentions a money tree, I think of Douglas Adams writing in Restaurant at the End of the Universe about the people who adopt the leaf as their means of currency so that money did grow on trees. Anyway, you are not alone in the book world. Many authors I know have had books sitting at the publishers for years. The weird thing is, even though we know that’s the situation, we can’t seem to get our brains to chill out. When I send a story out, part of me will still want to start checking the mail or e-mail for a response within a week. Even with editors I know who will take a month or two. Even as I start working on the next piece. There must be something at the genetic level that causes us to react this way. The writer-insanity gene.

  • Sarah

    Thank you, Stuart for the laugh and a healthy reminder of how this industry works, as well as why we write anyway.

    Last year a student came into my office and said “I really need to pick up some quick cash, so I was thinking I’d write some short stories. Which magazines do you think I should send my stuff to?” or words to that effect. It was only by the grace of God that I didn’t laugh him out of the office. I tried to explain the realities of submitting gently, so as not to crush his dreams, but without hiding the truth either. He looked like a kid whose teddy bear had been stolen.

    I felt the same way when I first read the Writer’s Market in high school. I let discouragement and fear of rejection slow me down and be my excuse for not working at my writing for way too long. Now I’m in my thirties and my only regret is that I didn’t put my head down and work harder, sooner. Toby Bucknell, quoting Bradbury I think, said at a con that you can’t control whether or not you get published. But you can control whether or not you write and submit, so collect those rejection slips like they were prizes. They’re proof that you are writing.

  • Well said, Sarah. Along that same line, Heinlein wrote his 5 steps to guarantee publishing success. Step 1 — You have to write. Step 2 — You have to submit. Those two steps eliminate almost 75% of the competition.

  • Stuart! Great to see you here! Hope you’re having fun at PhilCon. Be sure to talk up MW!

    This is a terrific post. As you know, I’m a big fan of using short fiction to support longer projects — exploring characters, worldbuilding, etc. But I also have to say that the best short fiction I’ve written is the stuff that has nothing to do with anything else I’m working on, the stuff that comes out of a sudden flash of inspiration. I’m convinced that writing a successful short story is just about the hardest thing a writer can do — it certainly is for me – and I have enormous respect and admiration for your many short fiction credits. This is great advice, and I look forward to all that you’ll bring to MW in future posts.

  • Good to have a fellow newbie aboard, Stuart, esp. soemone who can talk authoratively about short fiction about which I know nothing :) Seriously. I’m one of those who like to read it but couldn’t produce a coherent narrative in under 75,000 words if my life depended on it. Enjoy the con.

  • David and AJ — I just had an interesting conversation with some authors about this. Several of them expressed similar points as you both. You are not alone. I think for those who find the idea of writing 4,000 words more daunting than 100,000 words, it helps to think of it as writing a chapter that doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It’s a complete thought in itself that won’t reveal everything about a character, but rather will focus on one or two specific parts and that’s it. Too often writers (myself included) attempt too much in such a short space. The result is often muddled. Focusing on the small can help a lot, if you’re so inclined to attempt short fiction.

  • Thanks a lot. Was sick this weekend and could barely concentrate on reading the article, let alone comment on it.

    I do appreciate the insight as well as the links. This was very helpful.

  • Beatriz

    Thanks for singing the praises of the short story, Stuart. I love picking up an anthology and searching for the buried treasure I know lies within.

  • Axisor and Beatriz — glad you enjoyed the post. I’ll be writing more about short stories along the way, so stay tuned!