Hi, all! David here. Today we are fortunate to have A.M. Dellamonica guest posting for us here at Magical Words. Alyx has a new urban fantasy coming out from Tor Books on Tuesday, April 10. The book is called Blue Magic, and it is the sequel to her debut novel, Indigo Springs, which won the 2010 Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. She has published short fiction in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Strange Horizons, TOR.COM and over thirty other magazines and anthologies. (Her most recent short is “Among the Silvering Herd”.) A resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Alyx teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She is also edited by my editor at Tor, which practically makes us siblings. You can find out more about her and her work at her web site, her Livejournal blog, and her Facebook page. Please join me in welcoming Alyx to MW.
That left turn at Albuquerque
It used to be that the career strategy question I got asked most often by new writers was whether they should spend time building a short fiction career, or if they should make straight for The Novel.
It’s a good question, and because one of my UCLA Extension courses is a short speculative fiction workshop, it still comes up a lot. But as publishing options open to writers become ever more numerous, I am finding the ‘how do I get this published?’ questions coming my way are increasingly complicated. Novelists who might previously have only aimed their books at the big publishers are now considering small presses; the question of whether or not to get an agent is starting to have ‘what kind of agent?’ dimensions. People with promising books that have failed to capture the support of one or two agents or editors are questioning whether they should persevere in the traditional market or go indie… in other words, publish themselves.
These questions don’t go away as your career develops. If anything, they become more numerous. The further you get as a writer, the more options you have to weigh. One size fits all really doesn’t work, and the question isn’t really ‘what’s the answer?’ It’s how do you find your right answer?
All of the above is, perhaps, self evident. I hope it is, anyway. The thing I want to focus on right now is that question of choosing the strategy that’s right for you. How do you find it? The answer lies in thinking about more than just the current project and the immediate future. It can be found by remembering that each work of fiction is a choice as well as a source of joy, by weighing the cost and benefit of every choice you make.
Everything has a cost. If you are like most writers, a big part of the hit comes in the form of lost time. Each time we decide to write something, we’re deciding not to write something else. (We’re also deciding to not spend that time sleeping, relaxing, bonding with our loved ones or making money in a more straightforward fashion.)
Take that original question: do I write a novel right away, or spend some time building a track record as a short fiction writer?
Let’s say you go with the short stories, and, since you’re planning for the long-term, you allocate a year of your fiction-writing time (however many hours that is) to the strategy. In 365 days, you’re getting started on a novel. In the meantime, you set a goal: in twelve months, you’ll write ten to twelve short stories, which you will market aggressively.
The benefits of such a strategy are manifold. There are artistic upsides galore: you get to plot a dozen stories, create a dozen worlds, develop a dozen protagonists and explore at least twenty supporting characters. You’re giving yourself an opportunity to try out multiple points of view, do some experimenting with style, and write in a number of genres.
Stories are, as it happens, a workshop-friendly format, because participants have time to read every word. Writing short fiction, therefore, gives you more chances to get good critical feedback on your work and thus improve.
But wait, there’s more! There are emotional payoffs. Ten to twelve chances to create something you love, or are incredibly proud of. To surprise yourself! Even to become horribly frustrated and then experience the stunning cannot bleeping believe it delight when the piece, against all expectations, snaps together and is the best thing you’ve ever written.
Stories offer marketing benefits, too: you can start trying to sell something as soon as that first short is finished. The process of learning to submit fiction begins in one short month. Every one of those dozen pieces that you do sell represents money, visibility, a chance to work with an editor, an opportunity to reach readers and, finally, a credit on your bibliography. Every piece that you never sell (and never’s a long time) represents maybe a month of your writing year’s work. Financially that month is a bust… but this too is a benefit when you compare it to a novel. If you write a book you can’t sell, you’re flushing a year or more. Stories are less of an ‘all your eggs in one basket’ proposition.
Sounds pretty good, right? This is why you see some writers advising you to go this route, to write as many stories as you can, to churn them out and get them to the markets.
But what are the costs?
Writing short stories teaches you a lot about writing, but it doesn’t teach you how to structure, plot or pace a novel. At the end of that hypothetical year, you’ll still need to figure out all sorts of things about novel-writing. There are even a few skills you’ll have to unlearn. What’s more, unless your early sales are to extremely high-paying magazines or anthologies (of which there are a scant handful) they’re not going to add up to what you might get for a novel advance. While agents and book editors are going to look favorably on previous publication credits, short fiction rarely turns you into a household name. Nobody’s going to hand you a contract for a novel based solely on your short fiction creds. You’ll still have to write a book eventually, and writing the stories delays the day when you have a marketable novel in your hands.
Which choice is better? That depends on who you are, what you want to achieve, what you like to write, and what you still need to learn.
How you decide:
What I’ve got above essentially deconstructs the pros and cons of one career decision faced by a lot of writers. The same micro-examination can be applied to all the other big publishing questions–the agent question, the self-publishing issue, the question of whether the second book you write should be the sequel to the fantasy you’re shopping around, or a new first book in a completely different series. But really, so what? You can’t say “Five pros for the short stories, four pros for the novel, guess that big life decision’s made!”
Here’s what you ask yourself next:
What does my gut say? Take a minute to see where your instincts are pulling you.
What do I want most out of writing right now? Which plan serves that?
What do I want out of writing long-term? How does this choice serve the overall goal?
How long am I going to pursue this plan? How am I going to measure success? Are those metrics within my control?
Finally and most importantly, will committing to this path leave me free to write fiction that will enable me to improve my craft, experience creative fulfillment, and, ultimately, be happy?
I cannot guarantee that a clear-eyed look at the pluses and minuses of any given choice will lead to happiness. But if you consciously evaluate, choose, commit and pay attention to the outcome, you may find the peace of mind that comes from knowing what you’re doing, for how long, and why. And that, I hope, will leave you the mental space to write some awesome fiction, at whatever length you prefer.
So, as you’re mulling it over now, which path speaks to you?