Special Guest: A.M. Dellamonica


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?


16 comments to Special Guest: A.M. Dellamonica

  • Welcome, Alyx! Great to see you here!

    My gut tells me that I need to finish this latest round of edits on the novel and send it out before I can evaluate things properly. Right now I don’t think it would be wise to stop what I’m doing and worry if I’m making the right choice, but it *would* be wise to buckle down, focus, and complete what I’m working on first. Thank you for this post. It reaffirms where my priorities should be right now.

  • I agree with Laura. I’m focusing on what I’ve got for now, which is two novels and a couple short stories. I know I’ll learn something with every project, and since I’m pretty dead set on what I want (which is to be published traditionally), I’m focusing mostly on the novels. It’s the form I prefer. But David convinced me that there was merit in writing short stories, so I’ve been taking his advice and working on them. It is helping me learn to frame my chapters better, which is pretty nice. 🙂

  • Thank you, Alyx, for your post. I enjoyed it immensely, particularly since you and I seem to have similar decision-making processes.

    I went through a pro and con list when I first decided to write. To my practical side, short fiction writing made perfect sense, for some of the reasons you listed (though your list is way more inclusive).

    But the fact remained that I didn’t read much short fiction and I felt drawn to write a novel, so that is the direction I chose and where I plan to stay.

    For all those other questions of agents, publishers, etc., I’m taking the time now, while revising, to pay attention and just absorb the changes in the industry. Hopefully, when I’m done, I’ll have a better understanding and feel and can make the decision that’s right for me.

  • Myself, I don’t think it’s an all one way or all the other approach. I figure I can spend time today working on a novel, tomorrow working on a short story, and the day after switching back to the novel. (Or, actually, this tends to work in longer time spans… a month on the novel, a month on a short story, then back to the novel, etc.) At my writing speed, I figure I can do a novel in 2 to 4 years (which is a pretty long time span, but I’m being conservative with the very small amount of data I have). Taking a few months off here or there to focus on a short won’t significnatly impact that. So in a year I might do 1 or 2 or maybe 3 shorts.

    This approach doesn’t have all of the benefits of going the short-story focus path, but it doesn’t have all the drawbacks either. Creatively, it feels right for me.

  • The short story I started writing is now 75,000 words. The novel came out without much stress about what path I needed to choose, so I’m polishing it up for the next stage. My spare time is limited, so it’s a lot more productive to write rather than worry about what path I should take. I’ll shop for agents for a while, but I’m not restricting myself to that route. If another option comes along that is enticing, I’ll be open fore it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    For me, the question is very much one of scope. I don’t finish short projects, no matter the goal or the medium, and especially not if I’m trying to learn something at the same time. But, now that the first book in my story is almost done, I have an idea for a series of short stories set in the same world that I think could be interesting, and, if I pursue that project, it will give me the opportunity to learn short form within a project scope that will actually motivate me.
    Thank you for joining us and for a thought-provoking post.

  • alyxdellamonica

    Hi, folks–thank you so much for having me here!

    A lot of you are in a place where you want to follow your writing instincts–a particular passion for a particular story–and that is an absolutely great thing to do. The kind of strategic thinking I’m describing is probably best applied when you feel as though you *do* have the option. You could write some stories, or a book, and either would make you feel happy and creatively fulfilled. I see a fair number of people in that space in my UCLA courses.

    When you have the time to do both, as Stephen does, do both! (I love it when I can do this, as I have for the past year.) Or when you need a long project, as Hepseba does, waiting on a series idea is supersmart.

    I’m pleased to have started up such a rich discussion!

  • Razziecat

    I’m conflicted. I think I need to finish my novel, because I’m learning a lot about the process, especially about working from an outline vs. figuring it out as I go along. I need to get this done before I can move on, because every time I stop to work on something else, it puts me behind on the novel, and the other project doesn’t get the focus it deserves. I do enjoy writing short stories, though, so if I get a very compelling idea for one, I will probably take a break from the novel to write the short story. Maybe what I need is a set time frame like you get in NaNoWriMo. I was never so focused on writing as I was for those 30 days!

  • alyxdellamonica

    Absolutely, Razziecat–set a deadline for the novel draft, and promise yourself a short story as a reward!!

  • Your comment about indie/ self publishing is interesting. As a reader I am finding that, contrary to popular belief, there are many good indie books available. I am wondering whether it will free things up for readers too. Readers have always been subject to the restrictions of traditional publishing houses who have shaped the market to some degree – deciding what readers may have access to. Times are changing and readers now have more choice.

    As far as the short story dilemma goes, as a writer I like to write what I read, and I rarely read short fiction. Is that bad? I love reading novels! So I write novels rather than short stories.

  • Hi Alyx! Thanks for being our guest today! You can’t hear it over the internet, but I promise I’m squeeing like a tiny fangirl right now. I read Indigo Springs last summer, and it was marvelous. I can’t wait for Blue Magic!!

    As for the answer to your question, I started on the short story route. I managed to sell a few stories to small press magazines that paid in copies or meager amounts of cash, but the experience was good for me. Along the way I met Faith Hunter, who twisted my arm…uh, I mean encouraged me to try my hand at novels, which is where my path took a right turn. I still love working on short stories; I have a secret short story project in the works right now. I’m still working on two novels at the same time, one that I have to finish and one that I really really want to work on instead. Every time I finish a chapter on the one I should be writing, I let myself write on the other one for a day or two. It’s a little weird to think of writing as being the reward for writing, but there it is! 😀

  • JJerome

    “What does my gut say?” My gut says one more beer. Somebody tell me to stop listening to it.

    So today, a writer faces a shopping mall of choices, any if which may lead to sucess. Question for the blogists out there – will publishers give your novel a second look if your shorts have been published? If so, that seems like a viable strategy. But ultimately, it all goes down to fulfillment. I enthusiastically agree with David. Do what makes you happy. Me? Novels…and beer.

  • […] Magical Words (A.M. Dellamonica) on That left turn at Albuquerque. […]

  • A track record in short fiction tells novel publishers you can write, can work with editors, and have some understanding of how contracts work. But it doesn’t tell them you can write a novel… you still have to have something to show them. And, of course, lots of people sell their first book without ever having written a short story.

  • sagablessed

    Welcome Alyx!! This is a marvellous place to be, and glad you could make it! Kinnda late here, but what does my gut tell me? It says tell the story as best you can, and even if it isn’t published, be proud of it. As to novel vs short story: novel for now. I have a story arc I am working on, and maybe after that, I will try short stories. But for now novels it is.

  • Heh. Well… I wouldn’t characterize myself as “having time to do both”, really. It’s kind of the opposite. I’m so short on time to write, and such a slow writer besides, that my time horizon for completing a novel has gone so far out into the future that taking time out to work on a short story here or there won’t significantly impact that time horizon or my long-range planning. What’s 46 months to finish the novel versus 42? Anything past 24 months into the future, for me, basicaly qualifies as “Some day I hope to finish the novel I’ve been working on”: i.e. a platitude. It’s a platitude I’m actively working on (which maybe qualifies it as not just a platitude but a mid-range goal), but it’s still so far out that I can’t really lay claim to it, yet.