and other reasons to write more short fiction.

The news is out. Oprah’s new book pick is—gulp—A short story collection. According to most agents, story collections are a tough sell (along with chick lit and memoirs) but maybe that’s about to change.

In any case, it’s time for us all to start re-thinking short fiction. I’m beginning to realize I’ve wasted way too much of the past 20 years writing book length-fiction. If I’d been writing more short stories and creative essays, I might have higher profile now, and maybe even a solid career, instead of two out-of-print novels and a drawer full of yellowing manuscripts.

People will tell you there’s no money in short fiction. But—newsflash!—there’s precious little in novel writing either, unless you’re one of a handful of superstars, and/or you’ve been anointed by Ms. Winfrey. Not only has the probability of an unknown writer landing a major book contract sunk below the chances of winning the Big Spin—but even if you score in the publishing lottery, there’s little payoff. A first novel/memoir generally brings in around $5,000 in an advance, and no royalties, according to industry blogger The Rejector (great publishing blog: http://rejecter.blogspot.com )

And yet, most novice writers are working on book length fiction or memoir. I recently visited a critique group where one writer complimented another with the misguided advice not to “waste” her crisp little story on a niche magazine and save it for a novel.

Back in the Jurassic days when I started writing, that wouldn’t have been bad advice. In the 1980s, short fiction had all but disappeared, but novels still flew off the shelves. If aspiring writers were urged to pen short stories, it was only as a warm-up for the serious business of writing books—like piano students practicing scales before the big recital.

So, with my eyes on the big prize, I spent a decade slaving on novels in all the once-popular genres: cozies, historical romances, family sagas—but when I finally got a novel published, it wasn’t between book covers—it was as a serial in a local entertainment weekly. I did the math recently, and the net profit from that serial, paid in regular monthly paychecks, with no agent commission, was higher than from either of my books.

This should have taught me something. Especially about the public’s changing reading habits. Attention spans get shorter and shorter. Committing to a whole novel is a major investment for most readers, not just of money but time. And time is what nobody’s got. We’re all here on the ’Net, reading blogs.

And what about the writer’s time? Since most first (and maybe second and third) novels never see print, that’s a lot of hours/months/years spent filling a file cabinet with moldering treeware.

However, even a newbie has a chance of getting a short piece published somewhere, especially online. You might even get paid.

“But I don’t read short stories!” you say. Me neither. At least I didn’t. I love immersing myself in a big, yummy novel. But I’m reading stories again—making a point of reading new online journals. Ten years ago, I would have had to invest big a chunk of change in subscriptions to literary journals to get a cross-section of the current story market, but these days, great short fiction is available all over the ’Net for free.

I’m not advising anybody to ditch that magnum opus—just saying it makes sense to put an equal amount of energy into shorter pieces. Instead of putting every idea that illuminates your brain into your novel, give it a spin as a short story first. (It helps to remember short stories are much better suited to screen adaptation than novels—and movies are where the actual money is.)

Then go to work researching journals—online and off—that publish pieces like yours. WritersMarket http://www.writersmarket.com/ has a comprehensive database. I got an update from them recently with news of four literary magazines that pay up to $40 a page—more than double the Rejector’s figure for a 300 page novel. My favorite source for paying market info is the tireless Hope C. Clark at Funds for Writers http://www.fundsforwriters.com/ . Her great newsletters are free. (Hope—thanks for all your fantastic advice!) Another great free source for worldwide markets is at Freelance Writing Organization-International http://www.fwointl.com .

Plus, short stories keep their value. Most journals only buy first rights, so you can publish them again. If, like me, you can’t kick your book-writing habit, try writing a series of short stories about characters you can work into a novel later. Polish up a few, send them off, enter a few contests, and you might even end up with some cash.

And “award-winning writer” has a nicer sound than “unpublished novelist,” doesn’t it?