Why You Should be Writing Short Fiction

Update: I'm so pleased this post has had thousands of hits over the last year and is energizing so many writers to take up short fiction. But I fear a number of readers don't read the whole piece and assume I'm telling newbie writers to self-publish their first efforts at story-writing. 

Please don't do this. 

Here's what I say further down in the piece. "I’m NOT advocating that new writers self-publish your fledgling short fiction. A few self-pubbed singles by a brand new writer won’t get anybody’s attention. (And they may embarrass your future self.) To succeed in publishing—whether self- or traditional, you really need to put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours."

Seriously. Reviewers can be brutal. Don't put yourself through that. Learn to write first. It's way harder than it looks. Take classes. Get critiques. Fail miserably and try again. It's what we all do. 

You don't expect to play in a major tournament the first time you pick up a golf club and you don't drive in a NASCAR race the day you get your learner's permit. Give yourself some time to fail in private. Failure is how we learn, but we don't need to do it in the public marketplace. 

What—short stories? Aren’t they just for writing classes? Why would I waste time on stuff that doesn’t pay?

Because it does. And this isn’t an April Fool joke.

Last week Amazon announced it has sold over two million “Singles” ebooks since the launch of their Singles program a little over a year ago. Yeah. 2 MILLION.

The short stories sell for between $. 99 and $1.99 and the authors keep a 70% royalty. Many of the top sellers are by name authors, like Lee Child, Stephen King, and Jodi Picoult, but others are by unknowns, according to Kindle Singles editor David Blum.  (The 70% royalty is only for official Kindle Singles. If you self-pub, anything sold under $2.99 gets a 35% royalty.) 

But this is where you should be doing a happy dance and shouting from the rooftops: THE SHORT STORY IS BACK! This is nothing but good news for authors no matter where you are in your career.

After three or four decades of evaporating markets, the short story has found a new home in the ebook.

OK, we’re not reliving the halcyon days of the mid-20th century when short fiction in weeklies like The Saturday Evening Post paid more than the average book advance does today. But short fiction fits the ADD-attention-span lifestyle of the E-age, and people are willing to pay for it. (Which is yet another reason NOT to give away your fiction on your blog.

I think it’s time for all fiction writers to start re-thinking the short form. Personally, I know I haven’t spent enough time on it. During the decade I spent writing and re-writing my “practice novel” I could have been building an inventory of short pieces that would be a gold mine now.

Unfortunately, most novice writers I know are still doing the same stuff I did. They’re putting all their energy into book-length fiction or memoir and not bothering with short pieces, except maybe for a flash fiction contest or special event.

In fact, I visited a critique group not long ago where one writer complimented another with the misguided advice that he shouldn’t “waste” his crisp little story—he should turn it into a novel.

In other words, she was telling the writer that instead of sending a 10,000 word short story to Amazon to sell for 99 cents, he should spend two years turning it into a 100,000 word novel, which he could sell on Amazon for…um, 99 cents. (OK, not all self-pubbed ebooks are priced that low, but even at $4.99, the bottom line news isn’t good for the author. Especially if he puts money into editing and design.)

Of course, back in the Jurassic days when I started writing, that critiquer’s advice would have been perfectly sound. In the 1990s, most magazines had stopped publishing fiction and short stories had all but disappeared from the publishing world. Mega bookstores were in their heyday: book-length fiction was happening.

So aspiring authors were told to keep our eyes on the big prize and put our energy into churning out novels in the popular genres like chick lit, cozy mysteries, and family sagas.

I’ve amassed quite a collection of half-finished books in those genres—all sadly out of fashion now. But if I had been writing short stories instead, I could be raking in the dough. (Not that any time spent writing is wasted. Everything we write improves our craft.)

But I didn’t feel drawn to writing short stories. I write genre fiction. Back then, short stories were expected to be literary. Yes, there were still some paying gigs for genre stories in super-competitive markets like Women's World, Asimov’s and Ellery Queen.

But mostly we were urged to write enigmatic tales of suburban angst and send them off to collect rejection slips from literary journals with a circulation of 26 and names like Wine-Dark Snowflakes of the Soul, or The Southeastern Idaho Pocatello Community Colleges North Campus Literary Review. All with the hopes we’d finally be rewarded with publication and payment of one free copy.

But ebooks have changed all that. Not just because of Kindle Singles. Short story anthologies are springing up all over. They don’t all pay, but if you can get a story into an anthology with some well-known authors in your genre, you’ll be paid in publicity that would be hard to buy at any price.

I’ve been offered a number of opportunities to publish fiction in anthologies this year that have really paid off. The Saffina Desforges Coffee Collection reached #1 on the anthology bestseller list as soon as it was released last December, and the Indie Chicks Anthology (which sent its profits to charity) has been a steady seller for six months—and now that it’s free it’s topping a whole lot of lists. Plus I look forward to having a story in the rom-com Martini Madness anthology coming next winter with the fabulous ladies from WG2E .  

I’m not advising anybody to ditch that magnum opus—most novel writers get frustrated when forced to write exclusively in the short form. But I’m 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 a few of them a spin in short stories first.

A few months ago on this blog, legendary mystery author Lawrence Block wrote about his success with self-publishing his inventory of short stories, and a few months before, Sci-Fi bestseller Jeff Carlson wrote about his success self-publishing a novella. It shot to number one in SciFi with no help from his agent or Big Six publisher.

But you don’t have to be accepted at Kindle Singles or have a famous name to benefit from publishing short-form ebooks. Consider the following things I heard this week:

1) A bestselling author decided to put some of her old stories on Amazon. As an experiment, she didn’t use her famous name. She told me she made about $500 on them last month. These were works she was told “had absolutely no commercial value.” But she put them out there, “in case someone was interested.” It seems they were—because “in spite of absolutely no promo...people are finding them and buying them.”

2) An indie writer wrote me with this advice: “unless you have a break-out success with a novel, [the short story] is probably more lucrative as a return on time invested. I can make as much per sale on a ten page short story as on a 120,000 word novel.” And I know many indies who use a short piece as a free download to introduce readers to their work.

3) My editor wrote that one of his authors recently self-published a short piece she wrote on a plane and “writing, formatting, cover, etc. took less than a day.” It got 6500 downloads in the first week. 

So the magic formula for writers right now might be “less is more.”

I do want to stress that the above writers are all successful, published novelists with hard-earned expertise in their craft.

So I’m NOT advocating that new writers self-publish your fledgling short fiction. A few self-pubbed singles by a brand new writer won’t get anybody’s attention. (And they may embarrass your future self.)

To succeed in publishing—whether self- or traditional, you really need to put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours.

But you can maximize your efforts by putting more of those hours writing short fiction. When it’s time to make your professional debut, you’re going to have some serious inventory.

If you’re still unconvinced, consider that short fiction is much easier to adapt for the screen than novels. The following films began as short stories: A View to a Kill; The Birds; Breakfast at Tiffany's; Brokeback Mountain; Children of the Corn; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dead; Don Juan DeMarco; Don't Look Now; Double Indemnity. (And that’s just from the A-D list on Wikipedia.)

The best thing is that while you're getting yourself established, you don’t have to keep those stories in a drawer. One of the great things about short fiction is that it’s re-usable. Most zines and journals only ask for first rights (And be very careful with the ones who want more.)

Gone are the days when those obscure college literary journals were the only game in town. New zines are springing up all the time, and there are contests everywhere online—some even have cash prizes. (I suggest subscribing to C. Hope Clark’s newsletter, Funds for Writers for vetted info on contests.)

Contest wins and credits for a few stories published in some good online zines look very nice in a query letter or bio, too.

So forget the so-last-millennium advice to concentrate on novels. Polish those short pieces and prepare yourself for a 21st century audience.

If, like me, you can’t kick your book-writing habit, try writing a short piece about a secondary character in your WIP. It’s a great exercise for exploring your character’s backstory, and once your novel is published, it can benefit you in lots of ways:

Even if you’re unpublished and have a long way to go before you publish your first novel, I suggest taking time to work on some stories and build your inventory. And I recommend you enter a few contests and submit to those zines. You might just win something.

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


What about you, scriveners? Do you write short fiction? Have any of you had success with singles? We’d love to hear about it!

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