Thing is, if you’re like me, you left short fiction behind when you decided to become a professional writer. I thought little stories were for college class work and creative writing exercises. When I wanted to write fiction professionally, I "graduated" to novels. I figured short stories were only for obscure literary journals that paid in copies.
Even back then, in the days of shrinking short fiction markets, I would have been better off if I’d spent more time on the short form. At the end of 10 years, instead of having an unpublishable 1000,000 word novel I’d rewritten 25 times, (yeah—I don't recommend it.) I would have had files full of short fiction and creative essays that could be making money for me now.
Plus, like any other skill, your ability to create short fiction will atrophy if you don’t use it. I find it a lot harder to write a short story now than I did 15 years ago when I wrote them regularly. It’s hard building up those writing muscles again.
I realize that most writers gravitate to one form or the other. I know my ideas generally spool out in about 80,000 words. Shorter is harder for me.
The reverse is true, too. Some great short story writers have a hard time writing good novels. One of our greatest short story writers, Katherine Anne Porter, only wrote one novel, Ship of Fools, which was more like a tapestry of many short stories woven together without a compelling story arc. Critic Elizabeth Harwick said it was " too static" in spite of "the flawless execution of the single scenes."
There's nothing wrong with preferring one form over the other. But these days, it will pay off to work on fiction in a variety of lengths. Right now, I'm experimenting with my first novella. Novellas, once taboo in traditional publishing, are soaring in popularity in the e-age.
It’s funny that most people think of the big novel as the most legitimate type of fiction, since it’s a relatively new form of storytelling. It was perfect for the age of Gutenberg, but perhaps novels won’t maintain such cultural importance in the digital age.
Cervantes is generally credited with inventing the novel with the 1605 publication of Don Quixote, but the form didn’t make it into English until a century later—and for a long time it had to masquerade as “history” as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe did in 1719. Non-factual narratives were considered frivolous and time-wasting even into the Victorian era. In the 20th century, the novel finally surpassed the play as the most revered form of fictional artistic expression in English.
But who knows what will happen in the 21st century?
Kaufman said “2013 has yielded an unusually rich crop of short-story collections, including George Saunders’s Tenth of September which arrived in January with a media splash normally reserved for Hollywood movies."
She also referenced the phenomenal success of the "Kindle Singles" program on Amazon. Indie and trad-pubbed authors alike have had great success self-publishing short stories and essays as ebooks at the online retail sites.
But note: I don't encourage newbie writers to self-publish your very first efforts at story-writing
. To succeed in publishing—whether self- or traditional—you need to put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours
. But you can maximize your efforts by spending more of those hours writing short fiction and creative nonfiction shorts.
When it's time to make your professional debut, you’re going to have some serious inventory. Short pieces are “practice writing” that will hold their value much better than all those-half finished novels languishing in our files. They can allow you to experiment with new genres and play with new ideas while expanding your fan base. Joanna Penn wrote a great post recently at The Creative Penn on the benefits of writing short fiction
And remember almost all successful authors published short stories before they put out a novel.
Here are ten things that have changed the way we look at short fiction:
1) “Singles” ebooks and other original shorts
By the first decade of the 21st century, short stories had pretty much vanished from any but a handful of mainstream magazines. But it looks as if readers missed them. “Kindle Singles
” ebooks launched in 2011 and sold 2 million in the first year.
The short stories in the “Kindle Singles” program 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
. They take both fiction and nonfiction. (The term "short story" usually means fiction, but it can also mean creative nonfiction shorts.)
But you don't have to be accepted into the highly competitive Singles program to self-publish short works successfully. Your royalty will be less than with the official Singles program (If you're not with the KS program, anything sold under $2.99 gets a 35% royalty) but it's probably going to be better than getting paid with a copy of the Northern South Dakota East Campus Community College Review
Just let people know it's not a novel, and make it at least 10 pages. Any less and a reader feels cheated. Try a collection of five or six if they're ultra-shorts. Or you can make the short perma-free as a teaser for your longer works.
And now exclusive short fiction in showing up in other places. In fact, the airline Qantas is now becoming a publisher, offering fiction works by Aussie authors
that are just the right length for a particular flight. The shorter the flight, the shorter the story. I hope this heralds many creative new story venues to come. All lengths of fiction and memoir are finding a market.
2) Smaller screens and shorter attention spans.
We're a multi-tasking world.
As bestselling short story writer Amber Dermont told the NYT: “The single-serving quality of a short narrative is the perfect art form for the digital age…Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screens.”
And Cal Morgan of Harper Perennial said: “It is the culmination of a trend we have seen building for five years…The Internet has made people a lot more open to reading story forms that are different from the novel, and you see a generation of writers very engaged in experimentation.”
Recently I've been approached by a number of websites that cater to moms, babysitters and nannies that provide links to short fiction, like this piece by Olivia Lewis at the Nanny Network News.
It's the perfect thing for a nanny taking a kid to the park or a busy mom waiting to pick up a kid at school.
The successes of titles like George Saunders’ means that collections are no longer the unwanted stepchild—even in the traditional publishing world (although you’ll still find it hard to get an agent interested in a collection unless you’ve had them published first in the big-name literary venues. Agents tend to follow trends, not create them.)
3) The success of serial fiction like Hugh Howey’s Wool
Hugh Howey made history (and a nice chunk of change) by self-publishing his sci-fi novel Wool
as a series of shorts—like the Saturday matinee cliff-hanger short films of the early 20th century. He put his first episode—a stand-alone that’s also a teaser—perma-free on Amazon, and the fans ate up the succeeding chapters, offered at 99c each.
Now Amazon has a Kindle Serials
program like the Kindle Singles. It's highly selective, but I've heard it pays off very well for authors who are accepted. There's an art to writing serial episodes. They need to have the same kind of story arc as a short story, with a cliff-hanger instead of resolution at the end.
4) E-Book Anthologies
Short story anthologies are one of the best ways to increase your visibility. They're inexpensive to put together as ebooks. They usually don’t pay, and often donate proceeds to a charity. 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. All those authors' fans will be exposed to your work.
Being in an anthology also gives an unpublished writer some great cred as a professional. Many successful authors I network with were first published by the Literary Lab anthologies
Another plus for anthologies: Some of the biggies, like the Chicken Soup series, also come out in print and are stocked in bookstores. It’s a great way to get noticed by the old-school reader, too.
5) Online literary journals and showcase sites
One of the important steps on the road to a big publishing contract has always been to place stories in respected literary journals. In fact it’s still pretty much the only way to a publishing contract if you write literary fiction. (Can you name any big name literary writers who haven’t first appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review or at least McSweeneys?)
But nobody ever got the first story they wrote published by The New Yorker. First they had to place dozens in small literary journals—those tiny labors of love that used to cost a ton to produce and often had under a hundred subscribers. Often you had to pay $25 or more to subscribe to find out what kind of things they wanted and get the info on how to submit to them.
But these days, most literary journals are available online. They have larger readerships and you don’t have to pay a fortune to read them or find out what the editors are looking for. Online literary journals like Compose (info below) can be a great stepping stone to success in publishing literary fiction.
And if you write genre fiction, you don't have to start your career getting endless rejections from the ultra competitive print magazines that still buy short stories, like Women's World, Ellery Queen and Asimov's
Now there are showcases for short fiction springing up where you can get critique and start getting fans. Readwave
is a story sharing-site that looks like a promising venue for the new writer.
6) Indie films
Stories are easier to adapt for the screen than full-length novels. Cheaper too. They tend to have fewer crowd scenes and more small interior settings. Cost matters in the growing indie film world. Just as indies are revolutionizing the publishing industry, they are also the life-blood of the film industry. While the big studios concentrate on huge comic book spectacles and remakes of old TV shows, the more emotionally rich, award-winning films are coming from small-budget indies.
Some of our most enduring films have come from short stories. Classic films like The Birds; Breakfast at Tiffany's; Don't Look Now; Double Indemnity, Flowers for Algernon—and I’d need a whole post to list the stories of Stephen King and Philip K. Dick that have been made into great films. More recent Oscar contenders like Brokeback Mountain and the Squid and the Whale were originally short stories.
7) Online retail sites favor authors with more titles
The more titles you have in an online bookstore, the more visible you are. You can write and publish a lot of shorter titles and have a bigger presence on Amazon than with one long book. Most writers can’t turn out more than two or three books a year, but they can turn out a lot of short stories and novellas.
Contests are easy to discover and enter in the era of the Interwebz. Hope C. Clark's Funds for Writers
and the website Winning Writers
are good sources for vetted and free contests.
Entering short story contests is an excellent way to get your career started. A big win for one of your pieces looks great in a query or a bio. Plus you might even win a money prize. A lot of those prizes are bigger than the advances publishers offer on novels these days.
But you do have to be wary.
There are a lot of bogus contests out there. Here's a great article by Hope C. Clark at Writer Beware to help you spot the red flags of bogus writing contests.
9) Shorts keep your fans interested between novel releases
Forward-looking agents are now encouraging their authors to self-publish shorts
to fill in the gaps between novels. They especially like shorts that are about characters in your novels. They keep your fans interested while they’re waiting for the next book. (Note, if your publisher has a non-compete clause, you won't be allowed to do this. Another reason the non-compete clause is a bad thing for writers.)
Consider writing a couple of shorts about your main characters while you're working on the novel. It may get you through a tricky spot in the big work as well as giving you a saleable product for later down the road.
10) Short stories make money and hold their value
In terms of labor, a short story can make more money for you than a novel. Not only does it take less time to write and often sells for the same price as a novel in an ebook, but it can be re-purposed many times.
Kaufman reminds us that "all but one of the tales in Mr. Saunders’s Tenth of December
had been published earlier, many in The New Yorker
, but that does not appear to have hurt sales."
The 21st century may become the era of the short story, so it's worth it to work on your short-form muscles. And hey, you might even end up with your story on your very own stamp, like this Irish Teenager.
How about you, scriveners? Do you favor one form of fiction over another? Have you been taking advantage of the new popularity of short stories? Do you find it hard to get back into the short form after writing novels? What about the new popularity of novellas? Have you written one yet?
BOOK DEALS OF THE WEEK
But if you still like reading novels,
I happen to have one going FREE
this week. NO PLACE LIKE HOME is
a mystery with a lot of laughs in spite of the serious theme. Usually $4.99. It's book #4 of the Camilla mysteries, but can be enjoyed as a stand-alone.
"A warp-speed, lighthearted comedy mystery, No Place Like Home
offers lasting laughs beneath which a message resounds – Being homeless is scary. Bookstore manager Camilla and home fashion maven Doria have been, distantly and very recently, wealthy. But each suddenly finds herself scrambling nightly for a safe place to sleep, with chaotic and often interesting results."–Abigail Padgett
And if you're a fan of romantic comedy, there's a cornucopia of 99-cent deals for your Summer Beach reading from the Official Chick Lit Group, including my rom-com mystery, THE GATSBY GAME, still 99c until the end of the month.
It's at Barnes and Noble, too.
OPPORTUNITY ALERTS FOR SHORT STORY WRITERS
1) The Saturday
Second Annual Great American Fiction Contest—yes,
THAT Saturday Evening Post—is holding a short fiction contest. Could
you join the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; Kurt Vonnegut,
Jr.; Ray Bradbury; Louis L’Amour; Sinclair Lewis; Jack London; and Edgar Allan
Poe? $10 entry fee Deadline July 1, 2013
2) COMPOSE Literary Journal debuts next month with
their debut issue. Submissions
are open for their Fall 2013 issue.
This prestigious journal was
founded by Suzannah Windsor, of Write it Sideways, and she's put together an
amazing editorial staff. I'm so honored to have my poem "No One Will Ever
Love Him" included in the debut issue. They are looking for art and
photography as well as poems, literary short fiction, novel excerpts and
essays. Must not be previously published (that includes anything that has
appeared on your blog.)
A showcase for short stories: ReadWave is a community of readers and writers who love to discover and share new stories from contemporary writers. Readers can access thousands of stories and read them for free on mobile or desktop—and writers can use ReadWave to build up a fanbase and market their stories online. ReadWave has created a new reading widget, that allows bloggers and website owners to embed stories online in a compact form. The ReadWave widget is the first reading widget to allow readers to "follow" the writer. When a reader follows a writer they are added to the writer’s fanbase and can receive updates on all of the writer’s future stories. ReadWave puts writers in touch with the readers that are right for them.
4) SMOKE AND MIRRORS podcasts
. Get your short story recorded FREE for an online podcast! Fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS
. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.
5) MIDLIFE COLLAGE
is looking for short-short creative nonfiction stories from people at midlife. They offer cash prizes and there's no fee to enter. Submission guidelines here.
6) New Literary Journal, The Puffin Review
is looking for submissions of short fiction, (up to 3000 words) poetry and essays. They welcome new writers.
7) The Huffington Post's Huffpo50 is now publishing short fiction!
The rules: You must be 50 or older to enter. Writers can submit only one story per year, and all pieces must be 5,000 words or less. Send your original submissions, as well as your contact details, to email@example.com. If you want to know what they're looking for, check out this great story by Judy Croome
, a long-time follower of this blog.