It's true that short stories (up to 30K words) and novellas (30k-50K words) dipped in prestige after the demise of the fiction market in mainstream magazines two decades ago, but they have come back—maybe stronger than ever—with the ebook revolution. (Those word counts are from Writer's Digest.
Some people use the term "novelette
" to mean a story in the 10K to 30K range.)
A novella is no longer an unfinished, failed novel that needs "fleshing out." It's a cash cow. Indie authors like Elizabeth Ann West
are building fabulous careers writing novellas that sell for more than most full length novels. For more on the novella, see Paul Alan Fahey's post Why Novellas are Hot and How to Write One.
Paul's step-by-step guide, using screenplay techniques, is pure gold.
With Kindle Unlimited, the books that are the most lucrative are shorter books in a series. Novella writers are cleaning up.
And all shorter fiction is having a renaissance in the digital age. In fact, right now may be the new golden age of the short story.
The New York Times reports
: "Stories are perfect for the digital age...because readers want to connect and want that connection to be intense and to move on. That is, after all, what a short story is all about."
Book marketing guru Penny Sansevieri said in the HuffPo
: "short is the new long. Thanks to consumers who want quick bites of information and things like Kindle Singles, consumers love short."
EBook Bargains UK
reported in April that "Amazon’s Kindle Singles and B&N’s Nook Snaps have already proven the demand for short digital material, and Vintage/Anchor see a lot of potential to engage readers with shorter offerings." Vintage/Anchor books (an division of Penguin-Random) are releasing a vintage short story a day during May.
So it's definitely time for fiction writers to start re-thinking the shorter forms. I wish that during the early part of my career when I was writing and rewriting my "practice novels" I'd been building an inventory of short pieces. They'd be a gold mine now.
1) Novels are so last century.
Most people talk about the novel as if it is somehow superior to other forms of fiction, but it's a relatively new art form. It was perfect for the age of Gutenberg, but it may not dominate the market 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.
It wasn't until the 20th century that the novel finally surpassed the play as the most respected form of fictional artistic expression in English.
And even some of our most revered novels are actually novellas, like A Christmas Carol and The Great Gatsby.
So who knows what will happen in the 21st century? The times they are a-changing, especially in the publishing business. The popularity the novella, short story, short creative essay, and the serial novel is on the upswing.
Just this week, the Washington Post
published a plea to bring back the serialized novel
from Hillary Kelly. Kelly said that while "consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments — whether it’s a “Walking Dead” episode...or a public-radio show", they are moving away from novels, which have become "bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests."
2) Smaller screens and shorter attention spans are changing the way we read.
We're a multi-tasking world. As bestselling short story writer Amber Dermont told the New York Times
: "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."
When the Kindle Singles program launched in 2011, they sold 2 million "singles" ebooks in the first year. And you don't have to be accepted into the highly competitive Kindle Singles program
to publish stand-alone stories as ebooks.
Many indies are doing it too—and agents are assisting their clients in self-publishing shorts that fill the gaps between novels. Fuse Literary has its own imprint "Short Fuse"
that specializes in publishing short pieces for their clients.
The industry has figured out that the e-reader has ushered in a new kind of reading that favors brevity. More on that in my post on the 21st Century Reader
3) Shorter works make great audiobooks.
And they're not such a big financial investment, so customers can pick and choose narrators and authors.
And if you're looking for narrators to share royalties, I can say from experience that most narrators prefer short works. When I put Why Grandma Bought that Car
on Audible asking for narrators, I had 12 actors send me demos within the first two hours.
4) The success of serial fiction like Hugh Howey’s Wool
Indies have been producing serials for some time, and the trads may finally hop on the bandwagon. Hugh Howey made history (and a nice chunk of change) by self-publishing his sci-fi novel Wool
as serial four years ago. It began as a short story, and as he wrote more episodes, he published each one separately. Later he put that first episode—a stand-alone that’s also a teaser—perma-free on Amazon. The fans ate up the succeeding chapters, offered at 99c each.
As a result of his early "snackable content", Howey is now a superstar with a top agent, a Big 5 publisher, and a movie deal.
And it all started with a short story.
I know many writers who are now serializing their work for free on Wattpad
, which is a great place to showcase short fiction and get new fans.
Note: not every author can do what Howey did. I know some writers have had negative feedback when they sold each chapter for 99c, since so many full length books can be bought for that price these days.
So make sure each installment gives value—I'd say at least 10K-20K words, maybe divided into chapter-lets. Some novels lend themselves to serialization and some don't. You want each installment to work as a stand-alone story arc with resolution as well a cliffhanger to keep the reader coming back.
5) Story anthologies are a great way to get your work in front of fans of more established authors in your genre
Short story and personal-essay anthologies are one of the best ways to increase your visibility.
Often these anthologies donate proceeds to charity, so there are no royalties, but don't let that put you off. 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. For more on anthologies check my post on how to tell a good anthology from a scam
Anthologies offer one of the best ways for an unpublished writer to break into the business. Many successful authors I network with were first published by the Literary Lab anthologies
, and the Indie Chicks Anthology
which gave me a leg up when I was re-starting my career.
Another plus for anthologies: some of the biggies, like the Chicken Soup
series, also come out in print and are stocked in bookstores. Those anthologies can get you noticed by the old-school reader, too.
6) Published stories identify you as a professional.
Your website or blog has much more cred if you've got some publications to link to. And agents will be more likely to look at your pages if you've got publishing credits.
Publishing short fiction is still pretty much the only way to a publishing contract if you write literary fiction. I don't know of a lot of successful literary writers who didn't also publish short stories in places like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the Atlantic
But they didn't get 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.
In the old days we often had to pay $25 or more to subscribe to find out what kind of writing 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.
And if you write genre fiction, you don't have to start your career getting endless rejections from the few ultra-competitive print magazines that still buy short stories, like Women's World, Ellery Queen and Asimov's.
Now there are are lots of genre story online zines. Here's a link to a great list of genre story markets
put together by Romance author Cathleen Ross. Writer's Digest
has contests exclusively for genre fiction.
7) Indie films are often adaptations of short fiction.
The holy grail of the writing world is to get a film deal. But did you know that short 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 lifeblood 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
all began as short stories—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.
8) 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 in the marketplace 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.
And the advent of Kindle Unlimited presents even more incentive to write shorter works. An ebook in the KU program gets a flat-fee payment per title—no matter how long it is. So a 150K-word novel receives the same payment as a 15K novelette. Breaking your book down into serial ebooks makes a lot of sense in that market.
9) Contests raise your profile and can win big bucks
Winning a story contest is a great way to promote yourself as a writer and create visibility for your books. Win a well-known contest and you can crow about it in social media and send press releases to the local newspapers to get some ink in your own hometown.
Story and creative short nonfiction contests are easy to discover and enter in the era of the Interwebz. Hope C. Clark's Funds for Writers
, Poets and Writers
, and the website Winning Writers
are good sources for vetted contests.
And, ahem, we always list a few good ones in the "opportunity alerts" in these posts.
Entering short story contests is also 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.
Some of those prizes are bigger than the advances publishers offer on novels these days.
Plus some of the biggest prizes in literature are still for short fiction, like the Pushcart and the O. Henry award. And the venerable "Best of…" anthologies give huge prestige to those included.
10) 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.
Fuse Literary Agency even has their own self-publishing arm for publishing short work by their clients and other agented authors. It's called Short Fuse.
(Note, if your publisher has a non-compete clause, you won't be allowed to do this. Another reason to have a legal professional look over your contract before you sign.)
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.
11) Short stories make money and hold their value
In terms of labor, a short story provides a better bottom line 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. Also, as I said in #9, contest prizes for short fiction can be substantial
I have stories that have been published and republished up to six times in litzines and anthologies. And I can always self-publish them again in a collection sometime down the road.
And as I said above, Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited program is perfect for short stories and novellas. Because you get paid the same for a borrow of a book that's 12 pages or 120,000, writing shorter books is much more lucrative. (As I mentioned above, do write in the over-10,000 word range, though, or you'll get some cranky reviews. You might want to collect your previously published stories into short collections like my Why Grandma Bought that Car.
My Facebook friend Joyce Anne Laird
writes mini-mysteries for Women's World Magazine
—they're about to publish her 9th. They pay very well and only buy North American Serial Rights for six months. After that, a writer can sell the story again, or box it up in a self-published anthology. (Joyce does caution that you should buy a copy of the magazine to get up to date guidelines, and query via snail mail. They are old-school and very competitive.)
12) Writing short keeps your writing skills honed.
Writing poetry and short stories keeps your writing from getting flabby and verbose. You can't spend three pages describing the wallpaper in short fiction. You have to learn to sketch with a few broad strokes.
In these days when readers demand "just the good parts" writing, learning to write short can help no matter what your genre.
13) May is Short Story Month
Inspired by April's National Poetry Month
, a group of writers supported by the StoryADay
writing challenge deemed May to be International Short Story Month. Some people are going all out and writing a story a day. But you don't have to do a NaNo-style marathon to enjoy the festivities.
You can just read a story a day at the Short Story Month
I'm offering my own story anthology free for three days in honor of Short Story Month. (See below.)
- Make the perfect intro to a new author's work
- Are a great way for readers to get a top-up from their favorite authors between novels,
- Are a perfect impulse purchase on a phone or e-reader.
So isn't this the perfect time to write one?
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 when I wrote them regularly.
I admit I've always preferred reading and writing longer fiction. Most writers do gravitate to one form or the other. I know my ideas generally spool out in about 70K-80K words. Shorter is harder for me.
The reverse is true for other writers. 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 Hardwick 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, we need to work on fiction in a variety of lengths. I'm aiming to write some shorter work after I launch the next Camilla mystery.
I don't encourage newbie writers to self-publish your very first efforts at story-writing. To succeed in publishing—whether indie 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.
For tips on how to write a short story, check out Jessica Strawser's post at the Writer's Digest blog.
And next week, we'll have a post from Dr. John Yeoman of the Writer's Village, where he's been teaching writing and judging writing contests for many years. He's going to tell us what to avoid when entering short story contests...and how to be a winner!
What about you, scriveners? Did you get out of the habit of writing short fiction the way I did? Have you written any lately? Have short stories helped your career?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
3 Days only! May 3-5
"Anne R. Allen’s book of short stories explores womanhood in all seasons. I’ve read this book twice and get something new to appreciate each time. It is the kind of book one returns to periodically, just to revisit characters and stories like old friends that help clarify ages and stages of life and the changing world. Her poems are timely, tying stories together with theme, grace, and humor."
...Mary J. Caffrey
a short book of short stories
Humorous portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty, Valley-Girl version of Madam Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back. Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car…
Narrated by C.S. Perryess and Claire Vogel
MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST Entry fees: $12
Young Author or $22 Adult.
7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015
Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10.
Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015
Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE
Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.
PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE.
Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.
Ink & Insights 2015
is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes
. Deadline May 31.
WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique.
The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words. First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.
WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS SHORT STORY CONTEST NO FEE!
Open to emerging diverse writers from all diverse backgrounds (including, but not limited to, LGBT, people of color, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities) who have not been published in BOOK format in any genre. The winner receives US $1,000 and publication in the "Stories For All Of Us" anthology to be published by Random House. Opens April 27--Deadline May 8.
The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.