Writing short stories

In the genre world of science fiction and fantasy, new writers used to follow a fairly predictable path to novel publication that went something like this.

  • Get some short stories published in genre magazines
  • Improve writing/stories
  • Build fan base
  • Get nominated for/win awards (optional)
  • Write/publish a novel

This was a formula that worked well for decades, from the 1930s (more or less) until the late 1990s/early 2000s. And please don’t misunderstand, it still works today, though perhaps not quite to the degree it once did. While building up a fan base for your work is always desirable, the continually shrinking marketplace for short stories has made this route to novel publishing increasingly difficult to pursue.

I don’t really write short stories. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that I’m not really a short story writer. My writer brain tends toward longer works. Short stories are not simply short novels — they have an entirely different cadence and rhythm that I appreciate and enjoy, but when it comes to writing them I struggle. I simply don’t have very many ideas that would make good short stories.

I have never had a short story published in a genre magazine (print, online, or anthology). My very first publication happened back in 1994 when I won second place in a short story contest sponsored by the local PBS magazine. I felt great (somebody finally paid for my work!), I won $250 for a 1,500 word story (that was the max allowed by the contest), was interviewed on the air, and got a cool wall plaque.

I’ve written maybe three or four short stories since then, none of which have been published anywhere. Until a few months ago, I hadn’t written a new short story in at least ten years. I do have one story out for consideration right now, a werewolf story that sort of came to me pretty much complete after I read about a call for submissions for an anthology of “urban werewolf” stories, and I’m mulling over a wizard story that if I write I’ll submit to John Joseph Adams’s The Way of the Wizard anthology. But for the most part I’m not even thinking about short fiction. I’m thinking about my next couple of novels.

Another reason I don’t write much short fiction is the pay rates, which have changed little over the past 50 years or so.

Science fiction writer John Scalzi talks about his short story pay rates here. Mostly I’m with Scalzi on this. I don’t (yet) make my living from my writing. I have a full-time day job, a wife, two young boys, a house to upkeep, etc. I don’t have time to write something that’s not going to further my goal of becoming a full-time writer. At a pay rate of (on average) 3-5 cents a word, there’s simply no way to earn enough income to make the time invested worthwhile. I can write very fast, but even so, the time I would need to invest in short stories is time I would rather spend working on my next novel. For me, it boils down to prioritization.

Writer Jim Hines (who does write a lot of short stories) has some thoughts of his own based on Scalzi’s comments. Hop on over and check out what he has to say.

Catherynne Valente disagrees with Scalzi’s assessment, though her reasons, while valid, wouldn’t apply to either Scalzi or myself.

So you will probably never see any kind of meaningful output of short fiction from me. A few here and there, maybe (I really like my werewolf story and if it doesn’t sell — or even if it does — it has some potential as the basis for a novel), but I won’t be cranking them out the way some writers do. I just don’t have that kind of brain.