As Misha Burnett and others have noted many times over, short fiction is a threatened market. Hopeful writers generally pass over it trying to write the Great American Novel, the next Epic Fantasy, or the future Space Odyssey/Opera. While this is an understandable move, it is not an entirely commendable one.
Although it has never paid well for most, creating short stories aided a large number of authors in making a name for themselves in the wider publishing world. Several renowned writers started out fashioning brief pieces for magazines in order to learn their craft. In the process of doing this, they earned credit by having stories professionally published. Once they had come to know these authors in this medium, readers were more likely to pick up the full-length novels written by the same artists when they saw their books on shelves.
Contrary to popular understanding, this method of gaining an audience remains effective to the present day. Orson Scott Card’s famous Ender’s Game began life as a short story, and Dean Koontz still creates short pieces along with his best-selling supernatural thrillers. A number of other authors sell novelettes around the world in conjunction with – or as a prelude to – publishing a novel. Though not thriving in the strict sense it once did, the short fiction market is not yet dead. It needs to be invigorated, especially in the SF/F branches, but it has yet to expire.
Of course, one must wonder why so many authors, especially those who are well known and who have many novels to their credit, engage in crafting stories of minimal length. One may also justly question the necessity for entering contests or anthologies. Why should aspiring authors start in the short story market? What gain is there to be had in this practice? And if a writer has attained popularity, fortune, and a publisher, then why should he continue to work in an area most associate with beginners?
There are several important reasons why writers breaking into the world of fiction ought to start with short stories. One of the clearest motives for a beginner to write short fiction is to build up their credentials. For aspiring writers, building up a body of published works is imperative. If an author has no previous publishing recommendations, then publications are far less likely to accept the writer’s novel(s) because no one knows who they are. The beginning author who eschews this path also enters the field without proving he can hold his own amidst many competing voices, something his appearance in a magazine or anthology would mitigate, if not outright erase.
Book publishers and agents usually accept a work at face value for one of three reasons. The first is that either the writer or his family has connections in the publishing business. A second option comes into play when a famous person wishes to have a book printed. If the man or woman in question is a celebrity, musician, politician, what-have-you, he or she will be familiar to the public and well-connected to various important personages. Many buy novels, memoirs, devotionals, etc. written by people who have achieved some kind of celebrity status, so there is a stable market for publishers to work in. Therefore, accepting and publishing a book written by someone in this category is usually a safe business bet.
The only other way for an unconnected beginner to be accepted at face value is through sheer luck or Providence. Although it is becoming more difficult these days, there are still people who write a fantastic first draft and send it in to the right agent/publisher at the proper time. Such writers rarely, if ever, have any other pieces to their credit before their manuscript lands in the right mailbox, whereupon it makes their dreams come true. While we all wish we could be like them, the truth is that if most authors want that type of success, we have to work for it – sometimes for years.
Creating and selling short stories is a good way to prove to potential publishers and/or agents that an aspiring writer is a marketable asset. If these minor manuscripts are good enough to be published in magazines and collections, then a novel the author has written is likely to balance the costs of publishing and distributing it. And if the aspiring novelist has a website as well, then he obviously has an audience the publisher can reach by printing and marketing his work.
Lest it seem that I am leaving them out, it is doubly important for aspiring independent authors to submit to contests, magazines, and anthologies as well. “Indies” are their own publisher; they must market themselves, and they must do so widely in order to gain an audience to sustain them in their careers. Winning a competition or selling a short story to a popular magazine/anthology is a good way to find more readers. It will also help raise the writer’s profile in the professional world, allowing him to make helpful connections with other creators and experts in the field.
Although the above statements may seem heartless and calculating to some, they are not particularly callous. In school it is not unusual for children to form clubs or groups where they can pursue the same interest with others. While publishing is a cutthroat business, in some ways it is no different than a giant club. In order to engage in a passion they each love, writers and publishers found various groups to share and support one another in practicing the same craft. On the micro and macro levels, when the world of publishing operates at its best, it works off of this premise of cooperation.
Of course, when one uses short fiction to builds up his qualifications, this means he will eventually have to list his achievements on his resume or author bio. A regular biography attached to a website is helpful in that it allows readers to gain insight into the writer is as a person. But a description that includes a mention of one’s awards or published work serves to tell readers and fellow authors alike that they are dealing with someone who knows the business of storytelling well enough to succeed.
It should also be said that putting these items in one’s bio also allows readers to find previous works that have already been accepted and released. If someone enjoys the articles you have on your site or which you have published through a different venue, they will naturally look to see what else you have written. This means they will appreciate finding a concise list of your achievements that gives them more items to look into in the hope of finding something else to enjoy.
Simultaneously, as noted above, this type of list makes you more attractive to potential publishers. It will also lead to more opportunities and revenue for both the author and the publishers he works with. The publisher of a magazine receives more money when readers purchase back issues to find a story by the author they have come to trust, which in turn provides the magazine owners with more capital that they can use to buy stories from the writer their audience wishes to follow.
Those who release short story collections benefit in like manner, since they provide the writer with royalties as well as recognition. This encourages the author in his endeavors, be they short or novel-length. It also strengthens the bond between the storyteller and his audience because it provides him with the most obvious source of feedback. Reviews are not always forthcoming, especially in one’s early days. When an author’s royalty payments pick up or magazines accept his work more readily, he knows he has a winning formula because his work has made an impression on readers. Thus he will make an effort to maintain the qualities that brought readers to him in the first place.
Third, writing short stories for competitions and anthologies teaches an author how to meet a deadline. Writers who work for a newspaper or magazine usually have this edge already, but even they can benefit in this area. It is one thing to write a fifteen hundred word essay on a time limit, after all, and quite another to write a tale with the same – or greater – word length before the cut-off date arrives. The skill one has for the former type of writing can translate to the latter but not in every case. Writing fact is fundamentally different from weaving fiction, as anyone who has struggled in creative writing courses at school knows well.
Even for Indies, practicing to meet a closing date is vitally important. If an independent author utilizes Patreon or a crowdfunding platform in order to gain capital to turn his manuscript into an appealing book, he has promised his audience that the novel will be complete by a specific date. If he fails to meet that goal, unless he has a very good reason for the delay, he will have insulted his patrons and demonstrated that he cares more for himself than for them. Since no one enjoys being treated so cheaply, those who supported him will leave at a rapid rate.
Writing short stories quickly will also translate to writing novels rapidly. This is where the term “pulp speed” comes in. Both independent authors and those who write short stories fairly regularly learn how to produce quality content fast by meeting deadlines. Once you can write and edit a short story within the space of a few days, weeks, or months (each one depends on your schedule and writing habits), creating something bigger becomes easier. That does not mean you will produce three to four books a year, but it might enable you to produce two every six months, as Jules Verne did.
Not only will completing and submitting a story before a clearly marked deadline help improve an author’s speed, skill, and creativity; it will allow him to improve his craft at the same time it pushes him out of his comfort zone. Although none of us like to stretch past our preferred storytelling forte (especially when we are doing it for the first time), doing so is imperative for our continued growth as authors. Without the impetus to try something new, to look for new opportunities and attractive challenges, we would quickly stagnate.
When authors push themselves to new horizons, they can only do so much and move forward for so long. Eventually, they need outside stimuli to expand their knowledge and scope, to try new things and see new possibilities. Writing for competitions and anthologies gives them that opportunity by providing themes or specific ideas to jog them into action. By avoiding these options for expansion, authors cut off a viable regimen that gives them a method to strengthen their crafting skills.
Furthermore, any opportunity to be published is usually a good business move. Even when the writer wishes to maintain a certain standard – e.g., he will only write for paying markets, enter contests with a cash prize, or which reach a wide readership – creating stories which will be read by people who normally would not encounter the author is almost always a method of enhancing or building up commercial success. The more places an author appears, the more readers he gains, whether they be casual or devoted followers.
Anthologies are usually the area of publication most associated with this, but there are contests which will publish a winner’s work as well. The Writers of the Future Contest is one example, as those who win first place are published in an anthology produced by the competition. The winner does not receive a cash prize alone; he also receives publication, recognition, and the attention of industry officials.
Contests and anthologies are helpful for authors in another way. This is the most unpleasant part of the writing process. No one likes to talk about it, of course, because it can be painful even after an author has achieved publication. But the fact is that rejection can sometimes be as good as, if not better than, a letter of acceptance.
There are several reasons why this is true. First, even when an editor turns down a manuscript, if the writing and/or story are of good quality he will remember the author. So when the same writer sends in a new story, the editor will recognize him/her and study the tale with more care. He will be looking to see if the storyteller he recalls has grown since the previous submission. If so, then he will note this even if he refuses to purchase the new story. This process will repeat itself until the author reaches a level that satisfies the editor, whereupon he may accept the piece sent to him.
Rejection also gives a writer the feedback necessary to improve a given work. Although some publications do not explain why a piece was rejected, others do. Still others will respond if a writer respectfully asks what made them turn down a story that seemed tailor-made to fit within their publication or competition. This gives the writer a better idea of how to appeal to that market in the future. Furthermore, it helps him recognize where he may need to improve the rejected tale if it is not accepted by a different publisher.
Third, rejection teaches a writer how to deal with failure. While a failure to publish is not as grave as the inability to find/maintain a regular job, it is a lesson in dealing with disappointment. Not every story will be a hit, nor will every attempt to “break in to” the world of writing. Rejection reminds the beginning author that he is human. It also teaches him persistence, tenacity, and perspicacity; one rejection is not the end of the world. Nor does it necessarily mean the story is bad or of poor quality. Sometimes, a rejection slip means the writer has yet to find the publisher who wants his work.
Writing short stories also allows the starting novelist to practice his craft. The difference between a book and a short tale is length and length alone. Everything from flash fiction to a novelette requires the same basic elements as a 100,000 word novel: it needs a plot, engaging characters, a well-built world, and a strong knowledge of the writer’s native language. An author who lacks the ability to present these things in a short format is unlikely to manage them well in a longer manuscript.
As for maintaining the habit of short story writing after one has “broken in to” the publishing world, one of the main reasons to do so is the sense of satisfaction creating short pieces provides. It can take months for a complete, edited manuscript to be released, and writing the sequel or a new novel after finishing a different one can be tiring. Moreover, some stories do not fit in the format of a novel. Turning these ideas into novelettes offers an author a creative outlet as well as a means of fulfilling the urge to put his work on display for others to enjoy.
Finally, writers have to realize that avoiding the short story market means they are missing a chance to entertain someone. Not everyone likes novels – or, if they do, there are times they cannot read them. Some may not feel capable of delving into a book, be it long or short. Other readers cannot spare time or money for anything but a magazine and, occasionally, a collection based on a genre or theme they enjoy.
By entering the short story market, writers put themselves in the unique position of diverting a reader’s attention for a brief period of time. That may not seem like much, but even a short escape from bills, health issues, or job worries can have quite an effect on those who read a short story. A person dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts may be too distressed to read a novel, yet find escape from their predicament within the mind of a short story protagonist. The latter is easy to find, can be met with facility, and stand as a guard over the reader with as much strength as a character from a book does.
If you have not written a short story for a competition or a publication, now might be a good time to look into this aspect of the craft, future writers. It is fun, challenging, and satisfying for both the author and his audience. Keeping one foot in the market even after you reach other goals in your publishing plans is a wise step that will have far-reaching remunerations for years to come.
So go on and write a novelette, a short story, or a piece of flash fiction. Have some fun with an idea that is too small for its’ own book. I look forward to reading your short stories in the future. 😉
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have appeared in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. Order them today!