Why Short Fiction?: The benefits of the short game to a writing career
Welcome back. This is the third in my weekly series of posts on how to market and sell short fiction. This week, I discuss the benefits of short fiction to a writing career.
Personally, I love short stories, both to read and to write. You may or may not agree. If you’re in the latter group, don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that you write short fiction exclusively. If you’re writing novels now, keep doing so. I’m simply recommending that even novelists should include short fiction in their writing career plan. I’m still following that same advice myself. Although I’m focusing mostly on novels now, I continue to write and publish short stories.
When I started to write with the goal of professional publication, I intentionally started with short stories, for three key reasons: to learn how to write fiction, to find out if I could actually sell without the larger investment of writing a novel, and to build some publishing credentials. Those are still good reasons for newbies, but I’ve found that there are other benefits to short fiction as well. I explain all of these below.
Learn Your Craft
First, writing short stories is an excellent way to learn the craft of fiction, to learn how to use many of the key tools that you will need in your writer’s toolbox, whether you write short stories or novels. A short list of those tools include: handling point of view, story structure, characterization, plot, pacing, scene structure, special scenes (beginnings, flashbacks, endings), dialog, setting description, exposition, information flow, linking symbolism, voice, and genre, not to mention basic sentence structure, paragraphing, punctuation, and syntax.
Yes, if you eventually move to novels, you’ll find still more skills you need to learn, such as more complex plotting, sub-plots, deeper character development, handling a larger cast of characters, bigger ideas, and pacing (again), just to mention a few. But all of the tools that I listed under short fiction will be needed for a novel, so at least you’ll start with some level of proficiency in many of the key skills required for longer work.
Short stories also offer a unique advantage over novels when you’re learning your craft, because…well, because they’re short. They let you experiment with different techniques and approaches from one story to another, practising using a different tool with each story.
Perhaps all your stories so far have used limited third-person point-of-view (POV) in past tense, and you’d like to try writing in first-person, present tense. Or try a story with an unreliable narrator or an unsympathetic main character. Or a story where the POV character is not the main character. Or a story heavy on dialog or setting description. Or you’ve been writing SF, and you’d like to try fantasy or horror or mystery. Or whatever. The point is you can practice and develop more techniques and try more aspects of your writing in twenty 5,000-word short stories than you could in one 100,000-word novel.
Test the Waters
When I started, I had no idea whether I’d ever be able to sell anything that I wrote. So I decided that I’d rather invest the time in writing and trying to sell short stories than in writing and marketing a novel. It just seemed like a smaller hill to climb to find out if I could sell my fiction.
That reasoning will probably appeal to the fearful beginner that I mentioned in last week’s post. It’s amazing what some encouraging rejections on a short story can do to your confidence, not to mention that first sale. Short fiction provides you an opportunity to get feedback on the progress of your craft much earlier than does the novel route.
Build Your Resume
For many years, especially in the SF&F field, the standard advice was that short fiction was the best way to “break in” as a speculative fiction writer and to build a reputation with sales and awards.
It’s no longer the obvious way to start, but the argument still holds a lot of value. Once you can include sales to professional markets (note the emphasis) in your submission cover letters / emails, you’ll at least start to climb out of the slush piles for some of those markets. That doesn’t guarantee any more sales, but at worst, your story will be read faster (I’ll write more on cover letters, slush piles, and the selection process that editors follow in future posts). And a published story in a pro market at least opens the possibility of getting on award ballots and maybe even winning, as well as possibly being selected for any of the several annual “Best of” anthologies.
Generate or Explore Ideas for Novels
On the creative side, short fiction provides the opportunity to generate bigger ideas. You may discover as you write what you thought was a one-off little story that this particular idea is bigger than you originally imagined. Or that you really enjoy these characters or find that they have a larger tale to tell, a tale that requires a novel. Short stories also allow you to explore an idea for a novel that you already have, or to play around in that universe for a bit before you tackle it in longer form.
Build a Backlist
As you continue to write and sell your short fiction, you will be building your backlist: your previously published stories for which you retain the rights or for which the rights have reverted to you (assuming, of course, that you didn’t give those rights away by signing a bad contract).
I’ll be dealing with licensing of rights next week and with short fiction contracts later in this series. For now, just understand that as long as you handle your rights to your fiction correctly, you will have a backlist which you can then “sell” again (you’ll understand the quotes after next week’s post). This includes reprints of your stories, foreign language translations, collections of your short fiction, and independently publishing your backlist. More on all of this in future posts.
Build a Network
As you begin to make contact with editors and as you sell your stories, you will also start to build your network in the writing world. This will take time, but assuming you are not a difficult individual to deal with and meet your deadlines, you will have editors who will ask you to submit to their anthologies or special issues of their magazines, or, as happened to me with a French publisher, propose publishing a translated collection of your work.
Learn the Publishing Business (sort of)
Selling short fiction will also provide you exposure to and experience with one portion of the publishing industry. Now, short story publishing is hugely different from novels, especially in terms of the marketing process, the markets you’ll deal with, and most definitely the legal and contractual complexities.
However, just as there are aspects of the craft of writing short stories that you will be able to use again when writing novels, so are there aspects of publishing short fiction that will help you when you move to novels. These include such things as knowing when your work is ready for market, finding markets, understanding licensing and rights, dealing with rejections, dealing with editors, understanding basic contract terms, dealing with editing and copy-editing requests, and the administration of tracking of submissions, publications, contributor copies, and, of course, getting paid.
Money (sort of)
Professional rates in speculative fiction markets are 5-6 cents a word right now, which means $250-$300 for a typical short story for a first rights sale. You’ll find some markets that pay more, but most will be in that range (actually, most will be much lower than that, but you won’t be submitting to those if you follow the advice I’ll be giving on selecting markets in an upcoming post). So you won’t get rich. However, if you write fast (and well) and in multiple genres, and if you retain and leverage the multiple rights you hold on your stories, you can certainly supplement your income. Just don’t plan to quit your day job. I’ll write more on generating multiple income streams from your fiction in a future post.
So now, I hope you’re convinced that, regardless of the writing career that you’re planning, including short fiction as part of your plan just makes good sense.
Next week, I’ll be dealing with one of the most important topics for a writer to understand. I hope you’ll keep dropping by.
Next week: Why You Never “Sell” a Story: Understanding rights and licensing
As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.