Or . . . whether short stories.
It is a legitimate question, I think.
Before I start, fair warning – this is one of the “lost” posts from when SU switched to its current location. According to my records, it’s not up on the archive for my old posts. So if you missed it the first time, or forgot about it, here it is again.
Also, at the time, the collection I’m talking about was about to come out from Necro Publications. Now that’s out of print, and the collection is now available as an ebook from Crossroad Press, so the topic of short stories and their challenges and rewards is relevant, at least to me, once more.
I’ve spent a great deal of my creative time writing short stories. I have more collections published than novels. The shorts come and go, buried in magazines, anthologies, or fluttering through the electronic aether. A few get mentioned in reviews or make someone’s notable list. Sometimes they take on a mini-life of their own through reprint sales, or flare momentarily in a reader’s awareness through a collection’s more substantial format. Maybe they make (very little) money.
Outside of academic circles, where being published is not necessarily about money but about keeping your day job, very few people talk/blog/twitter/message board about their favorite short stories, or which ones they’ve read lately, or debate top ten or twenty stories of all time. The major publishers say collections don’t sell. Most readers I run into want ask about the “next novel,” or say point blank they’re not into shorts.
On the plus side, there are opportunities for certain kinds of shorts geared for the new media – gaming, serial twitter novels, you tube video clips and such. Some writers – at the master level, of course – are on the automatic invite/buy lists for anthologies, or can score the few big markets left, or even attract enough of a following to develop subscription lists for their work.
But in my perception of reality, the vast majority of stories and their authors, and certainly my own work, is not destined for shots at riches or glory through movie options or awards. The audience and the markets aren’t there, or they aren’t there for the kinds of stories I and perhaps you may like to write. Certainly the market for mediocre short stories is long gone. There is no vast publishing engine searching to fill pulp pages with lurid prose.
So why bother? Is focusing on short forms self-destructive? Is it a sign of disability?
Sometimes. Not every writer is drawn to or as effective in long form. Some don’t have the patience, time, or whatever else it takes to contain a big and complicated piece in the imagination for a long time. Of course, some of them also spend a long time on a short piece, and wind up winning awards and creating seminal work. But how many of us are Ellison?
But the short form is also an outlet for the restless imagination. Done well (with a handle on structure and language), a writer can explore any number of styles, characters, themes, without getting bored or bogged down. The short stuff allows for experimentation. You can stretch a particular muscle of craft or subject without the threat of getting distracted by the bigger problems of a novel.
If you’re writing the same thing over and over again in short form, you’re wasting your time. At least with novels, repetition can be rewarded by a loyal audience and a grateful publisher. Repetition with short stories just bores the few paying editors out there who’ve read everything.
In this day, of course, there is the problem of markets. But the sad fact is that if you’re good, you’ll get the markets that are left. There are simply less markets available for “the rest of us.” The standards are higher, the competition fiercer, the “inner circles” tighter.
Who even reads? Well, there are still readers lurking about. Mostly female, by some stats. But there’s a lot of competition coming from all the other sources of entertainment. Not as many books are devoured by the light of day and the flicker of a candle. And readers seem more particular than ever, I believe. They seem to be more focused on specific tropes and genres – romance, zombies, puzzle-box mysteries, whatever.
Who even writes (I mean, for real)?
Don’t get me started.
Lurching back from the brink of despair, the answer to the question, why bother writing short stories? is simple. If they matter to you, you’ll write them. If they don’t, you won’t.
So, obviously, shorts matter to me. That’s why I have more collections than novels.
After the creative thrill is gone, a check or two is cashed, a pleasant thing is said and forgotten somewhere in the context of More Important Work by Better Writers, the question becomes, Why bother with a collection?
Part of the reason, at least for me, is the romance of nostalgia. I grew up in the era of cheap paperbacks (and magazines, and comics, etc). My friends and I would go to a particular candy store on Broadway off of Steinway Street in Astoria, where they also sold craft materials (?!) and, in the back room, boxes and boxes of recent comics and 50’s and 60’s paperbacks.
I can smell the old paper now.
So, yeah, we read all kinds of stuff from Doc Savage to Arthur C. Clarke to John MacDonald. Collections weren’t publishing pariahs back then. Harlan Ellison had a million of them. I’m looking up at an old copy of Vermillion Sands by J.G. Ballard faced out on my shelf right now. College editions of Kafka are up there, too. More recent compilations of Dick, Sturgeon, Hemingway, Bowles.
Collections told a story, about the writer, sometimes about a continuing character (yeah, I was a Doyle fan, too). For me, they captured the mood or emotion for a period of time in the writer’s life and the age in which they wrote.
So, when I put together a bunch of stories, I look for the thread that hangs them together – an emotion, an aspect of myself I find reflected in stories, a theme, whatever.
But I’m also looking for a variety, in terms of characters, structure, style.
Commonalities, and differences. Odd perspectives on the familiar.
The current project started out as a series of stories I wanted to write about a character I’ve spent probably too much time on – a supernatural assassin on an arc of self-discovery. Since the work I’d produced had originally been conceived of as yet another series of stories (are we sensing a pattern?) that grew into a novel-in-stories and two full-fledged novels, I wanted to go back in the character’s personal history and “play” with his strengths and “foibles.” While only touching on that self-discovery arc, I wanted to see him challenged in ways I couldn’t explore while involved in the original arc.
I outlined a kind of “labors of Hercules” for a demon-possessed killer in a “civilized” world and wound up with a bunch of stories and a novella in different styles and settings, getting to see my guy struggle with the fantastic and the mundane in his efforts to survive. I had fun.
I also had no hope of publishing this stuff.
Fortunately, I had other stories, already published, a few to (very) small notice, and I could see connections to the assassin material. Killers have fascinated my since I turned to the “dark side” in the 80’s, partly because of the nature of my “day” work, the neighborhoods I found myself in, people I knew. Human monsters, even those touched by the supernatural, were always scarier to me than “critters.” More real. That interest showed in stories I’d been writing since the late 80’s.
The only thing scarier than other people, at least for me, is the vastness of the unknown, the fragility of “reality,” the chilling, surreal nature of the “other” we can’t even imagine.
But those are themes for another collection. Maybe the next one.
One of the stories I lingered over, A Blood of Killers, was always one of my favorites, and I’d used its central conceit in a couple of the assassin stories already, so the connections to the overall book grew tighter until it became the project’s title. The stories ranged back quite some time in my life. I could mine different stages of my life for material.
I liked the idea of a collection of stories about a group of killers. For readers who liked the character, there was certainly a book’s worth of brand new material for them. And for those who never heard of him, or maybe didn’t like the character, there was a book’s worth of material dealing with the same issues, but from the point of view of very different, more vulnerable characters.
One always hopes for the best. What will be will be.
The project, and the market, has forced me to reconsider my love-affair with short stories. The real world has challenged me with lifestyle changes.
Perhaps it’s time to stop flying from flower to flower. Maybe I’ve experimented enough, and can put what I’ve learned to good use elsewhere. There are other markets to consider. Even other media.
My points in this latest bit of rambling are:
– use short stories to push your craft and explore new ideas
– make your stories count, make them the best they can be, because they remain your property (in most cases – watch those rights on epublisher contracts) and you can sell them again, fold them into longer projects, gather them into collections to further your career
– as with any artistic endeavor, be prepared to have your heart broken
– don’t look for money or much career boost in short stories – everyone’s waiting for the novel
Update - Here’s another view from around the time I wrote this, with some happier numbers on some “literary” collections and certainly relevant advice:
And here’s one more in line with my thinking of the continuing uncertainty of markets and the possible hope in ebooks and ereaders:
Both have interesting links on short stories in the electronic age, including an observation that individual short stories can outsell collections of short stories. Certainly there are more options and freedom in the ebook world, but like the Wild West, fewer roads than even the current print world to financial success.
And, of course, DNW’s column on digital publishing at the Crossroad Press site is another source to check in on, especially given his hands-on experience.
More than ever, we live in interesting times.