July 01, 2003

Advice for the natural novelist

There are several types of writers. There are those that can spit out short stories like breathing. Bang. Bang. Bang. My own natural length seems to be 90,000 words, and for that I'm lucky. Others, 180,000 words comes without effort.

If 90,000 or 180,000 is your natural length, trying to write short stories is insane. Here's some advice to these natural novelist on selling them.

My two cents to the novelist at heart.

One penny: If you write long, don't fight the urge. My best career move was to ignore the "publish three short stories, get an agent, and then write novels" myth. I can write a third of a novel in the time it takes me to write a short story.

Two penny: Don't be afraid to sit on your short stuff.

I realized at one point that since I wanted to write novels, focusing energy on 'mailing out an early short stories again and again until it found an home in an obscure magazine that within four weeks of publication was going to vanish out of the world' was a huge waste. I decided to sit on all my short stuff. Yes, I'd write the short down if inspiration hit me, but I didn't worry about publishing it. I focused on the my novels both in writing them, and in trying to get them published.

What gets you an agent is a great manuscript, not a handful of short stories scattered across several years time.

To give you the best shot at the John Campbell award, you either have to hammer the market with short stories like Charles Finlay (Another of this year's finalist) or come out of the gate with a novel. One or two scattered across the years will put you in the running of my friend Matt Jarpe's place -- not enough shorts sold to be a name, his two years of John Campbell eligilibity used up before his novel is published. Just getting nominated for the John Campbell is a huge promotional boast. It's a list translated into dozens of languages and printed around the world. To get a novel out and then able to ride that wave is great.

As you publish novels, people will start asking you to submit to invitation only anthologies. If its like pulling teeth to do a short story and you've got book contracts and an empty drawer, then you'll probably be better off turning them down. If you have a bunch of good quality short stories that you didn't push until you found a home, you might have something to fit the bill without working.

One of the reasons I say this is because the magazine market is flooded. You might have a great story, but the magazines only have a limited number of slots. Many of these slots go to big name authors whose novels will help sell the magazine. Some of these slots will go to new writers that the editor met at Clarion and helped guide the short story to its best possible form. Some of these slots will go to buddies of the editor. There will so so stories that just hit the editor right. And finally, there's one slot left and zillions to chose from. The editor choses, and back your story comes with an possibly ego-crushing rejection letter when it was all just a lottery of getting into the magazine in the first place.

This is one of those "How do I write? What's the best way to spend my time and protect my ego thing."

If you have novels falling out of you, don't think you need to beat yourself against the short story rock pile. If a short story springs out, grabs you and says "WRITE ME" go ahead, but think about your career as a whole. Certainly if you have a novel at an agent already, having a short story appear in Analog will do wonders all way around. But a short story printed in Aruba's SF Annual after a zillion rejections isn't always the best for your career and mental health.

Posted by wen at July 1, 2003 10:55 AM

Thank you, thank YOU, THANK YOU!

I had always thought my logorrhea was a drawback as the shortest thing I've been able to write so far was 85K words.

You give a tremendous boost and hope to this writer.

Posted by: Walker Bennett at July 1, 2003 12:26 PM