Now what do I do with it? Or Should I drown it in the bathtub? Final installment of short story workshop


So, now you’ve written a short story. What do you do with it?

First of all don’t rewrite it to death. As with diamonds and gems, if you polish it too much, you’ll actually end up with nothing.

My first published short story had eighty rejections before first acceptance, but here’s the thing. Some of them, at least, were not “real” rejections, but because I’d spent the first ten or twenty rejections rewriting it every time it came back.

When it got rejected the 79th time, I re-read it and realized it read… generic. (For lack of a better term.) This is when I realized I’d taken out everything that embarrassed me, which means all the meat in the story. So I went got my first version, corrected the typos, setnn it out. It sold.

What does this mean?

It means don’t over-polish. Because it’s hard to know if you’re over polishing, and because some writers’ groups are a little nuts and will try to get you to “fix every word” when they, themselves have forgotten what it was like to meet this story for the first time, I’m going to give you some arbitrary rules. If it makes you feel better, these are the same arbitrary rules I use:

  • Do three revisions and NO MORE – one for plot/sense/continuity. One for wording/repeated words/ wrong sentences/one for typos.
  • If you show it to your writers’ group, show it only once. After that, they’re never going to see it for the first time. Unless someone hits on something that you realize was bothering you too, OR three people independently agree something specific is wrong, be very careful about taking their opinions/doing revisions. If you take everyone’s opinions, the story will be soup!
  • Send it out/put it up and do not revise it unless someone says the magic words “if you change this, I’ll pay you x”

So, how do you get to the pay off?

Depends on a multitude of things. Sometimes you write something and you just think “this is an Analog” (or Asimov’s or some other magazine) story.

Should you submit to traditional markets?

I don’t know. I’ll confess I rarely do so, but it’s not so much a matter of shunning magazines, as the fact I get invited to enough anthologies that between that and the novels I don’t have much TIME to do short stories on spec.

However, if you’re a relative unknown in the field, selling to the professional magazines can be worth it, because it broadens your audience.

In my time, (sonny) when I was breaking in, I also submitted to semi pro and pays in copies. These days I’m not sure I would suggest that to anyone. Maybe semi-rpo if they pay you up front, but a lot of the semi-pro these days don’t. They just pay a bigger share of the royalty.

When I was brought in to help administer Naked Reader (which is now going to be semi-converted to a different purpose, though we’ll still publish people like Kate Paulk and other friends for as long as they wish us to) the first thing I realized is that short stories almost don’t sell indie, on their own.

If they almost don’t sell, it’s not a good idea for you to divide the scant profits with a publisher.

So, I say send your story out to magazines. If it doesn’t sell, consider taking it indie.

But Sarah, you say, you just said it will make almost no money.

Okay, first of all it’s like buying a lottery ticket. My kid has made about 1k dollars on a short story that was rejected for an anthology. We have no idea WHY that short story. Weirder, most of the sales were in England. We think everyone in England owns a copy by now. (The story is called Bite One and is temporarily unpublished as he changes it over to his own publisher.)

Second, while individual stories don’t usually sell extremely well, it’s yet another opportunity to get your name out there and, in the end, to link all your other stories, therefore pointing them at other work they might like.

Third, while individual short stories don’t do that great, collections do. So write five or ten and package them together for 2.99.

Also, here I’m assuming your short story is 3 to 6 k. If it’s more than that, it might sell pretty well. I’ve had luck with the 10 to 20k word range for 2.99.

If your short short is smaller than that, I suggest something my older son is working on. I have no idea if it works, but he is writing what he calls six packs of about 2k word short stories, to put up for 2.99. I think his will work because they’re funny, quirky and DIFFERENT.

He’s doing it because he can do one of those a week, even while working on other things.

Fourth – consider making your short stories parts of a serialized longer work. Like City, you could cover an entire epoch, and even such things as colonizing the stars, with works of about 6k. Put those up for 1.99, bring them out one a week or so, and then in the end bring out a novel for 5.99. Chances are you’ll sell both the shorts and the novel to the same people who want to have it in a convenient format. And like every writer, the best thing is to be paid for the same words twice.

If none of these operate AND you’re also a novel writer, consider using the shorts, given away for free (maybe even perma free) to hook people into your novel.

Whatever you choose to do, good luck.

Next week we start with the novel workshop.

13 thoughts on “Now what do I do with it? Or Should I drown it in the bathtub? Final installment of short story workshop

  1. One thing I had trouble finding (only because I was looking for it) was a perma-free setting on the KDP dashboard. How is it done? For now, stuff that’s free I put up on my DeviantArt page.

    Currently my Baen Fantasy entry is sitting there, and it’s been read 255 times. But I’ve been working on making it a novel, doing the whole Hero’s Journey thing with Benita and Cisi.

    One thing I’m wrestling a bit with is the Voice. Already the story is unusual for me in that it’s first person, and limited to a single character’s viewpoint, and in past tense. Where I’m running into an issue is “Is it past tense simply as it’s occurring, or is it past tense as if being recounted by Benita many years later.” The former is fairly normal, just a variant on the third person past tense that most stories are written in, but the latter would enable me to write about things that aren’t immediately visible to the characters but become known later.

    The latter would let me pull off something like “Little did I know then that other eyes were watching us as well.” while the former would not.

    1. There is no perma-free setting in KDP; it is achieved by putting the story up for $0.99 on KDP, then free elsewhere (usually through Smashwords), and then waiting for Amazon’s bots to notice and price-match.

      1. With the new KULL program, perma-free can probably be dropped from the marketing tool kit. It can be borrowed for free (to the club members) _and_ the writer gets paid. I think all those “short stories that don’t sell” may be turning into a cash cow.

        1. I think it still has a good and firm place in the marketing toolbox – but like every tool, you have to know what results you want, and select the appropriate tool for the job

          Perma-free works best for organic growth and discovery of a long series across multiple retailers, when the author/publisher has limited time/money/ability to promote.

          So, if you cannot promote your series (too busy at the day job, too risky to be linking your day job name and your pen name, no budget, etc.), it allows you to get readers to try the first one for only the price of their time, and your promotion can either be nothing, or periodic listing in the free ebook mailing lists. (typically done with a novellla or short story prequel.) It also works even when you’ve placed in multiple channels (nook, kobo, itunes, google play, etc) in order to draw the maximum number of readers.

          KULL, by contrast, only works when exclusive to Amazon – so it, too, is a limited tool.

        2. Weirdly they don’t get borrows. Even the novels don’t get many. I still sell way more than I lend.
          I understand my friends in erotica have the reverse experience.

    2. And my apologies for replying twice to the same comment, but as a reader, I find past-tense-being-recounted, other than as a frame story, to be supremely offputting. The reason is – it’s rarely done well, and often done badly. A story is an emotional experience, and having it “retold” instead of “told” leads to a lot of flattening of the emotions, kills the drama, and ruins the pacing when the narrator has to tell about his emotional reactions instead of letting the reader experience their own.

      This isn’t to say you can’t do it, be be aware it come with a risk, and that much more of a hurdle to drawing in some readers.

      1. I guess that’s why third person is more popular, since it allows the author to take a more omnipotent viewpoint. It’s a challenge to write first person in a more complicated story.

      2. Dorothy, not sure what you mean by “past-tense-being-recounted”–does that include the first-person past tense as in “I sprinted for the exit”?

        1. kali, think of the difference between someone telling you a joke, and someone telling you about telling a joke to other people. One is funny, the other is boring while you wait for the speaker to stop laughing and get to the point.

          One says “I sprinted for the door, diving outside only to fetch up in a tangle of limbs against a broad, hard chest. Blinded by sunlight, I tried to dive away, and only succeeded in ending up on my ass in the gravel parking lot to the sound of a shotgun being racked.”

          The other says “I sprinted for the door, and you’ll never believe who I ran into when I came outside. Little did I know Doc had gotten out of the trap and was waiting for me.”

          1. This is why I lament the loss of a genuine narrator’s voice in recent years. It gives a breadth of options and styles that are sadly missing in current years, at least that I have been able to find.

            1. You can find it in indie and people still seem to prefer it. The choice to eliminate it appears to have been not the readers’ but the publishers’.
              My son was reading Citizen of the Galaxy and was suddenly struck by the fact it’s ominiscient narrator. I didn’t believe him, sure it was third person, close in, but he’s right, it is omniscient.

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