A day short and a dollar late
Image by 7854 on Pixabay
The short story, once the absolute heart of the sf writer’s career has long since dwindled off to become so irrelevant that many a successful author never writes one, and certainly many (me included) never sold one prior to selling a novel.
There is very little money in shorts these days, and the ‘great’ magazines of yesteryear are bare shadows of their former selves, selling less copies than many a noob on his first book. A lot of them exist either through inertia, or the generosity of charity.
There is a massive disconnect in the minds of many writers, particularly new ones, who STILL try and enter the field via the short story. The odds remain 10 times harder than that of selling a traditional novel, with, at least 10 times (if not far more) people attempting this route.
It does occasionally work, but it’s a very hard path, and not one that necessarily leads to success as a novelist. (Once upon a time it meant you were known by a far larger audience – 150 000 perhaps before your book hit the shelf. Now that could be 5000 to a few hundred).
Shorts – to the uninitiated noob, have the incredible charm of this one characteristic: They’re short. You don’t have months or years of writing to get one done. They’re not as complicated to write (at least that is perception), and the reward is faster…
The curious thing – if you talk to many a would-be shorts writer – is that very few of them READ shorts. That’s actually the overall problem: very few people read short fiction, let alone the people who think they’ll write it. Short fiction and public taste have diverged. There are a lot of possible reason for this situation, ranging from changing work patterns to changes in buying demographic (used to be a mainstay, I believe, of men, with a large component in the engineering and military fields. Popular with blue-collar workers, particularly those who were middle or upper level artisan, who perhaps had ambitions or hopes of more from the future. Somewhere sf/fantasy diverged from them or they diverged from it, but it isn’t much read in those circles any more. Short fiction suited their lives and work, back then. My mother came to discover sf from pulps left behind by American servicemen working on the Naval gun emplacement she manned, back WW2.
I grew up on pulp short sf – magazines from the 40-60’s. And then didn’t see any for about 20 years, until I decided to try writing it in the early 90’s. I bought a selection of the descendant of the magazines of my youth. It had changed, and I hadn’t. I found a lot of sf novels had the same problem, but it was at that time less extreme. I think it has been trying to catch up. Now, you may argue the audience has changed, but that’s an argument that only holds if the sales continue as robust per capita.
Anyway, whether the market had left the audience or the audience left the market is a matter of debate. Just it’s not really the ‘route’ to a publishing career it once was.
It’s a shame in my opinion, because shorts were a remarkable training ground – just as I feel poetry is – at the art of carrying a complex story, setting and character in a very restricted word-count.
It meant words actually HAD to count – which meant a novel by a skilled short-story writer was likely to be a lot more complex in those aspects for same length as the work of a novelist who didn’t have that background. There’s a down too, of course. Shorts masters tended to be (not inevitably) the writers of shorter novels, which some perceived as not worth as much, and of course some publishers pushed for fatter books (as I have explained the goat-gagger came not so much out of demand, as a way of justifying price increases. The reader got the impression they getting more and that the author was getting more, the paper cost more, and thus the price increase was appropriate and OK. Of course the paper was always a very minor part of the cost, the author had to write more for the same (small) percentage – which often as not added up to a pay-cut per word.
Still, the short story endures. Its value and uses have changed. It’s used as ‘status symbol’ among the virtue signalers in some circles, usually in publications which have limited readership, but that matter to them. They give each other awards, play politics and are to field what bits of grit are to the working cogs of sf – hopefully irrelevant. Compared to the stories of yesteryear, the two have very little in common, and often as not, very little story per se.
The second, common use is as a teaser or ‘gift’ for fans of well-known series and authors on mailing-lists, and to gin up sales of a future book, or as spin-offs from a popular book or series. This doesn’t make the kind of money that novels do, but can be worthwhile both as promo, and from the writing point of view.
You see, a good short story not only tells a story it, by virtue of its shortness has to carry a world – or a view into a world or a frame that the reader builds a world in, in very few words.
When it is done well the reader has a taste of whole new universe – one they may wish to stay in. There are some short stories that are complete in themselves, the reader gained great satisfaction, but it is now ‘closed’. THE COLD EQUATIONS or A BOY AND HIS DOG spring to my mind. Others – James White’s COUNTERCHARM — got me to aggressively pursue his ‘Sector General’ books, because the story was good, but the conceptual setting and characters were something I really wanted more of.
Now what got me to think about this today, and how it relates to us as writers derives from this. Dave Pascoe’s wife commented on a piece of a short he showed some of us, that every short he tried to write turned into a novel.
I resemble that remark. So did Sir Terry Pratchett (although any other resemblances probably go no further ‘have beard’. The whole Diskworld series started as a short story). You see it’s not only readers who get a window into a whole new fascinating world – that goes to a whole new level IF the author is doing a good job of it. If you’re doing a rubbish job and the world is poorly imagined and constructed, with characters as puppet-props… even if it had no story either, but is line to win one of the circle-jerk prizes, I can see that would not be a story seed… but for the rest of us: how can it not be?
I have written a couple of short stories that I felt, fascinating or not, they were complete in themselves. But most of the time… well my mind is skipping and leaping through this new world or new branch I have just started exploring. TOM came out of one. I have plans to write novels on CRAWLSPACE, LUCKY NUMBER 7 (the picture is a link) and a good few others, to say nothing of finishing up the BOLG stories, combining them into a Novel
It’s a great reason to write shorts. Perhaps a short can produce a dollar later.
And the tide changes with reader tastes – or perhaps how we appeal to them. You couldn’t sell Novellas once. Now as e-books, they sell well.