In praise of the short story
Why do its writers persist? One practitioner pays tribute to its wild creative freedom and the natural high of nailing its concentrated effect
Published: May 19, 2010
|Here’s a way to pass the time. Quiz your nonwriter friends with a single question: “Read any good short stories lately?” The answer will likely be “No,” except for the occasional reader of The New Yorker or perhaps a fan of science fiction or mystery who still reads the re-maining magazines in those genres.|
Most literary journals have circulations in the lower four digits and more submitters than subscribers. Nor do most pay in anything but contributor copies, but if you happen to place your story with an online magazine you’ll get as many copies as you like (as long as the printer toner holds out).
Long gone are the days when The Saturday Evening Post was on 6 million coffee tables and promised stories by everyone from William Faulkner to Ray Bradbury, and that era will never return. So then, why write short stories? There are several reasons that keep me toiling away in the comma mines, and maybe they’ll inspire you, too.
Freedom! Sweet, sweet freedom! The very anti-commercial status of short stories is a large part of what makes writing them worthwhile. The past few decades have seen a tightening in the New York publishing scene—and even within the small and university presses—when it comes to book-length fiction. A work that falls “between genres” or is shorter than 60,000 words (or longer than 150,000) will get little traction with agents and editors. Any novel that is structurally unusual or lacks Hollywood-ready protagonists is a hard sell, both to publishers and the public. Authors increasingly need a “platform” to win attention for their novels, whether it is a blog, a past as a trauma survivor, or a telegenic cutie-pie face.
Individual short stories can be utterly wild and experimental, and authors need not become the literary equivalent of used-car salesmen to publish them. A single short story won’t ruin sales for an issue of a magazine or journal, so editors can err on the side of quality rather than safety. Literary journals cover a wide aesthetic spectrum: from contemporary realism to obscure experimentation, from microfiction to novelettes.
Even the commercial magazines take chances—the days of pulp hacks writing strictly to formula are long gone. In a recent issue of Woman’s World, for example, Christine Pedersen published a romance story told from the point of view of a 1956 Ford Thunderbird. You just can’t do that in romance novels.
With short fiction, you get to write (and publish) what you want. If edits need to be made, an editor will make them, not a corporate accountant, salesperson or publicist.
Quick money! This reason to write short fiction may seem a bit counter-intuitive. Many literary journals pay in nothing but contributor copies and prestige. The commercial-fiction magazines pay around a nickel a word, whereas for short nonfiction, payments of 25 cents to $1 a word aren’t unreasonable.|
And then there’s the competition. It’s not unusual for a new writer to collect hundreds of rejections, and to finally give up on a dozen or more stories, before finally getting published. But there is money to be made in short fiction, and, compared to writing novels, the money can come quickly. We’re talking fast money, not good money.
In commercial fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, there’s a fairly large number of magazines and anthologies that pay anywhere from 5 to 10 cents a word for short stories and novellas. A 5,000-word story written over a weekend can earn its author $250. To the right market, a 1,000-word story can be sold for $1,000. (And that’s Woman’s World, not Esquire.) Horror, mystery/crime and even romance have a number of paying markets for short work as well, and acceptances (or rejections) come after weeks or months.
That novel-advance payment can be a year away, and that’s even after signing the contract. Short-fiction checks can come in time for Christmas ... if you spend Labor Day weekend writing.
And while literary journals don’t always pay for short fiction, plenty do. Not only do the commercial slicks (The New Yorker, Playboy) pay extremely well, there are venerable journals such as The Paris Review and Glimmer Train Stories that pay hundreds of dollars. Less remunerative, but still worth paying attention to when it comes to earning money with short fiction, are avant-garde journals such as Black Warrior Review, the Canadian subTerrain and many others. Of course, many journals also run contests that involve paying a fee for the chance at a larger “prize,” but there are enough paying literary journals and magazines to submit to before breaking out one’s own checkbook for anything other than stamps and paper.
Is it even worthwhile to try to sell short stories for such small sums when one can just publish short fiction on a personal Web site or nonpaying market? Well, take a look at your phone bill, cable bill, that restaurant you like, or the new pair of shoes you want—a short-story check can come in handy. It’s a truism that nobody can make a living writing short stories now, but it’s also true that nobody wants to spend 40 or 50 hours a week cranking the little devils out. Think of short fiction as a sideline, or as a hobby that can turn a profit.
There is room for new authors for those publishing slots in the commercial and little magazines. Many writers cut their teeth on short fiction but soon move on to publishing novels. For them, the choice of spending a few days writing a short story for $500 or using that time to write a book chapter that can earn a $50,000 advance is clear—the novel takes precedence. Some prominent authors still write and publish short fiction despite the algebra of profit-per-keystroke, but many leave short fiction behind. Those authors who do continue writing short fiction even after being established as a novelist are most likely familiar with the ultimate reason to write short fiction.
Candy is dandy and liquor is quicker, but writing is exciting. In the film Art School Confidential, a drunken cynic gives away the game to a young upstart by telling him the truth about a life in the arts:
“What do you think an artist cares about? Does he think all day about fine wines and black-tie affairs and what he’s gonna say at the next after-dinner speech? No, he lives only for that narcotic moment of creative bliss.”
Writing short fiction is a natural high. There is something about the short story, perhaps related to Edgar Allan Poe’s notion of “the unity of effect or impression” that makes writing stories exhilarating. Unlike a novel, a short story’s plot or throughline can be kept in one’s own head as a single compel-ling thought or image. Making that thought manifest on the page is a eu-phoric thrill.
Finishing a novel is a gas as well, but it can take months or years to get to the high. With short stories, you can experience “that narcotic moment of creative bliss” more often, and unlike the other rewards of writing—acceptance letters, checks, one’s name in print—the glory of creation never gets old. Indeed, as one gets better at writing, the emotion that comes from completing a short story grows even more intense.
It’s so for me anyway, and given the huge numbers of people who continue to write short fiction when they could be writing work for a bigger audience and paycheck, it must be a pretty common experience. This is the ultimate defense of the short story: Is there any way to have more fun in front of a computer, actually producing something rather than simply consuming? Not to me.
# # #
Or not! Why you shouldn't write short stories
There are excellent reasons to write short stories, but also many poor ones. Here are some common reasons why people write short stories ... and why to ignore them.
It’s ‘easier’ than writing a novel since it’s shorter: Right? Not necessarily. Many writers think at novel length, and their attempts at short fiction end after 10,000 words with their protagonist just getting out of bed. And if you’re not already an enthusiastic reader of short stories, writing them isn’t going to be easy at all.
It’s ‘practice’ for writing a novel: No, not any more than the 100-meter dash is practice for a marathon. Despite centuries of innovation, Poe is still right: Plot, character, pacing and all else is subordinate to unity of effect in short fiction, which can be read in a single sitting. A novel is just a different beast, and outside of the basics of sentence structure, short stories aren’t always the best training ground for would-be novelists.
You must write short stories before writing a novel: Yes, short stories can get a new writer attention, which can make publishing a novel easier. Plenty of novelists, though, debut without having published any short fiction, and many writers publish a few mediocre stories and then never go on to publish a novel, or publish their first books without their short fiction being a factor. If you’re writing stories only to be seen as “a real writer” so you can then become a novelist, you’re better off just revising your novel.
You can be famous! Raymond Carver never published a novel. But even he wanted to be a novelist. You’re no Raymond Carver.
# # #
Nick Mamatas is the author of two novels and more than 60 published short stories. His latest short-story collection is You Might Sleep ... . With Ellen Datlow he co-edited an anthology of retold regional ghost stories, Haunted Legends.
(This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of The Writer.)