Why aspiring novelists should write short stories

Woman Writing

Aspiring Novelist: Sure, we all had to read “The Lottery” and stuff in high school, but who really reads short fiction these days? Aren’t short stories just for literary hobbyists?

Lucy-S: Oh, Aspiring. Just because you’re not reading something doesn’t mean that nobody reads it. Go over to Ralan.com and take a look around. There are over 200 listings for short fiction markets – and that’s just for publications that run science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Go to Duotrope or The Grinder and you’ll find a whole lot more once you factor in mainstream and literary magazines. And the thing about paying markets is that people read those! Otherwise, the editors have a hard time paying for content.

Aspiring Novelist: Okay, fine, so people actually read short fiction. Why should I care? Those markets only pay a few cents a word! I wanna make the big bucks with my writing!

Lucy-S: On a per-word basis novels do tend to pay better than short stories. These days, I generally get 6-10 cents a word for my short fiction and I received about 12 cents a word for my Random House novels. If my novels had come out from a small press, I’d have probably made short fiction rates.

And there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind.

  1. Most people who write a novel don’t sell it to a large publisher; the big houses only buy 3%-5% of the books that are submitted to them, depending on who you ask. I’ll be generous and go with 5%.
  2. That’s a whole lot of people who have written 90,000 words of fiction that then either just sits on their hard drives or they have to release as self-publishing projects. (Half of all self-published novelists make less than $500 from their books, and you have to work very hard to be successful at self-publishing.)
  3. Of that 5% of novelists who manage to sell their manuscripts to a publisher, advances usually range from $0 to $40,000. The median advance is $5,000.

Another thing to keep in mind: once you sell a story, you can re-sell it, possibly many times. Reselling a novel even once is tricky. I’ve made the equivalent of 32 cents a word from my story “Magdala Amygdala” in total through reprints. I’ve earned more from that one short story than some people have received from a novel advance.

Aspiring Novelist: Yeah, but the advance is just a start, right? I’ll get more from royalties.

Lucy-S: Maybe. A lot of first novels don’t earn out their advances; the higher your advance is, the worse your chances.

Aspiring Novelist: So what are you trying to tell me here?

Lucy-S: Aspiring, if your goal is to see your name in print, your odds of getting published anywhere as a new writer are a whole lot better if you start out writing short stories. And if you write 90,000 words of fiction, your odds of getting any money at all is much better if those 90,000 words are 20 ever-improving short stories you send out into the world rather than one novel you wrote as your first fiction effort.

Aspiring Novelist: Yeah, but my novel is gonna be really, really good!

Lucy-S: Oh, so you want to become a good writer? Write some short stories.

Aspiring Novelist: But stories and novels are, like, totally different forms! I can’t learn anything about novels writing short stories!

Lucy-S: Aspiring, that’s just silly. Good fiction is good fiction: you need solid characterization, dialog, conflict, description, all that nifty stuff – short stories teach you how to do all that, and to do it with grace and style. Novels can be a bit flabby around the middle, and most readers don’t mind a few authorial love handles; short stories (if you expect an editor to fish yours out of the slush pile, anyway) have to be lean narrative machines. People who regularly sell short stories are good if not excellent writers.

Aspiring Novelist: But … the pacing … it’s different. Right?

Lucy-S: You know what they call novels paced like short stories? Page-turners. Exciting. Compulsively readable.

Aspiring Novelist: But I’ve heard of a lot of novelists who’ve never written a short story in their whole lives!

Lucy-S: Sure. You’ve heard about the successes. But remember the 95% that nobody bothers to interview. I won’t sit here and say that it’s impossible for you to write a novel cold, sell it, and have it become a bestseller. But it’s unlikely. If you want to increase your odds, become a better writer. To become a better writer, you need to practice. And if your practice results in you getting a copy of an anthology with your name in the Table of Contents, that’s a whole lot more inspiring than some of the alternatives, in my opinion.

And besides that? During the process of sending your stories around, you get to know people in publishing, and they get to know you. Today’s magazine editor is often tomorrow’s book editor. Imagine a book editor who has the budget for one more acquisition, and she is looking at two manuscripts that to her eye seem equal in terms of quality and entertainment value. One is from author with a track record of story sales and a built-in audience of short fiction readers; the other is by a complete unknown. Who do you think she’ll choose?

Aspiring Novelist: Okay, so, I guess I should give short stories a try. How do I get started?

Lucy-S: Start by reading short fiction. If you don’t regularly read it, you’re missing a major component in learning how to write it well. That goes for novels, too. Always read whatever form you’d like to write.

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