I’m good at starting short stories. Really good, I’d say. I have snappy first paragraphs, cool set-ups, neat ideas and then…
Then they tend to stall.
I never seem to know where these damned stories are going. So what if there’s a T-rex loose in the mall? Who gives a crap, anyway, and isn’t that just going to wind up being the same as the plot of the latest Jurrasic Park movie? After that occurs to me, I get disenchanted and then stop because, well, I don’t want to be derivative. I want to be original.
Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself in the first draft. I want the story to be brilliant. I want it to sell to the best markets and get all the praise from (whoever) and win all the awards and make me the guy who is known for writing brilliant, well-selling, praiseworthy, award winning stories. And, of course, that’s a huuge amount of pressure.
But that can’t be it, because I try to do the same thing with novels and I have no problem diving into writing a novel. I just sit my ass in my chair and start churning out words, day by day, bit by bit, until a draft is done. Even revision in novels seems easier – there are so many moving parts, so many modular pieces, that altering it seems almost intuitive. Well, at least compared to short stories.
The source of all this whining is that I just finished a novel draft and now it’s an opportunity to write some more short fiction and get it out the door before the semester begins and all my writing time pretty much vanishes. I mean, how long can it take to write a 4000-6000 word story, right? I cover that in about two days while writing novels – no sweat!
I sit down, crack the knuckles (not really – just a metaphor) and start typing and I get about 500-1000 words in and…
I feel like I should be able to write a draft of 2 short stories per week. The reality is that a single one takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes goddamned years to see through.
Right now I have seven or eight stories with openings and no middle or end. I’m stalled on all of them. I’d call it writer’s block, but I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I just don’t think any of my ideas are any good. I find them boring. I don’t want to write boring stories.
I guess that’s what people mean when they say “writer’s block.” I should just put my head down and power through. That’s what I do in novels. Why is it any different for short work?
Well, it’s short – there’s no time to waste, no room to spare. I can’t dick around for twenty pages and then go back and cut it out. Well, no wait – I can dick around for twenty pages and then cut it out, but I don’t want to. I want short fiction to be a faster process than the longer stuff. I want to churn out stories every week. But writing short fiction is work every bit as much as writing long fiction is – more, if you ask me. People ask how long it took to build Notre Dame Cathedral, but do they ever ask how long it took to perfect the wheel? Sure, it’s smaller. But smaller doesn’t mean easier.
So, I’m going to go back and read the start of a bunch of stories now, see if any new ideas have developed. See if I can get these things through to the end.
Don’t hold your breath.
The release date of Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, The Far Far Better Thing, has been pushed back to November 20th. Though a copy of the text has been on my editor’s desk since March, he’s swamped with work, it seems, and I’m pushed back in the queue. We thank you for your patience.
It’s release day! My friend Zach Chapman has just put together a ripping collection of Time Travel Tales, just in time for the holidays, and it is now available in both paperback and e-book.
But don’t just take my word for it! Consult with your FUTURE SELF who is, right at this moment, emerging from my time machine. Here we go…
Just some…well…technical difficulties. I’m sure you’ll be fine. That you probably wasn’t even from this timeline. Right.
Ahem. Also included are such luminary authors as Sean Williams, Robert Silverberg, Martin Shoemaker, Stuart C Baker, SL Huang, David Steffen, and many, many more!
So go and get it! Go! Time is wasting!
Well, unless you have a time machine, in which case you can get it now whenever you like.
Got another story published and released for public consumption. It’s free, too! Shuffle your internet consciousness over to this month’s Perihelion SF and read “When It Comes Around” – my dark and gritty tale of the hard life of a space pirate. Let me tease you with the first line, if I may:
You ain’t been there ’til you’ve clocked a knife-fight in zero-g.
Eh? Ehhhh? Pretty cool, yes?
I’m pretty proud of this one. It *just* missed some of the bigger markets (the narrator’s patois just didn’t do it for some editors), so I’m very glad it found a home. I have been in love with this voice I came up with for some years now (my first publication, “The Spacer and the Cabbages,” used it, as well, and that was about seven years ago now). With any luck, I’ll be able to do more with it in the future. Anyway, I hope you like it.
Go! Read! If nothing else, it ought to discourage you from a life of space piracy.
In addition to novels, I also write short stories. Once I’ve got a story I think is good, I submit it to various publications, starting with the pro-level scifi/fantasy magazines (F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge) and then moving down the list until I get to the semipro markets. If I can’t sell a story at at least one cent a word, I don’t sell it. It goes in a trunk until I either stumble across an anthology that it might fit in or until I figure out a way to change it into a new story.
As you might imagine, there isn’t a vast array of pro-rate short fiction markets and, furthermore, not all pro-rate markets will take the story I’ve written. Analog, for instance, only wants scifi, and I don’t write scifi quite as often as I write fantasy. A bunch of markets want stories of 3000 words or less, and I tend to write stories that land in the 5K-7K range. This, again, limits the number of places I can send things. So it comes to pass that, after I’ve gotten rejections from the three or four ideal pro-markets that might take the story I’ve written, I’m left with fewer and fewer publication options.
That leads me to my topic of discussion for today: Young Adult fiction and what is appropriate. See, there’s a couple smaller markets out there that pay pro rates and cater specifically to a young adult audience. There are a few markets out there that insist upon a “PG-13” rating. There are others that simply describe themselves as “wholesome.” Now, I don’t typically write YA, exactly, but I do occasionally write stories with Young Adult protagonists dealing with Young Adult problems which, to my mind, ought to qualify. But I also write without any real regard to whether the language or subject matter is “appropriate” for younger readers or not and, as I honestly don’t read a great deal of YA, I’m often left wondering where the line is.
So, by way of example: I wrote a story once with a YA protagonist undergoing a struggle with his mother. It involved duels, intrigue, and some sorcery, but basically that was the main conflict – would this kid defy his mom or not and go dueling with this jerk. The story had a little bit of violence (somebody gets stabbed) and, at one point, I describe this kid’s rival as “miming fellatio at him.” So, here’s the question: Is the term “fellatio” (not the act – the word) sufficiently racy to knock it out of the PG-13/Young Adult rating?
Second example: Wrote a story pretty recently that was about some truly vile cyber-bullying and how this kid gets out of it (there’s a troll involved). His bullies, being nasty examples of adolescence, apply some very filthy and cruel language to this kid. There are f-bombs dropped, sexual situations described, and public discussions of this kid’s genitalia. Now, what about that one? Is that out of bounds?
From my perspective, I really don’t feel that it should be. Hell, it might actually not be, but I’ve had stories rejected because I had a guy lose his arm in a booby trap and that was too violent for them. And yet, in the PG-13 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a guy gets his heart ripped out and his body lit on fire and nobody batted an eyelash (well, perhaps not entirely true – they did invent the rating just for that movie because of the gore).
As for profanity, I pretty much learned everything I needed to know about profanity by the time I was in 8th grade, and most of it from the mouths of bullies. I learned everything I needed to know about sexual terminology in high school locker rooms. I was harassed just about every day in middle school by nasty little assholes who said all kinds of vile things about my mother. In high school, it wasn’t quite as bad for me – I was a varsity athlete my freshman year and that gained me a modicum of immunity – but a lot of my friends got it bad and I heard about it or saw it. In my role as “stealth nerd” I also got to hear how the alpha males of the school talked to each other, and it was hardly pristine. There was one guy who said “fuck” at least twice every sentence, and regularly used its verbal form to brag about which girls he’d had sex with and where and how often.
But can you put that in a YA story for 14 year olds to read?
I mean, I think so. Hell, these kids are living it anyway. I’ve always preferred the John Hughes approach to teenagers – treat them like real people with real problems. Don’t flinch because they’re “innocent” – they aren’t half as innocent as you think, anyway.
But, ultimately, it’s not up to me. And if I want to get paid better than .06 a word for some of these stories, I actually have to care about where the line is (or isn’t). Which is a long, round-about way of saying I’m worried some of my stories are going to offend somebody and I don’t think they really ought to.
I submit them anyway, though. Worst they can say is “fuck off.”
Having a crazy week, so here’s just this quick link to a guest post I made over on Ragnarok yesterday. It’s about how writing novels/stories differs from tabletop RPGs, which is something I feel I know a bit about, as I’ve spend a good 25 years parsing through the differences.
Check out the post here, and check out Ragnarok, too – they’ve got a lot of cool things going on over there and they’re relatively new, so wander around.
Talk to you next week!
Just out this weekend, my story “Lord of the Cul-de-Sac” can be found in this month’s Galaxy’s Edge. It’s a charming, light-hearted tale of a dragon moving to suburbia and the collapse of the housing markets in 2008. You can read it here. It’s free online, but you can also order it (and the rest of the issue) in dead-tree format by going here and following the links beneath the cover art.
Galaxy’s Edge is a great venue and I’m very proud that my work has made it there, sharing a table of contents with the likes of George RR Martin, no less (!). Go read the whole issue – good stuff!
In other publishing news, I’ve got at least three stories coming out in the next few months (well, at least one, but as many as three – the other two aren’t exactly upfront about their publishing schedules, shall we say), so stay tuned.
Also, a reminder that NO GOOD DEED, Book 2 in the Saga of the Redeemed, is coming out on June 21st! Pre-order your copy today (available everywhere fine e-books are sold)!
My semester is wrapping up and I’m starting to gear myself towards what my summer writing project will be. It’s a bit up in the air (currently talking with an agent about best career moves – exciting stuff, but I can’t really say more yet), but there are good odds I’ll be looking to dig into Book 3 of the Saga of the Redeemed and possibly plan on having a solid draft finished by the end of August. Either that, or giving the Saga a rest for a bit and working on a new stand-alone or maybe series. Hard to say at this point, as I’m at something of a crossroads in my career. My contract with Harper Voyager is complete with the delivery of NO GOOD DEED, but I don’t feel the series is finished – it’ll take two more books, I think. However, the series, while selling modestly well, isn’t selling anywhere near enough and isn’t getting enough attention to necessarily warrant 2 more years of my time to completing, as much as I love it. If there are better options, I might be better off taking them and circling back to this series later on.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, go and check out the May 2016 issue of Galaxy’s Edge!
Today, in a discussion with fellow writers over Tor.com’s decision to close to unsolicited fiction submissions, I said the following thing:
Well, they’ve got a story from me that they’ve been sitting on for seven months, so here’s hoping!
No less than eighteen seconds after saying this, I went to my e-mail inbox and found a rejection from Tor waiting for me. For some people – perhaps some of you reading this – this seems like some kind of cosmic karmic response to the vocalization of my hopes. “Ah-ha! You should never have said anything! Then it wouldn’t have happened!”
Now, as I’m presuming most people are (loosely) rational creatures, I think most of us understand that the real world does not operate like this in any way, shape, or form. My decision to speak or not speak some combination of magic words does not alter space/time; that rejection was coming to me one way or another. Still, it is very tempting to think that way. “If only I did X and not Y! If only I hadn’t told anybody! If only I had told more people! I should have crossed my fingers before I answered the phone!”
“Rejectomancy,” or the collected term for the superstitious habits of authors seeking to make sales and avoid rejection, happens all the time. It happens because publishing is a world predicated on failure – for every successful submission, there are dozens of rejected ones (probably). For every author that “makes it” there are a hundred who don’t. This process is hard on the ego. If you want to be a writer, you need to face rejection and failure with two unblinking eyes: it’s coming, so figure out how to deal with it or find a different profession. The thing is, rejection letters often seem so arbitrary and you so often seem to have no power over them. We authors are victims of the capricious whims of editors the world over! Woe is us! If only there were some mystical way we could feel that we have agency!
I know! Wear those lucky socks! Don’t start a story with rain (ever)! Only check your writer e-mail on Wednesdays! Only submit stories on a Tuesday afternoon! NEVER WRITE IN ANYTHING BUT COURIER! Etc., etc, etc..
The thing is, though, all that stuff is total bunk. It does not, in fact, give you any power. If it makes you feel good, fine, but don’t go around pretending the world operates on supernatural principles that orient themselves solely around the arbitrary choices of one individual. We merely write fantasy, we ought not live there.
If you want to feel like you have some control over your writerly destiny, the first thing to do is work on getting better at writing. That story that got rejected? You can do better. You should do better. Go out and learn how to do better. Write a new story. Send that one out. Repeat.
Also, just because some editor didn’t like your story doesn’t mean that story is bad. Not in the least! Once you get to a certain level of skill (what I would loosely term “professional quality”) – once you are writing stories that are on the same level as the stories you read in the major publications – well, then, sometimes it’s just plain old luck that decides the rejection or acceptance. Sometimes the editor isn’t grabbed by the ending – not that it was a bad ending, they just didn’t really like it. Sometimes the editor just bought a story very similar to yours. Sometimes you’ve caught them on a bad day. Sometimes they have in mind a theme for the next issue and you don’t really fit. From our end, there is often no way to tell if this is the case.
So, if you get rejected, by all means give the story a once over. Ponder on whether or not you can improve it. If you can’t – if you know this is your best work (at the moment) – send it out again. Turn it around. Rejections might sting, but that’s a sting you need to learn how to deal with. Now, if wearing fuzzy socks every time you send a submission helps you, then go right ahead. But always remember: publishing isn’t magic, it’s a business, and a tough one. The best way to win is to keep playing and up your game, and no superstition will ever trump that.
Over the past three or four weeks, I’ve written four short stories. Ordinarily I would spend my semester break writing a novel, but I was waiting on the edit note from my editor (fun story there – see the note appended to the bottom of this post) and, rather than get deep into a long-term project only to be torn out of it by a more pressing long-term project, I opted to fill out my stable of short stories to have on submission at any one time.
I know a bunch of writers who don’t bother with short stories – either don’t write them at all or don’t really take them seriously if they do. I also know a fair number of writers who seem to write exclusively short stories and quail at the prospect of tackling something as big as a novel. I’m here, today, to make the case for writing both.
Why Novelists Should Write Short Stories
I know what you’re thinking. “Do people even read short stories?” and “You’ll never make a living writing stories all the time!”
Well, in the first place, yes people do read short stories. Not a tremendous, vast multitude, maybe, but certainly a hell of a lot more people than, say, read your blog. Some of those people happen to be editors, reviewers, and professionals in the genre you’re writing in. Making an impression doesn’t hurt. In the second place, I have to break something to you that you’re probably not going to like hearing: you probably aren’t going to make a living writing much of anything, novel or story. Most writers don’t. We all have day jobs, and you should think about keeping yours (or finding one that affords you time to write) rather than dreaming about making a mint writing the next Hunger Games. Who are you to turn your nose up at a hundred bucks for a story you wrote over the course of two weeks?
And anyway, neither exposure nor wealth are reasons you should write short stories. You should write short stories because they make you a better writer. At worst, they can be seen as practice runs for plot, character, theme, diction, style, and the lot of it. You get to work your writer muscles at a more rapid pace than you do writing a novel. You take a beginning, a middle, and an end and you paste them together and see if it sings to you. If it doesn’t, you break it down and try again. You can do this over the space of a few weeks or days or even hours.
The short story is an unforgiving form – it doesn’t permit indulgence or dithering or random tangents. You’ve got to stay on target, keep it focused, and make it magical. That’s a challenge. The thing is, though, if you can do it in 5000 words, you can certainly do it in 10,000 or 100,000. If you can’t do it in 5000, how are we to expect better from you with more space? I mean sure, you can do it, but while novelists you can’t write stories do exist, somebody who can do both things is usually better off. Or at least I think so.
Why Short Story Writers Should Write Novels
Say you are a master of the short story or, hell, even the short short (flash fiction, under 1000 words – bing, bang, boom, you’re out). You’re comfortable there, in your little story writing niche. You’ve gotten some publications and so on and you figure “yeah, this is nice.”
Well, far be it from me to suggest you vacate your micro-fiction utopia, but the novel is out there, waiting for you to call. Short stories can only do so much – we all know this. They also struggle for readership and, while very flexible, lack the weight and pathos a staying power a good novel can provide. And if you can write a good story, you can also write a good novel. It requires a different set of gears, yeah – a bigger scope, a broader picture, a more populated world – but it also gives you the opportunity to really see what you can do as a writer. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can “dig something big outta the sand.”
You can do it, too. You know you have it in you. I feel we mostly think in terms of novels – the stories of our lives, the stories of our families and our towns and our nations are novel sized stories. They always have been, though we haven’t always told them as novels (there were epics and romances and myth cycles, and so on). I think every writer owes it to him- or herself to make the attempt. To seek out the mountaintop. You’ve been honing these skills – take them out of the yard and see what they can do.
But don’t abandon the story, either. Do both. Write both short and long.
Notes on the Saga of the Redeemed and No Good Deed
I’ve gotten some fan mail recently (fan mail! w00t!) that has been prodding me over book 2 (or 3, or whatever) in Tyvian’s story. So, here’s the deal: book 2 (No Good Deed) is finished and on my editors desk. It has been since May of 2015. I’ve been waiting for her edit notes so that the book can be polished and revised and then be ready for print. I have been waiting since May and the release date as been pushed back twice now (from Jan 21st to February to now April 12th).
My editor is leaving my publisher for a different publishing job (and good for her – she’s great and I hope she’s happy where she’s going). This means, though, that I have a new editor. This new editor needs some time to get familiar with the book before she can give me notes and she also has been slammed with a good number of other writers from my former editor, so things might take a while. This means the release date might be moved back again (though I really hope not). None of this is really my fault (so far as I’m aware), and I’m every bit as anxious to put the next book in your hands as you are to have it there. I promise.
Oh, and I just saw the preliminary cover art, and it looks really, really cool. Can’t share it just yet, but soon. Very soon.
Thanks everybody, and I’ll keep you posted!