Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Short Stories and Credentials

Dear Rejecter:
I've been following your blog for some time as part of my attempt to create the perfect query letter - I want to do this before the manuscript is finished so I won't be tempted to send out a hurried query letter. Do you read science fiction? The reason I ask is because I'm wondering which short story venues, apart from magazines that contribute to SFWA eligibility, would impress you favorably if you saw them on a cover letter. Are you familiar with any magazines so pathetic the title would be a negative?

I do read science fiction. When I do read fiction, it's generally sci-fi/fantasy or historical fiction, unless something else has been recommended to me.

Your question addresses a larger issue, which is credentials. Yes, publications in important literary journals and sci-fi magazines (in this case) are very impressive to us. Your college's literary mag, not so much.

With that said, novel writers out there: Don't stress over short stories if you're not a short story writer. Some people aren't. If you are, by nature, a novelist, then you might burn a lot of time and frustration trying to get some short story that you threw together for the query letter published. The magazines/journals we care about have very, very high standards and way too many submissions to publish everything they would even want to publish.

I made my own foray into trying to get short stories published when trying to sell my second manuscript, which never sold. Eventually I got some short story into an online mag that paid me $5.00, but really, it was an excruciating process. I rarely write short stories and when I do, they're not my best work. All of the different magazines have their own standards and processes and then there's the waiting, waiting, waiting. If you have strong short stories it's worth it, but if it's just eating time that could be spent on another novel, it's not.


Cameron Lewis said...

Very useful to hear, as I've been wavering on what I should dive into in the new year. (Not to mention heartening, in a way, given the ever diminishing numbers of reputable magazines that publish fiction, let alone of the particular variety I'm likely to write.)

Anonymous said...

Rejector -- what is the matter with you? You're giving all your publishing counterparts a bad name, by choosing to blog over the holiday! And here I thought it was mandatory for every pub industry
blog to take a 2 or 3 week hiatus.

Thanks for breaking the mold. I start my writing night by surfing the blogs... it's amazing how lonely if feels without them.

So, thank you for your blog, Rejector, and may you find peace and prosperity in the new year.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the typo -- I do know how to spell rejecter.

Rachel said...

Hello Rejecter!

I'm very interested in the part where you said "my second manuscript, which didn't sell." If you don't mind me asking, which one did? I'm also in the boat where I wrote a novel that didn't sell, so I wrote another, which I'm worried won't sell either. I'm working on ANOTHER novel, which I adore and have high hopes for, but it's always nice to hear about someone who sold the third or fourth novel and not the amazing person who sat down, wrote a first novel, and then sold it right off the bat, which is a story I hear a lot. It might be selfish, but I like to know that there are plenty of people who take a few novels to get rolling.

Thanks for the blog!

Kaleb - said...

Merry Christmas and thanks for a great year of blogs!

The Rejecter said...

As the old redo goes, it's the third manuscript that sells. It was true for me. The third manuscript that I wrote, polished, and put through the grueling submissions process was the one that sold.

It was not the third I wrote. Not by a long shot. I've written at least a dozen.

The Rejecter said...

That should be credo.

David Weisman said...

Thank you - I'm in the middle of writing a short story, but if it doesn't work I'll just finish up my novel and start submitting.

BuffySquirrel said...

Redo sounds more accurate ;).

Maria said...

On the other hand, trying to write a short story can be a great learning process. :>) I wouldn't necessarily write one thinking "I'll sell it and have a credit" even though that is a valid goal. Rejecter is right--they are extremely hard to sell (and write.)

However, as with any writing, the process, the pain and the actual doing can be a great learning experience. Writing shorts and submitting them to Baen's Bar really helped me tighten up my writing overall.

Eventually, I sold a short or two also--but I learned far more than I earned and it was worth it. It helped me tighten my novel writing and hone certain techniques.

Patti said...

the title of this blog appeals to my sarcastic side...hell my whole sarcastic self. thanky.

X said...

This is a good post, but I would still advocate an apprenticeship in the realm of short stories before moving to novels. Those magazines that have really really high standards are something worth aspiring to.

The science of genius tells us it takes ten years of deliberate practice, four hours a day, to master as complicated a skill as writing. If you have a decade of work ahead of you, I say start small, accumulate a list of credits. This does two things: One, you get better, and two, you have status when you submit your novel to an agent.

You can say, perhaps, that short stories and novels are vastly different and there's very little transfer of skill between the two. Not so. You're telling stories, you're describing things, you're gaining insight into humanity. Short stories allow you to conduct countless tiny experiments, developing your own style, inventing new forms, reaching a higher level of understanding. And moreover, success leads to success. One breakthrough leads to another.

If you spend five hard years focusing only on short stories, it's almost inevitable that you'll get accepted by an important journal. Then you can begin your novel.

Anthony S. Policastro said...

Credentials are important, but as the Rejector said, you should not waste time on short stories if you really want to write a novel.

I started writing short stories and read all the anthologies of short stories I could get my hands on. My first short story then became my first novel. I recently wrote another short story and now I am writing it into a novel. The new short story is out there now for sale, but I'm concentrating on my novel.

calendula said...

This is fascinating...but I'm still curious about the original question: are there particular markets out there where a credit would do you more harm than good? I mean, you probably don't want to give names, but it would be useful to know parameters. Naturally, we're all starting by submitting to the New Yorker...but then when we rachet down from there, it would be nice to know where to stop. All the way down to the college litmag, or before then? :-)

Thanks, and I love your blog! Happy new year.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with X. Writing short stories can really help to hone writing skills.

I wrote a novel and started submitting it. Got a few rejections. Later a friend told me to try short stories to get my name out there. I wrote several and sent them out. I got lots of rejections, so I wrote more and more. My first acceptance was for pro rate (at the time 3 cents a word). Since then I've sold many many shorts getting as much a $500 for a few.

I put that first novel away, and after a few years began working on my second. Long story short, I got an agent within months for that book. I'm working on the next one while the agent tries to sell this one.

I am convinced that working on those short stories and taking the time to hone my writing helped and looked great on my resume when querying agents. I had a more than 60% request rate from agents.

Just something to think about.

Rick Bylina said...

With all my credentials (okay, clean up the soda that came out your nose), I'll have to agree with "The Rejecter" on this: stick to your strength. If you see little slices of life with big messages, write the short stories. If you see a 500 page manuscript in the bug who crossed the sidewalk as an analogy for a life well lived, write the novel.

No square pegs in round holes.

And if you can do them both, yabba dabba do for you.

A.Drew said...

Dear Rejecter,
Thanks for saying what should be obvious if we were not blinded by the HOPE.
Most of what I consider as a short story in my stack is simply the fleshless bones of a novel.
The one short I am still circulating is the opening scene of a TV pilot I was playing with.
Now I can concentrate on my novels without the guilt and pressure of attempting to create salable shorts.
Thanks for your good words.

X said...

" should not waste time on short stories if you really want to write a novel."

I would argue it doesn't matter what you want. Short story credentials will give your novel a boost of authority when looking for a publisher. It's in your best interest. If you're a reasonably intelligent person, you can adapt. And it's never a waste of time, exactly. I've written things I hated only for my friends to tell me it's brilliant. Writing is a painful process, and often, the stuff that hurts most is your best work. Novels are big and complicated anyway. They require enormous technical skills, a seemingly endless yet self-contained web of connections, and it all needs to be well-orchestraded, well-balanced.

Start small, get bigger, like anything else. I'm looking out for you.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with starting out in short stories when you really want to write novels. Sorry, it's apples and oranges. That's the same as saying well, I really want to write teen novels, but instead I'll just write picture books for five years to hone my skills.

No, you won't. Really. Don't.

Not the same thing. Not even close. One does not lead to the other. Posters have said build up your short stories and in five years you'll sell some and then you can have some contacts when you write a novel. WHAT? Let me rephrase that, WTF?

OR, you could, you know, write the novel you want, spend two years on it, and have it get published.

I cannot even believe these posts are serious.

Anonymous said...

"OR, you could, you know, write the novel you want, spend two years on it, and have it get published."

Or you could write a novel, spend two years on it, and it still isn't good. If you haven't studied your craft, just like with any other profession, then you're probably not as good as you think.

I have no idea why some are in such a rush to get published. It takes time to be a good writer. Just like it takes time to be a good doctor, or a good dancer.

And of course we're serious. But only if you really care about your writing and not just rushing to get published.

Jason6 said...

Anonymous 5:42,

In your own scenario you've spent as many as two or three years on one book. Why not take that time to work on many different projects to find your voice and what works for you?

Maybe the writer is not ready to write the book but doesn't realize it. Maybe short stories will help.

I'm not saying that everyone has to do it this way. Just that it may be an option for some.

X said...

"That's the same as saying well, I really want to write teen novels, but instead I'll just write picture books for five years to hone my skills."

Picture books are way farther from teen novels than teen short stories. However, if you made picture books of teens, for what ungodly reason I don't know, but if you did, you would learn something about the subject. Not that you should limit yourself to any subject in particular. I just got done reading "On Becoming a Novelist," by John Gardner, and I think I remember him saying the subject is less important than the window you see out of. It's the ability to make insightful observations that makes a good writer, no matter the subject. And you can do that in both short stories and novels, and perhaps picture books also, if you have the right pictures. In novels, you don't always want to make too many observations because that may slow down the narrative, get in the way of the action. But if you're making observations on the action...

Maybe I'm thinking of Sean O'Faolain's book, "The Short Story." I don't expect anybody to have read that one, though all of you should. It's obscure and I stole it from the library because I couldn't imagine letting go of it.

I remember J.D. Salinger said every wrtiter should develop their craft slowly, naturally. That's another argument against workshops where they rush you to write and then criticize everything you do.

"If you see little slices of life with big messages, write the short stories. If you see a 500 page manuscript in the bug who crossed the sidewalk as an analogy for a life well lived, write the novel."

That example sounds more like a little slice of life with a big message. Novels are more compliated than that. If you think of it from the perspective of an engineer, it's one enormous ginormous contraption. You have to worry about form and function for a novel to work, and one little bug isn't going to change anything.

Has anybody read Balzac? You see how the relationships fit together? Each character is a machine that needs to be complimentary to the surrounding characters. Then they rub up against eachother, as it were, and static occurs. They blast off in opposite directions, bumping into other characters, and then bumping into eachother again. I don't know about anybody else, but that's how I think of it.

superwench83 said...

Hmm. An interesting debate. I'm going to agree with the Rejecter on this one, but at the same time, I firmly believe that writing short stories can sometimes help with a person's ability to write a novel. Yes, they are two very different processes as far as plot-building goes, but for writing prose and polishing and all that sort of thing, I for one have learned so much from writing short stories.

I originally got into writing shorts in the hopes of earning some publishing credits for my novel query. Now, that's only one small reason why I write short stories. For me, it's a nice change of pace to work on something small every once in a while. I love writing novels, but when my plot is in a shambles and my brain hurts from trying to put things back together, working on a short story gives me a break from my novel while still forcing me to write. Also, since short stories are, well, so short, it makes me a lot more aware of economy in word choice; in a short, every word has to count, so you learn to write tight.

So while I agree that if you aren't interesting in writing short stories, you would be better off to work on your novel, I still think it can be beneficial to write short stories as a writing exercise every now and then. Whether or not you actually try to publish them isn't really the issue, in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Anon 5:42 --

For Jason 6, X, and Anon 10:19 --
I appreciate everyone's heartfelt replies but must admit I'm still perplexed by all the "you should spend years of your life writing short stories even though you really want to become a novelist" banter because to me it seems like nonsense.

For the record, I did spend 2 years working on a novel that is now published, in hardback, from a good house. I don't consider that to be a "rush" to get published, nor do I consider wanting to be published a flaw. I consider that to be nose to the grindstone, I'm not doing this for entertainment, my goal is to be published common sense.

And yes, every writer should develop their craft. Do whatever you want to develop your craft, because after all it is your life. But to tell people that getting short stories published will somehow open all sorts of doors to you and your eventual novel getting published -- no, sorry, but that is absolutely a misrepresentation of how publishing works.

One has NOTHING to do with the other. An agent/editor is NOT going to turn cartwheels for you because you had a short story published.

A short story is not a novel!

I admit my picture book analogy was a bad one, but certainly you can take away my intent, which is that short stories and novels do not adhere to the same sort of standards concerning marketablility, or readership demographic. In other words, successfully sold short stories have no bearing on BOOK DEALS.

Anonymous said...

And how is your second book coming along, Anonymous? I ask this because in this day and age taking that much time between books is a risk. You take two or so years to write the book, it takes up to two years to get published, and that's as much as four/five years between books. How can you build an audience on that? Especially if your goal is to do this for a living.

I've known several writers (been doing this a while)to take a lot of time putting everything they have into one book, taking time and honing it to perfection, just to find it's much harder the second time.

For one thing, their contract only gives them a year or so to have the book in. This was new for them; they weren't used to having deadlines. Assuming they had a 2 or 3 book deal--if you don't it's worst, imagine asking an agent/editor to wait 2 or so years for you to get the next one in. Your same editor may not even be at the house or working at all or in a different genre; they move and change so much. Second thing, all they had went into the first book, they hadn't written any other stories and didn't anticipate how difficult it would be to come up with another decent story idea.

Not saying that all of this won't happen even if you have written stories. However, it certainly decreases the odds that it won't.

anon 11:05

Anonymous said...

For Anon 11:05 --

Gee, thanks for the baffling mini lecture on how the publishing industry works. Since I'm published, I already know how the publishing industry works, but oh well... I'm getting the strange sense that you would like nothing more than for me to fail, which I find both amusing and odd.

Yes, in addition to having my first book published a couple of months ago I have two others ready to go. And yes, I know all about story "ideas" and meeting "deadlines." You know, because I'm a writer.

See, here's the thing, you can pontificate all you want about the publishing industry. But when you're actually in it, you find it's different. I commented on Rejecter's original blog post because you and others were acting like the way to get a NOVEL published was to spend five years writing short stories, and, in turn, wow and editor with your short story credits. Which is absolute crap. The only time an editor is going to care about short story credits is if you are trying to sell them a short story.

If you disagree with this that's fine. No harm, no foul.

Writing is hard no matter how you go about it. I wish you all the luck in the world.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone wishes you ill will. I'm certainly sorry that it came off that way.

All the best to you.

Anon 11:05

Anonymous said...

Thank you Anon-- my New Year's resolution is to not pick fights with writers on blogs.

May you,the Rejecter and all the commentators prosper in the new year.

X said...

anon 11:05--

Our mistake entirely. We apologize for our ignorance.

However, looking from another perspective, if I was reading the slushpile, I think I would give more serious attention to someone with a list of credentials than to an unpublished author. That's why they have cover letters. But here I learn it doesn't mean much of anything to an agent or editor, even though it contradicts what I've read almost everywhere else. It's good to have inside information.

DED said...

Heh. I spent the last year trying to get a couple short stories published, rather than work on my next book, in order to infer on my query letter that I'm publishable. Wish I'd read this advice a year ago.

Anonymous said...

To the poor poster who asked the original question that all this subsequent discussion has been completely IGNORING:

There are plenty of markets out there that do carry some clout even though SFWA does not consider them "professional": the Polyphony anthology series, Interzone, Black Static, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet just to name a few.

A good idea is to go to your local bookstore, find a copy of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror and/or The Year's Best Science Fiction. Check out the markets where these stories were originally published. They're not all on the SFWA list, but you can bet that if they're publishing stories that are considered some of the best of the year, they are respected and doing good work.

-Anonymous who isn't any of the other A's

aileen1126 said...

Thanks so much for this info. I e-mailed a few weeks ago with a very similar question, so was glad to read this. And even more glad that I can focus on my novel instead of fretting about getting a short story published just to get it published to put into a query letter!
Have a great new year!