by Holly Schofield
As a published writer beginning to get some attention, I hear it over and over:
- How many books have you written?
- Are your short stories set in the world of your novel?
- When will you advance beyond short stories and level up to a novel?
- Don’t you want to be a real writer?
Size apparently does matter. Short stories are typically seen as a stepping stone before you tackle the “more difficult” task of writing a novel, a method of learning craft (and even then most craft books give examples from novels or movies), a marketing tool to keep your audience engaged between novel releases, or even a means of getting over the post-novel blues.
Say it isn’t so.
Your natural length
Just as in hairstyles, most people tend to gravitate toward a certain length. If your eyes are caught by the latest anthology in your local bookstore, if your shelves are filled with Year’s Bests, if you naturally home in on one character arc in a multi-character series, maybe your natural length is shorter than a novel, a novella, or a novelette.
For me, I love the quick, sharp encapsulation of an idea, a world, a moment–that prismatic effect of a small idea expanding into a larger rainbow of thoughts. I rarely get that rush from a novel.
Money isn’t everything
In the fiction industry, it usually isn’t even anything. Certainly, most of us are not going to make a living from our writing. Successful speculative short story writers like Ray Bradbury or Ted Chiang are few and far between. (And I suspect Ted kept his day job even after the Arrival movie came out.)
The average book advance for fiction is amazingly hard to quantify. This novel sales data is 11 years old and the more current #publishingpaidme’s convenience sample doesn’t allow for rigorous market analysis. For the purpose of discussion, let’s say the average advance is in the low 4 figures and let’s say it earns out. For the length of most novels, that roughly translates to between two and five cents per word.
Semi-pro rates for short stories rates are also between two and five cents per word, plus the potential exists to sell the story again as a reprint at a flat token rate (usually $5 or $10) or one to three cents a word (several dozen such markets are listed on Duotrope and the Grinder). So, surprisingly, the total income per word for a short story can work out to more than for most first-time novels.
And when I buy myself lunch using the profit from a short story sale, it’s all the tastier.
The shortest time I’ve experienced between submission and publication is five days (although the average is more like eight months to a year). I don’t know of any traditionally-published novelists who can say the same. Such instant gratification in this snail-paced industry cannot be overrated.
Push your limits
Short stories are as challenging to master as novels. The skill sets overlap but diverge in many ways. Pacing, tone, rising and falling action all have their differences, both in convention and in what’s possible.
Wordplay, weird structures, and major linguistic experiments are all within reach. Take a look at the exciting variety of formats used in Phenderson Djèlí Clark’s “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Sarah Gailey’s “STET”, and Tochi Onyebuchi’s “How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary”.
Writing short allows you to investigate all the ideas that bubble through your head, all the facets of your lived experience, all the settings and tones and styles you can think of. No need to spend years emotionally invested in just one invented world, one set of characters, one magic system. Short stories aren’t goodies in a candy store; they’re a tapas bar, a long and interesting buffet full of both sweet and savory that can encompass a writer’s entire career.
Open doors stay open
Don’t stand in the doorway, feeling the peer pressure to join the kids in the main playground: proudly make your own fun over in the weeds. Sure, you may write a novel at some point but do give yourself permission to consider that you may always write short.
The next time someone asks about “your novel,” don’t be afraid to tell them your ambitions, and the length of them!
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. She started writing in 2012 and has been a member of SFWA since 2016. Over 90 of her short stories are published in places like Analog, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, the Aurora-winning Second Contacts, and many other venues throughout the world. Find her at hollyschofield.wordpress.com.