short stories, career, changes, etc.

October 15, 2014

This gig is always changing, and sometimes I can’t decide if that’s good or bad.  Good, I think — if it’s changing then I’m changing which means that maybe I’m evolving to keep up, which would be nice.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the way I send out short stories and pursue publication for them has changed.

In almost ten years of being published novelist, I’ve figured out that while I’m writing novels I can also write about 5-6 short pieces a year. That includes anything under about 12,000 words.  Before about 2007, I wrote short stories and sent them to magazines (online and print) on a regular basis.  Quite a few sold.  Quite a few didn’t.  When the novel-writing really picked up, I wrote fewer shorts, sent out fewer, and eventually only sent stories out sporadically because something strange was happening:  I started getting invited to submit stories.  This was a weird and wonderful thing — it meant I could write a story and pretty much be guaranteed that it would have a home (maybe with rewrites, but still).  Some of the uncertainty went away.  Huzzah!

For a few years there, I said yes to just about every anthology invitation that came along. This is pretty normal — as a newish writer, it’s really awesome getting asked to write for anthologies.  Plus, there’s a common neophyte worry that if you say no, you’ll never get asked again.

After I hit the NYT bestseller list for the first time in 2008, the anthology invites increased — it turns out editors look for authors with “NYT bestseller” in front of their names when they pitch anthologies because it’s a selling point.  Turns out, the sale of an anthology to a publisher can depend on having a couple of NYT bestsellers in the table of contents.  I felt a huge amount of pressure when I first found this out, like I would be letting people down if I didn’t say yes to anthology invitations.

But remember that 5-6 stories a year?  That includes all the stories I promise to anthologies.  This is one of the reasons that around 2007-2008 I stopped sending things out to magazines almost entirely.  Magazine editors were asking me for stories (and wow, was that a shocking switch after some 10+ years of collecting rejection slips), and I simply didn’t have anything to send them because all my new work was going to anthologies.

I found this to be a frustrating situation.  The anthology invites are most often for theme anthologies with specific guidelines — like, say, werewolf Christmas stories — that I would never have written about if I hadn’t been invited.  Meanwhile, I was collecting a whole stack of story ideas I just didn’t have time to write.

Short stories can be a playground.  It’s where I can experiment and try new things and explore ideas I can’t do anywhere else.  Novels are a big investment of time and energy, but short stories?  Not so much.  A few years ago, I decided I wanted to have more time to work on my story ideas instead of writing to assignment, so I started saying no to most anthology invitations. Remember, I only have a few short story slots per year, and I wanted to keep some of them for me, because that makes me happy.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that over the last 3-4 years I feel like I’ve written some of the best short stories of my life.  Since 2010, I’ve landed stories in “Best of” reprint anthologies for the first time and got a Hugo nomination.  Harry and Marlowe came to life and are going like gangbusters. I think this strategy of making sure I reserve a few of my short story slots “for me” is paying off, and it feels really validating.  (I’ve also collected more rejection slips in the last couple of years than I did in the couple of years preceding, but really, that’s okay.)  At the same time, I’m pretty sure that those years of writing “on assignment” probably helped make me a better writer as well, because they taught me how to better craft and structure a specific idea into a story that will stand out.

So, what does it take for me to say yes to an anthology invitation these days?  1) The theme is something I already have an idea for and I’m looking for motivation to write said story, 2) I want to work with the editor, or 3) Some other undefined really good reason.

I’m at a place now that would have astonished me 10-15 years ago:  I can be picky.  I have options.  And I wonder what changes are going to happen over the next 10-15 years?



2 Responses to “short stories, career, changes, etc.”

  1. Thomas Stacey Says:

    Very interesting hearing about how publishing things have changed for you over the last ten years. Glad you are keeping some of those short story slots for you now as it sounds like it is making you very happy!

  2. Jazzlet Says:

    This sounds like a good place to be and if it means Harry and Marlowe stories I’m all for it!

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