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?