Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I am teaching again at Hugo House in Seattle. One thing I have noticed, not only about this class but about many others I have taught in the last few years, is how few aspiring writers are working on short stories. The large majority of my students in every critique class submit the opening chapters of a novel. Why is this? It was not true, say, twenty years ago. Are people less interested in writing short stories than they once were? And if so, is the motivation artistic (as in "I don't like to read them as much as I like novels") or practical ("The SF short-story market is drying up") or financial ("Stories don't sell for very much")? I don't know the answer.

In addition to teaching at Hugo House, next month I return to Rochester and will be teaching a critique class there. January and February are again the class in Seattle. In June, something different: an advanced SF and fantasy writing class in Taos, New Mexico. This, the Taos Toolbox Workshop, is run by Walter Jon Williams for students who are not beginners, but rather have completed Clarion or Odyssey or some other workshop, and are interested in moving their writing from almost-saleable to "sold." The website is (www.taostoolbox.com), and I am very much looking forward to it. Walter is a terrific teacher; I have never seen Taos, which is supposed to be gorgeous; and maybe someone will be writing short stories.

Before Taos come two conventions. At MileHiCon in Denver, October 23-25, I am Guest of Honor -- always fun. Two weeks later in Rochester is Astronomicon, November 6-8, with the irrepressible Mike Resnick as Guest of Honor. He has challenged me to a pool match. This is because I once beat him at pool, two decades ago. So I'm chalking up my cue...


Tim of Angle said...

It's impossible to make any worthwhile money doing short stories these days, especially in science fiction, which has notoriously low rates. Scalzi (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2008/02/11/unasked-for-advice-to-writers-about-money/) says it better than I ever could.

Some people, of course, just do it for love, but there aren't a great multitude of such people these days.

Jay Ridler said...

Hi Nancy,

I think it is harder for a young writer to hang their dreams on future success by considering short stories these days. They're favorites are likely all novelists.
And so when you think novel, you can dream bigger about money, best seller lists, Oprah picks, etc., and the ability to live as a writer. Something you haven't been able to do as a short story writer in, what, thirty years?

Plus, the favorites they are trying to emulate either don't write short stuff (JK Rawling) or not much any more. If you ask them who their favorites are, they'll likely say novelists. It takes some digging to remind them that Stephen King or Gene Wolfe or whoever was a short story fiend first.

I hope when they realize that all dreams have equal weight they'll learn that the short stuff is awesome, and that there is a lifetime of craft enrichment to be gained from learning the form.


Steven Francis Murphy said...

I have published two short stories so far and I have to say that I focused on that form when I took Creative Writing over the years. That said, I have always felt that the short story form did not give me enough room to tell the stories I want to tell. If I had my druthers, I have to be honest, I'd rather be writing novels.

The reason I focused on short stories was a practical one. It took me four months to write a short story whereas a novel would take a year or two if not longer. I was also familiar with the crapshoot that is the novel submission process, taking up to a year per slush pile and so on.

I felt that going down the short story path provided me with more bites at the submission apple. As I progressed and studied SF short fiction I learned in a backward fashion that many SF novelists started as short story writers.

Having said all of that, I still struggle to craft a story that is under 10K words. Given the fact that the remaining short story markets are capping their word count at 4K to 5K, I feel like the opportunities are decreasing.

My thoughts, for what it is worth.

S. F. Murphy

Adam Israel said...

I can't fathom writing anything but short fiction right now. Several years down the road, after I'm feeling reasonably comfortable with the craft and have a solid sales record to my name, I'll tackle the long form. I try not to do anything just because it has the potential to make me rich. I do it because I'm passionate about it.

Sure, I started out my writing career thinking I just needed to write the Great American Genre Novel, but then I started writing short stories and I fell in love with it. I don't think I'll ever see myself as anything but a short story writer who occasionally writes novels.

This also reminds me, I really need to find an excuse to visit Seattle. It seems to be the most Science Fiction friendly place around.

Andrew said...

I share Steven's practical outlook--more short stories per unit of time mean more chances for publication.

But I'm also with Adam. Short stories are a chance to try different styles, tones, voices and subject matter without the multi-year commitment of a novel.

If I wrote a novel right now, it would be bad. It might even sell, but it would still be bad. I haven't mastered my toolbox enough to build my dream home just yet, so I'll spend some time making detailed scale models first.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

I've written and published some short fiction over the years, but not much. I can't remember exactly who said it - it might have been William Gibson - but I've heard it said that in order to write a really good short story, you have to put in as much effort as you would into one third of a novel. I'd agree with that assessment. Also, newer writers are often younger writers, and the demographic of the main genre fiction markets, certainly in the US, tends to be 50 and up (Asimov's, F&SF and so on). It simply makes more financial sense to write a book rather than a short. Also - and perhaps more pertinently - writing a really good short story is really, really, really hard, even for people who are experienced novelists. I know I find books a lot easier to write than short fiction.

TheOFloinn said...

There simply aren't many markets for short fiction any more, outside of SF and mystery. Dell tried a Louis L'Amour's Western mag a while back, but the market wasn't there. Nor is there much out there for lit-fi. It pays excellently if, say, Playboy buys you; but you pretty much have to be a Big Name to walk in the door there and they only do one story per issue. Most lit-fi magazines pay in copies, which is even worse than SF. The markets that used to publish the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Anderson, etc. have all gone away.

This is all counter-intuitive. You would think that a milieu that is constantly in a rush would prefer the short story to the long. But maybe the preference for book-length is a way of compensating for the fast food style of the rest of life.

Except that a lot of these book-length stories are no more novels than a Big Mac is a steak dinner. The biggest complement thrown at potboilers like DaVinci Code is "it kept me turning the pages." This implies velocity of reading matters a great deal. Depth slows you down.

Oh well. I may be the only one who distinguishes between Really Long Short Stories and Novels. There was, after all, a reason they were called "novel."

Daniel said...

I write short story scifi because of several specific reasons.

One, I already have a good-paying job, and don't expect to ever make a single cent from my writing.

Two, I write because I enjoy doing it. It's relaxing. I see it as just a creative outlet.

Three, I have some ADD tendencies. I've tried writing for a novel-length project, and it failed miserably before I got very far.

My best friend (and uncle) is working on a project of several volumes in length, and he astounds me with his dedication (partly because he's full-fledged ADHD and has never stuck to any other large project in his life).

qiihoskeh said...

I want to see that pool match if I make it to Astronomicon (though it seems I've missed all the con deadlines ....)

bluesman miike Lindner said...

If a soul expects to make a living as a fictioneer, I wish him or her the best of luck. It is =very= dificult.

Back in the days of sf pulps, it was possible. Just barely. You just had to write 8 hours a day, settle for a few pennies a word, and never get the time to revise. And, oh yeah--be willing and able to write in mystery and Western stories, as needed, to buy milk for the crying baby.

I figure it this way: if you sit down at the keyboard planning to make a million bucks, go away. If you sit down at the keys because you =have= to--you're not happy if you haven't written--well, you're one of the gang.

And may you always write a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, now and again, where you can say to yourself, "This ain't too bad!"