The Perils of Writing Short Fiction


by Lillian Csernica on February 21, 2017

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Opportunity cost. Cost/benefit analysis. Return on investment.

I remember these terms from my Economics and Accounting classes. Little did I know I would one day be applying them to which writing projects I chose to pursue.

So far, the Flower Maiden Saga has inspired me to write three consecutive novels. The farther I go in editing and polishing Book One for the big agent pitch, the more of the causes and consequences of the main storyline I see. The core plots for Books Four and Five have already presented themselves.

This is wonderful. I’m excited about all of it. The thing is, my first love is writing short stories. Reading short stories in Asimov’s and Weird Tales and my English Lit. classes made me want to become a writer. The first time I walked into a bookstore and picked up a copy of The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXI and saw my name on the table of contents right there with Ramsey Campbell and Ed Gorman, I very nearly exploded with happiness.

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Short stories are great, but novels are where the money is. I’ve heard that many times. Novels take a while to write and a while to polish and package for publication. Not so with short stories. Short stories will get your name out there and keep it out there.

These are the five main perils of writing short fiction:

  1. Why waste a good idea on a short story? These days it’s all about writing novels. Give the readers what they want, over and over again. Build that brand. Make more money. Fine. If that’s what you want, go for it. Bear in mind there is much to be said for the art and craft of the short story. Hemingway’s “The Killers” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” remain vivid in my mind thirty-five years after I read them in high school.
  2. Short stories are often just one shots. That one shot might be brilliant, but then you have to go write another story. Is that one brilliant story continuing to earn royalties or selling well as a Kindle Single? I visit various writers’ groups online, and I find the emphasis on money to be disheartening. Short stories can be built into a novel. One of my favorite fantasy novels, A Bait of Dreams by Jo Clayton, started out as three short stories that appeared in Asimov’s.
  3. It can be difficult to pack a complex story idea into a limited word count. On the other hand, doing so can result in a stronger story. When I wrote “Fallen Idol,” my first short story sale, I got so caught up in all the research and characters and how-to books’ advice I thought I could rise to the challenge of writing a real novel. Fortunately, I had an attack of reality. All the research and ideas imploded, resulting in a much stronger short story.
  4. Unless you’re selling to the top professional markets, short fiction doesn’t pay much. If you’re sending out enough stories to generate an acceptable amount of sales, way to go! That’s not easy to do, even for the Big Names. I will say that anthologies that pay up front then give you a cut of the royalties can provide some worthwhile income.
  5. Here’s the Peril that cuts to the heart of what it means to be a writer. Are you going to write about what you want to write about, or are you going to write what you think will sell to the markets where you want your work to appear? The Digital Age has opened up a whole lot of  markets. They may not pay much. They may not pay at all. Still, you can get your words out there. Targeting a particular market is a perfectly reasonable career strategy. My first sale to Weird Tales was another day for joyful explosion.

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It comes down to those basic questions we all ask our main characters:

What do you want?

How badly do you want it?

What are you willing to give up in order to get it?

When you’ve answered these three questions, you will be on your way to navigating through the perilous process of telling the stories only you can tell.

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4 Comments

Filed under editing, fantasy, Fiction, frustration, Goals, historical fiction, Lillian Csernica, perspective, publication, research, romance, science fiction, tall ships, Writing

4 responses to “The Perils of Writing Short Fiction

  1. I always tell people the same thing: the story will tell you how long it needs to be. I’ve done both short- and long-form fiction (as you know), and I’ve never been dissatisfied with my finished products … regardless of length. The story knows. Every time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You make a good point about how writers have to decide whether or not they’re going to write what they want to read or what readers want to read.

    What’s your personal take on this? Do you strive to write what you want to write, or do you primarily try to write what you think readers want to read?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Kayla! How nice to meet you! The simple answer to your questions is this: I write what editors are most likely to buy. I know that sounds flippant. When I first started writing historical romance, I did so because it’s one of the easier genres to break into as a novelist. I love history, and romance novels follow a clear template re reader expectations.
      When it comes to writing what I want to write, I’ve done quite a bit of that. Whether or not I decide to market a given piece varies. Writing is such a learning process. I’m still discovering the stories that only I can tell, with details unique to my personal experiences. Such an adventure!

      Liked by 1 person

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