Writing Life: Life is Short

Although it is entirely possible (and some say even advisable) in the SF&F market to plunge straight into writing and selling novels, there is a lot to be learned from writing short fiction.  Good prose is good prose, and a few sales in the right places can be an excellent way to demonstrate that you’re serious about your craft.  Last but not least, the sense of tangible progress that comes from completing and beginning to submit a work is valuable in and of itself.  Before we take a peek into the market, however, there is an important caveat that must be addressed:

You cannot learn to write novels by writing short fiction. You cannot train for a marathon by doing daily sprints.  If your aim is to become a novelist, you must also practice writing novels.  But we’ll get to that next week.

Writing Short Fiction

Obviously, the first step is to complete a story.  In the spring of 2009, I had actually completed more novels than I had short stories in the course of my life.  When you’re accustomed to thinking on a grand scale and painting on a vast canvas, it can feel next-to-impossible to cram a complete story into 5,000-7,500 words.  Here are a few tricks that helped me along the way.

1. Choose the most significant hour(s) or day(s) in your character’s life. A short story can cover more than a couple of days, of course, but the more you “narrate” (summarize) rather than “dramatize,” (show in scenes), the harder it is to maintain tension.  The more you can contract the timeframe of your story, the tighter the character and plot arcs become, and the less likely you are to ramble.

2. Use the “Chekhov’s gun approach to world-building.I borrow that exact terminology from Sam Sykes, but it is derived from Chekhov’s famous quotation, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”  You may know millions of fascinating details about your alien linguistics or elven politics, but unless it is to have a direct bearing on what your characters experience in the course of this particular story, just leave it out.  You can check out  my own attempts at this in “Throwing Stones,” or for a great science fiction example, read David Levine’s Hugo-winning “Tk’tk’tk.”  Neither is light on world-building, but each piece of of setting information has a direct bearing on the main character’s physical or emotional stakes.

3. Decide what you want your reader to take away. Short stories are not as immersive as novels, and therefore the richness of the world itself isn’t enough to make the experience worthwhile for the reader.  Short stories must focus on plot and character and in no small way on idea.  You do not want your reader to get to the end of your story and ask, “What’s the point?”  Even more so than in novels, there needs to be a point.  Don’t preach or be didactic necessarily, but make sure you know what you are saying (or better yet, asking!) with your tale, even if it’s something simple like “Can good overcome evil?” or “Isn’t everyone a little bit alien?”

Selling Short Fiction

How do you know when you’ve edited a story enough and are ready to start submitting it?  If you’ve shown it to at least three readers whose opinions you respect, incorporated any relevant suggestions (even the best readers can sometimes entirely miss what you were trying to do), set the story aside for at least a month or two somewhere in the process, and finally gone through it with a fine-toothed comb to make sure every sentence has a purpose and contains no extra adjectives or extraneous clauses then you are finally ready to…

Put it aside, start writing another story, and in two months read the old story over again.  If anything stops you as you read, the story isn’t ready yet, so rinse and repeat.  When you can’t come up for breath until the last page, then it’s ready.  Keep in mind, you only get one shot with each market, and the number of markets is small and shrinking.  So it’s better to err on the side of holding onto a story a little bit too long than to burn up all your markets with a penultimate draft.

When the time comes to submit, make a list of markets.  Try to find at least ten (this may be harder than you think for some stories), and rank them in order of your preference.  Pay shouldn’t be the only consideration.  Markets with short response times should go higher on the list, as this decreases the time between rejections and hurries you toward a sale.  Also consider prestige, SFWA eligibility, and anything else that figures into your priorities.  Then pick the first market on your list, read the submission guidelines at least three times, prepare your manuscript, check over the submission guidelines one more time, and submit.  Get to work on something else while you wait, and when the rejection comes, repeat your Market #1 process with Market # 2.

Some Interesting Markets

I’m not even going to begin to try to list all of the available short story markets in the space allotted, so I’ll just call your attention to a few that have some particularly interesting characteristics that may affect where they fall on your priority list.

Clarkesworld. In addition to being the home of the most recent Nebula-winner, “Spar,” Clarkesworld is the highest-paying market in spec fic.  This online publication accepts a wide range of story types, pioneered an online submission system that has since become pleasantly infectious, and pushes the envelope on a regular basis with its edgy content.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Traditional-fantasy fans take note!  At present, BCS is the only SFWA-qualifying market that features exclusively secondary-world (non-Earth) fantasy.  Check out our recent blog entry from the editor-in-chief, Scott H. Andrews.

Daily Science Fiction. Got flash?  Run, do not walk, to this brand-new market.  Although they’re not officially off the ground as of this writing, they pay 8 cents a word, will be featuring tales from Hugo winners David Levine and Mary Robinette Kowal, and are in desperate need of very, very short fiction.

For more ideas, check out the SFWA’s list of qualifying markets and research all the names on the list.  Other respected names that do not appear on this list include Lightspeed, Interzone, Weird Tales, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Electric Velocipede, and many others that people will kindly remind me about in the comments section.


8 thoughts on “Writing Life: Life is Short

  1. All good advice, and I love the line “you cannot train for a marathon by doing daily sprints.” So true! I also think there are some people who will never be able to cram the words into this form. It’s a different way of story-telling when you’re used to a beast of a novel.

    1. Thank you everyone for the kind words! Please consider sharing the link on Twitter or on your blogs if you found it helpful – the more eyes we have on our blog, the more we can get the word out about Clarion!

  2. “Keep in mind, you only get one shot with each market, and the number of markets is small and shrinking. ”

    I don’t think that’s true at all! For every market I hear of closing, I hear of five or more opening. Actually, I can only think of two I heard of closing and one was revived (RoF).

    In fact, two of the markets you mentioned didn’t even exist half a year ago!

  3. Great sites and tips. I just returned from the PNWA Writer’s Conference and there was extensive discussion about industry changes and the need for exposure. Thanks so much for keeping us all informed.

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