In 2017, after attending a seminar on the importance of failure in art, I wrote a post called “Your Pile of Failures” that included this advice:
Think of it as basic supply and demand. If you only have one of something—one story—the perceived value of that story, for you, goes way up. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t share that same view, since editors are looking at the complete supply of stories—stories written by everybody, not just you. And there are a lot of those, believe me. So if you only have this one thing of value, if you’ve put all your eggs into one basket, any perceived “failure” can be both soul crushing and career crushing.
But if you have a bank of work and can start to see why one story didn’t work so the next story is a little better, you start playing the long game and those failures become educational, at least easier to survive, and not catastrophic. It’s easier to do the next project, and the next, etc. because this so-called “pile of failures” is an emotional buffer that keeps your head in the game—it keeps you writing.
I’d like to circle back on that this week and get more specific on how we can create a “pile of failures,” and that is: start writing short stories.
If you write any genre of fiction you can write ten or fifteen short stories a year. Try one a month—that’s twelve. Even one every two months—six at the end of a year.
Okay, but why?
So, yes, the days when an author could make a living writing short stories has long since passed. When I first started writing seriously, in the mid-1980s, I was still getting advice that science fiction authors had been getting for decades: write short stories, send them to the magazines—and even in the 80s there were several, in the 70s a few more, and in the 50s lots of them—and once you’ve published a few stories you will have started to gain a reputation, book agents and editors will have seen and hopefully liked your work, and then here comes your career as a science fiction novelist.
And this worked. It worked for years and years, and for a huge list of authors you’ve probably read, at least heard of, like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury… the list goes on and on. But looking back it was probably right around the time I started sending stories out to genre and literary magazines that that era was coming to an end. Who was the last author “discovered” this way? I don’t know—maybe William Gibson.
This may come as a surprise, but here in 2021 there are more markets for genre short stories than there were even in 1985. The internet has made running a literary magazine considerably less expensive, and there is a much wider potential audience a few clicks away. Do agents and editors still troll those few print and many online journals looking for authors? Maybe.
But this isn’t about writing short stories in order to get “discovered.” The reason you should be writing short stories—not instead of, but alongside your bigger novel work-in-progress—is as I said back in 2017. You need to build up a body of work that’s out there in front of editors, getting published, hopefully, which can go a long way to keeping you motivated through the seemingly endless process of querying agents that comes after the seemingly endless process of writing a long epic fantasy novel.
But honestly, I think the rejections are more useful.
When someone sends you a two-line rejection email for a short story you might have suffered over for… I don’t know, three hours? Five? Ten? As disappointing as that rejection might be, it’s got to hurt less than the same two line rejection email for the novel, the lovingly woven basket you’ve put all your writing eggs into, and have been carrying around for… I don’t know, three years? Five? Ten? Or even ten months?
The short story and the novel have some crucial differences, and there are definitely authors who struggle with switching from one to the other. Harlan Ellison wrote short stories and struggled with the novel. There’s a long list of successful novelists who I can’t remember ever reading a short story by. Others, like the aforementioned Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury, could seamlessly hop from one to the other.
So to be clear, I want you all to—if you haven’t already—start writing short stories, and really make that a part of your writing life.
When an idea presents itself—or you find a random prompt, or just sit down and tell yourself, “Okay, let’s write a short story”—sit down and write it. Try to write it all the way through in one sitting. Anyway, over the course of a few days, maybe a week at most.
Then set it aside for a while. How long is a while? You tell me, but minimum twenty-four hours, and I’d say maximum a couple weeks or so. Then pick it up again and revise until you get to this point:
It seems pretty good.
Once you get to the “It seems pretty good point,” your responsibility to that short story has come to an end. For the love of all that’s holy, don’t fall down the rabbit hole of “perfect.” That’s impossible anyway, and the only thing worse than spending ten years writing a novel is spending more than ten days writing a short story.
This is part one of “the whole idea” of writing short stories: You can finish a work of fiction in a reasonable amount of time. Finish the story—not the perfect story, which is imaginary, but a pretty good short story.
Next, submit that pretty good story to someone who might publish it. I like the website Ralan, which lists markets for genre fiction. Take the publisher’s guidelines seriously. Don’t send a 7000 word horror story to someone who’s looking for science fiction of 5000 words or less. Whatever you’ve written, there’s likely a market out there for it. But in any case, once you’ve found someone that’s at least mathematically compatible with your story—send it!
Don’t be afraid. This is what the absolute worst case scenario looks like:
Many thanks for submitting to [a literary magazine]. I regret that we did not select the submitted piece for publication – sorry to disappoint. Thank you for allowing us to read.
That’s the full, actual text from an email rejection I received on June 11. After receiving that, I immediately sent the poem (and would have done the same for a short story) to someone else. I always have a bunch of poems and short stories in circulation—always.
That rejection hurt me in no way… why? Not because I don’t care—I would have loved to see that journal publish that poem, which I worked hard on—but because I’ve gotten enough of those notes over the past thirty-six years that no single one of them reads like a condemnation of me as a human, as a writer, as an artist, etc. They didn’t like that poem. Oh well. Next.
And that was it. They did not send the Poetry Squad to kick in my door and send me to Poetry Jail. They copied and pasted a nice “no thank you” note into an email and hit send.
Then they got on with their lives, and so did I.
That same email, but from the agent of your dreams, to whom you’ve sent the novel you’ve been suffering over for God knows how long? Well, that’ll hurt more, but trust me—you just have to believe me—it will hurt less if you’ve got a pile of these in your inbox from short stories (and/or poems, etc.) over… yeah, thirty-six years and counting.
The more you write, the better at it you get.
The more you interact with the publishing business, the less mysterious and labyrinthine it becomes.
If you want to do this professionally, do it professionally. Please forgive the sports metaphor, but you don’t break the single season homerun record with one at-bat.
Step up to the plate, writers, as often as you possibly can, and put yourself in the position to succeed by putting yourself into the publishing business.
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.