(Welcome to the latest Looking Glass column, The Writing Lodge! Here I’ll discuss various aspects of the writing process. I may even invite guest authors from the literary community in on occasion. For now, though, here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately.)
You might think, at first glance – that fleeting look at a subject where you consider it on the surface but don’t really dig deeper – that getting short stories published is, on the whole, easier than getting a full-length manuscript out the door, bound and onto shelves.
I think this common misconception stems from the fact that, in terms of the sheer numbers, conceptualizing, writing and polishing a given short story almost always takes far less effort, just in terms of the raw man-hours, than doing the same for a full-length novel. I’ve hammered out short stories in an afternoon, whereas speaking from the author’s chair, a full-length novel is something that you really have to live with. You’ll eat, sleep and breathe it. (And I reckon every author reading this with at least one full-length book notched on their belt is nodding right about now.)
But it’s actually much easier to get a full-length manuscript out the door and into the hands of someone who could publish it, than it is a short story. (I didn’t say ‘published’, I said out the door.)
Because it’s like there’s a cosmic force out there that, by and large, isn’t quite sure what to do with short stories that have yet to be published. Novels are easy in that regard: they’re released all the time and they can stand on their own as a consumer product. Because short stories do not do the second thing, it gets a little bit weird.
Your first thought, more than likely, is to go the anthology route. Everyone loves anthologies, right? It’s a grab-bag of stories that are typically thematically related to each other in some regard, and it allows short stories to bind together and stand on their own as a consumable product. So you start searching around for publishing houses that you know of as doing anthologies.
Only, you run into the same problem that scientists have in searching for alien life in the universe: maybe you’re looking in the right place, but not at the right time. Maybe Edge just closed submissions for their next Tesseract volume. Maybe the anthology series that would have taken your gritty urban fantasy last year is now only taking submissions for hard sci-fi set between 200 and 300 years hence. Maybe the magazines that would have taken any general subject matter have all given you the “Sorry, but…” notice, and all you’re left with are the places with strict prompts that your story doesn’t fit.
And that’s another thing – a lot of these anthologies, because they want to be thematically linked, will open submissions with a rather strict set of tonal and content guidelines. That’s all well and good if you’re writing a short story specifically based on the prompt, but not if your pre-existing short story doesn’t qualify, unless you’re willing to cannibalize the elements of the story in order to fit the prompt. (Doing this with large elements can result in a choppy and disjointed final product, but adding or shaving off minor details, making it more fitting to the guidelines to wedge the fates in your favour is no crime. We need all the help we can get here.)
And if you write for a specific prompt and your story doesn’t make the cut, well…on the plus side, you’ve got yourself a short story, but on the downside, you’re right back to the problem of not having a place to put it.
And much like being lost in space (again with the stellar similes – you’ve probably guessed what kind of books I write by now), sometimes there’s just nothing to see on the horizon and nothing you can use to orient yourself, let alone something to cling on to. After you’ve been rejected from your selected publications, sometimes there’s just nowhere to go. Unlike novels, where you probably have a whole list of publishing houses to check off one after the other and then can still fall back on Createspace to get it out there, you could easily end up in a situation where there’s just nothing for you. You might find your short story drifting for months or longer, just aimless because you don’t know what to do with it. Please don’t despair. Once you’ve written a short story, it’s yours. It’s not going to ever just go away. You can afford to hold on to it a little while.
I would counsel caution when it comes to throwing your hands up and uploading it for free on sites like Wattpad, however. Don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate Wattpad, and in fact it was on that site that I discovered one of my favourite horror authors, Michael Whitehouse (who seriously has the potential to be Scotland’s answer to Stephen King, but I digress – seriously though, go read the complete Bedtime series if you fancy not sleeping tonight), but when it comes to posting your stories for free online with intent to get them traditionally published later, be careful. Here’s why.
It’s already astonishingly difficult to get traditionally published and more-or-less tantamount to winning the lottery, a fact that is looked on in the writing community with the same resigned inevitability as death, taxes and unappealing options at the election booth. If you put out your short story for free and then try to send it to anthologies, you’ll just be stacking the deck against yourself even further.
Most publishing houses insist on this thing called First Publication Rights. Now, it just means that if they buy your story, they want to be the first ones to unveil it unto the world. It’s a thing that very clearly comes from the pre-Internet era, and I can all but guarantee you that you do not want to muddy the waters by posting a short story online prior to submitting to anthologies, because unless you send out emails to each place asking them this specific question, you won’t know their view on whether online postings count as a forfeiture of those elusive First Publication Rights. Really doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d want to play-by-ear.
Of course, the other option is to make your own anthology, with all the stories written by them; plenty of big-name authors do it. And one of my many author acquaintances, Luca Rossi, is one of the biggest “indie” authors I know, and his first book was a self-made anthology. As to whether that’s more or less challenging than a full novel, that’s not for me to say; novels and short stories are two different skill-sets, so it differs between authors as to what you’ll find easier. (Personally, I still find the tight word-economy in short stories to be a delicious challenge, and I tend to feel more “at home” with a long-form novel, but that’s just me.)
To use myself as an example, I’m actually planning to, at some year in the future, to assemble a self-made anthology of side-stories and one-shot tales that take place in my Architects Of The Illusion universe, and even though I intend to shift into traditional publishing as of my next book, this is the sort of thing that I think would be appropriate to independently publish.
And, of course, all this assumes that you want to get it published in some kind of traditional structure, rather than putting a stand-alone short story out there for free or next-to-nothing on Amazon Kindle. You can certainly do that, but if you don’t want to go that route, then you might be in for a bit of a climb.
If it looks like I’ve been circling around a central point, that’s because I’ve been using some literary sleight-of-hand to distract from the eminent fact that I don’t really have a solution for you, let alone one that comes gift-wrapped with a nice bow that’ll apply to every writer at all times. Rather, I just want to get the conversation started, and maybe together we can think about this a little deeper. Because with getting short stories out into the published world, it can be tough. Maybe it’s time we put our heads together.