Thursday, December 02, 2010

Why Write Short Fiction?

Stephen King’s SKELETON CREW, a collection of short stories, opens with one of his wonderful author’s notes, this one a letter to the reader. In it, he features an anecdotal explanation to a friend who has asked King why he still bothers to write short fiction. After all, the friend says, financially, given King’s tax bracket, the stories are losers. King, as one might imagine, goes on to say money has nothing to do with it.

Like my Type M colleagues, I am a novelist first and foremost. After publishing five novels, I tried my hand at short fiction last summer. I had an idea I thought might make a reasonably successful 4,000- or 5,000-word story. In January, it will appear the ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE. I haven’t given up writing novels (I am currently revising one), but the short-story form is an attractive option for several reasons:

First, they are, well, short. I wrote eight novels before trying my hand at the story genre. My first published novel took 11 drafts, and I routinely still write five or six drafts for each novel. I don’t outline, so I wander through the fog for eight months to a year before I discover the conclusion. That’s a long time to wait. It’s a nice change to write a see the end of a story within a week.

Another draw to short fiction is the opportunity to submit for publication myself. Most book publishers don’t accept submissions unless they come from an agent, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable submitting a novel myself anyway: I don’t know the players at major houses in New York City. But my agent does, so I trust him to submit to the editors to whom he feels my work will appeal. However, with short fiction, there are no such restrictions. If I read a story I like in an anthology, I can locate the magazine in which it first appeared and submit myself. Some journals even accept online submissions.

Finally, past sales records do not drive acceptance of short fiction. Any midlist author—especially given the current publishing climate—has a tale about a rejection based on past sales figures. Many editors in New York are seeking only books that will top 20,000 sales. Character-driven fiction often struggles to meet that demand, especially the first book or two in a series. Yet with a story, I can print it, paste a stamp on a SASE, and send it off—no cover letter necessary—and be in the game. And, although reputation helps, sales figures won’t mean a thing.

Any novelist gets a thrill from receiving the first copy of a new book—seeing the cover, seeing your name on the book’s spine—and I am no different. The novel will always be my first love. There is something about boarding the train, riding it for a year, and getting off when it’s finished. Perhaps that’s why people run marathons.

But there’s something to be said for the 50-yard dash, too.

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