Monday, August 20, 2007

Why I Write Short Stories

It isn’t for the money. You can’t make a living from writing science-fiction short stories. As John Scalzi recently pointed out, rates when Robert Heinlein started out, back in the 1940s, were much higher than they are now. Although you can earn much more in some markets outside the genre, the average in the SF field seems to be around four to eight cents (two to four pence) a word. This isn’t the fault of the markets; magazines are selling fewer copies than in SF’s Golden Age, and rates reflect that. But it means that if I write and sell a 3000 word short story, I can expect to be paid around 120 pounds sterling if I luck out on the high rate. If it was the best kind of short story, the kind that writes itself, it might have taken me three days to finish. That’s forty pounds a day, which isn’t bad, but isn't exactly in the comfort zone either. I’d be earning over 14,000 pounds a year if I could turn out and sell a story every three days, but of course, that's not really possible - I’d have to finish and sell 120 stories a year. There’s some extra money to factor in, of course, if I can resell published stories to collections, my own or reprint anthologies. One of my short stories has been reprinted more than ten times, earning far more than its original fee. But as far as I’m concerned, novels are where the real money is (which isn’t why I write them, or not entirely).

When I started out, I wrote and sold a bunch of short stories before I wrote and sold my first novel. It was the traditional route to becoming a professional SF writer. Things are a bit different now. It’s no longer necessary to make a name for yourself in the short story markets before writing and selling your novel; instead, it’s essential that you get a good, smart, hungry agent who can push your portion and outline. And there are certainly plenty of younger writers, especially those working in the heroic fantasy field, who started their careers as novelists and have never written a short story in their life. But almost all the writers of my generation here in Britain started out by publishing short stories (the only exception I can think of is Gwyneth Jones). I’m pretty sure it’s the same in the States. So, my first short stories were not only provided invaluable writing experience; they were also in part advertisements for myself.

And perhaps that’s a small part of the reason for continuing to write short stories, but it’s by no means the main reason. Now, I do it because I like to mess around with ideas - not just the ideas that form the story’s backbone, but with ideas about structure and form, voice and pace. It’s a form of play. I can also use short stories to explore and elaborate worlds that I may use in novels, or uncover corners of the world of a novel I’ve just written. The Quiet War stories are a good example of that. Over the past decade, I’ve written stories that I’m now mining, mostly indirectly, for material to supply two big novels. Right now, I’m working on a couple of stories about a shabby little interstellar empire, set in the very near future. And I have to admit that I still enjoy the tremendous satisfaction of working quickly and in a small compass, taking one idea and pushing it as far as it will go, or knocking two ideas together to see what will happen, or creating a moment that illuminates an entire life. If things go right, I have a finished piece in a few days. I tell you, it’s as bad as crack cocaine. Plus, when things go right, I get paid for it, too. It beats working for a living.


Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

One of the great joys of being the Editor of OMNI -- not the same thing as being Ellen Datlow's boss, whatever the corporate structure said -- was being able to pay reasonable rates for short fiction.

Of course we also paid well for nonfiction and journalism, and those days are gone, too.

August 23, 2007 10:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good days while they lasted, though. I think the the Baen webzine pays highish rates, but sadly they are the proverbial exception . . .

I heard a vague rumour that OMNI might be coming back btw. Can it be true?

August 24, 2007 6:21 pm  

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