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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

writing short stories

OK, I'm going to respond to some of the comments on my post of a few days ago where I referenced the Jim Hines survey, and its insights into how people got their starts...

First, Maria: When you say "writing a few doesn't hurt," I have to disagree a little. Basically, writing short stories is an art form that overlaps with but is still separate and distinct from writing novels. There are some authors, lots of them in fact, who can do both. But there are authors like Michael Burstein who are much better at writing short fiction that novels. There are clients of mine like Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson who didn't write short fiction until many years into their careers. Simon Green wrote some short fiction, then turned almost exclusively to novels for many years, and it's only in the past two or three years that he's started to come into his own as a short story writer. If a writer doesn't have the knack for writing short fiction and spends years getting frustrated trying to do them, not actually turning to book-length work that might work because it's not possible to get through the short story apprenticeship, there IS real harm and real hurt to that author to writing short fiction.

Myke says if you don't write short fiction, you lose out on the networking. But people who don't have short story sales still have the ability to network. Go to writer's conferences. Go to World Fantasy or WorldCon. Befriend other writers via writer's groups or meeting at a convention. Some of the mentoring of new writers by established ones may now be easier because social networking allows us to meet in new and different ways. Since the JABberwocky list has as many people with short story sales as without, I don't shut the door to talking to authors who haven't written short fiction.

There's now also a Part 2 on the Hines Survey, click and enjoy here!

I'll disagree just a smidgen with my client here, solely because he puts a big "Busted" tag on the idea that you have to know someone. Just a smidgen. 25% of the authors went out and found someone to publisher a book without a networking connection. So, no, you don't need to know somebody, but when it's a 3-to-1 knowing and not, vs. a 50/50 split on the JABberwocky list for knowing v. not, it's clear that there's enough of a benefit to knowing someone that I wouldn't say "Busted." You don't need to, it doesn't change the odds like if only 10% of the people did it without any networking benefit, but you can clearly better the odds.

But the comments I got from my first post prove why I despair of ever wiping out this "must write short fiction" school of thought. It may reflect some of the insecurity that writers sometimes have. If the writer succeeds via The Path of Short Fiction, it must be because they took The Path, not because of their own skills and talents, and so they really want very much for everyone else to take The Path. And the fully half of all writers who don't take The Path, even they sometimes believe it was in spite of that.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the idea that novel writers and short story writers are very different breeds. When Tobias Wolfe came to visit a college writing workshop I was in years ago, he suggested the same thing.

Your viewpoint seems to not be typical in the field. Many times when I've met agents and editors, I'm asked about where they can see my short stories. I'm glad I have a few out there for those purposes, but I am pleased to see that opinions vary on who does what and why.

Catherine Schaff-Stump

Maria said...

Oh, I agree, short fiction credits isn't necessary and may not be helpful in breaking into publishing. I just see too many writers who write ONE novel and won't write a second until that one sells. In that case any writing is better than none and exploring whether one has talent in the short arena isn't a bad thing. If writing shorts keeps a writer from continuing to develop a longer work, then it probably is detrimental.

If I had ONLY started writing short fiction exclusively, I think it would have been a mistake. But while I was "learning" I never stopped working on the novels because that is where my love of writing really exists (and also my love of reading it turns out.)

If a writer turns to short fiction just to gain a writing credit, it will probably be a mistake because getting a short published is very, very difficult. And it's possible that in writing shorts, it could affect your style of novel writing--detrimentally. Novel writing has the luxury of planting small clues that can be called upon much later. Short stories, not so much. If you don't develop the ability to tell several stories within a story because you're busy writing shorts all the time, it would be a bad thing for the novel writing process (not saying shorts don't have stories within stories, but they are certain less common and harder to do.)

I didn't write shorts because I thought it was "necessary" to break in. I did it because, all things considered, I thought it might help. What I got instead was a huge learning experience that had nothing to do with breaking in to the novel publishing scene.

Thanks for the discussion. It's interesting to hear about it from the point of view of an agent (and other writers as well.)

Jim C. Hines said...

I certainly agree that knowing someone, even if it's just networking with other writers to get recommendations on which agents to submit to, can be helpful.

But I've often been told flat-out that you can't break in unless you know someone, and that's just (in my opinion) total crap.

I agree with you that networking can be helpful, though.

Bill Swears said...

I had one short S. F. published - in an art magazine. For me, just proving that I could get a story published drove me directly to writing long fiction. I vastly prefer novel length. Now if somebody will just publish me in English. :-)

Unknown said...

I started writing short fiction after completing my first novel because I wanted practice being rejected. From that perspective, while not entirely successful (I had some non-rejections in there) it better prepared me to handle the very frustrating submission process when I finally got up the courage to send the novel out. So there's another value to writing short fiction. (-: