Why should authors write short stories?

A recent post on one author’s experience with short stories inspired this post, though I am not writing (mostly) from a personal point of view; I am writing from an editor/beta/publisher point of view. And I am defining short story as anything under 20k words. (Over 20k is novella, over 50k is novel. These are the definitions I generally go by.)

Short stories are invaluable. They are worth their weight in something more valuable than gold: experience.

Of the two new beta-partners I have acquired lately, one of them is a new(er) author and has no love for short story format. She asked me why she should be writing short stories, when all of her ideas were novel-length, and I told her: because it takes a hell of a lot longer to finish a novel.

You can write 100 short stories in two years, but 100 novels?

Let’s do a numeric breakdown, since numbers are pretty hard to argue with. Even if you only counted a novel as 20k words, that would mean writing 2,000,000 words in that two year period. One. Million. Words. Two years in a row. That’s just under 2.75k words a day, 19.2k words a week, 82k words each and every month. Forget NaNoWriMo’s 50k–you will be going for the long haul. For two years.

Even if you did manage to write that much, the novels would probably be worse for having been rushed. When you are writing that much you have no time to stop, to plan, to let ideas ferment in your mind. Never mind any kind of editing experience; the only experience you will be getting here is novel-writing experience.

We’ll go back to the numbers, now. 100 short stories. I will use 5k as my number, here. That is 685 words a day, 4.8k words a week, 20.6k words a month. This is much more manageable!

Not to mention that you would have plenty of time to plan out short stories, edit them, submit them to publishers (if you are that brave), and hone your craft. You will have enough time to join a critique group and have your stories critiqued by others, or to do something with the crit that your personal beta has given you.

So, yes, short stories are experience because you can churn them out and edit them much faster. They are also experience because you really have to make every word, every scene, count.

You will learn pretty fast (Or I know I learned pretty fast) that when you try and make your writing conform to certain word counts that you will have to sacrifice some element, or elements, of the story in order to have a narrower focus. Part of the joy (and the pain) of short stories is that they are snap-shots, and while they can be very complete and finished, they can also be a glimpse at a much larger world.

Both of these things are okay in my book, as long as the author learns the art of writing a story that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and doesn’t leave readers going “That’s it? But what about this? And what about that? And this other thing!” You really don’t want this, even if you are intending your short stories to be some kind of single-author anthology. It is fine for readers to want more of a character, but if they want more of the story you were trying to tell, you were trying to tell too much story for a short story.

That’s what writing short stories is really good at: making you figure out what the fuck you are doing. It becomes harder to get two characters and throw them in a room; there has to be some conflict in order to make the story interesting. Oh, yeah, you know me: it all goes back to conflict. Short stories are not, contrary to what I have heard some people say, too short of a medium for real conflict.

They are too short of a medium to tell all sides conflict, but they are just the right length for other, shorter conflicts, or for specific parts of a larger conflict, especially one where the beginning and middle of it are boring. Just show us the end, if all else fails. I have seen authors do this to great effect!

So, short stories: good for experience with finishing and editing, for learning how to focus a narrative, and one last thing: mistakes tend to show in stark contrast in short stories.

If the author is inexperienced, it will show. If the author isn’t used to finishing things, it will show. If the author rushes the ending, if the conflict is unclear, if there is no conflict, if the narrative is disjointed, if… any mistake, you name it, it will probably show more in a short story than in a novel-length. The only two things I can think of right now that you can tell more with novels than with short stories are pacing and keeping characterization consistent.

Consistent characterization throughout a story is a post in and of itself, I think, but I also think that writing short stories can help you a lot with your pacing, especially stories in the 10-20k range.

One last thing that short stories are good for is giving out presses a test-drive. Submitting a short or submitting to anthologies is a good way of seeing what their contracts are like, seeing what their editing is like, seeing what their general feel is. You don’t want to sign your novel over to a press and find out that their editing is horrible after the fact. You don’t want to find out that they withhold royalties after you have already sold your book. You don’t want to find out that they are uncommunicative only after months of spotty e-mail exchanges.

These are things you want to know before committing a piece that you have poured months of hard work into, and there is no better way to do that than with a short story. Not to mention that anthology deadlines give you goals for when you will be finishing things–I know this is something that helps me a lot!

Why should you be writing short stories? The important question, to me, is why aren’t you writing short stories already? There’s not a singe author who can’t stand to improve their writing, and short stories are an easier way to go about that than novels.

A ramble on polarity in fiction

I read a lot of fantasy fiction, and it’s one of those genres (along with YA) where there’s a lot of polarity in the characters: they’re either all good or they’re all bad. At best, they’re mostly good or mostly bad, but overall I’ve discovered that I can read books like this, but I don’t enjoy them the way I do other books.

It’s really hard for me to relate to characters, for one, and for another… I just end up disliking someone when it seems like they have no flaws or no redeeming qualities.

People aren’t all good; people aren’t all bad. They’re somewhere in the middle. What do I mean?

There could be a character who lives under the bridge and would steal the coat off your back, but they won’t take candy from a baby. They won’t hurt kids.

Another example is someone who always tries to do good, but doesn’t always manage it, because it’s impossible for anyone to do everything right all the time.

People are people and they’re going to have these little quirks. I’d rather my characters be people than characters. People who make mistakes; people who try their best but might not always make it. People with good intentions or bad intentions, but with a morality all their own.

Flexible morals are something I like, too. Flexible morals, flexible gender, flexible sexuality–these things are attractive to me. I don’t want to read about the unrepentantly evil vampire who is evil for the sake of being evil or the cop who saves the day without breaking the law or (perhaps unintentionally) hurting anyone.

I do want to read about the vampire who is evil because being evil is a type of hedonism for him and it’s all that’s left for him after centuries of watching the world’s growing cycles happen around him. Or maybe the vampire who is evil because that is what he was taught finding the strength–maybe some catalyst event–to buck the teachings, to buck his master, because that’s not what he wants.

I also want to read about the cop who bends the law, who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, whether what he wants is to protect someone/thing, solve a mystery, or whatever else. I want to feel his drive to do these things; I want to watch him bumble along the way and make mistakes big and small, but find a way to achieve his goal in the end.

Mishaps, misunderstandings, and mistakes not only create conflict, but also realism. And they’re fun to watch, besides! It gets boring to watch someone go through and do everything right. It’s just not as interesting as watching someone get really creative so that they can do the thing they’re trying to do in spite of all the shit they fucked up.

So, yeah, polarity in characters? Not fun to read. I don’t want a grand battle of good and evil; I want to have to think about which side is the lesser evil, and maybe even to discover later that my choice was wrong and that side isn’t the lesser evil after all.

Reading is just so much more fun when you don’t know what is going to happen. Extremes in characters make them predictable; having your characters somewhere in the middle keeps the reader wondering what happens next.

And that’s what we, the writers, all want, isn’t it? I know I do.

Calls for submissions: Tentacles and Protect Me

The past two days have been very exciting for me! I’ve seen the advanced reader copy (ARC) for Weight of a Gun and squeed mightily over it, written 20k words, and conceived two ideas for anthologies. They’re both somewhat darker themed, but require happy endings, because I learned my lesson with Weight of a Gun. There’s a story in WoaG that doesn’t end so happily, but it’s a damn good story–it pulled me in, made me care, and broke my heart–so I really fought to include it, while taking note of the lesson I learned.

Both of the anthology titles are a “does what it says on the tin” type of thing: Tentacles and Protect Me. Both can be found at Storm Moon Press’s site, under their anthology calls, and I’m going to paste the meat of the calls here at the blog too. (But if you want to submit, the particulars are there.)

Tentacles, ’cause I l0ve tentacle fic and want to see more of it. What better way than to pay people to write it? And I have some authors lined up who say they’re going to submit, too, so this is very exciting and looking like yes, we will have enough submissions to make an actual anthology. The call goes like this:

Tentacles are a taboo subject for most, something most people look at from between their fingers as they hide. But for a growing number of people, it’s a subject that is fascinating and sexy! Tentacle erotica has been around for ages, from The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife to Demon Beast Invasion—it’s a genre that is here to stay.

We want to see romantic and/or erotic stories about tentacles of all kinds. Cephalopods, an experimental form in a lab, energy temporarily made into matter, a cursed seaman, an alien species where they occur naturally… any and all of these are okay.

Or even things we haven’t listed, if your imagination comes up with something new and different! We’re open-minded, as long as the tentacles have at least temporary physical form and are a sexual focus in at least one erotic scene. This means that without the tentacles, the sex scene would not be happening.

Due to the need to build a world where sex with tentacles happens—whether consensual or not—in a believable manner, the stories for this anthology will need to be longer than our standard anthology calls: 20,000-25,000 words.

Submission Deadline: March 25, 2012
Expected Release: July 20, 2012
Pairings: Gay
Genre: Any
HEA or HFN Ending Required? Yes

Pretty cool, right? I’m hoping to include four stories, maybe five, depending on what kind of turnout we have for submissions. If there’s not enough submissions, there’s just not enough submissions! That being said, I’d like to push the word count up over 100k if I can (easier with the longer word count!) so readers get more bang for their buck, but we’ll see how it goes.

We might have a super-secret surprise to go with this one, too, but I’m not holding my breath on this part… it’s just an extra. A mighty nice extra that I think would put a wonderful finishing touch on this anthology, but not something that’s required if negotiations don’t work out.

The other anthology is called Protect Me, and came about because I realized that I found it undeniably sexy when a protector-type figure was willing to kill to keep their loved one safe. S.L. said, we can’t sell an anthology about murder! But, no, that wasn’t what it was about, I said. So she replied: write a call and I’ll tell you whether we can sell that idea or not.

Long has there been an allure for the protector-type character in fiction. There are examples across the board, from real life to fantasy and sci-fi: A bodyguard, police or military personnel, a monarch who leads battles from the front, a ship captain, even an older brother who is always on the look out for trouble.

There’s just something undeniably sexy about a protective man. But how far will he go? He says he’ll do anything, but would he break the law? Put his life on the line?

Would he kill?

That’s the question we’re asking in Protect Me: how far will love, romanticism, or a sense of duty push the protector in order to ensure the safety of his charge? And what kind of effect does it have on both him and the one he protects when he does these things?

Please note that we are not looking for stories with gratuitous violence or snuff scenes, and we will reject any stories that contain these things. What we are looking for is a story that revolves around the protector’s relationship with his charge or charges. We want to know all about the lengths he will go to so that the one he protects is safe and, by the end of the story, some value of happy.

Submission Deadline: October 26, 2012
Expected Release: January 11, 2013
Pairings: Gay
Genres: Any
HEA or HFN Ending Required?

Murder is not required, of course! Just anything that shows the whole, above and beyond thing. Stuff that most people would balk at doing. Because sacrifice in romantic fiction is sexy, when it’s being done for the sake of someone the character loves!

I’m really excited about both of these anthologies! Oh, and there’s one more thing, while I’m talking about WoaG: there’s a sequel anthology going to be coming out. We really loved all the stories the first go-round and there was an incredible number of submissions, so we decided to do a second one. The call:

The taboo surrounding guns is unmistakable. They are dangerous, the very symbol of power and control. Their very presence can threaten, coerce, inspire fear, and spark controversy. Mix guns with sex, and you have a rather explosive combination. As an extension to our first gun-focused anthology, Weight of a Gun II is another opportunity to relate everything about guns that makes them sexy.

We are looking for M/M short stories revolving around sexual play with guns. As long as the gun remains the erotic focus of the story, we’re open to it being used in any way from frottage to insertion to simple intimidation. Feel free to play around with what qualifies as a gun as well. Since we’re happy to cover all different genres, you can use laser, magic, paintball, steampunk, or even toy guns. So long as one partner gets a thrill from the danger associated with the gun, you’re good to go!

As in the first Weight of a Gun anthology, the definition of gun-play is up to interpretation, but the gun itself may not go off during the sexual interaction. This isn’t to say that there can’t be situations that involve dubious consent, but we would prefer not to have accidental discharges. Dark endings are all right, but keep in mind that readers will want a satisfying ending, even if that doesn’t mean HEA or HFN, so no main character deaths, please.

Submission Deadline: August 31, 2012
Expected Release: December 14, 2012
Pairings: Gay
Genres: Any
HEA or HFN Ending Required? No

Editing all these means my calendar for next year is going to be pretty full with stuff I HAVE to do, but I’m determined to relish and weather the challenge. If I can write 150k words in a month, I can edit three anthologies in nine months! It doesn’t even sound like that much when I put it that way, either. This is a very reasonable and sane objective; I can do it! /full of vim. :D