Short Story Advice Roundup

The Short Story Series

This is the end of my short story series, at least for now. If you’re a writer who only writes long-form fiction, I’d like to try one more time to encourage you to at least give short story writing a try. I’m a firm believer that the more techniques and styles you have in your arsenal, the more they all inform each other and add depth to all your writing. Besides, short stories are fun to write and fun to read!

I wanted to wrap things up by pointing you to more short story writing resources. If you want to dig deeper, there are tons of articles. Here are a handful of the ones I’ve found useful.

For an introduction to some of the possibilities of short stories:

What is a Short Story?Reedsy

For important elements of a short story:

How to Build a Short Story from the Ground Up — Chris the Story Reading Ape

For some advice on keeping your short story short:

How to Keep Your Short Story Short — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

To avoid some common mistakes:

Common Mistakes in Short Story Writing — Chris the Story Reading Ape

To keep the reader interested:

Forget Hooks: How to Pull Readers Through a Short Story by Making Promises and Raising Questions — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

For writing to a specific length and theme:

Gaining Readers Through Writing Short Stories — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For an annotated description of the process that goes into a short story:

Writing the Short Story, Part 1: Experimenting — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For advice on which markets to send your stories:

Submit or Surrender? A Tale of Three Publishers — Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Reference Desk #15 — Duotrope vs. Submission Grinder

The Short Story Series

It’s the ultimate crossover event! Today we have a continuation of my short story series, as well as my Reference Desk series detailing useful tools for writers. Get ready for a battle of publication catalogues and a submission tracker showdown!

Finding the right place to submit your short fiction isn’t trivial. Back in the olden days, you might have to subscribe to an actual dead-tree trade journal just to have a somewhat up-to-date list of publications. These days, the internet gives us some easier options.

The two most popular submission tools for short fiction writers are Duotrope and Submission Grinder. Both of them are designed to help you find markets for your stories and track your submissions. Today, I’ll be comparing some of the different features between these two tools to give you a better idea of which one you might want to use.

Price

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Duotrope is a paid service. After a 7-day free trial, it costs $5/month or $50/year. Submission Grinder is completely free to use, although they have numerous options to donate.

If you don’t want to pay or can’t afford it, Submission Grinder is the tool for you.

Listings

Duotrope maintains listings of publishers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and visual art. It also lists literary agents for fiction writers. Submission Grinder maintains fiction and poetry listings.

At the time of writing, Duotrope lists 5,027 fiction markets. They claim that they keep their listings accurate and up-to-date by checking each active listing for changes about once a month. They also run more thorough check twice a year, contacting the editors or agents if anything appears to be inaccurate or if there are signs that the market may be dead or on hiatus. (Websites not being updated is honestly a pretty big problem with small markets.)

At the time of writing, the Submission Grinder has 2,669 listings for fiction and poetry. It’s not entirely clear from the webpage how the listings are kept updated, although there are links for users to suggest a new market listing or suggest a correction, so it seems to be mostly crowdsourced.

Submission Tracking

Both tools let you

  • Add stories to your tracker
  • Add submissions for a story
  • Mark a submission as accepted, rejected, or no response
  • Track and search personal statistics
  • Track deadlines

Both tools also aggregate the statistics across their user base. This allows them to show information like what percentage of submissions are accepted or rejected by a specific market. They both have anonymized feeds of recent activity.

Duotrope has a plethora of statistics*, including the markets that are fastest and slowest to respond, and those that are most or least likely to accept (or even respond!)

*Note: you can see the list, but not the actual statistics, without a subscription

Additional Features

  • Both tools have an optional newsletter with new listings and other publishing news.
  • Duotrope has transcripts from hundreds of editor and literary agent interviews—possibly useful for getting a better idea of what your favorite market is looking for, or just general good practices.
  • Duotrope has some basic guides for writers, especially around submitting your work. It also has guides to using their various tools.

Takeaways

Honestly, both of these tools get the job done. They make it easy to search a lot of different markets, and to track your submissions as you send them out.

Overall, I do find Duotrope to be a little bit nicer. It has a few more features and a little more polish, but that’s to be expected when they have a subscription fee. If you don’t mind spending the money, I think Duotrope is good value for the cost.

Submission Grinder feels a little more like a community project, crowdsourcing market info and relying on donations. Maintaining a popular tool site takes work, and based on their Patreon, I think Submission Grinder is powered more by love than money.

If you have a story or two that you’re looking to send out, you should definitely try out one of these services. It will make it a lot easier to find ideal markets and keep track of what gets sent where.

Submitting Short Stories

The Short Story Series

Make Sure It’s Ready

Writing a brilliant short story isn’t enough. When it comes time to submit, you’re in a competition with every other author who’s submitting to the same magazine, anthology or contest. And often, that’s hundreds of other people—hundreds of other stories—you’re going up against. Make sure to seek out critique and make revisions. Polish that story until it shines.

If your story is accepted, an editor may certainly ask for changes, but you still need to show your very best work up front if you want to get that far. Editors and readers are looking for any excuse to reject your story to whittle down that huge pile of submissions. Don’t give them an easy excuse like typos or sloppy grammar.

Where to Submit

The first thing you need when submitting a short story is someplace to submit to. Hopefully you’ve been reading short stories, because this is a great way to do field research on publications in your chosen genre(s). The publishing landscape is ever-shifting, but it’s a good idea to read widely to get a sense of who the heavy hitters are.

For example, as someone who writes a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, I know that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction And Fact, and Asimov’s Science Fiction are three of the biggest speculative fiction magazines. They’ve been around for decades and pay professional rates for short stories. There is a prestige to getting published by them. However, there are a number of other magazines and websites that are popular and pay well, and an even larger number of smaller magazines and websites that often fill specific niches and tend to pay less.

Ultimately, what you want to do is understand your options and match your story to the places with the best chance of accepting it. The best way to do that is to read some sample stories and look at the submission guidelines.

Submission Guidelines

Most actively publishing magazines, open contests, and anthologies with open submissions will post submission guidelines on their website. Submission guidelines are just the publisher’s description of what kinds of submissions they want, and how they want to receive them.

Tools like Duotrope and Submission Grinder collect the submission guidelines of many different publications and make them easier to search, so these can be a real boon. However, they sometimes take a while to add new publications, remove defunct ones, or update guidelines that have changed. Always, always, always double-check the publication’s website, and follow those guidelines if there’s any discrepancy.

Submission guidelines typically have some subset of the following:

  • Genres, Subgenres or Topics – A description of the kind of stories the editors like. This can be very broad (“hard science fiction”) or considerably more specific (“steampunk,” “stories related to climate change”). Contests and anthologies often have a theme, and even big magazines will sometimes have “theme issues.”
  • Word Count – Most publications have hard limits on the size of story they will accept. They might also note the size of story that they prefer, even if they occasionally accept larger submissions.
  • Submission Windows – Anthologies and contests always have cutoffs, because they eventually have to publish or judge. Some magazines only accept submissions at certain times.
  • Pay Rate – Legitimate publishers say up-front how much they will pay. This is often a rate like X cents per word, although you will sometimes see a flat payment per story/poem. What counts as a “professional rate” is often decided by your genre’s professional organization. For example, the SFWA currently considers 8¢/word to be the minimum for sci-fi and fantasy.
  • Form and Formatting – Some publications only accept stories sent as Word documents to an email address. Others have a form directly on their website for submission. They may specify a specific font, font size, or line spacing. These may sound pedantic, but they’re designed to make it as easy as possible for the editors to wade through a sea of submissions. You do not want to be the person who makes an editor’s life a little more difficult.
  • Response Time – Submitting stories is slow! Most publishers take weeks or months to respond to a submission. Patience is a virtue, but if you wait for the specified response time and don’t get anything, you should feel free to reach out to the publisher, or move on and submit that story somewhere else.
  • Other Stuff – Submission guidelines may also say whether a publication accepts simultaneous submissions (sending one story to multiple publications at the same time), multiple submissions (sending several stories to the same publication at the same time) or reprints and translations. As a rule, don’t send any of these things unless it’s explicitly allowed.

Formatting

There is a standard format for short stories, and the incredibly detailed visual guides on William Shunn’s website have become the go-to place for writers to find them. Remember, the specific instructions within a publication’s submission guidelines should always be followed first. If the instructions aren’t specific on a particular point or leave something out, you can default to Shunn’s recommendations.

Submission Considerations

When you first finish a short story, there will probably be a number of publications that fit your story. The next step is to decide which of them to submit to first.

Consider starting with the best pay or highest prestige. Sure, I’m less likely to have my story accepted by Analog than a smaller magazine, but if they do accept it, I’m getting an excellent pay rate, and a really nice publication credit. If they reject it, I can always send it out to another.

There are other approaches, however. If you’ve found several potential publishers who accept simultaneous submissions, you can send your story to all of them at once. Simultaneous submission can really speed up the submission process, where you’re often waiting weeks or even months for a reply.

If one or more of your potential publishers has a submission window, you may want to submit to them while it’s open. If they reject it, you can submit to the others at any time.

Tracking Submissions

When you’re submitting your first short story, it may seem silly to talk about tracking your submissions. After all, it’s your baby, your pride and joy, and that publisher will surely love it. And even if it gets rejected, it’s not that hard to keep track of one story.

The truth is that writing and submitting short stories is a grind. Statistically, most publishers don’t take simultaneous submissions, it usually takes weeks to get a response, and most stories don’t find a home on their first submission. If you’re going to write short stories, you’re likely to end up with multiple short stories out for submission at once. Possibly a lot of them. You’re going to get rejections. And you’re going to have to keep writing.

Tracking your submissions ensures you know what stories are currently out, who has already looked at them, and who’s looking at them now. You’ll want to track the expected response time so you know when to check your spam folder, send a query, or give up and send to another publisher. You may want to make a list of the publications you’re interested in sending a particular story. You might also find it a useful place to track acceptances and payments (don’t forget those taxes!)

If you want to do your own tracking, Excel spreadsheets and Google Docs are infinitely flexible, and as long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can craft exactly what you want. Alternatively, both Duotrope and the Submission Grinder have built-in submission tracking, and tracking your statistics in those systems helps to build statistics that can be useful to everyone.

Rejection

The hard part of the short story grind is the rejection. Nobody likes pouring their heart and soul into a story, only to be told that it’s not good enough. Unfortunately, the simple math of publishing is that there are far more stories being submitted than there are slots for publication. The majority of stories are never published.

The way to fight that math is to craft the best story you can, and then submit as much as you can. More (good) stories and more submissions raise your odds. You will need to build up the fortitude to be rejected over and over again and keep on going.

It’s also important to note that not all rejections are created equal. There are a few different kinds:

  • Form rejections – These are most common. The story didn’t pique the interest of the publication.
  • Higher-tier rejections – These may still be form rejections, but they usually mention that the editors were interested, or that they considered the story but ultimately didn’t find a spot for it. Some publications have multiple tiers of readers, and the story didn’t get all the way to the top.
  • Personalized rejections – These are rare and valuable. They are specific to you and your story, and explain in more detail why the story didn’t quite make the cut. If you’re lucky, they may suggest improvements or invite you to submit more work to this publisher.

While all rejection may seem bad, it’s a great sign to receive any personalized feedback from a publication. These people are constantly wading through the slush pile of submissions and working on tight deadlines, so they only spend time on a personalized response when they really like something. Unfortunately, due to the complexities of publishing, they may really like your story and still not be able to publish it. Take it as a win, and move on.

More Advice

Finally, I’m going to point you to Aeryn Rudel’s new author starter kit.

Rudel is an incredibly prolific short story writer who tries to make 100 short story submissions every year. His blog is a great general resource when it comes to writing and submitting stories, and his monthly recaps show just how much rejection even a successful author has to power through.

Submit!

At this point in the Short Story Series, we’ve been through all the basics of writing short stories. I’ll probably still have one or two more articles, but you know enough to get started. If you haven’t done it before, it may seem daunting to write a short story and send it off to a publisher. Great! The best way to gain experience is to try it.

Once your story is submitted you can forget about it for a few weeks and write something new. It’s the authorial circle of life. Don’t give up, and keep writing.

Revising Short Stories

The Short Story Series

When we think of revision, we often think of line edits: correcting grammar and punctuation; cutting tropes or overused idioms; improving word choices here and there. These are mechanical improvements that anyone can learn to do.

The real challenge, however, is in making the story great. It’s in making something that hits the reader like a punch to the gut. While grammar and punctuation are important, they’re surface polish. What a story really needs underneath that is focus.

Finding Focus

Even the tightest of novels is huge in comparison to a short story. Short stories simply don’t have as much space to maneuver. A novel can choose to have more characters, go into more depth, have more plot points, more ideas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I said previously, if a novel is a searchlight, a short story is a laser. It needs to cut directly to the point. When it does, it can be incredibly powerful.

If you’re the sort of writer who likes to plan up-front, you may already know what you want the focus of your short story to be. If you’re more of an exploratory writer, you may leave yourself open to a few different options and see what speaks to you as you write. You don’t necessarily have to know all the answers while you’re writing your first draft.

It’s during revision when you have to make the hard choices.

Cutting Diamonds

Once you have a first draft, it’s helpful to go back and think about what you were trying to achieve. What made you want to write this in the first place? Is it still the thing that excites you the most about the story? Is there a twist ending that everything leads to? A particular character or situation? A hard choice that has to be made?

Maybe it’s not a “traditional” story element that excites you. Maybe it’s formatting or style. Maybe it’s tone or exploration of a particular emotion.

If you didn’t have a clear plan, reread your work and see what speaks to you. You’re looking for the core of the story, the beating heart that makes it live. Of course, it may not actually feel like that just yet. The important thing is that you want it to.

Once you’ve found the core of the story, there’s only one thing left to do. Put it at the center and rearrange everything else to support it. Even if you’ve written the greatest sentence to ever grace the page, if it doesn’t reinforce the core of the story it has to go.

Cut Relentlessly

When I was writing microfiction and studying drabbles, I learned an important lesson about revision: no matter how perfect you think your story is, there’s something that can be cut. When you have to fit a coherent story into a single tweet, you make some hard choices. You can replace two words with one, or a six letter word with five. If you can lose a sentence and the story still makes sense, you cut it. If you have a fun little aside you want to include…you don’t. You’re still fifteen words over budget. Cut, cut, cut.

I highly recommend any writer try writing a few tweet-sized microfiction stories. It’s one of the best exercises you can do to really internalize an understanding of trimming a story to its bare bones.

Of course, most short stories are much longer than 250 characters. After writing microfiction, a short story will feel positively spacious, but the same principles still apply. Unfortunately, writing a short story is harder than writing microfiction. Microfiction takes away most of your choices. If you can cut something, you probably do.

In a short story, you have some wiggle room. Not a lot, but some. You don’t have to cut quite as much. You still need to identify the places where you can make a cut with just as much ruthlessness as microfiction. Then, you need to identify the cost of that cut. Usually, there’s some identifiable reason you wrote that paragraph or sentence or word in the first place. If there isn’t, that’s an easy cut.

Once you’ve identified the cost, the only question is whether it’s worth it. Remember, as an author, you’re already biased toward loving your own words. Are those words really earning their keep? Do they reenforce the core, the beating heart of the story?

Cut more than you think is reasonable, and see how it feels. Save as many versions as you need to in order to cut fearlessly.

Getting Feedback

Revision can’t be done in isolation. No matter how much you try, no matter how much space you give it, it will always be your story. You need to see it through the eyes of fresh readers.

Luckily, requesting feedback on a short story is a much smaller ask than requesting feedback on a novel. If you’re lucky enough to have trusted beta readers, by all means ask them to critique it. A writing group is another great way to get feedback from several people.

There are also several online options. Critters is my go-to website for online critique from other active writers. Just be aware that you’ll be expected to return the favor and provide critiques for others in return.

Revision is Exciting

Often, the mere mention of revision is enough to make an author groan. It can sometimes feel like writing the first draft is the creative part of the process, and revision is dull in comparison. However, revision can be every bit as creative and challenging as the first draft. It is the art of perfecting—of finding the core of the story and trimming, sanding and polishing until every single word sings it out.

It is like taking a crude circle of glass and shaping it into a precise lens, to get that laser focus.

Short Story Categorization

The Short Story Series

When you’re writing short stories with the intention to publish, you’ll want to pay attention to your word count. Short story publications most often pay per word, and will have limits on the size of stories they are willing to publish.

As a general rule of thumb, shorter stories are easier to get published than longer ones. Many publications won’t accept longer stories at all, and those that do accept them will often only accept a small number per issue.

On the other hand, the internet has provided new opportunities for longer stories that still fall short of novel-length. Novellas are becoming more common on e-book services like Amazon. If your story lends itself toward serialization, you can also consider breaking it up for episodic publishing, like Vella.

Microfiction/Nanofiction (<500 words)

Not everyone agrees on the definition of these terms, but they typically refer to the shortest of stories. I’ve used the microfiction tag for twitter-sized stories, but some people apply the term to stories up to a page long, or up to 500 words (about two pages).

Drabble (100 words)

Drabbles focus specifically on a length of 100 words. Some publications, like Martian Magazine, require exactly 100 words. Others, like The Drabble, treat 100 words as an upper limit.

Flash Fiction (<1000 words)

Flash fiction is a blanket term for the shortest fiction. One thousand words is a common upper bound, although some publications will categorize up to 1,500 or even 2,000 words as flash.

Short Story (<10,000 words)

Again, this is a little nebulous, but once you get beyond ten thousand words, you’re getting outside “standard” short story territory. Many publications will have tighter limits for what they allow, like 7,500 or 5,000 words.

Novelette (10,000 – 17,500 words)

There is a weird limbo between the short story lengths typically published by magazines, and the length of full-fledged novels. Novelettes live at the shorter end of this range. They’re typically defined as anything from ten thousand to 17,500 words, although some definitions cap them at an even 20,000. Sometimes novelettes are considered a subset of our next category, novellas.

Novella (20,000 – 40,000 words)

Novellas are the top end of the range before you get into novels. These are rare in traditional paper publishing, but they’ve become more common with the proliferation of cheap e-books.

Novel (40,000+)

Anything above 40,000 words is typically considered a novel. If you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, this is the default goal. However, a higher word count is expected in most genres. This leaves “short novels” in a similar situation to novellas. As with novellas, these have become more common in e-books, where customers are less likely to consider how thick a book is before buying, and the economics of printing are less of a concern.

Others?

Any length-based categories I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Why Read Short Stories?

I began my series of short story posts with the question, “Why write short stories?” This time, I want to look at the other side of the coin and ask, “Why read short stories?”

For Fun

This one should be obvious. This blog is mostly about becoming a better writer, and we all got into this whole “author” mess because we really enjoyed a good story, right? (If you got into it for the fame and fortune, well…maybe you should consider letting someone else make your career choices for you?)

As I mentioned in the last post, novels have become the default unit of fiction. If you chat someone up at a social event and discover you both like science-fiction, you wouldn’t be surprised to be asked, “What’s your favorite book?” But it seems like it would have to be a very specific crowd of people to get asked, “What’s your favorite short story?”

And yet, there is a smorgasbord of great short fiction out there. There are still fiction magazines, even in this very non-magazine-friendly era, but there are also piles of short stories out on the internet, many of them available for free. If you’re the sort of person who reads dozens of novels a year but never reads short stories, I’d encourage you to go out there and try some. You can read a lot of short stories in the amount of time it would take to read one or two novels.

Recently, I’ve been savoring the anthologies of short stories I got from the Martian Year 2 Kickstarter. They’re great, because I can pick up one of these little books and read a story or two when I have a spare ten minutes. When I’m reading a novel, I much prefer longer reading sessions, where I can really get into it. Short stories are more like literary snacks. I can just pop one or two whenever I’m in the mood.

To Feed The Compost Heap

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read widely, both inside and outside of your chosen genres. Short stories are a great way to survey the scene and expose yourself to the ideas and techniques that other authors are using.

I haven’t been able to find the attribution, but some author suggested that the writer’s subconscious is like a compost heap. You put bits and pieces of stories and style and weird ideas and the nightly news into it, and every once in a while you turn it over with a pitchfork. That mix of stuff becomes good dirt, a fallow base to grow your own stories from.

Short stories give you a lot of good fodder for the compost heap. You expose yourself to so many more ideas and styles by reading an anthology or an issue of a lit magazine than by reading a novel. Of course, short stories are necessarily smaller and less complex than a well-crafted novel, so there’s certainly value in both.

By reading more and more varied stories, you can cover more ground. One of the nightmares that keeps some authors up at night is the idea that they’ll finish their perfect novel, only to discover that an almost identical book was written in the early ’80s. Honestly, I think this is an overblown fear, and that for pretty much any story you can find something similar in the past, if you try hard enough. However, the more aware you are of the “story landscape” that you exist within, the more likely you are to come up with ideas that go beyond what others have done with a particular topic or style.

To Learn Technique

For the most part, we all have the same words available to us, whether you work in the deeper or shallower ends of the vocabulary pool. And yet we manage to have incredibly different styles of writing. Compare three semi-random examples from my bookshelf: Hemingway, Vonnegut and Tolkien. They’re all writing in English, but in a side-by-side comparison, they certainly feel like they’re writing in different languages.

By exposing you to more variety, short stories let you experience more varied techniques and tones. In the span of an hour, you could experience stories with the tight, simple language of Hemmingway, the lush descriptions of Tolkien, and the sly, comedic-yet-depressing viewpoint of Vonnegut.

Short stories also tend to be distilled and concentrated. A novel has some room to meander. A short story needs to be tight; it needs to know what it is and what it’s trying to do. If a novel is a big, bright search light, a short story is a laser.

To Research Markets

I won’t get into this too much, because we’ll talk about it in a later post, but if you’re writing short stories and you want to submit them for publication, it’s always good practice to read some of the stories from that publication before you submit. Magazines and anthologies usually describe in some detail the kinds of stories they’re looking for, but you’ll get a much better idea of the things the editors like by reading some of the stories they actually picked for previous issues or editions.

When you get into the short story submission grind, it might feel onerous to research a lot of different markets like this, but really it’s a great opportunity—you get to target your stories to markets that are more likely to accept them, you get to read some good stories, and the magazines get more readership and maybe a few bucks if you buy a sample issue or two.

Get Started

Whether you want to publish short fiction or not, don’t overlook short stories in favor of novels. There are a lot of great stories out there, and you’re going to miss out on so much if you only read the ones that are hundreds of pages long.

If you want somewhere to get started, check out my page on drabbles. These are super-short stories of exactly one hundred words. That page has links to ten of my favorite drabbles, as well as a couple of my own stories.

Beyond that, a simple google search for free short stories will turn up more than you could ever read. If you prefer reading words on paper, pretty much every genre has a few short story magazines you could subscribe to. Or you could visit your local library where the librarians would no doubt be delighted to help you find anthologies in the genre of your choice. Once you start looking for short stories, they’re not hard to find.

Why Write Short Stories?

Recently, I’ve been looking for ways to write more. I’m currently in the middle of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. A novel is a huge commitment, and while it can be immensely satisfying, it can also feel like a slog sometimes when it’s all I’m working on. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done in years—start writing short stories again.

This is the first post in a series I’ll be doing about short stories—reading, writing, editing, and submitting. Modern fiction has become really fixated on the novel as the most prestigious form of fiction, but novels are just one of the many shapes a story can take. Short stories have a lot to offer.

This week, let’s get into some of the advantages of writing short stories.

Write More

At the risk of controversy, I think that great writing is more about execution than ideas. A great idea is the foundation of a story, but we’ve all read stories with an interesting premise that just fell flat. Likewise, a master of the craft can sometimes make a great story out of a very mundane premise.

Most writers have piles of ideas and just not enough time to figure out the story for each one, let alone actually write it. Even very prolific writers usually don’t manage more than a couple novels per year. For slow writers like me, that kind of pace is impressive. But how many of us only have a couple story ideas per year?

One of the joys of writing shorter stories is that you can write them quickly. A thousand-word flash fiction story can be drafted in a single sitting. Short stories are easier to outline and prepare, if you’re the sort of writer who prefers to do that. Even if you would never dream of jumping into a novel without a thorough outline, you might be tempted to try exploratory writing on smaller stories.

Finish More

Listen to your crazy writing uncle, Chuck Wendig, and finish your projects. Finishing your stories forces you to practice every step in the writing process, and practice is what helps you become better.

Of course, if you’ve ever played a sport or an instrument, you’ll know that the best way to practice is through purposeful repetition, especially of the basics. That’s why you run drills at football practice or play your scales and arpeggios every day.

The truth is that it’s hard to practice writing through novels. Short stories are great because they take you through the full cycle of writing, from ideation to draft to editing and critique and final polish. The shorter the stories, the more you get to practice all of these things. And beyond honing your skills, you can also develop a better understanding of what you like and dislike; what your strengths and weaknesses are; what styles and themes you enjoy.

Publish More

Short stories aren’t only an opportunity to practice your craft and explore more ideas. They also represent more chances to publish.

If you’re going the traditional publishing route, it can take months or years to write a novel, then months or years more to get an agent, go through revisions, get an editor, go through more revisions, and (hopefully) actually get published. If you’re self-publishing, you need to take on the editing and publicity yourself. Either way, a lot of effort goes into the publication of a novel. Even scarier, many authors write several books before they come up with something that catches an editor’s eye or climbs the Amazon lists. Each novel takes a lot of effort and carries a lot of risk of failure.

By contrast, there are hundreds of active publications, anthologies and contests that accept short story submissions. You don’t need an agent to represent you, and the turnaround time is typically measured in weeks, not months or years. Because each story takes less work, it represents less risk of failure. Authors who write a lot of short stories aren’t phased by rejection letters. They know that they can just submit that story somewhere else. They might have five, ten, or more stories out for submission at any given time. And while some of those stories might never find a home, others will, and may even find a long life through anthologies and reprints.

Short stories are not as lucrative as books. You’d have to sell a lot of stories to match the a single mid-list advance. But they provide more opportunity to get your work, and your name, out there for others to see. There is a small (but not insignificant) advantage when you’re able to list a few recent publications in that cover letter for your novel submission.

Level Up

For better or worse, modern authors tend to measure success by novels. But if you think short stories are beneath you, you’re wrong. Great short stories can be every bit as artful as great novels, and while building a big cohesive story in a novel can be challenging, the brevity of short stories can be equally demanding.

If short stories don’t sound fun to you, you might be surprised. Short work provides the opportunity to play, and to try out all sorts of new ideas and techniques. And if you’re trying to get better at writing (as I think we all are, perpetually), each short story is an opportunity to level up.

The Read/Write Report

These past two weeks I’ve been reading a wide variety of things and doing more thinking about writing than actually writing.

Finishing Dune

First up, I finished reading Dune with my twelve-year-old at bedtime. His reaction to the conclusion was something like, “Wait, that’s the end?” It’s a fair reaction. The book does wrap up the plot quite nicely, destroying or subjugating all the villains while the heroes essentially take over the galaxy in a massive gambit. But this is also a book that is constantly looking into the future. Paul has his visions. The Bene Gesserit have their centuries-long plans. And nearly every chapter begins with quotations from a character who is only introduced near the very end of the book. It sets you up to want more.

Dune remains one of my favorite science fiction books. Its feudalism-in-space style gives it a timeless quality, and it addresses certain themes that still feel pretty fresh today.

Guards! Guards!

Moving on from Dune, we’re now reading “Guards! Guards!” at bedtime. This is one of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books. There are 41 of them total, and I think I’ve read about half of those over the years. This happens to be one that I haven’t read, and I was excited to discover that it seems to be the first book to focus on the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The books tend to follow a few different groups of characters, such as The Witches, The Wizards of Unseen University, and the Night Watch. I’m looking forward to reading the origin stories of a number of characters who show up in many of the later books.

Pratchett is truly a treasure, simultaneously creating an amazing fantasy world and also infusing it with brilliant British humor. My closest comparison is Douglas Adams, although he wrote science-fiction comedy. I always find it sad how few books we got from Adams, and I take solace in the huge number that Pratchett was able to write before his death (which still felt too soon).

Reading a new Pratchett book is comfort food. The only sad part is that someday I will have read them all, and I won’t get to have that experience again.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Weeks ago, while cruising around writing Twitter I saw some recommendations for wuxia-inspired novellas. I bought the e-books on a whim, and now I’m working through them.

The first one I finished was The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Although it’s a book that includes several fights and a little bit of magic, it is mostly a story that focuses on the tribulations and relationships among the members of a group of outcasts in the Tang Dynasty. It’s lighthearted and even funny in places without being straight comedy. It’s a fun read.

The author, Zen Cho, uses a fantastic trick that I plan to steal. Whenever the tension rises to a peak—an illegal sale goes awry or the group gets attacked by bandits, for example—Cho reveals one of the characters’ closely guarded secrets or a bit of their back-story, to the reader and to the characters. Not only are the characters in trouble, but their relationship is thrown into flux by this sudden addition of new information.

I think this is tricky to do in an organic way, but when it’s done well (like it is here) it takes an exciting scene and kicks it into an even higher gear. It also ensures that the characters have some new problems to work out as soon as they manage to resolve the mess they’re currently in.

I was a little disappointed by the end of the book; not because it was bad, but because it was short and it felt like it was only just getting going. The stakes never felt very high for the characters, and they never seemed to be in very much danger for very long. I was left wanting more of these characters and this setting, driven by a bit more danger and excitement.

What I’ve Been Writing

Not that much, if I’m being honest. I took a mini-writing-break, both from the blog and from my fiction.

I’ve got two short stories percolating in my head: one about using time travel for performance art, and one about the annoyances of reincarnation. I’m planning to work on at least one of those by the end of this week.

Of course, I also need to keep working on Razor Mountain, which remains my highest writing priority. Maybe I’ll try switching back and forth to stay fresh and motivated.

The Read/Write/Watch Report

No storytelling class this week, so I’m here with the low-down on what I read and wrote, with a bonus of what I watched.

What I Read

I’m still reading through Dune, out loud, with my oldest child. We’ve finished part two, and moved into the last third of the book. While “feudalism in space” can sometimes seem a little silly, it does lend the book a timeless feel. I think you could change the setting to the middle ages (or a fantasy world based on the middle ages) and very little about the plot would have to change. And there’s no retro-futuristic technology that makes it obvious that the book was written half a century ago.

Of course, that is a pretty good indicator that Dune isn’t very “hard” sci-fi, but that doesn’t bother me. I appreciate sci-fi that really incorporates the scientific elements and futurism into the plot, but I don’t mind a little space fantasy. And sometimes, I think the fetishization of hard sci-fi by a certain readership just results in books that are full of exquisitely detailed technology and populated by dull cardboard characters.

Keeping up the comic book kick I’ve been on lately, I also started rereading Scott Pilgrim. It’s such a weird mix of nerd culture and awkward young people and goofy fourth-wall breaking fun. It surprises you with the semi-serious arc of the titular main character thinking he’s a pretty great guy, only to slowly realize that he’s poisoned every romantic relationship he’s ever been in. Plus, it has a movie adaptation that actually works in spite of all that weirdness, thanks to the genius of Edgar Wright and his close collaboration with the author, Bryan Lee O’Malley. I might just watch that again once I’m done with the books.

What I Wrote

I finished the first draft of a short story, “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” It’s about rich teens trying to rebel in an over-populated and under-resourced future, and the moral complications of pursuing your own happiness instead of actively sacrificing to make the world better.

It’s been a while since I wrote any short stories, and this one just flowed right out. As soon as I finished, I started thinking about some cleanup that needed to be done, including the removal of a couple side-characters that ended up not really having much purpose. I’m going to let it sit for a few days though, so I can come at it with fresh eyes for the edit.

What I Watched

I’ve really cut back on watching TV and films over the course of the pandemic, and I honestly didn’t have much to cut back on in the first place. However, my wife and I had a date night, and we went out to see an actual movie in an actual theater. It’s quite the thing. All of the theaters in our area seem to have converted into the kind that are a fancy, big-chaired, liquor-and-food-serving extravaganza. Which is a big improvement over the cheap, sticky and uncomfortable theaters of my youth.

We saw the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it was the strangest and most enjoyable thing I’ve allowed into my eyeballs in quite some time. I wish we could cut 50% of the superhero movies, sequels and reboots and just fund deeply weird, lovingly-made things like this.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the basic premise involves a middle-aged woman who is not having a great time in life, who finds out that she has the ability to connect her brain to other versions of herself across infinite universes. This lets her tap into her alternate-selves’ life experiences and skills, which is pretty necessary because she also finds herself in a fight against a big bad evil that’s rampaging across all these universes.

A lot of the fun of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the “anything is possible” aspect of infinite universes. You are going to see. some. things. The story also does a great job of tying the really big story of war across infinite universes with the small and personal story of this woman and her family relationships. It’s a fantastic illustration of one of the principles Chuck Wendig talked about in Damn Fine Story: the stakes can be incredibly huge, but it doesn’t matter unless they are also something personal to the characters, something we can all relate to in our own lives.

From the Blogroll: Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Aeryn Rudel is a sometimes-editor, sometimes-RPG-designer, and writer of stories. In fact, he is an unstoppable story writing machine.

On his Rejectomancy blog, he talks about various writing topics, but what I find most interesting is his thorough documentation of the sheer quantity of short stories and flash fiction he writes, along with his submission, acceptance, and rejection numbers.

There’s plenty of advice out there about writing and submitting short stories to publications, but I haven’t found another person who is so thorough in documenting their own personal experience. He really embodies the idea that writers should embrace rejection as a natural part of the publishing process and build up a thick skin.

Earlier this month, he compiled some interesting information and advice to commemorate his 500th rejection, a feat that took him almost ten years of submissions.

Check it out over at Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy.