Friday, October 26, 2012

The Short Life

I know more than a few novelists, some of whom have a decent income and a depressingly smaller number who have a fabulous income.  Good for them say I; they should garner rewards for their specical gift of being dedicated to the long form and being rather prolix. Would that my own efforts were among them, but I do not envy their success (well, maybe a little).  I am reconciled to the fact that I am a short fiction writer.

Writing short fiction has proven to be a labor of love and dedication that produces scant rewards that involves beating your fingers (f not your head) against the keyboard in hopes of producing a  quickly forgotten, ephemeral product. It is also learning to deal with more rejection and finding the fortitude to resubmit again and again.  A short fiction writer spends years recycling rejected stories through ever less-rewarding markets, e-magazines, and, finally and distressingly, into freebie anthologies in the hope that someone, somewhere will hear your voice. Sadly many of stores never manage to find a home and must languish forever unread in the writer's midden.

As if rejection were not bad enough, the short fiction writer must fight back a rising tide of the aspiring writers, all anxious to make their mark, and all of whom are competing for the limited attention of the few remaining professional-level short fiction editors, and, finally and distressingly, into freebie anthologies in the hope that someone, somewhere will hear your voice.

The financial rewards of a short fiction career are dismal.  Let us assume that a writer can sell a minimum of ten thousand salable words per month and can maintain at that pace for a full year.  To achieve that many sales the writer has to complete many un-salable pieces just to sell just ten thousand words.  Moreover, a short fiction writer must count the words in their successive drafts, editor's suggested changes and, galleys, not to mention checking writerly business matters.

Let's make a modest estimate that our short fiction writer is a word-crunching machine who can produce thirty thousand finished (i.e. fully edited) words per month. That's three hundred and sixty thousand words per year - the length of a short fantasy novel!  For this Herculean effort the fantastically productive writer sells just ten thousand words a month at an average rate of $0.05 per word.  That means that pounding out short stories for a full year will produce only six thousand dollars.

That meagre income is quickly consumed if the writer has to occasionally travel to a con, spend a night or two in a hotel, and eat out instead of maintaining their writing pace.  A writer can get a free pass at the cons if they are successful, but only if they are willing to publicly bullshit for an hour or two on forums.  This is always in the hope that their presence might attract a new reader or two.  Maybe, if a writer has a lot of published stories, have wheedled themself into enough anthologies, and gotten an award or two, they might, just might, occasionally get a request for an autograph.  As I said at the outset: Writing short fiction is a labor of love.

Just don't do it for the money.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Writing and Editing

Writing isn't that hard; it's just stringing words along and throwing in the occasional punctuation mark so the reader can take a breath.  All you have to do to tell a story is come up with an idea, say something about it, and then get off the stage.  It's a conversation with a reader, a proposition or challenge, nothing more.

Editing, on the other hand is a bitch!  The real  business of writing begins when you have to take that stream of words you wrote and mold it into something that makes sense, that flows well, that is logically complete, evokes a mental image in the mind of the reader, and doesn't violate the dictates of  sensibility.

Editing is not nearly as clean and simple as the original scribbling. The editing path is full of traps for the unwary, of byways that lead nowhere, of vacuous potholes where entire plots may flounder, and vast mountains of facts that must be mastered.  Editing can make you wander far afield, leading you into a wilderness so inpenetrable that you must take a literary machete to hack away the untidy growths of false leads, bad facts, and poor dialogue.  During the editing process characters can  appear and disappear, personalities can merge or disjoin, scenes can change at a thought, and always, always the path to the end seems beyond reach.  Eventually the editing reaches a point where you realize that you must abandon the effort, call the story complete, and send it on its way to certain rejection...

... so you can begin the next.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


A decade ago I built a wall-sized bookshelf, floor to ceiling, of twenty-five shelves, upon which I
placed books I treasured: college textbooks from my undergraduate days and those from my Master's program - all lovingly marked and tabbed. Another shelf was reserved for the books on writing, dictionaries, thesauri, and references.  On the top shelves I have books lovingly inscribed by fellow authors and, below that, my brag shelves with all the publications I've appeared in (except the e-format ones, of course which are there, I suppose, virtually.) I have a set of books on sailing, on humor, gardening, birds, trees, and wildflowers, and another on wine.  On one bottom shelf I  have the printed drafts of my five or six (unsold and therefore unpublished) novels.  Worse, two shelves contain the books I have not yet read, magazines awaiting exploration, guides for future hikes and travels, and obscure references.  There are a lot of books despite the fact that I get rid of books once read - the library is very gracious about my contributions.

But the shelves also contain the sorts of things one accumulates over the years; souvenirs of trips, gifts from friends and family, small statuettes, an earth globe acquired for a story, framed pictures and awards, and a stereo I have not played for at least a year.  Of the books I could say the same. There are only one or two that I refer to when I have a plot problem, the thesaurus, and occasionally, the big book of quotations.  For the rest, they are merely decoration.  The internet has replaced most of the reference material, the reference books are mostly out of date, and the college texts have languished untouched for years and the decorations serve no useful purpose. The entire wall is superfluous to any rational analysis.

Yet, there is a great comfort as I write in knowing that material is sitting there, close at hand for the marginally small possibility that I might someday need to find a bit of material for a story, a character, or a setting.

It is reassuring.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

More About Structure

A few weeks back I mentioned the classic short story structure of set up, exposition, epiphany, and denouement in my blog on Fundamentals.  This was a simple, straightforward form that let's you build a technically straightforward, but simple story.

While all stories  have the four elements mention earlier they do not necessarily need to be in the same sequence.  One could start with parts of the exposition and then move into the set up of the problem.  Starting with an action scene to grab the reader's attention is the most familiar form of this approach and, if you are like me, you always fall for it.  That dramatic, ass-clenching, gut-wrenching, curiosity-rousing beginning shouldn't delay getting to the set up for long because it will overpower the set up and you don't want to do that because it is the set-up that frames the arc of the story and gives the reader a foundation for understanding.

That said, exposition can take a variety of forms chronologically, physically, or even stylistically, such as framing differing narratives in distinct "voices."  You can play with flashback and flash forward, jump between settings or doing both at the same time. In fact, there is nothing that you can't do in this element so long as you don't lose the reader and keep moving toward that dynamite epiphany.

The final rule and that is that you can do whatever you want between the goalposts of set up and epiphany but after you pass that you need to get off the stage as quickly and graciously as possible.