Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Writing Short: Is It For You?

Please welcome our regular 3rd Tuesday guest, Terry Odell, with some interesting information on selling short stories in this era of e-publishing.

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I've written a long one instead." - attributed to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, Voltaire, and probably others too.

That's how I feel about short stories. For me, they're much harder to write, because you don't have time to spend on character development, elaborate descriptions, or sub-plots—all things I enjoy. I rarely bring a novel home in much under 100,000 words. My first completed draft of my first novel was 143,000 words. (It was published at about 85,000 words.)

Yet the very first thing I published was a short story. A very short story. 1800 words. In fact, it was really two stories, 900 words each. The completed piece is a simple scene told first from the man's POV, and then repeated in the woman's POV. I wrote both POVs because I couldn't decide which one worked better. I still couldn't decide, so I submitted it with both. That story is still out there.

For me, the hardest part of writing short stories is finishing them. My early mentor was reading my attempts at fan fiction, which is where I started learning the craft of writing, and she said, "Terry, you have a beginning, a middle, and more middle, and more middle. You need to have an end."

In mystery or romance short stories, you've got a "given" for an ending. The crime is solved; the hero and heroine get together.

Eventually, I figured out how to cut to the chase and get rid of the extraneous stuff. In reality, when you're writing a novel, your scenes and chapters also require a beginning, a middle, and an end. The main difference is that in the novel, until you get to that last chapter, the end needs to lead into the next scene.

So, why don't I write more short stories? With the upsurge in indie publishing, there's now a market for works of any length.

Market yes. But profitable? According to Mark Coker, the founder and CEO of Smashwords, the best selling works are longer ones. The average length of the best-selling titles at Smashwords is 110,000 words. My theory? Given the vast amount of full-length novels priced well below print versions, people want the most bang for their buck. If I can buy a novel for 99 cents, or $2.99, and the lowest price anyone can set at the e-stores is 99 cents, I'm not going to fork over the money for a story that might take me half an hour to read, at most.

I collected four short pieces that connect to Randy & Sarah from my Pine Hills Police series. They'd all been published individually by Cerridwen Press, either as short stories or free reads. None did particularly well. In reality, they're not even all true "stories". One's a prologue, one's kind of an epilogue, and one's a tongue-in-cheek look at the life of an author (from the characters' POV). Now that I have the rights back, I decided to bundle them rather than try to sell them individually. Did that help? I don't think so. The bundle is priced at 99 cents and is, overall, my lowest selling title.

Of course, if you're a major player, all bets are off. One noted author published a 6600 word short story, and charged $2.99 for it. People bought it, although judging from reviews, the price was an issue for many.
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Terry's short romances are published by The Wild Rose Press. You can find more about them HERE. She's also written two short mysteries, one of which is published by Highland Press in DECEPTION.    As for the second … based on the above, she's still deciding what to do with it.

You can find her at her Web site. If you've followed her blog (or want to start!), note that it's moved and is now HERE   You can follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Posted by Maryann Miller who always enjoys a good short story.
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22 comments :

  1. Like you, Terry, I started at the short end of the spectrum, and, in fiction, wrote and published nothing but short stories for a couple of decades before tackling my first novel. (I'm midstream on number five now.) I agree that short fiction is harder in some ways, but I disagree about there being no time for character development. To me, the difference is that character development in a short story has to be achieved with subtext, swift asides, and indirection. Character is telegraphed in short fiction, painted quickly, with deft impressionist brush strokes, rather than with photo-realistic resolution. The same could be said of description. The short story still has to ground the reader with a sense of place and context, but the scene has to be set in passing, with poetic efficiency. It is such concision that makes good short story writing so challenging--and so rewarding.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

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  2. I seem to be able to write only shorts so I guess I'm outta luck.

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  3. I have a hard time with short stories for the same reason.

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  4. I never thought about it, until reading Terry's post, but I actually write a short story every week on my blog (http://essenceofperformance.blogspot.com/) ... and it's free ... and true ... well, free anyway.

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  5. Back in the eighties, I took a short-story-writing course from Writer's Digest. I don't remember a lot about it (still have the workbook someplace), but I pursued novel writing rather than shorts when I began to write seriously several years later. Perhaps the reason was among those you noted, Terry, or perhaps I'm just wordy. My husband used to say that it took me an hour to impart five minutes worth of information. Hmmm...

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  6. Writing short stories is a time-consuming undertaking, as Terry noted in her oft-attributed opening quote. Some authors work on them for years until they sense completion. Because of the layering that Larry referenced in his note, it's not simply a matter of churning out less word count. As all of us who toil for uncertain reward, what that undertaking requires is love.

    For all the reasons Terry states, not all novelists love the short form enough to spend time on it. I get that, because other than flash fiction, which I'll write about later this month, I'm one of them.

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  7. Goodness, I got up to a bunch of comments already. I sure hope you're all farther east than I am!

    Larry, I do agree about needing character development, but I like having lots of time to show character change and growth. Heck, I develop my characters over several books! Short stories also tend to be "denser" with more narrative.

    Gail - I admire your ability to write short. And with e-publishing, many e-publishers are accepting short stories.

    Traci - glad I'm not alone.

    Christopher - yes, I think blogs are a great place to hone the craft. My blog posts tend to be non-fiction, but they do provide exercises in keeping it short.

    Linda - I do babble in real life. Although it's said that women tend to use more words over the course of a day than men, so maybe your husband is just observing that.

    Kathryn -- Flash fiction? I'm running for the hills. (Don't have far to go, though, because I live in them!)

    Terry
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  8. I came to short stories later, and now I'm hooked. I was amazed at how different a discipline short story writing is to novel writing.

    I love that feeling of editing loads out of a short story and ending up with something that is crisp, concise and devoid of anything superfluous.

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  9. Angeline - Good point. I also think that kind of editing is critical for novels as well. Simply having the "luxury" of a higher word count doesn't mean that you don't have to make sure everything in the book is there for a reason.

    Terry
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  10. I'll be sharing more of my approach to short story writing later this month for my regular post here at BRP, but I will say now that it is different from a lot of other writers. I do not plan to write a short story and don't approach the process the same way I do writing a novel. I do admire people who can plan to write a short story and then carry out that plan. I will also admit that I have never tried flash fiction. Maybe I should.

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  11. I feel that I am better at writing short stories than at writing novels. I feel like I can write a short story and have it make sense. I get lost with what to write when i write novels.

    http://poetryprosepopcorn.blogspot.com

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  12. I wrote short stories in college, but turned to full length books after that. Although...recently I did a couple of short stories. I like the idea of anthologies, of having a mix of authors, lengths, focus and voices.

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  13. Maryann -- looking forward to your technique. I usually start writing and write until I get to the end. In most cases, it takes me over 80,000 words to get there. I've only set out to write short stories a few times.

    Bridget - I use a tracking board as I write, so I know where I am.

    Helen - I like reading anthologies, but from what I've seen, they really don't sell well.

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  14. Great post Terry!
    I've only ever written short stories, but this article is helping me see longer stories as more approachable.
    Thanks!

    http://josh-wertz.blogspot.com/

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  15. Josh: Glad it helped. I enjoy writing novels, and find that I simply elaborate on the plot points needed in each scene.

    Terry
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  16. I love shorts. That's primarily what I write, from a couple of hundred words to several thousand. You must pack a punch with nearly every sentence.

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  17. I think it depends on the genre, even the cover. I have friends who are doing very well with romance novellas.

    It's always best to make sure readers know what they're getting into, and don't get disappointed thinking it's a long book.

    I'm liking the shorter books more lately, since my reading time is often broken up and it's hard to stay focused on what's happening.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morgansbooklinks.blogspot.com

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  18. Karen, and I admire your ability to wrap something up so tightly. I do have to limit myself to single plot lines when I write short stories. I'm thinking about writing a few more of my Homicide Detective Kirkland stories and seeing if they either lead to a novel or a collection of shorts.

    Morgan - ah, the novella. That's another "game" entirely. Yes, there's more of a market for those. Although Wikipedia isn't an accurate reference, it lists word counts for short stories as 7500 or less, and novellas as 17,500-40,000. (It sticks in a 'novelette' category between those, but I'm not going there.)

    Terry

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  19. Interesting I dabbled with fan fiction when I decided to try writing. I still have trouble reaching the end even knowing what it is supposed to be.

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  20. Kathy, even when you know what's going to happen at the end, writing it so the reader is satisfied, yet wants to find another book/story you've written is the challenge. Your first page sells the book/story. Your last page sells the next book/story.

    Terry
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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