Thursday, June 19, 2014

What I Learned Writing Short Stories For Two Years

Like most folks in my profession I grew up as an avid (rabid) reader. I wouldn't read any old thing (dramas and young adult books didn't much appeal to me then or now), but chances were good I had one book in hand, and a holdout in an ankle holster just in case. While I loved a good novel just as much as the next kid, one thing I was always up for was a good short story collection. Scary Stories, Bruce Coville's Monsters (and other versions), along with the infamously trashy Fright Time books that would put three horror novellas in a single book were my bread and butter in boring classes and on family road trips. As I got older my love of short stories didn't waver, but I moved on to collections by Stephen King, Clive Barker, and others. I also read a lot of anthologies with different authors in them, but it never occurred to me to ask how those writers got their stories into those books.

Or at least it hadn't, until the summer of 2012 when I stumbled across a call from Jupiter Gardens Press for their Boys of Summer anthology. I stared at my screen, read the page a few times, and a light bulb went off in my head.

"Oh," I thought. "So that's how you get into a short story anthology."

The Experiment

In May 2012 I'd been a freelance writer for four years. I had worked for magazines and newspapers, and I'd completed two novel manuscripts, but I hadn't actually published a piece of fiction in several years. So I wrote the short stories Summer People, Heart of the Myrmidon, and Skin Deep. All three of them were accepted, and I was told they'd become part of anthologies for Jupiter Gardens Press. I realized that I was now officially a published author, and that for every anthology I was part of I would get a small cut of the royalties.

I had a plan: Get into 10 more anthologies, then start work on a novel.

What could possibly go wrong?
What I Expected

The expectations I had going in were pretty low. I wanted to get back into the fiction groove I'd fallen out of, I wanted to shape up my publishing credits, and I wanted to develop a relationship with a variety of publishers. I also had some idea about making money. The younger, less-experienced me figured that if I could get into a dozen or so different anthologies that he could make a decent, regular royalty check that would let him relax and work on a novel.

I know right? I was fucking adorable back then.
The logic went something like this; the publisher wants to sell books, so it will put in a lot of effort to make sales and market the collection. There are between 10 and 20 of us who contributed to this anthology, some of us with bigger followings than others; if we combine our efforts then we can sell a lot more books between us. If I can get into 10 or more collections then average revenues should give me what a middling successful novel should, allowing me to pad my bank account. Additionally I figured I could dip my toe into certain markets and see what was more popular. Would I be better off writing a dystopian sci-fi novel? Is horror making a comeback? Is steampunk still a thing? These were questions I needed answered.

Lastly, and I stress this one, if a publisher turned out to be a lemon all I lost was a few weeks of work on a short story. If I sent a novel to the company then I'd lose months to a year of hard work. I was not anxious to deal with that worst-case-scenario, so I figured I'd put out some shorts as feelers for who was trustworthy, and who just wanted to reap the sweat off my back.

What I Got

I won't regale you with everything I did between the start of this experiment and today (the tab on the right hand side that lists the books my work has appeared in will give you the details if you're curious), but I've gotten around a little bit. I've worked with a dozen publishers, some of which were excellent and some of whose names I cannot speak without spitting and forking the sign of the evil eye. I'm not famous, and the idea of a regular, sizable royalty check is still something I only see in my dreams.

That said though, I don't feel these two years were wasted.

Oh Yeah? How's That?

No, please, regale us.
Well let's begin at the beginning. After two years of constant cranking I've sanded off the rough bits from my voice and style. I've managed to strengthen the muscles that let me work even when I've got a headache, when I'm stressed about rent money, or when there's no caffeine in the house and I haven't slept in a day and a half. I've never missed a deadline, even when I was asked to provide work at the last minute, and I've developed the ability to match the size of my story to the word count it needs to be told in.

In brief, these two years put a fine edge on my professional blade.

There's more beyond the whetstone. I've found fans and friends alike who, when I tell them I have a new piece coming out, will be eager to get their hands on it. I've been recognized as a professional by conventions, and given all of the benefits that comes with that status. I've also figured out which companies are solid, dependable operations, and which ones just want the writers to do all the work while they reap the profits.

It's not a million dollar pay day, but it is a rung or two up the ladder. It's the experience to know a raw deal when I see it, and it's the currency of goodwill that lets me step right over the slush pile to talk to an editor directly. It's the ability to sample some of my ideas to see which ones are big enough for a book of their own, and which ones aren't done growing yet. Lastly, and this shouldn't be written off, it's the confidence to walk into a room and comport myself like someone whose words are worth hard currency.

I'm not rich. I'm not famous. What I am is a professional, and this experiment is what made me that way.

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