You know, short stories have been on my brain recently. I invited my bud Charlie Holmberg here to blog about them a few months ago. I also finished reading, for the first time, Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” and he had some really practical advice to new writers about starting there. More on this later. I also just finished participating as a juror in the 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards (https://www.artandwriting.org/) and got to read many flash fiction stories and short stories by young writers all over the US.
So let’s talk about it. What’s so important about short stories? Why are they so powerful? The answer may surprise you.
The process for landing a publishing deal is basically still the same after a hundred years. Yes, it’s possible to indy publish (and yes, I think that’s a good thing) but let’s wind the process backwards and I think you’ll see how short stories fit into it. Author gets a publishing contract with a publisher. Check. Back up a step. More times than not, the deal was arranged between an agent and the publisher. There are exceptions, but stick with me a moment longer. Still going backwards. Author searches for the agent. Ah, now we’re getting closer. What sets the author apart from other authors trying to break into the field?
Publishing credits. Bingo. We found it. It’s where the author tells the agent, “look, I’ve been published before. This story in ABC magazine. This story in XYZ magazine. And so forth. The longer the list, the more times the author has made it past the slush pile and been noticed by editors. Without a publishing credit, especially a *paid* one, the agent might pass and look at another query letter and move on.
So short stories are a vital part of the writing ecosystem. It’s where authors learn the craft of telling stories and editors weed out the amateurs.
As I learned in Stephen King’s memoir, he submitted short stories all over the place. The first ones got published for free and he only received some complimentary copies. That’s a start! Then he worked up the food chain a bit and landed some stories where he got paid a few hundred dollars. Not enough to pay the bills, but they definitely added to his publishing credits. Then he found an agent, then he landed a book deal for Carrie, and then—ba ba boom—he sold the paperback rights and it catapulted his career.
(Stephen King in his writer’s lair long ago)
But it had to start somewhere.
It was my creative writing teacher in college, Mr Hannah, who said that my short story “The Wishing Lantern” would make a great children’s book. That was my first published story in a New York literary newspaper. Long time ago! I submitted to other magazines after that and yes, got a lot of rejection letters. It’s hard to stay motivated.
(this is my then-girlfriend/now-wife and I circa 1993 – we were babies!)
But the best creative writing class I ever took wasn’t in school. It wasn’t even a class. There are many ways to learn the skills of a trade. My friends Jeremy Whitted, Brendon Taylor, and I created Deep Magic e-zine in 2002 to help authors (including ourselves) get published but also to see things from an editor’s point of view. We didn’t start paying, at first, but having to go through the slush pile looking for gems really trained my eye to spot good storytelling. And it taught me to be a better writer. With the e-zine I was able to interview some of the top authors and pick their brains. I interviewed George RR Martin before he was a big deal. I interviewed Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, and even the guy who wrote the original script for Pirates of the Caribbean and Count of Monte Cristo…Jay Wolpert. I learned a ton! It showed me not only how so many stories look and sound alike. But the gems—how they rose to the top.
I closed down Deep Magic in 2006 to focus on my own writing but I was glad, ten years later, to open it again, paying pro rates and giving authors all over the world a chance to earn one more publishing credit. To help a few get one step closer to realizing their dream of publishing a book. Here’s a note we received after accepting a story in Deep Magic last year. If we really like something, even though it doesn’t meet our guidelines, we will often work with the author to fix it. This is just such a case: “This is my first sale at full professional rates after something like 200 previous attempts. As you might expect, I am over the moon. I want to express my gratitude to the editorial board, and particularly to Jeff Wheeler for giving me the opportunity to revise the original submission to meet DM’s specifications. Not many publications would have been as generous.”
And that’s why I also agreed to be a juror for the 2019 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards this year. Each story had passed a hurdle of being one of the best from a high school writer somewhere in the country. I don’t know their names, where they are from, but just like I do with Deep Magic, I was looking for the gems. And I found some. I don’t know about you, but isn’t it magical discovering an author for the first time? One that you end up really liking?
That’s why short stories are so powerful. They are the seeds that grow into trees. And writers love it when readers leave a few encouraging words. You have no idea how it makes up for the years of toil and sacrifice. It waters the seeds and adds sunshine.
(a redwood seed – super tiny but grows into a giant tree!)
It can take a while. It took over 21 years at my day job before the harvest started to come. But it was worth it.
So if you want to learn how to write stories, read short stories. If you want to find new cherished authors, read short stories.