Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction (Part 29)

Where Do We Go From Here?: Career progression for short fiction writers (continued)

Welcome back! This week I’ll be looking at some of the paths a writer might choose for their short fiction career (or paths that your career might pick all by itself). And special bonus points for anyone who leaves a comment correctly identifying the inspiration for the title of this week’s post.

And again while I have your attention, for the Canadians who might be reading this, my short story “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” is on the final ballot for the 2013 Aurora Awards. You can learn how to pick up a free ebook copy of the story (or read it online) as well as how to vote in the awards via this blog post on my site. Voting closes September 13. Any support would be greatly appreciated!

Same Old Same Old

As I warned in part 22, making your first professional sale does not improve your probability of making your next one. Now and throughout your writing career (assuming you intend to have a writing career), you will always face the same challenge: to write the best stories you can and to keep them in front of professional markets until they sell.

As long as you keep showing up at the keyboard, writing new stories, learning your craft, then your stories will continue to get better. You will become a better writer. You will develop your craft—the craft of your chosen profession. And as long as you keep submitting your stories, they will sell. Remember—it’s a numbers game.

So get used to it. Write and submit. Rinse and repeat. At its core, that is the key to success of having a writing career. Write and submit—and never give up.

Invitation-Only Anthologies

As a short fiction writer’s career progresses and their name begins to become known, another cool thing that can happen (that I didn’t mention last week in part 28) is that you may start to receive invitations to closed anthologies. These are projects where the editor selects which writers get to submit a story, unlike open anthologies where anyone can throw a story over the electronic transom onto the slush pile.

From an editor’s perspective, assuming they know enough pro writers, this approach eliminates that slush pile, greatly reducing the work to select stories for the anthology. They can also be fairly confident that they’re going to get quality submissions. The downside is they miss a chance to “discover” a new talent, to be the first to publish a future star. But for anyone who has read slush, you’ll understand that many editors will happily accept that downside.

If you start to develop a name in short fiction, or even if you become known to a particular editor who really likes your work and style, you may have the happy surprise of being invited to contribute to such an anthology.

Cool. But understand that an invitation does not equate to acceptance. You must still write the very best story you can.

Three other key points. Most invitation-only anthologies have been pre-sold to a publisher. This is a very good thing. It means the anthology is going to see the light of day (and you’ll be paid). But publishers have schedules, and the editor will need to deliver this anthology by a specific date. The editor will work back from that date to determine when they need to have stories submitted. This means that you MUST not miss that submission date with your story.

Also, most anthologies are built around a theme. Your story must hit that theme. You cannot leave the editor scratching their head trying to figure out just how your tale fits to the theme that they’ve already sold to the publisher.

Finally, the editor will have sold the anthology based on a promised word length. The editor uses that total to determine approximately how many stories they need and how long roughly each story should be. If they ask for a 6,000-word story, you’ll be okay coming in somewhere in the 5,000 to 7,000 word range, but do NOT try to submit a 3,000 or 10,000 word story.

So in summary. Invitation-only anthologies: very cool and a sign you’re getting noticed. Critical to success: Write the best story you can—submit on time—hit the word length—hit the theme. Do all of those and you probably have a sale. Miss badly on any of those, and not only will you not sell the story, you probably won’t be invited back by this editor to any future anthology they’re editing.

Building Your Toolbox

I discussed in part 3 the value of writing short fiction in continuing to learn and practice your craft. Every time I write a short story, I try to do something different—in genre, structure, point of view, characterization, voice, or something else.

In short, I’m trying to add to my tool box and to become more proficient in using the tools that I already have in there. Short fiction is ideal for this development of craft. Over the course of 100,000 words of short fiction, which for me would probably be somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five short stories, I can experiment with far more tools than I could in a single 100,000-word novel.

So even if you do plan to move to novel length works, my advice would be to keep writing short fiction as well. Not for the money (you’ve hopefully figured that out by now), but to continue to improve your craft.

Plotting a Career Path

So what do you want to be when you grow up? I mean, as a writer. In part 2, I asked you to think about that. If you’ve stayed with me this far, perhaps you now have a better idea of how to answer that question than you did at that point.

Maybe you’ve decided this all seems like too much work and time, and you’ll give up the idea of being a writer. Maybe you’ve sold a story and discovered that’s all you wanted to prove to yourself. Maybe you know that, although you’ll always want to write, short fiction is all that you’re interested in. Or maybe you want to start writing novels, either now or at some point in the future.

There’s no right answer to the question. It’s all about what you want—what you feel is right for you. Your dream belongs to you, not to me or anyone else. So what I discuss here is purely from the perspective of making you aware of some options to develop and leverage your short fiction in your writing career, no matter what direction you might take that career.

Making Your Short Fiction Work for You

Assuming that you want a writing career, either in short or novel length fiction (or both), let’s talk about how you can leverage your short stories to help further that career.

One way is to write a series of stories—stories that are linked or related in some way to each other. This might be the same universe, same set of characters, sequential in time, or in any other way. This way, if your story universe or main character becomes popular, you have a higher probability of selling other stories in that universe or about that character.

Short genre fiction contains so many examples that I’ll name just some of my personal favourites: Fritz Leiber’s series of sword-and-sorcery stories around his heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser; John Brunner’s tales about his unnamed and mysterious “Traveller in Black;” and Canadian writer, Tanya Huff’s high fantasy stories around her wizard heroine, Magdalene. I’ve done this myself in stories about my shapeshifting species, the Heroka (“Spirit Dance,” “A Bird in the Hand,” and others).

Those are all examples of writing stories about the same world and character. There are other ways to write a series. I’m writing a group of stories all inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs (including “Radio Nowhere” and “Going Down to Lucky Town”) and plan to market those as a single collection.

Short fiction is also a great way to explore a universe or idea or characters that you plan to write about at novel length. Or once you’ve written a short story, you may find that it keeps calling to you to explore that world in more detail, leading to a novel you didn’t plan on writing.

Or maybe you have a novel planned already. I wrote my novelette “Memories of the Dead Man” with the specific goal of exploring the title character, an enigmatic hero (or villain?) in a post-apocalyptic Earth, from the point of view of other characters in that world, in advance of a novel I plan around the Dead Man. I have two other stories that also explore the universe of that planned novel (“Scream Angel” and “Enlightenment”). It’s a way of taking your novel out for a short test drive, to explore ideas and characters.

And if you do eventually write a novel around a story or series of short stories, you will have a built-in audience plus a great and inexpensive way of driving interest in the novel by rereleasing your short stories in that world, as a collection or stand-alone ebooks or even putting them up on your website.

Next Week

I’ll finish off this topic next week in part 30 by talking about another important way in which you can leverage your short story backlist (previously published works) beyond just selling reprints: collections.

Next Week: Where Do We Go From Here?: Career progression for short fiction writers (conclusion)

As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.

I’ve written these posts in a very specific sequence, with each entry building on previous ones. You can read my earlier posts here.



I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:

Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.

He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.

We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.

As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!

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