Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.39: Q&A on Short(er) Fiction

Your Hosts: Brandon, Piper, Dan, and Howard

Our listeners sent us  some questions about writing shorter fiction. Here are the questions:

  • How do you market short stories today?
  • Has ebook self-publishing made novellas more viable?
  • How do you structure a short story?
  • How short is too short?
  • Is publishing sections of a novel a viable way to get traction for that novel?
  • What should I look for in the semi-pro market if professional publications have rejected my work?
  • What aspects are crucial in novels, but which don’t belong in short fiction.

Publication “reputation” references: Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write, Writer Beware

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Go buy a short story collection that has a variety of authors in it, and read it.

Thing of the week: “Mind over Matter” by Howard Tayler (from Called to Battle, Volume 2  from Privateer Press).

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A List:
Q: How do you market short stories today? How important is it for perspective novelists to learn the short story field, and are novellas more viable now with self-publishing?
A: Market yourself, not any individual story. Online magazines. Consistent quality, but continually surprising. A quick awesome fix. Novellas definitely are more viable with self-publishing. Novellas hit the price point sweet spot on Amazon, and fit web-based, mobile-based consumption. Bite-sized novellas are good marketing.
Q: What are some tips you have for mapping out the pacing of a short story?
A: Pare it down. Figure out the beginning, middle, and end, then focus on hitting the targets at 2000 word marks. Novella, pare down the subplots, focus on one thing, and write a 25,000 word novel. Know what the ending is, then focus each step on that pow. For romance, I need to know the start, middle, and end, and focus on getting to the end, plus who are the people, how do they react and survive, what’s the black moment when they may not get together, and how can they believably get together?
Q: How short is too short for short fiction?
A: Twitter has flash fiction Fridays. Business cards have flash fiction on the back.
Q: Is publishing sections from a novel a viable way to get traction for that novel, or is there a better way to break in if you want a novel published?
A: Look at Dragonflight, which had the initial short story excerpt published, then the rest. Get to know the short fiction markets, then see if you have an excerpt that works.
Q: What should I look for in a semi pro market if a story has already been rejected by the major markets?
A: Reputation and editorial style. While you’re submitting, write something else! Check Predators and Editors, Absolute Write, etc.
Q: What aspects are crucial in novels, but redundant in short fiction, or vice versa?
A: Novels often overlap character moments of discovery with plot elements. In short fiction, overlapping too much can fizzle your bang. Subplots, characters, and locations balloon much faster in short fiction than in novels.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 39.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Short(er) Fiction.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] I’m glad you paid attention on that one.
[Piper] I’m not sure I’m awake.
[Piper] I’m so sorry. I was like waiting.
[Brandon] Oh, we have never done that.
[Howard] The number of times we’ve gotten that little tag bit wrong…
[Brandon] Despite doing it for 10 years.
[Howard] Oh, my goodness.
[Brandon] All right. All right.
[Piper] I’m so sorry.
[Howard] Oh, you didn’t start a second and 1/2 after Brandon expected you to.
[Brandon] You left them waiting for it.

[Brandon] Josiah asks… Oh, and I said shorter fiction, because were going to cover novellas and things, which are still kind of long, but… How do you market short stories today? How important is it for perspective novelists to learn the short story field, and are novellas more viable now with self-publishing? That is three questions rolled into one, Josiah, but they are good questions.
[Dan] I think the short fiction authors that I know are really marketing themselves rather than any individual story, for the most part.
[Brandon] I would agree with that. The online magazines are the primary method of doing this, I’ve found. Whether… counts, certainly. But there’s a real boom in these sort of online, some subscription-based, some free, web zines.
[Dan] You look at the covers of those, or their web covers, and what… Even there, what they’re promoting is we have a story from this person and from this person. That’s… You’re really selling yourself as a short author.
[Piper] I think it’s important to realize that if you’re selling yourself is a short author, that your content has to be a consistent quality, but continually surprising. People want to know what’s going to come out of you next, as opposed to I loved that one single short and I want more of that world.
[Brandon] When you pick up a short story by someone whose name you recognize, you know you’re going to get a quick awesome fix. That’s part of what I look for, is that. The other question on our novellas more viable now with self-publishing, the answer is absolutely yes.
[Howard] Yup.
[Brandon] That doesn’t mean that they are a golden ticket, like I thought they might become in that the novella market was really booming for a while, but we have seen some work and some not work. But they are certainly viable. Because when they… The only avenues were print magazines, they could only publish one novella in the whole magazine.
[Dan] Per issue.
[Brandon] Per issue, and some didn’t even do a single novella. So you had very few places you could sell them. So any increase in that is…
[Dan] More viable than virtually nothing still counts, but doesn’t say much.
[Howard] If you are self-pubbing, the novella is kind of ideal. Because your investment in word count is lower. You are more likely to hit the price point sweet spot, the 2.99 sweet spot on Amazon, and a novella… Serialized novellas are kind of perfect for web-based, mobile-based consumption.
[Brandon] I think it is an excellent form for this. But let’s reiterate…
[Howard] Not a golden ticket.
[Brandon] Not a golden ticket.
[Howard] Not a golden ticket.
[Brandon] But if you’re good at the form and you can build a name for yourself, you’ll do all right. The problem is just releasing a novella by itself is going to be worse than just releasing a novel. Because it’s just… It’s bite sized. It’s gotta market you into something. Like take the readers and funnel them toward your novels or your other short fiction, or it has to be a tie-in to your novels as a bonus thing for fans.
[Howard] Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series, which I promo’ed in 2016, I think, is a great example. If you’re looking at the novella market, if you’re looking at what can I do with serial novellas, Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series is worth picking up and looking at. Because I think he has executed on the medium, on that form, really, really well.
[Piper] We’ve talked earlier this year about leveraging the short stories or novellas, in particular, to give your readers something to read in between the releases of your novels. I’ve seen that approach, especially if you only have one novel per year, depending on how fast or how many different series you’re juggling, a novella is a good option to have another taste of that story or of that universe come out in the same year, without burning yourself out as a writer.

[Brandon] All right. Danielle asks, “What are some tips you have for mapping out the pacing of a short story?”
[Piper] Well, Mary has this fantastic formula…
[Brandon] We talked about it with Mary when I was there for the Chicago team. I want to get your perspectives on this. How do you guys plot or map out a short story?
[Dan] I am not a short fiction writer, though I have done some. What I find that I am constantly doing is paring it down. What that teaches me is, draft after draft, this is still too long, what can be cut out, and what needs to stay. It’s really showing me what the bones are, and what’s important to a short story. I don’t know if I have great…
[Howard] Discovery writing a short story is really problematic because… Well, I mean, I shouldn’t say problematic for everybody, but it’s fraught, because the end… You don’t know it. The end really should only be about five or 6000 words away from where you started. For me, plotting the pacing out means before I sit down to write, I need to know the beginning, I need to know the middle, and I need to know the end. I need to know those three things, and then I’ll use Post-it notes or index cards or something to tell me, “Hey! By the 2000 word mark, I have to have hit the middle. By the 4000 word mark, I have to have hit that iconic moment that I’m having happen in the end.”
[Brandon] That’s really good advice. I like that, because I’ve been thinking about what I do. I’m not sure if I consider myself a short story writer yet. I am a novella writer. But I do have three short stories in my collection that came out last year. So I’m figuring this one out. I figure out, for me, as normally a longer fiction writer… A novella, I can just write a short version of what I already do, and it works out really well. I pare down the subplots, I focus on the meat of one thing, and I do a 25,000 word novel, is basically what I’m doing. Short stories are different. Short stories are not a shorter novel. Short stories are their own thing. At least in… So for what I’m doing is I really have to know what my ending is, and I have to contain the way I’m pointing that. I say this is the thing, the zing, the zip, the pow I want to have at the end of the story, and every little piece needs to only be pointed out that pow. We’re not pointed at the character arc, we’re pointed at that pow. If the character arc is the pow, then that’s fine. But everything has to be focused on that. That is how I make them work.
[Piper] As a twist on that, because I do all of those things, where I need to know the start, the middle, the end, and I really have to keep my focus on what’s that end and get there posthaste in a short story. I’m thinking, because I’m a romance author, who are the people that are involved in my romantic element, how are they going to survive the challenge, how are they going to react to the challenge? There has to be not only a climax, but a black moment for that couple where there’s a chance that they’re not going to get together. Then, by the end, I have to make it so they resolve their endgame and also get together, at least believably. Whether that’s going to be a happily ever after… If that’s not believable, I won’t do it. I’ll have to put something in their background to make it believable that they’re going to end up together, or I settle for a happily for now, where they’re going to explore the relationship further in their future.

[Brandon] So, Sarah asks, “How short is too short for short fiction?”
[Piper] There are flash fiction Fridays that fit on Twitter. Yes.
[Howard] Oh, my gosh. There was a Twitter…
[Piper] there was a good Twitter one that you posted.
[Dan] Well, our friend… Our good friend, Eric James Stone, for a long time… I don’t know if he still does it. His business card has flash fiction on the back of it. And it’s brilliant.
[Brandon] I’m planning to talk a lot about that in a future podcast. But yeah. It was one of the things that blew my mind when he handed me the card, and then I flipped it over and there’s a complete story on the back. It was great.
[Piper] I really admire flash fiction. I love to see flash fiction paired with amazing artwork or photography that maybe inspired or spoke to the flash fiction.

[Brandon] All right. So Aia… Ia asks, “Is publishing sections from a novel a viable way to get traction for that novel, or is there a better way to break in if you want a novel published?”
[Dan] [Oooo] in what sense is she talking? Like…
[Brandon] I’m going to say… I’m anticipating that she’s like, “Should I take my novel and do it serialized,” or things like this. We’re going to talk serialized storytelling coming up. So watch for those podcasts. That’ll be next month. But I would suggest that publishing sections from a novel… If you want to try that, look at Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey which she actually published the first few chapters, because they made their own arc, in one of the magazines. Won the Hugo for that. And then released the full novel. Not what happened with Ender’s Game, where it was a short story first, but he expanded it.
[Dan] Okay. That’s what I was going to ask.
[Brandon] It was actually a section from a planned novel, as I understand it, that has the beginning, middle, and end, and is kind of the introduction of a woman joining the dragon riders. Then the main story has her experiences there.
[Dan] Interesting.
[Howard] Historically, the short fiction market… And when I say historically, I’m talking about middle 20th century. The short fiction market was a low investment method for a new writer to introduce themselves to editors. The editor only has to spend about 15 minutes to read the entire submission to see if this person can tell a story. So the short fiction market was, for many people, the only way to break in. It was the only way to introduce yourself. That is no longer the case. But in some cases, that… It may still work.
[Brandon] I mean, Pat Rothfuss, Name of the Wind, won the Writers of the Future contest as an excerpt. It does happen. Let me warn you, as we have said earlier this month, read this genre if you want to write it. Don’t just be like, “Well, I’m a novel writer. I’m going to start bullying in and, having my novel stuff, try to get it published.” Read the short fiction magazines. If you have something that is an excerpt of a novel that will fit… It happens all the time. But it happens because the person knows short fiction, has been reading short fiction, and is able to present a piece that works for the magazine’s needs. The magazines are not a promotion oppor… Well, they are an opportunity if you… But they don’t exist to promote you. They exist to provide great experiences for their readers by authors who know the format. If you can do that, great. If you can’t, then you don’t need to. Listen to what Howard just said. This is not a requirement.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is actually Howard is going to do for us, Mind over Matter.
[Howard] Yes. Actually, the title… The book you’ll get it in is Called to Battle, Volume 2, from Privateer Press’s Skull Island Expeditions imprint. The story I wrote was called Mind over Matter. What they wanted was a horror story that introduced these mind slaver people to the reader. I mean, it’s game fiction. It’s designed to, in one way, embed people further in the game that they’re playing. But when I set out to write it, and that’s one of the reasons I want to promote it… Or promo it here. When I set out to write it, I knew I can’t just be writing for people who play the game. I have been given an assignment by this company to write this story, but I need to say enough things in the course of telling the story that people completely unfamiliar with the game setting will immediately be on board with what’s happening. Anyway, the volume is called Called to Battle, Volume 2, and the story that I wrote is called Mind over Matter.

[Brandon] All right. That sounds awesome. Let me ask you this one. Richard says, “What should I look for in a semi pro market if a story has already been rejected by the major markets?” I actually have an answer for this one prepared, in case you guys… I was looking at this and thinking there are lots of great semi pro options. Dan and I edited a semi pro science fiction magazine. So… Yeah. I would say reputation, mixed with editorial style. Right? You want to look for the ones that are well-regarded online. At this point, with semi pro, you’re not really looking for the money. It’s going to pay you 50 bucks or something like that. They should pay, but it doesn’t matter if it’s a tiny amount. You want good reputation, and you want to be reading some of these. Pick up issues and say, “Hey, it’s this style. Would my story fit in here?” Again, don’t just be blindly sending out to everything listed in Writers’ Market. You want to be part of the community, and part of the conversation.
[Dan] I don’t want to name any names, but when we worked on that magazine, there was another magazine that I guess was one step lower than… Semi, semi pro, that we had a lot of responses of people that we rejected who later got published in this other one, and they would write us kind of a snide letter saying, “See. It was good enough.”
[Brandon] That happened like three or four times.
[Dan] It happened a lot. To the point that we commented on it. But then what we found when we… When Brandon and I started going around to conventions, to World Fantasy and things and talking to editors is that professional editors at big houses knew who we were. They recognized our magazine, and they’d never heard of this other one. So there is something to be said for reputation.
[Howard] Now, let me say this. My friend Jim Zub used to do portfolio reviews. He would find in portfolios that he rejected for admission into the program that he’s an instructor for where someone had done a piece of art work on notebook paper and submitted it that way. Jim’s response was, “Guys. If you drew it on notebook paper, draw it again. If you’re not willing to draw it again, this is not the market for you.” If you’re writing short fiction and it gets rejected, write something else.
[Brandon] Right. But…
[Howard] You have to be able to write it again.
[Brandon] I agree with that 100%. At the same time, though, most professionals say send that piece out until you’re down to the cooking magazines that occasionally want…
[Brandon] Send it out to get that experience of doing it. But yes, while…
[Howard] And for me, the point of…
[Dan] While you are, write something else.
[Howard] The point of diminishing returns is if I’m spending more time pitching and submitting a story than I’m spending writing stories, I should probably write something new.
[Piper] Now, one thing I’d like to point out is that it could be hard to figure out what’s the reputation of that magazine. So I would say, one really quick reference that I have is a site called Predators and Editors that you can go, check it out. There’s forums there and there’s also lists where people share their experiences on the magazine. Now it’s not a blacklist or anything like that, but the idea is that you can see what other people have experienced, what year they experienced it in. Maybe that particular publisher, whether it’s a magazine or whatever…
[Howard] I’ll put a link to that in the liner notes, and that there’s some other resources.
[Brandon] We often mention Predators and Editors and the Absolute Write watercooler.
[Piper] Yes. Absolute Write.
[Brandon] In the same… Any time I need to investigate a publisher or a magazine, Absolute Write always has a thread on it where people who have actually worked with them post their experiences.
[Piper] Exactly.
[Howard] The issue for many new writers is I don’t even know where to look to find this stuff out. The answer is there are plenty of places to look, you just need to know what they’re called.

[Brandon] All right. Last question from Natalie. What aspects are crucial in novels, but redundant in short fiction, or vice versa?
[Piper] Never redundant. But maybe too in-depth, I would say.
[Howard] Page 80.
[Brandon] Oh, page 80.
[Dan] So redundant. How many books have we read that have five page 80s?
[Brandon] All right. So here’s my take on this. One thing is, in every novel, nothing is absolutely crucial. Because you can break any rule. Remember that. But in every novel I do, I try to overlap major character moments of discovery with major plot elements, either learning something about the world, learning something about the past, or accomplishing something. In a short story, overlapping too much of that will actually fizzle your bang rather than make your explosion larger.
[Dan] Also, just remember that any subplots, characters, and locations that you add are going to balloon much faster and more catastrophically in short fiction than in a novel.
[Howard] The prologue and the epilogue.
[Piper] Your prologue basically is a short story. The epilogue’s another short story.

[Brandon] All right. I’m going to call it by giving you some homework which is I’m just going to require you to go buy a short story collection. All you novelists out there, I want you to buy one. I actually want you to buy one that has a variety of authors in it. I don’t want you this time to go buy my collection. I want you to go get Year’s Best, maybe Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best, or I want you to get a themed anthology. One of George Martin’s themed anthologies would be a great place to go.
[Howard] Uncanny a good one to pick up?
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, yeah. All sorts of things.
[Piper] [garbled]
[Howard] Clarke’s World.
[Brandon] Yeah. Totally. Get one of these magazines. Buy Clarke’s World or Uncanny, which are fantastic magazines. But get something that’s got a variety of authors in it. If you haven’t read one of these in the last year, this is your homework. If you have, then you get to take the week off.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.