Friday, June 25, 2010

The Long and the Short of It

There's been a lot of talk in the podosphere lately about the relative value of short stories, both as a promotional tool and as a potential source of revenue.

I'll be honest that my knowledge of "the market" for short stories is practically non-existent. The bulk of my writing energies over the past few years have been on long-form fiction, and that is still where most of my efforts are directed. So I won't try to say anything about writing for anthologies or anything of the like, because I have no qualification in that field whatsoever.

However, I have been paying very close attention to what people in the podcast world are doing with short fiction, new avenues that they're trying to exploit, and how they're going about it. It has been a very interesting few months indeed. Some, like James Melzer and Paul E Cooley, have tried selling stories for 99c on Smashwords, with various results, none of which have bought them a private island in the Caribbean. Yet. In fact, Melzer reneged and dropped the 99c cost off all his stories altogether, feeling that the value he gained by pushing them out for free was worth more than the odd 99c sale he might make. Very interesting times indeed.

Short stories are like tiny commercials, trailers, showreels. They're a snapshot into the mind of the writer; a sampler of the writer's wit, craft and voice without requiring the commitment of reading a hundred-thousand word novel. If you've never heard of a writer, then reading one of their short stories is a reasonably safe investment when deciding if you would put more time into reading their work in the future.

This is why the trend towards releasing short fiction on the internet, particularly in a self-publishing mode without any editorial intervention, strikes me as a particularly tempting and equally dangerous strategic decision on the part of most unpublished writers.

I'm a hypocrite in this regard, as you'll see if you read on, but let me make my point very quickly, before I go on to rip it to pieces.

If I read a short story and don't like it I will be very unlikely to pick up anything else by that writer, ever again, unless it comes very highly recommended by someone whose opinion I trust. The short story is the job interview. Fail to excite or interest me and I'll be disinclined to hunt that writer down and find anything else they might've done. If they have a memorable name, I might even deliberately avoid them in future. If I'm representative of any significant portion of the market (I may not be; I might just be an aberration. It's entirely possible) then that can't be a good thing for the writer in question. There are far more important people out there with much better heads for names than me.

And most of them spend more on books than I do.

I've read a lot of free short fiction on the internet. A short story is not an easy thing to write, not by any means, which is why it's so important that if a writer makes the decision to put themselves forward and put out a story for general consumption that it be as good as it can possibly be. Anything less and the writer risks sinking into obscurity or, worse, being deliberately shunned by potential readers.

I'll be honest and say that this is something I do. There are certain writers whose work I will devour if I get the chance, all of whom I found by reading their free work on the internet and being constantly impressed. There are many more whose work I have read once but whom I do not go looking for, often on the weight of a single piece. I make no apology for this. My time is precious, and I can't spend it reading bad writing.

This raises the issue of a very powerful tool that may all too often be underutilised by a lot of writers, namely the peer review. As a form of editing, throwing your story out to other writers has become increasingly easier over the past few years as social networking brings more and more writers together without ever needing to leave the comfort of our keyboards. It has also become a potentially more valuable tool as the range of collaborators we have at our reach grows, but there are certain rules that go with this practice that all writers must remember to observe.

The most important is the key word in this discussion: Short. It takes about half an hour to read 5000 words, which is fine first time around but starts to get long when reading the same thing over and over again. Give your story the words it needs, but remember that when you ask others to read it over, possibly multiple times, that's their time you're asking for. I recently did just this, and when my story swelled from 2000 to 5000 words I knew that I was asking ever more of those readers to keep coming back to newer drafts. After that initial reading, the focus a reader can apply to a story drops dramatically. I know this from the beta reading I've done of short stories for friends; I can give feedback on first drafts, but often second readings become a skim over, from which I can offer very little of help. There's an art to cycling different drafts of a story around different readers to get constantly fresh, useful feedback. I haven't yet mastered this, but I really should.

As usual, I've digressed. I'll come back to the other rules another day, if I remember. I promised to tell you how I was just a dirty old hyprocrite, didn't I? Yes I did. Let's get back to that.

I recently accepted the challenge to write a story for the Every Photo Tells podcast.

Writers are invited to submit stories inspired by a new photo every month. I decided that partaking of this competition would be a bit of something different, and I hacked out a rather awful piece of tripe with a terrible punchline that wasn't worth the silicone it was stored on. I then ignored it for two weeks before sending it out to some beta readers for opinion, at which point I was told, on no uncertain terms, that this was a piece of tripe not worth the silicone it was stored on. Much frantic re-writing ensued. As usual, I pushed the narrative past the other side of ridiculous before finally reining it back into something halfway passable. For this, I heap praises upon my awesome writer friends, who have officially earned the qualifier "long-suffering".

Then I agonised and polished and carpal tunneled and anguished and strained my eyes until I could no longer see the words on the screen. Normally I'd then put such a story in a file and never do anything more with it, but alas, I had a deadline to meet.

The producers at Every Photo reserve the right to reject any story with no explanation given. That sounds to me like an editorial benchmark to meet. No tripe here, thank you very much. Duly, I submitted Pick Your Battles, and waited with bated breath until I heard that it had been accepted.

Now, let me be clear here. I do not take this as a "publication" credit. It was written and submitted for free, released under a CC license, and I'll never see a penny for it. It was not a professional achievement, but I did choose to use the platform Every Photo offered to, yes, build my brand as a writer. I took a chance that this story might increase, not decrease, the opinions that people out there paying attention to what I'm doing might have of my work. To be fair, it's my only piece of fiction to be found on the internet, unless you're following Akmenos and the Saga of Vondal's Vandals, but I'm fine with that. We all start somewhere.

Pick Your Battles has been described as "gruesome but compelling", "explosive," and "excellent". How much more encouragement do you need? Head over to Every Photo Tells and have a listen, or go and subscribe at iTunes and check out some of the other great offerings that have made their way into the feed. You might find something you like, maybe another writer you ought to be keeping an eye out for. Mick and Katharina do a great job of narrating and producing the stories they accept, and deserve a nod for all their hard work, so drop a comment at their page while you're there.

Did I have a point, or was I just gratuitously dipping into a hot topic in order to promote my own material? A bit of both really.

The point is that in order to succeed as writers, we need the people out there to A) know who we are, and B) like what we've written. Take this as me putting my money where my my mouth is (figuratively speaking - there is no actual money involved), and throwing out a story that was as good as I could make it in the timeframe I had (listening back to it now, I would make a few more edits, but that chance has passed, darn it), with much thanks to my writing community for pushing me in the right direction. I hope people will like it, and maybe come looking for more of what I've written, or at the very least not avoid everything else I ever write.

On that note, if you haven't got your free download of Urban Driftwood yet, just head over to my site and hit the link. It's not all mud and blood like Pick Your Battles, but there might be something in there that strikes a chord.

And it's all pretty short.