So I Wrote This: The Uses of Short Fiction

So, you’re a fiction writer – indie or mixed, or even traditional but wouldn’t mind trying indie – and you’re in need of money.  This is a condition endemic to writers, btw.

Sure, you could make money by writing copy or tweeting for some company, but if you’re a fiction writer this is the equivalent of getting a night job.  It doesn’t add much to your day job, except some tiredness.  You could make money, as I was told recently, by reading manuscripts or doing structural edits.  At least you can do all of that if you have at least a modicum of a name.

But if you have a modicum of a name and a platform, you have other options that don’t take away from your writing time and might enhance your income more than any of these other ideas.

For instance, this week I realized that my bank account was running a little thin – I have a bad vice.  I’m putting a son through two and a half engineering degrees.  (Half, you say? Well, he couldn’t find an aerospace engineering major within easy distance, so he is taking it as a minor, but it’s a substantial minor with mostly graduate level classes.  Can you say expensive?) Since the financing system isn’t set up for that, he can’t get loans anymore – and since I’m mired in traditional contracts, I looked around at properties I’d sitting around.

Look, it’s been a heck of a ten years or so, and I don’t even remember some of the stuff I wrote.  For instance, I have half a dozen novels needing only three or so days of work each to be done.   But I don’t have three days right now.  So, what did I do?

I did the writer equivalent of going through the sofa for loose change: I went through my disk drive for short fiction.  (Actually, I didn’t, because I had this collection all assembled, with forward and everything.  But I do have others I’ll be assembling from stories.)

Why do I have short fiction on my drive that I can publish at will?

Well, because since I became a professional writer I get invited to between 5 and 10 anthologies a year.  I also write short fiction as a free gift to my blog readers.  And sometimes I write short fiction in worlds I’m a fan of, or in some other kind of homage.

Short fiction contracts, normally, expire after a year.  Or not expire exactly, but stop being exclusive.  (And if you’re not getting a contract for your short fiction, bitch until you get one.  It’s good to have everyone on a firm footing.) So, a year after publication, you can re-publish the story under your own name/indie press.  (This is called “reversion” because the rights to publish revert to you.  Amazon took a little bit to “get” this and used to try to take these short stories down, necessitating long heart to hearts with their people.)

If you are doing 10 a year, you might have enough for a collection (about 80k words) after a year.  If like me you sometimes write short stories just for fun, you might have enough after six months.

But what is the point of making a collection?  Does it make you any money?  Well, so far, if I’m counting the Kindle Lending Library pages right, this one has made me close to a thousand dollars.  Sure, I had to have it copyedited, and then I had to spend some time formatting it and giving it a cover, but you know, that was a day’s worth of work.  I mean, the stories were written.  It’s not precisely bad pay.  And in the process, I found I have two more science fiction collections and one fantasy collection’s worth of short stories just lying around doing nothing.

Can you make a living from these?  I don’t think so.  I’m not Jorge Luis Borges or O’Henry or even Ray Bradbury.  I can write short stories, but I much prefer the longer form.  (You in the back.  Yes, you who just muttered about me being long-winded.  Did you bring enough sarcasm for the whole class?)

So what is the point of writing shorts (which, by the way, almost don’t sell as individual properties?)

Well, I was told long ago that short stories were loss leaders.  It wasn’t the money you made from them.  It was that people reading anthologies would find your writing while looking at some of your fellow authors in the same anthology.

This still applies in indie, and in fact, some authors have done a great job of both getting attention to their series and getting attention to themselves by writing in friends’ worlds.

In fact, oddly, all of my indie contributions have also made about the same money (about 10c a word) as I make in traditional.  Sometimes more.

Beyond that, friends use the short stories, set in their series world to keep interest in their series high, if it’s going to be more than three months between novels.

And no matter what you used it for originally, you can ring that bell again with a collection.  Some of your fans will have missed some of your appearances, and some will want to collect all your short fiction in easy-accessible volumes.

Yes, it probably is possible to make a living from short fiction, if you have a ton more talent for it than I do and publish a lot of them.  Or if you publish serial short stories that can be strung together into a novel.

But even if you’re primarily a long-form writer, you can gain something from writing short stories.  Not just the ability to explore characters and ideas that you don’t want to spend that much time with, nor to thin some of your dense-pack of unwanted ideas (shut up novels in my head, or I poke you with the q-tip again) but also some money to go on with.

So give short-form a look.  Play with it.  It could be a source of publicity and money, both.


FROM SARAH A. HOYT: So Little And So Light.

A collection of short stories that play with time.  Parallel times, alternate history, time travel and strange futures.





FROM RAY ZACEK: The Belly of Provence [Corrected, with apologies.]

Travel to enchanted places: Provence in southern France. An ancient Etruscan cemetery in Tuscany. A crystal cave in Belize. An avian ‘roadside attraction’ in Central American highlands. These destinations are transformed into places where terror awaits in four tales of tourism gone awry.




FROM DAVID L. BURKHEAD: Study in Black and Red.

Struggling artist Leslie Jefferson keeps finding strange paintings on dark and disturbing themes in his studio. To all appearances, from the signature to the style, they are his work. Yet he has no memory of making them. Are these paintings the product of a sick mind, perhaps even his own, or do they portend something more terrible than he ever imagined?




FROM L. A. BEHM II: Footnotes From the Apocalypse

John Peters awoke to a normal day. His wife was off with their son, in Dallas, visiting her folks. It was a typically sunny, Central Texas day. By nightfall he was scurrying around, stockpiling supplies for a long siege against an enemy too small to be seen with the naked eye. And before the end of the week he was puking his guts out, wondering if all his plans were meaningless.

But John survived the plague – one of a few of the scattered remnants of humanity – and alone he must begin to pull the shattered pieces of life together.

Along the path he brings other survivors with him, and they begin a long climb back.