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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Does a Writing Career Always Mean Novels?
July 16, 1998


Everyone tells me I am "a natural" at writing, and everyone who's ever read my stories loves them. I also enjoy writing, and I am looking into it as a full-time career. However, the one problem I face is the fact that I have a very short attention span and rarely have the patience to complete anything longer than a short story. Is it possible to make a career in today's writing world without cranking out novels? If not, then is it possible for me to develop enough patience to make my stories more in depth and worthwhile?

-- Submitted by Morgan Majors

OSC Replies:

A fulltime writing career -- I certainly never dared to imagine it would ever happen to me, not until I actually started selling stories. And then the thought crept in ... what if I didn't have to go to work? What if I could do this all the time? So believe me, I understand the temptation.

Still, I must warn you that writing, which is a pleasure to you now in such stolen moments as you can devote to it, becomes drudgery when it's the way you earn your daily bread. Yes, there are still good moments when you solve a particularly nasty problem in a story, or when you complete a story that you know absolutely works. But every day when you get up, writing is your duty, and that changes everything. It becomes lonely, frustrating, and it's hard to want to do it. And even when the money comes, it comes in fits and starts. You never know where the next dollar is coming from.

Independent Means. So if you're thinking of a career in writing, there are several things to think of before deciding whether you can do it with one particular form of writing or another. The first question, however, trumps all the others: Do you have another source of income? That makes everything much easier -- a spouse with a steady income stream; a nice inheritance large enough you can live off the interest; indulgent parents or other relatives willing to fund years of writing with no guarantee of return on investment -- any of these will do. If you don't have to worry about money, then you can write whatever you want -- even short stories! Even poetry!

Pleasing the Audience. Not that it's easy, even with financial security -- you still have to worry about whether an editor will publish your work, and which work will get published first or most frequently. If you're a normal person (and most writers are, despite our efforts to appear strange or "special"), you'll have a tendency to keep doing the thing that people most appreciate. Your personal preference, in other words, changes to fit what the market demands. Only when you've had at least a moderate amount of success and achievement in one genre or form will you begin to be tempted to branch out in spite of the preferences of the public or the publishers.

My experience is that writers who claim they write only what pleases them are fooling themselves. So don't be deceived into thinking that writers who have chosen to do work that makes money have "sold out." They have done what all writers do, at least at first -- they have tended to repeat that which most pleases others. Even with no money or little money at stake, that is what happens in every genre, including "literary" writers, who are often more deeply bound to the expectations of their audience than writers whose work brings in a noticeable income. What frees you from this is confidence and maturity, not your choice of form or genre.

So don't imagine that by sticking with nonlucrative short stories you are more "pure" in your art than those who choose to write novels because in that form they have a better chance of gaining the financial independence to support their writing habit. As soon as you seek any audience at all for your work, you are entering into a transaction, with give and take needed on both sides. You will compromise your work, of course -- as any act of communication requires negotiation on both sides to achieve intelligibility. That particular "compromise" -- trying to communicate with actual readers -- is, in fact, what makes your work better. So if you decide to reach out to the audience in order to enable yourself to tell more stories to wider and deeper effect, that is not "selling out" -- it's diving in!

Fatal Compromise. This is not to say that there aren't ways to fatally compromise your work. If you betray what feels right to you in a story in order to insert something that you have been told is more "commercial," then you are dead as a writer. But that sort of compromise is never necessary, in large part because all those things you've been told about what makes a work "commercial" is hogwash. What makes a work commercial is a writer who believes in, cares about, and clearly communicates the kind of story that a substantial audience wants to pay for and for which a publishing outlet exists. If you don't believe in or care about the story you're writing, you will not be "commercial" in the long run, even if your work looks like Krantz's or Grisham's. Your audience will never get passionate about your work because you aren't passionate about it.

But this kind of compromise has nothing to do with decisions about form and genre. If you are a storyteller, you can write stories of any length and any form, in any genre -- or outside of or between genres. But some forms and lengths will be more comfortable to you than others, and some genres will be more interesting to you than others. I believe that writers only improve their work in their favorite forms, lengths, and genres when they experiment with other forms, lengths, and genres. If nothing else, your early failures in an unfamiliar form or genre will give you more respect for the writers who excel in them. But my fiction was improved by my experience as a playwright -- and I find now that my playwriting is greatly improved by my experience as a ficcionero. My switch from short stories to novels was hard, but the result was that my short stories are also better because of my greater understanding of the difference between the lengths. My fiction has improved my poetry; my verse dramas improved my command of prose in my fiction; and so on, and so on.

Best of all, by experimenting with different forms, lengths, and genres, you become more flexible. Some of your comfortable forms, lengths, and genres are going to be more lucrative than others. So if you first set yourself to mastering those that will enable you to have the financial independence to pursue the others as well, you are only improving yourself as an artist -- not "selling out." My science fiction sells better than my fantasy or my contemporary fiction, but that does not make it inferior. I put my whole heart into everything I write (yes, even this informal essay), and I write only the stories I believe in and care about. But that doesn't stop me from making sure that in every year I complete several works that are more likely to make money, in order to earn the time I spend on those works that aren't so likely to pay the bills. That was the attitude of such commercial -- but crusading -- writers as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Henry James. Writers who are desperate for money are not free; writers with a satisfactory income (an amount defined by each individual, of course) are the ones who have the freedom to try to change the world -- either the world at large or the smaller world of art.

Short Story Markets. Which brings us, at last, to your actual question: Can you make a career out of writing short stories?

You haven't mentioned what kind of short fiction you write. If you write mainstream stories, then there is definitely a wide-open marketplace. Unfortunately, very few of the venues pay anything but copies. To make a living, you'd have to sell -- regularly -- to Atlantic, Harper's, or The New Yorker, and then publish books of short stories -- and even then, the reality of the marketplace is that short story collections just don't sell. So there are a few markets that still pay very well and offer prestige, too -- but John Updike's and Ann Tyler's stories are in the same mix as yours. Good luck!

The picture is just as bleak in other genres. Women's fiction? Sure, there's a market -- but thousands of writers are competing for each precious slot in the big slick women's magazines. Hard to break in, hard to keep selling regularly. Mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy have lively markets, but when it comes to money, there just isn't that much. How many stories do you think you could sell, at $300 a story, each year? No, even in the liveliest of the short fiction markets, a livable income is unlikely, to say the least.

There are a couple of notable exceptions. One thinks of Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, in the science fiction genre. I don't know about either man's finances as his reputation was building. But $300 for a story went a lot farther in 1955 or 1965 than it does now; and both writers were fortunate enough to earn a reputation and a following that enabled their story collections to sell far above the norm. Bradbury has also become a staple of the education market, which guarantees him an annuity, and both writers are in that pantheon of authors whose books of stories are eagerly passed on from parent to child, from friend to friend. You can't plan on that happening, and even if it does, it won't happen soon enough to help you during those early years when you're building your oeuvre.

Swallowing the Whale. But what do you have against novels? Is it the length that intimidates you? It shouldn't. Novels may be ten times the pages (or more), but they are not ten times the storyline. I find that it takes as much energy to create a good short story as to create a good novel -- the development time is the same. Only the typing time differs -- and not by that much.

Let's say you have six months of writing ahead of you. Twenty-six weeks, 182 days. Let's say that when you're really moving on a story, you can write five pages a day; when you're just starting out, though, you write only two usable pages a day. Most writers I know are like me in that they can't finish a story and immediately plunge in and write at full speed on the next. You need time to shift gears, to change from one imaginary world to another. And I'm not speaking just of science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, in which you literally change worlds. Even in realistic contemporary fiction, you have to move into the world that your characters inhabit -- their relationships, their locale, their work, their concerns.

So let's be fantastically optimistic, and say that it takes you only a week to let go of one story and get started on the next. And let's say that your stories are an average of 3,000 words in length (a bit long for li-fi, quite short for sci-fi). Using a "page" of 250 words, a novel of 100,000 words is 400 pages and a story of 3,000 words is twelve pages.

In writing the novel, you struggle with the new voices and milieux for the first fifty pages. That's twenty-five days at two good pages a day. But after that, you're really in your stride, and you can average five good pages a day. So the remaining 350 pages take you seventy days. Allowing yourself some days off, so you can have a life, you've got a novel finished in about a hundred days.

Now let's look at the short stories you could write in that time. It looks like such a short time to write a twelve-pager, doesn't it? But the first half of the story comes at the rate of two pages a day, on average, so it takes you a whole week to finish a story. Then you need a week to change gears, to find (or create) a handle on the idea that will be your next story. So you average a story every two weeks. That's seven stories in the amount of time it would take you to write a novel. Admittedly, that's a lot of stories -- but we're assuming you're a fulltime writer and you are determined to do this as a career.

The financial comparison, of course, is an eye-opener. If you sell all seven of those short stories to the sci-fi magazines at about three hundred dollars each, you'd have $2100. If the novel is your first novel, of course, you are unlikely to get much more than $3,000 as an advance, and royalties are a long way off. So your first novel won't get you that much more than the stories you'd write in the same amount of time.

But if your first novel sells decently, you're likely to get to the $10,000 level fairly quickly, or even $15,000. The stories, however, are still paying you at the same rate. So if this six-month period is in your third year of selling, you actually have half a year's income when you finish the novel.

That's money, though. What about creativity? Here's the thing. If the novel you wrote in a hundred days earns you half a year's income, you don't have to start the next novel right away. We were talking about six months, remember? Half a year! So you still have eighty days left -- eighty days in which you can write a couple of short stories, a few poems, maybe even a draft of a screenplay (which is much shorter than a novel). You have eighty days of freedom before you start the next serious money-earning project.

All these numbers are imaginary, of course. You'll find your own pace of working. Mine is actually much faster during the writing phase -- but the breaks between projects are longer. That's why you don't see ten short stories a year from me. When novels and stories each take a month of downtime before you can get started, the freedom to write short work is sharply curtailed! But no matter how you crunch the numbers, the fact that the novel has a single creative arc makes for an efficiency of writing that makes up for much of its great length. You don't have to go through that beginning phase over and over again. So during those hundred days, you ended up with 21,000 words of short story during the time that it would have taken you to write 100,000 words of novel.

Can you make a career writing only short stories? Sure, if you're financially secure. Otherwise, the numbers just don't work. But do you have to give up writing short stories in order to write novels? Of course not. Novels just aren't that much harder than short stories -- once you learn how to write for that length.

And for that, I'm writing a book, based in large part on the experience my students and I had in our novel-writing workshop in the winter of '98 at Pepperdine University. It takes a radical change of storytelling pace and a different proportion of dramatic versus narrative writing (showing versus telling), and that has to be learned. (It also takes a firm grasp of the key structural decisions -- but I've already written two books that deal with that.)

For now, though, the conclusion is inescapable. If you want to write fiction, and you want to do it as a career, and you don't have financial support aside from the payment you receive for writing the fiction, then you must learn to write novels. But the good news is that novel writing isn't that hard, compared to short story writing. You write at the same daily pace that you use for short story writing, and you find yourself with a novel in a surprisingly short time. So why not learnto write novels in order to support your short story habit?

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