Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Novels and the Short Fiction Market

This is the final installment of the On Publishing series. I’m hoping I might add to it in the future, as I find the opportunity, but this will end the regular part of the series. Today’s guest is Kaolin Fire, owner and editor of GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator Magazine. GUD Magazine, (pronounced “good,”) publishes poetry, art, articles, and fiction in both literary and genre styles. Kaolin agreed to both guest post, and answer some questions in an interview. This is what he has to say about novelists and the short fiction market.


A frequent topic with regards to writing short fiction is whether it's a good launching board for pitching that novel you want to write (or may have already written). I firmly believe (and hope) it's more the quality of what you've written, nine times out of ten, than your previous recognition – but I have to admit that it can't hurt to have some recognition.

Gardner Dozois says that writing and selling lots of strong short fiction is the best way to break in and establish a professional reputation; and Ellen Datlow points out that it worked for William Gibson in the early 80's, and that it still works now, for writers such as Kelly Link, Laird Barron, and Mango Lanagan.

Still, consider that a large short fiction market these days has a subscription base of around 20,000. That may be larger than the population of some small towns, but not by too much. And just because it's worked for some doesn't mean it's the right path for you.

Short fiction is a beast unto itself, and you shouldn't be writing it unless you have an understanding and love for the form, specifically. Some people were just born to write novels, and if that's you, then you should focus your attention there.

That said, if you grew up on novels and the only short fiction you've read was in a reader for school, you just might be missing out. Short story markets are often spoken of as the breeding ground of talent and ideas. Short fiction is also a great way to hone your writing, to focus on elements of plot, language, characterization, and more, some of which will actually carry over to novel writing, if that's what you want to do. Or it can carry over into the next short story you write, making it that much better.

People have been telling short stories for longer than they've been telling long ones, though the modern short story dates (arguably) back to just the 1800's or 1900's. And nobody really argues that the golden age for printed short fiction was with the pulps half a century ago (though there is the argument that short fiction is now expressed in many different ways, in many different media).

But the modern short story is a lot more than relating what happened this weekend when you're back at the office. Andrew Hedgecock, a member of the Interzone editorial team, says:

“Writing a great short story is a near-magical act. The maestros of the form have honed an age-old technique that draws you ineluctably into a world they've crafted from a hodgepodge of imagined fragments. And the best of them change the way you think forever.

For many readers, Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge opens up a new way of thinking about consciousness, and introduces a whole new set of existential uncertainties. Thanks for that Ambrose.

Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman and William Golding's Pincher Martin offer richer, more comprehensive reflections on the same theme as Bierce's tale. But it's the Bierce piece that offers the devastating insight; it's Bierce who brings about an instant and durable psychological transformation. I can't think of a form that offers this transformative hit as effectively as the short story.”

Kaolin, do you think breaking into the short fiction market is worth the trouble, if an author doesn't plan to stay there?

It's a different game, but if you enjoy short fiction, there's certainly things to be gained from writing it.  If you don't want to be there in the first place, steer clear, but you never know where you're going to be in three years, so plans of "staying" or not are loose guidelines at best.


If it takes the masters years to gain recognition, how much exposure would a few publishing credits actually get you?

I suppose it depends on the pub credits.  Of course, you should be aiming high – pro markets, or highly praised semi-pro.  Submit to markets that submit their publications to the various best-offs, because landing in a best-off certainly gets you notice of their editors – who may ask you to submit to their other anthos, ask what other work you have, etc.


Do you think alternatives like freelancing or journalism would be a wiser way of gaining credits?

Traditional journalism is a further cry from novel writing than short fiction is--and you'll actually have to unlearn certain traits if that's the route you go.  And if you do too much of it, it may actually burn you out on writing more adventurously.  Tech writing in particular I hear can do this.

But if all you want to do is write novels, then write a novel.  Workshop it, edit it, and then put it in a drawer.  Sending out query letters, and write another while you're waiting.  Rinse, repeat. Short stories are really not a stepping stone to novels – while they may give you a better idea of how to cross a river, you'll find you needed to cross a different one.


What are some things novelists should know about before trying to break into short fiction?

Short fiction gives you less time to develop setting and characters; is less forgiving to changing viewpoint; can't handle as many subplots; and generally allows you to have far fewer characters.  Also, people are a lot less forgiving of "filler" writing with short fiction.


You own a literary magazine. What do you like to see in a short story submission, and what do you hate to see?

The perfect submission is one that uses language to evoke a novel experience, where that experience is one I feel compelled to share with others. I like new ideas, or old ideas with a twist (and the idea can be an sfnal "idea", or it can be a character, or a setting, or a way of writing).  But the net effect has to be that I was glad I'd read it, through and through.  And every part of the story has to be relevant.  The beginning is no more or less important than the end, or any part in-between.

The absolute worst thing to read is a brilliantly written story that carries me along smoothly, with my disbelief suspended tenuously…where the end snips that thread and lets gravity slam it back into the ground, and then pummels it with frustration.  Sometimes, on a longer piece, I'll skip to the end to try and gauge whether it's going to a point that justifies what I've read so far, or if the pay-off just isn't high enough.

Poor command of the English language is an easy rejection; stilted dialog also.  When the slush pile is too large, I'm thankful for pieces like this. ;)

Kaolin has had his fiction published in various forms such as on Strange Horizons, Right Hand Pointing, and Tuesday Shorts. You can learn more about him by checking out his personal website,


Some related links:

SF Signal MIND MELD: What Purpose Does Short Fiction Serve?

Writers on the Short Story Market in 2006: Who's reading, who's writing, who's publishing?

Making "Robert Heinlein" kinds of money


kaolin fire said...

Thanks for having me. :)

Angela said...

I persued magazines for a while, but it can be a hard and competive gig. I think that it's good in the sense that you have something to put in those oh-so-important personal bits of the query letter, but in the end for most of us it will be the writing that either grabs the agent/editor, not our publication least for the type of writing I do.

I think it is good to have some credits, tho, because often it gets your foot in the door so to speak.

Creative A said...

Angela, nice insight. I recently read something by an agent or editor talking about what kind of publishing credentials they like to see; fiction was the only one that really made the editor think the novel might be any good, even if the fiction was published in an unheard-of magazine. It sort of surprised me!

I personally think short fiction creds are important and worthwhile. It's great to hear some other opinions on this. And Kaolin, thanks for coming :)

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