I’ve been investing more time into short stories, essays, and articles, and with a nice bump of success, too, as I finish a novel and conclude a massive historical project. It’s been great fun, for the most part, and I’ve tried to improve the quality and quantity of my shorter material.
This weekend, I carved out a couple of hours to get my short-stuff back into the slush piles of the world. Out of nowhere, a very bitter nostalgia crept over my tired mind, a pall that glommed on and took days to shake.
My professional writing career started with short stories. For ten years, that’s what I wrote. I finished a bunch of novels, too, but, since I was in grad school and working on an epic biography, I only wanted to work on short pieces as the primary arm of my fiction career. Plus, I was getting better at them, and increasing my rate of acceptance (thanks in part to the amazing Ralan.com site . . . which still exists and looks oh so 2003!). My crazy stat? In one year (2007, as I recall), I received 243 rejections and 13 sales, while keeling about 30-40 stories perpetually in the market. Yes, there is a story about perseverance here. But that ain’t the point.
I switched novels after I’d finished my doctorate, moved to the US, got married, and hoped (and tried) to turn novels into part of a successful writer career. (CUE SAD TROMBONE). Four years of voracious effort produced skill and craft, projects I loved (like my steampunk WWI zombie horror novel, or my gonzo punk rock sex novel, or my “Karate Kid with Wizards but with a fat hero” novel, or . . . I could go on), but no bites, no dice, no thanks. Divorce, tragedies, and poverty followed.
Occasionally, in the aftermath of my agony year, I’d hunker down and work on a short story. Steve Tem, one of my heroes and whose Deadfall Hotel is absolutely brilliant, views short stories as little labs to explore intense emotional experiences or ideas. And I’m rather full of those. But I watched how my normal routines and subjects didn’t catch fire, and things I’d sworn off writing (especially military history, or history in general), began to pull me. Sometimes I’d send these suckers off. Some sold. Others didn’t. In my recovery year, I stopped being orderly and pragmatic about submissions and stats. Just too tired to care.
That was a major change. Because when I was just a Short Story Guy, I worked like clockwork, and approaching speeds near that of the late Jay Lake and other fast writers (but nowhere near Michael Moorecock’s speed of 30K a day, as discussed in his fun book interviews Death is No Obstacle). Two days outlining, three days writing, two days revising: DONE. I’d spend Sundays getting ALL my returned submissions out the door. While I wanted top tier markets, if I ran out, I kept them shopping to lower ones to get money and another notch on the belt. This also meant I sold to some awful stories to awful markets (may they rest in obscurity), but built up a published body of work that had, as the British say, “bottom.” It was fun. A tradition. A routine. A way to improve.
FF to last week. I’m recharging my knowledge of the short story markets. Lots has changed, (hello Submission Grinder, which isn’t as dirty as it sounds), including newer and cooler markets for fantasy, the championing of diversity by much of the community, and rising stars who are fun to read (check out the latest Flash Fiction Online for proof!). Lots is the same, including generally poor “pro” rates, boring old men farting about the good old days (ever notice how women and people of color don’t pine for such things?), and the perpetually thin market for crime fiction (especially with the death of The Big Click) And while going to the “Grinder” to get some data, a bitter dollop of the familiar smeared my frontal lobe. In the common tongue, it sounded thus:
Well, look who’s back? That fast writing guy! Wow, you miserable shit, how far did you fall to end up back where you started before the 21st century was born? Got an SASE for the post office? Feeling old yet? Feeling irrelevant yet? Feeling like a failure yet?
But I didn’t.
I’ve got book deals, history projects, comic book stuff, sales and more in the short story world. How might these be fails?
Right, it’s just stupid baggage about art and failure in my past, about writer identity that can be toxic, and other old junk from the nightmare box in my head.
The glom of doom didn’t last. It stung, felt ugly, reminded me I’m not twenty-five anymore, then left when confronted with some evidence and, frankly, another cup of instant coffee (don’t judge).
This year seems to be about new challenges in familiar fields. Novels are the clearest one, but short stories are another. My natural inclination with such feelings is to inject myself with work to kill the noise generated by uncertainty: with major projects done, I should do five massive new projects; or, write a short story a week for a year; or, became a Novella Man; or, finally get my degree in the history of snack food.
I’m holding back the itch to do all of above, because that drive to work until I’m dead at 45 must be resisted some times. But such moments of reflection are good for taking stock. I love short stories. I want to do more. It’s not a step back to do something you love. Letting anyone, including yourself, push you around so that you aren’t doing your work, your way?
That is a step back, into the shadows of your past. But if you end up there, trying kicking darkness until . . . well, you know the song.
Support Jay’s Dream of Being a Short Story Success . . . uh, Story! Check out Jay’s short story collection, Knockouts: Ten Tales of Fantasy and Noir: , where award-winning author Norman Partridge refers to our hero as “The Man in the Barbed Wire Straightjacket!” Get it today and he’ll thank you tomorrow!
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