My Promise as a Writer

I promise to entertain you to the best my twisted little mind can manage. I will take you from the light, and into darkness. I might even let you see the sunrise at the end of the journey, but that I can't promise. My stories will sweep the hair from you brow, leave your stomach in knots, and suck the air from your lungs. But no matter how far we descend, I will offer you a fragment of hope to cling to. I will treat you to dark fantasy, science fiction, horror, and anything that falls into the strange and disturbing. Will we re-emerge into the light? Well, that is the point of taking the journey. I hope you will join me on these adventures.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


The U. S. market for short stories has been reportedly shaky for a number of decades. Some in the publishing world would have us believe the bottom dropped out of the market in the 1940's when World War II launched a paper shortage. Others lay the blame on the wide spread of television in the 1950's. Still others will claim the decline commenced twenty years later with the recession of 1973-1975. Even now long standing short story driven magazines are struggling, and resorting to calling former subscribers to return to them. An editor, publisher, agent, or publicist in what seems like every issue of Publisher's Weekly states no one is interested in

buying your collected shorts, that bookstores are not terribly interested in shelving said collection on their limited and crowded bookcases. They say there is no money in writing shorter works of fiction unless your name is Stephen King or Ray Bradbury. The best you can hope for is a grudgingly offered contract to publish your collected works, but only if the sale comes with a feature length novel of which the publishing gurus are convinced will sell as well as Sarah Gruen's Water for Elephants. These New York men and women have long lists of figures to prove there is no money, with the exception of money lost, in publishing anthologies. I'll give you five reasons to nay say the nay sayers, and continue to write short stories (or to start if you have not already penned a few quickies).

1. Character Sketches: You toiled away for week or more in front of the keyboard, filling out character sketches, and finding images on-line of people who resemble how your mind sees the women and men of your novel. A good character sketch will fill three to five pages. At the end of your hard work you have five or more new friends (or enemies) who you intimately understand. You know their faces as well as your spouse's, children, parents, or significant other. You know what makes them tick. What are their allergies? You know the answer. What foods do they love? Do they read, prefer television, gaming, or are they the outdoor type? You are well immersed in the pivotal moments of their lives. You hold in your hand the makings of a short story, one for each character sketch. Between your mind's image of these people and the sketches drafted these men and women feel as real to you as your flesh and blood friends. Now is the time to put them to the test. Set your characters in their own, separate stories, and see what they can do. Learn if there are hidden talents they posses that can only be revealed by allowing them to play across the pages. There will be some welcome surprises waiting for you at the end. This is also the time to learn if the character truly works, or if more work is needed before you get too far into the novel. Changing the name of the character of the short story is a valid option, particularly if your intent is to sell the finished work to a magazine or anthology.

2. Finding the Theme that Works: As writers, no matter how hard we try, our personalities tend to get splashed across the pages. Adept readers will learn our political views, religious attitudes, biases, and so much more. Sometimes we are honest with ourselves, and say, "Yeah, I want to be a literary champion like Upton Sinclair." So we set out to write our own version of The Jungle, filled with high hopes and dreams of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. But does ability and skill match with the loftiness of the dream? The

only way to know the answer is to write. Identify the theme of your novel, and play around with it in short form. In my short story, Shadows Beyond the Flames, the titular story of my collection, I explored the attitudes and reactions of a character faced with the impossible. I learned how he coped, and from this how the events of the story impacted the greater aspects of his life. I revisited the same theme when writing Girl in a Pink Dress (also found in Shadows Beyond the Flames and Other Stories), this time taking a different approach to learn how a person with a dissimilar mindset interacts with the impossible. This theme of confronting the impossible appears in my up coming novel, Tourney of Diplomacy, and I've been able to use what I've learned to strengthen the book. Much of my flash fiction is concerned with the themes of revenge and retribution. There is such a fine line between the two that I felt it necessary to immerse myself in the themes to fully understand the difference. I needed to know what would drive a person to revenge, how would it change her/him, and would it be possible to survive as a whole person when the vigilante desires were satisfied. Would it destroy the person, make it possible to sleep at night, or ultimately change nothing. The revenge and retribution stories have served as a wonderful map for an up coming novel filled with hard characters making hard decisions. The idea of that story would not have been possible if I had not first explored the inspiring themes. Through the format of the short story I was able to explore and play around in a lengthy string of, "What ifs?" The exercise of exploring themes from different points of view has strengthened my writing by allowing me to learn what works and what falls flat. I was also faced with my shortcomings as a writer, forcing me to improve in those areas. Writing shorter works of fiction enabled me, relatively speaking, to tackle a theme from multiple angels in a shorter period of time than if I'd tried to write the full length novel first. The long term result is I saved more time by going into the story narrative knowing what works and what to avoid.

The exercise also reveals where you are knowledgeable and where more research is required. Take into consideration the current politically charged atmosphere in the United States when the issue of religion and procreation are concerned. To write of such a theme requires the writer to honestly examine all sides of the issue. The novel will include characters you disagree with, and readers expect those characters to be real people rather than one dimensional representations of negative propaganda. Write a short story from the view point of the position you disagree with, making sure to give the protagonist the values that make your stomach squirm (be sure to avoid the clich├ęd change of heart at the end of the story). Once you think you are done, print the story, and pass along a copy to every friend, colleague, acquaintance, and family member who shares the values of the protagonist What you want to hear from them is, "I totally identified with her/him. It was like she/he was speaking for me."

I recommend writing a minimum of three short stories inspired by your theme. More than three is even better. Stack a copy of these stories next to your working area to refresh yourself on what you learned as you work on the breakout novel.

3. Navigating Plot Holes: Plot holes find their way into the narrative like pot holes in a poorly maintained road, slowing down the reader to the point she is unable to finish your book. Rarely do the stories we imagine appear on the page as the mind originally spun the tale,

consequently leading to the writer's file cabinets exceeding the weight limits due to abandoned novels. Outlining the novel and writing a synopsis can save time in avoiding plot holes, but relying on these devices alone may not save the story. This is where the short story comes to the rescue.

Identify the main plot of your story. Is your protagonist in search of greater financial rewards? Trying to save a marriage? Or is he out to destroy an evil ring? Write about it! Narrow the focus of your story, and see how it works in 15,000 words or less (many of Louis L'Amour's novels originated as short stories). You will quickly learn if the overall plot of your novel holds together, or if it requires drastic surgery.

After addressing the plot, seek out your subplots. These are typically found in conjunction with the obstacles standing in the way of your protagonist and the agendas of the other characters. Unless you are David and Leigh Eddings, your cast of heroes are not the same person wearing a different skin. They may have similar goals, or even the same goal, but seek to accomplish the task in opposing ways. Take some time to think on J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. We come across Arragon, who full-heartedly believes in the destruction of the One Ring, but understands it's his mission to stall the enemy. The tragic character of Boromir is more interested in risking the seduction of the Ring, believing the use of evil for good is acceptable. Gollum craves the ring, neither for good nor evil, but for how it makes him feel. Frodo must come to terms with what he knows is right while battling the temptation of the Ring. Samwise, however, has no interest in the Ring, caring for little more than for the well-being of his dearest friend, Frodo. All these issues, interwoven into The Lord of the Rings present unique subplots. The more complex the story, the more subplots readers will encounter. The writer owes to her/his readers the same care in handling these bumps in the protagonist's journey as with the main plot. A poorly conceptualized subplot will result in your book taking a journey to the recycling center on garbage day.

Writing one short story for every subplot will enable you to understand if it works, and why or why not. But don't stop if the examination proves successful. Write at minimum one or two more stories dealing with the subplot while using different points of view. This will strengthen your writing by enabling you to look at issues found through the eyes of your characters.

4. Your readers want more from you: How many times in a given week have you clicked on the websites of your favorite authors, hoping for an update on the latest project? Once a year? Once month? A week? Or is it daily or hourly? When it comes to Micheal Chabon, Tad Williams, and George R. R. Martin, I go through bouts of near physical pain if too much time has passed without the release of new material. So many times I have heard from other fans of these writers the wish that, "He'd just write something!" Penning the occasional short story satisfies the cravings of your readers while keeping you in the forefront of their literary thoughts. The average writer is expected to publish a book once every twelve months. Assuming that is true for you, that gives your readers twelve months to forget about you. However, making two short stories available during that period reminds them of why they are waiting. Who knows? Those stories might make them more eager to grab your next book. So write a fresh short story, or grab one based on flushing out the characters, theme, and plot of your up coming novel to appease those who faithfully give you their hard earned cash.

The stack of short stories is rapidly increasing at this point. What to do? These stories are not for you and your cadre of proof readers alone. They were written to be read, and that leads us to. . .

5. Money! I am tired of hearing professional writers voice the claim they write for the joy and not the money. "Seeing my name in print is reward enough." If such were true then not a single writer would submit a story to a publisher, or upload a book with a price attached to one of the many independent publishing companies. Yes, a writer is compelled to write, but the moment the attempt is made to sell the work the argument of writing for enjoyment alone is forever gone. To claim otherwise is false humility, a disease that runs rampant is writer communities. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money based on your hard work. You do it every day at the office, so why not seek that reward with your personal work? Demolish the mental block, and take another look at the growing pile of short stories piled next to your work space. There is the potential for gold in that mountain of paper.

Selling a short story is the hard part. Accept that some stories will never sell to the magazines and ezines. That is fine. Keep those rejection slips, and read the personal notes since these, too, will force you to look at your writing from another angle, thereby strengthening your writing. Eventually you will sell a short story, thereby opening the door to continued financial gain. Selling that story establishes a track record which, though not entirely necessary, publishers like to see. That one story very well might be eligible for an award competition. If so, make sure it's submitted. Editors and writers are constantly putting

together new short story anthologies, and more times than not they buy the rights from short stories that have already been published since it makes the task easier to accomplish. Stephen King and George R. R. Martin have sold individual short stories multiple times to magazines and anthologies. They, like nearly every other writer out there, also have their own collections of short story volumes--yet another source of revenue earned on previously sold work. Though they are the exception in the writer world with their success, they are not the exception when it comes to multiple sales. Think of it, that one short story you wrote last week has the potential to continue earning money for you twenty or more years later.

"Yeah, but there is no money in writing short stories." Not true! Short stories also serve as an advertisement for what you can accomplish as a writer, but unlike taking out an add on Facebook, you are getting paid to advertise. So what if the story earned $50? That is $50 more in your account than before the story sold. And don't forget what was said above. That first sale of the story is not the last sale. The more shorts you place, the better chance you have of making the big bucks in short story sales--$350 to $500. Unless you are Neil Gaiman, that is nothing to shrug at.

Though an exception to the rule, Ray Bradbury makes his living from the sale of short stories with over 500 to his name. Many of those stories have sold multiple times to magazines, anthologies, and in his own collections. The Martian Chronicles are nothing more than a collection of short stories loosely tied together and called a novel. The same can be said of The Illustrated Man and From the Dust Returned.

If none of the above arguments convinces you of need for your short stories, then take look at the following list authors. Each one is a writer of short stories.

Sherman Alexie
Isaac Asimov
Margret Atwood
T. C. Boyle
Ray Bradbury
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Pearl S. Buck
Michael Chabon
Philip K. Dick
Graham Greene
John Grisham
Barbara Hambly
Joseph Heller
Frank Herbert
Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm
Stephen King
Barbara Kingsolver
Louis L'Amour
Mercedes Lackey
Ursula Le Guin
Tanith Lee
H. P. Lovecraft
George R. R. Martin
Sylvia Plath
Edgar Allan Poe
Anne Rice
Salman Rushdie
J. D. Salinger
Harriette Beecher Stowe
Mark Twain
Kurt Vonnegut
Tad Williams


Shadows Beyond the Flames and Other Stories
Author Website


  1. This is a fantastic article! You're another rare find. I'm inspired to pull out my dust-logged short stories again :-)

    1. Dariel, thank you for your kind comment. I'm glad this post has inspired you, and YES! Please do dust off your stories, and get them out there for others to read. Even one stranger who reads your stories is a success, though I will hope for many more readers for you. Please keep me updated on your writing either here or through one of the many contact options found this page. This is exciting!

    2. So exciting my proof reading missed the typos...

  2. Excellent! I make a comparison with learning a musical instrument. You don't start out leaning an hours-long sonata, you learn a short tune and get from beginning to end on it. You don't learn to draw by first painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling either. Storytelling/writing is a skill, but everyone expects to write a hit novel on the first go.

    1. SeshatHotep--A rather astute comparison. I may have to commit a bit of theft! Thank you!

  3. Great points. In addition, short stories of a specific length can be submitted to Amazon's Kindle Singles program, which promotes and sells shorter works.

    (Great list of writers of short stories, though it's a little light on the ladies!)

    1. Thank you! And wow! You are absolutely right about the lady writers. I will revise the list.

    2. The list is rounded out. Not perfect, but better. If there are missing names you want to see, please post them here, and I will gladly add them to the list. Thank you!