Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Writing Short Stories, Then and Now

I used to write short stories. Then, for many reasons, I stopped writing fiction. Today I had my first story published in more than twenty years. (It will be posted on the web in two weeks, and I will link to it then. If you can't wait, the issue's for sale here.) More stories may be along; we'll see. If it takes another twenty-one years, I'll have something to look forward to in 2039.

It's a little strange returning to an art form after two decades away. One of the things it means is that in my old stories, no one has e-mail. Most people didn't. Or cell phones. Any temptation to dredge up old pieces is held at bay by the fact that they've become historical fiction.

So what else has changed?

Electronic submissions have made the business of sending out stories easier, and vastly sped up response times for science fiction markets. I loved the ritual of going to the post office, and I enjoy an occasional return to that, but in the old days after stories went in the mail you had to put them out of your mind for at least a couple of months. Now you sometimes get a response in less than a week. Sometimes it's still months, of course, but things are more efficient.

(Literary magazines are still as slow to respond as always, or slower. Budget six months for a reply and be happily surprised if you hear back within three.)

The small cool science fiction magazines I used to love, with their tiny press runs, have largely been replaced by cool online science fiction magazines. That's a useful change, especially in terms of how many people potentially read a story. I didn't have many links to share in the old days. I'm back to being a fiction rookie again, trying to break in just as I did when I was younger, except that rookies today get to play for bigger crowds.

I am now older than my characters. In my twenties, my typical science-fiction narrator was about 45 years old. I had real storytelling reasons for that: one way to write about the future is to use a character who's old enough to have lived through the key social or technological change, and who remembers how things were before. On the other hand, I used a middle-aged protagonist at least once in a straight-realist story, so I don't know what I was thinking. My go-to protagonists are still middle-aged, but now I don't have to imagine what that's like. A 45-year-old narrator might just be me with marginally better knees. And maybe some of the emotional tone I was reaching for as a younger writer, the rueful complexity I associated with my elders, is nearer to my midlife grasp. At least I'd like to think so.

Fiction writing is no longer my vocation. I've learned there's something else I'm better at. I will never know how well I write either scholarship or fiction, because that's something you can never know about yourself. But I know which one I write better. The best thing I have ever written is a scholarly article about Shakespeare, and so is the second-best thing. Ten years from now, that will still be true. If I had been asked twenty-five years ago whether I'd prefer to be a better fiction writer or a better Shakespeare scholar, I wouldn't necessarily have chosen the way it's turned out. But no one gets asked. It's great luck to feel any vocation as a writer, and I'm grateful. It feels like ludicrous good fortune to discover I can still publish in a second field, years after leaving it behind.

Knowing that fiction won't get me anywhere means I don't have to worry about getting anywhere with my fiction. I can write short stories because I don't have to make a living from them. It's no longer possible to make a living writing short stories. Even commercial markets (and I should say Apex Magazine has been both fair and generous) won't pay a month's rent or mortgage in America, and no one can sell a story every month. But my stories don't have to pay my rent. Neither do I need to use stories to get attention for my novel, or worse yet my unfinished novel, or get myself an agent. If I write a novel, I'll try to get it attention, and probably an agent too. But right now the point of my stories is to be the best stories I can make them. If I end up writing a novel, the point will be to create the best novel I can. There don't need to be other reasons.

I suppose this is all to say that my ambition is to write fiction with "a professional's skills but an amateur's goals." But I lifted that phrase from the scholarly article I have coming out next month. I'm better at some things than others.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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