The long, painful journey from long fiction to short

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A year ago I would have told you that I can’t write short fiction, that I need to write stories in the 100,000 word range (about a 350 page novel).

That was then, this is now.

A year ago, I was in a bad place, psychologically. I’d torn a tendon in my shoulder. I could barely type. I had a novel sitting at 123,000 words, feeling so close to done, and yet so far. I didn’t type anything for two months. By the time I could type again the universe of that long story had slipped a bit from my grasp, and trying to write inside it felt awkward and embarrassing, like I was intruding. I’m still struggling to get back into that universe.

I needed a change. So I looked at a list of story ideas that I’d been hoarding; Things I’d get around to some day. One in particular bugged me. It should be a hard science fiction story, something that could almost actually happen, maybe even today (Not quite, but it does involve DragonX and the international Space Station, so really grounded in modern science and engineering). But I wasn’t technically literate enough to write the story, not and get all the facts down in a believable form. I had specs, layouts, technical info that i could find… It made the whole story an unenjoyable project.

Then, while I was laid up, i read a book called Red Shirts by John Scalzi. It mocks Star Trek greatly, is self-aware, and does something magical - it ignores all technical issues. It just excises them from the story. How do our heroes travel back in time to modern Earth to re-write the myth they’re trapped in? Who knows. That just gets ignored. One minute they’re living in their time, the next they’re here, with us.

Holy Shit! You can tell a good story without technical detail!

I sat down and wrote the story I wanted to tell. It didn’t come out in one sitting, it took about a week for three rounds of revisions before it was ready. At 4,000 words it was one of the shortest stories I’d ever written. So I sent it to Tor, the largest publisher of science fiction. They can take four to six months to reject your story (That’s how I thought about it, how long until they reject it. Not how long until they accept it). It took them seven months to reject it. However, the rejection letter was not a simple templated rejection. It contained advice about some edits, and it contained massive encouragement, “this is a good story. Keep sending it out and it will find a good home.”

Somebody liked it. Apparently not enough somebodies for it to get published, but somebody at Tor liked it. I took that as a win, and submitted it to some other publishers. Form rejection (A ‘dear john’ for writers) and form rejection again.

I’ve got the story out to a fourth publisher, another one that I’d be proud to have as a writing credit. They’ve had the story for four months. I queried them to see if they’d read it yet. Nope. They need another two months before they’ll even read it. Sigh.

In the mean time, the praise in the Tor rejection letter gave me confidence to try my hand at a few other ideas that had been bouncing around in my head. I wrote six 100-word stories and sent them to SpeckLit. They bought four.

I started writing other short pieces, some drawn from my slush list, some new ideas. A couple of those are now out to publishers. Every time I finished a short story I had this sense of both amazement that i’ve told the story in the space that I have, and a fear that I might never write another short story again.

Lately I’ve been having a bit of a creative boost. I wrote three short stories recently that I’m very proud of*. I already know where I’ll try to get them published. Hopefully they’ll find good homes. But even better, I have eight story stems - the first thoughts for eight more stories.

Best of all, I’m back in my novel, making it tighter, and making the middle darker and more foreboding.

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*I’ve also written two short stories that I’ll burn before anyone else ever reads them - bad, bad, bad!