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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shocking Shift

I know this will shock most of you, but I'm behind on writing and I'll do a post this weekend to make up for that.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Best Modern Fantasy (Not So Fast Quarterfinals)

What is the best book or series written in the last 25 years? 

Today we have a very interesting poll, and it is actually NOT the first round of the quarterfinals. We have some housecleaning to do on that master list, and a few titles that looked like they were gone are about to get a second chance.

If you've been following along through our SEVEN ROUNDS of initial elimination, you know that this poll overwhelmed me. There were WAY too many nominations and almost all of them got someone to give them a second and suddenly we had like 60+ titles and it's hard to make a list because some people are very good about checking to see if their choice has already been nominated and others are not. And the comments were a mess. And....*hitching sobs*

I'm crying you a river here. Be impressed. 

It's my own fault. That "one nomination one second gets you to the poll" thing worked when I had fifteen regular readers, but now that these polls regularly get a few thousand page views each and are promoted on my Facebook page, where there close to 2/3 of a million, I really need to think of either smaller categories or the need for more than one "second" to make the poll (probably both).

The point is, I was doing a lot of copy and paste and not a lot of meticulous checking and we ended up with some redundancies on our master list.  (A couple of you noticed, and thank you for that.) Also it turns out Name of the Wind and The Kingkiller Chronicles are the same series. (It's on the list for years, but babies and loved ones with cancer and break ups and moves kind of make you take a pass on 700 page per book series.) I got all that cleaned up...I hope.

However, once I cleaned things up, we were about four titles short for a proper quarterfinal. So here's how this one works. I've gone back through all the initial round polls and pulled out the first cut off title (usually the fifth place title, but it was the sixth in a couple of places for various reasons).  All those books are on this poll.

You get three votes. The top four results will get a second chance in the quarterfinals.

There is no way to "rank" votes, so use as few as you can bare.

The poll itself is at the bottom left, under the "About The Author." 

For those of you on mobile devices, I'm told that if you scroll ALLLLLLLLLLLL the way to the bottom, you can see the poll.

Note: If you see a title that is "breaking the rules" (older than 25 years–published before 1992) please let me know. I did not have time to cross check all of them. 


Monday, September 18, 2017

ON TO THE QUARTERFINALS (Best Modern Fantasy Poll Results)

What is the best modern fantasy novel or series?

We now have culled the massive initial list from your nominations. Below the results of the most recent poll are ALL the titles that will be going on to the quarterfinals–which will start tomorrow.

Text results at the bottom of the page.
Master List of Titles Going on To the Quarterfinals

The Kingkiller Chronicle Patrick Rothfuss
The Dresden Files
Mistborne Brandon Sanderson
Small Gods- Pratchett
American Gods Neil Gaiman
Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Chronicles.
The Inheritance Trilogy- N.K. Jemison
Harry Potter J.K. Rowling

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Night Watch T. Pratchett
The First Law trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Song of Ice and Fire GRR Martin 

Harry Potter JK Rowling

The Magicians- L. Grossman
The Dresden Files- J. Butcher

The Graveyard Book- N. Gaiman
Farseer Trilogy- R. Hobb
Malazan Book of the Fallen series- S. Eriksen'
The Lightbringer Series- B. Weeks
Name of the Wind 'trilogy' by Patrick Rothfuss
Nnedi Okorafor for Who Fears Death]
Radiance - Catherynne M. Valente
Uprooted - Naomi Novik

Percy Jackson and the Olympians - Rick Riordan
His Dark Materials- Philip Pullman
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Sabriel (the Abhorson trilogy) by Garth Nix
Kushiel's Legacy- J. Carey
East- E. Pattou
The Hollows Series- K. Harrison
The Mercy Thompson Series- P. Briggs


Results of this poll in text form
Kushiel's Legacy- J. Carey 17 19.54%
East- E. Pattou 15 17.24%
The Hollows Series- K. Harrison 13 14.94%
The Mercy Thompson Series- P. Briggs 12 13.79%
The Night Angel Trilogy- B. Weeks 12 13.79%
Libriomancer Series- J. C. Hines 11 12.64%
The Magicians' Guild- T. Canavan 6 6.9%
The Underneath-K. Appelt 1 1.15%
 Dawn of Wonder: The Wakening- J. Renshaw 0 0%

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Mailbox: Traditional vs. Digital Publishing (Revision)

Should I do traditional or digital publishing?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I promise I don't bite--unless you either ask nicely (and tell me your safe word) or you take the first shot.]    

Just a quick reminder before I get going that I'm still looking for questions–particularly if I told you I would be answering your question and then forgot. I didn't forget, but I did lose the "Notes" file that had all the questions in it.

CAH asks:

Hello, My name is C.A.H. [last name redacted], and I am a recent follower of this page. I have what might be a very stupid question for you as I think you have heard this many times. I have written my first novel, working on my second now. I would like to know your opinion on what you think about putting it on line and selling it as an E book? Or if you think traditional publishing is even worth the attempt?. I really get choked up on my writing when it comes to query letters to agents. I never feel like they are good enough. I am a writer and I want my stuff out there just appreciate any feedback you may afford me..thank you..c. ausband [last name redacted]

My reply:

There are no foolish questions C.A., only-- Oh who am I kidding.  There are some wicked foolish questions out there.  I mean the one about my favorite snack food is actually NOT the worst question I've gotten. I have one here wondering if my balls itch when I write for long periods and what I do about it if they do.

"Please don't just answer 'scratch them.'" the question goes on. "I need details."

Here's another: "What's the best country to find Thai hookers?"

I swear to fuck I'm not making this up. I mean how do you even begin to respond to something like that? "Dear Joe. Let's not use that word for sex workers. However, I'm guessing Thailand might be a good place to start."

However, this is not one of those questions. This is a really good question, actually.

A couple of disclaimers are probably worth mentioning right up front before diving into something like this, so why don't I start there:

Disclaimer the first I have not personally leapt through the full array of traditional publishing hoops. I've submitted a few places, been rejected by (almost) all of them, but never really turned that into an impressive cover letter or tried to push toward the next stage of traditional publication. And while I have a little more experience with electronic media (obviously) I only pay about 75% of my bills with writing right now. My decision to go strictly through non-traditional publishing is still in its proto-stage.

However, one of the spectacular side effects of a good reading comprehension is the ability to dig through what dozens of people have said about a subject, and get a pretty good idea about it.  This works less well with stellar physics and understanding what the hell a Higgs Boson is, but spectacularly well when it comes to things like parsing the publishing world. Then again, if you're the type to say "What the hell does he know?" if I haven't personally experienced something, I understand. (Most well-read people seem to have a pretty good sense that this is bullshit.)

Disclaimer the second Pretty much anything I say is probably wrong. Not WRONG wrong, mind you, but possibly not fully up to date or completely encompassing--especially if you read this months or years after I wrote it. (ETA- I'm updating it in September 2017 with the best of my knowledge.) The publishing industry is experiencing massive tectonic upheaval on par with the music industry about thirteen years ago. Some publishing houses are making the transition, and others are having more trouble than a toilet full of vipers. New tech changes the game almost monthly.  Trending lines have not stabilized yet.  Stuff changes fast!

Disclaimer the third Digital publishing is a bit of metonymy. It is starting to become a pretty wide umbrella that covers everything "non-traditional." Blogging, self publishing, e-publishing, print-on-demand, a ton of other non gatekeeper models, as well as things like apps, and password web sites are basically called "digital" even though they may end up involving a paper book. An article trying to break down ALL the different forms of digital publishing would be way outside my expertise, the internet attention span, and the fun factor here at Writing About Writing, so I'm going to tackle the question at the broadest level only.

Lastly, most traditional publishing involves digital publishing, and many of the the things called digital involve physical books (like self-publishing or "print on demand") so the real difference here is between publisher-backed and independent.

First let's dispel a few myths about both kinds of publishing:

The Beale Ciphers and the Phaistos Disc
have nothing on the mystery of how
this piece of shit became a bestseller.
1- No one really knows what in the name of Athena's left nipple happened with E.L. James, so thinking anyone's career trajectory will mirror hers is sheer ridiculousness.
Someone could probably earn a PhD by figuring out what perfect storm of internet fuckery set up the dominoes that led to that underwear skid mark of a book becoming so fucking popular. (I don't just mix metaphors; I throw them into goulash.)

Once 50 Shades was "a thing," it snowballed due to buzz/hype, but how it got to that point is the subject of campfire horror stories. It is literally the worst published book many people have ever read. This woman tweaked her third rate Twilight fanfic that she wrote on her phone and became an internet sensation.

That just.....doesn't happen.

EVER.

Not in the real world.

I mean you can't punch "Mind Control Erotica" into Google (or....um....you know....something like that) without finding fifty websites with better writing. Way too many self-publishers have dollar signs in their eyes because of this book when what they should be doing is running around in shark-infested waters with a lightning rod and lottery tickets trying to get eaten by a shark, struck by lightning, and win the lottery all at the same time...

...because that's actually more likely.

Second draft erotic fiction, which couldn't possibly get past a gatekeeper, is not going to make money just because it's published digitally. Basically the only books making real money in digital publishing are the ones that a publisher probably would have published.

Let me say that again in obnoxiously big font and bolded:
Basically the only books making real money in digital publishing are the ones that a gatekeeper publisher probably would have published anyway.
Not that you won't make any money (that's one of the fun parts of non-traditional publishing) but if your book is a turd, it's probably not going to make you more than a few hundred bucks.

With, of course, this one laws-of-the-universe defying exception. There are other exceptions as well: publishing is notoriously whitewashed, so many good books get passed on that are perfectly well written and would make some money in non-traditional publishing.

2- This upheaval isn't over, and neither side has "won."
The digital world is changing the publishing industry. If you don't think that's true, go back to listening to Fleetwood Mac on your eight track. However, depending on who you talk to (and which sources they conveniently ignore) you may hear that the publishing industry is finished and that digital publishing has irrevocably torpedoed it. You may have heard that publishing houses are unfazed and not even truly threatened by this flash in the pan fad. You may even hear that the evil "big five," Amazon, and other monopolies have dipped their greedy fingers into the digital pie and all but defeated the poor struggling independent artists.

All of this is total bullshit.

The big five have gotten gobsmacked pretty good. There are a lot of bookstores scratched their heads as they went out of business and said in their folksy accent, "I guess people just don't read anymore." (Hint: book sales are up--even a decade or two ago.) But not everyone has quietly rolled over and died either.  Bookstores are holding readings, agents are helping with digital media, new publishing house models are being adopted.

The emergence of "hybrid" authors (those who write in both the digital publishing medium and the traditional publishing medium) are increasingly ubiquitous precisely because neither side has said "There can be only one!" and decapitated the other.  And yet....digital publishing has become a multi-billion dollar industry.... And yet it is still less than a quarter of the publishing industry as a whole. And yet....paper book sales shrink every year and show no signs of slowing.  And yet.... And yet.... And yet....

3- Digital media is not a faster road to money, but then neither is traditional publishing. 
D pub wanks like to point out that you will make only a few cents per traditional book sale, but will make almost all the price of a digital sale to put in your pocket, but then conveniently leave out the part about how you will sell far, far fewer copies. Unless you are already a well known author or experience outrageous success, you will be making dollars on a few hundred sales instead of pennies on a few thousand.  If you've written a good digital book (the kind that a publisher would publish), it will pretty much be a wash.

(On the other hand, if you've written a shitty digital book, enjoy the few dollars from your friends and the morbidly curious. That's about all you'll squeeze out of it.  Ever.)

T pub wanks will tell you will have to do all the editing and promotion of a book yourself if you digitally publish it, but they leave out the part that unless you are a household name, you will pretty much be expected to do that anyway. And if you are a household name, you still have to market your book, but it involves readings and signings and shit that is really only awesome and glamorous for the first half hour of the first time you ever do it, and then feels a lot like a private, introvert writer in a room with a thousand strangers.

It's easier to make some money right away in digital, but we're talking a few cents a day.  In traditional publishing you usually have to wait longer (possibly years) but the payout will be bigger.

Basically the cold, hard sucktacular truth is that you probably won't make much money as a writer until you are doing it with a mind numbing dedication for several years, no matter which medium you pick.

4- DRM doesn't even slow pirates down. 
You will get pirated.

It is like needing to pee while pregnant--just a fact of life that it will be better to simply adjust to. It is going to happen. I've already had multiple articles turned into tumblrs or put on Readability against my wishes. Some people have even gotten pissed off at me for asking if perhaps their copyright violation (going viral on some other site) could maybe contain a link back to my blog. I'm not even good enough to call myself a second rate blog--I'm like an eighteenth rate blog. Yet the wonderful world of people stealing my shit for their benefit is already known to me.

Do you think some fifteen year old with Kazaa who has been told how cool the latest Stephen King novel is by his friends is going to have any trouble downloading it? Yes, they suck. Yes, they're thieves. And yes, they've convinced themselves they're doing you a big favor of "exposure," so they don't even have to spend any time feeling bad. But DRM won't stop them, so don't waste time letting T-pubs tickle your self-righteous gland about how they will prevent you from losing your hard earned pay.

No publishing company is able to prevent this, and their claims that DRM can stop folks pirating your work are simply untrue. There is no technology that can really even provide a reliable speed bump against how fast someone will be able to get their hands on your product if they want it and don't much care about supporting artists. Traditional publishing may mitigate this, but now that electronic media are over 25% of the publishing market, only a few small presses ignore it completely.  If your book has a e-reader version (even Kindle), it is very easy to pirate. And if your book doesn't have an e-reader version, you are losing money anyway by being a luddite. Pick your poison.

5- Making money in non-traditional publishing usually requires a different approach
Most writers "making it" (let's assume that means making money for right now although your particular goals might be different) in non-traditional publishing are not simply trading out their submission process for self-publishing, but doing everything else exactly the same. Writers who do this find their sales to be very lackluster and even demoralizing. Writers who are finding success through digital publishing very often have a whole different approach to writing. They're running or writing for blogs. They have Medium, FB, or Tumblr page. They have an online presence. They do a lot of online self promotion. They run kickstarters. They have Patreons. They are adapting their entire strategy to work with a plethora of new media options and a rapidly changing culture.

6- Digital publishing is not just a fad.
Traditional houses tried to convince themselves of this for years, and every year they lost more of the market share and acted confused about it.  "Gee golly whiz, how is this fleeting fad of provisional temporariness cutting into our sales again this year?  It just doesn't make sense!"  Finally they are starting to get their shit together and wrap their heads around the fact that artists who don't want to put up with their elitist crap might be a thing. They are trying to break into more digital fields and their contracts are increasingly digitally savvy. Possibly the shape of things to come.


So what should YOU do?

It's still a very personal decision. If there were a right way (or even a best way), everyone would be doing it. No one had any illusions about self publishing back when it was "vanity press." That wasn't "really" published, and it didn't count. End of story. Now things are a little more interesting.

Digital publishing is much, much faster--like Speedy Gonzalez compared to the other mice.  
Except maybe without being a terrible ethnic stereotype. You can basically publish digitally on the same day the ink dries on the final draft. Traditional publishing would take eight to eighteen months of galley proofs, edits, and printing (unless you were fast tracked for some reason).  That's good in some ways and bad in others. Yes, you don't have to put up with agents, publishers who dictate what your cover art will be, or copy editors who change your parentheticals to em-dashes, but you also don't have the advantage of having outright crap stopped at the gate by an unsmiling guardian who isn't going to put up with your fucking bullshit. Agents are actually pretty useful for helping to find a market for most writers who have no idea what to do with something they've written. If you publish your shit with fifteen typos and an incomplete sentence, no one is going to be there to object to it, and you can't notice it three weeks before your print date and rush a change to your editor. The first you will hear of it is the nasty emails that start flooding in about how you are the worst human imaginable and they would relish the chance to push an exacto-blade through your face since you can't write but have the temerity to try.

I admit it!
Traditional publishing provides a legit stop gap between the dreamer and the doer.
I'm going to be the asshole here and drop the truth bomb that no one talks about at parties. A lot of people who "are writers" don't write very much. They like the dream of being a writer more than they really like writing or they really enjoy basically churning out endless first drafts, but not really the rewriting and revision necessary to prep something for an audience. They will tend to avoid digital publishing because it involves simply doing it. A gatekeeper is a built-in, ready-made excuse not to really write or to give a few half hearted tries and claim defeat. They can forever be shopping agents, retooling "that one thing," and basically just about to achieve success. A lot of people "too good" for digital are really just glad to have an excuse not to have to put their money where their cliche is.  "Oh I can't submit that YET. It's not ready for an agent."

You will make more of the money your art makes in digital publishing. 
In traditional publishing, you will probably never make more than 10% of a book's commercial price per unit (and that's if your agent negotiates a pretty sweet contract). Usually it's closer to 5%. (It may get worded in lots of colorful ways: amount per unit, % of wholesale, % of retail, wholesale return value, but it'll mostly come out to roughly the same amount.) In digital publishing, you might make as much as 90%. More if you're doing something like blogging and asking for donations. Finding your audience might be difficult, but there is a reason established traditional writers are going hybrid–they get more of what they make on the digital end.

You will make more money at once despite being an unknown through traditional publishing.
Be careful with this advice. A small press may not be able to pay you very much of anything. A few copies of your book if it's a very modest run. If you have an established reputation, you might be able to negotiate a low four figure advance off your next book, but you have to be a household name or experiencing one of those one in a million publishing stories to get the kind of money that means you never have to have a day job again.

Now, if you close the deal with a big five, you're going to get an advance on the books they know you will almost certainly sell, and that is nothing to sneeze at. It's usually thousands of dollars and it's not uncommon for that to be folded into an advance on your next book and for you to get around ten grand (even for a first time writer).  It may take you years to make that kind of money through non-traditional means.

Neither side really makes "more" money.
Both "sides" claim they make more, but it's basically a wash for most young writers. Digital gets you less money, but more quickly. Traditional gets you more money, but it will probably take years. Short stories can pay, but not well. Patreons and Kickstarters and such can pull in some income, but you have to keep putting out content.

You will not have to face gatekeepers with digital publishing.
This can be especially useful if your art is not of the type that traditional gatekeepers like. (While whole other entries could be devoted to this [ETA: And have], suffice to say that non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual voices have a harder time getting published--especially in certain genres.) Also certain genres are less likely to be published. SF/Fantasy is very popular,  but what is called "literary" is not.

In traditional publishing, you get the benefit of gatekeepers. 
Not facing gatekeepers can also have a pretty significant downside.  Rejection is good for you. It makes you go back and develop your skills. Digital publishing can be too much instant gratification. And while the rejection of a pissed off anonymous comment can still sting, an agent or a publisher giving you thoughtful feedback on what is still lacking is a very good experience. A writer needs a whetstone. Yes, you can find good, critical feedback without submitting to a gatekeeper, but most people don't.

Traditional publishing is still vastly more "validated."
If you just want to see your name in print, get your work out there, get feedback, and make money go digital. If you want to be "certified" as a writer by the world at large, be aware that non-traditional publishing is still seen as less valid. You could make a decent salary blogging, reach millions of viewer, have books with impressive sales, and have a body of work of thousands of pages, and some a-hole at a dinner party is STILL going to ask you if you've ever "really" published anything.  Sure, you can grouse about them in your blog later on that night (and trust me, it helps), but how will you deal with the gnawing doubt within your own soul? I've made more money and have FAR more readers than most writers I've met, and some unpublished writers still sneer at me.

That's something you're going to have to figure out for yourself.

Digital publishing gives you much more control.
It might be cool to have a "real" book coming out with a "real" publisher, but there is almost no better way to feel exploited as an artist by a corporation. Contracts regularly include future intellectual property, fettering a writer to a certain number of books with a publisher, no matter how badly they feel they're being treated. You lose control of a lot of creative decisions--which may be as small as cover art or as huge as editorial control, and a contract can be canceled the day before the book goes to print.  A lot of writers go to digital publishing AFTER traditional publishers leave a bad taste in their mouth.

In fact, one of the MAIN reasons writers are being treated better these days is because they have options. And they know it.

The quality of digital publishing is very, very low.
There are mountains of shitaculastac writing out there under digital publishing (and not just E.L. James either).  Everyone who ever got a rejection letter from a gatekeeper and thought "Fuck you; I'm a dragon," everyone who convinced themselves they were the tragically misunderstood next Gertrude Stein even though the real problem was their grammar was still at a junior high level, and everyone who simply couldn't handle the slightest chance that they wouldn't be seen as a genius by an agent or publisher--they've all gone digital. A huge huge chunk of digital publishing is erotica of questionable quality. (Trust me on this one. I've thoroughly researched it for quality control. Thoroughly.) Plus, the recent development of Kindle Worlds means that a lot of digital publishing now encompasses fan fiction.

And then of course there's the dinosaur erotica.

Sweet butt-licking Jesus do I wish I were making this up.

You're throwing yourself into a really dank world, and the quality is deplorable. Actually we need a new word, below deplorable, to properly handle this taintstank. (I vote for Santorumy.) Your writing will need to shine in order to lift yourself out of the cesspool. The expectation is that your digital publishing will suck and it will be absolutely up to you to prove otherwise.

In traditional publishing a certain quality is the expectation.
If someone picks up a traditionally published book, they expect it won't have unedited sentences and be total crap.  Horrific paper books are the exception rather than the rule. It's like the opposite of digital. This expectation isn't always born out by reality, mind you, for there is some truly epic shit that publishers have put out including typos. (They are motivated by what will sell, not what is good, and in some genres that sell very well [sf/f, romance, self help] there is almost no quality filter.) However, it's generally of a certain baseline quality that digital publishing lacks.

The work isn't really any easier for either side. 
If you think that marketing and branding and basically making a name for yourself to become successful while every yahoo with an e-mail gets to tell you how much you suck will be any less work or frustration than submitting, collecting rejection notices, and slowly building up a cover letter, you should probably check your expectations.

Traditional publishing is whitewashed, sexist, and heteronormative
I'm not going to impugn anyone's personal choice, but many writers consider this an important factor in their decision. Working within a system that marginalizes certain voices--especially if the writer benefits from that favoritism--is seen as being complicit in that system, and many writers would rather opt out. Not to mention that many non white/male/heterosexual voices wouldn't be able to be out in the world otherwise.

Digital publishing is on the rise.
The trending lines are showing digital publishing is still growing every year. Traditional publishing just keeps getting harder and harder to break into, and digital publishing is showing no signs of slowing--not just it's natural growth, but its encroachment into traditional publishing's markets. If you are a brand-new, unpublished writer with your eye on a twenty or thirty year career, the shrinking market may not be the smart one.

And here is the last thing I'm going to say about this...

Whatever you decide, C.A., you have to get past that fear of rejection. You can't make a query letter perfect, so make it the best you can and let the chips fall where they may. Because here's the fact of the matter, and there's no getting around it: the meanest, most unprofessional, three-days-from retirement agent to send you a rejection is going to be more civil by an order of magnitude than your average reader who has your email address and knows they won't ever have to look you in the eye. You should see the comments I get at least once a week from some anonymous asshole who tells me in explicit language how much I suck for even wanting to try my hand at this wild world of writing. Hate to sound like I'm telling you your buttercup needs sucking up, but neither publishing route is going to save you from rejection.

Short Stories vs. Novels for Learning (Mailbox)


Where should I go for feedback? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name, first initial only, or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  Hey don't forget to resubmit any questions I promised I'd answer because I lost them in a tragical tale of tragedy.]

Benny asks:  

I'm not entirely sure how the mailbox works, and it's late at night, but I really want to get this question out. I heard (or, more likely, read) somewhere that writing 10 6000-word short stories will teach you exponentially more about writing than writing a 60,000 word novel. What's your take on this?

My reply: 

I don't know if there's an exact mathematical formula for this. ("The square of the novel is equal to the sum of the square of the ten short stories") However, there is a reason that almost every author you've ever known (even the ones these days starting out in non-traditional publishing) have cut their teeth on shorter works.

If this were a question twenty, even fifteen years ago, the answer would be deceptively simple. It's really hard to get a book deal without a cover letter of short story accolades. It's not unheard of, but agents will pay more attention if you're a writer with a handful of accolades. You'd probably be in the slush pile without. Agents who took an unknown's first books would be the equivalent of ambulance chasers. It was just sort of The Way It Was Done™.

These days there's a lot of self-published novels complicating the equation, and a lot of it from writers who wanted to "jump the queue" of this more traditional route. However, if you go through these lists of self published books and pull out the ones that have done quite well or received critical acclaim, you'll find the same thing: the authors almost universally wrote a lot of short stories first. The reason publishers and agents give this group of practiced writers preference and the reason so many non-traditional writers still start with short stories is actually still the same, even in the non-traditional publishing world.

A lot writers don't like to hear this. They want to author BOOKS. They want to be Paperback Writers. They get lost in the world of their own writing and quickly have a trilogy in the works. I'm no exception to this, by the way if you're thinking I'm trying to tell you my shit doesn't stink. I sat down every day after school and wrote for hours on my "NOVEL."  I had the seven or eight book fantasy series plotted out and no one–absolutely no one–was going to tell me that I should write short stories for a while.

I didn't want to hear that fucking crap.

Many writers keep bucking this advice long after they are quite serious about being Real Writers™. I ran into several of them in my writing program in college. They would turn in chapters as their "short stories" for workshop classes against the explicit directions of the instructor (and then verbally explain missing back story to us when the workshop turned into a trainwreck–while our eyes glazed over) . They bucked against any mandates to write something creative, unexplored, and UNDER TEN PAGES for the class.

If we were very lucky we would see a little vignette they had slapped together with one of the characters from their novels. Less lucky and they would keep submitting it in class after class after class. One of the guys used the same short story in every class I shared with him for two years. It was about two of his high fantasy novel's nemesis characters having a civil conversation on the BART train about how they would destroy each other. I had to sit through this fucking thing like five or six times. He would tell us, every single time he went to read: "This is something I tried. I'm not really a short story writer. I'm going to write books. But I wrote this to fit in with the class.) And then I had to sit there while 90% of the story was dedicated to the absurdity of a barbarian with a claymore and a wizard sporting a full on robe and staff heading from Millbrae to Civic Center station.

Like that would actually give anyone in San Francisco even a moment's pause.

These people didn't want to be short story writers. They wanted to be novelists. And no one was going to tell them that learning to write is a hell of a lot easier in bite sized pieces. For all the fucking good it will do to tell a stubborn would-be novelist that somewhere around 99.9% of working authors started out writing short stories, I could probably do another five articles cautioning them about Nanowrimo or suggesting they write every day if they can.

Image description: "So you're telling me there's a chance" meme with 
Jim Carrey from Dumb and Dumber

So let's get this party started, and maybe I'll just stick with why.

Why do so many working writers start with short stories? It's not just because those fit snuggly into a classroom setting of a writing program or because all the Creative Writing teachers got fucking sick of critiquing the first chapter of their students' novels. It's not even to haze out shitty writers. Though all of these things are totes true.

It's CERTAINLY not because short stories sell well or are well regarded. (They don't and generally they're not.) It's not because a publisher can get any real sense of how a book is going to do by looking at short story sales. (They can't.) And it's not because all short story writers always make good novelists. (They don't.)

Actually, it turns out short stories just make for a really good way to learn to write.

First let me hip check these numbers just a bit. Sixty thousand words is pretty light for a novel. A Separate Peace clocks in at 57k and change, but even The Catcher in the Rye is 73k+. The trend toward longer and longer books would probably make a 60k work a tough sell in today's market, so that's a little short for a novel.  And 6000 words is a little long for a short story–about 15-20 pages unless it was pretty dense. Both are skirting on the upper and lower limits respectively of what would actually be considered a novella.

I mention this bit of pedantry not just to show off, but actually for a couple of pragmatic reasons that relate to your question.

First of all, this length is a hard sell. Just know that going in. Novellas rarely sell except in anthologies of very famous authors–they are harder to get published than novels (which are pretty hard to get published outside of non-traditional means). So your ease of publication is actually flash fiction, short stories, novels, novellas in most cases.

"Why is that, Chris?" you inquire. So glad you asked. Let me tell you!

If you're the editor of an anthology or a literary periodical anything over ten pages is going to start to make you nervous just because of how much space it'll take up. That could be two, three, even four more authors in that space instead. (Which means a lot more sold copies to friends and family.) Trust me as a former managing editor of a literary review when I assure you of this undeniable fact of fitting-in-submissions Tetris: a lot more mediocre flash fiction and very short stories have seen publication than longer works.

You can trust your cute and loveable two-bit blogger on that one.

Getting published and rejected, as opposed to almost always rejected because your shit is just too long to take a chance on, is IN AND OF ITSELF a kind of feedback. This process of acceptance and rejection starts to give a writer a more intuitive sense of what is writing that will get picked up and what isn't and how to craft something that people will want to read. And that is to say nothing of a lot more direct feedback either in the form of personal rejections with suggestions for improvement (rather than form letters for just being too long), editors who will take on a piece if certain changes are made, or post-publication reader response. You're just getting a lot more input into your writing if you're putting out lots of little stories instead of buried behind a closed door working on something for years without feedback. Years that might involve stilted prose or wooden characters, but you never even know because you spent years doing it wrong without any course corrections.

The second reason is perhaps more important though. The benefits (below) of learning to write short stories may not necessarily be fully realized in a VERY long short story. Twenty pages doesn't necessarily mean you're crafting a tight narrative–it may just mean you just have a very small plot.

Just because someone only ate chicken and mashed potatoes doesn't mean they ordered off the menu; they may have gone to the buffet and just not been very hungry.

Okay, that was a really forced metaphor. Let's pretend the reason I wrote it was to give you an example of the kind of writing that someone who wanted to publish your short story would tell you to take out.

Here's the thing though, when a writer really has limited space (like, say, 2500 words), they have to start being a writer. They have to start being economical with their language. Languid prose becomes a deliberate choice rather than an unexamined style. They have to decide what scene (or what IN a scene) isn't really isn't helping. They have to start pulling out paragraphs where they rambled a little. They have to focus on a narrative arc. They have to generate tension that jumps off the page right away rather than taking ten or fifteen pages to really have a sense of what's even happening. They don't have five pages to introduce a character (that's half the story); they have to have characterization come through in a few sentences. They tighten their prose. Cut cut cut–and as a result trim the fat.

In short, they learn to write much, much better.

Short stories are like playing a single song before starting to work on a three hour concerto. They're like doing practice scenes or bit parts to learn to act before deciding that you have to be the lead in a three and a half hour production of Hamlet or you're going home. They're like artists drawing and sketching before just buying a canvas as big as themselves and just getting to work on "their masterpiece." They are the short films a director does to cement their aesthetic and style before simply starting right off with a feature length movie that they are just certain will be their debut on the radars of Hollywood filmmakers. They are learning short dances of a few minutes before going and simply starting to dig into Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty (a four hour ballet). They are game designers who learn the basics of AI and graphics with little quick games and maybe 8 bit side scrollers instead of making their first project a fully immersive FPS.  It's why sculptors learn to do little cats out of clay before ordering a five ton block of marble and getting to work on their Orc Riding a Warg sculpture.

And frankly, they give a writer a place to fuck up and try something that really doesn't work without blowing a year's worth of effort.

THEY'RE FUCKING PRACTICE!!! 



*Text of image below.

Want to know what the most common advice experienced writers, agents, editors and publishers give to young, hopeful writers who hand them sample chapters (or full manuscripts) and ask them what they need to do to get it published?

Go on. Guess.

It's to put it in a drawer, write some short stories and learn a ton of lessons that are going to translate almost directly into better prose on their novel. Then rewrite the whole thing from scratch. (Add to that "Read a lot" because it's painfully obvious that a lot of writers haven't, but that's another post for another day.)

For my next trick, see if you can guess how many writers actually
take that advice instead of getting pissed off at the messenger.....

Short stories are where writers learn to craft instead of what sort of amounts to a rambling linguistic version of imaginative play. Believe it or not, a trained reader can actually tell when they're reading a book that is a writer's first real crack at writing because the quality of prose is SO much better at the end than at the beginning. They were literally learning as they went along, and it shows. Problem being, all that practice should have been done before the book even started. And while it is so easy to see in other arts why simply starting with the apex projects (without that background in bite sized chunks first) would be foolhardy, for some reason, writers think they're above such stepping stones and want to jump right into their novels.

Fetishization of the physical book maybe? I dunno. Certainly most of us READ novels rather than short stories, and probably those who wanted to write dreamed of crafting their own book some day. I can remember distinctly telling my mom "I'm writing a book," when she asked what I was doing as young as six or seven, and that dream hasn't really changed.

Even for novelists who write some short stories, get a book deal, and never look back, short stories are still a stepping stone. They're like the minor leagues or semi-pro–a place where a few amateur mistakes are still okay and where they're not quite ready to go pro. They are training for the big event.

Do you absolutely positively have to write short stories? No, and especially not in the age of non-traditional publishing. A few notable exceptions have not. They have learned their lessons on longer timelines, spending years churning out novels with unpublished works  (or self published works with incredibly lackluster sales) before starting to hit quality pacing and tighter prose somewhere around their fourth to seventh book. Others have gutted out cult followings through compelling aspects of craft other than prose.  Self-publishing has, in many ways, brought back the art of storytelling as something separate from higher quality prose. (Let me tell you about a little piece of shit book called Fifty Shades of Grey.....)  Many go the fanfic route, where readers are already fans of the world and characters and not only will forgive rougher prose, but hunger for those longer works, so the writers write several longer works for a MASSIVELY forgiving audience, and develop in that time a much better sense of what good characterization is or how to pace rising tension.

Learning to write isn't a formula, but there are reasons for why certain things work so well, and I'd council any writer to think long and hard about insisting they were an exception.

However, Benny, your question wasn't about what you have to do, but had more to do with how to learn faster or what you can learn more from, and in that there is no doubt (even though I'm not sure about your exact numbers) that you have heard some good advice. Even though they are separate genres, short stories are great for learning a lot of lessons that can be carried into writing novels and will improve your novel-writing ability.
Let me emphasize this then as a final thought: in a manner analogous to learning grammar so that you can break the rules (as opposed to simply never really learning the rules), or learning to draw realistically before abstraction (as opposed to simply splattering paint on a canvas willy nilly), it is clearly, painfully obvious the difference between the writer who has learned the lessons short stories teach and employs them with practiced skill where appropriate, but also bends them and breaks them in order to craft a longer, more languid narrative, and the writer who is sloppy and prolix because they don't know how else to be.

*The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. 


His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.