Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Short and Twisted

compiled by Sharon Wildwind

No the title doesn't refer either to my stature or my sense of humor, though both are certainly true. These are notes from a short-story writing panel that I had the pleasure of attending at Bloody Words in Victoria, British Columbia. Moderator: Jake Doherty. Panelists Sue Pike, Linda Wiken, and Eileen Bell.

Jake Doherty is an author and retired newspaper publisher. His Osprey/Sun Media’s Summer Mystery series evolved into the anthology Mystery Ink.
Because the market for short stories was growing smaller and smaller, I floated a plan with a group of Ontario newspapers that we would publish 6 original short stories, 3000 words or less, each set in an Ontario town that was part of the newspaper consortium. This turned out to be a very successful summer series. There have been multiple takeovers in publishing, based on a need for cost-cutting. One result of this is that publishers are moving from anthologies to serialization on web sites. If newspapers run the webs—as they did for the series described above—their bottom line is whether publishing fiction will bring in readers. If not, they aren’t interested. Readers have short attention spans; they will not stick with a long series, which is why we went for only 6 stories.

Sue Pike has had stories in all seven Ladies’ Killing Circle anthologies as well as many other magazines. In 1997 she won the Arthur Ellis Award for the Best Short Story.
Yes, short stories have a tougher time making a mark. Traditionally word count is that flash fiction is less than 2,000 words. In some cases it might be as low as 100 words. Short stories are 1,000 to 2,000 words and novellas are between 12,000 and 20,000 words. There really hasn’t been a market for stories between 2,000 and 12,000 words. Short stories can be resold to multiple anthologies. Writers should be careful to sell only the first rights. Personally, I don’t outline. I start with the characters and the fewer of them, the better. You have to have at least two in order for conflict to develop. Use the same reference for a character all the way through a short story. He’s Jack—always—not James, Jimmy, Mr. White, etc. to different characters. This confuses the reader. Twist the ending is fun. Timothy Findley said, “Leave off the final “do” as in do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti---. Allow the reader to fill in the final connection.

Linda Wiken, (writing as Erika Chase) writes the book club mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime.
Yes, short stories are harder to sell but that’s because of the format, not because they are genre writing. Many short story writers are taking advantage of technology to repackage older, out-of-print anthologies as e-books. My number one key rule for writing short stories is to use as few words as possible. If you’re going to do an anthology, pick a theme. There are times that this backfires in funny ways. Menopause is Murder, an anthology by the Ladies Killing Circle of Ottawa, ended up being filed in the medical self-help section in bookstores. If your anthology will be open submissions, instead of by invitation, advertise that you are open to submissions. Do blind judging for anthologies because short-story writers usually know one another.

Eileen Bell is a mystery and fantasy writer. Her Pawns Dreaming of Roses won the 2010 Aurora, Canada's National Science Fiction & Fantasy Award.
Yes, short stories are hard to sell, but mystery short stories are probably some of the easiest. Science fiction and fantasy rate lower than mysteries on the publishing totem pole. The economics of publishing make it more lucrative to put together 20 short stories in an anthology rather than 2 to 4 novellas. Therefore novellas have been harder to sell, but this may be changing. Readers who stopped reading for pleasure freqently cite fragmented time as the reason and they love novellas because they are the perfect length. The best advice I can give to someone writing short stories is to know the the ending and then let the characters go to it. Allow the characters to get into loads of trouble during the story, but also insist they hit their mark at the end. Hitting a mark is a theatre term, meaning that actor ends up in exactly the right spot on the stage. I start with a possibility of two endings, so I can surprise myself with which one I pick.

Things for writers to consider before posting book trailers on web sites and YouTube.
It takes a lot of work to make words visual. The more special effects the better and many writers do not have the time or knowledge to do a really good job with computer special effects. We’re not just talking dissolves here. People want professional special effects. Marketing in the U.S. is different from marketing in Canada or other countries, so one-size does not fit all. Trailers will need to be tailored to the countries where you want the most sales; likely different trailers will do well in different countries. How does the viewer find the video? The audience you really want to attract is the people who don’t already know your name. So if you build a search engine reference around your name or the names of your characters, how will that audience find you?

Comments about selling stories for 99¢ on e-sites
Because people are living short-attention, fragmented lives with 24/7 newsfeeds, the short format fits their lives better. The debate is hot, heavy, and unresolved as to whether the short story market expanding or shrinking because of e-postings. Plagiarism—copying the story from a pay-to-read site and posting it for free—remains a huge problem. Orca rapid reads was originally intended for teens with low literacy skills, but it is moving into a general population audience. Keep in mind that there are different platforms, and each one may have different formats and different payment rules. An on-line short story needs a cover image. Many writers don’t know how to assemble the on-line package, and are paying to farm out this task. Since the usual payment is 10¢ for each 99¢ story published, paying for technical help cuts into the profits. Canadian writer and teacher Niccola Furlong writes some great information on how to e-pub.

Quote for the week:

I rarely read a novel that wouldn’t have made a better short story.
~attributed to Alice Munro, award-winning Canadian short story writer

I haven’t been able to verify the source. If you know for certain that Munro said this, or didn’t say it, please let me know.

P.S. Happy Summer Solstice everyone.

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