This is a rant, of sorts, triggered by my participation on a panel at the Minneapolis World Fantasy Convention of 2002. I wrote it soon after the event and filed it away. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the 2002 model thought. That was then and this…well, it isn’t. For instance, I like writing novels, too. I even like the idea of having a readership. But at the time this was where my head was at, for what little that might be worth.
The panel itself wasn’t bad, though it kept devolving into “Are short stories stepping stones to a novel career?” which rather annoyed me, but that’s what the audience was interested in, so you go with the flow. My bluntly-stated “If you want to write short stories, write short stories. If you want to write novels, write novels. Doing one isn’t going to teach you the other” wasn’t exactly popular.
Of course we went through all the “Yes, but…” objections. Yes, no writing is wasted and you can learn some things useful writing one that apply to the other, but that’s not the same thing. Someone else (in the audience) said that it was easier to break in and get known with short stories. I countered with the fact that it had taken me seventeen years to break in (as in sell regularly) with short stories. Maybe you’d manage better, but there ain’t no guarantees and even if there were you’d still be spending an indeterminate amount of time doing something you really don’t want to do. Why would anyone subject themselves to that? It’s going to be a long dark slog regardless, so go for what you want in the first place.
What I would rather have talked about was covered in the panel title “Short Stories Rock!” because they do. We all talk about the freedom to experiment and try new things and play with narrative structures and yes, of course all that’s true. But that’s also, to me, a failure to see the big picture. It’s not just that short fiction gives you more opportunity to experiment. Short fiction gives you more opportunity to do any bloody thing you want! If I want to write a deal with the devil story because I think it’ll be fun, then I’ll do it, knowing that I probably will never sell it. It takes, what? A week? Maybe two if it’s a novelette. So what? I write it as best I can and it’s done and I move on to the next bright butterfly. Now imagine a novelist telling his or her agent they would like to write something that she can’t possibly sell because it would be fun and that’s six months or a year of production gone poof. Not that some novelists can’t get away with writing what they want. We can all think of examples. But as a general rule, do that enough and you’re out a career. Whereas I can do it time after time. I can and do write sf, fantasy, S&S, AH, myth, fairytale, parables, horror, mainstream, et many a cetera and never worry about alienating my audience because hey, guess what? I don’t really have one. I’m just one more name on a Table of Contents and most of the time that works for me. Sure I’d like to be better known; who wouldn’t? It makes some things easier. Yet not being famous isn’t going to stop me from selling my next story, as long as I write it well enough. As a storyteller, my fate is in my own hands. I like that. Makes it easier to locate the right person to yell at when things aren’t going right.
I would have liked to have done a little experiment, had time permitted, and asked a simple question. “This is a dedicated, well read sf/f crowd. I’ve been selling regularly and been published in lots of appropriate places since 1994. How many in this room even heard of me before today?” If a quarter of the hands had gone up, I would have been amazed. Yet here I go, doing exactly what I want to do, having fun doing it, and, often as not, publishing what I do. People don’t always remember me, but they remember the stories. Granted, I doubt many in the room would consider that a career. Oddly enough, I do.