The Red ChhurchThe HarvestThe ManorThe HomeThe Farm
HomeScott's Where, When, WhyJournalLinks to Scott's available storiesFor Writers And Other Losers/Author InterviewsWho Scott thinks he isLinks to writers and e-zinesPress KitE-mail Scott

Don't Sweat The Short Stuff
By Scott Nicholson

Most writers are notorious procrastinators, and besides Kevin J. Anderson, Mary Higgins Clark, and Stephen King, many of them would rather be doing anything besides sitting at a computer and looking for truth, beauty, and elegant grammar. So how does your average writer overcome the invisible barriers that make "The End" seem like a faraway dream?

I’ve been fairly productive, though much of my output can be attributed to consistency rather than anything approaching genius. When I tackle a short story, I plunge in heart first and ride a rocket to the end. I’m not the only writer who believes a story should take only one or two sittings and a small handful of hours. But others who have been far more successful take a more steady approach to the story at hand, honing each detail until the product sparkles. It all depends on the individual writer, the degree of perfectionism, and the particular subject matter, but we all set our different courses by the same stars.

Ideas are the easiest pieces of the puzzle. At the annual Writers of the Future workshop, one of the exercises involves taking an ordinary object in the room and writing a story about it during the week. At the 1998 workshop, Amy Sterling Casil was assigned an Altoids breath mint box. Over two days, Casil wrote "Mad for the Mints," a novelette based around Mad King George, a talking horse, and aliens, all inspired by the advertising copy "by order of His Majesty in 1775." The workshop leader, Dave Wolverton, had tears of laughter rolling down his eyes when he read it, and said, "There’s no editor on Earth that would not buy this story."

Casil’s novelette made the cover of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Because of her teaching commitments, Casil relies on bursts of high productivity for her fiction. She once wrote a 16,000 word novella in one sitting, live on the Internet as an "electronic storefront" project.

Mark McLaughlin is one of the most prolific short story writers in speculative fiction. He’s published hundreds of stories, in addition to writing poems and articles and tackling various editing tasks. He usually carries a pad with him and writes in longhand at a coffee shop, drawing inspiration from the activity around him.

Sometimes McLaughlin thinks up a funny title and then works backward, creating a story line to fit the name. Some examples include "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Prison Bitch" and a tale of ancient, eldritch rabbit gods, "The Hopper in the Hayfield." He also disproves the proverb of brevity being the sole of wit by employing a title like "Dead Cat Matches Wits with Ratnarokh, the Ultimate Sentient Super-Computer, on the Blood-Red Planet of the Porn-Bots."

"I do write regularly," McLaughlin said. "That’s important. And I let a story sit a few days before I send it out, so that I can come back to it and see if it needs any further editing. While I’m letting a story sit, I'll usually work on another story. Or two. Or three."

James Van Pelt also uses daily discipline to pile up the credits. Since his first story sale in 1991, he’s sold 46 stories to professional magazines and another 30 to semi-pro publications. Most of those have come in the last few years, along with numerous accolades and "Year’s Best" listings.

"Since Sept. 20, 1999, I have written at least 200 words a day without missing a day," Van Pelt said. "Two-hundred isn't a bunch, but never missing piles them up pretty quickly. Also, lots of days I do more than 200, but 200 is the bar I have to clear."

Van Pelt usually works on one story at a time, but also has an "idea file" for which he jots notes. By the time he gets around to the next story, he has had time to think about it. Very rarely does he finish a story in one sitting. Most take a week or two and get sent through a critique group before hitting the mail.

Michael Bracken may the ultimate role model for short story productivity. He’s published works in almost every genre, under a variety of pen names, in everything from "True Confession" magazines to mystery and science fiction publications. He’s written over 800 short pieces, four novels and four collections, and edited five anthologies. This versatility has helped him gain a realistic view of the publishing industry.

"Persistence is probably the single most important trait I have as a writer," Bracken said. "I keep manuscripts circulating until they sell, and some of them don't sell until years after they were written. There's no such thing as writer's block. If I'm working on a project and find myself stumped, I immediately switch gears and work on another project."

Bracken usually has at least 30 different stories and a novel or two in progress, working on his writing career every day. He aims for the best-paying markets, but money isn’t the sole reason he’ll try a specific editor. He also explores overseas publications and is a promotional consultant. When he’s not at the keyboard, he’s doing a book signing, researching new story markets, or mailing out publicity materials. This year, he made the move to full-time freelance writing and editing.

Other writers find ways to hang around the written word for a steady income even if they are not yet able to live off their story and novel sales. Van Pelt teaches college and high school English, Casil teaches writing for colleges and online workshops, and McLaughlin works in advertising, graphic design, art, and marketing, which are handy if not essential skills for the modern writer. I work as a newspaper reporter, where facts are the meat and potatoes but real human behavior proves itself to be an unfailingly unpredictable spice.

Research is an important tool not only for adding veracity to a tale, but for spawning new story ideas. Casil revised her "Mad For The Mints" using period historical detail, and over the past few years has increasingly relied on research to produce accurate backgrounds and settings. Van Pelt has researched everything from the tunes that ice cream trucks play to what the world was like on Nov. 26, 1942. I once wrote two stories using the set of events from different viewpoints, based on personal accounts and court martial reports of prisoner mistreatment at the Civil War camp in Andersonville. One sold on its first submission and the next sold on its second submission, both to professional markets.

Most prolific authors tend to have awe-inspiring stacks of rejection slips. A Van Pelt story was rejected 48 times before a pro magazine took it, and the story ended up getting an honorable mention in a "Year’s Best" anthology. Van Pelt carefully tracks all his submissions, but McLaughlin discards his rejection slips immediately, figuring there’s no point in dwelling on the negative. Casil said, "They pile up with other unfortunate mail and get thrown out periodically." My own pile measures in the hundreds, and one of my stories found a pro market on its 20th trip through the postal system.

It’s easier to locate the right market or editor for a specific story after you’ve been around the block a little. McLaughlin now targets his stories to markets he thinks will fit, so he has a high percentage of acceptances. Bracken keeps all his rejection slips, but now sells most of what he writes, though not always on the first try. 2002 was the first year he received more acceptances than rejections. And it only took him 20 years to get there.

"What rejections help me do is improve my marketing skills," Bracken said. "If an editor provides a personal note or checks something on a checklist, it helps me learn what that editor likes and dislikes about my work. Sometimes I learn to submit a different type of story, sometimes I learn the market is completely inappropriate for my work, and sometimes all I learn is that an editor is overstocked and that I should wait a few months before sending another manuscript to that market."

Van Pelt admits the process looks pretty simple to those who see only the long bibliography of accepted stories and not the daily acts of discipline. He added, "What you don't see is the hours hunched over the keyboard while my fingers do nothing and my forehead is as furrowed as a Kansas cornfield."

My most successful stories have been written on automatic pilot, and I can’t recall any short story that has taken me longer than a week. Most are done in a single day, because the emotion is often more important than logic to me, and stories by their nature should be limited to a single conflict. I can’t say I’m a top example of the craft, but I have won a few awards and manage to get published fairly steadily. While I wouldn’t become an editor at gun point, Bracken’s experience as an editor has taught him even more appreciation of the craft, and he’s discovered a probable secret to long-term sanity in a business that offers no guarantees.

"I learned a long, long time ago that there are only two people I have to please with my writing: myself and one editor," Bracken said. "I have to like what I write well enough that I'm willing to spend money to mail it to someone else. And one editor has to like that manuscript well enough to devote part of her publication to my words. If I please anyone else in the process, it's pure gravy."

Sure, we’ve all heard the story of how Ernest Hemingway rewrote the last line of a novel thirty-something times before he was satisfied, but I’d bet you the line he ended up using was remarkably similar to his first try. Besides, he blew his own brains out with a shotgun. So whether you get keyboard blisters from rapid-fire verbal regurgitation or prowl the dusty columns of a thesaurus seeking the perfect word, remember that the end goal is the same. Get it done, and get it out there.

(Originally appeared in Hellnotes, April 2004. Copyright 2004 by Scott Nicholson)

Back to Articles page

HomeScott's Where, When, WhyJournalLinks to Scott's available storiesFor Writers And Other Losers/Author InterviewsWho Scott thinks he isLinks to writers and e-zinesPress KitE-mail Scott

Scott Nicholson copyright 2001-03ŠAll rights reserved