Short Story Paradox

Foyles Bookstore

The Rejectionist assesses the realistic odds of having a short story collection published. It ain’t pretty. Even if you get a collection published, you’ll probably have to sign a 2-book deal in which you obligate yourself to writing a novel. In sum: if you want to publish a book, you’re better off trying to publish a novel. Even if you publish a short story collection, you’ll have to publish a novel.

But here’s the paradox. The workshop format, prevalent in MFA programs, is way more short story friendly than it is accommodating of novels. How do you read a novel in 30 page chunks and provide feedback based on a 30 page excerpt? The best MFA novel writing workshop ever was run by a visiting writer who asked for 60 pages, minimum, per workshop; we each went two times that semester, and so by the end of the semester, we each workshopped 120 pages of our novels. Even if the feedback wasn’t perfect, having workshopped 120 pages of our novels covered substantial real estate. And the feedback was way more useful for having covered 120 pages.

But every other workshop asked for a thirty page maximum. Ridiculous, if you’re workshopping a novel. And besides, the format itself is ridiculous for novels–because it’s hard to workshop the damn thing unless you’ve read the entire draft.

In sum thus far: Despite the publishing industry’s predilection for novels, MFA programs are structured to help students produce short stories.

As you might know, I signed up with Writer’s Relief a few months ago–I haven’t gotten many responses from litmags yet, but I’ve, so far, really appreciated all the legwork that Writer’s Relief provides when it comes to the submissions process, especially with research as to where I should submit a particular story. So much so, that I signed up for another round with them.

For my second round, I sent them a story that had a word count of 6,200 words. It was, they said, too long for many litmags to consider. (It’s true–litmags that come out in hardcopy have to consider the price per page of a piece; additionally, the attention span of editors is very very short). Could I possibly shorten it to less than 4,000 words, possibly less than 3,000 words?

Egads. But I did shorten the story down to less than 3,000 words–it became an entirely different story (instead of a father and son story–it became a story solely about the father). It made me sad to do this, but I sent it off to much happier response.

In sum: Publishing houses prefer novels to short stories. MFA programs nurture short stories more than they do novels. But the only welcome venue for short story publication, litmags, prefers very short stories.

In sum: Don’t write short stories. But if you do, write very very short ones. If you like to write short stories that are over 6,000 words (like I do), or if you like writing novellas…you’re screwed. Have a nice day!


Filed under Publishing, Writing

5 responses to “Short Story Paradox

  1. Violeta

    And…I’m screwed. 🙂
    Doesn’t deter me though.

    • @Violeta: I know–where’s that paddle? Ohcrap, there’s no paddle. 🙂

      @YouKnowWho: writing is, at its essence, about writing for yourself, so you are being very very true.

  2. YouKnowWho

    I have always enjoyed short stories, but this makes me glad that I only write them as submissions for contests, or just for myself.

  3. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true. MFA programs foster short story writing. I suppose one of the arguments for enrolling is that short story writing, similar to poetry writing, improves craft, skills helpful to a novelist.

    Inherently, there’s this belief that a writer develops in stages from essays to short stories (progressing in length) to novellas and novels. I find it interesting when authors “skip ahead”; conversely, I love reading the short stories by my favorite novelists.

    I wonder if Mills keeps track of the statistics of their grads. It would be interesting to see the numbers of graduates who take the standard progression or carve out their own paths.

  4. ShameBall

    I have to disagree with this writers’ service. True, a lot of magazines have a limit of 5,000 words; some 4,000; and other 3,000. But there are also plenty of journals that allow stories up to 7,500 words, 8,000, 10,000 words or even higher. It takes a little more research to find them, but they’re there — and often very good journals.

    I honestly think you’d be better of researching markets on your own. If you are paying them and they aren’t providing you with lists of journals that accept stories longer than 6,000 words, that’s a problem.

    I have a 6,300-word story out at about 14 places right now.

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