The new world of self-publishing options calls to mind the golden age of the pulp magazines. During that era, roughly 1920–1950, writers could earn decent money pounding out stories and novellas for a penny a word.
Later, the 1950s boom in mass-market paperbacks provided another source of lettuce for the enterprising author. Production and quality were key. If you could deliver the goods on a regular basis, you could actually make a go of the uncertain and unpredictable writer’s life.
The same thing is true today.
Many use short-form fiction as a strategic component of building a lasting readership. With e-readers and (increasingly) smartphones used as reading devices, short fiction is once again in demand, as evidenced by venues such as Amazon’s Kindle Singles. The following is an excerpt from James Scott Bell’s Just Write.
Writers are given a wealth of opportunities to cultivate a successful writing life, break out, and find an audience for their work. Yet so many writers, from beginners to veterans, find their careers stuck in neutral.
The solution is simple: Just write. Write yourself past fears, doubts, and setbacks, and use your desire for writing excellence to deeply immerse yourself in the craft.
In Just Write, best-selling author and veteran writing coach James Scott Bell shows you how to develop unforgettable stories while leading a rewarding writing life. You’ll learn how to master the nuances of fiction, discover what readers really want, and persevere through the challenges of getting started, conquering writer’s block, and dealing with rejection. In this book, you’ll discover how to brainstorm new concepts for your fiction, create memorable characters that keep your readers coming back, study classic and contemporary novels, effectively market yourself as a write, manage your time, and more.
Hugh Howey, the self-publishing superstar who shot to fame with his Wool series, had no idea what was going to happen when he published the first 12,000-word story on the Kindle platform. “That was it,” Howey says. “There was no more story. I made the work available and did zero promotion for it. I thought it was the least commercial of my works, being short and very inexpensive.”
But soon Wool was outselling all his previous works combined. One thousand copies in a month, three thousand the next, and ten thousand the month after that.
Howey knew he had a hit on his hands. “I heeded the flood of e-mails and reviews,” he says, “and started writing the next part.”
The rest is well-known in the indie world. Wool was optioned for film by Ridley Scott. A print-only deal with Simon & Schuster followed. Howey retained the right to publish the e-books on his own.
There is always the chance that a good series of short fiction will catch on and become a solid income stream. But that’s not the only reason to pursue short-form work.
Prolific writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who makes good money from short stories, also uses them to help create and enhance her full-length fiction. “I explore the worlds of my novels,” she says. “If I introduce a major new character, I write a short story to figure out who that character is.”
Rusch also uses her short work to find new readers. She’ll take a story that is normally for sale online and make it free for a week. “I put up a free short story every Monday and take that story down the following Monday. Free, one week only. And boy, has that grown my blog’s readership, and my own.”
Short-form fiction is anything less than a novel. The minimum word count for a novel varies, depending on genre, audience, and (as with many things in publishing today) whom you ask, but is usually tagged at 50,000. Below that, you have the following, with slight variations of opinion:
Between 20,000 and 50,000 words, the novella was a popular form in the age of the pulps because it could take up most of a magazine and leave readers feeling like they got a good story for their money.
But when the pulps dried up, so did novellas. Though a title occasionally broke through (e.g., The Bridges of Madison County) or was included in a collection of short fiction by a single author, most traditional publishers did not find novellas cost-effective to produce.
Now the novella is back and self-publishers—who don’t need to worry about things like print runs and page signatures where e-books are concerned—are releasing them in droves.
A novella works best when it has one main character and one main plot. An example is James M. Cain’s classic crime novella The Postman Always Rings Twice. Coming in at just under 40,000 words, it’s a love-triangle-leads-to-murder story. It has the famous opening line: They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
The story is told in first-person narration by Frank Chambers. But novellas work equally well in third-person point of view.
Other famous novellas include:
- The Pearl, John Steinbeck
- The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
- A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
- Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King
- The Escape Route, Rod Sterling
- A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclan
Not quite so well-known is the novelette. At between 7,000 and 20,000 words, it allows for a little more breathing space than a short story without requiring the fuller complexity of a novel.
A novelette, like its beefier cousin the novella, is best when it’s about one main character and story. Novelettes are perhaps best known in the sci-fi world. Howey’s original Wool, for example, was novelette length. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America give an annual Hugo Award in this category. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the other famous winners:
- “Faith of Our Fathers,” Philip K. Dick
- “Basilisk,” Harlan Ellison
- “Ender’s Game,” Orson Scott Card (later expanded into a novel)
An enduring and popular form, the short story can pack an emotional punch as powerful as a novel. At 1,000–7,000 words in length, the best stories usually revolved around one shattering moment.
The shattering moment can come at the beginning of the story with the consequences played out (e.g., “A Candle for the Bag Lady” by Lawrence Block); or it can come at the end, usually as part of an intriguing plot that has a surprising ending. A master of this form is Jeffery Deaver (see his collections Twisted and More Twisted).
And, yes, the shattering moment can be in the middle, as in Raymond Carver’s classic “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”
Usually under 1,000 words, flash fiction is a world of its own. You can explore many venues for this type of work online.
Short-form fiction published as independent, stand-alone works should not be viewed (at least initially) as a source of major self-publishing profits. That’s because to remain competitive on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other retailers, you have to price them at the lower end—usually for ninety-nine cents or for free. Pricing is not a science, so you should experiment. A novella might support a price of $2.99 or even more on occasion. It takes several months to a year of conducting pricing/promotional experiments and collecting data to figure out what’s working best for you.
Here are some other strategic uses of short fiction:
Use them in the Kindle Select program. Kindle Select is a program Amazon offers under the Kindle Direct Publishing umbrella. By giving Amazon exclusive distribution rights (in ninety-day increments), you can offer a work for free for five days. Those days can be spaced apart or used all at once. For all of the rest of the days in this period, your story will be priced as usual.
My preference is to use all five days in a row and to get the word out on social media. The goal is to get eyeballs on the story and to make new readers who will then want to seek out your full-length books. If you don’t yet have any full-length books to offer, these free looks can begin to build your readership with your readers.
Use your stories as free giveaways when people sign up for your newsletter. Successful independent writers know that the two best marketing tools are word of mouth and an e-mail list of readers. To start building that list, many authors include a sign-up form on their blog or website. When a person signs up, a free story or book is sent to them.
I recommend using at least a novelette-length story for this—make sure it’s a good one. You not only want those sign-ups, you also want readers who will become fans.
Use them as serials. Using a model from the good old days, many writers are now serializing their novels. They publish in installments and charge a low price. Some authors refer to this as episodic fiction, likening it to a television series such as Lost or True Detective.
Later, as Hugh Howey did with Wool, you can gather the series into one volume. But also heed Howey’s advice: “I think it’s a bad idea to simply chop up a novel into shorter pieces. Each work needs to satisfy on its own.”
Howey emphasizes that each piece “should have its own beginning, middle, and end. Cliff-hangers work only if the protagonists have overcome some other obstacle along the way. Don’t string your readers along; invite them back for more.”
Use them to promote a new novel. A few years ago, the big publishing houses started commissioning short works from their A-list authors. Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Janet Evanovich—just to name a few—put out shorts featuring their popular series characters. Doing so not only helped promote their next novels, but also kept their readers engaged during those in-between periods.
Use them to keep your joy alive. Sometimes you need to write something just for the fun of it. This keeps your writing chops sharp and your writer’s soul soaring. That’s how it was with my short story “Golden.” It’s not my usual thriller or noir beat, but it was a story I needed to write. It makes me happy that it’s out there—and that readers have found it.
“If you like to read short stories, write them,” Rusch says. “It’s that simple. Write what you love. That’s really the most important thing—and believe it or not, the most important thing to making a living.”
Use them to increase your chances of success. If there’s one consistent drumbeat coming from successful indie authors, it is that they believe production is key. And that’s not surprising, considering it’s similar to the thinking that occurred during the pulp era I talked about earlier in this chapter. One of those great pulp writers, Edgar Rice Burroughs, once said, “If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
About the Author
James Scott Bell is the author of the number one bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying, and Don’t Leave Me. In addition to his traditional novels, Jim has self-published in a variety of forms. His novella One More Lie was the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books, including: Writing Your Novel From the Middle, Super Structure, The Art of War for Writers, and Conflict & Suspense.
Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writers conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.
Visit his website, www.JamesScottBell.com.