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Writing short stories can be more challenging than a novel so they're excellent for developing craft, plus they can also be a good side income. Today I talk to Alan Baxter about how to get ideas for stories, and how to write and sell them.
In the intro, I talk about my ARKANE boxset hitting the USA Today bestseller list and how you could do it too through ad stacking. Plus, Wattpad in-story ads and the new Kindle Motion format.
The corporate sponsorship for this show pays for hosting and transcription. This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Alan Baxter is an award-winning author of dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi with 6 novels and over 70 internationally published short stories as well as writing for video games. He's British but lives in Australia and he's also a Kung Fu instructor and British National Champion. His latest book is Crow Shine: A Dark Fantasy Short Story Collection that includes his award-winning short stories.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- The changes in Alan's writing life since he was last on the podcast and the markers of success for an author.
- Whether there is a recent increased interest in Dark Fantasy.
- On the way Alan's hybrid author business works.
- Defining short story, novelette, novella and novel.
- The differences between an award-winning short story and one that doesn't sell or receive acclaim.
- Why Alan writes more short stories than novels.
- The markets writers can submit short stories to and whether the market for short stories has grown with the rise of ebooks.
- Alan's list of recommended short story authors and books if you'd like some reading!
You can find Alan at www.AlanBaxterOnline.com or on twitter @alanbaxter
Transcript of Interview with Alan Baxter
Joanna: Hi everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I'm here with Alan Baxter. Welcome back to the show, Al.
Alan: Thanks for having me.
Joanna: Oh no, it's great. And just a little introduction.
Alan is an award-winning author of dark fantasy, horror, and sci-fi with 6 novels and over 70 internationally published short stories as well as writing for video games. He's British but lives in Australia, and he's also a kung fu instructor and British National Champion at that.
Al you were last only here in 2011. I can't believe it was so long. I know, isn't that crazy, but give us a bit of an update. What has changed in your writing life in the last four years? Because, I think, it's so important for people to get a sense of how a writing life develops over time.
What are the big changes in the last four years?
Alan: Well, you're right. It does develop over time. You always have to look it as being this long game that you're constantly playing to improve, hopefully.
It's hard to believe it's been five years since I last talked to you, but in that time, hopefully, I got a lot better at what I do. That's mainly what we aim for, but I've got a lot more sales in terms of short stories. I've got new trilogy traditionally published, which is out in Australia and New Zealand now and it starts in the U.K. and the U.S. in December.
A good example, really, that something that really describes me is I got invited to be the official guest of honor at a convention in October. When that invite came through, I was so surprised, I said to my wife, “This is what happens to, like, famous established writers.” And she just looked at my shelf and says, “Well, you know, you might not be famous, but you're a fairly established writer these days.” And it's a bit like that, you know. You don't really know the growth as it's happening, because ideally, you're just working hard constantly, trying to make things happen.
By getting better at what I do, and by knowing the business better, and by becoming a better storyteller, making more sales, subsequently becoming noticed on more people's radars, and so on and so on, these things slowly grow.
Honestly, when I talked to you in 2011, I would've been saying, “I'd hope to be in this position,” and I'm probably, at least, most of the way to where I would have hoped to be in that short period of time. Another five years, hopefully, I'll be further along, bigger awards, more novels published and so on. It's an interesting growth.
It's a slow thing that you don't really notice until you stop and figure it out, you know.
Joanna: Yeah. And actually, it's quite like that, this podcast now, because it's been going since, like, 2009. And I met you, you were one of the first people I met online. It must be 2008, 2009, you know, on Twitter. In fact, we've never met in person.
Alan: Right. I first self-published “RealmShift” in 2006. And then “RealmShift” and “MageSign” were picked up by Gryphonwood Press in 2009, published in 2010. So it would've been somewhere right there, right in that gap where you and I sort of become known to each other, yes.
Joanna: Yes. It's kind of crazy. I think what's weird about the publishing industry is there's this assumption that the first book will make you a million dollars and that for some reason, that first book is the best book. But, you know, as a martial artist, you don't start out in day one and win an award, you know, win the black belt, and same with writing.
That body of work that you've built up in both disciplines is what's important.
Alan: Yeah. Like the old adage, you know, “most overnight successes are built on the back of 10 years of hard work,”
As you mentioned at the start, I've got six published novels now. Getting a novel published, selling a novel to a publisher is a fantastic achievement and it's something to be very proud of. But it in itself isn't really a mark of success, because as a writer, success is being widely read, you know, that's the bottom line really, what we're all after.
The awards are fantastic. Being published is fantastic. But what you really want is to be widely read, because that's actually the success that loads of people are reading the stories that you've got to tell.
And a lot of the time, we're all working for that breakout book, that might subsequently make people go, “Ah, I've never heard of this guy before,” and the book goes sort of ballistic, and then when they look, you've got five, six, seven novels previously published.
Dan Brown was the same. Everybody knew him from the “Da Vinci Code,” but “Angels and Demons”or whatever, they were all out. They've been out. He just wasn't huge. He was successful. He got novels published. He was in bookstores but, yeah, he didn't have that breakout novel yet.
Success is a nebulous thing. And I did a series on my blog a while ago called “The Ongoing Angst of Successful Writers.” I talked to people who were just starting out and people like Margo Lanagan, who's like won World Fantasy Award and published numerous, you know, 20-year career and stuff like that.
And the single thing that kept coming up was no matter where someone was in their career, they were always like, “Oh yeah, it's fantastic that I've done this, but I haven't yet done this, and I haven't yet done this.” And so you're always chasing after something else.
Joanna: Moving the goal posts.
Alan: Yeah. And it really comes down to that being markers of success in terms of being widely read and widely known. I don't want to be known personally, but I want my work to be much more widely known than it is. So that's what I'm always after. There's always more readers is what it comes down to it.
Joanna: And we'll get into the short stories in a minute in terms of how that reaches readers. But I also wanted to just ask about dark fantasy because I read “RealmShift” and “MageSign,” I think I've read all your novels. Oh no, I haven't read two, the last two Alex Caine, but I read the first one.
When I read “RealmShift” and “MageSign,” they've got demons, and gods. And in fact, the book I wrote with J. Thorn which is like a horror, it's called “Risen Gods,” it's set in New Zealand, and I now realize that probably you had an influence on that book, because it's sort of writing that mythological gods and things.
But of course, we have Neil Gaiman in the background, that kind of thing. But do you think there's a bit of a renaissance of dark fantasy? We're gonna see ‘the Stand”; it's being filmed.
Do you think dark fantasy is taking off?
Alan: Yes, it is. Yes and no. It's weird because a lot of the time publishers will be telling you how urban fantasy is dead. No one is buying urban fantasy anymore, and yet urban fantasy is being bought and sold in massive numbers.
And dark fantasy certainly with ‘the Dark Tower” and stuff coming up. I think it's one of those eternal things that periodically gets a little bit of a boost. And everybody sort of rediscovers it for a little while, then it drifts quiet.
But if you look at things that have been really successful, “Game of Thrones” win mega for obvious reasons, and then there's been lots of spin-offs for stuff like that. Shows like “Vikings” and “Black Sails” and stuff like that, they kind of buy into that whole sort of dark, visceral, gritty, real idea rather than being clean, and squeaky, and, you know, everybody is happy in the end.
And I think this dystopian novels and dark novels and stuff, they always kind of go through this cycle of rising and falling. The heyday of horror was in the '80s with the cheap paperback. That's when people like King, and Koontz, and James Herbert, and people at that went through the roof.
It will be fantastic to see that come around again and maybe this kind of edging into dark fantasy is maybe bringing that back around again, and people might start buying I'm trying to sell a horror novel at the moment. I've got it out there in the world, and now hoping the publisher will figure it out.
Joanna: Well, they're filming “It” as well, aren't they? A remake of “It.”
Alan: Exactly, this is it. And so I think there definitely seems to be a little bit, at the moment, the renaissance of dark fiction, whether it falls into really sort of dark fantasy or psychological horror or whatever it is. I think, dark stuff is always popular to some degree, and it's on a little bit of a peak again at the moment.
That doesn't mean it's any easier to sell. This is the potential downside, because market flooded and everybody's got an idea of what they want or what they don't. So yes.
Joanna: You've got your non-fiction which is indie, “Write the Fight Right,” but the rest of your books are traditionally published?
Alan: “RealmShift” and “MageSign” were the first two that I indie published. And then they got picked up by Gryphonwood Press.
Between those things happening, I've indie published a science fiction noir/mystery novella. That's still indie published, and the non-fiction short, a very short e-book about writing good fight scenes, that's indie published and that's still the same.
Otherwise, everything is traditionally published. And I keep toying with the idea of doing something indie again, as much for the variety as anything else.
Joanna: And the speed.
Alan: And the speed, yeah, exactly. Because things are slow. I've got things backed up at the moment that are due to come out, which is, you know, it's a good problem to have. I can't really complain about that I've got a bunch of work sold that's not out yet, because it's sold and it's hopefully going to come out soon.
I am them a hybrid author in that respect, but very much on the traditional side of things in terms of percentages, and I will probably stay that way as much as anything, because I really prefer to focus on the writing. I'll write it, sell it, then sit back and wait for it to come out while I write something else.
Joanna: Fair enough. Let's get in to talking out short stories. As we said, you have 70 published. So you probably got a ton of other ones in a drawer. But let's start with the basics.
What is the definition of a short story versus a novella versus a novel?
Alan: Okay. Well, you guys have missed one out there as well. Different people define these things in different ways. But according to the Science Fiction Writers of America, they're a professional body of science fiction and fantasy writers, they determined that a short story is anything up to 7,500 words.
A novelette is anything from 7,501 words to 17,500. So it's like a very long short story.
A novella, then, starts at 17,501 and goes up to 40.000 words, so 17,500 to 40,000 is novella. Everything over 40,000 is a novel.
Adult fiction tends to have a minimum of about 70. Then most publishers will look at work from between 80,000 and 120,000 words. But everything's variable.
If you wrote a killer novel that was 62,000 words and it just blew an editor away. they wouldn't care that it was 62,000 words. If they love it, they'll buy it. But the yeah, as Science Fiction Writers of America, SFWA, as people call it, as they define these things, those are the numbers in terms of word length.
Joanna: Well. Okay. I've never heard of the novelette. That's a new one for me.
My novellas are around between 25 and 35, generally. I'm glad they fit into that, because I didn't want to start a new category.
Alan: No, that's good for novellas. A lot of the times, publishers will talk about novellas when they actually mean novelettes, because they're sort of saying, you know, 10,000 to 20,000 words which is novelette territory, really, but there is that sort of overlap.
But as soon as you pass 20,000 words and before you hit 50, very much, so that's novelette territory. The one I was talking about, the science fiction one that I had self-published is about 35,000 words.
I've got one coming out with Pierce Publishing next year, which is about 28,000 words. And I've just finished one that I thought was going to be a novel, and it turned out to be a tighter story than I realized, and that came in about 39,000. So that just kind of squeaked under the SFWA novelette word limit.
Joanna: Two questions. Let's start with one question.
Do you start with an idea, like you go to something and you see something, and you go, “Ooh, I've got an idea,” or do you generally write to market like a competition or guideline in a magazine, or do you do a combination of both?
Alan: I very rarely write to a market, unless a particularly themed anthology called. And I'm in a very lucky position these days that a lot of the time, I actually get approached now by publishers to write and commissioned to write.
I still do plenty of submission of stories. I get loads of rejections and all that. But I do tend to get calls. Can you see this one here? This is the most recent one, that was “In Your Face.” This is an anthology of short fiction that's deliberately controversial and provocative. And the publisher wanted stories that really interrogated certain, supposedly or possibly taboo subjects and stuff like that.
Joanna: The only short stories I've written have been commissioned in that way. So it's like, “Write a story about fear,” you know, that has the theme of fear.
Alan: Yeah. So sometimes that will happen. So I wrote a story for that one. I got commissioned to write a military horror novel, a military horror story that basically is a horror story but has to involve some form of military in some way. Soldiers, and it doesn't have to be set in wartime or whatever, but you know, often, these things that are very broad.
And sometimes, I'll see an anthology call from the publisher that would say, “We're publishing an anthology of so-and-so stories,” and that just trigger something and I'll go, “Oh, wow, oh, yeah, I could write something along those lines,” or I”d sort of take it as a challenge.
That probably, overall, makes maybe sort of 20% of the stories that I write. Whereas, otherwise, I write stories that I want to write. Initially, the seed of the story usually comes from a scene. It could almost be a photograph in mind of a certain situation that makes me go, “Oh, yeah, that's kind of cool.”
For example, a story that's coming out a bit later this year, actually, this is an anthology to watch out for. It's called “Dreaming in the Dark” from Pierce Publishing. And it really does have some of the cream of Australian science fiction and dark fantasy writers, and horror writers. It's going to be amazing. I'm really pleased to be a part of it. And that was un-themed.
But the story that came up for that was already an article online, just in a news article or something like that where they talked about this house had been discovered somewhere in the outback where it was really, really dry. And there was a body in the house, only it hadn't rotted or anything. Nobody had noticed because it was so dry that it just kind of mummified.
I was reading this, I was like, “Oh, man, that's is kind of cool, man”. I had this idea that…this sort of picture in my head, of how somewhere dry, a body could just mummify and not rot and just kind of shrink down. But, you know, so it's like the smell of a dead body doesn't start attracting the neighbors, and it was years and years, like this person hadn't been seen for five years or something.
A nearly 9,000-word novelette grew out of that seed of the story because then you have to build everything else around it. because that's an idea. That's not a story. It's a bit like a pearl, you know, in an oyster. It starts with a piece of grit, a piece of sand and then that's grows into what you want. So normally that's where stories come from.
Joanna: And you would just write them. And then you will look at submitting them later. So you'll be like, “Yup, I'm gonna write that.”
Joanna: Before we get into the market, so how do you know, like that image and I think everyone will now have in their head, the idea of this outback house and then the Australian outback with the mummified body, which is cool, so everyone can see that in their head.
How do you know that that idea will become a short story or a longer work? Because I can think of ways you could turn that into a novel. I mean, that could clearly be like an opening scene of a novel, and the mystery, and who killed him, or you know, maybe a flashback or whatever.
But how do you know that that will be a short story or longer work?
Alan: Well, initially, see, in some ways, it's something that is a bit of, sort of, an occult skill. You know, it's not something you can really quite pin down. It's just something that you can grow to know.
A lot of the time, something, a short story is often too short in concept. The bottom line is this; a short story or novel, they follow the same principles. You need to have a beginning, you need to have a middle, and you need to have and end. There needs to be conflict. There needs to be some form of transformation. There needs to be character growth.
All these things that apply to all forms of writing applies to short stories just as much as they do to a novel. Otherwise, it's vignette. You know, if it's just a small idea that you don't develop any further, it's a vignette. It's a scene.
Joanna: Or a poem.
Alan: Or a poem, right. Exactly. And there's space for that sort of stuff. I mean, a lot of flash fiction, which is basically good stories under a thousand words. They often are designed to just convey a small idea without anything else around it, and just to showcase some cool writing and a cool idea, and that's it. I saw a fair amount of flash fiction. A lot of time, you can just play with it. It's just writing exercises to some degree.
But, for example, to go back to that story that we're talking about with the mummified body. I knew that that was a great thing to have in a story. Did I want it to be a short story or a novella or whatever? I didn't know at the time.
And then when Jack Dan, the editor for “Dreaming in the Dark” said to me, “Hey, I wouldn't mind if you submitted a story to this open-themed anthology if you liked to.” “Okay. Cool.” And that was about the same time I had the idea.
Now I start thinking, okay, I could use that idea. And they usually bumped up against other things, because you need a character that has a character arc. And in the case of this story, there's a young boy who's not very happy. He”s a self-harmer and he comes across this body, and the story grows out of that.
Everything that they did in that short story, I could've used, basically, exactly the same ideas and exactly the same arc and written a novel of, say, 80,000 words. But I used that stuff and I wrote a short story of 8,000 words purely by tuning it down to the bare details, not developing the side stories out, and not mentioning it, and not throwing in the secondary characters and the secondary story lines and the stuff that you weave through it. But that is way, a lot of the time, you'll see authors put out a novel based on their short story.
Margo Lanagan, again, I mentioned earlier. She had a novella published in that, that was, I'm guessing, what was probably 20,000 words. And she subsequently ended up using that and rewriting that as the intro to a novel when she did her novel called “Sea Hearts,” which in the U.S is called “The Brides of Rollrock Island,” And it's an outstanding novel. It's so good. And that was basically her writing a short story or a novella, a short novella, and then going, you know what, I can actually use those ideas more and developing it out.
I won the… Actually, there's a Shadows Award up there. That was for a short story called “Shadows of the Lonely Dead”. That was the Australian Shadows Award for Best Short Story last year.
The story was published in 2014, I won the award last year. That story is basically the genesis of her strange, dark power. She has this ability that she doesn't really understand. Through the course of that story, she realizes that she can use it more and she realizes what she can do with it. And so the development of that story is that discovery for her. That's her growth, and apparently, it's quite a good story. That won me an award. That's cool.
I've now written a novel in which she's one of two main characters. And basically, after the events of the short story, a couple of years later, in the short story, she gets together with this guy, during the course of the story. In the novel, it said a couple of years later, they”d broken up and she's gone traveling.
She's gone to London to sort of broaden her horizons and get away and get a new start, and that's where this whole novel comes using her abilities and what happened to her mixed in with this other guy that she meets. And the whole novel grew basically from the same idea. The novel has a lot more characters, it has more sub-plots, it has a more complicated plot, and everything else, but they're fundamentally the same thing.
I think it's one of the most important things to remember about short stories, because if you think a short story is easy, it's not going to be a very good short story. I've written novels before I wrote short stories. I taught myself to write short stories, and they actually improved my novel writing in some way.
But it wasn't until I had done some classes and talked to a lot of good writers, I got a lot of tips about things. For example, one of the best tips I got for the short stories was a very successful author over here said to me, “You have to remember that the best stories are always the ones where something else is happening.”
What she meant by that was the story you're telling is this person, this idea, this thing happens and that's the end, but throughout that, something else is happening, which is what fleshes out and makes a story feel real and interesting and adds weight to the events that are happening. Otherwise, it's just this kind of thread of things happening in a white room, you know.
And the skill is to do that in a very tight condensed way without any extraneous anything. That's the real trick to short stories is a novel-length idea without any fat on it. It's a marathon runner as opposed to a weight lifter, you know. It's just like, lean, and fast.
Joanna: I'm glad you said that, because I've written few short stories, and they've been very difficult to write. And the last one I've written was 2,000 words. It was like, you know, we can write a 2,000-word chapter of a novel in not very much time. You know, sit down, you could do that in an hour, couple of hours, maybe even an hour if you're a fast writer, and doing a scene like that. And you might not even need much editing.
But what I found with my 2,000-word short story which was commissioned, so it had to be that short. I took so many edits. There's much more language involved, I think, the word choice, so as you say, it's much, much smaller.
Now, one question I have, do short stories have to have a twist? Or is that the other thing that goes out?
Alan: One of the things that really got me hooked on short stories as a young guy, like when I was in my early teens was as a kid, I loved Roald Dahl. And I would read “The BFG” and “Charlie, the Champion of the World.”
Joanna: The chocolate factory.
Alan: “Danny, The Champion of the World,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” yeah. And then on my parent's bookshelf, I saw a Roald Dahl book, and I picked it up, and it was called “Switch Bitch.” And I thought, “Oh, that's a funny title, but it's Roald Dahl.” And I sat down to read it and it's totally unexpected. It's a bunch of his short stories that are all twisted, and dark, and weird. It blew my mind. I was probably 12 years old.
I was amazed at what could be done in a short story, but the thing that you say is those stories are the famous ones that are amazing little characters sketches, and a situation and a world and then bang, something comes from left field and confuses everything.
That's definitely a form of short story. But you have to be a little bit careful because a lot of the time, they end up seeming gimmicky, because the whole story comes across…
Joanna: It's fake, almost.
Alan: Yeah. The whole story is a vehicle for the twist. Whereas what's more important is story like a novel story. And a lot of the time, novels have a twist, you know. Like a lot of the time, you'll read a novel and you get to the end, you go, “Oh, this was amazing I couldn't believe what happened at the end. I didn't expect that at all.” It's just spread over the chapters instead of three paragraphs.
That's still a twist in that way. But what's important is it's a natural development of the story that's being told and the events that are happening, and the conflict being resolved in certain ways or someone resolving that conflict in an unexpected way or whatever.
If you're writing it to have a twist, it's liable that the twist is going to be the only thing that stands out, and the story's going to feel like a fairly lame vehicle for it. If you write an interesting story, it doesn't have to have a twist at the end. It has to have some sort of resolution.
And the best stories are the stories with the resolution that you don't really see coming. Or the end, you do see coming, and you go, “Oh, man, I know how this is gonna end,” and you keep reading because you really want to see if you're right, and it does do that but not the way you expected or something.
Another good bit of advice I had, as well, was whenever you've got ideas for stories, always throw out your first idea. Because your first idea is probably very similar to what most readers are going to have when they think about what's happening.
So go, “Okay. That's one thing. Put it back. Have another think. What else might happen?” And draw those things out. And that's what will add depth and interest to a story that otherwise would be predictable and a bit boring. That's what makes good stories standout from okay stories, you know.
Joanna: I think that's an advanced technique. I heard that also from the James Patterson MasterClass on Writing. Whatever anyone thinks about James Patterson, the guy is a brilliant genius when it comes to stories.
For every single possibility, he'll write a list of five to eight different options. And only when he gets towards number eight will he choose the option. He will always go further than that list.
Alan: A friend of mine is an advertising copywriter. Those evil marketers that makes TV commercials, but he said that they do the same sort of thing. They get a brief from a client, and they say, “We want an ad for the New Mitsubishi or something like that.” Oh, God! How do you sell something like that?
They do what they call the idea board, where they'll basically get some big sheet of A3 paper, and he divides it up into squares. There'll be like 20 squares on it. And they just go write ideas, bang, bang, bang. And they just quickly write down until all the squares are filled. And then he just takes it and he folds it in half and they only look at the bottom half of the page, which is the principle because all the obvious stuff gets farmed out of the brain in those early ones, and by the time, they're really trying to think of something a bit different, “What the hell else can we do,” that would be lower down the page.
And they say, it is an advanced technique, to be good at it, but it's really a fairly simple technique to try to develop. And the way to develop it is to practice, is to do it, same as everything else in the craft. You just do it and keep doing it.
Joanna: You just do it and do it for years, and then eventually, you'll get good.
Alan: That's right. Then you'll be an overnight success.
Joanna: Yeah. Exactly. I wanted to ask then, you showed us that awesome award.
What is the difference between an award-winning short story and a short story that doesn't, you know, that nobody wants, doesn't sell, and isn't very good?
Alan: I wish I could tell you. I would sell so many more stories. A lot of the time, it's something to do with sort of the zeitgeist of the moment, something that's particularly popular at any given time. A lot of the time, it has to do with certain subject matter that matches a feeling. A subject matter that matches the judges.
Because when it comes down to it, the editor of the magazine, or the editor of an anthology, or the judges in the competition, are always different people. And those people have their tastes. They have their preferences. They have things they absolutely hate. You might find that there's an editor for a magazine, you wrote for the most amazing unicorn story…
Joanna: And they hate unicorns.
Alan: …and it's just different, and fantastic, and clever, and stuff, but this editor is just like, “If I ever saw a unicorn for real, I'll just punch it in the face.” And so you're just not gonna sell to that guy.
You just can't pick it, but I think when it comes down to it, having one of your awards now, I think what it really boils down to is that you need all those sort of things that make good story.
You need really powerful characters. You need a really interesting plot. You need really well-developed plotting and conflict. And it needs to be very well-written in use of language and stuff like that. All those things that make any story good, just have to sing.
And so when you nail those things and you really pick them up, that's when you make the professional sale as opposed to the semi-professional sale, or that's when you score the award or whatever else.
And aside from anything else, it's just taste is completely subjective. Because there have been award-winning stories that I read and just hated and thought they were just awful. I can't even believe that got published, let along won a Hugo or something, you know. So it's completely arbitrary.
You just have to write what you want to write, write it as well as you possibly can, and hopefully, you'll get better, and better, and eventually you'll start dropping a few stories where all those elements do sing at the right time for the judge or for the editor, and then maybe you might get the good sale or the award.
It's probably a volume business, then, because you have to have a lot out there and some of them will hit.
Alan: To a degree, it is. Yeah, that's right, exactly. It's a bit of a scattergun effect, because on the one hand, that's how you improve your craft. The more you do it, the better you get. The more you sell, the more you write stories that will sell.
Because once you start getting better at writing and you start making sales, you go, “Ah. Okay, yeah. I'm doing that. Yeah, like what I did with this story, I could do with that story,” then you start making better sales. You may start making sales for professional rates rather than, you know, semi-professional rates or whatever.
And so that natural development is just a snowball momentum of any art. It's disingenuous to suggest that your name or the awareness of you as a person doesn't have some factor on your sales. If an editor knows you or knows your work, they'll look at it more favorably than work they just don't know.
For example, they got two stories sitting on their desk, and they're like, “I know this guy sold a few things. He seems like a decent guy, he's funny on Twitter. This guy, no idea who he is.” With nothing else to decide among those two stories, they're both equally great stories. “Oh, let's go with this guy, because I know he's got a bit of his name and whatever else.”
It's just this natural bias that's slowly developed. And so if you enter an award, and someone goes, “Oh, I've read this guy's work. I liked his stories before,” immediately, they're going to read that story with a more positive mindset than they would read a story from someone they didn't know. That kind of stuff is impossible to avoid, because it's human nature. People are involved, you know.
Joanna: You know, everyone says that for fiction, the first thing that a reader would do is buy another book by an author they already know and love. Like if there's a choice, they'll pick an author they've heard of. So that's kind of natural.
Alan: Right. That's it, yeah. And ultimately, you've got to pick up your game and get that much better to be noticed, and then it's not like you can relax after that, but that hurdle is cleared.
Joanna: Let's switch into the more business-y side of it. Because here's my issue with short stories, I know I can make money with a novel. I know I can, as an indie, I can write a novel in a genre, you know, writing thrillers, whatever, I can self-publish it, and I know it will start selling. A short story, if you do get paid, it's quite a small amount of money compared to what you get…
Alan: There is no money in short stories.
Joanna: So basically, I guess my question is:
Why do you have 70 published short stories and only 6 novels? What is the business sense in writing short stories?
Alan: Yeah, understandable question. The bottom line, as much as anything else, is I just love the form. I love short stories. I love to read them and I love to write them. So if you don't love it, it's gonna be a chore and they're not gonna be very good.
On the one side, there is that. But it's also that momentum snowball thing again. It doesn't make good business sense in terms of making money, and I've written more novels than are published currently, so that's always the case. I've got one out with my agent at the moment, which will hopefully find a publisher soon.
I've got another one that I'm just getting feedback from beta readers and I'm just about to start redrafting. “Blood Codex” has just come out, so that's happening, which I co-wrote with David Wood, and we've got another novel coming out in January. Plus, I've got a novella coming out with Pierce Publishing in the middle of next year. So there's a lot of work that's sort of rolling on, which always kind of takes precedence. And I tend to write short stories in the gaps in between.
But over the course of 10 or 12 years or whatever, you can write a lot of stories in that time. They're shorter to write. They take potentially longer to edit, because I'll write it and I'll put it away. And then a month later, I'll pull it out again and I'll go through it and I'll polish it and I'll make it better, send it to a beta reader. When I first write it to when I actually start submitting it to magazines or whatever, it might be six months. But it's a constant rollover of things going on.
Once you get a bit better and start getting paid pro rates, then you can make a few hundred bucks for every story that you sell, which is a few hundred bucks is not to be sneezed at. If you're good, you can get it reprinted in year's best collections and stuff. If people notice it, you get paid for it again.
There's a lot of short fiction podcasts that do sort of 20-, 30-min podcasts where every week, they put out a new short story as a reprint, so that you can sell it again.
I've got my first collection of short stories coming out in September, which has got three original stories and 16 of my previously published stories. So that's from having a big enough body of work to collect 16 good stories. They're the cream of my work, really, up to a certain point. That means I got a payment in advance for a collection and I've got another book out there which will sell.
They're actually doing a limited edition hardcover where it's limited to a hundred signed, numbered editions, and then regular trade paperback and e-book and stuff like that. That's all the stuff that is built up doing short stories over a long period of time, plus you just get your name known around the traps, and editors know your name, and publishers, if they're looking at novel, can go, “Well, this guy's got 50, 60, 70 short stories published,” that's 50, 60 editors who have read my work, liked it enough to pay me for it and publish it, which is kind of a validation of my ability with the craft.
And again, if I send a novel to a publisher, and it's like, “Here's my novel, my name's Alan, I hope you like it,” they'll go, “Okay, fair enough.” But if I go, “Here's my novel, I've got this many novels previously published. I've got 70 short stories published internationally, and blah, blah,” they'll go, “Okay, this guy's serious about the craft. He's got a lot of stuff out there,” they can also go out and see that other work as well.
And it's that thing with reading with a favorable eye again. You know, they might read that novel with a more favorable eye, and potentially go, “Well, if he's sold this many stories, there must be a few people who sort of know his name, that might help to sell the book.” So if we buy this book and we publish it, he might have fans out there from all that short fiction who will go, “Oh, great, another novel by this guy whose short stories…”
Yeah, it's all about momentum. It's that snowball going down the hill, except the hill's only really like this and you just have to keep pushing. But I love the form.
Joanna: Yes, you love form, and I guess it makes you a better writer.
It markets your other novels as well, because people read your stories in all these different anthologies, and you can sell it multiple times.
Alan: There's a series of anthologies from a publisher in Australia called the “SNAFU Series,” and that's the military horror that I mentioned before. They commissioned me to write another one for a volume that's coming out towards the end of this year which was called “SNAFU: Black Ops.” One of them was “Survival of the Fittest.” One of them was… I can't remember what it was called now but it was focusing on werewolves and soldiers, and this is Black Ops, which is a secret operation in military and stuff like that.
For that, I've written a story set in the Alex Caine universe. So my trilogy that's out now, the Alex Caine books, there's a group in that trilogy called Armour, who is sort of like this magical defense secret society. So I've written a story about a group of soldiers that are Black Ops within Armour, so it's like Black Ops within Black Ops.
I used the opportunity of a commissioned short story to write a short story set in a universe in my novels, and then in the book it will say, “This story is set in the universe of the Alex Caine series.” Anybody who reads the anthology that might never have seen my novels will be go, “Oh, what's this one about?” And they'll have a look, they'll read the blurb, “Oh, it might be interesting.” So the story potentially in that situation can directly sell my novel. It's all this big, entangled web of cross-pollination and cross-promotion.
Joanna: As someone who is a businesswoman and interested in income, I also want to write more short stories, because when I read them, I really like them, and I have bought a number of anthologies when I'm thinking of getting back into that. And when I write them, I'm like, “I really need to write more of these, because they make me a better writer,” and I can feel it. I almost feel it as I'm writing. I'm like, “Okay, this is challenging me a lot.”
But I want to ask you; let's assume people want to write short stories, and they're going to write them and they're going to edit them properly, and they're going to do the best work.
Where do they find the markets to submit? Where do you find those markets?
Alan: The internet has become a fabulous thing in those terms, because everybody puts out their submission calls online. I mean, in my genres, I write mostly horror and dark fantasy, some science fiction, some high fantasy, and stuff like that, so there's a variety of either online or print magazines.
Stuff like “Fantasy & Science Fiction” magazine or “Clarkesworld.” There's numerous of these things that you find out about very quickly when you start looking into them, that you can submit to. You'll become aware of publishers who produce anthologies and stuff like that, so you always keep an eye on them, for what they're open for.
But then, you can also look at websites, there's one called Duotrope which you pay a membership for. There's one called (Submission) Grinder which is free, and you can basically go into these things and they've to a search thing at the top and you can go science fiction, short stories, prorates, blah blah blah, search, and it goes ping, and it just slings up a whole list of markets that you can do.
Or you can go to my website. I've actually got a page in my website. If you go to the Links page, at the top, it says, “Have a look at markets for writers.” I can't remember what it says. Something like that. And if you click on that, there's a whole page of my site there that just a great, long list of markets for mostly short fiction and some long fiction.
That's how you find it. And then the most important thing then is to read the guidelines, because they're all a little bit different. First thing you do is you go and read the guidelines, make sure they're open for submissions. Read the guidelines, make sure that you follow them very clearly, because the first way to get rejected is to ignore the guidelines.
And sometimes, it can be a pain in the ass if they ask for slightly weird things, but that's business. That's what you've got to do. Then you submit and you get rejected. You submit and you get rejected and so on. And eventually, you start getting rejected a little bit less. If you get to a point where 1 in 10 stories are being sold rather than rejected, you're doing well. Ten percent hit rate is pretty good.
Joanna: That's hilarious.
Alan: I know. That's the market, unfortunately.
Joanna: Do you think with e-books, do you think the market for short stories has grown?
You know, people are liking shorter things and there's an opportunity to sell more shorter stuff in digital whereas, you're going to a bookstore, there's no short story section.
Alan: No. That's right.
Joanna: Even a big bookstore.
Alan: Yeah, there's two sides to that, and as is often the case, one of the sides is not very good. Some of best paying markets now for short fiction are online only. People like “Clarkesworld,” they pay really good rates for stories. Like, you know, “Nightmare Magazine,” “Lightspeed,” “Clarkesworld,” people like that, they're the real sort of high-ish markets to try to crack, and they're just online only.
There's the old-fashioned magazines like “Fantasy & Science Fiction” who still do actual folio magazines. This is my proudest. I've got a story in “Fantasy & Science Fiction.” It's like the Holy Grail of short story markets for me. But as you can see, it's like this is the size of my hand. It's this short thing, and this is with newspaper print pages inside, sells in news agents across the U.S. and on a lot of news agents, the bigger ones elsewhere in the world will have that as well. That's very rare now, this sort of newsstand short story magazine. It used to be so popular.
Most of them now are either anthologies like all these ones on the top shelf behind me, they're actual books, or online magazines and stuff. But I think you'll find that a lot of the short story stuff comes out of small press now. It's not expected to sell in huge numbers. But it targets certain niche things, and some of them do sell really very well.
The other side of that is because of the nature of publishing these days, as we all know, it's so very easy to format a document, whack a cover on it, load it up, and put it on print on demand.
There's a lot of fairly predatory small press publishers out there who are doing this stuff and they're not paying for the stories. They're suggesting that they all do a royalty split, but considering they're gonna sell maybe five copies, there's not gonna be any royalties. They don't even send a contributor copy to the person who wrote the story, because they're gonna put 20 stories in there and they know that they'll sell 20 copies, because at least, the writer will want one to put on the shelf.
Which is pretty predatory activity on that front. So it's very important to educate yourself of what are the good markets and what aren't. Preditors & Editors is a good website to look at for that sort of stuff. Or just get around chat and online, chat to people like me on Twitter and stuff like that, and just be in the scene a little bit, and you'll soon find out what rises and what sinks or what should, and you know, and you'll pick up the story.
But it is a niche market. It doesn't pay much. It doesn't sell much. But within its niche, it's very popular. And so there are, albeit a niche, there are thousands and thousands of people like us who love short stories and people read them and buy the anthologies. And they sell probably more in e-book than hard copy than anything else, I would guess, most anthologies these days.
The best magazines tend to be online. A lot of magazines now will go online for a year, and what they'll do is do a print on demand collection of all their issues of the year, at the end of every year.
Joanna: Yeah, so we are pretty much out of time, but I wondered if you would, of course, people should try your short stories, which are excellent.
Alan: Of course.
Joanna: Who are your favorite short story writers that people might wanna check out if they enjoy your genres?
Alan: There are so many, especially in Australia. We've got a very vibrant community of short story writers. I would suggest people like Angela Slatter, Jo Anderton, Lisa Hannett, Kaaron Warren. Lots of women write really good dark fantasy in Australia, actually.
Robert Hood is another one. Paul Haines, who unfortunately died a few years ago, is probably one of the best short story writers Australia ever produced. His work's still available, obviously, so check Amazon for Paul Haines's work.
Internationally, one of my favorite short story collections ever was the “Books of Blood” by Clive Barker. So this is going back a long way, back in the day, back in the '80s. They are still amazing. So I would definitely recommend Clive Barker.
They're all dark stories that we talked about before are pretty timeless and ageless as well. I should probably just check these shelves this time, because I've got numerous collections, from people who you should read. But I'll tell you, I'll put a blog post up about it, actually, I might do that now.
Joanna: Yeah, do it. A list of recommended books.
Alan: Do a list of recommended short fiction, yeah, because it's one of those things, you can sit here and just stream names off all day, but I'll tell you a couple of people, particularly in this genre who, at the moment, are doing amazing things from the U.S., Laird Baron and Nathan Ballingrud, Ted Grau, all three of those have put out collections recently that are just outstanding. Lucy Snyder's another one. She won the Bram Stoker Award this year for her last collection which is fantastic, amazing. There's just so many, so many.
Joanna: Yeah, that's fantastic. Okay, where could people find you and your books online?
Alan: Well, my website has got everything. That's alanbaxteronline.com. Anywhere on the website, you see a book cover, click on it, it will tell you all you need to know about it. There's a whole bunch of free short stories to read on my website too, actually, because anything that's been published in an online magazine that you don't need to subscribe to, you can access it for free is linked from my website. So you go to alanbaxteronline.com and click on the Dark Shorts in the menu, there's a whole bunch of short stories on there. Or I'm just on Twitter, on my name, Alan Baxter, and I've got a Facebook page too, so hit me up any way.
Joanna: Thank you so much for your time, Alan. That was great.
Alan: No worries. Good to talk to you again. Let's not make it five years till we do it again.
Super interesting interview, I’ve seen lots of articles and posts around the interwebs about shorter writing the last few days. Universe trying to tell me something perhaps.
Anyway, was surprised not to hear anything about Kindle Short Reads. Is that not really a thing any more/yet?
Thanks for the show, it always gets my week off to a positive start. Worth every penny of the Patreon bill each month 🙂
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for your support of the show! I think Kindle Singles is still a thing, but it’s curated, it’s not indie.
I meant Kindle Short Reads rather than Kindle Singles. From what I can gather, KDP now counts your pages and automatically places your book in the short reads category in most countries if it’s below a certain length (100 pages, 25,000 words).
I’ve been reading a lot about it recently, perhaps it not really catching on yet.
Joanna Penn says
If it’s automatic, then I guess people just get put there?
Elegwen O'Maoileoin says
Indeed. Also putting the tag “short” or “shortstory” as one of your seven keywords helps get into those categories.
This is a great interview that I have bookmarked. I have tried to write shorts but then my mind kicks in and the characters just keep going. It’s a serious discipline that I hope to tackle one day when I finish writing the stories that are dancing in my head. Until then I’ll just settle for being a decent writer(I hope ?)
Michele Tracy Berger says
I’ve been listening to you for about a year and it has been fabulous. I’ve learned so much about being a hybrid author. Thanks for all that you share with your audience. I loved this interview and I went to submission grinder for the first time and couldn’t believe how many new publication outlets I found! I spent two hours today looking and reviewing. Now all I need to do is block out time to do a submission blitz. Keep up the great work!
Irene Fenswick says
Thank you, Alan and Joanna, for the great interview! I am a blogger and as for me, all blog posts also are small stories, which should ‘sell’ and attract new readers to my blog. I loved your talk as I got a lot of ideas about how to make my articles better and it inspired me for writing a new post. Thanks!
Randy Ellefson says
That makes me want to get back into submitting my stories, which I’ve been saving for my own anthology. I stopped submitting partly because many places say they do fantasy and sci fi but then I’d see an issue with all sci fi. Then again. And again. They often didn’t seem to really do fantasy, which is what I write. Anyway the 10% success rate made me laugh and I’m going to aim for that going forward from my 0%! My only encouragement came from the Writers of the Future contest with several honorable mentions. I was so desperate for recognition that I was pleased with my consolation prize!
Edwina Gustafson says
Great podcast. I hope you’ll be doing more podcasts on short stories. It took me two and half years to write my 14 000 word book. I wanted to write a story you could sit under a tree and read in one sitting – without realising how difficult it would be! I often thought of the Mark Twain quote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Abbie Cornish says
Excellent examples with good ideas extracted by award winning author. Awesome !
Thanks for sharing this info.
thanks for the nice info often thought of the Mark Twain quote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”