writing weirdness

When authors stalk

If you follow me on Twitter, you saw my outrage yesterday over author Kathleen Hale's Guardian essay about stalking one of her online critics.

Yes, the bad reviews Hale received from this Goodreads critic were way more than simply bad — they were hateful. But that's still no excuse for stalking someone. And that's what this was. Hale repeatedly uses the term almost as if she doesn't truly know what it means.

  • "So instead I ate a lot of candy and engaged in light stalking..."
  • "I absent-mindedly returned to stalking Blythe Harris..."

Hale uses the term stalking in a light-hearted way, almost as if she believes laughing about her actions makes them okay. And this wasn't only online stalking — Hale lies to get the critic's home address and runs a background check on her before showing up at the critic's house and contacting her at her workplace.

Perhaps my horror at what Hale did was influenced by my personal situation — I've been stalked before by a fellow author. But I wasn't the only one outraged by what Hale did.

I'd hoped the backlash against both Hale and the Guardian over this article would force them to realize the wrongness of what Hale did. But unfortunately, some people — both authors and readers — have come out in support of Hale. I won't link to their support, but it's out there.


What Mikki Kendall says is very true. I also suspect part of the reason some people applaud Hale's stalking is they support the ongoing Stop the Goodreads Bullies campaign, which I wrote about a while back. Many of the authors behind STGRB have been targeting their Goodreads critics, so obviously some of them have no issue with taking this stalking to the next level.

Perhaps Hale will realize the wrongness in what she's done. But with her receiving some praise and support, this appears doubtful. So I hope other authors will take note of this and avoid doing as Hale did. I also hope readers will remember that not all authors are like Hale, and also note which authors supported her.

After all, why should readers support an author who might show up at your house if you ever say something bad about her book?

The lesson in all this — aside from never stalking anyone —  is to not be so consumed by the haters of the world that you become a hater yourself. Authors need to focus on their writing and not on those who hate what you are writing.




Goodbye, Yahoo

We are gathered here today to bury Yahoo!, which now joins MySpace and AOL as examples of WWW pioneers which couldn't change as the world evolved around them. 

What can we say about Yahoo? In it's time, Yahoo was groundbreaking. Yahoo was the web portal every other portal wanted to be when it grew up. Yahoo was the hip kid everyone turned to for tips on the best the web had to offer. Remember when the Cool Site of the Day was actually cool? Well, back then Yahoo was cooler than that. Yahoo was the king of cool.

But cool is no longer cool. No one cool says cool anymore. Except for the people at Yahoo. Which is majorly uncool.

As the world changed Yahoo struggled to remain relevant. Unable to create their own halfway decent search engine, they used Google's until realizing that might not be a solution to their coming death spiral. Once a pioneer in webmail, they allowed Yahoo Mail to be eclipsed by Gmail.

And now Yahoo is the living dead of websites. While they're still visited by more people than almost any other site in the world, it's doubtful these people actually care whether they're visiting Yahoo or some other generic website. No, they visit out of rote habit, returning day after day because it's what they've done for years and they might as well visit one more time.

But that's not a recipe for success. Yahoo has become the web's equivalent of an outdated strip mall on the rundown edge of suburbia. People still visit but the visits are joyless and slightly disturbing. Everyone knows that any day now the bulldozers will arrive and flatten this piece of ugly, pointless nostalgia. But until that happens they figure they might as well keep coming.

I've known for many years that Yahoo was dead but I couldn't bring myself to bury the poor bastard. Even though I preferred my Gmail account, I'd had my Yahoo Mail account for so long that I couldn't stop using it. For the sake of nostalgia I ignored the continually intrusive updates and poorly thought out designs, all reflecting Yahoo's greater and greater desire to turn me into someone who cared about their products. I also ignored the hateful news stream on Yahoo's homepage, which highlighted the worst crackpot articles and rants and theories you could find online.

But yesterday, I finally stopped caring and buried Yahoo. I arrived as I usually did to find Yahoo forcing me to change my password. Sure, they'd say this was for security reasons but I knew that once I changed it everything would go bad. And it did. Yes, I could log in and see my emails, but every email I sent bounced back to me as undeliverable. Except for a few which didn't. There was no sense to the pattern.

But there hasn't been sense to anything about Yahoo in years.

Goodbye, Yahoo! Goodbye Yahoo Mail, which could no longer be trusted to actually deliver your mail. Goodbye Yahoo Messenger, which opened your life to hordes of spambots and unwanted strangers. Goodbye Yahoo defunct services, of which there were so very, very many.

Goodbye, Yahoo! I would say we'd miss you. But we won't.

2014 storySouth Million Writers Award notable stories

Here they are: the 2014 storySouth Million Writers Award notable stories. Thanks to all the editors and readers who nominated stories, which storySouth's preliminary judges then used to create this list. All of these stories were originally published in online magazines and journals during 2013. 

Right now the three final judges (full disclosure: I'm one of them) are reading through the stories below, so expect the top ten stories—and the public vote for the overall winners—in a few weeks.

If you'd like to donate to this year's prize money, click on the "donate" button on the main Million Writers Award page. Obviously this award doesn't work without everyone who supports it.

And that brings me to something I want to throw out to the literary world—the notable list below first emerged through nominations from readers and editors of online magazines. If you're wondering why your favorite story or favorite online magazine isn't listed, it's likely because no one nominated them. So next year nominate stories for the award!

2014 storySouth Million Writers Award notable stories

Update: The following stories were added to the notable list on Oct. 17: "Dirwhals!" by Ethan Rutherford, "Distance" by Susan Tepper, and "Melt With You" by Emily C. Skaftun. A year ago these three stories were accidentally named to the MWA notable list of 2012 stories even though they were actually published in 2013. At that time it was decided they'd be added to this year's notable list.

Should authors avoid short stories if they desire literary success?

A young writer recently asked me what's the best path to becoming a successful author. Specifically, she asked if she should focus on short stories or novels or both.

I told her the path to take was up to her. I suggested she study the careers of authors she liked for clues on which path to follow, with the understanding that what worked for one writer might not work for another. And most importantly, she should write the types of stories she yearned to write.

But I also said that if she wanted to have a shot at literary stardom or hitting the bestseller lists — if that was how she defined being a successful author — she should avoid focusing exclusively on short fiction. In fact, maybe she should avoid short stories altogether. Instead write novels. Or nonfiction. Or memoir.

Anything but short stories.

Anyone who knows me will realize I'm not saying this to dismiss short stories. I'm primarily known as a short story author and I love reading and writing short fiction. My stories have been published in a number of top magazines and book anthologies — from Asimov's Science Fiction and the British magazine Interzone to journals such as Pindeldyboz and the Beloit Fiction Journal — and have been translated into many languages including Chinese, French, Russian, and Czech. I've won arts fellowships and awards for my stories. I even founded and edited a literary journal named storySouth, through which I ran a well-known award for online short fiction.

I'm not saying this to brag. I'm trying to show how much I love short stories and how much I've invested in them.

But I still wouldn't recommend new writers start their careers with short stories.

Today relatively few people read short stories, at least compared to novel-length fiction. If you're a new writer with a solid first novel, you have a decent chance of landing a publisher. Self publishing has also been very friendly to novels.

But approach a publisher with a short story collection and they'll run away screaming. Try to self-publish a collection of short stories and you're unlikely to ever make the Amazon bestseller lists. The reason — short stories and collections of stories rarely sell anywhere near the copies sold by the worst of novels.

Things were not always this way. The September 2014 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction contains a fascinating essay by Robert Silverberg in which he reminiscences about breaking into the SF genre during the early 1950s. As an ambitious young writer trying to land his first publication, Silverberg set his sights on what at that time was the one true measure of successful SF authors — short stories.

As Silverberg states, "Science fiction was primarily a magazine medium in the early 1950s, with only a handful of book-length works being published each year. The best writers of the field — and there were dozens of top-notchers at work then — wrote short stories, bushels of them, more than even the numerous magazines of the time could absorb.

To Silverberg and the other SF authors of that time period, short stories earned more money than novels and were also where authors gained the most exposure and prestige. Readers loved short stories, and the market was set up to provide readers with as many short stories as they could take in.

The same pattern applied decades earlier. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald once told Ernest Hemingway that he wrote short stories for magazines because they paid enough to support his novel writing. Fitzgerald believed this was "whoring" but that he had to do it to earn enough money to write "decent books."

But the days described by Silverberg and Fitzgerald are long gone. In the 21st century almost no top author in any genre focuses exclusively on short fiction, and very few write much short fiction at all. Instead most authors focus their energy on novels, where the potential payoff — and the potential readership — far exceed that of short stories.

For example, John Scalzi is one of the science fiction genre's bestselling authors and the winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel. But he didn't achieve this success by publishing short fiction in traditional SF magazines. As he tweeted a while back:

I suspect Scalzi is being polite with that "huh" comment. For the time he'd invest in writing a 6,000-word short story, he'd make more money and reach far more readers by putting those 6,000 words toward a new novel. And while Scalzi has written a few short stories over the years, his novels like Old Man's War are what have reached the largest readership and taken him to where he is now.

If you look at current bestselling or highly acclaimed authors, you can't help but notice that only a few of them have published much short fiction in recent years. Or if they have, it was earlier in their career before they turned their focus to novel-length fiction. Or you'll find they only write the occasional short story as a promotional tool for their novels, or as the literary equivalent of charity.

There are simply more readers and money to be had with novels. 

Of course, there are still people like myself who worship short stories and will keep on writing and reading them. And if you're a writer who loves short stories, by all means follow your passion. Short stories are also a demanding fictional form which can force you to sharpen your skills as a fiction writer.

And some new authors continue to make it big after starting with short fiction. One of the most exciting new authors of recent years is Roxane Gay, who first hit the scene with her amazing short fiction. In 2010 one of her short stories was a finalist for the Million Writers Award, and in that same year she placed an astounding six stories on the award shortlist.

In the SF genre, Paolo Bacigalupi is another author who hit it big after first becoming known as a short story writer, with his stories originally being published in leading magazines and winning major awards. He followed up these short stories with ground-breaking novels like The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker.

Gay and Bacigalupi are both great examples of authors whose reputations as short fiction writers helped them climb to literary success when they began publishing novels.

And it's always possible to defy the norms of today's publishing world, as author Ted Chiang has done. Chiang is solely a short fiction author, having published just over a dozen short stories across the last two decades. Despite this limited output, his stories have won multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards and his influence in the genre rivals bestselling authors. Hollywood is even making a major motion picture out of his "Story of Your Life."

Jhumpa Lahiri is another author who defied these reading and writing trends. Her first short story collection Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize and sold millions of copies. Her follow-up collection Unaccustomed Earth likewise earned major acclaim and a large readership.

But Chiang and Lahiri are in many ways the exception which proves the oh-so-cliched rule. For a new writer to try and duplicate their success would be like hoping to win the lottery after being abducted by aliens who drop you off at an interstellar casino headlined by Elvis himself. If you have the talent and ability, and your short stories resonate with people, there's indeed a chance you might make a career from short fiction alone. But few people would bet on such an outcome.

So here's my advice to new writers — write short stories if you love the genre, but don't expect them to carry you to the bestseller lists or literary acclaim. For that you'll need to branch out into novel writing. 

I have no regrets about my love of both reading and writing short stories. Even though I recently wrote my first novel, I'll always love short stories and will always write them. Short stories fit perfectly with what I want to do with my fiction. Short stories are too large a part of who I am to ever be forsaken.

Perhaps one day short stories will again be loved by readers like there were in the first half of the 20th century. Perhaps one day authors will again compete to publish the best short stories in the best venues. Perhaps one day short stories will again be the golden standard of literary success and acclaim.

But until that day comes, I suggest new writers who desire to become successful authors think long and hard before writing short fiction.