writing weirdness

If short stories are a mistake, I plan to keep mistaking away

It appears that admitting to mistakes in one's writing career resonates with people. Not only is that post my site's most-read item of the year but it proved equally popular when SFWA reprinted it.

But I think I made a new mistake in my post by implying I regret my focus on short fiction.

It wasn't my intention to say that writing short fiction is a mistake. I love short stories. I will always read and write in the short story genre. In fact, I find short stories to be a perfect match for my aspirations and dreams as a writer.

For example, at this moment I have exactly 20 short stories in various stages of completion (along with a young adult novel I'm working on). As a writer I tend to jump back and forth between different stories — when I hit a snag with a story I jump over to the next story. By the time I return to the original tale I've usually cleared my head of enough writer's block that I can keep going.

But even beyond short stories being a good match for my writing style, I also believe the genre is a perfect match for today's hyper-fragmented and disjointed world. The days when a novel could be at the cutting edge of literature is probably passing, but short stories — damn, that's where the action is.

The problem, of course, is that short stories have a much smaller readership than novel-length fiction. I'm optimistic that this will eventually change, especially since current trends in e-publishing are so supportive of short fiction. But until things do change, my advice to new authors is to write short stories if you love the genre. That said, don't expect short stories to carry you to the bestseller lists or (almost never) to literary stardom. For that you'll need to branch out into novel writing. 

When I said focusing on short stories was a writing-career mistake, I was trying to say that if I'd wanted to be a bestselling author, then yes, I didn't pick the easiest path to achieving that goal. That's what I meant by a writing career mistake.

But here's a secret — making the bestseller list is not my writing goal. Instead, I want to write the best stories possible. I want to create stories which readers enjoy and which will live on after I'm gone. I want to write stories which tweak the world in glorious yet subtle ways.

Last week an editor I deeply respect read my post and wrote to me saying short stories are never a writing-career mistake. And that's absolutely true. I shouldn't have been so cavalier with that statement. I shouldn't have even listed that as one of my mistakes.

I love short stories. I'll always write them. And short stories have taken me to where I am today as a writer.

If that's a mistake, I plan to keep on mistaking until I die.

Jeff VanderMeer on the futility of language

"Perhaps so many journals had piled up in the lighthouse because on some level most came, in time, to recognize the futility of language. Not just in Area X but against the rightness of the lived-in moment, the instant of touch, of connection, for which words were such a sorrowful disappointment, so inadequate an expression of both the finite and the infinite."

From Acceptance, book 3 of
Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

I've made every mistake an author can make in their writing career

Len Peralta 's amazing adaptation of a certain superstar raccoon. The path we take to our creativity is totally unlike the path anyone else will ever travel. (Note:  Be sure to check out and buy more of Len's artwork .)

Len Peralta's amazing adaptation of a certain superstar raccoon. The path we take to our creativity is totally unlike the path anyone else will ever travel. (Note: Be sure to check out and buy more of Len's artwork.)

This has been a tough writing year for me. I finished my first novel only to learn that at this point in my writing career it's going to be a hard sell. I've struggled with short fiction, publishing only two stories this year. I've even wondered why I'm writing stories in the first place (which probably ties back with the issues I've had with the novel and short fiction).

All of this caused me to step back and reflect on my writing career up to this point. And I've realized I've made just about every mistake an author can make, career-wise.

For example:

  • I grew up loving science fiction and fantasy stories, but listened to teachers who told me I shouldn't waste my time writing "that kind" of fiction. It took me years to dig my way out of that writing mistake.
  • I focused on short fiction when the market and readership for short fiction is nearly non-existent.
  • I avoided going to literary and genre conventions for many years because ... hell, I'm not even sure why. But I avoided them for a long time. After all, why would an author ever want to meet fellow authors and editors and publishers and readers? (Note: This is sarcasm. Career-mistake sarcasm, but sarcasm all the same.)
  • I spent far too many years writing the types of stories others expected me to write, instead of the stories I wanted to write.
  • I assumed I was such a great writer that I didn't have to plot out my novel-length fiction. (Note to new authors: If you try this yourself, expect pain. Lots and lots of pain, along with a novel you'll likely struggle to publish.)

And those are merely a sample of the mistakes I've made. The list could easily go on and on. If you had to describe how to achieve success as an author, I'd pretty much be an example of what not to do.

Of course, the flip side to this is that the path I've taken, while perhaps not the best for furthering my writing career, has given me a unique voice and approach to storytelling. My love of short fiction has enabled me to experiment with stories and develop my voice in ways novel-length fiction wouldn't have tolerated. I've also been able to both publish my stories and reach new readers thanks to some amazing editors and the support of magazines like Interzone and Asimov's.

And most importantly, every mistake has taught me something.

At a recent convention — yes, I now go to conventions — I met artist Len Peralta and purchased several of his prints. Above is one of Len's prints which really stuck with me because it so perfectly highlights that great line from the blockbuster film Guardians of the Galaxy: “There ain't no thing like me, 'cept me!”

I don't know if I'll ever achieve all I want to achieve with my fiction writing, but I do know the creative path I've traveled has resulted in a writer who produces stories no one else could create. I also know I'll never stop reaching for my writing dreams.

Career wise, I've made just about every mistake an author could make. But writing wise, I wouldn't change a thing. Because my mistakes are part of what have taken me this far and helped me become who I am as a writer.