Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Short Stuff, Revisited

For a long time now I’ve found myself torn between my belief that it’s important that writers who are just starting out in their careers be working on book length projects, and my absolute certainty that you have to start at the bottom and work your way up (the bottom in this case being getting short pieces published in small literary journals).

It’s kind of a contradictory idea, or at least it may seem that way at first. Which is it? What should we be spending our time on: the short stuff that we can submit to journals or the long stuff that we can use to query agents and book publishers? Well I still firmly say both, and something happened to me this past week that might help illustrate why.

As you may or may not be aware, I divided my time fairly evenly in grad school between working on multiple drafts of a full length novel and writing and revising numerous short stories. Most of my peers spent their time on one or the other (and the scale, at UAF anyway, was tipped dramatically on the side of short stories alone). I started grad school as an unpublished and largely undisciplined writer, and left with a handful of small publication credits on my CV and a full length novel that I was ready to send out.

A couple of days ago I received an email from the editor of 34th Parallel, a small journal that published a flash fiction piece of mine about a year ago. The editor forwarded to me an email he had received from an assistant at a New York literary agency. She had read the issue of the journal with my story and wanted to know if I had a novel in the works that I could query the agency with. An important side note here is that she specifically stated that the agency is not interested in short story collections.

Before I go on I have to pause and remind you that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, or at least, it means nothing more than that she liked my story. I sent my query in immediately, but I may never hear back, or I may receive a form rejection, who knows? Boiled down to its most basic parts, this is still nothing more than a query.

But the point is that there are two important components that made this rather exciting opportunity possible (after all, whether they ultimately reject my novel or not, I was lucky enough to rise to the top of the slush pile with this agency: they actually requested that I query them!): I had to have a story published in a journal, so that the agency assistant could even find me in the first place, and I had to have a novel already ready to go, so that I could answer the agency’s request that I query them with a novel with anything other than: Thanks but . . . I don’t have anything to send to you . . .

The moral of the story? It is important to be working on both. Besides the fact that queries that have no publication history to speak of in the author’s bio paragraph probably don’t look very impressive, getting shorter pieces out there in literary journals can get you noticed by literary agents. They do read lit journals, keeping their eyes out for new talent, and I’m sure that they pay closer attention to the queries from those writers whose work they already know they like than that mass of random strangers who send hundreds and hundreds of unsolicited queries to them every week. Yes, the short stuff is important, and so is the long stuff. If you want to make it out there, your best bet is to try to master both.


PancakePhilosopher said...

I agree totally. It makes me think of famous writers like Steinbeck and Hemingway who wrote lots of shorter pieces as well as novels. Maybe that dual mastery was part of their success. Yes, they're regarded as literary geniuses and great contributors to the American literary voice, but if they hadn't been noticed in the first place, who's to say they'd ever have become famous?

Justus said...

I pretty much agree with you that from a standpoint of establishing oneself as a professional fiction writer, it's valuable to pursue both novels and short stories. However, I think there's another point that is often not considered. I remember my first workshop at UAF, someone asked the instructor whether she should work on short stories first to prepare herself to one day write a novel, which is what she really wanted to write. The instructor replied that if she wanted to write a novel, she should write a novel and that writing short stories wouldn't really teach her what she needed to know.

I think there's something to that notion. Of course, the more you write the better you'll get in general, and I certainly think there's crossover between writing stories and writing novels as far as basic craft and language skills go. But I also think that the two things are really different beasts, and that a lot of people see short stories as an initial step toward becoming a novelist. There are plenty of examples of writers who wrote a few stories while starting out and then stuck to novels once they were established as well as writers who were masters of the short story but never produced a good novel. I think the reason for this is that the two things really are quite different, maybe not as different as prose and poetry, but still, the skills required to be talented in one venue do not automatically crossover to the other.

Personally, I've never been as interested in short stories as I am in novels (although I've been more engaged with them the past year or so), and so I've spent far less of my time on short pieces than I've spent on novels. But you, Ashley, have the good fortune of being attracted to both types. I think it's really to your advantage that you have approached it as you have. I think you may be one of those writers who really winds up excelling in both.