By Mark Alpert
The first fiction I ever wrote was a short story titled “The Sweet Smell of Parchment.” It was about the Vietnam War, and it was only two-and-a-half handwritten pages long. I’m not sure exactly when I wrote it, but it had to be before the end of the U.S. involvement in the war, so I’m going to guess either 1972 or 1973. I was either 11 or 12 years old.
No copies of this story survived (there was only one), but I remember it pretty well. It had two scenes. The first scene was told from the point of view of a character named Otto, a guard at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Otto’s job is usually pretty dull, but one morning when he comes to work he finds the night-duty guard lying bound-and-gagged on the floor of the Archives lobby. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Otto rushes over to the glass case where the Declaration of Independence is usually displayed, but now the case is empty except for a note addressed to the U.S. Congress: “Get out of Vietnam, or we’ll burn it.”
The second scene jumps forward in time a few days, and it’s told from the point of view of the Senate Majority Leader. (I gave him a name, but I don’t remember it.) The senator is driving home after a really exhausting afternoon at the Capitol. Congress got into a fierce debate over whether to comply with the demands of the revolutionary group that stole the Declaration of Independence. Some senators said it would be wrong to give in to this kind of blackmail; others argued that it was high time for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam anyway, and this was the perfect opportunity to commit to a withdrawal. When it came time to vote, the Senate split right down the middle, and it was up to the Majority Leader to break the tie. (I didn’t realize at the time that the Vice President is supposed to break ties in the Senate. I was only 11!) But as I described the senator’s drive home, I didn’t reveal how he voted earlier that day. Although I was just starting out as an author, I’d already realized the importance of keeping readers in suspense.
Then the senator parks his car in the driveway next to his house and he notices something burning on his front lawn. He runs over to put out the fire, but there’s nothing left but ashes. The last line of the story was something like, “And the sweet smell of parchment spread across the neighborhood.”
I’m telling you about this fictional debut because I’m working on a short story right now (actually, it’s a “novelette”), and the experience has reminded me how much I love this kind of fiction. So here are five reasons why you should consider writing short:
1) It gives you confidence. When you’re just getting started as a fiction writer, composing a novel can be a daunting proposition. It’s a big commitment of time and energy, and so many things can go wrong. Can you create fascinating characters and put them in exciting situations? Can you keep readers interested in the story by constantly surprising them and raising the stakes? Can you avoid all the pitfalls of novel writing — boring passages, too much explanation, repetitive scenes, ridiculous plot twists? If you don’t feel confident yet about your authorial abilities, then writing a few short stories may give you the practice you need.
2) There’s a quick payoff. It usually takes months to write a novel, but you can bang out a short story in just a few days. I started writing my first novel, THE EMPEROR OF ALABAMA, in early 1988 and didn’t finish revising it until the end of 1989. When I was done with it, I wrote “My Life with Joanne Christiansen,” a quick, funny story about two guys discussing their love lives. I wrote it in two or three days, then sent it off to my agent. Well, the novel didn’t sell; in fact, I wrote three more novels that didn’t sell before Simon & Schuster bought my fifth novel, FINAL THEORY, in 2007. But my agent sold “Joanne” right away to Playboy magazine, and it appeared in the February 1991 issue. I’m sure you can find a copy of it in a cardboard box at a garage sale near you. (Actually, it’s available on eBay, like everything else.)
3) Some stories are meant to be short. Just consider my first effort, “The Sweet Smell of Parchment.” What fascinated me back in the early Seventies was the idea that someone could try to end the war by holding the Declaration hostage. If I had been older and more ambitious, I suppose I could’ve elaborated upon the idea and turned it into a blockbuster novel, with a Jack Ryan-like hero crisscrossing the country in search of the hallowed document and battling hippie terrorists in a climactic showdown in front of the Washington Monument. But I wasn’t interested in all that melodrama. I just wanted to put this cool idea on the page and then get back to eating Ring Dings and watching “The Partridge Family” and doing all the other things I enjoyed at the time.
4) You can actually make some money. That short story my agent sold to Playboy? The magazine paid $3,000 for it. Given the cumulative inflation since 1991, that’s the equivalent of nearly $6,000 in today’s cash. Admittedly, that data point is an outlier, because few periodicals pay as much as Playboy once did. But I did some research last week after I started writing my short science-fiction piece, and I discovered that sci-fi magazines such as Analog and Asimov’s pay about ten cents per word for fiction. That rate is pretty low compared with the already criminally low rate for freelance journalism (where $1-per-word is still the standard), but it compares favorably with the typical compensation for novels. It can be tough to get more than a $10,000 advance for a 100,000-word novel, even from the biggest publishers. And that works out to ten cents per word.
5) There are more options than ever. While leafing through recent issues of Analog and Asimov’s, I learned that those magazines divide their short-fiction offerings into two categories: short stories (under 7,500 words) and novelettes (7,500 to 20,000 words). In addition, Analog will publish longer works (40,000-80,000 words) in installments. I haven’t researched the policies or pay rates for the comparable magazines in the mystery genre (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and so on) but I bet some of the TKZers out there are familiar with them. (Please let me know!) And even if you can’t sell a short story to a magazine, you can offer it as an online freebie to show off your writing chops and entice potential readers to purchase your novels.