Back in 2007 Stephen King wrote an article for the New York Times called, ‘What Ails the Short Story.’ I think it was a small way to promote “The Best American Short Stories 2007,” in which Mr. King edited. Aside from that, it is an article I read several times a year when I need to be reminded why I write mostly short stories instead of focusing on novels, like so many other writers. It also makes me wonder, ‘why do I write short stories again?’
After reading the article, there are things I take from it each time, and usually they are the same things. Occasionally, I find a little nugget I may have missed the last half dozen times I read the piece.
The biggest thing that stands out to me (and which is the one thing I get from it each and every time I read it) is the readership of short stories is dwindling. And all us writers and wanna-be writers have to compete for those readers. It’s not just the case of getting a reader’s attention. It’s also a case of getting the editors and publishers to take notice, which is as hard as getting readers.
With that in mind, a lot of writers tend to write for editors and publishers, not for themselves, and certainly not for the readers they seek. This is where we, the writers, tend to lose the most readers. When we stop writing for them, then we may as well stop writing altogether.
As a writer who scours the Internet looking for places to submit my work to, I often find some of the craziest submission calls. Zombie Cheerleaders in Death Cheer. Radioactive hair follicles. What happens when a werewolf falls in love with a zombie? Find out in Love Bites. Honestly, these are not stories that I think a lot of readers would care for. I certainly have no desires to read these things. Or to write them.
I have, on many occasions, written stories geared toward the call for submissions. I have, on many occasions, had those stories rejected. Hmmm…so, now I have a bunch of stories based on some pig demon who likes girls who wear bacon undergarments (and other various oddities a well) and no home for them. This is the danger of writing a story directed at a theme oriented publication. Not only that, you are not writing for the reader. You are writing for the editor and the publisher, and their opinions are subjective at best. Most of them choose what they like to read, not necessarily what the every day, average Jane or Joe likes.
Personally, I think that is a mistake. I have a whole digital library of stories I have written for publications that have no homes, stories I wrote for specific themes that were rejected for one reason or other. I didn’t write any of them for me or for the readers out there. Sadly, that is the truth. The results of writing for editors and publishers have lead to maybe five publications. Probably less.
I haven’t written a story directed toward a specific publication in several years, and I don’t plan on doing it again.
How passionate can you be if you are trying to write a story for a publication just because you want to get in that publication? Think about it? Honestly, the stories I wrote for theme based publications lacked real emotion, real characters. It lacked reality. The stories out and out sucked.
Passion. Believability. Realistic characters and emotions. Yup, a lot of stories—short and long—are missing these traits. I think that is why I don’t care much for many novels. If those traits I mentioned are missing, then why would I want to read a 500 page story when I would barely be able to make it through ten pages?
And what about our audiences? King states—correctly so—that a lot of the reading audience of the short story magazines and websites are other writers trying to figure out what the publication is looking for. Of course it is. That’s what these publications tell us to do. Read a couple of issues of our mag before you submit to us. The problem is not a ton of actual readers are reading this stuff these days.
So, not only are the readers not reading short stories, but a chunk of those who are reading are writers who are competing for the same few spots with the rest of us. That means the audience is even smaller than we thought.
This is crazy.
Where have all the readers gone?
Let me see if I can figure this out. The readers haven’t gone anywhere. They just turned their attention to other things. Why? Well, we are a society that is all about being entertained now—right now—and we’re not very patient. A lot of writers no longer develop stories because, quite frankly, if the story doesn’t grab us by the end of the first page, we feel like we are wasting our time. A lot of folks don’t get passed the first few paragraphs.
Answer this question:
Why would I, a reader, want to read your work? What sets it apart from everything else out there? (Okay, so that was two questions. I can count. Really…I can.)
It has taken me a LONG time to figure this out. Why would anyone want to read anything I have ever written? What makes my work different than everyone else’s? Maybe nothing, but maybe…maybe something.
Are you ready for this?
Yup. That’s my answer to why you should read my work.
I care about the readers’ time. I care about wasting that time—something I hope no reader ever feels they have done after reading something I have written.
Do I care about making money? I’d be lying if I said I don’t.
But what I care about the most is writing good stories. What I care about are the readers enjoying those stories.
I’ve often said without readers, a writer is nothing. I believe that whole-heartedly. Writers are only as good as the readers make them. Sure, we can write something great, but if no one reads it then no one knows just how great it is. But—yes, there is always a but—if one person reads it and likes it, the chances of them telling someone else increases. And what if that someone likes the story? Yeah, those chances of word of mouth marketing increase again and again and again.
That does not happen if you waste the readers’ time.
Care about your work, people. Care about the characters you create, the situations you put them in, and the resolutions of those situations. Care about your readers. If you care about them, then, over time, they will care about your work. That is one way to get a little piece of that fading audience of short story readers.
Try and set yourselves apart—give the readers a reason to like your work, and in turn, like you. Our audience is dwindling. We need to give them a reason to keep reading.
I’m still working on it, but I’m on my way.
Until we meet again, my friends…