Archive for 21 July 2010

Ye Olde Short Story Collection

Last week I got notification that my short story collection wasn’t a winner in the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series. A real disappointment, but I knew the contest was a long shot. The winner was “Destroy All Monsters” by Greg Hrbek, who has such an impressive literary resume that he makes me look like a penny dreadful pulp writer in comparison.  (The title was also that of a 1968 Godzilla movie, so figure out what that prize-winning shot story collection is all about.) Why did I enter this contest that I have no hope in winning?

If you’re a short story writer, you will eventually put together a short story collection. Entering a contest like the Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series is a good motivator for putting a collection together if you have enough short stories to exceed the minimum manuscript requirements.

After I got a postcard four months before the contest opened for submissions in January 2010, I pulled together a 186-page manuscript with 27 short stories written from 2006 to 2008, with the shortest being 350 words and the longest being 6,000 words. I learned how to be a better editor after extensively revising each short story before adding to the collection. Some of the revised short stories that got rejected a dozen times before got accepted for publication after being submitted elsewhere. That made the $25 entry fee a worthwhile investment.

Besides, what writer doesn’t want to win $3,000 USD in cash and a book contract?

The biggest challenge to putting together a short story collection was the lack of information on how to put one together, probably because short story collections are the bastard children of the publishing industry. The days of writers making a living on writing only short stories are long gone. Most publishers will not consider a short story collection unless you have several novels that appeared on the bestseller lists, and even then will reluctantly publish one if only as a teaser for the next novel. When looking at various short story collections, the organization of each one is about as idiosyncratic as the author who put it together.

When I put my short story collection together, I kept each short story stapled together in a three-ringed binder. I used a 3×5 card with the title, word count and short description for each short story. The sorting process was the hardest to figure out. Alphabetical (too many titles started with “The”) and chronological (suck more to suck less) sorting orders weren’t considered. I ended up splitting the cards into four broad categories—family, people, spirituality, weird—and shuffling them all together. I further re-arranged the order to ensure a proper balance with alternating categories and length sizes. Satisfied with the order of the short stories inside the binders, I put the final manuscript together on the computer.

That arrangement worked well for me. But keep in mind that some editors and/or readers will reject reading unrelated short stories that don’t have an overriding theme to tie the whole collection together. I selected these stories from the first two-and-a-half years that I started writing, representing my “literary” period. After I put this collection together, I went on a non-stop “speculative” writing bender that will form my next collection for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prizes Series. That collection will fly or sink on the whims of the evaluating editor.

What will I do with my “rejected” short story collection manuscript? Nothing.

I’m still circulating the unpublished short stories to find a home for them. I could find a publisher to publish the collection, but I’m going to hold off until I have an agent for my first novel that I’m working on. Since I started selling my short stories to the anthologies, the contracts I’d signed often contain a year-long exclusivity clause that prevents the short stories from being reprinted elsewhere. Timing becomes a huge factor when pulling a collection together. Having an agent to double-check all those contracts and perhaps negotiate waivers will be useful.

Of course, winning a contest to catch the attention of an agent wouldn’t hurt either.

Write, Revise, Submit, Repeat

Note: This is a special blog post for the “My Best Advice to New Writers” blogfest organized by Peevish Penman.

If you want to be a prolific short story writer like Ray Bradbury, who wrote 400+ short stories during his long career, you need to write, revise, and submit your short story. And then write the next short story and submit that. You need to keep on writing and submitting your short stories until you have so many manuscripts floating around in the slush piles that a handful of rejection slips in one day won’t faze you. If you’re going to be a short story writer, rejections will always be waiting for you like a dear old friend waiting for you to buy him a drink on payday.

Most new writers stop writing after the first submission and wait to be discouraged by the inevitable rejection slip that arrives six weeks later in the snail mail—or the next morning, if submitting by email. Discouragement will make writing the next short story more difficult. Unless you’re one of those literary writers who must take ten years to write that next prize-winning masterpiece, you can outrun discouragement by writing and submitting as often as you can.

I wrote a dozen short stories each year for the last five years. Sometimes the stories came one at a time, with a month or two going by before the next one demanded to be written. Other times I have short stories raining down like fish from out of the sky, which can be quite overwhelming if you’re not ready for the deluge. No matter how fast or slow a short story arrives, I get it written and submitted ASAP. If a short story returns home with constructive criticism on the manuscript page or rejection slip, I make the revisions and kick it out the door.

My first short story wasn’t accepted until two years after I started writing. By then I had a dozen short stories in circulation and a hundred rejection slips. My second short story wasn’t accepted until a year-and-a-half later. By then I had a four-dozen short stories in circulation and another hundred rejection slips. And then something happened. My writing and editing got better. The floodgates were open. I had a dozen short stories accepted for publication in magazines and anthologies in the last nine months.

Even now I still have 35+ short story manuscripts in circulation. I’m still too busy with writing—and sometimes trying to keep track of everything—to be discouraged by rejection slips. That doesn’t mean I don’t take the rejection of some submissions more personally than others. Whenever I’m disappointed that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Weird Tales haven’t accepted my wonderful short story, I allow myself a fifteen-minute hissy fit. But only for fifteen minutes. I’m too busy with writing, revising and submitting my short stories to do anything else.

Recovering From A Disappearing ISP

The ISP hosting my three websites and a dozen email accounts disappeared from the Internet for 36 hours last week, starting on Thursday morning at 10:00AM and ending Friday night at 9:30PM. If the outage was less than 24 hours, I would’ve shrugged my shoulders and went on with life. Internet outages do happen from time to time. When 24 hours came and went without a peep from my ISP, I started looking for a new website host.

I soon discovered that my domain registrar, DirectNIC, could host my websites for half the monthly fee I was paying. By the time the outage was over, all my websites got transferred over. This was purely a business decision. When you’re a writer who sends short stories and receive payments through email, being off the Internet for an extended period of time is bad for business.

What happen to the ISP? The separate data lines that the ISP had to the data center weren’t redundant and both went down at the same time. The ISP owner made alternative arrangements that was both expensive and time-consuming.

I’m sorry that I found it necessary to take my business elsewhere. I’ve been with this particular ISP for 15 years, starting with a shell account to view web pages in Lynx (a text-based web browser) over a dial-up modem back in 1995. The extended outage reminded me that this ISP was a successful one-man operation. That’s fine for hosting a personal website. Not so fine when you’re running a business with multiple websites and email accounts.

Fortunately, I had recent backups and retrieved the current data after the old ISP came back up. Since DirectNIC doesn’t offer a shell account for web hosting, I couldn’t upload and decompress the backup file on the server. Uploading all the files uncompressed took a long time with the DSL upload speed being slower than the download speed. Restoring the databases took a few minutes, chasing down the various glitches took a few hours. Having gone through a few of these backup transitions over the years, this was the smoothest to date.

I didn’t suffer too much from being off the Internet for 36 hours. My writing productivity was the biggest casualty: no blogging on any of the websites, no revisions on my first novel, and forget about writing short stories. All my time got focused on getting my websites up and running without any glitches. Queued email found its way home and web traffic soon resumed to normal levels.

The biggest benefits with the new web hosting are the reduced monthly cost, a finer control over the backend for each website, and a much more responsive support team. Otherwise, everything remains the same as it should be. If there is an outage next time, I don’t think it will take 36 hours to fix.

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