FINDING YOUR AUDIENCE
I believe there are three reasons a person might want to write short stories. They are (1) for the fun of it, (2) to communicate, and (3) to make money. I would like to discuss these three reasons in reverse order.
Writing for Money
I've been a professional writer for thirty-five years now, off and on. In all that time I've earned less than twenty thousand dollars from my writing. Most of that was for ghostwriting; under my own name it's been more like five thousand dollars. Of that, $3500.00 was a grant I earned in 1967 (enough to support me for a year in those days). That leaves around $1500.00 earned from actually selling my words. I've had four books published by small presses and about seventy-five stories and articles published in magazines ranging from tiny to smallish, and have contributed chapters to two textbooks. I've also written a lot more that has never been published but took me just as much time to write. Obviously I don't write full time, but I've put enough time into all this product to bring my hourly rate to only a fraction of minimum wage. I've found that writing is no way for me to make a living.
Mine is not an unusually dismal experience. Most of the good writers that I know do not make a living solely from their writing, and none of them earn a living by writing short stories.
They do write, though, and so do you and so do I. Because we couldn't not write. It's the way we organize our thoughts and emotions, the way we process life and the universe. It's satisfying, if not lucrative.
Writing to Communicate
But lonely. Writing is the loneliest of art forms. An actor knows right away whether he or she has done a good job. A painter can watch the expressions on the faces of the people who look at his or her work. Musicians get energy back from each other and from the applause of their audience. But a writer works in a vacuum and then waits for a long time, sometimes forever, before finding out if the thing worked, made contact.
You can go crazy this way, and the harder you work the crazier you'll get.
That's why it's important for a writer to find an audience. It's not for the money (short story writers don't make money), it's not for the fame (ditto get famous), it's for the completion of the job. Contact. Communication.
Writing is an art, and art implies communication. Reason number two for being a writer.
So get yourself an audience. Join groups. Take classes. Attend and participate in open readings. Swap stories on the Internet. Read to one another in covens. Correspond with your cousin in Milwaukee who also writes. Find a mentor and be a mentor. Subscribe to literary magazines.
Send your work out. Publish!
A Look at the Short Story Market
The news here is not all good. Once upon a time a short story writer could make a decent living churning out tales and sending them off to the pulps because there were hundreds of magazines publishing thousands of short stories for millions of readers, and those magazines paid their writers! Then came television. Don't get me started.
Now there are only a handful of mass-distribution magazines in the United States that pay their writers more than a hundred bucks for a story, and they publish only a handful of stories by a handful writers, most of whom already have earned literary reputations as successful novelists.
Your chances of getting rich or famous by selling short stories are not as good as your chances of winning a lottery.
But wait. There is good news. Every year, judging from the steady weight-gain of the Novel and Short Story Writers' Market, there are more and more magazines that do publish short fiction. They may not pay big bucks, and they may have small circulations, but they're there, and they do print stories, and they will read your work, and if your work is right for them it will have a home. Someone out there will read and enjoy what you have enjoyed writing.
So get yourself a copy of Novel and Short Story Writers' Market, keep it in the bathroom with a yellow highlighter, and read it for pleasure. You will certainly find there many intriguing markets, and those are the markets most likely to be intrigued by your work.
How to Get Published
You need three ingredients to get published. (And by "published," I do not mean in Playboy or The New Yorker; I mean in the hundreds of small literary magazines who will actually read what you submit.) Those three ingredients are talent, hard work, and luck.
Let us assume that you have talent. Have faith in that. It's like having faith in the hereafter or in the goodness of our friends. We have to have faith, whether it's justified or not. And we have to work to justify that faith. Assuming that we have talent, we must practice it to keep it in shape. That leads us to hard work.
Hard work is hardly work, because we're doing it for the fun of it, but nonetheless we must work honestly and diligently to come up with a product that's worth publishing. I know one writer and teacher who insists we should all write one thousand words a day. Works for her. Not all of those words will find their way into print, but it keeps a writer practicing the craft, and some of the words will be the ones that land in place.
As for luck, you can influence the odds simply by playing the game with all your chips as often as you can. Having worked hard and produced at least a dozen good stories, stories that you'd be proud to see in print, get those stories out in the mail. And for each of them, be ready with another addressed envelope and cover letter, so that when it comes back (it usually will), it won't sit around going sour. It will go out again, to another fortunate editor. With twelve stories out in the mail all year long, you're going to get read by as many as a hundred different editors, and one of them, sometime, somewhere, will like something you've written. Bingo.
Keep a ledger of where your stories have been.
Do your homework about where to send your stories. Find out what magazines are interested in, either by reading their entries in Novel and Short
Story Writers' Market or by browsing libraries and bookstores and even buying and reading an issue or two. Who knows? Maybe you have a story set in a laundromat, and maybe there's a magazine dedicated to laundromat fiction? That's far-fetched, but there are magazines about juggling, UFOs, Kansas, jazz, lesbians, just about all religious sects, and a host of other special interests that might be part of your stories.
In any case, don't waste time and postage by sending stories to magazines for whom they're clearly inappropriate. Obey the instructions in the guidelines concerning format and length.
Always enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope (sase) if you want to hear back. Magazines are poor, and editors are justifiably stingy with their time and money. Besides, you should be professional and polite, and that means enclose a sase.
Write back to editors when they reject you, especially if they invite you to send something else. But don't ever argue with them or ask them to read the same story again. It will do you no good, and it will probably do you harm. Don't bug magazine editors over the phone.
Write lots of letters to people you've never met. Letters to authors you admire. Write to agents, to publishers, to book reviewers, to magazine editors, just to let the world know that you're a writer too. Without being an apple-polisher, let the world of short story writers know who you are, so that they'll want to read what you write. Believe me, this will pay off eventually, and in the meantime you may make some new friends.
Writing for the Fun of It
Finally, reason number one for wanting to write short stories: to have fun doing it. The very act of writing short stories should give you the most pleasure you can imagine getting from that moment. Do not write short stories for money; you'll be disappointed. Do not write them for fame or praise. Write to give yourself a good time. Given the difficulty of making money or even communicating, you have to really love the process of writing to be happy doing it.
If writing short fiction isn't a great pleasure for you, then my advice to you is to do that other thing that is your favorite pleasure: macrame, tinker with your car, whatever. This will be a wonderful world when we all get to do what we love doing most.
Until then we're satisfying someone else at best, and at worst, wasting our time.
But if you've read this far, chances are you are a real writer, and you love short stories. So you will write on, and it will make you happy, even if it drives you nuts in the process.
The short story writer is someone who must write short stories, just as painters must paint and actors must act. We are addicted to the joy of making up people and plots, choosing the right words and placing them in the right order, so that something will happen to somebody.
To borrow Rust Hills's words once more, that is the joy of fiction in general and the short story in particular.