The Shortest Way to Sweet: Part I

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love short fiction.

I woke up this Sunday morning to the news that my short story ‘Our Lady of the Void’ (a tale of folk horror… in SPACE!) has been nominated for a British Science Fiction Award, which is a cracking start to my writing year. I’ve now had seven short stories published, including four in 2023, and I’m starting to feel like I might actually be getting the hang of writing this short fiction stuff. More importantly, I’m enjoying myself: writing to a smaller word count is challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun.

It’s taken a long while to get here: for years, not only was I not very good at writing short stories, I didn’t really see the point, and thought it was a waste of time. There were three reasons for this:

1) Short stories don’t really make much money. Sadly, the days of being able to make a living from short fiction are long gone. The top paying magazines will give you about 10-12 cents a word, so for a 5,000 word story you’re making about 500-600 bucks. And that’s the top rate: there are lots of places paying significantly less than that. You’d need to sell a lot of stories to sustain a decent salary, which is not going to happen because…

2) despite the not-great money, the short story market is incredibly competitive. I used to be a slush (first) reader for Apex Magazine and we had hundreds of submissions each month, many of them excellent quality. We rejected something like 97% of them before the editors even got to see them. Then the editors rejected most of what they saw. Only about the top 0.03% — three submissions out of every thousand — were eventually published. My experience as a slush reader taught me that there are many great short fiction writers out there, getting rejected every day. And when you do finally break through and escape the slush pile…

3) short stories don’t get you noticed beyond a pretty small group of devotees, because most people don’t read much short fiction. Two questions I get asked sometimes when I talk about my writing is ‘will those short stories lead to publishing a novel?’ and ‘can you publish a collection of your stories?’ The answer to both these questions is, sadly, no — or at least, it’s not very likely. The truth is, novels are where the big bucks are. Editors at the major publishers are looking for novels they think will appeal to a broad market, and the name-recognition factor of someone who’s published short stories probably isn’t going to be enough to sway them. As for collections of short stories, you might be able to do something with a small press, but major publisher story collections tend to be for writers who’ve already made a name as novelists. In short, short fiction is, most of the time, a commercial dead end.

So, for a long time, I didn’t take short fiction seriously. I thought I was better off concentrating on writing novels, and that’s the cup where I poured nearly all my time and energy.

What changed?

A man's back covered in tattoos
This picture was a first for me – an illustration produced especially for one of my stories! It accompanies my tale of body art in SPACE!, ‘The Tattooist of Triton’

Well, I didn’t have much (any) success with my novels, and I started to find the whole thing kind of depressing. A novel takes a very long time to write, and a lot of mental and emotional effort. It’s a very personal, very high-stakes project. Then, when that project gets rejected by publishers, it feels like a rejection of your entire self. Or at least, that’s how it was feeling to me. A short story, by way of contrast, takes much less time and effort (although I think it’s important to note that the effort expended per word is much higher, because the fewer words you have, the more each word needs to count).

Another issue I’ve always had is a massive surplus of ideas, and choosing just one to concentrate on for an extended period has always felt like an agonisingly difficult process: with dozens of ideas clamouring for attention, how do I know which one to pick for the long-form treatment, and how do I feel confident I’ve made the right choice? How do I then ignore all those other ideas for months on end?

A few years ago, after four novels in succession had failed to get anywhere and my agent decided to it was time for us to part ways, I made the decision to concentrate on more compact fiction. Since then I’ve written a novella, and a bunch of short stories. I’ve been improving my skills, and enjoying some success. More recently, I have started writing a new novel — which happened organically, when a short story grew out of control and I realised it needed to be a novel. And yes, I’ve learned to love writing short fiction. Because I’ve learned a few things about short fiction, and myself, such as:

1) Short stories might not make big bucks, but any money is nice to have. The first time I got a payment for my writing — a magnificent $5 — I went to my favourite coffee shop, bought a cappuccino, and sat sipping it and thinking ‘this coffee was paid for by my writing! This is the best cappuccino ever!’ Then the next time, I got a much bigger payment, and I went out and bought a new handbag. A nice handbag. I use it almost every day. Since then, writing money has helped pay for my membership of the Society of Authors, convention hotels… it might not be anything close to a ‘living’, but if I’m paying my writerly expenses with money I’ve made by my writing, I’m at least breaking even. And that’s a nice feeling.

2) The marketplace for short fiction might be brutally competitive, but there’s an upside to that: every time I sell a short story, I know the editor who’s buying it must have liked it more than the other 999 stories they’ve seen. If my stuff is getting published, it must actually be good. And that feels good.

3) Short stories sales don’t usually lead to novel sales, and that’s fine. Short stories are their own thing, with their own band of devoted readers. Knowing there are people who’ve read and enjoyed my work, who’ve left recommendations and nice reviews and nominated me for an award… well, it gives me a nice glow inside, and nobody can take that away from me.

4) Short stories are a great place to experiment with literary techniques. I enjoy playing around with unusual formats and framing narratives — ‘Our Lady of the Void’ is essentially a found footage horror story — and the short form provides a perfect sandbox. Want to play around with second-person narration, tell a story from the point of view of a maintenance bot, or write something in the form of a recipe blog complete with comments at the end? Short stories are ideal for all these things and more.

5) Related to the above, short fiction is an excellent way to hone one’s writing skills. In a short story, every single word needs to work hard. Every line of dialogue must be snappy, every plot thread must lead to something, every description must enhance the narrative, every character must have a purpose. There’s no space for meandering scenes that lead nowhere, meaningless conversations, purposeless plot threads, spare part characters, endless descriptions of what people are eating for dinner. In short, writing short makes you write good. When I sit down to write my novel, I’m using my short-fiction skills, and — I think/hope — writing a better book as a result.

6) Finally and perhaps most importantly, for me at any rate, writing short fiction allows me to explore many more ideas. I can sit down and play around with any concept that occurs to me — however wild and wacky and weird. Maybe it’ll be a flash fiction, maybe it’ll become a short story, maybe it’ll need to become a novel, or maybe it won’t go anywhere and I’ll just have a fun couple of hours. I don’t have that agony of choice any more: I can explore every idea I want to.

So that’s how I learned to stop worrying and love short fiction. I’ve been concentrating for this blog post on the writing side, but I should add that I’ve also learned to love reading short fiction, in large part thanks to my work at Apex Magazine. While I’ve had to step back from first reader duties for personal reasons, I would like to give a shout-out to the editors and my fellow slushies for being an essential part of my journey so far.

This is Part I of The Shortest Way to Sweet — in Part II, which will be out in a month or two (possibly three), I’ll be exploring exactly how writing short has helped me write good, and sharing my wisdom with the world.


  1. John Baumgartner

    An education in a BLOG! Thanks Hesper! As another first reader (Cosmic Roots … ) and a autodidactic writer embarking on a post retirement career your experiences are a reassuring peptalk. Good luck on your award and ‘The Tattooist of Triton’ is still one of my favs from the monthly slush pile.

    • Hesper Leveret

      Thank you! I’m going to write a follow up blog post when I can find the time with even more education.

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