Many years ago when I was at Wiley, a colleague and I came up with an idea for a series: the “Penguin Lives of history.” The premise of the Penguin series was to get great authors to write short biographies of interesting figures, which were then beautifully packaged and sold in perhaps the last big use of display dumps. We would do the same thing for historical events, with the unspoken purpose of bringing bigger authors to Wiley and showing agents we had some cash to spend. While our packaging wasn’t great–that’s what happens when you design my committee–and our subject potential was hamstrung by our president’s insistence that we only do “positive events,” many of the books were fantastic. For me, for instance, Scott Simon wrote on the integration of baseball, Eleanor Clift wrote on the 19th Amendment and Tom Fleming wrote on the Louisiana Purchase. And our whole list, not just our history list, was indeed jumpstarted.
I mention this because when I approached an agent about one of his authors, he said that he didn’t want his client to take on the project for a reason I hadn’t considered: not the money or the topic, but the time. The author would put his full effort into researching the book, and the 20-35,000 words he’d have to write would take up to a year. That would, in turn, take away from the researching and writing of his next big history book, which his agent didn’t want to happen because the author’s bread and butter were in those big histories.
I could use an agent like him to kick me in the butt about writing short stories. After I turned in “The Dragon Round,” I set out to write stories to build a name for myself, with the goal of achieving enough pro sales to earn membership in the SFWA. My deadline was audacious, as all targets should be: one year. It took me 18 months, including my not including the four flash stories which didn’t earn the $60 necessary for a sale to count toward membership.
With fifteen stories still under submission, including two whose deals fell apart and had to go back out again, I then focused on outlining the sequel to “Dragon Round” and the first novel in a new series, “The Dragons of America,” which is based on one of those unsold stories. My goal is to finish the third outline for “Dragon Tower” by 12/15/15 and a first draft by 6/15/16 so I can submit it to my agent when DR comes out (hopefully to advance-swelling sales), alternating chapters with the second outline for the “DofA” book, currently called “The St. Louis Blue,” to keep myself fresh.
But these damn stories keep getting in the way–or, should I say, prompts, which are to me what the herring is to the seal. Show me one and I want to drop everything to balance a ball on my nose so you’ll toss the fish to me. In addition, there’s something very satisfying about spending a week on a story, then sending it out or giving it to others for feedback. This week, for instance, got lost to a still unfinished 1,600-word story called “Sunnyside,” given the setting, Queens in 2040, and there’s really no way I can hit my 12/15 date now. I’ll have to move it to 1/15.
Which leads me to wonder: so many great writers churn out stories regularly, but never get a novel off the ground. Would they profit from giving up the stories and their immediate gratification entirely, thereby forcing themselves just to concentrate on a novel, which is much more a marathon than a spring? How do I avoid the story addiction myself, especially when I can write just another 600 words to finish a story and feel gratified instead of the 50K more words of outlining I have to do just for DT, even if that’s broken up into myriad chunks?
Edit: Yes, in the last two hours I did revise that story to apparent completion and follow three people on Twitter who all posts links to articles that could inspire stories. I’m hopeless.