Brain Matter

What Should I Write?

As I was sitting here, wracking my brain for ideas for this month's column, it struck me that I am in a quandary. What should I write? I don't mean for the column--obviously, I've already decided that, since I'm writing it!

No, I'm talking about what should I write in regards to my fiction. Like most writers, I have way too many ideas to ever get them all down. Ideas for novels, for novellas, for short stories. In the past, I've written in all those lengths, with mixed success. Over the past ten years, I've reached a point where typically 33% to 50% of the short stories I submit in a given year get accepted in professional markets. Which means anywhere from three to eight stories purchased. Roughly equivalent to getting one or two novels accepted in the small press, with advances. The difference is, of course, sometimes you (or at least I!) wait two-three years between finishing a novel and selling it. I'm not one of those writers who has publishers lining up to buy my next piece.

So, what do I do? Focus on short stories, with their higher acceptance rate but lower pay? Or focus on a novel, which may or may not pan out, but if it does, that single book will likely deliver more money than a year's worth of short stories?

In Environmental Science, we refer to this as R-Selected vs. K-Selected. These are reproductive strategies. R-selected species go for volume vs. nurturing. Rats, fish, frogs--they're all R-oriented. Lots of eggs or young and hope enough survive to carry on the species. K-selected species are the opposite. Small numbers of young that receive extended parental care. Humans, bears, elephants, and birds are all good examples.

So, should my writing be R-oriented or K-oriented? It's a tough decision. I enjoy writing in both the long and short formats; some might say, "So do both, then. Write a novel and some short stories." Except it's not that easy. If I invest a lot of time into a novel, that leaves less time for short stories. Which means I decrease the chances of getting those stories published. Think of it this way: 33% of 15 is five. So, realistically, to make the same amount of money as a small press novel advance, I'd have to write and submit 30 stories in order to sell 10. That's two short stories a month. I'm not a full-time writer, so that would be a hard goal to meet. On top of that, I'm only producing one novel, with a very low chance of rapid acceptance.

"Sell your backlog," some might say. All writers try to do this. We all have stories and novels we haven't sold yet. But sooner or later, you do sell them. Sometimes in spurts. This happened to me in 2013. I sold a lot of stuff--novellas, short stories, a novel--all of which will be published in 2014. But it's left me with less than normal to try and sell for 2015. So, in a sense, I'm now writing things I not only want to sell in the near future, but I'm also in the process of re-stocking that trunk we all keep in the closet.

And then, of course, new markets pop up, often for anthologies, where you really, really want to submit, you've got a great idea, and it means putting all other projects aside for a month or two.

Don't get me wrong. There are worse problems a person could have. Writer's block. Losing your hands in a car accident. Getting kidnapped and forced to watch REAL HOUSEWIVES 24 hours a day. Winning a Darwin Award.

But we writers have real tendencies toward self-doubt. And anything can trigger it, whether it's a rejection E-mail or frustration at being unable to break through to the "next level" in the business.

What's the solution? Well, today, after I finish this column, I'm going to head out and pick up some new paint for the bedroom, walk the dog, and get some pizza. And then I'll sit down at my desk and hopefully finish the story I'm working on so I can flip a coin to see what I start next (the current TBW pile is two novels and three short stories).

Wish me luck!

Recommended Reads

Haunted House, by JA Konrath and Jack Kilborn. Konrath's 2013 version of a haunted house mystery is fun and kind of comical, sort of Jeff Strand lite. It's certainly not the best thing he's written, but it's better than average entertainment. A great book for when you're on vacation or on the commute to work, because while you enjoy it, you also have no problems putting it down and picking it up again later. It's not so complex that you'll forget what's going on in between. Worth the price of the e-book but I'd skip the hardcover.

Promoting Myself Again

This month, I'm not promoting myself. I'm promoting two organizations dear to my heart: Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which trains guide dogs for visually impaired people, and the North Shore Animal League, which is the world's largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization, and is in the process of building a giant cage-free enclosure so animals waiting for adoption are not trapped all day in cages. Please consider helping one or both of these to start the new year right.