I can’t tell you what you should write. That’s entirely up to you. But if you are the least bit interested in having a career as a fiction writer then I can tell you what to read: Douglas Smith’s “Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction”. From now on this is my go-to book for all things related to starting and maintaining my fiction writing career.
Playing the Short Game is a business book. It won’t tell you how to write. It won’t tell you what to write, or how to develop as a writer. There are plenty of other books which do that.
What Playing the Short Game will teach you is how to set up you writing career. Douglas Smith assumes that you want to have a writing career and that you’re willing to work for it. He also makes an assumption that’s as necessary as it is rare in these types of guidebooks: that the reader is smart, driven and capable of making her own decisions. “Your career, your decision” is a recurring quote and Smith does his damnedest to provide you with the information necessary to make informed decisions about your career.
Playing the Short Game is refreshingly well structured with a clear progression from the first chapter (“Why are you writing? Deciding on the type of writing career you want”) to the last (“So long and thanks for the fish: Parting thoughts” which is more than just a reference to Douglas Adams). In between he covers everything you need to know about approaching markets, from query letters to reprint rights (or “free money” as Smith refers to them). He also doesn’t skimp on the ever present advice that writing should come first: don’t waste your time doing things that don’t create more value for your readers.
I was surprised to learn, quite late into the book, that Smith, with over 150 stories published in pro markets, started writing in the late 1990’s. With his resume I would have expected him to be an old, grizzled veteran on his last legs. Instead it looks like he’s built a career over the course of less than a dozen years (less because he had enough materials to publish and sell a “best of” collection, CHIMERASCOPE, came out in 2010), so there’s definitely something to his method.
Oh, and I love chapter 12: “Oh, God, They Hate Me: Dealing with Rejections” from which I’ll quote verbatim:
I can give my short fiction credentials in two ways:
Option 1: I have published a novel and three collections, have over a hundred and fifty story sales in twenty-five languages and thirty countries, three award wins, two dozen award short-lists, and over a million words of fiction sold.
Option 2: I’ve been rejected over eight hundred times.
– Douglas Smith
- Submit only to pro markets (don’t waste your first rights on semi-pro or worse)
- Know what rights you license and don’t license anything you don’t need to
- Don’t be afraid to get rejected, everyone gets rejected (Smith’s record is 65 rejections over the course of 15 years before the story sold – but it did sell to a pro market)
- A writing career is a numbers game: whoever can keep the most stories in the mail to the most markets wins
- Everyone’s somewhere on the scale between Arrogant Writer and Fearful Writer (compare this to Orson Scott Card’s quote about genius and drivel), find your spot and know how to use it
- Make sure to retain and sell second rights and foreign language rights (it’s free money)
- Oh, and the most important: if you’re willing to learn how to write and can live with rejection then you will be able to make a living as a short story writer
There are a lot (as in a LOT*) more great takeaway points in Playing the Short Game but that’s beyond this review. Read it for yourself. Oh, and it’s eminently quotable – I’ve pulled over 60 quotes from it to my “this I’ve got to remember”-list.
* Not the Polish airline
Who is it for?
I highly recommend Playing the Short Game to:
- Any writer interested in a career selling short fiction. It will set you on your right path and give you a starting point for in depth research on the finer points of contractual law and selling your work.
- All beginning writers, those unfamiliar with publishing and particularly magazine publishing. Playing the Short Game will give you a solid basis from which to start. It’s short enough to read fast, accessible enough to understand and thorough enough to give you all you need to start your career.
- Mid-level writers, those who know how to writer but haven’t quite managed to establish themselves yet. It’s highly likely that you’re going to find out that tidbit of information that lets you change your approach and launch your career and income to new heights.
And if you happen to be a pro in the field, well, you might want to read the parts about secondary sales and foreign rights anyhow. If nothing else you’ll have somewhere to refer newbies to.
Ps. Yes, I liked it!