In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Cavalier magazine bought my story ‘Graveyard Shift’ for two hundred dollars. I had sold two other stories previous to this, but they had brought in a total of just sixty-five dollars. This was three times that, and at a single stroke. It took my breath away. I was rich.
Stephen King’s two-hundred-dollar sale of his fantastic horror tale “Graveyard Shift” took place nearly fifty years ago, and yet, nothing has really changed for those of us who write and try to publish short fiction today. In 2018, at least for me, the idea of selling a new short story of mine for two hundred dollars feels the same as it did for King back in his early days as a writer. It would absolutely make me feel rich.
Maybe that’s because I’ve been actively submitting short stories since 2014, and, four years later, have only had a handful of sales. I want to say I’ve had around ten short story publications since 2014, and maybe four have paid me for the stories. More than half of my publications have been in magazines that didn’t pay me a dime.
And that includes this very week. Yep, a short story of mine was accepted for publication to a magazine in the last few days. It’s a story I love that I wrote in 2016. I’ve been actively sending it out to magazines since that November. And after probably submitting the piece to fifty different magazines, revising the story at least three times in the past year and a half, it was accepted to a magazine issue coming out in July. I was ecstatic when I heard the news. Still am. Does this magazine pay? Nope. But my story that’s been living quietly on my hard-drive since September 2016 will now be out in the world, and that reality alone makes me happy.
Now, would I have liked to be paid for this story? Of course. There’s value in the work that we do, and sometimes it hurts when you think about how much time and effort you’ve put into not just writing and revising a short story, but sending it out to magazines. I don’t want to think about how many hours I’ve spent working on and submitting this one story. At the end of the day, of course, this kind of thinking is just dumb, and unhelpful. Writing for me is a passion that never stops, whether I’m paid or not. I love this latest story of mine, and I’m thrilled it’s finally found a home.
But I won’t deny it DOES matter, a whole hell of a lot, when a story of mine gets accepted to a magazine that pays. It’s an incredible feeling. It’s someone not just saying to you, hey, you have talent, this story is great, we want it. It’s someone loving your fiction so much he or she is actually going to pay you for it. I sold my story “The Witches on Floor Fifteen” for fifty dollars in 2016, and I genuinely felt validated. I sold my story “Final Shot” in 2014 for seventy dollars, and man, that was a great day.
But never before or since in my short story writing have I felt like I hit the jackpot than when I sold my story “Creature Story” in 2015 to an anthology for three hundred dollars. I spent at least a week in a state of euphoria. One of my favorite stories, one based on my senior thesis film at Loyola Marymount University, had found a perfect home, a paperback anthology of creepy horror tales called The Deep Dark Woods… and the editor was paying me three hundred dollars. Three years later, I still smile at that one. I absolutely did feel, for a brief moment, I had struck it rich!
Of course, I wasn’t rich. And no matter how many short stories I write, no matter how many stories I sell, I’ll never get wealthy writing short fiction. Unless I’m in the 0.00000001% of authors who sell super popular short story collections (which, umm, yeah, I’ll never be), any shot I have at financial success is through novels. I’ve written eighteen novels since 2010, with many more to come in the future.
But I still write the occasional short story, and you should, too. This last April I spent a month writing a new meta fantasy story that truly made my heart happy. What’s great about short story writing is that it gives you a chance to be experimental. For someone like me who primarily writes middle grade and young adult fiction, I love trying to write an adult short story here and there, one far different than the novels I typically write. You want to try new things. Get a little weird. Write something way out of the box. Whether the story eventually sells or not. Whether the story makes you three hundred dollars or not.
Keep writing short stories. Keep sending them out. You might not strike it rich, but you will be rewarded in the long run.