The Loneliness of the Short Distance Writer by David Lubar
I love short stories. I love reading them, and I love writing them. It could be worse. I could be in love with crafting haiku or constructing sonnets. In either of those cases, I definitely would have had a hard time turning pro. (As any Renaissance scholar can tell you, the sonnet market collapsed once people realized Petrarch was running a Ponte scheme, and never really recovered. And when it comes to methods for turning haiku into cash, the less said, the better.)
Passions are dangerous in several ways. In a social sense, the dividing line between enthusiast and bore is not clearly drawn, and is generally invisible to the enthusibore. (Look, Ma, I coined a word!) The greatest danger is that we never fully and completely believe the reality that not everyone shares our passions. (Hey, you don’t really hate sushi. You just haven’t tried enough to appreciate the nuances.) So we tend to shove our love of treasured things onto others, fully expecting a grateful reception.
I pretty much ignored the conventional publishing-industry wisdom that stories don’t sell, and discovered both that this is absolutely true, and that there are exceptions. But, given how brutally difficult it can be to make a living, or even a dent, with the sweat of one’s imagination, why would I set out to fill a void that might not exist? I’m glad you asked.
First, I offer a bit of background. I grew up in the 1960s, hitting the lower delimiter of my teen years in 1967. I was a voracious reader (translation – I sucked at sports and lacked social skills), with a leaning toward science fiction. This was a time when genre magazines flourished. Galaxy, Worlds of If, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many other filled the newsstands, along with mystery magazines, and plenty of other post-pulp-era feasts. While genre magazines might run a novella, or a serialized novel, they were mostly filled with short stories. That was my reading matter of choice. I probably read every SF story collection and anthology in my town’s library.
So, yeah, I loved reading stories. When I tried to get published, it was natural I’d start with stories. Bear in mind that when I left college, in 1976, there was still a rich market for short stories. Beyond the genre magazines, many special-interest magazines of all sorts would run one story each issue. Several of my early sales were to magazines of this sort. If you dig up an ancient copy of Writer’s Market and check out the paying fiction opportunities, they were huge and diverse back then. (I sold a story to a magazine for professional newscasters, and several stories to a magazine for computer enthusiasts.)
Then, around 1982, through the same sort of lucky timing that allowed Edison to get into the film business, I found myself working as a game designer, creating and programming games for the Atari 2600. The game industry tends to require 36- or 48-hour days from workers, so I didn’t do much writing. Eventually, I decided I wanted to return to my first love. Thanks to a convenient bankruptcy of my employer in 1994, I figured the time had come. I wrote chapter books and novels, but I also wrote short stories, though the magazine market had diminished drastically. I tried to sell a story collection. Most of the editors who saw it liked my writing, but asked if I had any novels on hand.
Eventually, Tor books saw and liked my stories. They took two collections from me. These books, which only achieved the sort of modest sales expected for story collections, were later merged into a single volume, with surprising results. As many of you know, the combined collection got a new title, and a new cover. The book took off. In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales proved that there was a hungry market for original stories. Albeit, a specific, tightly defined market of middle-grade readers, possibly lured within reach by a brilliant cover illustration, and held captive by very short stories featuring sparse descriptions and surprise endings. The Weenies had arrived. I decided each collection I did for Tor should have a Weenie title story, and thus, a Weenie cover. (A Weenie is someone who is lovably or amusingly annoying, and passionate about a particular interest, sort of like an enthusibore.) It seemed like a good decision. Total sales have passed the two-million mark. The seventh book is hitting the shelves April 22nd, and the demand seems steady.
This, by itself reads like a great success story. But I still have the universal disinterest in stories revealed to me on a regular basis. I assembled a collection for older readers, Extremities: Stories of Death, Murder, and Revenge. I doubt it will ever see the sort of sales the Weenies achieve. I gathered my YA anthology stories, written for people such as Don Gallo and Jennifer Armstrong, and put them into an eBook, Pulling up Stakes and Other Piercing Tales. Nobody cares. I offered it free for a week last year, mentioned that it included what I felt was the best story I’d ever written (“War is Swell”), and spread the word through every social media platform I could think of, including a listserve that was read by 3,000 YA enthusiasts. Perhaps 20 people took a copy. In a way, this was a good thing. It reminded me that my passion is not your passion (and how fortunate I am to be the Weenie guy). In truth, my passion is hardly anybody’s passion. I know some of you are saying, right now, “Hey, I love short stories, too.” And it’s true. There are some fellow fans out there. And a lot of other people who, while not fans, wouldn’t consider the act of reading a short story to be some form of punishment. But the real fans – those who would opt for stories over a novel, are sparsely scattered across the landscape.
As sad as I am that there might never be a short-story Renaissance, I am happy about this: My next task, after I finish this essay, is to write a short story. As is my task after that. And the one after that. I love that I can try new things that might fail miserably in a novel. Wireless Weenies contains a story told using the second-person viewpoint (“Choose Your Own Misadventure”), and another that is pure dialogue (in this case, between a young boy and the monster under his bed). The next book will include a story told from the viewpoint of a six-month old boy who is being terrorized by a quilted clown picture and another inspired by an old comic poem about parasites. I do have a novel in the works, too. And I’m excited about it. (It’s called Character, Driven. You heard it here, first.) But every story crafted is a small ball of joy in my heart. And the knowledge that it will find appreciative young readers is more than I could have hoped for when I sat down and typed out my first efforts nearly 40 years ago.
David Lubar created a sensation with his debut novel, Hidden Talents, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Thousands of kids and educators across the country have voted Hidden Talents onto over twenty state lists. David is also the author of True Talents, the sequel to Hidden Talents; Flip, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a VOYA Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror selection; seven short story collections: In the Land of the Lawn Weenies, Invasion of the Road Weenies, The Curse of the Campfire Weenies, The Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies, Attack of the Vampire Weenies, Beware the Ninja Weenies: And Other Warped and Creepy Tales, and the recently released Wipeout of the Wireless Weenies: And Other Warped and Creepy Tales; and the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series. Lubar grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, and he has also lived in New Brunswick, Edison and Piscataway, NJ, and Sacramento, CA. Besides writing, he has also worked as a video game programmer and designer. He now lives in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. You can find him online at davidlubar.com and on Twitter as @davidlubar.