Some thoughts on writing short stories and the rewards, if any.
The thought that keeps me going as a writer of short stories is that fame and fortune may come when one least expects it. An email out of the blue, for example, from a scriptwriter I’ve never met, never even heard of, across the world wanting to write up one of my efforts for Hong Kong TV. It happened. The work was never bought (well, not yet anyway) so royalties are not on the horizon but one day.....
Meanwhile, I have to face the fact, hard as it is, that payment simply for writing short stories is never going to settle many bills. In fact, payment for short story writing is probably at an all-time low. From the turn of the century to the second world war, short stories were in demand and magazines that published them (and anthologies thereafter) sold well. Actually, this was true in the Victorian era as well. We all know that Charles Dickens’ work often started as a serial in a periodic magazine like ‘All The Year Round’. Which is why in ‘Great Expectations’, which appeared between December 1860 and August 1861, each chapter ends at a cliff hanging moment, if possible.
The great English writer P G Wodehouse on one of his trips to the US, reported selling two stories for two hundred and three hundred dollars respectively. Bearing in mind the relative value of money between the wars, those amounts alone must have funded his stay in the US for many weeks. In fact, two or three hundred dollars in today’s money would still be a significant sum for a story; ten dollars or less is more likely. In ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’, George Orwell’s anti-hero (although the term hadn’t been coined then) Gordon Comstock receives a cheque in US dollars for a poem. In English money this is ten pounds; at the time (c.1935) that would have been about four weeks’ wages for an artisan, maybe £1000 today. Orwell certainly had experience of receiving cheques at the whims of publishers; his own early work was published in ‘The Adelphi’, a left wing literary journal.
You may think I am hung up on America as a purchaser of all literary output and, in fact, this is almost true . Very little of my output has ever been accepted in the United Kingdom despite my being English (although now I am having some success with an English editor and publisher, this is rare); and most outlets for the short story are US based whether they are for paper publishers, ebooks or websites (ezines). I have never had any luck whatsoever in placing my output in any other English speaking country and this includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
So if it’s so badly paid and the real chance of an unexpected bonus is slim, why carry on? Well, on one hand there is sometimes a burning desire to display my thoughts on paper and sear them into the psyche of any passing reader. A desire so strong that it is like biting into a lemon. That tart, astringent taste makes one’s eyes water yet, after that, it is refreshing and fulfilling.
The other is that one day something wonderful may just happen. I recall reading some time ago that an English author of whom no-one had ever heard (and whose name I cannot now recall either!) published a first and only novel. Like most first novels it wasn’t exactly a blazing success and I suspect it has long been forgotten. But a film company liked it, saw potential and bought the film rights. The sum involved was enough for the writer to move to Mexico, buy a bungalow by the sea and spend every day on the beach thinking of ideas for a follow-up. And here’s the twist in the story, the film was never made. But by then it didn’t matter. The author had the cash and that was that. Besides, he could comfort himself that one day, maybe, it might be made. Legend has it that Michael Crichton’s script that led to ‘ER’ languished on a studio shelf for many years before someone remembered it when a new medical drama was proposed.
And Richard Hooker’s novel ‘M*A*S*H’ took some twenty nine goes to be accepted by a publisher (who wants to read about bloody surgery in the Korean War? was the general view) and then might have been forgotten had it not only been purchased by a film company but actually made and shown in cinemas (and won Academy Awards). And would it then have remained in people’s minds if it hadn’t been transformed into a much loved TV series, long running at eleven seasons.
Finally, the Sci Fi writer Philip K Dick penned a novel of which few may now know, ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, a futuristic tale of a bounty hunter tracking down and ‘retiring’ (with extreme prejudice, as they now say) robots who are indistinguishable from humans but have become dangerous. A serious theme about what it means to be human and how do we separate ourselves from the androids whom (which?) we have created. Still not heard of it? How about ‘Blade Runner’ with Harrison Ford? Ah, now you’re talking! And yes, that ultra successful 1982 movie was based on Philip Dick’s plot.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that Richard Hooker allegedly got very little money for the film rights and Philip Dick lived in near penury despite selling the rights to nine other stories.
Still, maybe there’s more in it than just the money. And now, having been both inspired and distracted by a robin outside the window looking wistfully for food that bigger birds have dropped (an analogy for writers waiting for the crumbs from a publisher’s table), I’ll sign off.
But not hopefully. It’s too early for Christmas.