Sunday, July 10, 2011

Writing Short Fiction: An interview with Douglas Smith

I'm so happy to have Doug Smith with me. His short story collection, Chimerascope (reviewed here), has been one of my favourite reads of 2011.

Is the short form your favourite to write, or did you just fall into that?

When I started to write fiction in the late 90's with the goal of being published, I intentionally started with short stories, for three key reasons. First, the standard advice at that time was that short fiction was the best way to "break in" as a speculative fiction writer and to build a reputation with sales and awards. Secondly, I thought that it was the best way to learn the craft. Short stories allow a writer to learn different techniques and to try different approaches from one story to another that the novel form doesn't (or rather, that would take longer to do over multiple novels). And finally, quite frankly, when I started, I had no idea whether I'd ever be able to sell anything that I wrote, so I figured I'd rather invest the time in writing a few short stories and trying to sell them than in writing and marketing a novel. It just seemed like a smaller hill to climb at the time to find out if I could sell my fiction.

All that being said, I love short stories, both to read and to write, and will (I hope) always continue to write them. At this point, though, I'm expecting that I will spend most of my writing time on novels. I'm marketing my first novel, and am working on my second.

You have two short fiction collections out right now. How does an author choose when to do a collection?

The old approach used to be that a writer would start with short fiction, and then move to novels, and once they had a name and a few novels published, they would publish a collection, typically via the same publisher that did their novels. The problem is that collections do not sell well, and you won't see too many collections from major publishers, even for their own novelists, unless that author is a Neil Gaiman or Stephen King. So collections are now often published by smaller presses. 

About 2007, I was looking into the possibility of a collection. I had enough short stories published at that point to make up a full collection (eighty to a hundred thousand words, and most of those stories were either award winners, finalists, or had been in a "Best of..." anthology. I talked to Robert J. Sawyer, the award-winning Canadian SF author, about this idea, and also to Stephen Jones, the well-known anthologist from the UK, and both advised that more authors were putting out collections with smaller presses before they had a novel published, as a way to raise their profile with bigger publishers when they were marketing their first novel. Stephen also recommended PS Publishing in the UK, which is owned by Pete Crowther.

So I did my research and found PS to be very highly regarded. I approached Pete about a full collection, which he politely declined. But he proposed doing a smaller collection as part of PS's new "Showcase" series, designed to highlight (in their words) "up and coming new writers." This was to be a smaller (and therefore, cheaper and lower risk to PS) collection of about thirty thousand words. The other change was that Pete wanted new stories, not ones that had been previously published. 

We compromised on that point. I wrote two new novelettes for the collection, "Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by van Gogh" (which was a finalist for the Aurora in 2009) and "Going Down to Lucky Town" (which began my Springsteen-inspired stories). Pete then agreed to include a previously published story "Spirit Dance" in the collection, as I was finishing my first novel, which is based in the world of that story, and I wanted to have that story in print and available. That collection was entitled Impossibilia, and was also a finalist for the Aurora in 2009.

Then in 2009, a pair of writer friends, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, decided to begin their own small press in Toronto. ChiZine Publications grew out of the already established online zine, Chiaroscuro. I had a lot of confidence in both their editorial tastes and their publishing smarts, so I pitched a full collection to them. I also liked their proposed publishing model. I was very happy with the job that PS Publishing did on the collection, but their model is based on limited print runs, signed, numbered, hardcover editions, with no retail distribution and no paperback editions. 

ChiZine does limited hardcover, but based on pre-orders only (which limits their risk), and also does a trade paperback edition. Plus they had already lined up retail distribution in Canada and the US, with the UK shortly thereafter. I was delighted when they accepted the proposal, which led to my second collection, Chimerascope, which is currently a finalist on the 2011 Aurora ballot, and includes an Aurora winner, eight Aurora finalists, and a Best New Horror selection.

As a writer, what has been your most successful techniques/processes/whatever the word is to help you write so many speculative shorts?

Just write. Seriously, I always struggle trying to describe my "technique" or approach to the creative side of writing. The marketing side, on the other hand, I can describe (see below for some tips). But as to how I craft a story, it varies every time. Roger Zelazny (one of my all-time favourite writers) once said that story ideas come to him in one of three forms: a character, an idea, or an image. I've probably had my share of all three being the genesis of some story, but I know that I can never begin to write a story until I know the character(s) who will be involved and through whose eyes (and head and heart) I will be telling the story. Because it's their story, not mine, if it's going to be any good. Once I know my characters, I can start to write the words. 

One thing that I do that I've been told by other writers is unusual is that I tend to not write stories sequentially. I will often write scenes out of order, and have on several stories, written the final scene first. Beyond that, I can't give much advice on the creative side beyond write, write, and write. Writing is a craft. I'm always amazed by how many beginning writers expect to be selling at professional levels right out of the gate. 

If you were just taking up hockey (forgive a Canadian for a favourite metaphor) and had never laced up skates before, you wouldn't expect to be playing for an NHL team in your first year. And yet, many beginners seem to think that they should be accepted as a Wayne Gretzky of the writing world before they've even learned their craft. Learning to write well takes time and effort. So write, write, write. And read, too. If you don't read widely and constantly, you will never be a writer.

As a reader, what do you look for in short fiction?

Great characters, which is difficult to find in the short form. But if I can't believe the character and feel that they are a real, fully formed creature with a back-story and goals and problems, then the setting and the idea and the world don't matter to me. All those are important in speculative fiction, but they are part of the story, and to me, you can only tell a story properly through the characters.

Do the works of others influence where your ideas take you?

Not written works, although I did publish an early story, "The Boys Are Back in Town," which was my attempt to write a Roger Zelazny-esque story. Once you've written enough, you develop your own style. That being said, I've started writing short stories that are inspired in some way by the songs of Bruce Springsteen. "Going Down to Lucky Town" and "Radio Nowhere" have already been published (and now available as eBooks), and I have at least another half dozen kicking around in my head or in the early stages of crafting. My dream would be to one day publish a collection of Springsteen-inspired stories with an intro by the Boss himself. Springsteen is a storyteller and a poet, creating vivid characters and achingly memorable situations in just a three-minute song. It's worthwhile for any writer to study some of his ballads.

What advice would you give an unpublished writer trying to break into short stories?

Never give up. Never surrender. No, wait--that was Galaxy Quest. Well, it's still good advice. Publishing is a numbers game. The writer who has the most stories submitted to the most markets is going to have the best chance of being published. Write the best story you can, and then get it in the mail (or email). Then write the next story and get it out there, too. 

When you get a rejection (and you will), the very best reaction is to immediately send that story out to your next target market. Don't let rejections get you down. Yeah, that's easy to say, but I'll give you a couple of data points. At one time, the most money I've ever made on a short story ("The Boys Are Back in Town" mentioned above, to Cicada in the US at 25 cents a word) came on a story that had been bounced twenty-four times. And I sold a story to a pro anthology last year, a story that I'd written in my first year of writing and that had been previously rejected sixty-five times. So write well, write a lot of stories, and keep them all out at markets until they sell. But read my answer to the next question too.

What is your opinion on unpaid or very low paying markets? Do you have a firm rule (“I never work for under 2 cents a word”) or do you play it by ear for each market and/or piece?

I have a very clear and strict set of rules on marketing my short fiction. Other writers can follow their own rules, but these are mine:

1.      Always start with the top markets. "Top" here can mean anything you like, but to me, it means markets that (a) pay professional rates, and/or (b) have a good reputation (they'll look good on your resume), and/or (c) publish stories that consistently show up on the major award lists. If you don't know how to find speculative fiction markets, check out

2.      Work your way down your list of top markets until you hit the bottom. You can define bottom however you like, but for me it's when I've run out of markets that match the criteria in #1.

3.      Once you run out of top markets, hold the story (which does not mean give up on it) until a themed anthology comes out that pays pro rates and that fits your story. Themed anthos by definition narrow your competition if you fit their theme. If you've written a zombie cat story (no, I don't want to read it, thank you), then you have a much better chance of selling that to a zombie antho or a cat antho, or (gods forbid) a Zombie Cats from Space antho (and yes, just wait--there will be such an antho. Probably already has been).

And once you sell a story (actually, you never sell a story -- you just license a particular set of rights for a period of time) and the rights revert to you, you can then sell second rights to that story. I'm going to be starting a series on marketing short fiction on my blog over the summer, and I'll be dealing with all of this in a lot more detail in that series.

All about Doug

"Doug Smith is, quite simply, the finest short-story writer Canada has ever produced in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and he's also the most prolific. His stories are a treasure trove of riches that will touch your heart while making you think."
—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids

Doug is an award-winning Toronto-based author of speculative fiction, with over 150 short story sales in thirty countries and two dozen languages, including appearances in Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, InterZone, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Baen's Universe, Postscripts, On Spec, The Third Alternative, Cicada, and anthologies from Penguin, DAW, and others.

His newest collection, Chimerascope (ChiZine Publications, 2010), is currently a finalist for the 2011 Aurora Award. His first collection, Impossibilia (PS Publishing), was a finalist for the 2009 Aurora Award.
Doug was a finalist for the international John W. Campbell Award for best new writer, and has twice won Canada's Aurora Award. A short film based on his story "By Her Hand, She Draws You Down" toured festivals in North America and internationally in 2010 and 2011, winning several awards.
His website is and he tweets at  


  1. Is it just me, or is that post in dark blue ink on a dark brown background? Completely illegible on my screen. Sorry.

  2. Ack! It wasn't supposed to post in this colour. Let me go fix it....

  3. Great advice and good analogy with the hockey player.