As regular readers of this blog (or, you know, old-fashioned stalker-types [waves cheerfully out window]) well know, I’m a big believer in short stories, as art, exercise, and commerce. A lot of writers avoid short stories, for a variety of reasons. Some just don’t like the constraints, preferring to spend their time working on a 5,000,000 page fantasy epic they expect to finish about 35 years after they have died. Some think that short stories don’t pay well enough to be worth the trouble.
Self-promotion is exhausting.
Neither of these folks are wrong, per se, but personally have always found short stories a lot of fun, useful in honing my writing skills, and surprisingly lucrative (sometimes). It’s true that most short story sales will result in token payments that don’t even begin to cover the blood and treasure of your imagination used in its writing. But they actually pay better than you might think. I discuss short stories a lot in my upcoming writing book Writing Without Rules (order 75 copies today!), because I think they’re a fantastic tool for all fiction writers, but here’s the specific breakdown for 2017.
So, every year I write at least 12 new stories (one a month as an exercise), and submit as many as I can to markets. This year I wrote 21 short stories. I submitted 71 stories to markets (note, that isn’t 71 separate stories, it’s a small number of stories submitted to multiple places). I sold 1 new story (Arthur Kill) and saw 4 published (The Kendish Hit, Last Best Day, The Bonus Situation, and Nigsu Ga Tesgu). I earned $1722.95 from short stories in 2017.
Sales-wise and money-wise, not my best year. Publication-wise, much better; any time you see 4 titles in print or digital, it’s not a bad year. By comparison, in 2016 I submitted stories 54 times, sold three, and earned $4,227.52 from short stories. Then again, in 2014 I earned $34.93 from short stories. Every year is a financial adventure when you’re a writer.
The thing about short stories is you never know how long the Long Tail might be. Other writers have made this point, but I’ll echo it: In 2005 I gave a short story to an anthology for $0. Ringing the Changes was chosen to be in Best American Mystery Stories 2006 and ultimately I earned $765 from it. In 2009 I placed the story Sift, Almost Invisible, Through in the MWA anthology Crimes by Moonlight, which paid royalties to the contributors, and earned $620.14 over a few years. These aren’t huge amounts of money, but the point is you never know how long or how well a short story sale might earn out.
Most importantly, of the 21 stories I wrote this year, I think 7 have potential. That’s an unusually high number, actually. Many years I write 10-20 stories and don’t think any of them have legs. So even if I’m fooling myself and only 3 or 4 of the new crop are worth submitting, it’s still a pretty good year, creativity-wise. And since I am always on the look out for signs of mental decline and encroaching decrepitude, this is encouraging.
Unless I’m already disconnected from reality and the new stories are all gibberish. Happy New Year!
Friends, I’m not a very smart guy. Oh, I have a head filled with trivia, which in these low times often passes for smarts. Being able to win your local tavern’s Trivia Tuesday (increasingly difficult, let me tell you, when you’ve been banned from most of the local watering holes due to ridiculous and oppressive “must wear some form of trousers” rules) doesn’t mean you’re intelligent, it just means you absorb a lot of useless information very, very quickly. A skill, to be sure, but not the most useful skill.
Being able to write clear, well-constructed sentences about compelling stories and characters is also a skill I sometimes claim, but it also doesn’t make me smart. A lot of very dumb people make good livings writing words, and I am also very afraid that I am secretly one of them. Any time I start to think I might secretly be smart, all I have to do is gaze upon my works and despair, though. By which I mean any time I start to feel smart, I just look at some of the terrible novels I’ve written when I wrote for anything other than inspiration.
Take This Job and Shove It
The term “working writer” either sounds ominous or exciting to you. If it’s ominous, it’s because you’re smart and you know that the “working” part probably means you’re writing 300 catalog descriptions of sex toys at $1 a pop. If you’re excited, you’re like me and you imagine yourself lazily writing novels when you’re not busy cashing extravagant checks from publishers—not check for anything, just gifts of money they send you in the vain hope that you’ll choose to publish your next book through them.
Anyways, every now and then I get this idea in my head that part of being a Working Writer is trying to write something commercial, in the sense of writing something that will be easy to sell to a publisher because its part of a broad trend or somehow marketable. Don’t get me wrong—I want all my books to sell like hotcakes and I have no snobbery when it comes to genre or category. It’s just that sometimes I think I have to try a little harder to be, I don’t know, mainstream or something. So I’ll work up a story and write a novel not because I’m excited about the idea, but because I think it’s going to be an easy sell.
I am always wrong. And it is always a disaster.
Some writers might be able to pull this off, but whenever I’ve written a book for anything but pure inspiration and excitement, it doesn’t work out so well. Oh, as novels they’re fine. I’m usually fairly happy with the story, the writing, all that jazz. But there’s always something missing, some soul or other ineffable thing that means the novels fail. They look like novels, they tell a story that I like, and yet they fail. Whenever I try to be smart and engineer a book because I think I know something about selling books, the end result is a manuscript everyone reads and shrugs over. Meh, they all say. It’s not bad. But we can’t sell it.
The lesson here is obvious: Writing for anything aside from inspiration doesn’t work for me. The good news is, a lot of the books I write because I want to have sold. So one wonders why I think I need to change up my approach in the first place. Aside from the fact that I am, you know, not smart.
I’m not one to play along with all those memes about how 2016 was a terrible year and how ALL the celebrities we love are dying and all that. Time is a fundamental thread of the universe, but our perception of it is artificial and, to use a scientific term, bullshit. 2016 was a collection of moments, just like any other, arbitrarily assigned to a grouping so we can all type out jokes about who should die next.
Well, it’s going to be over soon, and if you’re the sort to assign some kind of significance to this purely superficial changeover, it’s as good a time as any to assess and reflect, and to look forward to the year to come.
NEXT YEAR IN SOMERS
Since you’re here and you read those first two paragraphs yet you’re still reading, I can safely assume you’re interested in the things I write. That’s troubling for you, frankly, but since we’re here, now, in this moment together let’s soldier on. What can you expect from me in 2017?
January 9, 2017: THE BOOM BANDS (Ustari Cycle #5)
The final novella in the most recent Ustari Cycle books drops from Gallery Books on 1/9/17. You can order it at the usual purveyors of eBooks: Amazon, B&N, Google, iTunes, Kobo. Here’s the description:
“For blood mages, the twenty-first century means hiding in the shadows, keeping society unaware of their incredible powers. The power-hungry sort plot quietly to manufacture tragedies bloody enough to give them the gas they need to cast monumental spells. Lem is a little lower down the ladder than that, bleeding nobody but himself, skating by on small Cantrips, cons, and charms.
Lately though, his days have taken a strange turn, always the same and yet minutely different. Since hooking up with this group that wants to utilize his uncanny ability to write and alter spells for their Big Heist, Lem’s constantly feeling like he’s forgetting something, like something is calling to him from the beyond. Perhaps most bizarre of all, his best friend Mags is nowhere to be found—and the police seem to want to help Lem locate him. The po-po being helpful to a Trickster like him? Now he knows something is up.”
No one asked me if using the word “po-po” was okay. It’s not. Such is the ways of marketing. Anyways, here’s a trailer for you:
January 10, 2017: MECH: AGE OF STEEL
The very next day, this fantastic anthology featuring one of my stories is set to go, though I’m not 100% sure of this release date. Here’s the description from the publisher:
“MECH: Age of Steel is a collection of 24 mecha-inspired short stories in the spirit of Pacific Rim, Macross, Transformers, Robotech, Gundam, Evangelion, and more. MECH features a vast array of tales featuring giant, human-piloted, robot war machines wreaking havoc in blasted cities, or on dystopian landscapes, or around space stations and asteroids against a cosmic backdrop, or wherever, you-name-it! MECH is anchored by authors such as Kevin J. Anderson, Ramez Naam, Jason Hough, Jeremy Robinson, and Jody Lynn Nye. This anthology features illustrations for every story and is the perfect companion to its sister title, Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters. So strap in. Activate your interface array. Let’s rock!”
That’s some august company. Here’s an essay I wrote about the inspiration for my story, “The Bonus Situation.”
March 1, 2017: THE KENDISH HIT: AN AVERY CATES SHORT STORY
What can I say? I love me some Avery Cates. Hopefully some of y’all still do, too, or else I’ll have a lot of digital copies of this one lying around. “The Kendish Hit” is a short story set about ten years before the events of The Electric Church. I haven’t set up the pre-orders yet because I’m incompetent (the cover shown here isn’t final-final, either), and I haven’t created a synopsis either. Most of that will be coming first week of January.
The story involves Avery’s first attempt to promote himself from street rat to Gunner—a promotion that puts him in touch with someone who will become a vital ally in times to come, and tests Avery’s commitment to his chosen profession. It rocks.
I’ll update this post when the pre-orders go live.
In August, another anthology bearing one of my stories will become reality. This year I worked with the awesome Stephen Blackmoore on a story in Urban Allies, which saw urban fantasy writers pair up their characters and universes; our story “Crossed Wires” was a lot of fun and stayed true to both our universes. Urban Enemies isn’t a collaborative anthology; my story “Nigsu Ga Tesgu” is all mine, and is part of the Ustari Cycle. Let’s just say if you’ve ever been curious about the inner life of Mika Renar, this story is for you.
Here’s the description of the anthology, coming from Gallery books:
“Villains have all the fun—everyone knows that—and this anthology takes you on a wild ride through the dark side! The top villains from sixteen urban fantasy series get their own stories—including the baddies of New York Times bestselling authors Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, Kelley Armstrong, Seanan McGuire, and Jonathan Maberry.
For every hero trying to save the world, there’s a villain trying to tear it all down.
In this can’t-miss anthology edited by Joseph Nassise (The Templar Chronicles), you get to plot world domination with the best of the evildoers we love to hate! This outstanding collection brings you stories told from the villains’ point of view, imparting a fresh and unique take on the evil masterminds, wicked witches, and infernal personalities that skulk in the pages of today’s most popular series.
The full anthology features stories by Jim Butcher (the Dresden Files), Kelley Armstrong (the Cainsville and Otherworld series), Seanan McGuire (October Daye), Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles), Jonathan Maberry (Joe Ledger), Lilith Saintcrow (Jill Kismet), Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville), Joseph Nassise (Templar Chronicles), C.E. Murphy (Walker Papers), Steven Savile (Glasstown), Caitlin Kittredge (the Hellhound Chronicles and the Black London series), Jeffrey Somers (The Ustari Cycle), Sam Witt (Pitchfork County), Craig Schaefer (Daniel Faust), Jon F. Merz (Lawson Vampire), and Diana Pharaoh Francis (Horngate Witches).”
I’m working on a few projects that might not actually show up in 2017, but I’m working on them, so I’ll vaguebook them a little here. One I can’t mention because the contract’s not signed—it’s a book, though not in a genre I’ve published in before. There should be an announcement of sort about that in January or February.
The other projects aren’t books, and also aren’t guaranteed to come off. If they do, you’ll definitely hear more. If they don’t, I will never mention them again, edit this post to remove this information, and pretend I have no idea what you’re talking about.
So that’s what I have cooking in 2017 (so far). Watch this space for further details.
The first short story I ever sold for actual money was Glad and Big, which appeared in Aberrations #34. The sale paid me the princely sum of 1/4 of a penny per word, which worked out to $7.50. That would be nearly twelve dollars in 2016 money, just in case you’re horrified that a writer of my caliber would sell a short story for single-digit monies.
At the time, of course, I was absolutely delighted. I’d had stories appear in zines and other non-paying markets, but this was the first time anyone had actually paid me for one, and naturally I thought of it (and still think of it) as a watershed moment in my career.
I never cashed the check. Part of this was the usual urge to hang onto a momentous thing like my first paycheck for fiction, and yes, part of it was the fact that even in 1995 $7.50 didn’t go far, so it almost wasn’t worth walking to the bank to cash it. Besides, if I’d deposited it, I wouldn’t have it to scan in and post here, now, would I?
Anyways, here’s the story itself. Written more than 20 years ago, I still like it quite a bit.
GLAD AND BIG
Life at Lee’s on second street had a pattern, one I liked well enough. It sucked at my heels with insistent attraction, pulling me back despite the heat and the same old people and the wooden seat worn smooth from years of my weight.
We usually played cards at the small square table in the big bay window, eating Lee’s filling specialties and drinking, smoking cigarettes, and ignoring everyone else. Sometimes I tried to stay away. It never worked. I always needed a drink and the only place to get one was Lee’s and my seat was always open.
That night it was raining and I felt pretty good. The conversation wasn’t too bad and it was warm inside, I was half-tanked all night and I had three packs of cigarettes to get through. Even in a crummy bar and grill like Lee’s, being inside with friends on a rainy night is a special kind of thing. Even being inside with people who drove you crazy like I was was still not bad.
You may or may not be aware that Barnes & Noble has moved to compete with Amazon‘s Createspace program with a print component for their own Nook Press. That means that self-publishers can offer print versions of their books through B&N’s website as well (and there are supposedly some limited opportunities for self-pub books to get into brick-and-mortar stores, but I’m not focusing on that right now).
Anyways, the point of this post is simple: My two self-pub efforts, my first novel Lifersand the Avery Cates Omnibus The Shattered Gears, are now both available as print books through either Amazon and B&N.
The good news is, they’re both cheaper on B&N, so if you’ve hesitated to buy either because you didn’t want to pay $8 for Lifers or $14 for The Shattered Gears, you can get both $2 cheaper over at B&N.
I wrote my first short story when I was about 15 years old—that is to say, the first story I consciously set out in the form of a short story. Ridiculously enough, I wrote it solely to join my high school’s literary magazine, one of my most shameful moments. I mean, seriously. The fucking literary magazine. I can now safely say that this is perilously close to being my worst decision ever, right up there with gaining twenty pounds when I was thirteen and getting an English degree instead of something useful, like contacts in Russian organized crime.
The story was titled Bricks. I still have it. In about 1,000 words I tell the story of a family in the future where everyone lives underground because of a plague, and their son’s decision to leave home and go topside. It ends with the son wondering what will happen to him as he takes his first breath of fresh air on the surface.
Oh, it’s not good. It’s derivative, but it’s derivative in that special way you get away with when you’re fifteen and not named Mozart: People are so impressed that you wrote something that superficially resembles a real story they forgive all sorts of shit. I wrote it on a Commodore 64 in an application called Kwik-Writer I got from some friends; my friends and I were running a serious underground software piracy operation in grammar school, and I had thousands of stolen applications, and Kwik Writer was one of them. It was kind of awesome and terrible at the same time, which basically describes almost all of the applications available for the Commodore 64.
Since then, I’ve written about 500 more short stories. Bully for me. Getting them published isn’t easy, though there are more difficult projects in the world (self-surgery, perhaps, or tunneling under your house to the nearest mountain range) but the real challenge, as anyone will tell you, is getting paid for them. So why write them? Because I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. And, to be honest, selling them when I can—and I’ve sold quite a few over the years, with a few more on the way.
I write a lot of them, and since the chances of ever selling one are slim, it’s kind of a crazy waste of time. Plus, let’s be honest here, 99% of every short story ever written deserves to stay right in the notebook it was scrawled into, because most of them are terrible, and as luck would have it that goes twice for mine. Even the ones that I think are not terrible aren’t easy to sell; I recently had a story rejected very reluctantly by one market, which sent me a very sad note all about how great the story was and how distressed they were to not be buying it. I immediately submitted the story elsewhere in a frenzy of optimism—after all, this was obviously one of my better efforts.
The next market rejected it within 18 hours.
Writing and trying to sell short fiction sucks. Still, I write a lot of it.
Part of it is an exercise. You get some crazy ideas for stories after a few drinks, and while most of them are awful, some of them ain’t bad, but if you don’t put some flesh on them they disappear. So to keep them alive, I write them, even though most are pretty stillborn.
So, let’s see: Failure and no market, obviously these are fantastic ways to spend my time and mental energy. Then again, I’m an author; futility is what I eat for breakfast.
Still, I can’t quit Avery. He’s just so much fun to write for, and it’s always intoxicating to have an excited reader base. So, I’m working on a new Avery Cates short: The Sewer Rat. Here’s a work-in-progress cover for it:
Now, this is just a short story, and while it fits into the continuity of the new Cates stories, it’s meant to be more or less standalone, meaning it’s not essential reading for continuity’s sake.
To read it, though, you’ll need to be one of two things: 1. Signed up for my newsletter, or 2. Friends with someone signed up for my newsletter.
Wait, Jeff Has a Newsletter?
Do I ever! You can sign up for it with the form on the right:
The newsletter is an informal affair where I’ll announce news, giveaways, and that sort of thing. It’s also where I’ll be sending out The Sewer Rat, a free Avery Cates short story, in July. If you want to read it, sign up for the newsletter and prepare to be amazed. Or start buttering up someone who’s already signed up.
My brother and I have an old routine where we discuss how we’d like to die, if we had our druthers. He always defaults to this fantasy of being diagnosed with some sort of movie disease like a Brain Cloud and having an idyllic six months to live, wherein he will feel more or less normal and have all his faculties, and then simply drop dead. The idea is he’ll have the time to liquidate all of his assets and fly out to Vegas, there to live like a modern-day Caligula until he simply keels over in a hot tub filled with prostitutes and, I presume, whiskey.
While I salute my brother’s dream of drinking himself to death when the last moments come, I deprecate his plan for the obvious reasons: None of us get that kind of warning, I don’t think. Or at least a vanishingly small number of us do. Most of us will either have a bus dropped on us without warning, or our last memories will be do I smell toast? or we’ll have a long, grinding road of misery and pain until we just sort of enter a new state of existence known as barely there.
In short, I haven’t known much death in my time, but I do know this: There is no such thing as a good death.
Writing often means you have to concoct good deaths for characters. The closer I hue to reality when it comes to death, the less satisfying people find my stories. People like to see just desserts, noble speeches, epiphanies, and deathbed confessions. They like to see death matter in fiction. I strongly suspect this is because almost always death doesn’t mean anything in life. It just is.
I think this topic has been on my mind (more than usual, anyway) because my agent, the Redoubtable Janet Reid, recently suggested that I take steps to set up a Literary Executor, someone who would be empowered to handle my Empire of Words after I’d died of acute alcohol poisoning (or, possibly, something else). Now, when your agent suggests you start looking towards a Post-Life Strategy, it makes you think. As in, I thought, Do I look like I’m fucking dying? It seemed like just a few years ago we were chortling over whiskies at Old Town Bar, plotting my eventual literary domination! Now we’re gently pushing my funeral barge into the water, the scent of lighting fluid all around me.
I’m no Stephen King or Nora Roberts, but I get royalty checks, which means my books sell and someone is making money from them. I’m the last stop on the Money Train, it’s true, but it’s still money. So, sure, when I die of (probably) drinking a fifth of bourbon and wandering into traffic whilst singing Irish folk songs, someone’s gonna have to make some decisions. And if I don’t designate someone, who knows what the hell happens. For all I know I signed a bar napkin a few years ago promising some rando they could have my literary empire. I mean, it’s entirely possible. I sign a lot of things.
On the other hand, you can’t think too hard about death when you create stories and universes. You have to be like god: eternal and unblinking, otherwise why bother? I mean, when I think about all the stories and novels I have planned for the coming years, I kind of assume I am eternal and ever-living, like Mumm-Ra. You can’t think, oh, I’d like to write this seven-book Sci Fi series, but … you know, chances are I’ll be dead tomorrow, probably from drinking grain alcohol with a lit candle nearby. Better safe than sorry!
So on the one hand, I have to plan for my own demise, when I will likely find myself on trial with every fly, roach, and cow I’ve ever murdered standing in judgment in the afterlife. On the other hand, I have to pretend I will live forever, like the aforementioned Mumm-Ra, or I will produce nothing. It’s kind of a mind fuck, if you ask me.
If anyone is thinking they might be the ideal choice to be my literary executor, I’m sorry to report the post is filled by The Duchess, who will not be amused if you make any attempts to seize control after my unfortunate death from beer poisoning.
And if you are one of the few who find references to Mumm-Ra, The Ever Living entertaining, y’all are my people.
It’s tax season, which here in the Somers Compound buried deep under Hoboken (and we do mean buried, as the city removed the entrance/exit long ago) means that we’re slowly being crushed under 1099 forms and other tax documents (delivered via pneumatic tube). When you provide 45% of the Internet’s book-related Think Pieces, you accrue a lot of 1099s. Add on the statements from your agent, your DIY publishing endeavors, and your many Defense Department contracts for the Superweapons Based on Cats project, and it gets kind of cluttered.
Naturally, we’re aiming to make this year even more complex. Aside from writing even more book-related freelance articles to gain more of those precious 1099 forms, we also have a number of fresh, piping hot stories scheduled for 2016. This is all part of my plan to keep the pennies and nickels trickling in so I can fill the underground pool with filthy coins and swim around in them. Which is a lot harder to do than Scrooge McDuck makes it look.
So, here’s a breakdown of everything Somers coming at you this year, so you can plan accordingly and start polishing those nickels and pennies for me.
The experiment of writing a novel in novella-sized chunks was a lot of fun, but all great experiments must end, so I’ll be releasing Parts 5 & 6 (The Bey & The City Lord) as well as the omnibus edition containing all 6 parts, The Shattered Gears, on 2/15. I originally said they’d go up for pre-order on that date, but now I think I’ll just release ’em. I wanted to keep the print version of the omnibus to $6 or so, but as it turns out that was drunk talk, as the cheapest I can make it is $14.
There will be new additions to my other series, The Ustari Cycle, which began with 2014’s We Are Not Good People (technically, with 2013’s Trickster, but that became Part 1 of WANGP). I have four novellas/short stories scheduled for 2016 from this universe. Three of them will be published as eBooks from Pocket Star:
And one short story, Crossed Wires, is a collaboration with Stephen Blackmoore for the anthology Urban Allies, out in July, combining my Ustari Cycle characters with his Eric Carter universe in an explosive (and cuss-filled) adventure.
The Bonus Situation
Finally, a standalone short story of mine titled The Bonus Situation is scheduled to appear in Ragnarok Publications’ Mech: Age of Steel anthology. Technically, this is scheduled for January 2017, but what the heck. I’ve already typed all this, I’m not going to erase it now.
There you go: All the Somers fiction you can handle. Or not handle.
I’ve been sticking to a three-month schedule for these releases in order to give myself time to write each one (I’m doing this Full Pantser, writing as I go), but as I sit here I’ve finished sections Five and Six (The Bey and The City Lord).
Well, I say “pantsed” but to be fair I have sketched out brief summaries of twelve additional sections, which would comprise books two and three of this trilogy. And I mean sketched, these are thumbnails at best that just show a basic direction. I’d done the same for the first four, and things changed significantly as I merrily pantsed my way through it, but ultimately I’d say these have been a grand example of what I call plantsing, a hybrid approach to writing (I actually spoke about this and wrote an article about this for Writer’s Digest which will be coming out in 2016, watch the skies!).
There’s some proofin’ and other checking to do (never my strong suits — as I like to tell my editors, I’m more of a Big Idea sort of guy than a spellcheck kind of guy), but basically, the novel is done. In fact, here are the covers for Sections Five and Six:
Since they’re complete and ready to go, I’ve decided to accelerate the schedule a bit, so here’s what I’ll be doing:
February 15, 2016: Both The Bey and The City Lord will go on pre-sale, together, at the same time, for anyone who wants to order them.
February 15, 2016: I’ll also be putting The Shattered Gears Omnibus up for pre-order as an eBook and a print book available through Amazon. This is all six sections collected and formatted into a single novel. The goal is to price both as close to $6 as possible, so the cost will be equal whether you bought each section as they came out or bought the omnibus.
March 15, 2016: Everything goes live, I am an instant millionaire, I stop responding to your emails and texts and begin building a Bond Villain Lair somewhere in the Pacific.
Hey! I bought all six digital shorts, do I have to spend another $6 to get the nifty omnibus? Not for the digital version. If you have all six sections, there will be a mechanism for getting a free eBook of the omnibus. Unfortunately, no, there won’t be any way for me to send you a free print version.
When will Sections 7-18 (books Two and Three) be out? I don’t know. My approach and enthusiasm for the second and third books depends a bit on how everything settles out sales-wise for this one, and my schedule. I do plan to write these at some point, but am also kind of hoping that I’m so spectacularly busy being paid to write other things in 2016 I have to postpone them, so, frankly, we’ll see. On the other hand, if in the final analysis the first one does really well I’d have to move these up in priority. I’ll let y’all know.
So, there you have it, The Plan Going Forward. To everyone who has downloaded, read, and reviewed, these digital shorts: Thanks! I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Cheers!