Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have twice won the Micro Award for the best story under 1,000 words published in English during the previous year. Some of his other honors include two Nebula Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and the Pushcart Prize. His fiction has been translated into over two dozen languages, including, rather improbably, Pashto and Klingon. He teaches fiction writing in a low-residency MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.
Q: Just for the record, how many short stories and poems have you written at this point in your career?
A: Early in my career, I kept careful track of each publication, but in the last decade or so, I’ve barely managed to keep up with my mailing records. I do hope to go back and make an accurate record of more recent publications. I must be up to something like 500 stories now, many of them VERY short. Q: Why short fiction and short, short fiction? I’ve always had a hard time settling on one genre, one tone, one relationship with material, so part of the answer to your question is that short fiction allows the writer more freedom to constantly change focus. That’s because short fiction isn’t commercially important, so no one’s especially paying attention to the fact that I haven’t settled predictably into writing one kind of narrative. With novels, there’s a better chance for commercial success, but also a greater chance that you’ll make enough of a name for yourself that readers are disappointed if, say, you stop writing about the detective they love and write an unrelated suspense novel or even something as wild as science fiction or a quiet literary novel. I jump genres and ambitions from one work to the next, and no one is bothered.
Q: How would you describe the current market for short fiction?
A: It’s a very diverse market. The strongest part of the market is science fiction and fantasy, where there are still a fairly large number of monthly magazines paying “professional” rates. Of course, those rates haven’t gone up much since the 1960s, so even in the healthiest genre, short fiction is a difficult way to make a living. At the same time, the market is fragmenting in all sorts of ways that I approve of. The Internet made it possible for me to distribute my short-short stories directly to paying subscribers. Now ebooks are squeezing more and more of the middlemen out of the literary transaction. Amazon is in the process of destroying the old model of publication, but Amazon is also creating momentum for readers paying writers with as little intermediation as possible, which means that Amazon itself may become the middleman that the marketplace no longer needs. Writers are increasingly selling directly to readers, and that can only allow for more success and diversity for writers in specialized markets, such as short fiction. In all, then, I would say that the market for short fiction is somewhere between poor to explosive. Q: love the accessibility and creativity of your shortshort subscription program. How did it come about? A: It seems to have its origins in an apocryphal tale. I read in a book about marketing that in the early days of the Internet, a man offered to send a limerick a day, for a year, to anyone who sent him a dollar. According to this story, the man ended up with 100,000 subscribers. I liked the idea of an email subscription to my stories, so I set the price low and first structured the subscription as a pyramid scheme: If I had one subscriber, I’d write one story a year. If I had ten subscribers, I’d write four stories a year. I hoped that this scheme would get people who wanted more stories to urge friends to subscribe. It worked. When I got to the point of two stories a month, I figured I was close to the limit of what I could produce to my satisfaction. I capped production at three stories a month, and the price has been ten dollars a year for most of shortshortshort’s history. Ten dollars is low enough to make the subscription an impulse buy. The total number of subscribers rises and falls according to how much time and energy I have available for publicizing the service. At the high-water mark, I had about 1,000 subscribers. These days, I’m at about half that. I’d like to make a big push for subscriptions to get up to 2,000 paying readers. That would be enough to make my writing self-sustaining, though I’d probably keep teaching for a while even if I achieved that. I enjoy teaching. The idea of having a writer supported by 2,000 fans, each paying $10 a year, is the sort of thing I was talking about in reply to your question about markets. This isn’t at all a traditional view of “the market for fiction,” but it is a model that I think we’ll see increasingly.
Q: What’s your best advice for creating a short story that lingers in the reader’s imagination?
A: Rudyard Kipling had it right in the refrain of his poem, “In the Neolithic Age”: There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/ And every single one of them is right! It’s hard for me to come up with “best advice.” So much depends on the writer, the writer’s interests, and the individual reader. My advice boils down to “Write the story you would want to read, and write it well.” That last bit is tricky. There is so much to learn about how to write well, how to figure out what words, in what order, will ignite the firecracker or open the rose in the reader’s mind. To a writer who wants stories to linger in the imagination, I’d suggest a course of survey and dissection. Survey literature to find many examples of stories that linger in YOUR imagination. Then, line by line, look at the story not as a reader, but as an analyst of effect. How does the story work? What does the first sentence establish? Why does the story start where it does, and not somewhere else? I think writers learn through a process of imitation an analysis. How-to books, books on the craft of writing, can help the writer to become more analytical. Some writers don’t need that step. They are able to wring the essence out of fiction they love and take to doing the same thing themselves. They may not think of this as imitation, but it is. No writer learned to write, except by example. There are many ways that a book, a teacher, the criticism of “test readers” can move the writer closer to writing a memorable story. But these are aids to the main task of reading, enjoying, analyzing, and imitating.
Q: What is your biggest challenge as a writer and how do you face it?
A: life? There aren’t enough hours in the day. I don’t make enough money, and most of the obvious ways to make more from my writing involve doing a lot of things other than writing. In writing and in life, I feel pulled in many directions. The biggest challenge is to just keep the faith, to keep on keeping on, to write as if my writing were the most valuable thing I could offer the world. It may not be, but I face life’s challenges by believing that it is. Q: Pasta or sushi?
A: Sushi, by far.
Q: What’s on your nightstand?
A: A stack of books of poetry, which I read for pleasure and for inspiration. Billy Collins. James Tate. Italo Calvino. Also a novel that I was enjoying, but then stopped reading because other things distracted me, like my lessons in Japanese. The novel is A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m in the process of getting the rights back to various out-of-print titles, so next, in addition to the writing I keep doing every month, will be the publication of these older books as ebooks. Also, I have collaborative projects combining fiction and nonfiction planned for Japan, Finland, and Hungary, though each of these projects relies on getting a grant. Still, why not aim for the stars?