The Alchemist

"The Alchemist," I may have mentioned before, is a drabble, a story of only 100 words. The market for such a story, from what I've seen, is extremely limited. If I've any hope of selling this story, I think I'll have to expand it to at least 500 words. The nature of the story gives me concern, though, whether it would work at a longer length.

Back when I was reading Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction, I ordered a couple of volumes he recommended in the appendix to his book. One such tome was W. Somerset Maugham's Tellers of Tales: 100 Short Stories from the United States, England, France, Russia, and Germany. As I was browsing Maugham's introduction to this anthology last night, I came across a most interesting passage:

The competent writer can write a story in a couple of thousand words as easily as he can write one in ten thousand. But he chooses a different story or treats it in a different way. Guy de Maupassant wrote one of his most celebrated tales, The Legacy, twice over, once in a few hundred words for a newspaper and the second time in several thousand for a magazine; both are published in the collected edition of his works, and I think no one can read the two versions without admitting that in the first there is not a word too little and in the second not a word too much.

— Tellers of Tales. Maugham, W. Somerset. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1939. p. xv.

I know that many a writer has taken a short story of theirs published in a magazine and later expanded it into a novel, but this is the first I've ever read of a writer penning the same short story in two different lengths and keeping it still a short story, and, not surprisingly, it was of some consolation to me to learn this. It gives me hope for "The Alchemist" at a longer length.

Also interesting, I thought, was the passage preceding the above as it speaks directly to the notion of whether writers write for love, for money, or for both, and was uttered nearly 70 years ago:

Now I must interrupt myself to tell the reader something about literary composition of which, so far as I know, the critics, whose duty it is doubtless to guide and instruct him, have neglected to apprise him. The writer has in him the desire to create, but he has also the desire to place before readers the result of his labour and the desire (a harmless one with which the reader is not concerned) to earn his bread and butter. On the whole he finds it possible to direct his creative gifts into the channels that will enable him to satisfy these desires. At the risk of shocking the reader who thinks the writer's inspiration should be uninfluenced by practical considerations, I must further tell him that writers quite naturally find themselves impelled to write the sort of things for which there is a demand. When plays in verse might bring an author fame and fortune it would probably have been difficult to find a young man of literary bent who had not among his papers a tragedy in five acts. I think it would occur to few young men to write one now. Today they write plays in prose, novels and short stories. The possibility of publication, the exigencies of editors, that is to say their notion of what their readers want, have a great influence on the kind of work that at a particular time is produced. So, when magazines flourish which have room for stories of considerable length, stories of that length are written; when on the other hand newspapers publish fiction, but can give it no more than a small space, stories to fill that space are supplied. There is nothing disgraceful in this. [here the quote cited above appears] The point I want to make is this: the nature of the vehicle whereby the writer approaches his public is one of the conventions he has to accept, and on the whole he finds that he can do this without any violence to his own inclinations.

— Tellers of Tales. pp. xiv-xv.

In other words, little has changed in the nearly three-quarters of a century that have passed since Maugham wrote these words. He makes no distinction between writers of the literary persuasion or writers of the commercial persuasion. Why do so? All want to write, whether they pen stories for pulp magazines or the hoity-toity literati, and, more importantly, all want to eat. It's important to note that the writers of the day, particularly those anthologized in this volume — Honoré de Balzac, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Guy de Maupassant, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway among others — were really quite popular in their day and could have been considered just as commercial as their pulp peers. (This is really no different than the observation that classical music was the rock 'n' roll of its day.) The sole difference for those whose pretentious airs have their noses stuck firmly in the stratosphere is that what they would otherwise consider to be crass Maugham has stated with an unmistakable elegance. Elegant or not, however, it all boils down to writers writing for a buck.

4 comment(s):

James A. Ritchie said...
February 21, 2010 3:50 PM

Gary,

One of my short stories, The Parachute, has been published at four lengths. In it's first roughly 3,000 word state, it sold to Sports Afield for a thousand dollars, which seemed a magnificent amount of money at the time. Then I sent it to Cricket because I knew they accepted reprints, and the editor loved it, but said it was twice as long as they had space for, and could I somehow bring it down to 1,500 words? I did, and they actually published it as a new story, rather than a reprint. This happened twice more, once at 1,200 words for another small magazines, and at a mere 750 words for a newspaper.

I firmly believe anyone reading any version of this story would swear it was written at the best possible length.

I've had other short stories sell twice at different lengths, but The Parachute still holds the record with four such sales.

That's good material about literary writers and genre/commercial writers, as well. The concept of dividing writers into such categories is relatively modern. It isn't a bad idea for the sake of allowing readers to easily find exactly what they want to read, but it's just dumb in every other way.

Maughm has long been a favorite of mine, though as much for his book The Summing Up, as for his fiction. Way back when I first started writing, the two books that had the greatest nfluence on my life were Maughm's The Summing Up, and Erskine Caldwell's Call It Experience. Brilliant books, both.

I do believe the best how-to books are usually novels written by your favorite writers, but a very, very close second are autobiographies by good writers. The path to becoming a writer is often far more revealing than and so-called "how-to" book.

I love King's On Writing. Despite what many say, it contains the best actual how-to advice I've read anywhere, even if too many new writers don't want to believe and follow that advice. But it's the first, autobiographical section of the book that makes it so incredibly valuable.

The same is true of Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. It's the why of it all, the path Bradbury took, then footsteps of his life, that can turn someone into a very good writer.

g d townshende said...
February 21, 2010 4:18 PM

That's interesting about your story. I'm aware of being able to sell a story for reprint rights, but I'd never really thought about the idea of rewriting a story to a different length to sell to other markets. That's very good info to know.

I'm guessing that if a story is rewritten to a different length, that the rights sold are as if it's an entirely new story, and not a reprint, and that reprint rights apply only if a story has been previously sold at the length at which it is now being sold. For example:

A story at 3000 words sells for First North American Serial rights. The same story, rewritten to 1500 words, also sells for FNAS rights. If the 1500 word version is then resold, then what's sold is reprint rights.

James A. Ritchie said...
February 21, 2010 7:02 PM

Gary,

Odd as it may sound, it has never once occured to me that selling a short story at different lengths was at all unusual. It's just something I've done without thinking much about.

But now that I have thought about it, I don't remember ever reading an article on the subject, or even reading where another writer did the same.

This deserves more thought.

g d townshende said...
February 21, 2010 11:38 PM

James, I think it definitely deserves more thought, too. Most of what I've read on the business side of writing focuses on reprint rights when selling a story that's already been sold, and little is said of the idea of rewriting to a different length for a different market. That certainly strikes me as a valid strategy (alternative to reprint rights) to maximize one's income.

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