Interview with Sharon Shinn, author of Shadows of the Past

Today we have a special treat. Writing friend Sharon Shinn agreed to answer questions about her COLLECTION Shadows of the Past. I capitalized that as I’m trying to correct myself on terminology. An anthology is a book of short pieces by multiple authors. A collection is a book of short stores by a single author.

Thank you to Sharon for helping me get that right! There’s always something to learn about writing and publishing. Now on the my questions for Sharon.

SueBE: Your collection, Shadows of the Past, was published by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency.  Can you tell us how this took place?

Sharon Shinn: Ethan’s my agent, and he’s been running an “agent-assisted author self-publishing” arm for a few years now. So authors in his stable who have books that haven’t sold elsewhere—and who don’t want to do all the work of finding cover art and formatting files and dealing with Amazon—can work with him to get books in print.

I’d already worked with his office to bring out the print and e-book versions of a trilogy that had originally been released through Audible.com, and that had been a good experience. I had been thinking for a while about pulling together some previously published short stories to create a collection, but I hadn’t summoned the energy to invest the time. But then someone in his office made the suggestion out loud. 😊

A lot of people don’t buy anthologies unless there are multiple authors they’re interested in, and I can definitely understand that. I really loved the idea of gathering all my stories in one place for the hardcore fans who probably wouldn’t see them any other way. And I really loved having someone else do most of the labor of getting the manuscript ready for publication.

SueBE: All but one of the stories had been published elsewhere.  What rights did you retain when the other stories were published prior to the collection?  How did that impact creating this collection?

Sharon Shinn: When you sell stories to anthologies, it’s common to get a contract that specifies you have reprint rights after the first year (sometimes shorter, sometimes longer). Therefore, in theory it should have been easy to gather up my old contracts and check the dates and be certain that the rights had reverted to me.

In practice…apparently I did not do a good job of retaining all those contracts! I was able to locate a few of them in my disorganized files, but in a couple of cases, I had to hunt down the editors who had invited me into their anthologies five or ten years ago. You can imagine what a chore that was. Since that time, I’ve had short stories appear in two other anthologies, and I have been most careful to file my contracts where I might actually be able to find them again!

SueBE: Confession time – I’m not a huge anthology reader because if I don’t normally read that author the story isn’t always accessible.  How do you approach a short story so that this is not an issue?

Sharon Shinn: It kind of depends on the anthology—and the author. In the past 20-some years, I’ve had eight short stories and five novellas appear in anthologies. Of those, five were set in worlds I’d already created for one of my series, and the rest were completely standalone. I’ve also published a collection that included four novellas, all set in one of my existing worlds.

I’ve found that with some themed anthologies, it’s a lot of fun to create a wholly original story that suits the topic of the book. For instance, for The Mammoth Book of Ghost Romance, I wrote up something completely new, because ghosts were not easily tied to any my existing worlds.

Obviously, my standalone stories don’t require knowledge of any of my previous books, so those are probably easier for a reader to enjoy. In a sense, they’re also easier for me to write—but in another sense, they can be harder, because they require me to do a whole lot of world-building for a very brief payoff.

But—to actually answer your question!—it is a challenge to provide enough background to make a story accessible for a newbie without making it repetitive for a long-time reader. I feel like a short story should be able to stand on its own, even if it’s part of a series. The reader shouldn’t have to know anything except what’s contained in these particular pages. It’s good to be able to throw in some references that might delight a faithful fan, but the story shouldn’t hinge on those details. It should be a complete picture that just happens to be situated within a larger tapestry.

However, I strongly believe that even stories that aren’t tied to a series should feel like they’re part of a longer story or a bigger world. They give a glimpse into a character’s life, but the reader has the sense that that character has a past and a future beyond the now of this particular adventure.

SueBE: What advice do you have for authors who want to put together their own collection?  Or those who are considering submitting work to an anthology? 

Sharon Shinn: If they’re putting together their own collections, my advice would be: Keep track of all those old contracts!

If they’re submitting to other people’s anthologies—well, I don’t actually have much good advice, because I’ve only done it when I’ve been invited to submit. I know that publishers sometimes announce that they’re reading stories for anthologies, but in many cases, they’ve already invited in the majority of the authors they plan to include, and they only have a few slots open for other writers.

So maybe my advice would be: Don’t get discouraged if you don’t make it into a particular anthology. Publishers will receive many many many submissions and they have very limited space. A rejection doesn’t mean your story isn’t any good, it just means that it didn’t fit the parameters of this particular book. Or that the publishers had already decided to buy a story that had a concept similar to the one in the story you submitted. You might not get that story accepted—this time—but you’ve added to your pile of written work and improved your skills with additional practice, so you’ve gained something from the experience anyway.

SueBE: You write both novels and short stories.  Do you prefer one over the other?  If so, why?  If not, what is the benefit to writing in both forms?

Sharon Shinn: I tend to think in long story arcs, so short stories are not my natural form. I’ve only written a handful throughout my career, most often when I was invited into an anthology. I can only think of a couple I wrote just because I wanted to, just because I had an idea that could be contained in 10,000 words.

That being said, I love the discipline of getting across an entire story arc in such a limited space. I have to be economical with words, ideas, details. I have to create characters that feel real from page one, instead of slowly revealing themselves over twenty-five chapters.

And that’s exactly what I love about writing novels. I can take my time developing a character, or a relationship, or a plot. I especially enjoy creating a couple of different storylines that don’t seem to have much in common, and then weaving them together to create a complicated whole. I like trying to create worlds that seem so immersive that readers feel like they’re walking down familiar streets in marvelous cities.

Novels are a lot more work, for sure—they can take months to write, or years, whereas I can produce a short story in a week or two. When I haven’t had the focus to write book-length fiction, I’ve enjoyed producing shorter works. I find novellas particularly satisfying because, at roughly 100 pages, they give me enough room to build worlds and develop characters, but they don’t allow me to dally.

But really, the choice of length comes down to the idea at hand. What’s the best way to tell it? How many words do I need? The story itself dictates the form. So in the end, they’re all equally appealing.

SueBE: Thank you to Sharon for giving us all so much information. Be sure to check out her work at your library or your local book store!

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