I have a couple published short stories already, but as I was preparing to write several more, I decided I should get serious about studying the form. First step: read a bunch of shorts (as they are not normally my preferred form). Second: analyze what makes them work. Third step: write.
Seems simple, right?
Short Stories are Just Like Novels Only … Shorter
In reading Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction, I realized that all the “rules” given for writing short fiction were the same as writing quality long fiction. Yet, I felt something was missing in this simplistic approach – that there was more to it than simply using less subplots or writing more efficiently. After all, some of Ray Bradbury’s shorts were very literary, an abundance of words used with minimal plot.
[I originally fell in love with Bradbury’s novels like The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, but he is well known for prolific writing of short stories. He was … a pulp writer! (See my earlier comparison of indie novels to pulp fiction). This delightful tidbit came up when Bradbury discussed using a pseudonym for one of his stories, so that the editor would not know he wrote pulp. Even then, fantastic writers worried about their work being judged as something it was not.]
Short Stories Aren’t Always Short
In the last few weeks, I’ve sampled everything from a 3 page literary short story (Homelanding by Margaret Atwood) to a 56 page modern SF (Wool by Hugh Howey) – and longer! – and everything in between. Clearly some of these are really novellas, and even have chapters! Reading actual short fiction was much more educational than reading about short fiction.
I found short stories (less than 10k or approx 30 pages, often less than 5k) to be fun or interesting, with a unique idea or character or setting. They were intriguing portraits of ideas on the page, and if done well, framed in a story with a beginning-middle-end, but they were very rarely compelling. They didn’t stick with me, and I had a hard time connecting with the characters. In fact, many of the older stories were written with an intentionally distant POV. These were thought-experiments, not character-driven stories.
Novellas/novelettes (10-20k, 30-60 pages), on the other hand, drew me in, kept me flipping pages to find out what would happen. The best among them left me thinking about them long afterwards. I connected with the characters; I cared what happened to them. Of course this varies with the mastery of the writer, but simply having the character go through more trials and tribulations made me want to know their ultimate fate.
I think this phenomenon of bonding with the character by literally spending more pages with them is an important part of why short novels (20-50k, 60 – 200 pages) are thriving as ebooks. They cross over the threshold of length that allows us to bond with characters, yet aren’t as time-consuming to read as novels. And the easy availability of ebooks makes them very accessible.
All of this makes me stop and think about why I write the length of story that I write (my Mindjack novels are around 85k or 330 pages). My MG novels are shorter (55k), and the difference is a few less subplots, but still a complete story. More on this tomorrow, as I talk about writing short fiction.
Short Stories can be Bad, Just Like Novels
I was underimpressed with the majority of the short fiction that I read – they had cliched characters, or sloppy writing, or disappointing endings, or were just banal. All the same things that bad novels have, only the pain was over sooner. Bear in mind that the vast majority of the shorts that I read were published traditionally. However, of the ones that I fell in love with (Wool, Midnight’s Tale, Bicentennial Man, Never Ever After), were mostly indie-published, modern stories, and not all SF (Midnight’s Tale is literary, Never Ever After is fantasy romance). This surprised me – I expected the classic SF shorts to hold my favor, but those tended to be too short (usually constrained by magazine wordcount limits) or too distant (the style of the time). The ones I enjoyed most were also novellas, and I loved them in a way that rivaled my love for my favorite novels.
In short (ha!), I expect ebooks to revitalize the short form (this is already happening) – unconstrained by magazine wordcounts or editorial culling or print limitations. The potential here is amazing, and I look forward to more great modern fiction (and hopefully a resurrection of great shorts from the past).
Stop by tomorrow for Short Fiction, Part III: Writing It