Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Critique Wednesday or Short Fiction, Part II: Critiquing It

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


As promised, I'm giving away another 5 page critique!

Legalese: I'll randomly chose a winner of a 5 page critique via Rafflecopter. The critiques will be offline, not posted on the blog. My critique philosophy is "honesty with kindness." I believe someone can't learn while they're in pain, so it's important to temper the truth with gentleness. I also believe my job as a critiquer is to help you tell your story better, not change it to be the story I would write.



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20 comments:

  1. I've read a few wonderful novellas and I loved that I could finish them sooner so i could tackle my tbr pile. I just love all our options with writing and reading.

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    1. I know, right? As a reader, I feel like it’s opened up a whole new realm of possibilities.

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  2. Great post and finds, Susan. Thanks so much for sharing them. I'm a major fan of writing short stories. For me, it's a great exercise, which has turned into a few published stories.

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    1. I tried shorts for a while, didn’t like them, decided novels were my medium…and now I’m back doing shorts again! But it’s different now – I’m finally finding my groove because they’re connected to my novels. Congrats on your published stories!

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  3. I've always found short stories hard to write--so much has to be left out--so I'm always delighted to discover others who do it well. Novellas sound appealing to me as a reader and writer.

    Have you read any of the short fiction of Kelly Link? She writes slipstream and speculative fiction. She originally self published collections of short stories in the early 2000s and went on to win Hugo and Nebula awards (and she's one of my hubby's childhood friends). Her stuff is hard to describe--mind-bending, stick-with-you stories.

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    1. I hadn’t heard of Kelly Link, but thanks for the rec! Her stuff sounds like my kind of thing!

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  4. Oh my goodness I love all of these! I already have all of the WOOL series. Now writing shorts was so hard for me. I wrote my first one this year and a writing prompt from my critique group helped a lot. I can't wait to see one of yours!

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    1. For me, the struggle with writing shorts (back when I tried it the first time) was: 1) cramming in all the backstory without info dumping and 2) understanding story structure. Now that I’ve figured those things out for my novels, the short stories come a lot easier. But it IS a different format – I’ll be talking a bit about that tomorrow…

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  5. OK! So you're venturing into shorts. VERY smart! I've got WOOL on my Kindle, but I haven't started it. I didn't realize it was "short." LOL! I'd just been hearing about it. I'll check out these others. And as always GOOD LUCK! :o) <3

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    1. One thing that I’ve discovered since diving into shorts is how many authors had to start their careers this way – writing/publishing a series of shorts before they could ever land that novel contract. The business was different then, and many had a string of shorts but never got the novel written and/or published (or only published one or two). It’s striking how different things are now, but I think there will be an explosion of eshorts once writers of the past realize these things are sitting on their hard drives (or have their rights reverted).

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  6. Yeah, I definitely think short stories are different from novels. I think the aims are different, and even the structures can have distinct variations (especially in the short short stuff).

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    1. I would love to hear your thoughts on structure. Damon Knight claimed a bunch of different story forms, to which I kind of shrugged and thought, "those are all variations on the thought-experiment, surprise ending, gosh-isn't-this-cool variety." (more on this tomorrow)

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    2. BUT, I will caveat that when you're into flash-fiction (the short-short), there is a difference in structure, just because so much has to be left implied.

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    1. I hope you'll weigh in! I'm still working my way through your recs! :)

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  8. I am really impressed with the attitude expressed on this site for being simple, open, honest, caring, hardworking and sincere, qualities that go together in activities

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  9. I'm so glad I visited your blog today. I have always loved shorts, and would enjoy seeing them make a comeback. What a great idea to set out to read so many. I should do the same. :)

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! If you find any gems, be sure to leave a rec! 

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  10. Great breakdown on short stories and novellas. There are lots of anthologies being published right now, which to me, shows an increase in interest in short stories. I think it's hard to know where to market short stories, but there are several market lists that share that information. (Duotrope lists lots of places where you can sell your short stories. They even do a weekly newsletter.)

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    1. I've seen some anthologies do well, and others not so much, so there's as much variance there as anywhere else. The traditional markets for shorts (on duotrope) are tending to be unpaid markets, so I think you're better off (money wise) self-publishing (unless you're looking for pub credits or catching the notice of editors, which paid or unpaid professional markets can do for you). As far as marketing your short on ebook - it goes in with all the regular "books" so it's really the same marketing as everything else.

      I wish Amazon had a separate category for eshorts! (Beyond Amazon Singles, which is invite only)

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers