Monday, October 29, 2007

The Great Short Story Angst Fest

The major magazine markets for short F&SF are dying. Pretty much everybody agrees on that. The reactions range from please help save them (slushmaster) to so what (Scalzi). People have talked about causes, among them: the writers aren't stretching enough (VannderMeer) and the short markets have become a bunch of writers writing for other writers who edit and put out stories for writers who read writerly stuff--see point four here (Bear). I tend to favor the club scene theory Bear is talking about plus a dash of the idea that the internet has really changed the way people digest small chunks of content, i.e. substituting blogs for shorts.

I give you all of that as a sort of background to what I really want to talk about, which is why I write short stories and I why I think any F&SF writer who can write shorts should. Sarah Monette talks about some of the same things here in terms of why she writes them, and that's definitely worth a read. One place where I disagree with both her and Scalzi is in terms of what shorts can do for a career, so I'll start there.

Both Scalzi and Monette mention that there are better ways to raise your profile for readers–blogging is mentioned–and I agree on that. The thing that shorts can do for you career-wise that blogs and many other venues don't do, is establish you as someone who has been vetted by some sort of serious professional editorial process. While that may not sound like much, it means a lot in terms of bona-fides for agent queries. And getting an agent is becoming ever more critical in breaking into the novel biz, which necessity is something I'm going to talk about in its own post later. Beyond that, Monette's point about learning how to be a professional writer through the short story markets is a great one.

Monette also talks in brief about the risk-taking element, the fact that you can try things in a short that you wouldn't dare try in a novel. I'd go beyond that to say that short stories are one of the best venues a new F&SF writer has for learning the craft, because in addition to being daring you can afford to be mundane–to practice the simple things.

You can write ten or dozen shorts where you focus on mastering a single aspect of craft like plot or character and let the rest of the stuff go hang. The brevity of the form allows for a lot more of the try/fail cycles an artist need to master the craft.

A short also forces the writer to pay attention to things they might not have to in a longer piece. If you've got a 5,000 word cap on how long the story can go, you have to make the hard choices about what elements of the story are important enough to keep on the page. You have to go for late entry and early exit. You have to make damn sure that every single word is important. You can't have extraneous scenes that don't advance the core of the story. In a short a writer knows that they must catch the reader's attention right now and hold onto it–there's no time to do anything else.

And, guess what? Those things are all true for novels as well. Sure, in the longer form you can get away with earlier entry and later exit and longer chunks that don't do anything more than show off some cool side bits, but the question is: Should you? The answer: Maybe, but you should never do it unawares or unweighted. Short story writing helps teach the balancing skills a writer needs to decide when and where to go long.

Questions? Comments? Vigorous disagreement?


tate hallaway said...

I'll be disappointed if the short story market disappears forever if only because there's an important other aspect to the learning process that short stories afford. I think READING short stories taught me more about writing than reading novels did.

I read so many novels for pleasure that I rearly notice the authorial hand behind the words (unless the author really screws up.) In short stories, like you say, everything is so important that I find I read them differently too. I read them in a place that makes more of the how-tos visible. That's not to say short stories are written so badly that I can easily see the author's intent, but that because the form is so short it is often easier to re-read and discover the how-tos. If that makes sense.

Kelly McCullough said...

That's a great point, Tate! And it's one I haven't seen anyone else talking about. It might make a nice front page post if you wanted to expand it out with a couple of examples of the kinds of things you're talking about.

Michael Damian Thomas said...

Kelly and Tate/Lyda,

I’m in complete agreement with the both of you. As for the whole market thing, Jim Frenkel said as much at a panel at Gekk.Kon just a couple of weeks ago. He related that as an editor and former agent, he was much more likely to give something a closer look if he recognized that author’s name from a short story.

I think that writers often forget that an editor or agent has a massive amount of work to do, and they have to find a way to prioritize. If they recognize your name from a year’s best anthology or something, they are much more likely to carve out some time for you. As you said Kelly, it proves that another editor has vetted you.

I personally prefer reading and writing novels, but they are obviously a much slower process than short stories. My short story work has taught me a lot about little things that I need top work on for my writing as a whole.

Kelly Swails said...

Interesting links, Y. I especially find Scalzi's interesting, simply because he'd voiced an opinion I hadn't actually heard anyone say before--that the magazines aren't the end-all, be-all of getting your foot in the door. Sure, it helps on the front end. It sure is going to help attract the attention of an agent. And, let's face it, it helps on the back end, too (for the magazines, anyway; I imagine that a Recent-Award-Winning, Critically-Acclaimed-Author's name on the cover boosts sales a bit). But it's refreshing to hear someone say basically, "Hey, can't get into the big 3? Don't worry about it. You can still have a career."

As for me, I'll keep writing and submitting shorts because I like writing them. I think I'm good at it.

Anonymous said...

I've written and sold exactly two shorts - both to Apex Publications. They're very difficult for me. And while I enjoy a challenge, when I write, I tend to "think in novels", which makes writing shorts difficult.:/

Kelly McCullough said...

X, from what I've seen that last sentence is a fair assessment.

Mari, yep. That's why I say that those who can write them should. It's a really unnatural form for some.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I love short stories. I love genre short stories. SF shorts were my entry to a world beyond children's books, and I find older short work holds up much better than older novels. I don't read the "Big Three" because I find very little there I like.

It's been a pet theory of mine for a while that contemporary short SF is choking on novelty. Editors talk about how they're looking for new ideas, are tired of all the old ones. Personally, I prefer a story with intriguing characters and an old problem that tells me something new (or something I've forgotten) to one with a new problem but characters and themes that fall a little flat. And yes, I know those aren't my only choices, but that many markets can't all demand everything from every story.

It strike me that "fresh" might be a better goal than "new." SF might have more readers if it didn't tell the newbies, "You want that kind of story? X wrote that in '62. Go find it in the archives."

As for writing shorts, I agree with what most people have had to say. But they also get new writers used to finishing things, which is so important we tend to forget it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on this topic, Kelly et al. I've been discussing short stories with other writers recently. I don't write them or read them, and wondered if I should be. Definitely gives me more to think about.

Kelly Swails said...

Y: thanks. :) *blushes*

Kelly McCullough said...

Steph, I'd say that's certainly part of it. I think part of that plays into the writers writing writerly stories for other writers thing. But it is also the case that we as a genre tend to value new for newness' sake to an extent that is counterproductive.

Beth, glad to be of service.