Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Short Stories vs. Novels

I was perhaps overly ambitious about how much work I'd get done the day after a convention. I went to the library and I got my weekly writing project for the medical school done, but when it came to fiction, I only managed to re-read (and tinker with) the first part of the scene I was working on and then write about five new paragraphs. But I did come up with what would happen next this morning, and while I was spacing out and wasting time I took care of a few things for the rest of the week that should save me time that I hope to apply to writing.

At one of the ConDFW panels last weekend, one of the big debates within the genre came up. I was moderating the Aspiring Writers panel, and I felt rather out of my league, as the other panelists were Brandon Sanderson, Tim Powers, Bill Fawcett and Jack McDevitt. I figured I was there strictly for moderation and possibly decoration. Anyway, the usual "what's the best way to get published?" question came up, and we seemed to get into a generational divide about the answer. The Old Guard conventional wisdom in science fiction/fantasy is that you break in by writing short stories, which gets you the credibility and attention that make it possible to sell a novel. The more senior members of the panel agreed with this and have published short stories. Brandon and I, as the junior members of the panel, were of the opinion that publishing short stories wasn't essential to publication these days and that short stories and novels are two entirely different skills. If you're not a short story writer and you try the "break in through short stories" route, you'll never break in, or at the very least you'll waste a lot of time you could have spent writing novels that might have sold.

I know I tend to think in terms of novels. I've tried writing short stories a few times, and they always turn into novels. Brandon said he just finished a short story -- it was only 95,000 words. He thought that the generational difference came from the fact that short stories have been less prominent in the past thirty years or so. Our generation didn't grow up reading short stories, so it's not a mindset we even get into for writing. I'm not sure how old he is, exactly, though I'd guess he's a bit younger than I am. Still, we're probably within the same generational range, so we fall into the gap between the Golden Age of the genre magazines and the recent revitalization of short fiction through online sites.

But I can't agree entirely with the reason for not being able to write short stories. Although I didn't grow up reading the genre magazines, I did read a lot of short genre fiction. I read Alan Dean Foster's short stories when I was a kid. I devoured Ray Bradbury short stories as a teen and read them for prose interpretation competitions. Actually, I read a lot of short stories to come up with competition material. I read Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov (I've never warmed up to his novels, but I loved his short stories). I tried writing short stories, too, since I'd read all that advice about how writing short stories was the way to break in as a science fiction novelist. I'd go to the library and read the Writer's Marketplace to find guidelines and markets and then try to write stories to go into those markets, but those stories tended to spiral out of control until they were way too long but hadn't quite really started. When you've written ten pages of a short story and you're still setting up the situation, you're in trouble. It seems that even then my ideas were for novels.

Now, short stories aren't my favorite reading form. I often find them frustrating because if I really like the world and the characters, I want more. It's pretty much the same reason I prefer TV series to movies. A good short story requires a premise that's strong enough to make for an interesting story but not so strong that it warrants the full development of a novel. The ironic twist ending is popular in short stories possibly because it provides such a strong sense of closure that you know the story was just long enough. I recently read a volume of stories called Wizards, and while some were just right, others made me want more about those characters or those worlds. Fortunately, one of the more intriguing stories did become a novel -- it was the starting point for what became Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Another one reminded me of the way I attempt to write short stories, where it really should be a novel, and it's only just getting started when it gets too long, so then there's some quick handwaving to come to something that resembles a conclusion.

I do want to learn how to write short stories. Even if they aren't a requirement for getting published (obviously), I think they can help in building a career. Because the Old Guard holds onto the belief that short stories are the golden ticket, selling short stories to prestigious publications is the way to build credibility in the industry. It sometimes as though you get taken more seriously within the field if you've published well-received short stories in addition to novels. That gets you invitations to contribute to anthologies, and being in an anthology with a more prominent author is a good way to build an audience. It's also a good way to be able to call yourself a bestseller if you have a story in an anthology that hits the bestseller list because of the big-name author involved with it. If I ever reach the point where I'm invited to be a guest of honor at a convention, I might be asked to contribute a short story to a program book.

I have written one story for a convention program book. It was an episode in the Enchanted, Inc. universe -- essentially fan fiction for my own books. That might be a good starting point to get used to the idea of writing a single event. I also have a couple of novels that didn't come together where the idea might not have been strong enough for a novel but might be enough for a shorter story. Now, when I have the time to do this while trying to get some more novels out, I don't know. It might be something to try between projects, but since I'm a novelist, the books need to come first.

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