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Writing SF/F short stories - useful for novelists?

alihale

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Feb 12, 2008
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Hey all,

I'm new to the forum and haven't dug very far through the mass of excellently informative posts yet -- so apologies if this has been covered before!

Is it useful for SF/F novelists to write short stories in the genre?

I'm thinking both in terms of writing practice (ie. does it build useful skills, or is it just too different from novel writing?) and in terms of writing credits (ie. will SF/F short story publications look good to an agent?)

Whilst building up my collection of rejection slips for a fantasy novel, I've been working on various short stories for a range of markets. Most have been competition entries, and I have had a couple of placings with Writing Magazine (a 2nd and a 3rd place) and a couple of short-listings too. However, all those stories were "contemporary", non-genre, ones.

I've had a go at various sci-fi short stories, and have really struggled -- I actually have yet to attempt a fantasy one as I think it'd be even harder! Somehow, the stories never seem to work -- there'll be a few ideas in there that I like, or an engaging character, but as a whole it falls flat.

So is it worth pursuing, or should I stick with writing contemporary short stories and novel-length SF/F? Any advice or tips more than welcomed. :)

Best,

Ali
 

ctg

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Writing a novel is like stringing up those short stories one after another, a chapter after a chapter, creating a chain that flows throughout the whole course of the book. Do you have an idea that can last over two hundred fifty A4's or longer? Do you reckon that you could do that? If the answer is yes on both question, then go ahead and write a novel. It's a lifetime experience, that not so many embrace. Many tries, but they realise they don't have it in them, therefore they stop until they have shaped their novel in a publishable shape. It's a hard game, one of the toughest there is, but it's not unbeatable.
 

j d worthington

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I beg to differ. An episodic novel, or a picaresque, might be like stringing short stories together, but most novels don't work that way. They have a logic and structure of their own, and most need to be thought out carefully in advance, or you find yourself writing yourself into a corner very quickly.

However, that said... it's been said (I can't at the moment recall who exactly) that a writer isn't writing one novel, or one short story, or one poem, or even one quatrain at a time -- he's putting his life on paper (at least in some senses)... meaning, in part, that whatever you write is good writing practice; it teaches you more about how to handle structure, character development, adumbration and foreshadowing, plotting, improving your use of the language for maximum effect with least waste, etc., etc., etc.

And, from my understanding (we've plenty of professionals here who can correct me if I'm wrong)... yes, such sales do count, to agents, publishers, and readers as well. Also, by writing different types of things, you keep yourself from going stale or becoming entirely stereotyped. While that is, to some degree, swimming against the stream at the moment, the most successful writers with the longest staying power (both during their lifetime and after) were/are those that write a variety of things, from short stories to novels to essays to (if they have the ability) poems to anything else they can.

If you doubt this, consider: Isaac Asimov, Brian W. Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Ursula K. LeGuin, Tanith Lee, H. P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, George R. R. Martin, James Tiptree, Jr., J. R. R. Tolkien, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Joanna Russ......
 

Wiglaf

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Actually, I have been pondering a simular question. I am short on time and have many competing ideas. I was thinking that perhaps writing a few short stories would both increase my chances of completing something in a reasonable ammount of time and allow me to get some of these ideas out of my system. I would then have finished work to look back upon to see what I did right and where I need work as well as reducing the urge to include a hundred different ideas that do not necessarily fit together into a single story.
 

Triceratops

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Actually short story writing, in the same genre as your intended novel, can be a nice little boon when an agent is considering you as a client. It does provide a small platform and can give you that "known quantity" status. I know that my little list of short stories sales in the SF genre helped to convince my agent that I'd been in the trenches for a bit. It was not, by all means, the deciding factor. It just gave me an extra push. I do believe they helped cinch the deal.

And...there are a lot of awards that can be gleaned in the competitive short story market. They are also very easy to send out and enter into the contests. I made finalist in the L. Ron Hubbard WOTF contest, and certainly put it in my bio. I would have loved, loved to have won.

J. D. (upstream) is correct, in that your best spec writers are varied and all over the publishing topography. Makes for a well-rounded, versatile craftsman.

I did sell numerous short stories before I hit novel publication. There was something about the instant gratification about the process that served my writing ego well, and goaded me to continue on and pursue greener hills and pastures.

Tri
 

Tirellan

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In general the answer is, I think, yes.
This will of course vary for writers; some can't write a short story to save their lives - their natural length is over 100k.
But if you feel comfortable with short fiction then do it. It provides good training in many of the disciplines of writing. It can add colour and understanding to use your novel characters in a shorter work. If you can get other people to publish your work (preferably for money) then it gives you an answer when that little voice at the back of your head says "I'm crazy, my work sucks and I'm wasting my time trying to get anyone to look at this novel"

As for impressing editors and agents, IMHO you have to be selling work to the very top level markets for them to really notice you. Most editors/agents are unaware of the lower echelons of the short story market. And at the higher levels you are competing with people who have novels out, or are at least agented - which, in fact, is exactly the competition your novel faces to get picked up by a publisher.
 

iansales

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First, writing short stories is probably harder than writing a novel. So if you think you can knock out a couple in order to boost your profile... well, it's not that easy, sadly. And you've also got to sell them. While there are plenty of magazines, print and on-line - check out Ralan and Spicy Green Iguana - they all receive huge numbers of submissions. It's a difficult market to break into, and requires perseverance as much as talent. In that respect, it's excellent training for novel-writing...
 

Susan Boulton

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I agree with Ian, short story writing is a very different skill, than writing a novel. They also need as much attention, with regards to editing, as a novel.

Also, most good Mags, izines etc are swamped with submissions. But when you sell one it really does feel rather good! :) Especially when you know that the editor chose yours from among quite a few hundred submissions.
 

chrispenycate

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I know this might be an excessive simplification, but do you have any ideas which want to be short stories, whose natural length falls in that region? (I know I frequently do) If so, write them, as compactly and precisely as they need to be. As short stories, not as fragments that might be stuck together into a novel (yes, I too have read novel-length books which were essentially collections of shorts glued together to make something saleable)
The good short story has a long and honourable history is SFF, some of the createst classics arrived in that form. Not easy, no, and difficult to place, but – who here doesn't have a couple of shorts nestling among their favourites of all time?
 

ctg

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I beg to differ. An episodic novel, or a picaresque, might be like stringing short stories together, but most novels don't work that way. They have a logic and structure of their own, and most need to be thought out carefully in advance, or you find yourself writing yourself into a corner very quickly.
I didn't mean it to be rule, but more of provoking him to try to write something longer then few pages. You have to agree that developing a novel writing skill from the short story writing skill is different, but if get some hint of how to do it, then you quickly will pick up the other skills that make your story look different then a rabid series of flash scenes.

Providing answers is good, but if you provide something that one can develop from, then I see it better. How many people has been put off, because they are scared about the amount of writing you have to do, before the people can pick your book from a commercial bookshelf? How many of them are s**t scared of writing anything longer then thousand words? I know so many people who don't want to do writing, they want to do everything else but writing.
 

iansales

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The SFWA definies the various length as follows:
  • Novel — 40,000 words or more
  • Novella — 17,500–39,999 words
  • Novelette — 7,500–17,499 words
  • Short Story — 7,499 words or fewer
 

j d worthington

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I didn't mean it to be rule, but more of provoking him to try to write something longer then few pages. You have to agree that developing a novel writing skill from the short story writing skill is different, but if get some hint of how to do it, then you quickly will pick up the other skills that make your story look different then a rabid series of flash scenes.

Providing answers is good, but if you provide something that one can develop from, then I see it better. How many people has been put off, because they are scared about the amount of writing you have to do, before the people can pick your book from a commercial bookshelf? How many of them are s**t scared of writing anything longer then thousand words? I know so many people who don't want to do writing, they want to do everything else but writing.
I'm afraid that I'm in the camp of "if you're stopped by x, then you're not a writer in the first place". Writing is a tough profession -- and I use the term profession in relation to both a way to make a living and as a calling; and you have to have a certain level of "toughness" if you're going to have a ghost of a chance. The drive has to be there, or you're finished to begin with. If adverse criticisms of this sort keep you from doing the writing... then it's better to accept that fact and just write to entertain yourself and a few friends. Fear of tackling something either because it means you've got to learn to be compressed and incisive, or because it's of intimidating length -- that is, fear that actually keeps you from doing it -- most likely means you've not got what it takes to do it. If you tackle it and do it anyway, then you've just proven you do.

It's a seemingly hard-nosed attitude, and I didn't begin with it. But long observation and experience (as well as listening to both published and non-published writers) has taught me that it's pretty much the truth....
 

ctg

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Very well said, I agree on every word, but it doesn't stop me from talking to the people and provoking them to write, when I know they can write. Sometimes these people are university students, who try to figure out what to write about their graduation jobs. Other times, they might be engineers, who need to write a document on a system they had just build.

Fear is fear. Some people willingly jump out from a speeding plane to trust on a piece of fabric that is hold together with a flimsy ropes, and some people has to be forced to do it.

When I read this forum, I see people after people after people, all in the same situation. All facing a gaping hole on the side of the plane, some willingly going through it, and jumping into a lifetime long experience, and some staring it as if it would be the last thing they would in their life. I'm just the next guy in the line, willing to help the geezer on the hole to trust that he can do it.
 

Troo

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I cannot overstress the importance of writing short stories. You don't have to sell them, although obviously the trial and error will help you get used to how the whole submissions process works, and how it can vary from one publisher to the next.

Writing is a craft. If you practice writing short stories, you will get better at it, but you will also learn valuable tools that can help you produce longer work (or, heck, even shorter work, such as flash fiction).

Short stories force you to pay close attention to encapsulating characters in as few words as possible without losing impact, creating powerful dialogue that does the job with three words that you might otherwise spend twenty on, controlling the pacing within your story, and spotting plot problems.

You can apply what you have learned in writing short stories to writing novels. ctg is correct when he suggests that writing a novel can be like writing a series of short stories, and I don't believe he meant that as literally as it appears to have been interpreted.

When you come to write your novel, you generally have two options: You can either sit down and start writing straight away, letting your novel meander and evolve as you think of new things, or you can plot it out beforehand and give yourself a roadmap.

Short stories are useful if your approach is the second one. It can be daunting to think "Hell, I have 180,000 words to go," but easier to think "Okay, at 8,000 words per chapter, I have 6,000 left to go on this one." It's also nice and easy to let a "short story" chapter spill out onto the page, within your roadmap, without feeling as though you're losing sight of your target. And if you do change plot mid-chapter, it's easy to go re-write your roadmap.

What I'm not suggesting is that each chapter in a novel is a short story. It clearly isn't, otherwise what you have is an anthology, not a novel. But short story writing techniques are as valid to novel chapters as they are to the short story format itself.

Frankly any writer willing to overlook exploring a potentially useful tool is a headcase. Even if you don't take to short stories and feel that you learn nothing from the experiement, you'd be a fool not to at least try it, because turning your back on anything that can help you grow is just sheer craziness :eek:

Similarly there are novel-writing techniques that any short story writer could use to develop and grow, but that's a whole 'nother thread :eek:
 

Triceratops

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Someone expressed (upstream) that only the large and notable slick mags are likely to be noticed or recognized by agents/editors and deemed credit-worthy. And this is absolutely true. Even the SFWA has a pro rank and list for inclusion into their organization. I started off in the copies for pub payment slot, and evolved into the larger markets. But I must admit that it took me 18 months of solid ink slinging to do so. It can be done, no doubt. But you do need to make that decision of buckling down, throwing caution and hesitancy to the wind, and going after that goal with all the guts you can muster. Don't lose sight of the enjoyment factor. But realize you're in for some stout competition.

Tri
 

Tirellan

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First, writing short stories is probably harder than writing a novel. So if you think you can knock out a couple in order to boost your profile... well, it's not that easy, sadly. And you've also got to sell them. While there are plenty of magazines, print and on-line - check out Ralan and Spicy Green Iguana - they all receive huge numbers of submissions. It's a difficult market to break into, and requires perseverance as much as talent. In that respect, it's excellent training for novel-writing...
Ralan remains an excellent resource, but Spicy Green Iguana hasn't been updated for 2 years. I would also recommend Duotrope as a site full of information on markets for short fiction which casts its net wider than Ralan
 

alihale

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Wow! Many thanks for all the hugely helpful replies, everyone, I really didn't expect such a great response. :)

(By the way, ctg, I'm female, Ali's short for Alison ;) And I have finished a 105K fantasy novel -- it's only in the last year that I've started trying short fiction.)

I think from all the advice above, I've realised:
- My fantasy ideas tend to be novel-length
- My sci-fi ideas tend to be short-story length

So I'm going to have a go at a few more sci-fi short stories, and see if I can piece together something that I'm happy enough with to submit to markets. And I agree with all those who've said it can at least hone my writing style, and that every little helps on the writing CV...

Cheers again for all the help, you guys rock :D

Best,

Ali
 

j d worthington

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Very well said, I agree on every word, but it doesn't stop me from talking to the people and provoking them to write, when I know they can write.
LOL... No, nor I. And I'm all for encouraging promising new writers (of whatever age). But I also think it's important to get that bit of reality out there as a part of the process of winnowing those who will always be amateurs (which is fine -- amateurs do it for the love of the thing, and there's naught wrong with that, in my book -- but they aren't likely to become professionals) and those who will eventually make a career out of their writing.

ctg is correct when he suggests that writing a novel can be like writing a series of short stories, and I don't believe he meant that as literally as it appears to have been interpreted.

When you come to write your novel, you generally have two options: You can either sit down and start writing straight away, letting your novel meander and evolve as you think of new things, or you can plot it out beforehand and give yourself a roadmap.

Short stories are useful if your approach is the second one. It can be daunting to think "Hell, I have 180,000 words to go," but easier to think "Okay, at 8,000 words per chapter, I have 6,000 left to go on this one." It's also nice and easy to let a "short story" chapter spill out onto the page, within your roadmap, without feeling as though you're losing sight of your target. And if you do change plot mid-chapter, it's easy to go re-write your roadmap.
As for my responding so literally to ctg's analogy... that's because it can (and therefore likely will) be read that way by a fair number of people, and can prove a stumbling block in that fashion. My point in challenging it was to prevent such a misunderstanding.

However -- to prevent another kind of misunderstanding -- the model you propose is also somewhat misleading, in that both novels and short stories (generally speaking -- there are always the episodic novels mentioned above, etc.) have their own internal logic and structure, and to see a chapter as structurally a short story is a risky undertaking at best; one needs to envision the novel as an entity, regardless of length, just as one does the short story... or you're likely to find yourself falling more and more into the meandering sort of writing that ends up with you painted into corners. If anything, planning is even more important for a novel, because it's far too easy to use the extra space to allow you to wander... and find yourself derailing yourself over and over along the way.

As Chris says, each idea pretty much has its own length, and should be treated accordingly. As an example: I recently read a fair spate of Sheridan Le Fanu's work, including a short piece called "A Passage in the History of an Irish Countess", as well as his novel Uncle Silas. Essentially, they're the same tale, with the same themes, the same characters (with names changed), and the same incidents. But... the short piece, while having some worth of its own, reads as almost as a sketch for the later novel, because the ideas he was dealing with needed room to breathe; the short story form was completely wrong. When he later gave it the novel form, not only did the ideas have room to grow and become all the more powerful, but the rather simplistic villain of the short tale became one of the most memorable, complex, and menacing figures of Victorian fiction in the novel -- even taking on added spiritual dimensions and ambiguity. On the other hand, how many times have we all read more recent novels that were padded short stories because the ideas simply couldn't support that much verbiage? Think, for instance, of Jordan's Wheel of Time, where even the fans of the thing will admit that several books in the series were simply stretched out to the point of even them not caring about what was going on. And so on.

As I said, the above is simply for the sake of clarification, especially for the younger aspirant writers....

As for Ali... sounds as if you've already got a fair idea of where you want to go with this, so good luck, and keep us posted....
 

ctg

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Wow! Many thanks for all the hugely helpful replies, everyone, I really didn't expect such a great response. :)

(By the way, ctg, I'm female, Ali's short for Alison ;) And I have finished a 105K fantasy novel -- it's only in the last year that I've started trying short fiction.)

I think from all the advice above, I've realised:
- My fantasy ideas tend to be novel-length
- My sci-fi ideas tend to be short-story length
Sorry about the misunderstanding your nick wrong. Question, can you take your fantasy ideas and spice them up so that it reads like a sci-fi? Take for example Battlestar Galactica, and you can notice how easily you could set the settings in the Fantasy world (way much bigger then our planet) or take the Dragonlance-series (with Twilight ... and so on) and transmutate that storyline into the sci-fi settings. Do you see what I mean?

Note, that I do not suggest you to copy those plots, as the original story is always ... original.
 
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