Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

The question comes up fairly often, and it came up today: How far afield can an author go from established facts and still keep an audience? This is similar to our last discussion, but different. Here the question is not why some people like an author so much they will let her get away with (literary) murder, but how far an author can stretch the truth–or more specifically, how many times in one story?

I once had a story rejected because it contained Too Many Wonders. (It was capitalized in the rejection letter. I can show it to you.) The complaint was that the story had too many fantastical elements when it should have depended on one major speculation. And if that’s how the editor wanted to run his magazine, then he was right to say so. Honestly, it wasn’t the only problem with that story and he wouldn’t have taken it anyway, but I had sent in a lot of stories by that point, and I think he was trying to be encouraging. I sold the story much later, but even then the editor asked for significant changes (and he was right).

But I see stories all the time where there’s more than one speculative element! you say. And you, too, are right. If your story is set in the future, practically all of the elements will be speculative in nature. (Ironically, my story was set in the far future. Didn’t help.) The relevant phrase here is “practically all.” There’s one thing that doesn’t change, that can’t change, and that’s the human element. No matter how many changes you make, your characters have to be identifiable to present-day audiences. (Unless you’re Fred Pohl. Then you can do anything you want.)

The problem with Too Many Wonders is that they distract from the characters. I once heard it said that SF is the easiest thing to write because you don’t need characters; you can depend on gadgets and aliens and exotic settings. That is, to use a polite term, garbage. The idea of SF is to use the fantastic to explore real-world ideas without seeming to, thus allowing the author to make a point without hitting the reader over the head with relevance. (Or it can just entertain. But the best SF, the best literature, does both.)

Regardless of whether it’s serious or fun, a story should make a point. And the only elements that inhabit that story should be those that help to make that point. I thought my story fit that description, and my long-ago editor did not. You see who won that argument. So when you ask why a story should only have one speculative element, the real question is, why does it need more?

Answer that question to determine which editor will read your story. Answer that question well, and many people will read your story, over and over again.



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They say that the hardest thing to know, is to know yourself. Well, maybe they do, and maybe I just made that up. It’s hard to know. But one thing I do know is, that the longer I write, the more I understand about my own process.

Like, for instance, when I said that I thought the hardest part of re-writing a story would be coming up with a new title. I had no idea how right I was.

The story’s drafted; I need to run it by a beta reader, but I think I fulfilled the magazine’s requests–except one. I have been racking my poor excuse for a brain for over two weeks, conjuring literally dozens of ideas, and discarding them all. And then, to add insult to injury, my novel-in-progress started making noises that it wanted a permanent name, rather than just the working title I slapped on it months ago. Last night I tried on and immediately dumped five of them. I think I have the general idea in place, but nothing’s guaranteed.

What to do? I need to get this story out the door so it can (with luck) sell. I also need the brainpower to finish the novel, which, just as I thought I was entering the home stretch, began presenting new problems. (Why does every scene have to contribute to the plot? Why? I can name lots of famous authors who pad their books mercilessly, but like Tess McGill said: “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there.”*)

Perhaps I’ll try one of those random word generators. But you know the worst part? This posting. I knew its title before I ever started writing it.

Irony, thy name is writer.


*Of course, she was merely trying to smash a double-glass ceiling shielding corporate America, while I’m trying to come up with a title for a short story. Who’s got the better chance here?


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I’m working on re-writing a story. Happily, this is due to an editorial request. I sent in a story, it was considered, and the Powers That Be decided that, while in their opinion it was good, it could be better. Editors sometimes give you notes and ask if you will rewrite a story in line with those notes. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Sometimes the requested changes conflict with your idea of the story. You can always say, “No, thank you,” and move to the next market. (You want to think very carefully before you do that.)

In this instance, I reviewed the suggestions, found them palatable, and replied that not only could I make them, but only one was likely to be difficult: Changing the title.

You’d think that would be the easiest, but titles are tough–they’re like flash fiction, where you have to tell a complete story in 1000 words…except titles are much shorter.

Your title must express to the reader what kind of story it is you’re telling. Is it horror? Fantasy? Philosophical? Satirical? Is it more than one of these? Your title has to tell all of that in fewer than a half-dozen words. At least if you’re writing a book you have a cover!

Alas, it turns out that I am as good a prognosticator as I feared: I have finished a draft of the revised story, but I have no new title. And the editors were quite clear they want a new title.

I could send it back as is, arguing for my present title, or simply tossing the problem to the editors, but I tend not to want to make trouble for people who might pay me for the trouble I’ve already gone to. And nobody likes a problem author. There’s no guarantee my revision is going to meet with approval; I don’t want to stack the deck against myself.

I think back on the million monkeys typing on the million typewriters. I don’t need Shakespeare; I need maybe five words.

Maybe if I hired five monkeys with five typewriters?


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This evening, as happens so often, I spent my writing time not writing. I was involved in the practice of writing, just not the craft. I corresponded with my publisher, found a new market, looked to see if I had anything appropriate to submit, checked to make sure the story I chose wasn’t already out somewhere (an embarrassing mistake that all of us have made), submitted the story, found another new market, discovered that all of my available stories were already in submission (woohoo!), and corresponded with two (other) editors about potential projects.

Whew. Busy night. So busy I “forgot” to write; you know, that ever-demanding mistress which supposedly runs my life, and for which allegedly I breathe. So why do I not only consider this a productive evening, but fun? Aren’t I supposed to be writing, and feel guilty if I don’t?

Well, yes, I am supposed to feel guilty. Why do you think I’m writing a blog post? But that doesn’t explain why handling all of those ancillary tasks was so much fun. What is it about writers that we will do anything to keep from writing?

First of all, the idea that I would have so many ancillary tasks to do would astound the me of ten years ago, who was just starting to make some headway in the writing game. Back then the idea that I could have three published novels on the market and 11 different stories and novels on submission, would have been stunning. This level of involvement is still recent, so the novelty hasn’t worn off.

Second, attending to little necessary tasks (correspondence, submissions, charting submissions) is easy. Writing is hard. Ironically, the hardest part is when you’re sitting around apparently doing nothing. And not only is it hard, it’s scary. There’s no one to fall back on, no one to blame. You have set yourself the task of creating an entire universe and all the people in it, and then you not only have to come up with something for them to do, it has to be so amusing that other people will pay to see how you did it. They have to be willing to pay and then spend hours watching you. (In a sense.) And if you screw up, they will throw your work across the room and go on the internet just to trash you. (Okay, that applies to everyone.)

Hey, if I wanted to be watched by a hostile audience waiting for the slightest slip-up so it could savage me, and for little pay, I’d be a stand-up comic. Or a teacher.

Still…when you succeed, even if no one else likes what you did, there’s that feeling of accomplishment, that sense that to your characters, you are a god, generous in your bounty and terrible in your wrath, and you can destroy planets with a word–!

Hmm, maybe we writers shouldn’t be the ones who are scared. Maybe our characters should be concerned. That’s probably why they so often take over their own stories.

If they could just type them, too, this would be a much easier business. I’d be happy to take care of their correspondence…


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Hello, my name is Brian, and I’m a writeaholic.

Some time ago, I sadly announced that, due to extrinsic factors beyond my apparent control, I was discontinuing my planned series of neo-pulp adventure novels starring my mysterious hero, Nemesis. Some time later, I announced that I had been having some difficulty commencing a new project, but that I was feeling optimistic. I was going to overcome my own self-doubt and write as good a story as I could. Self-publishing was out, magazine stories were in.

I am not only a writeaholic, I am quite naive.

Contrary to writing novels to the exclusion of short stories for magazines, or short stories to the exclusion of novels, I am now doing both simultaneously. You have to understand, that’s not how I work. I don’t do simultaneous projects. I am not one of those writers who has six different ideas in play at once. I work on one thing, then another.

And yet here I am. I am writing a short story for the money and fame. (Ha! That’s a good one, son!) And I am writing another Nemesis novel, Marauders from the Moon, simply because that is what I want to do. And I am writing both at the same time.

Setting myself a short schedule taught me that I could write a novel very quickly. How I learned to do this thing I’m doing now is an open question. Whether I have learned to do this thing I’m doing now is likewise a question.

I feel like a newly-minted superhero exploring his own powers. I’ll try not to destroy the world.


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The premiere issue of Factor Four has bowed, several days before the anticipated April 1 date, which pleases me no end, because my story, “The Deadline,” is the first in the line-up. First story, first issue. Anyone who buys the magazine without previewing the free on-line sample (and who isn’t looking for someone in particular) will read me first.

So I’m the first of the first, before the First.

That’s gotta be a first.

Excuse me, I’ve got to get a drink of water. All this writing is making me firsty.


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I’ve recently devoted a couple of posts to advice that new authors get which may or may not be worth its weight in gold. After all, everyone agrees that there are no real “rules” in writing–except when there are. (Seriously, no. 3.) What I thought I’d like to do this go-round was offer some tips that I’ve come to value over time. These aren’t rules, so you don’t have to worry about following them. On the other hand, they might make your life easier.

  1. You don’t have to write every day. Stephen King says you do, and he probably knows more than me, but, really, you don’t have to. It would be great if you could, and you should want to, but it simply isn’t practical. We have spouses, kids, work, hobbies, friends, lives… Unless and until you’re writing full-time to support yourself, don’t feel bad if you take a day off. Or the week-end. Burn-out is a real thing. Which brings us to…
  2. If the story isn’t coming to you, walk away from it. Writer’s block is real. Staring at the screen for an hour in mounting angst isn’t going to make the words flow. (Unless that’s your process. I’ve even seen it work a few times.) But while writing should be work, it should not be combat. It’s okay to get up, take a walk, play with the dog…exercise is a great way to free your mind. But don’t feel you’re goldbricking if you take time off to charge your batteries. (See no. 1.)
  3. Do whatever you want with your first draft, because no one will ever see it. (This comes courtesy of Anne Lamott, who wrote the greatest writing book I’ve ever read, Bird by Bird. I know this isn’t a list of rules, but trust me, buy this book.) You don’t show anyone your first draft, because (a) it’s going to suck, and (b) knowing no one will see it gives you the freedom to put down any old garbage, in the interest of getting the story written. You can always edit it away, and who’s going to know? How many drafts did Tolkien take to write Lord of the Rings? Beats me, what difference does it make? You only get to read the final version.
  4. Trust your instincts. If you feel a passage isn’t working while you write it, your reader isn’t going to like it, either. Feel free to trash it. I once had to delete and re-write the first 20,000 words of a novel. It hurt, but I went on to finish the book, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
  5. Don’t expect perfection. You won’t get it. Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns. Let someone read your third draft. Submit the story to some markets. See what happens. And get started on a new story. One of the best ways to deal with rejection is to know you already have something even better working.
  6. Don’t get discouraged. You will, of course. It’s inevitable. It can take years (decades!) to sell even a single story. Even when you’ve done that, there’s always another step to climb, another plateau to reach, another market to crack. Take a breath, look behind you, and see how far you’ve come. (Or try re-reading some of your earliest stories, if you dare.)
  7. Defy rejections with persistence. Send that story out again. And again. And again. I’ve sold stories to top-paying venues that had been rejected two dozen times. I sold one story that had been rejected 44 times. “Never give up. Never surrender.”

The classic image of a writer is a loner crouched over his desk in a freezing garret. It may be classic, but it’s not true. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together; we understand what it’s like. And take one last tip from me: It never gets any easier.

But it’s worth it.

ETA: There are no original ideas, and somebody is almost always writing the same story (or blog post) as you, possibly better. Case in point.


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