Why You Should Be Writing Short Stories

Some of the best writing advice I have ever received was given to me by an editor at World Fantasy Convention. Simply put, he said I needed to write short stories. His reasoning was that writing short stories will teach you craft better than jumping straight into novels will. Also, it will teach you how to actually finish a story. After slogging through two novels (both still incomplete) and then successfully completing six short stories, I can tell you that his advice certainly worked for me. And each story written was better than the last.

In a recent blog post, Kristine Kathryn Rusch gave similar advice, but for different reasons. She looks at the short form from a business perspective. I’d highly recommend reading her original post, but basically she said that the current market conditions, as well as the ability to reassume complete control of the rights of your story after a short amount of time, lend great potential to making a career of short story writing.

There are other reasons as well. If you write speculative fiction, you probably have plenty of notes, or perhaps even notebooks, of worldbuilding trivia, including some semblance of a history of your world. How many interesting stories can be mined from all this material? Chances are there are a few, and if you’re writing a series, these stories will also help draw new readers to those other works, and vice versa (which is the exact tack I’m taking with my short story collection and subsequent novel). An author whom I think has done a remarkable job with this method is Peter Orullian. Before his book was released, he published a few short stories related to the novel on Tor.com. I’m sure the stories helped generate more interest in the book than there would otherwise have been. It worked for me; I bought the book on release day based on the strength of those stories. Another advantage to writing stories about those events that otherwise exist only in your notes is that it could help flesh them out in your own mind, providing more concrete detail from which to draw for your novel.

I know what some of you are thinking: “I’m a novelist, not a short story writer!” I thought the same thing before. But then I gave it a shot, and now I’m a firm believer in short stories. While not everyone will get much out of writing them, it costs very little in the way of time, and the potential benefits are too great to ignore. Who knows? You might even like it.

Faith

I am a Christian of a conservative evangelical stripe. (If it matters to you, I lean to the Calvinist end of the Christian theological spectrum.) I am not ashamed of this.

I also love to read and write science fiction and fantasy. I am not ashamed of this.

This is not a contradiction in terms, or an oxymoron, or a paradox, or an antinomy, or any other such condition. Sorry, it’s not. This is, however, leading me to scratch a particular itch that has been bugging me for a loooooong time.

No, I’m not going to indulge in a theological rant. Not my purpose here. Nor do I intend to delve into issues of morality, ethics, doctrine, or comparative theology. (Contact me off line if you want to have that kind of discussion.) I’m not even going to discuss whether or not religion should be a part of whatever cultural world building you do. (Although that would be an interesting discussion in its own right.) What I do want to do is raise a few points about how religion is portrayed in fiction-or more specifically, how people of faith are portrayed in fiction.

As I have admitted, I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. In the last (mumble) years, I have noticed a trend. It’s more prevalent, I believe, in science fiction and modern urban and paranormal fantasy than it is in more general or high/epic/quest fantasies.

There has always been a tendency for science fiction as a genre to treat religion as if it is irrelevant. But increasingly of late, I see stories where characters who are people of strong religious faith are consistently described as if they are either congenital idiots who are so stupid that they willfully believe in things that are patent falsehoods, or they are amoral connivers and hucksters, or they are amoral religious fanatics whose most fervent desire is to destroy anyone and everything that does not fit their very narrow viewpoint of what is right and proper. I as a reader am left with the implication that the only reasonable people around are those who are not religious.

Granted, religion has from time immemorial been a haven for con-men to take advantage of their credulous neighbors.

Granted, a lot of people today go through the religious motions just so they can find social or business or political advantages.

Granted, institutionalized religion has been involved in a good many wrongs over the centuries.

This does not mean, however, that all people who are truly believers in whatever they profess must necessarily fall into those categories. The majority of people of faith are good people, moral people, who care about what’s right and wrong and care about other people. That’s been true throughout history, and is still true today. To consistently portray them as a whole as mentally deficient, as power-hungry despots, or as wolves preying on sheep is unrealistic. An individual character can be credulous, or venal, or fanatical as the story demands, but an entire class of characters shouldn’t be. It’s sloppy world building. It makes for cardboard cutout two-dimensional characters, which in turn makes for sloppy writing and two-dimensional stories.

It’s not dishonest to write stories about characters whose beliefs are different from your own. Eric Flint makes no secret that he’s an atheist, yet many of his characters in the 1632 series are accurately and warmly portrayed in their religious beliefs. I’ve read that David Weber is a lay Methodist speaker, and I know from personal correspondence that he is a man of Christian faith of some depth, yet he has skillfully portrayed characters in several of his Honor Harrington novels of a level of religious or political fanaticism that would rival the worst we’ve seen in real life in the last twenty years. And personally, I wrote a story in which the bad guy was totally amoral and a rapist. (And yes, I was very glad to get that story done so I could get him out of my head!) Yet I promise you that his nature and beliefs were not consonant with mine.

It is dishonest, however, to write stories about characters and not portray them fully. It is dishonest to craft characters and tar them with the brush of all the excesses and sins committed by others under a particular banner (be it Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Republican, Democrat, atheist) but not give them credit for their virtues. Even out and out villains have some virtues-how much more should regular people have?

And in the end, it makes for boring reading. Really.

Is the same thing happening in other genres?

How Many Authors Have You Rejected?

When I go to a bookstore, I walk straight past the romance and horror and non-fiction over to the fantasy and science fiction section, and often browse the young adult (YA) aisles as well. Even though I know there are great books on the other shelves, those are the genres I’m interested in reading.

Now I want to find a book.

What I’m looking for depends on my personal tastes, what I last read, what kind of story I prefer, and what I consider to be a “good” book. My friends have different opinions and they have loved books that have done nothing for me, and I’ve been crazy about a book that they found “okay”.

In order to make a decision about which book to buy, I read the back copy. Sometimes I put the book back, sometimes I start reading the first chapter. I know within the first few pages whether or not I want to spend 3-4 hours with that book.

When I finally choose a book, buy it, and walk out of the bookstore, it’s nothing personal against all of those other authors .. but I have just rejected them.

 

Now – take that above situation and translate it in to an agent’s world … far more people than they could ever represent, some queries that appeal to them more than others, deciding which manuscript they want to spent 1-2 years of their life with, and then sending out rejections to the rest. Nothing personal, the agent just didn’t choose your book.

 

Black and White vs Grey, Part 1: The Black and White Team

 

I’ve seen heated debates in more than one fandom about the proper role of the story’s villains. The more I see of these arguments, the more I feel that one side isn’t “more right” than the other; it’s a case of two different audiences, each looking for something different from their fiction. This article grew into a trilogy where I’ll take a look at each side of the antagonist debate and examine the different techniques for writing each type.

One of the teams in the villain debate is looking for stories with black and white morality. They want heroes who are heroic; sometimes role models, but more often, wish-fulfillment figures. These are characters who do what the reader likes to fantasize that she could do if she were stronger, richer, a spy, a sorceress. The reader would like to be the hero. The villain, therefore, must be very villainous. There is a sense of security in knowing for a fact that the villain is bad and the hero is justified in whatever measures she might need to take in order to bring him down.

This isn’t to say that the antagonist has no reasons for his actions, nor does it force him to become a cartoon villain who does what he does purely for love of evil (or hatred of goodness). The villain might represent a different political ideology (a dictator, a terrorist, a Nazi,). He might be a criminal. He might be a social deviant. He might covet the hero’s love interest, or be jealous of the hero, or be motivated by some other negative personality trait such as greed or selfishness. He might well have a reason for doing what he does, but it’s a reason the reader can clearly recognize as “bad.”

The opposing camp argues that the “black and white team” are looking for a story that isn’t realistic. When villains are rotten to the core, there is none of the messiness of real life-no innocents hurt, no unjust actions taken, no questioning one’s behaviour, no devil’s compromises. Taken to extremes, the plot can be very simplistic: good guys trounce bad guys and the reign of “justice” is assured.

However, those in the “black and white team” aren’t looking for nitty-gritty reality: they’re looking for escapism. They want to relax and enjoy a story where they’re assured that they know what’s going on and who to cheer for. They get their pleasure from feeling a connection to the hero, hating the villain, and following the hero through to her victory. A well-written “black and white team” story will entertain while it fulfills the reader’s fantasy.

What kind of villain should authors write? First and foremost, the kind that suits the story. There is nothing “wrong” with the black-and-white team; they are an audience willing to buy the fiction that delivers what they’re looking for.

If you’re writing “black and white team,” make sure your hero has qualities that readers would enjoy fantasizing about, emulating, or sympathizing with. Avoid cartoon villainy by giving your villain a reason for his behaviour; be careful not to take him too far over the top into gratuitous acts of evil for evil’s sake. Create the kind of villain your audience will love to hate, and they will cheer as your hero takes him down.