Five Tips for Writing Great Short Fiction: The Case For Classic Adventure

Friday , 26, August 2016 13 Comments

Short Reviews will return next week! In the meantime, enjoy this rejected bit of click-bait I wrote a while back.

Short fiction has entered a strange, new and exciting phase, particularly in the realm of Science Fiction.  While we hear in some quarters that short fiction is dying and no one reads short fiction any more, we’re also seeing a boom in short fiction, in no small part boosted by self-publishing through outlets such as Amazon and independent anthologies.  And though you won’t be able to get rich selling a story here and there to various publications, dedicated journeyman short fiction writers have a wide range of opportunities.  Additionally, there is, I think, a growing hunger for short fiction as people are looking for more quickly consumed reading material that they can fit into their busy lives.

There seem to be at present two branches of short fiction in the SFF field, and while one is ascendant, the other may be in decline.  While they still garners praise and awards in certain circles, the more ‘literary’ and sometimes experimental thought pieces, or those that deal with subjects like ‘an AI helps someone come out as LGBT’, aren’t really the sort of thing that will appeal to most readers and are being left behind by broader readerships. On the other hand, we are beginning to see a renewed interest in thrilling stories of daring-do, capable individuals overcoming trials in awesome ways and, yes, falling in love while doing so. Personally, I’d like to see more writers getting in on the rise of thrilling and exciting short fiction being written in the spirit of SFF’s golden hey-day than being bogged down in the mires that have pushed short fiction out of the mainstream.

So, my advice for writers who want to get in on what readers are looking for:

  1. Tell a story – Now, this should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about a lot of short fiction is that the authors craft these nebulous and murky mood pieces that simply never go anywhere. Fletcher Vredenburgh, a writer for Black Gate magazine, describes the problem as “a dearth of basic storytelling” where stories “just drift over the page like puffs of smoke with no narrative force, no energy.” Atmosphere is great, and chewing on existential bones is well and good, but there has to be something that makes the reader actually care. If there’s no pay-off, you’ve not only wasted the reader’s time, you may have put them off short fiction in general.
  2. People Want Heroes and Heroics – While there’s a time and a place for grimdark, I think we’re going to start to see the band spring back the other way towards a desire to see good guys. You may hear that people want to see themselves in characters; what they really want are characters who they could aspire to be and will cheer along during their adventures.
  3. Diversity Be Damned, Tell a Good Story – There’s a bizarre myth that the golden age of SFF was full of helpless damsels being saved by white men, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. What you had were stories where clever, capable and competent men and clever, capable and competent women—of all manner of color—worked together, fought together and helped each other through all manner of exciting circumstance. If you try to shoehorn in diversity, that’s all people will notice and focus on.  Ironically, if you tell a great story, a lot of people won’t care or even notice the diversity.  How many folks remember that John Carter and Dejah Thoris were an interracial couple? Or that Eric John Stark was black? People who want to read good and electrifying tales far outnumber those who only care about ‘seeing themselves reflected in the characters’.
  4. Don’t Forget the Kids! – The Young Adult “genre” has been booming for a number of years, and what are the most popular series? Action-packed science fiction and fantasy titles. Kids (and a lot of adults) don’t want to read navel gazing think-pieces on identity that happen to take place in space or elfland; they are reading stories about dashing heroes fighting for their friends, for their loved ones and for justice. A lot of the classics were as popular with kids as they were with adults. Edgar Rice Burroughs is great evidence that boys will not just read but devour ‘romance’ writing, so long as it’s inspirational and aspirational and hits the sweet spot of being tantalizing but not dirty (don’t let the heavy-metal artwork fool you, the Barsoom books are about an honorable gentleman and a noble lady). And let’s not kid ourselves that girls reading the Hunger Games weren’t invested in whether Katniss ended up with Gale or Peter-with-no-r.  So, if you leave out explicit content but leave in the romance, it’s not hard to have young readers on the hook.
  5. Read the Classics – Short fiction from the first half of the 20th century was not only really good, it was very widely read! These were stories that had enormous appeal to men, women and children alike. Adventure has a universal appeal. While certain critics might applaud the kind of introspective claptrap that you see up for awards for their ‘progressive message’ or ‘promoting diversity’, most people won’t care or will simply roll their eyes, and a man who’ll have to bellycrawl across the mud to take out a German machine-gun nest tomorrow sure as hell isn’t gonna trade a pack of Lucky Strikes for a chance to read it. Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Ross Rocklynne, Robert Howard, C.L. Moore – these are just a few names to get you started, but reading them will make you see short fiction in a whole new light, and familiarity with them will doubtless bring a new spark to your own writing.

Want to read the kind of stories I’m talking about? Subscriptions for Cirsova 3 & 4 are available now!

13 Comments
  • Jill says:

    I love short stories; hence, my utter disappointment in the Hugo winning story this year. My favorite short story authors are Bradbury and Chekhov–also Wodehouse, if I’m in the mood. Du Maurier–she wrote some creepy stuff I liked when I was young. Sorry, your post just hit my nostalgia button. There are so many more greats out there, too.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    I never knew that the short pieces published today often failed to tell a story — I thought it was just all the ones I happened to run into.

    But yes, “tell a story” should be blindingly obvious.

  • Hey, thanks for the shout out. I admitted in the comments on my recent Black Gate that I’m possibly easier in my reviews of stories than my readers. The reason is I’m happy, heck, excited, when a S&S story has plot/action/characters/setting, and not just tedious moralizing. I read so many stories where the writers clearly miss (or reject) the valuable points you make.

  • Gaiseric says:

    I don’t know why there’s this rush to condemn stories about white men saving beautiful white damsels in distress when your audience is primary white men. In fact, one could make a case that forgetting that is a big part of what went wrong with the industry and its disconnect with its audience, which largely remains the same as it was.

    And Eric John Starke is indeed described as black, but not in the sense of “descended from natives of sub-Saharan Africa” as we usually use the term today.

    • Alex says:

      “And Eric John Starke is indeed described as black, but not in the sense of “descended from natives of sub-Saharan Africa” as we usually use the term today.”

      Y’know, this is something I’ve been curious about. Does Brackett ever make this explicit beyond the reference to the Sun on Mercury? Heck, it’s plausible to me that black folks would’ve been used by the Mercurian mining companies in part because of their skin. In the two Stark stories I’ve read so far, he’s been described as “black” and called an ape and gorilla man, but nothing that has really said “he’s actually just a white guy with black skin”. Does this come up in the Skaith books or from something Brackett herself has said? I’d also note that other contemporary Mercury based stories I’ve read by other authors haven’t shared this feature (Brackett’s way of including black folks by stealth?) Because in the first two Stark novellas, you have to read between the lines pretty hard to see anything other than ‘Stark is a black guy’. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I haven’t managed to find any actual citation of this claim anywhere.

  • Gaiseric says:

    I don’t know; I may well have read what I wanted to into those passages. The Wikipedia article on Eric John Stark says, “While Stark is described many times as having very dark skin, he appears to be of Caucasian rather than African descent; Brackett repeatedly tells her readers that Stark’s unusual coloring is due to prolonged exposure to extreme sunlight while growing up on the planet Mercury. Brackett openly created Stark as a pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ popular John Carter of Mars and Tarzan characters, and Stark’s sun-blackened skin is the Mercurian version of Tarzan’s sun-bronzed skin.”

    I recall seeing lots of references while reading the stories to his skin being dark as a result of the sun, but again; it’s not something that I’ve done a conclusive study of. I haven’t even read an Eric John Stark story in a good five years.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, part of why it gives me pause is that it’s an uncited, unsourced claim on wikipedia, and given some of the falsehoods out there about Brackett, I’m hesitant to take anything said about her or her writings at face value.

      Though it’s mentioned he has light eyes and his skin is sun-blackened, the sort of insults hurled against him (such as calling him a “great black ape”), his status as an outsider and noble savage, and his ‘true’ name N’Chaka which (though given to him by Mercurian natives) which has a pseudo-African sound to it, all seem to signal black as most folks might’ve understood it then. It is, however, remarked upon by another Venusian character that being from Mercury is why his skin would be so black; at the same time, though, how different is that from the assumption that folks in Africa are so black cuz of all the sun there?

      It’s one of those things where it could really go either way, because it’s never (to my knowledge) explicitly stated.

  • Gaiseric says:

    I’d like to find a good comprehensive bibliography of the Eric John Stark stories and where they’re found one of these days. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read all of them.

    • Alex says:

      There were originally three Novellas: Queen of the Martian Catacombs, Enchantress of Venus, and Black Amazon of Mars. Each of those were cover stories in Planet Stories Summer 1949, Fall 1949 and March/Spring 1951 respectively. Queen of the Martian Catacombs was expanded into The Secret of Sinharat, and Black Amazon of Mars was expanded into People of the Talisman – these were released together as an ACE Double. In the mid 70s, Brackett Brought back Stark for The Ginger Star, Hounds of Skaith and Reavers of Skaith. Pretty sure that’s all of them, though a number of Brackett’s other Mars and Venus stories share the same setting.

    • Alex says:

      Oh, there was another one, Stark and the Star Kings, though that was a collab with Hamilton and put out through Haffner Press about 10 years ago (so is probably gonna be next to impossible to find unless you’re willing to shell out big bucks).

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