Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Let's Hear It For Short Stories!

I grew up with a love-hate relationship with short fiction. Having to read short stories in school almost ruined them for me. Actually, the reading was fine; it was the having to answer the brain-dead, pointless, intellectually insulting questions about those stories that made me want to throw the books across the classroom. I had no idea what criteria the textbook authors were using, but if this was what short fiction was about, I could not understand why anyone would voluntarily read it.

And yet, as soon as I got a library card, I checked out volume after volume of Groff Conklin's anthologies. I read the few digest magazines in my possession so many times, I wore them out. I could almost recite some of those stories word for word. I decided that the field of short fiction was divided into two parts: the dry, tedious stuff that no one in her right mind would have anything to do with; and the cool stuff - the stories that grabbed me right away and swept me into worlds filled with surprises, nifty ideas, and no-holds-barred excitement. I could indulge myself for an entire afternoon, or sneak in one of my favorites and still have time to finish my homework. Although the prose was not of the elevated literary sort (a good thing, in my opinion) and the characters might be cardboard supporting actors for the above-mentioned Incredibly Nifty Ideas And Situations (I didn't care), these stories got the most important things right. They didn't muck around with showing off the author's vocabulary; the "point" wasn't dreary and obscure. They were complete stories, single-minded of purpose, with well-defined beginnings, middles, and ends, and the characters had actual goals and perils. These were stories I wanted to read, and hence they were what I attempted to write.

Two academic degrees and a kid later, I embarked upon a serious writing career. The conventional wisdom of that time, still held by many, was that you began by writing short fiction and then "graduated" to novels. This was supposed to teach you the fundamentals of writing. Short fiction, you understand, contains all the necessary elements, only in condensed form, like literary Campbell's Soup. Why anyone thinks it's easier to make every sentence accomplish three things when in a novel-length work it has to do only one, I don't know. In this case, short does not equal simplified. In addition, at that time there were quite a few markets for short fiction, and new ones popping up all the time (and disappearing, so it behooved the beginning writer to keep track of current listings, an art in itself).
It turned out, however, that short stories were no more difficult for me than those of any other length. It was easier to send off a short story for critique than an entire novel, not to mention the savings in copying and postage. Having to create a new world for each story gave me lots of practice. The clincher came when Marion Zimmer Bradley, with whom I'd been corresponding, told me she was going to edit an anthology of women's sword and sorcery and would I like to send her a story, no promises. My fate as a short fiction writer was sealed.

Print markets for short fiction have come and gone, editors have come and gone, and yet people persist in reading the darned things. Clearly, I'm not alone in loving good short fiction. But one of the enduring challenges has been the ephemeral nature of most magazine publications. The issue comes out one month and all is rapture and celebration. A few short weeks later, that issue has been replaced by the next, and the availability of back issues shrivels rapidly. Unless a story is reprinted in an anthology, it may be impossible to find (or to find at a price one can afford for a collector's copy) a decade or two hence. Those anthologies I loved contained reprints, "The Best Of...", but these have largely given way largely to originals. (Not that I'm complaining. I've had the pleasure of editing a number of original anthologies.)

I think that electronic publishing may be the best thing to happen to short fiction in a long while. Most of your favorite authors have backlists of those ephemeral stories. (I say most because some writers are natural novelists, and they are no less wonderful, they just don't have long bibliographies of shorter work.) Epublishing is a great way to make these available again. Shorts are usually priced so a reader can pick up one or four to explore an author's work without having to invest a great deal of money.
And shorts still offer the advantage that you can read a whole story in one sitting. In the airport or doctor's office, on your lunch break, at bedtime. Just load up a couple of dozen on your ereader and you're set. Sometimes you want the length and complexity of a novel, to spend hundreds of pages exploring a world and hanging out with characters who have become your friends. But other times, you want to jump into a story and jump out again with the full satisfaction and sense of completeness that a short story can bring.

At Book View Café, I'm embarking on an experiment in short fiction publication. Today, I offer you not one but four for your delectation. Three are fantasy, and one is science fiction. I had a wonderful time writing each of them, and I hope you'll enjoy reading them, too.

"Take two, they're small." And only $0.99 each.

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