I have a love/hate relationship with short stories.
I’ve written a few of them, and some have been published. I don’t write a lot of short stories and since I’ve been publishing with some regularity, I have seen maybe 40% of them published, which is a pretty good—maybe even way better than average—record of success. But there’s success then there’s success.
Based on, “if you write it and it’s published,” then yes, all of my published short stories have been successful. But judged on the criteria, “and I’m not embarrassed to have people read it,” I’ve had a less “successful” run.
Once again, this is not me being charmingly self-effacing. This is me wanting to be as good at this whole writing thing as I can possibly be, and that requires some level of realism and self-critique. Recently, I’ve been exposed to a few more short stories than had become normal for me. I’ve been judging a short story contest, I’ve been teaching a class that includes weekly writing assignments and since it’s not realistic to ask my students to write a novel every week those come in the form of short stories, I’ve been reading more short stories, and I’ve been writing more of them myself, too. I just finished one for Darrin Drader and the Monumental Works Group’s upcoming anthology to benefit marriage equality, am busy writing a science fiction story for R.T. Kaelin’s Triumph Over Tragedy project to benefit victims of Superstorm Sandy, and I still owe a pulp SF story to Tommy Hancock at ProSe. Busy!
This has got me thinking about short stories and what makes them good and what makes them bad. Let’s stipulate, first of all, that you should know how to write. Short stories require properly constructed sentences, words spelled correctly—that kind of “detail stuff.”
But one thing has come to mind lately in terms of my own work, and that is what I’ve come to call “Character vs. Gimmick.”
As a kid I read a lot of short stories. I was (and still am) a huge fan of Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and many other great practitioners of the form. One of the things that drew me to the short story was the surprise ending, the cruel twist of fate. And this is what’s gotten in my way, too.
I’ve way too often (and let’s just call it, people: Once is too often) approached a short story gimmick first then tried to force in some other “ancillary” stuff like characters, theme, plot, and other annoying little details like that. What I ended up with is either the best case scenario in terms of that beginning, which is that I never finished the story in the first place. The basic failure mode is that I forced myself to finish it then forced it on editors who then mercifully turned it away. The third option has only, thankfully, happened once, and that was that one of these gimmick stories was actually published. God help us all.
Here are a few examples:
I wrote a short story that I did actually manage to finish in one sitting at a (a tear rolls slowly down my cheek) Borders cafe a few years ago. The gimmick: We meet a suburban gentleman, a lawyer, and follow his morning routine with increasing “tension” until the big reveal . . . he’s Cthulhu’s lawyer!
There are bits of that story that I actually like. And I think that’s what led me to send it to some poor, unsuspecting editors, all of whom have had the good sense to send it right back. I was so intent on “the big reveal” in that story that I forgot to give a crap about the character, give him something interesting to do, have anything like conflict . . . it’s just a couple short scenes, a gory bit, then the big “guess what” moment, which I doubt anyone’s read far enough to actually encounter.
One of the to do list items that I keep cutting and pasting into the next day, then the next week, is “Finish SF cannibals story.”
The gimmick: Human space explorers encounter an alien species that practices ritualized cannibalism. In true missionary spirit the human explorers show the aliens the error of their ways, and the aliens promptly turn on them as a new food source. This is my anti-missionary polemic via “shocker” ending. Who are these human explorers? Why are they there? Why do they interfere? Are they all on the same page? Who are the aliens and why are they cannibals, and why do they turn on the humans?
Can’t be bothered with details like that!
I actually started writing this three times, and the last time it was from the point of view of the on-board computer. God help me.
And then there was the epic fail of the published short story “Leviathan” in the (thankfully) out of print Magic: The Gathering anthology The Myths of Magic, which was edited by my friend and comrade-in-arms Jess Lebow. Jess was being nice to me when he shouldn’t have. What he should have done was take me aside and say, “Hey, Phil, read your story and it TOTALLY SUCKS. Let’s figure out how to make it not suck.” I would have gone back to the drawing board. Lest you think that was just me blaming Jess for my own failings, it really isn’t. At the heart of the whole thing is me writing to a gimmick again. I was doing a “fantasy take on Jonah and the Whale,” I think—mixed in with some kind of anti- or pro-drug message? Something about using limited resources irresponsibly? I don’t even know what I was thinking, but what I ended up with was a meandering, plotless mess devoid of things like recognizable characters or a point. I cringe even thinking about this story, and the dozen years since its publication has in no way diminished my self-loathing over the whole sordid debacle.
Two years later, Jess was putting together another anthology and I begged him for a chance to redeem myself. I knew “Leviathan” was awful and I wanted to balance the books with Jess, Magic readers, myself, and the universe by doing better. The result was the story “Song for the Plague Rats” in The Secrets of Magic.
This is one of those stories I really feel good about. First of all, I fell upon Jess’s knowledge of the complex Magic back-story and forced him to give me parameters that would be meaningful for Magic players. He gave me some good stuff—the first meeting of two of the setting’s better-known characters: a future Planeswalker and the vampire Baron Sengir. As a Magic player I was familiar with the Plague Rats card and combined that with a dark gothic fantasy take on The Pied Piper. Sounds like the beginning of a “gimmick” story, doesn’t it?
Well, it does have a sort of “surprise ending” in the reveal of the young boy as Baron Sengir, but that wasn’t really what the story was about. The story is about a young girl finding a way to take control of her very miserable life after her family is taken by a plague. I was given the surprise ending, the basic parameters of the characters, but I started with characters—what they wanted, where they came from, their emotional and psychological baggage, their fears and desires . . . and I ended up with a story that I felt really good about.
So why, then, twelve years after the humiliation of “Leviathan” am I still trying to force my way through “SF Cannibal Story” or Cthulhu’s lawyer? Have I learned nothing?
I have learned my lessons, though I may have forgotten them along the way. The lesson of this week’s post is twofold:
Start with characters, always.
And if at first you don’t succeed, be honest about what you screwed up and don’t forget to keep working to get better.