The Challenge of Short Stories   Leave a comment

I confess, most of my short stories have been sitting, gathering dust since early this year. There’s just been too much editing taking my time and too much work on the genre romance side of the Force. But the editing has let up a little in the last couple of weeks, and I’ve slowly begun sending things out to markets again.

The hazard with short stories is that for many of us, they are simply a hit-or-this medium. Don’t let anyone tell you that a short story is somehow easier or less than a novel. It’s fewer words. It may or may not take less time to write, revise, polish, research markets, and submit. The short length leads to having to compress all of your story elements, while still working them in. You have to make the reader care about your characters, provide the exposition and setting that SF/F usually requires, and build an acceptable plot and ending, all in no more than 7500 words, and usually less.

Endings in particular are the curveball that seems to slip right by some readers, no matter what the writer does. I say that as both a writer and a reader. In college, when I was doing upper-level fiction seminars, we all bemoaned the difficulty of ending short stories. The general consensus, from both the class and the instructor, was that you can either end a short story on a particular thought (often conveyed in dialogue) that makes everything fall into place for the reader, or on an image which relates thematically and gives a sense of closure.

Notice how neither one of these sounds much like the sort of ending you’d expect in a novel.

One of the markets I have a short story out to right now takes submissions in a workshopping forum. There is no other way to submit to that market, so you have to be prepared for the possibility of feedback from readers along the way, and those readers may or may not “get” your story. It’s not going to hit for everyone. The particular story I submitted is a science fiction quest story with a twist at the end. After about two weeks on the forum, I have exactly one comment, from someone who doesn’t feel the ending is working. Someone who feels too much is left unresolved.

I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It could be good that in two weeks, no one else has had any constructive criticism for me, and the one person who did didn’t think there was anything wrong with what I had, only that she wanted more.

(Incidentally, I don’t find that an unacceptable reaction at all–the story wraps up, and I feel good about the ending I gave it, but it does, in fact, set the stage for future stories. I told the story of a revelation. Anything subsequent will be the story of the resulting revolution.)

It could also be a bad thing. When you’ve written something with nothing wrong with it, except it just doesn’t grab people… Well, sometimes it’s just not the right fit for a particular market, and very often that goes back to what type of endings the editors at that market are drawn towards. If that’s not the case, it may mean that you–I–have written a perfectly acceptable story which suffers from the ultimate damning judgment: it’s okay. Not bad, not terrible, but also not great, not exciting. Bad can sometimes be fixed. Uninteresting, almost never.

It’s only one market, and it’s only been two weeks. it’s only one story. I’m not exactly panicking. But the long silences bring out self-doubt, and I start to wonder if I’ve committed the tragic error of being…just okay.

Posted August 3, 2012 by April L'Orange in Uncategorized

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