MisCon 28: Art of the Short Story

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Art of the Short Story
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, M. H. Bonham, Ken Scholes, Mark Teppo
Panel description: The ubiquitous short story panel. Join our talented short story writers as they discuss the ins and outs of short stories, and whether it is still (or ever was) the path to having longer fiction published.

MT: Besides monetary reasons for writing short stories, what do you gain creatively?

KS: More self awareness. I love the beauty of it, the challenge. I could challenge myself by asking what’s the quirkiest, fucked up way I can tell it? A short story is like a fling in Mexico. A novel is like a marriage.

SAB: I like short stories because they let you experiment with things you can’t do in a novel. Different point of view, subjects, presentations.

MHB: I’ve never considered myself a short story writer, but it lets me experiment. It’s a very different type of writing than novel writing. It hones a different writing skill set and the writing brain. It’s more concise and precise. Short stories have a word count limit. It forces you to write more concisely. The focus is more on what you’re writing.

MT: I’ve heard of many approaches to short stories. One is that there should be as many scenes in the story as there are characters. Do you have rules?

MHB: When I’m doing a short story for an anthology they have guidelines for writing a story about “this.” A lot of it ends up humorous. I can play with humor more. In terms of focusing, I have a situation that the main character needs to solve and I have them make it worse. At the end, they finally solve it and have an epiphany or surprise that they and the audience doesn’t expect. A wrap up. The main thing with the climax is what the audience gets out of it.

SAB: I’m a pantser. I get a first sentence and go from there. I get one third of the way through before knowing where to go. It’s important where you know where to go. Short stories need discipline because of the word count. There has to be action. You have to have a point to the story. The story must tell you why it exists.

KS: Sometimes guidelines are given by a themed anthology, but it comes down to the person the readers care about. Have the character face problems that the readers can identify with and in a place they find believable. This becomes support for a suspension of disbelief. See Writing to the Point by Algis Budrys. Even though what he says is formulaic, it works. In a story, the character fails and complicates the problem again and again until he solves it and changes.

MHB: You can only do that three times or it feels contrived.

KS: Or if you do it more times, it’s a novel rather than a short story.

MT: What’s the difference between an epiphany and a resolution in a short story?

MHB: In a short story, there can be a resolution, but it’s more likely to end up with an “oh, that’s why it happened.” That satisfies the reader even though the problem isn’t solved. In These Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, the story doesn’t resolve the way we want it, but it gives the reader an epiphany–that we can’t consider things without the human factor. It’s not a resolution, but it exists.

SAB: Choices reveal the character. The villain isn’t born evil. He made choices that led him there.

KS: In my work, the epiphany leads to failure or success. There are two layers. The external conflict leads to change internally. In War of the Worlds (Tom Cruise version), the main character was a bad dad. The Mars invasion forces him to become a better dad. Use problems that people relate to. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

MHB: There are more than equations in humanity. If it’s only physics, we take out the humanity.

Q: How important is it to read short stories in order to write them?

KS: I’ve read many. It’s important. See what the magazines you’re submitting to are doing. Read representative short stories from top writers. Flannery O’Connor. Hemingway.

MT: You can’t expand your ability as a writer without seeing what’s out there. But be careful not to parody. I don’t read in the same genre.

MHB: If you’re primarily a novel reader, the novel form will be ingrained in you. So it’s important to read many short stories to get a feel for pacing, the number of characters, and plots. There aren’t many plot lines in short stories. Once you read and understand, it’s easier to write. It’s the same the other way around, if you only read short stories, don’t write a novel unless you’ve read them.

SAB: You need to pick out a point of motivation and focus on that because there’s a limited word count. Get to the point and develop it quickly with a satisfactory ending. If it’s a flat, illogical ending, you failed the story. Markets evolve. Find out if they want more action or more internal conflict. Editors and readers look for different things.

MT: What happens if you have a short story and realize that it’s a novel idea?

KS: That was an accident for me when I wrote the Psalms of Isaak. It came from a dare. I wrote the short story. The market I sent it to closed. Later it sold to Realms of Fantasy. When I saw the artwork for the story, I realized that the story was bigger. I thought I could write four short stories. My second story got rejected, but the editor told me to write it as a novel instead. Then I was later dared to write the novel. So I kicked out the ends of the short story and expanded it.

MT: My experience was different. I took five to six years to develop a world. Each world works differently in each story so I still need to figure out the grounding.

SAB: I have no problem with vomiting out the words. If I’m stuck, I pretend there’s a word count limit. I get the discipline from figuring out what’s important in the short story. Then the excess crap goes away. If by 5,000 words you’re still setting up the world, the story needs to be a novel.

MHB: I’ve only had that happen with one short story. I was experimenting with writing in a Japanese world and had a surprise ending. I thought it was a fun story and thought that there was more I could do with it because the characters were interesting. It’s worth trying to do. If you’re enjoying the characters and playing with the world, then try a novel.

Q: Is it possible to sell a collection of short stories set in the same world? Does that work in publishing?

MT: They call those mosaics, like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

KS: Most big publishers don’t like collections because there’s not much money in them. The Martian Chronicles sold piece by piece first. Then they made the stories into a collection and sold it twice.

MT: Rachel Pollack managed to put a cover on a collection of several stories.

SAB: Zenna Henderson brought short stories together by writing bridges between them in The Book of the People.

MHB: Sky Warrior Books rarely does collections, but usually it’s only from authors we’ve known for a while. The short stories have already been published in zines. The author has a name. If you don’t have a name, they don’t have a reason to buy the collection. In a collection, there are known short stories but there’s also new short stories there.

Q: Is it okay to switch point of view multiple times in a short story?

KS: Not for a short story because there’s not enough time to get into the characters. But anything can be done if it’s done well.

MT: After the first sentence, what’s the importance of the second sentence?

KS: It carries out the promise of the first sentence. There’s no time to meander.

SAB: The last sentence is also as important as the first. There needs to be memory.

MHB: Build on the tension and characterization. Pull the reader into the short story as quickly as possible and set the pace.

MT: Always leave them wanting more.