Are Short Stories Necessary?

Justine Larbalestier is thinking about short stories and whether they are a necessary part of every writers’ writing diet:

Given that I can’t write a decent short story to save my life and have sold three novels I don’t think short stories are not necessary to build a career as a novelist. Short stories and novels are very different kinds of wrting. Being good at one does not mean you’ll be good at the other. There are the folks who are genius short story writers whose novels are well, um, not anywhere near as good as their stories. Like I said, they’re different forms.

On the other hand, I wrote hundreds of (broken, crappy) short stories before I wrote my first novel. Every one of those stories taught me something about writing. So as I began that first novel I’d already had a lot of practice writing dialogue, describing magical anvils, blowing monsters up. All of which came in very handy when I started writing the fictional form that I’m much better at.

My own opinion about short stories is that I’ve found them useful and fun, but that they’ve been entirely optional in terms of my writing career. Not counting juvenalia, I wrote a complete novel before I ever tried to write a short story, and even now my entire short story output can be counted off on two hands — one hand, if you only count in-genre work. Seriously: “Alien Animal Encounters,” “New Directives for Employee – Manxtse Relations,” “Questions for a Soldier,” “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story” and now “The Sagan Diary.” That’s it (technically, “Sagan” is a novelette. even so). And, again, all of this was written after I started writing novels. It wasn’t part of the ramping up process of writing novel-length work.

As I briefly discussed in The Money Entry earlier this year, there’s a fairly simple and straightforward reason why I’ve tended to write so little short fiction, which is that genre fiction payscales are generally substantially less than what I get paid for writing other stuff. I can get paid seven cents a word writing short fiction, for example, or I can get paid a dollar a word writing about corn flakes for a business magazine (which, in fact, I’m doing in the next couple of weeks) or even more doing business consulting. Given that writing is my day job, I have a fiduciary duty to my family and mortgage to prioritize my time. It’s not that short story markets are underpaying, incidentally; I think they’re generally paying what they can. But genre fiction has never been a brilliantly-paying market overall, either taken in isolation or compared to other writing venues.

What this means is that I have a tendency to write short fiction under one of two conditions: one, the story’s already been bought, and now all I have to do is write it; two, I’m doing it for fun, and I don’t particularly care whether I sell it or not. The first case is generally unlikely, since there are (quite properly) more people willing to go through the standard submission process than editors who are willing to chase me down for a story, particularly when I have so little track record in short fiction. There have been a couple — it’s not a coincidence all my short fiction to this point has been published by Subterranean Press — but in those cases they’re editors who have worked with me before. There’s a history there.

In the second case, such a story is more likely to show up here on the Whatever, than in a magazine, because I find submitting a hassle. At Worldcon this year, an editor of one of the major SF/F magazines let me know he was looking forward to seeing a short story from me, and I admitted to him I was unlikely to submit something to him because the magazine didn’t accept electronic submissions, and I neither had a printer nor knew where my wife kept the stamps. He looked at me a little like I had brain damage, which to be fair to him was a not unreasonable response. But when you’re coming from the point of view that short stories are to be written primarily for fun, one’s priorities shift. I did promise him that if I got a printer (and, I guess, find the stamps), I would submit something to him. But he really shouldn’t be holding his breath.

Let me take pains to note that my point of view regarding short stories is rather deeply irregular as regards the SF/F community, and reflects in part the fact that as a writer, I came into SF/F from the outside rather than growing up in it, and in part reflects that generally I’m a bit of a freak. I also want to make pains to note that one can indeed achieve notoriety and success in SF/F through short stories: Watch how every SF/F writer gets all hushed and respectful speaking Ted Chiang’s name, for example, or see how Jay Lake has ably leveraged his short story fame into a career as a novelist. Short stories can make a difference for one’s writing and one’s standing as a writer. But whether they are necessary for one’s development as a writer really depends on the writer. I got along fine without them; your mileage may vary.

Now, having said all of that, I do plan to write more short fiction in 2007; I want to get better at it than I am now. Some of it may show up here; some of it may show up other places. No matter where it goes, hopefully it’ll be worth reading.


On Carl Sagan

When I was eleven, I thought Carl Sagan was the coolest guy in the world. And that was because he was speaking right at me. At the age of 11, in 1980, I was a kid utterly convinced that he was going to grow up to be an astronomer — I loved the stars, I loved the science, I loved the toys — and here on my TV came Sagan, suave in his red turtleneck and buff jacket, surrounded by special effects and Vangelis music and telling everyone (but especially me) about how the cosmos is everything that ever was, everything that is, and everything that ever will be.

I fell for Carl with the sort of blissful rapture that I strongly suspect is only available to pre-pubescent geeks, a sort of nerd crush that, to be clear, had no sexual component, but had that same sort of swoony intensity. This was the guy I wanted to be, when I was age eleven. Sagan sits as a member of my triumvirate of cultural heroes, the other two being John Lennon and H.L. Mencken. It’s a odd trio of personal heroes, I admit, but then I’m still a little odd. But even among John and Henry, Carl came in first. Maybe it was the turtlenecks.

I’m a quarter century older than the eleven-year-old boy whose mother held a weekly viewing of Cosmos over his head as a bargaining chip for good behavior, and I’m still a great admirer of Carl Sagan, primarily because he did something I see as immensely important: he popularized science and with patience and good humor brought into people’s homes. He did it through Cosmos, most obviously, but he also did it every time he popped up on The Tonight Show and talked with celebrity fluidity about what was going on in the universe. He was the people’s scientist. This is not to say that you’d look at Sagan and see him down at the NASCAR race; it is to say that he could easily use a NASCAR race to explain, say, relativistic speeds and what it means for traveling through the universe.

This is important stuff. Getting science in front of people in a way they can understand — without speaking down to them — is the way to get people to support science, and to understand that science is neither beyond their comprehension nor hostile to their beliefs. There need to be scientists and popularizers of good science who are of good will, who have patience and humor, and who are willing to sit with those who are skeptical or unknowing of science and show how science is already speaking their language. Sagan knew how to do this; he was uncommonly good at it.

I find that inspirational. As it happens, I am not a scientist — the flesh was willing, but the math skills were, alas, weak — but I write about science with some frequency; I’ve even fulfilled a life goal of writing an astronomy book, The Rough Guide to the Universe, of which I am about to compile a second edition. In my writing and presentation of science, I look to Sagan for guidance. Nearly all of what happens in the universe can be explained in the way that nearly any person can understand; all it requires is the desire to explain it and the right language. Sagan had the desire and language. I like to think I do too, in part because I learned my lessons from him.

I am aware of the need to avoid hagiography. I have an idealized version of Carl Sagan in my head, one that is notably absent any number of flaws that the real Carl Sagan had to have had simply because he was human. My connection to Sagan comes from some limited number of hours of television and a finite number of books, and in both cases the man was edited for my consumption. This is one of the reasons why, unlike the 11-year-old version of me, I don’t want to be Carl Sagan, and I’m not even entirely sure I want to be much like him as a person, if only because, at the end of it, I don’t know him as a person.

What I do know is that I like his ideas. I like his love of science. I like his faith in humanity. I like how he saw us reaching for things greater than ourselves, because it was in our nature and because it was a fulfillment of our nature. I like how he shared his enthusiasm for the entire universe with everyone, and believed that everyone could share in that enthusiasm. These are things that, in giving them to everyone, he also gave to me, first as an 11-year-old and then continuing on. I’ve accepted them with thanks and made them part of who I am. If I use them well, I may be fortunate enough to share them with you, as they were shared with me.

(written as part of the Carl Sagan blog-o-thon)

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