Five Tips for Writing Great Short Fiction: The Case For Classic Adventure

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Short fiction has entered a strange, new and exciting phase, particularly in the realm of Science Fiction.  While we hear in some quarters that short fiction is dying and no one reads short fiction any more, we’re also seeing a boom in short fiction, in no small part boosted by self-publishing through outlets such as Amazon and independent anthologies.  And though you won’t be able to get rich selling a story here and there to various publications, dedicated journeyman short fiction writers have a wide range of opportunities.  Additionally, there is, I think, a growing hunger for short fiction as people are looking for more quickly consumed reading material that they can fit into their busy lives.

There seem to be at present two branches of short fiction in the SFF field, and while one is ascendant, the other may be in decline.  While they still garners praise and awards in certain circles, the more ‘literary’ and sometimes experimental thought pieces, or those that deal with subjects like ‘an AI helps someone come out as LGBT’, aren’t really the sort of thing that will appeal to most readers and are being left behind by broader readerships. On the other hand, we are beginning to see a renewed interest in thrilling stories of daring-do, capable individuals overcoming trials in awesome ways and, yes, falling in love while doing so. Personally, I’d like to see more writers getting in on the rise of thrilling and exciting short fiction being written in the spirit of SFF’s golden hey-day than being bogged down in the mires that have pushed short fiction out of the mainstream.

So, my advice for writers who want to get in on what readers are looking for:

  1. Tell a story – Now, this should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about a lot of short fiction is that the authors craft these nebulous and murky mood pieces that simply never go anywhere. Fletcher Vredenburgh, a writer for Black Gate magazine, describes the problem as “a dearth of basic storytelling” where stories “just drift over the page like puffs of smoke with no narrative force, no energy.” Atmosphere is great, and chewing on existential bones is well and good, but there has to be something that makes the reader actually care. If there’s no pay-off, you’ve not only wasted the reader’s time, you may have put them off short fiction in general.
  2. People Want Heroes and Heroics – While there’s a time and a place for grimdark, I think we’re going to start to see the band spring back the other way towards a desire to see good guys. You may hear that people want to see themselves in characters; what they really want are characters who they could aspire to be and will cheer along during their adventures.
  3. Diversity Be Damned, Tell a Good Story – There’s a bizarre myth that the golden age of SFF was full of helpless damsels being saved by white men, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. What you had were stories where clever, capable and competent men and clever, capable and competent women—of all manner of color—worked together, fought together and helped each other through all manner of exciting circumstance. If you try to shoehorn in diversity, that’s all people will notice and focus on.  Ironically, if you tell a great story, a lot of people won’t care or even notice the diversity.  How many folks remember that John Carter and Dejah Thoris were an interracial couple? Or that Eric John Stark was black? People who want to read good and electrifying tales far outnumber those who only care about ‘seeing themselves reflected in the characters’.
  4. Don’t Forget the Kids! – The Young Adult “genre” has been booming for a number of years, and what are the most popular series? Action-packed science fiction and fantasy titles. Kids (and a lot of adults) don’t want to read navel gazing think-pieces on identity that happen to take place in space or elfland; they are reading stories about dashing heroes fighting for their friends, for their loved ones and for justice. A lot of the classics were as popular with kids as they were with adults. Edgar Rice Burroughs is great evidence that boys will not just read but devour ‘romance’ writing, so long as it’s inspirational and aspirational and hits the sweet spot of being tantalizing but not dirty (don’t let the heavy-metal artwork fool you, the Barsoom books are about an honorable gentleman and a noble lady). And let’s not kid ourselves that girls reading the Hunger Games weren’t invested in whether Katniss ended up with Gale or Peter-with-no-r.  So, if you leave out explicit content but leave in the romance, it’s not hard to have young readers on the hook.
  5. Read the Classics – Short fiction from the first half of the 20th century was not only really good, it was very widely read! These were stories that had enormous appeal to men, women and children alike. Adventure has a universal appeal. While certain critics might applaud the kind of introspective claptrap that you see up for awards for their ‘progressive message’ or ‘promoting diversity’, most people won’t care or will simply roll their eyes, and a man who’ll have to bellycrawl across the mud to take out a German machine-gun nest tomorrow sure as hell isn’t gonna trade a pack of Lucky Strikes for a chance to read it. Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Ross Rocklynne, Robert Howard, C.L. Moore – these are just a few names to get you started, but reading them will make you see short fiction in a whole new light, and familiarity with them will doubtless bring a new spark to your own writing.

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