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Writing Excuses 8.20: The Short Story, with Mary Robinette Kowal

Writing Excuses 8.20: The Short Story, with Mary Robinette Kowal


Key Points: Don't write short stories just to break in as a novelist (beware of old myths). Do consider doing them for other reasons. First, because you like them! Second, to better understand scene structure. Third, to play with style and tone, and experiment. Short stories are limited in plot structures, characters, and scenic locations. One character or scenic location is worth about 500 to 1000 words. 1000 to 4000 word short stories are easier to sell for new writers, so probably two or three characters and only one or two scenic locations. To write a short story, start with a geewhiz idea and a character. Give them a desire. What does the character want? Then systematically deny it to them! Use yes-but, no-and. Then for a happy ending, give it to them. For a sad ending, don't. To improve your short story writing, read good short fiction. And write. Try NaShoStoMo!

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 20.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Short Story with Mary Robinette Kowal.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] [chuckling] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] But hopefully Mary is. I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary, and I'm under so much pressure right now.
[Howard] Oh, relax. I'm Howard.

[Brandon] The number one question we got when we released our little form and asked people to filling questions was about the short story. Which means we haven't been doing enough on it. We have tried to approach it before, we did it once I believe with Eric James Stone. We're going to let Mary take the lead on this one, and we're going to talk about short stories. Now, we're going to have trouble not repeating ourselves in this one because we work this into many podcasts, but people ask so often that we figured we oughta just take one directly related to it.
[Mary] One of the things that a lot of people talk about is that... That I want to go ahead and address, is that you should write short stories in order to break in as a novelist. Jim Hines did a great survey about ways people sold their first novel. It turns out that this is a myth.
[Brandon] Yes. It wasn't once a myth, but it is now.
[Mary] Yes. Short stories serve several useful functions for you in your career as a writer, besides just being short stories. But for me, the biggest thing that divides a short story writer from a novelist is the type of story that they are attracted to. A novelist is usually attracted to a story that needs a larger format. A short story writer is generally attracted to smaller scale, more intimate stories. While you can get fairly complicated in a short story, it's harder. Because you're working on a smaller canvas.
[Brandon] I would say that the two are different enough skills, that being good at one does not imply skill at the other.
[Mary] This is where the use of metaphor gets tricky, because I actually think that they use the same skills, but that they use them in different ways.
[Brandon] I've often likened it to golfing. There's the long game and the short game. You know...
[Mary] You have totally lost me already.
[Brandon] Okay. You learn to hit a golf ball with a stick. That's golfing. Right? You hit it with a club. There are two ways... Many ways, but you can tee off and hit it very far, and you can practice that and practice your accuracy, or you can go to the putting green and learn to hit that same ball with a different stick to do a different thing with it. Both goals are getting that ball in the hole, but they use different muscles. The rules are the same, but there is so much different going on there, that I've found that... Like, for instance, me, writing short fiction, I've had to learn different things in order to write short fiction. Conversely, Eric, our friend, when he started writing his first few novels, said this is very different. He's very good at short stories, and writing a novel was terribly hard for him.

[Mary] Yes. I will grant your metaphor, although golf... I don't understand. The thing to understand is that on a line by line basis, the ideas of character and viewpoint and sentence structure... These are all the same tools in the toolbox. The way you deploy them, yes, I will grant that there are times when they are different. So let's talk about some of the things that you... When you are looking at a short story. I will use the MICE quotient, which I have talked about before. So the MICE quotient, very quickly to recap, is the idea that the way you structure a story depends on kind of how you start it. So if you start with a milieu, you begin in one place and then you... It begins when you leave the place and it ends when you come back. In a novel, you can have multiple threads going through the novel, and you have to tie them all up at the end. In a short story, you frequently can have only one or two of these. Depending on the story. Sometimes you can have more, but it's very rare for you can hit all four of those plot structures. You also are limited in the number of characters you can have. Typically, and this is a rule of... This is one of those rules of thumb that I can break with... But it's something that I've found useful, just for thinking about structure, that typically each character or scenic location adds 500 to 1000 words to your scene or story. So when you are looking at your story to begin with, if you know you want to write a short story, as a new writer, this is another one of those rules of thumb. As a new writer, you will have the easiest time selling short stories that are under 4000 words. Between 1000 to 4000 words. Which means that you are probably going to need to confine yourself to stories that have two or three characters, and one, maybe two scenic locations. Does anyone else want to jump in here?
[Howard] Oh, no-no-no-no. You're doing just fine.
[Dan] This is really fascinating.

[Howard] One of the things... Mary said this before the podcast, when I bemoaned the fact that in recent years, I've really only finished one short story. Of course, by the time this podcast airs, hopefully there are three or four, because I've got big plans. Mary said, "No, you write a short story every week." Schlock Mercenary has a cast of 15 really regular characters, about 40 semi regular characters, and hundreds of people on the scenes in the course of the whole story. But during a given week, I tend to focus on less than six. During a given strip, I try and focus on less than three. Now part of this, a novelist might say, "Well, that's just the way you'd write a scene, is by restricting the number of people you put in the novel." That's just fine. If your scene has a good hook at the beginning, and a solid twist in the middle, and a satisfactory ending, it's a short story.

[Mary] There are three... And this is one of the things that writing short stories can teach a novelist, is that you can use it to increase your understanding of scene structure. You can also use it to play with style and tone, and experiment without having to commit to something larger. Those are [inaudible]
[Howard] That's really where I'm headed. It's not that Schlock Mercenary isn't incredibly satisfying to write and illustrate, but I want to write stories that are horrifying and end badly. I want to write stories that are dramatic and don't have...
[Brandon] A punchline?
[Howard] Punchlines. I want to write stories that have elements of romance that isn't just outright cheesy. The comic strip is not the place for me to experiment with those.
[Mary] Right. That's one of the things that it's so good at. So let me walk you through when I am writing a short story, how I begin with the... Let me come up with an idea that's good for a short story.
[Howard] Should we book of the week before we start our walk-through?
[Mary] Oh, yeah. Probably.

[Brandon] Well. We'll have someone who hasn't talked very much this given episode, and ask Mary to give us a book of the week.
[Mary] Oh. This is The Language of Moths by Christopher Barzak. The reason that I'm picking this is it's a novella. So it's giving you some short fiction. Longer than the 4000 words I was recommending, but still short fiction. Christopher Barzak is a beautiful writer. He is extremely good with language. His language is often quite poetic. One of the things he's really good at is atmosphere, in a very condensed setting. As a thing to study, this is a good thing. It's also just a beautiful story. So that's The Language of Moths by Christopher Barzak.
[Howard] The location? The character? You. Start a free trial membership and download a copy of...
[Brandon] The Language of Moths.
[Howard] The Language of Moths. I spend all of my time thinking about how to be clever, not remembering what the title of the book was. You can get that for free, and get other titles for 30% off.

[Brandon] Okay. You were going to step us through the process you use to determine if a story is a short story story or a long story story. This will be your story.
[Mary] Right. So what I do... If I... Well, actually, this is the process that I go through when I'm like, "All right. It's time for me to write a short story!" There's the standard I need to come up with a cool idea. So you get your geewhiz idea, and you decide who your character is. Once I've got that, then I decide... This is the most straightforward of the short story structures. You've heard me talk about the yes-and?
[Brandon] Yes. Yes-and, no-but.
[Mary] Yes. Excuse me.
[Chorus] Yes-but, no-and.
[Dan] Yes-and, no-but is the candy tree version.
[Mary] I keep getting that backwards. Okay. So I... Once you have your geewhiz factor and your character, you give them a desire. Something that they want. Then you just systematically deny it to them. Then at the end, if you want a happy ending, you give it to them. If you want a sad ending, you don't.
[Brandon] When I was building the short story that I'm writing, the psychic bird story, we were discussing it over dinner a couple of days ago. That's exactly what you asked me. I was brainstorming with you, and you said to me, "Well, what does the character want?" You boiled it right down to that, which was perfect, because I needed that.
[Mary] It's something that works really well in short fiction. In a novel, your character... You've got room for your character to want lots and lots and lots of things. In a short story, you can do that too, and it works really well when what they want is in direct conflict with what they need to do, to their course of action. I have a short story which is horror, called... I've forgotten the name of... Oh, Tomorrow and Tomorrow. In which what my character wants is for her son, who has a rare disease, is for her son to live. In order to do that, she has to take actions that she finds morally objectionable. So what I have are this direct conflict between the two things she wants. That's... You... That's one of those places where short fiction can really excel, because you can sustain that over a very short span of time. It's much harder to sustain that over a novel.

[Brandon] Adding some things to this conversation, I want to mention that the only way I started getting passably good at short fiction was reading good short fiction. This is the thing that... A lot of people come to us and say, "Well, I want to break in. I want to make a name for myself." There may be those of you who are listening who are like... Who are saying, "Yes, it may be a myth that you need to write short fiction to break in, but it doesn't hurt." The truth is, it doesn't. It can help a lot. Particularly with some of the... All of the New York editors, it will help. But certainly, certain ones... Kind of the old school ones. If they see a publication by Asimov's or Analog in your cover letter, that is immediately to the top of the pile. So it can be very helpful to you. So what do they do? They do what I did as a kid. Which was... Well, I write... I read novels. I love novels. Every [adult?] made me read these short story things. I'll just try writing shorter ones. Then I'll send them to all these markets. I never went and picked up one of these magazines. It's embarrassing to say that, but I say it because I know many of you listening have at least considered that, have sent to a market that you have never read a single issue of. It happens. So I would suggest the best places in science fiction or fantasy that I've found are the anthologies. I love the anthologies, the year's best. David Hartwell and Gardner Dozois each do a year's best. I have enjoyed just these things to no end. I've loved them.
[Mary] John Joseph Adams is also a wonderful short fiction editor.
[Brandon] Yes! I've done short fiction with him. He's great. The other thing is the Hugo and Nebula award nominees. Every year I've gotten into the habit of reading the Hugo nominees, and it's particularly easy now because you can join the Hugos... Or join the WorldCon for like $50, just buy a membership...
[Howard] Voting membership.
[Brandon] Yeah, just voting membership, so you can vote on the Hugos. You don't have to go. People used to... You'd say this... Say, "50 bucks just to vote?" Well, that 50 bucks comes with free copies of all the nominated stories now. So it's actually worth your money.
[Dan] It's more than worth your money.
[Brandon] You can read what's being nominated right now by the community. This will help you improve much more than anything we can tell you will help you improve.
[Mary] Absolutely.

[Dan] Then after you have started reading in the genre, the next one, and again, a really obvious one, is start writing it. Last year, I decided that I was going to teach myself how to write short stories. So I declared April to be short story month, and I was going to write a short story...
[Howard] NaShoStoMo is what you called it.
[Dan] NaShoStoMo, and I was going to write a short story every day of the month. Five of those days, I happened to be traveling through Portland and staying with Mary, so it was really nice to be able to finish it and send it to her and she could tell me all the reasons it was horrible. But...
[Mary] I don't think any of them were horrible.
[Dan] But... You were kinder than you needed to be.
[Mary] Okay, there was that one.
[Dan] Let's say that. But, just the sheer kind of brute force of I'm going to do this until I can't stand it anymore. I did come out the other end better at it.

[Brandon] The question that may pop into people's heads... Maybe I'm just forecasting this on them, but... Dan and I, we are successful novelists. We make a very good career at novel writing. Why short stories? Mary, now that you've published novels, why do you continue doing short fiction? I don't think I can answer this for everyone, but I can't answer this for myself. It's different, it's new, it's exciting. I actually decided I wanted to start doing this when some of the webtoonists that I was following online said they decided they wanted to learn to paint. They were having so much fun painting. I thought, "Wow. That's cool." It's the same thing they do, but different. I wanted to do that. It's a place I could explore, it's something I could try new things with, it's something that I hadn't historically been that great at, but I knew I had the chops to become good at it because I knew all of these fundamentals. So I wanted to learn to paint.
[Dan] Well, it's like how Mary started the podcast by saying that it depends on what kind of story you're attracted to. If you're kind of attracted to both kinds of stories, then you need to... You don't want to cut yourself off from one of them by pigeonholing yourself into a single form.
[Mary] Pigeonholing is actually part of the reason that I continue to write short stories, is because... I am writing historical fantasy for my long length. Short fiction allows me to play all over the map. I just like stories. There are also stories that short fiction will allow me to tell that wouldn't sustain for a novel. Like Evil Robot Monkey is one of my stories. 957 words. That is... That's not a story that I could sustain over the length of a novel. It doesn't need to be a novel. But short fiction allows me to play with that. Actually, if you... That story is online. If you grab that story and look at it, with the idea of the yes-but, no-and. Go through that story and you will see exactly the... I wrote that story in an hour and a half. I basically said, "Okay, I have a monkey who's uplifted and all he wants to do is make pottery." Then I systematically denied him ways to make pottery, and then at the end I gave him the... I gave him a yes, he can make his pottery.
[Howard] You had me at monkey.
[Mary] There is a terrible, terrible pun that goes with that story.
[Howard] That's fine.
[Dan] Speaking of terrible puns...
[Howard] You had me at terrible pun.
[Dan] Can we say that if you are attracted to both kinds of storytelling, that you are bi-textual?
[Howard] No, we can't say that.
[Brandon] [laughter]
[Mary] I am. In fact, I am going to use that on a T-shirt, I think.

[Brandon] You just about killed Jordo and me. Okay. All right, Dan. You have to come up with our writing prompt, because of that.
[Dan] All right. You are going to write about a character in a society where being bi-textual is a very controversial lifestyle choice. And keeps you out of the military.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. I think you're out of excuses. Now go write.
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