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So it's still a SBC, right?

I have finished reading the four nominees for Best Short Story for the 2014 Hugos, and I must say I find myself somewhat lacking in whelm.

If you were a sci-fi fan back in the Olden Days before the Internet began killing print magazines, you read a lot of your science fiction in magazine form. Asimov's, Analog, and before that, the pulps that predate me. I will talk mostly about SF&F here, but I think it applies to horror, mystery, and other genres as well.

It used to be the case that most professional authors "broke into" publishing by getting published in a short story magazine. If you wanted to become a SF novelist, first you had to get some stories published; then you'd have enough name recognition, and proof of your craft, to attract a publisher. Hence you'll find that most older SF&F authors have a lot of short stories to their name even if they are better known for their novels.

Of course it also used to be the case that authors could actually live on short story sales. It was never lucrative, but pulp writers actually made a living at it if they were prolific enough. H.P. Lovecraft was mostly known for short stories — At the Mountains of Madness was, I think, his longest work, and it's really more of a novella.

Today, short stories in speculative fiction are mostly for prestige, and most industry pros will tell you that publishing short stories, even if you've won awards, does very little to help you get a book contract.

I think it's not coincidental that this is about the time when a lot of writing advice began focusing on short stories and novels as two very different forms. The usual advice nowadays is that you should stick to what you are good at/most interested in, and not confuse skill at writing a novel with skill at writing a short story.

I kind of agree and kind of don't. Obviously there are some skills common to any fiction writing: you have to be able to tell a story, you have to be able to use words pleasingly, you need to be able to get across characterization and setting and plot. It's much more compressed in a short story; there isn't much space for exposition or subplots or extraneous characters, and your writing, it is said, must be much tighter. But is it really the case that some writers are notably better at one than the other? I notice that even pro writers today who mostly write novels will dabble in short stories or write something for an anthology, while every writer who's mostly known for short stories seems to have a novel in them (or is trying to get one published).

I know that I often liked Isaac Asimov's short stories; they usually had a surprise "punch" at the end, a tradition of twists that has continued in SF to this day. (Of course O. Henry was doing the same thing decades earlier.) Whereas Asimov's novels don't do much for me; I think he can't carry characterization very well across the length of even a short novel.

Robert Heinlein, on the other hand, wrote books that I loved for his great storytelling, but I can't say that I've found any of his short stories particularly memorable.

Stephen King, hugely prolific, seems to be able to write doorstopper novels as easily as he writes short stories (and he's had as many movies based on his short stories as on his novels). And all his gifts and flaws are evident in both. He's creeped me out with his short stories and novelettes as effectively as some of his better novels; and some of his short stories have just been WTFs, like his worse novels.

Some other authors by whom I've read both short stories and novels: Larry Niven, Carrie Vaughn, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Catherynne Valente, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, Fred Saberhagen, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens, Haruki Murakami, and Tony Hillerman.

I have so far read some of Leo Tolstoy's short stories, but not yet tackled his novels, and ditto for Joyce Carol Oates, while I've read Virginia Woolf's only novel but none of her short stories.

And I could not mention short story authors without a mention of Jorge Luis Borges, who I don't think ever wrote a novel.

Nowadays, I rarely read short stories, not being a subscriber of any magazines. But I do appreciate the craft of well-executed short stories.

Which brings me to the 2014 Hugo Nominees. Which caused me to blink a little at a bunch of names who appear to be known only for their short stories. Some of our most memorable genre classics are short stories. ("Nightfall," "The Lottery," "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," etc. "Nightfall" is actually an interesting case in that, like "Ender's Game," it began as a short story and then got padded out to a novel.) But short story writing in SF today seems to be more of a hobbyist pursuit, with lots of Twittering as a prerequisite to get your name out there in the right circles. The stories were well written, but there was certainly no "Lottery" or "Nightfall" here, nor anything with the brilliance of Borges or even the unsettling imagery of King or Lovecraft. Are my expectations too high? Well, I was also annoyed because the "science fiction/fantasy" element in all of them was thin.

My reviews of the 2014 Hugo Nominees.


Who are your favorite short story authors?

Do you read short stories in some genres and not others?

What do you like in a short story? Emotional impact? Clever twist at the end? Tight, clever wordsmithing?

Who are some authors who you think write better novels than short stories, or vice versa? Who does both well?

How different do you really think writing short stories is from writing novels?

Have you read the Hugo nominees? What did you think?


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 6th, 2014 07:36 pm (UTC)
I was also annoyed because the "science fiction/fantasy" element in all of them was thin.

Well, it could be worse. The most recent Saturn Awards (which are for science fiction, fantasy & horror) gave several awards to Breaking Bad. They also had The Blacklist down for nominations, and no. (I was certainly confused b/c there were zero nominations for Orphan Black that I saw with those awards, too. Why just copy the Emmys with some extra wildcard nominations?)

As far as the stories being light on sf, it doesn't seem like sci-fi sells very well these days, tbh, unless it's in very narrow categories like superheroes, dystopian/post-apocalyptic, and zombies. Perhaps these authors are also trying to shop their stuff to more mainstream outlets, as well. You might get more places to look at your stuff with a touch of magical realism than you would with cyborgs.

I dunno, it may be people not wanting to support more solidly genre stuff, at least when it comes to awards, or the stuff that is solidly genre isn't very good. I think it tends to go in cycles sometimes.
Jul. 6th, 2014 10:43 pm (UTC)
For some Hugo nominees I get the feeling the story was aimed at a literary market, bounced, and had an SF/F element hastily tacked on to prepare it for submission to a genre market.
Jul. 6th, 2014 10:25 pm (UTC)
Picking a nit
...while I've read Virginia Woolf's only novel...

Typo? Woolf actually wrote nine novels.

Jul. 7th, 2014 12:13 am (UTC)
Re: Picking a nit
Oops. I must have been thinking of someone else, but now damned if I can remember who.

Edit: Snaps fingers. Yeah, I was confusing her with Sylvia Plath.

Edited at 2014-07-07 12:17 am (UTC)
Jul. 7th, 2014 12:24 am (UTC)
Re: Picking a nit
I've never read Plath, and it's been years a couple of decades since I've read Woolf, but I rather suspect the latter's shade might take issue with the error.

For what it's worth, I thought quite highly of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves when I read them back in high school. But memory has faded and I couldn't defend either of them now.
Jul. 7th, 2014 03:08 am (UTC)
I think romance is the only genre I'd avoid short stories in. The handful of novellas I've read were already pushing it in building a relationship between the main characters.

After the second half of A Study in Scarlet, I'm hesitant to read another of the longer Holmes stories, but I'm not sure I'm ready to declare Doyle a better short story writer yet. (But, damn, he padded that thing.)
Jul. 7th, 2014 12:27 pm (UTC)
When the premise of your stories is that the hero is smarter than everyone else, it's hard to come up with novel-length plot problems. Even in the BBC "Sherlock" they sometimes need mysteries within mysteries to keep Holmes busy.
Jul. 7th, 2014 02:21 pm (UTC)
Mysteries within mysteries is fine. Mystery, follow by part two: the killers lengthy explanation of why he did it, not so much.

I'm pretty sure he could have condensed the whole thing down to a page or two.
Jul. 7th, 2014 10:08 am (UTC)
The only one of the nominations I've read is "The water that falls on you from nowhere." I liked it, but I thought the supernatural aspect could have easily been cut out without affecting the story much.

I used to read a lot of short fiction back in the day. Does anyone else remember Omni Magazine?

I bought an ebook compilation of Robert Silverberg's short stories that were published in the 1950's. The most fantastical thing in the collection were the author's notes, where he talks about supporting himself and his wife with sales of short fiction. And renting a 5 room apartment in Manhattan for $150 a month.
Jul. 7th, 2014 12:23 pm (UTC)
I mostly read novels because I like complicated plots and lots of world building, too much to fit into a short story. It's probably why I'm more interested in the season long plot arc in TV shows than in the episodic episodes in shows like "Angel," "Once Upon a Time," and even "Longmire." It's why I like "Deep Space Nine" more than "Next Generation."

I'd rather read SF shorts than fantasy, because SF shorts are usually focused on the idea and fantasy shorts on the prose.
Jul. 9th, 2014 04:14 pm (UTC)
I don't read a lot of short stories: it tends to be an author whose novels I loved so much that I want to read everything they wrote. I make a distinction in my head between entirely independent short stories and those that share a world/characters with either other stories or a novel by the same author: the latter are perhaps less technically impressive but easier to read. (Sherlock Holmes for instance, and also people like Tanya Huff and Kelley Armstrong).

My gut thought is that independent short stories tend to be rather distinct as a mode of writing: for slightly longer pieces you can usually tell by the feel whether to count it as an overgrown short story or a rather short novel. It certainly makes sense that some writers would be better at one than the other, simply because I can imagine it needs a different type of working style.

Ursula Le Guin does both well. Gene Wolfe I think I read has said that he prefers to write either short stories or series of novels, and I certainly find most of his one-off novels more mystifying than enjoyable.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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