Short Stories vs. Novels

A friend recently asked on FB whether one needed to write short stories before novels. It’s an interesting question, and one I’ll approach a bit differently.

medium_top_20_short_story_quotes

When I decided to write for publication (not just for fun) I sat down and wrote my first novel, The King’s Daughter.  It ran 153K and I was quite proud of myself for finishing it.

Then I went to a workshop. To get in, I had to whip out three short stories.  I tried, and basically ended up with a pair of novel starts and one short story that was actually a short story….but I didn’t like it.  That in itself was a wake-up call for me.  I realized that I didn’t know how to write a short story….which in turn made me question how well I did on that first novel.

Looking back at that first novel, I tackled way too much time in it.  The book covers two years, during the first of which, nothing happens.  The first year is ALL character development.  I didn’t realize that until I started trying to write short fiction.

So for me, writing short fiction was a lesson in understanding what makes a good plot. It taught me to cut out what wasn’t important.  And it taught me to start with the dead body.

So I wrote about 20 pieces of short fiction over the next couple of years, most of which have been published. One is sitting on my desktop, one on the back burners, and a couple have been trunked (including that first short story that I didn’t like.)

For me, short is rarely less than 9K. I still don’t have the knack of writing really short.  My brain just doesn’t do that well (as opposed to several of my friends who excel at that!)

All that said, I think that for me, trying to get short fiction pubbed first paid off.

 

However…

For a lot of writers, this is never an option. A lot of genres don’t have much in the way of  markets for short fiction.  So, for example, most of my RWA peeps have never even considered short fiction.  When I told my RWA group that I’d sold a short story for a thousand dollars*, many of them were shocked.  Not at the amount, but that the possibility existed. Their publication path far more often goes through contests…

And YA authors seem to start–on the whole–at novel length (yes, there are plenty of exceptions.)

So I don’t necessarily think that short fiction is necessary. Plenty of people get their novels published without short fiction.

 

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*this was actually $500 for the story and $500 for a prize for the story, but it was one check, so….

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A couple of links + an old post

Boring but accurate title.

 

1) The preorder page for The Shores of Spain has gone live over at Amazon, showing a release date of 7/7/2015.  Feel free to go over and preorder a copy (please!), or add it to your wish-list….or just read through the blurb (my editor, Danielle, writes great blurbs!)  I will update the rest of my webpage at some point…

2) I’m one of the guests today over at SF Signal’s Mind Meld, where we’re picking a book we’d love to be made into a film, and then casting it.  

Picking a book I’d love tosee as a film (or trilogy of films) wasn’t difficult. I’m a huge fan of Martha Well’s “The Fall of Ile-Rien” trilogy, and think they would make great movies full of visual detail.  The second part of the assignment…to cast those films?  UH….UH…

OK, I REALLY STINK AT THAT PART.

It turns out that my brain just doesn’t have a single movie-casting neuron. I put way too many hours into trying to figure out only four characters in the series.  I cannot imagine how a casting director looks at actors and matches them to teh gazillion parts in a movie.

 

FWIW, I don’t do this with MY books either.  I just don’t.  To get my mental picture of a character, I use a still photo. A person who moves and breathes isn’t the same for me.

Oddly, I always have a couple of actors in my pile of photos, but I’m not considering them as actors, but instead as a still photo caught in one second in time.  So, for example, for my character of the Brazilian, Inspector Anjos, I actually used a photograph of Matthew Fox, but one taken from a magazine. But it’s not Matthew Fox, the actor. In my mind,  it’s just a model in that specific picture…..

So If one were to ask me to cast one of my own stories, I would fail. Sad, but true.

 

To illustrate this, I’ve included below a post from my personal blog last year, which actually shows something of this process:

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Every writer has a different method… (from April 25, 2013)

Yesterday I sat down to pick out pictures for the book I’m working on. This is a part of my process that I gabbled about a lot last year. I have big boxes full of pics cut from magazines and catalogs over years. When I’m trying to get in my head what a character looks like, I find a pic that’s close to what I want and I use that while writing. Often I lay the photos next to the computer (the characters for the scene I’m working on) which helps me keep my ‘characterization’ straight.

Now, I don’t think these pics are ‘exact’. I had someone complain last year that the photo character’s clothes weren’t period, or they were too young for a character’s age or…well anything. That misses the point. These pics are a starting point, not the actual characters themselves.

So here’s the batch I’ve collected for this book:
total

(See the arrow? That’s pointing to a picture from a cover from Seventeen magazine from 1987. That gives you an idea how long I’ve been collecting photos.)

So these are my two main characters in this book: Joaquim Tavares and Marina Arenias
jo-marina
Joaquim’s an investigator for the police, turning 29.
Marina works in an office converting hand-written records over to typed records. Photo is actually picked for the combination of ‘delicate’ and ‘slightly timid’.

islands
I’ve got Duilio and Oriana up in the corner. I liked the expression on “Oriana’s” face and her large eyes, but she’s actually way too thin for the character (who is more of an Amazon). They’re on the islands of the sereia for a two-year term as temporary Ambassadors from Portugal (with Oriana as the actual Ambassador because the islands are female-led.)

The older woman in red is supposed to be Oriana’s grandmother, who is a made-of-steel politician. BTW, the actual woman in the photograph? Long time president of a university. Don’t let the kindly-grandmother-baking-cookies image fool you.

The other three are members of the Portuguese Embassy’s guard contingent. The older woman in pink is the captain (imagine her without a smile) in charge of the first female unit in the Portuguese Army, and so is in a situation where she feels she must not fail. When a couple of things go missing (including the blonde-haired lieutenant above), she is under a lot of pressure to find them, but in a situation where she can’t go looking (neither can Duilio or Oriana) which is where Joaquim comes in.

ambassadors
These are the ambassadors from other countries, the British Ambassador and his sickly wife, the wife of the Spanish Ambassador (he’s not shown because he’s so under her heel that he doesn’t matter), and the American Ambassadress (this pic is too young, but I liked the expression on her face.)

prison
So these are characters in Spain: a pair of little kids and their mother up top, in the bottom left corner the siren who tries to seduce Joaquim, and in the right corner, his great-grandmother, a cranky old Catalan noblewoman -without- a heart of gold. The woman with the wild hair? She’s the prison’s soothsayer, and tries to keep Joaquim out of trouble.

extras
Now there are a lot of extra photos left over. A couple might get switched out, too. I keep my mind open about changing character appearances and names at this point.

It’s a weird process, and I suspect a lot of people have similar-but-not-same ways of doing this.

 

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ETA: As an interesting aside, I did end up switching out a few pictures, most notable the mother and two children. But otherwise, they all stayed the same.

 

 

 

 

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Guest Post: Writing Blind @ SFSignal

I’m a guest today over at SF Signal, writing about writing with a blind POV character as part of the “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” column.

The primary POV character for the book I’m currently writing, Dreaming Death, is blind. (I’ve actually written with her before, in my short story “Touching the Dead”…which is available over on my “Free Fiction” page.) This article talks a bit about what it takes to get the blind POV character to ‘see’ things….

 

Professional Jealousy

Back at FenCon, an author friend and I were talking about Professional Jealousy.

I gave her a quote that I wrongly attributed to Oscar Wilde, but was actually said by Gore Vidal:

Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.

The Wilde quote is very similar in meaning, although worded a bit differently:

Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.

Both men were, if you don’t know, wildly successful authors in one way or another…so there was no reason for them to begrudge other people’s successes. And yet…they still said that. Why?

The truth is, this is a very common reaction in my industry. (Or in any artistic venture, I suppose. Or any venture at all.)  It’s human nature. It’s more or less normal for us to look at each other’s successes and wonder why X didn’t happen to us.

The other writer and I were, at the time, talking about reviews. Why do some writers get so many? Why do other writers not? Why are some so good? Why are others mixed? Why did I get hit by a troll? Why…why…why….????

FWIW, I have great reviews for my first two books. I just don’t have many. So I  glance at the Amazon pages of my friends and angstily wonder why I don’t have as many reviews as they do….at the same time consoling myself with ‘but my overall ratings are good!‘  In actuality, Amazon promotes books with more reviews more heavily, so that even a lackluster rating helps an author more if it came from a high number of reviews.  This turns out to be a problem for writers who get great reviews…but not many of them.

But this particular reaction stretches through all aspects of writing, not just reviews.

When I was trying to get an agent, I had that sort of reaction every time one of my friends landed an agent. Yay, you got an agent!  then slinking off to suck down too much Taco Bell because they’d gotten an agent and I hadn’t and that was probably the last agent in the world and there are never going to be any more agent contracts ever and my shot is gone now because my friend got my agent….

When I was working on a book contract, it was the same. Every book contract was followed by a celebration and then a private session of self-pity and angst over the fact that they’d gotten the last book contract in the world!

And it’s not just limited to that. Short story publications, award nominations, book options, auctions. Whenever one of our friends hits any mile-marker that we didn’t, we can seethe with jealousy–perfectly aware the whole while that thisisstupid.

Yes, we know it’s stupid to be jealous.

And, yes, we truly are happy for them.

It’s just the weltschmerz talking…

weltschmerz-other-wordly

 

Turns out the Germans do have a word for this (because they’re evidently a very comforting people.)

Writers are no less subject to this than anyone else. We think we should have gotten that promotion, not Dave. We think we should have gotten that group of students to teach instead of Louis. We think the world’s unfair when Jeff gets the nice car and we didn’t.

And we have to console ourselves with the fact that our successes are different in nature than theirs. We make lemonade out of our lemons (Or we don’t, and drive everyone else in the teacher’s lounge crazy.)

It’s normal and, (so long as we don’t let it consume us), we’re OK.

 

Here, as a parting shot, are some lyrics for what I consider my personal Theme Song:

“You Can’t Lose Them All” by Kim Richey  (abridged)

I got good luck in my pocket
and a good shine on my shoes
I got a silk shirt in my closet
that I’m not afraid to use
A little fortune cookie told me
help is on the way
the tables may be turning
it could happen any day.

I could go down in history
I could go up in smoke
could be the center of attention
or the butt of every joke
But every time I get shot down
I justify the risk
because I come a little closer
to a hit with every miss.

If I’m playing on the B-team
or I’m sitting on the bench
it ain’t for lack of trying
or a lack of confidence
When I reach my full potential
when somebody gets my drift
the stars are gonna line up
and the tides are gonna shift.

 

So artists have to remind themselves to get back out there and work harder. Because that’s the only way we can ever succeed. We try and try again. And even if our friends are doing better, that’s no good reason to sit around and complain about it. Yes, we’ll feel jealous for a bit (and then usually feel guilty for feeling jealous), but we can’t let that ruin any friendships or stop us from doing our own jobs….

As artists, we have to believe. We have to believe, every day, that the next time is our time…

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So What’s an SF/F Archive All About?

In the past, I’ve talked a bit about archiving my manuscripts. It’s a strange thing to think of my stuff as being packed away for ‘posterity’, but I do participate in the process. My materials are archived at Texas A&M. (I chose that institution because members of my family go there….and I am a Texan, so…)

(ETA: I should add that I’ve also used A&M as a setting, in my story “Afterimage”)

But here to talk about the topic a bit more today is Jeremy Brett, the Curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at Texas A&M University.  The collection there holds works from many Texas authors, as well as other notables in the field.

 

1) So to start out, what’s the general purpose of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at Texas A&M University

The SF&F Collection here at Cushing (Library) is designed primarily as a top-notch and comprehensive research tool. We believe that science fiction and fantasy are not only genres that are of intense and passionate interest to fans and other members of the general public, but also are of true cultural and literary significance and so deserve the same scholarly treatment that other literary and broadcast media genres receive. For that reason, we work to be a collection that appeals both to serious scholars and to interested laypeople, that welcomes all comers and has materials that will appeal to everyone. So we include novels, anthologies of short stories, nonfiction studies of SF and fantasy, magazines, manuscript collections, artifacts, and all kinds of fanworks (such as fanzines, filk  and vids).

I should also point out that in addition to the SF&F Research Collection at Cushing, I also work to make sure that the circulating collection of SF & fantasy works at Evans (our main campus library) is large and representative of the best of the genre. Nothing at Cushing – because we’re a special collections library – can leave the building, although virtually all our materials are open to the public and can be accessed on site. But materials at Evans can be checked out just as any other university library, so we want to be sure that students and others can have access to interesting SF&F works when they go home at the end of the day.

 

2) You have some impressive names in your stable, like G.R.R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, and Joe Lansdale.  On the other hand you’ve also got some little-known writers as well…like me.  What are your main criteria for choosing your writers?

Well, *I* find you very impressive, Jeannette!   That said, I (like the curators before me) look for writers that we think for any number of reasons (such as literary ability, their invention or use of interesting or important tropes, critical acclaim, even intense popularity) are going to last, their work likely to be considered important and entertaining for years or even generations to come. I may not be able to say for certain who’s going to be the next Bradbury or Le Guin or Tolkien, but I like to think that I’ve read enough SF and fantasy over the years to be able to identify potentially significant writers. At least some of the time!

We also look towards collecting writers from Texas, the Borderlands, and the surrounding regions (you mentioned Joe Lansdale above, and he’s a great example). There is *such* a rich ongoing tradition of SF & fantasy writing here, and it’s worth preserving. Because Texas A&M is a public institution and one of the best universities in the state, I think we have something of a special responsibility to try and document and preserve this tradition.

I also want to continue to develop our collections of writers from groups that I worry have been to a degree underrepresented in the genre as a whole: women, racial and ethnic minorities, and so on. Certainly from the mid/late-20th century on we start to see less dominance of the field by white males, and so we want to be sure to capture the evidence of this trend.

 

3) Among other things, the collection archives writing materials of many writers. What types of materials are you looking for? Mostly manuscripts?

We would like to have whatever sorts of materials truly represent and document the author and his/her work. Certainly the actual manuscripts are the clearest example, but we also like things like drafts and working notes (those give researchers and others an understanding of how a novel or other production changes over time), as well as correspondence (to understand the author’s life, relationships, and comments on her work) and be able to place those in relation to their work). We also like to have, of course, the final product – the actual published text.

 

4) But some writers don’t print out copies of their work, preferring to do everything on their computers. Are the archives interested in that kind of information as well?

Oh, totally! Whether paper or electronic, a record is a record is a record. Just because a manuscript or letter or draft or whatever is in electronic format rather than being a tangible object like a piece of paper, doesn’t make it any less valuable. (In fact, in many ways it’s much more crucial that materials in electronic format be archived as soon as possible, because they so quickly become unreadable due to media format changes.)

 

 5) In my case, I’ve sent in multiple copies of the same manuscript at various stages in the editing process. What’s the value in having those multiple versions of the same manuscript?

Having multiple iterations of the same novel (or short story, or poem, or whatever) allows us to see how the work changes over time –how do characters change and evolve from the first draft to the published book? What characters are introduced when the author started the story, but by the time several drafts have been written, which ones have been dropped altogether? How does the plot change? If we have a series of evolving drafts we get a real and visible understanding of how the author saw her own work. For example, in your case, Jeannette, we have several drafts of The Golden City, two with edits and notes plus the final revised version. A future researcher studying you would be able to see how both you and your editor saw the book and produced or suggested changes that would polish the work to a shine.

Here’s another case, which we’ve mentioned elsewhere. We hold all of George R.R. Martin’s papers, including the various drafts for the books in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Readers will remember in the first book that when Jon Snow is leaving Winterfell to travel north to the Wall, he gives Arya Stark a sword that he had commissioned for her. The published version has Jon’s famous line “Stick them with the pointy end”, when Arya asks him how to use the sword. Well, early drafts lack that line; Martin added it later. The final version thus has an additional element of humor and lightheartedness to the conversation between Jon and Arya that early versions lacked (and makes published Jon a little wryer than early draft Jon). Those kinds of textual variances are very interesting and can be significant, I think. And we only get those if we have multiple versions of a manuscript.

 

6) So if a writer wants to start sending in their manuscripts to an archive, what steps do you suggest they take?

Well, of course, I’d love it if writers and other creators out there would think of Texas A&M first, and get in touch with me! J

But seriously, what’s really important is that the writer find an institution that best suits her and that she thinks will do a good job at preserving their materials and making them accessible. Many go first to institutions that have some personal significance to them – their alma mater, a local institution close to their home, or a university where they teach, for example. Others look to institutions that collect science fiction and fantasy: Texas A&M has one of the largest SF&F collections in the country, but there are certainly others out there that would welcome new acquisitions.

If a writer finds a repository they like, he or she can contact their Special Collections Department (or Archives, or whatever title the department chooses to use) and just ask whether they would be interested in acquiring her archives. Ideally, the institution will jump on this opportunity! But, sometimes – for example, because of lack of resources, or due to a collections policy that doesn’t allow for collecting literary manuscripts – the writer’s first choice can’t accept the collection. However, because everyone wants these collections to be kept safe and secure, institutions can work with the writer to help her find a suitable place.

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Thanks for being my guest today, Jeremy! (and there’s a really heavy box on its way to you via Fedex.) 

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There are actually several awesome archivists out there, BTW. So if you’re a writer looking to stash your work somewhere, I suggest checking your alma mater, or chatting with some of your author friends to see if they have a favorite archive to try. (I know that Lynne Marie Thomas runs the SFWA Collection at Northern Illinois University, for example).

Steven Savage has another excellent interview on the collection here, talking to both Jeremy Brett and Lauren Schiller, which mentions their Zine archive as well.

 

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Back into the Swing of Things….

I’m bouncing back pretty well after my surgery, so I’m happy about that.

I’ve turned in the edits on The Shores of Spain, so now I’m hustling to turn the zero draft of Dreaming Death into a readable first draft. I had to start over and reread all the work I’ve done before, so that will take up a couple of days, but I hope to get a move on and have the official first draft done before Veterans’ Day.

And, finally, I’ve joined Ello, although I have no idea if I shall ever use it. So if you want to add me, I’m here: https://ello.co/jkcheney

And….back to work!

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