So, I finished The Shell Collector yesterday, which is a book of short stories by Anthony Doerr (who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel, All the Light We Cannot See), and honestly I was a little underwhelmed. That's unfortunate, because The Shell Collector happens to be one of my mother's favorite books, and she's been trying to get me to read it for years. (I'm always about three to five years behind on any book recommendation, though I eventually get to them). The fact that I didn't like a book that my mother probably ranks in her top ten just further supports my theory that reading is a lonely thing, and you should never expect to bond with anyone over your favorite books. What's sublime to one reader is tedious for the next.
Personally, I just don't care for hyper-descriptive prose, which Anthony Doerr is admittedly very good at. I can see the talent, but it's not my cup of tea. I found the descriptions of every little thing distracting from the story, but maybe that was intentional, because except for "The Hunter's Wife" and "Mkondo", I didn't think any of the stories were very interesting. They felt repetative, particularly in terms of plot and character.
Mabye Doerr wanted to focus more on the prose style, which was lovely at a microscale, but also overwhelming at the macro-level. I can only imagine how many hours he spent getting each word just right, but it was too much for me. I guess I'm more of literary minimalist. I find that a single beautiful line in an otherwise functional paragraph has more impact than pages and pages of pretty words strung endlessly together. The only other book I've read by Doerr is Four Seasons in Rome, which again was beautifully written, but I was pulling my hair out by the end, wondering how anyone could make Rome sound so boring. Something has to happen for it to be a story, and it has to be believable .
For this reason, of all the stories in The Shell Collector, I disliked "The Caretaker" the most because it was utterly ridiculous. It's not possible to live in the woods for months eating beries and seaweed. You will starve to death, or more likely, give up and find someone who will give you food. Krakauer did a pretty good job of explaining the research on that in his excellent book, Into the Wild. So I think it's misguided to tell stories in the style of realism about people who hide in the woods and neither freeze nor starve. Sorry, it's just not happening. Please find some other way for your character to "grow."
Anyway, despite these criticisms, there's no arguing that Doerr's a great writer. He's just not the writer for me.
The Shell Collector, however, is just the latest book of short stories I've been reading. I don't know if it's because of my job, but I've been finding it harder to focus for long periods of time when I read. If I had any major complaint about making a living as an editor, it's that it has made reading into a job rather than a pleasure, and that feeling spills over into my down time.
So for the last few months, I've mostly been reading short stories, because they're fairly quick and I can switch around between different collections. It's just one way that I've been unconsciously dealing with my shorter reading attention span, which I think is understandable given that I spend hours every day reading very critically for other people. I only ever list the books I've completely finished in my reading list, so you don't see all the Cheever, Breece D'J Pankcake, and Phil Klay stories I've been reading at the same time, but anyway, that's been my reading pattern for the last few months.
Last night, I felt a little tired of short stories and annoyed at my inability to settle down into a novel, so I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness, but I couldn't get into it. Then I found a paperback copy of Ringworld that I borrowed from my Dad's library collection over Thanksgiving, and fortunately that one has sucked me in. Thank god, because I needed to shake up this pattern, especially after the disappointment of The Shell Collector.
What are you reading these days?
I was thinking about my favorite short stories the other day. More specifically, I was thinking about how nice it would be if I could choose my own personal anthology. You know how they have that series, The Best American Short Stories? And each year, the publisher asks a different author to edit the selections? I wish someone would ask me to do that, only I wouldn't limit my choices by year or nationality.
If it were up to me, I'd publish an anthology that would contain these short stories in this exact order:
by Martin Amis (Einstein's Monsters)
by Stephanie Vaughn (Sweet Talk)
The Nine Billion Names of God
by Arthur C. Clarke (The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke)
The Laughing Man
by J.D. Salinger (Nine Stories)
by Julie Orringer (How to Breathe Underwater) - Read my review of the collection here.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
by Ernest Hemingway (The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories)
It's Bad Luck to Die
by Elizabeth McCracken (Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry)
The Children's Grandmother
by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Winter in the Air: And Other Stories)
This is an Alert
by Thomas Pierce (The New Yorker)
Able Baker Charlie Dog
by Stephanie Vaughn (Sweet Talk)
The Ormolu Clock
by Muriel Spark (All the Stories of Muriel Spark)
Bullet in the Brain
by Tobias Wolff (The Night in Question)
A lot of the short stories on this list I heard on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, but not all of them. Some of them I read in school. Some of them I found in a book. But I think they all changed me a little, and that's what matters.
p.s. The image of the chamber nautilus would be the cover of my anthology. Wouldn't it be good?
What short stories would you include?
You're in luck kids! I've got three more short stories I'd like to recommend. All three are science fiction/fantasy and all three are really good. Two of the three I listened to via the excellent Fantasy Scroll podcast. If you're not listening to your short stories via podcasts, you may want to give it a try. It's a nice change-up from endless NPR in the car.
(How to listen to podcasts: download or stream them directly onto your phone using the Podcast app if you have an iphone, or the Stitcher app if you have an android phone. It's easier than it looks. Use the search function in the app to find the podcast and then either subscribe or select which episode you want to listen to. Just think of it as on-demand radio.)
Hand of God by Erika Satifka, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
Some years ago, a massive hand appeared over a small town. It hovers there, doing nothing, yet it blocks out most of the sunlight and isolates the citizens from everything. Sounds weird. It is, but I think it works because the premise is cleverly balanced with the hyper-familiar as well: families, school, bullies, bikes. What happens to this Mayberry-esque town under the hand of god? It involves mushrooms, drugs, survivalism, and monsters. Loved it. So, so weird, yet you don't question what's happening. You're just like, oooh, tell me more about the little girl's drugs.
When the Dead are Indexed by Gary Emmette Chandler, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
This story is about a guy who goes to a museum exhibit. It's set in a future where there's a superior race of people, called the "SHI," which stands for "super high intelligence," and it's the SHI who have put on this exhibit. The narrator is not an SHI. He's just a normal guy, very humble, but excited to see the show. Unfortunately, he finds it completely disappointing. It's a little hard to explain this story because it depends almost completely on the narrator's arc: how his perspective of the SHI and himself changes after experiencing the exhibit. It's a great example of using narrative voice. I also liked the ending.
Broken-Winged Love by Naru Dames Sundar, Strange Horizons
A mother dragon hatches an egg and finds that her baby has a birth defect. Although she cares for the child, protects it from harm and harassment, she seems herself disgusted by the thing, repeatedly saying,"I didn't love my baby." This mantra keeps the story from getting soft or sentimental and provides instead a character study of a mother doing everything right even as she apparently feels no love for her offspring. Is she lying? Is she telling us the truth? Her offspring seems to feel love; clearly reciprocates that love. But maybe, she was only doing what he needed, regardless of what she felt. A sad, sweet story about the complexity of being a mother.
Hope you enjoy these!
A quick post.
I slush read for a science fiction and fantasy magazine (I'm not going to say which) and I've been noticing some reoccurring patterns in the short stories I read that tend to get rejected. I wanted to share a few of those problematic themes I keep seeing. Maybe this will help you get published? I figure it can't hurt.
So here they are, things I think you should avoid in your stories so you can avoid getting rejected:
1) Your protagonist dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by suicide.
2) Everyone dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by mass-suicide or mass-murder.
3) Your characters have hard made-up names (i.e. Hyiliawpha, or Wjusta), particularly if there are a lot of characters. I don't think it's a coincidence that the characters in Game of Thrones tend to have modern derived names (i.e. Joffrey vs Jeffrey/Geoffrey, Margaery vs Margery, Jon vs Jon). It helps the reader keep track of so many people.
4) The Apocalypse has happened and there's no hope for the protagonist. I think we amateur writers (myself very much included) tend to confuse emotional depth with despair. To be honest, despair is really not that much fun to read. I mean, where do you go with it? I'm not saying there's never been a great story about the end of the world, but I feel like the good ones rarely start at the end (Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the only example I can think of that contradicts this "rule.")
5) The speculative elements of the story are marginal. This rule really only applies to genre submissions. Here's an example: if your story is about a family in some kind of conflict, and the family happens to have a magic broom that sweeps the house while they fight, but the broom has basically nothing to do with the characters or the story, then I'd say there's not enough speculative elements to warrant publication in a science fiction or fantasy magazine. This comes up a lot in the stories I read for the magazine.
Anyway, I hope these are of some help to you. I'm not going to say these are hard and fast rules; a lot of it depends on execution. But I've yet to read a story I liked where the character committed suicide (you'd be surprised how often that comes up in these submissions).
One of the unfortunate parts of short stories is that it's harder to remember the author's name afterwards. When you've been reading a book for a few weeks, you've had more time to commit the author to memory. But when you finish a short story in less than an hour, it's natural to instantly forget who wrote it - even if you happened to love the work. That's kind of hard on talented short story writers who've put in the effort and written something brilliant...only to be forgotten? How can they build on that success if we can't find ways to even remember their names?
I've been listening to some great short stories lately on various science fiction and fantasy podcasts, and I wanted to share them with you so we can spread the word about these talented writers (and to help me to remember their names so I can keep an eye out for their next publications). In no particular order, here are three recent short stories that I really enjoyed and links to the podcast and written versions at their respective magazines.
Werewolf Loves Mermaid by Heather Lindsley (Lightspeed Magazine)
I loved the simplicity of this story. What happens when a werewolf and a mermaid fall in love? It sounds silly, but these non-human characters seemed so familiar and natural. These could be your friends, just falling in love, becoming a serious item, living out their years together - they just happen to be supernatural creatures. I think it was the strength of the writing that made this story work. In lesser hands, it would have been goofy, but Lindsley's got the touch and even pulls off some humor.
The Adjunct by Patricia S. Browne (Fantasy Scroll Magazine)
Maybe it's my academic background, but I could very much identify with this story in which an underemployed adjunct professor takes a job teaching an anatomy course to the demons in hell. Again, sounds silly, but you read it and you believe it. It's also a really good example of how to use specific, concrete detail (in this case, parts of the body), without getting bogged down in purple prose. Loved the ending too.
The Algebra of Events by Elizabeth Bourne (Clarkesworld Magazine)
This one is from the perspective of an alien aboard a colony ship that crash lands on a strange planet that is unfortunately inhospitable to the aliens' fluid body forms. It was the line, "I am 7.8% solid with grief," that sold me on the story. I liked the idea that different life forms might experience emotions in physically very different ways from us, even if it's more or less the same set of feelings. Very novel. Check it out, it really is quite compelling and sad. One note though, I don't love the production values on the Clarkesworld podcast. They use this weird audio filter to make it sound more futuristic, but it only makes it harder to understand the narrator, especially if there are other interfering noises, like the car engine or rain on the windshield. Maybe read the text version instead.
I hope you'll check these stories out and enjoy. Funny how they all turned out to be from women writers, totally random choice on my part :)
I have a little confession to make. Something I’ve been doing, but haven’t yet shared with you kids.
I’ve been slush reading for a short fiction magazine.
Why's that? Well, I read that a good way to learn what kinds of stories get published in short fiction magazines is to volunteer as a slush reader. The slush reader is the first person to read the unsolicited fiction submissions. They’re the gatekeeper. They read the short stories and decide whether to reject outright, or to pass any promising submissions to the editors, who then make the final decision on what gets published.
I have to admit, I’ve been really enjoying the work. There’s nothing glamorous about it. There’s a lot of non-publishable stories to wade through, but it’s teaching me how to read my own fiction with a slush readers eye, which has been incredibly helpful. (Plus, I get to read tons of short stories and whether they're good or bad, I still kind of like having new stories to think about.)
When I read a submission, there are several things that jump out to me right away that cause me to reject it. Ironically, I had just submitted another short story when I began slush reading and several of the items I’m going to share with you guys are things I realized my own story was guilty of too. Sure enough, it got rejected. But now I know what to look out for in my own writing and can re-edit that story to address some of those issues I see now as a slush reader. Maybe I’ll have better luck with future submissions as a result.
So let me share my slush-reading insights and maybe they’ll be of some help to you too.
1. Do your sentences contain excessive numbers of adjectives and adverbs? Is there more description than plot or character development? If yes, go through your story and be brutal. Cut all that stuff out. I don’t know where we all learned that good writing was hyper-descriptive writing, but I feel like it’s something we all have to unlearn. Take out every description that doesn’t move the story along. If it isn’t adding anything tangible, delete it. A cleaner written, simpler syntax instantly reads better to my ears as I’m combing through stories.
2. Avoid hokey narrative voices or attempts to be funny. Trust me, I’m guilty of this too. I don’t know, I guess we all can hear the joke better in our own heads as we’re writing it, but it rarely translates to an external reader. Again, keep it simple. Cut those parts out and focus everything on telling one griping story.
3. Don't forget about character. If your reader couldn’t tell you anything about the backstory, likes, dislikes, fears, desires, motivations about your characters, or if there’s nothing remotely unique about your characters, that’s a red-flag for me. This one is harder to fix, because you actually have to write more to address it rather than take stuff out. But character arc is important. Without it, I reject.
4. Is there excessive violence in your story? That’s another almost instant rejection, for me. Usually the magazine’s submission guidelines counsel against gratuitous, graphic violence anyway, so ask yourself, do I really need that evisceration scene? Does the whole story depend on someone’s brain’s getting blown out? If yes…maybe consider submitting a different story? It’s really unpleasant to read something so gross and violent. There was one story I read that took a sudden graphic turn that I seriously felt angry that I had to read such a disgusting thing, with no warning whatsoever. (There was also something borderline excessively violent in my own recent submission, and I have to wonder now if that was one of the I'm sure many reasons it was rejected.)
5. Is your story idea unique? If I can easily categorize your story (i.e. vampire romance, a fantasy version of Hamlet, search for a lost crystal, etc.), then I’m probably not going to pass on your story to the editor. It’s better to avoid clichés and aim for something totally original. Those are the stories that are getting published.
6. Is your manuscript really long? I feel bad about this one, but honestly, if your story is really long, I’m already not looking forward to reading it. I think as a rule most of these magazines’ slush readers are unpaid. They’re doing this in their free time and maybe they have other things going on in their life. If it’s possible to cut down your short story from 5000 words to 4000, then by all means do so. Those 1000 words could mean the difference between a tired/bored reader, and one who is excited by your idea and ready to pass it on to the editor.
Anyway, those are just a few thoughts for now that I might add onto later. I would highly recommend you try slush reading if you’re interested in publishing. It’s teaching me how to read my own work with more detachment; how to see it through the eyes of someone who is considering it for publication.
When I first started researching how to submit fiction to journals and magazines, one of the common pieces of advice was to read back issues in order to better understand what kind of work each market published. Although that advice was well-meaning, I think it also made me needlessly delay on submitting my work for a long time. "I haven't read all the back-issues!" I'd tell myself, "I'm not ready!"
Yes, understanding your audience is key to getting published, but no one who is balancing a full-time job, family, and their writing-habit could possibly read enough back issues for all the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. And if you have a literary bent, that's a whole extra genre of magazines to research. It's just too much to do.
Well, kids, I stumbled upon the solution the other day.
Did you know that many of these magazines have podcasts? Where they read their stories aloud? It's like having an endless book on tape of excellent short fiction, for free too. (Although I do think you should subscribe to your favorite magazines. They're generally inexpensive and it's a great way to support your peers.)
Here are the science fiction and fantasy magazines that I've been listening to lately (in no particular order):
I already listen to a variety of podcasts during my hour long commute. And now, I get to enjoy good science fiction and fantasy while simultaneously helping me to understand each market a little better. If you're of a literary mind (and even if you're pure genre), then you should listen to The New Yorker's Fiction podcast to learn from the greats of short fiction writing, like Cheever, Borges, and Gallant.
Frankly, it's been eye-opening. When you hear the kind of stories that are getting published in the magazines, well, let's just say I'm no longer surprised that mine have been getting rejected. What I have been writing and what gets through the slush readers (or what is invited) sounds completely different.
Based on this research, I've concluded that published authors write with more restraint than unpublished amateurs (like myself). They don't spend pages describing each setting in florid detail. The characters are usually more even-keeled, emotionally speaking. The stories tend to be neither excessively sad, nor do they try to be excessively funny. They sound more like an acquaintance telling you a story about something odd they saw the previous day.
So do yourself a favor, cheat a little, and just listen to the market of your choice via podcast if they have one. You'll hear the difference and it should help your writing and publishing chances. And hey, if nothing else, it's an entertaining way to get through a long drive.
Yesterday, I posted a short story (flash fiction?) onto the blog. I was happy to finish another little story, but it brought up an old debate I’ve been having with myself for the last year or so: Is it better to focus what limited time I have to work on my book-in-progress? Or should I be writing and submitting short stories to hopefully build a publishing record that might help get my book picked up somewhere? It’s that darn chicken or the egg problem again.
I never used to write short stories. Once I got into the habit of writing, I focused exclusively on my book. But after several months, I needed a little break from it. I was struggling with some plot issues that weren’t resolving themselves by writing the same chapters over and over. Fortunately, that was right around the same time that we got our puppy and the decision to take a break from my book was more or less made for me. Instead of writing, I was getting up in the middle of the night to let the dog out, playing with her, and taking her for long, long walks in the afternoon. (It was exhausting but totally worth it. She’s a great dog.)
The long walks solved the plot issues and the puppy grew up and needed not quite so much constant supervision. I was able to get writing again. But instead of jumping back into the book, I found I had a few short story ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere. Again, it was probably the walks. Nothing like movement to get the brain working.
I tried splitting my time between the book and the short stories. The result was hyper-slow progress on each. Then I worked on just the short stories for a few weeks, one at a time, and finished a couple, but never made the time to polish them. So now I have four or five short stories in the bag, and maybe one of them has enough potential to work on a little harder – but of course, I’m driven instead to work on the book! I want to finish a few chapters that I’m actually happy with!
So, anyway, that’s the dilemma. I mean, how do you know when to submit the short stories and when to work on the book? My boss gets on my case for this; telling me I just have to work on more than one thing at a time. He’s right, but I still struggle to make progress in anything if I’m not totally focused.
I think I understand part of the attraction to flash fiction now. Less words to edit and polish. I’ll try and submit that story somewhere soon and get that first rejection letter under my belt. But, that’s another thing: it takes time just to figure out where to submit your fiction! It’s a hard job, trying to be a writer. Good thing it’s fun.
What do you think? Is it better to work on short stories if you're not an established writer? Or should you double-down on the book, if that’s your real goal?
Writer, editor, scientist.