Short Story Laboratory, or what I learned from going small

A few months ago, something very flattering and totally unexpected happened. Someone I’d met at a con, and who had subsequently read Gemsigns, asked if I would be interested in contributing a short story to an anthology to be published later this year. The theme of the collection is one of the classic scientific conundrums, and the list of people who’d already agreed to take part was impressive. The prospect of getting to add my own take on the topic, and in such starry company, was very exciting. I wanted to say yes immediately. But I hesitated.

Unlike many – possibly most – speculative fiction authors, I’ve never been much of a short story writer. I don’t have a file full of 10-30 page manuscripts, much less a history of publishing same. I did have to write a lot of micro-fiction in order to establish the Scriptopus website in 2010, but those were intentionally constructed as snippets – a paragraph or two that read as a small chunk of a larger work, to encourage the next participant to write the next chunk. The first fully-fledged story that I really wanted to tell emerged as a feature-length screenplay; followed a couple of years later by another screenplay; followed a few years after that by Gemsigns – all 104,000 words of it. Eighteen months later, Binary topped out at 114,000 words. Not exactly GRRM-scale doorstoppers, but – I don’t really have much form when it comes to short fiction.

Which of course (me being me) meant that I really wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see if I could take what I’d learned writing two thematically complex novels, with large casts of characters and multiple interweaving plotlines, and distill the essence of what makes them work into a few thousand words of self-contained story. But I didn’t think it was fair to simply accept the invitation without warning the commissioning editor that it was going to be a bit of a first for me, and I half-expected the enthusiasm on the other end to dim considerably as a result.

Instead I was told – go for it.

So I did, and I learned a few things along the way. One is that what interests me doesn’t seem to change because the frame I’m working in is smaller; so once again, I’ve written a story with some fairly significant ethical questions at its heart. I’m pro-science and pro-technology, but more than anything else I am pro-humanity; and negotiating the intersection between what is possible and what is moral is a theme I keep on returning to in spite of myself.

Another is that, lacking the scale for complicated plot development and lengthy character arcs, short fiction requires some hard choices about what to put in and what to leave out. It seems to me that genre writers mostly tend to focus on plot, often constructing the classic three acts that allow the short story to feel complete but forgoing much exploration of the internal lives of characters (and sometimes forgoing characters altogether). That’s a perfectly legitimate option, of course, but for me a story is made interesting (or not) by the people in it; so I decided to go in virtually the opposite direction, and to focus entirely on what the characters think and feel about the situation they find themselves in.

That meant finding a way of constructing plot almost as a side effect of exploring character; and it also meant accepting that the story remains, at the end, unresolved. It’s up to the reader to draw conclusions about what will or should happen, based on what s/he now knows about the characters. That felt like quite a risky thing to do, and it leads me to a third thing I discovered: short fiction is a great platform for trying things you haven’t tried before. In addition to the open-ended ending, I employed several narrative tricks and techniques that I’ve not (yet) used in my novels. There was a character whose gender I couldn’t decide on; it wasn’t important to the story, so a third of the way in I decided to see if I could write the whole thing without being backed into the pronoun corner (turns out I could). I told it in first-person present-tense, bouncing between four different points of view. I used highly emotive language to construct what is usually posited as an essentially intellectual dilemma.

I don’t think I would have attempted, or could have sustained, that kind of concentrated stylistic experimentation over 100,000+ words. At less than 7000 it was just about do-able, although the jury is still out on the result. I sent the manuscript in a couple of days ago, but the editor is backed up with projects (aren’t we all) and so probably won’t get around to reading it for another few weeks. Which means I probably won’t find out whether it’s been accepted into the anthology for a couple of months yet.

I hope it is, of course – along with my second novel, I’d love this to be the year I also have a professionally published short story. And I hope there’ll be more, but I don’t think I’m going to morph into a prolific short story writer. One of the other things that’s become apparent is that my ideas tend towards the larger scale; a beta reader remarked that the first draft read to him like the opening chapters of a novel, and would I be writing the rest of it?

So now I’m thinking … short stories as a way of developing techniques, themes, characters, which are then more fully explored in a longer piece? Or conversely, focusing more intensely on an aspect of character, theme, technique than is possible in a longer piece? I’d be really curious to know if anyone constructs a dialogue between their long and short fiction in this way, and how well it works for them.

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  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Regeneration is now out in the US! It joins Gemsigns and Binary, already available throughout the English-speaking world. I like to think they're literary science fiction, but you can make your own mind up. This is where I talk about what I'm working on, ask your opinion, and generally think out loud.

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