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

The number one request we got when we asked you what you’d like us to talk about? Short story writing. Mary is our resident expert, and if she weren’t already a member of the cast, she’d our go-to expert for an interview. Convenient!

We begin by addressing the popular notion that writing short stories is a good way to practice for writing novels, and selling short stories is a way to break in and sell novels. We then return to the M.I.C.E. quotient (first addressed by us in 6.10) and discuss how the quotient (or model, or formula) helps you understand what to cut from the telling of a story to make it a short story.

Mary then walks us through her process for turning an idea into a story concept, and then distilling that concept into a short story. She also invites us to explore her 950-word short, “Evil Robot Monkey,” free of charge!


Being “bi-textual” is a controversial lifestyle choice…

The Language of Moths, by Christopher Barzak, narrated by Paul Michael Garcia

28 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.20: The Short Story, with Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. Fantastic timing! I’ve got a friend who’s writing a short story and is looking for all the help he can get, and this ‘cast was helpful, indeed!

  2. Like many who started writing through short stories, I thought they would be a better introduction than something as ambitious as a novel. I’ve learned a massive amount in the few I’ve written, including that I’m probably more naturally inclined towards novels, since I always manage to go way past my estimated my wordcount and spend too long writing (One in a week, one in a DAY? Hahahah, nope!) due to fussing over characters, world-building, research, themes, etc. They start compounding fast!

    However, I’ve also been tearing through short anthologies, especially the Ellen Datlow collections, and I owe my discovery of many great writers, worlds, characters, and ideas — hours of entertainment — to the desire to write in that format.

  3. This was an absolutely beautiful cast. I had learned the “write short stories to break into novels” line ages ago, tried writing short stories, was absolutely horrible at it, and have been feeling guilty for moving onto novels instead.

    Also, this cast helped me in figuring out what I was doing wrong on those old short stories.

    Finally, in addition to “The Years Best …” collections, I highly recommend “Decades of Science Fiction,” by Applewhite Minyard. That book’s notable in that it outlines the development of the genre. But as we already know, I love me some history.

  4. My favorite takeaway from this episode is the reminder that scenes in a novel can benefit from being structured like short stories; each one should have its own conflict, tension, and climax.

  5. Thank you for this podcast. It sounds so incredibly simple and obvious, and yet it gave me what my short story idea was missing – something the main character desired.

    (Incidentally, the short story is a book I’ll give my 2 yr old son for his birthday. Inspired by this podcast, Schlock and “Vader’s little princess” I’m going to make it a comic. Train a child in the way they should go… right?)

  6. Thanks for one more great podcast. This was a particularly timely ‘cast for me, since I was thinking of dipping my toes with a few short stories before going on to convert the big idea I have into a novel.

    So, naturally, I have a few questions connected to my plan:

    1. Is it a good idea to take a part of the world history you may have built and convert that into a short story? Is this the first sign of worldbuilder’s disease? Those parts of the history may or may not be specifically addressed into your big novel later.

    2. If you are concentrating on a specific event in your story, can the story end when the event/scene is over, or is it more fulfilling to the reader if the ramifications of the event are addressed?

  7. I’ve never really gotten into short stories. I’ve tried to read a couple in order to learn it. I thought it would be nice to have a story that’s easier to finish than a novel. But I just don’t enjoy them.

    So it’s novels for me I guess.

  8. I’m curious about Dan said about writing a new story every day for a month. That sounds just exhausting. You said you got better at it by the end and I’m sure you did but were you burned out by the end as well? I guess I’m wondering if all this time later if you think it was a good idea still? It makes me think of writing on steroids where you bulk up in a really short time but then comes all the side effects to your health but in this case if you hulk out your short story writing chops in such a short period do you get so sick of writing shorts that you don’t ever want to go back to it?

  9. This cast was long overdue – thank you so much for it. Mary, been waiting to learn from you on the SS for a long time. Thank you for all the info. I hope you would consider a Short Story Part II in the future. There’s so much more we’d like to learn.

  10. Is there a list of places we can submit our finished short stories to? Asimovs and analog was mentioned in the cast. Where can we find more?

  11. Following up on Tyler’s question about where to submit, what “level” of publication should a new (unpublished) short story writer aim for when starting out? Before ‘nother Mike put up his link (which was helpful, thanks!), I had been looking at SFWA’s list of qualifying short fiction venues (http://www.sfwa.org/about/join-us/sfwa-membership-requirements/#shortfiction) for ideas (as well as for ideas about what to read).

    Assuming the basics are sound–that the story is appropriate to the publication, and that it is good enough to published somewhere without a presumption of where that might be–do you aim for the top tier and work your way down? Start at the bottom, and aim higher with each new story? Start in the middle? Does the advice for amateurs to look professional extend to submitting to professional markets from the start?

  12. Is there anything wrong per say with doing a bi-textual novel? (Each chapter is a stand alone arc, with several flash fiction arcs throughout it. And then each book has several arcs that happened because of the conclusion of a previous arc.)

  13. @Tyler, if you are a new writer, a good place to submit short stories to is http://www.writersofthefuture.com It’s a writing contest. If I remember write, to qualify for it, you have to be a new writer with no published novel or novella, no more than one published novelette, and no more than three short stories. The contest is held in four quarters every year, so it basically has winners every three months. I haven’t yet entered the contest, but I hope to.

    I am one who for years just hated short stories and only wrote novels. That changed when I decided that since fantasy and science-fiction have many good short stories, I would read some. Neil Gaiman writes very great fantasy short stories. If you check publisher’s sites, you can find good anthologies of science-fiction. The Writers of the Future volumes are fun to read, even if you don’t plan to have a part in the contest.

    I really appreciate this podcast. I had heard some writers say “you have to write short fiction to break in”, and so I thought I should write short stories, though I struggled to write them. I heard the myth of the break in even before this podcast. For some time I wondered if I should give up on my short story writing attempts. But I’m glad that the cast mentioned how trying something new is like the joy of learning to paint. So for now I still try to write short stories, because it’s fun experimenting and trying something new. If I ever find that short stories aren’t for me, I can always move on to continue writing novels like I always have. But for now, I hope to have fun fiddling around with the genres.

  14. Thanks for posting this one this month. Very timely, as we’re right in the middle of StoryADay May over at storyaday.org. I’m posting links to this podcast to all the StoryADay-ers, who are plunging into the short story, heart and soul this month and trying out all kinds of new ideas, voices and characters.

    @Tyler, yes, Duotrope is a great resource (better, in my opinion than Writers Digest’s Writers Market as it seems to be more fully-featured and current). They have started charging a $50 annual fee for full access to the site, but it’s a resource that is well-worth supporting if you have the funds.

    Otherwise, Google “short story markets” and poke about in the results. Best practices are always to a, read the publication, b, search the publication’s site for “writer’s guidelines” and c, be prepared to take some time researching this stuff. Be professional. Send only your best, well-edited stories. But most of all, try writing stories for fun. If you don’t love your stories, no-one else will!

  15. I too have been practicing with short stories! Seems like theres a few of us – something in the air perhaps.
    Thank you Mary for explaining things so succinctly.
    Brandon – your Golf analogy was terrible! Perhaps you meant golf vs mini-golf? But even then its pretty poor.

    I’ve a question I hope you can answer in regard to the Hugo and Nebula membership.
    Whats the URL? I’ve googled about, but its unclear how I can access the stories, how to vote, or even when.

    Nice work on the last few casts – very enjoyable.

  16. @julien Hugo awards come out of the World SF Convention. Usually have to be a member of the last, current, or next one to vote or get the packet. Nebula comes out of SFWA.

  17. I know I’m a bit late, but I wanted to mention William Hope Hodson’s macabre Dying Earth book The Night Land. It was published as 200k words in England in 1912, but he didn’t have the patent in America because he couldn’t sell it to a publisher. He condensed it to 20k words (10%!), named the abridgement “The Dream of X,” and financed its publishing himself. It has to be one of the greatest examples of story cutting that exists and is a great way to study many of the topics mentioned in the podcast. (The question remains, which should be studied first?)

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