Writing Excuses 12.8: Short Stories As Exploration, with Tananarive Due
Key points: Try using short fiction to explore something you want to practice. Point of view, characterization, balancing dialogue and exposition — quick, no big investment if it fails. Use short fiction to “discover who you are as a writer without getting lost wandering in the woods.” Think of short fiction as your sketchbook, a place to experiment and push the limits. Don’t worry about writing salable short fiction. Use short fiction to practice technique in isolation. Like doing sprints for a football player. Use monologues to meet your characters, short stories to describe a setting or try out a style. Pick an aspect of craft and focus on that single aspect. Start by reading short stories, anthologies, collections, and see what the possibilities are. Short fiction tends to be tightly focused, with a small cast and fewer plot threads. Use short fiction to get extra ideas out of your system, as a quick refresher. Find the turning point in your novel, and write a short story about it.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode Eight.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Short Stories As Exploration, with Tananarive Due.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we, once again, have special guest star, Tananarive Due.
[Tananarive] Hello. It’s great to be here.
[Brandon] Thank you so much for coming on. This is actually a topic you pitched to us about short stories.
[Tananarive] I’m pretty passionate about short stories, considering that I just published my first short story collection…
[Tananarive] Fairly recently. So yes. I’ve had a great response to it. And in addition to that, I’ve seen how publishing short fiction online, in like Lightspeed and Nightmare brings new readers who had never heard of my novels, never heard of me, and keeps me kind of fresh.
[Brandon] We’re going to be talking a lot about short stories this year on Writing Excuses. I wanted to theme this one specifically at something you said, which is using short fiction to explore something you want to practice.
[Tananarive] Absolutely. I teach in an MSA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and I’ve taught undergraduates at UCLA. I consistently find myself asking my writers why they’re focusing on novels rather than short fiction when, in my view, there’s some craft lessons on point of view and characterization or learning to balance dialogue and exposition that I think could be better practiced in the short form to give… You can complete it. If it fails, no biggie. You haven’t spent five or six years of your life on it.
[Tananarive] Really. I do caution learning writers especially this, that novels do fail. I have novels that didn’t pan out, that I got tired of, that I fell out of love with. If all of my identity as a writer had been wrapped up in that one specific project, I would have felt like I was a failure as a writer, rather than the project itself not being quite ready, it’s not quite the right time. So I think short fiction is a great way to discover who you are as a writer without getting lost wandering in the woods.
[Howard] I can’t emphasize the importance of this principle enough. Being able to do something where you are allowed to fail and learning from the failure. Instead of doing something where if you fail, it’s an actual disaster and it’s punishing and your career might not survive it. As an artist, I can’t afford to commit a full week of strip art to something that is truly experimental, but in the sketchbook, I will often do things that I plan to post to twitter, I plan to post to Patreon. These are wonderful little things that are very experimental. They fit that same bill. I’m not doing a whole novel’s worth of stuff. I want to experiment and I want to push the limits. My limits.
[Mary] One of the things that, I think, when you’re talking about whether you should be doing short stories or writing novels, I am, of course, a huge fan of short stories. But I like to read short stories, as well. Some people don’t like to read it. So when we are thinking about exploring short stories as a way to improve your craft, don’t worry if you’re not writing salable short fiction. This is like saying I am going to make a career out of playing nothing but études. Which is not to say that études are not worthwhile. It’s that if you don’t have a connection to that form of storytelling, it is actually totally fine to write it just as an exercise, and say, “I am going to take this opportunity to focus on dialogue.” Or, okay, “I am going to take this opportunity to focus on…” From last season, okay, we have drama. I am going to take this short story, and this short story is going to be about drama. Because once I understand that thread in this short form, then, when I go to apply it to my longer form which may be where your passion is, then you know how to use it. It’s like practicing technique in isolation. Which is what études are for, in music. In puppetry, you have to walk a puppet around a table, and there is no play in the history of the planet where you’re going to watch a puppet just walk around a table. But doing it in isolation allows you to hone that technique for the form that you truly love.
[Brandon] It’s like doing sprints as a football player, right? You’re going to need that sprinting. The whole game isn’t sprinting, but you’re going to need that. This is what this is. Once upon a time, this was the way you became, particularly in genre fiction, a writer. When I was trying to sell books early in my career, I had several editors say to me, “What short stories have you published?” And said, “Go practice short stories.” Now, I don’t think that’s the right advice for everyone. I think that it is good advice for some writers, and it is one of these things that you should really try, that every writer should try and see if it works for them.
[Mary] Using your example of the football player sprinting, there are competitive sprinters. That is a completely different form than football players. But that doesn’t mean… So when we’re talking about this as an exercise, I want to be very clear that we are not devaluing short fiction.
[Brandon] It’s hard.
[Mary] It is difficult, and it is… There are techniques in it that are specific to the form.
[Dan] This is something that I do a lot, actually, because I do not consider myself a short fiction writer. I have published a handful. I occasionally do short stories. But for the most part, I’m novels. However, with most of my novels, I will sit down and write monologues in order to get characters. That’s really what this is. I will write a short story which is kind of me describing a city or a setting so I can get it into my head. That’s not going to be published, it’s never going to be in a book, it’s just me learning how that character or place or style works.
[Howard] I do think it’s worth noting, though, with Ghost… What’s the…
[Tananarive] Ghost Summer.
[Howard] With Ghost Summer, what we have there is not a collection of monologues that you’re not going to share with other people. We have a collection of excellent short stories. So while it’s useful to look at this as, “Oh, yes, it’s wind sprints. It’s practice.” Turning these into individual works of art, Tananarive, that’s your… That, you shine at that.
[Tananarive] Well, thank you. That’s so sweet of you to say. As I’m listening to this panel, I’m remembering the very first piece of fiction I sold. This was after years in high school and in college and grad school, writing practice novels. The first piece of fiction I sold was a short story that I did as a prompt for myself. I want to write a short story like Ian McEwan. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with McEwan’s work. He’s a very highbrow literary British writer. But back in the day, he was publishing very quirky odd short stories and they were… They were just strange. I thought I want to write that. My story was nothing like Ian McEwan, but it was just weird and I had no eye on the marketplace, as you were saying, but at the same time, accidentally, it is the first short story I ever sold.
[Brandon] [garbled it’s a piece of fiction.]
[Mary] The… Sorry, I enjoy this sentence. My first Hugo nomination…
[Howard] Dun, dun, dun.
[Mary] Was for a short story that I wrote as an exercise in an hour and a half.
[Mary] From a writing prompt at a website called Liberty Hall Writers. The idea with this was that you would pick an aspect of craft and you would focus on that single aspect of craft. So when we are telling you to do these things, even though we’re saying don’t… Keep your eye on the prize. The prize is the practice, and the prize is what it will do for your overall craft. Know that often you may come out of it and go, “Hey, I have something here.” You also may come out of it I have other things from those sprints essentially that I was doing that will… They were great exercise and they aren’t publishable.
[Brandon] So, let’s stop here. Our book of the week is actually Ghost Summer.
[Brandon] But I wanted to ask you specifically about one of the stories in it. Can you pitch one of the stories in there that will make us really want to go by this and read it?
[Tananarive] Okay. Well, as a new mother, there was an anthology of black horror coming out, again, kind of a prompt. Will you write us a story? I came up with a story called Summer set in my fictitious Florida town of Gracetown where magical things happen, especially affecting children. I had a single mother whose husband was deployed. She was at home with her terribly tempered 18-month-old toddler who liked to hurt her on purpose, she was convinced. One day, something took over her toddler, made her toddler different. So her rambunctious evil child was turned into a sweet child who would let her sleep in. The moral dilemma is, do you cast this thing out?
[You have a child. You know.]
[Dan] I honestly don’t know what I would do.
[Tananarive] Or not?
[Howard] I’m so glad that my child was able to reclaim its body from whatever demon it was born with.
[Tananarive] Exactly. Exactly. So that’s one of the stories.
[Brandon] That’s awesome.
[Brandon] Wow. All right, I’m going to pitch this back at you again.
[Brandon] Because I want to know some of the things you tell your student when they specifically want to get better at something and are going to try a short story to approach that.
[Tananarive] Well, first it starts with reading a lot of short stories. That’s… The most common thing I hear is, “Well, my stories don’t come to me as short stories.” I really think a lot of that is because we read novels. So get an anthology, get a collection, especially a genre collection if that’s what you like to write, and just see what the possibilities are. Yes, you can create a full world in about 20 pages. Yes, you can introduce a character we care about in the first two pages so that I’ll read on. That’s the first thing, is just to sort of open your mind up to the process of short fiction.
[Brandon] Excellent. Mary, do you have any advice on this?
[Mary] Yeah. So, one of the things which I told you for that time that you wrote that one story that was 4000 words long…
[Brandon] You’re never gonna let me forget about that, are you?
[Mary] I am so proud of that. That’s right, listeners, I taught Brandon Sanderson to write a story that was 4000 words.
[Brandon] 4000 words.
[Mary] You could not kill a Chihuahua with that one.
[Brandon] You’d be hard-pressed to kill any…
[Dan] [garbled maybe not anybody could do it, but…]
[Mary] So, but the thing is that when you’re thinking about short fiction versus novels, one of the things that you’re thinking about is a difference in scope. Short fiction tends to be much more tightly focused, and it has a smaller cast and fewer plot threads. So one of the things I think as an exercise, not that we are at that point, but as an exercise, just think about… Okay, take two people in a location. What is something that can go wrong with those two people in that location? That doesn’t involve any other people coming into the room. That doesn’t involve them needing to leave the room. What can go wrong in there that they have to solve? That is going to give you the basic thing of a short story. Where you run into problems is when your urge is to bring in other characters in order to bump up the tension. You can do that in a novel. Okay, I need to raise the tension. Someone comes into the room with a gun! But that’s another character, and you need more words to manage that character.
[Brandon] One of the reasons I write short fiction, which most of my short fiction is not 4000 words. Most of my short fiction is long short fiction.
[Mary] There is just that one.
[Brandon] There is just that one. But one of the reasons I do this, and this is another reason to suggest to our listeners, is I realized I kept… As a writer, you have lots of ideas. Those ideas would burn in my brain, and would be like distracting me from my main project. In the past, as primarily a novel writer, I would start taking these and expanding them and building them out, and soon I would have this big long list of novels I wanted to write. Well, I started to realize, hey, if I can take the story and boil it down to the essence of this story, and I can write a short piece about it, it gets it out of my system, it allows me to do something different, and shake up what I’m doing and refresh me for my main project. Instead of taking 6 to 8 months away, and then promising another story which everyone’s going to want sequels to, and the publisher’s going to want it to be a trilogy, and all of this stuff. It’s been refreshing and wonderful to my career to give myself the permission to do this. But to do it, I had to practice, because I wanted these stories to be read. I had to get good at the form.
[Tananarive] I would also say find that turning point. A lot of students I advise to take your novel and find the short story in your novel. Whether it’s something that happened previously, before the action of the novel, or a moment that you haven’t even gotten up to, but it… If you’re spending a lot of pages in your novel about a flashback that happened when your character was 19, if that was such a life changing event, write a short story about that event, when your character was 19.
[Howard] That may very well be the best use of your prologue.
[Tananarive] That’s true.
[Brandon] That’s… That’s going to be our homework for this episode. I want you to do that. Take a story you’ve written and find a short story in it. Or the story you’re planning and find a short story in it. Because we are, actually, out of time. I really want to thank Tananarive for being on… I said it right, though.
[Howard] It’s Tananarive.
[Brandon] It’s Tahnahnah, not Tanana. You told me don’t say Tanana.
[Tananarive] I said it would be okay.
[Brandon] Okay. You were very gracious. But we want to thank Tananarive very much for being on the podcast. Thank you so much.
[Tananarive] My pleasure. Thank you all.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.