Why I Write Short Fiction

As I suspect was the case for many a science fiction and fantasy fan (as well as fans of many other stripes), I got my start with a parent’s collection. My dad had, and still has, a small library of science fiction and fantasy. Most of the books are stacked two deep on a set of shelves at my parents’ house. He was a helpful, but not overbearing, guide to exploring the genre(s), and so my early canon was formed by these books.

There are a lot of familiar names on that list – Asimov, Heinlein, and Niven in particular – who worked frequently in short stories. Even Asimov’s early “novels” are basically mosaics made of short stories. The end result was that I read a lot of short science fiction growing up, and it’s still a comfortable format for me. (Less comfortable: The sexism, racism, essentialism, etc. that run through many of these stories. We can and should take what’s good while condemning what’s bad.)

I also appreciate the flexibility that short fiction offers me as a writer. A structure or style that would prove grating in a novel can be interesting and attention-grabbing in a short story. The necessary length constraints make it, perhaps ironically, easier to build a world. When the reader comes in knowing that they’re going to have to extrapolate from context and pay close attention for a short period of time, I don’t feel as much pressure to explain all of the details of the world. That’s what the imagination is for.

That last point is the most essential part of my affection for short stories. A short story has enough space for a few key ideas and some efficient worldbuilding, particularly if I’m doing my job right vis a vis building well-realized characters, telling a coherent story, and managing the rest of those literary and narrative elements that make fiction different from a late-night “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” conversation. Longer fiction may demand more precision from the author’s imagination, but spending a month writing short stories at the same pace as a NaNoWriMo novel may well demand more versatility. (At least, that’s been my experience so far this month.)

I’ve been excited to spend time this month digging more into regular short story writing, and I’ve already finished more stories than I have in years. Whether they stand up or not will be a question for next month, when rewriting will join the regular agenda. Building complete drafts is the start; we’ll see how I do when it comes time to make them publishable.

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