I love short things. My favourite aunt is a tiny and compact ball of energy. She’s like a rogue asteroid that actually makes everything she bumps into better. My co-writer, Jenn, is short. I always forget how short she is until we meet up. I need a longer word to do her justice, though. Jenn is awesome.
I always order the shorti hoagie from Wawa because believe it or not, there is too much of a good thing. Too much egg salad is not a good thing.
A short stack of pancakes is the perfect stack.
I’m not here to tell you about all the short things I like, though. I’m here to talk about short stories. I love short stories. I like reading them and I like writing them.
Writing short is a skill and an art. Short stories are not novels in miniature. A story, no matter how brief, has to accomplish something, or it’s worthless. The difficulty and beauty of writing short is figuring out what that something is going to be.
I generally don’t read my own books after they’re published. Occasionally, I’ll thumb through a favourite chapter—such as Mal’s speech at the end of Chasing Forever, or the scene by the lake in Renewing Forever. Bram’s stupid poem in To See the Sun. Felix’s marriage proposal in Phase Shift.
I do read my short stories, though. Pretty regularly. Take This is the Future, Baby. I freaking love that short. It makes me laugh, makes me think, and puts a happy lump in my throat at the end. It’s everything I look for in a short story. Salute to the Sun (a Chaos Station short) makes me feel the same way. My absolute favourite, though, is Out in the Blue. I sometimes wonder if it’s the most inspired story I’ve ever written. If I’ll ever write another one so perfect. It’s not that every word is brilliantly considered or that the editing is top-notch (it probably isn’t). It’s more the idea behind that story and how I felt while writing it. Knowing I was nailing one specific thing—Jared’s sense of self. His insecurities. His dreams. How he connected with Fin and the balance of Fin’s story against his. It just all worked and I will forever love the story because of that.
I feel somewhat the same about the story I’ve just finished writing for my newsletter subscribers, Let’s Connect. At 26k, it’s twice the length of Blue and quite a bit more involved, but it still takes one single aspect of a character’s life, something they believe needs attending to, and addresses it. Fixes it. (Subscribe to my newsletter to read Let’s Connect in weekly installments this summer!)
Writing short means you have to think very carefully about the story you want to tell. Try to encompass too much and your plot with seem rushed, your characters underdeveloped. Try to do too little and the story will be flat and uninteresting. Finding the balance between these elements and the right number of words to encompass them is an art. It really is. Because every character is different, so every story is different.
The other part of nailing a short story is knowing just where to start it.
As a reader, I’ve been on a decades-long quest to find the perfect short story. In my teens, I loved horror and science fiction anthologies. I still do. My shelves are packed with them. In my twenties, I ventured more into fantasy and romance and tended to look for collections of stories around the series I was reading.
Back when I was reviewing professionally, I was one of the only reviewers who welcomed anthologies, which my editor appreciated. I’d started writing short by then and I’d come to understand that there are two types of short story readers. Those who are there for extra time with beloved characters, and those who simply appreciate the art.
I’m more on the art side. I don’t mind extras in favorite universes, but what I really love about a good short story—aside from the thrill of finding one that does it, perfectly—is the introduction to a new author. I discovered Lawrence Block through a short story collection. Carrie Vaughn. Jeff VanderMeer. Gardner Dozois. More names than I can pluck out of the Thursday ether (it’s been a busy week). But, oh, the joy of discovering a new voice and going on to find out they’ve written oodles of books and throwing yourself almost bodily into their worlds. It’s wonderful. It’s one of the unique joys of being a dedicated reader.
I was talking about short stories with a fellow writer recently, and we lamented their fate on sites like Goodreads, where readers always want more. It takes talent to pull off a truly masterful and marvelous short story, but the reader has to want to be there too. Anyway, long story short (yep), I ended up enthusiastically offering my friend some recommendations. She hasn’t taken me up on that—we all have reading lists a mile long—but there’s little if anything that will stop me from writing a blog post. So here are some favourite short stories and novellas and why I love them.
Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
Amazing. I’d say unbelievably good, except for the fact it’s actually quite easy to believe this story is this good, because N.K. Jemisin wrote it. Listening to this on audio, I laughed out loud (while walking through my neighbourhood, thank you very much) and cried surprised tears (still walking, still walking). I got angry and sad. I FELT SO MUCH—and this is what she managed to do with just 33 pages.
Read it, borrow it, listen to it, buy it. Emergency Skin will complete the best hour of your life this year.
“In Retail” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
All of the stories collected in Friday Black are worth reading but “In Retail” packs and emotional punch. A short story that makes me laugh is a good thing. One that makes me cry? On my list forever.
The Pursuit Of… by Courtney Milan
Henry Latham is the sort of character who could so easily be overdone. He’s talkative and has a hundred weird quirks. Yet, for me, Milan struck just the right balance between earnestness, fault, goodness, and entertainment. I adored Henry. I liked John too, but John is the sort of character you’re supposed to like. Upright, honorable, intelligent, sympathetic. A true hero. Henry… he could be difficult to like and that’s his whole angle. He knows this. His oddness is his chip and he carries it relentlessly in pursuit of…
I read The Pursuit of… in Hamilton’s Battalion: A Trio of Romances
“Neighbors” by Megan Lindholm
Every now and then I stumble across an anthology that wins with every story and one of those is the Dangerous Women collection, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. I could rave about this collection (it’s where I read Block for the first time), but the standout story for me was “Neighbors” by Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb). “Neighbors” strikes a very fine balance between plot and character development, delivering a complete story in fewer words than Hobb usually puts down. I loved every minute of it.
“Professional Integrity” by Michael J. Sullivan
As a rule, I don’t read a lot of series extras, but I love Royce and Hadrian so much that I have read every scrap written for them. This is my favourite extra and it’s an absolute treat for fans. As I remember, it’s also free, as a lot of the Riyria extras are.
Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold
Another extra time must-read is Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold. The story I didn’t know I needed until I read it—and then I wondered how I’d gone on to complete the series without it. Obviously, I hadn’t. 😉
Bonded Men by James L. Sutter
There are many reasons to go to war and many reasons to fight. Being as I am the romantic sort, I find stories where a warrior fights for love to be the most powerful, whether that love is for a partner, a family, or something broader. The Bonded Legion is a legendary troop of mercenary warriors. They fight for coin, pledging their loyalty to the highest bidder. Their honour is not for sale, however. What makes this legion special is the fact that they fight in pairs. Each pair are lovers and they share a bond that makes them stronger together, on the field and off.
As part of the military fantasy collection, Shattered Shields, this story sets an unusual twist. Needless to say, I loved it. The battle scenes were exciting and the emotion was finely wrought. The questions of love and honour beautifully answered. I would love to read more stories set in this universe.
I could recommend stories for the next several days, but in the interest of letting all of us get back to it, I’ll conclude with a perennial favourite.
“A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber
This is an old one, but I reread it often because if fascinates me. I love an inhospitable world and this one ranks right up there with the worst. And yet… life goes on. That spark of hope is what drives my love of science fiction, particularly post-apocalyptic and far future subgenres.
You can read “A Pail of Air” at the Baen Free Library!