Thursday 3 February 2011

Short stories

Yesterday, in a fit of uncharacteristic productivity, I finished and submitted two short stories. Having never done that before, I felt that the only decent thing was to celebrate with a glass of Penderyn.

I remember once being amazed by a statement to the effect that Cliff Richard had had hits in five decades (it's probably more like six or seven now). As true as that undoubtedly was, I can use the same reasoning to claim that I've been writing and publishing short fiction for four decades. My first sale was in 1989; I've continued to write and sell through the nineties, noughties and into the current decade.

Strangely though, it doesn't get any easier. Whenever I start a piece of short fiction, I almost never have any idea as to how problematic the writing is going to be, and I'm still extraordinarily bad at estimating likely length of things. I've started 5000 word quickies that have developed into 30000 word monsters, taking weeks rather the days. I've also embarked on what I perceive to be a long, complex piece only to eventually realise that I'm dealing with an idea that's best suited to something much punchier. As m' learned colleague Paul McAuley notes in his blog, stories that ride on their own melting are gifts. In my career, I've only written a handful of stories that were effortless in that sense - "A Spy in Europa" basically wrote itself between one friday evening and the following sunday, and my story "Weather", from the Galactic North collection, was similarly friction-free. There may be one or two others, but the majority had to be dragged kicking and screaming into life. Some pieces are written to a tight deadline, and you just have to finish the little sods, no matter how difficult the progress seems, or how quickly the initial rush of enthusiasm flickers away. Anything longer than about 5000 words, though, and I can pretty much guarantee that there'll be a point in the writing where the momentum stalls, where my confidence in the premise falters, where I have to fight the fatal temptation to work on something else instead. I'm fairly good at not doing that - if there's anything I've learned in those four decades, it's that I generally do finish what I started, once I've committed some critical mass to paper - but it can still be something of a battle to get to the end. And then, of course, it's not the end. It's just the start of a process of revision, tightening, perhaps even submitting the story for further critique before it must take its chances.

I don't keep a notebook, but I do have a folder on my PC where I not only write all my short fiction, but create little dummy files with a few notes in - story titles, attempts at formulating ideas, dialogue fragments, etc. Over the years, I've been amazed at how many of those stubs have eventually developed into finished - and published - pieces of fiction.

Anyway, the two pieces I finished yesterday - one very short, one slightly longer - have been submitted. And I'm as nervous about that part of the process as I ever was.


  1. Always enlightening to hear about the process, where do you submit your short stories? Can't wait for a chance to get them on paper ;)

  2. I really enjoy your short story collections - even managed to score a copy of Deep Navigation through Amazon Marketplace. Of that famous deal, is one of the books to be produced possibly a future collection of short stories?

  3. I hope there's a backup of that PC folder with all those notes and etc.! Recall the tragic story of Paul Linebarger's ("Cordwainer Smith") paper notebook!

  4. Jon - the usual markets, I suppose, although I've never submitted *that* widely. Most of my recent stuff has been written for theme anthologies, where the story is commissioned up front. But I'm hoping to get back into the mode of just writing stuff and sending it off with a wing and a prayer.

    Orin: no, the deal is for novels only. If it was thought that the time would be right for another collection, it would have to be done as a separate deal in its own right. No biggie, though - that's what happened with Galactic North and Zima Blue.

    Fred: I backup my current working document, but I'm less assiduous about folders, I'll admit.

  5. Very interesting to hear your process.

    I definitely don't fit into the "fairly good at not doing that" category. Most of my ideas never even make it to note form and enjoy their brief stay in my cranium until some other idea forces them out.

    When they do breifly see the light of day and the blink of a cursor, i instictivly become the high Lord of "Displacement activities".

  6. It's interesting to hear about the process, as others have said, and I'll admit that I'm getting a moderately sadistic thrill about hearing about your submission worries. Sort of a: Wait, *Alastair Reynolds* is still nervous when doing this? feeling. Damn, guess I'm not that bad off.

    Looking forward to seeing the stories in print.

    Nathaniel Katz

  7. Nathaniel: hell, yes. The day I'm not nervous, or at least apprehensive, is the day I chuck it in.

  8. I find it interesting that you primarily use digital (rather than analogue) for notation/writing. It seems to me that your passion for technology and advancement in your books has spilled over into your creative process as well. Given all the devices we have at our disposal (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc) it seems easier then ever for writers to move off of notepads and into the digital world.

    Can't wait for your next book Al.