Lo! A Review!

Speaking as an editor and instructor of writers, one should never obsess over reviews, because that way madness lies.

On the other hand, there’s nothing like a good review to brighten a writer’s day.  If you’re friends with a writer, and spot a good review of their work, it’s an act of kindness to let them know about it.  If you spot a bad review, don’t bother – even if it’s one of those completely off-the-wall, did-the-reader-even-read-the-story bad reviews – because for one thing, they’ve probably already heard about it from those other friends who make a habit of kindly supplying people with all the bad news they might ever need, and for another thing, it will only depress them.  See madness, above.

All that being said, there’s a nice review of the Altered States of the Union anthology over here at the Legendarium, in which the reviewer calls our story “Gertrude of Wyoming” a “shrewd and intelligent thriller.”  Considering that those were exactly the qualities we were aiming for, I for one am pleased.

The Iceberg Theory

It’s fairly common knowledge that most of an iceberg – seven-eighths is the usual number – is underwater, out of sight to all but the denizens of the deep.  What’s less common knowledge is that most of a piece of fiction is likewise out of sight to everyone but the author.

Case in point:  a short story Jim Macdonald and I finished not too long ago.  Before I could do my part of the work on it, I ended up researching everything from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to early-twentieth century spiritualists in Denver, Colorado and using the results to construct an entire past history for a particular character.

And then I didn’t put any of it into the actual story, because none of it was stuff that the readers needed to know.  It was stuff I needed to know, which is a different thing.

This is also one of the ways that a short story can differ from a novel.  If we’d been writing a novel using the same general theme and ideas, all of that character history might have become a major plot thread.  This is because a novel can do more than one thing at a time (which is why writing a novel sometimes feels like trying to juggle jellyfish) but a short story only has the room and the time to do one thing, and whatever isn’t directly relevant to that one thing needs to be uprooted without mercy.  If you can’t uproot it without destroying the entire structure in the process, you probably don’t have a short story at all.

(If it isn’t a short story, but you’re certain in your heart and in your bones that it isn’t a novel, then you’ve probably got a novella on your hands, and an entirely different set of writing problems.  But that’s a post for another time.)

A Moderate Glow of Accomplishment

My co-author and I finished a short story the other day.  We’re mostly novelists, so every time we successfully finish a short story, I feel the pleasant glow that comes from having carried off something that doesn’t come naturally.

If you’re one of the novel-writing breed, writing a novel is a lot easier than writing a short story.  It just takes longer.  That by itself, though, is enough to discourage a lot of writers who would be more comfortable working in the longer forms.  If you try something new and ambitious with a short story and it doesn’t work, you’re only out a couple of weeks or so of work – maybe  a month, if you don’t write fast – but if you try something new and ambitious with a novel and get the same result (or lack of it), you’re likely to be out six months or a year, maybe longer, of hard labor.

All I have to say about that is:  The writing life is not one for the risk-averse.

(And there are all kinds of risk-aversion.  The same person who’s willing and eager to bungee-jump off high bridges may freeze up completely at the thought of putting their made-up stories down on paper and asking strangers to pay money for the privilege of reading them.)


Time to start watching the skies . . . my co-author and I have a short story coming up on Tor.com on July 2.

We sold this story back in early December of last year, after having worked on it, off and on, for longer than I care to contemplate.  We’d take it out, tweak it a bit, get to about the halfway point, get stuck, and put it aside again to work on something else.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Finally, though, it clicked . . . we rethought a secondary character, threw out all the scenes that were trying to pull the short story out of its intended shape (when you’re primarily a novelist, your mind will sometimes insist on serving up novel-type scenes even when you don’t want them), and figured out who our bad guys actually were and what they were really up to.

After that, really, finishing the story was a snap.

The moral of the story?  As usual:  Don’t give up.

And sometimes, the cure for being stuck is to start throwing stuff out until what you’ve got left feels right.

(Don’t trash your out-takes, though.  See The Adventure of the Five Chapter Nines.)