Tag: short fiction

Perfect Stories

One of the things I love about baseball is that it is possible to have a “perfect game.” A perfect game is one in which a pitcher faces 27 batters, and not one of them gets on base. There are no hits, no walks, no one hit by a pitch, no one ever making it on base. Period. The perfect game, as you might imagine, is incredibly rare. From 1903 to the present, the era of “World Series” baseball, spanning 118 years, there have been 21 perfect games. In that same period of time, there have been approximately 220,000 regular season baseball games. That’s one perfect game for every 10,500 games played, which is itself about 4-5 seasons of baseball.

Like an elusive perfect game, I think stories can be perfect, too. The guidelines for a perfect story are not as well-defined as those of a perfect game, but I suspect they are just as rare, and just as impressive. In all of my reading, I’ve encountered only a handful of what I consider perfect stories.

My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man
My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

My list of perfect stories, and the writers who wrote them, are:

  1. “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury. You can find this one in The Illustrated Man.
  2. “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” by Harlan Ellison. You can find this one in Slippage.
  3. “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov. This one appears in The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories
  4. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King. This one appears in my favorite Stephen King collection of novellas, Different Seasons.
  5. “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. It turns out this one is currently available online, on Gizmodo
  6. “Understanding Entropy” by Barry N. Malzberg. This one can found in In the Stone House.
  7. “A Death” by Stephen King, making him the only author with 2 perfect stories on my list. I wrote about “A Death” when it first came out. This story can be found in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

I’ve never tracked the stories I’ve read in the way I keep track of the books I’ve read, but I would guess that by now, I’ve read thousands of short stories. These are the 7 out of all those thousands that, to me, are the fictional equivalent of the perfect game. Over the years, I’ve tried to think about what makes a story “perfect” in my mind. I think it involved a couple of factors:

  • After reading it the first time, when it seems that any possible change would diminish the story, it is a sign that it is perfect.
  • A perfect story keeps me thinking about it for a long time after I’ve read it.
  • A perfect story gets better with each re-read.
  • A perfect story involves a deep appreciation of the craft involved in its creation, in much the way one can marvel at the skill of a pitcher who tosses a perfect game.

There are some stories that have come close to perfection–these are the no-hitters of the short fiction world. This list is obviously longer, but here are three that immediately come to mind as close to perfect:

As I was writing this, it occurred to me that there is probably such as thing as a perfect essay as well. But I’ll save my list of perfect essays for another time.

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Goals for 2012: Short fiction reading

I’ve written about how I love short science fiction. Back in September I gave myself a goal of reading a piece of short fiction a day. In other words, 365 stories a year (or in 2012, 366, since it is a leap year). I’ve done pretty well since September and so my short fiction reading goals for fairly simple for 2012:

1. Read 1 story each day

Well, on average anyway. There are days when I am too busy to squeeze in the short story reading. But there are other days when I’ll read 2 or 3 stories. If it all evens out, I’d like to have read about 350 stories by this time next year.

2. Try to learn something about the craft from each story

Currently, I make a short 1-sentence note about each story I read to remind me of the plot. When you read hundreds of stories a year, it is sometimes hard to remember them all. This has helped a lot. In 2012, I’d like to add a second sentence about how the story taught me something about the craft of short story writing. I imagine this won’t always be possible, but it is something to aim for.

3. Diversify

Right now I read stories in all sorts of magazines. But my reading patterns–how I choose the stories that I read–often fall into something like this: (a) it’s by an author I love; (b) it’s about something I enjoy; (c) lots of word-of-mouth about the story or author; (d) it’s by someone I know personally.

In 2012, I’d like to try and spread out a little more, read stories by people I’ve never heard of, stories that are maybe out of my normal comfort zone. For instance, I generally don’t read the fantasy stories in F&SF but it might be something worth trying–it’s outside my comfort zone. Ditto with steampunk stories. I’m not talking about moving away from what I enjoy reading, but instead, doing a better job as sampling a wider array of stories and authors.

Keep in mind that in some respect I already do this: in my Vacation in the Golden Age, I read issues of Astounding cover-to-cover and often encounter stories that I might not have chosen to read, but I read them because they are part of my Vacation, part of the history of the Golden Age and I see value there.

Goals for 2012: Fiction writing

I’ve learned a few things about setting goals for writing over the last few years. One is that they need to be realistic. The other is that they need to be entirely within your control. The last few years I realize that I’ve set not only unrealistic goals for my writing, but also goals that require some kind of outside intervention to come to fruition. For instance, I had a goal last year of selling 4 stories to professional markets. Writing 4 stories is an achievable goal that is completely in my control. Selling them is another matter because it requires something outside my control: an editor willing to buy them.

Given these lessons, I have a few fairly simple goals for fiction-writing in 2011:

1. Write 500 words of new fiction every day.

Why 500 words? I learned during my experiences with NaNoWriMo that I have the ability to write a little over 2,000 words in 2 hours. But with two kids and a full-time job, it is getting more and more difficult to carve 2 hours out of every day for writing.

That said, I can write 500 words in roughly half an hour and half an hour isn’t a large chunk of time. Of course, if I slow down and try and be more deliberate, it might take a little longer to get out those 500 words, but not much. In other words, it is much easier for me to find 30 minutes in the day than it is an hour or two hours. It is also easier on my family. It think it is a good compromise. After all, 500 new words of fiction every day amounts to 183,000 words of new fiction in 20121 which is far more than I’ve ever done before. The trick is making it a habit, working it into my routine, and protecting that 30 minutes.

This is also an easily measurable goal. At any point in time, I can tell if I am meeting my goal or not.

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  1. It’s a leap year so we get an extra day.

Addendum to my short fiction post for 2011

In Wednesday’s post, I listed some of my favorite short fiction that I read this year, some of it published in 2011, and some published earlier.

I thought it important to mention that in all of the short fiction I read in 2011 (excluding the stories from Astounding), while there were some definite standout stories, I can’t think of a single story that I didn’t like. I think this says something about the quality of the stories being published today.

I can’t say the same for Astounding. But in the cases where I didn’t like a story in Astounding (as, for example, the most recent Episode), it is often because the story is too dated and I can’t make myself feel like a contemporary reader of the times.

In any case, kudos to everyone who published short fiction this year. I think you’re doing a great job.

Year in review – 2011: Fiction writing

I didn’t do so well meeting my writing goals for 2011. I now have some idea of why that may be, but I’ll discuss that in due course. First, let me review my fiction-writing goals from 2011 and see how I measured up in reality.

My writing goals for this year included some elements that weren’t directly related to the writing of fiction. I’m going to exclude those from this review and include them where they might otherwise belong. For instance, I had goals related to my writing career, like attending a convention as a participant. But since that isn’t related to fiction-writing, I’ll include that in the conventioneering post.

1. Make 3 short fiction sales to professional markets

Well, I made 2 short fiction sales this year, but none of them were to professional markets as defined by SFWA. Both were to 40K Books in Italy and while they did a professional job of putting out the first story, their payment model is not one that makes them a professional market by SFWA standards. That aside, I’m still thrilled that I made those sales. The first of the stories, “If By Reason of Strength…” appeared at the end of September. The second story, “In the Cloud” has yet to be published.

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Short fiction I read in October 2011

Here is this month’s list of short fiction that I managed to read. I’ve been aiming for one story a day from a variety of magazines. I think I did a pretty good job this month. Just like last month, the bold titles are, in my opinion, particularly worth reading.

  1. Old Fireball by Nat Schachner (Astounding, June 1941) [10/2/2011]
  2. To Fight Another Day by Robert Moore Williams (Astounding, June 1941) [10/2/2011]
  3. The Purple Light by E. Waldo Hunter (Astounding, June 1941) [10/2/2011]
  4. Superman #1: “What Price Tomorrow”. [10/2/2011]
  5. Staying Behind by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, October 2011).  [10/3/2011]
  6. Wider and Deeper by Carma Lynn Park (Daily SF, 10/3/11).  [10/3/2011]
  7. F&SF Mailbag by David Gerrold (F&SF, 9/10).  [10/4/2011]
  8. Action Comics #2: “In Chains”. (DC Comics, 10/5/11).  [10/5/2011]
  9. Methuselah’s Children, Part 1 by Robert Heinlein (Astounding, July 1941).  [10/6/2011]
  10. All About Emily by Connie Willis (Asimov’s, 12/11).  [10/7/2011]
  11. Spaceship in a Flask by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding, July 1941). [10/10/11]
  12. The Seesaw by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding, July 1941).  [10/10/11]
  13. The Probable Man by Alfred Bester (Astounding, July 1941). [10/13/2011]
  14. The Geometrics of Johnny Day by Nelson S. Bond (Astounding, July 1941) [10/15/2011]
  15. “–We Also Walk Dogs” by Anson MacDonald (Astounding, July 1941). [10/16/2011]
  16. Brown by Frank Belknap Long (Astounding, July 1941). [10/16/2011]
  17. Jurisdiction by Nat Schachner (Astounding, August 1941). [10/17/2011]
  18. Spidersong by Alex Shvartsman  (Daily SF, 10/17/11). [10/17/11]
  19. The Countable by Ken Liu (Asimov’s, 12/11). [10/17/11]
  20. Her Husband’s Hands by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed, 10/11). [10/17/11]
  21. Meteor Legacy by Raymond Z. Gallun (Astounding, August 1941). [10/18/2011]
  22. Grace Immaculate by Gregory Benford (TOR.com, 10/19/2011). [10/19/2011]
  23. Like Origami In Water by Damien Walters Grintalis (Daily SF, 10/25/11). [10/25/2011]
  24. Apologue by James Morrow (TOR.com, 10/24/11).  [10/25/2011]
  25. Methuselah’s Children, Part 2 by Robert Heinlein (Astounding, August 1941). [10/24/2011]
  26. Biddiver by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, August 1941).  [10/26/2011]
  27. Backlash by Jack Williamson (Astounding, August 1941). [10/26/2011]
  28. Superman #2: “Flying Blind”. [10/29/2011]
It is hard to keep up with everything that is out there. I think that is a good thing. Keeping in mind that I am more of science fiction than fantasy fan (but I’m always willing to read good fantasy): is there anything good that I missed?

Short fiction I read in September 2011

While there are still a few hours left in September, I doubt I’ll get any more short fiction read this month, especially since the Yankees open the division playoffs tonight at 8:30. You know where I’ll be. But since I wrote a while back about at least trying to read a piece of short fiction every day, I thought I’d start posting the lists of the short fiction I read each month here on the blog.  Titles, authors and the magazine or book in which I read it is listed. The date at the end of each line is the date on which I read the stories. Bold stories are ones which I particularly enjoyed.

  1. “The Observation Post” by Allen Steele (Asimov’s, September 2011) [9/2/11]
  2. “Stalker” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s, September 2011) [9/2/11]
  3. “Jay Score” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding, May 1941) [9/2/11]
  4. “Fish Story” by Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts (Astounding, May 1941) [9/3/11]
  5. “Subcruiser” by Harry Walton (Astounding, May 1941) [9/3/11]
  6. “The Stolen Dormouse, Part 2” by L. Sprague de Camp (Astounding, May 1941) [9/4/11]
  7. “Sleeping Dogs” by Joe Haldeman (Year’s Best Science Fiction 28th Annual Edition) [9/5/2011]
  8. “The Emperor of Mars” by Allen Steele (Year’s Best Science Fiction 28th Annual Edition) [9/6/11]
  9. “Bubbles” by David Brin (Lightspeed, September 2011) [9/9/11]
  10. “Dig Site” by Jack McDevitt (Analog, November 2011) [9/10/11]
  11. “Ian, Isaac and John” by Paul Levinson (Analog, November 2011) [9/10/11]
  12. “Overtaken” by Karl Bunker (F&SF, September 2011) [9/11/11]
  13. “A Hundred Hundred Daisies” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s, November 2011) [9/11/11]
  14. “Again and Again and Again” by Rachel Swirsky (Year’s Beset Science Fiction 28th Annual Edition) [9/11/11]
  15. “Pack” by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld, September 2011) [9/11/11]
  16. “Signals in the Deep” by Greg Mellor (Clarkesworld, September 2011) [9/11/11]
  17. “Time Wants a Skeleton” by Ross Rocklynne (Astounding, June 1941) [9/11/11]
  18. “The Lycanthropic Principle” by Carl Frederick (Analog, October 2011) [9/11/11]
  19. “Hetero3” by Robert Reed (Daily Science Fiction, 9/12/11) [9/12/11]
  20. “Artnan Process” by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, June 2011) [9/17/2011]
  21. “Exit Stage Life” by Cate Gardner (Daily Science Fiction, 9/22/11) [9/22/11]
  22. “Devil’s Powder” by Malcolm Jameson (Astounding, June 1941) [9/26/2011]

So, not exactly a story each day, but I’ll get there. And it should give you some insight into how I try to keep up with the various science fiction venues that are out there.

What short fiction did you read in September?

The romance of science fiction serials


Science fiction magazines are known for short fiction: stories, novelette, and the occasional novella, usually in that order of frequency. I’ve written before of my short fiction addiction and science fiction magazines are perfect for feeding that addiction. But every once in a rare while, science fiction magazines offer something almost unique to all fiction these days; a piece of fiction longer than a novella, yet presented in bite-sized nuggets. I’m speaking, of course, of the serial.

For those younger readers who might be unfamiliar with the term, a serial is essentially a piece of long fiction, often times a novel, that is published in a magazine over a period of several consecutive issues. Each part of the serial tends to end at a climactic point in the story, and each subsequent part begins with a synopsis of what came before. While serials are pretty rare in science fiction magazines today, they were once standard fare.  E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Gray Lensman was a 4-part serial in Astounding science fiction beginning in late 1939. Other famous serials include L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Robert Heinlein’s Sixth Column, and Isaac Asimov’s The Mule. Indeed, many famous novels from the Golden Age and the 1950s and 1960s originally appeared as serials in Astounding or Galaxy.

There is something romantic about reading a science fiction serial. Reading a serial takes you back to a time before our need for instant gratification. There is a pleasure in reading Part 1 of a story, having it end in a cliff-hander, and knowing that you have to wait a month before you find out what happens next. The anticipation for each subsequent part of the serial is akin to anticipation before a vacation, a build-up that reaches such a feverish pitch that when the issue finally appears in your mailbox, your fingers come away bleeding from paper cuts as you dig past all of the other material in the issue to find the next part of the story. While this notion of serials is commonplace today in television series, in the written form, outside of science fiction, I believe it is almost unheard of. Indeed, it may be only comic book fans that know a similar joy as they wait the next installment of the story arc for their favorite comic book.

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My short fiction addiction

I’ve been on a short fiction kick lately and I am loving it1.

Perhaps it is because I have spent the last several month immersed in epic fantasy novels. Short science fiction stories make for a rather dramatic change of pace. But I think there are other reasons. Short fiction has always been my first love. When I wanted to become a science fiction writer, I never really thought about writing novels, it was always short stories that I imagined2 Recently, I’ve been thinking I’d love to achieve the prolificacy of Robert Reed with the charming style of Allen Steele, but I have a very long way to go. In any case, this last week and a half has been all about short fiction for me and I’m having a blast. I can’t seem to get enough.

One thing I love about short fiction is that it is short. In an artistically compact form, you can learn a lot about a character, and event, a place. You can watch a lifetime take its course. It’s a powerful and amazing form of story-telling. And there is a ton of it out there! I subscribe to Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Apex Magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Lightspeed. Add to that the fact that I am reading an issue of Astounding every two weeks for my Vacation in the Golden Age. By my math, I estimate that is about 250 new stories each year, and an additional 130 from my old Astoundings. I could, quite easily, read one short story a day and keep up with much of the new stuff and a lot of the old stuff.

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  1. I know that I said my next science fiction novel would be The Mote In God’s Eye, and it will be, but I’m talking short fiction here.
  2. Yes, I know that you can’t make a living writing short stories, but I don’t write to make a living; that’s what my day job is for.

Thoughts on story construction

I am finally back to regular daily writing. For months now I’ve been struggling with a difficult story. No matter how I’d go at the story it seemed not to work for me and eventually, I kept changing my approach and rewriting so much that I got stuck in a rut and stopped making any forward progress. But in the last week, I’ve been writing daily, making my work count goals and the story is moving forward. Not only that, I think the writing is pretty good, too, especially for first draft material. I wrote a scene last night that I really, really liked when it was all over.

Drifting off to sleep last night, I wondered what had changed that allowed me to go from frustrated rut to a creative streak. My thoughts turned to what I’d done successfully before and that let me to think about story construction in general.

I imagine that every writer who has sold a few stories must wonder at one time or another: how did I do it? You want to be able to replicate what you did on the last story you sold so that you can do the same thing on the next one. I certainly went through this, after each of the stories I sold. But what I’ve come to realize is that every story is different and the road to its creation is is unique journey. That said, there are some things for me that I’ve noticed make that journey easier. Two things in particular come to mind: the blueprint of the story, and the handling of a scene.

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Brute force writing

Yesterday, I read an interesting interview with Nancy Kress (in Locus) in which she talks about the three things she’s learned about writing over the years. It got me thinking about what I’ve learned from my own writing. I typically describe myself as a “brute force” writer, by which I mean that I learned to write stories by brute force. I just kept trying and trying without any particular guide or direction until I slowly began to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Through this method, it took me fourteen years before I sold my first story.

I looked back on that story recently and I was pleased for two reasons: first, it’s not a terribly bad story; second, in the three and  a half years since it was first published, I can see that I have improved quite a bit since then. In the past, it was always difficult for me to recognize just how I’ve improved but in the last few months, I’m beginning to see patterns in what make stories work. This has made me more confident in my own writing, and I think it has also made my writing much better.

So what are some of these patterns that I have identified? Interestingly, they are similar to some of the things that Nancy Kress mentioned in her own interview. (This made me very happy because if other people have discovered them, it means that I am just late to the game, but that I’m on the right track.) When I write my stories, I always know my ending. I learned this lesson from Isaac Asimov. Before I’d learned this lesson, I’d rarely complete a story, let alone write a good one. But in knowing my ending, I know what I am working toward. Not everyone can work this way. Some people say that when they know too much about their story ahead of time, it spoils the writing of the story for them. For me, at least, knowing my ending is an absolute must. This does not mean the ending can’t change, but it sets up a target at which I can aim.

I also think of my stories in scenes–something that Nancy Kress mentions in her interview. The concept of scenes made all of the difference for me in the first story that I sold. A scene is a microcosm of the story as a whole, each scene possessing its own beginning, middle, and end. When I think in scenes, it also makes it easier to identify the transitions between the scenes and better pace the story.

I learned how to bring the scenes to life when I took James Gunn’s online writing workshop back in 2008. Until then, my scenes read more two-dimensionally then they do afterwards (this includes the first story that I sold). In Gunn’s workshop, I learned how to bring a reader into the scene how to add to the common sense of basic description. Smells and sounds, touch and taste all play a part and this has gone a long way to making the scenes I write today come alive. Again, there are probably a lot of writers who pick up on this much more quickly than I did. But like I say, I’m a brute force writer.

One of the key things that I think I have divined about writing a short story is that there needs to be multiple elements working toward the same conclusion. Nancy Kress touches on this in her interview as well and once again, I’m glad I’m figuring it out at all, even if I am late to the party. There needs to be connections that take place so that the conclusion of the story is not just a resolution to a puzzle, but that there is a deeper underlying impact to the characters in the story. In the story that I recently sold to Analog, I have this working in a conscious way for the first time.

I look at the stories that I write today and I see big improvements from my stories from just a few years ago. But that’s not to say that there is not room for still more improvement. The only way I see to improve is to write more stories and to continue to tweak the techniques that I use, to fine-tune some and overhaul others until the story that comes out on the page really sings. The best story that I have written to-date (in my opinion) combines all of these elements in a way that makes for a powerful conclusion (I got chills writing the scene and I still shiver reading  it). That story is still out, but I have high hopes for it. And I have high hopes that the stories that follow it will be even better.