In his review of my first Alternate Reality News Service collection, Charles de Lint wrote in Fantasy and Science Fiction that it was, “a great little volume to leave lying in the bathroom.” While I understood the point (each of the 80 articles in the volume was under 1,000 words, so you didn’t have to devote the time to them that you would to a novel, or even a long short story), I wondered if maybe he could have chosen another venue where people have a short amount of time to fill.
In their forward to Science Fiction for the Throne: One Sitting Reads, editors Tom Easton and Judith K. Dial delineate some of those other venues: “City buses and subways, in other words. Barbershops. Beauty parlors. Doctor’s and dentists’ waiting rooms. As well as… Well, we don’t have to spell everything out, do we?” (I have included this last bit of coyness because it seemed a little odd, given that not only is the venue spelled out in the title of the book, but the cover image depicts the door of an outhouse.)
Science Fiction for the Throne is a collection of 40 short stories that are under 2,000 words; it was conceived, as suggested, for people who have a short amount of time in which to read. Most of the stories are stripped down to a single idea with minimal description and no extraneous detail. The stories are expertly crafted, highly entertaining and perfect for the stated purpose. In reading the volume, though, I felt that the form had clear drawbacks.
For one thing, it’s hard to really remember them. There are at least a couple of reasons for this. The first is that, with so few words, you can only sketch characters; most of the stories in this volume do not have physical descriptions of characters, and they are often more a single-note that is required for the story to work than fully rounded. Setting description is also often scarce. Although the stories may be complete (in the sense that the conflict in them is resolved), the reader will often be left with the feeling of wanting more.
This is not a criticism of any of the writers in the volume; it is a natural limitation of the form of short short stories.
Stories that are under 2,000 words long do not allow for what we can consider “dwell time;” this is to say, the time it takes for a reader to allow their imagination to play in a fictional universe. As a general rule, the longer you spend in a fictional realm, the more likely the story will “come alive” and be memorable for you. To be sure, this is partly due to an accumulation of detail, but it’s also true that the shorter a story, the less likely it is to be moved from short to medium or long term memory.
One way of dealing with this is to mimic a popular form of writing on the Internet, the ultimate medium of short pieces of writing: the list. Steven Popke’s “Ten Things I Know About Jesus” and Leslie Starr O’Hara’s “Moving to a New Planet? Don’t Take Disembarkation Sickness with You, by Malphian Junket” use the form to good effect. People don’t expect lists to be long; in this case, the lack of description is an accepted part of the format. (Daily Science Fiction, which often publishes list articles, has a 1,500 word limit.)
(My Alternate Reality News Service pieces take the form of news articles, another short form that is effective on the Internet in which detail is not expected.)
Another good approach to writing short short stories is to use the first person (as, for example, H. Paul Shuch does in “In the Speed of Time”). First person stories have the quality of conversations; when somebody is telling us a story, we usually want to hear what happened, not the life story of who it happened to.
I guess what I’m saying is that, unlike many short story collections, Science Fiction for the Throne: One Sitting Reads is not a book to try and read in one sitting (as I largely did). It is what I sometimes refer to as “a dipping book:” for maximum effect, you should read a story or two here, a story or two there, a story or two somewhere else.
Oh, and in his review of my second Alternate Reality News Service book, Charles de Lint said that the first book was “one of my favourite books of 2008.” With praise like that, he can talk about bathrooms all he wants!