Saturday, 23 July 2011

60 Rules for Short SF (and Fantasy) - a.k.a. Rules Are Made To Be Broken

Terry Bisson has guest posted on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website with a piece entitled '60 Rules for Short SF (and Fantasy)'.

Now, as a science fiction and fantasy fan, and a short story writer, I read such articles with interest as, effectively being self-taught, any tips I can glean can prove to be useful - if only because sometimes I realise I whole-heartedly disagree with the advice given.

Now 60 rules (that's a lot to remember for a start - too many, I would argue) are bound to provide someone like me with plenty of grist for the mill (as it were). However, if you're going to get the full benefit of my rantings, you're going to need to read Terry's rules first.

Some of Terry's advice I think is spot on. Take for example:

4. The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language.

I like that one. And then there's this:

14. Be stingy. Generosity is out of place in the short story.

That's good too. But there are probably more of his rules that I disagree with than with which I agree.

Before I start dismantling Terry's advice, let me set out my own SF/F short story writer credentials. I have sold 25 odd short stories in the SF, fantasy and horror vein and my short stories have probably garnered more praise than my long form fiction. So, here we go...

1. Keep it short . It can and should be read in one sitting. That’s the first rule.

The first rule. Good start. 'It can and should be read in one sitting.' Really? That's quite an assumption. Some people don't have that luxury. Does it really matter? Maybe we're getting into semantics here - when does a short story become a novella? - but many of my short stories are around the 10,000 word mark. A tube or bus journey might not be long enough to finish a story that long. I'm just saying...

5. Keep your timeline simple. Flashbacks are out of place in a short story.

I disagree, or rather - as Terry's being all didactic and stuff -wrong. I have used flashbacks to great effect in my short stories, especially the Ulysses Quicksilver adventure White Rabbit. Go check it out for yourself here. It's one of my best (even if I do say so myself.)

6. Never write in present tense. It makes events less, not more, immediate. Past tense IS present tense.

Wrong! Again, I've written a couple of stories recently in the present tense and not only has it freed up my writing style, it's also produced some really intense fiction. Check out my short story The Doll's House in the forthcoming House of Fear anthology from Solaris Books, or the brand new Fear to Tread in the Phobophobia collection coming this November from Dark Continents Publishing.

8. One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.

I would disagree again. Dreams can be a powerful tool, if used correctly, in any story, no matter what the word count.

18. One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.

The thing that strikes me most about Terry's many restrictive rules, is the lack of imagination they seem to demonstrate. I have also used the shifting POV to great effect in short fiction. For an example read my Warhammer Badenov's Band story The Nagenhof Bell (which first appeared in Inferno! magazine #27 and which was subsequently reprinted in the Swords of Empire anthology).

20. The main character should be a little stupid. This flatters the reader.

Now, here's an interesting one. I see what Terry's getting at here but... Well, put it this way. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about a hyper-intelligent consulting detective, a man clearly more intelligent that the author, let alone the reader. I suppose you could argue that Dr Watson is the main character but I'd say that he's the narrator and the Sherlock Holmes is clearly the main character.

Again, what about Miss Marple in Christie's classic short tales? A slightly dumb character may well flatter the read, allowing them to work out the twist first, but readers are fascinated by those more intelligent by themselves as well - it all depends on how you portray that character and their intelligence.

24. A short story should cover a day or two at most. A week is stretching it.

Again, I disagree. (Do you see a pattern forming here?) Check out the aforementioned Fear to Tread.

26. Action is overrated anyway.

Not in a Warhammer or a Warhammer 40,000 story. Perhaps Terry's first rule should have been, know your market.

37. No wizards or dragons. They will make your short story seem like a part of a longer, less interesting piece.

Why? Is this just a personal pet peeve of Terry's?

Again, know your market. There may be plenty of stories about wizards and dragons already, but that doesn't mean you can't write a new story featuring wizards and dragons - especially if you do something new and interesting with them.

40. Fights are only interesting in real life. They are boring in stories.

Ahem? Warhammer? 40K? Pax Britannia? There are plenty of fights in plenty of my short stories and, judging be reader and editor response alike, people like to read about them. Nay, not like - expect!

41. Novels are made out of characters and events. Short stories are made out of words alone. They are all surface. Polish.

This seems very narrow-minded to me. I agree with the polish bit but short stories aren't made out of characters and events? Come on! People want to read about interesting characters and the equally interesting or unusual events the writer has unfold around them. Just because a story's short doesn't mean a character can't be interesting.

42. Plot is important only in time travel stories. They must have a paradox. This limits their range severely.

What? We're bashing plot now? Give me a break!

43. Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click.

Not necessarily. Not necessarily at all! A short story that suddenly veers off at the end from where you were expecting it to go can often feel much more satisfying to the reader. Symmetry has it's place and you may indeed choose to write a symmetrical story but at the expense of plot? We're not talking about literary fiction here! In SF/F/H stories things actually happen, you know. That's why people enjoy reading them; why they're entertaining.

44. Sex is out of place in a short story, unless it has already happened or will happen after the story is over. See 40, fighting, above.

I disagree again! See my short story Incubus. The sex in it is vital to the story.

52. Never write about a writer. It makes you seem needy.

Okay, I've not actually written a story about a writer myself yet - although, now I come to think about it... (Check out the aforementioned Fear to Tread once again.) But anyway... Stephen King's characters are almost always writers. Does he seem needy to you? If so, he's the wealthiest needy writer on the planet. It clearly hasn't put people off reading his stories. And what about the old adage 'write what you know'?

55. After you finish your story, go back and cut your first paragraph. Now it is finished.

Now this is an interesting one, and is a technique I will certainly experiment with in future, but it should not be considered a given. I've gone back and had a look at a few of my short stories, seeing if this approach would have improved them in any significant way.

Just to take a couple of examples, But Dust in the Wind would probably have worked just as well with the first paragraph cut. However, Sir Dagobert's Last Battle would not. It would have lost its impact.

First paragraphs are something I work very hard at. They're often something I have sorted in my mind before I even start writing and hardly ever change during the writing of the story, when so much else will. Rule 55 is a classic example of Terry's employment of sweeping generalisations in his rules. Was he doing this to provoke comment and debate, because if that was his intention, he succeeded!

57. Read your story aloud. It must run under a half an hour. This is about 4000 words. Anything longer than this and people start to fidget.


59. Ignore these rules at your peril.

Or, alternatively, ignore them and write your own, unique short story which confounds expectation and delights the reader.

So there you have it...

I wouldn't presume to set down any rules for writing (although by disagreeing with Terry's perhaps that's exactly what I am doing). I can only tell you what works for me and which then, by extension, may work for some other aspiring writers out there.

As Rob Sanders points out in his posts about Stephen King's rules for writing, what works for one writer might not work for another. And that is probably the most important rule of all.


Terence-Jaiden said...

I thought the guy sounded a bit of a knob, really.

Jonathan Green said...

You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment. ;-)

Jonathan Green said...

Except that I already did. ;-)

William KIng said...

I tried the one about cutting the first paragraph then I realised I had a new first paragraph so I cut that too and what do you know, I had another and then another. I kept at it and soon I had no story. Terrible advice.