This post, by Charlie Jane Anders, originally appeared on io9.
Short fiction is the "garage band" of science fiction, claims Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, so it’s time to step on that fuzzbox and thrash as hard as you can without knocking over your mom’s weed-trimmer. Actually, I think Nielsen Hayden was referring to the fact that you can try more crazy experiments in short SF than in novels, because of the shorter time commitment of both writer and reader. But how can you become a super-master of the challenging form of short fiction? Here are a few suggestions.
[Publetariat Editor’s Note: strong language after the jump]
I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on short fiction writing, but I have written over a hundred of the little fuckers, a large proportion of which have been science fiction-y. Here are a bunch of do’s and don’ts, that I discovered the hardest way possible.
World-building should be quick and merciless. In a novel, you can spend ten pages explaining how the 29th Galactic Congress established a Peacekeeping Force to regulate the use of interstitial jumpgates, and this Peacekeeping Force evolved over the course of a century to include A.I.s in its command structure, etc. etc. In a short story, you really need to hang your scenery as fast as possible. My friend and mentor d.g.k. goldberg always cited the Heinlein line: "The door dilated," which tells you a lot about the surroundings in three words. Little oblique references to stuff your characters take for granted can go a long way.
Make us believe there’s a world beyond your characters’ surroundings. Even though you can’t spend tons of time on world-building, you have to include enough little touches to make us believe there’s stuff we’re not seeing. It’s like the difference between the fake house-fronts in a cowboy movie and actual houses. We should glimpse little bits of your universe, that don’t necessarily relate to your characters’ obsessions.
Fuck your characters up. A little. Just like with worldbuilding, you can’t necessarily devote pages to your characters’ childhoods and what kind of underwear they wear under their boiler suits. Unless your story is really a character study with a bit of a science fiction plot. I used to have a worksheet that included spaces to fill in in info about each character’s favorite music, hatiest color, etc. etc. Never filled those out. If I’d tried to force myself to come up with a favorite color for every character, I would have given up writing. But do try to spend a bit of time giving all of your characters some baggage, just enough to make them interesting. Most science fiction readers are interested in characters who solve problems and think positively, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some damage.