Two weeks ago, I wrote here about writing short fiction and how the challenges it presents differ from the challenges of writing novels. I want to expand on that a bit, and will use as my jumping off point a comment on that first post from regular site contributor Megan B. In her comment, Megan wrote (in part):
I think it’s worth considering that a short story set in a larger universe (e.g. the Thieftaker world, which you have established already in longer form) is a different beast than a stand-alone short story. It has it’s own advantages and challenges because it uses some people, places or concepts that the reader may or may not be familiar with.
On the one hand I think that Megan is absolutely correct: writing a short in an established world certainly makes the author’s job easier. In part this is just a matter of preparation. With an established universe much of the worldbuilding is already in place. We already have a magic system, a history, a panoply of characters, a religious system. In the case of the Thieftaker books, I already understand the relationship between my lead character and others he is likely to encounter in my story, and I understand the historical period in which I’m writing. Obviously, with a stand-alone story set in a new world, I would need to create this narrative infrastructure first, before I could begin crafting my short story.
But more important than merely saving time and effort in preparation, writing in an established world facilitates the writing itself. When I’m writing a novel, particularly the first novel in a series, I often find that the first hundred pages of my book are stiff, wordy, choppy, [insert adjective of your own choice to indicate awkward writing]. And the reason is, I have not yet grown comfortable with my new world and new cast of characters. Eventually I do, and the final two-thirds to three-quarters of the book usually read far better than the opening chapters (at least until I have a chance to revise). It’s like breaking in a new pair of shoes; until you’re comfortable with them, they bother your feet.
Well, with a short story set in a new universe, I will often have similar problems, except I don’t have one hundred pages to play with so that I can find my comfort zone. I need to be comfortable from word one, and that can be a tall challenge. When writing in a familiar world, that facility with the world and characters is already there. I don’t need to break in the new setting or character relationships; they’re already as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers.
So, to get back to Megan’s comment, there is definitely a difference between writing in a familiar world, and writing in a new one. But (and this is one big but . . .) that facility is entirely a product of my creative process; in almost all cases, it does not come because my readers might be familiar with my world and so need less explanation. When I write, say, a Thieftaker short story that I intend to submit to a magazine or anthology, I cannot assume that either the acquiring editor or my potential readers will be fans of my series, or will even know who I am and what I write. Indeed, I have to assume that they aren’t at all familiar with the Thieftaker world. The story has to succeed on its own merits; it has to stand alone in every respect, because if it doesn’t I am going to have a hard time convincing an editor to buy it, and if by some chance I sell it anyway, I am then going to frustrate any readers who aren’t familiar with the Ethan Kaille stories.
And so the challenge I face in writing stories that are set in an established world is condensing those story elements that are so familiar to me and presenting them in a way that conveys all the necessary information without taking over the narrative and drowning out my other story elements. In a Thieftaker novel, I can spend a few hundred words explaining the magic system and tying it to the fear of witchcraft that was rampant in eighteenth century Massachusetts. I can describe the events that left Ethan with a pronounced limp and use that description to establish as well the fact that Ethan is an ex-convict and convicted mutineer. But in a short story, I have to convey the necessary information in a fraction of the space, and I have to do it in a way that is still crystal clear. In this case, my familiarity with the background becomes something of an obstacle. I am all too aware of the complexity of Ethan’s past, and I have to resist the urge to tell my short story readers everything they need to know in order to grasp those complexities. Because often with a short story, the complexities of background need to be sacrificed in favor of the pacing and clarity of narrative.
There are exceptions to this, of course. At some point I plan to put together a collection of Thieftaker stories, which will include both previously published material and some original stories. In that case, I will be marketing mostly to established readers of the series, and will be presenting multiple tales set in the same world with the same rules. At that point, I won’t have to explain nearly as much, because I will be able to take for granted the fact that readers of any particular story have some understanding of the worldbuilding and characters.
Generally speaking, though, I write stort stories so that I can sell to new markets and, I hope, attract new readers to my work. And that being the case, I cannot assume that my readers know the rules of the world I have built.
So, yes, writing a short story in an established world is very different from setting a short in a new world. I am actually reluctant though, to refer to some short stories as “stand-alones,” because in my opinion just about all successful short stories have to stand on their own. The reality of today’s publishing market is that, with only a few exceptions (George R.R. Martin, Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson come to mind), a novelist’s readership represents a fairly small percentage of the genre’s reading public. It’s probably not a good idea to assume that all the readers we want to reach with our short story will be familiar with the world we’ve created for our novels.
Comments? Questions? Have you encountered short stories that assume you know more about the world or the characters than you actually do? Do you prefer that an author tells you things that you already know, or tells you too little, assuming that you know more than you do?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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