Last weekend at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, a would-be short story writer cornered me with a question. His critique group keeps telling him that his short stories read more like chapters from a novel, he said; does this mean he is just not cut out to write short stories? I gave him a quick set of diagnostics for things that might actually be wrong (too much exposition, not a complete enough slice of story), but I also reassured him that short story writers hear this a lot even with their most successful stories. A lot. No, really, a lot.
One of the most effective ways our culture has to say, “I liked that,” is, “More, please.” For short stories, this comes out as, “Novel, please.” Novelists get this reaction, too, of course—even though I know that Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is beautifully self-contained, when I finished it I immediately wanted more like that. There is a long history of short stories expanded into novels in our genres—Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain was the formative one for me, but the list is a long one. And yet expanding short stories into novels always requires a delicate touch. Their balance and pacing are so different that it’s hard to take a well-crafted short story and turn it into a well-crafted novel.
So what’s a short story writer to do when readers want more? The direct sequel story is always an option, of course, but that presents its own set of difficulties. Part of the appeal of a well-crafted short story is that it is its own self-contained nugget of story, something a reader can enjoy in a sitting without preparation or continuation. A sequel story takes away a bit of that. There is the problem, too, that if the editor you’re working with likes number one and number two but not number three… what do you do about the idea you had for number four? Try to incorporate the material from number three? Scrap it? Sell number three to another magazine with somewhat different readership, if possible? Sell it as a stand-alone e-book or publish it for free on your own blog, and hope that numbers four and five will strike the editor better? Most of the famous “series” of short stories in the genre have been linked by characters, not by linear plot, so that these questions don’t have to be answered. And yet each story has to spend enough time and not too much time on who these people are and what they do, and they can acquire an episodic sameness, a sitcom reset button, that satisfies less with each iteration.
The remaining option I’ve seen for giving short story readers “more” while retaining their essential short story nature—the one I’m doing myself right now—is the mosaic of stories. Each story is written to work on its own, to be a little nugget of story goodness. However, a reader who steps back can find that the different stories illuminate different parts of the same world and related themes. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium, Crispin the mosaicist is faced with an old and crumbling masterwork mosaic. It stuns him with its beauty so that he can hardly speak at first, but even as he’s looking, a piece falls off. Mosaics don’t have to be intact to be appreciated. In fact, in that very scene, Crispin notes dryly to the proprietor of that mosaic that he feels sure that the god portrayed in it once had a left arm and a robe. With a mosaic series of short stories, no one editor has to commit to buying all of them for them to be worthwhile to read—or worth the risk of writing. No reader has to find them all to benefit from finding more than one.
I usually tell people that I’m the least visual writer in the world. The mosaic of stories I’ve been working on is a distinct exception to this: each story is inspired by a still image from a Miyazaki movie. “The Salt Path,” published by Apex in their June issue, was the cliffs above the sea, from Ponyo. Apex also has purchased “The New Girl” for its November issue, and the image for that was the seaplanes on the cove, from Porco Rosso. Astute readers have already spotted thematic commonality and little pieces of worldbuilding that connect up between stories in this mosaic, but the thread of visual inspiration is as far as I know all internal. But it gives a consistency to the feel of what I’m working with, so that nobody has had any trouble spotting that these stories go together and not with my other stories, even without unifying characters.
One of the great things about using such a prolific master as Miyazaki for visual inspiration is that I have a huge list of images that strike me in his work, things that make me want to play more with these themes and this world. I’m already looking forward to doing the abandoned mine from Castle in the Sky and the poison forest from Nausicaa as touchstone images. They inform each other and refer back to the other things I’ve done in this world, without tying me down to linear plot with the same characters. The whole thing is a lot of fun for me, and so far I’ve been hearing that it’s fun for readers to spot the commonalities, too. The mosaic format gives me room to dart over and see what’s going on way over there, or to work intensely in a small area if that’s what’s interesting. It’s a very freeing way to answer the call for “more, please.”
About the Author:
Marissa Lingen is the author of more than one hundred short science fiction and fantasy stories. You can find her online at marissalingen.com or on twitter at @MarissaLingen. She lives in the Minneapolis suburbs with two large men and one small dog.