The Depths and Shallows of Short Fiction

Last night I finished writing a short story that is, without a doubt, the “deepest” story I’ve written. Before I talk about that, I want to talk about some of the “shallow” (and I say this not in a derogatory way) work I’ve done. To date, the only short story that I’ve managed to get published is a piece that belongs to a relatively new sub-genre: zombie fiction.

In this genre, the end of the story isn’t determined by the protagonist’s emergence from a long and drawn-out battle with his inner demons, a struggle that involves the protagonist’s growth and self-discovery and ultimate confrontation and victory over the antagonist. No, in zombie fiction, the end of the story is often determined by the protagonist’s emergence from a pile of spent ammunition and exploded body parts. And that’s a good thing.

Personally I find novel writing immensely less difficult than writing short fiction. The main reason for this is that I think in terms of novels. I think in scenes and I relish the challenge of interweaving character development with multiple concurrent plotlines and the up and down pacing of a good thriller or fantasy or sci-fi novel.

I have a lot of difficulty with short fiction. Obviously it depends on the venue to which you are submitting, but in many cases people are looking for meaning, for purpose and direction. A scene plucked from a 500-page novel and padded is not a short story – it’s still just a scene. I have been guilty of submitting scenes to short story venues in the past and my lack of publication is the punishment for that.

I tried writing what I thought would be a decent short story but it also ended up being a scene. Sure, it had some element of short story quality where the main character had a sort of hoisted by his own petard moment and there was a little bit of a surprising twist at the end but that still didn’t qualify as a short story.

Finding the right mixture between cinematic action, character development, and the progression of a true short story is very difficult. For zombie fiction, it wasn’t too hard because many readers of zombie short stories expect scenes with little character development. That genre is typified by action often enhanced at the expense of things like character development, narrative over inner turmoil, a description of the senses affected by the dropping of spent ammunition and bodies rather than emotional journeys.

So the other night I got to writing this story. It’s been a point, some bit of truth that I felt I needed to tell and I wanted to tell it in a science fiction narrative. As I started writing I realized that there were little bits of symbolism and even a bit of irony in the naming of the main character. The story starts with the character confronting his mentor, then there’s a flashback to the childhood memory that set the protagonist on his quest for advancement (or, quite literally, ascension). It all sounds good but I keep asking myself whether it’s too deep? Will it seem contrived? Will someone think the symbolism is just crap that gets in the way? I honestly don’t know… I intend to submit this story in a few days after I’ve had some more time to polish the drafts, we’ll see if the venue thinks I’m full of crap or a good writer :)

I guess the point of me writing this post is this: if you write shallow and the venue expects deep, literary fiction don’t expect to get published. Likewise, if you spend all your time in a zombie story dealing with a character’s inner conflict and not much time blowing stuff up, don’t expect to get published. Sometimes, no matter how good your writing is, it may just not be a good match for what the publisher wants. You owe it to yourself to spend as much time matching your story to the target venue as you do worrying about the craft that went into each paragraph.

Hopefully I’ll have good news to post if my story gets accepted. If not, then I will have yet another “how I’m handling rejection” post :)

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