Short Fiction Appreciation by Carolyn Charron

by on Nov 5, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

I like big books. I’m happy to spend weeks or months stranded in other worlds, awash in the dramas of paper families. I love their heft and bulk in my hands, smelling faintly of vanilla. I’m the kind of person that internet meme refers to—the one emotionally traumatized at the hands of a paperback.

I read a few short stories in my youth, notably Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s with some Steven King or comic books thrown in for leavening, but I never read short stories regularly. If authors like Roger Zelazny or Anne McCaffry in my teens, and Diana Gabaldon or G.R.R. Martin today, feel short-winded—how was I going to be satisfied by 2000 words? Or, god forbid, fewer? Not possible.

When I started taking my own writing seriously I discovered it’s much easier to try out different things in a short story than a novel. I do more editing passes on a short piece but they go faster. And the best way to get better at writing short fiction is to read it, lots of it.

Currently I read somewhere between 3 and 10 magazines (mostly online) every few weeks. I pick some of the most interesting stories apart to see what makes them tic. Between those published pieces, I also read slush for Apex, an eye-opening experience. The majority of slush stories are well-written at the sentence level but fall down in the story-telling; the beginning didn’t pull me in, the middle didn’t raise the stakes or the end didn’t satisfy. Exactly the issues keeping my own work in the slush. I was definitely in the write right place. I had to awaken a love of short fiction.

The first story I read from Apex that gave me the shivers was “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky. It starts off as a sweet and elegant love story before taking a nasty left turn into a place of darkness all while keeping the smooth writing that is Swirsky’s hallmark. The thing I love most about this story is the slowly unfolding fantasy-life of the narrator doesn’t give away the ending even while smoothly conveying you there. Whatever you believe about the controversy around this story, Swirsky is a talented writer, every paragraph furthers plot or character development.

Another story that encouraged me to keep reading short fiction is one I found at I’d read it before I began intensely focusing on short fiction and hadn’t taken note of the author’s name or even the story title. But the image of a time traveler landing in a basement was so realistically written that I could not get it out of my head. I could feel the damp earthy chill oozing from the walls and the aches in the time traveller’s bones, I could smell the chalk dust in the air. Months later, I found this story again and was happily surprised to find it had been penned by a writer I’d recently become acquainted with, A.M. Dellamonica. The story is “The Colour of Paradox” and it’s a wonderful piece about the complexities of time travel, proving that even old ideas can be made fresh in the right hands. Dellamonica’s prose has a deceptive simplicity that appeals to me. She demands each word toils hard to be included and she doesn’t neatly wrap up the end, she leaves the reader wanting more in a good way. I’d love to see this one expanded into a novel.

The third story to continue awakening my love of short fiction is by a critique partner, Christina Vasilevski. It’s unpublished yet but it’s only a matter of time before someone snaps up this 2013 Friends of the Merrill contest finalist. Entitled “One Thousand and One Cuts,” it’s a luscious story about Scheherazade’s sister and reminds me of the main reason I read—to be transported to another world. The plot arcs from a serene opening to a tension-filled middle to a satisfying end that wraps up my expectations in a little bow of sadness.

The latest short story I read was “Skull Pocket” by Nathan Ballingrud. I read it on io9 but it was originally published in Nightmare Carnival and is now in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. It tells the story of a town taken over by ghouls. It is creepy, scary and disgusting by turns with the most horrific elements of ghoulish behaviour yet I was completely undone by sympathy for the ghouls. Reading it a second and third time, I recognize it’s the author’s word choices and voice that leads the reader to compassion. I loved the description of a game the ghoul children play, skull pocket. Gruesome as this game is, Ballingrud’s description makes me want to play.

So… after 50 years of “bigger is better”, I have come to love short fiction, the elegance in using few words to carve a scene. If the positive responses I now receive with my rejection letters are any indication, reading short pieces has definitely improved my own storytelling which was my goal. I hadn’t expected to fall in love with the format itself—that was a happy coincidence. I’m still working to get a few more yeses and meanwhile I can’t wait to discover which will be the next short story to ensnare me. Happy reading!

Carolyn Charron is a Toronto-based writer currently working on her third novel between reading submissions for the Hugo Award nominated Apex Magazine. Her short stories have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, as well as Acorn Press, Fabula Argentea, and Enchanted Conversations among others. She occasionally blogs at or on twitter: @carolyncharron but is most at home on Facebook.

Check out the Apex Magazine subscription drive running through November 13th.

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