In our first ‘The Write Advice’ post we speak about short stories with Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of the renowned Shadows of the Apt series. In this interview he shares his thoughts about writing shorts, submission rejections and some of his favourite short stories over the years. There’s even an announcement around two collections he has due out later this year!
And so without further ado, let’s get stuck in.
How important do you think short stories are for authors in terms of their writing experience and progression?
It’s a tough call because it’s not the case that short stories are just prentice pieces for writing at other lengths. There is an art to short work that can be very different to writing novels – the pressure for economy of wording is greater, and the structural issues are very different. However, having said that, it’s generally less daunting to set out to write a 5k word story than a 100k word novel. Writing practice stories is more satisfying than struggling with sections of a longer piece, and can be a good way of honing skills. Writing stories for submission and publication is an end in itself though.
Do you remember your first short story that you published?
My very first published story was The Greatest Warrior in the World, published in a now-defunct magazine called Xenos around 1992 under the original spelling of my name. It was my first story about a healer named The Toad, who has since had around five adventures, the earliest of which saw publication in Xenos, and some later turned up elsewhere (One is in my collection Feast and Famine from Newcon Press, one is due out shortly in an anthology).
What has been a favourite short story to date and why?
This is a really hard one, and I know I’m forgetting plenty I’ve loved – some authors are so talented at short stories that it’s hard to choose a single Ted Chiang, say, or a Gene Wolfe. And more recently I have enormously enjoyed, say, Zen Cho’s The First Witch of Damansara (from Fox Spirit’s Wicked Women) because it’s funny and beautiful and some of the best characterisation I’ve come across, or there’s Emma Newman’s A Woman’s Place from Abaddon’s 221 Baker Streets which deservedly won the BFS short fiction award last year. However, I’m going to settle on one that I read many years ago that has never left me. In fact, many of the stories in Ian Watson’s Evil Water stick in the imagination like a fish-hook, but in particular there’s his story Windows, about an inexplicable intrusion into the modern world. It’s a type of story that is told best in brief, so the pressure to explain the mystery doesn’t become too great, and while there are many masters of this specific art, Watson is one of the absolute best.
You have created a vast world in your Shadows of the Apt series, has this made writing shorts much easier with having such an extensive and resourceful backdrop to delve into?
Yes, the SotA stories flow directly from the books, generally going places that I wanted to look at in the main narrative, but couldn’t find a place for. There’s a lot of exploration of recent history, the backstories of minor characters, and places that I know exist but that the main plot doesn’t go to.
Have any of your short stories inspired you to develop the characters into novels and is this a good practice for writers to explore new ideas for longer pieces?
A few of the characters in SotA stories ended up in the books – especially the bandit gang and Varmen the Sentinel, who started off in shorts and then became major players in Heirs of the Blade. I have a number of non-SotA shorts I’d like to turn into something more substantial – including the theatrical troupe from Roar of the Crowd above – but it’s something I’ve yet to really look at. I think the transition would be a hard one, and I’d want to look at how other authors have managed it.
There have recently been some authors that have produced collections of short stories from their respective worlds, is this something you’d like to do?
Well I’m glad you asked! In fact, I have two collections of Shadows of the Apt stories out this very year from Newcon Press, which I think will be in print by August and launched at the Nine Worlds convention, with hopefully more to follow later.
In your opinion what makes a good short story?
Tough call again, because when I think of stories I’ve enjoyed, there’s no immediate common theme (save ‘well written’). A lot of stories rely on a twist ending, so that’s a thing. Also, a short story allows for a free exploration of an idea without necessarily having to nail it down in the way you’d have to for a novel, so originality and imagination. Beyond that, there are technical issues of precision and conciseness, but I’m not the world’s most concise writer, so it’s hard to throw stones there.
How important is the planning when writing a short story?
I am a planner, as writers go. Whether I actually plot out a short story as I would a novel varies from project to project though. A lot of the time I can hold the idea in my head, and just write start to finish without needing to actually plot it out blow by blow. With stories that have a lot of action and circumstance, though, I tend to produce at least a skeleton first off, so I know where I’m going. Like my book plans, it doesn’t always survive contact with the enemy, but it’s something I need in order to press ahead.
With limited words available to pad out a tale and time being of the essence, what are some of your tips for those out there wanting to venture into short story writing?
As with most writing, I think it’s practice. Read stories, write stories, get better. Ideally try to keep as short as possible. The idea of having to murder your darlings is especially important when you’re working within a tight wordcount.
Submission rejection is a mighty axe that can take the head off with one fell swoop. Aside from gathering up your shield or running for the hills, what advice would you give new authors for dealing with this abhorrent foe?
I really don’t have any salve for that. It hurts like hell, and it happens to all of us. I still routinely get stories knocked back from all kinds of markets, even (especially) ones I’m really proud of. And it’s particularly vexing if you write a story for a very narrow market – an anthology with a niche theme, for example, and then it gets turned down. You’re left with something that you may never find another market for.
Please tell us your own top three shorts you’ve written so that we can go find them and enjoy a good read?
Okay then, here we go. I’m going back to the Xenos days for the first one. They had an annual story competition, and I got placed a few years but never won. Then I submitted a longish story called The Roar of the Crowd one year , which was about a band of travelling players calling at a mill town and getting into political trouble, and it actually hit the top spot, fame and fortune beckoning. And then the magazine folded the very issue they were due to publish it, so that’s my general run of luck. But the story remains as probably the first piece of professional-grade writing I produced, and finally found publication in the Feast and Famine collection from Newcon Press.
Aside from that one, I would flag up Fragile Creations from Fox Spirit’s Tales of Eve anthology, which is a twisted little story of a nobleman and a toymaker.
I also have a soft spot for Sword and Circle which is a Shadows of the Apt story published in Newcon’s Legends anthology, being a bit of a David Gemmell homage about an ageing Weaponsmaster trying to find her purpose after the end of the Twelve Year War.
We’d like to thank Adrian for taking the time to speak with us and hope you enjoyed the interview. If you’d like to connect with him or keep up to date with his work then you can follow him on Twitter, Facebook or his website.