Continuing to focus upon short stories we have another great ‘The Write Advice’ article for you. We spoke with Cassandra Khaw, an author who has found great success in the short story market and published with the likes of Clarkesworld, Tor, Dark Magazine and Abbadon Books to name just a few. As well as some excellent words of wisdom, she shares with us a brief insight into her author journey and novel in progress, ‘Eight Hundred Names’.
How important do you think short stories are for authors in terms of their writing experience and progression?
Oh, man. That is difficult to answer. It’s entirely possible for someone to have a long-term focus on novel writing and be delayed by a detour into the short stories. At the same time, I’ve seen short story writing described as invaluable, and I kind of agree with that. For one, you’ll be doing a lot of rapid iteration on the whole concept of narrative. Every short story has (obviously) a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every story has a hook and a beating heart – you need to figure out how to make that work over and over and over again. While it doesn’t prepare you for that long slog into novel(la) writing, that intense repetition does provide an education on the fundamentals, I think.
Plus, it seems like a really good way to get your name out to the public and – *coughs* – into the attention of both agents and editors.
Do you remember your first short story that you published?
‘What the Highway Prefers‘ was my first story and it was published by the fantastic Lackington’s Magazine. I’d just edged into the idea of writing fiction then and was kinda wide-eyed with confusion. Lackington’s, which themes its calls, had a ‘beldam’ prompt and that instantly fascinated me. So, I started thinking. I’ve always wanted to tell a story about the Karak highway, a stretch of road in Malaysia that is infamous for being haunted. People die there. Accidents happen. But I didn’t want it to be infested with ghosts, per se. I wanted something different. What about a ravenous highway that feeds on those deaths? It worked for me. I had a setting. But I needed more. Eventually, after a lot of thinking, I decided to have an old woman who had taken on the duty to ensure that the highway’s kept safe, and she – well, you’ll have to see.
What has been your favourite short story that you’ve read and why?
I have a lot of favorites, all of which are my favorites for different reasons. But Rachael K. Jones’ Travelling Mercies was something I’d reread over and over in 2016. It is a short story but a gorgeous one. I won’t spoil it. You need to read it yourself. But this story, more than any other story I’ve read, encapsulates the loneliness of the traveller, and the way distant friends can still feel like home. It warmed me during some desolate times, still does today. I could probably recite it for you, line by line, but I reread it all the time, anyway.
You’ve had a number of short stories published with the likes of Clarkesworld, Dark Magazine, Abaddon Books and Tor, just to name a few; what is your process from start to finish when you write for one of these markets?
My brain is intensely visual and by visual, I mean my imagination manifests itself as high-definition videos. A short story inevitably begins as a vignette, a thirty-second clip of something happening. Most of these visions are discarded, being little more than nightmare sequences. But some stick. Some have an indelible something that pulls at my curiosity, and I find myself trotting down the rabbit hole. That really describes the entirety of my short story writing process. It is just me trying to tune into that specific channel in my brain and writing it all down, propelled by the subconscious, by whatever emotion first invented the whole scenario.
Have any of your short stories inspired you to develop the characters further into novels and are you planning on writing any novels at the moment?
Sort of. Kind of. But not really to the first question. As for the second, I’m working on a novel right now. It is called ‘Eight Hundred Names’ and it is a little like John Carpenter’s The Thing, a little like Dark City, and a lot like Malaysian politics.
Writing for Eurogamer sounds like great fun, how much time do you spend gaming and what’s your favourite genre and game at the moment?
You know what? Not much. When I get to review games, I binge on them. But I rarely play games ‘for fun’ these days as I’d much prefer to be reading, writing, or otherwise doing something actively productive. Which is not to say that I don’t condone gaming. I love gaming. I’m just not very good at relaxing. But if I had to pick favorites, it’s either Stardew Valley (farming simulator ala Harvest Moon) or the gloriously dark Tyranny, a kick-ass RPG that puts you into the role of the conquering horror’s right-hand person.
How does gaming help your creative writing imagination or do you believe it has a negative impact?
Weirdly, it doesn’t really affect me either way. Gaming absolutely bloody does not have a negative impact on people, though. I won’t deny that it can be a distraction but the same can be said for television, aerobic exercise, and literary dalliances. Everything can be a distraction. That is not something unique to gaming. And frankly, I think gaming can be incredibly positive. For all the stories you hear about kids being corrupted by the medium, gaming also provides access to new worlds, new perspectives, new ways to exercise the grey matter.
In your opinion what makes a good short story?
It needs to be something that sticks. A message, an emotion, an image. All the polish in the world cannot compare to that, I don’t think. Short stories need to leave an impact. (And that is my late-night trite statement of the week.)
How important is the planning when writing a short story?
Excuse me while I stare at you with a ‘deer in the headlights expression.’ I’m terrible at planning. The best I’ve done is sketch out a paragraph of intent. I’ve tried plotting like a normal human being, but that didn’t go so well. But if you’re a more organized person, I’d say it’s *amazingly* important – especially since it ensures that you’ll always know what to put on page.
With limited words available to pad out a tale and time being of the essence, what are your three top tips for those out there wanting to venture into short story writing?
1) Be prepared to get rejected. That helps so much. There’s a lot of talk about how ‘it’s not your story, you just have to find the right editor’ and I absolutely agree with that. It is possible for a story to get rejected endlessly before it finds an unexpected home. My Fireside Fiction got a no from everyone, until Daniel Jose Older said yes when he was guest-editing. Similarly, my Uncanny Magazine story got no love whatsoever until it found the editors at Uncanny Magazine. It is entirely possible that story isn’t up to par yet, but it is also entirely possible you have to keep collecting those rejections until it finds the right editor.
2) Be honest. Be bold, be frank, be absolutely emotive. Be fucking political if that is where your story takes you. My most successful stories have been the ones that came straight from the raw, bleeding core of my imagination. The ones that I try to tailor for the market – they don’t go anywhere. (Also, see: Bo Bolander, whose stories are raw and intricate and beautifully byzantine sometimes.)
3) Get on Codex Writers’ forums the moment you can. It is the best resource any author can hope for.
As well as leaving a bad taste in your mouth submission rejections can knock your confidence. What advice would you give to new authors for dealing with this?
It will happen. It will happen a lot. According to people who are infinitely more noteworthy than I am, it still happens when you’re at the top of your game. Rejection is absolutely a thing. So find ways to make it better. I know a whole bunch of people, myself included, who treat themselves to a confection after they’ve gotten a rejection. It makes the process so much more palatable. So, uhm. Do that. Absolutely. (Alternatively: have sex, watch a bad comedy, get a massage, do your nails – find a thing that makes you happy and do that when you get a rejection.)
Please tell us your own top three shorts you’ve written so that we can go find them and enjoy a good read?
Oh, lord. This is probably what a mother feels like when they’re told to pick a favorite child. Aah. Uhm. Let’s see.
An Ocean of Eyes – my first Lovecraftian venture. It contains cats and men who do not understand the word no.
Breathe – sci-horror second-person experiment that draws from my intense fear of deep water.
The Games We Play – bird-people and dog-people, symbiotic relationships and lying politicians.
We’d like to thank Cassandra for taking the time to speak with us and for the priceless advice she’s imparted. If you’d like to connect with her and keep up to date with her work then you can follow her on Twitter @casskhaw or website.