Friday, September 8, 2017

MAPPING SHORT SF/F: Part 1, A Key to the Kingdom

Hi everyone. Have we met? My name is Charles and I read a lot of short SFF. I feel like every time I write that it should be read as if opening an AA meeting. Because, well...I’m a bit of a short-sff-aholic. It’s...well, something of a problem. But my problem can be your gain! Because I find that what I hear most when talking about short SFF as a field is that there’s Just. So. Much. And there is! Far more than any one person can read. Which is only really a problem if one just wanders in without a map. That’s where I come in. In this series I want to start to map the short SFF field with an eye toward giving readers the tools to find the stories they’re most interested in reading, or to find new publications/subgenres/authors that they might not have otherwise tried.

Maps are interesting things. On the one hand, they can firm up borders. They can create walls. They can codify injustices. On the other hand, they can be vital tools not only for not getting lost or getting to where you want to go, but for knowing what’s out there. Maps can be about setting expectations before pushing into the relative unknown. Maps can also be about describing a lack, as oftentimes the vast unmarked areas on maps are just as telling as the clear lines of city, state, and country. And, of course, every map bears the marks of its creator, is a text that tells a story. I cannot and will not attempt to tell you that the maps I make will not reflect me and my interpretation of what’s out there. I can only be as up front about it as I can. I am a reader and writer of short SFF. I read widely, and have published widely, and that will color how I think about and how I reveal short SFF to you.

First off, some definitions of terms. Because any map that’s useful is going to have a key. Let’s get some essentials out of the way.

Short SFF - Any speculative fiction shorter than novel-length (flash, short story, novelette, novella) as well as speculative poetry and nonfiction.

But wait, fuck, I did that thing where I defined something with a term that probably also needs to be defined. So…

Speculative fiction - Fiction that requires the writer to break one of the “rules” of accepted reality. Be it magic, technology, alternate history—speculative fiction is about asking “what if something was different than we accept it to be?”

This is, I grant you, a rather nebulous definition of speculative fiction that is based not on a piece predicting technology or even being “untrue.” To me, the sole thing a piece of speculative fiction must do is break a rule that is considered to be true currently. Rules change. Technology changes. History changes. But if the author is consciously breaking with how we conceive of and organize the “real world,” then I consider what they are writing to be speculative. Yes, this means my definition is based in some way on the author, not the reader. Fight me.

But with that out of the way, let me run down a few definitions that I find helpful for more specific genres.

Fantasy - Fiction where the “rules” broken concern magic or the supernatural (also, loosely, variants to accepted history).

Science Fiction - Fiction where the “rules” broken concern technology or extraterrestrial beings (also, loosely, depictions of the future).

Horror - Not necessarily speculative but based on the feeling of fear evoked in the reader. It becomes a qualifier of speculative fiction, though, as in speculative horror, or SFF horror, which would be fiction that breaks the “rules” of accepted reality and focuses on the feeling of fear evoked in the reader, often in the distance between accepted reality and the reality the work introduces.

Obviously those are the Big categories, sort of like the continents of short SFF. I will typically be looking at things a bit more specific than that, what most would consider subgenres. I’d actually list speculative horror as a subgenre, and a particularly robust one, and also the only subgenre of horror that I’ll probably be looking at because it’s the overlap between Horror the genre and Speculative Fiction the super-genre. And are you tired yet?

Anyway! I just want to give you an idea of how I’m approaching the process of map-making. I’m not incredibly interested in drawing lines between “hard” science fiction and “soft” science fiction. Really, the reasons I want to do this can be broken down thusly:
  1. To provide a tool for readers to break down short SFF into meaningful, manageable chunks that will help them locate stories they will hopefully love.
  1. To counter the narrative that short SFF is either too massive, too disparate, or too opaque to be successfully navigated.
  1. To talk about short SFF, which is one of my great loves.
  1. To highlight publications, authors, and trends within short SFF.
That is perhaps an ambitious list of goals for this series, but that’s the aim. In my head each installment will explore a certain area of short SFF, mapping it as thoroughly as possible (for me) in the current landscape (with perhaps some notes as to the recent past). I will provide links to examples of stories and publications and resources I find helpful to mapping short SFF, and I will try to be as open to feedback as possible. If you have suggestions on what you’d most like to see, or particular kinds of short SFF you want help finding more of, please sound off in the comments.

One last thing before I close this down. People often come to me to ask how to find stories. How to refine their search. While I hope to help through this series, there are some tools that are available to you right now, and I find that not everyone thinks of this when they’re considering where to look as readers for particular genres/styles/etc. Your best resource as a reader is…submissions guidelines. Yes, they are written for writers, but if you want to know what a publication is interested in, submissions guidelines are where to look. Skip the About Us section of publications. Read what they want. See if they have a diversity statement. Check to see what other tactics they might have to encourage marginalized writers to submit. This is a really easy “cheat” for readers to get a feel for a publication without checking out reviews or reading sample stories. And using a tool like The Submissions Grinder at Diabolical Plots allows you to search by genre, by length, by basically whatever you want. It’s not what it was designed for, but it is amazing for searching out venues and stories to read.

Plus, well, all the short fiction reviewers out there. There are many. I will do a post specifically about reviews and reviewers at some point but yeah, reviewers are a resource.

So I hope you’ll find this series helpful. Cheers!


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.