East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Short stories collections and learning the tricks


It sounded so simple, right?
Pick a few short story anthologies, and use them as a writing handbook. To learn how to write short stories.
Until they ask you to actually name the frigging books.
To chose.
To make a list.

Because you need to make a choice.
Who’s in, who’s out?

So you start making a list – Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Tanith Lee, Charles De Lint…
But what about Roald Dahl?
Can you leave out Ray Bradbury?
And what about Fredric Brown? Nobody ever remembers Fredric Brown. Just like nobody remembers Avram Davidson…
Can you leave out Robert E. Howard?
And Dorothy Parker and John D. MacDonald and all the rest of the non-fantasy crowd?

But there is an up side – the choice is so ample and varied, you can set up a whole series of reviews of short story collections that are a good starting point.

And for the time, being, you can start with something very much out of the left field.
Two years back I was given as a gift by my friend Alex a book called Narrative Design, by Madison Smartt Bell, and published by Norton.
This is a special book to me, not only because it is a gift from a colleague I respect, but because it is one of the few really advanced writing books I ever read.
This one assumes you know the basics, and digs deeper into narrative structure. It does so by presenting a selection of fine modern short stories, and basically disassembling them, showing you the gears, how they connect, how they work, how they act on the reader.

Narrative Design is a very interesting read, and apart from teaching a lot about the advanced writing stuff, it also gives you a toolbox you can use to crack open the stories you read, to expose their inner workings, their underlying machinery.

It’s a start.
Now back to my list, and in a few days we’ll start with the short story collections reviews and suggestions.
And if you have a favorite short story collection, please post it in the comments. Maybe I read it and we can compare notes, and if I did not… well, thank you, I am always happy to discover new books to read.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

7 thoughts on “Short stories collections and learning the tricks

  1. What a wonderful reading suggestion, Davide. I consider myself a strong reader since a lot of time, but nothing compared to you. Thanks


  2. Great post … as usual!
    And … You made me buy another book! 🙂


  3. I would like to know who the flopsy-mopsy are those who have forgotten Fredric Brown.
    Ok. Let’s put away the humour for a bit, although, if we’re talking about learning from anglophone writers to write short stories in the english language P. G. Wodehouse remains a solid one.
    This lead us to the written form of the oral tale: the club (or bar, in the most modern setting) tale. It’s useless to mention the famous ones, like Gavagan’s or Callahan’s (there are a pair of anthologies edited by Schweitzer&Schiters, they should provide various series). Curiously I noticed that this subgenre suffered a drop of popularity since the late 80s, in the last years I have only found an anthology: “No Sh!t, There I was: An Anthology of Improbable Tales” edited by Alek Acks (also a geologist).
    Some other collections …”Rainbow Mars” by Larry Niven, “Inconsequential Tales” or “Alone with the Horrors” by Ramsey Campbell, whatever you want from Poul Anderson.
    I also remember some recent stuff like “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories” by Alex Shvartsman and his UFO anthologies.
    I was going to put some outsiders but, damn, Heinrich Böll (Il nano e la bambola) and Beppe Fenoglio (Una crociera agli antipodi) are not English.
    But, with a tool that permits you to exposing the mechanisms I will also been interested to see non only the functioning, but also the transformation that time and external forces influences in a simple short story.
    I will explain with two anthologies.
    Time: “Before They Were Giants: First Works from Science Fiction Greats”, to read and see how much different were the nowadays famous writers during their early years and what and where they’ve learned.
    External forces: “Science Fiction Origins: The original stories on which seven classic novel were based”, to read and see what remains from the short form when is processed from the writer’s and editor’s hands before it assumed the long form.


    • The club story (I also think about Jorkens)… I heard it criticized as “wrong” because it’s conservative, paternalistic and what else.
      Some critics are weird.
      And thanks for the suggestions – “Before they Were Giants” in particular’s been on my list for ages, and I always forget about it when I go on a buying spree.


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