Monday, May 24, 2021

Short Stories: A Writer's Sandbox

I don't really consider myself a "short story writer," which is kind of funny considering I've published over a dozen so far. Don't get me wrong - I love writing shorts - but I know they're not my main medium. I much prefer writing novels, and oftentimes I feel like I'm writing mini, compact novels instead of true short stories.

But short stories have one distinct advantage over novels, and that's that they're, well, short. I think it's been blogged on here before about how they provide a great sandbox for writers to experiment in. You don't have to commit to 50+ thousand words to try out a new writing style or genre.

I recall the first time I wrote something in first person present tense, it was a short story. But that wasn't the only experimental thing about it. This was not long after I'd finished my debut novel, Artificial Absolutes, which is an action-driven sci-fi adventure starring a strong-willed heroine with a sassy attitude. The short story I wrote was also my first foray into composing something quieter - an introspective piece about a shy, soft-spoken woman coping with a family tragedy. I don't remember much of what happened in that short (the indie anthology I wrote it for fell through due to a toxic combination of mismanagement and misogyny... a story for another time), but I do recall that I wrote the first draft of Starswept, written in first person present in the voice of a shy, soft-spoken young woman, not long thereafter. And I remember feeling comfortable with this different style of writing because I'd experimented with it previously.

A little while back, one of the indie author collectives I write with, Snowy Wings Publishing, announced that their next member anthology's theme would be Greek myths. I volunteered to do a retelling of the Arachne myth because it's been one of my favorites since high school (in fact, I vaguely recall once plotting to write an opera about Arachne...). Why Arachne? Not because I like spiders, but because I found it interesting how it's about a mortal who challenges a goddess... and is struck down not because she didn't rise to the occasion, but because she DID, and the goddess, Athena/Minerva became jealous. But at the time I volunteered, all I knew was that I was going to do something with the tale. What? I had no idea.

A few months ago, the anthology's editor asked us all to let her know what genres our stories would be in. I hadn't even thought about what my story would be about. Meanwhile, I'd been seeing all up and down Twitter that Dark Academia was becoming the next YA trend. "What the dickens is Dark Academia?" I wondered to myself while shaking my cane at a cloud. So naturally, I told the editor that my Arachne retelling would be Dark Academia.

Writing the story gave me the opportunity to experiment in a genre I otherwise wouldn't have (I'm certainly not brave enough to write a whole book in a genre I don't know!). It turns that Dark Academia is, roughly, the genre equivalent of a popular aesthetic featuring old academies, elite students, New England-esque settings, sharp blazers and pleated skirts, old books and gothic architecture, dark pasts and buried secrets... so... basically Princeton University. Which I went to and mention now not as a brag, but so I can laugh at the fact that I was ever intimidated by Dark Academia when I literally lived it.

Anyway, there's a certain sense of triumph that comes with completing something new. I'm rather proud of how my Dark Academia reimagining of Arachne, "With Dark Truths Draw Me," turned out, and I can't wait for it to be released as part of the Sing, Goddess! anthology of Greek myth retellings edited by Jane Watson (*plug plug nudge nudge*). Athena/Minerva is now Min Wong (shown here in the character art I commissioned as a self reward), a popular prep school junior who desperately wants to get into a top school and sees her painting skills as one way to stand out in her applications. Arachne is now Ara Zhi, an alternagirl-type whose death by suicide haunts Min. If I hadn't (somewhat randomly) picked Arachne and Dark Academia to write about, this story would never have existed.

There are a lot of genres I want to try someday, and lucky for me I know enough indie anthology editors that I think I'll always have a place to try them out. But even without a guarantee of publication or a deadline breathing down my neck, I think I'd still dip into short stories in between novels just to try out new things.

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