Gene Wolfe on the Art of Short Stories

“If you mean the voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn’t sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike. To them.”

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In this oldish, but incredibly candid interview from the August 2008 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, Solar Cycle author and general master of science fiction, fantasy, and every other genre Gene Wolfe discusses some of his experiences as a teacher of speculative short fiction workshops. I’ve been doing some digging lately, ever since finishing GW’s latest novel, A Borrowed Man, and this interview – despite being almost a decade old – is the best collection of words I’ve ever found on the subject of writing short stories.

It’s not a how-to, but rather a philosophy, summed up with GW’s usual cutting wit, bluntness, and elegance. I highly encourage you to read the whole interview, particularly if you’re a newer author (like me) desiring to sharpen your short story tools, but since we live in a busy world, I’ll copy and paste some of my favorite tidbits here.

No joke, this shit is more quotable than a white girl’s Instagram.

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“I struggle against easy writing. Long ago somebody said, “Easy writing makes damned hard reading.” He was right. “Nick was a bad man and a cruel man.” That’s easy. I know I can’t say it at all. I have to show [Nick] being bad and cruel in the context of the story. That’s always hard.”

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“…The voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn’t sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike. To them.”

 

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“There comes a point at which I’m no longer sure that what I’m doing is improving the piece. That’s when I stop working on it and send it in. Usually – not always, but usually – I get there after four drafts. A fifth draft may find me reverting to the second or the third, and that’s a bad sign.”

 

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“One young man was writing pornography under the impression that he was writing fantasy; that is to say, the main interest in his stories was in sexual adventures which had little to do with the fantasy background. I explained to him that he was writing one genre under the impression that he was writing another… 

… A man of sixty or so was clearly avenging some wrong (which I suspect was largely imagined) done him by a middle-aged woman. I told him that his writing might be therapeutic, but it could not be sold. To put it briefly: I Made Enemies. I’m not sure how many.”

 

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“[Dialog] must entertain the reader, forward the plot, and characterize the speaker. All pretty much at the same time. It must not be too wordy or too telegraphic; it must sound natural – that is, like something that speaker might say at that time to that person. Dialogue is action.”

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And my personal favorite…

“The worst student stories as far as I’m concerned are the PC ones. All southerners (sometimes, westerners) are mindless gun-toting slobs and all military officers are evil. So are all corporations, etc. The students have learned to write these because they get good grades from their creative writing profs. The stories get published now and then, too. I read one not long ago in which Italians hated President Bush so much that they killed American tourists to get even with him. In the hope of escaping, some tourists wore buttons: I AM A DEMOCRAT. I’m not terribly fond of Bush myself, but come on gang! Get real.”

 

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Anyone interested in short fiction writing, be it speculative or otherwise, owes it to themselves to read the full interview.

C’mon. Read the whole thing. Don’t skim. Let slip a smarmy chuckle or two. Sponge  in the knowledge of a man who has not merely mastered the art forms of the short story and the standalone novel in pretty much every existing genre, but also those of the trilogy, the tetralogy, and the twelve-goddamned-book behemoth series that does not contain a single bad entry. Once you’re finished, take five minutes to read Neil Gaiman’s short primer on how to read Gene Wolfe, if you haven’t already, then go read one of the author’s many brilliant novels or short stories.

*Tangential thought, but I’m not sure why GW always gets shafted by his publishers when it comes to covers. I can’t help but think that part of the reason the author remains in somewhat-obscurity by people who aren’t widely read in SFF is the fact most of the English-language covers for his books are awful, or at least don’t do justice to the timeless, incredible stories they contain. Although Bruce Pennington’s UK cover for Shadow of the Torturer was pretty bad ass:

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Wallpaper-worthy.

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