“The sun, it isn’t hiding when it sets on you.”

A few days ago, the SFWA blog reposted Terry Bisson’s article “60 Rules for Short SF (and Fantasy).” Given that Mr. Bisson has sold many a short story, whereas I am tiny and unpublished (so far!), his opinions are probably more interesting than mine, so I’ll only comment on a few of his rules.

“20. The main character should be a little stupid. This flatters the reader.”

Personally, I love reading about characters who are more intelligent than I am. Make the protagonist stupid, and you run the risk of making me lose my patience. I’d much rather be enthralled by a competent protagonist than flattered into thinking I could do better in the same situation.

“36. No magic carpets or Once Upon a Times. A fable is not a short story. A joke is not a short story.”

In other words, check your premise before you write 3000 words or more about it. Allison Jamieson-Lucy, a fellow alumna of the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, had an excellent article about this, “A Pun Is Not a Premise,” over at the Alpha blog (which, disclaimer, I edit).

“40. Fights are only interesting in real life. They are boring in stories.”

I’m inclined to agree, but I would hesitate to call it a rule, more a personal preference. I’m not a military SF kind of girl, but I know people who are. (I assume Mr. Bisson is talking about action scene-type things. If two characters with compelling but opposite motivations are in an argument, that’s the opposite of boring to me.)

“55. After you finish your story, go back and cut your first paragraph. Now it is finished.”

I’ve critiqued stories that started in exactly the right place. I’ve also critiqued stories in which the first few pages seemed unnecessary. So, I would amend this to say, “Know your own writing process well enough that you have a general idea of how much fluff you tend to write at the beginning, and cut all of it before you’re through.”

“60. Peril is the SF short story writer’s accomplice, adversary, and friend.”

I couldn’t agree more.

So, fellow writers (and readers), what do you think? Do you disagree with any of his rules, or think any of them are especially apt?

(title quote)

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7 Responses to “The sun, it isn’t hiding when it sets on you.”

  1. Elena says:

    I agree with your points, and I also disagree with many, many more of his “rules.” Anytime people start talking about rules in relation to writing, I get snippy. THERE ARE NO RULES.

    “Flashbacks are out of place in a short story.”
    Disagree. Flashbacks are extremely difficult to do well in a short story, and many beginning writers do tend to use them as a crutch, but they needn’t be totally forbidden.

    “6. Never write in present tense.”
    Totally disagree. I like the occasional present tense story.

    “24. A short story should cover a day or two at most. A week is stretching it.”
    No. Just…no. If you’re going into a lot of detail about every day, okay, yes, a day or two at most. But the passage of days, weeks, or even months (though possibly not years) is more than okay to portray in a story.

    “25. One setting is best. Movement is not action.”
    One setting is boring. I prefer 2-3, unless the story is extremely short, or it’s actually about a lack of movement a la “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

    “34. Humor is OK but only if it seems offhand. Never pause for a laugh.”
    …Unless your story is meant to be humor.

    “44. Sex is out of place in a short story, unless it has already happened or will happen after the story is over.”
    Not necessarily.

    “54. Withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. When the reader knows everything, the story is over.”
    Okay, yes, but if a protagonist withholds significant amounts of information from me, I just get pissed off.

    “57. Read your story aloud. It must run under a half an hour. This is about 4000 words. Anything longer than this and people start to fidget.”
    …If you’re planning to read the story aloud, okay, but there are plenty of awesome stories out there that are much, much longer than 4k.

    Also, what’s his beef with magic carpets, wizards, and dragons?

    • Sarah Brand says:

      Good points! I think I totally skipped over #54 when I first read the article. I hate reading stories where the author is withholding information just for the sake of it.

      The trouble with having rules for writing, I think, is that there’s always a way to break a rule and do it well, or to follow a rule, but badly. What works and makes sense for one person won’t necessarily do the same for someone else.

  2. Matt W says:

    Alright, as a poet, and extremely avid sci-fi writer, scenarior developer, etc…I have looked this list over, and here are my respectful contentions:

    20. The main character should be a little stupid. This flatters the reader.
    -I will concede, certain stories will require more naive characters, but the most engaging stories I have read have insightful speakers. But, this rule, is probably a 50/50 sort of thing. To look toward television science fiction, which, I argue, is a form of short story (see: Star Trek episodes, not films), in the highest rated episodes, the stupid characters are killed to contrast the main characters like Spock, Picard, Data, etc…I think, using a stupid ploy might be interesting, but this would constitute a trope (Red Shirts).

    21. One character should never tell another character the story. Conrad could do this but you can’t.
    - I think other characters can tell another character’s story via epistolary means. Again, Star Trek did this numerous times with long-range tele-communications. The space of a second narrator is useful, and, I will agree, it requires a certain skill to be effective, but I would never rule out having secondary narration.

    25. One setting is best. Movement is not action.
    -A misconception. Action is movement. Movement of the mind, movement of space. To argue this would be arguing Zeno, and Aristotle already did the work against that. I say if you can make it work with multiple settings, the actions will work.

    30. Polish. Short stories are like poems in that they may be read more than once. A really good short story will be read several times. Beware.
    -As a poet, I agree “good” poems are read more than once. Does this apply to short fiction, though? I want to think a good short story would be clear, and satisfying the first run through, enough to be worth one, maybe two reads. Having developed short scenarios for various games, the replay value is all in how the creator involves the player. If, indeed, short stories are like games, then, unless it is a non-linear narrative, it will always have a maximum play-through of a handful of times. I would change this if the context or format of the story differed, but I think traditional formats are only good for two, maybe three passes. Expecting more than this would be pretension on the author.

    40. Fights are only interesting in real life. They are boring in stories.
    -Hong Kong writers have already made sci-fi wuxia a perfectly tenable format. This point is blatantly limited to traditional, Anglo-centric forms of sci-fi.

    44. Sex is out of place in a short story, unless it has already happened or will happen after the story is over. See 40, fighting, above.
    -Tiptree would disagree.

    48. Racial and sexual stereotypes are (still) default SF. Avoiding them takes more than reversals.
    -I wonder if a sci-fi writer has ever tried de-racing a story…Points like these are why Star Trek the Original Series fell prey to numerous racial stereotypes and it requires decades to properly approach those issues. I don’t advocate PC sci-fi, but I do want to see sci-fi that wasn’t good in the 60s.

    50. Go easy on character descriptions. Nobody cares what your characters look like. They only need to be able to tell them apart.
    -This, I agree with, wholeheartedly. Gibson would give enough detail to give impressions. But, as a counterpoint, George Herbert was able to indulge in detail and did it well.

    58. Don’t do voices. A dry, academic reading style is best unless you are John Crowley or Gahan Wilson.
    -Poets are about voice. This kind of point denies the possibility that a poet could compose a voiced sci-fi short story. I would think otherwise.

    • Sarah Brand says:

      Re. “rule” #25, I completely agree with you. It seems to me that if characters go from one place to another, they have a purpose for doing so, and that purpose can drive a plot just as easily as anything else. Setting hard limits on the number of places the characters can go (or anything else) seems a bit arbitrary to me. (I actually only agree with one of his limits, and that’s to keep the number of POVs down to one, maybe two. In most short stories, there simply isn’t room to bounce in and out of too many people’s heads.)

      About #48, what do you mean by “de-racing” a story? I don’t think I’ve heard that term before.

      I think #58 might have been talking about reading a story to an audience, but I could be wrong.

  3. Ian Corse says:

    I agree with most of what everyone else has said. Here’s my opinions:

    21. One character should never tell another character the story. Conrad could do this but you can’t.
    Um…The Kingkiller Chronicles? However, I do agree that it is tricky to pull off.

    28. Know who is telling the story, and why. This can be the hard part.
    Completely agree. Without a clear narrator, my stories always end up meandering.

    40. Fights are only interesting in real life. They are boring in stories.
    I don’t really understand what he is trying to say here. Violence and conflict are usually pretty interesting. Then again, the more fights you have, the stakes (and bloodshed)have to bigger to keep the reader’s interest.

    55. After you finish your story, go back and cut your first paragraph. Now it is finished.
    It bugs me when people say this. When I write my first draft, I put the most effort into my first page.

    48. Racial and sexual stereotypes are (still) default SF. Avoiding them takes more than reversals.
    In my opinion, a good sf writer looks at current issues and tries to imagine how they would appear and what role they would play in a future setting. Personally, I find stories that find clever ways to break stereotypes the most entertaining.

    59. Ignore these rules at your peril.
    Man, that doesn’t count. That’s cheating.

    • Sarah Brand says:

      Yeah, I didn’t get #40 either. And #55 seems like the kind of thing that might be an important part of his process, but isn’t necessarily applicable to everyone.

      Man, that doesn’t count. That’s cheating.

      Ha! :D

  4. Pingback: In which I find still deeper love for Terry Bisson. | For Beginners

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