Tag: cliché concepts

Short story: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” by Harlan Ellison

Appeared in Galaxy in December 1965; won the 1966 Hugo Award for best short story; won the 1965 Nebula Award; anthologized in World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966

Not sure how many words

I was pretty underwhelmed when I finally got around to reading this. I’ll admit that the prose style and the unserious tone are awesome, especially the cheeky 1984 reference. Maybe that stuff was striking and innovative when this piece was first published, but today, treating serious subject matter with complete irreverence is unremarkable. The same goes for the dystopian plot. (Maybe the moral is that even small, doomed acts of rebellion can make a difference in the long run? Sure, whatever.) It doesn’t help that the characters are deliberately paper-thin.

This essay describes the story as a self-subverting fable, which is fair enough. Another essay says it’s about “the futility of protest in effecting social change.”

I feel like “‘Repent'” fails for the same reason any story of its kind must fail. You can use the techniques of storytelling to deny that stories hold meaning, but you just end up undermining yourself.


Short story: “Bad Newes from New England”

“Bad Newes from New England,” by Moaner T. Lawrence

Read by Dave Robison for PseudoPod 466, November 26th, 2015

Probably less than 4,000 words?

Very authentic-feeling setting and voice. I thought the Native American burial grounds thing was a bit meh. Nice, though, to know that payment for the story is going to this charity.

Short story: “Scene from a Dystopia”

“Scene from a Dystopia,” by Rachel Swirsky

Appeared in Subterranean Press Magazine, issue #4: Special Sci-Fi Cliché Issue, 2006, edited by John Scalzi (PDF)

Maybe 1000 words?

A great disquieting piece about how individual lives and fates are bound up in society. Apparently this was Swirsky’s first published story; it’s very accomplished.

Short story: “Anything for Money”

“Anything for Money,” by Karen E. Bender

Appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story Vol. 5, No. 3 in Fall 2001 (read the story online or subscribe); anthologized in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story 2

10,297 words

Easily my favorite story in this anthology.

I feel ungrateful when I talk about stories that I like a lot, because I’m suspicious of what makes me like them so much and I need to discuss them in terms of that suspicion. This story is cartoonish, far from realistic. Its tropes are pretty cliché: extreme game shows, ambition and greed as the handmaidens of emotional isolation, an isolated man moved by his relationship with a child. Regardless, when I bitch about literary fiction without emotional resonance, what I mean is I want more stories like this.

On ambition and focus as opposing forces

One reason I have trouble finishing a story is that as I write, I keep trying to avoid obviousness—that is, straightforwardness, simplicity, tidiness, cliché. But for a story to end, it needs a certain amount of tidiness. For a story to be comprehensible, it needs to be (at least to some degree) straightforward. For a story to cohere, it needs to focus closely on its subject and manage the reader’s expectations, rather than digressing and sprawling all over the place. I wonder if this habit of avoiding obviousness is really a defense mechanism to avoid finishing anything. Or perhaps to avoid being too easily comprehensible, and therefore open to judgment.

The trick, I think, must be to balance this habit with the habit of keeping the story focused. I suspect that the most ingenious writers succeed at being ingenious because they have a lot of practice doing this balancing act.

Short story: “When Responding to a Craigslist Ad Looking for a Nude Housekeeper”

“When Responding to a Craigslist Ad Looking for a Nude Housekeeper,” by Bo Fisher

Appeared on Monkeybicycle, September 18th, 2015

1,230 words

This started making my skin crawl around the halfway point. The ending comes as a relief, despite or because of the violence.

It’s a cliché ending, and maybe too easy—a way to cut short a painfully familiar, believable scenario that isn’t really going anywhere. But I have to admit I prefer the easy ending.

Short story: “The Horse Lord”

“The Horse Lord,” by Lisa Tuttle

First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in June 1977; collected in A Nest of Nightmares (Sphere Books, 1986; later reprinted as an ebook by Jo Fletcher Books) and in Stranger in the House (Ash-Tree Press, 2010); featured in episode 450 of Pseudopod, August 7th, 2015

Maybe 4,000 words?

I was frustrated with this story. The old Indian burial ground/curse/legend/warning trope just doesn’t age well. One of the Escape Artists staff argues that Tuttle subverts it by making the real monster something older than the tribes, but if that’s true, the warning given by the “brave” is still played totally straight, and the main characters’ indifference towards the Native Americans is still off-putting. I was also annoyed by some minor lapses in prose quality.

I liked the ending, especially the revelation about the monster’s real nature.

How not to title a story

“I tell students, when in doubt, to title their story after the smallest concrete object in their story. I warn them off plays on words, (‘The Rent Also Rises’—no; ‘Life in My Cat House’—no) and no grand reaches, either. ‘Reverence,’ ‘Respect,’ ‘Regret,’ ‘Greed,’ ‘Adventure,’ ‘Retribution.’ And never use the worst title of all time, ‘The Gift,’ a story I read six times a year.”

—Ron Carlson (x)

Edit: It occurs to me that this advice isn’t so much for avoiding bad titles as for avoiding embarrassing titles. Which is all very well, but sometimes a writer has to risk embarrassment for the sake of boldness or integrity or experimentation or winning the reader over. Not everything can be safe, not everything can be easy on the ego.

That said, I do agree with Carlson that short story titles should err on the side of concreteness and conservatism. Short stories tend to focus on small, specific things, and they aren’t long enough to merit grand, abstract titles or clever titles that hint at complexity. (I feel the same way about movies.) Novels, on the other hand, can wear abstract or clever titles very well.

Short story: “Final Girl Theory”

“Final Girl Theory,” by A. C. Wise

First appeared in ChiZine (probably June 21st, 2011, although the story is not archived); read for episode 287 of Pseudopod, June 22nd, 2012; anthologized in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four (2012, Night Shade Books), edited by Ellen Datlow, and in The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen (2014, Tachyon Publications), also edited by Ellen Datlow (excerpt)

? words

I found this story frustrating. I’m accustomed to the indescribable-cult-movie conceit (Night Film is the most recent one I can think of). I can accept a narrator (or main character) who loves the indescribable cult movie passionately, even uncritically. More people should love things. And I like narrators who try to describe the indescribable. But the narrator of this story describes the content of the movie in detail, and the details are overwhelmingly banal. Man torturing nude woman; decadent drug-addled sex party; vaguely occult/BDSM ritual; eerie carnival scene with eerie funhouse mirrors; disorienting camerawork and soundtrack; tits and ass and blood and blood.

The ending—spoilers ahead—is, I think, about the main character realizing the sordidness of his obsession, and being changed by this realization (for better or worse, I’m not sure). It’s a pretty good ending, but I want it to surprise me in some way, teach me something new, and it does not.

On making unexpected use of readers’ expectations

“We all know that nice feeling that happens when we are expecting Thing A from a writer and we go, ‘Oh no, not that, that would be just too obvious,’ and then she delivers, instead, Thing B, and Thing B evidences a bigger heart, or a wider experience, or just more attentiveness on her part, etc., etc.”

—George Saunders in BOMB Magazine

This whole interview contains too much good and interesting advice to quote.