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CMAP: Short stories, what are they good for?

Q: What constraints dictate the length of works of fiction?

A: Same as any other product: money and time …

The most familiar form of fiction in the English-language publishing world, today, is a stand-alone bound book containing a novel. (Perhaps the second most familiar form is the series novel, which recycles characters of a setting from earlier works, optionally continuing to unfold a multi-book story or hitting a reset button between novels, as with some TV serials.)

A typical modern novel is in the range 85,000-140,000 words. But there’s nothing inevitable about this. The shortest work of fiction I ever wrote and sold was seven words long; the longest was 196,000 words. I’ve written plenty of short stories, in the 3000-8000 word range, novelettes (8000-18,000 words), and novellas (20,000-45,000 words). (Anything longer than a novella is a “short novel” and deeply unfashionable these days, at least in adult genre fiction, which seems to be sold by the kilogram.)

One would think that it’s so much easier to write a 5000 word short story (it can sometimes be done in a day) than a novel (it can sometimes take years) that they should be commoner. But trade fiction authors who write for a living seem to focus exclusively on novels, to the point where some of us don’t write short fiction at all. Why is this? Stay with me below the cut and I’ll try to give you a [highly subjective, personal, biased] explanation.

Genre science fiction in the US literary tradition has its roots in the era of the pulp magazines, from roughly 1920 to roughly 1955. (The British SF/F field evolved similarly, so I’m going to use the US field as my reference point.) These were the main supply of mass-market fiction to the general public in the days before television, when reading a short story was a viable form of mass entertainment, and consequently there was a relatively fertile market for short fiction up to novella length. In addition, many of these magazines serialized novels: it was as serials that Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Skylark of Space” were originally published, among others.

For a while, during this period, it was possible to earn a living (not a very good living) churning out pulp fiction in short formats. It’s how Robert Heinlein supplemented his navy pension in the 1930s; it’s how many of the later-great authors first gained their audiences. But it was never a good living, and in the 1950s the bottom fell out of the pulp market—the distribution channel itself largely dried up and blew away, a victim of structural inefficiencies and competition from other entertainment media. The number of SF titles on sale crashed, and the number of copies each sold also crashed. Luckily for the writers a new medium was emerging: the mass market paperback, distributed via the same wholesale channel as the pulp magazines and sold through supermarkets and drugstore wire-racks. These paperbacks were typically short by modern standards: in some cases they provided a market for novellas (25,000 words and up—Ace Doubles consisted of two novellas, printed and bound back-to-back and upside-down relative to one another, making a single book).

The market for short fiction gradually recovered somewhat. In addition to the surviving SF magazines (now repackaged as digest-format paperback monthlies) anthologies emerged as a market. But after 1955 it was never again truly possible to earn a living writing short stories (although this may be changing thanks to the e-publishing format shift—it’s increasingly possible to publish stand-alone shorter works, or to start up a curatorial e-periodical or “web magazine” as the hip young folks call them). And the readership profile of the remaining magazines slowly began to creep upwards, as new readers discovered SF via the paperback book rather than the pulp magazine. With this upward trending demographic profile, the SF magazines entered a protracted, generational spiral of dwindling sales: today they still exist, but nobody would call a US newsstand magazine with monthly sales of 10,000-15,000 copies a success story.

A side-effect of dwindling sales is that the fixed overheads of running a magazine (the editor’s pay check) remains the same but there’s less money to go around. Consequently, pay rates for short fiction stagnated from the late 1950s onwards. 2 cents/word was a decent wage in 1955—it was $20 for a thousand words, so $80-500 for a short story or novelette. But the monthly magazines were still paying 5 cents/word in the late 1990s! This was pin money. It was a symbolic reward. It would cover your postage and office supplies bill—if you were frugal.

There is some sign of a recovery in this area since the mid-00s. I can point to a couple of high-end web based markets whose peak rate (for “name” authors) is 50 cents/word; at $500/thousand words they’re actually competitive with newspaper op-ed writing. But in general, novels pay much better than short fiction. A 100,000 word mid-list novel that reaps a $10,000 advance has netted the author 10 cents/word, and because it’s a single articulated narrative the author hasn’t had to re-start from scratch with new characters, ideas, and settings every 5-10,000 words. 100,000 words of novel are much easier to write than 100,000 words of short stories.


This is by way of explaining that, from the perspective of an ordinary working writer (who is trying to earn a living), short stories are good for three things:

  1. Learning the trade

  2. Advertising your wares

  3. Fun and experimentation

First, learning the trade. If it’s your ambition to write novels, why would you start with short stories? Many people don’t; it’s a peculiarity of the SF/F field that we have this tradition of starting with shorter works (because, unlike the mainstream genre categories, we had some surviving markets for them). But I think if you want to write, diving in and trying to start with a novel is asking for trouble. Novels are complex beasts and if you write one you have to be able to keep track of a whole bunch of different narrative structures that overlap, on different levels: the plot arc, character development, thematic elements, and so on. (For a whistle-stop tour of these items I’d strongly recommend one book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by some guy called Stephen King, who obviously thinks he knows something about putting together novels.)

Short stories are short. Consequently, you can’t cram everything in. As Isaac Asimov observed, short stories are about what you leave out—and the shorter the format, the more things you can safely ignore. This makes them an ideal learning vehicle. You can write a 2000 word character study in an hour or an afternoon. Someone else can read it in 3-10 minutes. It’s not demanding. You can show it to other readers and other writers and they can dip their toe in the water and tell you what they think without the sinking feeling that comes from receiving a 500 page doorstep, or a megabyte of prose.

Short stories therefore lend themselves to workshopping and learning and training, so they may not be very commercial, but they’re bloody useful all the same (and it’s no accident that while I sold my first short stories in the mid-1980s it took another decade before I could produce a readable novel, and another few years after that before I was firing on all cylinders).

Secondly, Advertising your wares. This probably doesn’t require any explanation, but: because short stories are short and easy to read, there’s a low threshold to uptake. It’s much easier to try out a new author by reading a short story than by diving into a trilogy. Or to try out the world on an on-going series by reading a single story. (Quick: how many of you first began reading my Laundry Files series after you stumbled across a short story in that setting?)

Importantly, among the folks who read short stories to discover new authors this way are numerous editors. If you’re an editor, one way to build a reputation in your field is to discover the next big thing. And because the next big thing probably starts out writing short fiction, that’s where a lot of the smart novel editors keep a weather eye pointed. If someone appears out of nowhere and begins grabbing Hugo nominations for short fiction, then the manuscript of their first novel lands in your inbox, you pay attention.

Thirdly, Fun and experimentation. When you’re writing novels for a living, your income stream for months or years in advance depends on getting the current project right. You are writing to a deadline, and novels are big and cumbersome: wrestling one into a new shape can take weeks or months. So there’s a natural tendency to be extremely conservative with your writing style, to avoid big risks. (Examples of “big risk”: writing a police procedural in multi-viewpoint second person present tense. Or using a highly unreliable narrative viewpoint who is basically lying to the reader, with the intention that the reader will eventually smell a rat and begin to interpret the real story hidden in the background. And so on.)

Short fiction is short. If you’ve got a few spare days you can push out a novelette that does something so radical and experimental with language that it would have an editor reaching for the smelling salts if you did it at novel length. (Unless it’s the late 1960s and your name is Brian Aldiss). A handful of readers will appreciate it, you’ll get your stationary and printer consumables paid for, and you might win a shiny award from those who care. Meanwhile, you’ll have learned whether or not something works, and you can use it later in your bread and butter novels. (Personal example: Bit Rot. I had an invitation to do a far-future space opera story for an anthology. I had a universe lying around, under-used, from “Saturn’s Children”. I wanted to see if there was any life left in it, so I wrote this short story. Yes, it was still viable: I could still work in it. So then I knew I could use it as the setting for “Neptune’s Brood”.)

Finally, I have mentioned the existence of format shifts, when an entire wholesale/retail distribution chain goes away and a new one emerges, causing a shift in the type of work that authors are paid to write. A huge side-effect of the ebook shift is the sudden resurgence of the novella, a format that was previously in eclipse. A novella is a month’s work: a gamble, but if you take a month off to play with one between books, you’re probably not going to starve—you’ll just have to work harder to make up time. Novellas are too short to bind and sell as novels in their own right (with a few exceptions—notably signed limited edition numbered hardcover runs that don’t get discounted down to peanut husks by Amazon), but they thrive as ebooks at a price point between $0.99 and $2.99. And they’re taking off these days, in numbers and in readership. So I find that, interestingly, the novella seems to be a natural overlap point between a format I can get experimental with and one that can pay its own way.

But in general, if you were wondering why I don’t write short fiction much (if ever) these days, the reason is simple: I’m not learning the basics of the trade, and I don’t need to work for chickenfeed to advertise my wares. Fun and experimentation is still valid, but I’m in the happy position of having been given so much scope to experiment in my novel-length work that I seldom need to go there. And so, this is why many (but not all) working novelists start out as short story writers but seem to go off the boil after a few books.



Well, in the dead tree era, whatever the dear readers wrists and sternum could stand while reading the HB in bed.

Yes, Peter F. Hamilton and Vikram Seth, I'm looking at you!


There is another possibility, which is to test the reader response with a short(ish) story that is later expanded to a full novel. I'm still waiting, money in hand, for the full Colder War.


It does seem that short stories these days are, for a lot of writers, the greenhouse where they learn the tools they need to transplant their ideas into the wider, larger world outside of it. Even modern classic short story stalwarts like Ken Liu seem to eventually find themselves going to novels.


I found your work through being given a copy of The Jennifer Morgue, and then went after The Atrocity Archive all the short fiction I could find.

I say 'found' but I'd picked up a copy of an early Merchant Princes novel and thought 'Meh, Portal fantasy' and put it down again. I picked up the series again, later, after being told it had become rather more interesting; and I was told that here.


Judging by the dimensions of their short story collections, Arthur C. Clarke and J.G Ballard spent much of their literary career writing short stories, even after they had moved on to long-form novels.

Though I suspect novels like "Childhood's End" and "High Rise" would fall into the novella category, nowadays, such is the word-bloat in size of the long-form novels.

I think one of IMB's novels [possibly Use of Weapons, not sure] was rejected by a publisher in the 1970s due to a "paper shortage".

Speaking as a reluctant amateur writer, someone whose literary ideas outstrip my capacity or willingness to draft, redraft and redraft them again into something readable or saleable, short stories and episodic fiction are easier for the tyro writer to craft into something worth reading, whilst novel writing seems too vast an undertaking for someone who really doesn't enjoy trying herding plots and characters into a coherent format.

BTW, Charlie what story of yours consisted of only seven words?

And how much did they pay you?


Since there are aspiring authors in the comment section, I think it's prudent to mention that Vice recently launched a section for short near-future SF with a base rate of $0.25 a word, publishing a story a week. Since it's new, it seems like it would be a good place to try submitting. OGH seems to have the distribution of his short fiction under control via Tor.

As someone who spends a good amount of his time sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen reading prose, I'm looking forward to a resurgence in fiction serials (perhaps ad-supported or based on inexpensive subscriptions). I haven't really seen any service catering to that (aside from / fictionpress, which doesn't pay the authors and so isn't really in the same boat). Now that Vice is pushing short fiction out, maybe Ars Technica or somebody will start doing serials.


Great post! Perhaps I can start to get that (historical mystery) novel out of my head in smaller chunks.

Now, I'll ask the dumb guy question: What is CMAP?


BTW, Charlie what story of yours consisted of only seven words?

And how much did they pay you?

Can't remember the story itself, but it was for WIRED, who were commissioning seven word long stories.

My favourite submission (of mine, to that commission):

Bin Laden's Time Machine: President Gore 'concerned'.

I was paid ... a lifetime subscription to WIRED! (Which they get to write off as an ongoing business expense. Nice.)


the dumb guy question: What is CMAP?

Its full expansion is on this page ... on the right hand sidebar ... SPECIALS ... first item. There.

(But kudos for asking - I doubt you're the only one to wonder and if you don't know, it's not dumb to ask, it's dumb not to.)


Now, I'll ask the dumb guy question: What is CMAP?

See Common Misconceptions About Publishing. A series of blog essays I write.


Thanks for the insightful post.

Next step after writing the story is getting exposure to it. What are the best contemporary channels for a newbie writer to get as many eyeballs as possible pointed at their awesome story?


What are the best contemporary channels for a newbie writer to get as many eyeballs as possible pointed at their awesome story?

I have no idea. The fashionable/effective short fiction outlets change over a period measured in single-digit years, and I haven't been walking in those shoes for decades now. However, for some listings, you could do worse than start here, and for some more guidance on what to avoid, read this before submitting your work anywhere.


There's also the cross over between short stories and a novel when you have a collection of short stories with common characters and/or setting which build up to a larger narrative. I've always thought of them as episodic novels. Seanan McGuire's Velveteen is the only example that immediately come to mind, but I've read a few and it's a style I like, I guess because it's a very popular narrative form right now in TV.

However, it's likely to be something that gets produced by an author early in their career, as i'm not sure you'd get a decent advance for something like that, rather than a more traditional single narrative novel, but you would get it out once your first novel or two was a success and people suddenly want more of you quick.


On payment for short fiction - Yes I'll agree that the word rate is total c@rp, but at least it's usually a word rate for first publication; after that the rights revert to you and you can hopefully resell to a multi-author anthology, and if successful, a publisher for a collection of your own short work.

None of which means that shorts are a great way of earning a living; just that the headline rates from $zine aren't necessarily the whole story for your income from them.

how many of you first began reading my Laundry Files series after you stumbled across a short story in that setting? Not me. The first of your works I read was Glasshouse (after a short conversation in the dealers' room one Eastercon. There's no reason why you'd remember and I remember more because you were interesting enough to get me to pick up and buy one of your books than because "an author" spoke to me. Then I read Saturn's Children, MP1/6, and looking for something else by you decided on The Atrocity Archives. Other people's milages most assuredly WV.


It's called a "fix-up" and other examples include "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov, and "Accelerando" by yours truly.


"Childhood's End" was originally a short story, then a novella, then a full-length novel. In all three forms it was an interesting snapshot of a strange culture, but Clarke never quite managed to thread a plot through it.

Before the "2001" tetra-quadra-whatever, it was a short story called "Sentinel." Where "Childhood's End" expanded through bloat, "2001" simply picked up after the end of "Sentinel" and continued on.

I used to read story collections and authors' comments and felt somewhat guilty about not buying the magazines; so many stories I liked had originally been published there. But they were more expensive than books, and much of their content was broken up across multiple issues. I wasn't interested in reading anything broken up into installments across four or eight weeks per chunk. I'm still not, for that matter. While I understand that serializing stories kept any single story from monopolizing an entire issue, and that the publishers probably felt it was a way to hook their audience... six months or more to complete a story? I doubt I was the only one to reject that outright.


Further thought on "short fiction":-

How many people today realise that Charles Dickens started out writing magazine serials? Or indeed are more than vaguely aware that Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes originally appeared in shorts in Strand magazine? (BTW, the better modern collections now have the original Sidney Paget illustrations included).


Wow, there's more than i thought!

Kim Stanley Robinson seems to be a big fan of that style, as most of his novels seem to be written that way.


How many people today realise that Charles Dickens started out writing magazine serials?

But wasn't he also the editor of most of those magazines? A bit of an advantage.


I'm amused by analogising this to the music business, where the album could be said to be the equivalent of the novel, and the single that of the short story.

However popular music has been focused much more around the single rather than the album, possibly because of the way that most singles can be experienced in a couple of hundred seconds.

(The EP is the novella?)


But wasn't he also the editor of most of those magazines? I honestly don't know. It doesn't matter anyway; the point is that most of his "great Victorian English novels" are nothing of the kind, unlike those of his contemporaries.


I see what you mean, at least when it comes to, say, comparing "Smoke on the Water" (written on the tour bus, rehearsed at the sound check, and premiered the same day) with "Concerto for Group and Orchestra". I'd suggest that it's less true when comparing SotW with Machine Head, which is more of a short story anthology. (tracks and albums picked as being examples from a single group and lineup).


Cool ;-) worth a Sidewise Award on its own.

Like the plot twist on the sixth word.


As one of the commenters who try writing, I've found that I don't seem to be able to keep my stories at a short length. The novel I'm writing now, started with an idea for a short story that I thought I would try selling to a magazine/site, but once it got to 10,000 words and still hadn't gotten to the main plot, I gave in an let it grow. Now, as I've said, it really wants to be a series. I've got ideas for at least three books. And on a subject sort of raised in the previous thread, I've been considering trying to sell my writing under a slight pseudonym, using a familiar version of my first name used in my family (a mostly Scottish one--hint: I am not a 'Jim'). My first/last names are pretty common and also that of a fairly well known Scottish author, so I thought I shouldn't use that, and I've never cared for using my initials. Also the nickname is fairly androgynous, so maybe appealing to a wider audience(?), though with the spelling we use it could be taken for Spanish.

Anyhow... I first came across the name Charles Stross (also C.Doctorow and MacLeod) when I read an article in Popular Science: Is Science Fiction About To Go Blind?, while in a dentist's waiting room (I was the ride, not the patient) back in 2005. It introduced me to this thing called the Singularity, which I then got into for a little while (having just--finally--read through the cyberpunk classics). "Singularity Sky" was the first Stross I read, and then read through the rest of his SF that was available at the time. I stayed away from "The Atrocity Archives" for a while partly because of the US trade paperback cover, but I had started to read this blog and occasionally commenting, then the trade edition of "The Jennifer Morgue" came out, and decided to give it them try. Glad I did. Well, this ended up longer than intended.


Point taken. I think. I was going to say that other authors at that time published doorstops without being serialized. I was thinking of George Eliot, but apparently some of hers were.

My understanding is that Dickens found his stories were popular enough to keep the magazines afloat for a while, and so they kept getting longer. I've only read some of his short (ghost) stories, and none of his novels. So many books, so little time.


I had been reading Ken MacLeod when I found our host's name mentioned alongside his and thought, "more of this type of thing? EXCELLENT!"

So I read the published collection of short stories, then Glasshouse, then Accelerando, and then everything else I could get my paws on!


However, for some listings, you could do worse than start here, and for some more guidance on what to avoid, read this before submitting your work anywhere.

Thanks! I'll take a better look at them when I've the time and mental endurance to put up with the putrescent web design of

Meanwhile, are there any beginning writers out there with recent war stories how they got their first story noticed?

Oh, and the first work of yours I read was The Atrocity Archives after being tipped off about it somewhere in the interwebs. I've enjoyed your shorter format stuff a lot as well, and I'll echo Dirk Bruere's sentiment about the realization of Colder War the novel.


There is never going to be a longer version of "A Colder War".

It's too scary for me to tackle.

(And I'm perfectly capable of writing horror novels, thank you very much.)


Couple of things: one is that the classic form of SF is short fiction. I just read one over on Grantville Gazette the other night - even if it's alternate history, it's sf: a problem posed by the world, and the protagonists find a good solution by using their knowledge and understanding of the way the world works.

The other... interesting way you described what hit US pulps, Charlie. The way I heard it from Lin carter? Fred Pohl? back in the seventies at a PSFS meeting, was that in the early fifties, there were scores of pulp mags, in all genres, but there were (count them) two distributors. Then someone bought one of the two, decided the pieces were worth more than the whole... and broke it up and sold off the parts for a quick buck. Meanwhile, half the pulps, dozens and dozens, suddenly had NO distribution firm, and that's what killed them.

mark "ah, capitalism: a quick buck beats a steady income for the long term"

FWIW I believe that Roger Zelazny wrote short stories that he didn't intend to publish (but occasionally did) to develop back story for his on-going novel. Things that he felt he needed to understand about what was behind what was shown, but which didn't fit into the thread of the story.


Stargate SG1 meet Lovecraft - there is serious mileage in that.


And half of it is scarily copyrighted.


I'm relieved to hear you have no plans to novelize A Colder War. The novella really conveyed a sense of existential dread; a novel-length version would probably generate Peter Watts levels of fear.


... but A Colder War would be a great seting for an anthology (maybe by multiple authors?): As no life is lost in the eater of souls (or whatever that line was), let's have many stories exploring the many ways in which the world and protagonists life ends badly, each one simulated by Rokokos Ctulhu.

Re. the actual topic: I really like short stories and novellas, and usually have a handful of harlf read anthologies lying about. Though I must say that I hardly discovered new authors that way. And a few authors write good SF short fiction, while the long form stuff is ... not that interesting to me.

Charlie - Speaking of genre issues, are there other topics you want to (re)visit that don't fit your current Laundry/MP focus but may be worth a short story/novella sized shot?


Zelazny wrote a handful of shorts for Amber fanzines, back in the pre-internet days. Probably odd bits that were leftovers from other stories, but I thought it was quite nice that he shared them; being zines, I doubt he got paid.


The other... interesting way you described what hit US pulps, Charlie. The way I heard it from Lin carter? Fred Pohl? back in the seventies at a PSFS meeting, was that in the early fifties, there were scores of pulp mags, in all genres, but there were (count them) two distributors. Then someone bought one of the two, decided the pieces were worth more than the whole... and broke it up and sold off the parts for a quick buck. Meanwhile, half the pulps, dozens and dozens, suddenly had NO distribution firm, and that's what killed them.

Could be Pohl. I seem to remember this story from The Way the Future Was, his memoir of SF fandom, writing, editing and agenting from the '30s to the '70s. Very interesting reading.


I have to wonder how much the short story is useful advertizing these days. When I started reading SF in the 1960's, buying short story collections as paperbacks at WH Smith was a no-brainer as the collections had more pages than novels and stretched the pocket money a lot further. Novels were also much less wordy in those days too.'

Today the short story collections and anthologies seem thinner on the ground at the big box book stores, e.g. Barnes and Noble. The magazines are still relatively expensive and the online magazines I've tried were variable in quality, compared to the reviewed anthologies.

I'm not sure where I first read OGH, although I think is was Accelerando.

As for advertizing, I think most of my newer author reads have come from recommendations on this site, e.g. Peter Watts. I know I started reading Karl Schroeder here after his guest postings intrigued me, as well as OGH's recommendation of the Virga series.


Early Dickens sold his stuff wherever he could, wrote short and long as requested. His first novel (Pickwick Papers) was done to order as words to go with a popular illustrator who promptly fell ill and died before the first episode was complete. Because of shortage of time, their replacement artist made fewer pictures and they asked for more pages. It was a breakout success.

Early-mid Dickens was an editor and he wrote long serials, and also whatever short and medium he needed to fill the pages. Later Dickens was both editor and publisher so could do more what he wanted. Although I understand that he sometimes got ahead, he never had the finish drafted before the first episode was published in any of his novels (leading inevitably to the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood).

I quite like his partially-fictionalised short piece "The Detective Police" in which he interviews some detectives on how they catch criminals. It's equal parts interesting, hilarious and horrifying.


More accurately (or at least closer to my memory): There was ONE major distributor, and a whole lot of small ones -- each competing against the major in one area.

When the major distributor went under, result was a whole lot of local monopolies.


Apropos the topic, I look at the year's best anthologies as a good place to find new writers. They work well as samplers.

The first two Charles Stross stories I encountered were "Antibodies" & "A Colder War" in Gardner Dozois' Year's Best SF 18, then I read "Lobsters" in Asimov's SF. It was apparent in just those three stories that here was "a writer to watch". Then I found out that a novel was in the works ("The Atrocity Archives"), and the rest as they say, is history.


I wonder what the crossover is between the length of the prose and the ability to turn it into a screenplay?

We have the example of Philip K Dick, who's output seems to have been converted to film regularly, and lucratively. It would seem that something around the 200 page length is much easier to successfully adapt; around 50-60,000 words, a long novella/short novel.

Massive 700 page / 200,000 word tomes just have too much going on to translate well.

Thus, although you aren't likely to bet all the horses on selling a screenplay, it can be very lucrative and having it as a revenue stream in mind would seem a sensible business plan - to the extent of making sure the narrative is shown, not just happening in someone's head.

If 200 pages = 2 hour film, then the 40 mins of a typical TV episode = 66 pages or 20,000 words, a novelette.

Also, if you are buying an eBook, you are unlikely to really 'feel' the length of the novel in question, making it much easier to push out what would be a slimmer volume if hefted in print.

I can see the business reasons why pushing out shorter novels/novellas at a faster pace (2 per year), and keeping screen needs in mind (or even creating in parallel), might make a good model going forward.


Your lengths are out by a factor of 2 or thereabouts.

Film/TV script: 1 page/minute, 250 words of dialog per page. So a movie is around 30,000 words -- a novella of pure dialog or a reall short novel.

TV, however ... the US format is 60 hours, of which 16 minutes is advertising, so 44 minutes of content in four 11 minute blocks. But each non-opening block needs to contain 1-2 minutes recapping the previous block, so it's actually less than 40 minutes of content. So a 10,000 word short story/novelette.

I dealt with scriptwriting (it didn't pan out). BBC drama pay rates are on the order of £12-15,000/episode for script, plus residuals, if it runs on BBC 1; maybe 10-12,000 on BBC 2 or a minor channel or off-peak. That's if you're working with a "name" producer, mind. (BBC-speak: a "producer" at the BBC is what Hollywood or the US TV biz call a director. A "director" at the BBC is a company executive.) US TV biz rates are higher -- $40,000-50,000 per episode for Writers Guild folks -- but the level of bureaucratic oversight is typically far higher (i.e. it's vetted by committee before it goes into production at a cost of millions of dollars per hour).


How I initially found out about OGH is lost in the mists of time, in some bad sector of my brain. What I do know is that I bought "Singularity Sky" in HB circa 2003-4, it's a first edition that I bought in a real-live bookstore.

I then found a red-covered paperback in a second-hand bookstore in Cambridge called "Toast: And Other Rusted Futures" - having read the 'Caution' bit after the edition notice [which read '2002'] I wished I had discovered him sooner.

Somebody in Silicon Fen must have bought it and not liked it.

Bizarrely, I was not aware of the Merchant Princes series until a friend at work told me about them, by which time that series was on its fifth book. I told m'colleague about the Laundry Series then on its second book - and he hadn't heard of that, either. Most odd.


Very interesting read. I grew up reading Clarke, Asimov, and Spider Robinson short stories, "Tales from the White Hart" and all the Callahan's books spring immediately to mind, so the short form seems very natural for SF to me. I think it's an excellent advertising form also, the first work of OGH that I read was "Accelerando," which, I'm sorry to say, just didn't grab me. When I stumbled across "A Colder War," I was much, much more intrigued and started gobbling up all the Laundry Files books I could. Yes, not the same universe, but close enough to hook me in. Like quite a few others here, I'm amateurishly working my way up through flash-fiction towards the short, and perhaps one day a novel. We'll see.


Can't remember the story itself, but it was for WIRED, who were commissioning seven word long stories.

You may be under-stating the per-word rate... a quick Google suggests they were in fact six-word stories (and yours seems to be only five and a half).

Wired 14.11: Very Short Stories


I found my first C S book ("Singularity Sky") in a bookshop at approximately where the Grassmarket changes to West Port - but I'm a Londoner ....

Meanwhile, here's a nasty little short story of censorship & pathetic grovelling that needs public shaming.


That sort of thing is normal in much of the world, and not just for Israel; in Malaysia, maps of the region prominently lack any sign of the existence of Singapore -- although Johor Baharu is very prominently indicated, being a really major Malaysian city where about 20% of the Singaporean work force live (they commute across the border daily, which should tell you how far away it is).


I was taking novel pages, not script pages. Them pesky novelists like to pepper their stories with descriptions and scene setting, so it's only to be expected that the novel length is twice what you might expect in script land.

All of which was just WaG-land to say what novel length best matches the content level of a movie or TV - which aims to answer the exam question "what are stories good for".

I do wonder what difference the small 'production houses' have on earnings and costs in TV land. In a world where Marvel can turn drek like "Guardians of the Galaxy" into several billions, it seems like scope exists for good stories still.

Saying that, the only original content in the top ten movies of 2014 was 'Interstellar'. Everything else was remake, sequel, etc.


Indeed - my first exposure was in Belize, being shown Guatemalan maps that incorporated Belize into same...

My most recent was trying to google the location of our firm's Israel office, to note that the building firm's headed notepaper had a logo silhouette of the country that included the West Bank (i.e. not your 1967 silhouette). What I don't know is how much that is a locally-significant signifier of political sympathy, and how much a statement of pragmatic reality. Or maybe the firm does business in Judea and Samaria as well?

Another is the border between India and China near Assam. According to a recent Economist article, even showing the generally-agreed border causes problems if you want to sell copy in India... hot button topic.


Meanwhile, here's a nasty little short story of censorship & pathetic grovelling that needs public shaming. Also Charlie @ #47

This was a plot point in an episode of "Yes (Prime) Minister" so has been going on since at least the 1980s. Any surprise I feel is over it being felt worthy of mention.


HarpicCollins? Typical Murdoch.


I will admit to thoroughly enjoying Guardians of the Galaxy. It's amusing, doesn't take itself remotely seriously, and cheered me up no end. What's not to like about a racoon with a rocket launcher? (That was the lightweight end of my 2014 viewing - Moon, Cloud Atlas, Gravity, Hugo, on DVD, Interstellar, Aliens and 2001 on the Giant Screen in Birmingham (before they closed it down to save money) to pick just a few.) I've probably watched more films in 2014 than in the previous few years combined.


I do wonder what difference the small 'production houses' have on earnings and costs in TV land. In a world where Marvel can turn drek like "Guardians of the Galaxy" into several billions, it seems like scope exists for good stories still.

Go and google for "save the cat". Then weep.


That reminds me of a missed opportunity I had. While vacationing in Austin, TX (where I got my undergraduate degree) some years back, the spouse and I went in to an antique/junk store. There I found one of those roll-up world maps like they had in school; this one showed a Greater Germany and no Austria. Talk about a snapshot in time! Sadly, I didn't want to cart a five-foot, 20 pound map back on the airplane.


Since everyone else is chiming in...

I'd heard of Accelerando, but hadn't read it. I stumbled across A Colder War*. Then I read the first of the Merchant Princes (BTW Charlie, thank you a thousand times for writing something in which there isn't a single idiot, only people with limited knowledge and cultural baggage).

Then I read all the rest.

A Colder War gives me the willies every time I read it.*

**And one of the things Charlie does pretty well is to extrapolate what happens if certain things really are true. The government and/or big money would certainly get interested.


OK, I'll chime in too. I was lucky enough to discover "The Atrocity Archive" in Spectrum 7. Anyone else remember that magazine? I recall that Bob was described as looking after a Beowulf cluster and a Frankenstein server. Not having come across Beowulf other than in the Anglo-Saxon poem, I did at first wonder whether the cluster and the server were occult equipment.

And like Soon Lee, I encountered "Antibodies" and "A Colder War" in Year's Best SF 18, and must have read "Lobsters" in Asimov's at about the same time. If I'd not realised it already, the remark about Microsoft in "Antibodies" made it clear that here was an author I could empathise with. Enough, actually, that I enthused about him in an AI newsletter I used to write. I see from that that I'd also read "Halo", probably again in Asimov's.

Not related to the above, I've just found a useful guide written by Roger MacBride Allen about submitting manuscripts. It's particularly strong on packaging.


I was about 12 when I started reading SF regularly - I'd finished reading all of the Greek/Roman mythology available at my school library. Anyways, short stories - particularly anthologies around a common/central theme really made it easy to identify the authors that I'd want to spend more time with ... as in, which SF authors only do gadgets/mysticism, which are almost entirely character/human condition studies, which are 'big-idea' writers, and which authors deliver the whole package.

In my adulthood, whenever I can't find something new by my favorite authors, I either pick up an anthology or see if any of my favorite authors are recommending any new-to-me authors .. including guest bloggers on this site. (I've noticed that in the past 10 years or so, the least successful strategy for finding a new favorite SF author has been via Hugo and Nebula winners. Too bad, but like everything else SF also goes through fashion cycles as new readers/audiences come on board.)

In the meanwhile .. Happy New Year's to everyone here ... OGH and all the posters who make this site interesting.

Cheers! SFreader


Yes, hollywood's primary motivation is fear; fear of not getting money. Since they don't know what will work, make money, and so assuage that fear - they latch onto any rule of thumb that appears to work. That includes the big blockbusters, actors that will 'open' a movie, and these beat type structures etc.

It's the movie equivalent of "never got sacked for buying IBM". The problem is, it gets very noticeable (hence GotG=dreck) and people get bored of it. They already are.

I feel we are getting to the stage now where things will break again, and the orthodoxy will switch. It will probably, paradoxically, be driven by distribution. Movies in theatres just barely works, and each time they try to push up prices, people stop going. TV series do bigger business on lower overheads and much less risk. And with 4K being primarily a computer thing, it's going to break sooner or later.

Thought to go on with. There is much talk of automation taking over individual jobs - driven by greater cheap computing power and practical AI approaches. At the same time the marketeers have been developing their psyops to a fine pitch. Collide an agent based simulation of the viewing public with AI scriptwriting software and a human polish and you have movies quickly turned around that are attuned to the marketplace x months ahead and designed to create moods and thoughts in broad swathes of the public. The more constrained and 'small' they are, the faster the turnaround, the better the match, and lower the potential risk on multiple fronts.

Now just make sure that right wing politics media strategists don't get hold.


There is never going to be a longer version of "A Colder War".

It's too scary for me to tackle.

I'm sure you've answered this question before, but did Harlan Ellison's I have no mouth and I must scream influence the writing of ACW?


Didn't realise that Malay/Singapore relations had declined that far, though I had my suspicions when the Malay train service from Singapore suddenly cahnged its' start-point to just to the N of the narrow dividing strait ....

To others on this theme - I know that the "Atlas" incident I mentioned is not the first, but it's still disgraceful.


but did Harlan Ellison's I have no mouth and I must scream influence the writing of ACW?

Only insofar as I'd read it a decade or two earlier and forgotten it, along with many other stories.


Para 3 - I do wonder how much of that is the insistence that the cinemas have to bear the entire cost of not just making and distributing (reduced in these days of digital distribution rather than making prints of several thousand feet of film) but also marketting the film. This despite the fact that most of the "big cinema chains" are now subsidiaries of the studios.


Intellectual/creative services/products are prone to an 'amoeba marketing' approach. There's no hard and fast set of rules on how best to market (monetize) such products. And, thanks to fairly widespread familiarity with Moore's Law, amoeba marketing is likely to stick around since would-be consumers/buyers are increasingly expecting the real world to operate more like the SF they read about/see.

I was of the impression that video games were still taking an increasing chunk out of both cinema and television market shares. If so, then distribution channels is not at the heart of why traditional cinema/TV might be dying -- the role/perspective of the user/consumer within fictionalized worlds/experiences might be the key issue.


My pet theory of why GotG was the smash hit it was is that general audiences are in the first stages of fatigue. They noticed, whether sub- or consciously, that superhero flicks are all the same damn movie (see 4chan's "capeshit" meme).

At least superficially, GotG stood out among the sooper-serious superhero crowd that's en vogue right now ( ). It makes some self-conscious jokes, has well-known serious actors say stuff like prick, etc. Yet at the same time it plays most conventions of the genre straight and sticks to same old story structure as the others.

It's like the "Express Yourself!" marketing scheme of current corporate culture: "No no, this mass-produced gizmo is totally different from its brothers of the same series. Its plastic casing is pastel pink instead of blue or green!"


Couldn't help thinking when I saw GotG, like Star Wars, that a few tactical nukes would save everyone a lot of time and effort.

Is there any SF space opera (TV, movies) where the locals manage to both invent hyperdrive and nuclear weapons?


Note: Having written a superhero novel -- it comes out in July -- I can assure you that the "capeshit" plot tropes are highly flexible and you don't have to write the same fucking script all over again.

The superhero oeuvre does lend itself to psychodrama, but then, superheroes are basically warmed over polytheistic gods and demi-gods representing emotional archetypes: sometimes they don't even bother hiding their roots (Thor, for example), but that's where they come from. It's very easy to lazily recapitulate the same old narrative structures (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, hello Peter Parker I am looking at you ...) but you don't have to do that.

Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered writing a Laundry Files superhero novel.


Ellis, Morrison and Gaiman proved as much.

It's just that the cinematic lags behind the graphic and literary side in the creativity department.


The Battlestar Galactica reboot ~started~ with the Cylons nuking most of humanity, and the odd nuke is expended thereafter for plot-significant reasons, although not routinely.

What worries me is the infrequent recognition that FTL capacity sits uneasily with causuality. Stargate SG1 got that right. By the end of the show the back story was a bit of a tangle.


A good antidote to Save The Cat is Film Crit Hulk's Screenwriting 101. It takes a lot of what passes for wisdom in Hollywood out to the woodshed and whips it bloody.


For the record, I did first become aware of The Laundry Files through a Wireless short story. It wasn't until the first two books came out on Audible that I gave more of the series a listen, though. I enjoyed the first book a lot (the second not as much, although I loved the idea of it) but it's the hard sci-fi I come back for :)


What happens if the "superhero" is an "innocent"? Percival / Parsifal being the archetype here ... (?) [ Yes, I know, D Eddings, but even so ... ]


... Then you're in a Tom Holt comedy (possibly "Expecting Someone Taller").


the US format is 60 hours, of which 16 minutes is advertising, so 44 minutes of content in four 11 minute blocks.

Not for a long time. By my stopwatch, a typical "1 hour" TV show (in my area) was down to 38 minutes in the mid-1980s when I quit watching TV.

Typical 1960s shows like "Star Trek" were originally filmed at 52 minutes; they suffered greatly after being randomly butchered for more commercials. Though since the average viewer seems to spend most of his time stabbing the channel button, I doubt anyone actually notices.


The atlases we had in school - and most of the ones I have in my own library - do not show Cuba. Neither do either of my world globes.


Wow! I really wouldn't have expected that.

What, precisely, does "do not show" mean? Is only the name "Cuba" missing? Or do the maps actually display water where there should be an island?


Well, a few clicks in Wikipedia found and which say that Cuba is the name of the island rather than just that of the only nation on the island.


Taiwan or Formosa?


Maybe I'm being dense, but that's coming over as a complete non sequetor.

I was saying that Cuba is the name of the island, rather than just that of the nation, so "not showing Cuba" would seem to imply showing empty sea.


Am I one of the few people who knew that maps all over the world omit nations and such. The middle east is rife with this. But there's also China and all the nearby nations on the Pacific Ocean. And I suspect there's a lot of issues around Greece and Turkey. Go to Greece and talk about Macedonia.


My globes and atlases show an empty sea.

They show Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other islands, but just blue where Cuba should be.


If you are American, TRX, then I am calling bullshit. May I ask what you are trying to prove with such a risible claim?

Charlie, you have a troll.


I doubt that TRX is trolling. (trolls are pretty rare on here anyway) There's plenty of evidence of maps created with water where there should be a significant landmass known as "Cuba". Here's one from 7 months ago.

They bother to put in Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos but omit Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic,


Of course that's not the most famous USian map that leaves out great swathes of unimportant world.


If TRX is trolling, then he is trolling from the position of one regular(ish) poster trolling another.


You know what; that may explain the story of the USN Carrier Battle Group and the lighthouse!


I think you're on to something there.


That sounds resonable. There's also the fact that digresions from the topic often occur as people struggle to find relevence or stray thoughts attract their attention.

For instance today I've been frantically loking for something, anything really, that will take my mind off the culmination of a dreadfuly painful year in as much as my friend Shona the worlds pretiest keeshond has just died from a stroke age 13.

So medical happy things rule. A cure for clinical depression would be nice, but, failing that, here is something promising from todays Torygraph ..Even the Tory Graph has to produce something cheering now and then, so ..

" Has Stanford University found a cure for Alzheimer's disease? "

Medical news in the popular press is always suspect of course but it is Stanford and so must have some credence.

Ghods but I hope that its true!


Sorry, my paw must have slipped as I posted. That was intended to be a responce to .. paws4thot at

" 84:

If TRX is trolling, then he is trolling from the position of one regular(ish) poster trolling another. "



Sympathy about Shona. Ok, I had to Wikipedia the breed, but the Keeshond has joined collies, huskies, German Shepherds and the like on my list of "awesome dog breeds".

As to the "cure for Alzheimer's", as a neurobiologist I'm a good plumber, and an ok analytical chemist but the article actually makes sense to me.

88 - It happens to everyone sometimes.

Arnold, you should know by now that any news article that is framed as a question is basically click-bait (and the answer is invariably "no" or "not yet, but please rest your eyes on these messages from our advertisers").


Sorry to hear about Shona. Our friends don't live as long as we do, and we know that going in. I dread losing our two girls every day. But I tell myself that I'm giving them the best life I can and that helps. I know you did that for her.


Arnold, you should know by now that any news article that is framed as a question is basically click-bait (and the answer is invariably "no" or "not yet, but please rest your eyes on these messages from our advertisers").

The "Newsframes" page Curious repeating headlines in the Daily Express is instructive. It shows the front page of every Daily Express from 18 January 2013 back to 29 October 2012. There are typically two miracle-treatment headlines per week. Usually framed as instances of the following rules and others like them:
<TREATMENT> ( "will | "can" | "to" ) "beat" <DISEASE> <TREATMENT> "key to" ( "beating" <DISEASE> | "long life" ) <TREATMENT> "will add years to your life".

For some reason, <DISEASE> is almost invariably heart disease, stroke, dementia, or arthritis.

Dishonest; and if you suffer from such a disease, cruel.


Fair enough. I don't come here enough to recognize a regular but their tag.

That said, it's a bizarre claim, Gasdive. I've got kids, I've got friends with kids, I've got family with kids, I live in the District of Columbia, I've got several globes and multiple atlases. The preschool atlases, the school atlases, the maps on my wall (Nat'l Geographic), the globe in our bedroom, all with Cuba.

The map at the Reddit link is weird, but it's weird on a lot of other levels. (What's with the Vermont-N.H. border and why is Maine stretched out?) And the lack of comments on the thread tells you something -- Americans are not going about their days trying to persuade their fellow citizens that Cuba does not exist.

Implying that they are certainly seems like trolling! Which does not mean that it is, of course. I'd very much like to see pictures of all the atlases and globes that leave out the island of Cuba. How and why would someone wind up with such an unusual collection?



An island that doesn't exist? Long.

I write this from my aunt's house in Queens.


The reddit link in #82 may be a troll, but if so it's a troll aimed at some 6.7 billion non-USians since it is definitely missing both Cuba (island) and Hispaniola.


Hmm, that reminds me, I was reminded again today of the "Long Island", which doesn't really exist either, but you can still sometimes find mention of it.


Is that "long Island" USA or "the Long Island" Western Isles Scotland? The second does exist (or did last month when I went on holiday).


The latter, a being which as far as I have ever seen (And bear in mind I'm scottish in scotland with lots of books about Scotland) was used by some highlanders many decades ago and has no popular or broad usage. In fact it once came up in the Trivial pursuit Scottish version, asking what the largest island in Scotland was, and everybody playing (which included Scots) agreed it was the stupidest most wrong answer ever.


In that case, "The Long Island" is an occasionally used description (N-S) of Lewis and Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay. Granted that Berneray to Eriskay is fully causewayed but no way would I describe it as one island! In case it wasn't clear, I live there.


That sounds about right and fits the usage I have come across; and of course if you live there you might have an idea of the name, but that does't excuse the trivial pursuit folk making it an answer to a question.


longest island "in Scotland"

Shouldn't that be Inchlonnaig, or maybe one of those other Inches ...

... sorry, topological drift


As opposed to: "the land of the Long White Cloud" [ Aotearoa ] - New Zealand, or, perhaps ... N Island of NZ.....


... let's all misremeber this thread as the one Charlie promised one or two novellas each year ...


Reading the State of the World 2014 over at the WELL, Bruce Sterling says he's writing a lot more short fiction than long fiction now: (probably because his main income appears to now be speaking and design criticism rather than fiction writing. I love Bruce Sterling)

The stories there fall into the 3. Fun and Experimentation category.

Also Vice is publishing a load of short near future sci-fi:



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