Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Science Fiction Romance & The Short Form Revival

During the rise of ebooks and the technology that delivers them, there’s been a concurrent expansion regarding choice of story length. The digital medium offers incredible flexibility for story length, and many authors and publishers have been quick to capitalize on that advantage. No longer are we limited to buying print magazines for short stories, for example. The digital market is exploding with them as well as with novellas and, well, basically stories of every length imaginable. Needless to say, the short form is back and here to stay.

But can a short story or novella be too short, especially for a hybrid genre such as science fiction romance? Given the demand for a satisfying romance arc as well as detailed worldbuilding, are readers shortchanged by short stories or even novellas in SFR? Is there an ideal or recommended minimum length for these stories?

Jaq's HarpAt CONTACT – Infinite Futures, Ella Drake (JAQ’S HARP) recently blogged about “short fiction in the romance genre:”

I’ve gotten a range of feedback on my short stories. Much of the time, even when the reviews are positive, they say they want more of the world because in mine, I do quite a bit of world-building. I’m starting to wonder if world-building should be a little lighter in a short. I don’t know, though. Some of my favorite Scifi stories are short & packed with world-building. It’s a glimpse of a rich world that sets my imagination going.

I guess what I’m saying is there’s a balance between characterization/conflict/world-building that’s a difficult thing to do in a short story & still satisfy the romance reader. I think making sure the buyer knows the length is critically important, but I also think that balance is just as important, because short or not, the reader needs to feel like they got the entire story.

Her post touches upon a number of issues, and her discussion tied in with one of my recent LoveLetter magazine columns (“Does Length Matter in Science Fiction Romance?”) in which I shared that

I cut my science fiction/fantasy teeth on epic stories and series. Think The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and Dune. I grew up believing that a written story had basically two forms—a novel or a short. In fact, the more I read novels, and the more they seemed to outnumber other formats, the less I thought I’d enjoy short stories or novellas. Science fiction abounds with terrific short stories, but did I seek them out? No, because I was blindsided by the limits of publishing’s distribution system at the time.

Pretty silly of me, eh? I’ve been enjoying my return to the short form, but I still wonder about the issue of length. Specifically, how much is story length in a digital medium impacted by the following factors:

* The demand for quick, or quicker, reads

* The demand for affordably priced ebooks

* The perceived value of the book in question

Those factors play a significant role, and also raise a question for me: To what extent are readers seeking out ebooks because of the increasing availability of shorter stories vs. because they’re ebooks, regardless of length?

In her post, Ella Drake also wondered if it’s easier to deliver an SF short story than a romance short story. Adding the two genres together seems to add exponentially to the challenge. As she noted in her post, “There just hasn’t been a reliable market for short stories in romance until digital pubs came along… But I also think short fiction isn’t quite as accepted as it is in the Lit and SciFi communities.”

All of which point to even more questions. How can science fiction romance best adapt to the revival of the short form? Is it a matter of going lite with certain elements, or does the scope of the story play an important role (perhaps this is part of the balance issue to which Ms. Drake alluded?)? I believe some stories lend themselves to a shorter form better than others (e.g., I would be head-over-heels surprised to read a short story that successfully pulls off an epic space war saga with a romance). Conversely, there are stories that scream out for a novel-length treatment.

What about SFR shorts/novellas that offer more generic worldbuilding in order to allot more word count to the romance? Some of them already exist—I know I’ve read my share of them. Frankly, I can suspend my disbelief as long as other elements deliver, like plot and characterization. Conversely, I’ve read shorts/novellas with unique worldbuilding, but also with characterization/plot that aren’t as strong. Which makes me think it’s not the length that’s at issue vs. a host of other factors like the scope of the story, execution, pacing, etc.

Still, the story itself has a say, doesn’t it? With ebooks having a potentially longer shelf life—not to mention a long tail—than print books, I don’t see why the short form necessarily has to dominate the ebook market. While challenges for novel-length ebooks definitely exist (e.g., many readers don’t have e-readers yet; prolific authors can write and sell more shorts than novels in a lesser amount of time; shorts and novellas are priced less than novel-length works), variety is good for the consumer.

Even if authors overcome the challenge of executing their prose differently for short stories/novellas, the reader plays a role as well. Are romance readers in particular ready to adjust their expectations? Are we prepared to accept more “Happily For Now” endings in short stories/novellas? (*raising my hand*). Additionally, there might be other compromises/changes we’re willing to accept.

What are your thoughts on story length in SFR? Do you have a preference for shorts/novellas, novels, or both? In general, do you think shorts/novellas deliver both the romance and sci-fi elements in equal measure, or is there room for improvement?

Joyfully yours,