Monday, September 28, 2015

What I Learned From Reading the Year's Best SF&F

I recently finished reading Rich Horton's The Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015. I've often picked up anthologies and Best Of series but only read through them casually, often skipping stories that didn't catch my interest right away, or skimming those that weren't relevant to my tastes. But this time, I decided to read with the idea that (1) I'd finish the story no matter what, and (2) I'd make notes of what I liked and didn't like in each story in order to find what I'd like to focus on in my own short stories.

I finished every story, save for one. That one was just too dry for me. I absolutely could not make myself read it. I think a lot of people enjoy that style, but it reminded me of required reading in grad school and I sort of wanted to stab myself in the eyes. But I finished all the other stories. A few started out slow or confusing, but after a page or so, they got really interesting, so I'm glad I gave them a chance.

There were a few things that I enjoyed across the stories that worked best for me. I prefer clear prose over that which is too rich. Not that clear prose is always simple, but it conveys the idea and the image just right. I also enjoyed those stories which surprised me, or that subverted my expectations. This is a hard one for me to pull off in my own writing. A strong emotional resonance was always appreciated, especially those moments that made me nod my head and said, "Yes, that's how those things are." There was a truth in the emotion portrayed. And finally, the best stories had layers. Images worked literally and metaphorically and tied into the theme clearly. They were repeated often, but not too often, throughout the story, and so tied it together.

Those things I didn't care for included stories I found too confusing. Sometimes I felt there were too many characters or too much going on, especially in the beginning when I was trying to ground myself in the story. And often, as I read along, I felt it unnecessary to have cluttered the beginning with so much. But other times, it seemed necessary. Tied into beginnings, but on the other end of the spectrum, I found some of the starts slow. Those are normally stories I might put down after a page, but because I was determined to read on no matter what, many of them turned out to be enjoyable. And finally, I didn't care for most of the stories where there was no discernible plot. I like things to happen, even if they're quietly happening, but some of the stories struck me as pretty prose and interesting observations or characterization, and not much more.

Of course, this is all a matter of taste. Another reader might love the things I don't and strive to make their stories more like that. But I'm going to try to incorporate the things I enjoyed into my own short stories going forward, which is easier said than done, of course.

My favorite three stories of the collection were "The Scrivener" by Eleanor Amason, "How to Get Back the Forest" by Sofia Samatar, and "The Grand Jeté" by Rachel Swirsky. There were about ten other stories that I really enjoyed as well, and I learned quite a bit from the lot of them.


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  2. I just finished reading "The best science fiction & fantasy of the year" edited by Jonathan Strahan which includes two of the stories mentioned in your excellent article. "The Scrivener" is also my favourite - a fairy tale I would like to read to my son one day. "The Grand Jeté" was too dramatic for my taste. In my book, my other two favourites would be "Cimmeria: From The Journal of Imaginary Anthropology" by Theodora Gauss and "Colateral" by Peter Watts. Seeing so many female SF writers in the bunch came as a very nice surprise as well.

    1. I enjoyed "Cimmeria", too. It gave me a lot to think about. "Collateral" was one that left me confused, partly because there were so many characters in the beginning, but I thought it was pretty honest in its portrayal of PTSD. I noticed about 50% of the writers were women, and I thought that was a nice surprise as well.