Growing a Story Setting Through Short Fiction: A Case Study
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
"Story setting" being a less writerly term for worldbuilding, in case you were wondering.
I write a lot of short stories, and in my previous post on worldbuilding I noted that this is one way to grow a setting. There's absolutely no reason to lay out an entire world when you can develop and reveal it piecemeal using methods that are not only more organic, but can also serve the practical purposes of generating money and attention for the writer.
So let's look at how this is done. May I introduce one of my first paid pieces, "An Important Message from Sagittarius A."
A gratuitous attempt to promote one of my videos? Sure, but there is a story behind this.
"An Important Message From Sagittarius A" was intended to promote a new character - Atticus Gainsborough, the non-infringing knockoff of legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Gainsborough was to be the main character in a four-book series - dubbed the Gainsborough Saga - that was basically a giant internal parody of everything I'd written up to that point. The series would have followed the perpetually intoxicated Gainsborough as he stumbled into a series of interlocked conspiracies and schemes, leading to a madman's plot to chemically lobotomize the planet.
The series is now deceased. I finished two of the planned four books. The first one, The Oasis is Burning, is available online - you can read the whole thing here. Book two, A Prophecy in Pixels, didn't turn out so well, and I killed off the series just a few chapters into the third one. But the novels were never the whole thing. I wanted to develop Gainsborough as a character, and to that end I planned to release a series of short stories - collectively known as "Deadline: The Oasis" - that would serve as both promotion and worldbuilding.
It was one of my better ideas (and I had something similar planned for All the Stars Within Our Grasp) but the termination of the novels meant that little came of it. I did learn a few things from "Deadline: The Oasis" that might be useful if you plan to pursue a similar strategy.
This form of setting development works best if you already have a following that's somewhat invested in the story and/or characters. You can absolutely start from zero and make this work, and the payoff is potentially larger in that case, but there are some things worth considering before you start submitting your pieces.
If you are starting from the ground, be careful how much worldbuilding you try to include. It's tempting to pack these stories full of lore, but remember that the editor you're dealing with doesn't care about your setting yet. Note that "An Important Message" is a self-contained story that mentions little from The Oasis is Burning or anything else. "Deadline: The Oasis" was meant to fill in Gainsborough's story and career from the edges, showing off what he was doing between (and apart from) the novels and giving his world a little more life.
Be prepared to do a lot of stories if you follow this path. This was what killed "Deadline: The Oasis" more than anything else, I think. For one, short stories get rejected a lot, so if you only do a few stories you might fail to get any of them published. In my case, I had two Gainsborough stories published, which were also the only ones I wrote. That's not nearly enough. Whether your target market is more speculative or literary, you're not going to make your name on one or two stories. You are, in a sense, advertising, and you need to spread your message broadly.
A lot of would-be novelists completely neglect short fiction markets, which can hold them back - especially writers of science fiction. However, writing short stories is not a sure route to publication, nor an easy one. Keep all of this in mind as you plan your approach.