I just finished a 4,000 word short story that’s going in a special edition of ORIGINAL SIN that will be exclusively at Walmart, and then later I’ll give it away free on my website (sometime before CARNAL SIN comes out at the end of June.) This is the fourth short story I’ve written (fifth if we count my 38,000 word novella). I’ve learned a lot about short stories since, but mostly I learned that they are damn hard to write.
Short is not my strong point. When I was in high school American History, I had a fabulous teacher (Dwight Perkins) who gave me an “A-” on my final essay because I, “so eloquently said in 10 pages what could easily have been said in 5.”
Why did I ever think I could write a short story? I didn’t even consider writing short stories when I started writing-I wanted to write a book. I meaty, 100,000 word novel. But in Stephen King’s ON WRITING, he lamented the death of the short story and what a wonderful medium it was. And I reflected how much I enjoyed reading short stories, from when I was a little kid through adulthood. To this day, some of my favorite stories are short stories. “A Sound of Thunder” and “He Built a Crooked House” by Ray Bradbury; “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson; “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe; “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut; “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain; “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” and “Quitters, Inc” by Stephen King. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, what I can think about off the top of my head, the ones I think of from time to time when a theme or image from the story plays out in my life. If I took the time to cull through my shelves I would likely find a dozen or more short stories that I could call a favorite.
So when I was asked to write a short story in KILLER YEAR edited by Lee Child, I jumped at the chance (not to mention that it was being edited by Lee Child. I mean, I’m not an idiot. Most of the time.)
“Killing Justice” in KILLER YEAR was 5,800 words (over my allotted limit, but since my “mentee” Gregg Olson came way under his word count, JT was kind enough to let me keep my words.) Kind? Well, maybe not, because that story could have been better if I knew more about short stories.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the story. It takes place in the California State Capitol and takes what I know about politics and deals and legislation and puts them in a very short story about a subject I care deeply about: child predators. But the structure of the story was like a novel-multiple viewpoints and multiple scenes. This doesn’t work well when you have less than 6,000 words.
My second short story was “A Capitol Obsession” in TWO OF THE DEADLIEST edited by Elizabeth George. Yep, you guessed it, I took a setting I was intimately familiar with (the Capitol) thinking that would be easier to write the story. I had more words to play with-7-9K (my story ended up just over 10K. Remember Mr. Perkins!) But I had learned from my first short, so I focused on one crime, primarily one setting, and only two viewpoints (a female state senator and a homicide detective who were on the “off” swing of an on-again/off-again relationship.) I started with a dead body (a lobbyist) to get immediately into the story (on the fantastic advice of Ms. George who commented that my first draft didn’t really begin until the second scene . . . so I cut the first scene during revisions.) I had my cop and my senator working parallel investigations. It was fun. In hindsight, I would have cut one scene (where my cop goes to the victim’s employers and apartment to gather information about her) simply because though the information was important, I could have probably incorporated it in such a way so I never had to show my characters outside of the Capitol.
Next came a story that hasn’t come out yet that will (hopefully) be in the HWA anthology. It’s tentatively titled “Her Lucky Day” and is a supernatural “light” horror story. I put it aside for a couple weeks and will edit it one more time. One POV and two settings AND I came in under my allotted word count of 4,000! Woo hoo! (A little bit of trivia: I originally wrote the scene as the prologue for CARNAL SIN, but it didn’t fit the tone or the direction that the book ended up going, so I cut it . . . but I really liked it, so I reworked it and gave it a conclusion.)
The given criteria for my short story in the back of ORIGINAL SIN was that I had to use major characters from the book in the story. As I thought about it, I realized that I also couldn’t have anything majorly pivotal to the series happen in the story because it’s “bonus content.” So no blowing up buildings in my fictional town that I’ll be visiting again, or killing off a major character, or anything that changes the goals or motivations of my main characters. I considered a lot of different ideas, but ended up with the same problem: too big. Just thinking about the ideas, I could see the bigger story behind it. That was my problem with “Killing Justice”–there was a much bigger story I tried to tell that didn’t fit well in the short word count.
When I was driving back from my trainer on Thursday (amazing, I often think of murder and mayhem after working out . . . ) the idea just popped into my head: a ghost story. Well, not just popped because I’d been mulling this issue over and over for days. But the story goal, the set-up, the setting, the conflict, it was all there bam!
It was perfect for me on multiple levels. First, the series is about demons and witches, not ghosts-but I’d set up in the book that ghosts exist and could cause problems for my characters. So if I wrote about a ghost, I wasn’t messing with my major antagonists-they could safely remain in hiding. Second, I had a perfect setting for the story where something tragic happened during the course of the book. Third, I had a plausible story conflict that didn’t mess with my series characters primary conflicts-I could use them more as catalysts rather than being considerably changed by the event. And the one character who is truly affected had already discussed her conflict about the situation in the book, so it’s believable for the story as well as if I use the issue in the future. (Sorry for being so vague, but I don’t want to give anything away.) And finally, I had a “villain” (the ghost) and who had a strong motivation for his “crime.”
Believe me, I was totally excited about this. I started writing. I set up my sheriff going to the scene and why . . . and my heroine and hero going to the scene and why . . . over 1000 words before they even got to the main conflict.
Argh! Seven pages and . . . they all had to go. Sure, I tried to convince myself that they didn’t have to be deleted. I told myself that those 1,000 words were really the first act of the story and they did end in a mini-climax/hook. Yes, we delude ourselves when we don’t want to delete something. They weren’t bad pages-in fact, even the first draft was pretty tight and to the point. But I had to remind myself that this was a short story. I didn’t have to painstakingly set the scene. I didn’t have to SHOW why the sheriff went to the scene; I didn’t have to SHOW my heroine’s growing worry and sense of foreboding when she couldn’t reach her friend (the sheriff.) Yes, in a full-length book such scenes are necessary at times especially leading up to the final confrontation. But for a 5,000 word story? No.
I realized I could SHOW my heroine’s fear as they arrive at the scene and find all the streetlights broken, adding to her growing apprehension; be with her and the hero when they see two cars parked in the back, one being a stranger; listen as they hear a scream and gunshots as they’re about to break into the building. All that in less than two double-spaced pages. It sets the tone and the scene and the primary goal (save the sheriff) without the longer, meatier lead-in. Why the sheriff is there de facto comes out as the scene unfolds.
I also made the choice to keep the entire story in my heroine’s POV. Believe me, this was tough because I LOVE multiple POVs. But it kept the story tighter and more focused and, therefore, the word count down.
Easy? Hell no! As hard as writing a book. Sure, a 100,000 word novel-or in the case of ORIGINAL SIN 125K-takes far more time, concentration and revising, but no individual scene was harder than the short story.
Every short story I’ve written has taught me lessons about writing that I couldn’t have learned in class. I was thinking about this after reading about Pari’s absolutely incredible experience with her in-depth writer’s program. I was itching to do something like that as well, to learn more about how to write, the different types of writing I can do, how to really dig deep and challenge myself.
And maybe, some day, I will do something like that.
But in the end, the key lessons I took away from Pari’s post was that they wrote every day. They practiced. They challenged themselves by doing–not just thinking about writing, not just talking about writing, but writing.
The short story is hard for me, but the only way I can learn to do it well is to do it. I was as giddy typing THE END on the short as I was typing it on my last book.
I’m hoping that with the multiple anthologies of novellas and short stories coming out these past few years and in the future that there’ll be a resurgence of sorts in short fiction. What do you think?
Readers, do you like reading short stories? Novellas? Or prefer to stick only with full-length novels? What is a short story you’ve recently read that stands out, or one you read years ago that you still think about?
Writers, do you like reading and/or writing short stories? Putting the time factor aside, is it easier or harder than a book? Some of your favorites?