So, I’ve been reading short stories lately. Hundreds of them. All contemporary, mystery-thrillers. I’m judging another competition, so I’m deep in it.
I kind-of forgot about the short story format. Like many of you, the short story is where my writing career began. It started with “Sammy the Dinosaur,” the four-page story I pecked out on our Selectric typewriter when I was eight years old. “Sammy the Dinosaur” was new and original to me, though I’ve heard that there was some other series with the same name that preceded me. My wife mentioned this recently, saying she assumed I stole the idea from the original author. This is simply not the case, however. When pressed, she softened her accusation, suggesting that my eight year-old mind was merely susceptible to ideas originated by others and that I imagined the story as my own. What she doesn’t know is that “Sammy” was the name of every pet I had as a child. Every fish, whether it was a beta or catfish, was “Sammy.” For a short time I had a salamander named Sammy. “Sammy” actually became something of a cursed name, since each fish never survived more than a month and the salamander disappeared after a massive, New Mexico dust storm lifted its cardboard home into the sky.
After the salamander debacle I began naming my pets with “B” names, a tradition that continued all the way to our recently deceased (seven years ago) dog Bandit and ultimately to the names of my ultimate pets, Boulevard and Beat.
It started with my first bullsnake, which was given the amazingly original name, “Bull.” The snake was a gift from my father, who brought him home to face the violent protests of my mother and sister. My dad held his ground and, for this, I gave him the honor of choosing its name. My father was a doctor and this moment proved that he was a man of great skill and no imagination. “Bull,” he said. “You know, for Bullsnake.” As though it needed an explanation.
Ultimately I had four bullsnakes: Bull, Belle, Billie and Bess. Bull was the only male in the group, so the rest was his harem. I had other pets during this time, too. They were the mice my snakes didn’t eat. It was weird, but if a mouse looked at them wrong, or if one accidentally kicked a snake in the jaw before the fatal strike, the snake turned tail and ran. The mouse went from pastry to pet.
I’ve been a vegetarian since I was seven years old, so feeding mice to snakes became pretty hypocritical after a while. One day I tried to get Bull to eat an egg. I dropped the egg out of the familiar “feeding container” (a Folgers Coffee can punctured with air holes) and watched as the snake crawled OVER the egg to get a better view into the empty can. I then had the bright idea of picking up the egg and dancing it around the cage so that it would appear “mouse-like.” Needless to say, my hand became that night’s meal.
When I got older I bought an iguana. Because iguanas eat salads.
It’s time to stop this tangent. We were talking about short stories.
After “Sammy the Dinosaur” I graduated to long form. When I was fourteen I wrote my first screenplay, with my writing partner Seth Gardenswartz. Together we were Schwartz & Gardenswartz Productions. He wanted us to be Gardenswartz and Schwartz Productions, but I told him it sounded clunky. Schwartz & Gardenswartz worked because it was “two Schwartzes separated by a Garden.” It took a full afternoon to convince him that my intentions were good and that I wasn’t trying to steal the spotlight. Finally, he agreed. I remember snickering softly, within earshot, “My name is fi-irst, my name is fi-irst…”
So we wrote that screenplay, a sci-fi thriller called “Battle of the Gods.” Written in long-hand, because neither of us typed. We gave it to my sister, who turned it into a typing class pet project. It came back as a 65-page paragraph. Really. All the dialogue, descriptions, name slugs, transitions, everything, wrapped into one gigantic paragraph. Thanks, Sis.
High school was four years without thinking about stories or writing. High school was four years of thinking about girls. I can’t remember if I read a thing. Wait, there was Steinbeck’s “The Pearl.” I remember hating it. They could have at least assigned Nabokov’s “Lolita.”
College came around and I started reading, and appreciating, good writing. The first writings that caught my attention were short stories. Flannery O’Connor. Katherine Anne Porter. “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” Fantastic stuff. And then there was Hemmingway, and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
And Amy Hempel. My God, have you read Amy Hempel?
Stories by Bernard Malamud. Stories that lit the fire.
After college I got lost in screenplays, writing at least ten feature scripts before ditching the film world to set my sites on the novel. I began by tackling the short story. I wrote seven or eight pieces that I kept to myself. Just getting used to the process. Then I dove into long-form with my first novel, Boulevard.
And now I’m studying the short story. Again. A good short story is a whole little novel in an itty-bitty space. I’m more intimidated now than ever. I’ve been asked to contribute to a short story collection for Red Hen Press, with some pretty impressive authors in the mix. I’m trying not to let it scare me. But it does. I’ve gotten used to the long format and, as exhausting as it is to write a novel, at least I have the comfort of knowing that I’m never really expected to finish one. Then there’s that great surprise at the end, when I actually do finish. (I assume I’ll experience that feeling again, someday). But these short stories…geez, there’s simply no excuse to not get one done.
I guess it’s fortuitous that I’m judging a short-story contest the same time I’m supposed to write a story for publication. I’m learning what works and why. And what doesn’t work, and what to avoid.
Short stories open a whole new world for me – at their best they’re magnificent dishes meant to be consumed in one sitting, yet remembered forever for their satisfying taste. At their best they influence our styles and give us something to emulate. And, as authors, they give us an opportunity to experiment with different styles and points-of-view and tense, without committing our careers to the kind of “risky” change that scares agents and editors. And, if a new style works as a short story it might signal a new direction for the course of our books. Or it might signal exactly what we shouldn’t do in our books; the canary in the coal mine. Something to think about.
What are your favorite short stories? Which ones have influenced your style? Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you prefer reading short stories or novels? Why?