By Stephen Jay Schwartz

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?

13 thoughts on “THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

  1. Gerald So

    Hi, Stephen.

    My favorite short stories are "Fat" by Raymond Carver and "Wants" by Grace Paley. I have no preference between short stories and novels, but I've always appreciated how the best short stories pack so much substance into so few words. Characters and plot have to jump out at you right away.

    On the other hand, short stories can't have very layered plots, and in mystery/crime short stories, the solution/resolution can seem to come about too quickly. As much as I enjoy writing short stories, they sometimes leave me feeling as if I've gotten away with something, wondering if I'd be able to hold readers' attention for a whole novel.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love your sidetrack on your childhood menagerie. I had one myself, dozens of rabbits, mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, owls, snakes, along with the more usual family pets.

    The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a short story that had a profound influence on me – true psychological horror, as a woman goes slowly insane after her doctor husband confines her in her room for "bedrest" after a pregnancy. Richard Matheson's very first published short "Born of Man and Woman" knocked me out as a kid. And I love "They Bite", by none other than Anthony Boucher, for whom Bouchercon is named.

  3. Richard Maguire

    Stephen, your post gave me a laugh on this sub-zero, snowed-in, afternoon in the worst month of the year. (Trust me. If you haven't lived in southern Bavaria, it is.)

    Sorry to say, I don't read short stories, and I've never attempted one. Except – when I was 8, and wrote one called (strange this, in the context of the collection to which you're contributing) "The Little Red Hen". My mother loved it and gave me two boiled eggs. My father, fresh from sparring in the boxing ring, followed by some heavy-duty weightlifting, looked bemused. "Why did you do something like that?" I shrugged. I didn't know. He scowled at me. "You need to get out more." I still remember that strange look on his face. And the smell of sweat.

  4. Alaina

    Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is my all-time favorite. I don't know how– though believe me, I've been studying it and have some ideas– but it gives me chills every time.

    I admit, though, I'm no good at short stories. I want more than one thing going on, subplots and conspiracies, which… does not make for good short stories. I know that. I want them anyway. So every time I start a 'short story', it comes out as more like a chapter one. *sigh*

  5. David Corbett

    Laurie King once said she doesn't write stories because to do one well it takes almost as much time as a novel and they don't pay. And I largely agree: the rewards of story writing are in the craft.

    Gerald makes a very good point — the payoff in a crime story often feels a bit rushed. I think horror — as Alex's examples bear out — make for better short stories, because they turn on a revelation that often can feel quite sudden. (By the way, a great collection of horror, fantasy and sci-fi stories is BLACK WATER, edited by Alberto Manguel.

    And one of the most inspiring books I read when younger was a collection of Latin American stories titled THE EYE OF THE HEART.

    Edna O'Brien's stories are gems, as are William Trevor's. I've recently been reading collections by Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell and Daniel Woodrell. I read them and weep at the tatters of talent I seem to possess. My stories are my weakest offerings. I wish I had time to remedy that.

  6. Karen, NZ

    I rarely read short stories, because I like to lose myself in a book. Sixth form English class though, the teacher, with an evil grin, had left one on our desks and asked us to remain quiet when we finished it.
    (Am now going to have to look up the title etc, though can still remember the feeling of awe and disgust at the penultimate sentences). It was over 25 years ago, and that's what I remember. Zoë's 'Fox Five' and others have probably helped me appreciate the form more.

    Pretty sure the author was John Wynham and it was set on a space ship, and detailed the lengths a mother would go to to protect her child.

    The tangent was great – your writing invites people along for the ride 🙂

  7. Zoë Sharp

    I still occasionally pick up and re-read Laurie Lee's I CAN'T STAY LONG collection of short stories, every one of which is a bit of a work of art. I loved Jeffery Deaver's TWISTED collection, too.

    And thank you, Karen, for the kind words about FOX FIVE 🙂

  8. Reine

    Hi Stephen,

    This was so good and fun… glad I stopped by!

    Zoë reengaged my interest in short stories with A Bridge Too Far. It reminded me how good it could be to have something to read quickly that would engage me from the start and straight through.

    Alex's point about psychological horror testifies to my latest absorption in crime shorts with BLOOD MOON: Best New England Crime Stories 2013. One of these, House Calls by Barbara Ross, was riveting on so many levels that I questioned, for the first time, the point about the lack of layering opportunity in writing short stories. I can see House Calls as a novel or film, but the build-up of terror in its short format is stunning. The layering is there but different. It opens up faster, but like good poetry it's often left to discovery in a less obvious way made all the more dramatic by it's latency.

  9. Allison Davis

    I have always loved short stories — my father continued to read them to us nearly to high school. O'Henry was one I remember from that time, The Ransom of Red Chief. I love Alice Munroe and am in the middle of Dear Heart right now. They are SO hard to write. They have to be just so.

  10. Lisa Alber

    I'm a later comer to short stories. I didn't start reading them until I wanted to start writing them. I'm not so good at them. Mine tend to be too complicated — I love subplots — and I have yet to train my brain toward simpler, Lisa, simpler. That said, every once in awhile I write a decent one, but, man, does it take effort!

    I went through a Raymond Carver phase, but I never got into this stuff. However, William Trevor? Alice Munroe? Flanner O'Conner? Margaret Atwood? (I need to try on Amy Hempel.)

    For years, I had a subscription to The New Yorker just for their short stories. I was sure that if I read a short story a week, I'd get the rhythm. The problem was that I detested most of the stories the magazine published. Ah well!

    Short stories are a force for me–gotta force myself to read them, force myself to write them. I suppose that's why I have trouble writing them. But I do admire the form.

  11. Sarah W

    Part of my job is moderating a monthly short story group at the library. I've learned a lot about how writers write and how readers read.

    But I've always like the quick witted immediacy of Damon Runyan, the twists of O Henry, the sheer descriptive brilliance of Alistair MacLeod, the dark eroticism of Averil Dean–and even the inventiveness of some fanfic.

    Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Arthur Conan Doyle, Poe, Dickens . . .

    I'm not sure if any of these writers influenced me more than the others–they're all in there, somewhere. But I've rarely written a short that I thought was any good.

    Unless individual scenes could be seen as serial super shorts?

  12. PD Martin

    Not generally a fan of short stories… writing them or reading them! But I quite enjoyed my recent stint as a judge of short stories and there were some great ones in the batch!

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    Thank you so much for the kind words. A Bridge Too Far was the first crime short story I wrote, so I'm especially delighted that you enjoyed it enough to mention. Thank you!

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