The Long And Short Of It

(Or – Killing Allison Brennan)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

This month, because I have nothing else to do, I wrote a short story. 

I don’t usually do that.   Practically ever.    I only said yes because it was for ITW’s great Thriller – Stories To Keep You Up At Night series and Our Allison  is co-editing (with Sandra Brown) and she asked me.   The thing is, we were all recruited for this book so long ago, and so much has happened since then, that I sort of misplaced the idea of a deadline, if I ever knew it to begin with.

So it came up – suddenly.    Which is good, in a way, because the reason I don’t do shorts is that they’re only short in length – the process is excruciating and feels as long as any other writing I ever do except for Twitter updates, and I rarely even do that.  I didn’t have any room to stall, I just had to do it.

On the other hand, two weeks ago I was having serious thoughts about killing Allison, which just seemed easier and less emotionally draining than doing the story.   Plus I knew she would understand, as long as I was creative about it.

But it really is amazing to me, every single time, how obliging our subconscious is  (or – “those guys in the basement”, as Stephen King says.).  When we need an idea, when we have a scary deadline, the subconscious, the guys, the Muse, the Universe – whoever it is out there always comes through.

First, since this anthology focuses on the romantic suspense subgenre, I picked a dream location in the Bahamas – sexy, glamorous, escapist, that I happened to have made a whole lot of notes about on a not-too-long-ago vacation .    Since setting is HUGE to me, always a key element in anything I write, that was a big jumpstart – I knew I could deliver a sensual experience, which is half the battle in those more romantic thrillers. 

Then, I blatantly used my own feelings at the exact moment – which happened to be deep grief over the loss of a loved one.   It instantly brought up a central emotional question: Will the protagonist ever feel like living again?   And that question led to another:  Well, what in that fantastical environment would MAKE her want to live again?   And that’s the kind of question that leads to a story.

And from there, the Universe did most of the work.  As it always does if we pay attention.  A Tarot card came up as my card of the day that gave me most of the central images and objects of the piece.   I could steal from my sister’s work history to get the heroine’s job (always one of the biggest pains for me to figure out unless I’m writing a cop story or something equally obvious).   My jazz dance teacher was playing a lot of Jamaican music that I had heard on this trip.   Because of the Oscars, Colin Firth was all over the media, and if there’s a better inspiration for sex scenes, I don’t know of one.  And having spent a week in the place I was writing about, I knew the layout of the hotel and the sounds and colors and smells, so I didn’t really have to stop and think all that much.  

And somehow it all just happened and was done in a couple of weeks and I am mad at Allison again because now I have to be grateful to her for the rest of my life that she made me do this.  

I don’t usually get this kind of instant gratification from writing.   Writing a novel is such a long process that even FINISHING doesn’t have much of a rush for me beyond profound relief leading pretty instantly to coma.   I don’t really get to enjoy writing until I start hearing back from readers and realize that the story I wrote actually EXISTS – not just for me but for anyone who wants to pick it up and step into that weird alternate universe that a book is.  Which is a huge gratification, mindblowing, really, but so delayed that it doesn’t seem to have much connection to the writing process.

But a short – somehow is a little miraculous.    One day there is nothing but a black hole of panic and three weeks later or so there is a mini standalone alternate universe.   It makes you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something.   In fact, you have physical proof that you have actually accomplished something.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine putting myself through this on a regular basis.   I know some people can churn out short stories without blinking, but that’s not me.  Realistically, my novel would be a month further ahead if I hadn’t taken the time, and a month is a lot.   Since all writers really have is our time…. as much as I love the story, and as fulfilling as it is to have it, now, and as much as I admire the Thriller series (and, yes, okay, Allison) and am honored to be part of it – was writing the story actually a smart thing to do? 

So, those of you who write short stories – I’d really love to know why you do it.   What do you think is the benefit of writing short stories – in a career sense (if any)?   Or is it a more personal pleasure?    Alternately, here’s a good question:  What if anything do you enjoy about writing?   Honestly?

And readers – has a short story ever inspired you to check out an author you haven’t read?

Finally, all good thoughts out to all those affected by that devastating Tokyo quake and tsunami… it’s just been surreal to see.



33 thoughts on “The Long And Short Of It

  1. Leigh Stevens

    I actually like posting my short stories (cleaned up and edited several times over) on the Kindle and Nook. It's a great way to get my name out there and give people fun little fiction pieces to read. Also, I can charge less (usually .99 cents) which makes people more apt to buy them.

    The merit to me is that it's less of a time-suck than a full novel. Also if I have a story rattling around in my head, I don't have to worry about stretching it to 90,000 words. If it takes 13,000 to tell the story, then I'm fine with that. None of that useless and boring padding.

  2. Piper Danes

    I've always written short stories just for me, often as an emotional outlet. I'll be working on a brain-sucking non-fiction piece for a client, and turning to fiction just afterward brings a sense of levity to the day — even if the story is dark, which I guess doesn't make much sense.

    And by the way, Alex, your please don't ever lose your dedication to scene-setting. Even if your novels were boring plot- and character-wise (which they aren't) I'd read them anyway because of your stylistic detail. Really inspiring.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Leigh, I know a lot of people do that 99 cent story thing. I certainly would if I had any lying around! But do you write novels, too? I'm trying to get a grasp on how or if stories are a viable part of a career. They used to be – I'm not so sure about it now.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You don't have to explain to me how dark can be a relief, Piper!

    Thanks so much, it's great to hear that you're enjoying of my settings. I read books to be SOMEWHERE ELSE, so I want to feel like I AM somewhere else.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    I'm not a prolific short story writer, but I enjoy doing them when asked. Partly, the reason for this is because it gives me a chance to try out new characters, in the context of a story. The story I wrote about a 'paparazza' called Angel for the CWA anthology ORIGINAL SINS – 'Rules of Engagement' was just such a character, and I had a lot of fun writing about her. And it also gives me a chance to try out different styles. I just finished one for the next MWA anthology that is second- and third-person, present tense, and was a total experiment in tone and voice for me.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Z, I noticed you said that in your interview on Thursday – that shorts were a way for you to try out new characters. I can totally see how that would be useful for a series writer. And yes, I've seen other people experiment with tense and style in shorts – also makes sense to me.

    Can't wait to catch up next week! Travel safe.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise, I have to say – while I am not at all a short story reader in general (except for classics like Shirley Jackson and Daphne DuMaurier and Stephen King) – I would absolutely read your short stories. I think that's a fantastic idea. Do Australia!!!

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    There was a short story I was going to write about five years ago, I did as much research for it as I would a novel, it was only supposed to be an eight-pager, but it had to be intricate and spot-on and I've never felt I could get inside the character's head well-enough to write from his POV and it's never been done. But it will, someday. The subconscious will have its way.
    Congrats on finishing yours!

  9. toni

    Damn, I'm at that "killing Allison Brennan" part, without the follow-up on inspiration, just yet. Of course, I have this apartment here smack dab in the French Quarter with these hidden rooms that even the manager didn't know about…. hmmmmmm…

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Toni, LOL. Good thing I didn't know three weeks ago that I had so many potential accomplices. And secret rooms in the Quarter, too. Between the four of us, you KNOW we could have pulled it off.

  11. Barbie

    Awww, don't kill Allison Brennan. Her third book of the Lucy Kincaid series isn't finished yet 😉

    You know, I'm not officially an author YET, but I've written short stories since I was a kid. I have hundreds of them, but have never been able to finish a full novel, even if I tried. I love writing short stories for two reasons: firstly, because I suck at description, and hate reading it. I think shot stories tend to be more dynamic, since they don't have a need to detail. It's more the facts and the action. Secondly, I don't see my stories linearly. EVER. I usually see "scenes" in my head, things that happened to a character. Sometimes, they're part of a series of events, others, they're just random facts of their lives, that wouldn't add up to anything but a "biography" (definitely not a novel). That way, I can write a story based on that single fact. I can do the events, the development and the conclusion of a single aspect in someone's life, of a day, a visit, a problem, a conquest, instead of putting them all together.

    I really do wish there was a better market for short stories out there, because I really think that's what I write the best 🙂

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Barbie, your description made it suddenly click for me why I find shorts so hard. I approach almost every story from the structure, and I add in those layers of details you're talking about way later. So for me – the intense focus of a short is the LAST part of my process, and it's weird to have to start with it.

  13. Leigh Stevens


    Yes, I write novels too. They're my main focus, actually. I love novels! I hadn't meant to imply otherwise :).

    Here's an example of how I think they're helping my career (let's make it personal, lol). I wrote a novel that is slated to be released in the summer. For this novel, I wrote a short series of short stories from the 1st person POV of the three main characters not to publish, but to help me understand their motivations. They also helped when beta readers would ask "how did they all get to that point?" I could answer more intelligently than "Uh dunnuh." Recently I started editing and publishing the shorts online and building my reader base before the book comes out. People are buying them. Slowly, but people are buying them without much encouragement on my part.

  14. KDJames

    So how many of you over here are writing stories for this new book? And when can I buy it?

    A couple weeks ago I was sucked into a challenge to write "flash fiction" for the first time. Yes, I know this is very different from a short story. And obviously I don't know how to write one because my short little piece (limit of 1000 words max) didn't have an ENDING (ooops) and sort of left things hanging and people were unhappy about that. So I made up some concluding-type stuff in the comments. Sigh.

    The point, though, is that writing it felt very freeing. After thinking about it for a day or so, I spent maybe an hour and a half writing/fixing it and then put it on my blog and it was done. Of course, it makes me cringe to read it, so I don't, but it felt good to write something different. Something that didn't demand as much of me as a novel does.

    Maybe someday I'll try a short story for real. Although… you all make it sound like it will be just as demanding as a novel. Perhaps more demanding. Maybe it will help to think about killing Allison.

  15. lil Gluckstern

    I'm a reader, and I love short story collections precisely because I get a taste of what an author is like. And I love my kindle and the idea of sampling a writer through short stories on that. Hope that inspires you all. I really enjoy this blog.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    KD, I've never done the flash thing. Reminds me too much of acting class exercises!

    Thinking of killing Allison definitely helped. There is no art without sacrifice, right?

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lil, thank you – I really have been wondering if shorts appeal to voracious readers for that reason. I have always been a voracious reader but as an author (and screenwriter before that) my reading is always focused and specific to whatever project I'm working on – I don't tend to seek out new authors just for the pleasure of it because I don't have time – I wish I did.

  18. Debbie

    So if writing 13000 is a short, what is my 3000, a joke? For me it was an idea that I had completely dismissed that grabbed me by the throat just last week and demanded to be written. Worst, it was a dark comedy. I don't think I'm funny, and I've never done dark, but I wrote it anyway. I sat in the room as my friend read it and she laughed all the way through. Gotta love friends. Her only comment was that it seemed like it should go on, so does that mean it was interesting or incomplete? If it were four times the length, wouldn't it be a movie? 🙂

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sounds like a winner, Debbie. On the movie question , though – it's more like if you wrote a 120,000 word story and condensed it to 100 pages – THAT would be a movie.

  20. KDJames

    Alex, that's an interesting comparison. I've never done any kind of acting, but I told one of my sisters the FF felt sort of like flexing muscles you know are there but that don't usually get much exercise.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, that's what improv feels like. Actually it's pretty exhilarating once you're up and doing it, but man, the resistance before! It's all good for us but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

  22. Reine

    I often feel cheated by short stories. If an author I already like writes one I will read it, but I almost always end up wanting more. Not in a good way. I just get pissed off.

  23. Allison Brennan

    Well . . . I honestly don't know what to say! And I swear, Alex, you and I are so psychically connected that it scares the shit out of me. I just finished my blog for Sunday — about death and dying. And you're talking about killing me.

    One minor correction, it's Sandra Brown who's editing, not Nora Roberts! Both are fabulous, however 🙂

    I just finished my short story tonight, and will edit it tomorrow. I probably shouldn't tell you it only took me two days to write it. Don't shoot me. (It did take me weeks to come up with the idea, but I was working on my book during that time as well.) (And I already knew the characters–my series characters, Sean and Lucy.)

    I have always loved short stories. Not TOO short, but the Stephen King type of short stories, which are probably 10-50K words.

    What I like about writing short stories is that they make me focus. I have limited space to tell a story. There needs to be a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion. I can't get bogged down in too much description, too much backstory, too much anything–a short story needs to be clear and concise. My first short story was awful, but I learned, and now this is my fifth. I have to consciously strip away too much plot, and focus on the ONE key element of the story. Why does this story need to be told?

    Anyway, thank you for not killing me this time around. Really. At least not until I get my book done! 🙂

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Apologies to Sandra Brown – just as mega as Nora!

    I was feeling bad about all this talk about killing you until you said you wrote your story in two days. Now that really is cause for murder.

    (But writing about series characters is a different animal…)

  25. Laura Lane McNeal

    This post cracked me up, not just because it was refreshing and oh so true, but it hit the nail on the head as far as I am concerned. I have never understood nor explored the art of the short story because I too find them as painstaking as a novel. But they do have their benefits as you pointed out. I'm curious though… I see you have a novel coming out set in New Orleans. Did you spend some time here? ( I live in New Orleans, born and raised.)

    And just for the record, the blogs do inspire me to read your work.

  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Laura – totally jealous that you live in NOLA! My New Orleans novel is already out, The Shifters, and the whole Keepers trilogy is set there, actually.

    I go down to New Orleans two or three times a year, so I'm not an expert, just a passionate amateur! My favorite city (as well as London).

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