(Or – Killing Allison Brennan)
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.