The Long and The Short of It

by Zoë Sharp

Some people are natural short story writers – I’m not one of them. That’s not to say I don’t write them, but I’m not in the habit of dashing off a quick tale every time I’ve a spare moment. My brain just doesn’t work that way. If I want to concentrate on something, I have to make a conscious effort to open a particular mental door and see what’s inside.

In some ways, I recognise that I went about this writing game slightly backwards. I didn’t have my first short story published until two years after my first novel. And it wasn’t something I’d had lying around in the bottom of a box in the attic, waiting for the occasion. I happened to be at a Northern Chapter meeting of the Crime Writers' Association – which is not nearly as Hell’s Angel-ified as it sounds – when I bumped into Martin Edwards. Martin was editing the CWA anthologies, and he casually suggested, as we funnelled into the dining room for lunch, that I might like to submit a story for the latest collection.

Sherlock Holmes - Copper Beeches That year’s anthology was called GREEN FOR DANGER. It followed a previous anthology called CRIME IN THE CITY, so the countryside theme was a natural progression. In his introduction, Martin quoted Sherlock Holmes: "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…" How could I resist a brief like that? The result was ‘A Bridge Too Far’ about the bridge-swinging activities of a local Dangerous Sports’ Club, some of the details of which were drawn from life – including the fact that the local strict Methodist farmer had banned the club from using an ancient viaduct on his land every Sunday morning because he couldn’t stand the inevitable blasphemy as they launched themselves into the abyss.

I didn’t tell Martin until after he’d accepted the story that it was my first attempt, but he didn’t seem to mind. And no-one was more surprised than me when it was subsequently reprinted in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Since then, when asked and given a brief, I’ve written maybe another half-a-dozen shorts, including one for another CWA anthology, ID: CRIMES OF IDENTITY, called ‘Tell Me’, which has been used in a Danish school textbook, and turned into a short film. Is this a good time to admit that I wrote the whole thing during a long car journey?

When Megan Abbott was putting together her A HELL OF A WOMAN anthology, she particularly wanted stories about the forgotten female characters of classic detective fiction – the secretaries and waitresses and girlfriends. Those who lurked in the shadows rather than took centre stage. And when we missed a ferry to Ireland and ended up killing time in a little café in Stranraer on the west coast of Scotland, I watched the diners singularly ignoring the hardworking wait staff, and the story of Layla, a wronged waitress with a forgettable face, was born. ‘Served Cold’ was the result.

Inept getaway driver Writing a short crime story for the in-house magazine of a private bank was a tricky brief – no sex, no violence, no bad language. Lenny Bright arrived out of the blue, as an inept getaway driver who does and doesn’t quite get away with his crime. I was careful in ‘The Getaway’ to make the robbers target a building society, though, rather than a bank.

But give me no brief, no deadline and a very loose word count, and I tend to flounder. I think this goes back to my original route into writing, which was non-fiction. I started off as a freelance feature writer for the motoring magazines – the photography came along a little later – and I quickly became interested in car stereo, for which there were, at the time, several specialist publications. I was asked if I would take over a regular back page column for one of them, which was called ‘Random Play’. The brief was fairly loose – a round a thousand words of anything vaguely connected with car stereo or security. And I mean anything.

Car-stereo-boom-box My first effort was a conversation between three men in a pub of the more and more extreme lengths they’d gone to in trying to prevent their cars being nicked. Nobody complained, so after that I filled the back page with weirdness – reports of strange military experiments with sound-based weapons; spoof letters from Members of the European Parliament outlining the latest pieces of bureaucracy gone mad, designed to stop anyone having a good time; tales of bass addicts and the lengths they’d go to satisfy their cravings.

For several years, I churned out this as a regular thing. Looking back, some of them were actually reasonably amusing, and the publisher kept sending the cheques, which is the only real indication of approval of your work that you seem to get in this business.

But then I decided that the time had come to move on, although I promised to do a guest spot if a really entertaining idea occurred to me. Needless to say, without the pressure of a regular deadline, it didn’t, and I never wrote another ‘Random Play’ page.

So it is with short stories. If someone says "write anything", it’s too much choice. The more guidelines or restrictions, the more my mind gets to work on integrating or circumventing them. Last year, I was asked to judge a local short story competition, with the theme of ‘Wild’, which was open to any interpretation the entrants cared to place upon it. And in the end, the final decider – in addition to the usual qualities – was how well the winning story incorporated some aspect of that theme.

 So, when I was asked to do the second chapter of a round robin story this year, I was thoroughly intrigued, but not a little apprehensive. It’s another first for me. Stuart MacBride was kicking the whole thing off and I received his opening chapter a couple of weeks ago. Not an easy act to follow, isn’t Stuart. Mainly because his stuff is effortlessly very funny, dammit.

So, I tapped into the humour vein I haven’t opened up since those ‘Random Play’ days and went for a similar tone and style. Only time will tell if I’ve managed to carry it off or not. But if the person writing the chapter in front of you makes it dark and tragic, or light and comedic, do you follow suit, or go your own way? I think I’ve picked up the threads he left, continued the characters he introduced, plus one of my own, and doubled the body count. What else could I do?

So, my questions are, how do you feel about short stories? Do you enjoy reading them? Do you enjoy writing them?

If you have a series character, do you write short stories that include your series character, or do you enjoy the break from them?

If you’re writing for an anthology with a specific theme, how closely do you try and follow that theme?

Have you ever tried out a new character in a short story, and then gone on to write a book involving them?

Have you come across characters in short stories that you wish the author would carry forwards into a full-length book of their own?

This week’s Word of the Week is paramnesia, which is a memory disorder in which words are remembered but not their proper meaning; the condition of believing that one remembers events and circumstances which have not previously occurred. Its roots are from the Greek para beside, beyond, and mimneskein to remind.

23 thoughts on “The Long and The Short of It

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m like you, Z, doing this in the wrong order. The only two short stories (one more a novella) I’ve written have been since I’ve had novels out and when someone asks me (and I feel guilty about not doing it). I’ve immensely enjoyed writing both but prefer to concentrate on novels at the moment because that adds up to an actual living, while short stories, well, not. At all.

    And you could practically write a whole screenplay using the effort it takes to write a short, which also has a lot more chance of real pay.

    My agent told me point blank about shorts – don’t do it.

    But I think one a year, when you’re inspired, is a good way to stretch your creative muscles.

    Part of the problem might be that I really don’t read shorts much myself. All of Stephen King’s, of course, and Shirley Jackson’s and Daphne Du Maurier’s, and I still like to read the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. But otherwise, I really don’t.

  2. Steven T.

    I love short stories – reading and writing. Wish there were more paying markets…

    I’ve tried writing to themes, but that can be tricky. Jen Jordan’s new antho UNCAGE ME has a story of mine which she asked for – sad story of someone who’s been betrayed. Not absolutely certain I nailed that one. Too late if I didn’t…

    I’ve also written stories about my series charcter Luis Gonzalo, and I am currently basing a novel on a character who has appeared in several stories – Viktor Petrenko…not the Olympic skater.

    What Alex says about the lack of cash in it is true, but that doesn’t stop me from writing the story if I have one, and I generaly write a half dozen a year. It’s not like I’ve been paid all that much for my novels. In fact, one of my short stories sold for $800 which was a heck of a lot more than I got for my first novel sale ($500). Sad.

  3. Steve Steinbock

    Novels and short stories are totally different animals. I read both, but at different times and for a different experience.

    Zoë’s experience with “Tell Me” is telling. It was “written during a long car journey” and was then resold several times. It may not make you rich, but it was certainly a profitable car journey.

    Re. Alex’s comment about “doing this in the wrong order,” I don’t think there is a right or wrong order. Short story writing isn’t an apprenticeship for budding novelists. Like I said earlier, they are different animals.

    Re. Alex’s agent, the reason he/she said “don’t do it” is because (at least as far as the magazine market goes – I don’t know about anthologies), agents are rarely involved, and thus don’t get a commission.

    Alex, good recommendation on Stephen King. It may be sacrilege, but I think he’s a better short story writer than he is novelist. His shorts are brilliant. Jeffery Deaver and Laura Lippman are known mostly for their novels, but I’d recommend their short stories to anyone.

  4. Allison Brennan

    Short stories are hell. The 38K word novella I wrote took me as long to write as the 105K word book that preceded it. The Killer Year short took 3 weeks . . . it kept wanting to be a bigger story. That was the first short story I wrote, and I learned a lot. There were too many things going on in the story and I tried to make it a short book. Three POVs, multiple scenes, etc. I learned, though, and the 10K word short that’s in the Elizabeth George antho still took me awhile to write, but it’s definitely tighter and I use two POVs.

    One thing I did was set my short stories in a place I was very familiar with–the California State Capitol. I figured early on that limiting the location would help keep the word count down, and I wouldn’t have to do a lot of research (or so I thought–I ended up spending a full day figuring out a way to get through all or most of the building without being caught on the security cameras.)

    I’m writing another short, with a long lead time. It’s supposed to be 4K (which is going to kill me) and humorous but dark. I’m not funny. This is going to be hard. But I love a good challenge

  5. Dana King

    I have mixed emotions about short stories. Getting the container size right is often a problem. Some are just chopped off, with unsatisfying endings. Others are good reads, but you realize at the end there are possibilities the author didn’t get to explore, so you wind up wanting more. Getting the balance right is hard. I’m much more favorably disposed since reading a couple of excellent collections recently: Laura Lippman’s HARDLY KNEW HER, and HARDCORE HARDBOILED. Great stuff in both. (I think Lippman is actually a better short story writer than novelist, no faint praise.)

    I’ve never used my series character, but a story that came to mind just this morning might do well for him. Ideas for shorts come to me as standalone situations, so I usually build characters to suit that situation. That means all my characters are new characters, though they’re not really trying out, though I don’t rule out bringing back one I like.

    I try to stick to anthology themes as wella s I can, though my idea of sticking to the theme may not be what was originally envisioned.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    I think you’re about right with frequency, and with cost. I must admit only one of my short stories has made what might be called interesting money. The rest I almost have to look upon as PR pieces.

    And it’s always nice to be asked, of course!

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Steven

    It’s sad that the market for shorts does seem to be a bit limited and I found very quickly when I was first starting out as a writer that non-fiction articles were far easier sell – and possible to make a decent living from – than short fiction.

    And I did send my agent a short story recently as a means of introduction to a new character. If she likes the character, great, and if she doesn’t, then I can always see if I can find a home for the story ;-]

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I think you’re quite right – short stories are a different mindset to a novel and just because you can do one doesn’t mean you have the inclination to do another. I’m glad (like you and Alex) I’m not the only one who didn’t start there and work up to a full novel.

    I kinda think I’d be fascinated to see what you came up with, though …

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Steve

    I’ve just realised that you’ve said everything in your response to comments so far that I’ve just said, but probably much better put (sorry, full of unexpected head cold today and it’s fuzzing up my brain)

    I agree wholeheartedly about Jeffery Deaver – I love his short stories. I must seek out more of Laura’s as well. I do like reading a collection by the same author, as you get a feel for the voice and the way they think, or collections with a strong theme, otherwise they seem to be more of in the nature of a loose association of disparate ideas.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    When you consider a novella, it is more of a short book than a long short story, so I suppose there’s no reason why it wouldn’t take as much planning and writing as a novel. More, as you point out, because everything about it has to be that much tighter.

    Writing down to a word count is always harder than writing up to one, I think. I admire these people who can concoct a sensible tale in flash fiction of 500 or even just 50 words.

  11. Zoë Sharp


    “Louise, careful using the word “virgin” around me, especially after my guest-spot here on Feb. 27.”

    Erm, OK, now you’re starting to worry me … ;-]

  12. Christine Cook

    To me, a short story is a sprint, while a novel is a marathon. You will almost never meet a track and field sprinter who also does marathons. Most would look at you cross-eyed if you even suggested it.

    I may never be able to actually run a marathon, but when it comes to writing, I am definitely a distance athlete. I can see the worth of being able to sprint, but it’s not where my best abilities lay.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Precise word counts are tough. One short I did had to be edited down to a pretty strict 2000 word limit from its original 2650. I managed to get it down to 2036, but they still took an editing scalpel to it, which I was a bit annoyed about, as it really altered the style. I don’t know why, though – I’m used to having non-fiction stuff hacked for length if the subs felt like it.

    If you are using your series character, though, you do have to be a bit careful about what rights you’re giving away!

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    I’m not a short story writer, either, Zoe. The story for the Killer Year anthology actually started out as a novel, but it was one of those that just didn’t want to keep going, so I shortened it and wrapped it up and stuck it in a drawer.

    Then JT and our mutual agent Scott got the Killer Year deal and I was lucky enough to have a story all set to go….

  15. R.J. Mangahas

    Personally, I like reading shorts and novels. Writing wise, I’ve been more of a short story writer. It’s sometimes hard for me to drag it out into a novel. I’ve tried doing novels before, but I found that I just pared them down to short stories. (although, I’m finally progressing on a novel now :-])

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Christine

    I like the marathon versus sprint analogy – very apt. Still, the ability to put on a burst of speed is always useful, and I do enjoy the conciseness and self-contained nature of the occasional short story.

    And everyone can run a marathon, if they have enough time and determination ;-]

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Always useful when you can say, “And here’s one I prepared earlier …” isn’t it?

    Now you mention it, I had an opening chapter for one of my early Charlie Fox novels that I eventually rejected because it didn’t drop me into quite the right place in the story, but I keep thinking it might just make a short story – I just have to remember which drawer I put it into …

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    I think the skills you learn writing short stories will stand you in good stead. And although a novel sometimes seems like an insurmountable number of words to fill, once I’ve got my basic structure, I tend to think one scene at a time, which makes the whole thing much more manageable.

    Glad to hear the novel’s progressing!

  19. J.T. Ellison

    Hey Z!

    I didn’t write my first short until I had two novels under my belt. I spent a lot of time saying I couldn’t do it. Turns out I can, but it’s not as effortless as writing long form for me. I do use shorts to explore territories that I would never write novels about though – and that’s the fun of it.

    I do love flash fiction (1,000 words or less.) and one flash fiction piece has grown into a novel, a stand alone that is my gestating political thriller. So far, so good…

    I don’t read as many shorts as I should, but I’m working on that.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Lovely when a short idea grows legs like that. And I know what you mean about exploring other forms. I’d a hankering to try horror and will probably do that in short story form to begin with.

    My earliest short story reading was a collection by Laurie Lee that was pure magic – poetry in prose form!

  21. pari

    Zoe,Sorry to come in late but yesterday the computer was OFF.

    I’ve written two short stories so far and am really enjoying the challenge of being clear in fewer words. We’ll see if either one gets published, but for now I’m using them almost as palate cleansers.

    One short story I started is going straight to a novel; I got about 30 pages into it and realized the subject could sustain — wanted to sustain — more.


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