Why the Short Story? 04/16/2013

I’m currently working on my seventeenth (or is it eighteenth?) novel, and I’m struggling with plotting out a manuscript that will be at least three hundred pages, with a number of characters, plot twists, setbacks, and perhaps a flashback or two. Once the outline is done and I’m satisfied, then it’s time for the scariest part of writing a novel: setting up page one, chapter one, knowing you’re embarking on a journey that can last six months, a year, or even longer.

 

But along this long and challenging path, there’s a habit I need to fulfill, a monkey on my back I need to address, an urge I can’t shake: I need to write short stories as well as work on my new novel in the months ahead.

 

Odd, isn’t it.

 

Yet the chances are that when I finish my first draft of my novel, I’ll also have four or five short stories under my belt as well. Some might say this is a waste of time and effort, that my writing efforts should be directed only to my novel writing.

 

In a purely financial sense, that’s true. Short stories don’t pay that well. The number of paying markets for short mystery fiction can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand … everything logical says I shouldn’t waste time and effort on short fiction.

 

But I can’t help myself.

 

So why?

 

A variety of reasons.

 

First of all, I just love writing short stories. As of this writing, I’ve had more than 120 short stories published, and I’ve never been bored starting one or writing one. Each one is a little tale, set someplace different with different characters, almost all unconnected with each other.

 

And second, when you start writing a novel, you’re engaging in a very lengthy and commitment. But a short story … ah, for me, it can take a few days, a week, two weeks at the most. There’s a lot to be said for starting something that has a clear finishing point some time in the near future.

 

And third, well, again, when you commit to a novel, you’re setting up a long-term relationship with a certain genre, whether it’s first-person detective, suspense novel, or thriller. But with short stories, all bets are off. You can write fantasy, science fiction, noir, romance, straight-up mystery stories or criminal fiction. And you can stretch your talents and your skills in a form and format that doesn’t demand a lot of time.

 

For example, a number of years ago famed (and sorely missed) anthologist Marty Greenberg of Tekno Books asked me to contribute a short story to an anthology that was based on the Texas Rangers. I had a brief conversation with Marty’s skilled and dedicated editor, John Helfers, that went something like this:

 

John: “So we’d like to have you contribute a short story to an anthology called Texas Rangers.”

 

Me: “An anthology about the baseball team?”

 

John: “No. An anthology about the Texas Rangers, you know, the law enforcement agency.”

 

Me: “Oh, I get it. Texas Rangers. Sure. Set today, right?” (As my mind starts racing through plot possibilities: Texas Rangers vs. drug smugglers, Texas Rangers vs. border criminals, Texas Rangers vs. aliens.)

 

John: “Ah, no. Texas Rangers … back in their history.”

 

Me: (Hopefully) “Like the 1930s? The 1910s?”

 

John: (Laughing) “No, like the late 1800s.”

 

Me: (Shocked) “You mean, a Western? You want me to write a Western short story?”

 

John: (Laughing more) “That’s right.”

 

A pause. I’ve never written a Western short story in my life.

 

Me: “Sign me up.”

 

So there you go.

 

If an editor or publisher had asked me to write a Western novel, I would have probably declined. I don’t have the background, or the experience, or knowledge to attempt a book-length project in a genre I’m not familiar with.

 

But give me a challenge to write a short story that’s a Western, or urban fantasy, or something else I’ve never tried … well, that’s doable. That can be done. And in the end, the story was written, paid for, and published, and I could then proudly say that yes, I’ve written a Western. And in doing so, I learned something about Texas Rangers and the Old West, and I extended my writing reach and range.

 

So a year from now, when my novel is finished, there will also be five or six short stories finished as well. I don’t know what genre they might be in, or how long the stories will be, or even who the characters will be.

 

But I’ll know one thing.

 

Those short stories won’t be a distraction, won’t be a waste of time, and I’ll be the better writer for it.

 

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