Why Write Short Stories?

“So, why write short stories?”

It was an innocent question and an understandable one, at that. I’d just completed a panel on navigating the world of short story submission. I’d told the crowd that short story writing is a tough gig.

Acceptances are the exception. Rejection is a constant reality. The money is pretty much non-existent. You could make more money working anywhere else, doing almost anything else. It’s not exactly a popular format. Market’s open and then shrivel and die quicker than roses after prom night. You end up at the mercy of publishers and editors who may or may not know any more about writing or publishing than you do–especially if you are a newer writer.

So…why? I rattled off some quick answers to the attendee in the hallway, but I wanted to expand upon them here.

There are LOTS of reasons to write short stories.

  1. They are a great way to learn writing. Ray Bradbury swore by learning through short stories. In most writing workshops, the short story is still the preferred format. The process is sped up remarkably. First draft on the first day. Re-write on the second. Polish on the third. Ship it to your writing group on the fourth. If something you did sucks, you spent a few days on it, rather than a few months. You go back to the drawing board the next week and try again.
  2. They are built for experimentation. Sometimes, you need to push the envelope and see what you can do. Write an entire story in second-person. Write it all in iambic pentameter like one of my friends. Write the entire thing from the perspective of a pair of pants, which another friend of mine did very successfully. Get ridiculous. Get weird. If it doesn’t work, you never have to speak of it again. Pieces of writing are like relationships. Short stories are flings. Novels are long-term. Until you know that the kinky shit works, save it for the flings.
  3. Short stories are like cookies. You like cookies. Some culinary historians believe that cookies were first invented in order to test the heat of an oven prior to baking a cake. They would throw a little batter in their to see if it baked. That’s not all that different than what you are doing with a short story. Sure, they are great for testing out all of the tools in the writer’s toolbox, but they are pretty damn delicious on their own. As much as we complain about the market, the short story has a very long and proud tradition, particularly in horror.
  4. Because you can…or because you can’t. Short stories are an art form. Some people are fantastic at them. My hero Ray Bradbury was a master of the short story but had a hard time making the transition to longer work. Some people rarely, if ever, write short stories. If you have problems writing in one form or the other, ask yourself why that is. Short work tends to expose errors very easily. All that bloat that you should have cut out of your novel becomes PAINFUL in a short piece. If the reason that you have trouble with writing one or the other relates to some flaw in your process, then that would be a great thing to know. Self-awareness is key to a writer’s development.
  5. The industry reads them. I read once that most of the short story market is comprised of hardcore readers, other writers, editors, and publishers. These are all people that it would pay to have on your side as a developing writer. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but publishing is a team sport. That reader who likes your style could someday be championing you to an agent or publisher.
  6. Everyone likes samples. When you go in for a tattoo, you look at the artist’s portfolio. You wouldn’t let some guy carve your skin up just because he said he knew how to do it. When you want to paint your house, you don’t go throw random paint colors on the walls, you look at samples. You buy an album because you like the single. You are the guy in the apron standing in the corner of the supermarket. The idea isn’t to just get them to try a bite of sausage, its to sell the whole kielbasa. If someone finds your story and it speaks to them, they might seek out more of your stuff. Or they might not. Damn grazers.
  7. You need a palette cleanser. Sometimes, you just need to get away from that monster novel of yours. The grind can be relentless. Months or even years of work can wear you down. Popping out a short story is like a bite of a good pickle. You’re able to appreciate that sandwich, again. It also creates some distance between you and your last narrative, which is an essential part of the revision process. It’s the fling that gets you over your broken heart. You need to come back to that manuscript as a stranger.
  8. They are fun. Short stories are just damn fun to write.

So go, write them. You probably won’t find fame or fortune, but you will find something out about yourself as an artist. You may even become a better writer. In this business, that is really what we should all strive for.

Opening a Vein

“There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” – Red Smith

Writing can be difficult, especially knowing what to write.  I’ve been reading several blogs lately about ideas and the constant influx of them when you don’t need them, their apparent extinction when you do, and writing prompts to get them going.  After all, to steal a concept from Red Smith, we are going to be spilling our life out onto the blank page for all to see.

Everyone has seen the daily writing prompts that give you a vague scenario with which to run.  I’ve never been a fan of those.  To me, it feels like I am writing a story for someone else, rather than for me.  I’ll use one in a pinch, but I don’t feel those stories have been as successful for me.

I prefer using words to spark my writing, single words or phrases taken out of context.  My method is a variation of Ray Bradbury’s technique.  My understanding is that Ray Bradbury would sometimes have nothing but a title.  He would then sit down and write about that title as fast as he could, after all, he was writing on a coin-operated typewriter.  One of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories “There Will Come Soft Rains” actually comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale of the same title.  The poem itself was a definite inspiration for Bradbury, as both deal with a post-apocalyptic setting.

What I normally do is pick up a book of poetry and flip to a random page.  My favorites for this are Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, and others of that sort.  Pick someone who has a similar feeling of story to the ones you want to write.  I use these because my work tends to be a little bit dark sometimes, as was theirs.  From that random page, I pick a word or phrase that strikes me.  I’ll know when I see it.

As I wrote this, I found a random Plath poem.  “On Looking into the Eyes of a Demon Lover.”  Sounds promising.

Here are two pupils
whose moons of black
transform to cripples
all who look:

Right away, “moons of black” strikes me.  There has been a lot of mythology based on lunar cycles.  There are definite possibilities there.  Werewolf stories are a bit cliche, so you might think past that first thought, but ancient cultures hold a lot of rich information, as well as man’s inherent fear of the dark.  The appearance of stars moons and planets has been an obsession of mankind’s throughout history.

each lovely lady
who peers inside
take on the body
of a toad.

Within these mirrors
the world inverts:
the fond admirer’s
burning darts

“Within these mirrors” sounds great  Mirrors are a mysterious thing.  You look at them, and they look right back at you.  Mirrors could be used literally, or as a metaphor.  It opens a lot of possibilities about other realms, other words, what a person sees about themselves when they look into a mirror, and who knows what your reflection is doing when you are AREN’T looking at it.  Haven’t you ever felt that if you could just look quickly enough, you would catch that person in the mirror NOT mimicking your every move?

turn back to injure
the thrusting hand
and inflame to danger
the scarlet wound.

I sought my image
in the scorching glass,
for what fire could damage
a witch’s face?

So I stared in that furnace
where beauties char
but found radiant Venus
reflected there.

 Three strike me out of this last grouping.  “the scarlet wound,” “what fire could damage,” and “where beauties char.”  The scarlet wound brings up images of Hawthorne, but if  you look past it, out of context and think of what the color scarlet makes you feel, and how many different types of wounds there really are, you can probably get a nice short story out of it.

The other two deal with another inherent fear of humanity.  We rely on fire for our survival, but we have never learned to control it.  It’s like a wandering spirit.  We can try to contain it, but we still end up burning our houses down.  It goes where it is going to go, despite our persistent urgings to the contrary.  There are several metaphorical meanings of fire, as well as Hell itself.  There are bound to be ideas in there.

My next step would be to type those words at the top of the page.  I’ll develop a small, vague premise.  For example: A person at the end of their life reflects on their past sins and the unknown fate of their soul.  I am getting that from “What Fire Could Damage” and “Where Beauties Char.”

If you are saying that isn’t a very complex idea, you are right.  I’m a seat of the pants writer.  I have no idea what this story will be about, who will be in it, or how it will end.  That is the beauty of it.

I won’t know till I ask the character.  Is the person is young, old, male, female…alien?  What has this person done?  There are lots of levels of sin.  What is this person dying of?  Is the person ultimately saved, or condemned to the fires they feared?  Do they die, or do they live?  It will depend on who I find.

I could write that story four or five times and have them be totally different.You could get four or five premises out of the same quote by making different interpretations, and I latched on to five phrases in the poem.  This one poem could provide me with a dozen possible stories.  The key for me is looking at the phrases out of context and determining what they mean to me.

Best of all, these are my veins, not another person’s.  I am just using Plath’s words to help me find them.  (My suicide analogy paired with a poem from Plath, who committed suicide, was not intentional and not meant to offend anyone.)

Go get a book off your shelf and find yourself a story.  Poems are best for me because poets have to carefully choose every word.  If you don’t have poetry books, you can find entire poems online.

If it works for you, you’ll have another tool in your writer’s toolbox to fight writer’s block.  Good luck and keep writing.