Short Stories in Short Order

When you read many of the publishing/writer blogs out there, nearly everyone says that it’s not necessary to have published short story credits to gain an agent or a contract for a novel.

But, by God, it sure seems to help.

I understand the value, as an editor or agent, of seeing published shorter works on a writer’s resume. The short story markets serve as a sort of minor leagues for big-time publishing, a proving ground that can weed out those with little chance of long-term success in writing as well as shining a spotlight on those with talent. Having short stories published means that you, as a writer, are at least passingly familiar with the game–the arduous query-and-wait process that is the reality of most authors. Even writers who have garnered no more payment than a few contributor’s copies for their work at least have shown evidence of competence.

All this is well and good, but I find myself at a bit of a disadvantage. Writing novels is a comfortable process for me. I think of stories in the broad spectrum that can only be fulfilled in a longer format. Besides, the books I read are mostly novels, so it’s natural for me to lean toward that format when I set down my own ideas.

Short stories, on the other hand, give me fits. I want to pack so much information, so much character development, so much dialogue, so much description, so much narration into the story that it soon outgrows its short story pants and has to try on the big-boy novel pants, but even that fails sometimes as the idea is not strong enough to support a long work of fiction. Shorts require that the writer pack a great deal into a very small space, something I’m very good at when it comes to inventory at my store, but something I’m not very good at when it comes to my writing. Part of the problem is that I don’t read enough short stories. I don’t subscribe to the magazines I want to write in and, when I do, I’m often unimpressed by the stories I read in them. Other times, I feel like Oliver Twist, holding up my empty bowl and asking, to the dismay of others around me, for more when there is no more to be had.

Still, if I plan to one day be considered a professional in this avocation of mine, I need to adapt to the circumstances, just like I do in my day job. At my store, when I encounter a problem I’m not familiar with, I think about it and work on it until I’ve not only solved the initial trouble, but also until I feel confident to deal with a similar issue the next time it arises. That said, I’ve developed a plan to work on my short story phobia (is there a name for that?) and it starts with a contest I recently entered. The contest (results to be announced soon) had a maximum word count of 1000, a number that terrified me when I first read it. I had an idea, but when I finished writing the first draft, cutting out everything but the bare essentials of what I was trying to convey, I ended up with 1331 words, far too many. Then began my process of slaughter by which I reduced the story to the acceptable word count, proofread it a few more times, and sent it in. I hold no illusions that I’ll win or even place in the contest, but just knowing that I had a legal submission marks a moral victory for me.

My next step in my expansion into the world of short stories is another contest due in November. I have a great idea (at least, I think it’s great) for what I want to write and I’ve even started the project, but work has been delayed as I work toward completion of the new novel manuscript. The word count allows for a much longer, much richer story and I think that will play to my favor. I still do not expect to win, but I do expect to put out a pretty good story and hope for the best.

Then, just for fun, I’m planning a blizzard of short stories leading up to Christmas. My lofty goal is to post one new Christmas-themed short story here on my LJ one each of the dozen days before Christmas, with the final one to be posted on Christmas Eve. I’m sort of thinking of it as a Twelve Days of Christmas deal and hopefully I can actually con a few people in to reading the stories as I post them. Maybe someone out there will even feel an itch of anticipation waiting for the next day’s posting. That would be lovely. I’ll likely have to work Christmas Day, so it would be nice to go in that day knowing I’ve completed this task. I might even take the last week or so of the year off from writing, but I doubt it.

Again, these Christmas stories will be for my own amusement and that of anyone wishing to read them as I go along. I’ve already written one of the stories, the one I plan to post on Christmas Eve, and I have the basic ideas for at least a half-dozen of the others. I’ve even been listening to Christmas music since June getting ready for this and I really, really hope it works out. I work best under pressure and, as I’m still unagented and unpublished, the only pressure I have is what I put on myself.

Now, all that said, I’m still working on my novel, codenamed Superhero. The story has come alone quite well since I’ve entered the second half and I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The climax and conclusion are growing clearer with each night’s work and I’m really hoping to finish the first draft by Thanksgiving. Christmas is a hard time for a writer who also happens to work in retail management, so I’m trying to get as much work done as possible before I lose that edge to exhaustion.

On further novel fronts, I’ve received additional rejections and requests for Dead and Dying and am reaching the point where I’m beginning to doubt whether it will find representation. I’ve mostly run through my list of agents I thought might be interested and am not shooting for those about whom I have less knowledge. This saddens me a bit–I think the story is very good and deserves to be published–but I understand that a great many factors including the poor economy are making it even more difficult than usual to find an agent right now. During a slowdown, everyone suffers, but those on the outside looking in suffer more. Fortunately, I have the solid progress on the new novel to keep my spirits up. Now, if I could only call in to work for about a month to do all this writing . . . .

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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