Years ago, long before I was published, my writing group the Dorks of the Round Table coined a very insightful and totally unique motto: “Writing is hard.”
The whinier it is said, the better. Especially if you drag out the last word and it devolves into a sobbing cry. At best, short stories are annoying buzzing insects set upon this world to distract us fantasists from our BIG BOOK DEADLINES.
Regardless of the motto’s origin, it holds true, more so if you’re the type of writer, like me, who jumps back and forth from novels (seven) to short stories (a baker’s dozen or so). Despite the deadlines on the novels, I find myself compelled sometimes to throw on the hand brake, halt the big book steam train, and go off the rails into the uncharted territory of the short story. Over time, it has become a more familiar landscape to visit, but lordy, is it a different terrain than that of the long form.
The long form allows you to take your time, meander a bit in your storyline. Not to say that you’re seeding filler throughout your novel-length work, mind you. You just simply have more time to develop and expand upon ideas that you can pay out over the long haul of 100,000 words.
The short story? Not so much.
There is a mental changing of gears that happens when I approach a short story, which really isn’t a shocker; there just has to be. The long form approach doesn’t exactly fit the structure of high-risk-high-reward-in-a-small-space that a short story is trying to accomplish. In the short story, you stoke the coal fire hard and it’s full steam ahead from moment one. They are the grandest exercises in brevity, of being concise. Where to begin it, where it leaves you, how much punch can be packed into 5,000-7,000 words…
You’re capturing a moment in time, and in my approach, it’s all about writing a particular moment of a much longer tale without showing too much inclusion of that greater tale. As the author, I have to know what leads up to the moment of the story I’m about to tell you, and what happens after it, but rarely do I show all that. All that unseen world-building merely becomes the color of my short story, coming in hints, dialogue and pieces of that world layered into the story. The meandering mind of the novel has to shut down as the brevity machine kicks in. It’s a different set of mental gears that come into play to do that.
The greater question is why—why stop the big book machine at all? What makes me take time away from my novel-length work to write a short story? Sometimes those stories are elements of the big book that simply don’t fit into the novel-length work. They’re cool ideas that pop into my head, and would be awesome scenes, but on closer examination they prove to be a distraction to the thrust of the novel and therefore have to be removed. Some fall to the cutting room floor and others blossom into short tales outside the scope of the novel.
For example: The world of the Simon Canderous paranormal detective books has an agency that has investigated the paranormal throughout the ages. In building that element of the book world I knew that some of our real world history was a part of it, but to stop and tell the tale of Benjamin Franklin, Necromancer would definitely put the brakes on the book if I included it (this was way before Abe Lincoln fancied himself a vampire hunter, mind you). Instead, that world-building moment became the tale “The Fourteenth Virtue” in The Dimension Next Door anthology. This and the rest of my tie-in short stories give an added depth to their related novels, like adding salt and pepper to flavor to a soup. The short stories aren’t the main ingredient, but they do spice things up.
Then there are the short stories that become something greater, as in the case of “Stanis” from the Spells of the City anthology. I knew I wanted to do a creator/creature tale set in the modern world, and with a love of gargoyles I set out to write just that. “Stanis” is the simple meeting of a young artist and the gargoyle set to watch over her family generations ago. The story takes place over the span of maybe a half hour of time, but there’s a lot of the story’s past crammed in there. In trying to unravel how this artist and gargoyle arrived at their interaction on one particular night, I realized there was a lot more I wanted to explore after figuring out the backstory that barely appears in the short.
I turned the story in, but it continued to gnaw at the back of my mind until I started laying out a novel based around that one scene—everything that led to that meeting and everything that would come because of it. From there that short story became Alchemystic, book one of The Spellmason Chronicles, and grew to three books total based on it. I started with a moment, pulled the camera back on it to reveal more and more until three books later I wrapped it up in the third book of the series, Incarnate, where we see the satellite picture of the world as it has been affected by the moment-to-moment of all these events.
I don’t honestly prefer one over the other. It would be like comparing steak to ice cream—both food, but so inherently different it’s okay to love both completely. For the novel-length work, every book goes from moment to moment, and those moments build on each other like a Voltron of story goodness. In the short story you’re giving one moment, hyper infused with all the moments before it and all the moments to come after. The two forms couldn’t be more opposite, but for me, the shifting of mental gears never leaves a dull moment to be had in either.
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Fantasy and science fiction author Anton Strout has given readers equal shares of chills and laughter since the first book of his Simon Canderous paranormal detective series, Dead To Me, came out from Penguin/Ace Books in 2008. He continues his tales of mayhem in Manhattan with his second series, the Spellmason Chronicles, as he treats readers to the story of a girl and her gargoyle, and explores themes of friendship, loyalty, and love with his trademark snarky twist.
The Once & Future Podcast is his latest project, where he endeavors as Curator of Content to bring authors to listener's ear holes one damned episode at a time..
In his scant spare time, his is a writer, a sometimes actor, sometimes musician, occasional RPGer, and the worlds most casual and controller smashing video gamer. He currently works in the exciting world of publishing and yes, it is as glamorous as it sounds.