I wrote a novel before I ever wrote a short story. Didn’t know any better. Didn’t know any writer folk, didn’t know about e-zines like Crimefactory or kick-ass publications like Needle, didn’t know that short stories were even a thing, at least in crime fiction. Then I got sucked into a flash fiction contest, and that was fun, and pretty soon I’d done a mess of those.
And I like that niche, the challenge of creating an actual narrative arc, a complete tale, and shoehorning it in to a thousand words or so. Keeps things tight, teaches you to write down to the bones. But there is also something artificial about that limit. It’s like a plant growing in a pot. The story can only get so big.
Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a short fiction binge. Just had a piece up at Shotgun Honey (although, truth be told, that story is now baked into a novel I’m trying to get cleaned up), finished another that’s going to be in Needle soon, but you can listen to the audio here if you like, wrote another that’s going in Tom Pluck’s next charity anthology, and yet another that just scratched an itch that Chuck Wendig gave me. All in the last few weeks. The Shotgun Honey piece is flash length, but the rest of them are whatever length they needed to be. The rest of them grew in the wild, no pots.
But this whole batch of shorts, there’s also something else about them. They weren’t written because of a flash fiction challenge somewhere. They were written because I felt like writing them. And that’s a new impulse for me.
So why this burst of short fiction, and why now? I had a little twitter exchange with Matt McBride yesterday, he of Frank Sinatra in a Blender fame, in which I noted that 2K words on a novel was a pretty good day, but that, when I write a short story, I tend to finish the first draft in one sitting, no matter how long it is. And, with this last batch, those first drafts have been in the 5-6K range. That’s a lot of words to crank out all at once, at least for me, but, in one case at least, I cranked them out in about three hours. Christ, that’s better than 30 words a minute. OK, I type faster than that, but when you throw in tea and bathroom breaks, not a lot faster.
So what’s the difference? I think it’s this. With a short story, even a longish one, when you start, you’re almost done. At least as compared to a novel. For me, with a novel, there tends to a burst at the beginning. I blow through the first 20K words or so at breakneck speed. But then I start looking at the odometer, start realizing that I still have another 60 to 80k words to go. All of a sudden I want to stop for gas, go to the bathroom, buy snacks, hit a Waffle House, do anything to break up the monotony of the road. And novels don’t come with GPS, or at least mine don’t. I know I’m going to get lost once or twice, going to head down some dead end that’s going to cost me a couple thousand words somewhere along the line. The characters get on my nerves, sitting in the back, asking if we’re there yet. So the writing settles in to that steady succession of 1K or 2K days. I just keep doing the work, stacking the word count, trusting the process. Finally, I turn that corner, get into the home stretch. That’s when I’ll put the hammer down again, have another 5 or 6K day, the end so close I can taste it, and I just can’t wait to get there.
But with a short story, the finish line is always this side of the horizon. Finishing is easy. And finishing feels good.
I see a danger there, though. I could get addicted to finishing. So addicted that the tough slog of novel writing might start to seem too tough. All the highs of writing short fiction – the quick finish, the comparatively quick feedback from readers and the ego stroking that provides – all of that could push novel writing to the back burner. Or all the way off the stove.
I think that happened a little here. I got well in to one novel, but realized I was spinning my wheels, that I had to drop it, at least for a while. I have another novel, one I finished the first draft off quite a while ago. I was most of the way through with a major overhaul on that one. I know everything I have to do to wrap it up, but I was tired of it. Bored with it. Frankly, a little pissed at it.
Compared to the first-date thrill of drafting something new – and especially the one-night-stand thrill of writing a short, where you’re not only stepping out with a new idea, but you know damn well you’re going to have its pants off and be swapping bodily fluids by day’s end – compared to that, the long, monogamous slug of novel writing had lost its allure. I’m ready now, though. I’ve been through a Kama Sutra’s worth of erotic monkeyshines with my short fiction over the past few weeks. Enough so that I now kinda miss the richer rewards of a longer relationship. So as soon as I post this, I’m going back to work on finishing that overhaul.
So is that what short fiction is? A writing mistress or, really, a writing bordello? Someplace I can stop off for a quickie when I need a cheap thrill? I dunno. But I do know this. My first novel? The one I wrote before I’d written any short fiction? When I got bored with that one, when I needed a break, I didn’t write anything. Sometimes for weeks at a time. Sometimes for months. You’re not a writer if you don’t write. So, I guess if you have to step out on your novel, short fiction is better than abstinence.
This ain’t no place for chastity. If you’re feeling stuck, get out there and whore around a little.