Monday, April 7, 2008

Swiss-Army Story

Why write short stories?

I believe that many-- perhaps even most-- writers write short stories to build a "name" that will, hopefully, help them get that novel they've been working on for the past three years published. They (we) want the publishing credits to show that someone besides Mom likes their (our) writing. They (we) might even make a few bucks at it and learn that, hey, it is possible to get something published.

Who stars in those shorts? I write almost all of my short stories with Bo Fexler as the protagonist. She is the main character of the novel I'm working on. How many writers use the same character(s) in their shorts as they use in their novel? I haven't seen very many recurring characters. A few, but not many.

There are some advantages, I think, to writing shorts with the novel characters. One of the big ones would be character development. Not every scene or scenario that tests the protagonist is appropriate for a novel. But those scenes can be tried out in a short story. The more short stories, the more the writer will know about how the protagonist acts, reacts, thinks and feels. With Bo, I know her inside and out. I am comfortable enough that I can leave details out and do not have to explain Bo's actions. Her actions are consistant in the novel with what they are in the short stories.

I'm not going to discredit short stories written just because an idea fluttered in like a Monarch on a summer breeze. There is always a place for random short stories with characters never seen again. I'm just going to advocate using the short story to give the characters in the novel more depth, history, and layers.

And while your at it, you might just get some fans for your character. Or so I've found.

Now, one last thing on this. I think I would have a much harder time writing short stories if I didn't write them with Bo Fexler. I would probably write far less stories, too. Since I'm using Bo, I know who she is, how she acts, who she knows, and where she's at. The biggest decisions regarding these basics is when the story is set (before or after her move to Michigan.) Then it's a matter of writing the case. In the case, I don't have to worry much about the background of any of the characters since they're fleeting and usually two-dimensional. I've got a large chunk of work done before I even set fingers to keyboard.

So, what do you get out of your short stories?


pattinase (abbott) said...

I much prefer writing short stories to my one attempt at a novel. I like the new cast of characters, the new setting, the new set of problems. It's like moving to a whole new country just when the old one grows boring.

sandra seamans said...

I realized that when every novel I tried to write wrapped up in forty pages that I was a short story writer. Like Patti, I enjoy a different set of characters for each story, getting to know them, then moving on to the next. Though some characters stick around and show up in other stories.

In a writer's group I was in I did have a series character that I used to write stories. He was a PI with his ex-wife as a partner and his best friend owned a strip club. The stories were a lot of fun to write and I have stacks of stories staring this cast of characters.

The problem with the stories was that they were humorous slap-stick that couldn't find a home in the crime zine markets. The other problem was that every time I used other characters to tell a story, the first question from my writing group was: "Where's Buck and Irma?"

As a writer I wanted to explore darker subjects and Buck and Irma just didn't lend themselves to that type of story.

I think I like writing with different characters and in different genres so when people read my stories, they're always surprised.

Writing the same characters and putting them in many different scenerios works for some people. Dave White, for example, uses his novel character in all of his short stories and it works for him as Bo works for you.

What I guess I'm saying is that a writer has to stick with what works for them. If a character takes your writing where you need to go then that's what you should write.

Rather long winded, and just my two cents worth of opinion.

Clair Dickson said...

I get what you're saying about starting fresh. Different pen strokes for different folks.

I'm just suggesting a different avenue. I've read a few writers who could have used a bit better focus and more character development in their writing. I think short stories can provide that while also providing other things, like pub credits and exposure.

I'm just kind of surprised, I guess, at how few novel writers seem to write their characters in shorts. Especially series writers.

Not wrong, just different.

r2 said...

I like the ability to experiment with different POVs, different styles and voice. But, I've always loved short stories, as much, if not more, than novels. I always had an Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in my back pocket. Read it when I was waiting on a bus, or during lunch or whatever. Loren D. Estleman features Amos Walker in shorts and novels both. I like returning characters as well as stand-alone shorts.

I hope this ramble makes sense. I just think it's too bad that shorts are sort of the ghetto of literature these days. They have such a proud past in the genre fiction going all the way back to Poe.

sandra seamans said...

This might be a good topic to bring up on SMFS, Claire. You might get a whole different view of why writers don't use their series characters in short stories. I often wonder if they're afraid that if the reader has access to a free short story they won't bother buying the books. There's also the flip side that some writers think being a novelist puts them above writing short stories. r2's right about the way short stories are looked at and maybe it's because of their roots in genre fiction that there's a bit of snobbery between the shorts writers and novelists same as between genre and lit. Very sad.

Clair Dickson said...

I never thought about giving away my characters-- I always thought it was free samples at the grocery store. Like the bite size piece, try a whole box/ book.

The idea of elitism makes my porcupine quills stand up. Novels and short stories take different skills. They're different animals. One has stripes.