Talking Short Stories in Today’s Writing World

When I was a young writer I was obsessed with short stories.

There was something about them that felt very freeing for me as a newbie; because, they don’t come with the same burdens a novel does, and even in my young writing days I could see that. If you don’t like a story, stop writing it! It’s not like you lose months and years of work like you would on a novel. For a short story you lose, what?, a week in the most.  I don’t know about you, but I can lose a week.

And you can experiment; and, boy, did I like to experiment in stories! I had to try everything! Sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romantic, comedy, parody, etc.; heck, I even wrote my own Chaucer Canterbury tale, if you can believe it!

One of my first experiences with the internet came from a short story.  I had a story that was chosen to be published by a college literary supplement and the only way I could see it was online. This was in the very early 90’s (MTV still played music videos and Nirvana had one CD out), and I had to go to a friend’s house, and type in a long url (which took two attempts) to slowly bring up my story on a very ugly yellow background.

In my young years, I was so obsessed with short stories that at one point I dared to write to Ray Bradbury, the master of short stories. I still believe that when history is written on the short story, that no one will be found to be more diverse, more skilled, and more creative in short stories than him.  His output cannot help but humble anyone attempting to write in that format. Anyway, Mr. Bradbury wrote back and I actually exchanged a few letters with him. I got an autograph and an autographed copy of one of his books out of it; so I consider that one of the few tangible early successes out of my time on short stories.

Ye Old Days

There are days when I really think as a writer I was born at the wrong time.

When I was young I dreamed about working a desk as a short story writer like there were back in the 40’s and 50’s in different publishing houses. The idea that there actually were jobs at one point where all you did was create fiction fascinated me! Can you imagine?

 –

Editor:  What are you working on Southard?

Me:  It’s a sci-fi story, chief. This rocket from Earth lands on a world that is 98 percent water, see? So they fill up their tanks and fly away, not knowing that the water is actually people. Soon the water people begin to take over the crew. Now there is this old, stoic Captain that is the only person in the crew not possessed and he is forced to return to the water planet. And around him, as all the water is being drained from his crew and the ship, he begins to cry and the creatures leave him in his tears.

Editor:  I like it! Great ending image! It has horror, terror, surprises, and even humor if you talk about bathrooms.  Have it on my desk by Friday at noon. Also, I need a new fantasy story from you by the end of the month; and this time, please, don’t make the dragon a comic relief. Fantasy readers like to be scared by their dragons.

Me:  Sure chief!

Of course, those days are long gone, and they sadly ain’t coming back.

Why write a short story today?

This is a very good question and I wish I had an answer for you beyond practice and competitions.

The fact is that most big magazines that even would consider a short story for printing, would want it to come with a name behind it to help sell the magazine (and give them something for their cover). So, unless you are Stephen King or John Irving, I can’t imagine Harpers or the New Yorker considering you.

Which then leaves the pulp short story magazines and many of them don’t even pay for a story anymore (They don’t need to! There are more than enough writers in this overly-congested market who won’t asked to be paid, so why do they need to pay you?). So finding one that will publish a story of yours might come back to you only as a few free copies (or a year subscription) and bragging rights. Of course, bragging rights are fun. And, like most opportunities, it helps the writing resume.

Yet, there are still hundreds and hundreds of short story competitions each year! Why, you might ask? Simply, next to poetry, short stories are the easiest in the writing world to read quickly and judge. Some competitions may have a financial return, but when you consider that you might enter a story in a half-dozen competitions how much that may even out to a smidge of profit is questionable.

Still, competitions are the best way to build up a writing resume during the early years, so having some strong short stories to enter around the country cannot hurt. But I would recommend not expecting more than that.

To Collect or Not to Collect

Looking back at my own short story output, I can see my voice as a novelist emerging as more and more of my stories began to connect together.  When I first began writing stories, I saw them as separate entities, but as I learned that the possibility for building a name as a short story writer was pretty much moot then (like today), I adapted and began to see my stories differently.

First, they began to form collections; many times the collections would have a theme or some kind of a metaphor that would hold the entire work together… Then I began to see my collections as trilogies. By the time I reached 24, I had six different collections in binders under my bed, making up two trilogies; leaving about two dozen or so short stories that didn’t make the cut.

The best way to describe a collection of short stories (and this is across the board with any writer) is that they are like Christmas morning. Which means, there will probably be a few that are exactly what you wanted Santa to bring, there will be some other presents that are okay, one or two surprise gifts, something that might make you laugh… and a pair of socks or underwear from grandma.

There is always a pair of socks or underwear from grandma.

For most writers, unless you have made a name as a novelist or you have shared stories on an NPR show  (Like the Moth or This American Life) or you are James Franco, chances are an established publishing house will not be interested in your collection. In many ways, the publishing world has moved on. Maybe with ebooks and apps, it might return as an artform; but my gut feeling is that publishers have skipped over that moment, jumping right to novels.

Later in life, when I was working on my novels, I returned to my short stories; creating a new collection that is being shared now on Green Spot Blue (here is the first story), entitled Upon The Ground. I’m proud of the work, and I believe it does contain some of the best work I have ever created (or may hope to create); and as much as I don’t seriously take on new short stories, I do miss writing them.

That freedom was intoxicating.

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9 responses

  1. Hi Scott,

    your post made me think about happier times when ending a short stories meant so much to me.

    I’d really like to go back again (and I think I’ll have to, if only to try to win some good ol’ competition).

    I think they are a peaceful oasis after a hard month spent on a novel, too… Nothing is more relaxing than yelling “End!” after only a couple of week of work.

  2. Pingback: Writing About Writing About Writing About Writing « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  3. Maybe the decision to write a short story has more to do with the nature of the particular narrative begging to be told than the question of what the publishing world demands of writers seeking an audience. Short story collections do not typically sell as well as novels, it’s true. At the same time, isn’t it one of the ironies of our time that short stories thrive online?

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