06 April 2018

The Long and the Short of It

Thomas Pluck

In these divisive times, I need to let you know where I stand. There are some things people just can't see eye to eye on, and we can avoid talking about it or we can just hash it out and get it over with.

What the heck is wrong with people who don't like short stories?

They pick up a book and see that it's a story collection, and then drop it like like a road apple, before they catch something. I just don't understand it, but I'll try.

I love a well-crafted short story, and of course, not all of them are. In the mystery community, some editors have said that they get a lot of short stories with series characters, meant as promotion for a the latest novel, and they aren't very compelling unless you're a fan. I've been reading a lot more short stories this year after I issued myself The Short Story Challenge, so I've read a couple of those. They're a disservice to the medium, if you ask me. There are some excellent short stories starring series characters in the genre–I'll pluck "Batman's Helpers" by Lawrence Block, as one–but in the end, they are often unsatisfying, because we are used to spending time with these characters in a novel, where you can get away with things that you can't in a short story.

A story is its own little world and must be self-contained. It may be served in a buffet with others, but unless it can be served alone, like a savory dumpling of deliciousness, it isn't a story, it's an advertisement. A story isn't an idea that can't be expanded into a novel. It's almost a novel that's been compressed into a diamond. The flaws and inclusions can't be visible to the naked eye, because the reader will spot them. Writing a good short story takes concentration and focus.

Maybe reading them does, as well.

A compliment I received from a reader was "I can't skip anything, when I read your stuff." Now, I don't consciously adhere to Elmore Leonard's rule of "I tend to leave out what readers skip", but because I honed my skills on flash fiction, I try to make every word count. In novels, I had to give myself a little more breathing room, to let the characters think and feel, to let the reader get comfortable with them. Not all short stories have a laser focus, or require you to read every word like it's a puzzle, but maybe it's less relaxing to read them? I don't know. For me, I enjoy getting lost in one, for a dozen or so pages.

It's also easier to put a novel down and pick it up later. With the rise of the smartphone, editors have tried to tap in to the short attention span of the busy reader. There was the Great Jones Street app (R.I.P.) that didn't make it. Starbucks tried super-short stories with your coffee. I think most stories require more focus than we're used to giving these days. Maybe a serial story in very short parts would work better, like 250 word chunks of a novella?

I've written stories as short as 25 words ("The Old Fashioned Way," in Stupefying Stories: Mid-October 2012),  and as long as ten thousand ("The Summer of Blind Joe Death", in Life During Wartime). The shorter ones tend to be harder, but more satisfying. My favorite flash tales were published at Shotgun Honey and The Flash Fiction Offensive. They're still delivering the goods. For me, a good flash fiction crime tale should be indebted to Roald Dahl or John Collier. "Slice of Life" stories tend to be boring, unless the writing is a knockout. Stories are where I cut my teeth, made my bones. They're a challenge, and while zine slush piles can be no less navigable than querying agents with novels, there are plenty of markets and you can still make a mark in readers' minds.

Down & Out Books collected the best of my short stories in Life During Wartime.

If you want to read what I've been reading, and I've found a lot of great new and old stories this year, check out The Short Story Challenge.

If you want to read some good short stories, but prefer novels, there's always the "linked short stories" books. I have a few favorites in the crime genre.

Country Hardball by Steve Weddle is a great one, set in Arkansas along the Louisiana border. Steve edited the excellent Needle: a Magazine of Noir and knows a great story. And how to write one. Check out "Purple Hulls" for an example.

Jen Conley's Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens is another great one. Jen gets into a character's heart, whether it's Metalhead Marty, unlucky in love, or a young girl playing tag in the woods, when she runs into an encampment. 

Hilary Davidson is another of my favorite short story writers, and The Black Widow Club collects some of her best. And people say my stories are dark? 

So, are you one of the people who prefer novels over short stories? If you don't mind, please tell us why, in the comments. We won't throw rocks, or think any less of you. We like what we like.


  1. Good article. I love reading both novels and short stories and writing both.

    I'm a novelist and short story writer (some screenplays as well). I write in many genres and do write short stories using my series characters but none is an advertisement for the series. I was taught early to do the best you can with every novel and every story. Why keep inventing new private eyes when you have a good one already? My New Orleans Private Eye Lucien Caye novels have been nominated for three SHAMUS Awards. A Lucien Caye short story won the 2007 SHAMUS AWARD for Best Private Eye Short Story while Caye stories have been nominated for a couple DERRINGER Awards, winning one.

    The craft of writing novels is so different from writing short stories. It's a challenge to have the same character floating from one to the other. Raymond Chandler used Philip Marlowe in novels and short stories and Hammett did thee same with Sam Spade.

    Every piece of ficiton should be, as you say, "like a savory dumpling of deliciousness."

  2. Fine post, Tom, as always. I've had people hear me say I'm a short story writer and then tell me straight out that oh, they don't read those. (I try not to be insulted.) But I think you've hit on some good insights here into how readers view them--in addition to how writers write them, the stakes in each case.

  3. Tom, I was sorry to see Great Jones Street fade away. They took five of my short stories (all reprints) and appeared to have big plans for their future. I will admit though that I was curious as to how their business model would succeed.

    Nice article.

  4. Tom,

    I love short stories but find them very hard to write well. I've published about twenty and have six or eight others floating around the shrinking market place, but I have at least that many that I never sent out because I didn't think they were good enough.

    Having said that, my short stories have an Edgar nomination, three Honorable Mentions for the Al Blanchard award, and two Black Orchid Novella Awards. But reading and judging short stories is a very subjective process. I think a couple of my published stories were better than ones that earned recognition. Go figure. And two that won awards had over twenty rejections.

    Two stories are about 1800 words and the novellas are both about 16,000, but my sweet spot seems to be around 4000. I wish I could write flash and really short, but I'd need 30 or 40 revisions to get there and my brain doesn't work that way.

    I probably expend almost as much effort on writing a short story as I do on the outline for a novel...and that outline changes through all the revisions, too. I've published thirteen novels so far and am working on the third revision of another.

    I agree with your comments about series characters in short stories that feel like commercials. I've read several short stories featuring a series character by a major crime writer, and I've never thought any of them were very good. Both my novellas use Woody Guthrie in Detroit, though, and one short story features Trash and Byrne from my Connecticut series. I didn't write any of them as promos, though. They seemed the best characters for the story I had in mind.

    A thoughtful post, as always.

  5. Short stories are still my greatest love. I only moved to writing novels because the big paying markets for short stories started to dry up in the late 90s. Eight of my 10 awards are for crime short stories.
    In fact, the stories I have read that have stayed in my mind the longest are some gems from Flash Fiction magazine. Two of them still haunt me today, in a delightful way.
    We're kindred spirits, Tom!

  6. I confess to being a novel/flash fiction guy. I have a few issues with stories:
    1. Too many are neither fish nor fowl. A good one too often makes me want more, and the bad ones are too long. I prefer to see the characters more fully developed (novel) or for the author to get in and get out (flash). That said, I do read short stories and there are some I like a lot. This is a woefully incomplete list, but Sean Chercover's "A Sleep Not Unlike Death" and Todd Robinson's "Peaches" moved me, as did Mike Dennis's "The Session." I lie your Denny the Dent stories a lot, and Reed Farrel Coleman's "Feeding the Crocodile" is brilliant. As I type these titles, I see something most have in common: characters from series I read, which I think addresses my first complaint, or wanting to know more. I know these people already.
    2. It's extremely difficult for an anthology to have the consistency of a novel. There are always stories that don't meet the standard set by others.

    As for why I don't write more of them, it's simple:
    1. I suck at short stories. My mind doesn't work that way. I either want to know more about the character or situation, or I want to get in and get out in a flash piece.

    I'm not saying I'm right. I'm almost certainly not. You asked.

  7. I too love short stories. I love dreaming them up, writing them, finishing them, and then being free to write another. So far this year I've had 5 stories published and 8 more accepted, I've written 18 new stories, and I've submitted 16 (some of the submissions are of stories written last year). Shortest story I ever wrote was six words, longest 18K; shortest story sold was 55 words, longest 18K. Most of my very recent stories seem to fall between 1000 and 5000 words. I have two novels out with an agent and half a dozen unwritten shorts boiling around in my head. I envy you novelists; short stories are my passion. Great post, Tom!

  8. I love short stories - writing them and reading them. I collect short story collections, and I reread them, because hey, the best way to learn how to write is to read, right?
    I also love novels. I am, as Velma might say, generous with my favors - at least when it comes to literature!

  9. I too love short stories, both writing and reading them. I too find writing them immensely more challenging than book-length prose. As noted both in your post and some of the responses, they are very difficult to write WELL, which is why I have published far more book-length stuff than shorter things.

    Speaking of short stories which are a joy to read, I HIGHLY recommend the short stories of Dashiell Hammett, especially the ones which feature the Continental Op (the nameless protagonist of his novels RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE). I'm thinking especially of "The Scorched Face," "Fly Paper," "Dead Yellow Women," "The Gutting of Couffignal," "The House on Turk Street, and its sequel, "The Girl With The Silver Eyes."

    Every last one of them packs a wallop!

    And again, great post. I enjoyed reading it!

  10. I don't have a strong preference one way or the other, although I used to carry short story anthologies to lunch or dinner when working… I could knock one off in a sitting.

    The master himself wrote most of the Sherlock Holmes canon as short stories. I think only 6 out of 60 were novel length.

    I've never heard anyone admit to this, but I much prefer Dorothy Sayers' short stories. Her novels tended to meander at times, but her Lord Peter shorts stayed crisp, clean, and on point.

    Then there was my own 37-word confrontation… or conflagration, depending how one looks at it. It helps to be philosophical.


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