30 January 2024

Guest Post: The Short and the Long of It

Joseph S Walker
Joseph S Walker

I read my first Joseph S. Walker story when I found “Riptish Reds” in the slush pile for Mickey Finn, 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books, 2020), and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on several projects since.

Joe has received the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction, twice received the Al Blanchard Award, and been nominated for an Edgar Award and twice for a Derringer Award. He’s also had stories in three consecutive editions of The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and is the only writer to have the same story selected for inclusion in both The Best American Mystery and Suspense and The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

Joe, my wife, and I caused a minor kerfuffle at Bouchercon Minneapolis in 2022 when Temple—who uses her birth name (Temple Walker)—sat between us at the awards ceremony. This lead a few people who didn’t know any of us to think she was Joe’s wife and wonder why she was paying so much attention to me.

Anyhow, here’s Joe describing how he approaches writing stories of various lengths.

— Michael Bracken

The Short and the Long of It

by Joseph S. Walker

How long is a short story, anyway?

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. One particularly precise answer is offered by the Short Mystery Fiction Society: a Short Story is between one thousand and four thousand words in length. This defines one of the four categories in which the Society presents annual Derringer Awards, the others being Flash (under 1,000 words), Long Story (4,000-8,000), and Novelette (8,000-20,000).

I’ve written roughly one hundred and fifty pieces of fiction. The vast majority, by SMFS standards, are either Short Stories or Long Stories. As I said in introducing myself to a group of writers recently, I’m a short story specialist. I even said I have a short story mind, which, in retrospect, sounds like an insult shouted during a tense English Department faculty meeting.

Even a short story mind, though, can stretch on occasion. February 1 sees the release of “Run and Gun,” the third piece I’ve published that meets the SMFS definition of a novelette. It’s the second entry in Chop Shop, a series of crime novelettes, created and curated by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, all involving car theft and a Dallas chop shop run by the enigmatic Huey. Chop Shop is a spiritual heir to Michael and Trey Barker’s Guns + Tacos, twenty-four novelettes linked by a Chicago taco truck selling illicit firearms; my contribution to that project was “Two Black Bean and Shrimp Quesadillas and a Pink Ruger LCP.”

I was deeply honored to be invited to contribute to both series, and there was no way I was going to turn such opportunities down. Accepting, however, led to immediate blind panic: exactly how do I go about writing something three times as long as my average story?

Is the process of writing longer inherently different?

I imagine different writers have different answers to that question. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that, yes, I’ve come to think of writing novelettes as a fundamentally distinct undertaking from writing short stories. It’s the difference between making a pearl and building a poker hand.

Most of my short stories start with something akin to the grain of sand that, by irritating an oyster, eventually becomes the core of a pearl. This might be an image, a character, a line of dialogue—almost anything. I think of, say, a bartender in a rural community who playfully but forcefully refuses to answer a cop’s questions about where he came from. I build this out into a story by asking questions about the bartender and the cop, coming up with logical reasons for them to be in this relationship and (hopefully) interesting things to happen to them. The core of the story, though, is still that bartender refusing to talk to that cop, and everything else grows from that and relates back to it (this specific grain of sand ultimately became my story “The Last Man in Lafarge”). This works, I think, because the short story is an inherently concentrated form. It has focus. It is, in fact, defined by focus.

I quickly found this process didn’t work for a novelette—at least, not for me. The kind of tight unity that defines a well-written short story gets stretched thin as a piece of fiction lengthens. Other elements impose themselves on the attention of both the reader and the writer. The novelette isn’t about a single thing; it’s about the relationships between multiple things. The short story is singular focus. The novelette is complex structure.

Instead of building out from a single point, I write novelettes by forging connections between multiple ideas/characters/images/seeds and building out from those. I’m drawing cards from a mental deck, discarding some, occasionally drawing more. For my Guns + Tacos story, my first card was a character who feels emasculated when the illegal gun he buys turns out to be pink. Another was a magazine story about wealthy art collectors displaying replicas of their prize pieces to foil potential thieves; a third the image of a cheerleader with an ice pick. Draw a few more cards. Shuffle them around and see what emerges. Keep it up, and eventually you’ll have a hand you can bet on.

For “Run and Gun,” the cards I drew include an abandoned truck stop, a news item about progressive activists in Texas, the bumper stickers on a friend’s Honda Civic, marginal notes in a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises, and my impression of the tourists in Dealey Plaza, all caught up in a story of car chases, blackmail, and murder. I think I turned it into a winning hand, and I’m looking forward to readers letting me know if they agree.


  1. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Joe. I enjoy working with Michael. He's a hell of an editor.

    Joe, I actually bought a pink pistol for a friend. It was for training… I didn't want her to shoot herself in the foot… or worse. Long story, but not a novelette.

    1. A pleasure to be here, Leigh, and I absolutely agree about Michael. Just between you and me, though, he's wrong about "Riptish Red" being the first story of mine he saw--but if he doesn't remember the one he rejected before that, I'm not going to remind him!

  2. Excellent, thoughtful piece, Joe! And what a pleasure it is for me — sometimes as an editor, more often as a reader — when a new Joseph S. Walker story of whatever length comes my way!

    1. You know I look forward to your stories as well, Josh! Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Insightful piece, Joseph. Love the cat!
    Edward Lodi.

  4. Joe, you have accomplished more in a short time than any other other writer I know. Sincere congratulations.

    I love all your stories, short or long. Keep 'em coming.

    1. That's the plan, John, and you certainly know how much I admire your writing!

  5. Great post. I love the insights about the short story vs. the novelette. Wholeheartedly agree.

    --Daniel C. Bartlett

  6. Elizabeth Dearborn30 January, 2024 22:09

    Hi Joe, I've read some of your stories & postings in the SMFS group. It's good to see you here. I haven't published nearly as much as most of the people here & what I have had published is mostly flash fiction, which I love. The idea for one drabble came from my husband pitching a fit at the grocery store one day. The story, but not the reality, ended with the discovery of a murder & possibly another murder before that one. Now I am working on a longer story which is way too complicated to be a drabble. We'll see.


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