By Libby Hellmann
One of the reasons I love being part of Top Suspense is that all twelve of us write short stories as well as novels. I believe short stories are an essential part of an author's tool kit. In fact, I believe they can only make us better writers. So, in keeping with our emphasis on craft, I offer this post which was also on my individual blog recently, SAY THE WORD.
A writer’s journey often takes them to unexpected places. I know mine has. Like many beginning writers, I decided I could write a novel fresh out of the gate. So I did. Funny—no one wanted it. At the time I was irritated. Why not? I’d just spent four months working on what I thought was going to be a NY Times Best Seller.
The answer? I didn’t know what I didn’t know: that I hadn’t learned the craft of fiction, that I was getting in the way of my characters, that the plot was unbelievable, at times even (horrors!) trite. I joined a writers’ group, and slowly my process started to gel. In fact, sixteen years later I’m still in the same group.
Nonetheless, writing my first short story, “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared,” was pretty much an accident. My son was about to be a Bar Mitzvah, and one of his gifts was a pictorial history book called The Jews of Chicago. As I flipped through it, some of the photos grabbed me. They were taken in Lawndale during the Thirties, which, at the time, was a thriving Jewish community in Chicago.
After staring at them for days, I ended up writing a short story set in that time and place. I had no idea it would win two contests, and would turn out to be the prequel to my Ellie Foreman series, which itself is the prequel to my Georgia Davis series. (BTW, Miriam is forever free on Amazon, Apple, and Kobo.)
Since that time I’ve written over 20 short stories. I’m hooked on them, and I’d like you to be as well. Short stories are magic—and they’re great for your career. Here are 6 reasons why.
#1: They’re short.
People say it’s tougher to write short than long. Don’t believe them. The best thing about short stories is that they’re short. I like to say that a novel is like a marriage, but short stories are like an affair. I can get in and out of one in 6 weeks. During those 6 weeks, I’m full of passion, awareness, and energy. Then it’s over, but unlike an affair, I have something tangible to show for it.
#2 They deepen your craft.
Short stories help you master the elements of craft. Every word counts, and that includes setting, character description, and action. In fact, the entire narrative (and dialogue) has to be crisp, concise, and meaningful. If you can do it well in short form, there’s no reason you can’t expand it to a novel.
My favorite reason to write short stories is to explore new characters, plot lines, voices, even genres. Often in the middle of writing a novel, I’ll get an itch of an idea that won’t leave me alone. Writing a short story lets me scratch that itch. Plus, it gives me a break from my novel, and I come back to it refreshed. The first hard-boiled piece I wrote was a short story, and several times I’ve tried out historical time periods that I later expanded to a novel. “The Whole World is Watching”, for example eventually developed into Set The Night on Fire. And who knows? I'm even thinking of writing a historical short story that has no mystery at all.
#4 Name recognition
I published 2 short stories before my first novel came out. When it did, readers had seen my name around, and I like to think they realized I was taking my writing seriously. That recognition gave me an advantage when An Eye For Murder was released.
#5. Filling in the series/Starting a new one
Most novelists publish a new book once a year, but what happens to your characters inbetween? Short stories are a great way to fill in. I wrote several Georgia and Ellie stories just to remind my readers they were still around.
They’re also a wonderful way to answer questions for your readers. The Murder of Katie Boyle explains how Ellie and Georgia first met, and War Secrets, which will be out in an MWA anthology next year, answers one of the questions I deliberately left hanging in A Bitter Veil. Plus, you never know when a story (like Miriam) will propel your career onto an entirely unexpected path.
#6. Recycle Ability (that should be one word, don’t you think?)
Most short story contracts bind you for one or two years, but after that, the story is yours to do with what you wish. I’ve offered reprints to other anthologies, bundled them into collections, and have seen audios produced. In fact, a short story is the gift that keeps on giving… indefinitely.
Enough reasons? Start writing.
In case you’d like to investigate further, you can find 15 of Libby’s short stories in NICE GIRL DOES NOIR here and here, and on Audible.
And, of course, Top Suspense has published two short story anthologies, as well as a fabulous and outrageous round robin story.
Burl Barer comments:
I love reading short stories, and I love writing short stories. I find
them great fun, and it gives an author the opportunity to explore
different forms and voices - yes, it is akin to having an affair or a
fling, yet with honest affection.