Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Art of the Short Story and the Woman on the Porch

I've been writing short stories from the beginning of my writing career before it was a career. I loved reading short stories and loved writing them. Over the intervening decades I've written hundreds of short stories. Many of them were published, more than 150. I still write stories and sometimes I offer them to anthologies or magazines and sometimes I publish them myself via Kindle. This year was a banner year for me and the short story. Ideas swarmed me and I couldn't turn away from any of them. I've written fifteen new short stories since January 2013 (8 months) and the word count for all those stories runs around 60,000. 

I'm known as a novelist. One of my novels was noticed by the Edgar Award committee and it got nominated for Best Novel. Another book was nominated for the Stoker Award for Most Superior Novel. I'm not saying I don't like writing novels, because I do, and I just completed a new novel this year titled THE GREY MATTER. But the short story is where I live. 

Some writers don't bother with the short story. I remember early in my writing I met a creative writing teacher in Tampa, Florida. I'd seen an article about her in the Tampa newspaper and I was so desperate to know if my writing was any good at all I found her phone number and called her on the phone. Her name was Barbara Deane and although she didn't know me, she offered to come by my house one day and read a couple of my stories. (I hadn't yet written a novel length work.)

She sat on my glassed in porch while I tried to keep my two little girls quiet as she read. I'd supplied her with a glass of iced tea and a half dozen of my typed stories. I sat gnawing my fingernails. If she told me they were shit, I was a goner. A professor in San Diego was roped by my husband into reading a couple of my stories. He met with me and said I wrote like Flannery O'Connor and that I was talented. I was so young (22) I hadn't read Flannery. I made short work of that, going to the bookstore and picking up a copy of some of her stories. I sat at home reading them thinking no way I wrote like her. She was indeed a master of the short story and I was stunned by the work. Still, the professor's over-praise kept me writing. And now someone sat on my porch and was going to really tell me if I was any damn good or should I try to do something else with my life. It was a momentous event. I was scared to death.

My girls tired and fell asleep for a nap. Still the lady sat on my porch reading. I could see her when I peeked around the door frame and she seemed quite immersed. My stomach was in knots and if she didn't finish soon I was going to rush out on the porch and ask her, "Listen, what do you think?!"

In time she called me to her. I sat down, wringing my hands. She said this: "Billie Sue, you're a good writer, a very good writer and I love these stories. But you can't make a living from writing stories. You're talented and you need to put your effort into writing novels. You have a career ahead of you, it's time to get busy."

She left me there with my stained manuscript pages and my heart bursting with joy. (Over the years Barbara and I kept up a correspondence. She was one of my best friends and mentors.) This was the second authority figure who knew good fiction who had told me I had talent and maybe now I'd believe in it and keep writing. But this person told me I'd never make a living at story writing and I needed to write a novel.

I did. It took three years because I was new at it and I had toddlers underfoot and we moved a lot. Also, I just had no idea what I was doing. It took a while, too, because every now and then I couldn't help myself and I stopped the novel to write out a short story and mail it off to a magazine. (I didn't sell a story, though some came close, until the month in 1983 when I sold my first novel. After that I sold a great many stories--and novels, too.)

Stories kept me alive as a writer. I had too many ideas punching me in the skull to stick only and always with novel writing. If we can go by the award nominations, it appears I write good enough novels. I like them. They're hard for me, but I like them. The story writing, however, buoys me and thrills me and makes me happy as a child on Christmas morning. I just love to write them and of course I still love to read them. A well-written short story is a work of art. It has to have it all and in a short span of words. Characterization, setting, description, emotion, plot, and for me, an excellent ending that you don't always see coming, but that is satisfying.

This year, what I'm calling my banner year, I was writing short stories in between the writing of my novel (as I've always done) and they simply poured out. All sorts of stories, though they're all of a dark nature despite whatever genre they fall into because...well, that's just the kind of imagination I have. I wrote about a man who cleans cadaver skulls for a living. I wrote about sisters who have a problem with ghosts in the house. I wrote about a man shown worlds he never knew existed and how they were all failing--all the "systems" were failing. Stories about creatures, stories about aliens, worn out detectives, a woman with the ability to create fire, a cursed chair, an enhanced man with a dubious Facebook friend, and an abducted woman or two. I can write a story from a word, a scene, a book cover, a word, or a documentary from television. I write stories from just one sentence or a picture of a person I have in my head. 

Stories might not make a writer a living (that was a true thing the lady told me), but stories make me happy to be a writer. I'm collecting the stories this year together in a paperback and digital ebook and calling it SINISTER-Tales of Dread. I don't know if readers will like them as much as I do, but one of them has been selling really well for months now on its own and another is getting notice from readers and was picked up for a reprint in a good anthology. I'm the same now as I was when I was the twenty-two year old writing stories. I write them because I can't help it. They call to me to be written and I never refuse. What happens after that simply isn't up to me anymore. You throw the work out into the world and hope the world will notice it and enjoy reading it as much as you enjoyed writing it and that's all you are called upon to do--it's all you can do.

Some writers shouldn't even attempt to write short stories as they haven't the knack for them. Some should only write them and never attempt the novel form. Some write both and do well with them. I have no idea how many more stories I'll write throughout the rest of 2013 or how many I'll write next year, but I know this: I'll keep writing them because it's one of the forms of fiction I love the most.

Your one question may be what if the lady on my porch turned to me and said my stories were shit? I would have crumpled and cried like a big baby. But knowing what I know now about myself, I wouldn't have stopped writing them. No matter what she'd said, it wasn't possible for me to stop writing stories. 

If this blog post is a poem to the short story I know it's a long one. A long poem to the beautiful and fulfilling nature of the short story. May she ever reign! May the readers remain forever and the writers write them forever and the stories, like rain for the earth, nourish us the way they're meant to do. 

Please keep an eye open in the near future for SINISTER-Tales of Dread. I have stories to tell you.


  1. Looking forward to reading your short story collection, Billie Sue.

  2. Thank you, Dave! I'm happy to hear that.

    Billie Sue