Wednesday, July 4, 2007

In fiction, short is not always so sweet

One of these days I suppose I should admit that my preferred creative form, short crime fiction, is all but dead. When's the last time you enjoyed a good detective yarn that was under, say, 8,000 words? I thought so. Me too -- even though I like writing short stories, I sure don't read many of them these days.

So why am I stuck on short stories? It's not for the money -- Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, where I've sold most of my work, still pays about the same as it did 40 years ago -- which is to say, very little. Mention those paltry checks to the IRS, and you pay self-employment tax in addition to the tax on the income. It's not for the fame, either -- as far as I can tell, EQMM and its sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, are two of the least-read periodicals in the nation, coming in just behind Goat Riders Quarterly.

No, the real reason I write short stories is that I'm too daunted by the concept of finishing something that may run 400 pages as opposed to 40. Perhaps I'm too keenly aware of my work history: I've finished a dozen short stories, but out of three or four attempts at novels, I've abandoned all -- at about 40 pages in.

But clearly, I must finish a book at some point. It's been a lifelong goal, and I'm not getting any younger. I have shelves full of books on writing, but one of the titles I always find inspiring is "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit," by crime-fiction master Lawrence Block. I took it down today. Here's what he has to say about writing novels as opposed to short stories:

"... the short story is infinitely more difficult to sell than the novel. The market for short fiction was minuscule when I was starting out 20 years ago. Since then it has consistently shrunk to the point of invisibility."

"Novels aren't harder. What they are is longer. ... What's required, I think, is a change in attitude. To write a novel you have to resign yourself to the fact that you simply can't prime yourself and knock it all out in a single session ... The process of writing the book is going to occupy you for weeks or months -- perhaps years. But each day's stint at the typewriter is simply that -- one day's work. That's true whether you're writing short stories or an epic trilogy. If you're writing three or six or 10 pages a day, you'll get a certain amount of work accomplished in a certain span of time -- whatever it is you're working on."

Hey, Larry; you've talked me into it.

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