Greg Herren is not the first award-winning novelist who’s told EQMM that he finds the short story a more difficult literary form than the novel. Yet he has managed to add some short stories to a publication list that includes twenty-seven novels (under his own name and various pseudonyms). Two of those short stories were for EQMM, the most recent the upcoming (September/October 2014) “The E-Mail Always Pings Twice.” Greg’s most recent novel, Baton Rouge Bingo, is a Lambda Award finalist and the sixth in the Scotty Bradley adventure series. His most recent YA novel, Lake Thirteen, won a silver medal from the Independent Press Moonbeam Awards for Outstanding Young Adult Mystery/Horror. His many fans have reason to be glad that he didn’t permanently put down his pen after the distressing short-story writing experience he relates in this post.—Janet Hutchings
Writing short stories has never come easily for me.
Every writing course I took during the tragedy also known as my college career insisted that the road to becoming a successful writer lay through writing short stories. A small magazine publication here, a small literary magazine there, and we would slowly build careers as authors. Before long our reputations would grow, and then, and only then, would we get the opportunity to write novels. Short stories were simply tools to perfect use of language, dialogue, character, setting, and scene. The message being sent by my instructors was simple: “All great writers start by writing short stories, and no one can ever start out by writing books.”
This was hard for me, because I never envisioned myself as a writer of short stories. Growing up, I didn’t read short stories—I read novels. Occasionally, I would be required to read a short story for an English class, usually something like “The Minister’s Black Veil” or “The Lady or the Tiger?” Some of the stories I enjoyed, but for the most part, I didn’t really see the point to short fiction. I liked to read novels, and that was what I wanted to write.
I took a fiction-writing course my sophomore year in college. My professor was an avid Henry James scholar. His idea of teaching us how to write is something that still puzzles me to this day: he had us read Henry James’s short stories and try to emulate him. (To this day, I fail to see the point of trying to write like another writer; surely the most important thing for a writer is to develop one’s own voice?) After turning in our first stories, we had to go see him during his office hours to discuss them with him and get feedback. I was pretty confident when I went in to see him; hadn’t my high school teacher waxed rhapsodic about my talent?
I left his office seriously shaken. In a five-minute meeting, all he said was that my story was “horrendous and trite,” my characters “cardboard and unrealistic,” and my dialogue rang “completely false.” As I continued to shrink into my chair, he concluded, “Just turn in your stories, and I will give you a C. No sense failing you because you have no talent.” At this point, I mumbled something about having always dreamed of being a writer.
“Find another dream,” he said with a kindly, condescending smile, “because you’ll never be a writer.”
It took me years to get over that meeting.
As a direct result of that class, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with short stories. I love to read them, hate to write them. It always astonishes people when I tell them I’d rather write a novel than a short story; I mentioned this on Facebook the other day and another writer commented, with a smiley-face emoticon, you do know you live in opposite world, don’t you?
Short stories are hard to write for me, and I get a much bigger thrill out of selling one than I do selling a novel (and yes, I know that’s weird). I’ve tried for years to diagnose why I have so much trouble writing short stories: is it hard for me to edit myself down to meet the length restrictions? Is it because that horrible professor still lives somewhere in my subconscious, chipping away at my confidence? Or am I simply missing the short story gene?
For many years, if I wrote a good story it was purely an accident or pure luck; my mind simply couldn’t wrap itself around the concept of beginning-middle-end that all of my writing instructors over the years kept pounding into our heads (after that first horrible experience, I bounced around majors and colleges, and would up taking fiction writing courses three more times with more success); it is something I still struggle with when writing a story to this day. I can do character, I can do dialogue and setting and scene and mood—but the plot? YIKES! Nine times out of ten, when I think I have a great plot for a short story, I start writing and the plot starts growing . . . next thing I know, I have an idea for a novel (my novel Bourbon Street Blues actually started as a short story; it happens more times than I’d like to admit).
I have well over a hundred short stories in files that I’ve never finished because I didn’t know how to properly end them.
Case in point: I am currently writing two short stories, called “The Ditch” and “The Scent of Lilacs in the Rain.” One is for a submission call for Halloween stories, the other is a story that’s been festering in my head for over twenty years and I am determined to finally get it written. (I wrote a really bad fifteen hundred word version about twenty years ago; recently I decided to take a stab at turning it into something.) I did manage to finish a first draft of “The Ditch” but am struggling with the other story. The deadline for submissions for the Halloween story is in a few days, and I doubt very seriously that I am going to manage to get it into the kind of shape where I’d feel comfortable letting someone else read it—and soon enough I have to get to work on my next novel.
But I do love reading short stories, and I keep trying to write them.
Maybe someday I’ll get this figured out.
Greg: I enjoyed your post here—but jeez, what an awful story about that professor! (I had a professor in my MFA program that I’m sure set me back a a year or so on my writing, sad to say.)
I’ve never written a novel (can’t get structure or pacing right), but I’ve heard from so many people who think that writing short stories is tough—and I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes spent as much time on tinkering with a short story as some people have spent on full novels… perhaps not in terms of actual hours spent on the manuscript but in terms of the stretch of time over which all that writing and tinkering takes place, if that makes sense. The novel, it seems, can be a much more forgiving kind of writing, where I think a good short story has to have a different level of precision when done really well. I’m certainly not saying that my own short stories themselves turn out with that level of precision–each stands as a failure to me in one way or another–but just saying I respect and appreciate your struggles here… and wish I lived in that opposite world where you are, and where I might get a novel of my own written one of these days!
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In a short story, every word counts. That is the beauty in the art form, the anguish in its creation, and the rapture in achieving what was envisioned.
That instructor liked Henry James so he couldn’t be completely horrible. He probably doesn’t remember you so if you track him down THINK of the possibilities! I like the title, “Scent of Lilacs in the Rain.” Try to find a way to insert the line, “Find another dream” into that Lilac story. It will give your “professor story” a happy ending in a roundabout way.