Short Stories: Fewer Words, More Work?

miscellaneous word magnets
So many choices!
As I took inventory of what I'd been reading recently, I realized I've been reading a lot of short stories, both as single-serve and in collections. In fact, as I thought about it, I realized it seems as if I've being seeing more crime fiction shorts lately than I can remember seeing in quite some time. So, I thought it would be nice to shine a spotlight on some of the current crop, as well as to speculate about why the format works so well for the genre.

Conventional wisdom says that short stories are less complex than full-length novels, an idea with which I strongly disagree. Not when done well, they aren't. In fact, good short stories are actually much harder to write than a full-length novel. But it's a lot fewer words so it must be easier, right? Wrong. There is no margin for error in a short story. Just one misstep, one weak link will cause the whole thing to implode. The author of a short story doesn't have the luxury of padding things out and glossing over details they never fully figured out how to explain. No, a short story must be tight, seamless. It forces the author to jettison all the filler and superfluous tangents and to say exactly what they mean. 

Crime fiction’s storytelling, by definition, is tight; you rarely encounter page after page of exposition (the dreaded “information dump”) in a crime story. Also, the concepts in crime fiction are straightforward and universal: good guys and bad guys, cops and criminals, victims and villains. A crime fiction author can drop readers right into the middle of a bank robbery in progress and know readers will immediately understand the setup. Writing a story about a hit man? Readers know what that means: some badass is getting paid to take someone out. The author doesn't have to waste time explaining some alternate universe just to get us started, as they would in science fiction, but rather can get right to the meat of the story. It is the very nature of the crime fiction genre, therefore, that I believe makes it the perfect fit for the short story format. 

Cover of First Thrills edited by Lee Child
First Thrills edited by Lee Child
So who's throwing knock-out punches these days in crime fiction short story writing? Quite a few people, actually. Of course there are always the old-school big dogs like Stephen King (Full Dark, No Stars) and Lee Child (editor of and contributor to First Thrills: High Octane Stories from the Hottest Thriller Authors), but I've found the most interesting stuff these days to be getting accomplished somewhat off the mainstream’s radar. For example, there are several outstanding magazines (both hard copy and online) dedicated strictly to crime fiction and showcasing new talent, such as Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree Magazine, Spinetingler, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, and Beat To A Pulp,  just to name a few. 

Cover of More Sinned Against by Dave White
More Sinned Against by Dave White
There are also numerous authors taking advantage of e-publishing (usually at ridiculously inexpensive cost to the reader, if not free) as well as personal websites to showcase their talent. You'd do well to download 8 Pounds: Eight Tales of Crime, Horror & Suspense by Chris F. Holm, Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime by Steve Hockensmith (yes, I know Christmas is over, but the stories are still damn good!), and look for the collection of Jackson Donne stories More Sinned Against by Dave White. You should also read the Oscar Martello shorts by Steve Weddle, and treat your ears to the short stories of Dan O'Shea. In particular, “Thin Mints,” as read by the author himself, is amazing. 

No doubt many of the publications and authors I just mentioned are probably new names to you. And that's the thing I think I love most about short stories, especially in crime fiction. You get a chance to discover and sample new authors, to give them a test drive if you will, without having to invest emotionally or financially in a full-length novel right off the bat.

Discover new authors, enjoy great stories, and do it for dirt cheap? As far as I'm concerned, that's the very definition of the perfect crime.

Where do you stand on short stories, particularly in crime fiction? Love 'em or hate 'em? Are there any authors whose work you discovered via their short stories? Are you more likely to try short stories now in e-book format/as a download than you may have been in the past? Share your discoveries and experiences!

PS – I prefer my crime fiction dark, so most of the material I referenced does contain relatively graphic violence and more than a little profanity. This is not cozy material. You are forewarned.


Elizabeth A. White, Musings of an All Purpose Monkey

Comments

  1. Ron Phillips

    All good stuff Elizabeth. I’ve read all those anthologies except FIRST THRILLS.

  2. Todd Ritter

    Very good post with some great recommendations. And you’re so right about every word counting in a short story, which is honestly why I write so few of them. I need a wider canvas so my mistakes don’t stand out.

  3. Chris F. Holm

    Thanks for the kind words, Elizabeth. I’m delighted to be in such good company.

  4. Paul D Brazill

    Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more.

  5. Sabrina Ogden

    I’m in love with short story collections and short stories in general. Excellent post!

  6. David Cranmer

    I prefer short story collections and everyone you mentioned is on my fave list as well.

  7. Charles Wingfield

    Elizabeth, great recommendations! I have read a number of those books you mentioned and they are all high on my own list! I love short story collections, lots of great ideas and the stories get you right to the point really quickly.

  8. Laura K. Curtis

    I recently wrote my first short story and I have to say that the 4000 words for it took *much* longer than any given 4000 words of a novel! I have tremendous admiration for those who can craft such little gems on a regular basis and I am glad they’re getting more recognition.

    I do have to say, though, that you forgot one of the great spots for original short crime fiction…right here on Criminal Element, where it’s free!

  9. Steve Weddle

    Thanks for the mention.

    The collection I’m really digging right now is VOTE from Mr Heathcock. Fantastic stuff.
    Also going back and reading REFRESH, REFRESH from Mr Percy, which I hadn’t read. Great stuff.

    Again, thanks.

  10. Stuart Neville

    I can definetely second the recommendation of Chris F Holm’s collection. His shorts are consistently excellent. It can only be a matter of time before he breaks out to a wider audience.

  11. Clare 2e

    Will Holm admit he knows us when, Stuart? : )

  12. C.A.Newman

    I’ve read a lot of short stories. I would definitely agree that they would be harder to write.

    …and damn! I’ve never heard of this First Thrills book! I need it NOW!!

  13. Chris F. Holm

    I have it on good authority he will. Though he may also insist on referring to himself in the third person.

  14. Kathleen A. Ryan

    Nice post, Elizabeth! I’ve borrowed First Thrills a couple of times from my library. I especially love Ken Bruen’s “Wednesday’s Child” and Gregg Hurwitz’ “The Thief.”
    I discovered Hilary Davidson when her short story, “Insatiable” appeared on BTAP ~ and became a fan instantly! I’ve been buying NEEDLE issues, the BTAP anthology, Chris Holm’s 8 lbs, and so much more. Reading a Paul D. Brazill story online is always a treat! I’m enjoying what crime fic has to offer! I was lucky enough to get a piece in DISCOUNT NOIR ~ a fantastic collection. I’m proud to have two stories on A TWIST OF NOIR ~ another great home for Crime Fic.
    And now Criminal Element ~ what a terrific site for Crime Fic!

  15. Elizabeth A White

    Thanks for all the great feedback, everyone.

  16. Elyse

    Hey, I left a comment yesterday. Where did it go? Dang Captcha.

    Anyway, I wanted to say these are great recommendations, Elizabeth. You really know your short stories. And that last part might be a warning to some but I take it as incentive to read these stories!

  17. Josh Stallings

    Great post as always. I love short stories massively. Not sure I agree they are harder than a novel, just different. A novel takes a commitment to a year plus of your life so you better get the idea right. A Short story there is no writing around a flawed idea. Both are hard and wonderful.

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