Thursday, August 6, 2009


Russel D McLean

I made my bones writing short stories.

The first market I remember cutting my creative teeth on – outside of the UoD’s creative writing zine, Eric – was a webzine called Demensions. They were a non paying outfit, but they had a good rep and some class SF shorts in their back catalogues. It was a big deal for me when they accepted my shorts, even if there are some elements in those early stories I would go back and change now.

After that, I worked over to crime markets when my focus changed. The now sadly defunct Third Degree published a short that riffed off my allegedly irrational fear of clowns – yeah, there was a clown blowjob and a horrible moment with a poker that made me glad my mother didn’t see the story – and soon after that other zines started to pick up my work as well. They were heady times; I was no making no money, but having a bloody good time doing it. And I still love the frontier nature of small presses; seriously, some of them were - and are - fantastic fun to work with.

And then the big one: Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A paper - and more importantly to my bank manager, a paying - ‘zine with a rep for more traditional stories took on a hardboiled, two fisted tale of Scottish scumbags and I couldn’t have been happier (in fact AHMM is a great mag and there’s a wider mix of stories there than many people give it credit for).

So yeah, I came up and learned my trade writing shorts and having a grand time doing it. I think it helped shape me as writer. Shorts helped me to find my voice, to learn how to trim the bullshit and to appreciate the power of words. When you only have a certain amount of space, you have to understand the value of clear and Its how a lot of my peers started, too. But some days I wonder whether the only people reading shorts are other writers. It’s a shame if its true, because, as Stephen King says (more or less; this one’s paraphrased from memory, but its somewhere in the intro to one of his short story collections), a good short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger and sometimes kisses can be as much as a love affair.

My other favourite idea about the short story came from a piece I read years ago by the SF author Philip K Dick. Now, I have lost the original collection this came from, so again we're relying on my infamously dodgy memory, but he said something akin to the fact that a short story is all about the moment. A short story is an idea in its raw and most immediate form. Things happen in a short story. Where in a novel you have the space to allow the idea to simmer and can focus on other things. I think the example he used was "style", although I think that is maybe a little unfair to the short which as well as being about raw and immediate ideas cane also be incredibly stylish.

I love a good short. A sharp idea that comes at you without pausing for breath. One of the best books I read last year was the Megan Abbott edited, A Hell of a Woman, which has to be one of the strongest collections of shorts I’ve read in a long time; right now I’m having a hard time remembering any clunkers in there. And, God, Jen Jordan’s sequel to Expletive Deleted (I can’t have an opinion on that particular collection, cos I’m in there), Uncage Me, looks like another strong contender with an excellent line up of authors contributing their time and talents.

What I love about short stories is not just that I can read them in fifteen or twenty minutes, usually coming to the end just in time to look and see the dentist walk into the waiting room grinning manically and holding that horrifically oversized drill, but that very often they can be masterpieces of economical writing that really hit home. Their very brevity gives them their power. Its hard to do a short properly, believe me, and maybe it’s the assumption that they’re easy – tiny things to be tossed off in an afternoon, which the worst examples often are – that means they don’t always get the respect they deserve.

But if you’re looking for prime examples of short stories on the internet – often edited superbly, I should add, these guys are all pros – you could do worse than these places: The Thrilling Detective, Spinetingler, Plots With Guns, Pulp Pusher. These guys, to me, represent the cream of the crop with some damn fine authors contributing to all of them. But of course, there are so many others I could mention as well. Although if I did this wouldn't be so much a blog post as a never ending list of links.

But naturally, I couldn't not mention my UK publishers, Five Leaves Publications, whose Crime Express Series brings you small, but beautifully formed tales of criminality and wrongdoing.

But the question you have to ask about today’s post is this:

Was it all merely an excuse to put a up video of Randy Newman singing Short People?

Only time will tell.


Jay Stringer said...

There is nothing irrational about a fear of clowns. They are freaky face painted weirdo's.

I have spoken.

I love writing shorts. I don't push to get many of them published because there seem to be less and less editors out there in the short market, and i'm a writer who needs a bit of editing.

Much as we discussed with screenwriting, writing a short is great for teaching you how to tell a story. The story i entered in a Scotsman competition last year was a great learning curve for that. Up until that point my shorts had always been character pieces, where plot was secondary. But for the competition i needed a narrative with a beginning, middle and end in 2000 words. There was a lot of sweating, a lot of work, and a lot of learning.

This has actually inspired a blog about narrative music. That may appear over the next few weeks.

Jay Stringer said...

should have added this before hitting PUBLISH.

I'd add a few specific links for shorts;

Allan Guthrie has one up at crimeWAV, a free podcast well worth subscribing to. This could be the future of the short, and the story itself is hilarious;

My favourite Cal Innes story remains THE MONKEY MAN, simply because it's so lean and simple, and get the character across;

Russel himself has a TON of stories to check out over at his own blog;

and Scott, our own saturday boy, has a good western up at Beat To A Pulp. It's a good example of telling a whole story with a few words.Packs an emotional punch, too.

Okay, that's the hustle over!

Anonymous said...

I used to think writing short stories was a necessary evil all writers had to go through, but also the basis for which the Bush Administration said waterboarding was not torture.

At one point, I said, "Not gonna do it anymore" (and I have the output to prove it), then went back to it.

A funny thing happened when I went back. I realized that I could tell small stories in a small amount of space so that where I once found 7000 words too constraining, I now look at 3000 words in some cases too long.

Go figure.

sandra seamans said...

I love short stories because they make you stop and think when you're writing. You have to look for the that perfect word to replace a dozen. You learn to pinpoint exactly what the story is about instead of taking sidetrips that add nothing to the story. And there's no better place for a beginning writer to learn the craft. Can you tell I'm a big fan of short stories?

Unknown said...

There is no forum greater for discovering new writer's than the short story and new venues for the form seem to expand by the day. I am also "making my bones" with short stories and have had a blast with the form and discovering my voice through it. Plus, I've gotten to meet, interact, and learn from a slew of great writer's because of it.
Cool post Mr. McLean

John McFetridge said...

Great to see some discussion about short stories tht talks about "finding your voice" and learning your craft as a writer instead of the usual stuff about should you give it away for free or not.

I will say I don't think there's a big problem if only (or mostly) other writers are reading these short stories - think of it as peer review. Other people who take writing as seriously as you do, who think about all the aspects of it as much as you do are reading your stories and offering comments.

Dave White said...

You know, I love short stories and I used to love writing them. But now I have a hard time with it. Ever since publishing a novel, I can't get the pacing down anymore. I think big. Anyone else having this problem? Because man, I want back in the short story party...

Scott D. Parker said...

I'm still new at the short story business. The western Jay kindly mentioned was a one-sitting wonder. It was an exercise to see whether or not I could write an interesting story with all the deduction done off-screen. Now, I've a few more ideas and a few more characters I want to introduce as well as more Calvin Carter outings (that'd be the western detective hero of the short story). However, I've discovered that, like Dave, I think big. I think in novel-sized chunks. The short story ideas for me seem to small. That might be because I'm still thinking too big. I'm working on it and I agree that it's a great way of finding the elusive voice. And I've got a writing regime I'm trying out to see (a) if I can do it and (b) if it'll lead to a better organized writing life. More on that in a future post.

Russel said...

Thanks all -

Jay, you're right that there are less editors in the short market - the value of a good editor (Gerald So at TD, for example, was great to work with) to work with cannot be stated emphatically enough. I think some people shorts never need tinkering. To which I say, nonsense. I'm a big believer in editors not simply as aquisition guys but as impartial sounding boards with whom an author can work. Which meant I upset more than a few egos during the days when Crime Scene Scotland used to do shorts.


Shorts - like novels - should be fear inspiring things to do. But as you realised, they can be the perfect medium for certain types of story. I love 'em.


Never mind beginning writers, I think some vets could benefit from re-learning the craft of the short. And its great to hear from a fan of the form, too :-)


Enjoy it and keep at it. There is, sadly, little money in shorts, but they're great fun to write - espcially because they are challenging.


I get the peer review thing, but I'm always uncomfortable with the idea that other readers are merely other writers. There's something that unsettles me a little; almost like your audience isn't reading purely for pleasure.


I don't have half the time I used to write shorts. And I sweat over 'em, too. Between novel deadlines and the day job... but I still try to keep my hand in. There's one I'm working on at the moment for a very specific market which I'm quite excited about.


Yeah, some ideas can seem too large. I think shorts are about immediacy of ideas and situations. A lot of setup, you can dispense with. I always try and ignore non-essential backstory with shorts. Emotional immediacy is what its all about. I think. I'll be checking out the western shorts...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brian's afraid of clowns too.

Of course, seeing the title of the post I thought you were going to poke fun at yourself and our agent. ;)

Unknown said...


I actually have people other than writer's reading my stories. Thanks to forums like Facebook and twitter, I'm reaching a ton of non writer's who just like to read a good story. I think it's writer's who tend to leave comments if there's a comment section available.