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.