A Short-cut to Fame and Fortune
Back in my personal stone age—before there was almost everything that’s considered essential today, like plastics, TV , air bags and seat belts and AC in cars, computers, high-IQ pocket phones, bikinis, ten thousand different wonder drugs, soy bacon, Google Earth, and Walmart—a good selection of major magazines featured short fiction. Authors like O. Henry and Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever had become popular masters of the art. One of my favorite short story series characters was Tugboat Annie in The Saturday Evening Post.
Today a few modest magazines like The Strand, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine stubbornly retain the form, and anthologies and collections manage to hold onto a small market niche, thank goodness. All those series TV shows can be considered just another form of the old-fashioned short story, really. The excellent series Justified is, in fact, based on a coal-country short yarn by Elmore Leonard titled “Fire in the Hole.” Many movies have also been based on shorts: 2001, A Space Odyssey, The Absent-Minded Professor, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, High Noon, Hondo, The Killers, Rip Van Winkle, A River Runs Through It, and South Pacific, for just a few. Google will guide you to lists of them.
I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing shorts. They’re a challenge to a storyteller’s skills. A short must have most of the elements of a good novel. It must be carefully woven to create a perfect tapestry, with no room to spare, so characterization and scene setting must be brief and vivid. Because this is difficult for a writer to accomplish, shorts make excellent training for neophytes and fine practice for old pros. For me, they’re a good way to explore different genres without having to invest the time necessary to peck out an entire novel, for page-testing new characters who might one day populate longer fiction, for airing pet peeves, or to fictionally scrutinize some life experience I’ve enjoyed or endured.
Recently I put together a collection of my stories, many of which had been previously published over the years. It’s titled Dagger and Other Tales. Stephen King wrote the first 500 words of the last yarn in that collection. The King beginning appeared years ago in Cavalier Magazine with an invitation to readers from the editor, Nye Willden, to try their skills at finishing the story in a contest for a $500 first prize. The idea intrigued me, so I stayed up all one night, writing and revising, and by dawn I had a story. I mailed it in and it took first place and was published in the magazine. Stephen’s version was revealed in a subsequent issue, and it has since been reprinted several times, most recently in his excellent fifth short story collection, Just After Sunset. It was also dramatized as part of Tales From the Darkside, the Movie. The story was titled “The Cat From Hell.”
Any writer trying to learn the craft would do well to attempt selling a short tale or two. (Google has lists of magazines that accept short submissions. Check out their guidelines.) Shorts can be fun learning experiences, and maybe even a short-cut to fame and fortune.
(Dagger and Other Tales can be had at a fair price on Amazon.com.)