Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing is Hard: Starting with short stories

At SpringCon this year I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Mike Bullock (The Phantom, Lions Tigers and Bears). Mike and I had been acquaintances for a while, but it was the first time we'd had the opportunity to sit down and really talk. We chatted about a lot of things - books and comics we like, the recent resurgence in pulp, stuff like that - but one of the things that's stuck with me longest from that conversation was Mike's interest in writing prose, particularly short stories.

I'd already begun thinking in that direction when I discovered how much fun it was to write "Bigfoot and the Bone Face Murders" for the Mondo Sasquatch anthology. The more I think and learn about it, the more I want to work in that format. Jeff Parker recommended short-story writing in an interview he gave to Newsarama shortly after my conversation with Mike:
It really is mostly practice, the art. Writing too, but you have to go through a number of stories to start making leaps. That's why short stories are important to do, and there need to be more venues for them.
That's similar to advice George RR Martin recently gave at a signing. Literary agent Kristin Nelson was there and summarized Martin's comments this way:
...he said that being a beginner, unpublished writer declaring that he's writing a 7-book series is kind of like being a guy who has just started rock climbing and announcing to the world that the first climb he's going to do is a little hill called Mount Everest. That's absolutely not what you want to do. It's too hard. Too big in scope. If you are a beginning rock climber, you want to start with the climbing wall at your local REI or a small hill that won't kill you first.

As an agent, I've given this advice any number of times but in the end, writers don't believe me. Okay don't believe me. Believe George instead! Forty years in this biz, he knows what he's talking about...Start with short stories where you are forced to have a beginning, middle, and end. You are also forced to nail plot and character in a short amount of space. Then graduate to something bigger--like a novella or one stand-alone novel. Master that. Then tackle the big series.
I'm not planning any multi-novel sagas (though I've certainly got ideas!), but I'm still taking to heart the encouragement to practice my writing through short stories. I've sold three of those now and loved the experience each time. They don't take a lot of time, but Parker, Martin, and Nelson are right: writing those has taught me more about the craft of writing than any number of author interviews, articles, or books (though I've learned a lot from those too). When Jason and I finish Kill All Monsters, I'm going to take some time off from comics and focus on short stories for a while. I'm already working on the first of them, a mystery about a guy in the 1940s who wears a Freddie Krueger-like mask to fight crime.

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