Thursday, March 22, 2018

Short stories: How to satisfy the reader who wants “more”

Recently I had a conversation with a well-read young couple. Like me, they enjoyed mysteries, the classics, and literary fiction. When they asked me what I was working on, I said I was finishing my third novel and planned to focus on short stories for a while.

"Really?" The man looked doubtful. "I know that writers like writing short stories, but do readers like reading them?"

“What do you think about short stories?” I had a pretty good idea what they thought. Still I asked.

“They’re too, well, short.”

The woman added, “Just when I’m getting into the characters, the story ends.”

Is their reaction a common one? I expected that it was. I’ve heard that the popularity of the ebook has made short stories attractive to readers. I didn’t do extensive research, but a quick Google search told me that readers, while they did read short stories, preferred a novel. As for ebooks, I hear different stats on them as well. But that’s a subject for another post.  

I didn’t think to ask my young couple how they would feel about a story collection. I just finished Shooting Hollywood: The Diana Poole Stories by Melodie Johnson Howe. These mysteries are not only beautifully written, but they all feature Diana Poole, an actress/amateur sleuth, as well as other recurring characters. So if you take a liking to Diana, you’ll find her in the next story. And the next. Perfect for the reader who wants continuity and character growth. If you really like Diana, she's also the sleuth in the author's novels. Isn't the cover for Shooting Hollywood exceptional?

Some authors feature different characters in each story in their collections. One example is Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. In Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, the title character appears in each interrelated story. When I turned the last page I felt like I had read a novel. Then there's Art Taylor's On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories.    

Other authors with published collections include Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Katherine Mansfield, and Gayle Bartos-Pool. There are hundreds more.

And so I have a collection on my TBW (to be written) list. The stories will definitely include the same main character—maybe Hazel Rose, but … maybe not—with different story lines. I will allow for character growth from story to story. I will keep the reader who wants “more” in mind.  

I’ve posted about short stories before, here on Novelspaces, and on Will Kill for a Story. 

Last year at Malice Domestic I was part of a panel on short stories with Leone Ciporin, Teresa Inge, Alan Orloff, K.M. Rockwood, and Mo Walsh. I get to do it again next month, this time with Michael Bracken, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Rosemary Shomaker, and Mary Sutton. James Lincoln Warren will moderate. I’m so excited!  

What do you think about writing short stories? What do your readers think?

Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and to the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and two overly-indulged cats.

Instagram: authormaggieking

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Amy M. Reade said...

I still need to work on my short stories! It's hard for me to come up with ideas that can be fleshed out in a short format. I think the idea of having a collection of short stories featuring the same characters is a great idea--I would think such a collection might appeal to the young couple you mentioned. I know it would appeal to me. Great post!

Maggie King said...

Thanks, Amy. I love writing short stories, but they're not for everyone. Do what you like best, that's my motto.

Liane Spicer said...

Interesting reaction from the young couple. I love to read short stories but I do love novels more. I also write both formats. Over the past few years I've written mostly short stories, some stand-alone and some featuring the same character(s). Here's a funny thing. I'd made a note of an idea for a short story about 5 years ago. In 2015 I sat down to write it and it somehow grew into a full-length novel. That had not been my plan at all!

Maggie King said...

Liane, Your characters had a lot more to say, and do, than you thought! It's interesting how they "take over" our process.

Paul D. Marks said...

I've heard that too - and that the only people who read short stories are other writers. I don't know if it's true, but some stories that we might want to tell just don't rate a whole book. And in some ways it's harder to write short stories than novels since you have to do it all in such a short space. What I personally don't like are short-shorts or flash fiction. There you truly don't have a chance to know the characters and they're mostly just like one-liner jokes with a punchline.

Maggie King said...

Thanks again, Paul. Keep writing your shorts. And longs.