In the past few months I’ve really started enjoying reading short stories. Never paid much attention to them when I was younger. I’ve bought paperback anthologies by Chekhov and Eudora Welty and dug through my storage locker and pulled out anthologies by John Cheever and Wallace Stegner. I went down to the library and took out an anthology by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s all amazing stuff.
The challenge is to transfer this sensibility somehow into the realm of the fantasy story. Which means figuring out what those incredible authors are doing. It has to do with theme, and the careful use of language, and finding a moment in the lives of two or three characters in which something happens.
Well, that’s one of the challenges. There are others. I have a couple of new stories ready to send out, but the magazines are mostly sloooooowww to respond, so another challenge is to find more markets. Paying markets, that is. There are certainly websites that will splat your fantasy story up there where all and sundry can read it, but those “opportunities” don’t interest me right now. Maybe in five years, if nobody has bought some story or other.
I could submit stories to the mainstream markets, but that’s sort of like wearing a “Kick Me” sign. You want rejection slips? Send your stuff to The New Yorker. It’s not just that the competition is ridiculous; that’s only part of it. The other part is, their standards are stupidly high. I can write well enough to sell to the genre market (sometimes — I get plenty of rejections there too, though sometimes in the form of a polite note from the editor, which is nice). But is my language incandescent enough for my story to be rubbing elbows with one by John Updike? Clearly not.
Another challenge is to keep myself psyched up to write more new stories. Life presents so many distractions! I started working on a new story last night, and tonight I’m too beat to concentrate on it, I can feel this. It will still be there tomorrow. I’ll work on it then.
A good way to stay psyched up is to read great stories. You can read the whole thing in twenty minutes, or forty-five at most. And if it’s a good story, you want to go back to the first page and read it again.
Over the years I’ve read at least half a metric ton of mystery novels, but the only reason to read a mystery a second time is if you read it so long ago you don’t remember who done it. Even the best mystery writers don’t produce luminous prose or deep insights into their characters. Those elements would only get in the way of the plot.
A literary short story often doesn’t have much of a plot. Two people meet, and have a conversation, and then go their separate ways. And you get to sit there and think about what happened in that scene, and work out what the author was driving at.
That kind of story is like a painting, to my way of thinking. It’s a moment in time, captured by the artist. The moment has a certain texture. You can contemplate the balance and relationships between the foreground and the background. But beyond the motionless imagery, you can cast your imagination forward and backward in the lives of the characters, based on the hints the author provides.
Yeah, it’s a very special kind of painting. And it requires neither canvas nor turpentine.