When some people think of Horror, they think of movies and hot buttered popcorn, or a chill October night dressed like ghosts and vampires with multi-colored leaves crunching under foot. Other people remember that really dark and stormy night spent checking all the doors and window locks after an evening with a spine-broke paperback novel by a favorite author. But few of us think of short stories…and therein lies the rub.
Horror today is the domain of the short fiction writer. Anthologies are the new novel. How one gets into an anthology is a trickier subject; there are “hidden” calls for submissions, frequently on message boards or blogs or blog comments, sometimes in literary or genre magazines. Sometimes the call is for the unpublished as well as the published, other times there are restrictions or criteria to be met. Finding these calls can be tricky; and the best way in is still to be nominated by or noticed in another publication.
The roots of written Horror lie in storytelling and myth. But the real business of Horror began with the craft of short story. So if you want to be a Horror writer, you need to read the past. There are fortunately, endless collections of classic Horror shorts. They read differently, have unfamiliar syntax, use unfamiliar idioms and outdated vocabulary, and frequently utilize oddly arranged sentences in long and detailed paragraphs. But this is where Horror begins – in the quiet lulling of the reader into a false state of security, where one learns how to weave a tale and build tension, how to yank the door open to untold horrors… in 30,000 words or less. These are the stories that tilled the soil which begat all we have savored since. And the art form is back, thanks to the crisis in publishing that has obliterated much of the market for novel-length works – especially by unknown writers.
For the novice or amateur writer, that means one needs to be ready. You should not “wait” until you find a venue: deadlines are a pressure you don’t need if you are new to the format, and the window for submission may be surprisingly small. You need to have a nice stable of stories of varying length which you feel relatively satisfied with and that are capable of fulfilling general criteria. Short stories are not “breezy” little affairs; they are not afterthoughts. They are as serious an endeavor as novels – only in a lot less words. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is plot, and character, and structure, and pace. There had also better be revision; this is not a slap-dash art form. This is an exercise in making every word count and counting every word. There will be word limits.
There are four types of short fiction:
· The Novella: 30,000-50,000 words
· The Short Story: anything under 30,000 words, and typically 4,000-6,000 words, with 1,500-3,000 words most common
· The Short Short Story: typically 1,500 words or fewer
· Flash Fiction: currently under some debate, but typically accepted as 55 words (no more, no less)
For those not used to thinking in such terms as word count, it will pay to get used to it. For one thing, with less novels being published annually, the chances of at least your first publication being a short story of some sort just went up. For another thing, learning to write to word count is a vital talent. Even if you land a contract for a novel, you will no doubt be given limitations to conform to, one of which will probably be a word count. Furthermore, whether you are lucky enough to have a short story or a novel published, you need to be prepared to make revisions. This means you need to learn how to make cuts to works you thought inviolable.
Revision can be painful to the uninitiated. This is your baby, a piece of yourself left on the page. But you must learn to be ruthless, to separate the creation process from the polishing process. It is not unlike that scenario high school once gave you about the bomb shelter that has only enough room for a percentage of the survivors of nuclear holocaust. Cuts will be greeted with wails of anguish and the gnashing of teeth. Characters may have to be consolidated or eliminated completely. Paragraphs may need to be banished or sent to another manuscript draft in the hopes of finding shelter. But you will have to learn how to tell the story in exactly so many words.
This is not as bad as it first sounds. In fact, my first attempts to tackle a short short story resulted in a bonanza of actual short stories. It took over twenty tries to get a short short story, and that one is not all that good; so I now have incentive to make a lot more short stories from future failed short short attempts. I peek at flash fiction on the internet, wonder at the particular talent that takes and root about in my mind for something workable to try my hand at it. But for me flash fiction remains a mirage yet in the distance... perhaps a future source of short short stories…
Still, in trying to constrain the self and tell the tale – whether as a short story, a short short story or even flash fiction – one learns how to write short stories. In reading short story collections one learns how others did it. In reading Horror anthologies, one learns what editors think is good story-telling. So embracing this move from novel writing is not altogether a bad thing. Learning how to manage the unpacking of plot, the depth of character and monster building in one hand and keeping the pruning shears in the other teaches the vigilant writer how to best utilize time and words in all forms of writing. It is also good preparation for learning the process of submission, rejection, and eventual graceful acceptance.
So how does one get started if one feels disconnected?
· Start reading. Read some mainstream short fiction, and read your genre.
· Read self-help books on the form (How to Write a Short Story: The Ultimate Guide to Putting It All Together in Your Head and On The Page by John Vorwald and Ethan Wolff, 2008 Spark Publishing, is one such gem. Writer’s Digest Books is another treasure trove)
· Start practicing and write. (Remember, it doesn’t have to be good: you want to fulfill the requirements, to ‘do the assignment.’)
· Find prompts. You can find story suggestions (called prompts) right here in Open Salon (http://open.salon.com/blog/os_wednesday_fiction_club), at Writer’s Digest.com, various internet sites, or just read some blurbs on the backs of novels and rewrite a storyline into your own plot and word restriction.
· Start submitting, just to get the feel of understanding how to interpret writer’s guidelines and to learn that rejection isn’t lethal.
· Just start. (There is always the Delete Key! No one has to know!)
At the end of the day, we are all victims in this publishing nightmare – seasoned writers and novices alike. Who knows how long the doldrums will last before the publishing industry will regain its footing. Right now that is “down time” to hone your skills. Take a note from the Marines: Stay Alert, Stay Alive. Be ready when the monster awakes… really. Don’t fall asleep; I’ve seen what happens on page 362, and it’s not pretty.