Novelists and short story writers can be classified as different groups, with some overlap. In a workshop on erotic fiction that I ran recently for a local writers’ group, a man complained that he couldn’t find a publisher for his erotic romance novel, which was well over 100,000 words. My advice was to write something much shorter and try to get it published somewhere, so he could begin to attract readers. That way, he could put himself on the radar and increase the chances that a publisher would take a chance on his novel someday.
The novelist showed me a scene from his manuscript, in which one lover feeds a black olive to another lover. That’s all that happens, but the giver’s fingers, the olive itself, and the mouth, tongue, lips and teeth of the recipient are all described in sensuous detail. The scene could have been revised into a free-verse poem, in which case it could have been enjoyed on its own. The richly textured descriptions and the leisurely pace made it clear to me why the complete, unabridged narrative is a long slog. The writer claimed that he couldn’t write anything shorter because his brain doesn’t work that way.
As a short story writer, I’m predisposed to think that no one in our time could launch a career as a published writer by writing a novel first, but of course I could be wrong. In fact, as a student of literature, I know this has been done before. It’s just that I can’t imagine spending the time and effort to write a novel, then sending it to numerous publishers or agents, only to get chirping crickets in response because no one in the publishing world has ever seen my pen name before.
What would I write if the likelihood of getting it published were not a consideration? I honestly don’t know. I’ve written many stories to fit calls-for-submissions, most of which have a maximum word-count of 10,000 words, sometimes as low as 2,000. Fitting a coherent story into a limited number of words is an enjoyable puzzle. If the CFS calls for a well-known setting (such as Paris, London, New York), the space that can be devoted to characterization, dialogue, and plot all shrinks accordingly. A story focused on dialogue or description must have a simpler plot, while a complex plot that includes foreshadowing, dramatic irony, and suspense tends to limit the other elements. If I can’t solve the puzzle before the deadline, I simply set aside the work in progress, and return to it later.
The rewards of writing short stories to meet deadlines are obvious: an editor usually responds within a few weeks, not months or years. If the piece is rejected, it is then still available to be revised and sent out again. If the story is accepted, the editor usually sends editing recommendations, and negotiations can begin. Once the writer and editor can agree on how the story should look, publication in an anthology usually follows fairly quickly.
In the length of time it would take to write a novel, let alone to proofread it, revise it, send it out, and wait for responses, a writer can have the satisfaction of seeing his/her pen name in several print anthologies.
I assume there are other writers like me who love to collect calls-for-submissions and then consider the possibilities. Could I write a murder mystery of under 6,000 words? (I discovered that the answer was yes.) Can I write steampunk? Yes, but the sci-fi element in my stories tends to be more like magic, simply because I don’t know enough about science or technology, even of the steam-driven variety.
The downside of writing short stories, of course, is that they are less immersive than novels. The imaginary worlds of the Harry Potter books, of Lord of the Rings, or of the Star Wars movies would be harder to convey in under 10,000 words. And some stories just seem to need more breathing-room. (See my comment about unfinished stories that didn’t fit the guidelines.)
Another downside to writing short fiction is that a writer can collect a virtual towering stack of stories which were only published once, by now-defunct publishers, or were never published because they were written for a specific theme or context, and were rejected.
Early in 2019, I whined on-line about my pile of gently-used and rejected stories. A publisher who had published an earlier collection of my erotica contacted me about putting together a new one. We then discussed how to narrow down the contents. Would erotica go with erotic romance, plus speculative fiction, including a ghost story? The editor/publisher was willing to combine these genres because we agreed on a broad theme: stories about, or including, lesbian relationships.
The new book, Spring Fever and Other Sapphic Encounters (Renaissance Publishing), was launched in Kindle in June.
Here is an excerpt from “Madame Blanche,” my version of a French fairy tale from the 1600s, about two lovers whose true selves are hidden under misleading appearances:
Blanche had large eyes as green as emeralds, which she would fix on her guest whenever she spoke. The gaze of the little cat made Val feel as though her very thoughts were heard and accepted. She hoped Lady Blanche could not guess what lay under her manly attire.
After luncheon, all the cats and their human visitor mounted wooden horses in the stable yard, and galloped to a place where rats were as numerous as stars in the night sky. What a hunt it was! Val had brought her bow and arrows with her, and she fired at the prey while her feline companions leapt from their mounts to attack the biggest rats with teeth and claws. Some of the rats fought fiercely enough to injure their attackers, and then the wounded cat-courtiers jumped back onto their wooden horses to return to the castle where a cat-physician awaited.
And so Val spent many days in the delightful company of Lady Blanche and her companions, who grew accustomed to the human in their midst. During court balls, Val danced with the little cat in her arms to compensate for the great difference in their heights.
When Lady Blanche needed rest, as she often did during the day, she sought out Val and curled up on her lap. Val learned that her furry companion welcomed Val’s touch. Blanche often bumped Val’s hand to show that she wished to have her ears rubbed or to be scratched under the chin, and when Val stroked her back, she shivered in ecstasy. As the lady cat’s eyes closed and she purred contentedly, the warmth of her little body would permeate Val’s trousers and awaken her hidden womanhood, including the button of flesh that so longed to be touched.
In short, Val fell in love in a way she found more surprising than anything she could imagine. “Lady,” she told her hostess one day, “I don’t know how this could be, but I love you so much that I wish I could marry you. Alas! If you cannot become a woman or tell me how to change your form, could you not ask the one who bewitched you to change me into a handsome tom-cat?”
The answer was like an arrow piercing Val’s heart. “No, my love.”
Jean Roberta was born in the western United States, and moved to the prairie region of Canada as a teenager with her parents. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a student writing contest sponsored by a major Canadian financial institution. All nine student winners were asked to write a brief passage on “what Canada means to me” for publication in The Canadian Magazine, a weekend newspaper supplement. Most of the other winners took their inspiration from the national anthem (“O Canada”), but Jean wrote: “Canada is a small but useful ball bearing in the greasy machinery of world politics.” Thus she began her literary career by writing the unexpected. She has continued down this road ever since.
Jean Roberta still lives in Canada, where she has taught English at the local university for over 25 years, and now also teaches credit courses in Creative Writing.
Her diverse short stories (mostly erotic) have appeared in over one hundred print anthologies, an out-of-print novel, an out-of-print story collection, three single-author collections (Obsession, Each Has a Point, The Princess and the Outlaw) and a novella, The Flight of the Black Swan. Anthologies including her work have won awards from Lambdalit, EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection) and Independent Publishers Association. She has written news articles, scholarly non-fiction, blog posts and reviews.
In 2004, her one-act play about the politics of smoking and gender identities, Smoke and Mirrors, was performed by professional actors as part of Loud ‘n Queer, an annual event produced by the local Globe Theatre.
Jean believes in tolerating everything except intolerance.
The opinion pieces she wrote for a monthly column, Sex Is All Metaphors (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas), are available as an e-book. Under her actual family name, she contributed a chapter to The Vampire Goes to College: Essays on Teaching with the Undead, and she co-edited an anthology of scholarly articles: OutSpoken: Perspectives on Queer Identities (University of Regina Press, 2013), to which she contributed an article on a controversial “lesbian” novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928).
She married her long-term, Chilean-born female partner, Mirtha Rivera, on Halloween weekend in 2010. (Mirtha made the historical outfits for both of them.) More here: http://www.JeanRoberta.com
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