Short Stories Matter

James Scott Bell

As you know, we’ve been celebrating the release of Fresh Kills here on TKZ. It’s been a pleasure working with my blogmates, pros all, to bring you these new stories, at an attractive price. Look for Fresh Kills at amazon, scribd or smashwords.

My contribution to the anthology is “Laughing Matters,” a title that has more than one meaning, as you’ll find out. And that’s sort of what the best short stories do; they work on at least a couple of levels.

Certainly, the literary short story is like that. In college I got to take a writing workshop with Raymond Carver, and that’s what his stories are famous for. They have something going on up top, on the surface, but when you finish you realize there’s a rich layer underneath that you’ve missed (and I have to confess, I usually did, and would have to re-read each one a couple of times).

In the suspense or mystery category, you need to deliver a story that has a surprise in it somewhere, to keep the reader guessing. Jeffery Deaver has written two volumes of such tales in his Twisted series, and even challenges the reader to try to outguess him. It’s cool when it works, but it’s hard to do. Which is why this kind of story is every bit as challenging as the literary sort.

The germ of “Laughing Matters” came one day when I was thinking about all the standup comics in LA who never make it. I must have just seen some clip of a comedian doing post-Seinfeld observational humor (one of thousands) and just thought, this is dull. This is derivative. This guy’s not going to go very far.

Which reminded me of a time when I was living and acting in New York, and went to a comedy club for “open mike.” There were some funny guys, and then there was this one kid who was obviously onstage for the first time. The sort whose grandmother must have told him, “Sonny, you are so funny! You should go tell your jokes on television!”

Anyway, the kid comes out, he’s nervous, and tells a joke. It fell to the ground with a thud that echoed through the club. He got rattled. And you know what happens when you get rattled in front of the 11 p.m. crowd in New York City on open mike night? It was brutal. The kid made it through maybe two more jokes, neither of which worked, and then froze. As the crowd piled on with jeers and snorts, he stood there, choking the mike stand, unable to move or speak.

The emcee, noting what was going on, jumped in from the wings with his big smile, clapping his hands, shouting “Let’s hear it for _____ !” and then took the guy’s arm and guided him off the stage.

There must have been public hangings easier to watch.

So all of that came to me as I wrote the opening lines:

He died.

Pete Harvey, “The Harv” as he billed himself, just flat out died in front of the 11 p.m. crowd at the Comedy Zone.

Then I have Pete sitting at the bar afterward, drowning his sorrows, when a most interesting gent sits down next to him. And the story came to me in a flash, twists and all. This is, I’d wager, how the best short stories usually appear. But then you write, re-write and polish, and hopefully come up with something that works.

I’ve reclaimed my love of the short story, and have decided to keep writing them. Maybe I’ll put out my own collection sometime. It’s nice to have a market for stories again. Because short stories matter, it seems to me. A good story can deliver a hugely satisfying reading experience in small span of time.

FWIW, here are some of my favorite short stories, based on the wallop I felt at the end:

“Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway

“Soldier’s Home,” Ernest Hemingway

“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” William Saroyan

“A Word to Scoffers,” William Saroyan

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” J.D. Salinger

“The End of the Tiger,” John D. MacDonald

“Chapter and Verse,” Jeffery Deaver

Tomorrow, we return you to your regularly scheduled blog. It’s been a pleasure to offer you our wares in Fresh Kills. Thanks for taking us for a spin.

12 thoughts on “Short Stories Matter

  1. I don’t usually care for short stories (I usually want to know the “rest of the story” to quote Paul Harvey), but the ones ya’ll have done sound pretty good. I might just have to take a look. Thanks for working so hard to produce good reading material for the rest of us.

  2. I second your commnts, Jim. It’s been fun this week to not only have an opportunity to show how my story came about but to see how you and the rest of TKZ authors think and write. Having read and enjoyed all the stories in FRESH KILLS, I’m proud to be associated with everyone here, and fascinated by the diversity of storytelling found in our group.

  3. signlady, thanks for giving our stories a try. I think you’ll develop a taste for the form. And you’re welcome; we love our readers and are never happier than when we are laboring over stories and novels to give them.

  4. Well sir, having done a stint in stand-up and knowing both its bliss and its peril I can say I identified to some degree with your character. Luckily I was married at 20 and not interested in the sort of thing that would’ve got me into Harv’s shoes. Dude, good story, excellent.

  5. My two favorites are, “Why Don’t You Dance?” and “Cathedral,” so I’m incredibly envious that you were able to study under Carver, Jim.

    I agree, I just finished reading all my co-bloggers stories, and I was really impressed by the caliber. It’s an honor to be working with such fantastic writers every week.

  6. Thanks, Basil, for the good word about the story.

    Ditto, Michelle.

    Nik, thanks. The short story really does need a resurge, and this new e-world is just the thing for it.

  7. Hi! Your site is so awesome! The short story found in your site is
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  8. I couldn’t agree more, James, though I would say that over the past couple of years it has felt as though there’s been a shift in people’s interest in shorts, which is a wonderful thing. I’m interested to see where the short story fits in with the new eReader technology because there is so much potential there. Here’s hoping publishers et al get it right!


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