Lilith Saintcrow: When A Short Story Won’t Stay Short For Long

Lilith Saintcrow is bad-ass. Fireside Magazine is also bad-ass. Hence they are a bad-ass team-up who will use your soul like a soggy dishrag. Lilith is here to talk about the rough birth of a short story — and what happens when that short story isn’t the end of the story.

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When Fireside asked me to do a short story for them, I was both thrilled and somewhat nervous. I had this idea — a woman, detached from almost every emotion, suddenly presented with a job she discovered she didn’t want to do.

There are some writers who find short stories somewhat easy. Not quite taking a fully-fibered-up crap, but close, with very little straining.

I am not one of them. My short story process generally goes like this:

Someone wants me to write a short story! Hooray!

Wait. Wait a second. That means I actually have to write a short story.

Goddammit.

…okay, I can do this. Maybe.

Throw myself at the idea four or five times, writing a substantial chunk each time.[1]

Toss them all into the Story Graveyard[2] because said ideas are either too complex for a short story or I decide they’re hideous. Throw myself at another two attempts. Toss those out too.

Frustrated weeping.

Staring into space. One or two more attempts, also tossed out.

Deadline approaching. Panic.[3]

Go back through every single attempt I tossed away. One or two hold promise.

Start from scratch. Story suddenly slides out like a watermelon through an episiotomy, looking completely different from any of the prior attempts.

Finish a draft of the story, go looking for bourbon or chocolate, don’t look at draft for a week.

Go back and discover that I’ve written a short story, and now all I have to do is wait for the editor to tell me they hate it, but that will be all right because after all that agony, I hate it too.

All of the above is to say I envy those who actually like writing short stories, or choose to work in that medium instead of just doing it because you know it’s good for you. Like exercise, or eating broccoli.[4]

But Fireside needed the story, I’d already agreed, and there was no retreat possible. I also didn’t want to send the money back.

Hey, I have kids, and they need to eat.

So I began feeling my way around the edges of the story. Mostly, I wanted to explore the idea of motherhood from inside the head of a woman who didn’t believe in anything but efficiency of emotion, efficacy of movement, and a complete lack of qualm over murder.

The more our society puts motherhood on a pedestal every May, the less attention is paid to the fact that it’s a dirty, dangerous, exhausting, thankless job.[5] There is a certain incandescent relief when someone openly admits as much; it validates one’s own less-than-Hallmark experiences in the parenting field.

At first, the mother in the proto-story had a name, and the child she found did not. As I made attempt after attempt, I began to realize that was the problem. I was fucking around with archetypes. Slowly, over various drafts and attempts, the picture shifted.

Normally a character’s name is part and package of the whole-soul deal one makes, a la Henry James and his characters — “Actively believe in us, and then you’ll see.” In this case, it was an impediment.

So I threw away everything I’d written so far, and all of a sudden, the story began to breathe.

She was a cyborg, you see. When you’re functionally immortal and just as functionally enslaved by a corporation that made you that way, deciding not to waste energy on emotion is a smart move. When, all of a sudden, you’re presented with the one job you told your handlers you would not perform, what do you do?

Thus was born Maternal Type, the short story. Fireside readers liked it, and in talking to Brian White, Fireside’s editor, I inadvertently let slip that it was only the beginning of the story.[6] The real fun, I had discovered, happened afterward, out in the radioactive waste with cowboys, mutants, cyborgs, hiveminds, corporate mining towns, and gigantic worms probably showing up because I’d reread some parts of Dune during the months of wrestling to write the goddamn short story and it had lodged firmly in my subconscious, as things tend to do when you jack into the ether and dredge fiction up from swirling, dangerous depths.

Brian’s editorial ears perked. Of course I could write more, I replied numbly, suspecting just what kind of trouble I was about to get myself into. The story had opened, like a puzzle box full of Pinheads just waiting to use hooks and chains and thinly veiled erotic horror to titillate a moviegoing crowd.

That’s part of my problem with short stories. They’re never the whole tale; they are the part of the iceberg you see. The rest — the chunk I founder on — lurks sharklike, ready to tear out your hull.

No, short stories are not really my cuppa. But a novel-length serial? That, I knew how to do.[7]

Thus was born She Wolf and Cub, my love song to (including but not limited to) Ogami Itto and Daigoro his son, cowboy movies, the Terminator movies, pro-choice protestors, every Wild Western trope I could lay my hands on, Kage Baker’s Company novels, and a mass of thoughts and feelings about motherhood.

Longtime readers will know one of the early attempts to write Maternal Type ended up as Pack, where the named narrator chooses to take on the burden of a half-feral child in a Cthulhu-infested postapocalyptic wasteland. That, in itself, surprised me — most of the short-story attempts end up in the mulch pile I call the Story Graveyard, sitting on my hard drive and fermenting, providing ballast and microbes to other works but not growing in their own right.

What also surprised me was that upon revising She Wolf for publication as a novel, I noticed things I hadn’t seen before. Like the theme of choice, of the liberating component of decision, like the idea that motherhood, when not forced upon a passive and resentful subject, is an active verb.

I tell new writers not to worry about themes. They are carrion eaters, showing up everywhere there’s food. You won’t be able to swing a dead operative in your cyborg-assassin-cowboy stories without hitting one, or two, or a whole passel of them. Like that other worry, voice, they will come if you produce enough work for all those things you think about, all those things you hide, every embarrassment and joy rub through one’s social persona to make you the person you are.

Storytelling is a continuous process of peeling back interior layers. Not that readers should confuse authors with their characters, no. Writing as an internal event strips those layers, and the multiple choices made — each word, each sentence, each event — echoes while they sandblast the inside of a writer.

Sound pleasant? No? Well, like parenthood, nobody ever said writing was easy.

The day I finished revision, dinner was pizza because my brain was fried. The kids love this part of the process. When copyedits or revisions land, the joy of Mum being too tired to cook is somewhat tempered by the fact that I will be in my office swearing as if I’m putting together Ikea furniture, often at top volume.

“So you finished?” my daughter asked.

“Yeah. I think.”

“So…” They tend to get them mixed up. “Which one’s this?”

“The cyborg western.”

My son’s ears perked up. “Oh, that one!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Lots of murder and riding camels.”

“Both good things,” my daughter said sagely, taking a large bite of pepperoni-crusted cheese.

They, like the short stories, are sometimes difficult, but in the end, definitely my children, and no-one else’s.

Motherhood has its price. What is bought with that coin marks you forever. I knew that, but the cyborg didn’t.

Now, with the finished book out in the world, she does.

[1] Incidentally, this is the way I approach most things. I’m told it’s very amusing to watch.

[2] See below.

[3] This is where my writing partner gets tired of me.

[4] Before you yell at me for hating broccoli, look, I don’t. It’s just not a luxurious food I can roll around in. Like cheese. Or dark chocolate. Or Thai peanut sauce.

[5] See Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood.

[6] He may remember this part differently. I suspect bourbon was a component on both sides.

[7] Well, really, writing a novel doesn’t teach you how to write a novel, it just teaches you to write the one you’re writing now, and all that. But after having done it 50+ times, I think I can stumble through the process without too much frustrated banging my head on my desk. Maybe. Someday.

* * *

Lilith Saintcrow is the author of several fantasy, science fiction, romance, and Young Adult series. She lives in Vancouver, Washington, with two children, two dogs, three cats, a guinea pig, and various other assorted strays.

Lilith Saintcrow: Website | Twitter

She-Wolf And Cub: Amazon | Apple | Kobo | B&N | Goodreads

12 comments

  • I know all about the feeling of short stories that won’t stay short… My debut novella, coming out April 18th, started as a 6,000 word short, and is now less than a hundred words shy of 40,000.

  • “That’s part of my problem with short stories. They’re never the whole tale; they are the part of the iceberg you see.” — I can so relate. Virtually every flash fiction I’ve ever written is a snapshot in time, and a good dozen are so are in my “consider using sorcery to turn this into a novel at some point” pile.

  • There is another approach to this that seems to have become part of my methodology.

    Awhile ago I realized I write best in bite-sized pieces, perhaps the outgrowth of a career as a journalist and a predilection for essays and short stories. So, much of what I write are collections of short stories and vignettes on common themes or which, when assembled in some sort of order, tell a story, much as a novel does. I’ve taken to writing novels now, too, having finished three (at least two of which might be publishable for mostly general audiences). But, even with my novels, chapters (more of those bite-sized pieces) form the cornerstone of plot and story development. My mind, such as it is, goes into spasms when I think of sitting down to write 85,000 words, but chapter-by-chapter, I get there. And I think the story is more interesting to the reader as a result since each chapter has to both tell its own story and help build the entirety.

  • I feel like that too! It always drives me crazy when I read short stories, because I feel like there’s so much more to the story. What did X do after the story ends? How will Y live with the consequences of his actions? But I feel like if I imagine (or write) what I think will happen, it isn’t either true to the characters, or true to the writing style of the author who wrote the original story. Uggg.

  • Love this! I was nodding as I read. A lot! If it helps, I also have trouble writing short. I am currently 42k into a 20k short. I suspect it will top out at 60 and by the time I’ve tied up the loose ends closer to 80. I find I start with an idea and then realise it’s actually the end of the book … So then, of course I have to find out what happens in the beginning.

    The results of your efforts sound brilliant. I will have to go and find out more.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • This post reminds me of Jack White’s description of how he plays guitar: he calls it a battle. I may have stumbled across an approach to writing that may actually work for me, thanks to you, Ms. Saintcrow. I send my humble gratitude your way. :-)

  • March 31, 2017 at 4:57 PM // Reply

    Liked the part about your kids and how they’re impacted or impact your writing. Too many times I’ve had to call for pizza after a long day of work or thrown away a good idea to the recycle bin only to find it later on the fridge with crayon doodled over it bringing new perspective to it (and then used it).

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