Wednesday, May 4, 2011
The Long and Short of the Short Story by Gayle Bartos-Pool
Gayle Bartos-Pool (who also writes as G.B. Pool) is the author of the Ginger Caulfield mysteries. Her short stories have been featured in several anthologies including "Landmarked for Murder" and "Dying in a Winter Wonderland". She brought the fledgling Sinc/LA Speakers Bureau to life, holding more than 80 Author Panels and events over her three year term, and she teaches short story writing seminars. Like her Caulfield character, she once served as a Private Investigator, is a crack shot and lifetime NRA member, and is married to the love of her life.
Gayle, can you tell us about your journey into short story writing and what led you to write a Johnny Casino collection?
After writing my first three published short stories, something happened: Readers responded favorably to one of my characters. They liked this guy’s personality.
Of course a writer is supposed to craft memorable characters, but those are usually found in a novel. A writer has more room to flesh out characters in a 300-page novel, not a 25-50 page short story. But something was happening with my “Johnny Casino” character. His personality was too large to stay within 28 pages.
That’s when I realized I had more Johnny Casino stories in me. In fact, by the time I was finished, I had nine stories and 388 pages. That’s called a book. I had turned a one-shot story into what is basically a series.
But the journey was also a learning experience.
I wrote a batch of these stories and showed them to my agent. She liked them, but…she wanted more information about Johnny. She thought the stories needed a love interest, but I didn’t want the short stories bogged down with schmaltz. That wasn’t what I envisioned for my character. But I hadn’t written any reason why Johnny didn’t have a woman in his life, so I wrote a backstory. That’s when I learned a lot of new things about him. It was so detailed, it turned into the second story in the first collection.
The backstory also gave me a different view of Johnny. He had his dark side as well as his sarcastic side. He was becoming a three-dimensional person. I started learning so much about him, more stories popped up. One was so compelling, it became the focal point of the second collection.
Since I had created a past for Johnny, I could write stories about him when he worked in the mob back in New Jersey when he was younger, after all, I had discovered his father was a high ranking guy in the D’Abruzzo crime family. I could also do a story explaining how he became a private detective after he fled to California.
And here’s a heads up for all you multi-tasking short story/novel writers. The character I created who teaches Johnny how to be a first class P.I. is the heroine in another mystery series I have been writing. I figured, if people like Johnny, they just might like the novel featuring Gin Caulfield.
The last thing I learned on this journey is that there is a different kind of short story out there. In classes I teach about The Art of the Short Story I mention a short story is like an hors d’oeuvre. It’s a few really good things served up in a small bite. Whether it’s a handful of cool characters in a terrific location involved in a catchy plot, the short story gets you to one location in the fastest way possible.
In contrast, a novel can take you far and wide with a cast of thousands with sub-plots and bits of interesting background stuff just for the fun of it, and the writer can use 300 to 400 pages to accomplish the task. But the short story writer has to chop out unnecessary characters, places, plot twists and trim down the description to its bare bones and do it in 5 to 25 pages. Or does he?
I think there is a new kind of short story out there. The Novel Short. The length of each individual story can be anywhere from 25 to 70 pages, but the main thing is to have a single set of characters, or in my case, one main character, in every story. Several characters make repeat appearances, and I mention one sub-plot in several of the earlier stories until it’s solved in a story of its own. Each story reveals more and more about my main character and the final story in book one ends with a haunting question that will be answered in book two.
If this sounds like a television series, you betcha. I called it a series earlier and that is how I visualize The Johnny Casino Casebook, whether it stays in book form or hits the TV screen. His stories might be in the “short story” format, but his entire life is a novel.
And for those of you who prefer to create something completely stand-alone in each short story you write, those individual tales can always be put into your own collection. I have one of those, too.