January 19, 2012

Why I Still Write Short Stories: a guest post by Joe McKinney

I was recently asked if I'd care to review Joe McKinney's new collection via Redrum Press. While the book sounds promising, my review commitments are still stacked high. But by virtue of hearing plenty of praise for the guy's writing from other authors whom I'm familiar with, I offered Joe a chance to at least get the word out on my blog for his book. So, here's a little about Joe and his work in his own words. Enjoy.
Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World and Other Stories.

Why I Still Write Short Stories
by Joe McKinney

When I published my first novel, Dead City, back in 2006, my fellow homicide detectives at the San Antonio Police Department asked how long I was going to stay on the job. There's an assumption, I guess, among folks who don't write for a living that all writers get a regular delivery of cash dumped on their front lawn. Let me clear the air of that now. No such truck full of cash exists...at least for 99% of the writers out there.

That said, if you work hard, and you're lucky as hell, you can do pretty well for yourself as a writer. I won't be so crass as to talk about wages, but I have worked hard at my craft, and I have been luckier than I deserve, and as a result, for the last few years, I've done better as a writer than I have as a cop.

But nearly every penny of that windfall comes from my novels. I've had about a dozen short stories land in premium markets. One in particular, a zombie novella included in an upcoming graphic novel crossover project, brought in almost as much as Dead City did on its initial advance. But, as I said, good paying short stories are about as rare as hen's teeth. Even the premium markets keep a close eye on the purse strings.

So why write them? Why waste time on short stories when novels pay so much better? Furthermore, most writers who have hit their stride and are lucky enough to lock themselves into multi-book contracts have to deal with the pressures of looming deadlines. This has become a nearly constant state of affairs for me. At any one given time I usually have four or five projects due. Trust me, I am grateful for that. I wouldn't have it any other way. But it does lead to an awful lot of hand-wringing and fretting as I wonder how I'm going to get it all done. And then there's the day job to think about. And my family. And time to just sit and read. I wish I could clone myself. I wish I could cram 72 hours worth of activity into every day. But unfortunately, I can't. This, inevitably, leads me to having to turn away great offers to participate in various projects. I hate saying no, but that's just the reality of the business.

Anyway, I still write stories. I love them. They are the reason I got into writing in the first place. I remember, as a kid of twelve or thirteen, spending whole afternoons up in my room, scribbling out some horror or science fiction tale on a yellow legal pad lifted from my Dad's study. I'd finish the story, staple it together, and leave it at the corner of my desk for a few weeks before, inevitably, it'd end up in the trash. There's no telling how many of my stories now occupy landfills around the Houston area. A bunch, I'm sure.

That trend continues to this day, although I don't hand write them as much anymore, and I don't throw them away. But why write them? I haven't answered that question. Loving something is great, but that alone doesn't explain why I keep coming back to them. I mean, I love roller coasters too, but I don't sneak away every chance I get, or loose sleep, just so I can go ride them. There's something else going on here.

For me, short stories are where the real surprises happen. They are the test environments where I can explore any side trail off the main career path that happens to catch my eye. Writing a novel is an intense undertaking. It requires complete absorption within the characters and their world. That kind of absorption comes at a cost. When I finish a novel there is always a sense of ennui and separation anxiety. It's hard to walk away from anything that makes you care that much. Authors who write a series, or, in my case, made their reputations writing in a narrow field, such as zombies, have an added complication. Not only do they risk the ennui and separation anxiety, but also the danger of stagnation. For them, for me, it is difficult to keep their skills sharp when they are constantly revisiting the same world. Short stories do that for me. They keep me sharp by affording me the opportunity to challenge myself. They help writing remain something that I love, rather than a tedious chore I have to slog my way through just to satisfy a deadline.

I really got a sense of that when I was writing the story notes for my recent collection, The Red Empire and Other Stories (Redrum Press, 2012). Describing the stories, and recounting when they written, gave me a unique retrospective on my life as a professional writer. Through those notes, and through the eight stories I chose for the book, I reconnected with what I really love about writing - the thrill of telling a story.

The short story is not dead in modern America. Literary mainstream fiction has done a lot to sap the life out of it, but they haven't killed it. Storytelling is alive and well in genre fiction, and I, for one, am delighted to keep it going through short stories.

Thanks again to Joe for contributing this post. If anyone wants to learn some more about Joe and his new collection, be sure to visit his site, linked at the top of this post, or pay a visit to Redrum Horror. Or maybe just click on this link to browse the book on Amazon.com: The Red Empire and Other Stories.


  1. Very well said.

    When it comes to short stories, Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' are definite re-reads, as are any of Richard Matheson's collections, and I'll freely admit I still get excited when Stephen King releases a new collection.

    Otherwise, though, I find that I've largely gravitated away from best-of, tribute, or generic 'genre' based short story collections. I will still happily pick-and-choose my way through a themed collection, but I find I don't have the same patience as I do with a novel. If a short story hasn't grabbed me in the first 5 pages, I'm not likely to bother with the other 20.

  2. Great guest post, and articulating a point that can't be stressed enough: short stories are little diamonds (well, the good ones are). I'm always amazed meeting literate, educated readers who "never read short stories". I think the notion has somehow got out that they are just truncated novels, when in fact they are anything but.

    Good stuff.

  3. I read more short stories than anything else. Maybe it's because of the kids... my kids. They tend to control my attention span these days.

    I'll always love shorts.

  4. Short stories really are a labor of love over lucre.

    Stephen King's stories and anything Ellen Datlow throws in an anthology ... lots of places to go, but those are the big two sure things for me.

    Thanks again for the guest post, Joe.