All about short fiction with Art Taylor

I’m delighted to be joined today by Art Taylor. The short version of his bio is that he’s a great guy and a great writer. He’s here today to talk about one of his specialties – Short Stories. Art Taylor A more complete version of his bio would include Art’s credits as the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine. With that out of the way, and before I go on to novel length, let’s get to the good stuff. Short stories. TdeH: Thanks for joining us today. I live a little in awe of great short stories. They are like Japanese sushi knives. Precise and well honed. You’ve made a name for yourself as a writer of short stories. What drew you to this form?  AT: Thanks for having me, Tracee! Always enjoy the chance to chat about short fiction. TdeH: Ah, short fiction! I like that, much more evocative than short story. Sorry to interrupt, now back to your answer… AT: Either name works for me! To answer your question. Part of being drawn to short stories as a writer is having been a fan of them as a reader first. The Encyclopedia Brown mysteries were one of the first series that I followed—such gems those stories—and later, when I sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door as an elementary school fundraiser, I ended up ordering a subscription myself to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (maybe the only one I “sold”!), which introduced me to short mystery fiction at a much more advanced level. I used the word gem above, and I think that’s an accurate description of the best short fiction—something that’s perfectly, precisely cut (echoing that knife simile of your own, I guess), something that can marvel from various angles, and something brilliance is in inverse proportion to its compact size. (Did I carry that metaphor through OK?) TdeH: Gold star for metaphor continuity.  AT: As a writer—and one working often in a workshop setting in high school and college—I ended up trying to emulate the writers I was reading and admiring, whether Ed Hoch or Hugh Pentecost or others in EQMM or Hemingway or O’Connor or Welty in the classroom, and that included writing short instead of long. The workshop process in classes does, in fact, lean toward shorter fiction—something that can be read and critiqued in its entirety—and so that probably led me to feel more confident in writing short too, to develop those skills more. TdeH: Do you find that short fiction exercises a different part of the creative process than longer works? AT: I do—and in fact, while I’ve heard short story writers saying they struggle to write novels, I’ve heard the same thing in the opposite direction: novelists who struggle to write a short story. While some aspiring writers might think of the short story as a stepping stone toward writing novels, they do require different approaches. Short stories involve concision and subtraction and efficiency—cutting down a paragraph to the key detail or gesture or image that suggests larger things—rather than addition, with novels obviously involving more characters, more subplots, more… everything usually, a broader scope generally of character, plot, setting, and time. This is not to say that writers can’t do both, of course. But I do think that the best short stories can represent worlds as large as novels; they just do it in different ways. TdeH: Do you find a common thread binding your short fiction? AT: This is an interesting question, and one that I (honestly) struggle with myself. Ed Aymar, a good friend, once asked me if it was a challenge to my career that I wrote in such a variety of styles and subject matters (traditional here, noir there, etc.) since it all seemed antithetical to developing a brand. It was a revelatory question for me—not necessarily in a good way. And yet at the same time my writing group—and my wife Tara Laskowski too, always my first and finest reader—have emphasized that they can always hear my voice at the core of whatever I write, no matter how distant one story may be from the next in other ways. TdeH: I appreciate the idea of voice over brand. And I believe that you can have continuity of voice across genres. After all, most people read in a variety of genres – even if it is technically within one, say, from cozy mystery to hard boiled thriller. AT: I do think that my stories tend to revolve around several key themes, specifically relationships, the ties that bind, the responsibilities inherent in relationships, and the fall-out from not living up to those responsibilities in one way or another.  TdeH: You’ve already hinted at your answer, but I want to ask it straight out: I’ve often heard short stories lauded as a way into publishing. What’s your opinion about this?  AT: This takes some of my comments above in a different direction, of course. Before I was focused on craft, but from a business angle… well, I do think that short fiction publications might help toward other publishing opportunities, and I know it helped me specifically. Having some stories published, getting some attention for those stories, gave me a place in the mystery community that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and brought me to the attention of my publisher, Henery Press, and then to the publication of On the Road with Del & Louise (and from a craft angle, that story is a novel in stories, so there was actually an aesthetic component to all this too). So it’s possible to… I hesitate to say leverage but certainly it’s possible to build on success in one area toward success in another. TdeH: But not necessarily the path that is right for everyone? AT: Correct. I’ve heard from an agent friend that she’d rather start with a complete unknown when she’s trying to pitch a first novel to a publisher—someone to discover and debut. Many ways of looking at this, seems like. TdeH: Any advice for someone attempting their first work of short fiction – tips on story structure, theme, plot points? AT: My good friend and fellow short story writer Barb Goffman has said that a short story is about “one thing”—and keeping focus on that one thing may well go a long way toward making those moves I mentioned before, making those cuts to anything that’s not integral to the story being told. In my own short fiction workshops, I often talk about narrative arc in similar ways—using Janet Burroway’s discussion of Cinderella and her charts of the Cinderella story—to show how closely the movement of plot and of conflict relates to that “one thing” that the story is about, and I think that can be a good model for writers trying their hand at short fiction for the first time. What does a character want? What’s standing in the way of those desires? How do you navigate that character through that obstacle course—whether they reach the end of all those obstacles successfully or not? (And failure or disappointment can also be satisfying resolutions, of course. Compare the traditional Cinderella to Anne Sexton’s poem by the same name.) But that’s just a starting point, of course. In those same workshops, we also look at modular storytelling, at experiments in structure and form—at the many shapes a short story might take. Constraints may be part of the challenge in writing short—but finding ways around those constraints? What fun! What pleasures for both writer and reader too! TdeH: Art, thanks for spending time with us, and for sharing your insights into the world of short fiction. And congratulations on ALL of your awards! Learn more about Art and dip into his writing at arttaylorwriter.com, follow him on Twitter @ArtTaylorWriter, on Facebook at ArtTaylorShortStories, on Pinterest at arttaylorwriter and Instagram at arttaylorwriter

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