by Gayle Bartos-Pool
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 big 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 Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfect.
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, The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody.
Since I had created a past for Johnny, I could write stories about him when he worked for the mob back in New Jersey when he was younger; after all, I had discovered that 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 taught 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. She is now in three novels, not short stories in this case.
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 Anatomy of a Short Story I mention a short story is like an hors d’oeuvre. It consists of 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 10 to 25 pages, give or take. Or does he?
I think there is a new home for the short story. The Short Story Novel. 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 in any given collection that is resolved 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 in this blog and that is exactly 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 and published. I did just that in From Light TO DARK.
And to add one more thing to this blog, Johnny Casino isn’t the only short story character to be in a book of his own. Chance McCoy arrived this year. His first book is called Second Chance. There are more stories to come. And there is a second short story anthology called Only in Hollywood coming out next year. The book consists of various stand-alone stories, but one features a guy named Charles Miro, a former TV actor turned private eye. He works for a younger woman who owns the detective firm. There are several stories about these two coming up. You see, even a short story can magically turn itself into a book if you try.
12 thoughts on “The Long and Short of the Short Story”
I love the Johnny Casino series–and it’s fascinating to know that my other favorite of your “serial characters,” Gin Caulfield, has a connection to Johnny. Writers who can do short stories successfully have my utter admiration; I cannot be that succinct, but you have managed to pull it off again and again. Can hardly wait for “Only in Hollywood.” My kind of book!
Some of my short stories are 60 pages long, but that is less than a 350 page book. I try to get as much detail into each one to tell a complete story, just not more than necessary. But then again, my spy novels are over 500 pages each. Lots of detail in those.
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Your writing approach of creating short stories and tying them all together as you do is wonderful! I love how you do it and really enjoy your stories. I also really enjoyed your description in this post–a great one!
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I have created my own little world with these characters. Some of the stand-alone books actually have connections to both Johnny Casino and Gin Caulfield. I am even thinking of having one of the elves in my Christmas books become a private detective down in L.A. That will be even more connections.
So interesting about how Johnny became a fully fleshed out person as you progressed with your short stories and thinking about him and his backstories. Johnny’s growth reminded me of a sculpting class I once took-where with each pass a new level of creativity/involvement developed. I really liked reading your “short story novels” in that I would read a story a day and experience the full realm of reader enjoyment such as being pulled into a story, excitement of the chase/plot, and the satisfaction of an conclusion–if not an actual “The End” in one reading-curl-up. Excellent post. (For me personally, Chance McCoy has won my heart from Johnny Casino. Sorry Johnny…)
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I know what you mean about Chance McCoy. Maybe because he seems more vulnerable than Johnny, but than again, he has the backing many people pray they have. There will be more from him. A few stories are already written.
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Gayle, this is a great post, showing how many of your books developed. You have become a short story maven (as well as teacher) and a novelist as well. I remember reading that first Johnny Casino story and loving it. Putting them together in a “novel” has created a new genre as far as I’m concerned.
I envy the ease that you write your stories. I just submitted one to a contest – in which 450 other people also submitted. Ha! But it’s a start and it was fun.
I also can’t wait for more of Chance McCoy.
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I’m so glad I discovered you, Gayle. I look forward to your stories. Love your process.
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Thank you, Maggie. Just knowing my fellow bloggers at Writers in Residence has shown me that we all have different ways at arriving at our characters and plots.
Jackie, I wish you well on your short story submission. Your plot with its interesting twists sounds quite good. And I believe you covered the theme very well, too. Lots of color…
Love the idea of a “short story novel,” Gayle. And I found what your agent said about adding a love interest annoying. I had script that I’d optioned a bunch of times about a group of Viet Nam vets, all male. One (big) producer loved it, said it made him cry. But he wanted to add all sorts of women characters. That would have changed the nature of the story I was trying to tell, not that I have anything against women or women characters but they didn’t work for this. Eventually we went our separate ways. But sometimes things just don’t work for a particular story.
When my agent had said she wanted the romance angle, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. She also didn’t like me having a character marry another character the day his wife was killed. Changing it
changed the plot. I did it because she was trying to sell it to a big publisher. It didn’t sell, my agent and I went our separate ways, I changed the plot back to the original and it was published the right way. Too bad the publisher didn’t get to read it the way I wrote it. Sometimes you wonder who’s the writer, Paul.