Friday, July 16, 2010

But I don't write short stories by Bill Cameron

Critically-acclaimed mystery novelist Bill Cameron is the author of the dark, gritty mysteries Chasing Smoke and Lost Dog, both featuring irascible Portland homicide cop Skin Kadash. Skin makes his third appearance in Day One (Tyrus Books), available June 2010. New York Times Bestselling Portland author Chelsea Cain describes Day One as "an utterly engrossing page-turner."

Chasing Smoke received a starred review from Library Journal, and Booklist declared, "it engages the reader on an emotional as well as literary level." It was a finalist for the 2009 Spotted Owl Award for best Northwest mystery.  Lost Dog was nominated for the 2008 Rocky Award and was a finalist for the 2008 Spotted Owl Award. His short fiction has appeared in Spinetingler Magazine, the Killer Year anthology, and Portland Noir, as well as on Lit 103.3: Fiction for the Ears. His latest story can be found in First Thrills (Forge Books).

Bill lives with his wife and poodle in Portland, Oregon, where he also serves as staff to a charming, yet imperious cat. He is an eager traveler and avid bird-watcher, and likes to write near a window so he can meditate on whatever happens to fly by during intractable passages.

Bill blogs every other Thursday at Criminal Minds, tweets at  or you can learn more at

 But I don't write short stories.
This thought used to come to me any time someone suggested I write a short story, and I'm talking all the way back to high school. In the eleventh grade, I had an assignment to write a story of an epic journey—three to five pages. I turned in 27, and felt that wasn't nearly enough. The teacher wrote at the bottom of page five: "I quit reading here." Sure, I got an A, but obviously the story was a failure because I hadn't managed to make her want to keep reading. Of course, I was a couple of decades away from understanding that teachers may have better things to do than read my yapping.

In college creative writing classes, I usually turned in chapters for my assigned short stories.

"This doesn't have an ending."

Because it's a chapter, I'd say.

"You're supposed to write a short story."

But I don't write short stories.

"You need to turn in a short story."

I'd respond with panic.

Last fall, when Anne Frasier asked me to contribute to an anthology she was spearheading, my first response was to be flattered. My second was to freak out. Wait. No, my third response was to freak out. My second was to say yes, which led to response number three.

The internal conversation went something like this:

Insecure Bill: Oh my god, what have I done?

Snarky Bill: You stuck your foot in your mouth.

Writer Bill: Great, I'm mocking myself via cliché.

Insecure Bill: Seriously, what am I going to do now?

Writer Bill: Write a story for Anne, I suppose.

Snarky Bill: There's a daredevil idea if I ever heard one.

Insecure Bill: But I don't write short stories.

Snarky Bill: So you'll fail. You're doomed, sucker!

Insecure Bill: It's true, it's true.

Writer Bill: Calm down. Let's think this out.

Insecure Bill: Let's? Let's?! There's only me!

I never have this problem with novels. Faced with a blank page and a hundred thousand words to write, all those various voices rattling around in my head say, "Meh," and we start writing. It's three-thousand-words-and-out which always scared me.

All this has come to mind because on June 22nd Forge Books released First Thrills, an anthology of thriller short stories by all kinds of cool folk. I had the good fortune of being included, which also meant I had the screaming horror of writing a short story. Turns out, after much pain and anguish, I came up with a contribution of which I'm proud: "The Princess of Felony Flats." It's a hardboiled retelling of a classic fairy tale in which a mysterious dwarf makes a risky play for the statuesque consort of a drug kingpin. (Lots of drug kingpins in classic fairy tales, don'tcha know.)

Despite the freak out, I wrote that story for Anne as well, and yes, I'm proud of the result. The anthology, Bats in the Belfry, won't be released until fall 2011, but it's worth keeping your eyes peeled. Once again, a great line-up of writers have contributed. I'm honored to be a part of it.

There was a time in my life when I'd written more novels than short stories, counting the hidden shoebox novels along with the ones which have made it on to bookstore shelves. With the release of First Thrills, I realized for the first time since high school, the balance has shifted. In the last two years, I've written three short stories and only two novels. Crazy, I know.

Even crazier, to me, is I have another short story in the works, and for the first time in two decades, it's a story I've started on my own initiative. (Even mentioning it means I've probably jinxed it, but too late now, I guess.) After nearly half a dozen stories written despite my terror, I've started to develop a taste for the short form. Not that I'm gonna be rash and start knocking out tales at an Ed Hochian pace. But, you know, once you force yourself to ignore the night sweats and weeping, writing a short story turns out to be fun. Still takes me about five times as long to produce a three-thousand word short story as three thousand words from a novel, but I've developed an appreciation for the need for brevity.

I also think the process has improved my longer efforts. During the final draft of Lost Dog, I discovered a fact which has held for all my work since: whatever I write is improved through the process of making it shorter. Working on these short stories has help me learn the need to write no more than necessary. To the extent Chasing Smoke and Day One both show my growth as a writer, I think those short stories contributed.

Maybe my mom was right. Sometimes things we don't want to do ARE good for us.

*About Day One*

A young woman flees abuse; a teen runaway hides a dark secret; an ex-cop chases his own past. All three converge at the harrowing end of a trail of violence stretching from the high desert to the streets of Portland. Learn more at:

*About First Thrills*

Introduced and edited by Lee Child with an afterword by Steve Berry, First Thrills features original, never-before-published short stories by New York Times bestselling authors Lee Child, Stephen Coonts, Jeffrey Deaver, Heather Graham, Gregg Hurwitz, John Lescroart, John Lutz (with Lise E. Baker), Alex Kava (with Deb Carlin), Michael Palmer (with Daniel James Palmer), Karin Slaughter, and Wendi Corsi Staub. The collection also serves as an introduction to those ITW has christened its rising stars, including Sean Michael Bailey, Ken Bruen, Ryan Brown, Bill Cameron, Rebecca Cantrell, Karen Dionne, JT Ellison, Theo Gangi, Rip Gerber, CJ Lyons, Grant McKenzie, Marc Paoletti, Cynthia Robinson, and Kelli Stanley. Learn more at:


Elisabeth Black said...

Awesome post. Good points. I have a lot of trouble with short stories, but I am trying to do them as an exercise in writing, and in some immediate gratification as I wrestle with my novels.

Patrick Brian Miller said...

Writing for a newspaper and having to meet deadlines helped me condense my writing. I absolutely love short stories for their quick one-two punch. As an aside, Fitzgerald lived off of his high-circulation short stories, but his novels flopped. If you can succeed in both, you're one step ahead of him. :) Congratulations, Writer Bill! I enjoyed the post.

Bill Cameron said...

I think we're in a transitional time when it comes to short stories. For a while, you could see the market contracting. Maybe people were getting their short form fix from series television, or maybe the doom prognosticators were right about

But that seems to be turning around now. A lot of new short fiction is being published on the web, and anthologies seem to be doing okay. Maybe we'll never return to a status where short story writers can make a living the way Fitzgerald could. But at least we have opportunities that weren't there even 15 years ago. And perhaps the growth of eBooks will change the landscape again.

Beth, I think the value of immediate gratification through short stories can definitely help when a novel bogs down.

Patrick, I've got a few friends who work in newspapers, and they've shared similar feelings to yours. The training ground of newspaper writing is great for teaching taut, crisp writing. Thanks for stopping by!

Bill Cameron said...

One way to be brief is to simply not finish a sentence, the way I did at the end of my first paragraph in that last comment.

What I MEANT to say was: "... or maybe the doom prognosticators were right about how people just don't read anymore. (I don't believe that.)"

Linda G. said...

I wrote a ton of short stories in between chapters while I was writing my practice novel. It was such a boost, psychologically, just to finish something.

JohnO said...

I once heard someone make the point that novels are actually easier, because you have more room (and once the story has momentum, you have more latitude to make mistakes). I've come to agree with him, as well as with your point about tightening. The length of a novel is fluid, but the real currency you shouldn't waste is your reader's attention.

PS - Good luck with the night sweats.

Anonymous said...

Bill, Thanks for sharing this. It always helps us fledgling writers to understand that the process can be a struggle for everyone, even those who are "critically acclaimed," like yourself. As always, it is a work of love first and foremost, with the product merely being the end result - if you put in the blood, sweat, and tears. - Andre

Julia Buckley said...

I know your pain, Bill! I've never been very adept at the short story form, partly because I can't seem to bring that story arc to its ending before page 200.

But it sounds like you're really perfecting the craft. Perhaps you should offer classes to people like me! (That was for insecure Bill).

Vicki Lane said...

Good post - I've written seven novels now (one in a shoebox) but have only managed two short stories -- I find them really difficult. Look forward to reading yours!

Bill Cameron said...

Thanks to everyone who stopped by today. I have been bike riding, planting groundcover, walking a poodle, and not writing a short story. :) I did work on a novel though.

Earl Staggs said...

Fun post, Bill. I started out writing short stories, loved them then and still do. Problem is, now when I write a novel, it tends to be rather short. Oh, well. At least they're tight.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

Bill - I loved this! I'm a huge fan of short stories and have a great deal of admiration for those who are able to write them. Sounds like you are more than on your way there - yay, you!