A Short Sale: Some Ruminations on Short Fiction by Dan O’Shea

I’m very pleased to welcome Dan O’Shea back to the blog. He’s been here before, back when I reviewed his book The Gravity of Mammon, and since he was relatively well-behaved last time I invited him back in honor of the release of his new collection, Old School, out now from Snubnose Press. Tomorrow I’ll share my thoughts on Old School, but today Dan has the floor.

Some Ruminations on Short Fiction by Dan O'SheaIt’s funny that my first officially published work is a collection of short stories. I know that’s how it goes with a lot of writers – they start short and work their way up. You got Frank Bill, who’s critically acclaimed collection Crimes in Southern Indiana precedes his soon to be critically acclaimed novel Donnybrook. I know that Lou Berney, whose debut novel Gutshot Straight is one of my favorite reads of the past few years, he first published a collection of short fiction. Of course, his stories were nominated for Pushcarts and such, so I got no business comparing myself to him.

But intuitively, it makes sense. A novel is the writing equivalent of running a marathon. You might want to build up to it, at least stretch some.

Nobody ever accused me of making sense, though.

I’ve always had the fiction writing bug, toyed with it here and there, but I was cursed with making a good living from writing pretty early on. Strange curse, I know, but the thing was I developed a pretty good freelance business writing for professional service firms, mostly accounting firms, accidently drifting into my niche as a tax writer.

In terms of compensation, it was a great gig. I usually got paid a dollar a word or so, COD. No waiting for sales, praying the next book gets picked up, just cash the check and move on.

But I let the paychecks supplant my dreams.

I had a family, obligations, and I’d tell myself that, in the end, writing was just the way I paid my bills, that there was no time to push paying work to the back burner to write stories on spec. Convinced myself that being a fiction writer was one of those childish dreams you put away when you grew up.

There’s this thing about your dreams, though. They can be tough little fuckers. You can bury them under all the bullshit you want, but if they’re real, they’ll pop out of the grave like Beatrix Kiddo, back at your door to kick your ass.

Mine kicked my ass hard.

My best friend from the age of 12 was another guy who wanted to write, but ended up running a cranberry farm. We’d talk about our great ideas, our books that were going to shake the world with their genius, we were our own little two-person enablement party. Then about five years ago, he died. And when his family went up to the Northwoods to clean out his place, they found his manuscript. All finished and typed up, sitting in a bedside drawer.

If mortality can’t put a boot up your ass, what will?

So I found the time and I wrote. Thing was, my knowledge of the writing community, the writing business, it was pretty much defined by whatever I saw on the shelves at the local Borders. All I saw there were novels. So that’s what I wrote.

Got me an agent, and she plugged me in to this whole online writing world. (Where have you people been all my life, anyway? Oh, that’s right. I’m old. And a big chunk of my life was done before Al Gore invented the internet.) Pretty soon, I ran in to my first flash fiction challenge.

A thousand words? You nuts? I’m pretty sure I’ve written sentences that long. (I do have a tendency to go a little Faulkner from time to time, go a little crazy with the commas, the dependent clauses, succumb to that nonlinear swampy southern sort of anti-logic where you just meander around, grasping for meaning until the point kind of sneaks up and you, and . . . wait a minute, where was I? Oh, yeah, flash fiction.)

I figured a 1,000 word story was impossible, so I had to try it. And I found out that, if you are ruthless enough, if you find the right idea, and if you then put that fucker on a really strict diet and training regiment, you can tell one hell of a story in 1,000 words. Or 3,000. Or, in one case in my collection, better than 8,000.

But most of the stories in Old School are flash fiction length or a little longer, partly because several of them were written in response to various flash fiction challenges, but also because it turns out that’s a great size to play with.

Writing stories that length trains you to sweat away your flabby writing habits, sort of like a writer gym. And it’s a way to experiment.

Old School by Dan O'SheaA couple years back, I was chatting with my daughter who was off at school and taking a Shakespeare class. She jokingly asked what would have happened if Shakespeare wrote noir. I immediately replied Othello because that’s about as dark as it gets. But I gave me an itch. I’ve always liked the sensuous Rubenesque fullness of Elizabethan writing – it’s like a decadent dessert compared to the stripped down Mies Van Der Rohe style that’s the lingua franca of crime fiction. What if you combined them, I wondered. Not the sort of oddball experiment you want to invest 100K words in, but perfect for a short story. So I wrote The Bard’s Confession on the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger’s Daughter (even the title was a departure – most of my short fiction titles are two words or so).

And I liked it. The people at Needle Magazine liked it. Some of their readers liked it. I also found a kindred spirit in the version of Shakespeare I developed as its character, so I did invest 100K in it (well, more like 80K). Wrote Rotten at the Heart, a whole novel told in my own made-up faux Elizabethan with Will Shakespeare as an unwilling and unlikely 16th century gumshoe. Never would have happened if not for the short fiction lab in which I built its homunculus.

OK, I’ve abused Ms. White’s hospitality long enough. Old School is out there now – give it a shot if you like. (I do hope Ms. White liked it. Nice gig she’s got here. She strong arms writers in to filling up her blog for a day with the promise of a review, but you don’t know what kind of a review. One of these days, some poor schmuck is going to invest a thousand words or so, and then Ms. W is going to just savage the bastard, call him the Justin Beiber of fiction or something. That’s going to be pretty funny, as long as it doesn’t happen tomorrow.)

BTW, (I can do that, Ms. W, right, the BTW thing? Prove I’m one of the cool kids, that I’ve picked up on all this Interwebs malarkey?) if you do happen to read my book, or anybody’s for that matter, we writers really do appreciate it when you drop a little Amazon review on us, even an unfavorable one. Proves somebody’s out there. Proves we aren’t talking to ourselves.

We do that a lot already.

Dan O’Shea is a Chicago-area crime writer represented by Stacia Decker at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. His novel Unto Caesar is currently being circulated to all the usual suspects. His short fiction has appeared in Crimefactory, the Discount Noir anthology, and in an upcoming issue of Needle. His collection of short stories, Old School, is available from Snubnose Press. You can find out more about Dan at his blog, Going Ballistic.


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  • Dan O'Shea

    February 29, 2012 - 12:44 PM

    My freshman year at college I wrote a whole paper on one sentence in A Light In August. I think that sentence went on for a couple of pages. It was a hell of a sentence, though. That Faulkner guy, I guess he knew what he was doing.

    Thanks for having me over, Ms. W. Hey, were are the keys to the liquor cabinet? Gotta be some booze around here someplace . . .

    • Elizabeth A. White

      February 29, 2012 - 8:17 PM

      A rather paltry offering I’m afraid, just some gin and a bit of vodka. We’re more the wino type around here. 😉

  • sabrina ogden

    February 29, 2012 - 10:29 AM

    Excellent post, Mr. Justin Beiber of fiction. Dude… you’re funny. Looking forward to the review of Old School tomorrow, Elizabeth.

    • Elizabeth A. White

      February 29, 2012 - 10:33 AM

      Isn’t that friggin hilarious? I literally choked on my drink when I read that “the Justin Beiber of fiction” line. 🙂

      • sabrina ogden

        March 1, 2012 - 11:43 AM

        It made me snort… =)

  • McDroll

    February 29, 2012 - 10:03 AM

    Fab! Love this part, ‘A thousand words? You nuts? I’m pretty sure I’ve written sentences that long.’ I believe it Dan, I truly do! I wish you every success with OLD SCHOOL and all the great writing that will follow it.

    • Elizabeth A. White

      February 29, 2012 - 10:33 AM

      As an attorney, I know I’ve written sentences that long. 😛

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