Those Short Shorts

Stories, not Daisy Dukes, although they do have a lot in common–covering the bare necessities, making a point, and leaving an impression. Increasingly, contest promoters and on-line publications call for short shorts, ranging all the way from postcard shorts (stories that can fit on a postcard) to NPR’s Three Minute Fiction category. Usually a word or time limit is suggested, and the writer is expected to turn out an acceptable story with a starting point, development, and resolution.
In a previous post, I talked about the discipline that comes with having to cut a story down to a prescribed length. It can be daunting, but it can also lead to a more cogent, succinct work. But, suppose you write a very short story and want to use it as the bones of a longer story. Will it work in reverse?
I had a chance to try it when I ran across a short story contest. Besides a word limit, the submitted stories had to contain a reference to a haunted house in the first sentence. I couldn’t resist; it would be fun since there was little expectation of “winning.” It’s like trying to hit a target at a carnival stall–you know you haven’t much chance of connecting and walking away with a stuffed toy, but it’s fun to exercise your throwing skill.
The deadline was the next day, and I was pressed for time, so I scrolled through my short story collection.  I found one that had been awarded first place in the Green River Mean contest. Complying to the “haunted house” requirement, I focused on how guilt dominated my character’s life. The promoters of the publication didn’t choose my entry, but the challenge of expanding on my original idea was worth it.

If you have a collection of  short stories, poems,  or partially-developed ideas stored on your computer (even those that didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped), consider revisiting them from time to time. You might be surprised at how useful they can be the next time you’re facing a blank page.

The two variations of For Sale by Owner (© Jennie L. Brown) follow:

Version 1
When Elroy stole the chain saw, he didn’t think much about it; his new neighbors acted like people who wouldn’t notice. When they first bought the little house, he dropped by to shoot the breeze. He was disappointed to find they were hurried, preoccupied with renovating the place. He missed jawing with the full-hipped woman who’d lived there previously.
Besides, it was their own fault for leaving tools in a garage that didn’t have a lock. Shoot! He could’ve taken the riding lawn mower, or a whole slew of bigger items, but all he snatched was that little chain saw. He figured they’d buy another one right away. But when he saw the new owner, Richard, out trying to cut down a sapling with an undersized hand saw, it made Elroy feel wicked. After Richard gave up and drove back into town, Elroy took his own chain saw, finished the job, and hauled away the wood.
That should have been the end of it, but then he saw the big, shiny, new lock on the garage door. He was shamed. Finally, he couldn’t drive by their house anymore, and took the long way into town. When he lost weight and couldn’t sleep nights, he put up a sign: For Sale By Owner. He packed a suitcase, waited until full dark, then drove the familiar road for the last time, flinging Richard’s chain saw into a ditch filled with spring runoff. Some things ain’t for keeping.

Version 2
Rumor was the house was haunted. The city people bought it anyway. Elroy scoffed at the stories that went around. He didn’t believe in ghosts and, as far as he was concerned, it was just a rundown place on a hill that got too much wind.
At the Community Hall’s pancake breakfast, to benefit the volunteer fire department, his neighbor, Albert, cornered him.
“Hey there, Elroy. I been wondering about the folks who bought Liz’s old house? Think they’ll see any of them spirits?”
Elroy slathered more sorghum on his pancakes and shook his head. “I think that spook business is a bunch of hooey. The only problem they’re going to have is fixing up that place. It’s been hard used.”
“Liz used to swear there was haints up there,” Albert said.
Elroy laid down his fork. “The only haint up there was Liz, but she was a good one while she lasted.”
Later that week, when Elroy stole the new owners’ chain saw, he didn’t think much about it; they acted like people who wouldn’t notice such a little thing. When they’d first bought the house, he dropped by to shoot the breeze. He was disappointed to find they were hurried, preoccupied with renovating. They were polite, but made it clear they didn’t want to stop what they were doing to visit with him–or offer him a cold, sweet tea. It was then he realized how much he missed jawing with Liz, missed her full-hipped body.
Besides, he figured it was their own fault for leaving tools in a garage that didn’t have a lock. Shoot! He could’ve taken the riding lawn mower, or a whole slew of bigger items, but all he snatched was that little chain saw. He figured they’d buy another one right away.
But when he saw the new owner, Richard, out trying to cut down a sapling with an undersized hand saw, it made Elroy feel wicked. After Richard gave up and drove back into town, Elroy took his own chain saw, finished the job, and hauled away the wood.
That should have been the end of it, but when he saw the big, shiny, new lock on Richard’s garage door, he was shamed. Finally, he couldn’t drive by their house anymore, and took the long way into town. He stopped answering his own door. When he lost weight and couldn’t sleep nights, he put up a sign: For Sale By Owner.
He accepted the first offer he got, and turned over his house, furniture and all. He packed a suitcase, waited until full dark, then drove the familiar road for the last time. Just before he got to the main highway, he flung Richard’s chain saw into a ditch filled with spring runoff.
“Some things ain’t for keeping,” he said to his dog. “I’m glad to put the whole disagreeable business behind me.”
Years later, in a cold, northern city, a police officer shook his head.
“This is the damnedest suicide note I’ve read in a long time. What do you think that poor slob meant by “The haints followed me?”

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