The Short Story Series: The Final Word
So in the event any of you are interested in just how the Joe Davis-monthly-short-story series came to be and how it was executed, I’ve got a little look backstage for you. This will take you through the original idea to the writing to what the future may hold for Joe Davis short stories. Anyway, here’s a glance at what happened:
THE IDEA AND THE RUN-UP
The idea to market Joe Davis through a series of short stories on my website occurred to me in the late summer of 2015, shortly after the release of Death is a Clingy Ex. I was re-reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories at the time and it served as an inspiration (had I remembered that Conan Doyle frequently regarded writing Holmes stories as an unmitigated pain in the ass, I might have reconsidered.) At this point, the manuscript for Death Lives Across The Hall was largely completed and I wanted to take a break before getting started on the final edits. With no writing projects on the horizon, I thought I could take the time to write about four or five stories and have a running start when I began publishing them in January, 2016.
It was a good idea in theory.
The problem, of course, is that I have a tendency to do things back-asswards. For example, I had run four marathons before I’d run my first 5K. Apparently, I like to take on the biggest challenge and work my way down. When I sat down to try writing short stories, I realized I hadn’t written one in nearly twenty years. I had an idea for what eventually became Death at Intermission and fumbled around writing the first twenty or so pages. Unhappy with it, I set it aside and tried a different story. I got all of ten pages into that before abandoning it.
Clearly, I had some thinking to do. So I went back to the drawing board. Almost literally.
I started by writing down close to fifty short story ideas, none of them longer than a sentence. (Ex. Joe has to get his brother Owen out of trouble; A millionaire wants Lars dead for unknown reasons; Flashback to Joe solving a murder in high school.) From there, I divided the ideas into stories that would work for Joe and stories that would work for other characters. (I figured if the Joe idea worked out, I could use the website to introduce other potential series and gauge the response.) Since Joe’s stories were clearly the priority, I tackled them first.
I began outlining each of the story ideas, just fleshing them out so I could get a point of attack and a rough idea of the structure of each story. This approach had two benefits: 1) I began to get a clear idea of which stories were developing into usable ideas and which were going to need some work and 2) I realized that short stories didn’t need to follow the “here’s the crime, here are the suspects, here are the clues, here’s the solution” structure of a book. A short story could simply be an incident or a caper. It didn’t necessarily need to be a mystery at all, as long as there was an element of suspense involved. I know that’s a very elementary realization, but it was very freeing.
Once I had my outlines (which totaled about nineteen story ideas) I had to pick which stories were going to be part of the series. Since I wanted each story to be set in the month it was published, some easily presented themselves (Death at Intermission made the cut and its references to an end-of-the-season Wild game made it an obvious choice for April). For most of the others, I simply chose the outlines that were best-suited to become stories. THAT decision, however, would be one I would regret (more on that later.)
With everything ready to go, I began working on the first story, Death is My Little Brother, right around Christmas, 2015. I thought things would be smooth sailing, now that I had everything planned in advance.
I should have known better.
WRITING THE STORIES
For the first few months, things were reasonably smooth. I tried to get the stories out by the third week of every month, which gave me about four weeks to work on each. January’s story, Death is My Little Brother and February’s, Death Plays Broomball, were both completed on time and with a minimum of fuss. The first difficulty arose with March’s story.
The original idea was to do a story involving Joe and Mike and some of their old college friends. Three of the characters (Robbie, Stoner and T.J.) had been a part of Joe’s “fantasy football league” which allowed me to flesh out their personalities through the Cup o’ Joe articles. And all three had been featured in February’s story, creating a setup for their appearance in March. However, the story was supposed to be a “caper” story, something akin to Ocean’s Eleven with elements of The Magnificent Seven throw in. The problem was I already HAD a caper story planned, one featuring the character of Harry Baxter. Since I was more excited about the Harry Baxter story AND I was facing a shorter turnaround time due to February having only 29 days, I reluctantly decided to scrap the planned “caper” story. Death at Intermission was already two-thirds written, so I decided to move it up to March and find a new story for April.
The easy thing, of course, would have been to move May’s planned story up to April. However, it was one of the stories I’d attempted the previous fall (involving Carol and a boyfriend) and I was already cooling on it. In looking through the “rejected” story outlines, I stumbled across what would become Death and The One Percent. I’ll be honest: I have no earthly idea why that story didn’t make the cut originally. It had a decent jumping off point and just about any story involving Lars is easy to write (he’s bizarre enough that nothing is out of bounds for him and it’s fun to play him off Joe.) So I green-lighted it and it proved as easy to write as I hoped.
Since I’d decided to scrap May’s AND June’s stories (more on June in a minute), I now had an opening for May. Fortunately, the idea for Death Goes Missing came to me. This had NOT been part of my original group of outlined stories. In fact, I was pretty much outlining the story and writing it at the same time. It’s a small miracle that I didn’t have to go back and make any major rewrites by the time I was finished. That would not always be the case going forward.
June’s story was originally to be a flashback to Joe’s high school days, featuring his girlfriend, Lisa, and his best friends, Sam and Andy. If that idea sounds familiar, it should. Somehow, I had planned TWO flashback stories. If the series didn’t need two caper stories, it certainly didn’t need two flashbacks. And the later story (which would become Death is Old School) was my preferred choice. So June’s story was scrapped and needed a replacement.
Fortunately, one practically fell into my lap. I had been using my Sunday “Beer and Writing” sessions at Steel Toe Brewing to outline potential stories for other characters. During one of those sessions, I outlined a story in which the main character’s best friend/sidekick thinks there’s a conspiracy against him because of many weird things that have been happening. It turns out the sidekick is right. As I was outlining the story, I wrote in the margin of my notebook Good story for Mike. I had planned to have Mike narrate a story and had set one aside for September. However, THIS story seemed like the better option, so Death is Out to Get Me became June’s entry.
I would like to tell you it was an easy write and for about three-quarters of it, it was. Unfortunately, I had to rework the ending about three times before the entire plot made sense (not all elements of the outline fit into being a Good story for Mike.) It was nearly July before I finished the story, so I was more than a little grateful to be done with it, even if it was fun to write in Mike’s voice rather than Joe’s.
July and August, surprisingly, proceeded just fine, giving us Death and the Gentleman’s Gentleman and Death Stole My Stuff. However, as I was writing them, I was also reworking plans for the rest of the year. September’s story was supposed to be narrated by Mike, but I had used that one up. October was originally supposed to be a complicated story that took place in three different time periods. I wasn’t satisfied with the outline and my rule about no flashbacks until the Lisa story gave me a convenient excuse to junk it. Two stories that hadn’t been previously outlined came to me and I decided to give them a shot. Death is Hard Boiled featured Carol’s father and gave me a story that could focus on Carol (I hadn’t had one to that point.) Death Will Kill You was a fun concept, but ultimately I got bogged down in the narrative and I was very disappointed in the final results. If you’d like to know HOW disappointed, here are two facts: 1) I nearly junked the story 24 hours before it was scheduled to go on the website, figuring I could write a better short story in a day (I ultimately decided that plan was too risky) and 2) I did almost nothing to promote it. Seriously. I made an announcement when it was published then said nothing else before quietly pulling it off the site four days later.
The only change left was to switch November’s and December’s stories. Originally, the “flashback” story was to have been published in November and A Death in the (Extended) Family, involving Joe’s cousin, was to be the finale. I kept the stories, but decided to switch their publication month. The “flashback” story was one I was more emotionally tied to and felt it would make a better conclusion to the series.
So there it was. Of the 12 stories I planned, 7 of them were actually written and four of them were published in the month they were intended to be published. So you might understand if I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants through most of the series.
SO WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM ALL THIS AND WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In 2015, my friend Sam Landman took on a project of publishing a new one-act play every week. Through a hell of a lot of personal adversity (not the least of which was a f**king HEART ATTACK) Sam completed the project. When it was done, he implored others to take on a big challenge and create, create, create. While I don’t consider 12 short stories to be on the level of 52 one-act plays as a challenge, I was still glad I could, in my own small way, take Sam’s advice and complete the short story series. That I managed to do it while being pleased with all but one of the stories feels like a bit of an accomplishment. Particularly while also writing a book and providing semi-regular Cup o’ Joe articles AND living what passes for a life.
But that was also the drawback to the series. While writing is always my number one (creative) priority in a day, there are still only so many hours that I can devote to it. Dividing time between two projects cuts into the time I can devote to each and when one of them is time-sensitive, it’s going to be a priority more often than not. In other words, I had hoped to focus most of my writing time on the 3rd Joe Davis book, Death Wears A Big Hat, and do the short stories as a side project. However, with deadlines for the stories constantly looming, I found myself frequently devoting my time to finishing the stories and pushing the book aside for a week or two. The end result is that I’ve felt like the short stories became the main focus and the book was a side project. So obviously, I’m not anxious to ever repeat that state of affairs.
I DO plan to write more Joe Davis short stories. I’ll be publishing at least one on the website during 2017. As I’ve written on social media, the short stories from the 2016 series will be published in book form, in two volumes. Each one will include six stories from the 2016 series, one story that will be published on the website in the future and one story that will be exclusive to that volume.
Would I ever do a monthly series of stories again? I’m not ruling it out, but I’m not anxious to try it again. One thing that can come out of taking on a challenge is the recognition of your own limitations. If I’m going to continue the Joe Davis book series, it must remain a priority at all times. I appreciated the short stories affording me the opportunity to explore different avenues of Joe’s world, to introduce new characters and to toy with other narrative approaches. But I can’t allow that to be at the expense of my focus on the books.
On the bright side, I learned how to approach short stories and I’m much more comfortable writing them than I was a year ago. So if I DO take on another monthly short story series, I feel much more prepared.
In the meantime, my sincerest thanks to those who read any or all of the stories and provided me with such nice feedback. And if you’ve gotten all the way to the bottom of this article, thank you for your interest in my work. I hope this peek behind the curtain was worth it.