In Praise of Short Ficton

This blog post is one I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website September 30, 2018.

Let me begin with a confession. Until recently, I turned my nose up at short fiction. I admit it. I was a novel snob. The late actor Cary Grant once said, “Ah, beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of one’s own past failings.”

My failure to appreciate the value of short fiction was founded in a misbelief that it takes a lot of words to tell a good story. Even though I had studied stories by Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and others in various college classes, I wasn’t sold on the unique value of short fiction. I still longed to be immersed in longer works.

Well, that was then. Now, my life is crazy and over-scheduled at times. I love to read, but I simply don’t have time to enjoy novels as much as I used to. So, I have re-introduced short fiction into my reading.

To address this no-time-to-read issue many of us have, the Richland Library and dozens of other places across the country have installed short-story kiosks. You press 1, 3, or 5 minutes to choose how much time you want to spend reading a story, and out spews a story, printed on a strip of eco-friendly paper about four inches wide. These kiosks are showing up in airports and other places all over the world in effort to encourage all of us to read more with less time.

As a writer, I have another confession: short stories are harder for me to write than a novel. It took me years to figure out my novel-writing process so I could arc appropriately, manage subplots, plant red herrings, develop characters, construct scenes, and then pull all those pieces together into a coherent mystery novel. Erroneously, I thought writing a short story would be a piece of cake.

What I’ve learned is that short fiction is truly an art form unto itself, not just a shorter, easier version of something else. On the bulletin board above my desk I’ve posted Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s a reminder of how powerful a few words can be and how difficult it is to wield that power artfully.

As another reminder of the significance of short stories, I recently read an article about the large number of movie scripts adapted from short stories. Here’s just a few: 2001: a space odyssey, Brokeback Mountain, The Shawshank Redemption, 3:10 to Yuma, and Minority Report. There are many more.

Now that I’ve had this epiphany about short fiction, what does that mean for me as a writer? For one thing, I’ll give as much attention to developing my short-story writing skills as I do to novel writing. That means I need to write more short fiction, seek critiques, and keep learning. And I’ll re-read some of the great stories and learn from the masters. Most importantly, I won’t ever turn my nose up at short fiction again. Promise.

Mind Medicine

Since publishing two mystery novels, I’ve had an opportunity to talk to a lot of people about reading fiction. At the two extremes of the scale, you have readers who can’t wait for the next book of their favorite author to arrive, and at the other end, those who don’t read stories at all. And in between, are the readers who read occasionally – maybe a book or two a year.

While reading books is down overall, I am particularly disturbed by the decline in fiction reading. If you don’t believe what I am about to tell you below, just do a quick Google search on the benefits of reading fiction. Here are some key findings I’d like to highlight.

Reading fiction improves relationships. An “Inc” magazine article (2015) quotes Dr. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, as saying that reading produces a kind of reality simulation that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” He explains that novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.” Fiction is a reality simulator.

Reading fiction reduces stress. Researchers at the University of Sussex Researchers at the University of Sussex found that reading just six minutes can reduce stress levels by up to two-thirds. And a Yale University study found a relationship between reading and longevity in people over 50. The key to living longer is to have your nose in a novel for more than three and a half hours a week. This same study found that reading fiction at least an hour a day may also keep Alzheimer’s at bay. Perusing the newspaper or reading an article in a magazine did not have the same effect as delving deeply into a book.

Fiction makes us kinder, more empathetic. Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley’s 2009 study found that exposure to fiction correlated positively with empathy, while non-fiction exposure had a negative correlation. They also found that one’s tendency to become absorbed in a story was positively correlated with empathy.

The above are just a few of the benefits of reading fiction. As I explained in my April 22, 2018, blog post, “Telling Stories: a human experience,” storytelling is basic to our humanity. Now that these studies have conclusively shown that stories are more than mere entertainment, reading fiction should not be ignored. As Dr. Oatley said, “I think there is something more important going on.”

Go on, pick up a good novel or short story to read. It’s medicine for your mind!

Unlock Your Writing Brain with a Mind Map

This is slight variation of a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website July 8, 2018. 

About twenty years ago, I received an offer to try out MindJet, a mind mapping software. I downloaded the free trial and was hooked within minutes. Decades and many upgrades later, it is still my go-to writing tool for outlining, story plotting, and many other uses. Since Mindjet is now over $300, I’d recommend Scapple ($14.99) or some other free or inexpensive mind mapping applications you can find online. Or, you can simply draw your mind maps the old-fashioned way with paper and pen.

Tony Buzon, the author and education consultant who popularized mind maps, explained them as “a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain.” Remember those word association games? If I say “vacation,” you may think of “beach,” and then your mind jumps to whatever memories you have of your favorite beach trip . . . and so on. Over time, Western civilization has imposed left-brain, linear thinking into our psyches so that we apply logic, organize, and list before we explore and create. (That’s why traditional, linear outlines can kill a good story.) Since our minds don’t naturally function in linear mode, mind maps unlock our brains, as Buzon said.

When you’re starting a book, a short story, or even a scene, your mind may be filled with ideas bouncing around, with your synapses firing away. To tame this “monkey mind” jumble of thoughts, there’s nothing more effective than mind mapping. It allows you to get those thoughts out of your head and onto paper quickly without worrying about sequence or organization. And, if you enjoy brainstorming with yourself, as I do, mind maps can be your best friend.

By the time I sit down to write a book, bits and pieces of it have been bouncing around in my head for months. At that point, I don’t know the whole story, but I can imagine some of the beats: plot events that change the course of the story. They might be in the middle, at the end, or near the beginning. It doesn’t matter at this point, so I start with “Book” in the middle of the map and draw nodes or branches from that central idea for each of the beats. If I can map at least ten key beats, I know I’ve got a potential book.

Once I’ve mapped these beats, I move them around, connecting them in various ways and exploring how they relate to each other. Sometimes, it looks like they’re not related at all, but if I keep mapping, the story emerges. Later, I might map out a specific chapter or scene. Or I might map out a character profile to understand her better. The possibilities are endless.

If you’d like to see some visual examples, I urge you to do an online search (e.g., mind map + writing) and then give mind mapping a try. It could transform the way you write.

What Not to Write

This is a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website May 20, 2018

It took me three years to write my first mystery novel, Murder in Madden. During that time, I worked with several wonderful writing instructors. They taught me how to make the shift from business writing to fiction, which wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Much of my previous work focused on instructing readers on how to do something, so step-by-step details were important. But writing fiction was a different animal, as I quickly discovered. I found myself having to unlearn many of my coveted business writing skills. While I knew how to construct a sentence, where to put the commas, and how to apply the grammar rules, I often stumbled, especially during my first attempts. And then, over time, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, I learned how to write fiction.

When I began writing the second book, which only took eight months from the first word to a first draft, I realized I had to learn something else: what not to write. I’m not referring to merely avoiding ornate language or eliminating you-need-a-thesaurus words. Fortunately, my business background had taught me to write at an appropriate comprehension level and to stay within the maximum word count. But, on those occasions when I did get overly descriptive, I followed Elmore Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My form of overwriting came from something one of my instructors called “temporal linearity.” I tended to instruct the reader on how a character got from one place to another, in a linear fashion, just as I had provided comprehensive details in business writing. Of course, fiction readers need enough information to make logical assumptions, but they don’t need to be led by the hand.

For example, if one scene ends with “Sara” telling her boyfriend she’s going to the library, you can insert a break and begin the next scene in the library. Unless it’s germane to the story, the reader doesn’t need to know how she got in the car, backed out of the driveway, and drove down the street to get to the library where she had to drive around the block three times looking for a parking space. I wasn’t quite that bad, but I did overwrite some scene transitions in my first draft.

Mostly as a reminder to myself, I developed “Raegan’s Rules to Avoid Overwriting.”

  1. Trust your readers to figure out how Sara gets to the library.
  2. Practice writing six-word stories and other forms of micro fiction where you have to tell a story within a strict word limit: writers should spend words like gold.
  3. Read your work aloud. If it sounds boring, it is.
  4. Hire a good editor—listen and learn.
  5. Keep writing and eventually you’ll overcome inexperience.
  6. Continue to overwrite, and you risk arrogance.

Perhaps all I really needed to do was re-read Leonard’s 10th Rule of Writing.

Telling Stories: A Human Experience

This is a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website April 15, 2018

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about telling stories, which is natural, I guess, considering I’m an author. Recently, I began doing some research on this topic. Perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to take a break from writing, but I learned a lot, so I’ll share some key points in this short post.

Before I begin, however, I want to tell you why I think storytelling is critical to our humanity: we are nothing without our stories. Imagine that you lived in a world where there were only facts, with no emotional attachment to them—no stories to connect these facts to the human experience. We would all be like robots, processing information without asking ourselves what it means or why it’s important.

The evolution of storytelling is fascinating. Oral storytelling was a way for early mankind to share events and to make meaning of what happened. One of the oldest surviving stories is the epic Mesopotamian poem, “Gilgamesh,” a tale about mortality. It was believed to have been written around 2100 BCE and is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. Around 1300–1000 BCE, “Gilgamesh” was carved in stone tablets and widely shared, becoming the first known written story.

Just look around you. The most successful people in their fields are great storytellers. Attorneys who weave evidence into the best, most engaging stories win trials. Business leaders, like the late Steve Jobs, use stories to get employees and customers to buy into their visions. Walt Disney created an empire from stories.

Now, we have podcasts, video, films, photography, and social media that tell the stories of our lives. In French airports, kiosks dispense short fiction to entertain travelers. The technology and methods of storytelling will continue to evolve, but one thing is certain: Storytelling will always be a part of the human experience.

Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy writer, said, “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” When I read that quote, I thought of my own novels. In Murder in Madden, I invited readers to ask themselves how much personal risk they would take to learn the truth. In my second book, The Last Sale, I presented a different query: What would you do if someone you loved just disappeared? I began writing those books by asking myself: How would I answer those questions? How do my answers reflect my values and who I am as a person? And how might others react differently? In the process, I learned a lot about myself.

Good storytelling connects us and provides meaning. The next time you’re reading a story or watching a movie, consider what questions are being posed. Examine your own emotional responses. Ask yourself, “What meaning do I make of the experience and what does that say about me?”

Juror 71

“Number 71.” That’s how I verbally checked into the jury room each morning this week. That was my assigned juror number from the 150 or so people that were summoned to the Richland County Judicial Center at 9 a.m. Monday.

After sitting in the jury waiting area watching TV, about 9:30 a.m., we were herded into the courtroom to go through the usual qualifications: “Do you know the defendant? Do you personally know either the prosecutor or defense attorney?” The judge went through a series of questions. He also gave us an opportunity to request dismissal due to unusual hardships or the need to care for the young or elderly. Even though I could have been dismissed, I chose to stay and do my civic duty. After all, if I were on trial for murder, I would hope that fine, upstanding citizens (as I consider myself to be) would put their lives on hold a short time to determine the fate of my own life.

After eliminating a couple dozen potential jurors, those of us who remained were sworn in, promising to be attentive, impartial, and to render a just verdict. It was a good week to be called to jury duty, the judge said. All the civil cases had been settled and only one criminal trial was left on the week’s docket: a murder trial. The odds of being selected as a juror were slim, he said, as they only needed 15 people.

After that, we were all escorted back to the jury waiting room downstairs. That morning had already been stressful for many of us. It was unseasonably cold, rainy, and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. So, we sat there sipping coffee or tea, watching episodes on HGTV. Will they love it or list it? Will they add that extra room or stay within a lower budget? At that point, we were willingly absorbed in the mundane fixer-upper issues of home renovations.

Then someone in authority walked to the front of the room and the TV went silent. “When I call out your juror number, report over to the person standing at the right.” She pointed to another person-in-authority in the corner of the large room. The room was eerily silent.

When number 71 was called, I joined the other potential jurors in the corner. After a fairly large number of us had been selected, at least several times more than the 15 that were needed, we were taken back to the courtroom. The odds were still good for not being selected. This time, when we walked into the courtroom, something was different. The two prosecutors and two defense attorneys were turned around in their seats, staring at us as we filed in. They were scrutinizing us—from head to toe. It was hard not to feel self-conscious. We had made the first cut, and now the final selections would be made.

As they called a juror number, that person went to the front of the courtroom and spoke into a microphone. When they called my name, I walked up slowly. I didn’t want to trip. If I was going to be disqualified, I wanted it to be for something substantial, like being redheaded, rather than for something more frivolous, like being clumsy. After I gave my name, occupation, former occupation, and spouse’s occupation, the prosecution smiled at me and said to the judge, “Please seat this juror.” The defense attorney added, “Please seat this juror.” I was the first alternate, juror number 13 for this murder trial. I was a bit stunned when I carefully, without tripping, made my way to the jury box.

The judicial system is full of rules, and once we were gathered as the jury panel for this trial, the bailiff began reciting a litany of “don’t do this” examples. Cell phones would not be allowed in the jury room, so each day they would be confiscated and locked up and returned to use for the lunch break only and at the end of the day. Over and we were told not to talk to each other or to anyone else about the case. “Don’t do your own research,” the judge said. Also, “Don’t use the restrooms in the hallways. Use only the jury bathrooms.” If their intent was to whip us into submission for the week with all these rules, it worked.

As a young girl, I loved to watch Perry Mason. In fact, Della Street was my first female role model. I wanted to grow up and wear suits and carry a briefcase like she did. (And I did.) Real-life courtrooms are much duller. It takes mental discipline to stay focused on testimony that goes over and over the same thing. This is a person’s life at stake, I kept reminding myself. Stay focused. While the jury was not on trial, at times it felt like we were. Both sides  intently watched our reactions to the testimony or evidence being presented.

By Thursday morning, both the State and  the defense had done their best to convince us their side was “the truth.” We heard closing arguments, and the judge went through a 30-minute explanation of the various laws that were applicable: murder with malice aforethought, transferred intent, self-defense, reasonable doubt, and a host of other things. Then there was nothing left for anyone to say. Mr. Robert Geter’s life was in the hands of the men and women of the jury. I’ll digress a moment here to say that I’ve always worried about juries. If I were on trial for my life, would I get a decent set of “peers”? I can’t speak for any jury other than the one I was on this week, but I would trust these people with my life. They were all courteous, attentive, and intelligent. When the first 12 jurors were sequestered and we three alternates were dismissed, I felt that at least Mr. Geter’s life was in competent hands.

The judge called the three alternate jurors back into the courtroom and thanked us. “Being an alternate is like being invited to the party but never asked to dance.” I had to think about that for a moment, then decided she was probably right. She also said, “I hope this has been a positive experience for you.” It had, indeed, been an educational experience and a positive one for me. Unquestionably, it had been an inconvenience and I was now even more behind in my writing and other tasks. But I had seen the process from the inside now—great research for a mystery writer. And I had done my civic duty.

Before we left today, the Clerk of Court took my juror badge (another “rule”: you must wear your badge at all times, even when out to lunch at a restaurant), and she returned my phone from the little black, locked box on the wall. She collected our phone numbers to call us when the verdict was in. Lunch was provided, today only, for the jurors, but the alternate jurors were free to take it with them or eat in a conference room. We three alternates went to a conference room with our boxed lunches. While there, since we were now free to discuss the case, I asked how they would vote. They answered quickly. I wasn’t surprised, but I was concerned.

The man whose fate we were discussing was Robert Geter, the defendant on trial. In March 2015, he got into a poolroom brawl about two o’clock in the morning. As a result, one man was stabbed to death and another man who got in the way was stabbed in the eye. Depending on whose side you were on, Geter had either committed “murder with malice aforethought,” or he had been beat up by several men who had been drinking and using marijuana. Geter claims he slashed at his attackers in self-defense with a pocket knife used in his work as an electrician temp worker.

All during this week, I have prayed each night that the jurors, and I, if I had to step in for one of them, would do the right thing by Mr. Geter. If he was guilty, he should be held accountable. If he was not, he should be declared “not guilty” of the charges against him. I prayed that each of us jurors would be impartial and just,  as we had sworn to be.

As I left the courthouse around 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, 2018, my heart ached for Mr. Geter, for the two victims, and for all those who had been affected by this incident more than three years ago. I also worried that Geter would be judged by his color, his socio-economic status, and his dreadlocks. To me, he appeared a bit menacing. He had gained a lot of weight over the three years since the incident, and he looked BIG. As much as I hate to say it, being black in the judicial system makes it hard enough to get a fair shake. Being big, scary looking, and black—well, that’s hard to overcome. Yet, the one time I made eye contact with him, he smiled kindly. Was he a murderer or a victim of the very system he looked to for help? I honestly don’t know.

When I had asked my two fellow alternates if they thought Mr. Geter was guilty, they said “yes” without hesitation. For context, both of these men were males, obviously well-educated and middle class. They were nice, polite, and very white—just as I am. While I am in no way accusing them of being prejudiced, I had hoped they would hesitate before declaring Geter “guilty.” One of the men said he had to get back to the office and he left. While the other man and I ate lunch together, I went through my list of doubts with him. While he admitted my questions had merit, he still felt Geter was guilty.

From my perspective, both the prosecution and defense had done a decent job during the trial—with one exception. One of the State’s witnesses against Geter was exposed in court as being a jailhouse snitch who was clearly lying. The prosecutor looked ridiculous for putting him on the stand. And the defense attorneys left some questions on the table that should have been asked of their witnesses. I gave each side gave a solid C+. But after days of testimony, I still had doubts as to guilt or innocence. There was no question Geter had stabbed these two men—that fact wasn’t contested. The question on the table was murder vs. self-defense. Even though Geter had been outsized by men bigger than he and outnumbered in the altercation, the State had charged him with murder. I couldn’t help but wonder if winning had become more important than the truth for those prosecutors.

We finished eating, I said goodbye to the other alternate juror. While I was walking to the parking garage, my questions and doubts continued to bounce around in my head. I don’t think Geter is entirely innocent. But I don’t think he is guilty either—based on definition the judge had explained. I was unsure, and according to the judge, that meant I would have to vote “not guilty,” as I was not certain “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I said another prayer for the jurors to do the right thing—whatever that might be.

As I’m writing this, it’s nearly 6 p.m. I haven’t gotten a call yet from the Clerk of Court, so she’s forgotten to call me or the jury is still deliberating. I hope it’s the latter. I hope the jury, those men and women I got to know this week, will take whatever time is necessary to go through the evidence, re-evaluate their first impulse, and make an impartial and just decision. Whichever way it goes, I’ll continue to pray for Mr. Geter. Not because I’m convinced he’s innocent, but because he deserves the best treatment by our judicial system.

When I do learn the verdict, I will trust that the jury did their best. Serving on a jury, especially on a murder trial, is a very difficult job—not because of the bad traffic, long hours, inconvenience, acrid coffee, and endless HGTV programs, but because putting your prejudices, bias, and fears aside to decide a person’s fate, a person who is very different from you, is perhaps the hardest thing you’ll ever be asked to do. In fact, it’s damn near impossible.

UPDATE: At 7:01 p.m. tonight, I got a call from the Clerk of Court. Robert Geter was found guilty on both counts and was sentenced to 40 years.

 

I QUIT!

This is a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website March 4, 2018.

 

Several years ago, I participated in a writing workshop with the late Jerry Cleaver, author of Immediate Fiction. At that time, I had started and stopped writing a couple of different mystery novels. I was frustrated, and his feedback, though fair and accurate, frustrated me even more. I can still hear him saying, “More conflict. You need more conflict in your story.” When I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to write a decent manuscript, he gave me some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever gotten: “Quit writing.”

I was stunned. There I was paying him good money to encourage me, coach me, help me write that elusive book. Yet, he told me to quit. I wasn’t sure whether to be mad or ecstatic. Mostly I was confused. When I finally got the courage to challenge his advice, he said, “Writers quit all the time, including me. But if you’re a real writer, you’ll have to start again. You cannot not write.”

After letting his last comments sink in, I then became afraid. What if I quit and never wanted to write again? That would, according to Cleaver, mean I had never been a realwriter anyway. Nonetheless, I did quit. I mean, I totally quit with the intention of never writing fiction again. I avoided anything related to writing and went about my life. At first, I was giddy with the lightness of not being a writer. No more worries about plots and characters—or conflict. I could enjoy reading a book without analyzing it. The freedom of not being a writer was intoxicating.

After a couple months of not writing, the impact of Cleaver’s message finally hit me: I needed to reevaluate why I was writing. As simple as that sounds, I had been focused on outlining, story structure, and all the other nuts-and-bolts of the craft. Was my goal to write the perfectly structured novel, worthy of an MFA thesis? While I wanted to write a quality novel, what I really craved was to write a novel that readers could connect with.

When I eventually returned to writing, I wrote the story I really wanted to tell. While I didn’t ignore all the workshop advice and education I had acquired over the years, this time, however, I began writing from my heart, not my head. I wrote for my readers, not for other writers.

About three years later, I published my first novel, Murder in Madden, which recently received Honorable Mention in the Writers’ Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And my second novel in the series, The Last Sale, will soon be out.

During the past year, I have enjoyed the book signings, festivals, book clubs, and other interactions with readers. I’ve never had so much fun. And each time a reader tells me about her favorite character, or someone says, “I couldn’t put it down,” I thank the writing gods that I found the courage to quit.

My Birthday Gift to Me

Today is my birthday, and I gave myself a wonderful present: The Last Sale. I released the second book in my Enid Blackwell Series today. The first copy of my book always goes to my wonderful husband. He is the hero of all the stories in my life.

Thank you to everyone who has been patiently waiting for the second book, and to all my loyal readers. You are the reason I write!

I’ll say more later about The Last Sale, for for now, I’m going to enjoy my special day. I have much to be thankful for.

Murder in Madden Wins Award!

I always seem to be apologizing for not posting more frequently. So, here I am again, apologizing. Let me bring you up to date on a couple of things.

I finished the manuscript for the second book in the Enid Blackwell series, The Last Sale, in September. Like Murder in Madden, this book was inspired by a real-life event—the disappearance of a young woman in Columbia, South Carolina. Ironically, the week that I finished the manuscript was the 25th anniversary of her disappearance. However, out of respect and privacy for the real family, I won’t mention her name specifically here or in the author’s notes in the book. People familiar with the real-life cold case will recognize it immediately. Let me be clear, however, that The Last Sale is purely fiction and only “inspired” by the actual case.

Excited as I was to finish the second book’s manuscript, a few weeks later I learned that Murder in Madden was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards contest. There were approximately 2400 entries, so I was very excited and honored to have placed.
Bolstered by my award, I then entered Murder in Madden in the Book Pipeline contest. Winners will be announced early 2018. Who knows, maybe my first book will be made into a movie. Stay tuned!