Category Archives: Fiction & Storytelling

Secrets Never Told

Ironically, amidst all the holiday hustle and bustle, December is a month of reflection for me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve learned to be in the moment better than I used to. And, I’ve learned to appreciate the small things the holidays bring: kindness from strangers, excitement in the air, and beautiful decorations everywhere. Most importantly, I love sharing time with friends and family. I admit, I hate for the season to end.

However, this month is also filled with anticipation. Not about what Santa might bring–I’m over that, although I do hope I get those new workout shoes I need. What I’m looking forward to is my third book in the Enid Blackwell series, Secrets Never Told. It will be published late February. This novel, like the first one, was inspired by a personal experience. I think you’ll like it.

Somewhere about halfway through writing the third book, I realized I had grown as an author. What was notably missing this time was the panic and self-talk I experienced with the first book–”Can I really write a whole book?” Or the self-doubt I experienced writing the second one–”Murder in Madden won a national award and my readers loved it. Do I have more than one book in me?”

The plot for Secrets Never Told is complex, because . . . well, families with secrets are complex. I admit there were a few restless nights where I woke up thinking about the plot, but no panic or doubts that I could pull it off. As I told my editor, thank goodness for Scrivener, the writing software that allows me to move scenes around easily.

Want to know what the third book is about? Here’s a clue: “Seven for a secret, never to be told.”  You’ll know the secret soon.

Learning to Be the Other Person

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 November 27, 2018.

At a recent signing event, another author said to me, “Selling books is hard.” When he walked away, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Would I ever master the marketing skills I need? And then I remembered saying to myself about five years ago, “Will I ever master the skills I need to write a book?”
If you are writer, you know there’s a long list of skills you must have, whether you’re producing a book, short story, or poem. Even if you know how to write a decent sentence, you must learn structure, pacing, and storytelling, to name a few. The list of required writing skills is long, but that isn’t all.

Sometime after my first book was published, I realized that I’m expected to be two, totally different people: an accomplished writer and a marketing genius. On top of that, the skills and behaviors needed to master each role are opposites in many ways. Yen and Yang. How could I become proficient at both?

To confront my being-two-people dilemma, I recalled Martin Broadwell’s four stages of learning I had used often in my consulting practice. When I began writing my first novel, I was at the level of “unconscious incompetence”: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. After writing that book for the next three years, I reached the next level of learning: “conscious incompetence.” I was beginning to realize what I didn’t know—and it was scary. As they say, “Ignorance is bliss.”

While writing the next two books, I honed my writing skills through continuous studying and feedback. Now, I’m able to write at the level of “conscious competence.” But while I have the skills, writing is still hard work and requires a lot of mental energy.

But what about becoming the “other” person I mentioned earlier? Could I also become a marketing genius? Even now, I’m still at the lowest level of learning for those skills: unconscious incompetence. Every day, I learn something I didn’t even realize I was supposed to know. Things like learning how to navigate through the behemoth Amazon maze seems like learning to fly a fighter jet. Slowly, I’m beginning to figure out what I don’t know when it comes to marketing books. While I might be approaching conscious incompetence, I’m nowhere near the final level: unconscious competence. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve that level of mastery. I may not live long enough to see that day, but one can hope . . . and keep learning.

All of this is to say, yes, you can be two different people with different skills and behaviors. One role may be easier and more natural than the other. You’ll learn those skills quicker. But on a parallel learning track, it may take you a bit longer to acquire the skills and assume the behaviors you need to become the “other” person. That’s okay. Just remember, the learning process is the same: one level at a time.

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!