Category Archives: Fiction & Storytelling

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!