Tag Archives: fiction

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!

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.

Murder on My Mind

“I’ve had murder on my mind a long time.” That’s what I told a book club recently while discussing “Murder in Madden.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved mysteries. My first books were the Nancy Drew series—I still have most of them. In the late-1950s, when I was a child, my allowance was 50 cents a week, but to encourage my reading, my parents gave me the extra to buy a 59 cents book, plus tax. I’ve been reading ever since.

As I grew older, I began reading books by Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and later, by Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Now I read John Grisham, John Hart, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and many other authors I’ve discovered along the way.

Until recently, I’ve never asked myself “why mysteries?” Why don’t I read great literature or at least other genres as much as mysteries? All I can say in my own defense is that I’m not alone. In fiction, thrillers are the number one sellers. I’m pretty sure it’s because the stakes are higher in a murder mystery than, say, in a bank robbery. Sure, the latter is a mystery, but losing money just isn’t the same level of thrill and danger.

One thing I really love about mysteries is the way clues come together. I am, by nature, a problem solver, and finding the bad guy or gal is the ultimate question to be resolved. I also love closure, and finding the perps brings the story to its rightful end. There’s something satisfying about having all the loose ends tied up and all the questions answered. But I also love the characters in a mystery, and how they use their wits to solve crimes. Oddly, though, I’m not that interested in police procedurals. I’m far more interested in ordinary people who defy the odds and discover what eludes law enforcement, or how ordinary people get caught up in something way bigger than themselves and manage to think their way out of it.

And, of course, I just love a good story. I remember hearing ghost stories as a child and how I loved to be scared. I read once where the human mind can’t distinguish between sex and fear. So, when you’re scared, you think you’re having sex. Wow! Who knew?

Anyway, now that I’m a mystery author myself, I really do have murder on my mind almost all the time. Every conversation, every event, every weird thing that happens is fodder for the next book. And, just so you don’t worry about my psychological state, I abhor violence as much as the next person—that is in real life.

Do you have murder on your mind, too? If so, let me hear from you.

Not Just for Kids

Last night, I drove to Charlotte to attend John Claude Bemis’ presentation on writing children’s books. Mostly, I went to accompany a friend who has written one. My assumption was that the discussion would interest her far more than it would interest me.

I was wrong. Bemis’ message was universal to all genres and ages. Children’s books, he said, are about self-discovery, in which kids are trying to figure out themselves and the world round them. Well, aren’t we all in this boat together—trying to figure things out? And isn’t that what most fiction is about?

In a typical novel, the protagonist is a flawed person who needs something, even if that person is not sure what it is. What the characters says they want, and what they really need are usually different. The need is usually a primal desire: love, acceptance, recognition, revenge, etc. The characters’ strengths and flaws are revealed through the story as they try to fulfill that desire. In the process, true character is revealed and self-discovery takes place for them, as well as the readers.

Enid, my protagonist, is working through some “issues” from her past, while dealing with family dynamics. She is trying to figure herself out, as well as the world around her. Through this process, I’ve learned a lot about her … and about myself.