Writing Tasty Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here at TKZ we love to talk about the nuances of the craft. These take the form of both things to do and things not to do. As Brother Gilstrap likes to remind us, these aren’t “rules.” They are, however, basics that work every time, and if you choose to ignore them, that’s your business. But if your business is also to make dough with your writing—which means connecting with a large slice of the reading public—you would be wise to attend to the fundamentals.

On the not side, there are what I call “speed bumps.” (Have a look at my post on that subject). These are the little things you can easily overlook, but which cause a jolt to what should be a smooth and emotive fictive ride. Too many of these bumps ruins the whole experience, and does not leave the reader anxious to purchase another of your books.

On the positive side, there are things you can do to help a reader feel more fully immersed in your story. And one of those things is the use of sensory description.

You’ll see a lot written about the sense of sight and sound. The visual and the audible. These are the twin pillars of show, don’t tell.

There’s also the underused but valuable sense of smell.

The other day it occurred to me that not much has been written about the sense of taste. I had that thought as I was reading a noir story by Joyce Carol Oates, “Faithless,” included in the collection The Best American Noir of the Century (eds. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, 2010). Here’s the opening:

The last time my mother Cornelia Nissenbaum and her sister Constance saw their mother was the day before she vanished from their lives forever, April 11, 1923.

It was a rainy-misty morning. They’d been searching for their mother because something was wrong in the household; she hadn’t come downstairs to prepare breakfast so there wasn’t anything for them except what their father gave them, glutinous oatmeal from the previous morning hastily reheated on the stove, sticking to the bottom of the pan and tasting of scorch.

That word scorch jumped right into my mouth. Most of us think of that word as a verb. Here it’s used as a noun and as such packs a nice, unexpected punch. It deepens the tone of the scene and thrusts us into the experience of these girls. And as I mentioned in a recent post, putting the most expressive word at the end of a sentence can make all the difference. A lesser writer might have put: hastily reheated on the stove, sticking to the bottom of the pan and giving it a scorched taste.

So that’s one good use of taste—to set a tone consistent with the mood of the story.

Another use of taste is to intensify an emotional feeling. In Jodi Picoult’s The Book of Two Ways, the narrator tells us of the first kiss from a long, lost love. Earlier in the book, we are told this about Wyatt, the lover, an archeologist working in Egypt:

I remember how he smelled like the sun baked into his clothes and also butterscotch. How, weeks later I would learn that he kept sweets in his pocket, for himself and to give to the barefoot children who waited for him in the blistering heat at the entrance to the wadi as we left for the day. 

Then, some 75 pages later, after sharing a bottle of champagne:

“This,” Wyatt said, and he leaned forward and kissed me.

The night tightened around us, a noose. Wyatt’s hand slipped under my braid, curving around the nape of my neck. I tasted champagne and butterscotch and shock. Somehow, Wyatt was just as surprised as I was.

We recall the butterscotch, and we’ve just seen the champagne. But tasting shock? What an arresting way to work in this element of the experience (and, once again, at the end of the sentence).

In Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” we are in the POV of a dying man, a writer on safari in Africa. He’s got gangrene in his leg and a rescue plane hasn’t shown up. He goes in and out of memories of his past, including the killing of Greek troops, shot by their own officers as they ran from Turkish soldiers:

That was the day he’d first seen dead men wearing white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompons on them. The Turks had come steadily and lumpily and he had seen the skirted men running and the officers shooting into them and running then themselves and he and the British observer had run too until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies and they stopped behind some rocks and there were the Turks coming as lumpily as ever.

A coppery taste in the mouth is associated with fear. You’ll often see it put this way in stories: His mouth tasted like copper or The coppery taste of fear flooded his mouth. But Hemingway wrote it as the taste of pennies. Specific and vivid.

So:

  1. Use taste to deepen scenes of high emotion.
  2. Hunt for an unexpected word (scorch; pennies) to vivify the moment; readers glaze over what’s bland.
  3. See if you can put that word at the end of the sentence.

Okay, I’ve said a mouthful. Over to you:

Have you thought much about the sense of taste in your writing? Any examples you’d like to share?

+18

Public Domain Day 2021 and Writing Advice from 1925

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Public Domain Day was January 1, 2020. Although today is February 22, a tad late, it’s still a newsworthy event for writers and readers because books like The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), Manhattan Transfer (John DosPassos), In Our Time (Ernest Hemingway), and An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), among many others, came into the public domain.

Same with films like Buster Keaton’s Go West and songs like “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”

Here is the link to Duke University Law School’s announcement and listing of many other artistic works whose copyrights expired as of January 1: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2021/

One book in the bunch caught my attention: The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence.

Has fiction writing changed much since 1925? Are 95-year-old insights from the first female Pulitzer winner relevant to writers in 2021?

The Writing of Fiction is short, fewer than 150 pages, originally published by Scribner in 1925. Much of the beginning section is literary criticism, comparing Proust, Austen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other greats of the era, contrasting them with the new “stream-of-consciousness” trend that shook up readers at that time. I confess I skimmed those parts.

But elsewhere Wharton reveals her views on the art and craft of storytelling.

I found several passages I thought might provoke interesting discussion among TKZers.

Wharton calls the “modern” novel “that strange chameleon-creature which changes its shape and colour with every subject on which it rests.”

In the following paragraph, she describes what writers often call being in the zone:

“To the artist his world is as solidly real as the world of experience, or even more so, but in a way entirely different; it is a world to and from he passes without any sense of effort, but always with an uninterrupted awareness of the passing.”

Here at TKZ, we often work on point-of-view problems.

Wharton is critical of “the slovenly habit of some novelists of tumbling in and out their characters’ minds, and then suddenly drawing back to scrutinize them from the outside as the avowed Showman holding his puppets’ strings.”

About character development, she writes: “[they are] the creatures of [the author’s] imagination, more living to him than his own flesh-and-blood…”

Further, she studies the tightrope that writers must walk while creating characters. On one hand, she cautions against the “author [who] is slave to characters” while, on the other hand, who risks becoming a “puppeteer manipulating marionette strings…”

Conflict is another topic that she addresses:

“The conflict, the shock of forces, is latent in every attempt to detach a fragment of human experience and transpose it in terms of art, that is, of completion.”

This is what she has to say about an artist’s sensitivity:

“One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.”

On the focus of a story, she writes:

“…the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”

The topic of inspiration:

“Many people assume that the artist receives, at the onset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as ‘Inspiration,’ and has only to let that sovereign influence carry him where it will. Inspiration indeed comes at the outset to every creator but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided, and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.”

Writers often ponder if their concept, plot, or characters are original enough to capture readers’ tastes. Wharton’s answer:

“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.”

~~~

TKZers: Did any of Edith Wharton’s thoughts particularly strike you?

Are they out of date, no longer relevant?

Or does she express timeless truths about the art of writing fiction?

~~~

 

Debbie Burke is one of Montana’s Women of Mystery, along with Leslie Budewitz and Christine Carbo. Three crime novelists will reveal writing secrets and talk about their books during a Zoom appearance on Wednesday, February 24, at 3 p.m. mountain time. Email debbieburkewriter@gmail.com for the Zoom invitation.

+7

Who is on Your Writing Rushmore?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A few reflections on the recent Super Bowl.

First of all, what more can be said of Tom Brady? I mean, it’s astounding. It’s not just that he has won seven Super Bowls—more than any other franchise in league history—it’s that he won the latest at the age of 43! And with a full head of hair! And a new team! And he’s going to come back and play at least another year! Exclamation points are required for all this!

More on Mr. Brady in a moment.

I want to say a word about young Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback. He is an incredible talent, fun to watch, and no doubt will be back in the big game more than once. I’m just as impressed with him off the field. After the game he said, “Obviously, I didn’t play like I wanted to play. What else can you say? All you can do is leave everything you have on the field, and I felt like the guys did that. They were the better team today. They beat us pretty good, the worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time, but I’m proud of the guys and how they fought to the very end of the game.”

That’s called leadership. Mahomes (whose father was a major league baseball pitcher) also said something that applies to all of us as we face the challenges of the writing life:

“My dad lost in the World Series in his career. He continued to battle and continued to be who he was. Obviously it hurts right now. It hurts a lot. But we’re going to continue to get better. We have a young group of guys that have had a lot of success and have learned from that. We’ve had a few failures, and we have to learn from that. We can’t let this define us. We have to continue to get better, going into next year and being even better and preparing ourselves to hopefully be in this game again.”

That’s how you handle a setback.

Now, back to Brady. He has long been considered to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) at the quarterback position. You really can’t argue with that. The question after this Super Bowl has changed to: Is Tom Brady the greatest team athlete of all time? The only other contenders, in my opinion, are Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. (I’m not counting individual athletics, where you have numerous contenders to argue about, e.g., Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, etc.)

Brady, in my view, is now at the top of the list. There was always a contention by Brady doubters that he benefitted from being coached in New England all those years by Bill Belichick, a supposed football genius. Well, guess what? Brady leaves the Patriots to go to a team that had finished 7-9 the year before. He takes them to the Super Bowl and wins. Maybe it was Brady who made his former coach a “genius.” (The Patriots went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.)

Now, to turn this to writing, I got to thinking about the GOAT of literature. It’s probably an impossible discussion because there are so many variables, including personal taste. So to make it easier, let’s go to another metaphor that’s often used in sports. Who would you put on your Rushmore of writers? That means you get four names. To narrow it down, let’s make it from the nineteenth century on, so we’re not arguing Shakespeare, Homer, Cervantes, Chaucer, etc. My criteria would be an author who wrote at least two novels we still talk about and study today; and who exerted a palpable influence on other writers. With that in mind, here is my Rushmore:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
My choice for the GOAT if I had to pick one. Best novel ever written? The Brothers Karamazov.

Mark Twain
Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Ernest Hemingway
His style was envied and copied, but never duplicated.

Raymond Chandler
I select him over Dickens because of the influence he had on an entire genre.

Now it’s your turn. Who is on your Rushmore of writers? Do you have a GOAT?

+10

The Most Important Question You Can Ask About A Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as The Killers (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)

The other day I reread Hemingway’s famous short story “The Killers.” It takes place in a small-town diner at twilight. Two men enter the diner and start talking tough. It is unlike any other Hemingway story in that it is clearly pulp style. “The Killers” was published in 1927, but because it was Hemingway it came out in Scribner’s Magazine, not Black Mask.

The tough guys order the diner owner and the one patron, Nick Adams (Hemingway’s alter ego in many of his stories), behind the counter. One tough takes Nick into the kitchen and ties him up with the cook.

When the owner asks what’s going on, one of the tough guys explains that he and his partner are there to kill “a Swede.” The Swede’s name is Ole Andreson. He’s supposed to come in for dinner at six. But he doesn’t show. After an hour the killers leave, presumably to go hunt for their prey.

The owner unties Nick and the cook. Nick runs over to the rooming house where Andreson lives. Nick finds him lying on his bed with his clothes on. Nick tries to warn him, but Andreson refuses to go. He says he’s tired of running. Nick returns to the diner, and we are left with the impression that Andreson will soon be dead.

The classic film noir adaptation of “The Killers” was released in 1946 (and features the film debut of Burt Lancaster, who plays Ole Andreson). It uses the short story as the opening sequence. The rest of the film is told through a police investigation and flashbacks.

I first read this story in college, when I was going through my big Hemingway phase. This time, with twenty-five years of my own writing behind me, some things bothered me about the story.

First, the killers walk in and immediately start talking like killers. They might as well have had name badges that said, “Hi! My Name is Al, Assassin, Chicago.”

Second, they come right out and say they are there to kill Ole Andreson.

Third, they make no attempt to hide their faces.

Fourth, when they leave, they don’t shoot the witnesses they’ve just spilled their guts to.

Fifth, if they wanted to kill Ole Andreson, why do it in a public place? Why not just look him up in a directory or politely ask the diner guy where they might find him? Or stake out the diner from across the street and wait for him to show?

Sixth, they overuse the term “bright boy” when they talk. Something like thirty times in just a few pages. Maybe they are indeed killers … who annoy people to death.

If I’d been around in 1927 and met Hemingway in a bar, I might have asked him these questions, then ducked.

All this leads to me to my assertion today about the most important question you can ask about a scene. This is a question that you should ask both before and after you’ve written it. There are, of course, some other questions you need to consider before you write a scene, e.g., Who is the viewpoint character? What is his or her objective in the scene? What are the obstacles? What are the agendas of the other characters in the scene? Where is the conflict?

But then should come this final and ultimate question, for it overhangs everything. Plus, it’s what the readers will immediately pick up on if it’s not answered correctly. Here it is:

Would they really?

Would the characters, if this were “real life,” act this way? Would they make these choices? Or are you, the author, pushing them to do certain things in order to move your plot?

Would hired killers really act the way they do in “The Killers”? Or was it a way for Hemingway to show that he could out-pulp the pulp writers of the day, especially in the dialogue department?

Another way to pose this question to yourself is: are all the characters in this scene operating at maximum capacity in order to get what they want? The sci-fi author Stanley Schmidt has wisely said, “At every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view.”

So:

  1. Give every character in every scene an objective, even if it’s only (as Vonnegut once said) to get a glass of water.
  2. Pit the agendas against each other. Even a scene between two friends or allies should have some form of tension.
  3. Have the characters, even the minor ones, make the best moves they can in order to realize their objectives.

Do you have a “would they really?” example from a book or movie? Carry on the conversation in the comments. I’m on the road, so will try to respond as I can.

***

And speaking of conversations, my book HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE is now available in audio, as read by the author.

+10

The Power of the Telling Detail

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Raymond Carver (via Wikimedia Commons)

In last week’s post, I was asked what I learned from Raymond Carver when I took his workshop in college. The experience was not a happy one. It wasn’t because of Carver; it was because I wasn’t able to “get it.” That’s probably because it was not a craft class, but a place where you shared your work and got comments from Carver and the other students. I got lousy comments. That’s because I was trying to write like Hemingway and falling well short.

Meanwhile, I’d read some Carver stories and knew there was something there, but couldn’t figure out how to get it in my own writing. It wasn’t until years later, when I went back to read Carver and Hemingway again, that I saw it—they were both masters of the telling detail.

A telling detail is a descriptive element that powerfully illuminates a character, moment, or setting. One well-placed, well-formed detail deepens a story, pulling the reader further in, in a way that seems effortless.

In Carver’s story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” a husband and wife are having an intense conversation in the kitchen. The wife is reluctantly going over details of what happened at a party years ago, when another man took her for a ride in his car and kissed her. The husband’s reaction as he listens:

He moved all his attention onto one of the tiny black coaches in the tablecloth. Four tiny white prancing horses pulled each one of the black coaches and the figure driving the horses had his arms up and wore a tall hat, and suitcases were strapped down atop the coach, and what looked like a kerosene lamp hung from the side, and if he were listening at all it was from inside the black coach.

What is going on inside the husband is revealed in the pictures he notices and how he relates to them. He’s withdrawing from the argument; he’s escaping his emotions; he’s being driven from away from his marriage; he’s longing to be in some distant past. There is no need for Carver to tell us how the husband feels. The details do the “telling.”

In Hemingway’s “Soldiers Home” there’s a detail I’ve never forgotten (and I first read it in high school). A young man, Krebs, has returned home from World War I. His mother has just made him breakfast. But things are not the same for Krebs, and never will be again. The war has taken its toll.

His mother starts going on and on about how worried she is about him, how he doesn’t seem to have any ambition and so on. After her emotional appeal, Hemingway writes:

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

That detail is so much more powerful than telling us what Krebs feels. It works on us viscerally.

So how can you get a telling detail into your own writing?

First, you can net them when they fly up, unannounced, as you write. That could be your writers mind trying to tell you something important about the character or the place or the moment. So ponder it a moment. If it seems apt, work it into your scene.

Or you can craft the detail later. This is best done during revision. You have your entire story now. You know what’s going on inside the characters. You can go back into your scenes and sharpen the details to serve your overall purpose.

Try this:

  1. Identify a highly charged moment in your book.
  2. Make a list of possible actions, gestures or setting descriptions that might reflect upon the scene.
  3. List at least 10 possibilities, as fast as you can. Go deep. The best way to get good ideas is to come up with lots of them, let them cool a bit, then choose the best one. Look for the detail that surprises you the most, awakens a different part of the moment for you.
  4. Write a long paragraph incorporating that detail, then edit the paragraph so that it is lean and potent. The telling detail works best when it is subtle and does the heavy lifting all by itself.

Carpe Typem!

+10

Let’s Help a New Writer Out

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Got an email from a reader of my craft books, who is finally ready (he says) to complete a novel. He wanted some career advice before taking the plunge. Below are his questions and my answers. Let’s put our heads together and help him out. We can continue the discussion in the comments!

[NOTE: I am assuming the writer is going the self-publishing route, based on question #2. If so, my opening advice is this—put your novel through the same grinding process you would if you were going to submit it to an agent or editor. Being indie is no allowance for being skimpy when it comes to prepping for publication.]

1. You mention learning to love a marketable genre. I’m a mystery and crime fan, but I realize the old school historical noir pieces may not sell. Here’s my plan: write the following sub-genres under a single pen name: (a) Hard-Boiled Police Procedural series a la Michael Connelly, (b) humorous detective/cozy a la Carl Hiaasen/Big Lebowski, and (c) romantic suspense because romance is huge but the crime element makes it interesting for me to write. Does this make sense? Would I spread myself too thin? Am I too far off the commercial mark? For example, should I go whole-hog into Romance and leave crime behind just for the money?

Establish yourself first in a single genre. You need to build up a readership and fan base, and that’s best done when you a) write a crackerjack book in a genre; and b) follow that up with another crackerjack book in the same genre.

The traditional publishers know this. It’s called branding, and they want to keep their money-making authors on brand because that keeps their bottom line in the black. When you start to sell gazillions of copies per book you can convince your publisher to let you try an off-brand novel…before getting back to your basics. See, e.g., John Grisham, James Patterson.

As an “authorpreneur,” you can make the call when you want to try something different. One of the benefits of indie is that you can branch out in short form as an experiment. For example, I write full-length contemporary thrillers, but have a comedic series of novelettes about a vigilante nun. I did some boxing stories for the love of it. But I always return to full-length suspense.

As for going “just for the money,” my advice is that you find the sweet spot where a marketable genre meets your love for the material. As you rightly point out, I believe you can learn to love a genre if you give yourself to the characters and make the stakes death (as explained in my craft books). At this point, ask yourself where you would find the most joy. Joy has a way of translating onto the page in a way that takes competent fiction up another level.

2. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to become discoverable, but is that a long-term solution? Do you plan to eventually “go wide”?

There’s an ongoing debate about this. To boil it down, those indies who favor “going wide” have concerns about the future of Amazon and possible digital disruption to same. Those who are Amazon exclusive are looking at what’s working now.

This is my personal view: since the future is unknowable, I opt for present-moment lettuce. I was wide with my fiction during the first seven or so years of the indie boom. My income via Kobo, Nook and iBooks was steady but not exciting. When I moved to KU, my income experienced a sharp increase. An added bonus is when I land a BookBub deal, my “pages read” (the way an author gets paid in the KU program) go way up for several weeks.

I know many folks have an issue with Amazon’s dominance, but betting against the company has not proved a winning strategy in the past. I recall in the late 90s when Barron’s dubbed the company “Amazon Dot Bomb.” I only wish I’d bought my shares then.

3. I used to be a pantser and, to show for it, as mentioned above, I’ve finished precisely 0 novels. Your books convinced me to outline, but I find some of the beats and plot points vague. Should I start building from the vague outline and drill down in detail until I have a card per specific scene?

Taking your question as a whole, by “vague” you mean you don’t have a sufficient idea in your mind of what the scenes would actually look like, not what the scene should accomplish within structure. That said, the beauty of the “signpost scenes” idea is that you don’t have to “drill down” before you write—unless you want to! As a pantser, you’re not used to summarizing all scenes ahead of time. In the alternative, you can start with the first couple of beats, and when you’ve gone that far look ahead to the next beat or two. You are driving at night with the headlights on, as E. L. Doctorow put it. You can always see ahead to the next signpost.

For both my plotting and pantsing students, I prescribe the “killer scene” brainstorming exercise. Go to your favorite local coffee house with a stack of index cards and start brainstorming scene ideas, not worrying about structure or where they might fit. Come up with 30-40 cards. Go back the next day and shuffle the cards and go through them, selecting the most promising. Figure out in which act—1, 2, or 3–those would logically fit. You’ll be amazed and happy.

4. When do you know to abandon a series or subgenre experiment and move to something more commercially viable?

There is an easy answer to this in the traditional publishing world: when your publisher does not offer you another contract.

Being indie, my view is that after three books in a series you should have a pretty good idea of how it’s going. Look at sales trajectory and reviews. Then ask yourself how wedded you are to the series. It may be that your next book is the one that brings attention to the others.

Or not. Erle Stanley Gardner developed several series characters for the pulps, including Speed Dash, Sidney Zoom and his police dog, and Ed “The Phantom Crook” Jenkins. But when he felt his writing had stalled he tried out a character he named Perry Mason. The rest is publishing history.

5. You studied under Raymond Carver. I’ve read each of his collections and am a huge fan. I’ve loved minimalist prose since I started reading Hemingway as a kid, and Carver’s style to me is a joy to read. Did he share anything specifically with you or your class you could pass on to me as to writing lean?

The main thing I picked up from Carver was his use of the “telling detail.” He was a master at putting a simple image into a scene that illuminated the emotional moment and often blew you away. Hemingway, at his best, did the same.

When a genre writer pulls this off, the effect is glorious. So glorious, in fact, that I am going to make this the subject of my next TKZ post.

Onward, writer. Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!

Over to you, TKZ community. Help this new writer out.

+8

Two Often Overlooked Reasons For Writing Short Stories

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

hemingway-thought-bubble

I love a good short story. When done right, it can lay you out emotionally, delight you, scare you, make you think, or some combination of the above. All in under 7,000 words.

Some of my best reading experiences have been short stories. Off the top of my head I see:

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway.

“The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw.

“Chapter and Verse” by Jeffery Deaver.

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.

All the stories in My Name is Aram by William Saroyan.

“The Ledge” by Stephen King.

When I was in college, I got into a workshop with one of the masters of the short story, Raymond Carver. What I learned was this: I couldn’t write like him. Or Hemingway. Or Saroyan. And I could not figure out the craft of the story. I was discouraged. I wish I’d known what Ray Bradbury was about to say in his Paris Review interview: “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James?”

A couple of decades later I became a published novelist. Short stories remained elusive to me. But I still wanted to write them. Eventually, I went looking for some sort of key to the craft of short story writing. It took me a long time, but I finally found it.

how-to-write-short-stories-coverNaturally I had to write a book about it.

This book covers my theory of this “master key,” and goes on to suggest strategies for using short stories to help you with your long-term career goals. The book also has five complete stories for your analysis, including the aforementioned “Chapter and Verse” (with the kind permission of Mr. Deaver).

Today I want to talk about two often overlooked reasons for writing the occasional short story. The first reason is, simply, that they’re fun. Lawrence Block, one of the grand masters of crime fiction––short and long––says in The Liar’s Companion: A Field Guide for Fiction Writers:

I figured short stories would be fun. They always are. I think I probably enjoy them more than novels. When they go well, they provide almost immediate gratification. When they go horribly hopelessly wrong, so what? To discard a failed short story is to throw away the work of a handful of hours, perhaps a couple of days. In a short story I can try new things, play with new styles, and take unaccustomed risks. They’re fun.

Why should you sometimes write just for fun? I’m glad you asked:

  • Because “fun is the best thing to have.” – Arthur Bach
  • Taking a break from longer work to have fun refreshes your writer’s mind

Now, “fun” does not mean you’re just writing fluff. Far from it. Which leads me to the second overlooked reason for writing short stories: to deepen your intensity. Once again, Bradbury:

[T]he problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

Writing a short story this way sharpens your ability to concentrate, and also teaches you to bring intensity to the writing of scenes. Since scenes are the building blocks of your novels, that’s all to the good for your overall craft toolbox.

And so I have launched How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career. The e-version may be found here:

Kindle 

Amazon International Stores

Nook

Kobo

A print version is available via Amazon or Barnes & Noble

In last week’s post, I asked you about books that may have brought solace to you at a point in your life. Can you think of a short story that had a similar impact? Was it memorable in other ways? Who is your favorite short story writer?

And have you tried your hand at the short story? What’s been the result?

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