Monday, September 24, 2012

Telling the Story by Harry Shannon


I grew up with my nose buried in a book. Bet you did too. For me, Tom Swift and Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were followed by the seminal SF of Robert Heinlein, A.E. Van Vogt, Richard Matheson, and of course Ray Bradbury. When I was in my early teens I discovered some Shell Scott and Donald Hamilton mass-market paperbacks under my Grandfather’s sink on the ranch. (Okay, I found some girlie magazines there too but that’s a story for another day). Those Gold Medal paperbacks also hooked me instantly. I collected them for years. I still own every Travis McGee book written by the great John D. MacDonald, and most of his other sixty-odd novels as well. My home is filled with books, as is my office.

I wallowed in the style, the drama, the rapid pace of pulp fiction, hell, novels of any stripe. The spy novels of the sixties, the horror of the seventies and eighties, historical fiction, mysteries and thrillers, you name it. The point it, like most of us, I’ve always loved to read—and thus always dreamed of becoming I writer. I started writing early, and could soon hammer out a pretty good sentence. Eventually I even had a style, mostly likely just a loose combination of bits and pieces from every author I’d admired, but it was mine. So I kept on writing…and getting rejected. It turns out that one thing nagged me constantly, held me back and rarely failed to trip me up.

Structure gave me fits.
I can write the story, I thought, but how do you tell the story?

The answer turned out to be simple, though not necessarily easy. You study structure, at least for a while. Look, I’m not going to sit here and recommend that everyone interested in writing go get an advanced degree, or even suffer through reading Robert McKee’s pretentious tome Story, but I did learn the hard way that a working understanding of structure is essential to becoming a half way decent writer. I applied these principles to my first Mick Callahan mystery Memorial Day, and it did quite well.

In a nutshell, what I learned back then is this. Aristotle said a good story must inevitably consist of three parts, a beginning, middle and end. Thus we have the classic (and overused) three-act screenplay structure, with an inciting incident beginning the tale, a first plot point creating the second act—generally about fifty percent of the piece—and a third plot point creating the final act, i.e. the last quarter. A smart person will also soon learn to divide the middle act into three distinct smaller acts, and thus push the tale forward with ever more momentum. Oh, and as the middle of most novels has a tendency to sag, it’s smart to plot a key event or reversal of some kind and drop it in there to keep the reader from losing interest.

There you have it, more or less. You may already know all about this stuff, but I figured I’d mention it anyway.

I found the concept of story structure quite illuminating. It led me to an interest in mythology and comparative religion. I treasured Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and can also recommend the book The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which lifted from the work of both Carl Jung and Professor Campbell. See, Jung noted that great stories have been with us forever, and most have certain predictable elements which tend to be arranged in a specific order. Joseph Campbell carried those concepts further, eventually applying them to mythology and religion as well as folk and fairy tales from around the globe. I think it was James Joyce who dubbed the basic story the “Mono Myth,” i.e. one of separation, initiation into some form of rarified knowledge, and then return, usually to share that knowledge, even if only by example. Think of Prometheus and the fire, or Icarus and his rapidly melting wings.

Once you learn to apply these basic thoughts to your mystery or thriller, the pacing will improve and the story will probably feel easier to knit together.

Obviously one can overdue this stuff, and end up feeling rigid and predictable, but for me, not planning at all feels to me like painting a room without prepping it, or building an office complex without a blueprint. In summary, it is my humble opinion that we need three primary things to write well (a) good characters (b) a readable style, well presented and (c) at least a good, working grasp of story structure. The more we write, the less many of us seem to need to plan out in advance. I suspect the mind learns these basic tricks over time. One hopes. After all we do ultimately learn to write by writing.

Speaking of writing, I’d better get back to work. I have a fifth Mick Callahan novel to plot out.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Six Reasons to Write Short Stories

By Libby Hellmann

One of the reasons I love being part of Top Suspense is that all twelve of us write short stories as well as novels. I believe short stories are an essential part of an author's tool kit. In fact, I believe they can only make us better writers. So, in keeping with our emphasis on craft, I offer this post which was also on my individual blog recently, SAY THE WORD.


A writer’s journey often takes them to unexpected places. I know mine has. Like many beginning writers, I decided I could write a novel fresh out of the gate. So I did. Funny—no one wanted it. At the time I was irritated. Why not? I’d just spent four months working on what I thought was going to be a NY Times Best Seller.

The answer? I didn’t know what I didn’t know: that I hadn’t learned the craft of fiction, that I was getting in the way of my characters, that the plot was unbelievable, at times even (horrors!) trite. I joined a writers’ group, and slowly my process started to gel. In fact, sixteen years later I’m still in the same group.

Nonetheless, writing my first short story, “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared,” was pretty much an accident. My son was about to be a Bar Mitzvah, and one of his gifts was a pictorial history book called The Jews of Chicago. As I flipped through it, some of the photos grabbed me. They were taken in Lawndale during the Thirties, which, at the time, was a thriving Jewish community in Chicago.


After staring at them for days, I ended up writing a short story set in that time and place. I had no idea it would win two contests, and would turn out to be the prequel to my Ellie Foreman series, which itself is the prequel to my Georgia Davis series. (BTW, Miriam is forever free on Amazon, Apple, and Kobo.)

Since that time I’ve written over 20 short stories. I’m hooked on them, and I’d like you to be as well. Short stories are magic—and they’re great for your career. Here are 6 reasons why.

#1: They’re short.

People say it’s tougher to write short than long. Don’t believe them. The best thing about short stories is that they’re short. I like to say that a novel is like a marriage, but short stories are like an affair. I can get in and out of one in 6 weeks. During those 6 weeks, I’m full of passion, awareness, and energy. Then it’s over, but unlike an affair, I have something tangible to show for it.

#2 They deepen your craft.

Short stories help you master the elements of craft. Every word counts, and that includes setting, character description, and action. In fact, the entire narrative (and dialogue) has to be crisp, concise, and meaningful. If you can do it well in short form, there’s no reason you can’t expand it to a novel.

#3 Experimentation

My favorite reason to write short stories is to explore new characters, plot lines, voices, even genres. Often in the middle of writing a novel, I’ll get an itch of an idea that won’t leave me alone. Writing a short story lets me scratch that itch. Plus, it gives me a break from my novel, and I come back to it refreshed. The first hard-boiled piece I wrote was a short story, and several times I’ve tried out historical time periods that I later expanded to a novel. “The Whole World is Watching”, for example eventually developed into Set The Night on Fire. And who knows? I'm even thinking of writing a historical short story that has no mystery at all.

#4 Name recognition

I published 2 short stories before my first novel came out. When it did, readers had seen my name around, and I like to think they realized I was taking my writing seriously. That recognition gave me an advantage when An Eye For Murder was released.

#5. Filling in the series/Starting a new one

Most novelists publish a new book once a year, but what happens to your characters inbetween? Short stories are a great way to fill in. I wrote several Georgia and Ellie stories just to remind my readers they were still around.

They’re also a wonderful way to answer questions for your readers. The Murder of Katie Boyle explains how Ellie and Georgia first met, and War Secrets, which will be out in an MWA anthology next year, answers one of the questions I deliberately left hanging in A Bitter Veil. Plus, you never know when a story (like Miriam) will propel your career onto an entirely unexpected path.

#6. Recycle Ability (that should be one word, don’t you think?)

Most short story contracts bind you for one or two years, but after that, the story is yours to do with what you wish. I’ve offered reprints to other anthologies, bundled them into collections, and have seen audios produced. In fact, a short story is the gift that keeps on giving… indefinitely.

Enough reasons? Start writing.

In case you’d like to investigate further, you can find 15 of Libby’s short stories in NICE GIRL DOES NOIR here and here, and on Audible.


And, of course, Top Suspense has published two short story anthologies, as well as a fabulous and outrageous round robin story.

Burl Barer comments:

I love reading short stories, and I love writing short stories. I find them great fun, and it gives an author the opportunity to explore different forms and voices - yes, it is akin to having an affair or a fling, yet with honest affection.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Best Time to be a Writer by Lee Goldberg


It’s news to no one that the publishing industry has undergone a massive paradigm shift in the last twenty-four months that has changed everything about the business for authors, booksellers, and publishers. But there's one thing that hasn't changed, the most important thing of all, and sadly too many authors aren't paying enough attention to it.

Thanks initially to the introduction of the Kindle, and Amazon opening up their storefront to authors, it’s no longer necessary to have a publisher in order to reach readers.  Authors now have options they never had before for getting their books to a national audience. Being dropped by a publisher, or having your books go out of print, are no longer the kiss of death. On the contrary, they present perhaps more profitable opportunities to exploit your material. 

For new authors, it’s no longer necessary to go through the struggle of finding an agent who will then sell their work to a publisher, an odyssey than can take years…if it happens at all. Now it’s the publishers, editors and agent who are struggling ....desperately trying to reinvent themselves in a radically changing business. 

Self-publishing is no longer the realm of vanity press vultures preying on aspiring, na├»ve and desperate authors…nor is it the complicated and outrageously expensive gamble, with pitiful chances of success, that it once was. It’s now possible to publish your book, both electronically and in print, with a mouse click, with little to no upfront investment…and to have your book  on the virtual shelf on equal footing with the likes of  James Patterson and Nora Roberts, at the Amazon and Barnes & Noble storefronts. 

Writing careers are being born and, in the case of mid-list authors, reborn. 

Now whenever authors get together, we are no longer discussing how we write, or problems with our editors, or tales of life on the road. The talk today is inevitably about reversion of rights letters, book scanning, copyediting, e-book formatting, the nuances of cover art, manipulation of metadata, e-pub vs. mobi, pricing, giveaways, marketing and publicity, social networking, blogging, tagging, liking, tweeting and pinning.

For established, professional writers, coming into self-publishing after years in the “legacy” publishing world, that isn’t such a bad thing.  They’ve learned and perfected their craft (or maybe I am just trying to excuse my own obsession with those aspects of the business). But I’ve listened to new writers at conferences or while lurking on writers’ boards and the newbie writers seem obsessed with everything except what matters most: the writing.

I believe it’s that misguided obsession that s leading to the ethical scandals we’ve been seeing lately… like John Locke who hired people to buy his books and write fake reviews (to artificially boost his rankings and acclaim) to establish himself... and Stephen Leather and RJ Ellory who both used “sock-puppets” on Amazon and social media to generate false buzz and fake reviews to boost their popularity and attack their "rivals."

What authors need to remind themselves is that all of that formatting, pricing, tweeting, social networking, etc. is meaningless if you don’t know how to tell a good story, create compelling characters, develop a strong voice, set a scene, establish a sense of place, or manage point-of-view. 

I rarely hear writers anymore talking about the pluses and minuses of out-lining, the importance of an active protagonist, the different kinds of conflict, or the elements of structure. The craft of writing has taken a backseat to the business of publishing. 

That’s one reason why the members of Top Suspense, have put together a book called WRITING CRIME FICTION, that will be published soon.  We want to get the dialogue started again… to bring writers back to the one thing that will never change, even as the publishing business reinvents itself. 

People want a good story. 

That’s why writers write and readers buy books. Good stories. Great characters. That's what matters. Not whether you should write an erotic novel to cash in on FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY... or maybe focus on a YA novels since the HUNGER GAMES series is so hot.  

Writers have been handed a great opportunity in the last twenty-four months. We now have tremendous control over our creative and financial lives as writers that we never had before. We now have choices that simply didn’t exist before.

It is, without a doubt, the best time to be an author in decades.  

Don’t blow it. Don’t become so focused on the business that you forget the craft. Take advantage of the freedom, and the opportunities, and the new choices by focusing on telling great stories.  Hone your craft, Find your voice…focus and less on how the story is packaged, sold and promoted. Help us shift the balance back to where it belongs...

Storytelling.