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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-minded #23: Fiction in a Nutshell

Wow--my hundredth blog post.  I'm starting to feel like the real thing.

Remember my post about the "I Write Like..." website, where you can compare your own prose to the masters'?  Well, I just saw an article describing how that site has gone viral...but I told you, my cherished readers, about it two whole days ago.  Do you feel hip and cool and cutting edge?  I know I do.

So what shall we hipsters talk about today?  Well, I've recently been reminded that I have a short story in an anthology coming out in a few weeks called Florida Heat Wave. (It's easy to lose track of these things when you wrote it and turned it in a year ago.)  It's a rather noir collection, filled with stories from illustrious writers who have written bestsellers and won awards, but you know it's set in Florida when you hear that one of the authors wrote a hit song with Jimmy Buffett. 

Why, you may ask, am I in a noir collection?  My books can be dark-ish at times, but the world view is probably not sufficiently bleak enough for them to function as noir.  Yet this is my third story for a noir collection, and my second for editor Michael Lister, so he must have been happy with the first one I sent him

There are two lessons for aspiring writers in my mini-semi-demi-hemi career as a noir story writer.  The first lesson is to network, network, network.  I met Anthony Neil Smith at the first mystery conference I ever attended.  He was editing Plots with Guns at the time, a noir publication if ever there was one.  At my second mystery conference ever, I saw Neil again and he said he had read Artifacts and liked my work.  Would I send him a story?

I stammered a bit, because I wasn't sure I could write something he'd like.  He said, "Don't worry about it.  Just make sure there's a gun in the story.  That's our schtick at Plots with Guns.  Have Faye dig up a musket."

Well, I wanted to do better than a silly musket, and I knew noir was heavy on blood and guts.  After a bit of musing, I realized that there was a heckuva lotta blood and guts in a hospital operating room.  The Fifties were some noir-ish years, if you ask me, so I made it a period story and created a starchy and starched-uniform-wearing nurse to narrate the story.  Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind said "Starch" was "twisted."  That still makes me feel incredibly hip.  I believe I can die happy.

Soon after that, I met Michael Lister at another mystery conference.  When I saw that he was editing some anthologies, I wrote him and asked what he wanted.  He said, "The anthology's called North Florida Noir."  This was a problem, since I'm still not the most noir writer around and I'd just written two stories set in north Florida.  I wasn't sure I had that much left to say about the place.  (So says the woman who just wrote a book set in north Florida.  Apparently, the material in this little piece of creation is endless.)  Michael, God love him, said, "Oh, okay.  You can stretch north Florida down to Orlando."

My storyteller's heart skipped a beat, because I knew what I wanted to do.  I wanted to kill somebody at Disney World (or someplace very like it...I'm not big on being sued.)  So I did.  The story's called Mouse House, and I had a blast throwing my victim off a castle that is notably not named after Cinderella. 

So last year, Michael was looking for stories again for Florida Heat Wave and he asked me for one, meaning that I needed to go all noir again.  I harked back to the mid-twentieth century and killed somebody during the filming of a movie very like The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  And I had a blast doing it...which brings me to the second point I want to make for aspiring writers.

Short stories give you an opportunity to try a new style or a new voice or a new narrative technique.  They give you a chance to strut your stuff.  Even if you have no intention of selling it, it's excellent practice to choose a technique you're not so good at yet--like, say, dialogue--and write a short story that's told entirely in dialogue.  Writing a novel means committing yourself for months or years.  Writing a short story means committing yourself for a few days. 

So take a chance.  If a fairly dainty Southern belle-type grandmother like me can write twisted stories, you can write whatever you darn well please.


  1. Happy 100th, Mary Anna! WOW! Centiblog!

    And thanks for the tips on short stories. I'm going to try and sneak into your fiction sessions during the Anhinga. If you see me there, frantically taking notes, it's because I'm seriously working myself up to attempting something with plot and character. I like this idea of short story FIRST.

    Can an essayist and creative non-fiction goddess make the transition? Maybe. Maybe not.

    If my first attempt turns into a coloring book, you'll know it wasn't for lack of effort.

  2. I cannot imagine you coloring inside the lines, my dear...