How Writing Short Stories Makes You A Better Writer

Writing short stories is a great way to hone your writing skills, especially if you are finding your way as a writer of longer-form fiction. As writer and blogger Katherine Crowley says, ‘when you write a short story, you go through the entire process of storytelling in a short time, from the inception to the editing – which is a great way to figure out your personal writing process.’

A few months ago I wrote a short story about a murder in Brisbane in the 1940s. It was loosely based on a real life event, but I fictionalised it, adding new characters and inventing a different scenario. By the time I’d finished, I was quite pleased with what I’d achieved and felt like it was a decent short story.

I submitted it to a few short story competitions, not really expecting to get anywhere, but naturally still hoping I might get longlisted for one of them. I was rejected by all of the competitions.

Fair enough, competition is pretty stiff. There are so many talented writers that trying to get your story to stand out can be quite challenging. But I wanted my story to stand out. And it wasn’t.

So I thought, instead of giving up (neverrrr!!!) or writing another, different short story (legitimate option) I would try and work out what it was about this particular short story that wasn’t inspiring the judges and try to improve it.

I enrolled in Short Story Essentials, a new course run by the Australian Writers’ Centre to learn more about how to structure a short story and what works and what doesn’t. The course was really helpful in showing me where I was on the right track and where I could consider making changes.

I’d already sought feedback on the story from a few beta readers, but either they were all too nice to tell me what wasn’t working, or they liked it enough but something just wasn’t grabbing them.

So based on what I learned in the short story course combined with my gut instinct, here are a few things I decided weren’t working in the story and how I changed them.

  • Too many different point-of-view characters. I had four. In a short story where you only have a limited amount of words, it’s confusing to be inside the heads of so many different characters. Now I have two point of view characters with one scene from the point of view of a detective.
  • Humdrum title. The first version was called A String of Pearls. Sounds a bit romantic for a murder mystery/thriller. New title – The Pearl Choker. Bam! That’s way better. Someone is obviously going to be murdered in a story called The Pearl Choker.
  • Predictable ending. It’s not essential for a short story to have a twist at the end but as I was writing a murder mystery/thriller, I wanted it to have a twist at the end. The reveal at the end of A String of Pearls was predictable. So I changed the killer. My beta readers have said they were surprised at the new ending. Yay! Success.
  • Trying to be too clever. In A String of Pearls, all of the scenes were out of order, marked with dates and times. This was because I wanted to start with a hook – the murder – which actually happens in the climax of the story (when told chronologically). This made things too complicated for the reader because they were flipping back and forth, trying to work out the actual order of events. The Pearl Choker is in chronological order and flows much better.

The amount of times I’ve rewritten the story is – a lot of times. I’ve lost count of all the different versions. But you know what? The rewriting has paid off because the story is better! And the beta readers who’ve read both versions agree.

So what now? I’ve submitted The Pearl Choker for feedback as part of the short story course. A professional editor will read it and offer more suggestions how it can be improved, which will be a great learning opportunity. After that, I might submit it to more short story competitions. I know there’s every chance it’ll be rejected by all of them, all over again. But rejection is part of being a writer.

Polishing my short story has shown me how much work is involved in rewriting and editing until a story is the best story it can be. I’m now daunted by the prospect of facing the same process with the first draft of my 95,000 word novel. Based on how long it took me to refine my 2,500 word short story, a rough calculation indicates that I’ll be working on my novel for the next 100 years. Or thereabouts. Phew! Maybe I should write another short story first …

Enrol in Short Story Essentials with the Australian Writers’ Centre here.

 

Mystery of the Month – The Mitford Murders

On 12 January 1920, army nurse Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of Florence Nightingale, was brutally beaten on a Brighton train line. She was found unconscious and covered in blood by three railway workers, and passed away in hospital two days later. Her murderer was never found. This violent, real life unsolved murder forms the basis of The Mitford Murders – the fictional debut for author, Jessica Fellowes, which also features the notorious Mitford sisters in what is to be a series of six cosy mystery stories.

Louisa Cannon lives in poverty with her washerwoman mother. She is forced into pickpocketing by her nefarious uncle, Stephen, who has moved in with them following the death of Louisa’s father. After being kidnapped by Stephen who intends to prostitute her, Louisa escapes by jumping off a moving train – at the same time the injured Nurse Shore is discovered. With assistance from industrious railway policeman, Guy Sullivan, Louisa eventually finds her way to Asthall Manor where she has been recommended for a job as nurserymaid to the Mitford sisters. She is soon befriended by intelligent and lively Nancy Mitford, who has a morbid fascination with Nurse Shore’s murder. Together with Guy, who is keen to prove his worth after being unable to go to war like his brothers, Louise and Nancy follow lines of enquiry into her death.

Jessica Fellowes is the author of the Downton Abbey companion books (she is the niece of Julian Fellowes, creator of the series) and has an international career as a public speaker. Her knowledge of the time period is evident in her detailed descriptions of the fashion, settings and depiction of society and she seamlessly blends fact and fiction to create a compelling narrative. The Mitford Murders is a classic mystery that will please traditionalists but has enough originality to appeal to readers of all kinds of crime fiction. There are plenty of head-scratchers – a locked room mystery, a man in a brown suit who vanished from the scene of the crime and something not quite right about Nancy’s new crush. The final scenes where Louisa and Guy devise an elaborate plot to expose Nurse Shore’s murderer at Nancy’s 18th birthday party dramatically unravel a tangle of lies, love affairs and mistaken identities. I was convinced the plot was heading in a certain direction before it did a complete reversal, culminating in a satisfying twist.

While the title suggests the involvement of more than one Mitford family member, this story really only features Nancy Mitford as a main character and even then, she is really more of a sidekick to Louise, who has as much gumption as she can for a woman of lower class in the 1920s. In a recent interview with Hachette, Jessica said she will focus on a different sister for each book in the series so she can explore the changing landscape between 1920 and 1939. In other exciting news, The Mitford Murders has been optioned for television by Left Bank Pictures, producers of “The Crown”, so hopefully we will see the glamour and intrigue of this golden era on our screens very soon.

The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes is published in Australia by Hachette.

Standout Simile

She had convinced herself that she was building a new life here but it had turned out to be as collapsible as a soufflé.

10 Tips for Writing Your Whodunit

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop run by the Queensland Writers Centre: ‘Beyond the Whodunit’ with Emily Maguire. Emily is the author of several fiction and non-fiction novels, including An Isolated Incident, a story that explores the crushing grief experienced by a woman living in a small town after her sister is brutally and inexplicably murdered. The novel was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Awards, the 2017 Stella Prize and the 2017 Ned Kelly Awards. Emily kindly shared her advice on how to write a story that goes beyond stereotypes, and builds and maintains suspense to keep readers engaged. Here are my top ten favourite things Emily discussed at the workshop – which are useful tips for writers across all genres, not just crime fiction.

1. Choose the right setting for your crime. A crime in one setting may barely cause a ripple in another. For example, a murder in a small country town will have more of an impact on the community than it would in a big city where crimes happen more regularly. The function of crime fiction is to disrupt the world in which your story is set. Consider in which setting your crime will have the most dramatic consequences for your characters.

2. Use setting to reveal backstory. Your ‘detective’ or main character will have an intriguing backstory that should be revealed gradually, not an info dump at the start of chapter two. Use setting to reveal backstory in the context of the person seeing it. What memories does the setting evoke for that character? Use active writing while your character moves through and explores the space. This advances the plot at the same time as drip-feeding clues about your character’s past.

3. Know your antagonist. A good way to kill the suspense in your whodunit is to make your antagonist predictable and cartoonish. Your reader won’t be afraid of your villain if they come across as Dastardly Whiplash. Ask yourself the question – how does your antagonist sleep at night? Hardly anyone thinks they’re a bad person – they find ways to justify their wrongdoings. When you know why your murderer can rationalise what they’ve done, you will have a truly terrifying antagonist.

4. Know your victim. Make sure you known your victim deeply, even if the information doesn’t end up on the page. Whatever happens to the victim has to feel like it really matters to the other characters in the story, and to the reader. Readers will make judgments about how worthy this victim is. Show your victim was a person who had a full life.

5. Make life hard for your main character. Readers need to feel like your characters may not survive the predicament they’re in and that if they fail, it will have dire consequences. Your story won’t be gripping if it’s predictable. Raise the stakes by complicating your character’s life in ways that may not even be related to the story question. Make them lose their job. Have their partner break up with them. Set their house on fire. Break some of their bones. Be really creative about how you can ruin your main character’s life.

6. Avoid abstract terms. When describing your characters, be specific. Instead of describing someone as ‘loyal’ – ask yourself, what does ‘loyal’ look like? Whose opinion is it that they are loyal? Have they worked in the same job for twenty years, do they always remember birthdays or are they a staunch West Coast supporter? People are complicated and there are many ways to refresh stereotypes to make a person come to life on the page.

7. Consider your pacing to create suspense. Action scenes are exciting but non-stop action is exhausting. Quiet moments create suspense because they allow the reader to settle – but they also generate worry and concern. Terrible action usually happens after a very quiet or happy moment. This feeling of impending doom will have the reader turning the pages hoping it won’t happen, but knowing it will.

8. Increase suspense by using dual narratives. Switching point of view between chapters is a popular device in crime fiction. The idea is that the reader becomes engrossed in one character’s story and then finds the chapter ends on a cliffhanger or question. They’ll quickly turn to the next chapter, only to discover it’s written in a different character’s point of view. But if the writing is good, they’ll become absorbed in the new character’s story. Apart from An Isolated Incident, another recent example of an effective dual narrative is The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham.

9. Compress and expand time when writing scenes. If a scene isn’t working or isn’t exciting, try expanding some scenes and compressing others. A simple action, such as reaching for a knife, might continue across several paragraphs to drag out the tension, but if a day goes by where nothing important happens, it can be summarised in a sentence.

10. Have a compelling story question. Your story question, or story problem, is what keeps someone reading. For example in Force of Nature by Jane Harper, the story question is – what happened to Alice? Having a clear idea of your story question keeps your plot focused because it drives your characters towards an answer. The story question, plus compelling characters, high stakes and the possibility of failure is what creates suspense.

Buy An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire here.

Find out more about what’s on at the Queensland Writers Centre here.

Mystery of the Month – Force of Nature

The words ‘corporate retreat’ would likely inspire trepidation in many people. Especially activities involving a three-day hike into the Australian bush. Imagine being in such close proximity to the people you work with, every minute of every day. It’s no wonder you might feel like killing each other by the end.

This is the intriguing premise of Force of Nature, the follow-up novel to author Jane Harper’s hugely successful, award-winning debut The Dry. Federal Agent Aaron Falk is back and this time he’s involved in a missing person case. Four women have returned late from a team building hike in the Giralang Ranges, east of Melbourne. They’re hurt, bleeding and crying for help. And there should be five of them. Alice Russell has gone missing after wandering into the bush alone.

Aaron and his new, not-quite-platonic partner, Carmen Cooper, have a personal interest in finding Alice – she’s the whistleblower helping them in a case against BaileyTennants’ chief executive, Daniel Bailey. Just before Alice went missing, Falk received a mysterious voice mail from her, and only two words stick out – ‘hurt her’. But who was she talking about?

The narrative alternates between Falk’s investigation into Alice’s disappearance, and the past few days following the women’s journey through the bush. There’s Jill Bailey, Daniel’s sister and chairwoman; Lauren Shaw, who knows Alice from school; and twins Bree and Beth McKenzie who have a rocky relationship. It soon becomes clear to the reader that each woman is choosing what information to share with police and what to keep hidden. Did one of them have something to do with Alice’s disappearance?

Just like an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, things start to go downhill for the group after they take a wrong turn in the dense bushland. The more lost they become, the higher the tension amongst them, and the nastier Alice seems to get. Harper’s description of the bush – beautiful one minute and a beast the next – adds to the feeling of being trapped. In one scene the women stop to admire ‘a magnificent vista of rolling hills and valleys’ but then they are feeling ‘boxed in’ by the gum trees ‘very close and very tall, all around’. The stakes grow higher as survival instincts kick in – from a struggle for a drink of rainwater pooling in a tree to a violent brawl over a mobile phone. Meanwhile, the threat of notorious serial killer, Martin Kovac, looms over the group.

Readers have high expectations following successful debut novels and Harper has exceeded those expectations with Force of Nature. It’s good to learn more about Falk, who is still nursing the burnt hand he received in The Dry. We are given a glimpse into his home life and discover more about his uneasy relationship with his father as he uses his old walking maps to navigate the Giralang Ranges. These family relationships play a big role in Force of Nature, touching on the similarities and differences between siblings, and between parents and their children.

I started reading Force of Nature when the Audiobook I was listening to at the time failed to capture my attention. I was glad I made the switch. Force of Nature was compelling and entertaining from the first page. Harper has a talent for giving each character a strong purpose and here, everyone has a role to play in the terrible thing that has happened to Alice. Aaron Falk is a stalwart, brave and intelligent character who I hope to see more of. He’s just the kind of person you’d want to have with you on a corporate retreat.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper is published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.

Standout Simile

For a moment, there was nothing but the strange hush of the bush and Beth looked up at the gum trees. Their bark hung off in slack strips like flayed skin.

 

 

 

The Truth About Writing Murder

Earlier this month, I attended the Brisbane Writers Festival which is always a great opportunity for like-minded people to connect and discuss what they are passionate about. This year’s theme was The Big Issue (the big stories and the little ones in between) – exploring how writers create fictional and real worlds through their voices and stories.

As a mystery writer, I checked out the Morbid Minds session with award-winning thriller writer, James Phelan, and Sarah Schmidt, author of one of my favourite books of 2017, See What I Have Done. James and Sarah were interviewed by Paul Barclay from ABC Radio National about the fascination people have with murder and gruesome crimes.

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James Phelan and Sarah Schmidt are interviewed by Paul Barclay at the Brisbane Writers Festival, 9 September 2017

 

I’ve always been interested in murder mysteries – for me it’s the puzzle and the challenge of trying to work out ‘whodunit’. I need to know the truth. What really happened?

As James said, “… through fiction you can get to a truth you can’t get though any other medium.” The role of fiction is writing about the world around us and making sense of it; using writing to figure something out. For most, murder is an incomprehensible act. Writers can use fiction as a way of providing possible answers to questions beyond the realm of our understanding. What drives a person to kill? What was going through their mind at the time of the murder?

For others, the fascination may be purely voyeuristic – revealing a person’s secrets and seeing things you wouldn’t normally be ‘allowed’ to see. In Emily Maguire’s 2016 novel, An Isolated Incident, crime reporter May Norman contemplates how a murder opens up private lives in an extreme way. The respect usually given to a person who died of natural causes is often disregarded when someone is murdered, and it is deemed almost helpful or necessary to make public the private life of the victim and those close to them.

“The squishy, reeking black truth of it was that reading about murder thrilled her in the exact same way, she supposed, that it thrilled the masses who snapped up true-crime books in the millions and watched cheesy crime re-enactment shows and moody, gritty cable dramas. It was just so intimate.”

As part of the discussion, Paul Barclay noted that recent studies have shown more women are reading and writing crime fiction. He posed the question to Sarah, who agreed that yes, “women do things”. (Amazing, but true). Sarah said part of the reason Lizzie Borden was acquitted was because the jury could not fathom a woman, let alone one who was white, wealthy and a Sunday school teacher, being capable of such a violent act. Sarah also raises an interesting point in this interview with Sisters in Crime – why are violent women often viewed as worse than violent men? How much have things changed since Lizzie Borden’s trial in 1892?

In her historical fiction workshop, Sarah asked – what is your story really about? For example, See What I Have Done is much more than a novel about the Borden axe-murders. Although Sarah speculates upon what really may have happened that fateful day, the truth she is really exploring is – what happens in a family where there is no more love? For this particular family, the consequences are horrifyingly violent.

It’s not a nice thing to think about. But as Sarah said: “If you can make your reader feel uncomfortable then I think you’ve done a good job.”

Many people are fascinated by murder, but the main message, or the ‘big issue’, that I’ve taken away from attending these sessions is writing to get to the truth, to make sense of the world. This is something that doesn’t only apply to crime fiction or stories about murder and violent crimes, but to all stories, across all genres of fiction.

So, what is your story really about? What truth are you trying to make sense of?

Buy See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt here.

Learn more about and buy copies of James Phelan’s books here.

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Brisbane Writers Festival, State Library of Queensland

Mystery of the Month – Crossing the Lines

Madeleine d’Leon is a crime fiction writer who is taking a break from her successful series of mystery novels to write a whodunit with a brand new character – Edward McGinnity, a literary author who has found himself embroiled in the murder of art critic Geoffrey Vogel.

Edward McGinnity is writing a story about Madeleine d’Leon, lawyer and crime fiction writer whose marriage to doctor Hugh Lamond is waning after several miscarriages.

While this may sound confusing, Crossing the Lines cleverly explores how a writer’s obsession with her fictional character evolves to a point where he literally comes to life. And although there is a whodunit, this is much more than just a mystery novel.  In fact, the identity of who killed Geoffrey Vogel is deliberately not as compelling as the developing relationship between Madeleine and Edward and the concept of a writer completely absorbed by her fictional story.

The pair begin by simply observing each other – Edward envisages Madeleine in cloud print pyjamas, tapping away at her laptop, and ordering takeaway for dinner. Madeline imagines Edward writing long hand in his expensive beach house; a typical crime fiction hero with a troubling backstory – his family was killed in a car accident. He’s in love with best friend Willow who is married and cannot return his love; deliberately written so Madeleine doesn’t have to write a sex scene, and of whom she becomes envious as her passion for Edward intensifies. The viewpoints alternate seamlessly, as it appears both simultaneously occupy the same space, leading the reader to doubt who is really real.

They are startled to discover they can converse with one another – bantering about the conventions of their differing writing styles – crime fiction and literary fiction. Madeleine tells Edward something has to “actually happen” in the stuff she writes and Edward accuses her of being obsessed with “guns and masked bandits.” When Madeleine tells her father she could never be a literary writer as the women must be stick thin, Edward realises he cannot think of any fat female literary writer of note. Before long, their relationship crosses imaginary lines, progressing to physical contact, with Madeleine preferring Edward’s company to Hugh’s.

Crossing the Lines is an intricate metanarrative with Gentill, also a crime fiction author and former attorney, using “a familiar baseline” from which to develop the character of Madeleine. In April, I attended a seminar at Supanova where Sulari Gentill said she writes her mysteries without necessarily knowing where they will lead. And like Gentill, Madeline is also a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ – writing plot points without knowing where they will lead, including a sudden and brutal attack on Edward and a frantic car chase. And the reader of Crossing the Lines will wonder at Madeleine’s inevitable fate as she allows herself to sink deeper into her own imagination, separating herself from reality and descending into delusion.

Crossing the Lines is a must read novel, especially for writers who will relate to the concept of feeling real emotions for fictional characters and the consequences of what they make happen to them. As Madeleine’s psychiatrist asks her: “Do you like that, Madeleine, deciding questions of life and death, having the power to take or give such things?” In this case, the authorial power is in the able hands of Sulari Gentill, who has crafted an intelligent and insightful story that will leave you contemplating the bounds of your own imagination.

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill is published in Australia by Pantera Press.

Standout Simile

Lillian laughed. But scorn was cut into the mirth like some bitter essence folded into whipped cream.

7 Similes to Inspire Your Writing

If you’ve been reading my blog or following me on Twitter, you’ll know I love a good simile. For most people, a simile will blend into the writing and they may not even notice they’ve read one.  Or they may be more apparent in a song, for example Elton John’s famous lyric: “And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind.” Or ‘Like a Rock’ by Bob Seger, who is not technically a rock.

However, for some people, probably lots of writers, and particularly ‘simile-obsessed’ me – once you start noticing them, you’ll keep noticing them. This is a good thing, because there are so many beautifully written similes making the story come alive on the page, revealing information about characters and even foreshadowing what’s to come!

Here are seven similes I’ve read and enjoyed recently.

  1. “One lion had pink balloons tied to his paw, bobbing in the breeze like a cluster of airborne haemorrhoids.” – Those Pleasant Girls by Lia Weston

Lia Weston’s hilarious novel about a mother and daughter trying to fit into a town of quirky characters is filled with delicious similes, making it hard to choose only one for this blog post. This simile hints at how thrilled they are to be attending a bridal shower for a pink-obsessed, Buble-loving real estate agent.

2. “The gun slid out of Whitt’s hands as he hit the floor of the boat shed, the weight of the kayak that had been slung across the ceiling knocking him into the ground like a nail bent beneath an enormous hammer.”  – Fifty Fifty by James Patterson and Candice Fox

The next instalment in the Harriet Blue series is all fast-paced action and suspense, with visual writing that drives the story forward. In this scene, Harry’s former partner confronts a serial killer.

3. “Behind us Rodney is playing basketball again. The sound of the ball hitting the wet concrete is like a hand smacking against bare skin.” – The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

Simple but active descriptions such as these set the scene as protagonist Gemma questions potential suspect Rodney over the death of his beautiful schoolteacher, creating a feeling of unease about what’s to come.

4. “She ran straight into Leo’s open arms, unable to stop the tears from falling, feeling at last defended, like a single musical note that had finally found the symphony to which it belonged.” – Her Mother’s Secret by Natasha Lester

I won’t say too much in case I spoil the surprises in this beautiful story, but this simile perfectly encapsulates an emotional scene between two of the main characters.

5. “I didn’t cry or feel anger or anything, but I shook and shook so much that it made me giggle, which made Matt look at me like I’d screamed. Honestly, it was like I was on one of those vibrating chairs in the shopping centre. Like I was a vibrating chair.” – An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Main character Chris narrates the story and her voice is captivating from the first few words. Her grief at identifying her dead sister is almost palpable in this scene.

6. “He advances like a floating Dracula. The menace is ruined by the sporting-goods-store bag loudly crinkling against his leg.” – The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

Sally Thorne’s tale about co-workers who love to hate each other is a laugh-a-minute ride. Language like this shows how Lucinda really feels about Josh when he catches her lurking near his desk.

7. “She pulls her pad from her bag and starts to sketch the scene: the long bridge, a small figure straddling the railings, clinging on, her dress whipping around her as though desperate to pull her back from fate, her hair lifted like kite tails in the breeze.” – The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster

It’s similes such as these that make me wonder – did this just pop into the author’s head? If so, I’m very envious. You can really see the woman and feel the wind when you read this vivid description of main character Eleanor’s troubled mind.

What are you reading at the moment? Have you noticed any similes? Or have you included a few in your own work in progress? If so, please share them in the comments below.