Saturday, March 28, 2009

Interview with G. Miki Hayden, Part I

If you've been reading my reviews here, you know I'm a great admirer of Edgar winner G. Miki Hayden's short stories. If you haven't been reading my reviews, then shame on you. SHAME ON YOU!!

In any event, I asked a few questions and she taught a master lesson. Here is part one:

ST: I really love your Miriam Obadah stories for AHMM. I find them moving besides being good mysteries. Do you concentrate on one aspect (emotion) instead of another (puzzle) at different times as you write or do the stories just come together as the reader sees them?

GMH: Thanks so much, Steve.

I don’t concentrate on one aspect and then layer in other aspects of a story when I write. I also rarely restructure. I write and then polish. However, while I certainly think that writing everything at the same time produces a more cohesive piece, I also will suggest that students (I teach for Writer’s Digest at Writers Online Workshops) can layer in elements later on if they aren’t able to provide them in the initial draft.

The most common essentials that students will miss in their writing are emotion, setting, and point-of-view character internals.

The eliciting of emotion is definitely an important fundamental of fiction, but that’s probably the hardest thing for writers to do. So I don’t really mean that THE WRITER NEEDS TO ACTUALLY EVOKE A FEELING, as creating suspense, tension, the onset of romance, or even reader sorrow is extremely difficult. If someone can actually trigger reader feelings—wonderful—she may make a lot of money selling her manuscripts. But if she can’t, then she can at least include the mechanical representation of these sensations. We are always able to write, “His heart thudded in his chest and he thought he would faint.” That will substitute for the real thing in many instances, and a writer does need to have at least some of that to round out any story.

As for setting, I encourage students to sketch in a few specifics, but also to keep the setting alive throughout a scene. For instance, if the characters are in deep conversation in a school cafeteria, let’s hear a little bit of the noise—the crash of trays, the laughter of the kids—and maybe even see someone slide on spilt milk. But I say sketch in these details, because the setting shouldn’t take away from the dialogue. It should simply create part of the reality, the background part.

The other most-often-missing element in fiction by new writers is point-of-view character thought. And some of this can be emotional as well, so I don’t entirely separate the two. The more the writer lets the reader know what’s going on with the character, the fuller the story becomes for his audience. Of course this, too, has to be paced out, and has to be on focus for the scene and the story. As writers, we don’t want to give stream of consciousness, but we also don’t want readers to be in the dark as to what the character believes, in regard to the situation.

I said I mostly don’t restructure, but sometimes I do, and the times when I do, I restructure the opening. The opening, especially of a short story, has to be quick and offer the hook as soon as possible. Writers often feel the need to “develop” or to “set up” the story, but less here is more. We can start quickly and then come back, and through internals give more development and setup.

ST: Do you have any methods either for the generation of short story ideas or for the writing process that you can share?

GMH: Ideas are everywhere, so instead of talking about how to generate them, I’ll say that once a writer has an idea and has started a project he ought to stick with that until he’s done. Worse than not being able to come up with an idea is not being able to carry through the writing to the end. I think that’s a chronic difficulty. Trust me, no story idea is significantly better than any other. No idea is “the” idea. The treatment of the idea is what really counts.

With a short story—as opposed to a full-length manuscript—I generally prefer to have a fairly well-formed sense of what I’m writing when I sit down to do the draft. I find that thinking through the logic of the story and knowing where it’s going can make the writing process a whole lot easier.

On the other hand, not everyone works in the same way, and not every piece will proceed along the same path, either. Writers do have to learn to trust their own processes. But I’m suggesting that if someone works out the short story plot in his head before he sits down, he’ll find the writing flows more easily.

That’s harder with a novel of course. Novels are longer. I don’t say that to be facetious exactly, but people do sometimes ask what the difference is between writing a short story and writing a novel. That novels are longer is pretty much my answer as to the difference. The length of the work affects the pacing of the story arc and may even account for the proverbial “sagging middle” of the novel—the segment of the manuscript where the writer herself sags and has no idea what to do next with her characters. (The answer is—push through to the end.)


G. Miki Hayden is the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Shanks Gets Killed by Robert Lopresti

Robert Lopresti writes several series of short stories for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and has been nominated for and won a Derringer Award. Shanks is a mystery writer who winds up solving crimes. Like a lot of real writers, Shanks is a bit on the surly side and with a biting sense of humor. In this story, he has been dragooned into a mystery weekend at a resort where he's supposed to be the celebrity author and get whacked on the first night - this means he doesn't have much to do.

Then the grand prize, a first edition of The Maltese Falcon, goes missing and Shanks is dragooned again. After all, if he's not busy acting a part, he might as well save the resort the trouble and fuss of having the police around bothering guests. Of course, he gets to the bottom of it all, but how he does it and the humor that goes into the interrogations he has to conduct make the story worth the read.

In the process of solving the crime, Shanks gives the reader a glimpse into a subset of the mystery world I hadn't really considered before. Are people really that competitive when they go to a bed and breakfast for those mystery weekends? I hope that's a product of Lopresti's imagination.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Without Anesthesia by Maceias Nunes

As I often do, I started reading the latest EQMM with the shortest story in the volume - I'm a notoriously slow reader. Short stories can take me days. Anyway, in this case, the story was quite short - about three pages. Still, the author - this is his first fiction - was able to pack quite a punch. The story is about a Nazi hiding in Brazil. In this case, the narrator is offered money to keep quiet about the Nazi. The narrator being poor but principled means this won't be an easy decision. The fact that the narrator is in love with the Nazi's daughter makes it even more difficult. Anyway, what the narrator decides and, especially why, is the twist here.

Then, of course, there's the question of whether you can ever be happy again once you've been propositioned by a Nazi. In any event, the prose is crisp and clear, but I felt the story could have been helped by being longer - I would have liked more development of the narrator. Still, if you're going to err about the length of a story, it's better to be too short than too long. Don't get me wrong. The story is a good read and worthy of your attention. I guess I'd just like it if there were more of it to enjoy.

Friday, March 06, 2009

"The Case of the Extra Ventriloquist" by Ron Goulart

From: Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May 2009.

In 1951 Los Angeles, detective comic strip artist Jack Ortega happens upon children's radio host Polly Renfrew, trussed up and gagged in the woods. Smitten, Jack unties Polly and asks how she ended up there. Polly and her dummy, Sally Sawdust, were supposed to entertain at the mansion of famous actress Mona Tardy. According to Ms. Tardy, another ventriloquist showed up in Polly's place and stole $200,000 worth of jewels and bearer bonds.

Polly deduces who's behind the theft by having Jack sketch a likeness of the villainous ventriloquist's dummy, but the next day, Polly goes missing and Jack has to play detective to find her.

I was a fan of the early 90s Tek series, ghostwritten for William Shatner by Ron Goulart. Featuring the same lighthearted humor and distinctive speech pattern, this story was doubly nostalgic for me.