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Writing Small, Not Small Writing

Read Ridley Pearson's motivational essay on how writing short stories can get you geared up to write novels.

Harlan Coben doesn’t know he’s my savior.

He didn’t save me by endorsing a manuscript or by sending me anonymous e-mails on how to plot. No, he saved me by forcing me to play “small ball”: He invited me to contribute a short story to a Mystery Writers of America anthology. Such a simple request.

The result was the thrill of the year for me. I sat down to write, and a first-person narrative, “Queeny,” poured out onto the page. As one who typically writes in third person, and for whom a short piece would be 85,000 words, the effect was liberating. I converted a real-life event involving my wife in a city park and let my fingers do the walking. Coben’s my savior because it brought the fun back.

Mystery/thriller writing is engaging, overwhelming and chronically consuming. I’ve written more than 20 such novels, most going through four or five drafts. I’ve rewritten, polished, re-outlined and thrown out far more words than ever find their way between the covers. Somewhere during this process I forgot how fun it can be.

Coben’s assignment re-lit that fuse. It came at a great time for me: I was switching publishers and my new editor wanted a new series, stepping away from my Lou Boldt character. And my literary agent, Amy Berkhower, made a suggestion that was way too good to ignore. “Why don’t you write about Sun Valley?” she asked. I had lived in the area for more than 20 years. I’d considered setting a thriller there; but now, being away from Sun Valley, I realized how fun it would be to go back, at least in my imagination.

“Write what you know” is the old adage. This doesn’t necessarily mean your job or your hobby. It doesn’t have to mean write characters you know—although all that’s good. It can mean “place” as well.

Now, a new adage: “When in doubt, write small.” That’s what the short story for Coben’s collection did for me. By stepping away from the long form, however briefly, I gained a respect for all it has to offer. I was confined. I had to tell my story in relatively few words; I gained respect for the power of each of those words. Then, when I jumped off the cliff and into a new novel for Putnam, I was both energized and engaged. Writing is fun again. The way it should be.
The thriller is both fascinating and challenging for the writer. You work with ticking clocks and multiple points of view. You have room to develop character arcs that can span 500 or more pages. And yet each and every word has an unrealized potential. Your job: Put it to work properly. The short form reminds you that concise, punchy writing is as effective as a roundhouse swing to the jaw. When done well—read Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Greg Iles—each sentence propels the reader forward. Every chapter roars, and stands alone like a perfectly written short story.

A third adage: “If it’s fun for the writer, it’s fun for the reader.” So if you’re stuck, or if you’ve lost a step, take some advice. Try writing a short story. Or two. Or more. Don’t try to reinvent yourself, just try to enjoy yourself. Push each word to count for five; each paragraph to take the place of what used to be a page.

If, like me, you feel the afterburners kick in, then jump into your novel and watch it write itself. The mystery in mystery writing isn’t always the story, characters or even the setting. Sometimes the mystery is how effortlessly it reads—how fun it is to sit down with this particular author or story. And that’s no accident. It’s a process. And sometimes that process has to start small.

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