Skip to main content

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.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 614

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a summer poem.

Give Your Characters a Psych Eval

Give Your Fictional Characters a Psych Eval

TV writer, producer, and novelist Joshua Senter explains why characters can do absolutely anything, but it's important to give them a psych eval to understand what can lead them there.

Writer's Digest Presents podcast image

Writer's Digest Presents: Vacation Reads (Podcast, Episode 6)

In the sixth episode of the Writer's Digest Presents podcast, we talk about what makes for a good vacation read, plus a conversation with authors Steven Rowley and Jessica Strawser and our first ever WD Book Club selection from debut author Grace D. Li.

Trend Chaser

Trend Chaser

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, an attempt to join an online trend has gone wrong.