Writing short fiction demands a different kind of mental training. While novels can luxuriate with expansive plots and subplots, short fiction requires jabs and punches. In this week’s Killer Nashville Guest Blog, author Robert Mangeot cleverly tells us how he went from short story unpublished to well-published. And how you can do the same. You simply have to let the masterminds do their job.
On Short Fiction and Evil Masterminds
By Robert Mangeot
Inside us crime writer folk lurks an evil mastermind. Sure, some days the evil one may seem quiet, but always deep in our imaginations is a dimly lit chamber, walls blanketed in maps with dragons stalking the margins, a desk piled with jumbled notebooks, a shrouded figure clacking away in mad flourishes at the computer keyboard. Your inner mastermind is planning, planning, planning.
As crime writer folk, it’s likely you consider having your creative dark side pointed out as a compliment. And you should. If short fiction interests you, then unleashing that evil dude or dudette might be your call to adventure.
Flash to me outside a Manhattan bookshop, a gunmetal sky over SoHo, and an April mist slicking the rush hour streets: a perfect night for spying. You read that right. Espionage. Except I had only written a short story about spies, and the honor of it landing in the MWA anthology Ice Cold—which was launched that rain-slicked night at The Mysterious Bookshop—was borne of fruitful collaboration with my inner mastermind.
Killer stories require more than lightning bolts of inspiration. In crime writer-ese, a great short story is like a heist: intricate timetable, tricky execution, ticking clock. The story mastermind must identify and adapt to each and every obstacle in order to pull off the job.
Flashback to 2010. Flush with creativity, I had locked myself away to crank out stories. They stunk, every blessed one of them. I know that now, but in those heady days I fired off submissions, certain of a breakthrough.
Not so much.
Fast-forward through a trial-and-error montage of research, critique and useful rejection, add any Eighties arena pop soundtrack at your discretion. What kept me going was my stretch goal—selling a story to a dream market like MWA or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Trust me, back then when I said stretch, it meant hyperextension. Whether or not I would ever get the dream acceptance letter, who knew? The important thing was the reach.
Fast-forward again through more rewrite and rejection to enlightenment. Finally I understood my stories, like heists without a getaway plan, they were never coming together. Characters, setting, plot, everything had to be crafted to bring out a connected whole. Poe—now there was an evil mastermind—called this “unity of effect.”
For that I learned to call on my mastermind, which means I also learned to pay as much attention to how I’m writing as to what I’m writing. After all, one story is just one story. My creative process is how I’ll write more and better. And so I’ve developed brainstorming rituals that summon the mastermind. He arrives feisty, demanding sharper ideas and I rewrite again and again and again. He forces me to slash away at the labor-of-love early drafts and darling sentences. The evil mastermind is editing, editing, editing.
Some key lessons from the inner mastermind about killer short fiction; he is five-fold:
The Brain: Amp up the premise until it is distinctively your own. Premises are infinite. Take risks. Have fun with voices, characters, and ideas. The price of a short story idea falling apart is pretty much zero, and if it improves your writing, I’d call that a success.
The Grease Man: Like tumblers falling in a picked lock, work every element into the connected whole. Subplots are for novels, asides for Shakespeare. Keep a short story slick and elegant.
The Insider: Do the research. Amazing next-level inspiration comes from having the context and interrelationships nailed. Also, before ever submitting somewhere, read several issues first. Know the target market cold, its submission requirements and editorial preferences. This is make-or-break with pro markets. No heist goes off without first casing the joint, right?
The Muscle: Short stories are all about compressed vibrancy. Find the compelling narrative voice that does the heavy lifting, especially with mood and characterization. Edit, edit, edit until the deeper story emerges and the words crackle.
The Getaway Driver: Start the story late, well after a novel version would open. Move quick, hit hard and get out fast, with a thematic roar that echoes long after the last word is read.
Simple, right? We crime writer folk understand simple doesn’t mean easy. But for me, that journey is becoming an adventure. The short story is dead? Feels pretty alive to me.
You know what else is alive? Your mastermind. Alive and hard at work somewhere in there, planning, planning, planning your story of the century.
If you would like to read more about Robert Mangeot’s books please click here.
Robert Mangeot lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with his wife, pair of cats, and a bossy Pomeranian writing partner. His short fiction has won multiple writing contests and appears in various journals and anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War. He serves as the Vice-President of Sisters In Crime, Middle Tennessee chapter. Visit his website at robertmangeot.com
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