Thursday, October 9, 2014

How many words does it take to make a great mystery? ... by Mark S. Bacon

Like Agatha Christie, I’ve published more than six dozen mysteries.

The most glaring difference between me and our foremost mystery writer, however, is that all of my stories--save one--are but 100 words long.

Stories this long (or short) are called flash fiction and the genre is usually defined by length. Anything under 1,500 words qualifies and some flash fiction stories are as short as six words. Although the concept of telling a complete story in a handful of words is as old as Aesop, the name for the genre is scarcely more than 20 years old, and this literature in miniature has now become mainstream. Lydia Davis and Margaret Atwood are among many well-known practitioners.

An instructor friend introduced me to flash fiction when he was using 100-word stories as an assignment for a writing class. I was intrigued. I tried it. It was much more difficult than I imagined, but I loved the challenge and kept at it. Here’s one 100-word example:

Just an Accident

 Tim flipped a dashboard switch and a red light blinked. When Larry got in the car, Tim pulled out.

“So,” Larry growled, “whadda want now?”

"You’re abusing her. First, cuts and bruises. Now broken bones?”

“Just an accident. She wants to leave, it’s her choice.”

“She won’t. She’s terrified.”

“Then stay out of it.”

Tim’s speedometer said 45 mph. He glanced in the mirror, saw no one, then swerved into a concrete wall.

Minutes later, aching but otherwise unhurt, Tim looked down. “He was my son in law. Didn’t believe in seat belts.”

The policeman nodded. “And his airbag malfunctioned.”

After I’d filled two small books with this and other stories, I turned to a mystery novel. My new book, Death in Nostalgia City, takes place in a re-creation of an entire small town from the early 1970s. This baby boomer theme park is complete with period cars, clothes, music, shops, restaurants, hotels, fads and social issues. The book is about 87,900 words longer than my flash fiction, but it incorporates several things I learned creating the tiny dramas:

Revisions   I’ve never once written a story in only 100 words, the first time. Writing flash fiction reinforces the value of revision, a necessity in all genres.

Fewer modifiers   There’s not a lot of room for adverbs or adjectives in a 100-word story, so you make do by using verbs and other constructions to be succinct and colorful at the same time. I certainly can’t say I didn’t use modifiers in my novel, but I tried to avoid them when possible. For example, my protagonist drives a large taxicab from the 1970s. Rather than saying the heavy vehicle moved slowly, I said, “The sedan lumbered past an appliance store.”

Short chapters  Flash fiction appeals, in part, because of our shrinking attention spans; therefore, most of the chapters in my novel take up but a few pages. Each one is not self-contained, but it has something unique and it moves the story along. The 308 pages of the book are divided into 74 chapters.

Truncated dialog   In flash fiction, one of the first things I cut and condense is dialog. People don’t speak in complete sentences, they don’t use precise grammar, and contractions (even ones I invent) are the norm.

Swift action  I prefer mysteries that move apace, but I want to be challenged with puzzles along the way. I like to get emotionally involved in a story, but I also look for an intellectual connection that requires me to sort through clues. That’s what I tried to do in Death in Nostalgia City. Writing 100-word stories obviously teaches you to get the action moving immediately, but when possible, I still like to give the reader a clue or two, the red light in the story above, for example.

Whether it has 100 words or 90,000, mysteries should be lean, involving prose with a few surprises along the way.

Mark will be giving away one copy of Death in Nostalgia City in print or ebook to a resident of the U.S. or Canada who leaves a comment on this blog post before midnight Mountain Time Friday, October 10th.The winner will be announced here on Saturday.


Mark S. Bacon drew some of the inspiration for his new suspense novel from early in his career. He covered the police beat for a southern California newspaper and later wrote ads and commercials as a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, a large theme park.

He’s written for radio, TV, the web, magazines and for newspapers, most recently as a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. He has an MA in mass media criticism from UNLV and taught journalism as an adjunct university professor.

He is the author of several business books, one of which was selected as a best business book of the year by the Library Journal and printed in four languages. Before tackling his debut mystery novel, he published two collections of mystery flash fiction stories, including Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words.

Learn more about Mark and his writings at his website/blog. You can also find Mark on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Seventy-four chapters? That's dividing it up small all right.
None of my novels are long, but when I had to write a 1500 word story for an anthology, it really taught me to use words sparingly. You're right - you don't have room for all those extra, colorful words.
Congratulations on the novel, Mark.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I think a lot of people see writing "short" as easy but it's definitely harder than it looks. But I'm with you, Mark - I love the challenge, too. :)

Congratulations on the new book!

Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

Mark Bacon said...

Yes, the chapters are short. Things are happening and problems arising constantly. The short chapters invite you to turn the page, but also challenge you to keep track of clues and suspects along the way.

Mark Bacon said...

Madeline, Reminds me of the old comment, "I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one."
Yes, a challenge.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks for being here today, Mark. I'm another one who tries to write a tight fast-paced story to keep a reader turning the pages. I'm often chastised by some members of my critique group for not "fleshing out" my characters. It's not always easy to strike the right balance.

Dean K Miller said...

I am dealing with the "short" chapter scenario currently. The novel is written in those quick action type sequences. Keeping track is a challenge. Finalizing/cutting will more so to make sure the story moves in an understandable (and readable) fashion. Still not sure if I'll patch together to make longer chapters or stay quick and dirty.

Flash fiction is a great training tool and when well done, is as satisfying as any novel around.

Thanks Mark for a great look into another writing genre/tool.

Mark Bacon said...

You're welcome, Dean. And I'd vote for the shorter chapters. Just watch for continuity, always something I have to focus on.

Mark Charlet said...

Mark - I can imagine how tough it might be to write an entire story in 100 words but writing 90,000 words and keeping track of your own story and characters is an amazing challenge!
One question: You may have grown up during the 70s but what was your research process like for your mystery novel?

Mark Bacon said...

Thanks for the question, Mark.
Part of the research was just growing up in the 70s, but I double checked all product names, song titles, news events and other elements from the past used in the book. Surprisingly--or not so--not everything from back then was exactly as I remembered it. For other aspects of the book I consulted experts in technical fields, such as law enforcement, insurance, even airlines and air traffic control.

Mark Charlet said...

Thanks Mark. One more question which is really a two parter.
I looked you up online and see that you've also published (traditionally) a handful of non-fiction books as well as another that you self-published. So, which is harder to write - fiction vs. non-fiction, and then, which is harder to get published?

Mark Bacon said...

Easy to answer. Although one of the reasons I've always been a writer is that it's the hardest work I know how to do reasonably well, nonfiction writing is easier than fiction. Perhaps after I've written a bunch more mysteries I may change my mind. But I doubt it. As to easier to sell: Given that selling a book to a publisher is extremely difficult and competitive, selling fiction is much more so.

Eileen Goudge said...

74 chapters? That's keeping it tight. Reminds me of when I wrote YA. Chapters had to be short & punchy to get kids to read.

Anonymous said...

Short, but filled with surprises, not windy phrases. Anyone ever read Mary Higgins Clark? I think her chapters are shorter than mine.

kk said...

Quite an interesting post, Mark. I am grateful for your example of flash fiction. I've read about the concept but nothing of the real thing, heretofore! Congratulations on publishing your first full-length mystery, which I'd love to read.

Mark Bacon said...

KK, If you don' win this giveaway, you can find Death in Nostalgia City on Amazon and the other usual places. $3.99/ebook
Flash fiction is challenging. Maybe I said that above, but it also provides more instant rewards. Even on a day when I struggle, I can get at least one good story done. Maybe that's another reason why I made my novel chapters short: quicker gratification.

M. K. Theodoratus said...

Hey, I admire for you getting you plot across in a few words.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mark - fascinating read ... and good to know what works and what doesn't ...

Good to luck to whoever wins Death in Nostalgia City ... Cheers Hilary