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Tina Whittle on Short Stories

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 2, 2011

TINA WHITTLE is a mystery writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. The Dangerous Edge of Things, her first novel, debuts February 2011 from Poisoned Pen Press. Set in contemporary Atlanta, The Dangerous Edge of Things is the first book in a series featuring gun-shop owner Tai Randolph and corporate security agent Trey Seaver.                          Tina 1 crop

Tina’s short fiction has appeared in The Savannah Literary Journal, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Gulf Stream, which selected her story “Lost Causes and Other Reasons to Live” as the 2004 winner of their Mystery Fiction contest. She’s also a columnist and feature writer for The 11th Hour, a local alternative newspaper, and a professional tarot reader. When not writing or reading, Tina enjoys golf, sushi, mini-pilgrimages, and spending time with her family (one husband, one daughter, one neurotic Maltese and three chickens).

My daughter once told me an old schoolyard joke — what’s the best way to eat an elephant? The answer, of course, is one bite at a time. It‘s pretty good joke, at least by elementary school standards, and it‘s pretty good advice for a novelist.

But when I decided to start taking myself seriously as a writer, I had a hard time taking that first bite. I knew that I wanted to write a novel, but I couldn’t figure out a way to tackle the huge task looming in front of me, like an elephant.                              Tina cover

Luckily, I had the sense to sign up for a crime fiction writing class that focused on the short story form. One of our first assignments was to create a first-person protagonist for a hand-boiled short story. I conjured up a Southern spitfire female detective and wrote her into a noir-themed short story entitled “Lost Causes and Other Reasons to Live.” It went on to win Gulf Stream magazine’s 2004 Mystery Short Fiction contest. And the character I created in that classroom exercise went on to become Tai Randolph, the protagonist of The Dangerous Edge of Things, which debuted last week (!!!) .

Short stories are an excellent way to hone your craft, and as a marketing tool, they get your name in front of the mystery reading public. While there are several excellent paying markets for short stories — Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine being two of the top ones — savvy authors are making their short fiction available for free on their websites and as electronic giveaways. It’s an excellent strategy — this way readers can get a taste for your work, and if they like what they read, explore other works you have to offer.

Short stories are usually less than 10,000 words, with flash fiction and micro fiction — sometimes called short shorts — somewhere between 300 and 1,000 words. Because of their brevity, short stories keep you on your A-game — there‘s no room for sloppiness or literary indulgence. If you‘ve only written longer works and want to try your hand at short fiction, don’t fret ; a lot of what works in novel writing works in short story writing. Plot, character and setting intersect with each other just as crucially, providing the warp and woof and texture of your story, only they’re on a smaller, tighter scale, with a more delicately calibrated balance.

Like all writing, short story writing improves most in the doing. However, there are a few key techniques that can get you off to a good start no matter your level of experience.

1. First, find the spine. I once interviewed novelist William Diehl, author of Sharky’s Machine and Primal Fear, about the craft of writing. I asked him how he avoided losing himself in his story’s myriad details and he replied, “You have to ask yourself what your story is really about. Once you have that fixed, everything must contribute. Everything must be attached. Everything must be connected. Nothing is so dear that you can’t get rid of it.” On the more limited canvas of a short story, your thematic “spine” becomes much more important since it‘s the crucial framework that supports all the other elements.

TIP: Elevator pitches work for stories too. Sum up your story’s idea in one sentence. If you find that you can’t, you probably need to explore what lies at the heart of the story, peeling back the layers until you find a tight, coherent central theme.

2. Three‘s a party; four (or more) is a crowd. Too many characters don’t add to the suspense; they just confuse your reader and leave you with too many threads to tie up at the end. And even with only three characters, you don’t want to clutter up the narrative landscape with a lot of backstory. Let your characters’ actions and words show who they are NOW. Pieces of the past should be used like seasoning — lightly and expertly.

TIP: Use your theme as a test. If a bit of characterization doesn’t relate to your theme, it’s not helping support your story.

3. Make each detail do double — or even triple — duty. Not only will this add texture and density to your writing, it is an especially useful technique for the mystery writer since it’s a great way of disguising clues. Like a close-up magician, a writer can dangle a bit of tantalizing misdirection for the reader, all the while slipping a real clue under the table.

TIP: Try tucking a clue into a piece of description or camouflaging it as a bit of characterization. Or put out a nice shiny red herring for your reader to notice, all the while ignoring the real clue right next to it.

Writing short stories is as challenging and rewarding as writing longer pieces. They’re also a way to get your writing in front of the reading public. So the next time a great idea hits you, don’t just file it away in the “Ideas for Future Novels” folder. See if it can be the spark for a short story. Your craft — and your career — will thank you.



The Dangerous Edge of Things — Amazon
The Dangerous Edge of Things — Poisoned Pen


15 Responses to “Tina Whittle on Short Stories”

  1. These are good tips that apply to novel writing as well. Thanks for sharing and being our guest today!

  2. Tina said

    Thanks for hosting me, Nancy! I’m looking forward to having you in my virtual neck of the woods Friday.

  3. Great tips, Tina! And so nice meeting you in Scottsdale. Best of luck with your book. I’m looking forward to reading my copy!

  4. Goos blog, Tina. I write short stories and novels, and definitely find the short story harder because I get so involved with it I don’t want it to end, especially true worth my mystery short stories. You have me curious now and I’ll have to go pick up your book.
    Bobbye aka Daryn Cross aka Terry Campbell

  5. Tina said

    Thank you, Liz! I hope you enjoy it. I can’t wait to come out there when you have a signing.

    And thank you, Bobbye — I have a copy of BE MINE, VALENTINE which features a story by you, so I’m interested in watching your short story skills at work.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  6. writerwellness said

    Very concise and helpful tips. Thanks. Congrats on the debut!
    Joy Held
    Writer Wellness, A Writer’s Path to Health and Creativity
    Who Dares Wins Publishing

  7. Tina I have to really thank you for this blog. I have to write two short stories and I have been postponing it because I needed just what you gave me. Many thanks!!!

    • Tina said

      Thank you, Joy (what a cool name for someone who write about creative wellness).

      And Mary, I know what you mean — it’s harder to write short than long because writing shorter is just so much more painstaking. I remember a quote from some writerly person who said in a letter, “I was going to write two pages, but I only had time for four.”

      Many thanks for stopping by!

  8. I’ve written one novella and that was hard enough. Short story? Very tough. I like novel length works. It’s infinitely harder, in my opinion, to compress a story into the short form.

  9. Susanna Ives said

    Great post. I remember that prize-winning short story. It was fabulous, just like your new book.

    • Tina said

      Thanks, Susanna. I’m glad you enjoyed both of them. When I think of the work that went into that short story, I smile gratefully and get back to Novel #2.

  10. Mona Risk said

    Tina, I think short stories are more difficult to write than standard length stories. To be able to fit a little romance, some conflict, a dark moment and a resolution in a few pages requires a lot of talent I would think. I never tried short stories.

  11. Tina, Thanks so much for being my guest and offering such useful info.

  12. Tina said

    Thank you, Nancy! I enjoyed the commentary and the chance to revisit why short stories are one of my favorite genres. All the best to you and your readers.

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