You first met Mai and Alexei in Blood Vengeance, Spy Flash, and My Noble Enemy (a Spy Flash novella). The Better Spy isn’t exactly a continuation but, rather, another piece in the mosaic of these two characters’ lives.
What is it about?
“The defining mission of UN covert operative Mai Fisher’s career came in the mid-1980s when she went undercover in the IRA. It was a mission she barely survived, when a shipment of Semtex she intended to destroy before the IRA would distribute it to various cells exploded too soon. Nine people, including a man she’d come to love, died, and she carried the guilt for the rest of her career. Nearly three decades later, a dying soldier has a secret he wants to tell her, one that will change everything.”
You can pre-order The Better Spy starting today. Click HERE to pre-order. Enjoy!
When you cultivate a group of writer friends and ask them to read and critique stories and manuscripts, an important obligation as a good writer friend is to reciprocate. So, when one writer friend who gave me excellent feedback on my work in progress asked me to do the same for hers, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the first two chapters of her WIP in my last two workshops at Tinker Mountain and had been eager to read more.
I was so eager, in fact, when I picked up the MS yesterday morning, I didn’t put it down all day–which is why Monday’s post is happening on Tuesday. But it’s great when something lives up to your expectations. When my friend’s book gets published–and it will–this will be my first experience with the evolution of someone’s work other than my own, and it’s a humbling experience. Humbling, in that I felt honored she asked me to read it, that she values my opinion.
Here’s the thing. She doesn’t expect sycophantic raving about how good it is. (Trust me, though, it is that good.) She wants a writer’s eye and honest criticism, which she’ll get from me. Again, I got that from her, and I’ll return it in kind. And I’ll get a little thrill when I buy my copy, knowing I helped in some small way. So looking forward to that.
And new topic. I’ve been working on the next set of stories for Spy Flash 2. (In case you didn’t know it, last year I published a collection of my espionage short stories, Spy Flash. To read all about it, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Published Works tab, then click on Spy Flash from the drop-down list. You can click through to purchase it from Amazon.com, and, oh, by the way, if you buy the paperback, you can download the Kindle version for free. Commercial over.) One thing which has stood out for me is the way odd words unconsciously work their way into a story.
One story had an inordinate use of the word “just” and not the adjective, as in a “just cause,” but the adverb, as in “at this moment” or “in the immediate past.” Okay, one or two usages, maybe, but I found this usage in a couple of sentences per paragraph. I don’t remember typing them; it was as if they “just” appeared. Of course, that’s not the case. The word popped into my head–quite a few times, apparently–and I wrote it. In most cases, there was no need to substitute a better word; deleting “just” made the sentence stronger.
A few weeks ago, I had the same thing happen with the word “always.” Ack! Where are these crutch words coming from?
I suspect because I do a lot of “pressure writing,” i.e., meeting deadlines and word count goals I’ve mostly set for myself, they filter in, and I let that happen because subconsciously I know they’ll come out in the wash, or edit. What surprises me, though, is how often they show up.
And now I’ll bring this back around to the original topic. This is why having a group of writers who’ll critique you with honesty is important. They won’t let you get away with “just” and “always” or whatever crutch word creeps into your work. If you don’t have a group, find one or create one. Social media are great for this. Part of the joy of writer conferences is meeting and networking with many different types of writers from all over. Social media allow you to form critique groups without having to be face-to-face, and, even then, there’s FaceTime and Skype.
Don’t fear the critique. Embrace it. And watch out for those crutch words.
May is the traditional month for college graduations, high school proms, renewing your garden or flower beds, but it’s also the “national” month for several issues: Speech and Hearing, Lupus, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Skin Cancer, Asian Pacific Heritage, and many, many more. People involved with or affected by these issues use the month of May to increase awareness of the topic and raise money.
May is also National Short Story Month. Now, I’m not trying to equate short story awareness with, say ALS awareness, but a literate society is one that strives to conquer disease and acknowledge diversity. An appreciation of the short story, whether as a reader or writer of them, is an essential part of being literate, of having an education.
Many writers–especially those of us who count short stories among our skills–look upon short stories as rather the red-headed step-child of literature. That isn’t altogether inaccurate. The big-name, traditional publishers won’t touch a collection of short stories unless you’re an equally big-name writer. In the past decade or so, some writers have come up with unique ways of “disguising” short story collections–linked stories (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennie Coughlin’s Thrown Out, and my own Blood Vengeance) or a novel in stories (Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens to You, Clifford Garstang’s What the Zhang Boys Know, and, to a certain extent, my book, Spy Flash.)
Those alternative approaches have had some success in getting the short story before the reading public. Small presses, like Press 53 in North Carolina, are more amenable to the publication of short stories, as are university presses, but short stories are almost a niche market.
In the past, short stories (which some believe have their origins in The Canterbury Tales, perhaps the first collection of linked short stories) were the venerated form of fiction, and in the short story’s glory days, hundred of literary and mainstream magazines featured short works. The novel was considered crass pulp fiction, and the short story was considered an art. Such noted writers as Kurt Vonnegut struggled to get his short stories published and often considered himself a failure for it, even as his novels assured his success and literary acceptance. As the novel reached its ascendence in the twentieth century, short stories survived in but a few literary magazines and the venerated New Yorker. Genre short stories–horror, science fiction, thrillers, crime–continued to flourish in limited markets. There are some, usually genre fans, of which I’m one, who believe it was genre short stories that saved the short story as a literary niche.
Interestingly enough, short stories have enjoyed a revival of sorts with the advent of the ebook reader. When you’re looking for something to read on your work commute, a short story is ideal. A short story is something you can begin and finish easily in a single sitting. When I used to commute to work, I’d often be frustrated that I’d reach just the most critical point in a novel when my stop came up. And, yes, there were occasions where I missed my stop because of that. Short stories are ideal for the eReader, either as collections or as singles.
What is the attraction of short stories? Why do those of us who call ourselves novelists indulge in the production of shorter work? Well, sometimes you don’t need 50,000-plus words to tell a story. Sometimes you can do it in 5,000, 3,000, or, with the advent of flash fiction, in less than 1,000 words. Some of us can manage a story in 100 words, and Hemingway once told a rich, poignant story in six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Though I consider myself a novelist, my only published work has been short stories, either in literary magazines or in my own collections. I write two to three short stories a week, usually flash fiction mainly as an exercise for my longer fiction. Face it, when you have to hone and cut words to meet an arbitrary word limit and still tell a complete story, that’s absolutely translatable to a novel-length work. In my year-long edit of a series of four books I’ve been working on, I managed to trim well over 100 pages, which didn’t need to be there in the first place. Had I not been practicing my short story skills under those word limits, I’m convinced that wouldn’t have happened, to the detriment of the work.
So, help out a short story writer in May. Buy a single, or, better yet, buy a collection of short stories and savor them. I happen to have three such collections available. Just scroll down the righthand column. A click on the book’s cover will take you to where you can purchase them. Don’t think of it as enriching me (because, really, it doesn’t pay me that much). Think of it as assuring the continuation of an essential form of fiction–the short story.
For an interesting article on the history of the short story, click here.