Robert Shepherd has managed to carve out time to write fiction while working with organizations devoted to adoption advocacy and raising his own family of nine (including four adopted children). He describes himself as a voracious reader of all genres of fiction, especially mysteries, and his love of good storytelling is the theme of this post. Robert’s first published work of fiction, “Just Below the Surface,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2017). Readers who like a good yarn won’t want to miss it. —Janet Hutchings
Not to start this thing off on a sour note, but let me ask you a question: When was the last time you read a short story or novel that you concluded to be a complete waste of time? And, have you given any thought at all to your failed reading experience, or have you simply discarded whatever it was and tried to erase the matter entirely from your memory? I know I’ve done that myself a few times; tossed the piece aside, hoping to never be fooled into reading the likes of it again. But in fact, I know it will happen again; I’ll read something and curse myself thoroughly for once again wasting my time. Why, though? Why do some stories disappoint me? I believe the answer may be simple. It just could be that the content of what I read was simply not entertaining; that I was not swept away from reality for a while and taken down paths I’ve never seen before. And that, I believe, really is the job of a fiction writer: to entertain by removing the mundaneness of everyday life and replacing it with something irresistible and amazing. To give the reader a bona fide story . . . a real story—nothing resembling those everyday actions that we all carry out to the point of misery and boredom. Readers want something beyond their lives, they want to know what it feels like to do something that perhaps they are only in the position of dreaming about; something that will knock them off their feet. Something with thought, intrigue, and adventure. . . .
Who writes great stories? Who creates these fascinating scenarios, walking us into and through incredible circumstances that, in the end, leave us completely and thoroughly entertained?
Well, let’s go big right off the top. I will use a name that we are all familiar with to make my point.
Stephen King has got to be one of the greatest kidnappers of readers’ minds ever to have slapped ink onto the page. He takes you on a ride, his wild ride, through whatever strange and exceptionally uncommon experience he chooses to. We, as readers, jump in and hang on for dear life. We get so involved in his adventures that we sometimes wish we didn’t have to return to reality . . . at least I know I have. I’ve finished many S.K. novels and wished I could have more. For me and quite possibly for you, that’s simply because he delivers a great and well-crafted story. A story that is so inviting that we’d love to be a part of it again, and again, and again. And, in his case, we quite often do. I read “Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption” long before the movie version came out. And, oh my, what a movie! This great story was given life again and I return to both the short story and the movie quite often whenever I need a fix of superior storytelling.
There are some stories that are so absolutely fascinating that movies are eventually made of them that we can watch over and over again. Why are they chosen? Once again, the answer is the story itself. We want to see life translated into something we can fall in love with; whether in a movie, a T.V. show, or even a play. A great story will live, live, and live again. Consider the sequels to a great movie. They are written because the original story has touched an audience enough to demand a need for more. We hunger for more of a terrific and well-crafted tale.
I can tell you right now that if a movie came out that touched on all the things that the original movie The World According To Garp was unable to, I’d stand in line for hours to get a ticket. And even though I find it difficult to believe anyone could give life to John Irving’s wonderful lead character better than Robin Williams, I’d still be giddy to watch it.
Think about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Because of our love for her original story, created over a half a century ago, we salivated at the very mention of its coming publication.
Consider something you’ve read over the last year that you really enjoyed. If the writer were to write a sequel or even a prequel, would you read it? Of course you would; it was a great story and you want more.
I could list a dozen stories right here that I would kill to have just one more page written about. If they were to discover lost writings of Charles Dickens that gave us an entirely new adventure for David Copperfield, I’d probably go crazy waiting for its release. Or, what if Stephen King returned us to Derry and our favorite clown was back to his old tricks again? Can you imagine the riots in the streets until that book finally came out? Okay, I’m kidding about the riots, but you get the point . . . we’d go bonkers with anticipation. We love good stories.
Now when I use the word story, I’m not talking about something that we do everyday or see everyday. I’m talking about something larger than life! Someone getting kidnapped, or some sinister madman who has the world by the balls . . . something beyond our uneventful lives. And even though a writer may take something mundane, something we do every day, and write it in the most elegant of styles, to me, it still isn’t a story . . . a good one at least. Crafters of fictions and make believe need to take our minds on a vacation, a wild vacation. Somewhere we have not been before. Excite us, entertain us, satisfy our hunger for anything other than the familiar. And that, my friends, is no easy task, especially in a world where we are not so easily impressed or shocked anymore. We’ve seen it all. We have not done it all, but we’ve seen it all. So, there is a greater burden than ever for a writer to give us something we have not yet been exposed to. But maybe that’s not even entirely necessary. Maybe just more of something that we know works will do—something that expands on a concept or an idea that has already proven to entertain a vast audience. Look at Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and even Mickey Spillane. Those writers return us time and time again to a particular formula that never fails to pay off. That’s why I return to those writers and others I’m familiar with time after time; I’m a big chicken, afraid to try new writers for fear that I will once again be let down. I’ve gotten better at trying new and different authors, but must confess that I am still let down every so often and then it takes awhile for me to conjure up the courage to try someone new again.
I believe writers have an obligation to entertain and to lift their readers from this world for a brief period of time. If the story is not intriguing, then why spend the time to write it? And why waste the time of some unsuspecting reader? Now, of course, not every story can be a home run, but it sure as hell ought to be a base hit. I must confess, there have been writers I have given second and even third chances who have continuously struck out for me, and I will never allow them to go to bat at my home plate again. As a writer, I feel under pressure to come up with a story I’m certain is going to move the reader to turn the pages. Otherwise, I have no right to expect anyone to read my material. Above all, I want to entertain; I want to take readers someplace they have never been before. . . . When I’m coming up with a new story, I’m sometimes so excited to tell it that I phone my friends and let the cat out of the bag before it’s even finished to get their reaction. If I’m not excited about a story I’m writing, I don’t see how I can expect a reader to be. Dazzling style and a great vocabulary by itself just doesn’t cut it for me. The story! That’s where it’s at!