A Winning Short Story Publishing Strategy

Preparing for a panel on “short stories” for this weekend’s Deadly Ink conference for mystery/crime writers, I studied the stack of five print publications in which my work has appeared this past year. This was in lieu of doing any actual preparation, you might suspect. I realized each of them had a publication lesson for me—and possibly other authors. So here goes:

Don’t Dismiss Limited Circ Outlets

Five of the last six years I’ve had a story in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue. Yes, it reaches a small audience, but at a max of 2000 words, the time investment in these stories isn’t massive and I keep the rights (more on that later).

The benefits: reminding myself at least someone thinks my work is good enough to invest ink and paper in, the satisfaction of meeting an actual deadline—in creative work you sometimes need an end-point—and, best of all, cultivating a local group of writer friends for support and commiseration. My 2016 story: “What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?

Prepare for Rejection

Are you thrown into a funk that’s hard to crawl out of when a story’s rejected? Take heart from realizing that all short story outlets today receive far more “publishable” material—stories they like—than they have room for. The literary magazine Glimmer Train, which has given several of my non-mystery stories a thumbs-down, publishes about 60 stories a year. The editors receive 32,000 submissions. Those 60 stories may be fantastic, but they simply cannot be the absolute “best” ones.

I expect rejection. And I plan for it. When a story of mine comes back from outlet x, I read it through, fix anything obvious, and right away send it to outlet y, then z. Last year, I sent a rejected story to a new outlet whose editors want to feature female protagonists. They accepted it gladly, and eventually it won a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. You can read that story—“Breadcrumbs”—here.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is one of the premier, if not the premier outlet for short mystery fiction. I wanted another story of mine in it. So last spring, I wrote a Christmas-themed story, hoping they’d want it for the annual Holiday issue. I sent it in June, to give them plenty of time to think about it. Planning for rejection, even if they turned it down in their usual six to eight weeks (ask me how I know!), I’d have time to submit it elsewhere. They did not, and it appeared in the January-February 2017 “’Tis the Season” issue.

Meet the Requirements

I know writer who become so wrapped up in writing “their” story that they ignore editors’ guidance on theme, length, and so on. Dissect calls for submissions for clues to what they’re looking for. Don’t expect to be the exception, and don’t make it easy for editors to reject your work! I wanted to submit a story to an anthology about police work. I had such a story in mind. A 6,200-word story. The editors’ limit was 5,000. I liked those 1,200 words, but they went the way of the blue pencil (and the story was probably better for it). It was published in April.

Mine Your Backlist

Novelists have a “backlist” of books published in past years. Short story writers do too. When I see an outlet looking for a theme I’ve written on, I check whether the editor will accept reprints. Last October an online magazine republished one of my U.S. 1 stories that had a Halloween theme; I own those rights, remember? In April, a minor edit to a story published in a lit magazine (rights also mine) tailored it for an anthology. Taking advantage of these opportunities puts your work in front of new people and is a refreshing glass of water in the desert of seeming indifference.

four-leaf clover, luck

Dawn Ellner, cc license

Getting a short story published entails more than a small amount of luck, but if you’ve written a great story, you can increase the odds it will reach readers by being strategic about when, where, and how you engage with potential publishers.

What a Character!

typewriter, writing

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

This guest post by writer Robert Hebditch is excerpted from a workshop he recently conducted on developing characters for fiction. I’ve added a few examples in italics.

My way of creating character is pretty wasteful and I don’t recommend it to anyone, particularly beginners. My method leads to a lot of re-writes, restarts and a lot of cut and pasting. I often end up throwing it all away. But maybe some pieces of it will work for you!

Following Flannery O’Connor’s famous dictum that you’ve gotta “Write it down, then see what you’ve got,” I tend to write my ideas for the story first, maybe including vaguely defined characters. Then I start writing, fleshing out the characters as each new situation demands.

I draw on my own experience more than any other source. In a lifetime we are exposed to an awful lot of people—friends, lovers, neighbors, people on the street, at the club, at social gatherings, and yes, even in libraries. Most of us already know many more character types than we can invent. I take bits and pieces from these different sources and lace them together with a strong dose of imagination.

Experienced writer or not, asking yourself questions about your characters is certainly necessary, but there’s no need to have all the answers before you start. For me, the old journalistic maxim “Who, what, when, where, how and why” works well. You can selectively apply this where the situation dictates until you’ve filled out your character sufficiently to fulfill the demands of the story.

Ten Basic Points in Developing Characters in Fiction

  1. A character, especially a main character, should be “believably real,” so that the reader will suspend disbelief (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817).
  2. Some information about how characters look, and not just significant physical attributes, like body type and face, scars, tattoos, but also how they walk, dance, run or scratch their face.
  3. Robert pointed out that a great many contemporary writers prefer not to provide much physical description, following Stephen King’s advice to let the readers supply it. “If I describe mine, it freezes out yours,” King says.
  4. Similarly, Ian Rankin, in Knots and Crosses, also prefers to leave the physical appearance of his main character to the reader’s imagination. Detective John Rebus is described as having “brown hair and green eyes, like his brother.” And that’s it.
  5. What characters say, how they say it, how their speech differs from other characters, and whom they talk to. Also, what other characters say about them—a device that works best when it reveals as much about the observer as the observed. Because Robert’s insight about observer and observed  prepared me to appreciate it, I found this perfect example, in which a son is talking about his tyrannical father: “My mom had to lay [my homework] out for him next to his breakfast plate, to the left of the juice but not touching the fork, so he could scan through it with those gray eyes of his, searching for mistakes, tapping his long finger against the papers like a clock-tick.” From those few lines, you know the father’s horrible and mom and son are terrified. (from The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott). “To the left of the juice but not touching the fork”—brilliant!
  6. What characters do (their actions.) This is the key element, of course, because this is how they move through the plot.
  7. How characters act, which can be at odds with what they do, sometimes helping to create mystery or tension. For example, a man whose appearance is quiet and calm may suddenly reveal his true self by a violent action, such as knocking someone’s teeth out or kicking a cat.
  8. How character live—where they live, where they go, their history and habits, friends, relatives, work associates, hangouts and whom they hang out with.
  9. How and what they feel—emotions, moods and perceptions. At the extreme, writers have shown the emotions and perceptions of people who are insane—think of Chief Bromden’s belief in the black machinery behind the walls in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or cognitively impaired Benjy Compson’s stream of consciousness in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Or Dr. Jennifer White, narrator of Alice LaPlante’s masterful murder mystery Turn of Mind, who suffers from progressive dementia.
  10. Minor characters are not unimportant characters. They should always serve the story by helping the protagonist move through the plot in some way, no matter how small. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the little we know about the man Thursby is from the established liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He makes no real appearance in the novel, yet without his death early on, the whole mystery of the black bird could not unfold.

A final thought. There are so many ways to create character and no one way is the right way. What works for us is what we must go with, with the proviso that there is always something new to learn. What matters most is how our characters make a good story better.

Guest poster Robert Hebditch is a writer of short stories, a local author and is published in US 1, The Kelsey Review and Genesis. He is a member of Princeton Public Library Writers Room and Room at the Table writing groups and a retired staff member of Princeton University.


***Betty Fedora – “Crime Fiction for Kickass Women”

Betty Fedora

It’s always delightful to find a new publisher of short fiction in the crime genre. I just read Issue Two of Betty Fedora, tagged “Kickass Women in Crime Fiction.” What’s not to like? The nine stories in this issue, selected by editor Kristen Valentine, cover a wide range of criminal activity—preventing it, investigating it, perpetrating it. Five of the nine are by women authors, too.

The first story in Issue 2 is by Montreal-based screenwriter Shane Simmons. His “Heads Will Roll,” is a story about whose title you could say “literally” and be correct. Colleen Quinn’s “Lucifer” takes a look back at an unhappy upbringing, and the difficulty of escaping it. London-based Lara Alonso Carona’s “A Diet Rich in Noir” combines the investigatory talent and family sparring skills of police detective Regan Monroe and her 19-year-old daughter Kat, a licensed private detective (first in a series of news flashes for mom). Clever.

I laughed out loud at John H. Dromey’s “Burden of Proof.” He has a woman judge, prosecutor, and witness running rings around a purse-snatcher and his male defense lawyer. At one point, the judge says to the defense attorney, “(I) wonder if you haven’t already decided you cannot win this case on its merits, so now you’re laying the groundwork for an appeal based on incompetent representation.”

I met New Jersey-based Al Tucher when he served on a panel of authors discussing why they pick faraway and exotic settings for their stories. At the time, he said he was planning a series set in Hawai`i, and here in Betty Fedora is “Luxury to Die For,” one of the results of that plan. An interview with Al is on the Betty Fedora home page.

If you like crime stories—and kickass women—and not necessarily in that order, you may want to snag a copy. I ordered mine from Amazon.

Six Months of Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

I packed my tempting pile of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines in my Costa Rica-bound suitcase. What a treat! Here’s the true advantage of staying at a remote resort: evenings with lots of time to read. OK, everyone has their own vices, as a review of the July 2015 through February 2016 EQMM issues amply attests.

Here are just some of my favorite stories:

  • “Gun Accident: An Investigation,” by Joyce Carol Oates – Oates really ramps up the tension in this recounting of a teenager’s perilous house-sitting experience. (July 2015)
  • “The Kashmir Enigma” by Joan Richter – A mysterious man, a romantic setting, and a never-to-be-forgotten encounter in Kashmir. (July 2015)
  • “The Longboat Cove Murders,” by Marilyn Todd – A tiny English seacoast town copes with a series of mysterious murders. (August 2015)
  • “Black Rock,” by Steven Gore – Family history isn’t always what we think it is. Gore’s latest San Francisco-based legal thriller is Night is the Hunter. (August 2015)
  • “The Siege,” by Hilary Davidson – Clever title for a story about betrayal and being just a bit too smart. This award-winning Canadian author’s latest book, Blood Always Tells, “will surprise you at every turn.” (December 2015)
  • “The Missing Motive,” by R.J. Koreto – The unmarried couple that are the protagonists in this Martha’s Vineyard murder tale are a lot of fun. (December 2015)
  • “Cruel Memory,” by Ed Wyrick – Interesting characters and situations are well-developed in this investigation of a suicide. Or was it murder? (January 2016)
  • “The Adventure of the Single Footprint,” by Robert Arthur – A murderer both gets away with it and solves his own crime. You’ll have to read the story to unravel that conundrum. First published in EQMM in 1948 and included in this year’s Sherlock Holmes theme issue. (February 2016)

2016 marks EQMM’s 75th year of publication. All this year, issues of “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” will include special features. You can subscribe to EQMM online or find copies in the periodicals section of major bookstores.

***Ellery Queen – February to May 2015

Sherlock Holmes, detective

(photo: wikimedia)

The short stories in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine sometimes lead me to authors whose books I also enjoy. Here are several of the stories I especially liked from the February, March/April, and May 2015 issues:

  • Terence Faherty’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip”—a Sherlock Holmes parody—very entertaining. Faherty is an award-winning mystery writer with two long-running series. His most recent stand-alone novel, The Quiet Woman, set in Ireland, was published last year. [February issue]
  • “Leap of Faith” by Brendan DuBois about the lengths a boy will go to in order to protect his sister. DuBois’s most recent book is Fatal Harbor (2014) features his “fascinating character” (Boston Globe), former Defense Department analyst Lewis Cole.[February issue]
  • Loren D. Estleman’s story, “The Black Spot,” has hitman Peter Macklin doing clean-up for a Detroit-area mafia chieftain. Estleman’s 2014 book Don’t Look for Me is book 23 in a series featuring Detroit private investigator Amos Walker, “who views a dishonest world with a cynical eye—and is still disappointed” (Booklist).[March/April]
  • In “The Lovers of Traber,” private eye Willie Cuesta travels from the Miami he inhabits in Pulitzer-winning journalist John Lantigua’s crime novels to a rural Florida farming area to sort out a romantic interest gone too far afield. His most recent Latin-flavored book is On Hallowed Ground. [March/April]
  • Art Taylor’s first-person story “Commission” is told with a good sense of humor and will appear this fall in his book of short stories, On the Road with Del and Louise. [May]
  • “A Loneliness to the Thought,” by Michael Caleb Tasker, is set in New Orleans, with a teenage narrator whose life has that amber-enclosed feel of adolescence, while a series of murders takes place in the city. Nice evocation of place. Watch for his short stories. [May]

Always an entertaining read and available digitally from Amazon, B&N, Google Play, Kobo, Apple iPad, and Magzter.

5 Things Submitting Writers Should Know

five, matches

(photo: Martin Fisch, Creative Commons license)

AGNI is the well-regarded literary magazine published by Boston University, and its editor is Sven Birkerts. For the June edition of The AGNI Newsletter, Birkets took advantage of the journal’s current hiatus in accepting author submissions to reflect on what its editors hope to find when they read their “towering backlog” of poem, short story, and essay manuscripts.

How big is that “towering backlog”? Birkets says he typically receives a hundred new manuscripts a day. He made five points for writers to consider.

  1. Understand the initial screen – submissions are first triaged into three categories: those clearly off the mark one way or another (more than 60 percent); those that may have potential (25 percent); and those with “obvious appeal” (less than 12 percent), which are circulated to appropriate readers. He doesn’t say whether those 60 receive an immediate “No, thanks,” or whether they get into a process that takes the two to four months noted in AGNI’s submission guidelines. (AGNI turned down a short story of mine, and it took six weeks.)
  2. Understand the need for fit – The approximately one-third of the submissions in the “maybe” queue are reviewed for both quality and goodness-of-fit—as Birkets puts it, whether they fall within its “aesthetic profile.” Determining the likelihood that a story will be a good fit is ideally an author’s responsibility, in part. It’s why literary journals typically suggest a prospective submitter read a few copies before sending in their work. In other words, self-triage. “It does take some time to scout out likely venues for work,” he admits, “but it also takes time sending and re-sending to ones that turn out to be unlikely.”
  3. Focus on the most important – What AGNI editors look for in a cover letter is a quick statement and a short list of the author’s most notable previous publications, if any. By contrast, the first sentences of the story receive the editors’ careful attention. Birkets describes why beautifully: “As an editor confronting the day’s abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can. As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.”
  4. Don’t fret about a lack of previous publications – This, he says, is not a barrier with AGNI, and, contrariwise, well established writers can be rejected because of the lack of fit noted above Birkets estimates that about half the stories AGNI publishes are by newly discovered writers.
  5. Be committed to the importance of the work – This is the hardest of his points to distill into concrete advice, but may be the most critical. He says he wants to see work that is “an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn’t not be written.” In other words, the writing must be propelled by the author’s deep conviction of its necessity in a noisy world. “We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested,” he says. I have a friend whose OK novel was published a few years ago. Sometime later, I asked him whether he was writing another. “No,” he said, with astonishing candor, “I found out I don’t have anything to say.”

For my many writing friends who do have something to say, AGNI’s submissions period opens again September 1.

***Mistakes Can Kill You

A Dash for the Timber, Frederic Remington, Amon Carter Museum

A Dash for the Timber, Frederic Remington (wikimedia.org)

By Louis L’Amour narrated by Lance Axt– This collection of short fiction is a gallop into the past, not so much into the post-Civil War time period when they take place, but into the decades when stories about the West were part of Americans’ shared cultural currency. These stories feature tough men with consciences, feisty women in need of a gunslinger, prospectors and gamblers, cattlemen and cowboys, clever Indian trackers, and bad hombres trying to steal all they can. In other words, a double-barreled blast of adventure.

L’Amour could spin these tales as well as anyone, and, if they are simple in construct, their impact was long-lasting. They gave Americans of several generations the visceral conviction there was always something more out there to be had—money and women, religious salvation, land and fortunes. They were the dreams that fed people. No matter how dire the circumstances, there was always the possibility of starting fresh, somewhere in the West.

Such innocent dreams created a unique American culture, and here, in this collection, the reader gets a gallon of that intoxicating mix. If your heart hasn’t been irredeemably steeped in the bitter tea of 21st century cynicism, you might enjoy these tales about an era, in fiction at least, when wrongs could be righted. Axt’s narration is pretty good, too, and for these purposes, his name is perfect.

Wild Tales

Erica Rivas, Wild Tales

Érica Rivas in Wild Tales

This 2015 Argentinian film (trailer), directed by Damián Szifron, is a collection of six unconnected short stories, with both comic and catastrophic elements and carrying the tagline “we can all lose control.” The six very different stories describe “how I would extract my revenge if only I had the nerve.”

The excellent ensemble cast keeps the unexpected happening . . . as people go to the surreal brink of absurdity and tragedy—and keep going. They carry out the vengeful urges we all feel in moments of betrayal, in flashes of road rage, facing overwhelming temptation, or confronting mindless bureaucracy.

The first very short tale involves a casual conversation between two airplane passengers, strangers to each other, who happen to discover they both know a would-be musician named G– Pasternak. One is a woman who once broke up with him and the other, a classical music critic who savaged Pasternak’s early work. A passenger sitting in front of them turns around, saying, “Pasternak?” She was his elementary school teacher, and says he certainly had problems. After a few more people who’ve wronged poor Pasternak pipe up, the music critic stands and asks, “Is there anybody on this plane who does not know Pasternak? And who paid for their own ticket?” There is not. I leave the rest to your imagination. And his.

The funniest story involves an explosives expert trying to reason with the local parking authority, and one of the most satisfying has a bride take her revenge on the groom who cheated on her. It’s a wedding no one will ever forget! Said Eric Kohn in indieWIRE, “While adhering to an internal logic that makes each punchline land with a satisfying burst of glee, the movie nevertheless stems from genuine fury aimed a broken world.”

Be sure to catch the opening credits, where the names of key cast and production crew members are shown with photos of wild animals reflecting on their personas. The director, I noted, was a fox.

An Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film last year, this is one of those rare movies where Rotten Tomatoes critics and audiences are in perfect agreement: 93%.

Best Reads of 2014

2015-01-04 10.28.26This is the season when the lists of “Best Books” published in the previous year sprout like mushrooms after a wet week, and the Wall Street Journal has produced a handy consolidated list in different categories. (Scrolling down that web page I encountered the surprising revelation that Lena Dunham is “friend” of the WSJ.) Other lists take into account that people actually read books in years other than the one in which they are published, and this is one of those. I read and listened to 56 books last year, and here are the 11 very best: Links below are to my full reviews.

The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker – I hope I’ve worn you down sufficiently in my praise of this novel to make you give up and read it for yourself. An adventure tale when life was, if not without complexity, less ambiguous. As refreshing for today’s reader as cool morning air after a sleepless night in a smoke-filled room.

Down by the River by Charles Bowden – this nonfiction book describes the failings of the U.S. War on Drugs and the consequent destruction of Mexican society. In the 12 years since the book was written, the situation has worsened. Bowden died last summer, and my review includes links to remarkable reminiscences about his work and fearless character.

Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict – a collection of amazing short stories by an author whom I met recently at a celebration for his former teacher, Joyce Carol Oates. (Got his autograph, too.) Benedict’s viewfinder is just one click away from reality as you see it. Unforgettable.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling – caught up in Monuments Men fever, I found this novel hit just the right note of adventure story, intellectual interest, and writing style. A bit of a sleeper.

His Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis – historian Ellis set out to write a readable, not over-long biography of Washington and for the first time succeeded in making him interesting—no, fascinating—to me.

The Fragrant Harbor by Vida Chu – I would read more poetry if it were as satisfying as the work in this slim volume. Poems to revisit and savor.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – a novelization of the Dreyfus case, in which anti-Semitism ran amok in late 19th c. France. I never could keep straight what this case was all about. I’ve got it now.

The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor – having spent so much time in Upper Canada (Ontario), I was captivated by historian Taylor’s descriptions of the motivations and tactics of people on both sides of the St. Lawrence. A much more interesting war than you probably think (!).

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – To preserve my mental health, I allow myself only one Cormac McCarthy novel per year, given his bleak plots and searing (here’s a case when that word legitimately applies) writing style. Wouldn’t have missed it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – Some readers found this novel hard to follow. I listened to it, which can make continuity problems even more difficult, but had no trouble. A contemplation on “how things might have been different,” from the perspective of a hall of mirrors. The author must have cornered her local market in post-it notes.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – OK, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has received mixed reactions, and it’s the only Big Book on this list (Big also in terms of its 775 pages). I’ve read and liked her other books, and I liked this one a lot. Especially Boris. See if you don’t end up speaking with a Russian accent . . .

Off to a great reading start in 2015, with four new book reviews to post soon.

Another Story in Tweets

cloudsA fan of British author David Mitchell—I know, I know, lots of people didn’t like Cloud Atlas—I’m happy he’s experimenting again. This time with a short story, “The Right Sort,” in tweets (read it here, from the bottom up). First tweet: We get off the Number 10 bus at a pub called ‘The Fox and Hounds’. ‘If anyone asks,’ Mum tells me, ‘say we came by taxi.’ The narrator sees the world in staccato bursts—“bite-sized sentences”—because he’s taking his mom’s Valium. I’ve read the story so far, and cannot tell yet whether this device feels like the medium calling attention to itself. Already, though, as in his excellent novel Black Swan Green, Mitchell deftly captures the voice and preoccupations of an early adolescent British male.

Mitchell has tried other innovations: a linked narrative in his first book, Ghostwritten, which takes a while to take shape in the reader’s mind (“we’re all connected”!); Number 9 Dream, where you aren’t exactly sure where the dreams begin and end, though it would make a terrific mixed manga/live-action movie; and, of course, Cloud Atlas, where you work forward in time getting the first half of five semi-linked and intergenerational stories, followed by a whole story set in the future, then step backward through the decades with the latter half of the five. (Amazon includes a reader advisory that this is NOT a misprint!) More a straight novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was one of my favorite reads of 2012.

“The Right Sort” walks “the tightrope between the fabulous and realism,” Mitchell said in a recent interview in The Guardian, and with his books, he’s proved he’s up for such highwire acts. This outing may soften up the media landscape for a new novel coming out this fall.