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.

Salman Rushdie on The Role of the Writer

pregnant woman, reading, Kindle

photo: Ed Yourdan, creative commons license

In a Princeton talk last week, Sir Salman not only discussed the role of the novel in, as he said, “a world of lies,” but also how writers must work in the modern world.

The fast pace of today’s world suggests that literary writers cannot be too topical without risking irrelevance in the near future. Shakespeare’s plays have survived four hundred years because they were about universal human truths, even if his characters bore the names of actual historical figures.

Nor can writers choose too large a theme (“everything”) without risking violation of the human scale at which the novel form excels. Thus it may be difficult to take on large-scale issues, as noted author  Amitav Ghosh encourages literary authors to do, especially around the central challenge facing humanity today, climate change. Another way of saying this emerged in a recent Rebecca Mead profile of Margaret Atwood. “A novelist necessarily imagines the fate of individuals,” Mead says, in harmony with Rushdie. “The human condition is what the novel was made for exploring.”

Yet in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood put her characters in a story with a huge theme: radically changed power dynamics in an American society that has become a fundamentalist theocracy. Imagining such alternative realities should be the literary fiction-writer’s strength, Gawande believes. I’d love to hear the three of them discuss this issue together. I think they’d agree that, regardless of the novel’s scope, it’s the characters that make it resonate with readers.

Another feature of modern life affecting authors is the loss of space between public and private action. He said that Jane Austen’s books, though replete with soldiers, never referred to the Napoleonic wars. Nor did Dickens ever mention the British Empire. The characters in these books lived unimpeded and unaffected by world events. Such is no longer true. “The history of the United States is now the history of everywhere else,” he said. We live in a world where we are barraged by outside forces, many of which can change our lives. It is not only our character that shapes our destinies, or those elements of chance and randomness that have always entered in, but the world around us (another point of agreement with Ghosh).

Today, it seems people try to narrow their identities to one feature of themselves—Republican, feminist, Asian-American, computer nerd—which makes it harder to find common ground with others. The novel has always understood that we’re all a collection of selves, he said, and which comes to the fore depends on circumstances. I’m reminded of a conversation between Winston Churchill and portraitist Graham Sutherland in the TV series The Crown, when Churchill asks (paraphrasing here) “Are you going to paint me as a venerated statesman or as a sturdy English bulldog?” and the painter responds, “I imagine there are quite a few Churchills in there.”

Art tries to increase our awareness of what is possible for us to see and know. For that reason, artists must push the boundaries, despite inevitable opposition. Meanwhile, it’s the duty of everyone to work to protect our culture, the products of art. The power of art to outlast tyranny is great, but the power of artists, not so much, he said. They need to be defended too.

The Role of the Novel in a World of Lies

reading, apple

photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

Last week Sir Salman Rushdie gave a humor-laced talk to a packed house at Princeton University, on a topic of profound interest to every writer and reader. In the old days, say two hundred years ago, one purpose of the novel was to “bring people the news,” he said. People who read novels learned about issues they had no direct experience or knowledge of: Charles Dickens and the exploitation of children, the impact of indifferent schooling, and the depredations of the poor-house; Harriet Beecher Stowe and slavery. (Rushdie repeated the apocryphal comment of Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war!”)

Today, with so many media outlets providing so many opportunities for people to get news, that purpose for novels has been supplanted. At the same time, “we,” he said—possibly meaning Princetonians, Americans, or citizens of the world—are more suspicious of the news we get. The attack on truth has gained traction because people are disillusioned with the news media; accusations of “fake news” fall on receptive ears. This, he agrees, is a dangerous development for the republic.

So what can literature do? “Should we be writing fiction when the world is full of lies?” he asked. While you can anticipate his answer, he gets there in an interesting way. He points to the Pakistani genocide of the educated class in Bangladesh shortly before the latter country’s independence, a well documented episode routinely denied by Pakistan. You may be reminded of the Armenian genocide, and the persistent Holocaust deniers. In writing about events such as that which occurred in Bangladesh, which is in Rushdie’s living memory, even “the act of remembering is politicized.” The difference between this world of lies and the novel, is that “fiction tells you it’s a lie.”

I’m watching the superb televersion of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and I find it so disturbing, so seemingly possible. Even though its underlying truth resonates, I know it flows from a work of fiction—something made up—and that it is not a reflection of objective reality as the purveyors of alt.right dogma contend with their false fictions.

Over many generations, artists (and scientists) find themselves in frequent conflict with politicians because “politicians want to control the narrative.” The more authoritarian they are, the more control they want.

Here he did not explicitly describe Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for his death, issued after publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, but that dramatic episode was clearly on the minds of his audience. (In case you’ve forgotten, Rushdie went into hiding for a few years, and a further fatwa against anyone involved in the novel’s publication apparently resulted in the murder of his translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, and assassination attempts against the book’s Italian translator and its Norwegian publisher, while its Turkish translator was a likely target in an arson attack that resulted in 37 deaths.)

The current crisis in America, he said, arises out of the desire not just to control the narrative, but to totally rewrite it. The recent threats to defund the arts and public broadcasting were transparently not based on the politicians’ stated aim—cost-cutting, which was dubious on its face, since in the federal budget context, these programs are miniscule—but on a much more fundamental hostility to the arts and artistic expression.

In the end, Rushdie said, it is the arts that help us understand the culture of the past: how do we know what went on generations and millennia ago absent the writing, paintings, sculpture, architecture, and other artistic expressions of those former times? While the authorities may control the present, artists’ legacy controls what future generations will think of us.

WEDNESDAY: Rushdie and the Role of the Novelist

Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Data journalist Ben Blatt has used his quantitative approach to analyzing classic novels and 20th century best-sellers to test whether some of the common advice writers receive is reflected in successful books. (Yesterday, I reported some of his findings about differences in writing by and about men and women.)

Numerous authorities—most notably, Stephen King—advise against using –ly adverbs. King goes so far as to say the road to hell is paved with them. Instead, these authorities say, find a more robust verb that can carry your meaning on its own, unaided. Blatt’s example is, instead of “He ran quickly,” say, “He sprinted.” Saves words too.

As it turns out, Blatt’s research reveals that more accomplished writers do tend to rely on good strong verbs instead of adverbial modifiers. In a chart, he shows that Hemingway used 80 –ly adverbs per 10,000 words, where as E.L James (author of the 50 Shades books) used almost twice as many, 155 per 10,000. Here’s one of hers: “Mentally girding my loins, I head into the hotel.” A bit hard to visualize there.

Another precept Blatt tested was Elmore Leonard’s avoid-the-banal advice: “Never open a book with weather.” Yet best-seller Danielle Steele starts her books with weather about half the time (46 percent), and even Leonard has done it, maybe twice in 45 novels. By contrast, many literary authors (Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and others) never do so, across dozens of books.

Parlor Game

Here’s a parlor game for you, based on Blatt’s findings (his book has many more). What are the three favorite words of these authors? Can any of your erudite friends come close?

  • Jane Austen
  • Truman Capote
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • K. Rowling
  • Mark Twain

And here are the answers: JA (civility, fancying, imprudence); TC (clutter, zoo, geranium—bet you didn’t get that one!); EH (concierge, astern, cognac); JKR (wand, wizard, potion); and MT (hearted, shucks, satan).

You can order the books below (affiliate link):

Further Delight

While researching this article, I ran across this fun list of 100 Exquisite Adjectives.

Women (and Men) Just Don’t Do That (in Books)

whispering

Muttering and Murmuring – photo: Lexe-l, creative commons license

Excerpts from an entertaining new book by Ben Blatt, self-styled “data journalist,” are appearing all over the place. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve summarizes much fascinating research he’s done with a pile of literary classics and 20th century best sellers on one hand and a computer on the other.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) tackles the question of whether men and women characters in books behave differently. The short answer is “yes.”

Authors are more likely to use words like “grin” when speaking about male characters and more likely to use the tamped-down “smile” when referring to females. Men shout, and chuckle; women scream, shriek, and shiver. Sometimes a male character may scream (under extreme torture, I suppose), but he would never shriek! As IRL, men are more likely to murder. Female characters murmur; male ones mutter.

Blatt uses his database of novels to expose authors’ general writing patterns and writing trends over time. Based strictly on the numbers, here are some of his results, which I’ve culled from stories on Smithsonian.com and NPR:

  • Men and women authors write differently, with men much more likely to use clichés (Compare best-seller James Patterson—160 clichés per 100,000 words—to Jane Austen—45)
  • Well worth further exploration and perhaps years of psychoanalysis is the finding that male authors are more likely than females to write that a woman character “interrupted”
  • Ditto to the finding that male authors describe their female characters as kissing more often than their male characters (“she kissed him”), and for female authors, it’s the male characters who do the kissing (“he kissed her”).

Tomorrow:  Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

Change and Emotion Spark Your Novel, and Voice Carries It

Greg Beaubien

Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author

Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.

To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.

What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.

The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.

Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”

Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.

A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.

Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.

More about target word length?

These helpful articles from Writer’s Digest and the Manuscript Appraisal Agency delve into great detail about length targets for different book genres.

Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

A Thin Gruel of Words

Do overused words run out of steam like a runner at the end of a marathon of meaning?  This Jonathon Sturgeon article from Flavorwire, lurking in my pile of “gems to re-read,” asks that question. It’s of renewed interest, in light of conflicting views on the robustness of the word “fact” and whether it means anything at all any more. A “fact” used to be something you could hang your hat on; now we’re all like Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

Humpty Dumpty

image: public domain

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master—that’s all.”

Sturgeon cites data on the use of four descriptive words with literary origins that have gone in and out of fashion over the decades: Quixotic and Byronic were used in the 1800s, with Quixotic peaking around the middle of that century and Byronic—a word I have never used—in the 1930s. In the 20th century, these two were joined by Orwellian—still the most popular—and Kafkaesque, both of which may be destined for increased use. (There’s no source cited for these data, so I can’t find out how they were compiled—probably by text analyzing software.)

Do words like these presuppose at least some passing knowledge of their origins? Presumably a person can understand that a quixotic effort is whimsical and doomed to failure or that an orwellian environment is “antiutopian” and “totalitarian,” as the dictionary would have it. Probably more people understand and use the word kafkaesque than have read—or want to read—The Trial. But do they lose their punch when applied too freely, as people believe the word “nazi” has, by being applied here, there, and everywhere?

Then Sturgeon asks a deeper question, one Humpty Dumpty would appreciate: “Do words mean what the dictionary says they mean, or do they gain meaning through the way we use them?” The answer, he says, is “both.” By using words where they only sort-of apply, their meaning expands, even to the point of meaninglessness.

“The idea that a word could lose its meaning because people use it is both funny and politically scary,” he says. “And so is the idea that a word could mean nothing at all.” I suppose the best way to guard against diluting the meaning of words must be our own vigilance in how we use them. Unless we want the word “fact” to mean just what the user chooses it to mean, we must guard it carefully.

Up on Our Housetop

Naughty or Nice

photo: Mobilus in Mobili, creative commons license

What with new snow on the ground in parts of the country, there’s a remote possibility you can tolerate another morsel of Christmas. Below find the sum total of my non-culinary creative output for late December! I wrote it for the children in our family—Lincoln (age 8), Indiana (almost 7), and Irving (age 5), plus their mom, Alix (age redacted). Sing it to that familiar holiday tune!

“Up on Our Housetop”

First comes a present for Mr. Lincoln
A Chemistry Set? What was Santa thinkin’!
Next thing we know, a big explosion,
Police cars, fire trucks—what a commotion!
(Chorus: Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go,
Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go-o
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.

Next is a talking doll for Indie,
She’s so pretty she names her Cindy,
But all Cindy says is “Wash up!” and “Clean!”
And Indie says she’s just too mean!
(Chorus)

Then there’s a deck of cards for Irv,
Boy, that Santa’s really got some nerve,
Irv plays so well, he’s never beaten
And Lincoln says, “It’s ʼcause he’s cheatin’!”
(Chorus)

Last there’s a present for Alexandra,
Oh, what’s this? It’s a movie camera!
She films all the toys that have caused such tears
And writes Santa, “Please do better next year!”
(Chorus)

(Applause and pass the hot toddies.)

Santa Claus

photo: Bill McChesney, creative commons license

Lee Child is a Pantser

Superman

graphic: Kooroshication, creative commons license

Someday I hope I inspire a reader as enthusiastic and indulgent as Lee Child has in John Lanchester. Lanchester’s fanboy article in the 14 November New Yorker delves into both the form and process used by Child to create his literary child, Jack Reacher. I’ve read only the first one in this long-running series, The Killing Floor, and didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

Lanchester—a contributing editor at The London Review of Books—was untroubled by my big gripe: I just couldn’t believe in the character. First of all, Childs’s hero, he says, “isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon . . . He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents” and in a climactic combat, Reacher will be pitted “sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength of inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above.”

But Lanchester has devised a clever test for whether a novel exceeds his ability to suspend disbelief. He calls it the Superman test: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?” Everyone has a set-point for their own personal Superman test, and mine must be lower than Lanchester’s.

He likes Reacher, even when he skates perilously close to Superman territory. He says it’s because Child balances Reacher’s extraordinary skills with realism. The fighting seems “realistic within its implausibility”; Reacher fights for the good guys, but he’s a realist, he’ll fight dirty.

Reacher’s given up everything and travels around the country, righting wrongs, carrying no more than a folding toothbrush. To every cube warrior who longs to get out from under, this sounds pretty good. Even if such a life isn’t really possible, “The alienated possessionless freedom of Reacher has a core of emotional truth,” Lanchester says.

Another seductive aspect of the books for Lanchester is Reacher’s thought process as he tries to decipher what’s going on, who the bad guys are. Turns out, Child is a pantser! He doesn’t write the books with the whole plot worked out in advance; he writes by the seat of his pants. He captures Reacher’s figuring-out activity so well, because he’s figuring it out at the exact same time.

This way of working was revealed when author Andy Martin—another Jack Reacher devotee—literally sat with Child as he worked on his recent book Make Me. Martin turned his observations into Reacher Said Nothing (2015), a “genuinely enlightening” literary biography that’s one of a kind.

Reacher’s work-it-out-as-you-go method is the way I write, too. Although some writers storyboard each scene and conversation ahead of time, that would take all the fun out of writing—the thrill of discovery—for me. This faint kinship is why I’ll give old Jack another go. I think I’ll read Persuader. Lanchester says it’s Reacher at his best.