More Short and Sweet: Tips on Effective Prose in Short Stories

Last week Sisters in Crime sponsored another of its “Short and Sweet” webinars about short-story writing. Talented author Art Taylor again hosted, along with award-nominated Ed Aymar, to talk about constructing a text. There’s a great satisfaction in doing it well. As Brendan DuBois said in the current issue of The3rdDegree, there’s a “satisfaction in seeing how an author can tell a gripping story in the confines of a relatively small playground.”

The prose—that is, the words on the page—are not just a delivery vehicle for character and plot, Taylor said. How a story is told is its own experience. If it’s told in a style that makes you think of floating down a lazy river on a summer day with the insects buzzing and the green smells rising, that’s a different experience than a style like a machine gun’s rat-a-tat-tat.

Of course, you can have both. If you lull the reader with a warm, sleepy meandering text until unexpected events cut it off with the rat-a-tat-tat of hard consonants and short sentences, that wakes the reader up. In my writing, I default to long sentences, chains of clauses linked by commas and conjunctions. I have to remind myself not to write a fight scene that way! Make it punchy.

I’m sure I was nodding when Taylor said, “Let the reader do some of the work.” Over-explaining is annoying. Trust that your reader is following along and understands some things without explanation. “She started making dinner, so they would have something to eat that night.” Clearly, everything after the comma should go. If you can envision your readers saying, “I get it, I get it!” then cut.

Short stories, especially, benefit from pruning everything unnecessary. Taylor called this “economy, efficiency, and an unrelenting focus.” Nothing should be in the story that doesn’t serve its purposes. Taking this a step further, he suggested that each line of a story ideally should accomplish several things.

A recent short story described a journalist and his investigations of hazardous jobsites. He takes a woman to dinner and, in the middle of their evening, a terrorist appears and shoots a dozen people. It was like walking into another story. Perhaps the author used the crusading journalist trope to make readers sympathetic to the murdered man, but weren’t there more integrated ways to accomplish this? It’s as if the story wore a plaid skirt, a striped blouse and a polka-dot vest, when what it needed was a dress. Fancy, sure, but One Thing.

I was relieved to hear from Ed Aymar that he writes lots of drafts. Me, too. And he endorsed the idea of reading work out loud, especially dialog. It’s one of the quickest ways to spot where the text isn’t working. Another of his good ideas is to rewrite your text a bit when using it for a reading. The pacing and emphases may need to be adjusted.

Sisters in Crime has archived the video of Taylor and Aymar’s presentation for its members. “Crafting Prose in a Short Story” is full of additional writing tips, too. Join?

Photo: the 3D printed dress at Selfridges Department Store, London, was photographed by Bradley Harper.

The Short of It: Crime Stories

reading

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine both included some stellar stories in their March/April issues. Lots to like in the varied offerings of both publicationss.

Here are some of my favorites from EQMM:

  • Mat Coward’s comic adventure “Morbid Phenomena of the Most Varied Kind” – It’s hard not to like a story that begins “If you were thinking of assassinating a politician, my main advice would be don’t bother—they keep spares.”
  • Lou Manfredo’s “Sundown” is a police procedural (always a favorite subgenre) that fascinated me as reader and writer with its insightful look at how police detectives follow a thread and keep following it, just in case
  • I chuckled at Anna Scotti’s “Schrödinger, Cat” in which a man makes the mistake of taking his girlfriend’s faith in him for granted

And from AHMM:

  • In “Red Flag” by Gregory Fallis deals with the disconnect between knowing a person’s perceived violent tendencies are raising red flags and the system’s inability to do anything about it. Quite cleverly, too
  • You can hear the howling wind and feel the lashing rains in Michael A. Black’s “Waiting for Godot,” when a hurricane provides cover for crime
  • For a little paranormal adventure, there was Merrilee Robson’s delightful “Tired of Bath,” which includes a memorable encounter with the ghost of Jane Austen

Finally, I read Paris Noir: The Suburbs, an anthology of short stories in the Akashic Books Noir Series. I’m pretty open-minded, but did not like this one. Too dreary.

Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

The Short Story Four-Minute Mile

Sherlock Holmes

Half-finished in a Word file on my computer is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche story, the second one I’ve written. What I hadn’t realized is that my two stories follow a very well-trodden path laid by Arthur Conan Doyle and followed by Holmes acolytes ever since.

In a Sisters in Crime webinar last week with short story dream team Art Taylor and Barb Goffman, Art presented the classic seven-part structure of a Sherlock Holmes story (which he credited to the apparently out-of-print book, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies). Through some process of osmosis, it seems I’d absorbed and followed at least the first few of those parts: Part 1 – cozy domestic scene; Part 2 – Sherlock shows off; Part 3 – the problem is presented. In my first Holmes story, the problem arrived by letter; in the new one, via a distraught Mrs. Hudson. Structural awareness greatly simplifies the writing job and prevents wandering about in rhetorical left field. I know what needs to get done.

In a short story, emphasized Barb, the writer has to focus. As she puts it, “A short story is about one thing,” even if that thing is unclear at the start. If you’d asked me what my story “Burning Bright” in Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat was about, I would have said, “Two Wisconsin ne’er-do-wells plan to rake in a lot of money by having a tiger fight a bear.” I would have added, “and it’s also about an outraged deputy sheriff trying to stop them while trying to persuade her dad to move into assisted living.”

So, would Barb say “Hey, that’s two things”? Only after I wrote “The End” did I realize the story was only superficially about those two things. What it was really about was respect for autonomy.

Art cited six steps in a typical short story, and they usually, though not necessarily, appear in order: 1- Introduce the character, 2- express their desires, 3- action (what the character does about those desires), 4- factors that impedes obtaining the desires (3 and 4 can repeat several times), 5- the climax, 6- resolution. In the classic analysis of Cinderella (below), action and impediments trade places many times (nothing to wear? fairy godmother).

Art pointed out that the six steps are useful as a tool for planning a story, and for diagnosing why it isn’t working. Barb pulls several of the steps together and recommends starting a story is by asking, “what’s the conflict?”

Lest you think these are recommendations to write to a formula, they are not. The variety and rearrangement of parts is practically infinite. Someone once said to crime writer Donald Westlake that writing genre fiction was easy: All you have to do is follow the formula. And he responded, “I’ll give you a formula for running a four minute-mile. Run each quarter-mile in less than a minute.” (Art’s talk and his slides will be in the members section of the Sisters in Crime website.)

Where Stories Come From: Outside and In

People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” which is not a question with a straightforward answer. So many facts, ideas, memories, glimpses, pet peeves, dreams, loves, and outrages weave themselves into a story, the truthful answer would be “everywhere.” For people who aren’t writers and haven’t engaged with the word-collage building that is storywriting, that is not an insightful or satisfactory answer. Certainly, it gives no aid to the questioner whose unspoken follow-up may be “and how can I do it?”

I’ve identified the seeds of two of my recent stories. One was prompted by an external source and the other, by my own experience. Being a great believer in the ability of the unconscious mind to put things together, I confess these are only the influences I’m aware of!

“Saving the Indiana Dae”

Published in issue #10 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, along with works by my friends and writing acquaintances Steve Liskow, Barb Goffman, and Liz Zelvin, with seven others I look forward to meeting. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Wall Street wheeler-dealer who buys and refurbishes a permanently beached ship in Cape May, N.J., turning it into a quirky vacation cottage. Stunning. But then the trouble starts. Is the ship haunted? Is he losing his grip?

The long-ago origin of this story was a John Gardner writing prompt my writers’ group worked on. It asked us to plot a ghost story with certain elements. We had such fun with this cooperative exercise that we all went home and wrote the story, each one very different, but involving a vacation cottage, Cape May, a crusty 1800s sea captain, and (for two of us, a very fowl-mouthed parrot [sorry about the pun]). The eventual story in BCMM takes off from that early effort, though the hero has considerably more agency, and the existence of the ghost is still in question. I suppose the message is, whatever fires your engine, let it rip!

“A Hungarian Christmas”

If you’re familiar with the hilarious books about Eloise, the six-year-old girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel you may remember how she was always angling to get herself a present. In this story, published in the Mystery Magazine December issue, along with works from several fellow-members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the unsuspecting Bert and his fiancée Veronika are anticipating the holidays. She’s helpfully explained to him that, as a Hungarian, she should be given a special present on December 6, Hungarian Christmas. (This is a scam that actually works, don’t ask me how I know.) Maybe it was taking the Zoom class on precious gems last year that inspired it, or the several notable jewel robberies I’d read about recently, but Bert decides his special gift should be something from Tiffany’s. As you can predict, mayhem ensues.

I set the story in northern New Jersey, close to Manhattan, but not in it, so that the scale of the police presence and Bert and Veronika’s living arrangements wouldn’t present word-count busting logistical difficulties. Because I believe most complicated problems/investigations benefit from a team approach, I gave her a loving family—older brothers defending her and Bert’s interests.

To quote a lyric from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the late Stephen Sondheim, “And a happy ending of course.” Hey, it’s the holidays.

For Your Bookshelf

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. (I still don’t understand some of this one.)

Best American Mystery & Suspense: 2021 – Part 2

Yesterday’s post delved into the steamy politics surrounding this collection and its new editor’s highly successful efforts to make the selection more representative of the breadth of American crime and mystery writing. Here are some of my favorites from the new collection.

A good example of how criminals paint themselves into tight corners—which once again proves the validity of Murphy’s Law—is E. Gabriel Flores’s story, “Mala Suerte.” In it, Carmelita wonders whether bad luck runs in families. A recounting of her family history suggests it may. But she’s plucky and talks her way into a pretty good job. Now, if only she would leave well enough alone. But she’s one of those people who cannot recognize when she’s about as well off as she has any right to expect, and you know she won’t.

It’s hard to say much about Ravi Howard’s suspense story, “The Good Thief,” without giving away the clever plot twist. A conscientious cook at a small-town luncheonette is asked to prepare a prisoner’s last meal, actually a cake the young man once ate in her establishment. Alone in the kitchen of the prison’s new wing—the biggest kitchen she has ever seen—you are alone with her thoughts, as she talks briefly with the warden and methodically goes about preparing the cake. So little action, so much happening.

Aya de León’s touching “Frederick Douglass Elementary” delves into the crimes a mother will commit in order to get her son into a decent elementary school, when all manner of bureaucracy is set against her. Keisha’s not a serial killer or a bank robber, or someone at the very fringes of society. She’s just a working single mom. Her crimes may seem trivial, but in the lives of her and her son, they are hugely consequential. (You could be forgiven for believing that the real crime is the condition of the schools that tempted her into law-breaking.) Any parent will recognize the stomach-dropping uncertainty that hits Keisha throughout.

In “The Killer,” by Delia C. Pitts, you return to familiar crime-story territory. A mother and small child are on the run from New York to Tampa, with a gangster hot on their heels. The story’s told from the point of view of their driver and bodyguard, who believes every stop along the way risks bringing their pursuer closer and every encounter risks betrayal. They stop at the kind of rural Virginia diner where the manager and cook have never met up with anyone as dangerous as their pursuer, and even that naivete presents a potential risk. First published in the literary magazine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, it’s a nail-biter.

I’d read “One Bullet. One Vote,” by Faye Snowden in the Low Down Dirty Vote collection, liked it then and on repeat. In the mid-1960s, a young Black man from up north has arrived in small-town Louisiana determined to convince his new wife’s relations to register to vote. “What you trying to do? Get us all killed?” His wife’s elderly grandmother is the only one who takes him up on it. Bureaucracy repeatedly thwarts her, but she’s dealt with that before. The author not only created an engaging story of people pushed to extremes, she provides a powerful demonstration of what’s meant by “systemic racism.” Not one, but two true heroes in this one.

Among the other authors included are Jenny Bhatt, Gar Anthony Haywood, Alison Gaylin, and Laura Lippman. If you’re puzzled by the title to the second story in the collection, SWAJ by Christopher Bollen—it’s the logo to the movie ‘Jaws,’ read backward. In some circles, that’s a thing.

On the whole, the selections were excellent, and you may find yourself returning to several of them for the issues and social truths they reveal. In this era of social media bubbles, when we hear mostly from people who share our beliefs and outlooks, seeing the world through the eyes of some of these characters is enormously valuable. If this collection presages what Cha will manage in future editions, they will be well worth looking forward to.

Yesterday: the controversy over editorial direction.

Best American Mystery and Suspense: 2021 – Part 1

Edited by Steph Cha–Short mystery/crime fiction lovers in the United States have been more than a little curious to see what changes might be made in this annual series since publisher HarperCollins yanked the project from founding editor Otto Penzler last year. The ousting prompted a juicy literary brouhaha. Some thought Penzler was mistreated, but many (including me) believed that, under Penzler’s guidance, the anthology trended too “white and male.” It wasn’t bringing in new voices and, by extension, wasn’t expanding the audience for the crime/mystery genre.

The new series editor is award-winning author Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay) with guest editor for the 2021 edition, Alafair Burke (The Better Sister). The process worked the same as under Penzler. Cha, as series editor, took an initial whack at the huge pile of stories and gave her favorites to Burke, who made the final selection.

The differences in the new collection are immediately obvious, in the refreshing diversity of authors and story content, as well as in the large number of new (to me) bylines. Undeterred by his ouster, Penzler maintains his past preferences in another new collection, confusingly titled, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021, now published by his own company, The Mysterious Press.

While the titles of the two collections have created some (deliberate?) confusion, their content couldn’t be more different. Only six of Penzler’s twenty-one selections (28 percent) are from women authors, compared to 60 percent of Cha’s. My data may not be perfect, but as far as I can tell, not one of Penzler’s 21 “best” was written by a person of color, whereas 45 percent of Cha’s selections were.

To bring a wider array of voices to the “best” table, Cha scoured literary journals, anthologies, and online publications. It’s heartening to see the number of high-quality, non-genre magazines that cherish high-quality crime and mystery fiction, well outside the usual stalwarts.

Diversity is the name of the game here. Not only diversity among the authors and the publications where their stories first found a home, but in the types of mystery and suspense stories represented. Whether your taste is for police procedurals or amateur sleuths, people getting their comeuppance, or giving it, or the hapless nature of criminals, you’ll find stories that hit those buttons, from across the social spectrum. They aren’t all conventional crime stories, either; in several, the characters are up against implacable bureaucracies.

Tomorrow: Some of my favorites from this year’s selection.

A Question of Identity

pumpkin, book art

Our house is full of masks. They’re from 19th century China, modern Venice, the Northwest Indians, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, and most of all, Africa. They make a dramatic display and watch television with us in our family room.

So, as I cast my attention forward to forthcoming holidays and focused on Halloween, the theme of masks—what they hide, what they reveal, and their impact on wearer and viewer—came naturally to mind. I’m so pleased that Kings River Life has included this story in its MysteryRatsMaze page—a great place to find new short stories any time of year!

The jumping-off place for this story was wondering what would happen if children’s families recognized them by their Halloween costumes and not their true selves? How confusing would that be? In my story, Jen and Tamika, nine-year-old best friends, play a trick on their parents and switch costumes—costumes that arrived mysteriously in the girls’ rooms, no one sure where they came from, but part of busy families’ “whatever.” And the parents don’t notice: right costume, wrong girl. Now, that’s confusing. Jen and Tamika don’t know what to think. Do their parents know what’s going on and have turned the tables on them?

When they put that bit of confusion to rights, Jen and Tamika display evidence that these costumes have some other, potentially darker powers as well. You, the reader, will have your own “what happens next?” ideas, and they may not be pretty. It all does take place around All Hallows Eve, after all, when all manner of strange events can occur.Read “A Question of Identity” for free here.

tiger, mask

Short Story Collections: EQMM (Sept/Oct) & Fiction River

reading, apple

For its 80th Anniversary issue, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine assembled almost 200 pages of short stories, book reviews, and blog suggestions. Among my favorite stories this issue were:

  • Jane Jakeman’s “Trick or Treat”—She adds an element of timelessness to her tale of small-town revenge by heading scene breaks with quotes like these: “Beware of meeting a witch underground, for then she is at her most powerful—The Grimoire of Lysbet Malkin.
  • Matt Goldman’s entertaining “Sixteen Lies” (but who’s counting?).in which a savvy private eye unravels the motives that led to the death of a disabled woman, which his client, the dead woman’s sister, believes is suspicious. The fake-supportive banter between the sister and her husband is priceless.
  • “Demon in the Depths,” a novella by William Burton McCormick kept me riveted. A reporter’s Norwegian expedition to investigate her great-grandmother’s death in a mysterious plane crash some 60 years earlier is disrupted by volcanic debris, subzero temperatures, international politics, and a 500-year-old Greenland shark.
  • And I liked John F. Dobbyn’s adventure poem, “Nugget,” which begins: “I’d come in from our claim on the Klondike that week, and I’d made it just under the gun. The trails and the rivers were hell on the dogs, once the icing and snows had begun.”

Fiction River’s latest anthology, Dark and Deadly Passions, deals with crimes that come from emotion—especially extreme emotion. Editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a story in the above issue of Ellery Queen, and her long story for Fiction River, “Grief Spam,” was one I couldn’t put down. Other especially good tales included:

  • Annie Reed’s “Missing Carolyn,” which shows just how complicated revenge can be.
  • Lauryn Christopher’s  “Tilting at Windmills,” demonstrating that art can have unexpected value.
  • Michael Warren Lucas’s “Getting Away with It” further shows that the value of art depends on the beholder.

Moonlight & Misadventure

Edited by Judy Penz Sheluk — Moonlight & Misadventure is the third short story anthology from Judy Penz Sheluk’s Superior Shores Press, and there’s lots here to like. For this collection, she’s attracted some of the best known and award-winning shorts masters from the US and Canada. Here are just a few of my favorites.

A short story is the ideal place to show off a funny bone because, unlike in a novel, it’s over before the joke gets tiresome. Susan Daly’s humorous “My Night with the Duke of Edinburgh,” involves a long-ago kidnapping of Prince Phillip, or at least his waxwork incarnation. This is just the kind of prank college students would dream up, for exactly the justifications they used, and with a perfect eye-opener of an outcome.

Joseph Walker’s story, “Crown Jewel,” features an obsessive collector of copies of the Beatles’ White Album (he has 348 of them), which is a thing in the United States anyway and makes a case for the advantages of being an only child. Full of delicious double-crosses.

Of considerable charm was MH Callway’s “The Moon God of Broadmoor.” A public health inspector engaged in a clean-up campaign allies with a resident of the Broadmoor apartments who styles himself Thoth, God of the Moon. A chubby, middle-aged man, he routinely dresses in a powder blue tunic, shiny mauve tights, and gauzy iridescent cape. “I see that I have struck awe in your heart,” he says to the inspector when she first spots him. As the two become more acquainted, she finds that, although he’s certainly eccentric, he makes a substantial contribution to his community too. He’s unhinged, unforgettable, and more than a little help in her campaign.

Elizabeth Elwood’s “Ill Met by Moonlight, Proud Miss Dolmas” makes the moon much more than atmospheric. It’s a murder weapon that fells a persnickety school principal during a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elwood nicely captures the sharp perceptive powers and callous affect of high-schoolers too.

Treat yourself to twenty moonlit escapades in this outstanding, action-packed collection, which shows the short story genre at its sparkling best.

Order here from Amazon or here from your local independent bookstore.