18 August 2012

A Woman's World Survival Guide



by John M. Floyd

Two weeks ago my friend R.T. Lawton posted a column here about writing mini-mysteries for Woman's World Magazine, and suggested that I write one also.  I promised him I would, but I certainly didn't promise him that it would be as well-written as his; R.T.'s piece provided some extremely helpful insights on crafting stories for that market, and if you haven't seen it I encourage you to go back and take a look.  Meanwhile, here's my take on the mysterious world of WW . . .

A little background info

My first Woman's World story appeared thirteen years ago, in their April 20, 1999, issue.  It was a mini-mystery called "Smoke Test" (they changed my title to "Switched Off"), about a guy plotting to electrocute his wife.  I followed that with stories in their July 20 and July 27, 1999, issues, one of which was a romance called "Elevator Music."  I tried a romance story not because I thought I was particularly good at writing them but because back then romances earned a thousand dollars a pop, compared to five hundred for mysteries, and I think I just got lucky.  In case you're interested, the max word count then was 1000 words for mysteries and 1500 for romances--now it's 700 and 800 words, respectively.  Payment for mysteries remains at $500 each, and romances are now $800.

The format was different as well, for mystery stories.  At that time they were just called mini-mysteries--a term I still use--and had a traditional story structure.  In late 2004 WW changed the mystery format to the one that still exists today, to make them more "interactive."  The new stories are called Solve-It-Yourself Mysteries, and they always end with a question to the reader and a "solution box" that R.T. has already explained.  The change was a decision that I'll admit I didn't agree with--I had already sold them eleven stories by that time, and I was comfortable with the regular narrative format.  But I once heard someone say that when the train of progress comes roaring down the tracks, you can either stand in the way and get squashed, or you can jump on it and ride.  I hopped aboard.  (The romances, by the way, didn't change; they are still traditionally structured.)

Hints and tips

If any of you haven't tried Woman's World but are interested in submitting a story to them, here are a few things about their mysteries that I've learned over the past years:

(1) Make the good guys win in the end.

(2) Include a lot of dialogue, if possible.

(3) Include a female protagonist.  She doesn't have to be the only protagonist--but she needs to be present.

(4) Include a crime.  If you have what appears to be a crime and then the facts prove that no crime actually occurred, that usually won't get the job done.

(5) Include humor whenever possible.

(6) Keep it fairly clean and fairly simple.  Avoid extreme violence, explicit sex, strong language, technical jargon, characters with physical or mental disabilities, overly complex plots, and exotic locations.  Familiar settings seem to work best.

(7) As mentioned, keep the word count below 700.  The last several mysteries I've sold them have all been between 680 and 690 words, including the solution.

I should note that on several occasions I have happily violated the above "rules"--sometimes intentionally and sometimes because of ignorance--and still made a sale.  In fact, the bad guys actually won in two of my first three mysteries for WW, and my first mystery included no dialogue at all.  And I can't seem to resist throwing a few technical terms around.  (On the other hand, I've written a lot of stories for them that followed all the rules, and still got rejected.  It's an inexact science.)

By the way, the fiction editor's name is Johnene Granger, and submissions should be addressed to her attention at Woman's World, 270 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632.

The creative process

As you writers already know, there are many ways to come up with a short story.  Some of us start with the characters, some with the setting, some with the theme, etc.  I start all my WW mysteries with the plot.  I dream up the situation and the crime and the solution, and only then do I populate the story with the folks who'll make it happen.  I'm not saying you should necessarily do it that way--but that seems to work best for me.

Once I have the "flow" of the story in mind, all the way to the ending, I sit down and type it into the computer.  For some reason, that first draft almost always turns out to be between 800 and a thousand words.  Then I start weeding out the things I don't need, and polishing the rest--especially the dialogue. I've found more success with the lighthearted mini-mysteries than with the gritty ones, so I also try to put in at least a little humor.

Another thing that's worked well for me is to come up with more than one vital clue to solving the case.  I have the main character figure one of the clues out and reveal it during the story, then I save the second (and more important) clue for the solution.  I don't do that every time, but when I do, it seems to add some variety and complexity.

Statistics

R.T. was asking about my WW track record, on submissions.  I suppose I'd have to say it's not good and it's not bad.  As for the "not good" part, I figure I've been rejected at least seventy times, and no matter how you spin it, that's a lot of misfires.  (I can't be certain of the number, because I've lengthened and reformatted many of those rejected stories and sold them elsewhere, while others sit there withering on the vine.)  Half a dozen were rejected with a note saying that if I would change something they'd reconsider the story, and in every one of those cases I made the requested change and it was then accepted.

On the asset side of the ledger, Woman's World has so far bought 46 of my stories--44 mysteries and two romances.  Two more mysteries were accepted but never got published.  I received kill fees (twenty percent of full payment) for both of those.  In answer to a question that I'm often asked, some of the titles of my stories were changed by the editor before publication and some were not; one story is scheduled to come out later this month, so I don't know yet about that one, but so far they've retained 25 of my original titles and changed the others.  The story that came out last week--the August 20 issue--was called "Caught in the Cross-fire," but my original title was "A Quick Stop."

In researching this piece, I found that the crimes involved in my published mini-mysteries have mostly been robberies and burglaries--at least two dozen of them.  Nine of the other crimes were murders, three were kidnappings, two were prison escapes, and the rest were a hodgepodge of fraud, carjackings, assault, blackmail, etc.  I was a little surprised at how many of my plots involved stealing of some kind, but I guess that makes sense in a way: a lot of my mysteries are sort of playful, which lend themselves more to theft than to killing.   And robberies--especially burglaries--often happen in familiar, domestic settings.


Afterthoughts

A taboo I forgot to mention: don't put pets in jeopardy.  I once sent WW a story about the dognapping of a Dalmatian puppy so young it didn't yet have its spots, which was of course part of the mystery.  That submission, even though no harm came to the puppy, was dropped like a hot potato, and when they told me why, I learned a valuable lesson.  Murder Aunt Clara if you must, but leave Fido the hell alone.

Also, don't get political or religious, and don't say anything potentially controversial.  In one of my older stories, I had the heroine ask the sheriff, referring to a possible suspect, "Would you trust someone who has blond hair and black eyebrows?"  He replied, "Hillary Clinton has blond hair and black eyebrows."  The lady said, "I rest my case."  WW bought the story, but changed the reply to "My wife has blond hair and black eyebrows."  Lesson: leave the Clintons alone as well.

On the subject of solutions, don't hinge the answer on information that not many people would know.  Don't have the murder victim leave a clue that's written in Chinese, or set the suspect's computer password to the date of the Hindenburg explosion, or kill the unfaithful wife using a poison with a ten-syllable name that can be found only on a tropical island her husband visited last month on a business trip.  Many of my rejections can be traced to an ignorance of (or disregard for) this rule.  The ideal solution should be something almost obvious, something hidden in plain sight, something that average readers might miss but could have figured out if they'd paid more attention.  Something that will make them slap their foreheads and say, "Whoa, I should've seen that."

A series situation

One final tip: I think part of my success with WW is due to the fact that I created, fairly early on, a series that features two recurring characters: a bossy retired schoolteacher and a pleasant but lazy guy she taught in the fifth grade, who is now the sheriff in their small southern town.  She's constantly butting in, hounding him to lose weight, correcting his grammar in front of his deputies, and generally making his life miserable--except that she almost always helps him solve the mysteries.

The main benefit of this is that it allows me to spend fewer words "setting up" each story.  Since I (and the reader) already know who these people are and how they'll act, I can jump straight into the action and not have to develop or describe the characters every single time.  Their nonstop bickering also gives me the opportunity to stir some humor into the mix.  I've strayed away from the series and sold them some standalone stories now and then, but I've always come back to it, for two reasons: (1) the editor said she wanted me to, and (2) these crazy people are fun to write about.

So that's that.  If you like mysteries and puzzles (Leigh and Rob and Dale, that means you guys) and if you like writing short, I hope you'll give WW a try.

You don't have to be a woman to visit that world.



28 comments:

Amy Jo said...

What a great post. Thanks for sharing

Janice said...

Thanks.A very helpful piece.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

John,

This is a wonderful piece--and also a very generous one. I find this a daunting type of story to write, but I believe few mystery publications pay as well these days. So it's definitely worth the effort. Thanks for sharing with us and congrats on your success in the genre.

Pat said...

Hi John,

I haven't cracked the WW market as yet. However, one of my critique partners is Adele Polomski. I suggested she create a couple of characters to use in a series and it has helped her get more stories published. Earlier this year you guys were back to back in WW.

I wish you more future success. Thanks for the article.

Larry W. Chavis said...

Great post, John, stuff I'll use in my next try.

John Floyd said...

Amy Jo, Janice, Pat, and Jacqueline: thank you for the kind words. I wasn't sure how helpful this would be--like R.T., I just wanted to give an account of my experiences with this market. I do wish I were better able to predict which stories would be winners and which would be losers--often the ones I love the most fail miserably and others I'm not quite sure about wind up getting published. But, as Jacqueline said, it's worth the effort.

Larry, you know most of this kind of thing already. Please keep me posted on your successes.

Shirley said...

John, I love your Angela Potts stories. they're always a fun read. Here's to continued success.

Jody Lebel said...

John, I jumped into the pond and sent a mystery to WW last month. I find writing short very satisfying. Your hints were greedily read and printed out for future reference. I especially liked hearing of all the rejects you've had. No, I'm not a sadistic person, but it spoke very clearly to me that I have to submit often and keep hitting those keys. 46 sales is pretty darned impressive. Thanks for sharing.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is an excellent post with lots of good advice. You're very generous to share so much of your experience, especially the reminder to keep submitting no matter how many times you're turned down.

John Floyd said...

Many thanks, Shirley! I've enjoyed your stories as well.

Jody, best of luck with your latest submission--please keep me posted.

Susan, as you well know, rejections are to be expected, not dreaded. And when an acceptance comes in, the rejections are quickly forgotten anyway.

Barb Goffman said...

I love Angela Potts! I'd read anything you write about her, John.

This was an excellent post, very nice of you to be so helpful.

(And I know I owe you an email. Sorry. I'm so behind on so many things.)

Herschel Cozine said...

John,
Great post! A lot of helpful suggestions. Your success with WW and your ability to come up with so many plots is incredible.

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

John, you are always so generous with your fellow writers.On a personal note, a great big thanks for the help you have given me personally through the years. I'll be trying WW again!

John Floyd said...

Barb, you are too kind--sure glad to hear you like the stories. As for keeping in touch, you're usually better about that than I am. Keep up the good writing!

Herschel and Deborah, you two have already had plenty of success with WW, and have given me great advice in the past. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Gail Farrelly said...

Terrific post. Thank you, John.

Fran Rizer said...

John, great post that may get me to try WW if I ever catch up writing ghost stories and the current Callie. The business of not endangering animals, especially small ones, is also one of the Ten Commandments of Cozies.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Fran and Gail. Good to hear from you both.

As for the endangering animals thing, I'm in agreement with the rule, but the whole issue does get a little strange sometime. One of our writers down here in Mississippi, Greg Iles, told me that nobody complained a bit about all the gruesome and violent deaths of characters in his novel The Devil's Punchbowl, but he was lambasted by EVERYone for several scenes involving dogfighting. Go figure.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

WW has been on my to-do list for such a long time, but other projects get in the way. Still, it will be nice to have your helpful hints when I finally get a chance to try my hand at a story for the WW market. Thanks.

Terrie

John Floyd said...

Hey Terrie, it's a GOOD thing to have all those projects going. But I do hope you'll find time to try some of these mini-mysteries--you'd be good at it.

R.T. Lawton said...

John, loved the article and the information you provided. Thanks. Your article also appears to be one of the most popular ones this year.
I am now invigorated to try whipping out a couple more mini-mysteries before Christmas. Do you have any tips about holiday themed mini-s?

John Floyd said...

Thanks, R.T. I know of no specific tips on holiday stories, except that they should be submitted well ahead of time. By the way, stories set in cold or warm weather should also be sent in at the appropriate time of the year. Without thinking, I sent a winter story to WW this past spring and got a note back saying to resubmit it this fall. Guess I should've known that.

Eve Fisher said...

Thanks, John. I'm getting up my courage to try a WW...

John Floyd said...

Eve, after all your AHMM stories, this should be a snap.

Robin Burcell said...

WW! My very first ever rejection. I cried, dumped it in the trash, and almost gave up writing that day. But then I walked past it, pulled it out, stuck it in a drawer, and read it years later, only then realizing how they were right to reject! (It was horrible!) I have never been brave enough to try again, but always read both the romance and mini mystery, thinking one day...

Tamara said...

When you began explaining that you created recurring characters and described them, I said, "Oh, yes, I know who that is." That was after I'd read your instructions on how to create these stories. I've had eleven romances pubished and one mystery (my mysteries are often humorous but implausible, and Johnene fills them full of holes). Anyway, your blog is fun reading and your instructions helpful to those who don't quite know how to go about this process.

Sherry said...

John,
I tried my hand at a mini-mystery to learn how to write tighter, then was having a tough time finding WW submission guidelines online. I thought of you (I attended your workshop at the Turner Cassity Literary Festival last summer) and longed to pick your brain on the subject. I was delighted to find this article in my Google search. You are a generous writer--thank you!

John Floyd said...

Sherry -- Good to hear from you. Glad the column was of some help.

If you ever need to contact me directly, my email address is jfloyd@teclink.net

Best of luck to you!

Linda Cahill said...

Super helpful Post John, thank you.