Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

17 November 2017

Moderating a Short Story Panel

James, Alan, Janet, Travis, Angel, and Barb
At the Bouchercon in Toronto a few weeks ago, one of the highlights was a panel on the short story moderated by my friend James Lincoln Warren. He wrote a long piece on FaceBook about it and graciously gave me permission to edit it and put it up here.

James says he feels like the Godfather of SleuthSayers, and he's right about that. He founded a website called Criminal Brief in which seven writers took turns talking (mostly) about short mystery fiction. When he decided to shut it down several of us grizzled survivors started SleuthSayers.


James is the author of many short stories that have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. Perhaps his best known works are ahe tales of 18th century insurance investigator Alan Treviscoe but he won the Black Orchid Novella Award with a contemporary private eye story. His "Shikari" is, in my opinion, the best Sherlock Holmes story ever written that does not include Sherlock Holmes.

Without further ado, here we go. Any mistakes below can be blamed on me.

— Robert Lopresti



Moderating a Short Story Panel

by James Lincoln Warren

The panelists and I have received comments from the audience that this was their favorite panel at the convention. People have also mentioned how well attended it was—it was SRO, which is very unusual for a short story panel at a crime fiction fan convention.So I decided I'd explain how I structured it and my theories for its unusual success.

First, I think its success was largely due to the wonderful panelists: Alan S. Orloff, Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Travis Richardson, Angel Colón, and Barb Goffman, all of whom are greatly respected in the crime short fiction community. Kudos is also well-deserved by Janet Costello, the Bouchercon Programming Chair, for scheduling such a panel.

But let me begin by explaining why I at first dreaded having it assigned to me.

My working rule as a moderator (and I always prefer to moderate rather than contribute as a panelist) at a fan convention is first and foremost, "Connect the author with the reader." In other words, I want to get at least one person in the audience to read the work of each of the panelists.

The themes for panels at fan conventions usually key on elements relative to a particular subgenre, or things that particular works, in a variety of subgenres, have in common, e.g., a panel about private eyes, a panel about hard-boiled female detectives, a panel on detectives with pets, and so on. Usually on such panels, one of the panelists will be a prominent star writer with a big fan base---those are the folk who are going to come to the panel. In so doing, they will discover lesser known writers whose work is previously unknown to them, but whose stuff they are guaranteed to enjoy. Everybody wins!

Short stories are not a subgenre, like hard-boiled, cozy, police procedural, fair play, romantic suspense, etc. The short story is a form, not a thematic genre, and the subgenres represented by it cover the whole spectrum of crime fiction. This means that other than length, short story writers' works may have very little in common with each other. On top of that, writers like me, who work almost exclusively in the form, are not likely to be stars, because crime fiction has been dominated by the novel since the 1930s. Likewise for the panelists---no matter how wonderful their work, it is bound to have less exposure than the works of novelists. The upshot is that it's unlikely that an audience will be drawn to the panel on account of the names assigned to it.

As I said, my goal is usually to connect every writer on the panel to someone in the audience. But I noticed that on every short story panel I've moderated, when we get to the Q&A, the questions are never about the authors whose work I've tried so hard to expose. Instead, the questions are always about "How do I get published? What are your secrets?"

So I proposed to Janet Costello that for this short story panel, we'd go all the way and make it about writing short stories. I proposed that we'd come up with a list of simple concepts the panel could agree upon, or if they disagreed on the concept, at least recognize its importance, and illustrate how that concept worked by reading examples of it from the short fiction written by the panelists, along with other observations and suggestions from short fiction editors.

But then I ran into some trouble, because I couldn't figure out how to structure the panel, or whom to assign to which nugget of advice. And then it hit me.

Aspiring writers have entire libraries of sound advice available to them on how to write: Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Steven King, and divers others, have all written very good books on it. For access to markets, there's the venerable Writer's Market---every writer I know has bought one at sometime or another. So what's different about asking published writers these questions face to face? We're not going to dispense more wisdom in an hour-long panel than you can get from any of those books.

The answer is, of course, that there is personal interaction. The rookie wants to pick the brains of the veterans. And that's when I realized that the way to run the panel was to make it consist of questions from the audience, and not the questions that I thought should be asked. I had the audience members write down their questions on a leaf from a small tear-out notebook, restricted the questions to one or two, and had them collected and given to me. I would then read the questions, pick the most interesting or generally applicable ones, and get the best of both worlds: the audience would get answers to their personal questions, and I would remain in control of the panel.

To open the panel, I listed five pieces of advice everybody agreed on, and read from the works of the panelists to illustrate each one. This also gave the audience time to phrase their questions and turn them in while we were still able to dispense some basic advice, while also establishing the bona fides of the panelists.

That took about fifteen minutes. The rest of the panel consisted of questions from the audience.

Robert states that I dispensed with several questions on my own with the mantra, "There are no magic bullets." This is true. I did this because, well, there are no magic bullets, no perfect formulas, no foolproof techniques, and aspiring writers must understand this. But there were lots of very interesting questions that were directed individually to the panelists, and some directed at more than one panelist. And as I had encouraged the panelists to speak up when they had something to say about a question pitched to someone else, there was a lot of stuff that got covered from more than one angle.

The personal touch is why everybody loved the panel so much. Now, you can't teach someone to write a commercial crime fic short story in an hour, but a frequent comment was, "I learned so much!" The important point here is that they learned not what any of us wanted to teach, BUT WHAT THEY WANTED TO KNOW. Respect your audience!

All right, that explains why the panel was a success, but it doesn't explain why the house was packed.


I think there are two essential reasons: (1) Janet Hutchings, the editor of the world's leading crime fiction magazine, was being honored at Bouchercon, and people from the audience thought that maybe they'd learn how she picked stories for the magazine; and (2) the subject of the panel, "how to construct the short story", was something they had always wanted, but never before had offered to them. Bouchercon is not a writers conference. It's a fan convention. But we sometimes forget that writers usually start as fans of other writers.

(Now, I don't think that Janet told them exactly how she picks a story, although she gave them some very good advice---be in control of your narrative, do not fixate on the opening but on the whole narrative, and that she could use a lot more fair play detective stories featuring a crime and its solution. I should also mention that I gave a shout out to Janet's colleague Linda Landrigan at EQMM's sister mag, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, who once told me she likes stories that seem to be about one thing, but are really about something else.)

I was extremely fortunate to have so much expertise on the panel, and for Janet Costello allowing me to have my own way with it. It was a helluva lot of fun.

01 November 2017

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves

by Robert Lopresti

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde

A few months ago I read a story called "Crow Mountain"  by John Floyd in the latest issue of The Strand.  A good story it was, but what amused me was that it included a plot twist that I had used a decade before.


I am not suggesting anything nefarious.  First of all, John needs to steal ideas from me like  Bryan Bowers needs me to give him autoharp lessons.  (Slow down, Bryan!  Make some mistakes!)  But most important - if he had read my story and instantly said I can use that it would have still been all right.  It would be what Lawrence Block calls "creative plagiarism."  You take the original idea in use it in some new and original way.

Here's what I mean by the shared plot twist: If you read John's story and then started mine when you got to a certain point you might say: "Huh.  I bet I know how it ends."  And you'd be right  Same if you read mine first, then John's.

I told John I liked the story and mentioned the coincidence.  I said it reminded me of one of my father's favorite sayings: "Great minds run in the same gutter."

John graciously replied: "I’ll share a gutter with you anytime."

I mention this because I have a story in the new November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  (My 27th appearance there, he said modestly.)   And "The Chair Thief" definitely involved creative plagiarism.

I wish I could tell you who I stole from, but I don't know.  A few decades ago I went through all the mystery shorts I could find in the public library.  I fell in love with a tale by Lawrence Block and when his collected stories came out I looked forward to repeating my acquaintance with that one.  But it wasn't there.  

I emailed him, describing the story.  Larry politely replied that it sounded like a great idea, but it wasn't his.  So I'm stuck.

Here is the plot of that original story; A true paranoiac gets ready for his day, putting fresh tin foil in his hat to keep out the mind controllers, and wrapping his torso in plastic wrap to foil the death rays.  Then he goes out for a stroll.  Things happen.

My story, on the other hand, is about two office-mates who get mad at a co-worker.  

You might say "those two plots have nothing in common."  Well, maybe not.  But it comes down to what I said before: If you read them one after another you would probably guess how the second one ends.

But since the first one is lost, we don't have to worry about that.  

I hope you enjoy "The Chair Thief." And if anyone remembers the author and title of the other story, I wish you would let me know.

05 September 2017

Introducing Black Cat Mystery Magazine

by Barb Goffman

It's not everyday you get to blog about the premier issue of a new magazine, especially on the very day it's scheduled to launch. And it's especially exciting when the magazine is coming from a publisher that's been around for nearly thirty years, so you can feel confident that the magazine should have staying power.

Well, this is that day. Welcome to the world, Black Cat Mystery Magazine!

The brainchild of Wildside Press publisher John Betancourt and Wildside editor Carla Coupe, the magazine is expected to come out quarterly. The first issue features new stories from fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Art Taylor, as well as one from me. (More on that below.) The other authors with new stories in the issue are Dan Andriacco, Michael Bracken, Kaye George, Meg Opperman, Alan Orloff, and Josh Pachter.

Editor Carla Coupe was kind enough to answer some questions about this new venture.

Why did you decide to start this magazine?
To provide an outlet for great short fiction, which we love. We decided to launch Black Cat when certain other mystery magazines cut their publication schedules in half. 

How do you hope to distinguish BCMM from other mystery magazines?

We're focusing on edgier, noir-tinged, character-based short storieswhich happen to contain a crime of some sort. (A crime is essential, or it isn't mystery fiction.) We don't want fantasy, horror, science fiction, routine revenge stories, or sadism. We do want stories with characters who feel real, in situations that are possible (and plausible), and of course great writing.


 


Do you have a minimum or maximum word count? How about a sweet spot?

We’re looking for contemporary and traditional mysteries, as well as thrillers and suspense stories. We hope to feature stories by established and new authors, and will include a classic reprint or two in each issue. We aren’t looking for flash fiction, and our sweet spot is for stories between 1,000 and 8,000 words. We will look at material up to 15,000 words in length—but it better blow us away to take up that much of an issue!


 

Where will the magazine be available for sale? Bookstores?
It will be for sale at our website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), on Amazon, and hopefully some independent bookstores. US readers can buy a four-issue subscription, so they won't miss any.


You're aiming for it to come out quarterly?
Yes, but as with all our publications, we're not wedded to a strict schedule.
 

When will submission guidelines go up?
Hopefully this week.

When will you open for submissions?
We'll start accepting submissions at the beginning of October.


Do you make the acceptance decisions alone or with John?
We make the decisions together, and so far have agreed on almost every story!


What do you pay?
We pay 3 cents/word, with a maximum of $250.

Is there anything you'd like people to know about the magazine that I haven't asked?
John thinks the response times are often unreasonably long in the short fiction field. Our goal is to respond to most submissions within 2 weeks. (We're going to try for "all submissions"but in rare circumstances we may take longer.) We also will look at poetry ($5 for short poems, more for longer ones) and cartoons.

Thank you, Carla!


So, readers, here's your chance to read some great fiction in this brand new issue, which is already available for sale on the Wildside website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), and which should show up any moment now on Amazon, if it isn't there already. My story in the issue, "Crazy Cat Lady," is a tale of psychological suspense about a woman who comes home and immediately suspects there's been a break-in, even though everything looks perfectly in order. Go pick up a copy of the magazine. I hope you enjoy it!

Art, John, and all the other authors with stories in this premier issue, I hope you'll comment with information about your tales. I'm so glad to be sharing this moment with you.

29 May 2017

In Memory of Nora

by Jan Grape
Sometimes a writer can't help memorializing a a purrsonal moment. Prolific short story writer and mystery maven Jan Grape is in the throes of rearing kittens: a pair of black felines made for mischief and murder most feline. It seems they claim a kinship to a certain "uncle Louie." (They are so wet behind the ears from Mama lickings that they have not even learned to Capitalize.) Still, they are Chiclets's off the old gumshoe. Seems there's a mystery in the neighborhood that needs the feline touch…
— M.L.
This was the appearance of Nick and Nora in short story form in the anthology Midnight Louie's Pet Detectives. Edited by Midnight Louie and his owner and author, Carole Nelson Douglas.

It was 1997 when I wrote the story, "Kittens Take Detection 101" and the book was published in 1998. That's how I know for sure my cats were born in 1997.

I did let the kittens write and talk and solve the mystery. It was fun to have them in the story and let them be big heroes and win the day for my protagonist, PI  Jenny Gordon.

Nora turned 20 years old on March 30, 2017. As I mentioned in an earlier post my cats were a big part of my life and after Nick passed 2.5 years ago it was just Nora and I around here. Twenty years is fairly old for a cat. However, she and Nick both were indoor cats and never went outside to be in danger from predator animals for automobiles or disease brought by another animal into the yard. All their lives they had vet care. Check-ups and shots. Same vet for ten or eleven years.

On May 2, 2017 I had to have Nora put to sleep. She had developed hyperthyroidism but was really too old to have to be put to sleep to have blood drawn or to even try to poke pills or even get liquid medicine down. Treatment would only have given her a few more weeks and no telling what other things in her body would go wrong. There is no way I would ever let an animal suffer.

The vet gave her a sedative and as she drifted off to sleep, I rubbed her ears and face which she always enjoyed. I thanked her for being such a good kitty and told her I loved her. The vet came in then and gave her the final shot and I left the room. My friend and neighbor had driven me there and back. Which was great so I didn't have to drive while tears rolled down my face.

It's been really hard without Nora. As I laughingly said in my previous post about having pet in your stories. "Nora was with me longer than any of my 3 kids, who went off to college or got married."

I can think about her now over than Rainbow Bridge where I think animals go to wait for us. She's healthy and happy. She's with Nick, her brother, litter mate and they run and play and chase squirrels.
Good bye, little baby gal. You gave me many smiles, purrs snuggles and head bumps. I will always love and miss you.

20 May 2017

Genre-Hopping and Conclusion-Jumping



by John M. Floyd



In one of the forums (fora? fori?) that I regularly read online, members have been reporting their writing goals for 2017, and whether their year-to-date progress is meeting their expectations. After all, we're almost halfway done. As for me, I'm not much of a goal-setter (or goalkeeper), but those discussions have made me, for a change, take a look at my own writing output.

Non-vital statistics

So far this year, I've had 14 short stories published and I have 12 accepted and upcoming. They cover several genres, but it's skewed heavily toward crime stories. Twenty of those twenty-six are mystery stories, two are westerns, two are fantasy, one's horror, and one's romance. The interesting thing is that even those descriptions are misleading, since all six of my non-mystery sales still involve some degree of crime and/or deception. So I suppose they're "mixed-genre" stories: western/mystery, fantasy/mystery, etc.
I don't think that's unusual. Most of the writers I know genre-hop from time to time (it's the only kind of exercise I really enjoy), and I suppose there are pluses and minuses involved. Yes, it helps to be consistent and market your fiction to a specific audience and "establish a brand"--but it's also fun to dabble in more than one kind of writing. Some of my favorite novels, movies, and stories are hybrids. The Princess Bride was a romance/adventure/comedy/fantasy, To Kill a Mockingbird was a mystery/literary/Southern/coming-of-age/courtroom drama, and one reviewer called The Man From Snowy River a romantic Australian western.

What always surprises me is that most readers, and some writers, don't buy into the widely-accepted definition of "mystery" fiction. As has been said many times at this blog, a short story or a novel can be considered a mystery if a crime is central to the plot. That's enough to get you into a mystery magazine or onto the mystery shelves in the bookstore. And some definitions are even broader: it's a mystery if the story contains even the threat or the implication of a crime. Even so, many reviewers of the well-known "best-of" mystery anthologies always complain because an included story was not what they consider to be a mystery. The conclusion to which they have jumped is that it has to be a traditional mystery, and that the identity of the villain must be kept secret until the ending. It doesn't. Mysteries don't have to be whodunits. They can be howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. Or howtheygotawaywithits.

A juggling act

Back to the subject at hand. I recently saw an online piece by author Nathan Bransford, who pointed out that genre-hopping is not always the best move. He says, and rightly so, that switching from one genre to another usually works best after a writer has already achieved a certain level of success and recognition. In another piece, author Kimberley Grabas seems to agree: "Ideally, the 'wise' course of action is to specialize. To conquer your niche first. Then branch out (if you wish) after you've gained some mastery in one area and have developed a sizable following around that genre." Sure, John Grisham wrote A Painted HouseBleachersPlaying for PizzaSkipping Christmas, etc., none of which had anything to do with crime or courtrooms--but he's John Grisham.

I should mention here that some authors are incredibly good at switch-hitting. Who would believe, unless he/she knew already, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, or Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry? Think about it: "3:10 to Yuma" was Elmore Leonard, Exit to Eden was Anne Rice, and Deliverance was poet James Dickey. And by the way, if you've not read the short story "The Last Rung on the Ladder" by Stephen King, I urge you to search it out (it was included in his collection Night Shift). It contains no horror or any kind of creepiness, and is one of the best "literary" stories I've read. It'll bring tears to your eyes.

Longs and shorts

Here's another point: I think genre-hopping is far easier for short-story writers than for novelists. Maybe the establishment of a brand isn't as important for shorties; we work on a much smaller stage and with a smaller potential audience. Also, we shorts writers obviously produce a lot more individual pieces than novelists do (unless maybe you're Stephen King), so wandering off the beaten path now and then isn't as serious a matter as it might be to a novelist or to a novelists's fan base. In any case, I've found that mixing and/or jumping from one genre to another makes the writing process a lot more fun. At least for me.
What do you think? Do you stick to one genre or pingpong between them? If you haven't tried writing/publishing in more than one genre, do you ever plan to? If you have, do you think it's hurt your sales or your ability to reach and keep readers? Do you think the don't-genre-hop "rule" applies more to novels than to shorts? Do you like to write and read "mixed-genre" fiction that combines one or more in the same story--or do you prefer your drinks undiluted and your colors primary? Again, I don't mind hybrids--which probably makes sense. I'm pretty mixed-up anyway.

To each his own.





13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."

08 April 2017

The 2017 Agatha Short Story Nominees

by B.K. Stevens

All of this year's nominees for the Best Short Story Agatha have female protagonists, but that's about the only thing they have in common. And the protagonists themselves are a diverse bunch, ranging from a midwife still in her twenties to a mystery author who fears she's past her prime. The settings for these stories include a lavish casino, a play space for toddlers, and a small-town bar; the moods vary from light-hearted to ominous. Some stories are whodunits, or whodunits with a twist; some might be described as suspense stories or even as daylight noir. Together, I think, they reflect the vitality of today's mystery short story, and of the many variations it embraces.


All the nominated authors contributed to this post by picking excerpts from their stories and commenting on them briefly. I hope that the comments will give you intriguing insights, and that the excerpts will whet your appetite for reading the stories in full (you'll find links to each below).

The Stories

"Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story" 

by Gretchen Archer

Henery Press


July Jackson's job as a Holiday Host at the Bellissimo Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi is more trick than treat when one of her Scary Rich slot tournament players croaks. Then $3,000,000 goes missing. And a couple dressed as condiments--he's Mustard, she's Ketchup--might be behind the spooky shenanigans. What's a Holiday Host to do? Call in the flying monkeys? July turns to the highest level of casino security and meets a boy named Baylor. Just Baylor. From there, it's all thrills and chills.

"Do you know how to shoot?"
I shook my head.
"Do you know how to point?"
I nodded.
He popped the clip out of the gun and passed it to me.
I couldn't remember being this scared or this calm before. It was an amazing sensation, the adrenaline mixed with the quiet confidence. The adrenaline was from what was about to happen. The calm was from him.
"Double Jinx" introduces July Jackson to the core cast of characters in my Davis Way Crime Capers. Not only does July go on to be Baylor's love interest, she gives up her job as Holiday Host and puts her Early Childhood Education degree to good use when she takes a nanny position for my main character's toddler twins in the just-released sixth full-length novel of my series, Double Up. I loved writing "Jinx." The holiday theme was so much fun, the Agatha Award nomination so unexpected (I cried) and such an honor, and then there are the bats. Have you seen the bats? "Double Jinx" has the cutest little bats ever.

You can read "Double Jinx: A Bellissimo Casino Crime Caper Short Story" here.

"The Best-Laid Plans" 

by Barb Goffman

Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (Wildside Press)

 

When "The Best-Laid Plans" begins, my main character, celebrated cozy author Eloise Nickel, reads an article in Mystery Queen Magazine about the future of the traditional mystery novel. The article includes patronizing comments about Eloise from her long-ago former friend, Kimberly Siger. Both Eloise and Kimberly will be honored at this year's Malice International convention, Eloise for her lifetime achievement and Kimberly as guest of honor. Sharing the stage with Kimberly would have been hard enough, but now Eloise is livid. So she hatches a plan to get revenge at the convention. Nothing fatal, of course. Just painful. Eloise is cozy, just like her books. This excerpt is set on the day before the convention starts, with lots of people chatting in the hotel lobby bar.

I hadn't noticed when Kimberly walked into the lobby, but I figured it out pretty damn quick when the bar erupted in excitement and people ran toward the hotel's front doors. Not everyone, mind you, but a lot of people. It gave me the chance to reach into my purse for my lip balm. My aloe-vera lip balm. Kimberly was allergic to aloe. It's one of the things I remembered from being her friend so many years ago. Aloe made her skin itch and burn upon contact.

I slathered on the balm and watched Kimberly head to the bar. I planned to kiss her hello so everyone could see I was the bigger person. She looked better than I'd expected. Still thin from her love of exercise. No gray in her wavy, dark-brown hair. No lines by her eyes or mouth. Her skin was tight, her teeth, sparkling. Clearly she'd had work done.

"Kimberly." I rose and opened my arms in a welcoming gesture.

Her eyes narrowed for a second, seemingly confused. But she plastered on a smile and stepped toward me. Revenge step one, here I come.

"You're here," Malice board member Cherub Lapp shouted, jumping between us and hugging Kimberly. "I've been waiting for this moment all year. You are one of my absolute favorite authors. Can I buy you a drink?"

Kimberly grinned. "That would be a perfect way to start the weekend. Thank you."

And before I knew it, Kimberly had turned from me, and my chance was lost. Damn that Cherub.

Thankfully, I had other plans.
I'm often conflicted when I read or watch serial dramas because I want my favorite characters to be happy, to find success and love and contentment. But if they were to do that, they'd get no screen or page time, because happiness isn't dramatic. There's no meat to a plot about happy people. It's . . . sigh . . . boring. The best plots, writers know, involve characters who suffer. Not that authors have to be sadistic about it, but it's certainly more interesting to read, for instance, about someone whose revenge plans go wrong, who tries over and over to get back at her nemesis, with increasingly unfortunate results. The goal of a plot like that is for the reader to get invested, wanting the next plan to work because they like the main character, while also wishing that the plan flops, because watching the character suffer is so much fun. That's what I'm showing here. This is the first scene in which Eloise tries to get her revenge plans in action, and she gets her first taste of failure. It was fun to make Eloise suffer. (Yes, that's the sadistic side of me.) But I also enjoyed showing her pluck and sarcastic side. I hope that this scene makes readers eager to read more, to see how Eloise fares. Will she get her revenge? And how much will she suffer as she tries? As for you, dear reader, pick up "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out.

You can read "The Best-Laid Plans" here.

"The Mayor and the Midwife"

by Edith Maxwell

Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out Books)


In "The Mayor and the Midwife," the very real mayor of New Orleans comes to Massachusetts to visit his pregnant daughter. Quaker midwife Rose Carroll, from my Quaker Midwife Mysteries, is watching over the daughter. At the mayor's request, Rose takes him to meet her police detective ally, Kevin Donovan, because the mayor is struggling with corruption in his government wants to meet some town officials. The following scene takes place during that meeting.
"Has his wife been informed?" I asked. This kind of shock could easily bring on labor. Her baby might be mature enough by now to survive the birth, or might not.

"Not yet, ma'am," the officer said.

"I must go to her. My pauvre fille," Joseph said. "You'll come along, Miss Carroll?"

"Of course. Let me quickly pen a note to my next client saying I'll need to cancel. I can hail a boy outside to deliver it."

I looked at the detective. I'd assisted him in several cases by keeping my eyes and ears open in the community, especially in the bedchambers of my birthing women, where secrets were often revealed during their travails. Keven had reluctantly grown to accept my participation.

"If it's murder, I'd like to help by listening, watching, and reporting to thee as I have done in the past," I said.

Kevin nodded. "Then meet me at the Currier steamboat dock after you see to the wife, will you?"

This brief snippet shows the mayor reverting to his native French and the detective conceding to let Rose help with the investigation. It lets the reader know that Rose knows what she's doing when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, and we hear her musing about the places she can go where Kevin never could. Midwifery turns out to be a great occupation for an amateur sleuth.

You can read "The Mayor and the Midwife" here.

"The Last Blue Glass"

by B.K. Stevens

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2016

 

"The Last Blue Glass" begins with a brief description of a dinner party. Newlyweds Cathy and Frank Morrell are entertaining Frank's mother and brother, plus two close friends. Then the story shifts ahead:
Nine years later, Cathy again stood in the kitchen--not the kitchen of their apartment in Newton Upper Falls or of their house in Virginia, but of their condominium in Brookline. Once again, Mrs. Morrell and Will, and Faye and Brian, had come to dinner. But Frank was dead now, supposedly in an accident. Really, Cathy thought, it had been suicide by car, suicide by alcohol. Really, it had been murder. She thought back to that first dinner party. Even then, there were signs. If she'd seen them, could she have prevented it? Maybe not. And what she was doing tonight wouldn't really set things right. But it was her only way to strike back against things that were wrong.

She gazed at the last blue glass in the cupboard and touched the small bottle in her pocket. I'll fix a special drink for someone tonight, Frank, she thought, and serve it in the glass we chose together. That's all I can do for you now.
In one sense, "The Last Blue Glass" is a whodunit, challenging the reader to watch for clues as Cathy thinks back on her marriage. Which of her four guests does she see as most responsible for Frank's death? Who will be the target of her revenge? In another sense, the story is a portrait of a marriage that goes tragically wrong--not because Cathy and Frank are bad people, and not because they don't love each other. Instead, their marriage--and Cathy and Frank themselves--are destroyed by subtle weaknesses in their relationship, weaknesses hinted at even in the opening paragraphs.

You can read "The Last Blue Glass" here.

"Parallel Play"

by Art Taylor

Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (Wildside Press)


"Parallel Play" starts out with a simple mistake: Maggie, a young mother, realizes that she's left her umbrella at home and there's a major storm brewing just as her son Daniel's Teeter Toddler class is ending. Fortunately, Walter, the father of another boy in the class, offers to share his own and get Maggie and her son safely to their car. But more troubles are ahead--Walter points out that Maggie's tire might be going flat--and worse, generosity often comes with a price, since Walter soon shows up at Maggie's door for an impromptu playdate. Here's that scene:

Walter stared up through those smeared glasses. "I hate to barge in for a play date unannounced, but given the circumstances . . . "

Maggie shook her head, tried to hold back the tears suddenly welling up behind her eyes, finally found her voice. "It's really not a good time right now. My husband--"

"Away on a business trip." Walter nodded. "I heard you talking to Amy, that's what got me thinking about this, making sure you got home in one piece." He looked at Daniel again, smiled. "Surely you could spare a few minutes for the boys to play."

She nodded--unconsciously, reflex really. "A few minutes," she said. "A few, of course." Her words sounded unreal to her, more unreal than his own now, and even as she said them, she knew it was the wrong decision--everything, in fact, the opposite of what she'd always thought she'd do in a case like this. But really what choice did she have, the way Walter had inserted his foot into the doorway and held so tightly to Daniel's hand?

And then there was the box cutter jittering slightly in Walter's other hand, raindrops glistening along the razor's edge, the truth behind that flat tire suddenly becoming clear.

I hesitated slightly choosing this excerpt since it's nearly halfway through the story--killing any suspense those first few pages might've offered readers who haven't yet read the story. But at the same time, this moment captures in miniature what I was trying to navigate here: the potentially jarring contrasts between what continues to unfold as a very civil conversation (pay no attention to that box cutter, right?) and then the roiling fears, desires, and other emotions underneath that surface.

You can read "Parallel Play" here.

The Authors 

Gretchen Archer is a Tennessee housewife who began writing when her daughters, seeking higher education, ran off and left her. She lives on Lookout Mountain with her husband, son, and a Yorkie named Bently. "Double Jinx" was published by the Great Chickens of Henery Press in October of 2016.

https://www.facebook.com/crimecapers/
Barb Goffman edits mysteries by day and writes them by night. She's won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she's been a finalist for national crime-writing awards nineteen times, including the Anthony and the Derringer awards. Her newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," appears in the mystery anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was published three weeks ago. When not writing, Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service. She blogs every third Tuesday here at SleuthSayers. In her spare time, she reads, reads, reads and plays with her dog. Learn more about her at

National best-selling author Edith Maxwell is a 2017 double Agatha Award nominee for her historical mystery Delivering the Truth and her short story "The Mayor and the Midwife." She writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Her award-winning short crime  fiction has appeared in a dozen juried anthologies, and she serves as President of Sisters in Crime New England. Maxwell writes, cooks, gardens north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs at WickedCozyAuthors.com, Killer Characters, and with the Midnight Ink authors. Find her at


B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens taught English for over thirty years and now writes full time. She's the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional mystery offering insights into Deaf culture and sign language interpreting, and of Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. She's published over fifty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Eleven of her stories are included in her collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. B.K. has been nominated for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards and has won half a Derringer. She and her husband live in Virginia and have two amazing daughters, one amazing son-in-law, four perfect grandchildren, and a smug cat.


Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has also won two Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. Find him at
 
 

 








11 March 2017

Short Story or Novel?

by B.K. Stevens


My mother, of blessed memory, never took my pretensions as a writer very seriously. Even after Alfred Hitchcock's had been publishing my stories for over a decade, I could never get her to subscribe to the magazine. Once, I gave her a gift subscription as a Mother's Day present. She didn't renew it. "So they've accepted some stories from you," she said. "Who knows if they'll ever accept another?" She had a point. Who knew? Despite her skepticism, I kept giving her copies of the stories I'd published, and she always read them and often made shrewd comments. "Why did you throw that idea away on something so short?" she said after reading one story. "That was a clever idea, much better than the ideas for your other stories. You could've used it for a novel, maybe made some real money."

Again, she had a point. And I've never forgotten it--my mother was one of the smartest people I've ever known, and she had a way of being right about things. Over twenty years later, I've taken that story out again and am trying to turn it into a novel. I won't mention the title, since the attempt may come to nothing. But I figure after so many years, no one but my husband and our daughters will remember that story, so why not see if the idea will work as a novel? At any rate, the experience has gotten me thinking. Is there a way of knowing which ideas will work best as short stories, which will work best as novels? Obviously, I'm no expert on that subject, at least not according to my mother. So I decided to see what some far more successful writers have to say. Maybe my mother would have respected their opinions. (Then again, maybe not.)

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block scoffs at the notion that novels require stronger seminal ideas than short stories do. The same ideas, he says, can work for either--in fact, short stories always require strong ideas, and novels often don't. He gets more "sheer enjoyment" from writing short stories than from writing novels, but each story "requires a reasonably strong idea, and the idea's used up in a couple of thousand words. I've written whole novels out of ideas with no more depth to them than short-story ideas, and I've written other novels without having had a strong story idea to begin with. They had plot and characters, to be sure, but those developed as the book went along." Most people, Block says, can't come up with enough ideas to make a living by writing short stories; he cites Ed Hoch as an example of one of those rare people who could. "So I take the easy way out," Block says, "and write novels." For most people, he believes, that's the more practical choice. So if you get a good idea for a story, stretch it out into a novel. I think my mother might have agreed.

John Gardner might have agreed, too, at least to some extent. In The Art of Fiction, he discusses several ways of developing an idea for a novel or story. One way is to start with an idea for a climax and then work backwards--how did this event come about? "Depending on the complexity of the writer's way of seeing the event," he says, "depending, that is, on how much background he [or she] feels our understanding of the event requires--the climax becomes the high point of a short story, a novella, or a novel." At the outset, the writer may not know which length will work best: "Writers often find that an idea for a short story may change into an idea for a novella or even a novel."

Gardner does think, however, that these three forms of fiction differ in fundamental ways. A short story usually has a single epiphany, a novella may have several, and a novel may have a completely different structure: "Whereas the short story moves to an `epiphany,' as Joyce said--in other words, to a climactic moment of recognition on the part of the central character, or, at least, the reader . . . the novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes to a much more firm conclusion." Novels, on the other hand, should avoid a "firm conclusion" and make "some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity." Gardner takes a swipe at mysteries and other traditional narratives when he says "too much neatness" mars a novel: "When all of a novel's strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike . . .a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use." So for Gardner, it doesn't seem to be that some ideas are inherently more suited to short stories than to novels. Instead, the crucial difference may lie in the writer's way of developing and resolving that idea--or, in a novel, of not resolving it.

Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, thinks short stories free the writer from the need to achieve the sort of resolution novels demand. In her introduction to the 1950 Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, she says many early English short stories, such as those by Henry James and Thomas Hardy, try to treat the same sorts of "complex and motivated" subjects novels do. That approach, she says, is a mistake: No matter how expertly crafted they may be, short stories that are essentially "condensed novel[s]" will not achieve the "heroic simplicity" that should be their trademark. In such stories, "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension." Consequently, these stories "have no emotion that is abrupt and special; they do not give mood or incident a significance outside the novelist's power to explore. Their very excellence made them a dead end; they did not invite imitation or advance in any way a development in the short story proper."

Bowen considers de Maupassant, Chekov, and Poe among the pioneers who truly broke free from the novel and explored the new, distinctly different possibilities the short story form offers. A short story, according to Bowen, should not begin with a complicated plan for a plot, as a novel might. Rather, it "must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to make the writer write." Short stories must be carefully written, "but conception should have been involuntary, a vital fortuity. The sought-about-for subject gives the story a dead kernel." Bowen's ideas about the plot and structure of a short story are interesting enough to quote at length:
The plot, whether or not it be ingenious or remarkable, for however short a way it is to be pursued, ought to raise some issue, so that it may continue in the mind. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longeurs of the novel, is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth. It can, while remaining rightly prosaic and circumstantial, give scene, action, event, character a poetic new actuality.
In fact, she says, the short story may have less in common with the novel than it does with some other art forms: It should have "the valid central emotion  and inner spontaneity of the lyric" and should be "as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture."

Flannery O'Connor might take issue with Bowen's contention that a short story should spring from "an impression or perception." In both novels and short stories, O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aims of Fiction," "something has to happen. A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plan don't have a gift for telling a story." She says the choice between novel and short story may depend primarily on the writer's "disposition." I can't resist the temptation to quote her comparison--or, rather, her friend's comparison--of the experiences of writing these two kinds of narratives: "She says that when she stops a novel to work on short stories, she feels as if she has just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves." Since novels are a "more diffused form" of fiction, O'Connor says, they may suit "those who like to linger along the way" and have "a more massive energy." On the other hand, "for those of us who want to get the agony over in a hurry, the novel is a burden and a pain."

In another essay, "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor defines a short story as an interplay of character, action, and meaning: "A short story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is a meaning that derives from the whole presented experience." Of these three elements, character (or "personality") is primary: "A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality." Although she says a short story's action must be "complete," her understanding of "complete" definitely doesn't seem to involve the sort of "conclusiveness" Bowen sees as a flaw in many novels. O'Connor describes (without naming) her "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" as an example of "a complete story," even though the action breaks off in a way many readers might find abrupt (to put it mildly). For O'Connor, the story is complete because her exploration of the central character is complete: "There is nothing more about the mystery of that man's personality that could be shown through that particular dramatization." So perhaps writers shouldn't start by deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel. Perhaps they should start by deciding if a character is likely to generate a good story. "In most good stories," O'Connor says, "it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story."

Edith Wharton, by contrast, thinks characters are supremely important in novels but not in short stories. As she says in The Writing of Fiction, "the test of the novel is that its people should be alive. No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can." On the other hand, "some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation." The differences between characters in novels and those in stories are so great, in Wharton's opinion, that the short story could be considered the "direct descendant" not of the novel but of "the old epic or ballad--of those earlier forms of fiction in all of which action was the chief affair, and the characters, if they did not remain mere puppets, seldom or never became more than types." That seems harsh--did Wharton see the characters in her own "Roman Fever," for example, as no more individualized than "puppets" or "types"? Nevertheless, she insists "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel."

Wharton shrugs off some other ways of deciding whether a subject is suited to a novel or a short story. For example, she says the number of "incidents, or external happenings" doesn't matter much. Many incidents can be "crowded" into a short story. But a subject that involves "the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" isn't right for a short story, and neither is one that involves "producing in the reader's mind the sense of a lapse of time." Short stories should avoid such subjects and shouldn't try to achieve such effects. Instead, they should strive for "compactness and instanteneity" by relying on "two `unities'--the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex, which requires that any rapidly enacted episode shall be seen through only one pair of eyes." These limits, however, apply only to stories that are truly short; a remark Wharton makes at one point suggests she might have 5,000 words in mind as a typical length. She also mentions an "intermediate" kind of narrative. The "long short story," she says, might be suitable for "any subject too spreading for conciseness yet too slight in texture to be stretched into a novel."

"One of the fiction writer's essential gifts," Wharton maintains, "is that of discerning whether the subject which presents itself to him [or her], asking for incarnation, is suited to the proportions of a short story or a novel." It's too bad the writers quoted here don't offer us more consistent advice on such an essential matter. When I started working on this post, I knew these writers wouldn't agree about everything. I hoped, though, they might agree about something. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. If there's even a thread of consensus running through these essays and chapters, I missed it. At least I found the disagreements interesting; at least they pushed me to think about what I should focus on as I try to make that decades-old short story work as a novel. What about you? Do you agree with some of these writers more than with others? Or do you have other criteria for deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel? I'd love to hear what you think.

# # #
Gardner discusses the novella as well as the short story and the novel; Wharton discusses "the long short story. This year, the Anthony ballot adds the novella (8,000 to 40,000 words) to the usual list of categories. So I'll just casually mention that my "The Last Blue Glass" (Hitchcock's, April 2016--9,470 words) would qualify as either a short story or a novella. So if your short story dance card is already full, you might consider "The Last Blue Glass" as a novella. You can read it here.