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

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.




13 February 2017

Great Short Stories Revisited



by Jan Grape

I've been reading short stories in anthologies published in 1990s and 2000s. I blushingly admit I have stories in them and it started as a project of rereading my stories. Some I had forgotten like "Whatever Had To Be Done" published in Deadly Allies by Doubleday in 1992 and Bantam paperback in 1993. This was the first collaborative anthology by the Private Eye Writers of America and Sisters In Crime. It was edited by Robert J. Randisi and Marilyn Wallace. This story was probably my second story ever published where I actually received money. I had published two or three stories for small indie magazines that were subscription only and I was paid in copies.

The very first short story I had published happened in 1981 or so and I got $100 for it. It was not a mystery but a Christmas story published in the Wichita Falls City Magazine. I don't even have a copy of it anymore because Elmer, our kids and I moved a few times I remember. I think still had copies  on the last move to Austin. When Elmer and I moved out of our house and into our RV full time we ran out of time and I have no idea where my copies of that magazine wound up.

I do remember the story pretty well. My main character was myself and it was about returning to a small town and in every store I entered, people were friendly and full of the Christmas spirit. If I made a purchase the store gift-wrapped my purchase for free. I compared that joyful attitude to major city stores in Houston where I lived at the time. I'm not sure how the story ended and I don't remember the editor's name, gosh it was  35 or 36 years ago. However, I'll never forget her phone call to me. "Jan, I'm calling to tell you we're publishing your short story." I remember gushing a bit and then she said, "Actually, the story has already been published in this month's issue and along with a check for $100 I'm sending four or five copies of the magazine."

I was beside myself as was my family. I had been trying to be published for a couple of years, had a private-eye novel almost finished and this was my big dream. Good thing I didn't quit my day job because I didn't publish anything else for FIVE years and then only a couple of small articles, which I was paid real money for but nothing over the hundred I had first received.

The first, second and third stories I sold happened all about the same time. In Invitation to Murder published first in hardcover by Dark Harvest in 1990, paperback by Diamond in 1993, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg, featured my story, "A Bunch of Mumbo Jumbo." In  Mary Higgins Presents Malice Domestic, from Pocket Books in 1993, featured "Arsenic and Old Ideas."
I received verbal acceptance, contracts and money all around the same time although Mumbo Jumbo was actually published first.

After than I was in many theme anthologies, in about 10-12 Cat Crime, Partners In Crime, Deadly Allies 11, Lethal Ladies 1 & ll, Santa Clues, Midnight Louie Pet Detectives, Murder For Mother and White House Pet Detective. I was lucky in that I found editors, including Bob Randisi, Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg who liked what I did and kept buying my stories.

My 1998 Anthony Award winning story, "A Front Row Seat," was in Vengeance Is Hers anthology, edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins published by Penguin/Signet in 1997, featuring all hard-boiled women writers.

Shortly after that I finally sold my first Zoe Barrow, Austin policewoman novel and have only written a few short stories since. I enjoy the short form and have been able to feature my female private-eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn in around ten stories. They were characters from my very first novel which never sold.

I am so proud that many of my fellow SleuthSayers are short story writers and are being nominated and winning awards. I think the short story will continue to thrive although at times we think the heydays are over. I do appreciate Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine & Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine who keep publishing wonderful short stories every month. Maybe one day soon I'll crack that market.

10 December 2016

The Twist

by B.K. Stevens

At this time of year, it seems appropriate to focus on a short story that would make almost anybody's list of Christmas favorites, especially since that story offers valuable lessons to mystery writers. O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" isn't a mystery, but it does a brilliant job of pulling off something many mysteries strive to achieve. I'm talking, of course, about The Twist. An excellent twist, like an excellent gift, reflects both generosity and good judgment. An expensive gift that doesn't suit the recipient probably won't delight, and a suitable but stingy gift isn't likely to inspire much gratitude. By being generous with the reader but exercising good judgment as a writer, O.Henry gives "The Gift of the Magi" the perfect twist.

It's hard to imagine that anyone reading this post hasn't already read "The Gift of the Magi." But if Scrooge-like middle-school teachers and the perversity of fate have conspired to rob you of that experience, please read the story here before going on. It will take you only a few minutes, and I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy it. If you can't spare those few minutes, please don't go on. For I'm about to spoil a classic ending.

It's fairly easy to surprise readers with a twist that pops up out of nowhere. A bomb explodes without a trace of foreshadowing, or the murderer turns out to be a minor character who makes only two brief appearances in the novel, never saying or doing anything that could arouse rational suspicion. It's much harder to create a surprising twist if we shower readers with all the evidence they need to see the ending coming.

That's exactly what O. Henry does in "The Gift of the Magi." From the opening paragraphs on, it's clear Della and Jim have little money to spare for Christmas gifts. It's also clear they love each other. True, the story emphasizes her love for him, not his for her, but her devotion is so sweet and unreserved we assume, rightly, it can't be a tragically unrequited passion. We also learn, in the first two pages, that Della and Jim each have one treasure. Della has long, magnificent hair, and Jim has a fine gold watch he inherited from his father and grandfather. O. Henry spends a long paragraph explicitly comparing these treasures: Della's hair would put the Queen of Sheba's jewels to shame, and even King Solomon, with all his wealth, would envy Jim's watch.

That's all we need to know. No writer could be more generous with helpful information--and O. Henry is so completely generous that he also doesn't try to distract us with the easy tricks of red herrings or irrelevant details. He is utterly open and fair. If he cheats at all, he cheats with his title. "The Gift of the Magi"--singular, not plural. But the magi gave more than one gift, and there's more than one gift in this story. By using "gift" and not "gifts" in his title, O. Henry may be trying to trick us into thinking Della's gift for Jim is the only one that matters. It's a tiny trick, though, and a clever, subtle one. I think we can forgive him.

At any rate, O. Henry gives us all the evidence we need to figure out his crime-free mystery, and he gives it to us early. Less than halfway through the story, when Della sells her hair so she can buy a chain for Jim's watch, we should be able to conclude, "Well, Della and Jim love each other, neither has much money, and each has one treasure. And it's Christmas. If Della sacrifices her one treasure to give Jim something to enhance his watch, I bet Jim will sacrifice his one treasure to give Della something to enhance her hair. No doubt about it--there are some ironic twists coming."

But I don't think many readers do see the twists coming. (And if they do, chances are they first read the story so long ago that they no longer remember how prescient they were--unlike those irritating people who say, "Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits." I can't stand those people.)

How does O.Henry keep us from predicting his ending? I think we can ascribe his success to his good judgment as a writer. First, he wisely chooses to make "The Gift of the Magi" a short story, not a novel. I don't think the plot would work nearly as well if we couldn't read the story in one sitting. First of all, O. Henry would have to destroy its focus by filling pages with extraneous subplots and details. And if we took a break before reaching the last page, if we put "The Gift of the Magi"" down to go for a walk or drive to work, we'd have time to think things over, and we might figure out what the ending will be. (I've read plenty of mystery novels that would have worked better as short stories, that might well have sneaked their twists past me if I hadn't had time to analyze the evidence while folding laundry or letting my mind wander during a boring meeting.)

But "The Gift of the Magi" is a very short story, and also a very absorbing one--I'd guess few if any readers can put it down before reaching the last page. The action pushes us forward without pause, and the protagonist is so lovable and so troubled that she instantly wins our sympathies and our full attention. That's another example of O. Henry's good judgment. He keeps us so intent on Della's dilemmas and decisions that we don't stop to think about what Jim might be feeling or doing.

O. Henry accomplishes that, partly, by not letting us see Jim until the final pages. Imagine how different the story's effect on us might be if O. Henry had begun with a scene of the couple at breakfast, had let us hear Jim make some gloomy remark about Christmas gifts, or let us see him holding his watch in his hand and gazing at it moodily. Instead, O. Henry begins his story after Jim has gone to work, when Della is alone in the flat, counting and recounting her pitiful hoard of coins. Jim gets mentioned often, but we see him only as the reason for Della's despair, not as an independent character who might be grieving over similarly meager stacks of coins and contemplating desperate measures of his own.

Instead, we focus only on Della, and there's plenty to keep that focus constant and sharp. Della's misery touches us, and so does her admiration for Jim--we're moved by her capacity for affection. (By "we," I mean readers capable of being moved by sweetness and innocence. A Grinch would think Della's being silly. If you are a Grinch offended by any story tainted by sentimentality, you don't like "The Gift of the Magi," and you won't like anything I'm going to say about it. Perhaps you'd rather go read some Sartre.) When Della looks in the mirror, turns pale, and abruptly lets down her hair, we wonder what's going on in her mind. Moments later, when she quickly puts her hair up again and hurries out of the flat, we get a glimmer of what she plans to do. Before we can think it through, we come to the quick little drama of her encounter with the horrible Madame Sofronie, memorably characterized in four well-chosen words--"large, too white, chilly." After only a few lines of dialogue, the hair is gone, and Della leaves clutching her twenty dollars. We may feel torn between conflicting emotions, impressed by Della's ingenuity and courage but appalled by the harshness of her sacrifice.

We have no time to dwell on those emotions, though, because the story rushes on. Now we're caught up in Della's search for the perfect present for Jim. She never pauses to wonder about what Jim might be giving her for Christmas, never takes a moment to gaze into a shop window and sigh over the tortoise shell combs on display. That's consistent with Della's character--she's so selfless that she thinks only about Jim's present, cares only about his happiness. It's also further proof of O. Henry's good judgment. If it ever occurred to Della that Jim might be shopping, too, we might start speculating, and that might spoil the twist. By making Della's quest so single minded, O. Henry keeps our thoughts from drifting off in dangerous directions.

And he never lets the pace slow. Della's two-hour search is described in three short sentences. Then, for one paragraph, we share her joy when she finds the perfect watch chain. But the next paragraph plunges us into new anxieties as Della gets busy with her curling irons and frets about how Jim will respond when he sees her shorn. We ache for her as she hears Jim's steps in the hallway and whispers a quick prayer: "Please, God, make him think I am still pretty."

Jim's reaction, we think, will provide the story's climax, and we wait to see what it will be. The nastiest-minded noir addicts among us may hope Jim will respond with rage, may hope the story will end with a nice little murder-suicide demonstrating the cruel absurdity of human existence. Most of us probably expect Jim to be dismayed and perhaps angry at first but then to embrace his wife, declaring that he now loves her more than ever, that in his eyes she's now more beautiful than ever. This is, after all, a Christmas story.

Few of us, I think, expect any climax beyond Jim's reaction. O. Henry has done such a masterful job of ensnaring us in Della's thoughts and emotions that we don't see any further ahead than she does. When Jim stares at his wife, stunned into speechlessness, we think, as she does, it's because he can't adjust to the change in her appearance. As she pleads with him, it doesn't occur to us that there might be a deeper reason for what O. Henry describes as Jim's "trance." Not until Jim pulls a package from his pocket, not until Della opens it and sees the combs Jim bought for her to wear in her long, beautiful hair, do we realize why he was so paralyzed by surprise. We don't see that twist coming until Della does.

It's a clever twist, an ironic twist, a satisfying twist--and not an utterly devastating one. Della weeps when she first sees the combs, but she recovers quickly. "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" she says, and we share her relief. Soon, Della will be able to wear the combs. What a nice climax.

But it's not the climax. There's one more twist coming--a twist we could have foreseen but probably didn't. When Della assures Jim that her hair will grow back soon, it probably doesn't occur to her to wonder about how Jim paid for the combs. Since we share her perspective so completely, it probably doesn't occur to us, either. And when she remembers the watch chain, we may, like her, think Jim's delight in it will erase any lingering regrets about Della's hair.

Then we get the final twist, and everything makes sense. Of course, we think. Earlier in the story, Della says only "something fine and rare and sterling" would do as a gift for Jim, and anything she offers him must reflect his "quietness and value." Just as someone as selfless and loving as Della would give up her most prized possession to buy a present for her husband, someone as "fine and rare and sterling" as Jim would give up his most prized possession to buy a present for his wife. Della has told us everything we need to know about Jim. We should have seen this twist coming. But we probably didn't, because Della didn't. So the final twist hits us as hard as it hits her, and it's even more devastating than the first one. Della's hair will grow back, but the watch Jim inherited from his father and grandfather is gone forever.

Now O. Henry's good judgment as a writer comes into play again. He didn't begin his story too early by letting us see Jim brooding at breakfast, and he doesn't extend it too long by letting us see Della's reaction to the news that Jim has sold his watch. We've already seen Della weep when Jim gives her the combs. We don't need to see her weep again. So when she gives Jim the watch chain, he demonstrates his "quietness and value" by smiling, telling her he sold his watch, and suggesting they sit down to dinner. That's our final glimpse of Della and Jim. The last twist has fallen into place, and its impact is profound. No need to drag things out by belaboring the irony, or by showing us their dismay and recovery. I think O. Henry ends his narrative at exactly the right moment.

He does, however, add one paragraph of commentary, and I suspect many modern readers will criticize him for that. In this last paragraph, O. Henry is teaching us how to interpret his story. He is making its moral explicit. He is--horrors!--telling and not showing. We sophisticated modern readers know how wrong that is. We know writers must let their stories speak for themselves and leave the work of interpretation to the reader. Writers must never sermonize, must never end their stories with paragraphs such as this one:
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
I'll admit it--I'm not sophisticated enough to despise this paragraph. Schmaltzy as it is, I love it. I choke up every time I reread it. I enjoy the quiet humor of the suggestion that the original magi may have given gifts "bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication," enjoy the juxtaposition of different uses of "wise." I'm moved by what the paragraph says about true wisdom, and about how some kinds of foolishness rise to become wisdom of the highest sort. And I appreciate the help this paragraph gives me, for I'm not completely confident I would have seen all the story's implications on my own.

I may be wrong. This paragraph may in fact be merely clumsy and inartistic. (I'd definitely never write a story ending with a similar paragraph. Old fashioned as my own tastes may be, I'm savvy enough to know almost any modern editor would reject a story containing such a paragraph, and almost any modern reader would condemn it.) In any case, this paragraph drives home the point that the best twists are more than clever bits of plotting. The best twists illuminate both character and theme. They express ideas. Informed by the writer's generosity and good judgment, they can transform a story into a delightful, perceptive gift to the reader.

Happy holidays to all!