by John M. Floyd
Two weeks ago my friend R.T. Lawton posted a column here about writing mini-mysteries for Woman's World Magazine, and suggested that I write one also. I promised him I would, but I certainly didn't promise him that it would be as well-written as his; R.T.'s piece provided some extremely helpful insights on crafting stories for that market, and if you haven't seen it I encourage you to go back and take a look. Meanwhile, here's my take on the mysterious world of WW . . .
A little background info
My first Woman's World story appeared thirteen years ago, in their April 20, 1999, issue. It was a mini-mystery called "Smoke Test" (they changed my title to "Switched Off"), about a guy plotting to electrocute his wife. I followed that with stories in their July 20 and July 27, 1999, issues, one of which was a romance called "Elevator Music." I tried a romance story not because I thought I was particularly good at writing them but because back then romances earned a thousand dollars a pop, compared to five hundred for mysteries, and I think I just got lucky. In case you're interested, the max word count then was 1000 words for mysteries and 1500 for romances--now it's 700 and 800 words, respectively. Payment for mysteries remains at $500 each, and romances are now $800.
The format was different as well, for mystery stories. At that time they were just called mini-mysteries--a term I still use--and had a traditional story structure. In late 2004 WW changed the mystery format to the one that still exists today, to make them more "interactive." The new stories are called Solve-It-Yourself Mysteries, and they always end with a question to the reader and a "solution box" that R.T. has already explained. The change was a decision that I'll admit I didn't agree with--I had already sold them eleven stories by that time, and I was comfortable with the regular narrative format. But I once heard someone say that when the train of progress comes roaring down the tracks, you can either stand in the way and get squashed, or you can jump on it and ride. I hopped aboard. (The romances, by the way, didn't change; they are still traditionally structured.)
Hints and tips
If any of you haven't tried Woman's World but are interested in submitting a story to them, here are a few things about their mysteries that I've learned over the past years:
(1) Make the good guys win in the end.
(2) Include a lot of dialogue, if possible.
(3) Include a female protagonist. She doesn't have to be the only protagonist--but she needs to be present.
(4) Include a crime. If you have what appears to be a crime and then the facts prove that no crime actually occurred, that usually won't get the job done.
(5) Include humor whenever possible.
(6) Keep it fairly clean and fairly simple. Avoid extreme violence, explicit sex, strong language, technical jargon, characters with physical or mental disabilities, overly complex plots, and exotic locations. Familiar settings seem to work best.
(7) As mentioned, keep the word count below 700. The last several mysteries I've sold them have all been between 680 and 690 words, including the solution.
I should note that on several occasions I have happily violated the above "rules"--sometimes intentionally and sometimes because of ignorance--and still made a sale. In fact, the bad guys actually won in two of my first three mysteries for WW, and my first mystery included no dialogue at all. And I can't seem to resist throwing a few technical terms around. (On the other hand, I've written a lot of stories for them that followed all the rules, and still got rejected. It's an inexact science.)
By the way, the fiction editor's name is Johnene Granger, and submissions should be addressed to her attention at Woman's World, 270 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632.
The creative process
As you writers already know, there are many ways to come up with a short story. Some of us start with the characters, some with the setting, some with the theme, etc. I start all my WW mysteries with the plot. I dream up the situation and the crime and the solution, and only then do I populate the story with the folks who'll make it happen. I'm not saying you should necessarily do it that way--but that seems to work best for me.
Once I have the "flow" of the story in mind, all the way to the ending, I sit down and type it into the computer. For some reason, that first draft almost always turns out to be between 800 and a thousand words. Then I start weeding out the things I don't need, and polishing the rest--especially the dialogue. I've found more success with the lighthearted mini-mysteries than with the gritty ones, so I also try to put in at least a little humor.
Another thing that's worked well for me is to come up with more than one vital clue to solving the case. I have the main character figure one of the clues out and reveal it during the story, then I save the second (and more important) clue for the solution. I don't do that every time, but when I do, it seems to add some variety and complexity.
R.T. was asking about my WW track record, on submissions. I suppose I'd have to say it's not good and it's not bad. As for the "not good" part, I figure I've been rejected at least seventy times, and no matter how you spin it, that's a lot of misfires. (I can't be certain of the number, because I've lengthened and reformatted many of those rejected stories and sold them elsewhere, while others sit there withering on the vine.) Half a dozen were rejected with a note saying that if I would change something they'd reconsider the story, and in every one of those cases I made the requested change and it was then accepted.
On the asset side of the ledger, Woman's World has so far bought 46 of my stories--44 mysteries and two romances. Two more mysteries were accepted but never got published. I received kill fees (twenty percent of full payment) for both of those. In answer to a question that I'm often asked, some of the titles of my stories were changed by the editor before publication and some were not; one story is scheduled to come out later this month, so I don't know yet about that one, but so far they've retained 25 of my original titles and changed the others. The story that came out last week--the August 20 issue--was called "Caught in the Cross-fire," but my original title was "A Quick Stop."
In researching this piece, I found that the crimes involved in my published mini-mysteries have mostly been robberies and burglaries--at least two dozen of them. Nine of the other crimes were murders, three were kidnappings, two were prison escapes, and the rest were a hodgepodge of fraud, carjackings, assault, blackmail, etc. I was a little surprised at how many of my plots involved stealing of some kind, but I guess that makes sense in a way: a lot of my mysteries are sort of playful, which lend themselves more to theft than to killing. And robberies--especially burglaries--often happen in familiar, domestic settings.
A taboo I forgot to mention: don't put pets in jeopardy. I once sent WW a story about the dognapping of a Dalmatian puppy so young it didn't yet have its spots, which was of course part of the mystery. That submission, even though no harm came to the puppy, was dropped like a hot potato, and when they told me why, I learned a valuable lesson. Murder Aunt Clara if you must, but leave Fido the hell alone.
Also, don't get political or religious, and don't say anything potentially controversial. In one of my older stories, I had the heroine ask the sheriff, referring to a possible suspect, "Would you trust someone who has blond hair and black eyebrows?" He replied, "Hillary Clinton has blond hair and black eyebrows." The lady said, "I rest my case." WW bought the story, but changed the reply to "My wife has blond hair and black eyebrows." Lesson: leave the Clintons alone as well.
On the subject of solutions, don't hinge the answer on information that not many people would know. Don't have the murder victim leave a clue that's written in Chinese, or set the suspect's computer password to the date of the Hindenburg explosion, or kill the unfaithful wife using a poison with a ten-syllable name that can be found only on a tropical island her husband visited last month on a business trip. Many of my rejections can be traced to an ignorance of (or disregard for) this rule. The ideal solution should be something almost obvious, something hidden in plain sight, something that average readers might miss but could have figured out if they'd paid more attention. Something that will make them slap their foreheads and say, "Whoa, I should've seen that."
A series situation
One final tip: I think part of my success with WW is due to the fact that I created, fairly early on, a series that features two recurring characters: a bossy retired schoolteacher and a pleasant but lazy guy she taught in the fifth grade, who is now the sheriff in their small southern town. She's constantly butting in, hounding him to lose weight, correcting his grammar in front of his deputies, and generally making his life miserable--except that she almost always helps him solve the mysteries.
The main benefit of this is that it allows me to spend fewer words "setting up" each story. Since I (and the reader) already know who these people are and how they'll act, I can jump straight into the action and not have to develop or describe the characters every single time. Their nonstop bickering also gives me the opportunity to stir some humor into the mix. I've strayed away from the series and sold them some standalone stories now and then, but I've always come back to it, for two reasons: (1) the editor said she wanted me to, and (2) these crazy people are fun to write about.
So that's that. If you like mysteries and puzzles (Leigh and Rob and Dale, that means you guys) and if you like writing short, I hope you'll give WW a try.
You don't have to be a woman to visit that world.