01 August 2015

Now, That's a Different Story

As some of you know, I write mostly short fiction. I've done SF, fantasy, romance, Westerns, horror, and all kinds of combinations, but most of my stories are mysteries, and for good reason: that's what I prefer to read. My favorite books, stories, and authors have always been in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.

I have also come to realize that a mystery story can sometimes fit into a non-mystery market. It probably won't surprise you that most of my mystery/crime stories are submitted first to either (1) themed anthologies or (2) magazines like AHMMEQMM, and The Strand. If you're a writer of that kind of fiction, I suspect that you do the same. But occasionally it makes sense to also send mystery stories to other kinds of magazines and anthos.

Post-production notes

A few months ago, I wrote a story called "Saving Grace," that was sort of a sentimental paranormal mystery. In fact I wrote it with the mystery mags firmly in mind, and planned from the start to submit it first to Hitchcock because they sometimes seem a bit more receptive than the others to stories with otherworldly plots. When I finished it, though, it had a "literary" feel to it as well--it dealt heavily with family relationships and the main character changes his outlook on life in the course of the story, etc.--so I decided to send it first to The Saturday Evening Post, which has been kind to me lately anyway. I was pleased to find that they liked it, and it wound up being published in their current print issue (July/August 2015). It will also be released online on August 7 at their web site--I'll try to remember to post a link to it in my next SleuthSayers column.

The idea for that story came to me years ago, from a Sidney Sheldon novel--I can't remember its name--that included what I considered a clever way to emotionally "connect" the reader to a protagonist. In that book, as I recall, an always-reliable female prison inmate had been asked by the warden to watch over his small child each day, out in the off-limits area near the prison gates. As any fan of crime fiction knows, routines can be risky, and sure enough, the inmate winds up planning an escape via the laundry truck that departs through that area every morning. But on that particular day, as she prepares to jump into the truck and hide on its way out of the prison grounds, the child she's babysitting slips and falls into a water tank and is about to drown. The inmate abandons her escape attempt, dives into the tank instead of into the truck, and saves the child. This happens early on and is not really that big a plot point in the novel, but it's one that stuck in my memory. After all, few things are more endearing to readers than the sacrifice of personal gain--the prisoner's freedom, in this case--in order to perform a noble and selfless act.

With that idea in the back of my mind, I built a story that begins with a situation happening in the present, goes back twenty-five years to tell a different story with a different plot, and then flashes forward again to the present for the conclusion. I sort of like that kind of "framed" story-within-a-story construction anyway, where the events of the past connect directly and unexpectedly to the protagonist's current dilemma. That of course doesn't work for every story, but for some it does--and when it does, it creates a "circular" ending that seems to appeal to readers.

The long and short of it

Consider this. My "Saving Grace" story is multi-genre, about 5000 words in length, uses two different storylines, teaches the protagonist a "life lesson," and features sixteen different characters and several different settings. I sold another story last week, called "A Friend in Need," that's a straight mystery, less than 700 words long, teaches no lessons at all (but is, hopefully, entertaining), and uses only one setting and a total of three characters, one of whom is only a voice on the telephone. That second story, not that it matters to this discussion, marked my 70th sale to Woman's World magazine. (If someone had told me, years ago, that I would write 70 stories for a women's magazine, I would probably have asked him to give me some of what he was smoking.) The really strange thing is, both those mysteries--different is so many ways--were equally enjoyable to write. And as it turns out, I was paid almost the same for both of them.

My point is, I think there will always be places to sell mystery/crime stories, short or long, lighthearted or profound, straight or diluted--and not just to the mystery pubs. All good stories need conflict, and I believe one of the two advantages of crime stories is that a degree of conflict is always there, already built in. (The other advantage is that in crime stories justice usually prevails, and readers are attracted to that.) If you don't like that kind of story, if you prefer reading/writing only "literary" fiction, so be it--or, as Arthur Fonzarelli might've said, Go sit on a watchman. Seriously, as for myself, having now read both of Harper Lee's novels, I've decided that one of the many reasons I prefer Mockingbird to its sequel (prequel?) is that TKaM was, at its core, a mystery story. It was of course many other kinds of fiction as well--Southern, coming-of-age, historical, courtroom drama, literary, etc.--but I think the mystery/suspense element involving Boo Radley was what made it special, and enduring.

Let's hear it for crossing genres

All of you are readers, and many of you are writers. To those of you who (exclusively or occasionally) write short mysteries: Do you always have certain markets in mind when you craft your stories? Do you write them and only then think of where they might be sent? Have you tried submitting any of your mystery/crime stories to a non-mystery publication? I'm a firm believer that some mystery stories and novels can be just as "literary" as the Zhivagos and the Cuckoo's Nests and the Grapes of Wraths of this world; in fact I would put crime/adventure novels like Mystic River and Deliverance and The Silence of the Lambs up against any of them, literaturewise. Pet peeve alert: Why should the fact that a crime is central to the plot (the widely accepted definition of mystery fiction) make it any less literary? Over the years, my mystery stories have sneaked in under the wire at Pleiades, Thema, The Atlantean Press Review, and several other so-called litmags.

You might even consider trying your mystery/suspense stories at other genre publications. I've not published any mysteries in places like Asimov's or Analog, but I see no reason you couldn't. Again, the presence of a crime doesn't exclude the elements of another genre as well. Look at the stories that spawned Blade Runner, or Minority Report, or even 3:10 to Yuma. I've sold plenty of crime stories to Western magazines.

The only advice I would presume to give, about all this, is (1) write the story or novel you want to write, without worrying much about the category; (2) submit it to an editor or publisher who'll make you proud if it's accepted; and then (3) forget it and write something else. I've been doing that for twenty-one years now.

God help me, I love it.


  1. Good topic, John! Yes, I regularly submit crime stories to non-crime specific markets. The most money I ever made from a short story ($3000) was a national short story contest I entered, and that story went on to be shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis. I've written crime fiction for Star magazine (another women's market) and Flash Fiction Online, which leans toward Sci-fi/Fantasy. I love your point about crime fiction automatically containing conflict. Yes, our specific markets for crime stories may be dwindling, but if you write a story with lots of human interest (and short on graphic violence) there are other good markets out there.

  2. Melodie, congrats on the contest win, and the nomination for the Arthur Ellis. I too have written for Star Magazine, though my one story there wasn't crime fiction. I realize now that I didn't specifically mention that the mystery markets are dwindling, but you're right, they are--and we just have to explore other places to send those stories.

    Another point, especially regarding your and my fiction, is that humorous stories can fit in at many different kinds of markets.

  3. Much of my short crime fiction has appeared in non-mystery publications. Unfortunately, many of those publications have disappeared or have reduced the amount of fiction they publish.

    For several years (details in the guest post I wrote for you a while back), nearly every piece of fiction I wrote was for a specific market, either by invitation of an editor, or to fit a specific call for submission, or because the editor had previously purchased several stories from me.

    That changed a bit early last year for two reasons: 1) Publishing was shifting, causing some of my regular markets to dry up, and 2) I had several unfinished stories for which there was no obvious market.

    I'm still writing most of my short fiction for specific markets, but I've also been finishing those unfinished stories that have no obvious markets. I've learned two things from doing this: 1) Some of the joy of writing has returned because I am not constrained by market limitations, and 2) My ratio of submissions to sales is turning to shit.

    I'm writing in genres I've not touched in several years, submitting to editors and publications with which I have no pre-existing connections, and I'm back to the tried-and-true submission process of best market first and work down. This is a humbling experience. While I've received a few incredibly nice rejection letters of the "almost, but not quite" variety, I've also received a fair number of form rejections. And I'm not accustomed to seeing form rejections.

    What's that Chumbawumba song? I get knocked down, but I get up again. That's what writers with long careers do.

  4. Always good to hear from you, Michael. And I agree, you and I are both having to adjust a bit, because of the fact that markets ARE drying up. I truly miss some of the old mystery magazines that just couldn't make a go of it.

    I also know what you mean about being constricted by market requirements, and that there is indeed a certain freedom in being able to write exactly what you want to write. As for form rejections, hey, they're just a part of submitting--even for veterans like you and me.

    To Madeline, who commented offlist: Best of luck to you, and keep me posted!

  5. Great post, John! Thank you for the information. It's a good reminder to look elsewhere for possible markets. This was a lesson I learned years ago when I focused on non-fiction articles. I need to apply it to my short stories, too.

  6. Thanks, Bobbi. The truth is (as you know), there are an awful lot more markets for nonfiction (short AND long) than for fiction. But dreaming things up is certainly a lot more fun . . .

  7. I enjoyed your post, John, and it reminded me that I should try more markets. I tend to keep going back to the same few markets, and to get discouraged and give up on stories after one rejection. I need to be both more adventurous and more determined. You've just about convinced me to open up the "Rejected" file and give one of those stories a second try, maybe at a publication I've never tried before. Will I actually do it? I hope so. I'll let you know.

  8. Bonnie, I do the same thing--I generally stick to the markets I'm comfortable with and that I've had good luck with. But since I write so darn many stories (and since I get rejections pretty often, too), I've tried to look elsewhere as well. The best strategy is still probably that which Michael mentioned: submit to the most prestigious and/or best-paying markets first and work your way down.

  9. Wonderful post, John. I do both, write for the market and write for myself. I have a file of rejected or unsold stories that I dip into when I find a market that said story will fit. Sometimes I send something to a contest, sometimes a new market or call out. I've had a story sit for ten years and then sold it when an anthology popped up...a few changes, a longer version, an new angle...sold.

    I've sold mysteries with a romance in them because that is what I like to write. I've had romances rejected due to too much mystery and mysteries rejected for too much romance. I've sold mysteries and romance with a touch of paranormal in them. You just never know.

    My confession. I need to write more, submit more.

    Can't wait to read your Saturday Evening Post story.

  10. John, I enjoy everything you write, even this column. You are such a good writing teacher. If I weren't such a good English teacher, I wouldn't know that. You have everything it takes to produce solid, soul satisfying stories. I hope your readers are paying attention because they could not find a better inspiration than you.

  11. John,

    You give such excellent advice as well as encouragement! I agree with you about Mockingbird. I also see your point about thinking creatively in regard to marketing our fiction. I write hybrid mysteries myself. At times, I like to include elements of romance, humor and the paranormal. It makes for a more interesting story.

  12. Pat, you are correct: You just never know. The only thing we can do is target our submissions as carefully as we can and cross our fingers. The one thing I don't usually do is submit stories to contests. Several reasons for that: (1) contests always want previously unpublished stories, and I like to try my new stories at print magazines first, (2) the odds are actually better for getting a story into a good mag or anthology than for winning first place in a big contest, and (3) I hate waiting as long as you sometimes have to wait to hear back from a contest (although wait times are long anywhere, these days, for anything). Also, I absolutely refuse to pay entry fees.

    Nonni, thanks so much for your kind words. I remain a bit intimidated by English teachers (I was an engineering major), so it's especially nice to hear that!!

    Jacqueline, thanks for stopping by. I actually think hybrid mysteries are more fun to write, than strictly traditional crime fiction. And I try hard to put an element of humor into almost everything--I am firmly convinced that that makes stories easier to sell.

  13. Followup to A NonniMuss: I must confess that if everything I sent to my first-choice markets were ACCEPTED, I wouldn't have a need to search out other places to submit to. As I've said before at this blog, I bet I get more rejections than any writer I know.

  14. John, I bet most of us think we get more rejections than any writer we know.
    Great article. I, too, generally start at AHMM (thank you, Linda, for all the publications!), and have submitted to other places. I've been published in sci-fi/fantasy markets, in a gardening publication (a story that appeared on this blog, "The Asparagus Bed"), and an outdoors magazine. Hey, there's lots of places out there! My problem is that I really, really, really need to learn to write faster. And more. And then find that 25th/26th hour in the day to do the submissions.

  15. Thanks for the thoughts and advice, John! Asimov's published an Edward D. Hoch story in its first issue. I've published a few stories in the small press anthologies, but I try to keep my eyes open for new markets!

  16. Eve, you're right--the submission process can take a lot of time. Researching markets, creating cover letters, formatting manuscripts, and--if they're snailmailed--addressing envelopes, going to the P.O., etc. Not to mention the tracking and recordkeeping that has to be done.

    As for the speed of the writing itself, I think that's as different as a fingerprint, for everyone. Maybe the secret is to imitate James Patterson and find a lot of good writers to collaborate with.

  17. Jeff, I would imagine Hoch could sell anything to any market he wanted to. And you probably know this already, but the "anthologies" tab at the Ralan's Webstravaganza site is a great place to find the latest antho calls for submissions.

  18. Great post, and very timely for me as I am starting to write and submit short mystery fiction again.

  19. Thanks for reminding us of what we all probably suspected. We should be trying everything! I don't have too much time for short stories lately, so the ones I do write ARE for a specific market, but I'll keep everything you've said in mind for when I get more time to concentrate on shorts.

  20. Thanks, Nina. Despite all the talk about dwindling markets, there are some that are still there exclusively for short mysteries: AH, EQ, Strand, WW, Over My Dead Body, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Mag., Crimespree, Thuglit, Mysterical-E, and others. And seriously, don't ignore the literary mags and journals, and publications for other genres as well. Best of luck with all your submissions!

    Kaye, good to hear from you! Yes, do try some of these unlikely markets sometime--I'm often surprised to find that they're receptive to crime stories even though they don't advertise the fact.

  21. John, you make getting published--whatever the genre and whatever the market--sound easy in the same way that your stories make writing look easy, or maybe "effortless" is a better word. The secret ingredient in your success is that you're such a wonderful writer. Looking forward to reading the SEP story.

  22. Liz, how kind of you! (Your check is in the mail.) Actually, I've had a couple editors tell me I submitted to them so many times I finally just wore 'em down.

    I wish there were a secret key to all this (if there is, I've not yet found it), but I do think it's important to keep as many stories out there under consideration as possible, at any one time. And, as I believe someone said in one of the comments, writing in several different genres--or at least combining genres now and then--helps to keep the writing interesting to the writer. I know that writing something one day and something totally different the next day is one of the things that makes all this fun, at least to me.

    I hope too that you like the SE Post story. Please let me know . . .


  23. The Professor is in the house! ;-) John, a post from you is like going to school, except the lessons come from hands-on experience rather than textbooks. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Many thanks, Earl! The truth is, everything I learned, I learned from you!!

    Take care, old friend.

  25. As always, John, your essay is useful and insightful. I love writing and reading short fiction, and I am still surprised that it seems to be falling out of favor with magazines of any sort. I tend to send the few stories I finish to my satisfaction to one place or two places, AHMM, and WW, which doesn't seem to care for my efforts. Sigh. I learn something new from every one of your posts, so perhaps my track record will improve.

  26. Thank you, Susan--good to see you here. I do long for the days when SO many magazines accepted short fiction--but thank goodness there are still some around. As for AHMM and WW, they're good markets and I'm glad to hear you're trying them with your stories.

    Best to you in ALL your literary endeavors.


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