30 January 2016

Short and Long, Light and Dark

The title of my column sounds like I'm talking about days, doesn't it--or maybe types of ribs or chicken. What I'm referring to are the stories we fiction writers dream up, put on paper, submit to markets, and (occasionally) get published. Their sizes vary from flash to novella-length, and their moods are everything from Walter Mitty to "The Lottery." For some reason, many of my writer friends these days (not necessarily my mystery-writer friends) seem to produce long and/or grim, somber stories--but others have focused on short, funny pieces. Still others bounce around from short to long and from easygoing to profound, dabbling a little in everything and specializing in nothing. I'm one of those people. As Joe Friday would say, deadpan of course, "That's my job."

Several days ago I received a pleasant surprise: I sold my 75th story to Woman's World. All the stories for that magazine--whether they're mysteries or romances--are both short and lighthearted. But the crazy thing is, most of the stories I've sold over the past few years have been neither short nor light. They're been longer, usually 4000 to 8000 words, and more serious. One of mine that's coming up this year in Akashic Books' Noir series is around ten thousand words, and heavy in mood as well as weight.

Why do I dream up stories that are so different from each other? I truly don't know. Maybe I suffer from the same thing as one of my old friends: he could never seem to hold a job, and his excuse was that he just never found one he was comfortable with. Maybe I'm still trying to figure out what I'm good at. (Besides ending half the sentences in my paragraphs with prepositions.)

Even crazier is the fact that I seem to get about the same enjoyment from writing/completing/selling a very short story and a very long story. The light/dark part is a little different--I like writing the occasional violent, gritty tale, but I absolutely LOVE writing humor. Even my longer, heavier fiction usually includes some comic, quirky elements because I can't seem to resist it.

Also, I think that fiddling around with different lengths and different subject matter keeps the whole writing process from becoming boring. I like knowing that I can finish a thousand-word, low-key, down-home, Aunt-Maude-and-Uncle-Billy kind of story one day, and the next day begin one about serial killers and mean streets and SWAT teams that might run fifty pages or more. It gives me a delicious sense of freedom.

When asked by the students in my classes, I usually say that I write in different genres. I also point out, though, that I've written far more mystery/crime/suspense stories than anything else. I think the reason is that I prefer reading that kind of story. But I also occasionally read Western or SF or horror or literary fiction, and I've written some of that as well. Once more, the variety makes it more fun for me, and keeps me from getting stuck (at least too deeply stuck) in a rut.

What I usually don't like is knowing that I have to write a particular kind of story. That mostly happens on the rare occasions when I'm fortunate enough to be invited to send a story to a genre-specific or themed anthology. Producing those kinds of stories isn't as easy for me as it seems to be for others. My ideas usually come unbidden, out of nowhere, and the resulting stories take shape on their own; they might result in a science fiction tale of 500 words or a Western of 2500 or a young-adult fantasy/adventure story of 5000 (which I just finished writing, and submitted yesterday). Plus, I'm not fond of externally-imposed deadlines--or, for that matter, deadlines of any kind. Don't get me wrong, though. When an opportunity presents itself, especially via a personal invitation from an editor, I'll do it. I'm always grateful, and I try to consider it a challenge rather than a chore, and I do my best to contribute a worthy entry.

The first of those "create-a-story-to-these-specs" projects happened to me ten years ago, and wound up being a lot of fun. An editor/publisher from Georgia named Tony Burton put together a 49-story antho called Seven by Seven, which consisted of seven different authors writing seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. As I told Tony at the time, the only thing I remembered about the Seven Deadly Sins was the movie starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman--but I dutifully did my research and wrote my seven stories, as did the other six participants, one of whom was our own former SleuthSayer Deborah Elliott-Upton, and the book turned out well and sold well. Even if it hadn't, I would've been pleased, because I had a great time and met friends like Deborah and B.J. Bourg and Frank Zafiro and Gary Hoffman, friends I still keep in touch with. But--again--I'm usually more comfortable coming up with my own ideas for stories.

How do the rest of you feel, about this kind of thing? Do you gravitate toward shorter or longer pieces? Is your subject matter usually lighthearted or serious? Do you consciously inject a bit of humor into your fiction regardless of its length? Do you like to have some outside incentive to kick off your story ideas, or do they come to you quietly in the night? Do you regularly seek out "themed" anthologies to submit to? Do you write in one genre and stick to it, or branch out occasionally into others? Do you think it's better to specialize and develop a "brand"? Inquiring minds want to know.

Unfortunately, my SleuthSayers columns tend to run longer rather than shorter, so it's time to wrap this one up.

I wish you short workdays, long vacations, light hearts, dark chocolate, and good writing.


  1. John, congratulations on your 75th WW! That must be some kind of record. Well done.

    Each piece I write is usually different from everything else I write. At the same time, I like coming up with my own ideas, or at least I believe the quality of stories is better when dug out of the depths of my imagination. The few times I’ve appeared in anthologies, I already had a spark or seed and then let it grow into a matching story.

    I like both light and dark, although I lean more toward dark. It’s disturbing when characters try to get me to craft both at once. In my mind, my stories tend to run a bit longer than average, which I try to keep under control.

    Again, congratulations on your Woman’s World contributions. Cracking that market remains a mystery to me!

  2. Thanks, Leigh. One thing I like about the WW stories is that they ARE so different, in length, format, subject matter, etc., so it's a good break from the regular mystery stories that most of us write.

    Yes, I agree that it's great to already have an idea or a story in mind when an anthology opportunity comes up. Unfortunately it doesn't always work that way, and so far I've always been able to come with something.

    You have told me before, that your story ideas tend to result in longer stories. And that's not a bad thing . . .

  3. Congratulations on your 75th! That's a landmark for sure.

  4. Ah, the joy of the short story! I write 500 word flash up to 80,000 word novels. The short stories are the fun part. For me, full length novels are work. I must fulfill a contact. I always write a few short stories alongside the novel, over the year, for my own pleasure.

    And yes, John, I so relate to the joy of writing without a contract in your hand. The contract creates boundaries. Short stories, to me, are freedom.

  5. Poop~! That word was 'contract' not contact.
    And I forgot to say: 75 stories to one of the best markets in the world! That is stupendous. What a legacy. I'll look forward to 75 more from you, John.

  6. Thanks, Janice--congrats to you as well, for your many, many stories in AHMM and EQMM. I'm not sure anyone has appeared more regularly in those magazines than you have.

    Melodie, I agree. It is a joy to write these short stories, and yes, sometimes the flash and short-shorts are especially fun to turn out. There is indeed a freedom in writing whatever you want to, in whatever length. Thanks for your kind words!

  7. Good morning, John, and congratulations on your amazing number of sales to WW. That's a feat.

    As to your questions, I'm all over the place, like you are. I write short and longish, with my first flash fiction published this past fall. My longest story has been around 7,000 words. I've had a reader remark that my stories seem to be getting longer overall, and that's true. (I'm getting better about putting in description.)

    I write lighthearted stories and serious ones, As to humor, I write a lot of it. Some stories are designed to be funny. Other stories just have humor in them. I don't try to inject humor, though. It just comes out as I try to create a voice the reader will enjoy.

    I often write stories for anthologies because a good theme will get my mind churning. But I come up with my own ideas too, and I write those stories and try to find them homes.

    My stories are almost always in the crime arena. I've written one fantasy story with a mystery in it, but even though I love it, I've yet to find it a home. Cross-genre is hard. And I've come up with an idea for a horror crime story, so hopefully I'll have time to write that soon.

    That's really my problem--time, or lack of it. I see you having 75 sales to WW and I'm thrilled for you, but it makes me long for having more time to write. ... One day. :)

  8. Congratulations on 75 with Women's World!
    I go back and forth between short/long, light/dark myself. Just depends on what kind of mood my characters are in. :)

  9. Barb, I've read some of your short AND long stories, and you do a great job with both. Sounds as if you're more comfortable than I am, though, with letting outside themes dictate what story you'll write. I envy you that.

    I agree that cross-genre can be hard. As you know, AHMM is sometimes receptive to those mystery hybrids--keep them in mind for those. They've taken several of my mystery/fantasy stories.

    Yep, I'm fortunate to have more time than most--I retired at 52 (long ago, now) and putting these stories together is a lot easier than when I was working and traveling all the time.

    Eve, you're right--the characters call the shots. And thanks for the congrats--I always think every story I send to WW will be the last one, but I'm glad I haven't stopped, and I'm sincerely grateful that they haven't stopped buying them. A quick note: as some of you already know, there's a new fiction editor at WW now. Johnene Granger retired at the end of the year and Patricia Gaddis is now steering the ship. A really nice lady, by the way.

  10. Congratulations on your 75th Woman's World story! That's an amazing achievement. I just read and enjoyed your most recent one, by the way. Once again, you sneaked the crucial clue right past me. You have a maddening knack for doing that.

    Like you, I write many different lengths--from 750 words for WW to close to 15,000 for some AHMM stories. Some are dark, and some are light, but there's almost always at least a little humor: It always seems to work its way in, and sometimes it takes over. I haven't written many stories for themed anthologies, but a couple of times the theme (or just the title) has given me an idea for a story I've ended up liking quite a bit. And once, the theme for an anthology called To Hell in a Fast Car (theme reflected in title)helped me find a way to make a story out of a fragment of an idea that had been languishing in a notebook for over a decade because I'd never before been able to figure out what to do with it.

  11. Bonnie--good for you! Isn't it great when you hear about (or are invited to contribute to) an anthology whose theme fits an idea that had already been bumping around in your head? In some cases, for a long time? And I'm pleased that you liked my latest little mini-mystery in WW--many thanks!

    I'm with you, on the humor. Funny (or witty) stories aren't only fun to read, they're fun to write. And let's face it, good writing is work, so any enjoyment that seeps into the process is a plus.

    Keep up the good stories!

  12. John,
    What an accomplishment! 75 stories. But watch out. I am only 62 sales behind you.

    I prefer to write humor, but it is not an easy sell to AH or EQ. Sneaking a little humor into a serious piece works, but I know from bitter experience that a light mystery is not what these mags want. With the advent of e-books, and publishers such as Untreed Reads, etc., humor has been more successful. Long overdue in my opinion.

    Keep those minis coming.

  13. Thanks, Herschel! Hey, reading your stories taught me most of what I know.

    Yes, it does seem that there are more markets for humor via e-offerings. Now and then R.T. Lawton and I manage to ease a funny story in under the wire at AHMM, but I agree that they and most mystery mags seem more interested in traditional crime/suspense. Which is, I guess, a good argument for writing both.

  14. I write a variety of short story lengths and moods too. I find if I've written a number of stories in one vein, writing in the opposite style cleanses my writing "palate."

  15. Me too, Warren. In fact I seldom write two similar stories back-to-back. Variety, it seems, can be the spice of (the writing) life.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Congratulations, John! I'd be happy for you, anyway, but I'm even happier after having had the pleasure of dining with you and the missus at B'con last October. Keep up the terrific work!

  17. Congrats, John! You've certainly achieved a great deal. I also like to write varied work. It does keep the mind sharp. I love humor in mysteries. Much more fun!

  18. John, as you already know, I am so proud to call you friend and mentor. Again, congrats on the newest sale to WW. I like to write in several genres, too and play with different word lengths. I wrote a script for a mini-play that is being produced locally on February 3. I've had fun with it and isn't that just the best? Keep writing, my friend. You've got the gift and we love to keep reading your work!


  19. Like you, John, and a bunch of my friends who've commented here (Hi, everyone!), I like variety in both my writing and reading. That's why my collection of short stories is subtitled "16 Tales of Mystery from Hardboiled to Humor." I also write them both long and short. While most run from 3,500 to 5,000 words, I've had some end up just shy of 10,000, and one is only 6 words. I love that kind of freedom and wouldn't change it for anything. Best wishes, my friend, for another 75 in WW and anywhere else you want to place them.

  20. Thanks, Josh--and same to you!! I love your book, by the way. Great job!

    Jacqueline, thanks for the kind words. You really HAVE written a lot of different kinds of stories. Keep at it!

    Many thanks, Deborah. That 7x7 project of ours doesn't seem like it was ten years ago, does it? I always enjoy your writing, short or long, funny or not. Take care!

  21. Deborah, congratulations on the play!!!

  22. Hey Earl! -- I and all of us here have enjoyed your stories for many years. I think you and I met during the heyday of Futures, with Babs Lakey, and you've always been an inspiration to me.

    Best to you and yours--thanks for taking the time to check in, here.

  23. Yes, I bounce around in several genres myself!

  24. Mostly you write mystery/crime, though--right, Jeff?

  25. "Do you think it's better to specialize and develop a 'brand'?"

    I suspect the answer to the question is determined by what one wants from a writing career.

    By specializing one might slowly build a following of readers who enjoy the kind of stories in which you specialize. The risk is that your career may have a slow build because you have limited markets for publication, and you may ultimately get locked into your brand and find yourself unable to easily break away to try other things. The advantage is that as you become known, you become known for a specific thing, which can aid tremendously if you're seeking name recognition.

    The flip side of specializing is the shotgun approach, writing just about everything. The risk is that you never develop much name recognition. The advantage is that there are far more markets for your work, so you may get published much more often.

    But how many of us actively set out to develop a brand? We write, we experience more success with one type of story than another, and so we write more of them. Then, before we know it, we have a brand.

    I've been labeled the "King of Confessions"--a heck of a brand label, but the way--but I never thought I would write as many confessions as I've written, nor would I have guessed that writing confessions would represent such a significant portion of my fiction output.

    But it happens, doesn't it, Mr. Woman's World?

  26. How true, Michael--the brand usually finds the writer, rather than the other way around. Thanks for the insights. Also, part of all this is that one should write what one enjoys writing. Those little lighthearted mysteries are great fun for me, but I'd go crazy if that were the only kind of stories I wrote. Another big advantage is that writing isn't, and has never been, my only source of income. I'd probably take a far different approach to all this, if I and my family depended solely on my short-fiction sales to put food on the table. I doubt that short-fiction sales would EVER be enough to put food on the table.

    By the way, as I told someone the other day, the only thing I'm king of is my little home office, and I'm not even sure about that.


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