16 July 2016

I Like Short Shorts

Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a rocker on the back porch of a beach house on Perdido Key, with sand in my shoes and "Margaritaville" on my mind. In fact I was half-dozing to the soothing sound of the incoming waves when I also heard the DING of an incoming text message. This was the sixth day of our annual family getaway, but since we never completely get away from technology I dutifully dug my cell phone out of my pocket, checked the message (from one of our kids, a hundred yards up the beach), and replied to it. I also decided to check my emails, which I hadn't done in a while. I was glad I did. At the top of the list was a note that had only just arrived, informing me of the acceptance of my 80th story in Woman's World magazine. Not a particularly round number or notable milestone, I guess, but I'll tell you, it made my day. It also reminded me how fortunate I am--a southern guy raised on cop shows and Westerns, who in school liked math and science far better than English--to have sold that many stories to, of all places, a weekly women's magazine based in New Jersey.

WW, as some of you know, has been around a long time. What makes it appealing to writers of short stories is that it features a mystery and a romance in every issue, it pays well, and it has a circulation of 8.5 million. Since I'm obviously more at ease with mysteries than romances, most of my stories for that publication have been in the mystery genre. I've managed to sell them a couple of romances too, but the truth is, I'm the great pretender: my romance stories were actually little twisty adventures that involved more deception than anything else.

Figures and statistics

Although I've been writing stories for Woman's World for seventeen years now, 50 of those 80 sales have happened since 2010, and I think that's because I have gradually become more comfortable with the task of telling a complete story in less than a thousand words--what some refer to as a short short. (At WW, the max wordcount for mysteries is 700, and mine usually come in at around 685.)

Many writers have told me they find it difficult to write stories that short. My response is that it's just a different process. I think some of the things you can do to make those little mini-mysteries easier to write are: (1) use a lot of dialogue, (2) cut way back on description and exposition, and (3) consider creating series characters that allow you to get right into the plot without a need for backstory. My latest and 79th story to appear in WW (it's in the current, July 25 issue) is one of a series I've been writing for them since 2001.

Remember too that stories that short are rarely profound, meaning-of-life tales. There's simply not enough space for deep characterization or complex plotting or life-changing messages. They seem to work best when the goal is a quick dose of entertainment and humor.

I should mention that writing very short fiction doesn't mean you can't keep writing longer stories also. To be honest, most of my stories lately fall into the 4K-to-10K range. My story in this year's Bouchercon anthology is 5000 words, the one in an upcoming Coast to Coast P.I. anthology is about 6500, and my story in Mississippi Noir (from Akashic Books, to be released in August 2016) clocks in at 10,000. Magazinewise, I've had recent stories in EQMM and Strand Magazine of 7500 and 8000 words, respectively, and my story in the current issue of the Strand (June-September 2016, shown here) is around 4500. (NOTE: As we are all aware, publication is an iffy thing at best, and I'm not implying that everything I write, short or long, makes it into print. It doesn't. But I'm a firm believer that the practice you get writing short shorts can help improve your longer tales as well. It certainly teaches you not to waste words. Besides, it's all fiction; some stories just take longer to tell.)

Current Events

As for Woman's World, there have been a couple of significant changes at the magazine that, if you decide to send them a story, you should know about.

First, longtime fiction editor Johnene Granger retired this past January. That's the bad news, because Johnene was wonderful, in every way. The good news is, I also like the new editor, Patricia Gaddis. She's smart, professional, and a pleasure to work with.

Second, WW recently changed over to an electronic submission system. As we've already seen at AHMM and EQMM, this makes it far easier for writers to send in their work. I'm not at all sure it makes it easier for editors--emailed submissions always means more submissions, which means more manuscripts to read--but that's another matter, for another coiumn.


To those of you who write short fiction: Do you find that you gravitate toward a certain length or a certain range? Are you more comfortable with a long wordcount that leaves you room to move around in, or do you like writing shorter, punchier stories? Does the genre matter, in terms of length? Do you already have certain markets in mind when you write a story, or do you prefer to write the piece regardless of length and genre and only then focus on finding a place to which you might submit it? Do those of you who are novelists find a certain pleasure in occasionally creating short stories? When you do, how short are they? Have any of you tried writing "short shorts"? Has anyone sent a story (mystery or romance) to Woman's World?

Final question: In the Not-So-Current Events department, are any of you old enough to remember that "I like short shorts" was a line from Sheb Wooley's "Flying Purple People Eater"?

Unfortunately, I am …


  1. Congratulations, John--this is all fantastic news, not just the milestone publication (I'd count it as one!) but also the other stories you have coming out.

    I've never submitted to Woman's World, though it's been suggested to me before. I should try my hand at it sometimes, but admittedly much of my short fiction tends toward the longer end--increasingly more novella-length than anything else.

    Coincidentally, we've been listening to Purple People Eater for about two weeks now. Dash (our four-year-old son) is fascinated by the song, and we sometimes play it while he brushes his teeth (keeps him brushing for a suitable length of time). Funny you should bring that up!

  2. Thanks, Art! I hope you will try Woman's World sometime. Several of our fellow SleuthSayers are WW veterans as well.

    I find it interesting that you say your stories seem to be growing steadily longer. So are mine. (Like Pinocchio's nose?--fiction is, after all, a pack of lies.) I almost never wrote novella-length stories in the past, and I find myself writing more and more of them lately.

    That Sheb Wooley song has always been one of my favorites. We have a three-year-old grandson who likes it also.

  3. Congratulations on your 80th salt Woman's World! That has to be some sort of record.

  4. My stories lately have fallen in the 5,000- to 6,300-word range, though I did really enjoy writing the flash story that appeared in Flash and Bang. It was difficult to come up with a complete tale that could be told in fewer than 1,000 words, though as you say with the WW stories, it's probably a process I'd simply need to get used to. Congratulations on your latest sale, John. I'm in awe.

  5. I love short shorts! They force one to concentrate on plot, and are usually very clever writing. Yours certainly are, John.
    Lately I seem to be writing 3500 words average, with the odd story about 750 words. Haven't tried WW, but I've appeared in Star Magazine.
    John, I am awed by 80 placements in one magazine alone. You are THE bestseller of crime short stories.

  6. Janice, many thanks. I have been very fortunate there. (But I still get a lot of rejections . . .)

    Barb, I think it's a lot of fun to do both, and sometimes even to alternate writing long stories and shorts. I did some figuring, and I've sold about 60,000 words to WW (some of my stories were sold to them back when mysteries were 1000 words and romances were 1500), so I've actually sold more WORDS to AHMM and to the Strand than to Woman's World, but paymentwise WW has been better. I always enjoy your stories, whatever the length--keep up the good work!

    Thanks Melodie! I had a story in Star also, years ago. I think they paid me $300. And I'm glad to hear that we share a love for the really short stories--they are great fun to write, now and then. Best to you in all your literary endeavors.

  7. John, sadly, I "got" the title right away, and loved it! Then I read the article, and loved that too. Congrats on #80, and everything else you've sold lately.

    I have two mysteries coming up in WW. I try to stay away from that genre, but thought you needed a little competition. ;-)

  8. The optimum length for one of my short stories seems to be around 3,500 words, mostly because it fits within many publications' requirements (on the high-end for some and the low end for others).

    I've been tracking short story production since 2009, when I wrote 75 short stories with an average length of 2,884 words. I've not completed quite so many stories in any year since, but in 2010, the average length was 3,451; in 2011, 3,465; in 2012, 3,272; in 2013, 3,563; in 2014, 3,736; and in 2015, 3,732.

    Of course, averages don't tell the entire story. During that time, my shortest complete story was 10 words and the longest was 10,000.

    I don't think the genre determines length so much as individual publications' requirements. I know anything I write for Woman's World (alas, no sales yet) has to be short, but the stories I wrote for Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora and Coast to Coast both came in at the maximum word count the editors' requested.

    We've discussed this before, but I can't remember if it was in private email or in the comments section of one of your previous blog posts: When I began writing, I followed the tried-and-true path by writing stories and then seeking markets. For a great many years I wrote almost entirely to market (by invitation, by request, or for regular markets and/or to meet specific anthology calls).

    At the beginning of last year, prompted in part by the disappearance of some of my regular markets, I dove back into my idea file and started writing some stories just for me. These are stories I never completed because there are no obvious markets for them, or are new ideas I would have abandoned in the past because there are no obvious markets. These stories are tough to sell, but my second sale to AHMM was one of them and I also placed a short-short with The Molotov Cocktail. so I have hope for the others.

    Anyhow, congrats on your 80th sale to WW!

  9. BIG party when you hit 100. I want an invite. By the way, I really liked your mystery in this week's WW. First time I recall, and no I haven't read all 80 of your stories, that the sheriff drew his service weapon. I wonder if that's a huge step forward for WW? I think you broke the mold.

  10. Thank you, Betsi, and congratulations on your two upcoming stories! I look forward to reading them.

    As for the two genres, I would write more romances but I'm not smart enough.

    Michael, we have indeed talked before about the fact that you (both of us, actually) used to write first and look for markets later, and eventually moved over to writing with certain markets already in mind. But I do particularly enjoy writing for (as you said) ME rather than for a market; in other words, write the story I want to write, regardless of length or other requirements, and then see if it might fit someplace. These seem to work well for anthologies that happen to pop up now and then.

    And you're right: around 3500 words seems to be a good marketable average. Keep doing what you're doing!

  11. Hey Jody--thanks for the note! I imagine 100 is a long way away. My characters might get too tired to make it that far.

    As for the sheriff drawing his gun, I'm just glad he didn't shoot himself in the foot.

    As for breaking molds at WW, I'm afraid I have violated many of what I've heard are their rules, like having the bad guys win, writing about exotic locations, including technical jargon, writing from a male POV, including no dialogue at all, etc., etc. Sometimes it was intentional, sometimes it was accidental. I think there are honestly very few taboos if the story happens to work. Now if I could only make them work every time . . .

    Thanks for stopping by our blog!

  12. Congrats, John! You have an amazing imagination. My stories do seem to be getting longer of late, although publishers seem to prefer the short ones.

  13. John, as always, great blog! You are amazing and I am going to give WW another try, too. I agree learning to write lean is one of the greatest tools a novelist can have. I owe many thanks to you and all our pals at Seven by Seven -- especially Tony Burton for honing my skills to write tight. Congratulations on the 80th!

  14. John, it seems like only yesterday I was congratulating you on number 50. A truly impressive accomplishment. Congratulations! Writing "flash" fiction is a challenge for some, but also a lot of fun. I have the attention span of a termite, so I find it relatively easy. On the other hand, writing a book....I don't think so.

  15. Many thanks, Jacqueline. Yes, a lot of publishers do prefer shorter stories than some of those I write--I think there are several reasons for that, one of which is that if stories are short, the editors/publishers can include more per publication. And maybe there's just a feeling that, in this short-attention-span world we live in, readers are more apt to take the time to read a shorter story than a longer one. But some--AH, EQ, and the Strand among them--still go for the longer tales most of the time,

    Deborah, thank you for the kind words. And yes, that Seven by Seven project was a lot of fun. For those of you who don't know, 7x7 was an anthology put together ten years ago by ed./publisher Tony Burton of Wolfmont Press in Georgia. Tony chose seven authors from seven different states to write seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. All the stories were 600 words max, and the book contained 49 of them. The group included Deborah and me, BJ Bourg, Frank Zafiro, Gary Hoffman, and others. Since then most of us have kept in close touch. It was a special experience, and--as Deborah said--we owe Tony a great debt.

  16. Herschel, you're one of the few who are really good at the very short stories. As for novels vs. shorts, I think there'll always be some writers--you, me, and RT Lawton among them--who just feel more comfortable with short fiction than long. And congratulations to you, by the way, for your many WW stories, and your Untreed Reads tales as well.

  17. John, as always, an interesting post and inspiring. Congratulations on 80 stories in WW. What I'd like to see are a few of the stories they turned down! LOL I've tried them just twice--one mystery and one romance, but rejected. I keep meaning to do more, but have been concentrating on the novels so much lately that I just haven't the time. Keep on keeping on. Obviously what you're doing works!

  18. Jan, thanks for the note. Hey, if the novels are working, don't sweat the short stories.

    As for those stories that didn't make the cut, I only wish I were better at figuring that out before I submit them. As I've said before at this blog, every story I send out is as good as I can make it, and I honestly never know when one's going to be accepted and when it isn't. Some of those I love the most get the axe, when others I wasn't at all sure about somehow make it through the gates. If anybody has a crystal ball that works for this kind of thing, I'd love to rent it for awhile.

  19. John, congrats, I'll never catch up with you on WW acceptances. However, two of my $500 WW rejections have ended up in Flash Bang at $10 each and one went to Swimming Kangaroo at $25. Waste not, want not. Sadly, the latter publication is now deceased.

  20. RT, glad to hear you're recycling some of those WW misfires. And sorry to hear Swlmming Kangaroo went under water. I think I myself have killed many a publication--as soon as they accept one of mine, they put all four feet in the air.

    And keep up that great writing for AHMM--love your stories there.

    Hope to see you at Bouchercon, old friend.

  21. Congratulations on 80! Wow!
    Me, I write what I please and then look for a market. And I write slowly, editing as I go. And I get easily distracted...
    My word count runs generally anywhere from 1,500 to 6,500. Lately sticking around 5,000 for some reason.
    Anyway, keep, keep, keep writing, short or long, WW or AHMM!

  22. John, Congratulations! I've tried WW and need to try again! And Art, have you heard the song "The Witch Doctor Meets the Purple People Eater?" (I thought the "short-shorts" line was borrowed from somewhere else!)

  23. Thank you, Eve! I think I'm writing slower now, too, than I used to. Just wish there were more markets in general, for shorts--one has to look pretty hard these days, to find a good place to submit stories once they're finished and ready. As for numbers, I bet you've published 80 in AHMM--your name's in there every time I turn around! You're an inspiration.

    Jeff, I hadn't heard of that song, but I'm not in the least surprised that you found it!! You and I both seem to turn up a lot of information no one else has heard about (in my case, that no one else WANTS to hear about). And thanks for the congrats--WW has been very kind to me for a long time now.

  24. A factoid to add to the mix, totally appropos to nothing, is that Sheb Wooley also starred as the scout on the Western "Rawhide" -- except for a short period when he disappeared for a while and then came back, without explanation. He was an old and real Oklahoma cowboy, as were many of the other regular "extra" cowboys on the show. You don't see riding like that any more even on many ranches. He could -- and did, on camera -- do an amazingly graceful and casual dismount from a running horse. All that and he could sing, too. :-)

  25. Anonymous, I remember him well--he was Pete Nolan in that series, and if I recall, he was also one of the gang in High Noon who came into town to kill Gary Cooper. Like Ben Johnson, Wooley always looked the part, didn't he?--as if he were always portraying himself. Thanks for the factoid!

  26. Pat Marinelli16 July, 2016 21:30

    Congratulations on your 80th WW story. I agree it only seems like yesterday that you had 50. Time sure flies. I've only had rejections from WW, but I did have a story published in The Star.

    My favorite length is about 1K, but I've written and sold Flash at 150 words and published up to 8K in an anthology. Usually my anthology submission fit the guidelines. I write for the market and I write for me. Sometimes I find a market for the ME stories or I'll submit them to a contest. I never let anything go to waste.

    Oh, the very first romance I wrote for WW (2500 words back then) turned into a 125K novel. I still have it but I doubt anyone will publish it. LOL

  27. Pat, thanks for the comment. And congrats on your publications!

    I agree on never letting anything you write go to waste. I'm not big on contests, but I do try to keep looking for a market for every story I do, whether it's an anthology or a magazine, and--as you said--something usually comes up.

    I didn't even realize WW romances were ever 2500 words--when I sold my two to them, they were 1500 (about 15 years ago). Back then, mysteries were 1000 words. They've whittled the length down quite a bit for both genres.

  28. John, you have your own WW fan base here in Florida, you truly do.

    Not only was “We love short-shorts” a line in the Purple People Eater, but the Royal Teens had a concurrent popular hit, (Who Wears) Short-Shorts, which cross-referenced the Purple People Eater with the line “We wear short-shorts like the Purple People Eater…” (I’m channeling Bill Crider.)

  29. Thanks, Leigh! Believe me, I'm grateful for fans anyplace, and especially Florida. (Just got back from there.)

    Hey, it's never a bad thing to channel Bill Crider . . .

  30. 80 in just one magazine is so impressive! You have quite an imagination! Whether short short or longer, it still takes a lot of skill and creativity. Congratulations

  31. How kind of you, Pam. The funniest thing is, after each acceptance, I honestly felt that it would probably be my last. I've been truly fortunate.

    Thanks so much!

  32. I'm late chiming in (I've been out of town), but I have to add my congratulations on your 80th sale to WW. And yes, I remember the short-shorts line, too.

  33. Thanks, Bonnie! I know you've had stories published in WW as well. Hope to see more of yours there soon.

  34. Jacqueline Stem26 July, 2016 17:40

    John, thanks for your wise insights into writing short shorts. I have a question. Is a first person mystery story acceptable to Patricia?

    Jacqueline Stem

  35. Jacqueline, I see no reason why you couldn't send a first-person mystery to Patricia. Personally, I've not sold any first-person stories to her, but I have sold first-person mysteries to WW in the past. So far as I know, they have no restrictions on point of view, although I would think a first-person female POV would be preferable to first-person male.

    Give them a try.


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