|Photo by Michael Fowles|
As I mentioned in an earlier column, October 2019 was a special month for me. Not only is it my fortieth anniversary as a published writer but - by coincidence - the Northwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America asked me to be the speaker at their meeting. They suggested I review highlights of my career but that sounded boring even to me. I countered with the title above, which gave me a chance to do such a review but make it of possible interest to my fellow readers. So now I am going to summarize the words of alleged wisdom I shared with those who attended.
1. Editors don't reject you. They reject words you have written. So don't take it personally, and try again. I was rejected by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 76 times before they bought a story.
2. When in doubt, don't throw it out. If a story doesn't sell does it mean that it stinks? No, it means that on a given day it didn't meet that market's needs. Really. So tuck it away and see what happens.
I wrote a story about a TV actor who kills a rival. All my favorite magazines rejected it. Years later the Mystery Writers of America announced an anthology to be titled Show Business is Murder. "On The Bubble" found a happy home.
Most people have trained the Miner to be lazy. How do you that? By ignoring the ideas he offers you. You can flatter him by taking those ideas seriously. Even if you don't have time to start that novel today, write down the concept. Spend five minutes brainstorming the idea. Don't in short, look a gift horse in the mouth.
And how do you bribe the miner? Spend money on him! Buy a writing text, get that new desk chair, go to a writing conference. Convince him that you are taking your writing career (yes, let's use that word) seriously. Who knows? Maybe you'll convince the rest of your brain as well.
(Interesting example: I gave this talk on Saturday. Monday morning I woke up with two new ideas for short stories. The Miner obviously liked the attention.)
Many years ago Fletcher Flora wrote a short story called "The Seasons Come, The Seasons Go." It appeared in Ellery Queen in 1966. The plot involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill someone in the family.
The first story I ever sold to Alfred Hitchcock was originally called "My Life as a Ghost," but they changed it to "The Dear Departed." (The only time one of my stories was retitled, so far.) My story involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill a family member. It also featured a similar twist ending.
Stop thief, I hear you cry. But the truth is, my version is completely legitimate. The murder and motive are quite different, and my victim is a person with no parallel in the original. If you read the two in quick succession you would probably have a suspicion about how the second story would end, but that happens all the time. There are only so many possible endings.
How did I do? I lost a couple of hundred bucks on the deal. Nothing that would keep me from buying dinner or make me lose sleep, so I was fine with it.
Would any of that have happened if I hadn't bit the bullet and self-published my book? Nope.
6. Mash-ups are delicious. In computing a mash-up is an app that combines data or functions from two sources. Classic example: you create a Google map using the addresses in a database of customers.
Another example is my story "Brutal," which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock. It combines Jim Thompson's The Getaway - about a robbery that goes perfectly, followed by a disastrous attempt to escape - with Neil Simon's movie The Out-of-Towners. My story is about an assassin who completes his job perfectly and then is crushed by a series of average city-dwellers who are just carrying on with their lives, completely unaware of who they are dealing with.
7. Be nice to your editors and they may be nice to you. Obviously good manners are important. I am sure most editors have a list (at least in their heads) of writers who are Too Much Trouble To Deal With. But I want to give a specific example.
And the editor went above and beyond by pulling my story out of the long stack and giving it a quick read. Turns out they didn't want it, which was fine. I submitted it to nEvermore! and not only was it accepted but it was reprinted in two best-of-the-year collections. But this was only possible because the editor was willing to do me a favor by giving me a special read.
8. One-market stories are dangerous temptations. Ideally you want to write a story that could find a happy home in many different locations. But sometimes an opportunity comes up for a niche market, usually an anthology. Whether that's a good idea depends on a number of factors including: the speed you can write, the possible reward, and how intriguing you find the concept. After George W. Bush was elected someone announced an anthology called Jigsaw Nation, in which all the stories would take place in the United States after the blue and red states separated.
A few years ago several cartoonists created an anthology called Machine of Death, with an intriguing concept. You put a drop of your blood in this machine and it tells you how you will die. Not when; just how. Car crash. Gunshot. Mary. Yeah, but which Mary? Your wife Mary or Hurricane Mary? Like all good oracles the machine is wickedly ambiguous. Suicide could mean that somebody jumps out a window and lands on you.
I loved the concept so much I wrote two stories for it: a historical and a police procedural. The editors rejected both. Those are two stories I can never use anywhere.
9. Network, network. Also: network. There are fine organizations out there looking for members: Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, Private Eye Writers of America. There are conferences: Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic. And here is a shocking secret: a lot of mystery writers are friendlier than you might expect. They DON'T want to read your unpublished manuscript but they might be happy to hear what you liked about their latest masterpiece. And if you see a lonely author sitting alone at a signing table, go up and chat. It doesn't obligate you to buy anything. And don't forget to read SleuthSayers!
Well, that's nine jewels of wisdom down. In two weeks I will return to polish the last gem.