28 March 2022

Looking For the Next Best Thing

Several years ago, I met another local writer at a conference. He was unpublished, but his business cards and website bore the legend "Website of Future Bestselling Author..." 

A few weeks later, he posted on Facebook. He had won Honorable Mention for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine contest that invites readers to write a flash story to accompany a photograph in the magazine. He felt his story deserved more than a mere honorable mention. My wife and I looked at the photo before we read his story, and we both immediately thought of the same premise he used.

I'm going to guess he's not a bestselling author yet, partly because he hadn't learned one of the basic lessons.

When you're writing fiction, your first idea may or may not be good, but the SECOND one is usually better. If you can find a THIRD, that might be even better. Use it.


Guidelines for magazines or themed submissions often include examples, usually an obvious first choice, and many writers try to follow those examples. That means the editors may see several submissions using that same idea. Even if the writing is superb, those stories have less chance of being selected because they'll cancel each other out.

But something DIFFERENT will catch the screener's and editor's attention.

Some time ago, Michael Bracken posted a call for private eye stories set in the 1960s. He mentioned that stories involving an historical event from the period would have preference, and gave examples. I don't remember what those examples were, but they might have been Woodstock, the Bay of Pigs, and Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon. He probably got several stories using each of them.

I wrote a story set in the Detroit riot of 1967. I attended summer classes at Oakland University, a mere 30 miles away, so I remembered many of the details without research. I hoped no other writer would use that event and that I'd have less competition. Sure enough, "Kick Out the Jams" (Remember the MC5?) will appear in Groovy Gumshoes this April. Far out, man.

The upcoming MWA anthology Crime Hits Home also arrives in April. I assumed many submissions would reflect a "Home Sweet Home" idea and might involve a home invasion. I tried to think outside the box, and "homeless" led me to other places. "Jack in a Box" found a home.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a novella, but when I started writing, I locked up after about 3000 words. I tweaked the idea and tried again, but hit another wall. When I realized that my mian idea could function as a red herring instead of the main plot, I tried again.

That third version had more potential surprises. I finished the first complete draft last week, and since I wrote several bad ideas out of my system in the early versions, it's much better. It still needs revision, but I have more to work with. 

Years ago, Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, describing every plot premise he could identify in (mostly classic) literature and drama.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt updated it a few years ago in her own book, Story Structure Architect, which I highly recommend. She adds a few more situations– premises, if you prefer– and several open-ended questions that nurture creativity. But both books make the same point.

There are a finite number of situations and ideas. If you take one that is used frequently (this year's trend), you set yourself up against all those other works. If you create a new twist or combination, your story will stand out and has a better chance of being noticed.

And selected.


  1. Interesting stuff. I will be writing in April about a story I submitted to an anthology thinking that it was a little different than most stories on that theme would be... and it sold.

  2. I also find your premise interesting. As isolationists, if we think up new variations, we probably think we've hit upon something unique.

    My main memory of MC5 comes from my brother Glen. He was inordinately smug that he'd scored the original album with the obscene intro (which even babysitters carelessly toss around these days) before MC5 was persuaded/forced to rephrase as “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters.”

    1. Leigh, I'm not sure the band "was persuaded." It's an incredibly clumsy "edit," with a loud click before and after "brothers and sisters," and I've always believed someone made a very hasty dub (maybe even one of the local radio stations) after a DJ played the record and got flak. The band was very uneven, but when they were in the groove, they were terrific.

  3. Good advice.
    I enjoyed your recent piece in the New England Mysteries special of the Mystery Readers Journal.

  4. Absolutely. I hope Josh Pachter will forgive me for quoting him, but when he accepted the story I wrote ("Cool Papa Bell") for his upcoming "Paranoia Blues" anthology based on the songs of Paul Simon, he wrote me, "you're the only person who's sent me anything like this, and I think it makes a nice change of pace". So yes - try something different!

  5. Good piece, Steve. I've spent the morning revising a story to come up with a better ending, a better twist. It's taken a few months of letting it sit while I thought about it, but these things take time.

  6. Good piece Steve. I've tried to do the same and it's generally served me well.

  7. Off your actual topic, but doesn't everyone stop reading at "website of future bestselling author"? a.chutzpah b.hubris c.delusion d.all of the above


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