Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts

20 August 2019

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy

A few years ago I was editing a manuscript in which an amateur sleuth found a dead body. A couple of paragraphs down, she made a joke. It raised my eyebrows. "Too soon," I said in a note to the author.

Don't get me wrong. I love humor, especially black humor. Ranging from wry observations to slapstick situations, humor is important because it can lighten a book's mood. But you have to know when to be funny--and when not to. In the case I mentioned above, I suggested having the sleuth wait a couple of pages before she makes light of the situation. The author did so, and it made all the difference.

Today I'm pleased to welcome as a guest author my friend Sherry Harris, who knows all about writing humor, including the importance of timing. Sherry writes great books and takes edits like the pro she is. Sherry writes the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries about a woman in Massachusetts who runs garage sales for other people. Sherry's here today to expound on balancing comedy and tragedy in mysteries. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy
 
by Sherry Harris
 
I was sitting at the bar at Writers' Police Academy (this sounds like the start of a bad joke) when I started talking to a woman near me. I asked her what she wrote and she told me. She then asked what I wrote, so I told her I wrote a cozy series--the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. She said, "Oh, well I write serious books." I replied that I wrote serious books too. That I don't think murder is funny, but that I did use humor in other parts of my books.

I'm caught somewhere in between comedy and tragedy. In my most recent book, Let's Fake a Deal, (published July 30th), there are two parallel story lines. As the book opens Sarah is arrested for selling stolen goods at a garage sale and a few chapters later a friend of hers is arrested for murder. I was shocked when someone who interviewed me said they thought the first chapter (where Sarah is arrested) was one of the funniest scenes they've ever read. When I wrote the scene my vision of Sarah was that she was really scared. I guess that just proves humor is in the eye of the beholder. After the interview was over, I reread the scene with a different mind-set and saw how it could be interpreted that way.

Where do I add the humor? I'd like to tell you I carefully plot it all out in advance but I don't. I'll make a decision early in my writing process on how to add some humor. For Let's Fake a Deal, I tossed around ideas with my independent editor, Barb Goffman. (Hi, Barb, thanks for having me here today.) We came up with the idea that Sarah could do a garage sale for a woman who was obsessed with cats. Not a crazy cat woman who has twenty cats living with her, but a woman who wants to make the front of her house look like the face of a cat. To afford that she has to sell off her massive collection of cat-morabilia. So the cat-tastic garage sale was born.
Kishi Station in Japan was redesigned to resemble a cat in honor of a beloved local stray cat. (Can you see it?) This station isn't in the Sarah Winston books, but it's a great example of what a dedicated cat lover could do with enough funds.
But the Sarah Winston books have more than funny situations. Each of my books is set partially on an Air Force base, and I weave in difficulties military families face. In Let's Fake a Deal, one of Sarah's friends, who has been selected for promotion to colonel, has an IG (inspector general) complaint filed against her, which holds up her promotion. I did a lengthy interview with a friend who served as a Navy JAG for 23 years. We talked about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Then I interviewed other women I knew who had served. The interviews fascinated and horrified me. Their stories are woven into the book.

I hope the titles add some humor and Sarah is funny. She's not funny in a slapstick, "slip on a banana peel" kind of way, but she has an optimistic outlook on life. Her observations about life add humor to the books. But I also want her to be multilayered so when she stumbles over a dead body Sarah hurts, and when she sees someone die she reacts like a real person would. 

****
 
Sherry Harris is the Agatha Award-nominated author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. She is the President of Sisters in Crime, a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers.
 
In her spare time Sherry loves reading and is a patent-holding inventor. Sherry, her husband, and her guard dog, Lily, are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next.  (Barb here: That's what she thinks. I'm not letting her move away ever. No how. No way.) 
 
 
 
Twitter: @SHarrisAuthor
 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SherryHarrisauthor

Instagram: SherryHarrisAuthor

30 July 2019

Living in a Writing Rain Forest

by Barb Goffman

Recently Michael Bracken wrote here on SleuthSayers about living in a writing desert. He doesn't have a lot of authors who live near him in Texas. So he doesn't have author friends he can easily meet up with for lunch or a drink or a plotting session. In response to my comment that a friend once said that here in the Washington, DC, area, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery author, Michael said:

"I often wonder, Barb, how much being part of a thriving writing community or being in a writing desert impacts how our writing and our writing career develops. I sometimes think that if I moved somewhere where one can't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery writer I might get too excited. I'd have too much fun being a writer and not enough time actually writing."

Well, I'm here today to say that I know with certainty that if I were living in a writing desert instead of the opposite (which I'm guessing is a writing rain forest--all that water, right?) I would not be writing these words on this blog, and I wouldn't be writing fiction at all.
A real rain forest

I remember when I first got the hankering to try to write crime fiction. It was in my first or second year of law school, and I had an idea for a book. I thought I would start writing it in my spare time (ha!), perhaps over the summer. But summer came and went, as did the rest of law school and my first year of practice as an attorney. And guess what? I didn't write that book. Not even one page. 

One day I was thinking about the book. I wanted to write it, but three years (or so) had passed. Why hadn't I started writing? And I realized it was because I didn't know how to write a book. Legal briefs and memoranda, yes, those I knew how to write. Newspaper articles, yes, I could write those too. (I was a reporter before I went to law school.) But I wasn't trained in writing fiction. It was a mystery to me. (Ha again.) I knew there were rules I didn't know. I couldn't imagine how to start. Looking back, I realize I could have bought any number of how-to books, but I didn't. Instead, I decided that I didn't know how to write fiction, so I should just give up that dream.

But the dream wouldn't give up on me. Perhaps a week later, I saw an ad for an eight-week course starting in just a few weeks at a place called The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They were offering an introductory course on writing a mystery novel. The class would be on Saturday mornings, which fit into my schedule. The Writers Center was just a mile from my apartment. And I could afford the course. It was like fate was calling to me, "Don't give up!" 

So I signed up for the course, and here I am, nearly two decades later, with 32 crime short stories published, four more accepted and awaiting publication, wins for the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards under my belt, as well as 27 nominations for national crime-writing awards. As for that first book, the one that prompted all of this ... I stopped writing it after chapter 12 or so. But I wrote another novel after it, and that one I finished. It sits in a drawer, awaiting one last polish. I may get to it someday ... or not because I've realized I love short stories, and when I get time to write, that's what I want to work on. So I do.

I never would have learned all of that and done all of that and accomplished all of that if I had been living in a writing desert. Without that first class at The Writers Center, I wouldn't have started writing fiction. I also wouldn't have been introduced to Sisters in Crime, specifically to members of the Chesapeake Chapter. I wouldn't have heard about mystery fan conventions Malice Domestic and Bouchercon. I wouldn't have started writing short stories. (I started down my short-story path because the Chessie Chapter had a call for stories for its anthology Chesapeake Crimes II.) Boiling it all down, if I were living in a writing desert, I wouldn't be me, not the me I've become. I'd probably still be working as an attorney instead of working full-time as a freelance crime fiction editor. (The pay is worse but the work suits me so much more.)

Living in this rain forest also has affected my life in other ways. My closest friends these days are all writers. When I lived in the Reston area, four other mystery authors lived within two miles of me. Other close friends lived less than a half hour away. We would go to lunches and dinners, talk about writing and plotting and life. Now that I live a little farther away, those meals happen a little less frequently, but they still happen. And thanks to Facebook, I'm never far from my writing tribe. It is the modern-day water cooler. I also talk to my pals on the phone regularly. (Yes, I'm a throwback!)

So I am utterly grateful I don't live in a writing desert. I can't imagine who I'd be if I did. And while I hope no one ever actually swings a dead cat my way, if that were the price I'd have to pay, I'd pay it. But who would swing a dead cat anyway? Mystery lovers are animal lovers, and we like our cats--and dogs--alive and slobbery. But that's a blog for another day.
***

And now for a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that a few days ago my story "Bug Appétit" was named a finalist for the Macavity Award for best mystery/crime short story of 2018. And I'm doubly happy to share this Macavity honor with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, along with four other talented writers, Craig Faustus Buck, Leslie Budewitz, Barry Lancet, and Gigi Pandian. The winner will be announced on October 31st during Bouchercon. If you'd like to read "Bug Appétit" it's available on my website here. Or if you'd like to hear me read it to you, you can listen to it here. Once you reach the podcast page, click on my story title (Episode 114). Enjoy!

09 July 2019

Plot, Not Snot!

by Barb Goffman

Realism. It's something authors strive for and readers look for. If I see something in a book that seems completely unrealistic, it may make me stop reading. And while readers will often suspend their disbelief for a good story, it behooves authors not to push readers too far.

So when I see an author striving to get the details right, I'm pleased. But allow me to let you in on a little secret ... it's possible to go too far.

Yep. There are certain things I don't want to read about, especially in detail. Here are some:

  • Snot. Yes, in crime fiction, you may have characters who cry. And yes, in real life, there may be snot associated with that crying. But I don't want to read about it. It's gross. So if it's not necessary to the plot (and really, when was the last time snot was necessary to the plot?), cut it. Please! 
    Showing tissues, good. Snot, bad.
  •  Vomit. Sure, sometimes the contents of a character's stomach may rise. Saying that bile entered someone's throat can be a good way to show a character's reaction to a disgusting situation. Even saying a person threw up can be okay. But showing the vomit leaving the body in graphic detail, nope, nope, nope. Don't do it. Please!
  • Farting. Another thing that happens in real life that I don't want to read about unless you can make it germane to the plot. Good luck with that one.
  • Using the toilet. Yes, we all do it. And sure, if you want to mention someone went to the restroom, go for it. People can talk privately in restrooms. They can wash their faces while contemplating the horrible thing they just witnessed. And they can go in there to take care of bodily functions. All fine. But when that stall door closes, the reader in me begs you to fade to black. I don't need to know the details about what goes on in there. Please, please, please.
  •  Phlegm. Similar to vomit. Yes, it happens. Nope, don't want to see it.
I'm told that these rules don't apply to fiction aimed at children. That kids love books that talk in detail about bodily functions. Not having been a child in a long time, I will have to accept that premise as true. But I'm interested in hearing from readers with kids on this matter. Do your kids like reading about all this disgusting stuff? Is there an age at which it ceases to be something fun and turns into something gross? And is there a difference between boys and girls on this matter?

Okay, readers, weigh in please. Have I missed anything? What do you not want to read about in graphic detail on the page? Tell me what is snot necessary for you. 

18 June 2019

Professional Tips from Screenwriters

Introducing John Temple…
John Temple
John Temple is a veteran investigative journalist whose books shed light on significant issues in American life.

Forthcoming next Tuesday, June 25th, John’s newest book, Up in Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Movement, chronicles Cliven and Ammon Bundys’s standoffs with the federal government.

His last book, American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic, was named a New York Post “Favorite Book of 2015” and was a 2016 Edgar Award nominee. American Pain documented how two young felons built the largest pill mill in the United States and also traced the roots of the opioid epidemic. John has spoken widely about the opioid epidemic to audiences that include addiction counselors, medical professionals, lawyers, and law enforcement.

John also wrote The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates (2009) and Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office (2005). The Last Lawyer won the Scribes Book Award from the American Society of Legal Writers. More information about John’s books can be found at www.JohnTempleBooks.com.

John Temple is a tenured full professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, where he teaches journalism. He studied creative nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned an M.F.A. John worked in the newspaper business for six years. He was the health/education reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a general assignment reporter for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and a government and politics reporter for the Tampa Tribune in Tampa, FL. I've had the pleasure of knowing him for more than twenty years, since attending law school with his wife. I'm so pleased to let you all meet and learn from such a great journalist and storyteller.

— Barb Goffman

Learning from Screenwriters

by John Temple

In 2006, I read a book that changed the trajectory of my writing life. I was beginning work on my second nonfiction book, about a North Carolina lawyer who defended death row inmates, when a screenwriter friend recommended I read Syd Field’s 1979 book, Screenplay, which is a sort of holy text for Hollywood screenwriters.

I wasn’t a screenwriter, but I soon realized why the book had such an impact. Somehow, even after many years of working as a newspaper reporter, devouring numerous writing books, and earning an MFA in creative nonfiction, I had never come across such solid, practical advice about how stories are built. Among other ideas, Field advocated a fairly strict three-act structure as the screenplay ideal, but for me the single most helpful concept in his book involved “beats.”

Most screenwriters agree that their chief mission is to find the story’s moments of change, which they call beats. In a screenplay, where efficiency is key, those transformative moments determine whether a scene or sequence earns its pages. In every scene, something must occur that alters either the character’s mindset or the stakes or the dramatic action. In my last three books, all nonfiction crime stories, I’ve tried to consciously seek out the moments of change that my various characters have experienced, and let those beats dictate how I structured the books. I’m looking for the events that contain catalytic moments that alter the protagonist or the surroundings and further the story. Those are the moments I seek to present as full-fledged scenes, rich with vivid detail. The rest is summary.

Sometimes, a beat can be dramatic and external. As Raymond Chandler wrote: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” (What Chandler actually meant by that quote is somewhat more complicated.) However, the most intriguing and pivotal beats often involve internal change, which is often a decision or realization. In my 2015 book, American Pain, which chronicled the rise and fall of the nation’s largest painkiller pill mill, the owner realized how much money he stood to make if he could avoid the Drug Enforcement Administration’s scrutiny. That meant he needed to clamp down on his doctors and staff. This was a key moment of change for this primary character. So instead of breezing through that section of the book in an expository way, I meticulously looked for moments and details that would illuminate that beat. There were many other moments of obvious drama in the book – train crashes, overdoses, a kidnapping, drug busts – but that change in the character’s outlook felt more important to the overall story.

Temple: Up in Arms
Another type of internal change is a shift in the character’s emotional state. If a character enters and exits a scene in emotional stasis, then the scene may be lacking in movement. My new book, Up in Arms, chronicles the Cliven Bundy family’s multiple standoffs with the federal government. I deliberately sought to find scenes that showed Ammon Bundy’s increasing mistrust and suspicion of the feds, which eventually led to his engineering of an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon.

External change is any change in the character’s environment, usually resulting in what Aristotle termed “peripeteia” or “reversal,” a sort of flip-flopping of the pressures being exerted against the protagonist. At the beginning of a scene, the character may be under one kind of stress, but by the end of the scene, a new pressure, often a polar opposite, has arisen. A third type of change is the shift in the relationship between two characters. Like any change, a relational change can be subtle or obvious. As veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said in a 2000 interview: “Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I look for.”

So every scene or sequence must contain a beat of change. How should these beats be arranged? Screenwriters are continually puzzling over this question. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters, Christopher Vogler repackaged the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell for modern Hollywood, outlining 12 major beats that are part of what he called the Hero’s Journey, including a Call to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, and the Return with the Elixir. The specifics of these beats are endlessly variable, adaptable to any genre or character.

Robert McKee’s book, Story, suggests that narratives feature a warring Idea and Counter-Idea, illustrated by beats in which one or the other gains the upper hand. Scenes and sequences should be arranged so the Idea prevails in one beat, only to be defeated by the Counter-Idea in the next, and so on in an undulating wave of positive and negative beats. McKee writes: “At climax one of these two voices wins and becomes the story’s Controlling Idea.”

All narrative writers know change must occur to keep a story moving. But novelists and creative nonfiction authors may benefit by using the concept of story beats to more deliberately analyze the value and possibilities of their scenes and the structure of their books. It’s a concept that’s just as useful on the page as it is on the screen.

28 May 2019

Things You Learn from Editing

by Barb Goffman

As the old saying goes, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. (As a dog owner, I can attest that this is true!) The saying also applies to writers. No matter how much writing experience you have, you still can learn more.

I was reminded of this point recently, as I've been editing a lot of short stories for two upcoming anthologies, one coming out in December, and another coming out next spring. Some of the stories have been written by authors I consider to be short-story experts. Other stories have been written by authors who have had several stories published but who haven't broken out yet, and others still have been penned by authors who are just starting out. And I have learned something from all of them--sometimes simply from reading the stories (even the newest writer can come up with a twist or a turn of phrase that turns my head) and other times from editing them.

It's the editing finds that can lead to especially interesting conversations.

Did you know that SOB is in the dictionary? All caps. No periods. The acronym for son of a bitch is a word all its own, at least according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Even more surprising (to me at least), mansplain has made the dictionary too. I won't bother to tell you what that words means. I'm sure you know.

Turning to homophones, two-word terms often become single words when slang enters the picture. For instance, a woman might go to the drug store to buy a douche bag, but if her boyfriend is being a jerk, she'd call him a douchebag (one word, no space). And descriptions of animal excrement are usually spelled as two words: horse shit, bull shit, chicken shit. But when you mean "no way" or "a load of not-actual crap" you spell it horseshit and bullshit (again, one word, no space). And when you mean that someone is a coward, you call him a chickenshit--also one word. (Thanks to Michael Bracken for helping me see the horse shit/horseshit distinction recently.) It's interesting that horses, bulls, and chickens have had their excrement turned into slang words, yet dog shit is just that. Two words meaning excrement. As I told a friend, I might start saying "dogshit," when I want to say "no way!" just to see if it catches on.

Keeping with the one-word or two-words questions, do you go into a room or in to a room? This may be an obvious thing for you, but it's one of those little things I find myself double-checking over and over. Same for on to/onto, some time/sometime, and so many more. Each of these words has their proper place, so I like to make sure I use them properly.

Yep, that's a bear on a trampoline.
To answer these questions: you go into a room. Into is the correct word if you are showing motion. The onto/on to question also turns on whether you are showing movement. I jump onto the trampoline. I catch on to my boyfriend's lies. As to sometime or some time, this question turns on whether you are talking about a period of time (writing this blog is taking some time) or if you mean an indefinite date (I'll get back to you sometime next month). Thank goodness for Google, without which I would have to memorize these distinctions. Instead I just get to look them up again and again and again.

Well, I hate to cut this column short, but I'm short on time. (Ha ha!) (And that's two words for ha ha, per our friend Mr. Webster.)

Do you have any interesting word usage issues/spelling knowledge you'd like to share? Please do. I'm always eager to learn something new.

******

Oh, and before I go, two bits of BSP: My story "Bug Appétit" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story! This story was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was a finalist earlier this year for the Agatha Award. I'm honored to be an Anthony finalist along with fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor as well as authors S.A. Cosby, Greg Herren, and Holly West. The winner will be voted on and announced at Bouchercon in November. In the meanwhile, you can read my story here, if you are interested.


And if you're anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, on Saturday, June 8th, I hope you'll come to the launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. This anthology from the Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime includes my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne."

The launch party will run from 3 - 5 p.m. at the Libbie Mill - Henrico County Public Library, 2011 Libbie Lake E. St., Richmond, VA. In addition to the usual book launch activities such as book selling and book signing and snack eating, there will be a panel discussion about the pros and cons of writing different lengths of fiction. I'll be on the panel with fellow Deadly Southern Charm author Lynn Cahoon and anthology editor Mary Burton. We hope to see you there!

07 May 2019

The Importance of a Solid Beginning

by Barb Goffman

 "Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly; "Tis the prettiest little parlor that you ever did spy."

--"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt

I spent the last few days at the Malice Domestic mystery convention, learning about new mystery novels and stories, catching up with old friends, and listening to panels about books and writing. One topic that particularly interested me was the importance of first lines.

I was reminded of some research results I learned in journalism graduate school nearly three decades ago. If I remember correctly, the average newspaper reader first looked at the photo accompanying an article, then at the headline, then at the cutline (caption) under the photo, and then, maybe, started reading the article. If the author didn't grab the reader in those first ten (or was it thirty?) seconds, it wouldn't matter how good or important the rest of the article was; that reader was never going to know what it said.

I don't know if these results would still be the same today, though I'd guess readers probably spend even less time considering whether to read an article, especially because sometimes all they see is a photo and the headline; then they have to decide to click if they want to read more.

And this all brings me to this question: how do these results apply to reading novels and short stories? Before buying or borrowing a book, do readers look at the cover (akin to the newspaper photo), then the headline (the title), then the cutline (perhaps a blurb on the cover), and then check out the first sentence or first page before deciding whether to buy or borrow a book? I'd bet that a lot of readers do.

My approach is to look at a book's cover and to consider its author. If I'm intrigued by the cover, if it has the right mood, or if the book is written by an author I've enjoyed before, I might decide to read it without gathering any additional information. If I'm still unsure, I'll read the book's description and maybe some reviews online. I don't usually check out the writing--the first line or first paragraph--before before deciding whether to move forward. Maybe I should do that because the quality of the writing will definitely affect whether I ultimately read to the end or give up early. If a writer has lured me in, like the spider with the fly, I'll probably keep turning those pages. But if I don't care about the characters, I might stop after two or three chapters. Sometimes I'll flip to the end of a whodunit to see if my guess about who the bad guy is was right. But sometimes I don't even care about that. As the saying goes, life is too short to waste time on bad books.
How's this for an anthology
cover that lures the reader in?


I take a more lenient approach with short stories, perhaps because the short story is my preferred medium. Unless the writing is poor or the story is particularly boring or way too dark for me, I'll usually read the whole thing. But that doesn't mean that a solid first line or first paragraph isn't important. Indeed, that opening can sometimes make or break the "is this boring?" decision.

That said, thinking about the openings to my own short stories, I hope other readers are even more lenient than I am. For while I sometimes write openings that, I hope, make readers react, luring them in with a splash, at other times, I use the opening to bring readers into a particular setting, where they might see something important. It might not seem exciting, but it sets the stage for all that comes. And at other times, the opening is all about setting the mood.

Here are some examples:

  • Murder's always a sin. But it especially feels like sacrilege when I get called from church on a Sunday morning because a body's been found. 

"Till Murder Do Us Part" in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies

This is a mood opening, as well as an opening with a bang. I hoped this beginning's mood would lure the reader in, as would the knowledge that the reader is embarking on a murder case with a caring, honest sheriff.

  • Looking back, I should have known something was wrong when the pot roast disappeared.

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" in Florida Happens

With this first sentence, I aimed to convey that something odd--and funny--was happening, something that the main character was overlooking. That, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

  • It was the night before Thanksgiving, and Garner Duffy stood just inside the entrance of the community center, scanning the large room. He knew exactly what he was looking for.

"Bug Appetit" in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

By using an opening similar to that of Clement Clark Moore's famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," I hoped to get the reader into the mood to read a holiday-related story. And I hoped the second sentence would make the reader wonder what Garner was looking for and read on to find out.

  • "The defense calls Emily Forester."
  • My attorney squeezed my hand as I rose. If anyone noticed, they probably viewed it as a comforting gesture. I knew better. Bob was imploring me to use his plan, not mine. Too bad, Bob. This was my murder trial, and we were doing things my way.

"The Power Behind the Throne" in Deadly Southern Charm

This opening drops the reader into the middle of the action and, I hoped, intrigues the reader to want to see what happens next with this headstrong defendant.

  • They say appearances can be deceiving. No one knows that better than me. Everyone's always thought I had it made. Only kid in the richest family in town with a steady supply of cool new clothes and fancy vacation plans. Never had a worry.  

"Punching Bag" in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries

This opening is more of a setting-the-stage opening. There's no pounding action here. Instead, the reader is invited into the life of a minor--the character's age isn't clear yet. There's the hint of secrets. Of a family unraveling.That something is definitely wrong. All of this, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

Do these opening work? Do they achieve their goal of luring the reader into the story? Of letting the reader know that something interesting, something enticing, something the reader *must* know  about is happening? I certainly hope so. Because as I learned in journalism school nearly three decades ago, if you don't lure the reader in, it doesn't matter how good the rest is because a lot of people won't bother to read it.

Do you have any favorite opening lines? Please share in the comments and include why you think that line works so well.


16 April 2019

How the College-Admissions Scandal, Gilmore Girls, and My Newest Short Story All Tie Together



by Barb Goffman

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Long Island in the 1970s and '80s. I attended school in a (then) top-rated public school system. At age 15, my mother informed me my career choices were doctor (which she knew was a no-go as I can't even talk about blood) or lawyer. Before I graduated from high school, my three siblings were all practicing attorneys. My path was clear, even if I didn't want to take it. (The fact that I ultimately didn't take it for a few years is a little miracle in itself. But I digress.)

When I was a teen, if I needed a tutor or an SAT prep class to ensure my future, I got it. If I had to participate in a gazillion extra-curricular activities to round out my college applications, I did it. If taking a bunch of Advanced Placement (AP) classes would help me stand out, I took them. I wasn't atypical. This is how it was for many kids where I grew up, and likely many kids in similar neighborhoods nationwide. If you didn't get all A's you must not have tried hard enough. Failure was not an option. Success was expected, even though perfection is a pretty hard standard to meet--one I rarely did. (If you think I'm exaggerating, then feel blessed that you never brought home a test with a score of 97, the highest grade in the class, but instead of receiving praise, you were asked why you didn't get 100.)


So when the college-admissions scandal broke a few weeks ago, I wasn't surprised. Three decades have passed, but people haven't changed. The parents involved appear to be just as goal-oriented as many of the ones I knew growing up, doing whatever they think is necessary to ensure their kids succeed. Except they have a lot more money than the families in my old neighborhood, and perhaps fewer ethical qualms, so instead of (or perhaps in addition to) pushing their kids to obtain success through legal methods, these parents paid people off to ensure admissions or to raise key test scores. They took competitive parenting to the extreme.

What drives parents to do these types of things? I'm no psychologist, but I've given this mindset a lot thought over the years, and I think it's at least partially a combination of vanity and fear. Parents who want others to think they are successful use their kids' "achievements" as bragging rights. That's the vanity at work. As for the fear, that's where the old idea of keeping up with the Joneses comes into play. When it seems everyone you know does something to give their kids a leg up, you feel you have to do it too, or else your children will fall behind, and maybe they won't live in as nice a house as you have when they grow up; maybe they won't have as nice a life as you do. And that just won't do. It's a failure on your part. (And vanity raises its ugly head once again.)

It was with competitive parents like these in mind that I created the main character in my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne." It appears in the anthology Deadly Southern Charm, which is officially published today by Wildside Press. (How timely, right?) The book includes 18 crime stories about strong southern women written by members of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

When friends read early drafts of this story, they thought my main character, Emily Forester, was crazy. Her priorities seemed so skewed. But Emily is just a competitive parent who focused her energies on her husband (as well as her children). She needed him to achieve. She feared what would happen if he didn't. And she wouldn't let his desires divert them from the path to success that they were on.

Maybe Emily didn't seem so crazy to me because of my own past. And maybe it's because she resembled another fictional Emily whom I love: Emily from Gilmore Girls.
Kelly Bishop played
Emily Gilmore


Think about it. Emily Gilmore had her standards. She knew how things were supposed to be. She was a corporate wife, and her job was to help her husband succeed. She was the ultimate power behind the throne. Granted she never paid off someone to promote her husband, but she certainly did everything she could behind the scenes to help him move up the corporate ladder, including throwing the right parties, doing charity work with the right people, and having him accompany her to all the right events. In the end, Emily Gilmore isn't that different from the parents I knew growing up and those 1% parents in the news now. She knew the path to take to success, and she and her family were going to take it come hell or high water. (At least until Lorelai had a baby and ran away. But that's another story.)

My character Emily Forester is the modern-day equivalent of Emily Gilmore. The only difference is Emily Gilmore's husband appreciated her efforts (mostly). Emily Forester's husband ... not so much. And that's why their marriage took a deadly turn.

To find out what happened to Emily Forester, and to truly understand her mindset--it's so much more fun, I think, to be in her head than have me try to explain it--you'll have to pick up the anthology. I hope you will. It's available in trade paperback at Amazon and in trade paperback and e-book form directly through the publisher. It should show up in e-book form on Amazon any time now, and you should be able to order it from any bookstore.

For any of you on Facebook, several authors with stories in the book will be on the Lethal Ladies Write page from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight ET to talk about the book. Please stop by. And for any of you going to the Malice Domestic mystery convention in two weeks, you'll be able to buy the anthology in the book room at the convention. Several authors with stories in the book will be participating in a group signing on Friday, May 4th, at 4 p.m. at Malice. We hope to see you there!

***

Speaking of Malice Domestic, all attendees will be able to vote for this year's winners of the Agatha Award. If you haven't read all five nominated short stories, this is the perfect time to do so. You can find links to them, including my "Bug Appétit," on the Malice website. Happy reading!

26 March 2019

Can You Hear Me Now?

by Barb Goffman

Thanks to the fine folks at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a recording of me reading my Agatha Award-nominated short story "Bug Appétit" will be available online at the EQMM website beginning April 1st. (It's true. No April Fool's here.) When they asked me to make the recording, my biggest concern was technical. How could I get a good version of me reading my story in Virginia up to New York, from where it would get uploaded to the EQMM podcast site? That may sound like a no-brainer to many of you, but for me, well, let's just say I'm not really great with new technology. I'm still waiting for someone to teach me how to use the Bluetooth in my car.

Eventually things got worked out technologically speaking (thank you, Jackie Sherbow), so I was able to focus on my next worry: I have five speaking characters in my story. How was I going to make them sound different enough that the listener would be able to tell them apart? If you're reading the story on paper (or on a screen), you can see when a speaker changes, even without a dialogue tag, because you'll see a closing quotation mark, then a change in paragraph, and the next line of dialogue opens with an open quotation mark. You're not going to have those visual signals with audio. My friends told me not to worry--ha!--and said that surely it would all be fine.

"Bug Appétit" was in the
Nov./Dec. 2018 issue
Skeptical, I realized procrastinating was doing me no good. So I put those worries aside and moved on to the next ones: Was I properly pronouncing all the words in the story? Would I talk too quickly?--something I've been accused of in the past. Would I insert verbal tics (umms, etc.) without realizing it? To address these concerns I looked up the words I was unsure of, including researching regional pronunciations, and practiced reading out loud. Then I recorded the story, sent it off to New York, and now I wait anxiously for April 1st to arrive for the recording to be posted so I can see (or more precisely, hear) if I did an okay job.

In the meanwhile, here are some things I've learned from this experience:

(1) Even if you think you've written a funny story, you can't laugh at your own jokes while you read the story aloud. This is tougher than you'd think when you're a hoot. (Just saying.)

(2) While Alexa may be good at a lot of things, pronunciation isn't one of them. When I asked her how to pronounce "sago" (as in sago grubs), which I spelled out for her, she pronounced it for me--the same way I would have said it instinctively. Woo-hoo! But then she said that she's not often good at pronouncing things and while she's always improving, maybe I shouldn't rely on her. So much for technology.

(3) "Pecan pie" is one of those terms that is pronounced differently in various parts of the United States. Where I grew up on Long Island, it's pronounced PEE-can pie. (Every time I say it or think it, I can hear Billy Crystal saying it over and over in When Harry Met Sally. "Pee-can pie. Pee-can pie. Pee-can piiiiie." But on the West Coast, where my story is set, many people pronounce it pih-KHAN  pie. I had to practice to say it right.





(4) Practice doesn't always make perfect. When you read aloud, you instinctively say a word the way you've always said it, no matter how much you practice. Or at least that's what happened to me, which is why I had to stop and re-read that part for the recording. Twice. That pih-KHAN pie was hard fought.

(5) No matter how hard you try to remove background noise, when you're recording something, there will always be a plane flying overhead.

(6) And when you have a dog named Jingle, he will become velcro right when you want to start recording and then he will live up to his name, moving and scratching and jingling over and over and over, so you have to stop and restart the recording over and over and over. And over.

(7) Eventually you'll get so frustrated you'll tug his collar off and tell him to be quiet (perhaps with some expletives mixed in). When he finally does it and falls asleep, you'll sigh in relief, but beware: your bliss will be short-lived. Because within a few minutes the dog will start to snore. Of course he will.

(8) Effecting five different voices plus the one saying the internal monologue is not easy. I found that I physically tried to embody each character, stretching tall with my nose raised whenever the mother spoke, tilting my head sideways to get the amused dad's voice right, and internalizing the narrator's voice from season two of Fargo when I read the exposition. The only voice that came really easily was the grandma's--a woman who spoke her mind. Go figure.

(9) Reading a story aloud takes much longer than you'd expect. Much longer than reading it silently. Let's hope that means I read it slowly enough without any verbal tics. And, um, if I, um, included some tics, um, please don't tell me.

(10) If the fine folks at EQMM ever ask you to record one of your stories for their podcast, jump at the chance. It was a lot of fun. But first, arrange for your dog to go on a long walk before you hit record. The last thing you want listeners to hear while you're reading your story is someone snoring in the background.

05 March 2019

Who needs oysters? Pumpkin pie will get your libido pumping!

by Barb Goffman

I have a secret. ... I spend too much time on the Internet.

Okay, fine. Anyone who's my Facebook friend already knows that about me. But since admitting the problem is the first step to conquering the problem ...

Wait a minute. Who says spending a lot of time on the Internet is a problem? If I hadn't done that, I might not have read some articles that helped me write "Bug Appetit," which is my short story that became my first sale to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and is a current finalist for the Agatha Award. It's not like you just inherently know that pumpkin pie is an aphrodisiac. No, sir. I had to read an article in the New York Daily News about it and then remember that great tidbit when the right time came.

What, you say? Pumpkin pie? An aphrodisiac? Tell me more.

Okay.

According to the Daily News, researchers say the sweet, spicy scent of pumpkin pie increases men's sexual desire. And cooking the pie with pumpkin seeds can be even more useful for getting your man in the mood. The seeds are full of zinc, which increases testosterone and thus also increases desire.

Another helpful article on the Internet says that the smell of pumpkin pie can increase blood flow to the penis by forty percent. Thank you, https://science.howstuffworks.com. Pumpkin pie can influence women's arousal too, though blood-flow numbers weren't offered.

This all may explain why you know a lot of folks born at the end of August. Yep, they're likely Thanksgiving babies, thanks (pun intended) to the pumpkin pie served as holiday dessert. 

So if you want to entice your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend or even someone you met the prior night at a speed-dating event (this idea is from my story--not my real life--honest), bake some pumpkin pie with the seeds in it. You could end up having a story-worthy tale, if you're the kind to kiss and tell.

How does this play out in "Bug Appetit"? You can read it yourself to find out. The story's right here online for your reading pleasure. The folks at Ellery Queen called it "twisty, humorous, and creepy." What more could you want?

And don't worry if you're spending too much time on the Internet. My experience is that it can really pay off. Happy reading!

12 February 2019

Agatha Award short-story finalists for this year

by Barb Goffman

Given that I am swamped with work, I've decided to take the easy way out this week and write something short for you. But never fear. I'm a short-story writer, so brevity is my friend.

Allow me to introduce the finalists for this year's Agatha Award in the short-story category, all of whom know how to make every word count. I'm pleased to be one of the nominees, along with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, and the three other finalists, all of whom I'm also proud to call my friends. So without further ado, the finalists and their stories. Each title is a link to that story, for your reading pleasure.

  • Leslie Budewitz. Her story "All God's Sparrows" was published in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  


  • Barb Goffman. (Yep, that's me.) My story "Bug Appetit" was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.



Attendees of the Malice Domestic mystery convention will be able to vote for their favorite story during the convention this May. In the meanwhile, happy reading! See you in three weeks.

22 January 2019

I've Crossed A Line -- Warning: Rated X for Expletives

by Barb Goffman

You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take the New York out of the girl. That's my explanation for why I often pepper my speech with expletives. Anyone who read my 2017 column  titled "The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing" knows I'm quite comfortable with the word fuck. I've used it and other curse words in my stories without issue.

How often? I just ran a search of my published stories, and here are the results:

  • Asshole -- used in two stories (6% of all my published stories).
  • Fuck -- used in two stories (6%). A surprisingly low number. I'll have to work on that.
  • Shit -- used in four stories (12%).
  • Bastard -- used in five stories (16%).
  • Bitch -- used in fifteen stories (48%!). I might have to tone this one down.
Given these results, you'd think I didn't often write light cozy stories. And yet there's one big curse word missing from the list. One word that, until last week, I had never used in a published story. Can you figure out what it is? Here's a hint: it rhymes with the word for the smallest animal in a litter. See, I have so much trouble with this word, I'm squeamish about even typing it here, in an academic (ish) discussion about using curse words in my fiction. The word is ...

Cunt. There I said it.

And I'm cringing.

There is just something about this word that, to me at least, crosses a line. I know some of you are reading this thinking I must have no lines. But I do. And cunt crosses it. That's why I never say it. And until now I've never used it in my fiction.

So why did I make this exception? And was it a good choice?

To answer these questions, let's turn to the story in question. It's my newest story, "Punching Bag," which was published last week in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries, an e-zine that showcases crime flash fiction. I'm delighted that not only did editors BJ and Brandon Bourg choose to publish it, but they also chose it as the cover story and as the editors' choice story for the issue. It's the story of the darkest day in an emotionally abused teenage girl's life.

Let's stop here for a moment. I'm afraid that anything I say from here on will ruin the story for you if you haven't read it. So please go do so. The story is only 748 words long--the equivalent of three double-spaced pages. You can read it really quickly by clicking on the title in the prior paragraph. Then come back.

Okay, you've read it? Good. (I hope you liked it.)

You'll notice that the use of curse words is minimal. Toward the end the mom says the daughter is stupid and calls her a "disappointing, ungrateful bitch," and other unspecified names. That was all I planned to say about the matter originally, figuring readers could extrapolate from there. But one of my trusted beta readers told me she didn't think the girl was justified in killing her parents. She thought the girl came across as spoiled and selfish. I was surprised. I definitely didn't want that. I wanted readers to understand this girl, to be on her side, despite that she does a horrible thing. So I felt I needed to up the ante. That's when I added the part about her mom calling her a "self-centered cunt."

I figured if anything in this story was going to turn readers' perception of this girl from spoiled to sort-of justified, it would be that. If the word cunt crosses a line for me, I hoped, it would cross a line for readers, too--at least any readers whose line hadn't already been crossed by the mom's behavior.

So I submitted the story. But I worried. Was the use of the word cunt too much? Would it keep the story from being accepted? Then, once the story was accepted, I worried about readers. Would the word turn them off? Especially readers who know me primarily for my lighthearted, funny stories? The answer: So far, so good. I've gotten some feedback on "Punching Bag," and it's all been positive, with no one mentioning my use of that word. This response has helped me feel better about my choice, despite that the word still makes me cringe.

What do you think? Would you have been on the girl's side at the end if I hadn't included the "self-centered cunt" line? Or did the line push you onto the girl's side? Or do you think I went too far? What words cross your line?

One final note to my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti: Last week you wrote briefly about your newest flash short story (which is fewer than 700 words long), saying you were keeping things short because only English professors could get away with writing something about a story that is longer than the story itself. Ha ha, Rob! I have proven you wrong, because this blog about "Punching Bag" (excluding this paragraph) is 29 words longer than the story itself, and I am no English professor. Do I get a prize? Please don't make me become an English professor. I wouldn't last. I'd surely get written up for cursing in front of my students.

11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)

By Art Taylor

In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:


  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 


Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!



01 January 2019

The Power of Tenacity

by Barb Goffman

I planned to title this column the Power of Persistence and to write about writing goals. It seemed perfect for January 1st, when so many people make resolutions for the new year. And I do love alliteration. But then I thought, maybe "tenacity" would be a better word than "persistence." The Power of Tenacity might not have the same cadence as the Power of Persuasion, but is it more on point? I had always treated the words as synonyms, but maybe they aren't, I began to think. Maybe I should check. So I did, and it turns out there's an important difference between the two words.

Persistence means trying repeatedly to reach a goal through the same method, figuring eventually you'll succeed. Tenacity means trying to reach a goal through varying methods, learning from each failure and trying different approaches. For anyone with goals for 2019, tenacity seems the better approach.

How does this apply to writing? First, let's talk about getting writing done. Everyone has their own method. Some people write every morning before daybreak. Others write at night. Some people say they will write for a set number of hours each day. Others say they'll write as long as it takes to meet a daily quota. Some people plot out what they're going to write. Others write by the seat of their pants. It doesn't matter what your approach is, as long as it works for you. So with the new year here, perhaps this is a good time to take stock of your approach. Is your approach working for you? Are you getting enough writing done? Enough revision done? Are you making the best use of your time?

I have a friend (and editing client) who used to be a pantser. But she found that after finishing every draft, she had so many loose ends to address and problems to fix, it took her much longer to revise than she'd like. So she started forcing herself to plot before she began writing each book. Not detailed outlines, but she figures out who kills whom, how, and why, what her subplot will be (again, just the basics), and what her theme is. These changes in her approach have enabled her to be so much more productive. She writes faster now, and she needs less time for revision. That's tenacity in action.

Moving on to a finished product, how do you react to rejection? If you have a rejected short story, for instance, after you finish cursing the universe, do you find another venue and send that story out immediately? Or do you re-read it and look for ways to improve it? And if a story has been rejected several times (there's no shame here; we've all been there), do you keep sending it out anyway or put it in a drawer to let it cool off for a few months or years until perhaps the market has changed or your skills have improved?

If sending a story out a few times without revising after each rejection usually results in a sale for you, great. Then your persistence works, and it means you have more time for other projects. But if it doesn't, if you find yourself sending a story out a dozen times without success, then perhaps you should consider a new approach. After a story is rejected, say, three times, maybe you should give it a hard look and see how it can be changed. Maybe you should let it sit in a drawer for a while first, so when you review it, you'll have a fresh take.

And if you're getting a lot of rejections, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate your markets or what you write. I know some writers who started their careers writing science fiction, but it turned out that they were much better suited to writing mysteries. Once they let their true selves out on the page, they started making sales. I know a writer who's been working on a novel for years, but she can't seem to finish it. Yet she's had a lot of success with short stories. If she were to decide to only write short stories and let the novel lie fallow, that wouldn't be a failure; it would be tenacity in action: finding what works for her.

I was about to write that the one thing you shouldn't do is give up, but there might be value in letting go. If your goal is to write a novel or short story, but you never seem to finish your project, and the mere thought of working on it feels like drudgery instead of joy, then maybe being a professional writer isn't for you. There's no shame in that. Not every person is suited to every task. When I was a kid I loved swimming, but I was never going to make a swim team. I wasn't fast enough. Maybe with a lot of practice and other changes I could have gotten there, but I didn't want to take those steps. And that's okay. I enjoyed swimming for the fun of it, and that was enough for me. Maybe writing for yourself, without the pressure of getting to write "The End," is what gives you joy. If so, more power to you. And maybe it turns out you don't want to finish that book or story you started writing. That's okay too, even if you did tell everyone that you were writing it. You're allowed to try things and stop if it turns out they aren't the right fit for you.

But if you believe writing is the right fit, yet your writing isn't as productive as you want it to be, or your sales aren't as good as you want them to be, then be tenacious. Evaluate your approaches to getting writing done, to editing your work, to seeking publication. Maybe you need to revise how you're doing things. Are you writing in the morning but are more alert in the evening? Change when you write. Is your work typically ready to be sent out into the world as soon as you finish? If you get a lot of rejections, maybe it's not. Maybe you need to force yourself to let your work sit for a while after you finish, so you can review it again with fresh eyes before you start submitting. Do you have a contract, but your books aren't selling as well as you'd like? Perhaps you should find someone you trust who can try to help you improve. No matter how successful you are, there's always something new to learn. The key is to figure out what works for you and keep doing it, and also figure out what isn't working for you and change it.

That, my fellow writers, is my advice for 2019. Be tenacious. Evaluate what you want, and evaluate your methods for getting there. If your methods aren't working, change them. And if in six months your new methods aren't working, change them again. Work hard. Work smart. And be sure to enjoy yourself along the way, because if you're not enjoying writing, why bother doing it?

***

And now for a little BSP: I usually have one or two of my short stories up on my website so folks can get a feel for my fiction writing style. I just changed those stories. Now you can read "Bug Appétit" (which was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) and "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" (from the 2018 Bouchercon Anthology, Florida Happens). For "Bug Appétit"click here, and for "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" click here. Happy reading. And I hope you have a wonderful new year.