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

05 October 2021

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected ... Again!


I published the following column three years ago this week. With my time in such a crunch it could be dried leaves underfoot on a cold November day, I've decided to share it again. I hope you find it helpful.

Whether you're a seasoned writer or a first-timer, submitting a short story to any publication probably involves anxiety. You wouldn't have written the story if you didn't enjoy doing it. You wouldn't have submitted the story for publication if you didn't hope it's good enough and want the editor to say yes. Hearing that someone else likes your work is validating. Knowing that strangers will read your work is invigorating. Telling your family that you made a sale is good for the soul.

But not every story sells, especially on first submission. Editors usually try to be kind in their rejection letters, at least in my experience. They might say that they got a lot of submissions, and  many of the stories were wonderful, but they simply couldn't take them all. Or they might say that your story just wasn't a good fit for the publication, but please don't take it personally. Or they might say that they received a very similar story from someone else and simply couldn't publish both in the same book. It's this last type of rejection I'm going to focus on here. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Like an excuse.

There are all kinds of rejection.
And yet ...

I can tell you from personal experience that authors sometimes get very similar ideas. Sometimes this might be expected, especially when anthologies have narrow(ish) themes. For instance, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin' (which I co-edited) received a bunch of submissions involving revenge. (No big surprise.) A call for stories for a culinary anthology might result in a bunch of submissions involving poisoning. A book that wants weather-related short stories might receive multiple submissions about folks who are snowbound and someone is murdered.

But even when an anthology's call for stories is broad (let's say, the editor wants crime stories with a female protagonist), you can still end up with several similar stories under consideration. One reason could be that authors are subject to the same national news, so it would make sense if several might be inspired by the same news story, especially a big one. For example, I'd bet there are lot more #MeToo-type stories being written and submitted now than three years ago.

Authors also might be inspired by other industry successes. For instance, when vampire novels were all the rage, I knew several short-story authors writing about vampires, too. These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.

I imagine that when novels with unreliable protagonists became big, more than one editor received short stories with unreliable protagonists, too. Perhaps some authors were following the trend, but I bet others simply were inspired and wanted to see if they could pull off an unreliable narrator, as well.

There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, but you can see how editors might end up with two similar stories to choose from. Or more. They all might be great, but an editor likely will only take one because he doesn't want the book to be monotonous.

And then, of course, there's the weird scenario, when two authors respond to a very broad call for stories with an oddly similar idea that isn't inspired by the news or trends or, it seems, anything. These two authors were simply on the same wavelength. This scenario is what made me decide to write about this topic today.

When Bouchercon put out its call for stories last autumn for the anthology that came out last month (Florida Happens), they asked for stories "set in, or inspired by, Florida and its eccentricity and complexity. We want diverse voices and characters, tales of darkness and violence, whether they are noir, cozy, hard-boiled or suspense. Push the boundaries of your creativity and the theme! Note: the stories don't have to actually be set in Florida, but can be 'inspired' by itso a character can be from here, it can be built around a piece of music about Florida; etc."

That's a pretty broad theme. With that theme, I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bunch of submissions involving older people, since Florida is where many people retire. And I wouldn't be surprised if they received a lot of submissions involving the beach or the ocean, since Florida is where so many people vacation. But what are the odds that two (or maybe more) authors were going to submit stories about missing cats?

And yet, that is nearly what happened. Hilary Davidson wrote one such story. Her story in the anthology, "Mr. Bones," is about a missing cat. My story in the anthology, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," involves a missing pot roast. But as originally planned, that pot roast was going to be  ... yep ... a cat.

If you've read my story, you can imagine how changing the pot roast into a cat would make the story incredibly darker. It was the darkness that got to me. When I was writing and reached page two of the story, I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't write the story as planned with the object going missing being a cat. (Sorry for being vague, but I don't want to spoil things if you haven't read the story.)

Thank goodness for my unease, because I like the story much better with the pot roast. It makes the story lighter. Funnier. And it turned out that using the roast likely increased my chances of my story being accepted because I wasn't directly competing with Hilary Davidson (who wrote a great story). Indeed, imagine if I had gone through with my story as originally planned. The people who chose the stories would have had two submissions involving missing cats! And they likely would not have taken both stories.

So the next time you get a rejection letter and the editor says, please don't take this personally, take the editor at her word. You never know when someone else has an idea quite similar to yours. The world is funny that way.

14 September 2021

The Challenge of Writing Humor


In yesterday's column, Steve Liskow talked about the challenge of writing exposition. With another of my columns due today--the calendar says it's been three weeks since my last post here, but I swear it's been three hours--I decided to follow up on Steve's approach and talk about the challenge of writing humor.

As a former newspaper reporter, I know that a professional shows up when it's time to write and gets the job done. On some days, writing may flow more easily than others, but as long as you have an idea of what to write (whether a detailed outline, a high-level outline, or a jumping off point for you pantsers out there), a professional writer should be able to make progress each day with the story at hand. (Ideas can be harder to come by, at least for me. That's why I email ideas to myself whenever I get them so when I have writing time, I have lots of ideas to choose from. And of course finding that writing time can be another big problem, at least for me. But I digress ...) 

If you're sitting there cursing me out for telling you should always be able to make progress, when you know it's not that easy, you're about to feel much better. Because I have days when I can't make progress either, at least not when I'm trying to write humor.

Writing dark stories, dramatic stories, really, most any kind of crime story, I can do that on most any given day if I have an idea to work from. But if I am trying to write a funny story, all bets are off. If I'm trying to write humor and I'm not in the right mood, that sucker's not going to be funny, no matter how hard I try. You gotta feel the funny. At least I do. 

That said, sometimes when I'm trying to write a story that is supposed to be funny and it's not working, it turns out it's because my idea isn't developed enough. Take my story "A Tale of Two Sisters." (Please! Just take it! ... I know, I know, I'm no Henny Youngman.) Anyway, the story came out in May in the anthology Murder on the Beach. Writing that story was a slog. I knew I wanted to write about a wedding at which the bride's tiara is stolen, then retrieved, then stolen again, then retrieved etc. It sounded like a good idea until I tried to write it. The humor wasn't working. What I ultimately realized was my idea was too simple. A tiara being stolen repeatedly may be vaguely amusing, but to make the story funny, I had to add in more humorous situations and--most important--I needed to add in more humorous characters. 

I gave my main character, Robin the maid of honor, an overbearing mother, whom Robin reacts to in a sarcastic manner. I made Robin feel responsible for making sure her nervous sister, the bride, has a good night, then I had a dog crash the wedding. I made Robin starving but unable to get a bite of food. Basically, I kept upping the ante and setting up funny situations and amusing people for Robin to react to. Once I did that, the writing started to flow.

I faced a similar problem when I started writing "Humor Risk," my story in the anthology Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers. This book is coming out this Sunday, the 19th, and--as you can imagine with an anthology inspired by the Marx Brothers--I had to write something funny. No pressure. 

When editor Josh Pachter approached me about writing a story for this book, I told him (don't hate me) that I don't like the Marx Brothers and wouldn't be right for the anthology. Then he had an idea. The Marx Brothers' first film, Humor Risk, was never released. The history of the movie indicates that the one print of it might have been burned or stolen. There's very little detail about it. What if I wrote about that, Josh said, about the film being stolen. Maybe I could create a PI who hates the Marx Brothers but needs to find the movie. Okay, I said, I could work with that. 

Easier said than done. I came up with the idea of a PI tracking down the only print of the film to a hoarder house. The guts of the story would be this guy versus the house, with him getting hurt over and over. It sounded funny until I tried to write it. After one scene, the story became tedious. I realized I needed more characters, people my main character could react to. Once I figured that out (and changed him from a PI to a thief), the writing began to flow. I still have my main character, Dominic, searching in a hoarder house, but the humor comes not just from pratfalls but from voice--Dominic's thoughts and the dialogue of the other colorful characters. Changing the story's setup made all the difference. 

So, my takeaway from these experiences: If you're trying to write something funny, don't rely only on funny things happening in the story. You also need people reacting to the events. That's where the real humor will come in. 

One more thing: don't forget that sometimes the funniest parts of a story come from surprises. Like this one: It wasn't until after I finished writing "Humor Risk" and it was accepted that I realized I'd made a mistake. It's not the Marx Brothers I can't stand. (I don't love them, but I don't hate them.) When I told Josh I couldn't stand the Marx Brothers, the old comics I actually was thinking of were ... The Three Stooges.

Oops.

If you'd like to pick up Murder on the Beach, it's available in trade paperback and ebook. The book's in Kindle Unlimited, so if you want an ebook, you'll only find it on Amazon. Click here to go there.

If you'd like to order Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers, it's coming out in trade paperback and ebook. You'll be able to buy it in all the usual places, but your best price will be from the publisher, Untreed Reads Publishing. And if you order the trade paperback before the publication date (i.e., before this Sunday, September 19th) directly from Untreed Reads, you'll not only get a 25 percent discount but you'll also get a free ebook of the anthology in the format of your choice (Kindle, EPUB, or PDF). To get this deal, click here.

24 August 2021

The Best Characters are Desperate Ones


Would you ever frame someone? Rob someone? How about kill someone?

Here's hoping the answer is no. Yet I bet a lot of people who have framed, robbed, or killed others would have answered "no" to that question earlier in their lives, before they actually did it. You never know what you'll really do until your back is against the wall.

I discussed this with an author friend a few years ago. I asked her if she would ever embezzle from her employer. Of course, she said no. Then I said, what if your child was really sick and she needed medicine, and you wouldn't be paid for five more days and needed the cash now. What if you could borrow the money from the cash drawer at work without anyone noticing and then repay it next week? Would you take it? She allowed that she might in those circumstances, because the crime was non-violent, because the money would be repaid quickly and no one would have missed it.

Time to up the pressure, so I said, what if your child was really sick and you would have to kill someone to get the money for the medicine. Would you do that? Of course, her answer was no. Okay, I figured, let's ease up on the pressure. I said, imagine you did take the money from the cash drawer and then you realized there was going to be an unexpected audit at work before you could repay the money. The only way to not get caught--and getting caught would mean losing your job and thus the very health insurance your sick child depends on--would be to sneak into your rich neighbor's home and steal from her purse. Would you do that? Yes, my friend allowed. She probably would.

Then I asked, what if your neighbor caught you and was about to call the police? If you  were arrested, you'd lose your job and health insurance. Your ex-husband, who can charm anyone yet, privately, is emotionally abusive and unreliable, would sue for custody. So, not only would your freedom be in jeopardy, but your child's health and well-being would be too. What would you do to stop your neighbor? 

The series of questions went on and on, with me upping the pressure, until my friend said that in certain gut-wrenching circumstances, maybe she could kill someone.

And that was my point. You never know what you'll do until you're desperate, until the thing that matters most to you is threatened. I find it helpful to think about scenarios like these when writing crime stories. Writing about a bad guy who commits a crime simply because he enjoys it is far less interesting than writing about a guy who reluctantly commits a crime because he feels he has no other choice. 

It's good to think about what kind of strain you can put your characters under and how they'd react. To me, creating a story involves mixing character and conflict. Put your character under pressure, and your plot evolves from there. Every character will react differently to a particular conflict, so the plot will unwind differently depending on who is put in each pressure cooker.

In my newest story, "Ice Ice Baby," I put my protagonist, divorced-mom Melissa, under a lot of pressure. (I choose these words carefully. I listened to David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" on repeat as I wrote the story.) It's summertime and Melissa is driving an ice-cream truck to make ends meet. She needs those ends to meet or else she could lose her rental cottage. That would be disastrous. Her son has a learning disability, and her school district is the best one to help him. To make matters worse, her landlord has been sexually harassing her. She'd love to move, but the local rental market in her price range is currently non-existent. Talk about pressure. With her options limited, Melissa searches for a sweet solution to her sticky situation. 

What would you do in these circumstances? What does Melissa do? To find out, you'll need to buy the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which went on sale last week. You can buy the magazine at bookstores and newsstands, including Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million. To buy a digital copy of this issue, click here. To subscribe (in paper or digital form), click here

One reader has called "Ice Ice Baby" "even more satisfying than ice cream on a hot summer day." I hope you enjoy it just as much.

***

A little BSP: My short story "Dear Emily Etiquette" won the Agatha Award last month and the Ellery Queen Reader's Award in the spring. It's currently up for the Anthony and Macavity awards, the winners of which will be announced this Saturday. Fingers crossed! (Fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor is also up for the Anthony and Macavity awards in the short story category, as well as for the Anthony for best short story anthology or collection. Best of luck, Art!)

03 August 2021

My American Project—How to Write Like an American


Anne van Doorn is a regular reader and back blogger here at SleuthSayers. He's also an author (with a charming way with words) and a friend of mine. I'm pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Anne. 

                                                                                                            -- Barb Goffman

My American Project—How to Write Like an American

Avid readers of SleuthSayers may have seen my name appear in the comments section here. I came across this blog through Google and instantly liked how professional writers shared their experiences. It's an honest, entertaining, and informative bloga tempting combination. Now I have also been invited to write an article too, which I consider a great honor.

My name is Anne van Doorn. It's one of my two pen names; the other is M.P.O. Books. I'm a professional writer from the Netherlands, where I earn a modest but sufficient income. In my spare time, I work on a book on 600 years of my family's history.

None other than Josh Pachter introduced me to an international readership. He translated from Dutch my story "The Poet Who Locked Himself In." It was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Sept/Oct 2019 issue. I feel very grateful to Josh and the staff at EQMM for giving me this opportunity. Editor Janet Hutchings even gave me the chance to write a guest post for her blog Something is Going to Happen.

In case you're starting to think I'm writing this post to BSP myself—no, I'm here to enlist your assistance, dear SleuthSayers. 

I like a challenge. My introduction to an international audience made me wonder if I would be able to write an American detective novel. I'm sure I can—but to what level of performance? How convincing will it be? Your help is direly needed!

Dutch Writers Crossing Borders

Other writers from the Netherlands have tried this before—writing in English. Maarten Maartens (1858-1915), who lived the last years of his life in my hometown of Doorn, is said to be the first Dutchman to have written a detective novel for adults. It was titled The Black Box Murder (Remington & Co, London, 1889), and he wrote it in English. In fact, the novel has never been translated into Dutch. Maartens, who lived in England from 1864-1870, wrote almost exclusively in English. Regrettably, The Black Box Murder is his only detective novel. 

Other glowing examples are Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), who is famed for his wonderful Judge Dee stories, set in ancient China, and Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008), noted for his characters Grijpstra and De Gier, two Amsterdam police detectives. By the way, Josh Pachter translated two short stories by Janwillem van de Wetering for EQMM. One of them, "There Goes Ravelaar!," was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story of 1986 by Mystery Writers of America. 

It was also Josh Pachter who encouraged me to translate my short stories and gave me solid advice. Last year, I took on the challenge of translating "The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin" and submitted it to EQMM. I inked their contract in November. It was all the encouragement I needed. Apparently, my English is good enoughat least in short form.

The American Project

At the moment, my full-length so-called "American Project" is in the preliminary stages. I'm improving my understanding of the language and creating what I call my "palette."

I learned British English in school, so now I need to know how it differs from American English. I've made a list of idioms. I also study from the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. Furthermore, I've created an extensive list of words I don't use and write down their meanings and synonyms to discover their connotations. This should allow me to use them. I also list police jargon, slang, abbreviations, and terms of abuse. As a Christian, I don't like expletives, so I'm selective in this regard. 

And I'm making my palette. It's a document full of all kinds of expressions for motions and positions. Take for instance the way you move through a room. There are many variations for it. You can walk, run, stroll, tiptoe, lumber, and so on. Some of these words are new to me, so I need to write them down. While writing a novel, I can consult my palette document, choose the best option, adapt it to the situation, and use it. 

And by positions, I mean variations like these:

    "The statuette rested on a shelf."

    "The statuette was displayed on a shelf."

The same applies to non-verbal communicationthe way we express our emotions and thoughts. I'm talking about shrugs, frowns, blushes, looks, and so on. You probably know them all, but I have to write them down to choose the best option for a given situation. And, of course, I also need to know all the ways of speaking: saying, whispering, screaming, stammering, and all other variants. 

Eventually, my palette will be a helpful tool.

Learn by Reading Others

I read a lot of American English. Besides a daily visit to SleuthSayers, I read a short story every day. To cater to my needs, I subscribed to EQMM. Recently, I purchased Black Cat Mystery Magazine #8, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #13, and Shanks on Crime by Robert Lopresti in ebook format. Crime novels by Lou Manfredo (Rizzo's War), Anthony Boucher (The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars), and Steven Torres (Precinct Puerto Rico) are at the top of my TBR pile. I'm sure all these books will help me in one way or another.

Even then, I'm well aware that I will make mistakes. I'm not a flawless writer. But thank God there are copy editors who can save me from my follies! Dis article, for a sample, was copi-editit by Barb Goffmanaccept vor dis sentins. (Yeah, copy editing is hard labor!) I hope she's willing to help me on my American Project too, but I'm not sure she can, as this brave lady is learning to say no.

Now, my dear SleuthSayers, I turn to you. Over the years, this blog has published countless articles on the use of language, grammar, punctuation, and related topics. You've spotted my gravest mistakes in my comments on your posts. What particular article would you recommend to get me started?

13 July 2021

I Said It: The Rhythm Method Has a Role in Your Writing


There are a lot of mechanical issues involved in writing fiction. Making sure you don't violate point of view. Putting your commas in the right place. And plain old usage issues. (I didn't truly learn when to use lie or lay until grad school. Apologies to my secondary-school teachers. It wasn't you. It was me.)
 
Another thing I learned in grad school (journalism school) is where in a sentence to use the word said
 
The rule
 
Generally, when we speak in English, we usually use a noun, then a verb. That ordering should apply when your verb is said. As one of my grad-school professors said (see what I did there: noun, then verb), "You wouldn't say 'said he,' so you shouldn't say 'said Name.'" It should be "Name said." Seems pretty simple. For instance:
 
"I'm sorry," Prince Charming said. "I know you claim to be Cinderella, but I can't take you at your word. You'll have to prove it's you by putting on this shoe and showing it fits."
 
"Of course," Cinderella said. "We only danced together for hours. It's perfectly reasonable not to know me from my face and voice and to use this weird shoe test instead."

See, simple.

Of course whenever something seems simple, along comes an exception. This is also from my grad-school professor. (I'd name him if only I could remember his name. Sorry, whoever you are.)

The exception
 
You can make an exception if it's needed for clarity. You don't want there to be too many words between the end of a bit of dialogue and the said.
 
For instance, it could be confusing if you wrote: 
 
"I wonder if we'll have pudding tonight," Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, said.
 
Not only is that a mouthful, that's too many words between the end of the quote and the said. The reader could get lost parsing the sentence.
 
Therefore, it would be okay in this instance to write: 
 
"I wonder if we'll have pudding tonight," said Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
 
But unless you qualify for the aforementioned exception, my professor said many years ago, you should always write Name then said when quoting someone, whether you use a quote or are paraphrasing. I've applied this rule to my writing consistently, both when I was a newspaper reporter and since I started writing fiction nearly twenty years ago. I have told this rule to countless editing clients over the years. Some of them have disagreed with me, but I've always stuck to my guns ... until recently.
 
Another blasted exception?
 
Here's something else I've told clients: When you're writing, sometimes you can break rules if the rhythm of a sentence calls for it. That's why it's important to read your work aloud. Sometimes you can hear when it would be better to write a sentence in one way or another. But I never thought rhythm would dictate the use of "said Name" instead of "Name said."

Then my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor came along. I was reading his story "The Boy Detective & the Summer of '74" and came upon a bit of dialogue, a few quick back-and-forth sentences. At first the section caught my eye because Art wrote said before writing the speaker's name each time. (Is your mouth hanging open too? Not at me for being so persnickety (certainly not) but because Art had committed this faux pas?) I couldn't believe Art had done this either, but then I noticed something else. The way Art wrote these sentences really worked. More than that, the rhythm of the sentences would have been off if said had come after the names. 

Will wonders never cease?

I said recently that I learn something new every time I read, every time I turn a page. My experience from reading Art's story is a good example. So here's my new said-related advice: 
 
Usually you should write Name then said when you write a character's dialogue or paraphrase what a character says. (It's still good advice.) But you can make an exception if needed for clarity or ... for rhythm. 

Sometimes, it seems, the rhythm method actually works.

22 June 2021

How Assumptions Can Affect Your Writing


I'm under a time crunch, so I'm recycling a column I wrote in 2015, with a few changes, including some new examples. It's about how assumptions can impact your writing and be used in it. I hope you find it helpful. 

There's a famous episode in the original version of TV's The Odd Couple in which Felix Unger (the late, great Tony Randall) appears as his own attorney in court. Under Felix's questioning, a witness testifies that she assumed something, at which point Felix interrupts her, grabs a blackboard (conveniently sitting right there in the courtroom), and says, "You should never assume because when you ASSUME"picture him writing the word in all caps on the blackboard"you make an ass of you and me." Picture him now circling the ass, then the u, then the me. It's a wonderful scene (available on YouTube here) that makes a good point about assumptions. Problem is, people often don't realize when they're making assumptions.

Never ASSUME!
Take the simple moist towelette. You know, the little damp napkin you get in rib joints and other messy places to help you clean up. The towelette comes in a little square paper wrapper. And on the back are instructions: Tear open and use.

How helpful.

Tear open packet and use.
Whoever wrote those instructions assumed you know what the towelette is for and how to use it. Why the writer then figured you needed to be told to actually use the darn thing is beyond me, but what's clear is that an assumption was made. At least this assumption is funny. But assumptions can also be dangerous.


I recall visiting family when my oldest niece was twelve. She was going to make her own lunch for the first time. Her mom was proud, said she knew the kid could handle it, and left the room. My niece picked up a can of something, placed it in a bowl, set that bowl in the microwave, closed the door, and was about to turn on the microwave when I screamed, "No! You'll burn the house down." She was quite surprised because the can's instructions had said to put the contents in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for a certain time period. The instruction-writer had assumed my niece would know to open the can and pour the contents into a bowl, not put the can itself inside the microwave. Ah, assumptions.

They also can be a bane of fiction writers. I once wrote a short story in which a character was given a pie and she remarked that she knew she'd love it since she adored blueberry pie. A member of my critique group said, "She hasn't cut it open. How can she know it's blueberry?" I had pictured the pie with a lattice crust so the character could see the inside, but that information hadn't made it onto the page. I just assumed the reader knew my intentions. Tsk tsk tsk.

I often see assumptions in the novels and stories I edit for other authors. They know their plots so well, they assume they've told or shown the reader everything necessary for their scenes to make sense. Alas, that's not always the case, which is why it's always good to have an editor or beta reader who can point out when assumptions have weaseled their way in.

But assumptions can also be helpful in stories. We know that people wrongly assume things all the time, so it's believable when characters assume things, too. For instance, in my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, three men are murdered in New Jersey, one dressed as Santa, one as Frosty the Snowman, and one as the Easter Bunny. Assuming the men's costumes were relevant to their deaths, Santa decides Jersey is too dangerous this year; he's not coming for Christmas. That assumption sets the stage for my sleuth (the head of everything magical that happens in NJ) to investigate the murders and try to save Christmas. 

Assumptions can also be a bad guy's undoing. In my story "Bug App├ętit" from the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a con man tries to finagle an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. When his mark starts talking about the meal, he doesn't pay attention. He assumes it doesn't matter what she is going to say about the food, and that assumption comes back to bite him in the butt. 

Another example about how assumptions can play out comes from my story "James," published earlier this year in the anthology Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. A rock star returns home for a family funeral and stops by his old best friend's home. The old friend is now married to the rock star's ex-girlfriend. After some conversation, the rock star thinks his old friends, who he hasn't seen in decades, need some help, and he can be the one to help them. He invites them to dinner the next day but asks his ex to come a little early so they can talk privately. She assumes he wants to get back together. That assumption kicks off the rest of the plot.

So, does that mean assumptions are a good thing or a bad thing? Felix Unger cautions us to "never assume." I think that's good writing advice. Keep an eye out for assumptions worming their way unintentionally into your stories and novels. But as for plotting, let your characters assume away. And then let them face the consequences.

01 June 2021

Ever been to a Jewish wedding? Here's your chance!


Barb Goffman

I've heard fiction readers say many times over the years that they love learning new things. They don't want lessons like in school, but getting an inside look at a profession or learning what it's like to live in a different part of the world, these are experiences readers seek out.

I had this idea in mind when I was planning to write my newest short story, "A Tale of Two Sisters." It's published in Murder on the Beach, an anthology with eight short stories, most of them novelette length (as mine is), which was published last week. All the stories are set, as you can imagine, on a beach. All different ones. The stories take readers to the shores of Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Mexico, California, and Wisconsin. The Wisconsin story is mine, set at a beach resort on Lake Michigan.

Because my story takes place during a wedding, I wouldn't have the opportunity to take readers on a tour of the Wisconsin town. And because my story is written from the perspective of the maid of honor, I couldn't give an inside look at a wedding-related profession, such as a wedding planner or a caterer or a photographer. What kind of inside experience could I give people that they might not know much about?

What if, I thought, I set the story during a Jewish wedding? That's not that exotic to me, since I'm Jewish. My family and a lot of my friends would probably feel the same way. But a lot of people have probably never been to a Jewish wedding. The customs and traditions would be interesting. Readers could experience going to a Jewish wedding without having to get dressed up or buy a gift. And thanks to the power of exposition, it would be like having a Jewish friend sitting with them throughout the event, providing short explanations of the things going on. Jewish readers would probably enjoy the story too, I figured, because they may never have read a story that showcases these traditions. 

Once I decided to write the story, I realized I've only been to three Jewish weddings in the past decade, and I wished I'd taken notes. My memory isn't what it used to be. Thankfully, I have several friends who offered their recollections, and I used some of their last names in the story as a thank you. 

So, if you've ever wondered what the hora is, I've got you covered. The ketubah, that's in there. Ever wondered why you'll see some brides--and sometimes some brides and grooms–circling each other? You'll want to read my story because all will be revealed. 

Lest you think the story is all about culture and tradition, don't worry if that doesn't interest you very much, because while a Jewish wedding is the setting of my story, and while I hope readers will find it interesting, my main goal in writing "A Tale of Two Sisters" was to entertain the reader. More specifically, I wanted to make people laugh. The editors of the anthology said they wanted light funny crime stories, so that is what I set out to write, and I believe I succeeded. Multiple readers have told me in the past week that they found my story "hilarious." That made my heart sing. It wasn't enough to make me break into a hora (since you need multiple people for that), but I did do a Snoopy dance in my chair.

tiara
a tiara might play a role in my story

If you want to learn more about the anthology, especially the stories by my co-authors, you're in luck. We're having a launch party on Facebook on Friday, June 4th. Each of us will talk about our stories for a half hour, and there will be videos and giveaways. The fun will run from 5-9 p.m. ET. Feel free to pop in and out as time allows. I'll be speaking (typing) from 7-7:30 p.m. ET. For the full schedule, and for the event itself, please go to the Destination Murders page on Facebook by clicking here.

Murder on the Beach has stories by Ritter Ames, Karen Cantwell, Lucy Carol, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Shari Randall, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Cathy Wiley, and me. It's out in ebook form from all the usual suspects (at a discounted rate until Friday, I believe), and in another week or so the trade paperback version should be out too. I hope you'll check it out. This is one book that will make you smile while showing you that sharks aren't the only danger near the water.

11 May 2021

Creating a Believable Character Requires Knowing Their Heart


Writing what you know is advice beginners often get. You want to write something that seems real to the reader, so you need to really know it to write it correctly. Beginners sometimes think the advice means they can only write about something they've experienced personally. Only somewhere they've been. Only a job they've done. There's a funny old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin says he's writing a novel about a guy clicking through TV channels with his remote control; he's writing about what he knows. With time, however, writers usually realize that they can know anything well enough to write about it if they do enough research.

Or can they? Is the answer different when you're talking about voice?

I found myself wondering about this before I wrote my newest story "James." My main character, Nick, is a rock star, and that's something I definitely am not. Sure, I could do research about rock stars, what their lives are like, about touring and writing music and all of that. But could I understand the persona well enough to bring my character to life in an authentic way? The way he'd think. The words he'd use. When I write, I basically become that person in my head. Could I become a big bad rock star? (Those of you who know me in real life, stop snickering!) 

It worried me at first, but eventually I realized that I did know something about who Nick is, something important. Deep down, he's a person with a heart. And I know how to write that.

The big bad rock star
who inspired the story
Sure, there are people--and characters--who have no heart, no soul. But most people do. They care about specific people and specific things. Once you know what a character cares about, you can tap into it, and that enables you to make that character real.

What does Nick care about? His family and his friends. He cares about letting down his grandmother and wanting to make things right. He might be a big bad rock star, but he still has feelings. And these specific ones, I'd think all readers can relate to them. By tapping into them as I wrote the story, it made Nick relatable too.

That was a point I tried to make with the first line: "Even big bad rock stars can feel nostalgic." It's Nick's nostalgia that kicks off the chain of events in the story. It's his heart that drives the plot from there.  

That all said, while knowing a character's heart helps you understand him or her deep down--what pushes his buttons, how she'd react to pressure, for instance--to really bring the character to life, to really get the voice right, you also have to get the words right. And getting Nick's words right, in his thoughts and in his dialogue, wasn't easy. Nick might have been acting believably based on who he is deep down, but in the first draft, he didn't sound right. He didn't sound like a rock star.

He sounded too much like me. 

If you listen to me talk long enough, you'll hear me use whom when it's the correct word to use. A friend told me a year or two ago that no one uses that word, and I replied, "I do." The grammar is ingrained in me. That's not to say I speak properly all the time. But sometimes, perhaps often, I do, and it seeps into my writing.

My friend Tim reads a lot of my work before it goes out in the world. As he said to me after reading an early draft of "James," Nick sounded too grammatically precise. And he didn't use enough idioms. When I revised, I worked on that. I also worked into Nick's vocabulary some words that I would never use, words I find too off-putting, but they're words a man, especially a rock star, might use. So Nick uses them.

Making the right word choices also took due diligence in my next short story coming out, "A Tale of Two Sisters." In that story, my main character, Robin, is a twenty-four-year-old lesbian. I could relate to who she is deep down, and her personality is more like mine than Nick's is. But to ensure my word choices for her (and other characters) were right and that I didn't have the characters do or say anything that seemed off, I not only did research while writing the story, but I also used a subject-matter expert--a sensitivity reader--after I finished it.

Getting a character's voice right isn't always easy, but when you put in the work, you can make that character come alive off the page. That's what I tried to do with Nick in "James" and with Robin in "A Tale of Two Sisters." I hope you'll read these stories and let me know if I succeeded. 

"James" appears in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The anthology came out last month from Untreed Reads Publishing. You can buy it in ebook and trade paperback wherever books are sold, but you can get the best deal at the publisher's website. Just click here

"A Tale of Two Sisters" will appear in Murder on the Beach, which will be published on May 28th in ebook form and in trade paperback sometime this summer. The ebook version is on sale for 99 cents until the publication date. To pre-order the anthology, click here. It will take you to a landing page with links to nine retailers that are selling the book, including the usual suspects.

***

Before I go, a little BSP: I'm so happy that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story published last year, along with stories by Alex Segura, Art Taylor, Gabriel Valjan, and James W. Ziskin. People attending Bouchercon in August will be eligible to vote for the winner. In advance, you can read all five of the nominated stories through the Bouchercon New Orleans website. Just click here. The title of each of the nominated stories is a link.

20 April 2021

When Childhood Dreams Clash with Familial Expectations


When I was growing up, my parents--especially my mom--had certain expectations about what I'd do when I grew up. She made that crystal clear when I was about 14 when she told me my only choices were becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Since she knew I hated even going to the doctor, this was her way of telling me to back my bags for law school, like it or not. 

So you can imagine her reaction when I finished college and packed my bags for journalism school instead. I didn't care about family expectations. I'd interned as a newspaper reporter during two summers during college and loved it, and that was what I planned to do. Writing fed my soul. (Yes, I eventually did go to law school--long story--but I eventually gave up the life of a big-city lawyer and made my way to writing again, as regular readers of this blog know.)

I share this story to help explain why I wrote "James," my next short story to be published. It will appear in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The anthology will be published a week from now by Untreed Reads Publishing. The book is edited by Josh Pachter, and also has stories from my fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken, David Dean, John M. Floyd, and Robert Lopresti, as well as stories by Jeff Cohen, James D.F. Hannah, Richard Helms, Jenny Milchman, Terrie Farley Moran, Richie Narvaez, and Josh Pachter himself. That's twelve authors, each writing a story stemming from a song on one of Billy Joel's twelve studio albums. 

When I heard Josh was going to be doing this anthology, I became a bit pushy, telling him that I wanted in. Thank goodness he said yes. I've loved Billy Joel since high school. We both grew up on Long Island, and though I've never met him, his music has always resonated with me.


One song I especially love is "James," which tells the tale of a kid who grew up wanting to write but who lived with the pressure of family expectations to do something more academically oriented. This is why I told the story about my youth that started this column. While I don't know the real-life man that Billy Joel wrote this song about, I know him in my soul. One question the song "James" asks is if James ever followed his heart instead of doing what was expected of him. In my story "James" I created a fictional version of the man and answered that question.

Only the Good  Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel will be available in trade paperback and ebook. One third of the royalties will be donated to the Joel Foundation, a foundation the Joel family began to assist with music education and fund the arts. You can pre-order the paperback version of the book directly from the publisher for the best price by clicking here. For the best price on the e-book, pre-order from DriveThruFiction.com by clicking here.

Do you have a favorite Billy Joel song? I'd love to hear what it is and why. 

***

But before I do that, a little BSP. I'm over the moon to share that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" won the 2020 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine Readers Award, voted on by readers of the magazine. The news was announced yesterday afternoon. It makes me so happy to know that my funny story resonated with readers. If you're one of the readers who listed my story on your nomination ballot, thank you! If you haven't read the story, you can read it on my website by clicking here. You also can listen to me read it on the EQMM podcast by clicking here.




30 March 2021

What Drives Me ... And Maybe You Too


Why do people write fiction?

  • For enjoyment? That seems likely. 
  • For money? I guess that could be true, although except for a lucky few, writing fiction is certainly not the road to riches many people probably presume it is. 
  • Because they feel compelled to? I've heard people say that.
  • Because they are good at it (or fancy they are) and are driven by the need for praise and validation? Ding ding ding, we have a winner. 

If the question is why I write fiction, my answer is enjoyment and, I'm embarrassed to say, the need for praise. That became glaringly clear last week when something happened--I'll keep the details to myself--and I realized that far too much of my self-worth is wrapped up in the need for positive feedback on my work.

I would think that this far into my writing career, especially considering that I have had a fair amount of success, the joy I derive from the act of writing should be enough. I shouldn't need validation on top of that. But I do. 

No matter how much I enjoy writing (yes, sometimes it's a slog, but sometimes it's not), when I'm finished, I immediately crave feedback. That's why I used to send stories out more quickly than I do now, often too quickly, because I couldn't help myself. Thankfully, in the past few years I've become stronger, giving my stories time to cool so I can give them a good edit before I send them out, but it's a struggle each time I get to the end. I probably still send some stories out too quickly, resulting in unhappy rejections.

This is why I am much more excited on a day a story is accepted for publication than on actual publication day. A story's acceptance is direct feedback that someone I respect liked it enough to decide to publish it. The acceptance email might even have some comments about what the editor liked about the story. Publication day likely doesn't involve that same kind of feedback. Sure I might hear from people who congratulate me on the publication--and I'm not knocking that feedback at all; bring it on!--but such words are different from someone reading the story itself and telling me that they liked it and, even better, why. Some stories are published and I never hear any feedback from readers regarding whether they liked it. I may never even know if it's read. It can be a bit of a letdown.

That's why I read my reviews. It's why I search for them. Some of you reading this are probably shaking your head at me. "Never read your reviews!" I've heard the advice more than once. But still they pull at me like a drug. I seek them out. I bet some of you reading this column do too.

As someone who was raised in a home that emphasized academic achievement, I can understand how I ended up this way. A good primary-school student does homework that is returned regularly, often with check marks or stars. As the student gets older, there are tests and report cards that hopefully have the expected high grades, which result in praise or acknowledgement that you met familial expectations. I was primed my whole life while growing up to want the positive feedback that comes from doing a good job. And that desire hasn't disappeared now that I'm an adult who writes fiction. Instead, I'm like Pavlov's dog. Whenever I've put in the work and written what I believe is a good short story, I crave corresponding (hopefully positive) feedback.

I recognize that I shouldn't place so much power over my self-image in the hands (and the words) of others. I should derive joy from the act of writing, especially since I have enough experience to know when my work is good. I should not need external validation. But I do.

Perhaps others do too. I likely am not alone in this. This is why I urge readers to let authors know if you read their stories or books and like them. Public reviews or comments are good, but even a private email would be fine. It doesn't have to be detailed like a book report or written well enough to get an A. An email that said, "I just read X and it made me laugh. Thank you," would make me float all day long.

And now I open this blog to your (hopefully kind) comments. You know how much I love feedback.  

 ***

But first, a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" was named a finalist last week for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story published last year. (Talk about external validation!) It appeared in the September/October  2020 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Also nominated in my category are my fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, as well as Shawn Reilly Simmons, Gabriel Valjan, and James Ziskin. 

The Agatha winners will be announced in July during More Than Malice, this year's online Malice Domestic convention. You can learn more about the convention (and register at an early-bird price) here. And if you'd like to read my nominated story, you can read it by clicking here. Or you can listen to me read it to you on the Ellery Queen podcast by clicking here. The story runs for 32 minutes. Enjoy!

09 March 2021

Saying yes when you want to say NO!


I'm a person who has trouble saying no, at least in professional situations. In private, no problem:

"Want to come visit?" No! Why would I do that? I love being home.

"Want to try this meal made of foods you've never heard of before?" No! Perhaps you've mistaken me for an adventurous person.

"Want to go to a club?" (This was back in my twenties.) Oh God, do I have to? I mean, I know I should. I'm not meeting single men sitting at home with a book, but I like sitting at home with a book. So ... no. (Actually, back then the answer probably would have been "sure," in a frak-why-did-I-answer-the-phone tone. Then, as the minutes would tick closer and closer to the time to head out, my introverted side would say, "What the heck were you thinking? You're not going anywhere." And I'd cancel.)

But for professional matters, no is much harder for me. When you just start out as an author, you'd do anything to be invited to be on a panel or to edit an anthology or write a story for one, or any number of things like that. So whenever opportunities come, I feel like I have to jump at every one. You never know when the offers will stop coming. 

But time is finite. So is energy. Often something has to give. Sometimes you just have to say no. 

I have said yes to too many things lately, so I've started saying no (and feeling really bad about it). The thing I'm saying no to today is writing this blog. I don't mean I'm leaving SleuthSayers. I'm talking about today's entry. It was going to be about coincidences, but I just don't have the time it would take to craft the kind of column I would want it to be. The mere thought of trying to fit it into my schedule is exhausting. That blog is going to have to wait for another day.

For those of you out there struggling with the feeling that you have to say yes to everything, I hear you. The struggle is real. It's okay, though, to say no at times, to put yourself, your sanity, your need for sleep and less stress, first. 

So there is no blog on coincidences today. Instead there's emotional support for those who need it. If you want to say no, just do it. And if you need backup, tell 'em: Barb said it's okay. 

Because it is.

16 February 2021

When Red Herrings Stink


I'm going to go out on a limb and say something that may be controversial, at least among writers: Readers should understand why a red herring (something that is said or happens in a novel or story that leads the reader to a false conclusion) was not the solution to the puzzle by the time the tale is over.

Until recently I didn't think this was a controversial opinion. I thought it was a standard approach to writing mysteries. Sure, I'd sometimes heard authors say before that they didn't need to explain by the end of their stories why Character X said Y because Y was a red herring, but I thought they were mistaken, and since I wasn't their teacher, it wasn't my place to correct their misguided notion. But recently I edited a story by an author I respect, someone who's a solid writer, and the issue arose. Since I was this person's editor, it was my job to say my piece.

I'm going to talk about the story, but I'm completely changing the names and plot so that you can't identify the author because who this person is doesn't matter. In the whodunit story, Princess Consuella tells Annie the Amateur Sleuth that murder suspect Bad Bad Leroy Brown lied about something, based on personal observation, and therefore, it seems, Leroy must be the killer. Princess Consuella was believable and seemed absolutely certain, so I suspect most readers would have finished that scene believing Leroy had indeed lied and thus must have been the killer. It's what I thought. Yet at the end of the story, I learned I'd been fooled. Leroy may be bad, but he never killed anyone--at least not in that story.

I raised the problem with the author--that no explanation of Princess Consuella's statement about Bad Bad Leroy Brown was provided by the story's end. Either Leroy did lie (which by the story's end didn't seem right, since we never learned any reason Leroy would have lied about the issue in question) or the princess had been wrong (but how could that have been true, since she had seen with her own eyes the thing she was certain Leroy lied about, and it wasn't the type of thing that could have been misunderstood, and she had no reason to lie, either). The reader would be left wondering how to reconcile this situation, so some  explanation should be provided, I said. The author pushed back, saying that no explanation was necessary since it was a red herring designed to fool the reader into thinking the wrong suspect was the killer. The reader learns who the actual killer is by the end, and that's what matters, the author said; we don't need to revisit the red herring. 

That response prompted me to do some research about red herrings. Had I been wrong all these years? Did red herrings, by their very nature, not require explanation? To my surprise, I found nothing addressing this issue. There are a lot of articles about crafting solid red herrings, but I found nothing addressing the idea that red herrings should be explained by a story's end, that the reader should be able to understand how she got fooled. Even now, some time later, I remain quite surprised, because if authors can toss in red herrings without eventually providing an explanation for them, it makes writing too easy. It feels like a cheat.

In the case of Bad Bad Leroy Brown, sure, he could have been lying for reasons the reader never learns, despite seeming to have no reason to lie. Alternately, Princess Consuella could have lied for reasons the reader never learns about or she could have been wrong, despite being so certain and giving the reader no reason to explain how she could have been so mistaken. It certainly would make life easy for authors if they could write red herrings that didn't have to be explained in the end, but I think it would leave readers with a bad taste in their mouths. That is why I believe such scenarios need to be resolved. Did Leroy lie and why? Or did the princess get it wrong and how could that be? Without an explanation, the red herring feels contrived. It makes me feel like the author was playing games with me. 

This is why I recommended the author use a little misdirection when the red herring was introduced. More specifically, I suggested that when the princess called Leroy a liar, the author should use the wiggle word "recall" in the dialogue. Notice the slight difference:

Scenario A: The princess slams her hand on the table, its sound echoing throughout the castle. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown is a liar! I was sitting right next to him in the dungeon cafe last week, and he didn't leave money for his meal on the table when he left. I wonder what else he's lying about. I bet he rips off restaurants throughout the kingdom all the time. He's a rip-off artist."

Scenario B: The princess slams her hand on the table, its sound echoing throughout the castle. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown is a liar! I was sitting right next to him in the dungeon cafe last week, and I don't recall him leaving money for his meal on the table when he left. I wonder what else he's lying about. I bet he rips off restaurants throughout the kingdom all the time. He's a rip-off artist."

In Scenario A, the reader ends the story shrugging, thinking Leroy (who has a reputation for honesty, despite his name) had no reason to lie when he said he paid for his lunch, yet the princess's adamant accusation against Leroy remains unexplained. (She too had no reason to lie and her certainty indicated she hadn't made a mistake.)  In Scenario B, the reader can go back and reread the language of the princess's accusation and think, "Oh. The author fooled me."

Here's why Scenario B works: Because (1) the reader has no reason to think the princess lied; (2) the princess seems so certain, so the reader will believe her account; and (3) the princess distracts the reader by slamming the table, muttering about what else Leroy might have lied about, and declaring that he's a rip-off artist, the reader easily could read right past the key words--the princess didn't recall Leroy leaving his payment. When the reader gets to the end of the story, she could flip back to reread the princess's accusation and think, "Oh! It was right there. She merely didn't remember it. I was distracted by her certainty. I was fooled fair and square." That's the way to make a red herring work. That's the way to make the reader feel satisfied rather than feeling played.

Alternately, the reader could learn by the story's end that Leroy did lie for reasons unrelated to the murder. If there was a good reason for his lie, especially something that worked well with the plot, then revealing both the lie and the reason for it could have elevated the story. It also could have left the reader feeling satisfied because, while she was fooled, she wasn't played for a fool. Distracting the reader into missing a key word is playing fair with the reader. In contrast, dropping a lie into the story to fool the reader without any ultimate explanation isn't playing fair,  not to me, at least.

So that's my advice about red herrings. If you're going to use them,  make sure they're explained by the end so they don't seem contrived. Otherwise, you're taking an easy way out and you're not playing fair with the reader. Just like fish that sits out too long, that approach stinks.

I welcome your comments on this issue. And if I'm wrong and there are tons of articles addressing this subject and I need to brush up on my research skills, please share that information too.

***

In other news, here's a little BSP: I recently had a new short story published. "An Inconvenient Sleuth" appears in issue eight of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. In this whodunit, Kendra Silver, Dogwood Valley's celebrated amateur sleuth, is murdered. Who saw that coming? Certainly not anyone who thought  Kendra was invincible because she led a cozy life in a cozy town. But now that someone has killed Kendra, her best friend, Whitney, feels compelled to help the police unmask the culprit.  

Black Cat Mystery Magazine is available in trade paperback and ebooks from all the usual sources. You also can buy it directly from the publisher, Wildside Press, by clicking here.