Showing posts with label Florida Happens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Florida Happens. Show all posts

09 October 2018

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected

by Barb Goffman

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.

18 September 2018

Put Some Feeling Into It

by Barb Goffman

Authors often hear the advice to write what you know. The advice is usually offered to make sure the author gets plot details right. You wouldn't want to write a story about a police officer if you know nothing about police procedure. You wouldn't want to write about skydiving if you know nothing about the sport. Getting details wrong annoys readers who knows those details. And you don't want that. You want readers to turn pages without noticing, to be enveloped by the story, not disengaged by errant details.

The beauty of such a predicament is you can find out what you need to know. You can interview police officers. You can go on ride-alongs. You can watch skydivers. You even could jump out of a plane. (The emphasis here is on you. I would not jump out of a plane for any amount of money. I like it when my stomach isn't six feet below the rest of my body.) Ultimately you can learn the information you need to provide a true reflection of whatever it is you choose to write about.

But correct plot details will only get you so far. If you want to write a story that readers love, you need to write characters that are real, and that means characters that react like real people do. This is what readers are talking about when they say they don't like two-dimensional characters. They don't want to read about someone who's all good or all evil. After a while, such characters become predictable and boring. Readers want to see the shades of gray. They want to see characters acting like real people do, with all the emotion that entails.

And the good part about all this? You don't need to interview people or go on ride-alongs to get these details right, though you can. (And is there a "right"? More on that below.) To get emotions and emotional reactions right, all you need are two things: a good imagination--which I hope you have if you're a writer--and you need the special sauce of solid writing, empathy.

First imagination: A good imagination will enable you to understand, to truly picture, whatever scenario you're writing about. And I don't mean to simply imagine the setting. I mean imagine who your character is in relation to the conflict in which you are placing him or her in that setting. You could write a setup involving an avalanche, for instance. A character who is an expert rock-climber would react differently to it than one who is a first-timer.

Now once you've got your characters established and your setup and conflict imagined, empathy enters the picture. You may have never been in an avalanche, but can you imagine how someone in that situation might be feeling? I hope so. Dig deep if you have to. Not everyone will react the same way, even first-timers. But react they will in some way. Some will be terrified. Some will be practical. Some might even be invigorated. If you truly know your characters, you should be able to empathize with each one and understand how he or she would react to different situations in thoughts, words, and actions. Showing those thoughts and how they impact the dialogue and actions is what brings the character truly to life.

That brings me to the question I asked above. Can you get emotions wrong? Not if you make them seem realistic. Not if you let the reader understand where the character is coming from. Show a character whose mother just died and he merely shrugs, and your reader might think the character is one-dimensional. They might have a gut reaction that no one would act that way. But if you show the conflict in the character's head, letting the reader understand why he's shrugging, then that action can become believable. And the character is suddenly real.

I dug deep, trying to make my characters real, when I wrote my newest short story, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," which came out last week in this year's Bouchercon anthology, Florida Happens. My main character's husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I've never been in that position, but I've watched friends and family dealing with a parent with such a diagnosis. So I've seen what the reactions can be. But even if I hadn't had this experience, I could imagine it. A character could be horrified, saddened, determined to do the right thing, or some or all of those things at onceor have some other reaction. If you can empathize with who your character is, you can understand how he would react to the situation he finds himself in. And then you need to show it in thoughts and dialogue, as well as actions.

In my pot roast story, my main character, Bev, becomes determined to care for her husband, Charles, in their home, despite that her doctor recommends otherwise. If I had just had Bev decide to care for Charles at home by herself without showing her reasoning, some readers might have gotten aggravated with Bev (or with me), thinking that Bev is reacting unrealistically or stupidly. But I do show Bev's thoughts in the story:

"I was determined to care for Charles in our home for as long as I could. He was my husband. My love. I owed him that."


Four simple sentences, but suddenly Bev's actions make sense. They are believable because the reader can understand where Bev is coming from.

There are a number of other things that happen in the story that might be hard to believe if you didn't understand where the characters were coming from. That's true for most fiction, books and movies.

In Gone With The Wind (not sure why this particular movie came to mind, but here it is), when Scarlet helps Melanie give birth, it might seem unbelievable considering how selfish Scarlet is and how much it must bother her that Melanie is giving birth to Ashley's son, but she does help. And the reader/viewer buys Scarlet's actions because the reader/viewer understands that Scarlet is doing it for a selfish reason, to look good for Ashley, but also for some non-selfish reasons: despite her best intentions, Scarlet has come to care for Melanie and some small bit of conscience is trying to push its way to her surface.


In Casablanca, Rick hated Ilsa for leaving him in Paris. He didn't know why she did it. But once he learned her reasons, he could understand because he could empathize with her. And suddenly she wasn't two-dimensional to him or to the viewer. And that made the story all the more interesting.

So if you want to create characters that readers want to follow, characters that readers love, get to know your characters well and then imagine how each of them would react to the events of your story and then show those reactions. It's the reactions that bring the characters to life. It's the reactions that make them real.

Authors, have you had a book or story that particularly resonated with you or with readers because you created a character that felt particularly real? What was it? And what was it about the character that stood out?

And readers, have you read any books or stories that affected you especially and unexpectedly because the characters felt so true to life? What was one and why?

And finally, if you want to read more about Bev and Charles, you can buy Florida Happens in ebook or trade paperback. Here's a link to the Amazon version. And here's a little more about the story:

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" is about aging with dignity. Bev and Charles live in a retirement community near the Everglades. Their home looks out on a lake in which an alligator named Romeo lives. The couple has always loved watching Romeo. But now Charles has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Romeo has become a source of stress. And these two don't need more stress. When Bev gets injured, she hires an aide to help care for combative Charles. But then items start to go missing, and Bev doesn't know who she can depend on. A friend suggests the aide isn't trustworthy, but Bev begins to wonder if the real person she can't trust is herself.

28 August 2018

Rounding Things Out

by Barb Goffman

A few nights ago as I was brushing my teeth, I glanced at the calendar hanging on my bathroom door. It was about eleven p.m. As I focused on the date, a memory flashed through my mind, and I realized to my horror that I had one hour left of being young.

You see, when the clock struck midnight, I was to turn forty-nine-and-a-half years old, which meant I would be entering ... my rounding years. You've never heard of rounding years? Well, allow me to enlighten you.

It was December 1978. I was nine years old and had been working on a family newspaper all that autumn. It was filled with juicy stories including:

  • Was there some sort of connection between my father and maternal grandfather besides marriage? After all, they both had a growth on their nose in the exact same spot. I know--it's spooky right? Or was it nefarious?
  • One of my brothers had been banned from Idaho after being caught speeding there. In a response to the editor, the subject of the story claimed he had been misunderstood, but this reporter stands by her story. His exact quote: "I can't go back there."
  • My mother was always rushing around. She would always know if she had somewhere to go and could get there without stress if she left early enough. But she always left late so everything was a big rush. This was more a feature piece, since it certainly wasn't news to anyone in the family. Everyone knew.

I typed the newspaper on a typewriter just like this one.
 And then there was the story that sparked this trip down Memory Lane. The article about my dad entering his rounding years. You see, when I was young I was a black-or-white kind of girl. You either lived in the city or the country.  You either were rich or poor. And you either were young or old. I clung to this worldview despite that we lived in the suburbs, were (upper) middle-class, and my parents were middle-aged. As Dad was approaching age fifty, I knew that old age was coming for him. But it felt odd to me that one second you could be young and the next second you could be old. Since I didn't grasp the concept of middle-age, I came up with my own idea: rounding years.

Here's how it works: Up to age forty-nine and a day less than six months, you are young. (Woo-hoo!) Then bam! You hit forty-nine-and-a-half and you've entered this period where your body starts wearing out. (I was nine and didn't really think this through, but let's say that during this time your hair turns gray, your bones start to creak, and you start saying "oof" when you sit down.) You get two full years to slowly turn old. Then when you reach the ripe age of fifty-one-and-a-half, bam again! You are old. It's all down hill from there.

Why did I choose a two-year period from forty-nine-and-a-half to fifty-one-and-a-half? Beats me. I was nine years old and clearly had way too much time on my hands. Plus an active imagination.

So you'll have to bear with me from here on out if I start getting nostalgic for an earlier time or begin doing things that are quirky. (Okay, fine. Quirkier.) I'm no longer young, you see. I'm rounding things out.

But I stand by that Idaho story. It was spot on.

*******

And now, for a little BSP:

Next week I'll be heading to the Bouchercon mystery convention in St. Petersburg, Florida, along with several other SleuthSayers. If you too will be there, I'd love to see you. Here's my schedule:
  • I'll be participating in a mass panel/signing for the new Bouchercon anthology, Florida
    Pot roast, anyone?
    Happens
    , on Thursday, Sept. 6th at 1 p.m. The book is scheduled to be released next Tuesday, the 4th. It includes stories by fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Paul D. Marks, as well as my newest story, "The Case of the Missing Post Roast." The reviews coming in have been excellent. Publisher's Weekly said in part, "These 21 tales are testimony to the wealth of notable crime fiction rooted in the Sunshine State." The amazing Hank Phillippi Ryan called the book, "As crazy-unpredictable as a Florida vacation! These short-story gems are quirky, surprising, original and irresistible. It's a collaboration of mystery rock stars that's absolutely terrific." You can pre-order a copy now by clicking here. Or if you'll be at Bouchercon, you can buy a copy there and come to the signing. 
  • At six p.m. on Thursday, I'll be at opening ceremonies, where (among other things) the winners for this year's Macavity Award will be announced. My story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" is a finalist in the short-story category, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Paul D. Marks and Art Taylor, as well as stories by Craig Faustus Buck, Matt Coyle, and Terence Faherty.
  • On Friday the 7th at 1 p.m. I'll be on a panel with my fellow nominees for this year's Anthony Award in the short-story category. I'm honored to share finalist honors this year with Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, Debra H. Goldstein, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. If you haven't read the six nominated stories, it's not too late. They're all online. Click here and you'll find links to reach them all. Read before you vote!
  • On Saturday the 8th at 7 p.m. I'll be at the presentation for the Anthony Award.
Fingers crossed on multiple fronts! I hope to see you there.