Showing posts with label Joseph S. Walker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph S. Walker. Show all posts

28 April 2024

Is That a Derringer in Your Pocket?

First things first: my deepest thanks to the SleuthSayers for inviting me to be a contributor to this blog. I had to fight off a bit of imposter syndrome to accept. In many ways I still feel like I’m just getting started as a mystery writer, and it’s humbling to be in the company of all these masters of the genre. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from SleuthSayer columns over the years, and I’ll do my best to be a worthy member of the team (for those of you wondering who the new kid is:

So. What shall we talk about?
(Raiders of the Lost Ark still)

For my first post, I thought it would be worth taking a behind-the-scenes look at something a lot of writers probably spend more time thinking about than they’d readily admit: awards.

If you’re interested in mystery short stories, you’re probably familiar with the Short Mystery Fiction Society. (Hopefully you’re a member, since membership is free and offers a host of benefits. End plug.) The SMFS annually presents the Derringer Awards for the best short mystery stories, in four categories: Flash (up to 1,000 words), Short Story (1,001 to 4,000), Long Story (4,001 to 8,000), and Novelette (8,001 to 20,000). You can find more details here, but in brief, every January SMFS members submit stories published during the previous year for consideration. These stories, stripped of information identifying authors, are passed on to volunteer judges, who spend two months reading, considering, and scoring. At the beginning of April, the five (or more, in the case of a tie) finalists in each category are announced, and the entire SMFS membership has until April 29 to vote. Winners are announced on May 1.

Sounds simple, right?

I was elected by SMFS to the Derringer Awards Coordinator position last June (and let me give a quick shout out to the able and esteemed Assistant Coordinator, Paula Messina). As the end of 2023 approached, I rather abruptly and belatedly realized there was a lot to do. First on the list: recruiting judges. The official Derringer rules call for three judges plus an alternate for each category, with the obvious restriction that nobody can judge a category in which they have submitted a story.

I had a lot of worries about this system. Would enough judges volunteer? What if some dropped out halfway through the process? Fortunately, another part of the Derringer policy gives the Coordinator discretion to make adjustments to the system as needed. I decided to recruit not just four judges per category, but as many as possible, for several reasons. First, it would allow me to break up the larger categories. Based on previous years, it was a safe guess that there would be around 200 entries in the Long Story competition, for example. Asking anybody to read 200 stories in just two months–and read them closely enough to evaluate and score them–was obviously untenable, and would only make it more difficult to recruit judges. With enough judges, I could break that group up while still being sure that each story would be scored by at least three judges.

Derringer Medals. Shiny!

As it turned out, I was worrying over nothing. There were plenty of volunteers–enough that every story, in every category, was read and scored by at least four judges. No judges withdrew, and every single one took the process seriously, followed directions closely, and met their deadlines. There’s the first thing I learned from this experience: a lot of writers are very generous with their time and efforts. Derringer judges are anonymous, but I hope they all read this and know how grateful I am to them for making the process as painless as possible.

By the way, for the curious, there ended up being 26 stories submitted for the Flash category, 151 for Short Story, 201 for Long Story, and 35 for Novelette. Phew!

The second thing I learned was that writers, bless our hearts, can be a little iffy on following directions. I posted (I thought) a very clear set of instructions for prepping stories to be submitted–basically, Word files in standard Shunn format with all identifying information about the author removed. I even included instructions for how to remove the metadata from the file. If you’ve read the SleuthSayers blog for any length of time, you’ve surely seen these sages of the pages say time and again that the first rule in submitting a story to a magazine or anthology is to follow the provided guidelines. The Derringers reward published stories, so I knew the people submitting were, by and large, experienced writers, and assumed they’d have no problem doing so.

Well… they tried, anyway. More than a third of the files I received had some significant deviation from the directions. The most common, not surprisingly, was the author’s name still appearing in the metadata, but there were others. The author was frequently still named at the top of the story or in a header–or, in many cases, in an “about the author” paragraph tagged onto the end of the story. Files arrived in a range of non-Word formats, including a couple I’d never encountered before and couldn’t open. Many stories were submitted in the wrong category, so I quickly learned to verify word counts. A few people put multiple stories in the same file. I received several that still had editorial comments inserted throughout the text and visible tracked changes.

When I posted to SMFS asking people to double check their submissions, several members said I should just reject any stories that didn’t meet the guidelines. That was my initial intention, but ultimately simple time management dictated otherwise. It was a numbers game, really. Going through a submitted file to correct the most common mistakes took two or three minutes. Sending the story back with an explanation of the problems could take five, or ten, or fifteen, depending on how complicated the issues were, and would guarantee that I’d have to deal with the file again, possibly more than once. On days when I got twenty or thirty submissions, that time could add up pretty quickly. I could have simply deleted the problem files and not bothered informing the submitters, but then I would have gotten a lot of angry and confused emails when the list of submitted stories was posted. I did reject submissions so far astray from requirements as to be unusable, but for the most part I just fixed the problems.

Was this the right call? Who knows? To quote Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., I’m making this up as I go.

All of which brings me to the third thing I learned running the Derringers: evaluating writing is enormously, inherently, irreducibly subjective. I knew this, of course, but looking at the final scoresheets, I’m kind of amazed at just how subjective it is. Remember, the Derringers reward published stories. This led me to assume that there’d be a certain basic level of quality built into the submitted stories, that scores would lean high, and that low scores would be uncommon.

As a theory, it made sense. In reality, not so much.

Without getting into the murky details, each judge gave each story a score, the lowest possible being 4 and the highest being 40. Before the scores started coming in, I wouldn’t have thought it likely for a story to get a 4 from one judge and a 40 from another. Not only did it happen, though–it happened multiple times. Even in cases that weren’t quite so extreme, the scores for most stories were more widely distributed than I would have guessed.

As a writer myself, I find this heartening. Rejection is part of this game, and most of the time we don’t know why it happens. The standard advice is to turn the story around and get it back out to another market as quickly as possible, and the Derringer scoresheets provide ample evidence that this is the correct approach. The judges are all accomplished writers themselves, many with editorial experience, but that common background didn’t mean they shared a single view of what the best writing looks like. Obviously, editors don’t share such a view, either, so if you hit one who thinks your story is a 4, keep hunting. The one who thinks it’s a 40 might just be out there.

The bottom line is that running the Derringers has been a lot of work, but also gratifying. We usually think of writing as being a pretty solitary pursuit, but much of what I’ve found most rewarding about it has been the social contacts–through SMFS, through conferences like Bouchercon, and now through Sleuthsayers. Being the Derringer coordinator has given me the chance to be even more deeply engaged with the mystery writing community, and to meet more great folks (again, the judges couldn’t have been better!). I’m looking forward to meeting even more of you through my posts here.

Joseph S. Walker and Friend
The new kid in town
and his faithful sidekick

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to the SleuthSayers for this opportunity. Assuming this post goes up as scheduled on April 28, members of SMFS still have one day to vote for the Derringer winners (every vote counts!). And say, if you are a member of SMFS (and you really should be!), consider giving back to the community by running for one of the officer slots or, come next January, volunteering as a Derringer judge.

Look for the announcement of the Derringer winners this coming Wednesday, May 1!

Got questions about the Derringers? Let me know in the comments. See you next month!

30 January 2024

Guest Post: The Short and the Long of It

Joseph S Walker
Joseph S Walker

I read my first Joseph S. Walker story when I found “Riptish Reds” in the slush pile for Mickey Finn, 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books, 2020), and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on several projects since.

Joe has received the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction, twice received the Al Blanchard Award, and been nominated for an Edgar Award and twice for a Derringer Award. He’s also had stories in three consecutive editions of The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and is the only writer to have the same story selected for inclusion in both The Best American Mystery and Suspense and The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

Joe, my wife, and I caused a minor kerfuffle at Bouchercon Minneapolis in 2022 when Temple—who uses her birth name (Temple Walker)—sat between us at the awards ceremony. This lead a few people who didn’t know any of us to think she was Joe’s wife and wonder why she was paying so much attention to me.

Anyhow, here’s Joe describing how he approaches writing stories of various lengths.

— Michael Bracken

The Short and the Long of It

by Joseph S. Walker

How long is a short story, anyway?

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. One particularly precise answer is offered by the Short Mystery Fiction Society: a Short Story is between one thousand and four thousand words in length. This defines one of the four categories in which the Society presents annual Derringer Awards, the others being Flash (under 1,000 words), Long Story (4,000-8,000), and Novelette (8,000-20,000).

I’ve written roughly one hundred and fifty pieces of fiction. The vast majority, by SMFS standards, are either Short Stories or Long Stories. As I said in introducing myself to a group of writers recently, I’m a short story specialist. I even said I have a short story mind, which, in retrospect, sounds like an insult shouted during a tense English Department faculty meeting.

Even a short story mind, though, can stretch on occasion. February 1 sees the release of “Run and Gun,” the third piece I’ve published that meets the SMFS definition of a novelette. It’s the second entry in Chop Shop, a series of crime novelettes, created and curated by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, all involving car theft and a Dallas chop shop run by the enigmatic Huey. Chop Shop is a spiritual heir to Michael and Trey Barker’s Guns + Tacos, twenty-four novelettes linked by a Chicago taco truck selling illicit firearms; my contribution to that project was “Two Black Bean and Shrimp Quesadillas and a Pink Ruger LCP.”

I was deeply honored to be invited to contribute to both series, and there was no way I was going to turn such opportunities down. Accepting, however, led to immediate blind panic: exactly how do I go about writing something three times as long as my average story?

Is the process of writing longer inherently different?

I imagine different writers have different answers to that question. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that, yes, I’ve come to think of writing novelettes as a fundamentally distinct undertaking from writing short stories. It’s the difference between making a pearl and building a poker hand.

Most of my short stories start with something akin to the grain of sand that, by irritating an oyster, eventually becomes the core of a pearl. This might be an image, a character, a line of dialogue—almost anything. I think of, say, a bartender in a rural community who playfully but forcefully refuses to answer a cop’s questions about where he came from. I build this out into a story by asking questions about the bartender and the cop, coming up with logical reasons for them to be in this relationship and (hopefully) interesting things to happen to them. The core of the story, though, is still that bartender refusing to talk to that cop, and everything else grows from that and relates back to it (this specific grain of sand ultimately became my story “The Last Man in Lafarge”). This works, I think, because the short story is an inherently concentrated form. It has focus. It is, in fact, defined by focus.

I quickly found this process didn’t work for a novelette—at least, not for me. The kind of tight unity that defines a well-written short story gets stretched thin as a piece of fiction lengthens. Other elements impose themselves on the attention of both the reader and the writer. The novelette isn’t about a single thing; it’s about the relationships between multiple things. The short story is singular focus. The novelette is complex structure.

Instead of building out from a single point, I write novelettes by forging connections between multiple ideas/characters/images/seeds and building out from those. I’m drawing cards from a mental deck, discarding some, occasionally drawing more. For my Guns + Tacos story, my first card was a character who feels emasculated when the illegal gun he buys turns out to be pink. Another was a magazine story about wealthy art collectors displaying replicas of their prize pieces to foil potential thieves; a third the image of a cheerleader with an ice pick. Draw a few more cards. Shuffle them around and see what emerges. Keep it up, and eventually you’ll have a hand you can bet on.

For “Run and Gun,” the cards I drew include an abandoned truck stop, a news item about progressive activists in Texas, the bumper stickers on a friend’s Honda Civic, marginal notes in a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises, and my impression of the tourists in Dealey Plaza, all caught up in a story of car chases, blackmail, and murder. I think I turned it into a winning hand, and I’m looking forward to readers letting me know if they agree.