Showing posts with label Sandra Murphy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sandra Murphy. Show all posts

28 February 2023

Guest Post: Failing Up

I’m uncertain when I first met Sandra Murphy, but I am certain that we’d crossed paths online for many years before we met in person at the Dallas Bouchercon in 2019. Before we met in person, though, our writing careers intersected in an unexpected way: I posted a smart-alecky remark on Facebook that I wanted to become the James Patterson of short story writers by collaborating with other writers to increase my productivity. Sandra called my bluff and offered to give it a shot. Since then, we’ve finished and sold five short stories, have one in progress that shows great potential, and have a few more that, while not actually dead, are clearly on life-support. Here she explains how her non-writing failures have led to her writing successes. 

— Michael Bracken

Failing Up

By Sandra Murphy

Sandra’s love of learning new things—in this
case learning to create things with mixed
media—has inspired many of her stories.

I speak Spanish and Chinese. I love to dance. As a kid, I signed up for all kinds of after school lessons—swimming, piano, ballet, tap, and baton twirling. In adult education classes, I learned to make a meringue Christmas tree, spinach quiche, and the paper frills that go on a crown rib roast. Such a variety of skills and yet, they all have one thing in common.

I am astonishingly bad at all of them.

Four years of high school Spanish and I can ask what’s your name, how much does this cost, and what is the location of the bathroom. In Chinese, I can let you know, I am tall. There is no doubt that these are not my native languages. To my credit, I never harmed anyone with a misguided baton toss. There was an incident with that quiche and too much Tabasco sauce which apparently reaches fiery levels after baking.

As for as dancing, I have no rhythm and cannot hear the beat except when the Bee Gees are singing. So far, I’ve not harmed anyone on the dance floor either. There’s still time.

I was reminded, double-digit years ago, how much I enjoy the written word. It was also pointed out, I wasn’t limited to reading. I could write as well. Rather than writing well, I scribbled an untold number of articles and stories that will never see the light of publication. As soon as an editor could stop laughing at my pompous attempt to sound like my idea of a writer, an instant rejection would have followed.

I kept writing. There was a short romance story where my main character was deemed to be a stalker rather than a nice guy, chatting up a nice gal. My mystery had no hook, dragged along at a pace compared to that of a snail with a limp. I wrote descriptions of weather, scenery, and characters, just to see if I could.

Surrounded by other writers, I got better. And I began to notice how often my fictitious alter ego used my real-life experiences to tell her stories.

Despite not being able to roll my r’s or sing a tune, I do speak fluent Dog. After years of pet sitting for dogs as small as a three-pound Pom and as large as a 250-pound mastiff, I’ve learned to not just listen to the canine voice but to respond in kind. I shouldn’t have been surprised when a cocky, some might say conceited, Jack Russell Terrier turned up as a drug sniffer in an early story, titled “Arthur.” A mama cat and her litter of four kittens made their debut during Hurricane Harvey, in “Lucy’s Tree.” Denali, a large, rowdy pup of indeterminant parentage, introduced a lonely woman to a shy man. When her ex assumed he was welcome to return, Denali showed him the door, literally. “Denali” is in the Dogs and Dragons anthology. Dogs just run full tilt into my stories, skid to a stop, and refuse to leave. Good dogs!

Cooking bloopers were brought to light in “The Chicken Pot Pie Fiasco,” “The Tater Tot Caper,” and “Bananas Foster.” I swear, I’ve never set anyone on fire with a flaming dessert in real life. I’ve been more into nuking than cooking from scratch since that Tabasco incident.

My unintentionally non-profit business of creating jewelry for drag queens meant time in their dressing room before a performance. Details of those eye-opening visits turned into scenes in “The Exterminator.”

When the words become rowdy and uncooperative or worse, go on break, I resort to playing online gin rummy with avatar Bill, who I suspect cheats. If a couple of games doesn’t set my creativity free, I move on to YouTube videos. My favorites of late are mixed media demos. The artists use paint, junk mail, and expired credit cards to make art. I can’t say I understand it but watching them layer odd bits into a finished piece makes me think of how words on the page, in the right order, layered with emotion, bring a story to life.

In “The Mixed Media Mess,” published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, issue #13, one of the main characters is a mixed media artist, the other a writer who has a Corgi in her book. Once again, my life oozed into my writing.

I may never hear the beat in music, but reading a story aloud at writers group, I hear the cadence of my words.

In one instance at least, I got rhythm.

In St. Louis, Sandra’s enthusiasm and love for bright colors, textures, and shapes, far outweighs her talent for mixed media. Raised by a mother who could turn canned biscuits into hockey pucks, Sandra managed to win the Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year award in her senior year of high school. Luckily, it was a written exam.

She’s editor of Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the ’60s (Untreed Reads), and her story “The Mixed Media Mess” appears in the just-published Black Cat Mystery Magazine #13.


23 April 2019

Writer in a Raincoat

As Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character Rod Tidwell repeatedly shouted in Jerry Maguire, “Show me the exposure!”
Too warm for a raincoat.
But is “exposure” enough? There is an on-going discussion among writers—and, perhaps, among creatives of all artistic genres—about whether one should ever create art without compensation.

Staunch proponents at either end of the spectrum—from those who advocate that we never write for free to those who advocate that publication is itself sufficient reward—hold firm to their beliefs, but the reality for most of us falls somewhere in the middle.


Many of us saw our first publications in high school literary magazines, student newspapers, church bulletins, company newsletters, and small-town newspapers. We wrote whatever we could and saw it published wherever we could.

I know I did, working my way along a trajectory that included junior high school literary magazine, high school literary magazine, high school newspaper, underground newspaper, college newspaper, and science fiction fanzines. I wrote fiction for semi-prozines (publications that paid fractions of a cent per word) and fillers for well-known consumer publications.

Over time, I sold longer work to better-paying publications, yet I never stopped writing for non-paying publications. The more I earned from sales at the upper end of the pay scale, the more I could afford to place work at the lower end of the pay scale. One, in a sense, subsidized the other.


I am amused by the number of writers who claim to only write for paying publications and who make the claim in blog posts for which they were not paid.

Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Perhaps fiction is an art form and blog posting isn’t.

Or maybe it’s a knowledge of what is and is not marketable. Regularly placing short stories with top markets might make one less inclined to consider non-paying short story markets. Similarly, other than copy intended to promote myself or my work, I do not write advertising and public relations material for free.

But a short story?

If I wrote fiction only for paying publications, my office would be ass deep in unpublished manuscripts.


Any editor who offers to publish my work “for exposure” and hopes to “someday” offer payment to contributors is clearly delusional, and I want no part of their unrealistic business model. But an editor who admits to producing a small-press publication as a hobby, financed with pocket change and no real hope of ever turning a buck, has my respect.

In one form or another, I’ve been them.

As a teenager, and continuing into my twenties, I published a science fiction fanzine, printed initially on a spirit duplicator, then for many issues on a mimeograph, and the last few issues on an offset press. The quality—the writing, the art, the production values—all improved as I learned about printing and publishing, and my experience with the fanzine helped me land my first real employment.

Along the way, I published the work of many great science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers who provided articles and columns without pay (among them: Robert Bloch, Algis Budrys, Grant Carrington, Don D’Ammassa, David Gerrold, Charles L. Grant, Thomas F. Monteleone, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle) or wrote letters published in my fanzine’s letter column (including Richard A. Lupoff, Barry N. Malzberg, Christopher Priest, William Rotsler, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Robert Silverberg, Bob Tucker, Ted White, and Gene Wolf).

It seems as if I’m humble-bragging, but the point is that these writers, and many others like them, wrote without pay when they could have blown me off when I asked.

These writers were my role models, and if they were willing to occasionally write without pay, who am I to behave otherwise?


So, I do sometimes contribute to non-paying publications—if I like the editor, or the theme appeals to me, or, in the case of non-fiction (such as SleuthSayer posts), I feel I have something to say or can use the forum to pay it forward.

But asking me to write something for “exposure” is an insult.

Don’t insult me. Don’t insult other writers.

If I really want exposure, I’ll wear a raincoat and stand on a street corner, whipping it open every so often to show passersby my short . . . stories.

Coming in May: The Book of Extraordinary Historical Mystery Stories (Mango), edited by Maxim Jakubowski, which contains my collaboration with Sandra Murphy, “Gracie Saves the World.”

08 January 2019

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

To steal and mangle some other writer’s most famous opening line: My dual career in 2018 was the best of times and the worst of times.
I received 47 short story acceptances and had 34 stories published, including one in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018. I became editor of a regional gardening magazine; turned in The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of Texas private eye stories to be released by Down & Out Books in fall 2019; selected the stories for Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, the first in an annual anthology series to be released each fall beginning in 2020; with co-creator/co-editor Trey R. Barker began work on the serial novella anthology series Guns & Tacos; and was approached about writing a novel, something I haven’t done in near-on twenty years.

On the other hand, my productivity fell through the floor, and I completed only 19 new stories, including one co-authored with Sandra Murphy that will be published in a Maxim Jakubowski-edited anthology in 2019.

I previously discussed two of the reasons for the decrease in output, one psychological (“The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror”) and one the time-consuming side-effect of increased sales (“Do You Want Cheese with That Whine?”). Not mentioned in either post are my increased editing responsibilities, both crime fiction anthologies and magazine non-fiction.


I write a fair amount in any given year, but I only track the word counts of completed short fiction, and in 2018 I wrote 19 stories totaling 68,250 words. Unfortunately, this is the worst year since I started keeping track in 2009. (In 2009, my best year, I wrote 75 short stories totaling 216,310 words.)

The shortest story was 250 words, the longest story was 13,500 words, and the average length was 3,592 words.

Four stories were written by invitation. The rest were for open-call anthologies, for markets where I’ve previously placed stories, or for no particular market at all.

Seventeen of the stories are crime fiction of one sub-genre or another, one is a cross-genre mix of science fiction and crime fiction, and one is horror.


I had 34 stories published in 2018. Eighteen are crime fiction, 11 are erotica, one is fantasy, and four are romances.

Sixteen stories appeared in print publications, seven in web-based or electronic publications, and one appeared on the web and in print. Ten were released in audio format.

Twenty-nine of the stories are originals and the rest are reprints (“Smoked” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018) or audio releases of previously published stories.


Forty-seven stories were accepted for publication. Twenty-three are crime fiction, 20 are erotica, three romance, and one fantasy. A few counted as erotica are cross-genre (erotic crime fiction, erotic fantasy, etc.).

Thirty-six stories are originals and 11 are reprints or audio rights of previously published stories.

Two pieces of crime fiction were “accepted” by anthologies I am either editing or co-editing, perhaps proving that sometimes it is who you know.

Note that I wrote no erotica, fantasy, or romance in 2018, yet I placed original stories in all three genres.


I received 39 rejections in 2018, and any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year.

I received one unacceptance. An anthology that accepted a story in 2016 was cancelled in 2018, and my story—which had been paid for—was returned. The story sold to the next editor who saw it, resulting in a second check.

I also received my first-ever unrejection. A magazine rejected one of my stories and six weeks later contacted me and asked if the story was still available. It was. Read more about what happened at “The Rejection Reversal with Michael Bracken.”


For the past several years, my annual goals were to complete and submit an average of one short story per week and to receive an average of one acceptance per week. At the beginning of 2018, following the 2017 collapse of two of my primary markets, I realized these goals were no longer realistic. So, my primary goals in 2018 were to rebuild and re-establish myself as I moved into new markets and/or new genres.

During 2018, I placed work in several new or new-to-me markets but made no significant progress in cracking new genres. Though I did sell one fantasy short story, saw another published, and wrote one horror story, I made no other efforts to expand my genre palette. Instead, I concentrated on writing various sub-genres of crime fiction, including some not previously part of my oeuvre.

As I look forward to 2019, I’ve decided not to set concrete goals. The past year was filled with so much change that I’m unable to envision how things might shake out. More editing opportunities? More submission invitations? That novel I was approached about?

I’ve no clue.

So, I think 2019 will be the year I just roll with it. I’ll try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and see what happens. Maybe by the end of 2019 I’ll once again have a clear view of the future and can set concrete goals for 2020.

Until then, I’m prepared for a wild ride.

The tail-end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 saw several stories published: “Little Bubba Visits the Roadhouse” in EconoClash Review #3, “The Fishmonger’s Wife” in the Winter 2019 issue of Pulp Literature, “Split Decision” in the January 2019 issue of The Digest Enthusiast, and “Wishing Tree” in the January/February 2019 Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.