by Herschel Cozine
NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. Herschel has published extensively in the children's field, and his stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. His work has also appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Flash Bang Mysteries, Over My Dead Body, Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and many other publications. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and his flash story "The Phone Call" won a Derringer in 2017. Herschel, it's great to have you here at SleuthSayers again! -- John Floyd
It's that time again to take a break from the meaningful and helpful blogs and just relax. I promise that there is nothing in this blog that will help you in any way. But if you have a few minutes to spare and don't care how you spend them, I encourage you to read on.
Winning the Derringer Award is indeed an honor and I am unashamedly proud of it. In the writing community such an accomplishment is one which we all struggle to achieve. But it is not a bed of roses. The experience, at least MY experience, was fraught with angst and tension that at times defied description.
Let's start at the beginning. One writes a story, finds a publisher, sits back and considers its future. Is it good enough for an award? The only way to find out is to submit if for consideration.
So I did. In January of 2017 I sent it in to SMFS (Short Mystery Fiction Society) for consideration in the Flash category. Then I waited. Two months. An eternity.
I woke up one morning and found an announcement that my story had been chosen as one of the finalists for the Derringer. My euphoria was tempered by doubt. I quickly looked at the source of the announcement. I have a cousin who is fond of practical jokes. He once entered my picture in the Ugly Dog Contest. It was a rotten thing to do. (I finished right behind a snaggle-toothed Pomeranian with one eye.) This, I thought, was his doing. But further research proved that this was genuine. Still, I was a little dubious. I had learned of this honor on April 1, another reason for being uncertain of its authenticity. Was this on the up and up?
I finally accepted the news and shared it joyfully with my wife. My excitement was tempered by another sodden thought. Perhaps there had only been five stories submitted. That would explain it. I checked the entry list and saw that some thirty-odd stories had been entered. Encouraging. I had beaten at least thirty (one, by the way, of my own among them). So far so good.
Then I saw my competition. I was familiar with three: O'Neil. Craig. R. T. Lawton. I was also familiar with their writing. As far as I was concerned, the game was over.
Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. The judges had spoken. Now it was up to the members: fellow writers, some of whom were already upset that their entries had not made it. Was that good or bad? I wasn't sure. They would judge with a critical--and professional--eye.
I read the stories carefully, putting aside personal prejudice and desire. It was depressing. All of the stories were worthy of the award. I cast my vote and went to bed. My entry now had at least one vote. It was a start.
I steeled myself for a month-long wait. April has only thirty days. As you can see, I always look for a silver lining. Still, it was going to be a tension-filled month. I worked in the yard until it was the showpiece of the neighborhood. I cleaned out the garage. One could now eat off the floor. (My wife asked me to get the names of the judges so she could send them a thank-you note.)
May first finally arrived. I hurried to the computer and navigated to the SMFS website.
There it was!!! "Winner in the flash category . . ." I rubbed my eyes and looked again. It was surreal.
A thought immediately came to mind. Fake news! The polls had been rigged. There must have been millions of illegal voters. I was certain there would be a call for a recount. The Russians must have had something to do with this.
Congratulatory messages started appearing on the SMFS site and in my personal email. I finally--and happily--accepted the good news. I had won!
Now this sobering thought: I had to wait six months to claim my award. Not only that, but it would be given in Canada. If I wanted to accept the award in person, I would have to endure a cross-country plane trip (I live in California), hoping I would not be dragged from the plane in mid-flight (I would be flying United). In order to enter the country one must provide valid identification, such as a passport or birth certificate*, and a notarized statement that you did not vote for Donald Trump. My passport expired in 1973 and my birth certificate is so old it is illegible. Back in those days they only recorded "live" births, and it wasn't clear that I was eligible. It would be my luck that Canada would build a wall (which the U.S. would pay for), and keep the "undesirables" out of the country. Thankfully, there wasn't enough time for that.
(*I learned that birth certificates are no longer accepted. Fortunately, I updated my passport.)
When I made my reservations, in May, I hoped that nothing would come up to prevent my attending. Sure enough, two days before I was to leave, the city of Santa Rosa started to burn and I lived in an area that was dangerously close to the fires. My first inclination, of course, was to cancel the trip. But cooler heads prevailed (i.e., my wife's). "Sitting around here without electricity or gas is not going to help," she said. "I will be well taken care of by the kids."
"But what about our house?"
"What will you do about it? Wave your arms and make the fire go away? Leave it to the pros."
It was her way of saying I would only be in the way. I got the message.
The ceremony itself was impressive. However, I almost missed my big moment due to the fact that I didn't hear Melodie call my name. I am eternally grateful to Rob for getting me to the podium on time.
I was, and still am, honored and humbled by this award. My heartfelt thanks to all who voted, regardless of their choice. A big turnout made the award that much more meaningful.
NOTE: I have a flash story published this year that I plan to enter in next year's contest. With any luck I won't win. (Just kidding.)
16 March 2019
21 October 2017
by John Floyd
Please join me in welcoming my friend Michael Bracken as a guest blogger today. For those of you who don't know Michael already, he has written several books but is better known as the author of more than 1,200 short stories. He's recently had stories published in, or accepted for publication by, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Snowbound, Noir at the Salad Bar, Passport to Murder, Tough, Weirdbook, and other anthologies and periodicals. He is currently reading submissions for The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of private eye stories that Down & Out Books will release at Bouchercon 2019. You can find the submission guidelines here.
One more thing: Michael will be officially joining SleuthSayers next month as a regular columnist. All of us at the SS asylum are of course thrilled about that, and hoping he doesn't come to his senses in time to back out. (As for me, I'll return in two weeks.) --John Floyd
by Michael Bracken
I've had a good run. Since my first professional sale in the late 1970s, I've sold more than 1,200 short stories, and through October 2017 I've had one or more short stories published each month for 172 consecutive months. This long streak of good fortune may soon end.
In an October 23, 2013, guest post for John Floyd here at SleuthSayers, I wrote about the ladder a short-story writer climbs from being a "write-first, market-second" writer to becoming a "market-first, write-second" writer, and I gave several examples of how I had reached a point where most of my short fiction was written to order, to invitation, or for repeat markets.
I also noted that "[p]ublishing is changing and everything I know about it may be obsolete before the year ends." I was only off by a few years.
During the past two years, the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. Anthology editors who often invited me to contribute are no longer editing anthologies, and magazines I counted on for multiple sales each month have ceased publication. Some genres in which I had established myself have disappeared or are clinging to life only in low- or non-paying markets.
In many ways, I am starting over, rebooting my career by once again becoming a "write-first, market-second" short-story writer. The only advantage I have over a beginning writer is that past sales prove I can write publishable fiction. What I do not yet know is how well I can write publishable fiction in new or long-neglected genres. So, for the first time in years, I am actually nervous when I submit stories, and each time I receive a response I have a moment of trepidation just before I open the email.
I'm not taking my situation lightly, and I have a plan. Following are the key steps I'm taking to restart my writing career:
FINISH WHAT I SET ASIDE
Outcome: Since the reboot I have sold a handful of newly finished stories.
WRITE WHAT INSPIRES ME
Relying on inspiration as motivation is degraded as the amateur's approach to writing because perspiration creates more work than inspiration. Even so, a working writer should never dismiss inspiration. Occasionally, a story idea comes unbidden, and I am so taken by it that I find myself driven to write. In the past, I set these inspired stories aside in favor of sure-bet sales. Now, I let inspiration take me where it will.
Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold five inspired stories.
WRITE TO SPECIFICATIONS
This is what I advocated beginning and early career writers do back in 2013 when I laid out the steps for transitioning from a write-first, market-second writer to a market-first, write-second writer.
I spend time surfing the Internet seeking anthology open submission calls and submission guidelines from publications with which I am not already familiar. I study guidelines, read publications when they exist, and then, as best I can, write stories that fit the guidelines.
Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold three stories written to open-call anthology specifications.
REPURPOSE OR RESUBMIT UNSOLD WORK
In addition to seeking markets to which I might send completed but unsold stories, I also continually compare submission guidelines to finished work to determine if anything I have could be revised and repurposed. Occasionally, I can.
Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold one repurposed story and one story that had been languishing in my files before I discovered a new market.
EXAMINE THE RESULTS
Without detailing every sale and rejection since the beginning of my career reboot--and, trust me, rejections outnumber the sales--let's examine my experience with a single periodical: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
Five years passed between my previous rejected submission to AHMM and the first submission after my career reboot, and I've submitted eight stories since the reboot. Three are awaiting a decision, two have been rejected, and three have been accepted.
The first acceptance, published last year ("Chase Your Dreams," AHMM, June 2016), is a repurposed story originally written in another genre. The first third and last third are essentially as first written, but I extensively revised the middle third before submitting to AHMM, and then revised the middle third again at Linda Landrigan's suggestion to move it even further from its original genre.
The second story accepted by AHMM is an inspired story, one that came to me as an opening image with a character facing a life-altering loss.
The third story accepted by AHMM is one I began, set aside, and returned to several years later.
Outcome: Were any of these three written to specifications? Other than representing various sub-genres of crime fiction and fitting within the magazines's length requirements, no. I have yet to find strong commonalities among the stories AHMM publishes. On the other hand, the three stories AHMM accepted share something the two stories rejected do not, so I am developing a profile of which stories are more likely and which stories are less likely to be accepted if submitted to AHMM.
CHANGE MY ATTITUDE
There is a fine line between being confident and being cocky, and it was easy to cross that line when almost everything I wrote sold to the first editor who saw it. I'm still confident, but my wife tells me I'm not so cocky.
Previously, I would submit and forget, but now I fret about each submission, and I sweat rejections in a way I haven't for at least a decade. When rejections are more common than acceptances, they carry more weight, and that weight forces me to examine my stories and my marketing efforts to determine if rejected stories are flawed or if my submission targeting is flawed.
On the other hand, I think I've written some of my best work since the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. I've been forced to examine the market for short fiction from a different perspective, and I've been forced to reexamine how and why I write. While I still have my eye on the markets, I'm producing more work aimed at pleasing myself first and then hoping I find editors to publish it.
And I have a plan. If I follow it, maybe--just maybe--it won't take thirty years to climb back to the top of the ladder and once again be a market-first, write-second writer.