Ruth M. McCarty’s short mysteries have appeared in all Level Best Books anthologies. She received honorable mentions in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, N.E.W.N., and mysteryauthors.com for her flash fiction and won the 2009 Derringer for BEST FLASH STORY for her story "No Flowers for Stacey" published in Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers. She is a past president of the New England Chapter Sisters in Crime, a member of Mystery Writers of America, and a founding member of the New England Crime Bake.
Would you share with us some of your experience in selecting short stories for publication?
If you’ve been to the New England Crime Bake mystery conference, you’ve heard about the Al Blanchard Award. Al was the president of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, a founding member of Crime Bake, and a member of Sisters in Crime. Most importantly, he was a mentor to many short story writers. When he died suddenly at Crime Bake 2004, the Crime Bake committee established the Al Blanchard Award in his memory.
I recently finished judging 164 submissions for this year’s contest. We have our winner and four honorable mentions!
I’ve been a partner and editor with Level Best Books since 2006 and have read submissions for four anthologies, Seasmoke, Still Waters, Deadfall and Quarry.
What do you look for when reading submissions for the Al Blanchard Award and the Level Best Books submissions?
The first thing I look for is a great opening line.
Take Pat Remick’s story “Circulation” in Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers: “It was the kind of heat that could turn deadly.” The sentence pulls you into the story with the promise for something bad about to happen.
Stephen D. Rogers’s story “Tail,” also in Deadfall opens with: “And damned if somebody didn’t grab my left breast.” You realize right away that Stephen’s story will be in a female’s point of view. So you read on to find out why and who.
My story, “No Flowers for Stacey” begins: “Reginald Stearns tucked himself in the shadows of the dumpster behind the Diamond Heights Mall and waited for the last store to close.” Now you know he has to be up to no good.
Second, are the characters fully developed?
A short story doesn’t give you the time to fully develop a character like a novel does, so every word and action you write should develop your character. I want a clear picture of the characters, their mannerisms, patterns of speech and reactions to conflict.
Third, where does the story take place?
The setting should be a specific place in a specific time. Descriptions should be kept to a minimum. Details should be exact and each word should advance the story. Instead of saying, “The hospital sat on top of a hill overlooking the small backwoods town of Sanderson.” Say, “Hilltop Sanatorium cast dark shadows on Sanderson Village.” It not only makes the sentence sinister, it cuts unnecessary words.
Last and most important, endings should satisfy the reader.
They should have the “ah-ha” moment that keeps the reader thinking about the end long after the story is done. The ending should answer all questions and tie them up fairly.
I can’t tell you how many stories were so beautifully written, with captivating characters and a great plot, but then the ending left me saying “Huh?”
If I write short stories, will I find a place for them?
Yes. There are many markets for short fiction. Duotrope's Digest is a free, online resource for writers of fiction and poetry. What I like best about Duotrope is, you can narrow your market search to word count, payment, print or ezine, or other classifications you might want.
Another great place to find markets is the Short Mystery Fiction Society. J. E. Seymour, one of Level Best authors, keeps the market listing up to date. The Society is a worldwide Yahoo group of writers, editors, publishers, and readers. Through informative discussion, publicity efforts, and the annual Derringer Awards, they promote the creation, publication, and appreciation of short mystery and crime fiction. I think every short story writer should join.
I feel as passionately about my characters in short stories as I do about the characters in longer works. Is that a stumbling block?
No, I think that’s a plus. Your passion will show in writing. The characters in my short story, “Cougar Attack” in Still Waters, wouldn’t leave me alone. So, I also featured them in Quarry. Don’t be surprised to find them in a novel.
What about flash fiction? Any tips for us?
Flash fiction contests are a great way to practice writing tight. They can be a little as six words, like Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” to 1,000 words.
My personal favorite flash fiction contest is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s monthly Mysterious Photograph contest. You only have 250 words to write a story that goes along with the photo, and there must be a crime. There is no entry fee, the winning story appears in the magazine, and the winner receives $25! Honorable mentions get their name, city, and state in print.
I hosted a Flash Fiction roundtable at Crime Bake one year and asked Linda Landrigan, Editor of AHMM about the contest:
“The thing that strikes me about the Mystery Photograph contest and flash fiction in general is that it is good training for writers to learn just how much of the work they can leave up to readers. In such a short story, the writer must suggest rather than elaborate for so many aspects of the story. This trust of the reader is crucial to have even in longer stories. It's what allows the writer to focus only on the elements that advance the story.
“More than most stories that appear in the magazine, the contest stories are the most likely to feature that ironic concluding turn that people associate with Hitchcock himself. Irony, as opposed to surprise endings, is important to fiction in general, but in particular story telling. In the longer stories, perhaps, the ironic elements are a little more subtle, but still present.
“Often the winning stories are a little humorous, but not always. It is hard, though, to draw generalizations about the winning stories. I can tell you that The Story That Won in the back of the magazine is one of our most loved features. We get the most mail about that, and much of that coming from readers who don't themselves enter the contest.”
Besides AHMM, try flashquake, http://www.flashquake.org/guidelines.html And be sure to Google “flash fiction guidelines.”
WWK Blogger Paula Gail Benson has two short stories running in Kings River Life Magazine this weekend, "Pelican Spring" and "The Mama Factor." Both are Mother's Day short stories. You can read them by going to: http://kingsriverlife.com/category/kings-river-reviewers/terrific-tales/
Linda Rodriguez is a finalist in two categories for the International Latino Book Awards (given out at BEA the end of May)--one for Every Last Secret and one for editing Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Lives (with Gloria Vando, Anika Paris, and Anita Velez-Mitchell). Congratulations, Linda!
The second SinC Guppy anthology, Fish Nets, has been released by Wildside Press. WWK authors, Gloria Alden, Warren Bull, Kara Cerise and E. B. Davis have short stories in this volume, which can be bought at Wildside Press, the usual retailers and will be available at the Malice Domestic Conference. Look for "the story behind the stories" on May 1 here!
Upcoming Salad Bowl Saturdays include authors Carolyn Mulford on 5/25 and Liz Mugavero on 6/1. If you are interested in being a guest blogger, send a message to Jim Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.