In preparing this series, I solicited answers to ten survey questions from members of the Writers Who Kill blog and authors who are well-known for their wonderful mystery short stories. These authors have been so generous, detailed, and insightful in sharing their views and providing excellent information that I wanted the WWK readers to have the full benefit of their replies.
Today, Barb Goffman offers her perspective.
Barb is the author of the recently released Don’t Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press), a collection of fifteen of her short stories, including five new stories and “The Lord Is My Shamus,” currently nominated for the Anthony and Macavity awards to be presented at Bouchercon in September. Barb says her short stories “often focus on families because the people you know best are the ones you’ll most likely want to kill.” Barb’s short stories have been nominated for the Agatha Award five times, and the Anthony and the Macavity awards twice each. In her spare time, Barb serves as a co-editor of the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes series and as program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery convention. She has a B.A. in Communications and Political Science, a M.S.J. (masters of science in journalism), and a J.D. (juris doctor). Her website is: www.barbgoffman.com.
Barb, thank you for being with us and taking the time to answer the survey questions.
How has being part of a short story writing community influenced your writing?
Foremost it’s allowed me to learn about available markets I might not have come across on my own. Since I’m often inspired by writing prompts, learning about such varied markets has also resulted in my tackling plots or themes that I otherwise might not have, allowing me to stretch my writing skills. I’ve also become aware of authors I might not have found on my own, authors from whom I’ve learned by reading their work.
What is your thought process when you submit or select stories for a themed anthology?
First, write to the theme and follow the other instructions. If it’s what an editor requests, give it to her. A surprising number of people don’t follow instructions. Doing so increases your chance for acceptance because you stand out as: (1) a person who will be easy to work with; and (2) an author who doesn’t require the editor to do extra work.
I also try to make my writing stand out by not doing the obvious. For example, for the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry, the editor wanted funny Thanksgiving stories centered on different foods. He’d choose one story per dish. I figured turkey would be competitive so I wrote a story involving gravy. Similarly with the upcoming Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays (coming from Wildside Press in the fall of 2014), I expected a bunch of submissions would involve Christmas, even though the story call requested stories about any holiday. I tried to stand out by submitting a story involving Groundhog Day.
When do you know an idea is suited for a short story instead of a longer work?
Except for my one unpublished novel, everything I write is short. I’ve never come up with a story idea that I didn’t write because I thought it wasn’t suited for a short story. That said, when I wrote “Suffer the Little Children” (published in Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, Wildside Press, April 2013), I had all these ideas of how the story could have been fleshed out to become a novel. Should I have taken the longer approach? Hard to say. Ultimately, I think the final version, the short story, gets at the heart of the tale I wanted to tell, so I’m happy with it.
Have you written “flash fiction”? What do you think of flash fiction as a literary form?
Let’s first define flash fiction. I’ve often seen it defined as stories with fewer than a thousand words, though I’ve seen stories as long as 1,499 words described as flash. Going with the thousand-words definition, I’ve written only one flash-fiction story. It was exactly twenty-five words, as required by the story call. That was a challenge. All you can do with that word count is tell an extremely pared down plot. That’s not necessarily bad. One of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read had just six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (The story is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but who wrote it is uncertain.) With one thousand words, you can flesh things out much more. Some readers like stories that are very short (flash fiction) so that they can fill in the blanks themselves. Other readers often want the author to do more of that work, and enjoy longer short stories. My stories vary in length. My shortest published story, “Nightmare,” had about 1,500 words. My longest published story, “Suffer the Little Children,” (both in Don’t Get Mad, Get Even) had about 7,000 words.
How many characters can be in a short story?
Fewer is generally better. You don’t want the reader distracted by secondary characters who don’t advance the plot. Of course, some stories, especially sleuthing stories with multiple suspects, need more characters than a story with a character committing a crime. I think the key is to have only as many characters as necessary to tell the story. Every character should have a purpose. (That’s true for all fiction, certainly, but a non-essential character can be much more obvious in a short story.) In the story I wrote this week, there are only three characters, and one of them has essentially a cameo appearance. Writing so few characters gave me the chance to really show the reader who these two characters are and why what happens happens.
How long have you been writing short stories?
About ten years.
What is good/bad about the current short story market?
Good: Lots of ezines (electronic/online magazines) are popping up so authors have places to showcase their work.
Bad: Fewer and fewer markets pay at all, nonetheless pay professional rates. A lot of people also seem to become publishers of short-story anthologies (ebook and/or paper) with good intentions but without the necessary editing skills to help the stories shine or the necessary design, marketing, and business skills to make the publication succeed.
Should an unpublished author self-publish short stories?
It depends on who the author’s desired audience is. If the author is happy selling stories to friends and family only, sure. Why not? But if the author wants a broader audience, it will be hard for the author to get that audience because he or she has no track record. (That’s not to say it can’t be done, but ...) In that circumstance, I recommend trying to get your work published in anthologies where readers interested in the anthology’s theme or in the work of other authors in the book will have the chance to read the new author’s story, too. That is how you begin to build a fan base.
The reason I write short stories is:
I love them—reading them and writing them. I used to be a daily newspaper reporter. I loved working on an article and the next day, I would research and write about something brand new. Writing short stories lets me exercise that same skill, writing different tales regularly instead of the same continuing story every day for months (as I would if I were writing a novel).
The most important aspect of writing a mystery short story is:
focusing on the plot. It’s funny I say that because I usually have a voice/character in mind before the plot, but I need an idea for the plot in order to start writing. Great characters are important, as is good writing, but without a clean plot, a story can become muddled in extraneous information and detail. (I should note, however, that I’m a plotter, so perhaps of course my answer was to focus on the plot. I’ve written one story by the seat of my pants, where I started writing without knowing where the story was going. It turned out well, but I think I got lucky. And that story still isn’t published because it still needs work.)
Again, thanks for joining us and providing us with such terrific insight, Barb. Best wishes for your continuing success.