In preparing this series, I solicited answers to ten survey questions from members of the Writers Who Kill blog and from 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, B.K. Stevens offers her perspective.
B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published over forty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A 2012 story, “Thea’s First Husband” was nominated for an Agatha and has now been nominated for a Macavity as well. One Shot, a satirical e-novella from Untreed Reads, takes on issues ranging from gun control to reality shows. Bonnie’s awards include a 2010 Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and first place in a suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia. Bonnie has a bachelor’s degree (Kenyon College) and a Ph.D. (Boston College), both in English. Her website is: http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com.
Bonnie, 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?
I’ve received a lot of support and encouragement from short-story writers I’ve gotten to know over the years. I also enjoy the Short Mystery Fiction Society, an online discussion group. The exchanges can get contentious, but they’re usually lively, and I’ve learned a lot about writing, markets, and authors I want to start reading. I’ve also sometimes turned to the group with a question—e.g., if a character does X, what laws would he or she be breaking?—and gotten some helpful responses.
What is your thought process when you submit or select stories for a themed anthology?
I’ve never edited an anthology, so I can’t comment on the selection process. [Note: Bonnie will soon have the opportunity of participating in the selection process when she serves as a judge for the new anthology from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Storm Warning!] I’ve published just one story in a themed anthology—“No Good Deed,” in To Hell in a Fast Car, edited by John L. French and published by Dark Quest Books. John provided the theme for the anthology: Sometimes, people headed for disaster are unable or unwilling to turn back, even though they may know things can’t end well. When he invited members of our Mystery Writers of America chapter to submit stories, I thought of an idea I’d jotted down in a notebook many years ago but never used. John’s theme gave the idea the structure it needed to become a story.
When do you know an idea is suited for a short story instead of a longer work?
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. Years ago, after reading one of my Hitchcock stories, my mother said, “Why didn’t you save that idea for a novel? You could have done a lot more with it.” Too late, I realized she was right. I still think about it; I may yet do it. Now that it’s been so long since the story was published, Hitchcock probably wouldn’t mind—and no one outside my family is likely to remember how the story ends.
Other times, an idea is clearly right for a short story and wrong for a novel. For example, the protagonist of a 2012 Hitchcock story, “Thea’s First Husband,” is too dim and too passive to be the protagonist of a novel. We want the protagonists of mystery novels to be smart, to figure things out, to take decisive actions. Thea just drifts along, never really understanding what’s happening or why, feeling sorry for herself but not taking action to solve her problems. She’s not an evil person and doesn’t want to harm anyone, but even when she knows what she should do, she lacks the courage and energy to do it. I think Thea’s story is worth telling—lots of bad things happen because basically decent people fail to do the right thing, because they step back and allow actively evil people to determine the course of events—but I wouldn’t expect readers to put up with her for more than thirty pages or so. (Not mystery readers, at least—Thea might be a suitable protagonist for a literary novel, but we mystery readers have higher standards.) Short stories allow writers to explore people and situations that wouldn’t work in novels but are still important, still compelling.
Have you written “flash fiction”? What do you think of flash fiction as a literary form?
Yes, I’ve written some flash fiction for Woman’s World. Half a dozen stories were published in the 80s and 90s (some of those might be too long to be considered flash fiction by current definitions). One story was published this June (that one’s definitely flash fiction—under 700 words).
Every form of writing offers its own challenges and satisfactions. Obviously, flash fiction doesn’t allow writers as much creative liberty as most other forms of writing do. But there are compensations. In some ways, I think, writing flash fiction is comparable to writing a limerick or even (at the risk of sounding pretentious) a sonnet. The writer has to accomplish a lot in a few words, and there may be—especially if one is writing for a specific market such as Woman’s World—a lot of rules. But if one pulls it off, it feels pretty good. It’s not comparable to writing War and Peace or Hamlet, but it can still be satisfying. And if readers are entertained, if they spend two or three minutes of their day using their minds to solve a well-constructed puzzle, instead of passively absorbing yet another pointless YouTube video or yet another meaningless reality show—well, I’ve yet to figure out what’s wrong with that.
I can’t comment on flash fiction without mentioning John Floyd. Flash fiction is not by any means the only thing John does well. He excels at many kinds of fiction; to appreciate the range of his talents, one has to read his longer works as well. But I can’t think of anyone who does a better job of creating intriguing situations, devising ingenious and satisfying puzzles, and developing vivid, distinctive characters in a limited space. That’s just one of John’s many accomplishments, but it’s one worth mentioning.
How many characters can be in a short story?
I think that depends, in part, on the length of the story, and on the type of story. In a flash fiction whodunit, for example, the limit is probably four or five—a victim, a detective or detective team, two or possibly three suspects. In a near-novella whodunit, the number of suspects might be increased to four or five. The crucial thing, I think, is to make sure there’s time to develop all characters fully enough to make each one distinct and memorable. Obviously, we expect fuller character development in a longer story than in a shorter one. Regardless of the length, however, readers should at least be able to keep the characters straight. I’ve read longer short mysteries that piled on the suspects, most of whom contributed nothing to the mystery and apparently existed only to distract readers. No suspects are developed in any depth, and solving the mystery may hinge on spotting the one truly significant clue hidden under a mass of mere red herrings. When I’m reading a whodunit, I don’t mind if I figure out who the killer is; that just makes me feel clever. But I get annoyed when the killer’s name is revealed and I have to look back to the beginning of the story to figure out who he or she is. Keeping the number of suspects manageable is part of playing fair with the reader.
In mystery stories that aren’t whodunits, the number of characters is more flexible. Again, though, there shouldn’t be so many that readers need a chart to keep track of them.
How long have you been writing short stories?
Centuries ago, when I belonged to the Pencil Pushers Club at Herbert Hoover Junior High School in Buffalo, New York, I wrote a short story just about every week. Those stories were probably nibbled to shreds by squirrels in my parents’ attic—thank goodness. The creative writing club at my high school was too resolutely literary for my taste, so I stopped writing stories. College, marriage, graduate school, teaching, and parenting dominated my time and attention for many years. But I loved mysteries—especially Dorothy Sayers—and had, for a long time, toyed with one idea for a mystery novel. When a miscarriage and my father’s early, sudden death from a stroke left me feeling depressed and restless, I probably needed therapy. Since I couldn’t afford it, I decided to distract myself from sadness by finally writing that novel. Nobody wanted to publish it (now, I understand why). But writing was still good therapy—I think it was healthy to focus on problems other than my own. One night in 1986, when my husband and I went for a walk, I picked up a copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (I wish it had been Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, but it wasn’t), read a mesmerizing story by Clark Howard, and decided to give short stories another try. After three false starts, “True Detective” was published in AHMM in June, 1988.
What is good/bad about the current short story market?
I’m no expert on markets, but I’ll share some general impressions. There seem to be more markets for short-story writers these days—mostly online markets, mostly non-paying ones. If I were starting out now, I’d probably try to take advantage of some of these markets, just to get my name out in public and to get my stories read. But writing is hard work, and writers should get paid for it. New writers should think carefully about how much of their work they’re willing to give away. A few stories, sure—but maybe not much more than that, maybe not without at least some possibility of payment in the future. If you think of writing as a hobby, you might be willing to work for nothing. If you want to make writing your livelihood (or at least a portion of it), you might want to examine your options more carefully. And, luckily, there are still a handful of mystery magazines that pay writers professional rates.
Should an unpublished author self-publish short stories?
Again, I’m no expert on markets; again, the answer to this question probably depends, at least in part, on whether one sees writing as a hobby or as a possible livelihood—or, to be more realistic, as a partial livelihood. Some writers apparently do well by self-publishing their stories, but my guess is that most writers who aren’t already well known don’t turn much of a profit. I’d also guess that one has to devote a lot of time to promotion in order to make self-publishing successful. Before deciding to self-publish, writers should probably ask themselves how much time they’re willing to spend promotion and how much time they want to save for writing.
The reason I write short stories is:
that I enjoy writing them, I think I’m reasonably competent at it, and I’ve had good luck getting them published. (After all, we write, at least in part, because we want to reach readers, so it’s natural to focus on the kinds of writing that allow us to do that.) Short stories offer writers opportunities to explore characters and situations that might not work in novels (cf. my comments about “Thea’s First Husband”). They also give us opportunities to explore lots of different characters and situations, and that keeps things interesting for the writer. Edgar Allan Poe argues that works of fiction have their most powerful impact when they’re short enough to be read in one sitting. Only then, he says, can the writer draw the reader in fully, blocking out all the distractions of the everyday world and achieving full “unity of effect or impression.” I wouldn’t go as far as Poe does—novels can draw us in effectively, too, even if readers have to fix dinner and pay bills between chapters—but he makes a valuable point by drawing our attention to one of the short story’s distinct strengths. If we follow his advice about focusing on unity of effect, we may give our short stories a concentrated, powerful impact novelists would envy.
I don’t write short stories because they’re easy to write. They are not, at least not for me. I work hard at my short stories and spend a lot of time on them. Two or three times, I’ve gotten an idea for a short story and pounded out a first draft quickly—but that’s the exception, not the rule, and even then that first draft has required many hours (or, usually, days or weeks) of revision. Right now, for example, I’ve got twenty-three pages of single-spaced notes on a story idea; I like the characters, but I’m still not satisfied with the plot, so I’ll have to take more notes before I can even think about starting to draft. If I ever work the plot problems out (and I’m not sure I will), the first draft will probably take me a long time to write, and then I’ll have to cut, revise, and cut and revise some more. Usually, the notes I take before starting to write a story are much longer than the story itself. Sometimes, I’ve heard writers say, “Oh, short stories are such a relaxing break from the hard work of writing novels—I can crank one out in just a few hours.” I don’t think of short stories that way. If I want a story to be as good as I can make it, I have to give it a lot of thought, a lot of effort, a lot of time.
The most important aspect of writing a mystery short story is:
capturing and keeping the reader’s interest. Mystery short stories can do many other things, too—but if we can’t capture and keep the reader’s interest, nothing else we may try to do matters, because nobody will be reading it. Mystery short stories can comment (preferably subtly and indirectly) on social issues; they can explore human personality and motivations; they can affirm the importance of uncovering truth and achieving justice, however elusive truth and justice might be; they can affirm the existence of a rational universe by insisting that we can use our minds to make sense of evidence that seems, at first, contradictory and impenetrable. Short stories can accomplish big things. As Flannery O’Connor says, “Being short does not mean being slight. A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning.” But if we can’t create suspenseful plots and engaging characters that make readers keep turning pages, we can’t share the insights and convictions that mean so much to us.
Again, thanks for joining us and providing us with such terrific insight, Bonnie. Best wishes for your continuing success.