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, Jerome W. McFadden, author and editor for the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable monthly online literary journal, offers his perspective.
Jerome W McFadden has held various esoteric jobs around the world while supporting his writing addiction, including selling industrial chemicals in Africa, surfboards in Europe, and crayons in Asia. He has 20 years experience in free-lance writing for American magazines and newspapers but is now focusing on fiction. He received a 2nd place Bullet award in June, 2011, for the best crime fiction on the web, had one of his short stories performed aloud on the London stage by the UK Liar’s league, and received top mentions in several national short story contests.
Jerome, 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?
The fantasies in your head are much larger that what the reader sees on the page, no matter how many words you have written. The Bethlehem Writers Group, to which I have belonged for several years now, helps me to see exactly the words that I put on that page, as they have no idea of full scene that I imagined in my head. I listen to them and sometimes think, “Why didn’t they see that?” and then slowly realize that maybe I did not express it exactly the way I saw it in my imagination. Which makes me a better writer next time.
A good group also catches your grammar mistakes, your word repetitions, and sentences that just do not work. That is valuable (but sometimes irritating) in itself.
But you also have to learn to trust yourself. Your instincts should tell you what you should and should not accept of what the group is saying about your writing. You must learn not to write for the group or a community, but to write for yourself - but keep an open mind when they talk.
What is your thought process when you submit or select stores for a themed anthology?
There are two questions here:
(1) When I am submitting, I use the theme as seed for my story, then let my imagination fly in any direction it wants to go, i.e., never to let the theme bind me into a strait jacket just because the theme might be “food” or “seasons” or “Christmas stories,” all of which have been BWG anthology themes. I seem to have a reputation (deservedly) for weird and wacky stories, and all of these mundane themes directed me in some weird and wacky directions.
(2) The Bethlehem Writers Group employs specific guidelines to evaluate stories submitted to our annual SHORT STORY AWARD competition. The winner of the competition receives a cash prize and is published in our next anthology, so we know the task of judging is important. To inject objectivity into selecting finalists, despite the different backgrounds, prejudices, and preferred genres of our judging committees, we evaluate each story based on:
a) Relevance to our theme – Yes or No?
b) Skill/creativity demonstrated by the author
c) Ending – The story cannot just tail off, nor should the ending be predictable, deus ex machine (except perhaps for humorous effect), or flat. It must tie back into the story to “close” it.
d) Mechanics – Spelling, grammar, formatting
e) Overall satisfaction – Not just with the ending but with the full story itself.
Aside from the question of theme, the other four questions are scored on a 10-point scale, for a possible maximum of 40 points. If there is a wide discrepancy among judges, we
add another judge or two, just to be sure that we are being fair to the writer. Then the finalists are sent to an independent judge for the selection of the winners.
Our 2014 SHORT STORY AWARD competition begins on October 1 of this year, and closes on January 31, 2014. This year’s theme is food stories, broadly interpreted. You can find out more about it on our Roundtable website (http://bwgwritersroundtable.com).
For Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, our monthly literary journal for which I am an editor, we have a less formal evaluation process in part because there are fewer people making the selections. All of our editors consider each submission, looking for good stories, good writing, and a good fit for our publication. There is a submission form with more information on our website (http://bwgwritersroundtable.com).
When do you know an idea is suited for a short story instead of a longer work?
The opposite is a more important question: How do you know an idea can carry a longer work rather than just being a germ of an idea for a short story of indeterminate length? A longer work demands an idea that has depth and structure and multi-layers to it that can carry a story through to the length of a novel. Most ideas can be expressed into a short story or maybe into a novella, but cannot necessarily carry a full blown novel.
Have you written flash fiction? What do you think of flash fiction as a literary form?
Flash fiction is very much a true literary form. It is harder to write a strong, coherent, emotionally-meaningful story in 100 to 500 words than it is to write a short story of 2,000 to 6,000 words. This goes back to old anecdote of a famous writer writing a letter to a friend but starting it by saying, “I’m sorry, but I do not have time to write you a short letter.” Good flash fiction is hard and demands great writing.
How many characters can be in a short story?
The nature of the beast demands that the number of characters be limited. Depending on the length, two to four may be the limit, five maximum. Otherwise you will confuse the reader or turn many of the characters into shallow cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes that add nothing to the story. The reverse of that question is equally interesting: How few characters can you have in a short story? Just one? Or does it take two to have a conflict and add tension?
How long have you been writing short stories?
Off and on when I was young, including high school and college, but criticism and rejection would shut me down for long periods. As I matured I learned to accept both for what they are: Other people’s opinions. And that should never stop anyone from something they really want to do.
What is good/bad about the current short story market?
The good: The proliferation of “markets” through the internet, self-publishing, blogging, etc.
The bad: Overwhelming competition and the lack of paying markets.
Should an unpublished author self-publish short stories?
That is the only way an unpolished author is going to get a collection of short stories published. There is a very, very, small market for short story collections in the publishing industry. The only collections being published by traditional publishers are by highly well-known novelists, and even those have limited print runs. Collections of short stories do not sell well without that kind of hook. Literary houses continually publish short story collections, but that is for prestige earned from literary awards and prizes, not for their sales potential.
The reason I write short stories is:
I love to write them.
The most important aspect of writing a mystery short story is:
Again, thanks for joining us and providing us with such terrific insight, Jerome. Best wishes for your continuing success.