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, Toni Kelner (also known as Leigh Perry) offers her perspective.
Previously, Toni has been with us on WWK in an interview about her new novel, written as Leigh Perry, A Skeleton in the Family, and also with her own blog message about her new endeavors. Her Leigh Perry website is: http://leighperryauthor.com/
As an author of short stories, Toni has been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, and Macavity awards, and has won the Agatha award for “Sleeping With the Plush” published in May 2006 in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Charlaine Harris is her co-editor on five anthologies, featuring both the mysterious and paranormal. They have a sixth anthology due out next year.
In addition to her short story anthologies, Toni L.P. Kelner has written the Laura Fleming mysteries and “Where are they now?” novels. She has been nominated for RT BookClub awards and received an RT BookClub Career Achievement Award. Toni has a B.A. in English. Her website is http://www.tonilpkelner.com/
Toni, 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?
If you mean the Short Mystery Fiction Society, I don't think it's affected my writing per se, but it sure has made me aware of the challenges facing short story writers.
It's funny, back when I first started writing, all the writing books I read said to start with short stories to build a reputation, then move on to novels. (Advice that did not work for me, by the way.) Now I think it's easier to sell short stories when you've published a novel first!
What is your thought process when you submit or select stories for a themed anthology?
When writing for a themed anthology, I always try to do something that nobody else would. So when I was trying to sell to Midnight Louie's Pet Detectives, edited by Carole Nelson Douglas, I wrote an elephant story. When I was writing a story for Jeffrey Marks's Criminal Appetites, which required a recipe, I wrote about marijuana brownies. And when I was trying to write for an MWA courtroom drama anthology, I tried two stories: a trial aboard a pirate ship and a mock trial at a high school. (For what it's worth, I sold the stories to Carole and Jeff, but didn't make it into the MWA anthology, though I sold those stories elsewhere.)
As for selecting, the anthologies I've co-edited with Charlaine Harris have all been invitation only. So we're selecting writers we know can write good stories. We aren't terribly systematic in how we put together a list of people to invite. We just invite people whose work we like and who we think we can work with. Our contract does say that we need a certain number of big-name authors per book, but otherwise, it's our choice. We pull from mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, even comics. Charlaine is extremely well-read in all those genres, and that really helps.
When do you know an idea is suited for a short story instead of a longer work?
It's a matter of scope: an instant in a person's life, not a year; one locked room, not a town; a few characters, not an extended family; a gimmick that makes a great "gotcha" moment for a story, which wouldn't carry a whole novel. And often, I get an idea that could be a novel and melt it down to the best part to make a short story. Plus if it's a historical or anything that would require tons of research, I'll do it as short fiction so I don't have to do that much work. I'm kind of lazy.
Have you written “flash fiction”? What do you think of flash fiction as a literary form?
If you'd asked me a month ago, I'd have said no, but I saw that a publisher I admire was looking for flash fiction. So I got an idea one night and wrote one. Then I checked with the publisher and found out one discouraging fact and one deal-breaker. It was to be online only, which I didn't love but would have accepted, and they weren't paying, which was the deal-breaker. I still have the story, and a market in mind, but I need to read it over a couple of more times to polish it.
How many characters can be in a short story?
For fully realized characters? Maybe three or four. You can mention a lot more, of course, but they're going to be background characters.
How long have you been writing short stories?
Since high school. I have this gimmicky short story I wrote and submitted to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine back when George Scithers was the editor. It came back with my very first rejection slip, but it was a good one--he really encouraged me. And yes, I still have that slip somewhere around here.
What is good/bad about the current short story market?
The good part is that with electronic publishing, there are some interesting markets out there. Also short stories, though not the entree into the field my old writing books promised, are excellent for promotion. I've had stories reviewed by readers who add, "I can't wait to check out her books," and I was approached by an Italian publisher purely because of a short story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. (In fact, it was one of the ones rejected for the MWA anthology I mentioned in Question #2.)
The bad are (1) readers who flat out refuse to read a short story because it's short, (2) so many markets that expect me to write for free, (3) so few markets that pay decently.
Should an unpublished author self-publish short stories?
The reason I write short stories is:
They are so much FUN! I can try things I'd never try in a novel. Pirates, elephants, noir, PI, male POV, carney lingo... I can run wild.
The most important aspect of writing a mystery short story is:
The ending. Please, give your story one. I read short stories for a contest a few years back, and despaired at how many stories just stopped or dwindled. Something has to happen. In best cases, the main character affects change or changes himself or herself, but I'll settle for a bad joke if I have to. I need a payoff, darn it!
Again, thanks for joining us and providing us with such terrific insight, Toni. Best wishes for your continuing success.