Each year at Malice Domestic, writing excellence is recognized by the Agatha awards. This year’s nominees for Best Short Story are:
“The Blessing Witch” (PDF) by Kathy Lynn Emerson, Best New England Crime Stories 2015: Rogue Wave (Level Best Books)
“Just Desserts for Johnny” (PDF) by Edith Maxwell (Kings River Life Magazine)
“The Shadow Knows” by Barb Goffman, Chesapeake Crimes Homicidal Holidays (Wildside Press)
“The Odds are Against Us” (PDF) by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014
“The Odds are Against Us” (PDF) by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014
“Premonition” by Art Taylor, Chesapeake Crimes Homicidal Holidays (Wildside Press)
Please enjoy the opportunity to read these stories, if you haven’t already. We are so fortunate to have with us today Kathy Lynn Emerson, Edith Maxwell, Barb Goffman, and Art Taylor. All are not only fabulous writers, but also delightful people. Thanks, Kathy, Edith, Barb, and Art, for stopping by to share your work and thoughts with us!
How do you compare short story writing with novel writing?
Writing short stories is much harder. In quite a few cases, it took me longer to finish a short story than it did to write an entire 80,000 word novel. With at least one story, it took me years to get it right. When I write novels, they get longer with each revision. When I revise a short story, it almost always ends up even shorter.
A heck of a lot shorter, for one thing! When I had two-thirds of a novel in the drawer twenty years ago and then reentered the paid work force while raising two sons, there was no way I could carry the plot and characters of a book around in my head and fit them into the tiny snatches of time I had available to writer. But I could manage a short story, and wrote nearly a dozen, five of which were eventually published in juried anthologies. Short stories are simpler. They’re not necessarily easier, but they don’t take as much time or brain space to complete.
For me, writing a novel is like the long con. I start in one place, and I know that eventually I’ll bring the reader to another place. But in the middle there will be detours and red herrings and subplots. I want to keep readers from seeing where we’re going. I want to fool them. To surprise them. I might set something up in chapter two that will pay benefits three hundred pages later. That’s the long con.
With a short story, there’s no space for the long con. I’m writing the equivalent of a bank robbery. I get in, get the cash, and get out. No detours. No subplots. It’s a quick ride. Sure, short stories and novels both should have a great beginning and ending and hopefully a surprise or two, but the way I approach the middle is different.
Each time I’ve tried to write a full novel, I’ve struggled with structure and pacing to the point that the results have always been bumpy at best, dismal at worst—and none of them has seen the light of day. With my upcoming novel-in-stories, On the Road with Del and Louise (coming out this September from Henery Press), I’ve tried to capitalize on what I think I do well: manage the narrative arc—the structure and pacing—of a short story, and link those stories together in contribution to a larger narrative arc featuring the bigger story of these characters. To some degree, I think I just understand short stories better, for better or worse.
What advice would you give to short story writers?
Keep it simple. In a short story there is no room for subplots, information dumps, or complicated relationships. I’d say limit the number of characters, but that would be a tad hypocritical since I’ve never managed to follow that piece of advice myself.
Don’t send it in too early. Get the first draft done and let it stew for a while. Then work to eliminate everything unnecessary, whether a description that doesn’t move the story forward or a character you can do without. And then work it over again, polishing, trimming. I’ve seen a couple of beginning writers dash off a short and send it in (well, I did the same myself when I was starting out) when it wasn’t quite ready.
Read. Read novels. Read short stories. Read, read, read. It gets your brain moving. It teaches you technique, even if you don’t realize it as it’s happening. It helps you learn what works and what doesn’t.
And when you write, keep two things in mind: (1) Everything in the story should move the plot forward. If a scene or character can come out without affecting the plot, it doesn’t belong in the story. (2) But don’t make your plot move so quickly that your main character doesn’t have the time to react to what’s happening. Reactions are interesting. They bring the character to life and add richness to the story. So show us her thoughts, and then move that plot along.
Write the biggest story you can and then cut and fold, cut and fold, cut and fold until the only words left are those that are key to the story—that’s the ideal for me, even I personally feel like I’m always falling short of that goal. The novelist’s art strikes me generally as one of accumulation, where the short story writer should ideally focus on subtraction—the most effect in the fewest words—and training yourself to see where to cut and combine and condense is a challenge. Beyond that, read widely in the short story form. There are so so many great short story writers out there, each of them with different stylistic and structural approaches, and there’s so much to learn from them and then maybe apply in your own way to your own craft.
For the Agatha banquet, what kind of shoes would you (or if you prefer, your protagonist, a character from your story, or your spouse) wear? [This is, after all, The Stiletto Gang!]
The same ones I wear every year—black SAS sandals with one-inch heels. Definitely no stilettos. I have trouble enough walking in the sandals. By rights I should be wearing old-lady-with-arthritis orthopedic lace-ups!
I’m so shoe impaired in terms of what’s conventional. I’m trying to come up with a pair of party shoes that aren’t either stilettos or some version of little-girl shoes. I have short wide feet and refuse to wear heels, so it isn’t easy! You’re going to have to wait and see what I find. Maybe we can do a follow up post with a picture of all our Agatha banquet shoes...
[Edith sent her picture early, so I wanted to share it. I’ll see if I can get shots of the shoes actually worn at the banquet!—Paula]
Gus, my main character from my Agatha-nominated story “The Shadow Knows,” wouldn’t go to a banquet. It’s way too fancy for him. But if he were forced, Gus would wear plain, comfortable shoes. I’m similar in that respect. My shoes will be black and nearly flat and above all else, comfortable. I want to enjoy the evening, which means doing what I can to avoid aching feet.
I’ve got a pair of suede saddle shoes that I regularly want to wear (khaki green panel over off-white), but my wife Tara says they don’t ever match what I put them with, so…. We’ll see if I can ever come up with a good combination! [Here are Art’s shoes for your viewing pleasure!—Paula]
Paula, Thanks so much for inviting us. Love the shoe pics, Art and Edith.ReplyDelete
Aren't the shoes great? Can't wait to see them in person. Kathy, thanks so much for participating.Delete
Excellent. Congratulations to all. I shall be back to read each one later after the school run.ReplyDelete
Thanks for having us over!ReplyDelete
So happy you could visit. Love the shoes, Edith!Delete
The voting is going to be very difficult with these wonderful stories. I may have to give bonus points for shoes…. ;)ReplyDelete
Shari, you're absolutely right. Maybe a 4-way tie with all modeling their banquet shoes?Delete
Five really good stories, four really good people!ReplyDelete
Great blog, Paula, and timely since the call for the next Chessie Anthology just came out. I love the shoe pictures. Edith what are those adorable shoes? They look comfortable, full of pizazz, and perfect for an Agatha Banquet. Good luck to all you guys!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Sasscer! Sounds like the new Chessie Anthology will be a good one!Delete
Thanks for including us here. What fun! And look forward to seeing everyone end of next week. (Yikes! So much to do between now and then!)ReplyDelete
So happy to have all of you, Art. Thanks to all of you for the wonderful stories.Delete
This was fun and helpful to read, and I love the shoe photos. Congratulations to all of you. See you at Malice!ReplyDelete
Congrats to you and the first novelist nominees, Susan. Looking forward to seeing you at Malice.Delete
Paula, I loved this post. Great advice and entertainment from the best. Good luck to all.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Georgia. I always learn so much for these talented folks. I appreciate your stopping by.Delete
Hard to believe Malice is next week. Ack! I'm looking forward to seeing everyone there, and thanks, Paula, for hosting us here.ReplyDelete
Oh, my. So much, so soon. Looking forward to seeing you there, Barb!Delete
Sasscer, they are Bernie Mev - google them. Completely comfortable on my short wide feet! They have flats, too. My tall friend Deb introduced me to them, because they come in both large and small sizes. I chose that fun multi-colored pattern just in case I want to wear my turquoise tights with them. ;^)ReplyDelete
They are fabulous, Edith. Thanks for sharing.Delete