Thursday, June 28, 2007


Well, it's time for me to list THREE BEAUTIFUL THINGS at the beginning of my sporadic essay about writing instead of at the end. I realized yesterday that I am rich. No, I don't have a lot of money, but - here's the revelatory part - I have what I need to be happy. I read a New York Times article yesterday about "Richistan" - that foreign country where US folks go when they become wealthy, but don't necessarily gain any sense or wisdom with their dollars. I decided that I live in Happystan, a much better place.

I celebrated a birthday yesterday - not one of the great big milestones, but the sort that draws you up short and makes you wonder where all the years went.

Ten years ago, I thought that by now I would be winding down a successful career, in the last two years of satisfying work for that same company where I was working, with the prospect of retirement in sight. But things don't always work out the way you think. Shortly after that I was laid off from my job and bought a little house in a different town next to the one my husband had bought. They were too small for us both, but we joined the backyards and lived in both. It was an unusual but really great arrangement. I found work at a different company, and started to plan again. Being a homeowner was fun, but I missed living in Pasadena where I had spent 28 wonderful years.

Shortly after that, 9/11 happened. I retired from the Army and had a stroke. You just never know when that strong body will stop working. It made the other milestones pale in importance.

Okay, I pressed on and went back to work. Different company, closer to home. In 2005, I took a job that didn't work out and went through the trauma of a lawsuit in 2006. I had to sell my sweet little house.

But the real estate market had changed a lot - my husband and I found a beautiful mid-century modern house and sold our two little cottages to buy it. We lucked out - those little houses had really appreciated.

Now I had the house of my dreams, but no job. Then, just as my unemployment insurance ran out, I got a job offer. I am working in that job still, although the contract will be ending shortly and I'll once again be out of work on September 28th.

Or will I? Just when I got used to the idea - was looking forward to it, even - I got a lead on a wonderful job. Okay, it's a long drive, but I've driven that far before. I am definitely going to check it out, at any rate. I know they want someone sooner than I am available, but maybe I can help them recruit someone. I know lots of folks in my biz, after all.

Our beautiful house is almost paid for. We enjoy working on it and in October, it's going to be on the Pomona Heritage Home Tour - the only modern house on the tour this year!
I have to say, the house is certainly one of my BEAUTIFUL THINGS.

I had a wonderful birthday yesterday - my Dear Husband brought me a weird-looking plant which I love. It's a bromeliad, and he is always one of my BEAUTIFUL THINGS.

After a really nice phone call, a prestigious company sent me a great email along with an application and a list of their benefits. Getting job interest at my age - and in my physical condition - just made me grin the whole day. Maybe I'm not ready for the rocker yet.

Even if you can't dance, it's still great to be asked. That recruiter's email is certainly a BEAUTIFUL THING. I'm going to go talk to them in person as soon as I can. I think I'm all excited about my work again.

I look at it this way. I am living in Happystan. I have enough to stop working when this contract is over and spend more time writing and gardening and improving my health. (Physical therapy is difficult and time-consuming, but it sure makes a difference!) I am not rich - but I don't need much, either.

But Happystan's borders are not limited to retirement; I love the idea that my last job before retirement might be something I really love, something where I really fit in and where the work is right up my alley, unlike my present job. I don't need a gold watch, but I'd like a retirement lunch, again unlikely in my present contract job. Just the possibility of this has set me to daydreaming about making the long commute and wearing an access badge and working in a place where we all know the same acronyms.

So maybe I am rich. I have choices I never considered before. I have opportunities and offers and new horizons, as well as the security of my home and family and garden. I have almost enough to get by without working, but I love my work. I make time to write, and I love that, too.

Maybe this euphoria will wear off - maybe the job will fall through and my electric bill will shock me out of complacency. But I will still be living the good - and simple - life in Happystan.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Over the weekend, I attended the Sisters in Crime Los Angeles NO CRIME UNPUBLISHED Conference and co-hosted a short story workshop with writer Gary Philips.

It was fun, but we were strapped for time and only had an hour. An hour is not enough, so I want to not only hit the highlights of the workshop for you here, but also to expand on it a bit and give you some of the information I did not have time to impart to the live class.

The Craft of Writing: Short Stories

Okay, how long is a short story?
Here are the official lengths from the Short Mystery Fiction Society (the folks who award the Derringer prizes each year)

Flash Story Up to 500 words
Short-short Story 501 to 2000 words
Mid-length Short Story 2001 to 6000 words
Longer Short Story 6001 to 15,000 words

Bear in mind that every venue in which you wish to publish will have their own idea of what lengths they will accept.

What makes it different from a chapter of a novel?
A short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is limited to one main plot point and the cast of characters is of necessity short. It tells a complete story with a resolution or revelation of some sort at the end.

A written scene without these completing elements is a snapshot or vignette, not a short story.

You may certainly use characters, settings, chapters or scenes from your novel in a short story, but your short story must stand alone as a complete story all by itself. It must have an ending, even if you – or the reader! – do not agree with the denouement or ending.

What's more important, setting, plot or characters?
They are all important. But while you may have the luxury of exploring settings in great detail in a novel, using multiple plot twists and turns, and an array of characters right out of Cecil B. DeMille, in a short story you must narrow your focus. The shorter your story, the more important it is to write concisely and to keep the telling of your tale simple while retaining its color, premise, style and voice.

First person? Third person? Omniscient Narrator?
Whatever works for your story. I have read beautifully-written short stories comprised entirely of dialogue. Beware when using a narration technique that you do not just dump the story on the reader by telling, not showing. Even a very short story must be interesting enough to hold the reader's attention, to make the reader care about the story. I like the way first person makes the reader an immediate part of the story. But I like the way third person omniscient can make the reader privy to every secret, every action as it unfolds.

I want to write a short story. Where do I get ideas?
Good – let's try writing a short story. Ideas come from everywhere, but I find that themed contests and exercises ("Write a story based on this picture!" or "Write a story about sheep!" or "Write a story with a lemon, a goat and an alien princess in it!") can be very good jump-starters.

Other ideas can be a childhood incident or other real-life event. Remember you are writing a short story – a piece of fiction – not a memoir, so make sure you have that old beginning, middle and end.

One of the best exercises you can do if you want to write short stories is read them. Read in the genres in which you want to write - and the ones you don't. Read the masters: O. Henry, Saki, Sommerset Maugham, Edgar Allen Poe. Read Guy de Maupassant, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson.
Go here for some great classics

You will not only get ideas, you will get a feel for the short story form. You will also see how language has changed over the last hundred years or so.

Now read some contemporary shorts: Ed Hoch, Stephen King, Raymond Carver, (here's a link to one of his, "Vitamins" in Granta) Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Chabon, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore.

Look at the differences, but more importantly, look at what is the same. Look at the "bones" of the story, the structure as well as the sheer reader's delight of total immersion in a good story.

Now, try to write a short story of your own. Don't hesitate - start writing now. Write until you have all three elements (beginning, middle, end.)

Tinker with that first sentence until it makes you want to read more. This is your "hook" - hook those readers up front. Remember those classic stories?

Help! I wrote a story, but…
You knocked out 180,000 words? Okay, maybe your wrote something between 100 and 10,000 words. Well, congratulations on writing a story - now let's tighten it up. Every first draft of a story can use some improvement. Take your newly-finished work and put it away for a few days. Write something else in the meantime. Remember - there is no limit to what you can write.

Some time later, take it out and read it aloud. You'll probably find a few things you need to fix right away.

Here's how I tighten a story - I have been known to successfully reduce a rambling 2,000 word story to a succinct 500 word short-short - without losing the essence of the story. I go through it and take out all the -ly words first. Adverbs are not your friends. (Okay, maybe I leave in one or two. But what do they contribute to the story?) Next, I look at the dialogue tags - the "he said, she saids." Do they make sense? Are they monotonous? Too colorful? Confusing?

Next, I read for extraneous phrases which do not advance the story. They may be beautifully-written pieces of deathless prose, but if they do not advance the story, out they go.

Finally, I read for pacing and continuity. Does the story unfold smoothly and at the right pace? Does stuff happen in the right order? Did I forget a name, change a hair color by mistake, forget that it was night in one part and day in the other? Do I need to change a few sentences around to make them clearer, smoother, more readable? Do I need to ditch a sentence or two entirely? And why did I name the heroine Gypsophylla when Lisa is a better fit? (Yippee for find-and-replace!)

With any luck, skill & effort, your story is now a better one.

Marketing your finished work
I want to devote a whole day in the future to marketing short stories, so this is going to be very short:

1. Know your genre. Do you write mystery? Science fiction? Romance? Contemporary literary? I write mostly mystery and science fiction, but I firmly believe that if you can write, you can write anything you want to. Look at your story and figure out where it might belong. Chances are, it could fit into more than one category.

2. Research your markets. Know what they want. Every magazine, anthology or contest has submission guidelines. Read them carefully and give them what they want. If they say under 1000 words, don't send 1001. If they say snail mail only, get out those envelopes. If they say no vampires, robots, brunettes, or cats, don't send your epic space opera vampire story about the furry dark robot cats. Keep on looking for a market that fits - or revise your story to fit the market. Either way works.

3. Polish your story again. Give it one more read, made sure it looks great and is in the right format.

4. Submit. Go on, do it. And keep a record of your submissions. A simple Word or handwritten document giving title, market, date of submission and date/type of response is perfect. That way you don't miss a market or submit the same thing twice to the same market.

A note about cover letters.
Short stories are usually sent with a short cover letter (not a query letter, which is something else entirely.)

Cover letters usually say something like this:

Dear Editor,

Attached (or in the body of this email) please find my original 750 word short story, "Lost in the Woods."

I am an avid reader of your magazine, and have had work published in "Sewage Monthly," "Cat Lovers USA," and "Coal Digest" (or leave credits out if don't have any - it won't matter if you don't have any.)

I look forward to hearing from you.


Avid J. Reader
123 Writer Lane
New York, NY 10000
(212) 555-5555
(Your name, address, phone number & email are important!)

Then you wait. But while you are waiting, write something else. Keep on doing that.

Where? Where do I submit?
Here are the links to 2 of my favorite online market guides.

Ralan's (look over on the far right for market listings)

There are others, of course. And if you post to any writers' forums (or fora for you linguistic purists) you will also find market info. Try these:

Absolute Write
The Mystery Writers' Forum

Okay - that's the Short Story Course for today - like I said, I'll cover marketing in more detail in the future (you can check the archives for a few more markets - and a lot more advice!)


The faces of everyone at the No Crime Unpublished Conference. Rochelle Krich, the keynote speaker brought me to tears. Sometimes that is a very sweet thing.

Two Barbara Karst bougainevilleas in my garden. Every week I see something new and wonderful.

No lines at the ladies' room at the conference. I really dislike waiting in line at a ladies' room when there is no line at the men's room. I have been known to dash into the men's in an emergency. There are more urgent needs for this as I get older…

Monday, June 04, 2007



I write primarily in this form, anywhere from 100 words to 5,000 words (although I have written a 55-word mystery for Mr. Andreychuk's Bullet Points and a 23,000 word epic for Mr. Moriyama at Aphelion.) I am most comfortable in the 500-word flash category and the 2,000 standard short story realm.

Because I write mostly mystery and science fiction, I am constrained not only by the short story form, but also the conventions of my genres. Within these self-imposed structures, I prefer to create entertaining puzzles and character-driven stories. I don't usually write romantic fiction (although I have done so) or literary fiction (that too) but I think writing is writing and if you can master the craft, then you have a shot at creating the art.

So what is this Art and Craft business, anyway? Well, the Craft of Writing is something that can be taught and learned and everyone who calls themselves a writer or aspires to be a writer needs to learn the basics. These include grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation. Add to this skills in vocabulary and common usage. Mix in sentence and paragraph flow and pacing.

The Art comes in the story. You might have all the tools with which to re-write someone else's work, but nothing with which to craft an original piece of your own fiction. The Art is in the ideas.

You need both pieces to write fiction – you need the ideas and you need the means of executing these ideas into readable, sensible stories.

Short stories are not vignettes or snapshots or pieces of a larger work. They are self-contained works with a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning should hook the reader with that first sentence, and introduce both characters and conflict. The middle should develop both characters and story, while the ending should provide a satisfying conclusion to the preceding events. (This is not to say all loose ends are tied up, or that the reader agrees with the denouement, only that the writer has provided closure or the means to a conclusion for the reader.)

A short story is more than a heartfelt romp through the writer's disorderly psyche. It is an orderly display of the writer's ideas conveyed through a specific form. These ideas may be horrifying, grisly or perverted – or they may be tender, sweet or poignant. The ideas can be disorderly; the execution cannot.

This coming Sunday – June 10th – the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime is hosting their annual NO CRIME UNPUBLISHED Conference in Alhambra, CA. Details are here. If you are in the Southern CA area and want a day of murder, mayhem and solid publishing advice, check it out. I'll be co-hosting a Short Story workshop in the Craft of Writing Track with Gary Phillips. It doesn't get any better than that!


One of the puppies in the spa, wanting to jump in, but not knowing how deep it might be, gingerly standing on the top step, one foot raised out of the water.

A yellow Western Oriole at the bird feeder – first one I have ever seen.

A barbecued Tri-Tip Roast. My Dear Husband barbecued it according to his brother-in-law's recipe and it came out perfectly. I love these summer barbecue days!