Writing Short By Edgar Nominee Kate Flora

This morning, we're having coffee with attorney and mystery author Kate Flora, who's going to give us some advice about writing short fiction.

Of Kate's eleven books, seven are Thea Kozak mysteries, two are gritty police procedurals, one (writing as Katharine Clark) is a suspense thriller, and one is a true crime. Her 2007 Edgar nominee, Finding Amy, (co-authored with Joseph K. Loughlin) was filmed for TV.

Currently, she's working on Death Dealer, a true crime involving a Canadian serial killer, a screenplay, and a novel told in linked stories. Her third police procedural, Redemption, will be published in February 2012. She teaches writing for Grub Street in Boston.

Kate's short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including the Sara Paretsky edited collection, Sisters on the Case. She spent seven years as editor and publisher at Level Best Books, and she is a former international president of Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of the New England Crime Bake conference.

Her story, “All that Glitters” appears in Dead Calm: Best New England Crime Stories, and her story, “Bone China” in the crime story anthology Dead of Winter.

In other words, Kate Flora is one busy author. Obviously, she knows a lot about writing and editing, and has a lot of experience with short stories. She's experienced enough to know that writing short sometimes takes much longer, and she's here this morning to explain why as well as to offer some advice on how to write short successfully.

Why Does Writing Short Take So Long?
By Kate Flora

Writing short is not the same as easy. There are many ways writing short crime fiction can go wrong.

I got into writing short stories accidentally. For years, mystery writer Susan Oleksiw and I had discussed doing an anthology of crime fiction as a snapshot of the New England crime writer’s mind. She decided to move from talk to action and invited me to join her on the editorial side of the desk. That was daunting.

As a further condition, Susan decided the editors must also write stories for the collection. That was ten years ago. We produced seven collections at Level Best Books, then passed the reins to new editors, who will bring out their second collection, Dead Calm, in a few weeks.

During those years, I read hundreds of stories, and wrote about a dozen. On the writing side, I learned that it usually takes a long time, and a lot of rewrites, to produce a satisfying story.

On the editing side, I have seen what goes wrong in short stories. I draw on that, and on the experience of fellow editors, for the following reasons why stories get rejected.

Rejection Analysis

1) Whose Story Is It?

Far too frequently, the writer isn’t in touch with whose story is being told. Sometimes this is manifested in a shifting point of view, so that the reader gets dizzy trying to follow whose story is being told. Sometimes, in mid-story, the writer becomes entranced by the voice of another character, and switches to seeing through their eyes. This happens when the writer doesn’t know her characters well enough, has a shaky understanding of point of view, or doesn’t really know what the story is about.

Often, in my comments, I will ask:

Whose story is this?

What does he want?

How do the events of the story disclose that or frustrate that goal?

How is the character changed by the end?

How does each particular scene build to the desired effect at the end? (Looking at scenes as the building blocks of story, one should be able to answer this question.)

A writer should be able to answer these questions. If she can’t, her story is not ready to submit.

2) Does the story have a strong voice?

This one seems obvious, but too often, writers haven’t disclosed what’s interesting about their characters; haven’t found the character’s world view, attitude, and idiosyncrasies and revealed it in their speech.

Readers want to be grabbed by the story. If the characters are generic instead of specific, if the character is a cartoon, or someone we’ve seen a hundred times, the reader puts it down.

Consider how much is revealed by the language choices and terse details of the opening of Mike Wiecek’s “The Gas Leak”:

When Sue Ann in dispatch got the 911, she called out the fire department, then immediately rang up the sheriff. Sue Ann knew that any action at the Granger place was unlikely to stop at firefighting.

3) Does the story show me something new?

Editors see a lot of stories. To rise above the pack, a story has to create a well-imagined world, one that will intrigue the reader, and make them feel something, take them on a journey, teach them something new, surprise them, or leave them feeling “wrung out.”

Among dozens of potential "spouseicides," what will stand out is the twist—a couple trying to poison each other, a couple where the poisoner is actually trying to save the spouse from a lingering and horrible death from disease. The same is true for almost any plot.

What can you bring to the page that will make it different? Use your imagination. Think what would happen if? Edgar nominee Judy Green, for example, writes about an older woman with dementia who has no idea she’s foiled a robbery.

4) Is there something at stake?

As one editor put it, a story can be beautifully rendered, but if she doesn’t care about what’s happening, she’ll put the story down. A corollary of this is obvious: there must be a character who matters to your reader for whom those stakes exist.

5) Is there a strong opening?

In the tight confines of a short story, things have to start happening right out of the box. As an example, an editor gave me this, from Ray Daniel’s story, “Communion.”

I sat in a café, in the north end, drinking a double espresso, eating a biscotti, and waiting for a funeral.

The story gives you place, an imminent event, and questions: whose funeral? How did the person die? How is the narrator tied to that death?

6) Is there a satisfactory ending?

Far too often, an otherwise good story gets rejected because of a weak ending. Editors see it all the time. An ending that comes out of nowhere. And ending that simply peters out. And ending that doesn’t tie up, or tie in with, the events of the story. An ending that leaves the reading saying, “Huh?” An ending that seems contrived rather than growing out of the plot and the characters.

No question about it: endings are HARD. But if endings are your weakness, go read some anthologies of good mysteries. The field is very rich. Then deconstruct the story, and see how that ending is inevitable. How it fits. How it stuns or surprises or shocks, or deeply satisfies and leaves a reader saying, “Aah. Yes!”

7) Is the story plausible?

This is a plot logical issue, and my own personal bugaboo. If you’re writing a crime story, know some crime basics. So many times, a promising story collapses in a “give me a break” moment.

Here are a few examples of dumb things that could be prevented by the most basic research. The wife wanting it to appear her husband accidentally fell overboard at sea shooting him before dumping him overboard. An interrogation that is central to the plot hinging on implausible investigative technique. There is no safety on a Glock. You can’t stick a new clip in a revolver.

8) The Magic Editor will make it all right.

Don’t submit a story before it is ready. Far too often, the reason a promising story is rejected is that it needs a couple more revisions before it is tight and clean and ready to go. Editors are lucky if they have time to brush their teeth in the morning. With a hundred stories to read, they may want to like you, but they’re looking for reasons to reject stories and make the pile shorter.

Go over your story and take out every extraneous word. Turn on your cliché detector. If you can’t spell and punctuate, ask a friend. Submitting a misspelled, poorly edited, badly punctuated story sets it up for rejection and you for unnecessary pain.

9) Follow submission guidelines.

This one shouldn’t need to be said. Too often, writers are so eager to be published they’ll submit anywhere. It’s sad to reject a good story because the writer didn’t pay attention to the word count, or other rules for submission.

It is easy, on the other hand, to reject a story where the cover letter begins: I know your story length is 5000 words, but I like my story just the way it is at 7000, so I didn’t edit. If you like the story, I’ll consider….

You know where that story went. A story that followed it right into the trash bin bore this note: You’ve asked for the author’s information to be in the upper right hand corner. This is wrong. You should have asked….

The Bottom Line

Great article, Kate! Thanks for those insights. Readers, you can also find Kate hanging out at her blog Pen Noir and also at Maine Crime Writers. Be sure and look for her third police procedural, Redemption, in February 2012.

Takeaway Truth

The generosity of authors in sharing their expertise always amazes me. I hope you will thank Kate and the other authors who guest star on SlingWords by purchasing one of their books.

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