Tag: short stories

short stories

An Interview with Cathi Stoler

Cathi Stoler–a three time finalist & winner of the 2015 Derringer for Best Short Story, Cathi serves on the board of NYC Chapter of Sisters in Crime NY, and is a member Mystery Writers of America & International Thriller Writers–is a busy woman. Her second Nick Donahue adventure, Out of Time, releases soon and is my excuse to catch up with her to ask a few questions.

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Which short fiction collection are you dreaming of?

There’s a short fiction collection coming out in 2019 based on the albums of Joni Mitchell. I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of the stories and can’t wait to see the others. Of course this got me thinking: which collection I’d like to see in print.   Hands down for me it is fiction based on The Decembrists’ 2009 album The Hazards of Love, which tells a complete story as a rock opera. The plot is essentially a love story, where a woman falls in love with a shape-shifting forest dweller. His mother, the jealous forest queen, and a villainous rake add their own conflict to the story. There is love, jealousy, abandonment, hate, and revenge. Perfect.    Reviewing the album some critics felt that the ‘storyline’ was under developed. Well, short story writers, have at it. Time for development! Until that come to fruition (I’m dusting off my pen right now…) I’m waiting with great anticipation for the Joni Mitchell inspired collection.  What would you like to see inspire a collection of short fiction?   

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Short or long the stories are good

 At the Mystery Writer’s of America symposium the afternoon took a turn both dark and short. The authors nominated for Best Short Story shared the many ways they are inspired. SJ Rozan (“Chin Long-Yun Stays at Home”) pointed to the draw of an unusual situation or a phrase. The imagery of the pile of shoes in a Primo Levi story led Lisa Gray (“The Queen of Secrets”) to her obsession with shoes and eventually her nominated story.  Kenji Jasper (“A Moment of Clarity at the Waffle House”) started his story as a love letter and ended up killing his demons. Jeffery Deaver (“Hard to Get”) claims that he tries to ‘know his limitations’ and approaches the short story with plot in mind, knowing that he needs ‘the zinger’ before he then populates with characters.  There were commonalities among the panel. Most notably, a short story takes time. Time to germinate. Time to prune and hone.  Altogether a day of authors sharing stories that make us want to read….. and inspire us to write.     

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Do you write short stories?

The great author William Faulkner once said, “I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”  A bold statement. Something fun to argue about. But you could certainly make the argument that writing short stories is a way to learn the craft of writing. It’s an argument that I make with my students quite often. So I turned the question over to my fellow Miss Demeanors to ask them if they had any thoughts on short story writing and whether they did it themselves, and this is what they said: Alexia: I like short stories. M.R. James’s ghost stories are my favorites. I also like Steven King’s “The Boogeyman”. That’s one of the few stories I’ve read that actually frightened me. I don’t write short stories. (I’ve tried) I envy writers who are skilled at it. And I shake my head whenever I hear someone talking about writing short stories because they fear writing a novel will be too difficult, the implication being that short stories are easy. Not. Saying what you want/need to say in less than 20,000 words means you have no room for fluff. Every word counts. Not easy at all. Cate: I love short stories. One of the first books that I remember reading as a kid was Stephen King’s collection: The Monkey’s Paw. Some of my favorite short stories have run in The New Yorker. Here’s one By Zadie Smith that I really enjoyed. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/11/the-embassy-of-cambodia I write short stories sometimes. Not often. This year, Down and Out Books is putting out an anthology based on the music of Lou Reed to support mental health and suicide prevention services. I have one story on it: Pale Blue Eyes. It takes place in Vegas and the nearby Red Rock Canyon State Park. It’s a short mystery about an assault, but also it’s about how people cope with loss. I enjoyed writing it.  Robin: Do novellas count? The Body by Stephen King is my favorite, hands down. I just wrote my first cyber thriller short story and submitted it to my local chapter of Sisters in Crime for consideration in the first NorCal SinC anthology. Lots of firsts. I used to write short stories when I was younger. It’s taken me years to shake off brevity to write long form. When I see or hear other writers complain about having to cut tens of thousands of words from their first drafts, I’m sometimes jealous. I usually have to add the same amount. Tracee: I won’t claim to be ‘hooked’ but I do wonder…. this started when I read a short story on an airplane years ago. I wish I knew the title or author, but it was about a woman flying home to the US after the end of a diplomatic posting. You know that they uncovered a spy in the days before she left, and at the end I was convinced it was her and that she would be escorted off the plane. When it was her husband, and she’d uncovered it, I was blown away. I got just a tiny bit hooked. So much story packed into those few pages.  Paula: I read stories in The Paris Review and The New Yorker from time to time, but I usually prefer the long form. With the exception of collections of stories featuring my favorite characters: The Beat Goes On (Rebus) by Ian Rankin, The Pyramid (Wallander) by Henning Mankell, Wait for Signs (Longmire) by Craig Johnson are some of the ones I’ve read over the past year or two.  
 Alison: Wow, I feel out of step. I’m not a short-story reader, and I can’t even imagine writing one. Even when it comes to the New Yorker, I read the non-fiction.  Michele:  I’m in the minority here. While I’ll enjoy an occasional short story in the New Yorker, I usually find myself hungering for more at the end of short stories. I have challenged myself to write a short story more than once and have yet to have any luck when I’ve submitted them. I admire those of you who tell and write them so well. Maybe some day…          

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Favorite stories

Today is the first day of my Gotham Writers spring schedule, which means that I will be spending today teaching. So I felt I should include something educational in today’s post.  One of the things I’ll be talking to my students about is how to plot a novel, and something that is very useful in that respect, is to start taking apart stories. Not everyone looks at it this way, but I think there is some validity to considering a short story a very short novel. So with that in mind, what are some good short stories to tear apart and learn from: 1. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” by Sherman Alexie.  Read this for voice, for first person point of view, and for the beautiful structure. Everything you want to know about narrative arc is in this story. 2. “Labors of the Heart,” by Claire Davis. Read this for character and dialogue and that hopeless yearning that fuels the best stories. 3. “Afterward,” by Edith Wharton, which contains one of my favorite plot twists in all literature. 4. “A Death,” by Stephen King, first published in The New Yorker. A real master of story telling.  5. “Wants” by Grace Paley. Just love her voice. 6. “A Slight Deviation from the Mean,” by Susan Oleksiw. Set in India. In the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock. 7. “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenanian. This New Yorker short story went viral because of its provocative account of a young woman’s relationship with an older man. A great story to discuss with a class.  8. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.  Because this story has stayed in my head since the first time I read it, and it’s just as chilling the tenth time around. Do you have any favorite stories?

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The pleasure of short stories

Lately I’ve been on a short story writing binge. Partly that’s because I have a novel on submission, and I can spend my excess energy drinking or writing short stories and it seems more healthy to write. (I am working on a new novel as well, but I have a lot of excess energy.) But I have also come to realize how much I enjoy reading short stories. (I keep a copy of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in my pocketbook for emergency situations.)  One of the things I like about stories is that you can write them and finish them in a confined period of time. Generally it takes me about three months to write one, and then about six months to sell one, which, in the publishing business, is about as close to immediate gratification as you’re going to get.  I also like the way you can be experimental with a short story.  For example, I am intrigued by families of serial killers. This is probably because I grew up down the road from Joel Rifkin (Long Island’s worst serial killer) and one of the things I found fascinating about that whole thing was that after he was convicted, his mother continued to live in the house in which the murders took place. Which was a rather mundane looking split level house. What is it like to live in such proximity to evil? What do you know or make sure you don’t know? What choices do you make? I considered writing a novel with the protagonist the daughter of a serial killer. But I was concerned that it would be hard to get the readers to commit to such a character. Would it all be too creepy for a commercial novel? But with a short story, I have no such concerns. So the woman I sent off to Tahiti (in the story I mentioned yesterday) is grappling with the fact that she is leaving behind a father who is being sentenced to prison for murder.  Do you like short stories? Which are some of your favorites? 

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All about short fiction with Art Taylor

I’m delighted to be joined today by Art Taylor. The short version of his bio is that he’s a great guy and a great writer. He’s here today to talk about one of his specialties – Short Stories.  A more complete version of his bio would include Art’s credits as the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine. With that out of the way, and before I go on to novel length, let’s get to the good stuff. Short stories. TdeH: Thanks for joining us today. I live a little in awe of great short stories. They are like Japanese sushi knives. Precise and well honed. You’ve made a name for yourself as a writer of short stories. What drew you to this form?  AT: Thanks for having me, Tracee! Always enjoy the chance to chat about short fiction. TdeH: Ah, short fiction! I like that, much more evocative than short story. Sorry to interrupt, now back to your answer… AT: Either name works for me! To answer your question. Part of being drawn to short stories as a writer is having been a fan of them as a reader first. The Encyclopedia Brown mysteries were one of the first series that I followed—such gems those stories—and later, when I sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door as an elementary school fundraiser, I ended up ordering a subscription myself to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (maybe the only one I “sold”!), which introduced me to short mystery fiction at a much more advanced level. I used the word gem above, and I think that’s an accurate description of the best short fiction—something that’s perfectly, precisely cut (echoing that knife simile of your own, I guess), something that can marvel from various angles, and something brilliance is in inverse proportion to its compact size. (Did I carry that metaphor through OK?) TdeH: Gold star for metaphor continuity.  AT: As a writer—and one working often in a workshop setting in high school and college—I ended up trying to emulate the writers I was reading and admiring, whether Ed Hoch or Hugh Pentecost or others in EQMM or Hemingway or O’Connor or Welty in the classroom, and that included writing short instead of long. The workshop process in classes does, in fact, lean toward shorter fiction—something that can be read and critiqued in its entirety—and so that probably led me to feel more confident in writing short too, to develop those skills more. TdeH: Do you find that short fiction exercises a different part of the creative process than longer works? AT: I do—and in fact, while I’ve heard short story writers saying they struggle to write novels, I’ve heard the same thing in the opposite direction: novelists who struggle to write a short story. While some aspiring writers might think of the short story as a stepping stone toward writing novels, they do require different approaches. Short stories involve concision and subtraction and efficiency—cutting down a paragraph to the key detail or gesture or image that suggests larger things—rather than addition, with novels obviously involving more characters, more subplots, more… everything usually, a broader scope generally of character, plot, setting, and time. This is not to say that writers can’t do both, of course. But I do think that the best short stories can represent worlds as large as novels; they just do it in different ways. TdeH: Do you find a common thread binding your short fiction? AT: This is an interesting question, and one that I (honestly) struggle with myself. Ed Aymar, a good friend, once asked me if it was a challenge to my career that I wrote in such a variety of styles and subject matters (traditional here, noir there, etc.) since it all seemed antithetical to developing a brand. It was a revelatory question for me—not necessarily in a good way. And yet at the same time my writing group—and my wife Tara Laskowski too, always my first and finest reader—have emphasized that they can always hear my voice at the core of whatever I write, no matter how distant one story may be from the next in other ways. TdeH: I appreciate the idea of voice over brand. And I believe that you can have continuity of voice across genres. After all, most people read in a variety of genres – even if it is technically within one, say, from cozy mystery to hard boiled thriller. AT: I do think that my stories tend to revolve around several key themes, specifically relationships, the ties that bind, the responsibilities inherent in relationships, and the fall-out from not living up to those responsibilities in one way or another.  TdeH: You’ve already hinted at your answer, but I want to ask it straight out: I’ve often heard short stories lauded as a way into publishing. What’s your opinion about this?  AT: This takes some of my comments above in a different direction, of course. Before I was focused on craft, but from a business angle… well, I do think that short fiction publications might help toward other publishing opportunities, and I know it helped me specifically. Having some stories published, getting some attention for those stories, gave me a place in the mystery community that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and brought me to the attention of my publisher, Henery Press, and then to the publication of On the Road with Del & Louise (and from a craft angle, that story is a novel in stories, so there was actually an aesthetic component to all this too). So it’s possible to… I hesitate to say leverage but certainly it’s possible to build on success in one area toward success in another. TdeH: But not necessarily the path that is right for everyone? AT: Correct. I’ve heard from an agent friend that she’d rather start with a complete unknown when she’s trying to pitch a first novel to a publisher—someone to discover and debut. Many ways of looking at this, seems like. TdeH: Any advice for someone attempting their first work of short fiction – tips on story structure, theme, plot points? AT: My good friend and fellow short story writer Barb Goffman has said that a short story is about “one thing”—and keeping focus on that one thing may well go a long way toward making those moves I mentioned before, making those cuts to anything that’s not integral to the story being told. In my own short fiction workshops, I often talk about narrative arc in similar ways—using Janet Burroway’s discussion of Cinderella and her charts of the Cinderella story—to show how closely the movement of plot and of conflict relates to that “one thing” that the story is about, and I think that can be a good model for writers trying their hand at short fiction for the first time. What does a character want? What’s standing in the way of those desires? How do you navigate that character through that obstacle course—whether they reach the end of all those obstacles successfully or not? (And failure or disappointment can also be satisfying resolutions, of course. Compare the traditional Cinderella to Anne Sexton’s poem by the same name.) But that’s just a starting point, of course. In those same workshops, we also look at modular storytelling, at experiments in structure and form—at the many shapes a short story might take. Constraints may be part of the challenge in writing short—but finding ways around those constraints? What fun! What pleasures for both writer and reader too! TdeH: Art, thanks for spending time with us, and for sharing your insights into the world of short fiction. And congratulations on ALL of your awards! Learn more about Art and dip into his writing at arttaylorwriter.com, follow him on Twitter @ArtTaylorWriter, on Facebook at ArtTaylorShortStories, on Pinterest at arttaylorwriter and Instagram at arttaylorwriter

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La Valise Volee (The Stolen Suitcase)

   “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta When people ask me where do I get my ideas, one of my top answers is by traveling. Perhaps it’s my overactive imagination, but I see stories everywhere I go.          For instance, during a trip to Provence recently to fulfill an agenda item on my bucket list, which was to see fields of lavender in full bloom, one of my favorite suitcases was stolen off a bus. Fortunately it had my husband’s clothing in it, not mine, or you would be reading a story about an international incident in the New York Times. But the point is, once we recovered from the outrage and insult we suffered at the hands of a thief and then a very blasé bus company, I began to see the event as a story with all sorts of possibilities. Spending our first hour and a half in Aix en Provence sitting in the police station in ninety-degree weather without air conditioning was indeed inspiring. Not being able to speak much more than high school French, I found myself conjuring reasons why people were gathered in the dirty, antiquated lobby. I had seen people greet one another before with the French kiss-kiss, one on each cheek, but the sight of French cops bidding hello and farewell in that manner fascinated me. I couldn’t tell whether the expressionless silent people gathered around us were victims or perpetrators, so I made stories up. Before you knew it, I knew exactly what happened to la valise volee, what the demise of the culprit would be in the short story I would write, and where the ending would take place.              We had arrived that morning at the airport in Marseille after a short flight from Dublin, a city that I found equally as inspiring. We had chosen to stay in Dublin for four nights on an extended overlay so we could build value into our airfare, which I had been unable to reduce to what I think of as a palatable price. The Hop On, Hop Off bus offered us a great way to see the city as many times as we wanted. We kept going by a vacant over grown lot near the Houston train station where one bus driver told us no one ever got on or off in his twenty-two years of experience. Immediately I knew there was a dead body in the lot. At least that there was a dead body in the lot in my mind.            Later, during the trip home when I encountered a young pale-faced Irish woman traveling to Boston with her two little waifs, I knew they had to be part of that story, which was why they had to leave Dublin. Was the body the abusive husband she had done in? Or had he been murdered by someone looking for something of value they thought the husband had and now figured it was with the widow? Another short story idea was born, even though I am challenged to write short fiction. I’m much better at being long-winded. I blame it on the Irish in me.                So maybe these ideas will end up in books if I can’t manage to fit them into short stories. Or maybe they’ll end up in my pillow as dreams. But wherever they go, I never would have had them if I hadn’t traveled. Does travel inspire you. dear readers? How, and please share photos.     

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Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

This week, to my complete delight, my Sunday School teacher/private detective/fabulous protagonist Maggie Dove made a guest appearance in the pages of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. This is big time. AHMM has been around since 1956.  It has published a roster of famous mystery writers. And now me! My story is titled “The Countess of Warsaw,” but I can’t explain why without giving away too much.  It was a hard story to write because I knew from the moment I started to write it that I wanted it to be good. Which is a lot of pressure. Usually I meander my way into a story, but in this case I truly hoped it would be picked up by AHMM, and so I focused intently on plotting and making it tight. I tried to think about the stories I loved growing up. I loved to be surprised by the way a plot unfolded and I absolutely loved to be surprised at the end. But you can’t just sit down and say, Okay. Surprise me. It probably took me about a year to write this.  Anyway, it is a great joy to see my name in the Table of Contents and to think of Maggie Dove joining all the other detectives who have visited there.       And in other Miss Demeanor news, congratulations to Cate Holahan, who just got a starred Kirkus review for her upcoming novel, Lies She Told. 

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It's still May. Short story month.

 I recently spoke to a middle school class in Athens, Tennessee and was impressed by their thoughts on writing, what they were writing and how excited they were about the entire process from inspiration to words on paper to editing (which they informed me was the hardest and most important part!). In this class, and when I meet children or young adults with their parents, one of the inevitable questions is what should I do if I want to be a writer? That’s a loaded question but one of the things I usually mention is name recognition through competitions. (After all, practice and potential resume building aren’t bad for anyone.) Inevitable we talk about short story competitions. Why? There are quite a few of them. And while writing a short story isn’t easier than writing a full length novel it is ‘shorter,’ which hopefully translates into a shorter timeline for completion. While name recognition for a contest winner or short story publication is a great thing, there are other wonderful reasons to tackle the short story. Perhaps most importantly, it is a tool in development of writing craft. Short stories may be short but they have a beginning, middle and end. Their length makes it all the more critical to distill all knowledge into an abbreviated word count. A good short story will always be tight and succinct (whereas a novel can legitimately be lengthy). That leads to the part that the middle schoolers felt was the hardest and most important – editing. A masterful short story is a well edited story. This doesn’t mean that a short story edits out theme or twists or experimentation with POV or any other of the other things that writers use in full length novels. The short story provides space for everything, just judiciously. A theme is the heart of any story! Recently I asked a short story writer what was their biggest piece of advice. The answer: start the story very near the end. Are you a short story writer? Any advice? Any favorites? 

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