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Bullet-Proof Your Short Mysteries: Editors Tell You How!
by Michael Bracken

Return to Writing Mysteries · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Mystery publication editors are eager to discover new talent, but many would-be mystery writers play literary Russian roulette by submitting inappropriate, cliche-ridden, and error-filled short stories. In a series of interviews, nine mystery editors representing anthologies, periodicals, and on-line publications discussed these problems and ways writers might bulletproof their short mystery submissions.

"I root for every writer who submits," said Ed Gorman, editor of twenty-three mystery anthologies, including the annual The Year's Finest Mystery & Crime Stories, which he co-edits with Martin H. Greenberg.

Anthony Neil Smith, editor of Plots with Guns and a fiction editor with Mississippi Review, agrees. "Believe me -- we want to find the good stuff, and we get excited when we do."

One of the most important things new mystery writers can do to improve their chance of being published is to develop an understanding of each editor's needs. Following guidelines is especially important, as each publication has specific requirements. Andrew McAleer, editor of Crimestalker Casebook, suggests paying close attention to story length. "Before submitting a story an author should request the submission guidelines and follow them exactly," he said. "Sometimes we get submissions that are double and triple our word length."

Serita Stevens, editor of Unholy Orders and the forthcoming Blondes in Trouble, said, "Since my anthologies go to help the Romanian orphans, I don't want things that are smutty as we have a lot of church people reading the stories. [Writers] have to ask where is the intended audience."

Virginia Johnson, co-publisher of Detective Stories Monthly, echoes that sentiment. Writers quickly earn rejection by "not following the family guidelines that we set" and through "usage of foul language."

Others, like Jeff Gelb, editor or co-editor of numerous horror and mystery anthologies, including the twelve-book Hot Blood series with Michael Garrett, and the three-book Flesh and Blood series with Max Allan Collins, represent the other end of the spectrum. Because Gelb edits erotic fiction, the short stories in his anthologies contain material that neither Stevens nor Johnson would publish.

Even though publications may share a particular genre, they may not serve the same niche. Kevin Burton Smith, editor of Thrilling Detective and co-editor with D. L. Browne of the anthology Down These Wicked Streets, suggests paying close attention to a publication's niche. "The Thrilling Detective Web Site caters to a peculiar niche market -- the private eye genre. So we require that all stories feature a private eye as the protagonist. Mind you, within those restrictions, we're pretty wide open about subject and content."

Understanding all requirements, no matter how off-the-wall they may seem, is especially important. Anthony Neil Smith notes one extremely particular requirement of his publication: "Our gun thing. We started Plots With Guns with the gimmick that every story has to have a gun in it -- we wanted to justify the cool name. But understand that this doesn't mean we want excessive gunplay. It just means we need a gun somewhere in the story. Even a mention of one is enough."

Anthology editors are often quite specific in their needs, especially since many anthologies are one-time publications. "I usually have a theme to the anthology," said Jeffrey Marks, editor of four mystery anthologies, including the forthcoming Criminal Appetites. "It's important to tie in to the theme in general for the continuity of the book."

Writers failing to grasp an anthology's concept is a common concern among anthology editors. "The most common error that I saw was the writer not paying attention to what was being asked for in the story," said Stevens. "For Blondes in Trouble, supposedly a mystery about blondes who are 'legally blonde' i.e. smarter than they are given credit for being, I had several [writers] give me straight blonde stories where the blondes were just as stupid as the stereotype."

"Occasionally people just haven't understood the idea of the anthology I am editing," Gelb said. To ensure that contributors understand his anthology concepts, Gelb likes to work with writers in the early stage of story creation. "I try and approve a story concept before anyone starts writing."

Since submission to most of Gelb's anthologies is by invitation only, he is surprised "when writers send stories that were sitting in drawers and hope they fit, regardless of the theme of the anthology to which they are contributing, and regardless of whether they were solicited to send a story."

"Guidelines are not arbitrary," McAleer emphasizes, and the most frequent complaint of editors is writers who don't bother to follow the guidelines.

Avoid Clichés

Once writers have taken the time to study a publication's guidelines and feel they understand its specific requirements, it's time to eliminate cliches.

"An easy example is the hardboiled story opening with the down-on-his-luck P.I. sitting in his rent-is-past-due office when a beautiful and shapely but aloof and mysterious woman walks in with a problem," said Earl Staggs, senior fiction editor of Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine. "Another example is the little old lady amateur sleuth who sees something strange in the house across the street and for some reason, absolutely must meddle to discover which of the ne'er-do-well relatives is the culprit. Sam Spade and Jessica Fletcher have been done."

Other editors mentioned domestic crime where one spouse kills the other and hit man stories where Italian Americans are depicted as Mafia hooligans.

In addition to many private eye and mob cliches, Anthony Neil Smith is also tired of "action cliches -- I mean, some people think there's only a couple ways to pull a gun and fire, all of them inspired by a Bronson flick."

Cliches are so rampant in private eye stories that Kevin Burton Smith and Gerald So, Fiction Editor of Thrilling Detective, once developed a list of "Thundering Cliches" and have been adding to it ever since. The list can be found at http://www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/triv191.html.

Accentuate Believability

Beyond cliches are a number of big caliber problems that editors suggest avoiding.

Kevin Burton Smith dislikes "derivative plots and cardboard characters that have no connection with each other -- they simply exist to be moved around, pawns in a literary board game. I think this comes, often, from writers who love the genre, but haven't really read extensively in it. They literally don't have a clue.

"Actions with no consequences also bug me," Kevin Burton Smith continued. "If a P.I. shoots it out with the bad guys on Main Street, even the most incompetent cops in the world will eventually want to ask him a few questions -- and they're probably not going to let him walk away. And if someone beats you up, it's gonna hurt. For a long time. All the slugs from all the office bottles in the world won't change that."

"What I don't like to see," said Anthony Neil Smith, "is too much story shoved into too little space. A novel-length idea trying to exist in 15 to 20 pages. That makes the story feel shallow and 'all plot.'" Short stories and novels are different, he explained, "the same way a movie experience is different from a sitcom or hour-long drama experience -- they are presented differently and in many cases we watch them with different expectations."

Another problem Anthony Neil Smith sees too often is "a type of authorial intrusion that 'over-explains' the action or situation or characters' motives. It shows that the author doesn't trust the reader to understand the implications of the scene or the dialogue and has to point it out. Example: 'He threw the cat across the room, angry at being tricked.' Um, we'll figure it out without being told, I promise."

Kevin Burton Smith is bothered by "characters who don't act believably -- they act like characters in a story, existing only to serve the plot. Whereas it should be the other way around -- the plot should depend on the characters. It's compounded by writers who excuse implausibility and improbability by insisting such-and-such 'really' happened in real life. You know, that whole 'But it really happened to my brother's dentist's cousin' thing -- it's the Urban Myth School of Writing. Real life doesn't have to make sense. Fiction does, at least within the boundaries it creates for itself."

"The other common error is projecting," said Stevens. "Maybe it's because I am a writer too that I can guess what the obvious is and figure out where the writer is going when they are not headed for the obvious . . . but there are many smart readers out there and they need to realize that and have just one more twist."

Beware of parody. "It used to be that cozies were easy to parody because they were so predictable -- but cozies are doing all sorts of things today," Gorman said. "You'll find some believably tough stuff in the cozy form today. Many cozies are just as realistic as so-called 'street' fiction. Yes, there are a lot of lousy cozies but there's an equivalent number of lousy tough-guys, too. Now I think it's easier to parody hardboiled. All the guy cliches. The avenger. The loner. The tough cop. Joe Gores has developed a number of ways to present the hardboiled crime story in various new ways. Great stuff. He's got two collections that are worth memorizing."

Demand Attention

Stories need to grab an editor's attention. "I usually give a short story three or four pages," Gorman said. "Something has to grab me. Voice, style, grace note."

Staggs elaborated on this. "A slow beginning" is a story-killer, he said. "Some writers feel compelled to spend a paragraph or two describing the setting (or a sunset) or giving past history of a character before starting the story. My advice is to get the story up and running with intriguing dialogue or action, then filter in setting and backstory in small bits and pieces as the story rolls along -- but only if it is important to the story."

Just as problematic, Staggs said, is when writers follow his advice to start strong, and "then stop the story dead to describe the setting or give a character's backstory."

Staggs and other editors suggest that stories start strong and keep moving through the middle to the end. "A story must be complete," Staggs said, "meaning we want a clear and definitive ending with all loose ends knotted, all pieces of the puzzle in place. We prefer not to see those ambiguous endings better left to literary, slice-of-life, or 'character sketch' pieces."

Editors are tired of seeing the same plots rehashed, yet they understand the risks of experimenting. "I get tired of same old same old," Gorman said, "but experimenting is risky."

"We're looking to raise the bar for short hard-boiled/noir fiction by really looking for unique voices telling stories in a way only those voices could tell them. In other words," Anthony Neil Smith said, "let's see some originality. You do that by investing in characters and in the relations they have with each other. Make things specific, unique, random, surprising -- make me feel something for these fake people you made up. You can't do that by copying what's been done. That's a good place to start, but after a while, vary the format. Just because you do a good version of something I've read or seen before (usually a variation of Goodfellas) doesn't mean it's good on its own. Instead, it feels weak because it doesn't offer a fresh take."

Study Writing

All of the editors emphasized the need to read, write, rewrite, and study market reports.

Beginning writers should look for all types of markets, according to Gelb. "Look for places to contribute: webzines, fanzines, and anthologies. Write as often as you can, or you're just never going to improve your craft and hone your own voice."

Marks suggests that writers "write something that they like. It should be a reflection of who and what you are. And that should make the voice unique and the perspective one of a kind!"

One important thing McAleer points out is that "A rejection is by no means a reflection of one's talent."

Persistence is important, according to Johnson. "Honing your craft is in all professions, and writing is no different. You just have to keep at it."

Anthony Neil Smith suggests that writers "read lots and lots. Read good stuff and bad stuff, try to read it to understand what makes it work. Read a big variety, and certainly challenge yourself by reading some 'literary' fiction in order to see how people push the story format to its limits. Revise what you write. It's necessary. Also, if you have a chance to take a class in fiction writing or participate in a workshop, go for it. That's like boot camp. You learn best from your own writing, but a good class or workshop can accelerate the process if you're ready for it -- plus it helps thicken the skin to criticism and can show you how valuable having outside readers comment on your work can be. Don't send the story until you think it's ready."

"I'm not a big fan of Cops," Gorman said, "though I know a number of hardboiled writers who are. They seem to dwell on the violence of it. What I dwell on is the grief and sorrow of it all -- the human condition at its worst. I think that's why Ed McBain has had such a long run at the top. He gives you the violence and the grief and the sorrow. In other words, the reality of street crime, not the cartoon of Tough Guys. Last night on 60 Minutes I saw one of the three guys who dragged that poor Texas black man to his death. The killer was an illiterate hick trying to blame his partners for everything. But as sickening as he was to watch, you clearly saw and felt his own fear and grief. I'm not sure he felt any remorse for what he'd done but he was sure enough scared that he wasn't going to last long in prison. The true artist -- say Clark Howard -- could do a story in which all these feelings are present. Good guys and bad guys alike."

Gorman suggests that writers study the work of other writers. "I want to see a fresh angle," he said. "We all use the same conventions, the same tropes. So it's all in how you present them. The important thing is to study short story masters. In literary fiction -- for me -- that would be Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John O'Hara, John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Ann Beattie, etc. In crime fiction that would be Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Clark Howard, Brendan DuBois, Dick Lochte, Marthayn Peligrimas, Anne Perry, Ruth Rendell, etc. Genre fiction lends itself to cliche all too easily. The people I've named here almost never resort to cliche, either line by line or in concept and structure. Write from your own experience emotionally. If you feel the story as you're writing it, the reader will feel it too -- whether it's comic or tragic or just a stunning piece of plot twisting. Study Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines carefully. They each present a wide range of fresh styles and approaches every issue. Also study Otto Penzler's annual anthology [The Best American Mystery Stories] and the one Marty Greenberg and I edit. And read outside the field, too. This is a golden age of short fiction of every kind."

And, because it's a golden age, beginning mystery writers who learn to bulletproof their manuscripts will soon find their short stories published on-line and in print beside the work of today's mystery masters.

Helpful Sites:

Crimestalker Casebook

Thrilling Detective

Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine

Ellery Queen
Guidelines: http://www.themysteryplace.com/eqmm/guidelines/

Alfred Hitchcock
Guidelines: http://www.themysteryplace.com/ahmm/guidelines/

Copyright © 2004 Michael Bracken
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Michael Bracken is the editor of Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys, Fedora II: More Private Eyes and Tough Guys, Small Crimes, and several other anthologies. He is the author of 10 books, including the well-received private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 800 shorter works. For additional information, including a selected bibliography and Bracken's speaking schedule, is available at http://www.CrimeFictionWriter.com.


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