Awards

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The “Derringers” are awards for short fiction presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. My story “Don’t Text and Drive” was one of five nominees for the 2019 Derringer for Flash Fiction.

I was thrilled. The usual “it’s an honor to be nominated” applies since I knew I had no chance of winning, especially after I read the five nominees. One was, to me, the clear winner, far better than my piece.

Well, lo and behold, I didn’t win. What a surprise! But the membership was given the vote totals. Of the five stories, I came in fifth. Ouch. But, the story I identified as the clear winner, came in fourth! Huh?

It’s a symptom of something that I’ve noticed in my reading. I don’t particularly enjoy stories that seem to be award winners. I recently read one of the “Best Mystery Stories” collections from a past year. It was terrible. One or two stories were good, most were bad, and two were unreadable. I thought about writing an Amazon review. “If these are the best, I guess I’m no longer a mystery fan.”

I really wonder about what it means. Am I so out of touch with what makes good popular fiction? Or should I just write what I like and ignore the critics?

By the way, part of the thrill of my nomination was that I find flash fiction excruciatingly difficult to write. I have a tendency to babble on. On a good day, I can edit my stories to a reasonable length. But less than a thousand words? Ouch.

Goals and Writing

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When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to make a living as a freelance writer.  I had big dreams. I even told my mother that I would be a millionaire by the time I was thirty. She was thrilled, but I quickly dropped that goal (having a lot of money caused problems, I told her). Still, I fully intended my career to be self-sustaining.

It never happened.

Despite some early paperbacks, despite having a publisher interested in one of my novels and an agent interested in another, it never happened.

Whether it was fate, or shortcomings on my part (I lean toward the second), it never happened.

But I kept writing, kept publishing an occasional short story, kept writing novels. Unfortunately, I had to get a full time job, which put a dent in my writing time. Ugh!

Now, I’m retired, and I have more time to write (and read – the two always go together), but my goal is no longer to make a living as a freelance writer. My goal is to write, career be damned.

And, believe it or not, I’ve published more stories in the three years since my retirement than I had in the previous fifteen years.

Is it because I now have more time to write? Or is it because my attitude has changed? Writing the story is the most important goal; going for publication is secondary.

I guess I still fantasize about being “discovered” late in life and suddenly living the life of a best selling author. But that’s no longer my goal.

And I think that makes me a better writer.

Character vs. Plot

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I recently read an article about rules for mystery writing. The first rule was that plot was most important.

As a reader, I couldn’t disagree more. Character and plot go hand in hand, and in a mystery, especially a puzzle type mystery, which this article was geared toward, character is most important. Nothing is worse than reading a mystery with cardboard characters. The murder is committed by the “jealous husband” or the “drug addict” or the “long lost twin,” none of whom are developed as real people.

It’s especially important in a puzzle mystery if the writer is playing fair with the reader. There are usually several suspects, and not being able to differentiate between five to ten blank characters appearing and reappearing in a story is frustrating. The detective often goes back to re-interview somebody and I have to look back to see who that person is. They don’t “leap off the page” as they should.

This is why I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie, especially her Poirot mysteries. Her intricate plots are, of course, a major part of her appeal, but I think her deft characterizations are often overlooked. After the crime is resolved and I’m completely blown away by the killer’s identity, I can look back and say “of course. It fits perfectly with the character’s motives.”

I was surprised to see a recent on-line discussion group knocking Christie a little because of her characters. I think her characterizations were always top notch.

Character vs. plot? Always, character first.

Retirement

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I’ve recently retired from my day job, so, of course, my goal is to write more. And I am writing more, but not as much as I’d like. Life still has a habit of getting in the way.

But I’m discovering something unusual in my writing life. I now seem to have several projects going on at once. I’m working on a novel (the same one I’ve been working on for years), and I’m also working on several short stories. I’ve never done that before. I never had more that one story in the works to go along with a novel.

Right now I’m working on four short stories in various stages of development to go along with the novel. I keep telling myself that’s a good thing, but something deep inside of me says maybe I should focus on one thing at a time.

Who knows?

A New Milestone

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In the deep dark past, before the internet and home computers, when I had to prepare my manuscripts on a typewriter and MAIL them to publishers with an SASE enclosed for a response, I had one particularly bad day when I received 3 rejected manuscripts back. All on one day.

After some silent sobbing, I decided that it was actually a good thing. It was proof that I was submitting stories, subscribing to the philosophy that if you don’t write something and submit something, it will never get published. So, good for me! (It never happened again, by the way, though I believe once or twice I got two rejections on the same day).

Now, in the modern computer age, I’ve achieved a new milestone. I submitted a story on-line to an e-zine on Monday, and it was rejected — on Monday! I really don’t know what to make of this. I figured I formatted the submission incorrectly, or left out some information the editor desired, but I double checked and I had done everything correctly.

This magazine supposedly has a group of readers who make decisions on submissions. Had they all read my manuscript within a few hours? Didn’t they have anything else to do? Could the story possibly be that bad?

It was pretty much a form letter response, though it had the name of my manuscript in it, and it prompted me to ask for further information as to the reason for the rejection, or check out the magazine to see the kind of things they publish. I’ve been doing this for a very long time and I know about doing market research. This was a general fiction publisher, but something about them sounded strange.

I’m chalking this one up to experience and am moving on. However, I doubt that I will submit to this particular publisher again.

 

To Be or Not to Be

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Sometimes I think about quitting.

It’s been a bad eighteen months for me. Sometimes I sit in front of the keyboard and don’t type anything because I think I’m wasting my time. I’ll never be successful. Nothing will ever get published.

Then I’ll make a small sale to a webzine and have another one lined up. Things will look a little brighter. I’ll write pages and pages for a week or so. I’ll see hundreds of potential markets.

Then I’ll start thinking, am I wasting my time?

Rejection was never a problem. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times since I started writing. That never stopped me.

But now, sometimes I can’t drag myself to the keyboard. And even when I do, I can’t write anything.

Am I wasting my time?

Agatha Christie

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Last week I attended a dinner of the Agatha Christie Appreciation Society in honor of the 125th anniversary of her birth and the 25th anniversary of the organization, whose official name is “Postern of Murder.” It was an enjoyable evening of good food with about a hundred mystery fans. Journalist/publisher/editor Bill Peschel gave an interesting talk on Agatha Christie’s early life and how she got started in the mystery business. He was an entertaining speaker.

I am a fan of Agatha Christie’s though I hadn’t read her in almost thirty years. She and Conan Doyle were the two writers who got me interested in mysteries.

We had to reread “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” for the dinner. There was a cool quiz at the table. (I only missed three questions!!! – Happy dance!)

The amazing thing to me was that I didn’t know this organization existed. It’s local. It meets twice a year. It is full of mystery fans. I’m a mystery fan. I like to read mysteries. I like to write mysteries.
How come I didn’t know this group existed?

Sometimes I think I don’t do enough to live the life of a mystery writer. It’s not a matter of success. I’ve kind of accepted the fact that I will always be a struggling writer. But besides locking myself away and trying to write, I should immerse myself in other related activities.

Read, of course. But talk to other fans. Attend writer’s conferences. Attend mystery conventions. Walk the walk and talk the talk.

I used to. But I haven’t gone to a mystery convention or a writer’s convention in years. Maybe it’s time to go back.

My question right now is, which mystery writer, active today, writes in the style of Agatha Christie?

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