HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: What’s the secret to the successful short story? What short stories do today’s writers most respect? I am so pleased to welcome the five finalists in the short story category for this year’s Anthony Awards. And wow, Reds and readers, what a treat.
Here’s the scoop. First meet the authors, with bios and photos. Then—they’ve each answered a few of my questions. And the answers are fascinating and revealing! And incredibly instructive.
But wait, there’s more. Big bonus--they have graciously allowed us to link to their stories.
Without further ado—what readers have chosen as the best stories of the year.
Craig Faustus Buck is a multi-award nominated short story writer, author and screenwriter. His debut novel Go Down Hard was published May 5, 2015. His other works include two #1 NYT nonfiction bestsellers, an Oscar-nominated short film, and the miniseries V: The Final Battle. He lives in LA where noir was born.
Barb Goffman’s book Don't Get Mad, Get Even won the Silver Falchion Award for best short-story collection of 2013. Barb also won the 2013 Macavity Award for best short story, and she’s been named a finalist fifteen times for national crime-writing awards (the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards). She runs a freelance editing and proofreading service focusing on crime and general fiction.
Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery White Heat. Vortex, a noir-thriller, is his latest book, due out September 1, 2015.
John Shepphird is a Shamus Award-winning author and writer/director of television movies. His fiction often features characters immersed in the art of deception. In between writing and filmmaking, John serves as the Creative Director of On-Air Promotions for TVG, America’s horse racing network.
Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, published September 15, 2015. His short fiction has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards, in addition to being twice named a finalist for the Anthony Awards. Art teaches at George Mason University and writes frequently on crime fiction for the Washington Post and Mystery Scene Magazine.
READ THEIR ANTHONY-NOMINATED STORIES HERE:
· “Honeymoon Sweet” by Craig Faustus Buck, Murder at the Beach: The Bouchercon Anthology 2014—
· “The Shadow Knows” by Barb Goffman, Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays
· “Howling at the Moon” by Paul D. Marks, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2014
· “Of Dogs & Deceit” by John Shepphird, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2014
· “The Odds Are Against Us” by Art Taylor, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2014
HANK: And now--a look inside the heads of these terrific authors. First--I have to know. What’s the absolute one secret to a great short story?
BARB GOFFMAN: Make the reader care. This applies to short stories and novels. It doesn’t matter if your plot is great, if you’ve devised amazing twists, if your dialogue is snappy or your setting is intriguing. If your main character is boring or too self-involved—if the reader ultimately doesn’t care what happens to your character—then the reader may stop reading your story, or if he finishes it, he could think the story was blah. In contrast, if the reader cares, then he’ll turn as many pages as needed to get the satisfaction he hopefully has coming, and he’ll enjoy the journey as he goes.
ART TAYLOR: In terms of crafting the short story, compression is the word
I turn to most
often. Start as close to the central action as possible, eliminating excessive
lead-up; truncate the ending rather than spelling out a long-resolution;
suggest rather than explain the world and the lives beyond the contours of the
page. Rely on the key detail that defines a character instead of offering a
paragraph-long description. Concentrate on letting a portrait of setting also
illuminate that character or even push forward the plot. Ideally, every line
should serve more than one purpose. Fold and tuck (and fold and tuck again) the
|Craig Faustus Buck|
CRAIG FAUSTUS BUCK: Despite the fact that this is an impossible question to answer since there is no "absolute one," my primary goal in most of my short stories is to develop the personality traits of my characters so that they believably motivate an unexpected twist by the end. It's not an easy thing to do, but it's oh so much fun when it works out.
JOHN SHEPPHIRD: Economy. Less is more. Plus meaty characters. Memorable endings are always good. The 19th-century author O. Henry knew what he was doing.
PAUL D. MARKS: For me it’s a great character. Particularly characters who
flaws, which trip them up and they try to get out of whatever nightmare they’ve
gotten themselves into. Some people like twist endings and I do, too, but
before you get to the twist ending you have to have a great character to drive
|Paul D. Marks|
HANK: Was it difficult for you to choose a title for this one? Why?
CRAIG FAUSTUS BUCK: “Honeymoon Sweet” virtually named itself. Because my two newlyweds decided to break into a beach house for their honeymoon, the subject of the title was served up on a platter. Since there aren't that many phrases that readily come to mind involving honeymoon, the word suite followed naturally. Since our hapless lovebirds weren't in a hotel suite, and I serendipitously used the word sweet in the story's first sentence, the play on words fell into place. I worry my writing too much to bother gnawing on my titles as well, so when I hit on one that worked, I didn't bother looking for alternatives. It took all of three minutes.
PAUL D. MARKS: Picking a title for “Howling at the Moon” wasn’t particularly difficult. I have a title file that’s almost thirty pages long with almost 1,000 possible titles. When I start a story or novel I like to have a working title because it evokes certain mood for me. That doesn’t mean that it will be the ultimate title for the story, but it works for a while when I’m writing. And then while I’m writing, other possible titles will come to mind, so I’ll list them under the working title. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I find that even though I have this huge list of titles I often use titles not from the list. That was the case with “Howling at the Moon”—it wasn’t in that lengthy list of titles.
The title for “Howling at the Moon” comes from a Ramones song. The story takes place in the wilds of Death Valley. At one point there’s a coyote howling at the moon, thus the title. But the actual title is borrowed from a Ramones song of the same name on their Too Tough to Die album. I’ve named three stories after Ramones song titles, and each has had good success. “Endless Vacation” received recognition from two prestigious contests. “Poison Heart” was selected for the 2010 Deadly Ink Short Story Collection. So of course my first choice is always to go with a Ramones title...
ART TAYLOR: The title of my story is so closely intertwined with the story itself that it’s tough for me to imagine any other. For starters, the narrator of “The Odds Are Against Us” is gambling with himself—making small, silent bets that he hopes will point him in the right direction on an important decision. If the bartender makes a drink with gin instead of vodka, it means something—or if a pool player steps out of the bar before his friends, or if the ball player on TV strikes out, or…. Trouble is, each little bet points him in very direction he doesn’t want to go in. More importantly, however, both the narrator and his friend are ultimately bit players in a larger system, and the fear, the dread, is that they’ll never escape those bigger controls—that the odds will always be stacked against them.
JOHN SHEPPHIRD: “Of Dogs & Deceit” is the second in my series featuring PI and Deception Specialist Jack O’Shea. The first story is titled “Ghost Negligence.” Since that’s a play on words, I had to do the same for the follow-up. To my surprise the debut story won the Shamus. One of my favorite books is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men so maybe that had something to do with coming up with the title.
BARB GOFFMAN: My story is about a man’s quest to steal his town’s groundhog so the critter doesn’t see his shadow again, thus preventing future long winters. The title is “The Shadow Knows.” It was the first title I thought of for the story, but I immediately worried it wouldn’t work. The phrase originally comes from old pulp novels involving a vigilante crime fighter called the Shadow who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. My story isn’t anything like that. No pulp. No crime fighting. No evil. But then I decided I was thinking too much and the title is a perfect play on words for my story, so I ran with it. In the end, I’ve received a lot of compliments on the title and, thankfully, no complaints. Whew.
HANK: Hard to choose, I know. But can you? What’s your favorite short story ever?
CRAIG FAUSTUS BUCK: “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald by Roald Dahl is the first story that comes to mind. For those who don't know it, it's the tale of a housewife who bashes her husband's head in with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasts the weapon and serves it up to the investigating officers who are trying to figure out what the murder weapon could have been as they unwittingly consume it. Is that perfect, or what? This tale of poetic injustice is a textbook example of a character's personality leading naturally to a brilliant plot twist, my absolute one secret to a great short story.
BARB GOFFMAN: I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite short story ever. There are so many good ones. Instead, I’m going to mention two that stick in my mind from the last few years:
First is “Exit Interview” by Lynne Heitman, which appeared in the 2009 anthology Boston Noir. The author achieved such a wonderfully deep point of view. Her way of telling this story blew me away. It’s been a few years, so I confess I don’t remember the plot of the story (I rarely remember plots), but I do remember how my mouth hung open when I finished reading it and how it inspired me to keep trying to improve my own writing. A story that affects a reader in that manner is worth reading.
My second story, which at sixty-eight pages is really a novella, is “The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository” by John Connolly, which can now be purchased individually on Amazon. This story is about a man who retires to an English village, looking forward to spending his remaining years reading. The Amazon description captures the plot well, so I’ll paste it here: "His serene life turns strange when he witnesses a tragedy chillingly reminiscent of Anna Karenina as a woman flings herself before a train. When he rushes to the scene, she has vanished, leaving no body on the tracks. Berger’s investigation into this event leads him to Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred beyond comprehension.” This story was perfectly paced and so utterly charming that when I finished it, I told everyone about it. It was my favorite read of 2013, and I wasn’t alone. The story won the Anthony and Edgar awards last year for best short story, and it also was up for the Macavity Award. I wanted to tell John Connolly last year at Bouchercon how much I loved this story, but I never got the opportunity. In case he ends up reading this interview, let me simply say: Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!
PAUL D. MARKS: Well, since you said favorite story and not favorite mystery story I have to go outside the genre. My favorite story of all time is “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway. It’s about a soldier (surprised, huh?) who returns home after World War I, you know, The War to End All Wars. He has a hard time adjusting and seeks out that “clean, well-lighted place” that Hemingway is so fond of. I relate to his unease and use some of that angst in my upcoming novella Vortex (due out September 1st), about a vet returning home from the war in Afghanistan.
JOHN SHEPPHIRD: Bar none – a crime story written by Harlan Ellison titled “Soft Monkey.” It won the Edgar for best short story in 1988. I came across it in The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, edited by Ed Gorman. It inspired me to write fiction. I still think about it.
ART TAYLOR: One of my favorites—a story I always come back to, my “go to” whenever a question like this comes up—is Stanley Ellin’s “The Moment of Decision.” It’s a very classically structured story in many ways, with Ellin’s customarily smooth prose and elegant pacing, and with plot and character almost inextricably linked: Two willful men with very different philosophies find themselves engaged in a challenge, a bet, that will inevitably end badly for one of them. By the final scene of the story, the stakes may, in fact, have become life or death—but it’s the ending here that seems so provocative, in equal parts both unexpected and inevitable.
HANK: So great! Thank you so much for your time, and thoughtful answers, So incredibly inspirations and instructive and--generous. And let's all email John Connolly so he hears the applause, okay?
And now, Reds, time to read. But first—who’s going to Bouchercon next month? (That’s where you’ll vote for one of these to win!) But all you readers are winners today, right? Thank you, nominees—and congratulations!