Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Wonderful Short Story Treat

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.

·      “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
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
Art Taylor
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 rest.

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
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
Paul D. Marks
have 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 you there.

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!


  1. Congratulations on your nominations for the Anthony Award . . .
    Your stories are really great . . . absolutely wonderful reading. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  2. This is great, thanks to you all for visiting! Before I go read the stories, going to print out the advice so I can refer to it next time I tackle a story. I especially love "tuck and fold".

    do you find it harder to write a short story than a novel?

  3. I'll be at Bouchercon. Great story tips, gang!

  4. Agreed--I really this this is a master class! I can't believe I'm asking --but what's the range of how long it take you to write a terrific story?

  5. That was really me, Hank, above.

    And I ask because for me, I think think think about the story. And then--when I actually start--the first of it just glass out. hen..I have to see what my brain wants it to do. ANd think about a working title.

    SO for me--two weeks. Not counting thinking time.

  6. Great advice - particularly for me since I do struggle with the short form and I'm trying to finish a short story at this very moment.

    Which brings me to my question: do you know the ending before you start?

    And a really dumb one - what do you consider the number of words (range) for a "short story"

  7. Hi, all! Thanks for the comments here, everyone--and for hosting our panel discussion in the first place, Hank!

    I'm glad folks are finding our conversation interesting and informative, and do hope that the comments will help with writing short form fiction, which I know many novelists have said is more of a challenge for them in many ways.

    At the other extreme, I tend to think in short form myself, so I've never successfully been able to write a traditional full-length novel at all (though I've tried)—and I guess that goes straight to Lucy's question. I've got several failed attempts here and there, but nothing I felt happy about until the book that's coming out in a couple of weeks, which is a novel in stories, capitalizing on my strengths, I hope, and a way of tricking myself into crafting a longer narrative in the process!

    Hank: I'm a pretty slow writer generally. The fastest story I ever wrote was completed in just a few hours: began writing about 9 a.m., finished around 10:30, had my wife read and comment, revised, submitted around noon, and then had it accepted after lunch. But that's the anomaly—by far! I've also had several stories that I've worked on for years—literally—tinkering, putting them aside, revisiting, putting aside again, trying to find the right way to tell it.... Generally it takes me between several weeks and several months to write a story, from first word on the page to final, submitted story.

    And Hallie, that's one of the things I love most about the short story form—the range within it. There's a big difference not just between the word counts of a piece of flash fiction (less than a thousand words, say) and a novella (up to around 30,000 or 35,0000 maybe), but also between the tactics and strategies of writing one or the other (and the experiences reading them, obviously).

    As for knowing the ending: Usually I have an idea when I begin about where I'm going—perhaps as a result of having drafted so much of it in my head before officially beginning to "write"—but almost invariably the nature and weight of those endings change before the final draft of a story. I've learned something more in the actual writing of it that's taken me if not in radically different directions than at least into a richer sense of the types of resolutions that would prove most satisfying.

    Sorry to ramble on here!!! ...clearly I don't always "write short." But appreciate so much being a part of this and the interest that everyone is showing here.

  8. I am really impressed by all of you! I think a short story is more difficult to write than a book, but after reading such great advice, I may give it another try. And let's hear it for Hank. Interviewing five fascinating authors in one short column can't be easy and you did a great job!

  9. This is a lifesaver! I have two weeks to bang out a short story for a local contest, no prompt, 2000 word limit. Hmm...the local police station open house is this week. What a great setting for a murder.

  10. Good luck with your plans, Michele and Margaret! And yes, a police station open house—that would be much fun! Good luck with the contest!

  11. Thanks to all the Reds for hosting us today, especially Hank. And thanks to all the commenters.

    As to the questions, Lucy, you asked if it's harder to write a story than a novel. I don't think it's harder, but it does involve some different skills. You need to focus on one incident in a short story, one tight tale. You need to figure out how to come in as far into the story as you can. No subplots. No time to draw things out.

    I think writing short versus long might also appeal to different kinds of people. When I was in college, I interned at a monthly magazine. By the summer's end, I knew that type of work wasn't for me. I didn't like working on the same article, the same issue, for so long. Then I got into daily newspaper work, and I loved it, the constant turnaround, how I regularly got to work on something new. Short stories can provide the same satisfaction. I get an idea, I find the time to write the story (often the biggest hurdle these days), and in a matter of days (hopefully), the draft is done.

    And that leads to Hank's question of how long writing a story takes. I'm a plantser. I plan at a high level before I write, so I know the beginning, the end, and some high points I want to hit in the story. The other details I let come as I write. By planning in advance, writing is faster, and editing time is minimized. Most stories take me a few days, if they're working. Sometimes even the best plans don't seem to work when you start writing, however. I'm sure you all know how that is. In those instances, the stories can take longer. Much much longer. I had a story published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in the January/February issue this year ("A Year Without Santa Claus?"), and it took years to finish. I wrote the first page, got stuck, and set the story aside. I think it was three years later when I suddenly had an idea in the shower of where to go with it. (The shower is so conducive to ideas.) So I had the idea, and the story wrote seemingly itself in, again, a few days.

  12. SO interesting, huh?

    I think the "thinking time" is such an important thing..our brains are always working, and that's so fascinating.

    It's interesting, too how the "size" of the idea is so important. You can say: oh, that would be a good short story. RIght? One concept, one key thing. Like a great--forgive me--joke. Good lead in, big character, critical situation, situation/action/decision, big twist and the punch line.

    Surprisingly for me--a usual pantser--I knew the ending of On The House before I knew ANYTHING else. In other words, I knew the punch line before I knew the joke.

  13. It's an apt comparison, Hank, in many ways... though I think some writers can overdo the punch line/twist ending approach, of course. A joke retold, of course, isn't nearly as funny the second time around, but we'd hope that a short story reread will always offer some greater cause for appreciation, right? But the way we try to maneuver a story or a joke through a very small space--yes, similar in many respects!

    And I've heard of so many writers who indulge in what's been called the art of backward construction. I know where I'm going--now I just need to figure out how to get there! And sometimes, that involves stepping backward at several stages, indeed!

    And I think Barb's right on with the idea that some writing temperaments are better suited for the novel or for the short story--which one appeals more, seems a better fit. I always admire folks who can do both equally well!

  14. Oh, so interesting Art! Yeah, a joke isn't as funny the second time, very true! But it may be interesting in a different way. Like when you hear a good one again--oh, I've heard that one before!--you know what's coming, and you see the bones of the lead in and structure, why some lines or ways of telling it work, and some don't.

    I will confess to you in the privacy of the Jungle that I often read the end of novels first..and then go and start from the beginning. Its fun and educational for me to know what's coming--and see what clever ways the author uses to get us there.

  15. One of my best friends told me that when she reads my stories, she reads the end first. (I guess she does that with all fiction.) And I won't begrudge her if that's what she likes to do, but as a writer I was a little disappointed. If you set up a twist at the end, you want the reader to be surprised by that twist. Someone who reads the end first doesn't get that surprise, doesn't get to experience the story in the way the author envisioned. I guess at some point, the author needs to (okay, I need to) let go and let the reader experience the story the way he or she wants to.

  16. This is all very interesting and thanks for the great stories.I truly enjoyed can anyone pick their favorite short story???

  17. Oh, I know, Barb! I told that to someone, and she said--well, do you want me to read the end of YOUR books first?
    And I yelped: "No!" (Although you wouldn't understand the end-end by reading the last page, not at all.)

    But truly, it's incredibly educational for a writer to see how a master works her craft. SO take it as a compliment, Barb! We're just trying to understand the magic.

    And, thinking about it, I've never read the end of a short story first. That wouldn't occur to me. Huh.

  18. This was very, very interesting. Thanks to all of you. I never read endings first, just saying . . . . And I do think your head has to turned a different way to do short stories, which I find incredibly difficult. Congrats to all of you and I'll look forward to seeing who wins at Bouchercon!

  19. Three comments: 1. A title file! Sheer genius. 2. Before I finished the blog, I had another book on my wish list and purchased another audible. This is a common occurrence. 3. And thank you to the authors for graciously allowing us to read the works.

  20. Excellent stories, and insightful comments. I only skip to the end of something if I don't like it and don't plan to finish, so I didn't skip to the end of any of these. I used to read "Lamb to the Slaughter" with my students, so funny, though some of the young men took offense. It would have been helpful to point to male endorsement of the tale. I've requested Boston Noire . . . always good to know I'll never deplete the TBR mountain.

  21. Marni, what a great way of putting it--your head has to be turned a different way. Yes, indeed!

    Keenan, yes a title file! I mean how often do we say--oh, great title. And then, poof. Gone.

    Mary, why did the men take offense? Because the man gets killed? (oops, spoiler.)

  22. Thanks to all the writers for sharing your stories and your stories, so to speak. I would like to read more by each of you. I don't have a lot of experience with seeking out short stories. What's the best way to find more of yours? Just visit each author's website? Or are there any indices available where I can search out more of your stories? Thanks again!

    I'll be at B'con which is almost in our back yard.

    Jim in Durham

  23. Oh, Hank—indeed! Re: jokes. There's tons to be learned from analyzing how a joke is put together: pacing, economy, delivery, etc. I'm always amazed hearing how hard comedians, for example, work at making a joke look so effortless, so off the cuff--always to serve their audiences best, always toward that payoff. (Something for us all to learn from, for sure.)

  24. And thanks, Jim, for interest in reading more of our works. Hope others will feel the same!

    In my case, I have only a couple of things linked from my website (free access), but a pretty full list of my stories is there on my website, some in anthologies, some in journals, and I think that's the case for most of us here on the panel/slate.

    And look forward to seeing you at Bouchercon—as we discussed earlier this week. Good to see you again!

  25. Great post, Hank! Thanks for linking to the stories.

    I agree with you about the "Caxton" story, Barb. It's one of my favorites, too.

    And Art, I was pleased to find out that my hoarding of short story collections is paying off--I just found the Ellin story in an old anthology of BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES. I have another collection of his (KINDLY DIG YOUR GRAVE) and really enjoy them.

    bobbi c.

  26. Thanks, Bobbi! Like you, I love to keep short story collections on hand--and I've been amazed how often someone will mention a story, and I find that I've actually got it somewhere in my collection! Happy reading on the Ellin. It's a memorable one, for sure. (Email me about the ending when you're done! Curious to see what you think. )

  27. Great post, Hank! And thanks to all you short story geniuses for letting us read your gems.

    I confess I think in "long form" and so really, really struggle with short stories. Your tips are very helpful. When I finish the novel in progress I'm going to gird my loins and give the short story another try:-)

  28. HI, Jim! See you in Raleigh! We can compare notes. xoo

    Hey. Bobbi, so nice to see you here. Yay. ANd yes, so many great stories to read! Sometimes I find anthologies intimidating--I somehow can't decide where to start. Weird, huh? SO I love these individual links. But now that we've gotten these terrific suggestions..I'm off to find them.

    Debs--I'd adore to read a Crombie short! AFTER you finish the book, of course... xoxo

  29. Jim (and anyone else interested), there's a full list of my stories available on my website: And I'll have a new one coming out in October.

    And Bobbi, isn't Caxton such a great story? Something to aspire to.

  30. Barb, I realized I have Boston Noir here, but am not sure if I read all the stories, so I found Lynn Heitman's (not hard, since it opens the antholog, and since I loved her novels - where did she go, anyway?). The first paragraph meanders a little through Boston weather, how changeable it is, and what the narrator decided to wear to work that day (she decides on the pink knit). Then, the last sentence: "The dark blue Tahari would have hidden the bloodstains better." WHOA! She's got me right there. Am definitely finishing this story, even if I hadn't read your part of today's post.

  31. Thanks, Hank and Jungle Red Writers for having us today. And thanks to everyone for your comments.


  32. Yay, Paul! Our pleasure! ANd congratulations!

  33. Congrats to all the Anthony nominee! Really enjoyed the post. I plan to read each story and right after start searching for the favorite shorts you listed.

  34. Congratulations to all of those nominated for best short story. I'm attending Bouchercon this year, and I'm delighted to have all the short stories here in one place to access. I plan on reading one each day this coming week. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview questions and answers, Hank. I think you may have had some practice at this sort of thing. Thanks for a great post today!

    Oh, I have to admit that I am disappointed there won't be a Reds' Panel at Bouchercon this year. However, I do look forward to seeing those of you Reds who are attending. It's going to be a blast!

  35. So nice that so many people have stopped by today. I hope you enjoy the stories.

  36. SO great to see you all today! Thank you, short story nominees--you are fabulous. And congratulations--see you in Raleigh.

    And see everyone here tomorrow..xoo A great week coming up!

  37. So nice of you to host, Hank! Thanks again to you and everyone who chimed in here.
    Such fun all around! (Coming back from a baseball game, so catching up....)

  38. Wow-- just seeing this now. It's really great to read the insightful responses from fellow nominees, and I'm amazed how many people chimed in all day long. Thank you for hosting the forum Hank! Looking forward to Raleigh.

    John Shepphird