Writing Knock-Out Short-Stories

Today on Mysteristas, I’m interviewing the brilliant mystery short-story writer, Barb Goffman.

Barb  has won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she’s been a finalist for national crime-writing awards twenty-seven times, including a dozen Agatha Award nominations (a category record). Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery MagazineAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine, among others. Her book, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, won the Silver Falchion for the best short-story collection of 2013.

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Barb runs a freelance editing service, focusing on crime fiction. She lives with her dog, Jingle, in Winchester, Virginia

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KO: You’ve won so many awards for your wonderful short stories. Why do you love the short story format? How do you get your inspiration?

BG: Thank you, Kelly, for your kind words. I love writing short stories because they’re short. That might seem obvious or simplistic, but I love getting a good idea and writing the story from start to finish in relatively short order. I enjoy reading short stories for the same reason. While there is a lot to be said for diving into a novel and getting lost in it for days, I do love being able to read an entire tale in a sitting or two, getting not only a good story and solid characters but also a payoff that comes quickly.

As to inspiration, it can come from anywhere. I was driving a couple of years ago and saw a clothesline, which sparked a memory of something that happened to my mom when she was young, and before I knew it, I had an outline of a plot in my head. I was chatting with a friend a few weeks ago and she said something that stuck with me. Now it’s the title for a story I’ve begun. A friend’s holiday newsletter this year had some information in it that I knew I could make something from, and bless her, she told me I could use it. Some of my stories are based on things that have happened to me. I’ll take an incident and weave a new tale from it. This is the case with my story “Punching Bag” that came out in January 2019, as well as my with my newest story, “Alex’s Choice,” which came out in December. With “Alex’s Choice,” I was grieving my dog Scout when I wrote it. My desire to bring him back played a role in the plot.Close Up

KO: What are the essential elements of a good short story?

BG: A good short story is similar to a good novel. You want complex characters, a good plot, clear, gripping writing, and an ending that satisfies and sticks with the reader. If only it were as easy to do as it is to say.

KO: My mother-in-law, Rosario Ferré (a well-known Puerto Rican novelist and short story writer) said, “With novels, you win by decision, but with short stories, you win by knock-out.” Do you agree? What are some differences between writing short stories and novels?

BG: I can see applying the win-by-knockout idea to short stories, especially ones that end with a twist. I’d expect it’s much more likely with shorts than novels to find a final page or final paragraph or even a final sentence that’s so surprising or that carries such a punch (no pun intended) that it leaves the reader’s mouth hanging open. But you don’t need to finish with a bang to win by knockout. A heartfelt story that ends on the perfect note can also feel like a win by knockout to me.

That said, I’ve certainly read wonderful short stories (and novels) that don’t feel like knockouts when I finish them, but they grow on me with time. I might finish such a story and think it was good or maybe just okay, but then I’ll find myself thinking about it repeatedly and eventually re-read it, realizing all the reasons it stayed with me, and why it was better than I first recognized. Those situations feel more like wins by decision because they came after reflection.

Novels may not end with the same surprise twist at the very end—at least not mystery novels because you often have to tie up loose ends in them in a way you don’t with short stories—but I think every reader knows if they’re reading a novel that’s a knockout. It’s when a book is so well written you can’t put it down because you love it so much that you’re racing to the end, yet you don’t want it to end. If that’s not a knockout, I don’t know what is. And as with short stories, there can be novels that grow in a reader’s estimation after taking the time to digest them and let them sit with you. So perhaps the answer to your original question is that some short stories and novels are knockouts, while others win by decision. It depends on the tale.

As to differences between novels and short stories, one important one is how complicated your plot is going to be. You simply don’t have room in a short story for a plot that’s extremely complicated. You don’t have room for subplots. You can have character development, you can have a detailed setting, you can have everything you love in a novel in a short story, but you can’t have all of it in any single short story, simply based on the limits imposed by word count. Probably you’ll have a little bit of each.

KO: You’re also an editor. Given all of the drafts of novels and stories you’ve read, what advice do you have for mystery writers? What mistakes do you see over and over again?

BG: Often novels and stories don’t have enough reaction, which I think is a symptom of what I call riding the plot train. Authors know the story they want to tell, and they are so eager to get from one town to the next that they forget to make some stops. To avoid this, I always recommend writers put themselves in the shoes of their point of view character. Imagine you are that character while writing. If something shocking happens, what would you do at that moment? You’d probably say or think an exclamation. You might react physically. But you would definitely react, including thinking something. I write this all the time in my edits: “What is your character thinking here? Based on what just happened, she’d definitely be thinking something.” Bringing things back to the train analogy, you need to give your riders—i.e., your characters—time to react to and reflect on important things that happen in the story. That’s where the beauty of a book often lies, in the reactions and subsequent growth of complex characters. They’re what brings the characters and the book to life.

KO: What did you have published in 2019?

BG: As I mentioned above, I had a story called “Alex’s Choice” come out in the anthology Crime Travel that was published in early December. It’s an anthology of fifteen short stories all involving crime and time travel. I edited the book, and I happen to think it’s pretty darn good. Thankfully, the reviewers have all agreed. The story is on my website for now. You can read it by clicking here.perf6.000x9.000.indd

My other stories published in 2019 were a flash piece called “Punching Bag,” which came out in the Winter 2019 issue of the ezine Flash Bang Mysteries, and “The Power Behind the Throne,”which appeared in the anthology Deadly Southern Charm. You can read “Punching Bag” by clicking here, and you can read “The Power Behind the Throne” by clicking here.

Flash Bang Mysteries Jan 2019 cover

KO: What’s next on your plate?

BG: I only have one story definitely scheduled for publication in 2020: “Second Chance” will be in Mickey Finn: 21stCentury Noir. The anthology edited by Michael Bracken is coming out in the fall from Down & Out Books. I also have a story, “Man to Man,” that will be in an anthology called The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell. It’s edited by Josh Pachter, and I hope it will be released in 2020. Finally I have two stories accepted by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and two by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I hope at least one of those will run in 2020 too.

As to editing, I’m booked at this point until mid-March with developmental editing of two cozies, two crime short stories, and one traditional mystery, as well as copyediting a historical mystery by someone you might know …

Thanks so much, Kelly and all the Mysteristas, for inviting me here today.  It’s always nice to talk about writing with good friends. Anyone interested in learning more about my writing or editing can go to my website.

KO: Thanks, Barb!