Mystery Musings

I recently finished reading Anna Lee Huber’s A STROKE OF MALICE, a Lady Darby novel. Her writing is so rich in detail, it always takes me longer to read her than most of my favorite authors. I’d been reading a little more than I usually do, anyway, and I wasn’t ready to pick up another book. Then I remembered that she had a novella in an anthology with three other authors. The idea of shorter reads appealed to me.

I’d recently written a Jazzi and Ansel story for MURDER THEY WROTE, the anthology I put together with six other writers, so I was curious to see what THE DEADLY HOURS was like. I haven’t finished reading the entire thing, but the concept interested me.

I like short stories, so for years, I used to buy the Sisters In Crime annual anthology of top women mystery writers. These often had twenty different authors in them, and the stories were short and usually had a punch. I found I liked anthologies more than story collections, where each story was by the same author. Anthologies had more variety of voices and styles.

Our anthology had seven longer stories by seven different types of authors: historical, speculative, psychological, literary, and cozy. And each story was different. THE DEADLY HOURS has four authors, and each story is novella length. What interested me the most, though, is that instead of being a variety of plots, they each continue the theme of a cursed gold watch.

Susanna Kearsley starts the overall story with her novella in Italy, 1733, and tells how the watch came into being and how it was cursed. At the end of her tale, a Scottish assassin steals the watch and takes it to Scotland with him. Anna Lee Huber takes up the watch’s evil doings from there when Lady Darby and her husband Gage desperately search for it to put an end to the disease that’s ravishing Edinburgh, 1831. Lady Darby tries to rid the world of the wretched thing and its curse, but of course, Christine Trent finds a way to bring it back in her Edinburgh story in 1870 when a series of murders rocks society. And that’s as far as I’ve read so far. But fingers crossed C.S. Harris finally puts an end to the foul time piece in her novella, set in England, 1944, ending the anthology.

It was fun to see how four different authors advanced the story in each quarter of the book. The longer novellas made a nice bridge between short stories and full length novels. I enjoyed it. But when I finish the last one, I’m going to be ready to dig into a book again. I’ve had my break, and I’m ready for the long haul and luxury of more pages focused on one tale.


I haven’t written a short story for a long time.  Short novels?  Yes.  Novellas?  Love ’em.  But a short story?  I haven’t tried any since C.S. Boyack got me in the mood to write a few when he posted his October Macabre Macaroni stories, one a week.  I used that month to post dark stories on my webpage–with mixed results.  Horror and dark fiction have never been my strong point, but that’s exactly why I wanted to try it.  Some people would advise me to do what I do well, or at least better.  But once in a while, I like to push the envelope, to see how far I can stretch.  And I learned that I’m not much better at horror or dark fiction than I was with my earlier stabs at it.  Oh, well.  Can’t win ’em all.

BTW, C.S. Boyack wrote a short story that October I loved.  In case you’d like to try it:

Anyway, I digress.  Sometime last year, I got what seemed like a brilliant idea at the time.  If I could write a Jazzi and Ansel short story and get it into Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine, it would be a great way to promote their series.  To say that I didn’t think this through enough would be an understatement.  But I’ve read quite a few novellas by favorite authors who use shorter fiction (66 – 100 Kindle pages) as teasers to keep readers happy during long pauses between their regular books.  And I’ve enjoyed all of them–Lynn Cahoon’s Tourist Trap holiday novellas, Jenna Bennett’s honeymoon and holiday novellas, and Anna Lee Huber’s pre-wedding novella for Keira and Gage.

I decided that to be successful these stories needed:

  •   The same tone and voice as the books
  •    To establish the characters and their relationships just like the books
  •    Great mysteries to solve like the books
  •    The same feeling/setting as the books

Mind you, each of these things takes a bit of time, some extraneous scenes not found in short stories but possible in novellas.  I tried to accomplish all of the above with a lot less words.  And once I got all of those words written, I sent the story off.

A truth about Alfred Hitchcock magazine:  they only accept online submissions.  Then they give you a code to check your story’s status.  Upfront, they tell you that they’re so bogged down with submissions, you won’t hear back from them for 6 to 7 months.  Make that more like a year, maybe a few days shy of that.  And then you don’t receive an e-mail.  You only know you’ve been rejected when you check your code and see REJECTED next to the story’s title.  Now, I wasn’t heart broken when that happened.  I was a tiny bit ticked that they treat writers so shabbily, but publishing’s changed over the years, so I got over that.  I pretty much knew that the way I’d written the story made its chances  slim.  I used to sell to Alfred Hitchcock, and I had more success with 2,000 to 3,000 word mysteries.  This heavy monstrosity was 8,500 words.  Only an author with a big name can get away with taking up that much magazine space.  But it was a Halloween story, and if no one else wrote one, I might get lucky.  And the story events happen during the events of book 3 in my series, so I had a year to wait anyway.  So why not try?

But once it was rejected, I gave it another look.  And I wasn’t happy with myself.  I’d tried to marry a short story with a novella and ended up with a mess.  A short story needs one, straightforward mystery with hardly any distractions or extras.  A novella has the length to play with different elements, but that’s why it takes more words.  So…

I spent last night and all day today reworking the story.  It’s 7,000 words now.  And I like it.  I’m going to put it up on the blog’s snippet page closer to when The Body in the Gravel comes out September 24th.  My learning curve reinforced something I already knew, but a rule I thought I might be able to bend.  A short story is…a SHORT story.  And I’m up for trying to write another one for Alfred Hitchcock sometime.  But not for a while.  Right now, all of my attention has to focus on writing Jazzi Book 5–The Body in the Past.  (At least, that’s the title for right now).  I’m hoping to write one chapter every weekday I can.

Another lesson I learned?  Failure isn’t the end of the world.  AND, if you want to break into a market, you have to give them what they WANT.  No tinkering with their tried and true playlist.  Ah, well, my short story adventure has to wait for another day.

For now, try to stay cool, and happy writing!




Writing: Too much of a good thing?

I love writing short stories and novellas, so when I first started putting my work online, I wrote short stuff while I waited for my agent to look at the books I sent her. I wasn’t sure if she’d like the books, so I wrote about completely different characters and settings. Probably not the most brilliant idea I’ve come up with, but I had a wonderful time and ended up with 31 different stories with a cover for each one of them. When Lauren looked at my list of work on Amazon, she said, “Enough already!” Maybe I’d indulged in too much of a good thing?

To cut back on the chaos of choices, I decided to bundle novellas with the same characters into collections. I put up the Death & Loralei collection first, then Gorgons and Gargoyles, Emerald Hills, and Babet & Prosper. This coming week, the last of the 5 bundles should go online. I added 2 new stories to the Christian and Brina collection, making a total of 6 stories in the bundle. Everything’s ready to go, but then I realized that most people, (unless they’re fans of witches, dragons, and castles and buy the thing) will only get to see the main cover when they go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, etc. Now, I admit I’m prejudiced, but I’m equally in love with the covers for each of the novellas.

The thing is, once I thought about it, I’ve accumulated a LOT of covers for my fun flight of short fiction writing–one for each collection and one for each novella inside the bundle. Thank heavens Michael Prete, who made them all, charges reasonable prices, or I’d have to sell a child to afford so many. Anyway, here are the new ones for Christian and Brina.




All of the covers in my other bundles are on my webpage: But it’s something to consider if you get a little too enthusiastic about writing short stories or novellas to share. If you do it the way I did, you’ll need lots of images:)

Writing–the long & short of it

I have five e-books online.  I read a post on marketing that said that it was smart to post short fiction inbetween your long fiction, and since I like writing short, I thought Why not?  And that might have been a smart decision, but I didn’t stop there.  No, I decided to write five different series of novellas.  Why? you ask.  Because I didn’t have a clue.

E-books and marketing have been a totally new experience for me.  I’m still learning as I go.  And I was having so much fun writing novellas, I didn’t stop and ask myself, How will you market them?  Would concentrating on one set of characters bring more readers to your novels than offering five different series?  Or will people look at the twenty-some things you’ve posted and run for the hills?

The reviews and comments I’ve received have been interesting.  I chose to write Lunch Hour Reads.  Jen, at Goodreads, thought of the term, and it conjured quick, fun stories that would entertain a reader for one or two sittings.   The very first novella I wrote was One Less Warlock–a short, 22 pages, something you could fly through and pass a pleasant lunch break or short commute.  Readers enjoyed the story, but wrote that they wanted more–more time in River City, more time hanging out with Babet and Prosper.  I bumped the stories to about 40 pages each, still short enough to be considered a quick read.  And some readers still ask for more.  They’d still prefer longer.  Which makes me happy.  It means they like where my story’s taken them, but I’ve written enough of each series, that I’d like to keep the stories consistent, at least for now, so 40 pages, it is.

It’s summer writing time again for me.  Ty’s home from college.  There’s yard work and gardening.  That’s when I like to write short stuff, because I can pound out some pages without holding so much back story and so many plot lines in my head.  But my novellas have morphed into a life of their own.  They, too, have more and more characters, more and more back story, and broader story arcs.  I have to ask myself, Are my characters growing in each story?  Is the setting intrinsic to each story line?  Is there movement from the first story to the last?

I’ve gotten hooked on some of the series, but how far do I want to go with them?  Should some end at four novellas and some go farther?  Which ones?  And how do I choose?  Novellas started out as a fun break from novels, but they’ve gotten more complicated.  And how many book covers does a reader want to see when he visits your site for the first time?

I don’t have any answers.  I’m still in the learn-as-you-go phase of e-books and novellas.  But I think too much can be overwhelming.  I intended to put novellas together on amazon to form series, to show that there were five story lines to choose from, but there’s no way to do so that I’ve found.  I can bundle them on bitly, but not at Barnes and Noble or other online publishers.  So not only am I challenged as a writer, I’m technologically challenged, as well.  But I’m learning.  And for me, that’s what the e-book experience is all about.  Hopefully, some day, I’ll stumble my way to success.  But in the meantime, I’m having one heck of a good time writing.  But I have to ask myself:  Do readers long for longer?  Or can short be satisfying?

What about you?  Do you have a length that appeals to you more?  Even in novels?

Writing–when is enough, enough?

I wrote once about not being tempted to rush things.  I tend to be a sparce writer.  My first draft of a scene usually only gets the bare bones down–the characters, some conflict and action to advance the plot, and hopefully some realistic dialogue.  I have to give the scene a second pass to add dimension, description, and emotion.  Often, I need a third pass to add any subtleties.  If I hurry, it shows.  My story has what it needs, but it’s  not enough.

There’s another danger in writing, though.  And that’s the desire to tinker with a story or a novel until you’re not improving it any longer, you’re simply changing it.  So how can you tell when you’ve rewritten and polished enough?

I don’t have a “for sure” answer to that, but for me, I’ve adopted the rule of the first three–I get three shots at making each page the best I can write before I give my manuscript to someone else to critique–my trusted readers.  I don’t hold myself to this rule for the first chapter.  I have a tendency to go back to those pages over and over again as I write.  But for most of a book, I give myself three stabs at getting it right.  First, I do chapter rewrites as I work–polishing the pages I wrote the previous day before I start work on a new chapter–this almost always involves adding more pages to flesh things out.   Then when I finish each quarter of the novel, (the way I organize my plots), I’ll stop to look at that one fourth of the story again.  And finally, when I finish the entire thing, I go through it as a whole.  Then it’s time to send it to my readers.

I’ve never had anyone read my entire novel and say, “It’s perfect.”  It’s never going to happen, because I’m too close to the story and the writing.  So…that said, once I get the readers’  feedback, I start another round of rewrites to fix the scenes and screw-ups I didn’t catch myself.  And by then, you’d think the book would be in pristine shape.  But when I send it to my agent, there’s always something I missed.  When I’m lucky, it’s only a scene or two.  When I’m not, well…there’s more.  But by the time I finish those, I’m thoroughly and completely sick of the book.  I don’t even like it for the moment.  And that’s when I know it’s done.

I’m not saying this is a perfect method.  No two writers do anything alike.  But this works for me–usually.  Which means, there are no hard and fast rules in writing, even though it would be nice.  But this system has helped me find a balance between writing too fast and doing rewrites over and over again and never finishing a book.

This rhythm almost feels like a part of me now–three rewrites, show to readers, ready to send–so it suprised me when I found myself reluctant to say goodbye to the last novella in one of my series.  I tinkered with it when I should have left it alone.  I’d accomplished what I wanted the series to do.  If I could say farewell to a novel, surely I could part with a series, right?  I’d intended for the Ally/Dante series to be a short one.  Four gargoyles, four novellas.  Each a sort of action/romance.  But I found that I really liked playing match maker for my gargoyles.   I enjoyed introducing them to their supernatural, soul mates, sifting through some of my favorite mythological immortals to introduce them to.  But the way I’d set up the stories, the series was over.  I left each gargoyle with the girl of his dreams–even if she was a gorgon or a winged horse.  They each had their own happily ever after, so…it was time to to be a good “writer mom” and get out of their business…and wish them well.  Even though I’ll miss them.  And just like my series, every writer has to reach a point when her “baby” grows up, it’s finished, and it’s time to let it go.  Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Don’t fall into the trap of infinite rewrites.

Here’s a link to the four Ally/Dante stories:  P.S.  The first novella, Flesh & Stone, is free on smashwords right now.  And here’s the newest and last novella in the series:

cover_mockup_22  (Sorry, this cover’s a little scandalous, but the girl’s a tree nymph, after all, and it’s hard to step out of some bark and be fully clothed.)