The Author Wheel Podcast

Crafting the Short Story with Award-Winning Author Art Taylor

May 27, 2024 Art Taylor Season 5 Episode 21
Crafting the Short Story with Award-Winning Author Art Taylor
The Author Wheel Podcast
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The Author Wheel Podcast
Crafting the Short Story with Award-Winning Author Art Taylor
May 27, 2024 Season 5 Episode 21
Art Taylor

Walking the knife's edge between depth and brevity...

Today's guest is a master of the short story and professor at George Mason University. He's built a career in the trenches of the literary magazine world, where every word counts.

Our conversation digs deep into the art of the scene, with a ton of practical advice to keep readers turning pages no matter the length of your book.

Art Taylor is the Edgar Award-winning author of  two collections: The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions and The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has also won the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. 

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Art Taylor
Website:  www.arttaylorwriter.com
Facebook: @ArtTaylorShortStories
Instagram: @ArtTaylorWriter

The Author Wheel:
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Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorWheel

Greta Boris:
Website: www.GretaBoris.com
Facebook: @GretaBorisAuthor
Instagram: @GretaBoris

Megan Haskell:
Website: www.MeganHaskell.com
Facebook & Instagram: @MeganHaskellAuthor
TikTok: @AuthorMeganHaskell

Support the Show.

FREE Mini Email Course

Have you ever struggled to explain to others exactly what you write? Or wondered which of the many fiction ideas running through your brain you should tackle? If so, The Author Wheel’s new mini-course might be your solution.

7 Days to Clarity: Uncover Your Author Purpose will help you uncover your core writing motivations, avoid shiny-thing syndrome, and create clear marketing language.

Each daily email will lead you step by step in defining your author brand, crafting a mission statement, and distilling that statement into a pithy tagline. And, best of all, it’s free.

Click here to learn more!



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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Walking the knife's edge between depth and brevity...

Today's guest is a master of the short story and professor at George Mason University. He's built a career in the trenches of the literary magazine world, where every word counts.

Our conversation digs deep into the art of the scene, with a ton of practical advice to keep readers turning pages no matter the length of your book.

Art Taylor is the Edgar Award-winning author of  two collections: The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions and The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has also won the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. 

Follow Us!

Art Taylor
Website:  www.arttaylorwriter.com
Facebook: @ArtTaylorShortStories
Instagram: @ArtTaylorWriter

The Author Wheel:
Website: www.AuthorWheel.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorWheel

Greta Boris:
Website: www.GretaBoris.com
Facebook: @GretaBorisAuthor
Instagram: @GretaBoris

Megan Haskell:
Website: www.MeganHaskell.com
Facebook & Instagram: @MeganHaskellAuthor
TikTok: @AuthorMeganHaskell

Support the Show.

FREE Mini Email Course

Have you ever struggled to explain to others exactly what you write? Or wondered which of the many fiction ideas running through your brain you should tackle? If so, The Author Wheel’s new mini-course might be your solution.

7 Days to Clarity: Uncover Your Author Purpose will help you uncover your core writing motivations, avoid shiny-thing syndrome, and create clear marketing language.

Each daily email will lead you step by step in defining your author brand, crafting a mission statement, and distilling that statement into a pithy tagline. And, best of all, it’s free.

Click here to learn more!



Speaker 1:

Hi everyone and welcome to the Author Wheel podcast. I'm Greta Boris, usa Today bestselling mystery thriller author.

Speaker 2:

And I'm Megan Haskell, award-winning fantasy adventure author, and together we are the Author Wheel.

Speaker 1:

We have a fabulous interview today. I know I always say that, but I feel like we only have fabulous people on, so it's like I'm not lying. Art Taylor he is an award-winning short story author and a writing professor, and we definitely went to school with Art. On the topic of craft, yes, yes, we did.

Speaker 2:

It was a lot of fun.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, and it was very educational. I mean, he knows his stuff. He's one I don't know like Hugo and Agatha this, that I mean and he teaches people for a living. So yeah, I don't know like Hugo and Agatha this that I mean and he teaches people for a living. So yeah, you don't want to miss this one. But before we get into that, what is going on in your life?

Speaker 2:

Well, my girls are starting to wind down at school, down in the last couple weeks, which of course means that parent responsibilities are on the rise. The kids wind down, the parents wind up. It was between the parties and gifts and final projects and school events and all the things. There's been a lot of life happening, but it's always exciting to you know, kind of feel summer getting close. We're almost almost out of school for summer and in the writing life I don't have a ton of news. It's kind of been same old, same old. But things are moving forward across all fronts. The story's in progress, the special edition is in progress, the anthology is in progress, it's all coming together but it's all kind of the same Nothing new yeah.

Speaker 2:

Nothing new. How's your week going?

Speaker 1:

Well, this week is my dad's 96th birthday. Oh my gosh. I know he's just the Energizer Bunny right, We'll be flying out to see him in a couple of weeks, but I just wanted to congratulate him on air. I don't think he listens.

Speaker 1:

He does read all of our emails, but the hearing is getting a little and plus, podcasting is a little techie for a 96 year old, but in case you're listening, dad, or in case someone who knows you is listening, happy birthday. As for work, I am knee deep in the keep, which is book five in the Almost True Crime series, and it's going well. I know I keep saying it, but it is so interesting to revisit your old work, and one thing that has struck me as I've been going through this series is how fast our culture is changing. I am finding things in all of these books that are no longer socially correct and like the first one was only published in 2017.

Speaker 1:

That's not very long ago and all of a sudden, I'm having to change words and phrases, like you can't say ladies room anymore. It's like, oh my gosh, okay, I mean, it's just weird like things that I'm having to change, and it's either because it just now sounds outdated or some of those things have come to mean things that could offend people. You know which I definitely don't want to do. So that's an interesting aspect of going through your old work that didn't occur to me. Yeah, yeah, but now, if you really want to learn something about craft, stop listening to me and let's get on with the show.

Speaker 2:

Today we are thrilled to have Art Taylor on the show. He is the Edgar Award winning author of two collections the Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions, and the Boy Detective and the Summer of 74 and Other Tales of Suspense. And the Boy Detective and the Summer of 74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His debut book, on the Road with Dellen Louise, a novel in stories, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has also won the Agatha, anthony, derringer and Macavity Awards. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University. So welcome Art. How are you doing today?

Speaker 3:

I'm doing fine. Thanks so much your mention of George Mason University. So welcome Art. How are you doing today? I'm doing fine. Thanks so much your mention of George Mason University. I will say at the time I was filming this, recording this, we are in the middle of grading, so my mind is a little bit distracted in all directions with grading, but I'm happy to be here.

Speaker 2:

Well, that's great. I think you're the first professor we've had on the show actually.

Speaker 3:

Uh-oh, now the stakes are high.

Speaker 1:

I don't think you're the first professor. I know you're the first professor.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I was going to say yeah, yeah, exactly. Well, why don't you tell us a little bit about your journey into writing and your career path so far, and sort of how you've gotten to be Art Taylor?

Speaker 3:

Thanks. Yeah, it's been an interesting path and I could even start in childhood a little bit. I won't go quite back that far except briefly to say that nowadays I'm known mostly for short stories and I've been very fortunate to win some awards and things, as you said. But that traces back to childhood, when I was a great reader of short stories and I think that's part of what you know may end up talking a little bit about today. Write what you love to read, write what you want to read and that sort of thing.

Speaker 3:

I subscribed to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine back in middle school when they did a drive subscription drive to raise money for the school and I didn't sell any magazine subscriptions but I did buy one. It was pivotal in terms of changing my life because it kind of brought me into the world of mystery short fiction and I think that was foundational in some way. Fast forward many years I was in the Department of First Stories for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which is a fairly nice place to be. It's where they bring a published author out for the first time, first time in a selling market, and my story for that was Murder on the Orient Express. I will say I recognize that's the title of another book very self-consciously, I think I've heard of that story.

Speaker 3:

I don't get royalties on anything Christie does, but titles can't be copyrighted. So it was nice to be in there and it felt like it was a real turning point. That was back in the mid-1990s and I thought well, now I've made it. Except I hadn't really made it because even though I had a really good publication there, I think I was still trying to catch up with some of my craft, and it was another 10 years before I was in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine again.

Speaker 3:

I did get published in a number of literary magazines during that time, but I did feel like I was kind of honing my craft and finding my way, and the next time I got published there was with a story that was based on Chekhov's Lady with a Lapdog, one that I did not write with the idea of it being a mystery publication. It was all about a professor I was not a professor at that point struggling with trying to write about Chekhov's story and then also wrote about his wife, who he thinks is having an affair, kind of echoing that story, and so there was a couple of layers to it. Once I did publish get that one published in Ellery Queens, I seemed to be in a better place, both in terms of craft and in terms of knowing where I wanted to go. And that followed with another little string of another little string of stories for Ellery Queens and began the path toward toward some of the awards that have been very helpful in terms of establishing my place in the short story world and the mystery world. Another thing that's probably important to add, given kind of where I'm hoping we're going to talk today, is about how I went from short stories to novels. We just got back, as we're recording this, from the Malice Domestic Conference, which is a tremendously good community one that we a conference we attend every year and it was there that I you know, obviously won the first Agatha Award they give out the Agatha Awards and began to get some traction with my short stories.

Speaker 3:

Small press, henry Press, approached me and said have you thought about writing a novel? And I said well, indeed I have. And there's a couple of ways to look at this. Number one is the short story market helped to open up the novel market for me. But then there's also the idea of the craft of the short story versus the craft of the novel, and I teach at George Mason and, as I tell my students, we can come back to this again. You know, writing a short story is not an apprenticeship for writing a novel. I think the two forms are very different. We could talk more about that, but I did have the ambitions to write a novel. So then, once I had an opening there, it's like what do I do now? I did have a story.

Speaker 3:

My first book was On the Road with Del and Louise. It's a novel and stories. The first story in the novel and stories was Rearview Mirror. It was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the main characters, del and Louise, were characters I wanted to spend more time with, and so I ended up writing five more adventures that together formed a longer narrative arc, and that was one of the ways that I tricked myself into getting the architecture of the novel together. Five stories, a place where I felt comfortable, longer narrative, something that would form a novel, and that was sort of my path to publication there.

Speaker 3:

I still struggle we can talk more about this, of course with the idea of the architecture of the short story versus the architecture of the novel, and also about how to pitch yourself as a short story writer to move to that next level and I use that phrase next level very carefully, because it sounds like there is a hierarchy that publishing a novel is better than a short story. I struggle with that as well, because a short story is a craft that I love. Now I've rambled on a little bit, but that's kind of the outlines of where I'm at and maybe where I'm going next We'll see.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, yeah, well, it's interesting.

Speaker 2:

So I took one of my very first classes that I took when I decided I wanted to start really creative writing was a, like you know, intro to creative writing or something like that from UCLA extension, and that professor was also a short story writer and it was very interesting to me the way he phrased this because what, the way, the way he talked about it was that you know, each chapter or each scene in a, in a lot of ways, is a short story and so if you get good at writing short stories, then you you can as you did, sounds like, with the novel and stories, like you can, sort of string them together into a novel.

Speaker 2:

Now, he was talking more of a, I guess, traditional novel structure as far as you know, the characters going from one scene to the next, to the next, to the next and not skipping or jumping, or you know they're not technically individual short stories. But is that, is that a good way to kind of think about it as far as developing your craft over time, that if you write short stories and treat them as scenes, that it makes it easier ultimately to build out a full novel, or are they completely different modalities?

Speaker 3:

That's a big question and it's a really good question. I think they are different modalities to some degree, and one of the things I say is that a short story is basically built on the process of subtraction. Each has characters, each has plot, each has setting, each has all the fundamentals. But with a short story you're trying to kind of get rid of anything that doesn't belong in the short story. I was very fortunate Lee Child and Laurie King invited me to write the chapter on the short mystery for the latest MWA anthology, how to Write a Mystery, and the three things I focused on there are economy, efficiency and focus. Focus on the narrative. What is the story you're trying to tell? And get rid of the subplots, get rid of the other things that don't really add to it. How can you be as economical in telling that story? How can you be efficient in letting everything do more than one thing, all with your end goal? A lot of this goes back to what Edgar Allan Poe said about the short story, which is the single effect. In the short story You're angling for one single effect on your reader, say, an emotion that you want them to feel, or a revelation you want them to have, or whatever he didn't use those words but a single effect and everything needs to be geared toward that. As he said, ideally every word, every word in the story is going to go in that direction. Now the novel is a looser structure. I'm not going to say that it's a sloppy structure, but it certainly allows for more subplots, more characters, more things that aren't exactly geared toward that final end, even if you're heading for that final end. But it's a process of addition as opposed to subtraction. You can add additional characters to do this. You can add additional scenes that serve this purpose. You can add additional subplots or thematic plots, thematic art.

Speaker 3:

Now, what you're saying is despite the fact that we're moving in two different directions there let me clarify this last point. I'm in a writer's group and most of the folks in my writer's group are writing novels, and a lot of times when we bring in things to look at, I will read part of a chapter that one of my co-workshop folks are in there. I'm like gosh, we could cut like three quarters of this and still do what we need to do, but that's not what he's doing. That's not his aesthetic, it's not the aesthetic of the novel. So, subtraction versus addition. Now, what you're saying, I think, is also equally important, because what I tell my students is, when we're writing whether a short story or, as they're going on to, maybe to write a novel is to think about each scene and each section as having its own sort of shape. You know, we need to bring it open at the beginning. We need to bring it to a close of some kind. What happens, though, is that your close, if it's too much of a cleanup at the end of a scene, that's not going to propel us forward.

Speaker 3:

Now, dwight Swain, who wrote pulp stories, primarily wrote a book called oh my gosh, writing and Selling. I'm not going to remember the name of it, but it's Dwight Swain, s-w-a-i-n. I'll try to look up what the title of it is, but it's terrific in the way he talks about scene and sequel as the way he calls it. I think this echoes, megan, what you're talking about is each scene needs to go through a process of conflicts, rising action, some sort of climax, and that climax is usually what he calls a disaster, and the disaster at the end of the scene.

Speaker 3:

It may be big, it may be small, but that disaster is going to lead to a next, what he calls a sequel, the next section, and that sequel may be a moment of reflection, reaction and then decision, propelling us forward. That propels us forward into the next scene or section, which has its own sort of narrative arc, leading generally to some other complications. In a short story, we're working toward a resolution. That resolution may be a happy ending or it may be an unhappy ending, but it is an ending, a sense of closure at the end of a short story, a section of a novel. We don't want the closure there entirely, because we want the reader to keep turning the pages. So that's the difference.

Speaker 1:

Seeing that arc and that necessity for each scene to have its own structure is huge. Because I am actually going back and editing and we're revising and launching a series I wrote a number of years ago as a new series and looking back on older work, I'm like why did I even write this chapter? Why did my editor let me get away with it? It didn't have hardly any point and I was able to take out a couple of sentences and put them in a chapter that had more action and just boom that whole chapter out. And I do think that that's, you know, like somebody called it throat clearing. I think a lot of especially newer writers do a lot of throat clearing on the page and then but some of it's pretty and they don't want to cut it. But having that goal in mind, like you're a basketball player driving to the hoop, you know what are you trying to accomplish with this. I just wanted to reiterate your point. I think it's a good, good point.

Speaker 3:

Well, I think it's a tremendous point. It's interesting that, going back and looking at what you've done previously and seeing places where you could tighten the pacing, fold some scenes into summary or information in different ways. You know my students. I'm constantly amazed by how strong the ideas and the imagination and the storytelling that my students bring to the classroom. One of the things they struggle with sometimes, though, is structure and shape. You know how to shape the narrative in the best way. They've got tremendously great ideas, but it is a matter of you know.

Speaker 3:

Where does summary need to be fleshed out in the scene? Where does the scene not serve its purpose, and where might you cut that back, pace it a little differently to focus the spotlight on where the action and the conflict and the character are really coming to the forefront, without some of the throat clearing, as you said, or without some of the information dump that they feel like they need, and so a lot of it is that crafting and that structuring, that shaping, and I think working on a short story and this goes back to what you were saying, megan working on a short story and working on the scenery is kind of the same way. What's the direction you're going in. I do not have any stake in Scrivener, but I often recommend Scrivener as a writing tool because it does break it down into blocks and you can be like what does this block earn? If it doesn't earn anything, get rid of that section.

Speaker 1:

Yeah.

Speaker 3:

So I think that's kind of something similar.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, yeah, I write in Scrivener as well, so we're both big Scrivener fans.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, for sure.

Speaker 2:

Well, why don't we ask you then our question? We ask everybody which is what has been your biggest roadblock that you've had to overcome in your career, your biggest roadblock that you've had to overcome in your career?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, you know, I think it's an interrelation and you know, every story can be told as a comedy or a tragedy, just depending on the point of view, somehow, or the way it's told.

Speaker 3:

But as I talked, about making that move from short stories to novels, the opening at Malice Domestic, the overture from a small press asking me to come aboard with a novel. You know, part of the roadblock is making that move from short stories to novels. From a craft perspective, it's something I still struggle with. That first novel was so far my only novel, not the only one I've worked on. But as I work on novels, I still struggle with a mind that thinks in terms of the short story, the way that should work, that economy, efficiency, focus and the bigger landscape, bigger canvas, bigger narrative arc of a novel and how to take whatever skills I have as a short story writer and translate them over. So, from a craft perspective, that's one thing that I struggle with and the answer that I had at that time was that architecture of the novel and stories. I don't think I could fall back on that always, though I think it is maybe a good guide in some ways. But I think it's also a question that's complicated by the idea of branding yourself and selling yourself.

Speaker 3:

Selling yourself, I'm not sure always that popularity and readership in the short story market will automatically translate into good sales at the novel area. Will your short story readers follow you there. Is it the same market? I don't know the answers to that, but it's one thing that I do think about and interestingly, I had an agent. I was on a panel one time with an agent. I won't say who the agent was, but we were talking about this idea of using short stories, you know, on your resume as proof to an agent as you're pitching to or to an editor. Hey, I've got a readership, I've had some success and here's what I'm bringing to the table for this table for this. And the agent had a completely different attitude. She said I would rather see writers who are a completely blank slate, that I can begin with nothing out there and begin to kind of craft the way that I'm going to pitch them to an editor at a publishing house and all like that. So she felt like short stories sort of stood in the way.

Speaker 2:

Really, I find that so surprising, because the advice I've heard was not so much about audience and maybe this is the change, because, you know, this advice that I'm thinking of is, you know, probably at least 10 years old, not 15. But at the time it was like oh yeah, go you. Basically you prove your craft chops by publishing short stories, but you're it's not about the audience at that point, because those two audiences don't necessarily crossover. Well, um, but you're proving that you can write. So versus like a completely new writer who's never published anything, who's never been out there, and is now pitching agents, like being able to say, oh, I've been published in, you know, this literary magazine. At least tells them that you know craft.

Speaker 3:

Right, yes, I agree and I couldn't. I could not agree more. I still kind of puzzle over the agent's advice and a lot of this, and this is certainly the mix between craft and I try to focus on craft with my students, with thinking about myself, with some of the seminars that I give to citizens and crime organizations. Often there, you know, it's like focus on your craft first. That's the thing that's going to work, whether you're trying to sell a short story or trying to sell a novel. And yet from an agent's perspective, you know they are looking at the package and the marketing and the pitching and all like that, and so I can't really speak to how that works. But I agree with you totally.

Speaker 3:

I think that the craft seems to be the major thing and if I can get published in blank magazine or blank anthology or wherever, it seems to be representative that somewhere an editor out there has said you know your stuff, you can do something and you can build on that. I think you can build on that in good directions. So these are some things that I think about that I struggle with in terms of potential obstacles there. How do you make that move from one form the short story to a longer form from a craft perspective, and how do you do it in terms of pitching yourself and building your brand?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, you know, I do think that there's a lot of agents with a lot of different opinions. I mean, that's one agent's opinions. Another agent might feel exactly with what Megan said. You know that this does prove that you've got some writing chops, and I'm not going to waste my time if I ask for another 10 pages or a full manuscript. You know to read so, but I get what you're saying. I think the market has just become so saturated in so many ways that a lot of agents and publishers are getting more and more cautious with um, with who they pick up and what they do, and maybe that's, maybe that's not true, but it seems like that to me. So, yeah, yeah.

Speaker 1:

So what kind, what kind of advice do you give your, your students in this regard? Or do you just kind of throw up your hands and go? I don't really know what's best to do.

Speaker 3:

Well, you know, teaching at the university level, teaching in the workshop, we do tend to focus on short stories, in part because they are, I don't say, easier to workshop, but they're certainly more self-contained.

Speaker 3:

Someone bringing in a chapter of a novel, it's hard to workshop it or discuss it without reading the whole novel.

Speaker 3:

And there are novel workshops that we do at George Mason University, where I teach, I do the short story workshop and so I'm mostly focused on that, and I do in the advanced fiction workshop which I just finished teaching, and we do spend a fair amount of time, obviously on craft, but also a good portion of the time on the business of writing, where I ask them to use a variety of resources to try to track down places that would be suitable for their particular work, their style, their aesthetic, their genre, and so I try to get them to think actively beyond just here's what I'm writing for the class, to here's who I want to be or who I could be in the world of publishing. And so we do have a lot of those discussions. I haven't talked to them a little bit, I haven't talked to them at any point about the short story versus the novel, but I have tried to keep them aware of thinking about themselves as professionals and not just as students.

Speaker 1:

That's really seems unique to me in a in a college setting, and I think that's fabulous.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, one of the pieces of feedback we have heard from you know, people going back to you know get their MFA or whatever and create going back to school for creative writing is that there isn't as much discussion about the business side of writing. And so is that changing, at least you know, at George Mason, or I mean, is that something that as a department, you and the other professors are sort of working through, or is it still primarily just craft?

Speaker 3:

You know I can't speak to how other programs are doing it or even to how other professors at Mason are doing it, though, as a program, we have often had special seminars where agents meet with our students to talk about what it's like to find an agent, what they're looking for, where we have sessions in which we talk about the business of writing.

Speaker 3:

As I said, and at Mason as well, we've got Stillhouse Press, which is a small press that's based at Mason, which is giving students the opportunity to sign up for classes with the press or to intern with the press to learn about how a manuscript is picked, how a manuscript is edited, how a manuscript is marketed. So that gives them insight into the inner workings of that. Now, of course, most colleges or universities of some standing are going to have student publications, literary journals. We have two of those at the graduate school level, one of those at the undergrad level. That gives some experience as well and expertise in that. But having a small press right there based at the college is a little something special that I think we're doing.

Speaker 2:

So that's great. Do you ever talk about Indy Like is that a more accepted or is that still kind of not something that's discussed at the university level?

Speaker 3:

You know, I don't think we've talked about it formally in many ways in terms of hosting, say, a session, a professional session like that, an event, but I do have students that talk about it. I have a student in my class right now who is set up to sell their work online and is, I think, making a little bit of money out of it. We've had students who have come to the MFA program, who have independently published their work and are, you know, trying to continue to improve their craft. So, even if it's not part of a formal discussion, it's certainly there as part of informal discussions and certainly something that the students are very aware of and are interested in pursuing. So that may change as well at some point.

Speaker 1:

I actually think that's so good because I know that one of the criticisms of the indie market is that some of them threw craft out the window and just sort of you know writing books and didn't take the quality into consideration. And that worked for a while. Because you know writing books and didn't take the quality into consideration. And that worked for a while. Because you know the Kindle gold rush days people were so desperate for anything to put on their Kindle, but it ain't working anymore. You know people have to focus on craft and not turn their nose up at learning to be an actually good writer, you know.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, you know, one of the things I think is is kind of a problem is exactly what you said Some folks that think, well, first draft to publish draft, but I think that's that's. That's fallen by the wayside a little bit. I think most folks are savvy enough to know that that there needs to be the attention to craft, there needs to be the formal editing, and also that you've got to package. Well, you can't just kind of, you can't take the easy route here, and the people that I know who have been successful in some ways have put a lot of time and a lot of money into making sure that their product is the best it can be, even if they're not going through the traditional channels of agent, editor, publishing house, distributor in those ways.

Speaker 1:

Can you tell us a little bit like short stories. I find them in some ways more difficult to write than novels. I really do. And I had read, just as a funny aside, I had written a short story for something. Some publication had a whatever and it was 9,000 words and I sent it out. It didn't get accepted. Then somebody else was looking for a short story, but the top it could be with 7,000 words, so I cut 2,000 words. It still didn't get accepted.

Speaker 1:

Then a Sisters in Crime anthology was looking for short stories and their max was like 4,000 words. So I cut it again to 4,000 words and that time it got accepted. And I had this like aha moment that, because I tend toward novel writing, I just, you know, I was not subtracting as you said I was. And then somebody told me there's some kind of little rules like for X number of thousand words you should have only X number of characters or X number of plot lines. Or do you subscribe to any of that hard and fast rule kind of thing or guidance for your students?

Speaker 3:

Oh gosh, no, but I do hear those rules and I think there's some truth in them. You know, if you're going to try to do a, say, a piece of flash fiction with a dozen characters, you're in trouble. It's not going to work. Summer of 74, we've got about a dozen characters that are key to the plot, that are important to the plot, but that, of course, is about a 17,000 word story. So there are different sizes, different requirements, different expectations for each of them, but I think the rules, whatever guidelines, might be good in some way.

Speaker 3:

I don't know that they're hard and fast all around, and one of the things that I tell students is to focus on what is it you're trying to do? What size story are you telling? Number one, what size story does this need to be told? And then, how do you get it as tight as possible? What you said about the 9,000, the 7,000, the 4,000, it actually doesn't surprise me. I had a story that I wrote about 10,000 words one time and I was actually writing it for a reading and then was going to publish it later, writing for a reading, and I read it aloud to my test group at the time my brother and my girlfriend at the time and and oh my gosh, they were like falling asleep as I read a portion of it. I'm like something's wrong here. That story didn't get published until it was down to 2,500 words, so I cut out three quarters of that story and then it sold and did very well.

Speaker 3:

So I do think it's a part of subtracting. So if you find and I'm going to come back to what you said if you find that a character is not needed, then probably cut that character out because it might be a distraction in a short story. If you find a certain paragraph doesn't work, cut that out and try to get you know if there's a detail that will awaken a scene and paint a setting. Focus on the detail, not on the long paragraph describing the setting. So you can do just a little bit and let the reader come to you and fill out the rest of it. If you do that part right, they can fill out a whole room or a house or a park or whatever. So it is a matter of I go back to economy, efficiency, focus. Try to use just the words you need to get it right. So those are kind of the guidelines I give, as opposed to like X number of characters or this number of beats in a story or this number of conflicts. It's a little more flexible than that.

Speaker 1:

Well, that's reassuring, because I felt, like that whole you know mathematical approach, it was not conducive to creativity. You know, it was very formulaic to me.

Speaker 3:

And.

Speaker 1:

I kind of would rather write the big thing, leave it on the computer for a couple of weeks and then go back and go. Oh wow, that part's boring. You know how can I say these three sentences in one short sentence? Or you know those kind of things a little bit of a more of an artistic challenge.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, and generally that's my approach is to write long and then, and then trim back by by sitting and looking at it. I don't like too much the formulaic approach to writing. However, I do often use formulas in workshops for the revision process. So I do this, what I call a six-sentence story establish your character, what does that character want, what's standing in the way of this character, and actually outline it in six sentences. I don't think that's a starting point for a story, but I think it can be something that can be diagnostic. Once you have written the whole thing, to step back and be like right, what's really going on here? What do we need to know about this character, what is this character's main goal, and how can I then reshape and revision a story to its perfect form or near perfect form? And so I think, as a diagnostic tool, that'll get you there.

Speaker 3:

Almost like a reverse outline, then it sounds like exactly yep, yeah.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, that's because that's kind of for for me. I'm more of a discovery writer. I I have a general shape of the story in my head, but I don't really write anything down, or at least not much. You know, a couple sentences here or there, um, for specific beats, but but so I that's kind of how I work is I actually do the whole story first, and then I go back and go, okay, what's missing? Where do I have the plot holes, what structural beats aren't present in the story, and then use that for the editing process as well. So I don't know, like I sort of an aside, I guess. But I think that's a very interesting approach for those of us who are more discovery writers or who want to have the what I'll call artistic flexibility to write the story as it comes rather than imposing structure from the beginning from the beginning.

Speaker 1:

I also think that that can be a great tool for writing your description for either a blurb, if you're trying to sell it, or to an agent, if you're trying to pitch it. You know being able to actually compress what is this story about, because I have had a hard time doing that myself.

Speaker 3:

One of the things that I try to do is tell people when they're drafting they don't have to draft from beginning to end. They can write to the point where they have the most energy, write to the point that they feel like they know or where they've got excitement, and then begin to fill in some things until they get that bigger draft at some point and then start working on the shaping.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I love that. That's more what I do. I'll kind of like have a general outline for the first, say, you know a section of the book and uh, and then inevitably I get to the end of that and I'm like what happens next? And I can only go chunk at a time. If I try to outline an entire novel. It's just stupid, it's so bad.

Speaker 3:

I don't know if you know Jane Cleland's work, but Jane Cleland does that very thing. It's like aim for the first third get there and then see where you're at and then move ahead. I'm paraphrasing and probably paraphrasing wrong, but it's always guided me the idea you only got to write this far and then see what's going to come next.

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

And that's helped me, that I did too, because when I it's like a journey of some kind, like you're standing at the beginning of a novel, it's going to take you a long time. Even if you're a quick writer, it's still a lot of hours, you know, to craft that novel and when you're standing there looking at the entirety of it, for my personality and my brain it can totally overwhelm me. But if I just think of it a chunk at a time, and what are the scenes that need to be in that first chunk? You know that kind of thing. I think that is just a good tip for listeners, if you get overwhelmed, to think of it in pieces.

Speaker 3:

And I would advise that for the short story as well. I think the idea of writing to discover can be like I've got an idea of a character, I've got an idea of a situation, let me write to see where it goes. There's always stuff that you can cut out later once you have a better idea about what a story is about, and I don't always start stories knowing what they're about. I hope I finish them knowing what they're about. I don't always start in that way.

Speaker 2:

So what advice do you have for writers who are, you know, maybe not going back for an MFA or not in school, but who want to continue to improve their craft? You know, how would you approach that sort of I don't know process? I guess?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, you know, I mean, it's the tried and true process. If you want to write short fiction, read a lot of short fiction and kind of see how it goes and read. You know you want to fill your mind with good things and use good models, so it's not reading indiscriminately. I took a year, challenged myself at the New Year's resolution, to read every Edgar award-winning short story and it took a while to track some of them down and to find them. You know, whether because they're out of print or not easy to find in addition, easy to find in addition.

Speaker 3:

But I learned so much about both the flexibility of the form, about the possibilities of the form and about some of the ways in which some of the things that work well in terms of scene building, summary, juxtaposition of scenes, the movement of narrative, the fact that your story needs to have some sort of resolution, a sense of closure, but doesn't need to actually tie things up.

Speaker 3:

You know ambiguity can work really well, letting the reader fill in the end of the page. So I know I kind of threw a lot of stuff out there, but I do think by reading constructively as opposed to critically critically as well, but with an idea about. I'm picking this up because I want to learn from it, I think, is one of the ways to do that. Now, there's certainly great craft guides out there too, and I could name some of the ones that I've worked well with, but I think that actually, looking at the way a good short story is put together, the anatomy of it, the flow of it, the movement of it, will help you when you sit down to try to craft the architecture and the anatomy and the pacing and the structure of your own.

Speaker 1:

Do you recommend that your students like deconstruct? If they find a story that they really love and it's the kind of thing they think they want to write, that they sort of deconstruct it Like what did this writer do here, there and so on, so they could not plagiarize but mimic the form?

Speaker 3:

Sure, we actually talked in class the other day about the idea of stealing and some people were sort of like, oh, we don't like that word stealing. I'm like, yeah, but what you do is like it's not stealing words, it's not plagiarizing. No-transcript. From looking at what Madison Smart Bell does and I think I do it sort of unconsciously without actually making all those notes in there, to see how something works and try to use that myself.

Speaker 3:

One exercise I do encourage my students to do and I think this is good at the short story or the novel level is to take a couple of pages from a writer. They love passages or a scene they particularly admire and look at the interplay of things like dialogue, narration, description, interiority. Where does a passage of interiority come versus a series of lines of dialogue, or where is interiority built in against a line of dialogue? And I do ask them to deconstruct a short passage like that from a stylistic standpoint so they can say here's writing that I admire, here's a model that I might aspire to and here's the way they do it. And I have them write I won't say it's a pastiche, it's much more paint by numbers than that but then write a scene of their own in which they mimic that style.

Speaker 3:

My author has a line of dialogue I'm going to put in a line of dialogue. My writer has that character make an action. Let me find an action there, a moment of interiority. Let me add my own interiority, because I think that helps them to see the way that scenes are constructed or stories are constructed or passages are constructed. I think that can be useful. So, yes, I guess I do to some degree ask them to take it apart, though I'm not asking them to do an entire story that way.

Speaker 1:

That's an interesting idea. I took a class, an online writing class, once, and part of the exercise was to take a few pages of your own manuscript and then you had like four colors, you know highlighters, and you would highlight all the descriptions and highlight the dialogue, and then highlight the dialogue or whatever you need you, and then you would just look at how much of everything you had on the page. Um, but I never thought of comparing that to a writer. I love, I mean, I, just now I want to go do that. That just sounds like fun.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, it is kind of fun. You can also begin to see where your you know stylistic tendencies are as a writer versus the things that you admire as a reader. And where do those? What can you learn from that? There's a story about Harry Cruz, a Southern novelist, who apparently says he learned to write by retyping the entirety of a Graham Green novel. Just sat down and typed it out word for word and he said at the end of it he goes well, now I know how to write a novel. And then he did so. Maybe there's something to that.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, that's interesting. I will say like, I think if you read a lot in the genre that you want to write in, you're going to absorb some of that information already, just sort of naturally, because you're hearing it in your head as you're reading. For those of us that I guess have that inner monologue side note, I just found out not everybody has an inner monologue, but anyway, I digress, I don't know how that's possible, but anyway. But but so you do kind of absorb some of that, that story structure, the flow of language, you know, as you normally do it, but I think, doing it with intentionality, whether that's even just cop, I kind of like the idea of just retyping somebody else's work as an exercise to be like well, let's just go through this, because I feel like the act of typing also just helps you absorb that more.

Speaker 2:

It's like when you write notes as you're listening to, you know, a lecture or whatever. You know you absorb that information. So whatever you can do to find the work that you love to absorb how they're doing it, so that you can then put your own spin on it not copy it, but put your own spin on it and make it unique to you, while still maintaining the integrity of the things that you like about it. That's a really that's a really cool idea. So we have lots of tips here. I think you can type it out, you can deconstruct a paragraph, you can deconstruct a short story. You can do all these different things to help improve your craft. I love that.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, and I think you're right about absorbing versus that awareness and intentionality. It's just one slight adjustment, but I think it can make a difference and I had never written a home invasion story.

Speaker 1:

So I found one that I thought was excellent and I just kind of looked at it on a chapter level what did she do in chapter one, what did she do in chapter two? How many people were dead by chapter three? You know, like those kinds of things, and it sort of helped me to get the idea of the pacing, because sometimes different sub-gen genres also have different pacing. So you know, I think that that's also a cozy mystery versus an action thriller.

Speaker 2:

I mean, those are two sub genres of mystery thriller and completely different pacing, completely different feel.

Speaker 3:

Everything about it Exactly.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. So if you were going to give our listeners one more big fat tip, if they're thinking about trying to break into the short story market, maybe they have some stories they've written. Um, what would you tell them? Uh, apart from some of the things you've already said, which is, read a lot of them but how about one more tip or two on how to break into the short story market?

Speaker 3:

From a craft perspective.

Speaker 3:

I keep coming back to those words economy, efficiency and focus and making sure that you've got the best product you can.

Speaker 3:

But the bit of advice I'm going to give is to try to get it out there, and the one good thing about the market right now, particularly in the mystery genre, is the number of venues that are available to you Online publications. We've mentioned Sisters in Crime. A lot of Sisters in Crime chapters have their own anthologies, which are dedicated toward giving writers sometimes their first entree into the publishing world. Writers sometimes their first entree into the publishing world, and often alongside of veteran writers whose name recognition might get somebody to pick up the book and then find your work as well. So Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, may be the leading contenders right now in terms of publications, but there's a lot of other publication opportunities out there and opportunities to get your work read and to get feedback. Not feedback on it in terms of like what works and what doesn't work, but to get an audience out there and a readership for you, and so I would advise trying to find those venues and get out there.

Speaker 1:

Do you ever advise your students to sign up for Duotrope?

Speaker 3:

I do. That's one of the things that I've had folks look at Duotrope and Submittable. Both have options where you can find calls for submission the Short Mystery Fiction Society. You can join there and they often post calls for submissions. I also advise people to look in the back of the Best American Mystery and Suspense, best American Mystery Stories, best American Short Stories and look at the publications that are listed there, both the publications that have provided the stories that are in the anthology, but also in the back. What are the honorable mentions? Where were they published? What's the list of magazines that the editors are consulting as a way to start investigating what options are out there? It's amazing the list that you can find looking in those ways, looking in those directions.

Speaker 1:

That's great, so why don't you tell people where they can find out more about you and the books that you've written?

Speaker 3:

Sure, my website is wwwarttaylorwritercom. I've had people, when I say that, think I'm talking about horseback riding because I'm Southern and I pronounce things wrong. But it's arttaylorwriter W-R-I-T-E-Rcom. And I'm also, you know, on Facebook and on Instagram as well, and I was off Twitter X for a little while but I joined back so, just because I felt like I was, I needed a place there and all those. Those are Art Taylor Ryder.

Speaker 1:

All right, well, this was just great, and we really appreciate your time with us today.

Speaker 3:

Oh gosh, thanks for having me. This was a blast.

Speaker 1:

And to all you listeners out there. If you enjoyed this podcast, would you consider sponsoring the show? For as little as $3 a month, you can help us keep the lights on. And not only that, but we are very happy to tell the world about your book, your series or your product or service that you have for writers. So there is a link in the show notes where you can support us, and that would be a great help. Also, if you enjoyed this, please send your favorite episode to a writer friend and until next time, keep your stories rolling.

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