When the call went out to writers in the Carolinas for short story submissions from the North Carolina Triad Chapter of Sisters in Crime, I thought, no, I write ninety-thousand-word novels, not short stories. The theme was lust, love, and longing, and naturally, there had to be a crime. Then I thought, oh, come on. Give it a try. The worst that could happen was my story wouldn’t be accepted.
I had published three erotic romances along with my six mystery/suspense/thriller novels. I could write lust, and I sure could incorporate a crime. My first lesson, or teaching moment, was to read a bunch of short stories. Good ones from good writers. The commonality was each one had a twist ending.
Undaunted, and with some idea of what I was doing, I devised my plot—a multi-award-winning director/writer/producer who discovers his beautiful, much younger Oscar-winning actress wife is having an affair with his son from his first marriage. He’d taken this young model with a little talent and made her a star, and she betrayed him. How would he seek his revenge?
The plot had been done many times before in different variations―older man, younger woman who cheats with a man more her age. Her reason might be lust or maybe greed. Of course the older man is always rich. Sometimes there’s a murder, but there’s always a comeuppance. The movies have had a field day tweaking this scenario. Think Unfaithful with Diane Lane, Body Heat with Kathleen Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Lana Turner, or the two versions of Dial M for Murder. And those are only a few.
I wrote the story and kept it within the four-thousand-word limit.
Yay, I made the cut. The story was accepted.
My second lesson came in the first edit. The editor cut the beginning. This is backstory, she said. We don’t have to know how you got here, just that you’re here. She was right. Did the reader really have to read about my director’s conversation with his hired detective when the latter delivered the dreaded information? No. The reader only needed to know the information. That gave me more time for my character’s visceral reaction to his cheating wife.
I had written the beginning to a ninety-thousand-word novel, not a short story. Scratch the detective. Scratch the banter. I was catching on.
After incorporating more edits and along with my “aha” moments, I finished the story. The end result was five hundred words shorter but with a tighter, more concentrated story. I was quite pleased that I had taken on a new challenge, and I liked the final result. Moreover, I learned a few things.
At the book launch last weekend, a writer friend asked me how I learned to write a short story. She had tried many times but was never successful. I was hardly one to give advice but my answer was simple―to me, anyway. The first part applied to every story, long or short. Create a beginning, middle, and end. What differed was detail. Writing short concentrates on the main characters and one plot instead of going off on tangents with subplots and extraneous characters, which is what I do in my novels. I learned to ask myself, Do you really need this? Does it move the story along?
In short, trim, trim; cut, cut.
I put my lessons to good use and wrote a second short story for the latest Sisters in Crime Guppy anthology. (For those who don’t know what GUPpies stands for, it’s the Great UnPublished. Many now in the group are published authors.) I was thrilled to have that story accepted, and I await edits to learn more about how to master the craft.
My advice to all writers is to stretch yourselves. Try new things even if you fail. Remember, James Lee Burke’s first book was rejected one hundred and eleven times. Think of all the great writing we would have missed if he’d quit trying.
Carolina Crime : 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing, edited by Karen Pullen, is published and sold by Wildside Press and available on Amazon.
Polly Iyer is the author of six novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and two books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.