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Monday, September 30, 2013

How to Create a Literary Vase

A beautiful fall vase!

I was in St. Louis last week, visiting the Carondolet Branch Library for their Author Breakfast event. On the tables were lovely vases, created by Sarah Zolezzi. As a gift for us authors, we were allowed to take one home. But I walked off and forgot mine! ARGH! At least I took this photo.

Sarah asked library volunteers to bring in their old vases. Here's what I imagine she did next:

* Wash, clean, and dry the vases thoroughly.
* Rip the pages from old, unloved books.
* Cut the pages into strips of various sizes. (You could also tear them.)
* Dip the pages in a bath of tea or coffee. (Just pour old, leftover tea or coffee into a shallow container and dip the pages in.)
* Allow the pages to dry. (This gives them a uniform "old" coloration.)
* Use Mod Podge to adhere them to the vase.

Isn't this clever? I love it!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Kiki Lowenstein and Too Much Squash (Short Story Excerpt)

 You can read this whole short story free if you load it on Sept. 27 (Friday) and Sept. 28 (Sat.) by going to

Note: In the timeline of Kiki’s life, this short story comes after Picture, Perfect, Corpse: Book #7 and before Group, Photo, Grave: Book #8.

Chapter 1

A Wednesday in August…

“How’s your mother feeling?” Lottie Feister quizzed my daughter Anya.

I was sitting cross-legged on the other side of the shelving unit so I overheard Lottie’s question. I thought about getting up and answering her myself, but I’d sat down here for a purpose. I was searching for a particular sheet of embellishments. I suppose I could have made my presence known, but I didn’t feel like moving. An hour earlier I’d had a particularly nasty bout of morning sickness. Right now, sitting still suited me—and yes, I was a little curious about Lottie’s interest.

          “Mom’s fine, I guess. She gets pretty sick to her stomach, but she told me that’s normal. In fact, I went with her to the doctor for an appointment, and the physician’s assistant said that morning sickness is a good sign. That it means Mom’s hormones are changing,” said Anya.

          “I hope she can keep working throughout her pregnancy,” said Lottie. “This store is like a second home to most of us.”

          She was referencing Time in a Bottle, the scrapbook and craft store that I was buying. Now I felt glad I’d overheard Lottie’s questions. She probably represented the thinking of most of our patrons. As soon as I could, I would talk to my co-workers. Together we could brainstorm steps to take to reassure our customers. The last thing I wanted was for them to switch loyalties! Not when we’d worked so hard to become their primary source for all their papercrafting needs.

          Bless Lottie’s heart, she was a yenta, which is Yiddish for “busybody,” not “matchmaker” as people have erroneously assumed because of Fiddler on the Roof. Ever since Lottie’s husband died of pancreatic cancer, she’s a lonely woman. The store has become the hub of her social activities—and I understand that. I’ve been there myself. But sometimes Lottie crosses a line. She’s incredibly curious about me and my life, and she’s taken to pumping everyone who works here for more information. Personal information that’s not really any of her business.

          My name is Kiki Lowenstein. I’m a single mom to Anya, who is thirteen-going-on-thirty. My daughter and I are very close, especially since her father George Lowenstein was murdered nearly three years ago. This summer Anya begged me to let her work in the store rather than send her off to summer camp, which she dismissed as being “for babies.” I agreed to the arrangement for many reasons. Most of all, this might be our last chance to have a summer all to ourselves. But when I set down the rules for her “employment,” I forgot to warn her that a few of our customers might try to pump her for details of my private life.

          Clearly an oversight on my part.

          I am, after all, a bit of a curiosity. Even though my sweetheart, Detective Chad Detweiler, wants to marry me, I have declined his offer. I was pregnant with Anya when I married George, and that feeling of shame stained our entire marriage. I expected too little from George because I knew he had married me out of a sense of obligation. Not out of love. When I marry Detweiler—and I plan to do just that—I want to feel confident that he’s marrying me because he wants me as his wife, not because I am his baby mama.

          All that aside, Chandler Detweiler has told me over and over that he wants me. Me. Pregnant. Non-pregnant. Whatever. “There’s only one you in the world, Kiki, and you’re the person I want to spend my life with.”

          You can’t get much more loving than that!

          But then, there’s my growing baby bump. And my rampant hormones. I admit that some days I feel overwhelmed by it all.

          Most of the woman who frequent Time in a Bottle are a bit old-fashioned. They think I am making a mistake by waiting to marry Detweiler. They point out that my baby is his child, and therefore, my little one is entitled to legal protections offered by marriage. They also note that something could go drastically wrong when I give birth. In that case, Detweiler needs the right to step in and make decisions.

Ugh. I know they’re right, but that’s too upsetting to contemplate.

Perhaps their most compelling argument is money. As a St. Louis County law enforcement officer, Detweiler has terrific benefits. I have none. When I think about the expenses associated with having a baby, I wonder if my women friends are right.

But I made a promise to Anya that I wouldn’t marry Detweiler before the baby came. She had a little melt-down when she realized that she’s be the only Lowenstein left in our family because her grandmother, Sheila, is getting married, too.

And I intend to keep my promise to my daughter. I owe her that.

So I’m anticipating the costs of having a baby. I’ve been pinching every penny that comes my way. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve got a smear of copper on my fingertips.

Meanwhile, I need to stand tough while people question my decisions. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t considered the impact of my choices on Anya. It’s just that I didn’t realize how bold people would be in pestering her with questions.

To Read the Whole Story...Click on this link 2MuchSquash


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Beta Reader (Especially for Kiki) Qualifications

Tune Up Tuesday with Sally Lippert


When I first started reading Joanna's pre-published work, my goal was to get through the book or short story as quickly as possible to find out "who done it?"

But Joanna encouraged me to take my time and look for problematic areas. As I did, memories of my youth came back to me. You see, I grew up with an aunt, who was head of the English department at my high school.

 My aunt never had any children, so I became her "chosen one" to be the best. She was extremely tough taskmaster when it came to proper English. (No, it did not make my school days easier!)

Then I switched career paths and went into nursing. My reading and writing skills consisted mostly of working with patients' charts. Definitely not creative writing. It was more about "painting a picture" of patient care in case you were ever called to give a deposition in a law suit.

Needless to say, my skill level deteriorated until I met Joanna. 

Interacting with her awesome tribe of Beta Readers has challenged me to remember my aunt's lessons on grammar, punctuation, and even diagraming sentences.


Of course, a lot has changed since my time in high school. English is an evolving language, adding thousands of new words each year. The usage of computers has forced changes upon us. Whereas I was taught to double-space after the end of a sentence, we now are told to use only one space.

Joanna and I decided that we needed one reference that we both could turn to for answers. She owned The Gregg Reference Manual, so she bought me my own copy. We're also compiling a style sheet just for the Kiki and Cara Mia books. A style sheet goes beyond the reference manual to keep small details consistent from one Kiki book to the other. For example, when Kiki flips the sign over at Time in a Bottle, it says OPEN or CLOSED in all capital letters. That's a small thing, but one that must remain the same from book to book and story to story.

Here's another example. Did you know that there's no full stop (period) after the letter "r" in Dr Pepper? That's right. It was dropped in the 1950s. So that, too, will go into our style sheet.

Wikipedia describes a beta reader as someone who brings "a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public."

But that definition doesn't begin to define what you offer Joanna. Beyond the help you offer by reading and commenting on early versions of the work, you are a valued sounding board and cheering section. Because you are so invested in the series, your opinions matter greatly to us.


Do you like to read any genre in fiction?

Are you familiar with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation? 

Do you enjoy watching a series grow and evolve?

These are all qualities that we value in our Beta Readers. Most of all, we appreciate the dedication and candor that our Betas bring to their reading. While Joanna might not take every suggestion that's offered, I can tell you that she considers it. Often she and I will discuss the suggestions and decide whether she needs to follow them! (You'd be surprised at how much she cares about creating a satisfying reading experience. Then again, maybe it wouldn't surprise you. After all, you know her work.)
The Beta Readers bring their individuality to each and every story and book. We LOVE all of your input because you are so committed to Kiki. (And now to Cara Mia.)

I want to thank each and everyone of you for all you have given me--and of course, Joanna says she couldn't write without you!


Monday, September 23, 2013

How to Make Paper Beads, Part II

Now that you have a plethora of long, skinny triangles, it's time to make your beads. For the next step, you'll need:

1.  A lot of wooden toothpicks or skewers. They have to be ROUND, not squarish. These will be used as spindles. You'll wrap your paper beads around the toothpicks to shape them.

2. A block of Styrofoam. As you finish your beads, you will stick the toothpicks into the Styrofoam so that they can rest and cure.

3. Glue. I like Aileen's Tacky Glue. Whatever you choose should dry clear, dry fast, and grip quickly. I've tried glue sticks, but they are too mess. I like to use a coffee stirrer or a toothpick to dip into my glue and use as an applicator.

4. Sealer. Some people use clear nail polish. I prefer Diamond Glaze. I like to apply it with a brush.

Next, I'm going to show you my super-secret, super-duper, extra-special technique tip for making beads. You won't read this anywhere else.

1. Put the large end of the triangle in your mouth and get it moist. Not wet! This will cause your paper to lightly grip the toothpick.
2. Wrap the triangle around the toothpick. Remember: The big end starts on the toothpick. Try to keep your triangle centered as you wrap it. If it gets off centered nudge it with your fingernail.
3. Dab a bit of glue to the tippy end of the triangle and smoosh it down to glue it to the bulk of the triangle that is now rolled onto your toothpick. You should have a slightly ovoid shape, bigger in the middle and tapered on each end.

4. Stab your toothpick into your Styrofoam block. Admire your garden of beads. Paint the beads with the Diamond Glaze and let them dry. You might want to do two thin coats.
Now we let them dry!



Sunday, September 22, 2013

Prologue from Tear Down & Die, My Newest Book--







The first book in the

Second Chances Mystery Series



By Joanna Campbell Slan




For Sally Lippert, who believes in second chances.




Late August, St. Louis


As if he were looking out into the future, the light faded in Sven’s brown eyes, and his weight settled in my arms. A sob burst from my chest, as I whispered, “He’s gone, isn’t he?”

The vet, a grizzled man near retirement age who had a habit of clicking his dentures, pressed the stethoscope to my dog’s chest. After what seemed like an eternity, he nodded.

“I killed my dog,” I said to my friend Kiki, as her fingers gripped my shoulder. “I killed him!”

With surprising strength, she grabbed me and turned me so that we faced each other. “You did not kill him. He’s been having seizures for the past eight hours. You released him, Cara Mia. You gave him peace!”

I threw my arms around her neck and cried. I choked and sputtered and moaned and keened and all the sadness of the past six months heaved up inside me and overflowed onto the shoulder of my friend. Kiki Lowenstein simply held me, patting my back, making soothing sounds. The vet wisely left us alone.

When I was nearly cried out, he asked, “Do you want to take your dog with you?”

     Kiki’s fiancĂ©, Detective Chad Detweiler made a move to bundle Sven in a blanket, but I said, “No. Please cremate him. I plan to leave the area. I want to take him with me.”

The rest of the visit is a blur. The staff graciously averted their eyes as we climbed into Detweiler’s big police cruiser. Kiki and I sat in the back seats so she could hold me. We’d made quite a fuss on our arrival. Detweiler had used his flashing lights to speed us through the city traffic as I watched Sven convulsing on my lap. Silently, I thanked my lucky stars for having friends who dropped everything and came to my aid at a moment’s notice. Leaving St. Louis would be hard, but I’d had enough. My parents were both gone, my son was off to college, and now this.

“I am never, ever going to own another dog,” I said. “Ever.”

For a long portion of the ride, Kiki said nothing. She stroked my hair and let me cry, leaking tears now rather than sobbing.

When we pulled up to my house, she walked me inside while Detweiler waited for her in his car. I appreciated how he gave us a bit of privacy. After she got me settled on my sofa and made me a cup of chamomile tea, Kiki sank down next to me and said, “Now you listen to me, Cara Mia, and you listen good. Of course you’ll get another dog. Of course you’ll love again. I know you and I know that you believe in second chances. We both do. That’s what makes life worth living. And if you forget how important they are, if you start to doubt that they are worth the heartache, remember this—”

And she pressed my fingertips to her belly so I could feel her baby kick. “Second chances,” she said. “That’s what life’s all about. Don’t you ever doubt it.”

# # #

If you liked this, you'll want to add your name to our mailing list, as we'll be releasing this book for FREE for two days only--and if you're on our list, you'll know what days those are. Either go to our website and sign up or send an email to and ask Sally to add you to the mailing list.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Improve Your Sequencing To Improve Your Writing

This morning I heard a radio commercial about a pair of work gloves. The announcer explained that these were "more abrasion and tear resistant than leather."

I was left wondering, "Does he mean the surface of the gloves is abrasive?"

I doubt that. I suspect he meant that the surface of the gloves was "more resistant to tears and abrasion than leather." (And if he had added one word--"tougher"--the whole description would have made more sense: "tougher, more resistant to tears and abrasion than leather.")

Sequencing.  A tricky concept. One that I'm working to become more aware of. It's incredibly difficult because we aren't dealing with a right or a wrong. We're working in shades of gray here. But even a slight change of shading can make our meaning more clear. And that translates into a more enjoyable read for our audience.

Here are a few rules:

1. Put the longest portion or phrase last.

Instead of this:

"He bought the fancy can opener and the toaster."

Try this:

"He bought the toaster and the fancy can opener."

2. Share the summary first, the particulars last.

Instead of this:

"Gracie, my harlequin Great Dane, pushed past me so she could sniff at Detweiler. In a contest between me and the cop, I’d come in a distant second. My pup loves me, but I have no illusions." 

Try this:

"Gracie, my harlequin Great Dane, pushed past me so she could sniff at Detweiler. My pup loves me, but I have no illusions. In a contest between me and the cop, I'd come in a distant second." 

3. Double-check all actions for logical sequence. You may find duplication or confusing language.

Instead of this:

            “I’d be delighted to join you,” Laurel said, as she pulled up a chair to sit next to Mary Martha.

            “There’s an extra chair right here,” said Dolores, uncovering a seat that had previously been hidden by piles of scrapbook supplies.
Try this:

            “I’d be delighted to join you,” Laurel said, as she glanced around for a place to sit.

            “There’s an extra chair right here,” said Dolores, uncovering a seat that had previously been hidden by piles of scrapbook supplies.

4. Ground your reader in the place and time first.  Start with "where" and "when."

5. Keep adjectives or modifying phrases next to the words they modify.

Instead of this:

"A commercial that I heard on the radio this morning talked about a pair of gloves."

Try this:

"This morning I heard a radio commercial about a pair of gloves."

As I come up with more examples, I'll share them with you.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Writing a Book In A Week--Can It Be Done?

Twice a year, my friends at RWA put together an experience that they call "BIAW." That's short for Book In A Week.

Last time I participated, I wrote more than 22,000 words that week. My friend Beverly Bateman was the word-wrangler, and bless her heart, she kept cheering me on. After the first day, she emailed me to say, "Can you keep up this pace?"

I sure did.

We're all different. Our goals vary. We're motivated by different needs. I love competition. I like challenges. So for me, BIAW is a wonderful synergy of all my motivators.

Are you up to the challenge of writing a book in a week?

Here are some tips:

1. Start by doing your rough outline. I had a good summary going in. That meant that each day I knew what I intended to write. Very helpful.

2. Check out your physical environment and get it ready. As you might imagine, writing that many words is tough on your backside. I bought a special seat cushion for my office chair. No lie, at $20 it was a GREAT investment!

3. Work out your kinks offline. At the end of each day, I'd jot down notes about what was upcoming. All through the evening, I'd revisit those notes and make adjustments. The next morning before I sat down to work, I'd also do a bit of rearranging. That meant that my keyboard time was optimal.

4. Turn off the phone and Internet. It's too easy to be distracted! A five-minute phone call can destroy twenty minutes of available writing time.

5. Set goals for yourself. I wanted to write 10,000 a day. Yup. Ambitious, right? But I'd read an article by a woman who'd done that, so I thought, "Hey, I can, too." I didn't hit that number, but having it in mind was helpful.

6. Track your progress. Seeing the numbers grow is an incredibly motivating experience.

7. Be accountable. I told Bev that I'd dedicate the book I was writing to her. And I will. Knowing that I had to report to her added a bit more oomph to my enthusiasm.

BIAW starts on September 22. I'll report my word count to you each day. Let's see how I do!

What are your best tips for writing faster?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Could Anything Self-Published Be Worse Than This?

One of the big arguments against self-publishing is the idea that publishers perform a valuable service for readers by sifting through dreck. Supposedly, they only publish the best of what's available.

Uh, not always.

Another argument is that self-published work isn't always edited as well as it should be. The big publishers have fabulous editors working for them, and these magicians can turn a rough manuscript into a gem. Fair enough. I have the rough manuscripts to prove that!

Uh, sometimes but not always.

And finally, it has been said that NY publishing is better than self-publishing will ever be, because the people in NY really know what the rest of us want to read.

Uh, no. Not always.

Case in point:

A big New York publisher sent me a beautiful hardback book to review. The blurb by R.L. Stine said, "Here's a book that truly deserves to be called horrifying..."

Boy, he hit the nail on the head. I want to shake that man's hand. He tells it like it is. Notice that he didn't say, "This is a fabulous book and you have to read it!"

The accompanying press release calls the book "disturbing." Gotcha. There's another truth teller at work.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: Scientists use DNA sequencing to create a new breed of serial killer. When these monsters escape, it's a battle of wits with a special ops soldier who's tasked with rounding them up.

Fair enough. Sounds interesting, no? In fact, I'd love to read a book about that. A good book. This might even be the one, except...I put it down after the opening scene describing in detail how these little monsters brutalized women. Ugly, ugly stuff.

By page 17, they've progressed to flaying other boys, but still...that was given short shrift.

Today I got an email from the publicist for this book. She asked me what I intended to do with it. I wanted to say, "I don't believe in burning books but for this one I'll make an exception."

Instead, I said, "Well, R.L. Stine was right. Lord love him, and this book isn't my cup of tea. I think it's best that I don't review it."

(And in my head, I thought: Thank God. I'm not that sick or perverted. Not yet.)

To me, reading is and will always be a pleasurable experience. Therefore, I'll take a pass on images I don't want implanted in my little pea brain. Particularly if their only purpose is shock value.

I doubt that anything self-published could be worse than this dreck.

So what do YOU think? Have you read/bought any mainstream books lately that you wish you could have burned? That had no redeeming value? Or that relied on gratuitous sex or violence as a hook?

Do the folks in NY really know what all of us want to read?

Grieving the Loss of Your Pet

In Memory of Victoria Slan
Special Tribute to Victoria by Sally Lippert

Have you ever lost a pet to illness or accident?

Or were you forced to give one away or leave one behind?

We all felt Joanna's pain last week when she could no longer watch poor Victoria suffer. Joanna made the painful choice to release her pet. As her vet told her, "This is the right thing for Victoria; the hard thing for you."

I visited Joanna's house a few days before she decided to let Victoria go, and I could sense as I sat next to her that the dog's life force was leaving her physical being. There was something about the way she moved, her lack of response and interest in the world around her, that signaled her withdrawal. I've seen the same behavior from my clients when it's their time to die. I've also been amazed at how pets would respond near the end of their masters' lives.

Most stayed in the bed snuggled up to their human's body.

They wouldn't eat, drink, or leave to go out especially if they had been with them a long time.

The family would call me several days later to ask what could they do for the surviving pet.

Most don't understand that animals grieve like people.

I asked Joanna how Rafferty, her other dog, is doing without Victoria. She said he is very quiet, but he seems calm. When she took Victoria for her last trip to the vet's office, he didn't whine to go with them. It was almost as if he knew.

I reminded her that it was probably stressful for him to see her failing. At some point he's going to realize that she is not there anymore, and his behavior might change yet again. I suggested that she give him extra TLC over the next few weeks.

The that I spent time with the dying was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I was able to share their final moments and a curse for the loss that I had to experience. Most of all, my work in hospice served to remind me that life doesn't last forever. Never regret the time spent with those you love--whether it be human or an animal, their memory will leave footprints on your heart.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

How to Make Paper Beads

Sure, you could recycle those old magazines, but some of the colors are too pretty to waste. Why not turn the pages into paper beads? Here's how--

1. Start by carefully choosing your paper. Remember, you'll be wrapping strips of paper, winding them on top of each other, to get a bead, so not all the original image will show. It's a bit tricky. I suggest you start with a solid color, or nearly solid, like the paper on the right. Also notice that I chose a two-page spread from a magazine. That'll give me a lot of paper to work with.

2. Use a sticky note to mark a cutting guide on your Fiskars Personal Paper Trimmer. See, you COULD use a pen and mark triangles on your paper, but why? Instead, look at the lines on your trimmer. Lay down a sticky note exactly along the half inch mark. You'll see why in a minute.

3. Line up the BOTTOM of your "bead paper" with the sticky note. Now...instead of having the paper go straight up and down so that you make a narrow rectangle an inch wide, tilt the top of the paper. See below...

Note that the bottom of the paper is at the sticky mark, which means your cut will be a half an inch wide at the BOTTOM. But the TOP of the paper is right at the cutting line. The bead paper is slightly tilted, see? It's wider at the bottom and narrowed to a point at the top! In other words, when you cut it, you'll have a long, skinny triangle! But here's a big tip: Start the cutting blade at the wide end of the triangle, not the skinny tip. Otherwise the paper will bunch up.


4. Here's the finished paper. We need lots of these to make our beads.

5. Note: Now your original piece of bead paper has a narrow triangle cut from one side, so flip the whole shooting match over, wrong side up, and repeat the process.

Friday, September 13, 2013

'Don't Get Mad, Get Even,' Suggests Barb Goffman

An Interview with Barb Goffman, author of Don't Get Mad, Get Even


When I think “short stories,” the name that comes to mind most often is “Barb Goffman.” Barb has been nominated for the Agatha Award five times, and the Anthony and Macavity awards twice each.

Recently, she agreed to answer some of my questions about her work.

1     Barb, how did you get started writing short stories?

It was early 2004. I’d been working on a novel, and I saw a call for stories for Chesapeake Crimes II from my local chapter of Sisters in Crime. I’d never written a mystery short story before—and frankly, I hadn’t read any either—but I thought this anthology might provide an easier way for me to break into the mystery scene than my then-unfinished novel. So I read the first Chesapeake Crimes anthology and a bunch of short stories by Jan Burke to learn about story structure and plot. Then I came up with a plot giving me psychological revenge against whoever stole a beautiful ring of mine at the 2004 Sleuthfest conference. I wrote and submitted the story, it was accepted and published, and about six months after that, I was nominated for the Agatha Award. It was one of the best moments of my life and a real impetus to keep writing short stories, which I’ve come to adore. They really suit my temperament.

2.     What pointers could you give to authors who want to get started writing short stories? Do you have any personal “rules” that you follow?

·       Read a bunch of mystery short stories. Study how other authors construct their stories. Let the structure become second nature to you.
·       Know where you’re going before you start writing. I recognize that this advice probably won’t help people who naturally write by the seat of their pants, but I’m a plotter, and for me, if I didn’t know the end result I wanted in a story, chances are my characters would wander around without going anywhere exciting. And if and when I did figure out the tale I wanted to tell, I’d end up with a lot of extraneous story that ultimately would have to be cut. So my advice: Do the thinking first and the writing should be easier.
·       Get in and out early. With a short story, you’re telling one specific story. It’s not a family saga. It’s not a novel with subplots. It’s one tight tale. Start the story as far into the action as you can while still getting in all the information you need to. And when you hit the sweet spot at the end—the twist or epiphany—wrap it up quickly. Don’t step on your ending. (This can be easier said than done, I know.)
·       Every scene should advance the plot. There should be no scenes designed simply to show character or to provide setting or to build your world (such as if you’re writing a historical story). Character formation and setting and world-building should be done while you’re advancing the plot.
·       Every character should have a purpose for advancing the plot. If you’re writing a story with three friends, when two could get the job done, kill off that third friend. You don’t need her!
·       Always carry a pen and paper to jot down ideas. You never know when and where they’ll strike. Middle-of-the-night ideas can be great. Force yourself to get up and write them down. Don’t think you’ll remember them in the morning. You won’t.
·       Read your work aloud so you can hear if it flows and sounds natural and if your characters come alive off the page.
·       Don’t edit only on the screen. You’ll miss things.

3     Since you help edit at least one short story anthology, what tips can you give to authors who hope to be published in a short story anthology? Any ideas about how to stand out in a crowd? As the editor, what’s the biggest problem (or the most frequent) problem you see in the submissions?

Before answering, I should point out that as an editor of the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series, I don’t choose the stories that are accepted. For each volume, we use a varying three-person committee of authors who read the submissions without knowing who wrote each story, and they choose the stories that are accepted. Then Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I edit the stories and put the anthology together for Wildside Press. I do read all the submitted stories, however, so I can answer your questions.

How to stand out in the crowd:

·       Follow the instructions. If an anthology’s rules specify a word limit, meet it. If the editor wants submissions to have one-inch margins, do it. Don’t think these submission requirements are no big deal and that you’ll adjust your story once it’s accepted. While it’s possible your story will be accepted despite any such deficiencies, it’s also possible the editor will have one slot left and several stories that could fill it. The author who followed instructions may be looked upon more favorably than one who didn’t. You want the editor to think you’ll be easy to work with and respectful of her time, not expecting the editor to do the work asked of you in the first place.
·       Try to be different. For instance, in the upcoming Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays (Wildside Press 2014) we asked for crime stories involving any holiday. I figured we’d get a lot of Christmas stories, so I submitted a story involving Groundhog Day. It was the only Groundhog Day story submitted, and it was accepted. Did my unusual choice of a holiday help? I don’t know, but I like to hedge my bets.
·       Consider using an unusual setting to grab an editor’s attention. For example, in Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’ we had two stories set abroad, one in India, the other in Japan. These settings stood out among the remaining stories, all set in the United States.
·       Highlight an unusual custom in your story, since readers often like learning new things. For example, my story “The Lord Is My Shamus” involves a Jewish family during the period they should be sitting shiva (a formal mourning period after a Jewish person’s funeral). While this custom probably isn’t considered unusual to anyone who is Jewish or who lives around Jewish people, I figured it might be new to a large number of readers.

The biggest problem I see in submissions:

The problems will vary per story, but ultimately, stories that aren’t accepted often have a major deficiency. It could be that the writing isn’t clear or is vague and you can tell the author couldn’t get the idea from his head onto the paper. Or the story will meander in the middle, and it feels as if the author got lost or got too invested in description and showing how beautiful his writing is. Or the story is boring because the author obviously did a lot of research and decided to put all of it in the story, even though a little bit would have gone a long way. Or the author nears the end of the story and has the main character start telling a lot of back story so the reader can understand what happened and why.

That’s not to say that every story that’s rejected has a major deficiency. Sometimes stories are rejected because they’re too similar to another story that was accepted or simply because they didn’t meet the taste of the editor making the choices, or—especially with prestigious publications—the story is great, but the editor only has two open slots and 200 submissions. Nonetheless with many stories, there is a problem with the telling.

I believe one way to address such problems is to join a good critique group and/or hire a good editor. I know there are a number of established authors who don’t use critique groups and feel they aren’t necessary. But to me, critique groups can be invaluable in catching plot holes or mechanical difficulties or boring passages—problems that hold stories back from their full potential and could result in the story being rejected. Every author, no matter if she’s a newbie or is multi-published, can benefit from a second pair of eyes. And that’s what a critique group/editor really is, so I recommend them highly. But the author has to be open to hearing what’s good and bad in her work and to making adjustments.

It’s also important to be in a good critique group and/or have a good editor. A good group or editor will highlight the things an author does well so she can capitalize on those abilities, as well as help the author spot her weakness so she can address them and improve her work. Groups that only give praise don’t help the author improve. Groups that only spot problems can be debilitating to the author’s creative spirit. You need a balance.

4    How do you come up with your ideas? What gets your thought process flowing? Are there any unusual resources you rely on?

I like anthology prompts. The challenge of meeting a prompt often gets my creative juices flowing.

Newspaper articles also can inspire me. For instance, I read an article a few months ago that said many people in Los Angeles consider who are a size six to be obese. To me, that’s one of those huh moments. I know a lot of women—me included—who would kill to be a size six. So I wrote a story in which the main character is a size eight, and her friends consider her fat, and that fact plays a key role in the plot. I like being able to make a point about ridiculous body expectations while entertaining the reader with a good tale. (That story, “Dead and Buried Treasure,” will appear in the Halloween mystery anthology All Hallows’ Evil, scheduled for release on September 18th.)

I also get a lot of ideas in the shower. All of the sudden, I’ll hear voices in my head, and I’ll think, that’s an interesting opening for a story. Or, ooh, that character sounds interesting. Who is she? I probably come up with a lot of ideas in the shower because I don’t have anything else for my mind to do at those times. I can’t read while I’m in the shower, can’t watch TV, etc., and using soap and shampoo isn’t that mentally taxing, so my mind is free to actually think.

Really, ideas can come from anywhere. Last year I learned that a large church property near my house had once been a nudist colony and there had been a murder there many years ago. I wondered where a nudist would hide a murder weapon. and the story ideas flowed from there. (That story became “Murder a la Mode,” which appeared last year in the Thanksgiving anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping.)

I don’t have any unusual resources I rely on except, perhaps, sleep. If I go to sleep trying to figure out how to fix a plot problem, I’ll sometimes wake up in the morning with a solution. So my advice is to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know where or when you’ll encounter some information or a photo or something that makes the voices in your head come alive or helps a solution to a plotting problem become evident.

           Please describe your process for us.

When starting a story, I’ll often sit with a pad of paper and jot down ideas. For example, with my story “Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy,” (which is available in my collection), I wanted to write a crime story involving gravy. (The story call asked for funny crime stories involving Thanksgiving food.) So I thought about how gravy could figure into a crime. Poisoning came to mind. I wrote it down. But that seemed obvious, so I kept thinking. Then I thought that something could be hidden in gravy. So I wrote that down. And I thought, what could be hidden in gravy and why? Each idea generated new questions and new ideas about plot and character. As often happens with me, I ended up with a sheet of paper filled with possible ideas and arrows leading from one idea to another. When I’m in this plotting stage, at some point, I’ll feel I’ve come up with a plot and characters that excite me. I’ll circle the key ideas that figure into my final idea, and then I’ll start writing.

       I know that you recently lost your wonderful dog, Scout. I believe that authors have a unique bond with their animals because we spend so much of our time at home with them. Could you tell us about Scout and about the memorial service for him?

Thank you for asking about Scout. He was an amazing dog. He was a lab/shepherd/malamute mix. By the time I adopted him from the SPCA, he was six years old and had already been dumped twice. He’d had cancer so a lot of people probably didn’t want to take a chance on him. Yet he was still so open and loving. He would bark ferociously and scare away solicitors. He loved chasing sticks and trying to catch leaves I swept off the deck. He liked interrupting my writing over and over, wanting to go out and come in, incessantly. He was my best friend.

After I adopted him, Scout survived two more battles with cancer, a splenectomy, the removal of a benign tumor on his butt, a torn ACL, so many cysts, and more. Yet he still loved going to the vet. He loved everyone. In the end, his arthritis became unacceptably debilitating and painful to him, so I had to let him go. But I miss him every day. And I feel a little guilty that I’m getting so much more writing done now that he’s not here to nudge me for treats or to open the door or simply to give him some love.

Thanks to author Sandy Parshall, I was able to host an online memorial service for Scout on the blog Poe’s Deadly Daughters. Rabbi (and author) Ilene Schneider gave a nice eulogy and many people shared their memories of Scout. It really helped me begin to heal. I decided to have an online service because so many of my friends and family are scattered, and so many people knew Scout from Facebook, so memorializing him online made sense.

I also recently wrote a short story involving a dog partly as a way to honor Scout. The dog in the story is named Maxwell in memory of author Ellery Adams’s childhood dog, but when I wrote the story, I pictured Scout. I’ve submitted that story to an anthology, and I hope to have good news soon.

      What are your future plans? You’re very involved in Malice Domestic. Could you tell our readers what that’s all about?

Future plans: This is a timely question, Joanna. I’m thrilled to announce publicly for the first time that I’m about to launch my own editing service for crime fiction. The business’ website isn’t up yet, and some logistics still need to be worked out, but by the end of the month I should be open for business. I love editing, and the authors I’ve worked with have been pretty happy with the results, so I’m excited to start this new venture. I’ll offer copy-editing services as well as story-development editing. Anyone interested can email me at GoffmanEditing {[{at}]} gmail {[{ dot }]} com (eliminating the {[{ and }]} marks, of course).

You also asked about Malice Domestic. Malice is one of the largest mystery conventions in the United States. For the past 25 years, Malice has been celebrating the traditional mystery. Each spring, between 500 and 600 mystery readers and authors travel to Bethesda, Maryland (right outside D.C.) for the convention. Authors participate on panels and in other activities. Readers have the chance to meet their favorite authors, learn about new authors, buy books, have them signed, and basically get an inside look at the writer’s world. The prestigious Agatha Award is also given out at each Malice convention, voted on by fans in attendance. I’ve been program chair for Malice since 2007, and I love it.

At the next Malice Domestic convention, scheduled for May 2 – 4, 2014, our guest of honor will be Kathy Lynn Emerson, our toastmaster will be Earlene Fowler, and we will be honoring three authors for their lifetime achievements: Dorothy Cannell, Joan Hess, and Margaret Maron. They all will be in attendance, as I hope you will be, Joanna. And I hope all your readers will come, too. Learn more at

Thank you for inviting me for this interview, Joanna. It’s been a lot of fun!

About Barb Goffman…

Barb is the author of the recently released Don’t Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press), a collection of fifteen of her short stories, including five new stories and “The Lord Is My Shamus,” currently nominated for the Anthony and Macavity awards to be presented at Bouchercon in September. Barb says her short stories “often focus on families because the people you know best are the ones you’ll most likely want to kill.” Barb’s short stories have been nominated for the Agatha Award five times, and the Anthony and the Macavity awards twice each. In her spare time, Barb serves as a co-editor of the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes series and as program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery convention. She has a B.A. in Communications and Political Science, an M.S.J. (masters of science in journalism), and a J.D. (juris doctor). Her website is: