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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:


Joanna Slan said...

Barb, there's a ton of great information in this post. Thanks so much for being so generous with your knowledge.

Melodie Campbell said...

Great post! Barb, my teaching mantra for years has been: Know where you're going before you start. So good to hear you say that here.

Lots of other great tips - I'm sharing.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for giving me the opportunity, Joanna. It can be helpful for me, as well, to think about these things.

And thank you, Melodie. It's so much better to follow a road map - when driving or writing - to ensure you get to your destination using the most-efficient route.

Joanna Slan said...

I love the idea of sitting down and jotting notes. Duh! Why didn't I think of that?

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Great information about short story writing.

Gail Farrelly said...

Excellent interview. I loved Barb's book of short stories. I read it on my Kindle and then bought several print copies for friends and family. It was a big hit.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. :)

And oh, my God, Gail. I love you. Thank you!

Joanna Slan said...

Gail, it's on my TBR "pile" on my Kindle, too! I think Barb has a hit on her hands!

Dru said...

Great post. I love all the information here and congrats to your new business endeavor.

Barb Goffman said...

Thank you, Dru Ann!

And thanks again, Joanna, for hosting me on your blog today. I hope you enjoy the book!

Marilyn Levinson said...

A truly wonderful post. I haven't written a short story in a long time. You've given me fruit for thought, along with lots of good advice.
I'm sorry your ring was stolen at a mystery conference, of all places.

Suzanne Sperling said...

An excellent post--very inspiring for an aspiring writer. One question--how does one find a helpful critique group? I don't know of any other aspiring writers in my location, though I'm sure there are.


Joanna Slan said...

Suzanne, Romance Writers of America has a lot of critique groups going all the time. Also, check with your local library. Sometimes people post a message asking for critique partners. Of course, many people who write crime fiction find compatible partners at MWA (Mystery Writers of America) or SinC (Sisters in Crime) meetings by asking around. I found my first critique group when I took a night class in writing. One of those sister students, Terri Kaminski, and I are friends to this day. We're both published authors now, which underscores how helpful the process can be.

Polly Iyer said...

Great post, Barb and Joanna. I loved Barb's book. I just finished my very first short story for an anthology, and wish I had read this post before I started writing. Good thing I haven't sent off the edited version yet. Best of luck with your business, Barb. I'm sure you'll be successful.

Joanna Slan said...

Polly, glad the timing was helpful.

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Marilyn. I hope my suggestions are helpful to you. And oh, I was so upset when that ring was stolen, but I got my first published story out of it, so I guess it's evened out. Sort of. :)

Suzanne, thank you. Joanna's tips are good ones. What kind of fiction do you write? If it's crime, I strongly suggest joining Sisters in Crime. There may be a chapter near you. And if there's not, there's an online group for new writers called the Guppies. You could definitely find a critique group there. Good luck!

And thank you, Polly, about the tips and my new business. I can't wait to read your story.

Morgan Mandel said...

Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

Morgan Mandel

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Morgan!

Shannon Baker said...

It sounds like an interesting series. I will check it out

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