derringer awards

I am the Meryl Streep of Short Fiction! (Yeah, right.)

Joe Award.jpg

I’m so behind on social media that I completely missed a podcast back in October where a writer being interviewed referred to me as “The Meryl Streep of Short Fiction.” The claim is hilarious, and I have thoughts.

The podcast is Wrong Place, Write Crime, run by the crime fiction author Frank Zafiro. The person interviewed in Episode 17 is the Texas-born, North Carolina-based writer Eryk Pruitt, whom I know of but have never met. The podcast runs nearly an hour, and I come up around the 11-minute mark, when Zafiro starts asking Pruitt about “Knockout,” a short story of his that was a finalist for the Derringer Award in 2015.

At the risk of going inside baseball, the Derringer Awards are awarded each year by the Short Mystery Fiction Society to short stories in that genre. A lot of mystery organizations award a short story prize, but the Derringers are the only ones focused exclusively on short mystery stories, the only ones read blind (where the first round of judges are not told the name of the author whose story they’re reading), and the only prize awarded to stories in four different categories, based on length.

To cut to the chase, in 2015 one of my stories won the Derringer for flash fiction (i.e, a story that’s no more than 1,000 words). I have been fond of saying that the story was 684 words long, and that it’s weird to win something for so little work. When people ask about it, I tell them I’m currently at work on a 684-word novel.

But okay. In the podcast, Zafiro asks Pruitt who won the award that year, and Pruitt mentions me, and goes on to say, 

“…[D’Agnese] apparently wins like all the time—he’s like the Meryl Streep…So basically I got beat by the Meryl Streep of short fiction… And Joseph, if you’re listening, I just called you Meryl Streep. Your move."

Well, that’s just a hoot on so many levels. Authors as obscure as me live for awesome blurbs like that, and so my first “move” was to immediately get some business cards printed up using my brand-new sobriquet.

This is known as the Typewriter Card,  available here .

This is known as the Typewriter Card, available here.

Not just any old business cards. Fancy-ass, letterpress business cards by Hoban Press (whom I love) printed on 110-pound Neenah Cotton stock, thank you very much. Because I’m not just the winner of some obscure literary award. I’m the fucking Meryl Streep of Short Fiction.

Hoban Press  master Evan Calkins hard at work printing my new business cards.

Hoban Press master Evan Calkins hard at work printing my new business cards.

I have to thank Eryk and Frank for making my day, but I should probably point out that in the realm of short mystery fiction, I’m pretty much a newb. It’s true I’ve been a Derringer finalist three times, but I’ve only won once.

When you look at writing awards in total, I can very modestly say that I’ve won only three others—an award from the Humane Society for a piece of science journalism I wrote ages ago, and two others for children’s writing.

I list all the awards on my website because that’s what you do, but in truth, my short mystery fiction output is nowhere near as huge as multiple Derringer winners like Robert Lopresti, John M. Floyd, or Art Taylor, to name only a few biggies in this field. I actually made a study of short fiction output for a talk I did once. All of us currently working in the mystery field probably have a long way to go to beat the late Edward D. Hoch, who wrote 900 short stories, mostly mysteries, in his lifetime. 

But who’s counting? [he says, slinking off to a corner.]

If you like the Wrong Place, Write Crime podcast, I encourage you to check out the work of Zafiro, a former police officer who himself has a massive body of fiction, and Pruitt, who in addition to writing books and short stories is also a screenwriter, filmmaker, and radio show host. In fact, the bulk of this interview focuses on Pruitt’s recent true-crime podcast series, The Long Dance, in which he investigates a long-unsolved pair of murders in the Durham, NC, area. I’m listening to it now, and it’s amazing stuff. So amazing, Meryl Streep should do the movie.

By the way, if you can think of someone who really deserves the title of The Meryl Streep of Short Fiction, or Short Mystery Fiction, for that matter, let me know in the comments below.


  • My thanks to artist Jon Arge for the hilarious art of me above.

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My EQMM Story's a Finalist for the Derringer Award!

Wow! It happened again. One of my stories got picked for a Derringer Award.

I was screwing around on my phone last night when I got an email listing this year's finalists. One of them was "The Woman in the Briefcase," the story that ran in the March/April 2016 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The official announcement is here. The Derringers are the only award in the mystery fiction world that are given solely to short stories. Twenty finalists are chosen—five in four different categories, according to the length of the story. "The Woman in the Briefcase" is up for the "Best Short Story" category, which denotes a story that is 1,001 to 4,000 words long.

For me, it's a cool honor on two levels. It's the first story I ever landed in EQMM. And it's the third time in four years that one of my stories has been picked as a Derringer finalist. (I won for Best Flash Story in 2015.) I'm hugely honored, especially since I haven't really done a lot of short fiction this past two years. I've been tied up with ghostwriting and trying to finish a pair of novels.

What's "The Woman in the Briefcase" about? It's strange, since most of the action takes place 30,000 years ago. A crazy caveman mystery is what it is.

I'm pretty sure the editor will make it available during the month-long judging period. But you can use Bookfunnel right now to download a copy of a quick-and-dirty e-book I just put together. I'll post EQMM's link if and when I have it. Either way, enjoy.

The 2016 Derringer Awards Finalists: Looking at the Stats

Prior to presentation, the 2015 Derringers were contained in this handsome box!

Prior to presentation, the 2015 Derringers were contained in this handsome box!

The Derringer Awards are the only award in the mystery fiction community that focus exclusively on short stories. I'm listing all the finalists, which were announced earlier today. Since I'm still not very good at figuring out where I should submit my stories,  awards like this are always a good opportunity to study the markets.

To that end, I'll note the following stats:

  • Nine finalist stories appeared in print magazines

  • Seven finalist stories first appeared in anthologies

  • Two finalist stories appeared in online magazines

  • One finalist story appeared in a digital-only magazine

  • One finalist story first appeared in a Kindle Worlds e-book.

  • EQMM is the top publication, with six finalist stories.

  • Writer John M. Floyd—who is a heck of guy, by the way—appears twice, in two different categories.

The winners will be announced March 31.

My warm congratulations to the following finalists:

For Best Flash Story (Up to 1,000 words)

  • Jack Bates, "The Hard Screw" (Near to the Knuckle, August 6, 2015)

  • Craig Faustus Buck, "Heavy Debt" (Mondays are Murder: Akashic Books, August 10, 2015)

  • Barb Goffman, "The Wrong Girl" (Flash and Bang: A Short Mystery Fiction Society Anthology: Untreed Reads, October 2015)

  • Vy Kava, "Hero" (Red Dawn: Best New England Crime Stories 2016: Level Best Books, November 2015)

  • John Weagly, "Trash Pick-Up" (Near to the Knuckle, September 24, 2015)


For Best Short Story (1,001–4,000 words)

  • Shelly Dickson Carr, "Words Can Kill" (Red Dawn: Best New England Crime Stories 2016: Level Best Books, November 2015)

  • Nikki Dolson, "Joe Park's Little Girl" (Mystery Weekly, September 7, 2015)

  • Chris Knopf, "Kill Switch" (Red Dawn: Best New England Crime Stories 2016: Level Best Books, November 2015)

  • William Burton McCormick, "Pompo's Disguise" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015)

  • Meg Opperman, "Twilight Ladies" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015)


For Best Long Story (4,001–8,000 words)

  • Ron Collins, "The White Game" (Fiction River: Hidden in Crime: WMG Publishing, November 2015)

  • John M. Floyd, "Dentonville" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2015)

  • Katia Lief, "The Orchid Grower" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2015)

  • Robert Lopresti, "Shooting at Firemen" (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2015)

  • Elizabeth Zelvin, "The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat" (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2015)


For Best Novelette (8,001–20,000 words)

  • John M. Floyd, "Driver" (The Strand Magazine, February-May 2015)

  • Jane Haddam, "Crazy Cat Ladies" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2015)

  • Richard Helms, "Shooting Stars" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2015)

  • Gordon Hopkins, "Jack Daniels and Associates: The Whiplash Brokers" (Kindle Worlds, March 2015)

  • Travis Richardson, "Quack and Dwight" (Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds: PM Press, November 2015)


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Boucherpants, and the Speech I Didn't Give

Thanks from a grateful author.

Thanks from a grateful author.

A few hours before Denise and I were supposed to hop in the car and drive to Raleigh, NC, for Bouchercon, I found myself yelling downstairs, “Where the hell are my Boucherpants?"

I had a particular pair in mind for the con, you see. I was supposed to have tossed them in the laundry the night before, only I didn’t, so now I’d be packing without them.

Denise thought the line so funny that, for the rest of the week, we privately referred to the con itself as Boucherpants, which in our alternate universe was named after its illustrious namesake, Anthony Boucherpants.

I was in a good mood. Only a day before, the new Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology had pubbed. As readers here know, I have a story in that collection, “Harm and Hammer,” which pubbed November 2014 in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. To top it off, on the second night of the con, I’d be receiving a Derringer medal for a 2014 flash fiction story, “How Lil’ Jimmie Beat the Big C.” I got in the car feeling eager and proud.

But somehow, two days into my very first Boucherpants, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and not a little terrified. On the four-hour ride over, Denise happened to ask, “What do you hope to get out of this weekend?” I knew I wanted to pick up my medal, see what there was to see, meet whoever I could, and have fun. Beyond that, I didn’t have much else on my personal agenda.

As a kid, I used to be fairly shy, timid, even. But I don’t really think of myself that way any more. Years of journalism work, book talks and signings, have largely erased my fear of socializing and public speaking. But on the ground in Raleigh, I regressed. I didn’t know how to get up the nerve to introduce myself to people, let alone carry on a decent conversation. I kept critically judging every word that left my mouth. What an idiot. How could I have just said that? I suspect that the closer you are to the thing you love—in this case, the mystery community—the more vulnerable you become.

Then came the awards Thursday night. I hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech because I’d heard through the grapevine that there typically wasn’t time for such things. And really, how much of a speech was I going to make? Uttering even a few hundred words on behalf of a 684-word flash fiction story seemed indulgent. But come Thursday, every single author who won an award gave an acceptance speech, even those who weren’t in attendance.

The Derringers were announced at the very end of the opening ceremonies. By then, the crowd had been promised some tasty Carolina BBQ. Tender, delicious meat was waiting in the wings...

As I watched those speeches, my heart sank. I thought about jotting down some notes, but I know myself well enough to know that I needed time to polish those words. I could extemporize, but I risked making a fool of myself. I couldn’t do it. The crowd looked larger than any I'd ever addressed, not to mention ravenous. In the end, I accepted my medal and sailed wordlessly off the dais. Presenter Art Taylor nimbly covered for me. (Bless you, Art.) Denise filmed the whole thing. Watch.

Only later did I realize that what needed to be said was altogether brief. If I had spoken, I might have said this:

Thank you to my editors at Shotgun Honey.

Thanks to my colleagues at the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

I'm very grateful.

I could go on, but I won’t, because I live in North Carolina, and I respect barbecue way too much.

By Sunday, I had calmed down and managed to meet quite a few people at the bar. No doubt we’ll meet again at some future con, where I resolve to be more sociable and to wear my lucky pants.

I won a Derringer Award!?

We left town after the memorial service and we've been at the beach, fairly unplugged. This morning early I learned that my story for Shotgun Honey, "How Lil' Jimmie Beat the Big C," won the Derringer Award for Flash Fiction. More info and links later when I can get to my computer. 

Thanks to the Derringer group, its judges, and my editors at Shotgun Honey. I'm very touched.

The Story Behind My Derringer Finalist Story

I've been tied up with family stuff or I would have announced this sooner. We were at lunch yesterday when I got the word that one of my short stories had been chosen as a finalist for  the Derringer Award for Best Flash Fiction. The Derringers, you’ll recall, are one of the top prizes for short mystery fiction. This is the second year in a row that one of my pieces was singled out for this honor. The full announcement is here. Members of the Derringer group will read all finalist stories this month, and the winners will be announced March 31, 2015. 

Regular readers will probably remember the story, How Lil’ Jimmie Beat the Big C, which first appeared on the Shotgun Honey noir ‘zine back in May 2014. It’s the story of an incarcerated man’s visit to an oncology center for a chemotherapy session. It’s short, fewer than 700 words, violent, and chock full of profanity. That warning aside, the story’s free to read online, so please do check it out if you’d like.

And yes, the story was inspired by what I saw on several of my visits with Denise’s mom to her chemo sessions or doctor’s appointments last year. Every time I went, and I mean every time, I’d spot heavily armed corrections officers marching shackled prisoners to their appointments. If you stop to think about it, it makes sense. Prisoners are human. They get cancer like everyone else. It’s just that their doctor’s visits necessitate traveling in chains and being accompanied by guards.

I could go on about how everything you experience in life, good or bad, becomes fodder for your fiction—but I figure I’ve said enough.

I’m proud to be a Derringer finalist again, and equally proud to be part of what looks like a trio of successes this year for Shotgun Honey. They’re a great site; if you enjoy reading or writing short noir pieces, you really out to check them out.