short stories

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

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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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Crazy Old Photo of Me at My First Job in the 1970s

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I just came across this old photo from the 1970s of me working at my first job. The shot was taken with a Polaroid camera, so I hastened to scan it so I could preserve it before the image flaked off the plastic film.

I have no idea how old I am in the photo, but I know exactly where i am and what I’m doing. I’m in my parent’s garage in New Jersey, helping my father make patterns for the Garment District.

Both my parents worked in the garment industry and were proud members of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union (ILGWU). My father, who is now 88 years old, can still tell you how much he receives in a monthly pension from the union, down to the penny.

My Dad trained as a mechanic after high school but somehow switched to a different career path after taking a six-week course on pattern-making. For 30-plus years he was a pattern-maker working for a variety of coat-making firms on New York’s Seventh Avenue, aka “Fashion Avenue.” The way it worked then, the fashion designer or “stylist” would draw a sketch of how they wanted a new coat to look. That sketch was handed to people like my Dad, whose job it was to translate the 2D image into a) a 3D mock-up for critique and analysis, and b) a final pattern that could be used for full-scale factory production.

The “patterns” he made were just like the ones you might buy in a fabric or sewing shop, except they were made out of heavy card paper. Each piece of the pattern represented a piece of the fabric the factory would need to cut and sew to make the final coat, jacket, blouse, etc.

My father often freelanced, bringing work home that he’d tackle after dinner in the garage. He’d pass those giant sheets of paper to me, and it was my job to do the rest. (I’m guessing nothing has change to this day. If you’re in the business, then I can tell you more specifically that I cut, notched, and marked every pattern.) It was unskilled labor, and fairly straightforward. I can tell you that thanks to this work, I can cut fairly accurately with a pair of scissors to this day. Ours was a full-on family enterprise, with my mom and my two younger brothers pitching out when they got older.

I have no recollection what Dad paid me for this work. I seem to recall that my parents were constantly changing the rules, sometimes linking the work I did for Dad to a weekly allowance and sometimes arbitrarily withholding payment due to some behavioral infraction during the week.

I look at this photo and I feel immediately transported to that shabby garage workshop with its harsh fluorescent lighting, mannequins, pencil sharpeners, and insane extension cords running all over the place. Later in life, everything I learned about the garment industry ended up in the first short story I ever sold—“Button Man,” which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine back in 2013. So I guess you could say that the experience was finally put to good use.

I love those pants!


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10 Things I Learned About William Faulkner and Money

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One essay that has stuck with me for years is Eudora Welty’s review of The Letters of William Faulkner. In her hands a picture emerges of Faulkner as a writer doing all he can to make ends meet.

In his lifetime, Faulkner won three major awards that put him in a category of his own—the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the Nobel Prize. People want to imagine great writers carefully crafting their work for weeks, months, years at a time. But how much time a writer spends on a piece of work varies greatly. Flannery O’Connor was an incredibly slow writer. But the Faulkner of these letters is a frantic craftsman who cranks out short stories as fast as he can because he desperately needs the money. (By most estimates, he wrote 125 of them, though scholars continue to debate that figure.)

Faulkner nailed down a timeline for cranking them out. He knew, for example, that if he wrote a story in a week, got it in the mail by Friday, that an editor would buy it the following week and he’d have a check the week after. What a charming time to have lived in, when a writer would be paid so quickly!

If you’re interested in how writers really make a living, I urge you to get a hold of Welty’s book, Faulkner’s, or both.

Some tidbits from Welty’s essay:

  • Faulkner “hoped to hell” that Paramount Pictures would buy his scandalous 1931 novel, Sanctuary, because when his father died, Mother Faulkner only had enough money to live for a year. “Then it is me,” he writes, meaning that he would then be solely responsible for supporting her. (Paramount released the movie, dubbed The Story of Temple Drake, in 1933.)

  • At one point Faulkner's working on two novels at a time, and cranking out one short story a month because he’s got to pay his and his mother’s bills, and he can never rule out the possibility that his brothers and other relatives will hit him up for money.

  • He thinks of everything he writes in terms of its earning potential, because, as he says: “By God I’ve got to!”

  • At one point, he starts cranking out TWO short stories a week, and he wonders if he can keep up this kind of schedule because it’s killing him.

  • To help him out, his New York publishers begin advancing him money. (I’ve read that these sorts of informal arrangements were the origin of the modern-day publisher’s advance, but I don’t know enough about the history of publishing to say more than this.)

  • Faulkner goes to Hollywood to make some cash and bitches that the studio contracts are so weaselly that he longs for a relationship built on “good faith and decency,” like the ones he has with editors back in New York.

  • He devises a plan to write six short stories, sell them each for a $1,000 apiece to The Saturday Evening Post, and live off the windfall for six months while he writes a book. But he’s freaking out because he’s only been able to sell one of these short stories and that wasted effort can now only be pitched “into the trash.” To hell with fame, craft, acclaim. If a story can’t make him money, it’s worthless.

  • His usual outlets were paying him $300 to $400 a short story but the Post was the king at $1,000 a pop. (In the days before television or even radio, a major magazine like The Saturday Evening Post paid so well because its circulation was so vast. Americans had few other outlets for mass entertainment.)

  • One year he concocts a crazy scheme to hock his mules and mares to raise some cash but he runs out of horseflesh to pawn.

  • At one point he confesses that he doesn’t have a carbon copy of the short story he sent, and can’t afford to wait for his agent or editor’s requested changes because he needs the money too badly. So he rewrites the story from memory, incorporating the edits, and sends it on its way.

There’s lots more, but I think you get the point. Writers write for themselves, and they write for money. Some of the best writers wrote quickly, but that did not taint the work. The stories were just fine because they had talent in spades.

I think of the (only three) creative writing classes I’ve taken or the MFA programs some friends of mine have pursued, and cringe to recall how much time we all wasted talking about how to make a particular story better. That approach can help, but it is purely academic. One takeaway from the Faulkner story is this: You don’t make bad stories better by rewriting them; you write increasingly better stories by writing as often as you can.

Oh—that hastily rewritten piece of crap that Faulkner spat out from memory turns out to have been “The Bear,” one of the most-read and most-anthologized Faulkner short stories, ever.

What a talented son of a bitch. We should all be so money-hungry.

I’ll leave you with one last Faulkner quote: “The man who said that the pinch of necessity, butcher's and grocer's bills and insurance hanging over his head, is good for the artist, is a damned fool.”

*

This post first appeared February 22, 2012 in slightly different form on my old blog. I’m repubbing it here in an effort to collect all my significant posts in one place.

Reading and revising this piece reminded me of another writer who famously wrote about money struggles. I should have a post on that up shortly.

In general, I’ve been trying to post more regularly here. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here.

 

Check out my new story in Mystery Weekly!

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Hey! Long time no…anything. But that changes today. You can check a new short story of mine, called “The Vulnerable Rind,” in the February 2019 issue of Mystery Weekly. The hard-copy issue hits newsstands today, February 1, and digital issues are already available.

"The Vulnerable Rind" is set in Rome, Italy. A young Italian carabinieri officer launches an unofficial investigation into a series of trivial break-ins at a small cheesemonger's shop in Rome, with troubling results. If you know my work, the cop in question is none other than Matteo Scarpone, who appeared in my novel, The Marshal of the Borgo and a short story entitled “Bloody Signorina,” which was a Derringer Award finalist way back in 2013. It’s nice to see that character in print again.

Mystery Weekly is a lovely magazine published out of Canada. You can buy digital issues via the Kindle Newsstand, and print copies via Amazon. You can also snag digital copies via Google Play, the App Store, or direct from their website here. If you want to check out my story, make sure you are downloading the February issue shown here.

Submissions stats: I finished this story sometime in September 2017, but it never found a home until Mystery Weekly bought it in December 2018. They took only 6 days to say yes, and the story is appearing about one month from acceptance. Payment was $60.

Yes, I will someday release an e-book version of of the story, which I’ll offer free to readers on my list. If you’d rather wait for the free copy, please join my e-newsletter.

Look for my new story in Mystery Weekly!

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Look for my short story, “Her Father's Killer” in the November 2017 issue of Mystery Weekly. The hard-copy issue hits newsstands today, November 1, and digital issues are already available.

"Her Father's Killer" is set in the 1940s. A young woman returns to her Appalachian hometown to avenge her father's murder.

Mystery Weekly is a lovely magazine published out of Canada. You can buy digital issues via the Kindle Newsstand, and print copies via Amazon. You can also snag digital copies via Google Play, the App Store, or direct from their website here. If you want to check out my story, make sure you are downloading the November issue shown here.

Submissions stats: I finished this story sometime in March 2014, but it never found a home until Mystery Weekly bought it in August 2017. They took only 34 days to say yes, and the story is appearing about one month from acceptance. Payment was $25.

Yes, I will someday release an e-book version of of the story, which I’ll offer free to readers on my list. If you’d rather wait for the free copy, please join my e-newsletter.

Look for My Story in the July/August 2017 Issue of Hitchcock's Mystery Mag

Look for my short story, “A Respectable Lady,” in the July/August 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (AHMM). The hard-copy issue hits newsstands tomorrow, Tuesday, June 20, but digital issues are already available.

I’d describe “A Respectable Lady” as a Sherlockian story that delves in the history of a minor character in the Great Detective's orbit. As one editor said in rejecting it, "Your story is well-written, but giving [redacted] such a sordid past would, I believe, be greatly disliked by our readership, so I will reluctantly have to pass on this one."

Well, AHMM liked it, so we're off to the races, sordid as you please.

You can download a single digital issue via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iTunes, Magzter, Kobo, and Google Play. Just make sure you are downloading the July/August issue shown here.

Submissions stats: I finished this story sometime in October 2014. I submitted it to AHMM in July 2015, and didn’t hear from them until they bought it in June 2016, nearly eleven months later. It’s appearing a year after acceptance. Payment was $160, plus an additional $40 prepayment against a future AHMM anthology. That came to a total of $200, or about 9.5 cents a word.

Yes, I will eventually release an e-book version of “A Respectable Lady," which I’ll offer free to readers on my list. If you’d rather wait for the free copy, please join my e-newsletter.

 


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here.

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.

Look for My New Story in Mystery Weekly!

Look for my short story, “Double-Slay,” in the April 2017 issue of Mystery Weekly. The hard-copy issue hits newsstands today, April 1, and digital issues are already available.

As the editors describe it, "Double-Slay" is the story of how a pair of sweet senior citizens turn the tables on the worst serial killer ever.

Mystery Weekly is a lovely magazine published out of Canada. You can buy digital issues via the Kindle Newsstand, and print copies via Amazon. You can also snag digital copies via Google Play, the App Store, or direct from their website here. If you want to check out my story, make sure you are downloading the April issue shown here.

Submissions stats: I finished this story sometime in June 2012, but never got around to submitting anywhere until this year. I'd been hearing good things about Mystery Weekly, so I submitted. They took only 12 days to say yes, and the story is appearing about one month from acceptance. Payment was $20.

Yes, I will someday release an e-book version of “Double-Slay," which I’ll offer free to readers on my list. If you’d rather wait for the free copy, please join my e-newsletter.