Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Shooting the NEEDLE

NEEDLE: a Magazine of Noir has been publishing some of the best crime and mystery stories of recent years, as evidenced by the fact that the “Best American Mystery Stories” collections of 2011, 2013, and 2014 included stories that originally appeared in Needle.  I don’t remember when I first discovered Needle (probably from my pal and fellow writer, Dan Fleming), but once I found it, I knew I had struck gold, as far as sharp, new crime fiction went.  I also knew I wanted to be a part of this. 

And now, I am.

The story I wrote, “Silence,” which is in the latest issueof Needle is one of the best things I’ve ever written.  I can see bits of other things – story ideas I’ve had or influences I’ve integrated – throughout it all.  The mute prostitutes were an idea I had for a futuristic story about relationships.  There’s a scene beneath a bridge that’s a refracted image from season five of The Wire.  And the climax is a definite commentary on gender politics, in popular culture and the greater world.  And there are other instances of this as well, scattered throughout the narrative – as with almost any piece of writing you find, whether you, as an audience member, are aware of it or not.  But it didn’t escape my mind fully-formed.   A lot of work went into getting this story to a point where it was worthy of publication.

The first iteration of “Silence” ran to a little under 4000 words.  Once I’d done a handful of revisions on it, I submitted it to Needle, and only to Needle (which, I should state, isn’t the smartest thing to do – all your eggs in a single basket and all that; throw as wide a net as possible; but I digress).  It made it through the initial reading with “flying colors,” and I was feeling pretty good about that.  But in the end, it didn’t pass muster.  To paraphrase the editor, Steve Weddle, one of the characters introduced at the beginning just disappears, and there were too many coincidences for the narrative to work well.  He also felt that it might benefit from being expanded. 

A disappointment, but not the end of the world.

At this point I should note I took an online course dealing with what anthology editors look for in short stories, through LitReactor, called “Publish or Perish” with Steve Weddle.  The information I got in those few weeks was invaluable, not only from Weddle but also from the others involved in the class.  It was a great experience.  One of the best bits of information I received came from Weddle himself, who in answering some of our questions lamented the fact that he sometimes would receive stories that were not quite ready for publication and reply to the author with notes on what might improve the story, which would often be followed by silence.  He wished more of these writers would revise and re-send these stories to him.  I took that piece of advice and vowed not to be “that guy.” 

To that end, I took that first submission and gave it a hard look.  I was actually already aware of the fact that one of the characters drops out of the story halfway through – my eyes shooting open one night, a couple of months after I had submitted the story, with that realization – so my mind had been chewing on that for some time, when the rejection came through.  This character was a homicide detective partnered with my protagonist and her distinct point of view played off the main character very well, while also illuminating his own character in the process.  Also, a scene I included more as a way to move the detectives toward a plot point rather than as a natural outgrowth of the story – while a tag with the same character hammered home the end of the narrative – was one that I expanded.  This scene involved the editor of a large newspaper, and I introduced a reporter into this second iteration of the story, which actually produced other narrative threads that I found interesting and which tied in more deftly with the basic spine of the story.  And, I also spent a bit more time on the detecting, working to sweep away any hint of coincidence that had hampered my initial submission. 

It was a long process.  One that required me to step back and examine more closely the story I had written and the story I was now writing.  This second attempt went through multiple drafts – excising all the exposition and unnecessary description, polishing up the prose, and finally zeroing in on a few specific points discovered in the multiple readings – and, in the end, it was all worth it.  The story came in at around 9,000 words.  And despite a 5,000 word limit on submissions, when I contacted Weddle about submitting the reworked "Silence" based on his notes, he was open to it.  

The biggest take-away from this experience – and one that I harp upon with regard to writing in general – is that one must be committed to the writing and do the work, if one wants to find success.  I’ve been writing for a lot of years now.  I’ve logged over half a million words in the past two years, all of which I have done while holding down a full-time job and being a full-time husband and full-time father to my three sons.  I have had to carve out the time to do my writing – doing it at night, getting up before six a.m. on weekends, stealing an hour while my wife runs an errand and my youngest is playing with his friend across the street – and have found it necessary to bypass watching TV or movies or reading my latest comic books, in order to get to the point I’m at.

And I haven’t reached my goal yet, which means more time writing when I could be catching up on Battlestar Galactica or True Detective.  But it’s all worth it. 

Because I’m in the latest issue of NEEDLE.


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