I have called Barb Goffman the Queen of the Short Story. She has won the Agatha, Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for her stories. And she has been a finalist for national crime-writing awards eighteen times. Barb has published a collection of her stories in a book entitled, “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even: 15 Tales of Revenge and More.” In addition to writing, Barb is also a free-lance editor.
Share a little bit about your background.
As you noted above, I’m a freelance editor, specializing in crime fiction. Before I took up editing full time, I worked as an attorney for a dozen years, and before that, I was a newspaper reporter. I’m a past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a past secretary of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I co-edit the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes anthology series with authors Donna Andrews and Marcia Talley. These books come out every two years from Wildside Press. In my spare time (ha!), I like to play with my dog and to read.
When did you decide to become a writer and when did you start writing?
Like many kids probably, I entertained the idea of becoming a writer when I was little. I recall seeing so many books at my grandparents’ house and thinking that I could be the person who writes the words that go in books. I thought it would be an easy job to get because no one else would think of it.
It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I entertained the idea of writing a mystery novel, and three years passed before I took a class that taught me how to do it and I started writing. That was in 2001, I think. I wrote my first short story, “Murder at Sleuthfest,” in 2004, and it was published the following year–my first mystery publication.
Where do you get your ideas for your stories?
Everywhere and nowhere. I wish there was an easy answer to this question, because then I could simply get another idea when I needed or wanted one. Sometimes I’ll read a newspaper article and an idea will come to me. Sometimes an anthology’s call for stories will spark an idea. Often ideas seemingly come from nowhere.
In one of the two stories I had published this year, “The Best Laid Plans,” (from the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional), the story call asked for mysteries/crime stories set at conventions. I immediately thought of the Malice Domestic convention, not just because it was their story call, but because I served as Malice programming chair for six years. I know the convention inside and out, so I thought my insiders’ knowledge could serve to create an interesting story. And my muse was off and running, thinking about what would happen if the guest of honor and the lifetime achievement honoree hate each other. It was fun to write.
How do you approach writing a short story?
I’m a plantser. Often authors will say they are plotters or pantsers. Plotters figure out the whole plot before they start writing. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants, not knowing where the story will go. I’m a hybrid. I typically know where a story starts, some big events in the middle, and how the story will end. But the details get filled in as I write. I liken it to taking a long car trip. I might know I’ll start in New York and drive to Los Angeles, stopping in Cleveland and Denver on the way, but which roads I’ll take on the trip and where else I’ll stop along the way are decided on the road.
For the second short story I had published this year, “Stepmonster,” (in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning), I had an image in my head for the opening: a woman hiding on a porch with a knife during a terrible storm, planning revenge against her stepmother, whose inactions had led to her father’s death. And I knew how the story was going to end. But I only figured out the rest of the plot as I wrote. One thing that changed as I wrote the story is the knife turned into a gun. I pictured myself as the main character, and I couldn’t see myself stabbing someone. But shooting someone … that I might do—fictionally!
Have you considered writing a full-length novel?
Not only have I considered it, I’ve done it. My book is one revision away from being ready to be sent out to agents and publishers. When I’ll get the time to make the final push, I don’t know. Between writing short stories and doing editing work for clients, my schedule always seems too full to make room for the final revision. Maybe I’m afraid of finishing that book. If I send it out and it sells, I’d likely feel compelled to write more novels, but my heart belongs to short-story writing. Of course I know many other authors are able to juggle their time between their day jobs and their writing—producing novels and short stories. Perhaps I need to focus on improving my time management.
As an editor – what kind of editing do you do: developmental editing, line editing or copyediting?
I do all three types, plus proofreading! I can review a manuscript for big-picture issues. Are there plot holes? Does the writing drag? Are the characters believable? I can do a line by line edit, making a story tighter, for instance. And I can copy edit, ensuring all the commas are in the right place and things of that nature. I enjoy doing all types of editing. The change of pace can be refreshing.
What are some of the biggest problems you see when editing?
Too much action, not enough reaction. It’s something I call riding the plot train. When authors are in a hurry, their writing can resemble a train ride, with quick stops that don’t allow riders to reflect on the trip. A good plot can’t be all action. That gets boring. Characters need to realistically react to what happens through dialogue or internal monologue, as well as actual action (which might affect the plot in unintended ways). That’s where the beauty of a book often is, in the reactions of fully developed characters.
I also often see plot holes—questions that aren’t answered by a book’s end or plots that don’t make sense when you think them through. That’s cheating, and it really bothers me as a reader. Everything that happens in a story must happen for a reason and it all must make sense by the story’s end. Good guys and bad guys all need real reasons for why they do the things they do. Valid, believable reasons. Bad guys shouldn’t do bad things simply because they are bad or crazy or because the plot calls for them to do something bad. And good guys shouldn’t sleuth simply because they’re nosy.
Two final big problems I often see, especially from newer writers: (1) including too much backstory at the beginning of a book, and (2) head hopping. I’ll address each in turn.
Backstory should be parceled out a little at a time. Each bit should be shared only when it’s necessary for the story to proceed. Don’t tell the main character’s whole history at the story’s beginning. That can slow things down. Let the reader discover backstory as the story progresses, when it becomes crucial.
Head hopping means the author jumps from the thoughts of one character to another. If you are writing a story with one main character, then you should stay in that character’s head. Don’t give the thoughts of another character. And if you are writing a story with multiple points of view, meaning you show the thoughts of multiple characters, you shouldn’t change point of view within a scene. Granted some authors do it, but few do it well. It can be confusing and off-putting to readers and isn’t recommended.
How can people contact you if they want to hire you for editing?
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read in the genre you want to write in. You’ll likely learn important things about story structure and good writing without even realizing it. And then write. Keep writing. Don’t worry if what you write isn’t perfect or even good. Many writers have a first novel or story that never sees the light of day, and that’s okay. A first novel can be a practice novel, where you learn what to do and what not to do. Just don’t give up.
When you’ve finished writing and revising your book or story, have a critique group or an editor (or both) review it for you. Writers can become so close to their work, they might not see its problems—or they won’t see how to fix them. A second opinion can be invaluable.
Finally, if you’re a mystery/crime writer, look into joining Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Both groups offer wonderful opportunities to meet fellow writers who can help you on your journey.
Which writers inspire you?
I hesitate to make lists like this because inevitably someone gets left out, so I’ll make this short. Here are the three authors that immediately came to mind: Julia Spencer-Fleming, Louise Penny, and Art Taylor. Julia and Louise both write rich stories with characters I love in towns I want to visit, and Art writes incredibly real, complex characters. They all inspire me to improve my craft.
What book/s are you reading at present?
I’m reading Written Off by E.J. Copperman (a pen name of author Jeff Cohen). It’s an intriguing plot about a mystery author contacted by an investigator who seems to be the living embodiment of her main character.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
Readers interested in my two short stories published this year, “Stepmonster” and “The Best Laid Plans,” can read them on my website: www.barbgoffman.com.
And I hope readers will pick up the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which is scheduled for publication on March 1, 2017 from Koehler Books. This book has seventeen mystery short stories, all involving wine. My story is titled “Whose Wine Is It Anyway.” Here’s how I describe it:
A neglectful boss. A replacement who’s a hussy. And a single day left to teach some lessons. Will Myra prevail on her final day as a law firm secretary? Or will her plans leave her a legal loser? Find out in Barb Goffman’s “Whose Wine Is It Anyway,” appearing in 50 Shades of Cabernet.
What is your favorite social media site?
Facebook. I’m addicted to it. I could probably get more writing done if I got off Facebook, but it’s a wonderful way to keep in touch with friends, including writers and readers. Working from home can be a lonely business. Facebook helps me feel involved with the world.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Blog: www.sleuthsayers.org I blog here every third Tuesday.
Facebook: www.facebook.com/barb.goffman I only have a personal page. If you want to friend me and I don’t know you, please send me a message explaining that you read this interview.
Amazon Author Page: http://tinyurl.com/jnqszh4 I created a tiny URL because the actual link is long.
Finally, readers can Google my name. I’ve done a number of interviews over the years.
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.
Thank you, Lynn, for interviewing me. You’ve been a big supporter of mine, and I appreciate it. Happy holidays to you and your readers!