Interview

An interview with short story judge and author Barb Goffman . . .

Barb Goffman

Barb Goffman is the 2023 judge for the Bethlehem Writers Group’s short story award. As a short-story author, she has won the Agatha Award twice and the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards once. Additionally, she won the 2020 Readers Award given out by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for her story “Dear Emily Etiquette.” When not writing, Barb makes her living as a freelance editor, providing developmental, line, and copy editing services. She focuses on traditional and cozy mysteries, though she does also edit books in other crime subgenres. Barb is also an associate editor of Black Cat Weekly magazine and a co-editor of the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series, every book of which has had at least one story that won or was nominated for a major award.

You can find her at barbgoffman.com.


Interview by BWG member Paula Benson

Bethlehem Writers Group: What is the most appealing aspect of writing short stories?

Barb Goffman: I love making readers laugh or smile or sigh—connecting with them on an emotional level. Being able to do that through a work of fiction that can be read in one sitting is all the better, especially considering how limited everyone’s time is these days.

BWG: How has your work experience as a reporter and as a lawyer influenced your writing?

BG: Working as a reporter and as an attorney taught me how to write clearly, concisely, and precisely. I also met many people from different walks of life, and I try to use the insights I gained from those experiences when I’m writing, creating interesting plots and differentiated characters.

BWG: What is the best advice you could offer to someone submitting to a contest or anthology?

BG: Read and follow the submission instructions. You could have written the most amazing story, with beautiful writing, great twists, and interesting characters, but that won’t matter if your story is disqualified because it’s too long or too short, for instance. I’ve seen that happen. Don’t let it happen to you. Also, make sure your story fits the theme (if there is one), and not just superficially. Not all editors will have the time to work with an author to beef up an otherwise good story that doesn’t fit the theme.

BWG: From your work as an editor, what are the most frequent mistakes you see?

BG: It’s hard to pick the most frequent. I’ll simply touch on three.

Newer writers especially can sometimes be so eager to get to the end that their work reads like an instruction manual: A happened, then B happened, then C happened. But books come alive when you show how events affect the characters. I often tell my clients, “Main Character would be thinking something here. Show it.”

It’s also problematic when characters do things that aren’t believable. Here’s a made-up example. If you have a killer who has been targeting blond men with mustaches who take out their trash at midnight on Contrivance Street, and your main character fits the physical description, lives on that street, and knows about the killer’s proclivities, yet he decides he must take out the trash tonight, even though it’s 11:59 p.m., you’re risking the reader putting down the book for good. If you need the character to take out the trash at midnight, you better give him a good reason, and it should be with the knowledge of the risk.

Finally, figure out where your story really begins. It might not be where you started. If you’re writing a short story about a bank robbery, for instance, the story might begin when the robbers enters the bank or when the robbers are planning the heist. But it probably doesn’t begin when the main character was five years old, going with his mom to the bank. Don’t be afraid to lop off the beginning of your draft. You want to weave backstory in when it’s necessary and in the smallest chunks necessary.

BWG: What considerations are important in putting together a collection or anthology?

BG: I look for great stories or ones that can become great with editing—stories with interesting, complex characters, believable plots, and endings that leave the reader satisfied. It’s also nice to know (if possible) that the authors are easy to work with. That doesn’t mean an author has to be previously published. By following, or not following, submission instructions, for instance, authors can reveal much about themselves. It’s also important to consider what the reader’s experience will be. Ideally, stories should complement each other but not be too similar either, and the book as a whole should leave the reader feeling full and satisfied, like she just had a large meal with many delicious courses that she can’t stop thinking about.

BWG: What are you writing now?

BG: I’m in between stories at the moment. So, instead I’ll tell you that my next story scheduled to be published is “The Joys of Owning a Dog.” It will appear in the next issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, which should be published sometime this winter.

BWG: What advice do you give writers?

BG: Read what you want to write. Want to write crime novels, read crime novels. Want to write crime short stories, read crime short stories. Like the cozy end of the genre, read that. If your goal is to pen a literary mystery, read them. Immerse yourself in your chosen genre and form, and think about what you read analytically. It should help you understand what works and why, what doesn’t work and why, as well as what’s expected and what’s overdone and, maybe, where you can find your niche.

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