Saturday, March 05, 2005

Steve Hockensmith Interview

TSOI: Our guest today is Steve Hockensmith. Steve is a journalist and short story writer with many short stories published in both Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Just recently he signed a book deal with St. Martin's that has allowed him to quit his day job. Steve, why don't you tell us a little about yourself?

SH: I started out as a journalist, which was (as far as I could figure) the only viable way to be a writer and (sort of) make a living. I've done a lot of entertainment journalism over the years, and I recently launched a TV/film column called "Reel Crime" in Alfred Hitchcock, which is a ton of fun. In between journalism gigs, I've done communications work for two national nonprofit organizations: the YMCA of the USA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Writing about pop culture is a blast, but I'm really glad I spent at least part of my career working with folks who are actually making the world a better place.

TSOI: Do you think that your short story writing helped you get in the door at St. Martin's?

SH: Not really. The fine folks at St. Martin's made an offer on the basis of the book they were presented with, HOLMES ON THE RANGE, not my previous writing credits (which I doubt they were even familiar with). But that's not to say my short fiction didn't play a critical role in getting me where I am now (wherever that is). For one thing, I have a fantastic agent, Elyse Cheney, thanks to a story that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock a couple years back. Elyse saw the story, wrote to ask if I had a novel to show her, and ended up working closely with me to whip HOLMES into shape. And I wouldn't have even started HOLMES if it weren't for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The novel's heroes, a couple of cowboys named Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer, first appeared in EQMM, and if I hadn't enjoyed writing that story so much (and found such a good home for it) I wouldn't have written HOLMES. On top of all that, I didn't even try writing a novel until I was confident I had the necessary skills -- skills I developed over the course of four or five years spent exclusively on short fiction.

So did my short story writing help me get in the door at St. Martin's? You bet!

Wait...did I just contradict myself?

TSOI: What do you think about the conventional wisdom that humor doesn't sell?

SH: It depends on the market you're looking at. When it comes to novels, the CW seems to be right. I asked a similar question of Bill Fitzhugh once, and his answer was, "You bet your ass humor's a tough sell, but you gotta write what you gotta write. If you enjoy writing humor, if you think you're good at it, then don't give up." On the other hand, I once got a ding letter from an agent who told me, "You're not funny, and if your name's not Hiaasen or Westlake you've got no business trying to be funny." In other words, give up. I think HOLMES ON THE RANGE dances around this particular minefield because it's not meant to be a comedy-mystery -- it's a mystery that, as an added bonus, just happens to be funny. At least that's how I see it.

When it comes to genre short fiction -- and here's one of the many reasons to love genre short fiction -- the conventional wisdom doesn't apply at all. You'll find humorous stories in EQMM and AHMM (and Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov's) all the time, and folks like James Powell and Ron Goulart have been selling humorous short fiction for years. Which isn't to say selling a (supposedly) funny story is going to be easy. Writers who want to take a stab at humor should keep in mind that (A) not all editors have the same sense of humor, (B) not all editors have your sense of humor and (C) not all editors have any sense of humor. But, as a wise man once said, if you enjoy writing humor, if you think you're good at it, then don't give up. I don't recall offhand where that quote's from, but I think it's good advice.

TSOI: What pointers or tricks-of-the-trade would you give someone who wants to write a humorous story?

SH: "Don't try too hard" would be my first bit of advice. You can be funny without being ZANY! or WACKY!. Droll is good. Dry is nice. I wish more people would give wit a try. Then again, this is coming from a guy who recently wrote a KOOKY! story for AHMM about Soviet spies kidnapping Santa Claus, so maybe I'm being a hypocrite. Let's move on.

I would beg anyone who's thinking of writing a hardboiled private eye parody or pastiche to reconsider. Please. Maybe it was still funny the third time they parodied The Maltese Falcon on Your Show of Shows, but ever since then the "Sam Shovel, P.I." shtick has been pretty tired. Then again, this is coming from a guy who recently wrote a hardboiled private eye parody (or, to be more precise, a parody of hardboiled private eye pastiches) for an MWA anthology, so maybe I'm being a hypocrite. Let's move on.

I would advise genre writers shooting for humor not to go for laughs at the expense of the plot or characters. Have a real story to tell -- even if it's damn silly -- and don't fall into the easy trap of making everyone a contemptible clod. Yes, contemptible clods can be funny, but a universe populated with nothing but contemptible clods isn't funny -- it's actually kind of depressing. If you've ever been to West Virginia, you know exactly what I'm talking about. (Just kidding, Mountain State! A big shout out to all my homies back in Matewan, Fraziers Bottom and Droop!) Anyway, as this is advice I think I actually stick to pretty consistently, maybe I ought to stop here.

TSOI: What's different about writing a novel as opposed to writing a short story? Aside from the length.

SH: In all honesty, I think I've reached a point where it really is just the length. Instead of getting better and better at firing off tight-as-a-preacher's-sphincter 3,000-word gems, my stories have been growing longer and more sprawling -- in other words, more like novels. (By the way, just kidding, Protestant spiritual leaders! A big shout out to all my homies back at the Bob Jones University divinity school!) I've had really good luck selling 12,000-14,000 word novelettes, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone else give it a try -- that kind of length is going to make breaking in pretty tough. Hell, I should knock it off myself...I just can't seem to.

That's probably not a very helpful answer, so let me give it another whack. Short stories give you the freedom to tackle stories, characters and styles that would wear out their welcome at a longer length. The aforementioned Santa kidnapping story, for instance -- it's good fun for 6,000 words or so, but 80,000? There might be a writer who could sustain that kind of silliness over that length (Paging Christopher Moore!) but it sure isn't me. I have a series character in AHMM, a semi-retired detective named Larry Erie, that I've thought about using in a novel, but I'm not sure if anyone could stand him for 400 pages. I mean, I love the guy, but he's a complete mope.

In addition, I've found that novels aren't just longer than short stories, but wider, too.

TSOI: Which would you rather write, novels or short stories?

SH: You've seen those dorky "I'd rather be -- " bumper stickers, right? "I'd rather be sailing." "I'd rather be knitting." "I'd rather be strangling squirrels." Well, I guess mine would say, "I'd rather be writing short stories." If short fiction were a viable career path for anyone other than Ed Hoch, I'd be on it in a heartbeat. Writing a novel can be fun, no doubt, but for me it starts to feel like a death march somewhere around month four. Typically, it takes me two to four weeks to write a short story, and when I finish I don't feel burnt out -- I'm excited about moving on to the next story. The idea of endless variety (a third-person procedural this month, a first-person satire next month, etc.) is really appealing to me. It's comforting to know that, no matter what happens to my career as a novelist, I'll always be able to write and sell short fiction.

TSOI: Now that we've gotten the obligatory short story stuff out of the way, tell us about the novels you're working on.

SH: Ahhh, an opportunity to plug! Thank you! First off, as someone who's doing his best to master the fine art of BSP, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my first novel, HOLMES ON THE RANGE, will be out from St. Martin's Minotaur first quarter '06 -- reserve your copy today! (Gee, why do I feel the sudden need to shower?) I've been collecting research material for the sequel since November, and though I've had a rough idea of the plot for months I only started officially outlining it this week. Like the first book, the sequel will be a whodunit set in the Wild West. There'll be a lot of humor and action, as well as tips of the Stetson to Old School masters like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I should have a first draft done by the fall, and in between revisions I'm hoping to pull out something completely different -- a contemporary satirical thriller that's been sitting in a drawer for a few years -- and give it a polish. I have another sequel to HOLMES ON THE RANGE due in about two years, and I'm already thinking about the plot for that, as well. So I've obviously got a lot going on -- but I'll keep squeezing short stories in whenever I can!

TSOI: Do you have anything else you'd like to say about short stories?

SH: As for my final thoughts on short fiction, let's give this a shot. Short stories give writers license to experiment. The marketing pressures just aren't the same as they are with novels. A magazine or anthology isn't going to live or die on the basis of one story, so an editor can take a chance on something offbeat. Novels are a much riskier, much more expensive proposition -- anything that doesn't fit neatly into a niche is going to be a tough sell, and editors' careers are riding on the writers they throw their weight behind. So short story writers should really take advantage of the freedom they've been blessed with. James Powell does some wild, wacky stuff in EQMM. R.T. Lawton writes stories for AHMM that are incredibly varied in setting and style. Rob Lopresti and Mat Coward and Bob Levinson never give you the same thing twice. There are half a dozen other writers I could name here. They've got the right idea. Surprise the editor. Surprise the audience. Surprise yourself. That's what short stories allow you to do.

TSOI: Thanks a lot for your time, Steve, and good luck with
the novel.


At 8:57 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Great interview, Bob and Steve.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your idea of interviewing people for The Short Of It . Keep it up.


At 9:52 PM, Blogger Bob said...

I intend to make interviews at least a semi-regular feature, Christopher.

At 10:00 PM, Blogger John Schramm said...

I realy enjoyed reading this. Good show.

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent interview and interesting information on the writer's journey of one of my favorite authors.

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