Thursday, June 3, 2010

Switching Hats As A Writer

Elizabeth Zelvin

After several years writing mystery novels, I’ve unexpectedly become a short story writer as well. Following up on a tip on the Short Mystery e-list, I found a small press devoted to anthologies that is seeking submissions on a variety of themes to be published over the next two years. Payment? Two copies, or in the case of the flash fiction anthologies, “exposure—this is a 4 The Luv anthology.” It reminded me of my thirty years writing poetry. Two copies was standard pay for acceptance of a poem in a journal, and even for my two poetry collections with a good small press, the “royalty” was in copies. I’ve also written numerous articles as a clinical expert on addictions, codependency, and online therapy for professional journals (payment, yep, two copies) and a book coedited with a tenured academic, who believed the publisher who told her there was no need for an advance “because it comes out of royalties anyway.” A small amount in royalties eventually trickled in, but I made more money as a poet. In fact, my one hefty check as winner of a state grant in poetry exceeded the advance on my first mystery and equaled the second. I’ve also been an on-and-off songwriter for a long time. Apart from the few bucks at the gate of various coffee houses over the decades, I’ve never made a dime from my songs. In fact, those crumpled bills were compensation for the performance, not the writing.

Now we’ve established that it isn’t about the money, let’s look at how all these different forms of writing differ. I tend to return to the themes that interest me most: love, alcoholism, relationships, death. But form dictates language, so both the words I use and the overall impact of voice are not the same in a poem as in a song, nor in fiction as in an academic article, nor in what I think of as journalistic feature writing and use for blogging and pop articles. I’m not sure there’s much difference between my novel voice and my short story voice—as long as I’m writing about the same characters. But the short story allows me to explore any number of voices that I might not want to sustain for the length of a novel. My series characters are flawed but unquestionably good guys. My stories include two in third person, both of whose protagonists are killers. Make that three, if you count flash fiction. One first-person story protagonist also kills, but she has a very, very good reason.

Here’s how I write about alcoholism, for example.

Professional article:
The relational theory of women’s psychological development provides a convincing context for the gender-specific treatment of addicted women.
Affilia, Vol 14 No 1, Spring 1999 9-23 © Sage Publications

Pop article:
One big reason there is still debate about whether alcoholism is a disease is the peculiar fact that its hallmark symptom is denial. It's the problem that tells you you don't have a problem.
“When Is It Time to Worry About Your Drinking?” © Elizabeth Zelvin 2004
Available at:

Mystery novel:
I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth....I had an awful feeling it was Christmas Day.
Death Will Get You Sober, Minotaur 2008

Mystery short story:
I sat on the floor in Barbara and Jimmy’s living room...and ground my teeth. For this I’d stayed sober for 357 days and changed my whole life?
“Death Will Trim Your Tree” in The Gift of Murder, Wolfmont 2009

he was in a blackout when he broke the fishtank
he remembers pouring one more shining cataract
fit for drunken trout to leap deliriously upstream
spawning on his lips the songs, the curses
lies, excuses, broken promises
“Hitting Bottom” in Gifts & Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship, New Rivers 1999

My daddy was a quiet man and some would call him cold
But I know he must have loved me when I was four years old
‘Cause he’d take me by the hand sometimes and lead me up the hill
To where the white corn liquor was bubbling in the still.
“The Still” © Elizabeth Zelvin 1998


Julia Buckley said...

Liz--great examples of different kinds of writing, and a refreshingly frank discussion of writing and money.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Julia. :) I find it fascinating how differently the same material comes out depending on the form.