Today, we’re speaking with Sandra Murphy, award-winning author and freelance editor. After selecting and editing the 22 stories in Peace, Love, and Crime, Sandy hung in there when there was a snafu with the publisher and found another who could get it out in time for the fall 2020 holiday season. All the authors are grateful for her tenacity and professionalism.
Meet Sandra “Sandy” Murphy
CAM: Sandy, tell us a little about your path to becoming an author and editor.
SM: My dog, Izzie, made me a writer. She was a therapy dog and because of all the training required and the visits we did, we could almost read each other’s minds. She became too ill to visit so she decided I needed something new to do. My first published article was about her. I was asked to be the editor for the therapy group’s national newsletter (print and snail mail!) and when that went digital, my friend, Patricia Fry, heard I had free time. She convinced me to be the newsletter editor for Small Publishers, Artists, Writers Network, now known as Writers and Publishers Network. I still have that job. After that first acceptance, I took time to dabble with other kinds of writing—a romance story my writers group said was creepy, a mystery that moved at a crawl, an offhand remark that turned into an article. It was a way to try new things without embarrassing myself.
CAM: Isn’t it funny how there are so many different ways writers and editors get started in the business. I love that Izzie moved you into something different where the two of you could still be together while you worked. Having lived with my partner’s dog guides half my life, I understand the bond so well.
And that leads me to some of your latest news—a story coming out in the fall. Do tell!
SM: “He Was Framed, I Tell You” is coming out in The Big Fang, an anthology where each story has a rescue animal as an integral piece. Mine involves a horse and proceeds will benefit the Harbor Humane Society which sponsored the competition. Look for that in late 2021.
CAM: I’ll be watching for it.
You were a member of a writer’s group, or writer’s critique circle as some call it, for a number of years. Are you in one now? Share with our readers what it’s like to belong to a critique group.
SM: I’m a member of Writers Under the Arch aka WUTA, since 2004. It’s a true learning experience since we all write different things—mystery, poetry, sci fi, steampunk, fantasy, screenplays, YA, historical fiction, short stories, stand alone books, and series. It’s fun, frustrating, and enormously helpful to be in the companionship of people who know what a writer’s life is really like.
They make me feel better about rejections, and acceptances are celebrated by bringing chocolate for the group (when we met in person). For the last year, it’s been Zoom meetings. The thing I like best about it is the brainstorming—we read 2,000 words or a handful of short poems, and then for ten minutes, discuss, question, point out plot holes and most important, I think, ask “what if?” That’s when the best ideas come out, you can see your story through someone else’s eyes, and find a solution for getting yourself out of a corner. Sometimes that’s by their suggestion or the suggestion leads to an idea of my own.
CAM: Your first anthology as editor, A Murder of Crows, came out in 2019, then Peace, Love, and Crime in 2020. Any new anthos in the works or are you focused on writing your own stories right now?
SM: I love editing anthologies and am open to doing more. It’s a lot of work but I get to read such great stories. I’m editing a couple of full length books, writing short stories, magazine articles, the newsletter, and there are several short stories that just kept going and going. We’ll see what they turn into. I’m trying to submit more, write more, and try new genres.
CAM: How difficult was the selection process for Peace, Love, and Crime? I imagine there were many more submissions for it than you could accept.
SM: I had 75 submissions and accepted 22 stories. There were some that didn’t fit the guidelines for length, not a strong enough crime, not the right music. I find I can eliminate about a third on the first pass. Going from fifty to thirty is harder and from thirty to twenty-two is painful. This is a bit longer than other anthologies but I couldn’t say no after that point.
CAM: Editors often include a story of their own in the anthology they edit. Why did you choose not to for Peace, Love, and Crime?
SM: For A Murder of Crows, I waited until the deadline was near and then wrote. I didn’t want to have a story similar to what someone else sent and have to choose mine or theirs. For PLC, I had a list of songs, crimes, and full intention of writing. At the end, if I’d written one, I would have had to tell another writer no. Their stories were too good. I couldn’t do that.
CAM: I think each of us in the anthology appreciates that, and I’m glad you have several other things in the works, which we’ll discuss near the end.
Shifting gears a bit, new writers generally don’t know everything an editor anthology does, especially when making the tough choices for accepted stories. What is your greatest challenge as an editor that you think might help a new writer understand what happens after they submit?
SM: Except for the obvious rejections like a sci fi story without a crime for a mystery crime anthology, stories are read over and over. For something as broad as Songs of the ’60s, remember Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Frankie Valli shared the charts with the Stones, Beatles, Blind Faith, Norman Greenbaum, and BJ Thomas. I listened to each song used in the stories, researched to be sure they were released in the ’60s, and read the story again to make sure the song wasn’t just a mention to meet the guidelines. There were good stories that just didn’t mesh well with the others. I do try to send rejections as soon as possible so the story can be submitted elsewhere. I can’t do critiques but if asked, will answer questions. Waiting is hard but, to be fair, all accepted writers should be told at the same time.
I write the introduction, the dedication, figure out the order of the stories, write the back cover blurb, consult on cover art—and take care of my dog, cat, remember to eat…housework? Doesn’t get done. The dog hair in the corners isn’t knee deep yet, so no rush. Seriously, think of reading five book’s worth of words (or more) while 75 people are looking over your shoulder, wanting an answer. It takes time. If you haven’t gotten a rejection, you still have a chance.
And please, do not pull your story because you can’t wait to see it published. I had that happen once with each anthology, right before acceptances were to go out. That shifts the balance I’ve worked hard to find. I remember names of writers who do that.
CAM: That’s especially important, Sandy. Editors work hard and have to make tough decisions. It makes no sense for an author to irritate them without good reason. Impatience is not a good reason. As you said, the editor will remember that author, but not in a good way.
SM: Here’s another factor to consider. In one case, I had two stories, same crime, same clue, similar settings. Both were well written, followed all the guidelines, didn’t need anything in the way of edits. How to choose? I don’t think other editors do this, but I looked for their social media and web presence. One promotes like crazy; the other I couldn’t find. Anthology sales depend on every writer promoting the book. Guess which story I selected?
CAM: Indeed. Anthologies typically don’t get the same traction as books. There are no book tours because each author is busy writing other things and the royalties, if there are any, are split amongst so many. Some publishers put anthologies out there and then shelve them. Readers have to find them.
Yet the combined power of the many authors could be harnessed, as we’re seeing in this pandemic year of Zoom sessions with the multiple authors in an anthology sharing their thoughts and this running series of PLC author interviews. Those of us doing these things are trying to shift that dynamic and make the anthology a more profitable entity. This can open the door to more markets for established and emerging authors.
CAM: Let’s shift gears into you as a writer. You write magazine articles as well as fiction short stories. Tell us about your writing process. What works for you? What doesn’t?
SM: If I can find the first line, which may not be the first line in the final version, I can start writing. Magazine articles require several sources so there are phone interviews. I take notes by hand and hope I can read them later. I usually have a three-week deadline and an 800-word count, sometimes less. That means a beginning, middle, end, three sources, all in a couple of pages worth of text.
It follows into fiction, in that I write tight there too. I want each word to matter, to lead the reader to the next and the one after. Writers are asked, where do you find your ideas? They’re everywhere! In the news, a tv program, a remark, perhaps when eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant (when we could go to one). Some stories pop into my head, rattle around for a while, and then spill onto the screen, needing only polishing. Some fight tooth and nail for every word.
I don’t believe in a muse or in writer’s block. I don’t outline. When I get stuck, I play online solitaire. Putting the cards in order, organizes my thoughts on the story too.
CAM: Well, now I have a good excuse for addiction to the logic game Sherlock!
If you could go somewhere to just write, for about a week, where would it be? What would you need to take with you?
SM: I would love to go back to Greece or take a trip to Africa, but those would not be writing trips. They could spark stories later but mostly, they would be a time for my mind to rest and regroup. I imagine by day three, I’d have ideas and would be looking for a pen and paper. My dog Ozzie wouldn’t be able to go (no passport) so that would be a drawback. He’s been to the kennel or stayed with a friend, but he likes to be home and I like to be with him.
CAM: Can you share any writing advice that just really clicked for you and has helped your writing or your attitude toward the whole process? … or, would you like to share a few tidbits on that or anything else with our readers?
SM: Like in life, relationships are everything in writing and publishing. Pay it forward, plan ahead, take advantage of opportunities as they come, not when you think you’re ready. As a freelancer, the answer to ‘can you do…?’ is always yes. A Murder of Crows came about from a chance remark, the same for a writing partner, PLC from a long ago newsletter item, writers group from a flyer at Barnes and Noble, and the first article, from a chance meeting with a Californian visiting St. Louis.
Read everything. Good, bad, or blah, you can see what works and what doesn’t. They say writing is a solitary business but I haven’t found it to be that way. I’ve always been a night person so have strong long distance, other-time-zone friendships. And, of course, my mind is populated with my imaginary friends, each clamoring to have me tell their story first.
CAM: Any particular writers from your early years that still resonate with you or inspire today’s stories? What comes to mind when you think of or mention their name(s)?
Hyde’s clues are sleight of hand, like a magician. He distracts you with what looks like a clue and you read right past the real one. The very last word of his book changes everything. I turned back to page one and re-read it.
Neville bounces back and forth between the present and the French Revolution without losing your attention along the way. It’s a unique story.
CAM: You have a passion for animals, especially dogs it seems, as do I. Can you speak a little bit about that?
SM: Ozzie, a Westie-ish boy, is my current dog and writing consultant. He listens as I read aloud, the best way to catch repetitive words, clunky sentences, to remember to add smells, sounds, action. People think dogs can’t do an eye roll but they’re wrong. When I say, ‘just listen to this once more, then we’ll go outside’ he gives me the eye roll, goes to his bed for a nap, knowing I’ll tinker with the story again.
Louie is a tuxedo cat. His job is to remind me eating is vital to life. His, not necessarily mine. They are both rescues. I used to do a lot of pet sitting as a way to get away from the computer. I’ve been able to use that knowledge for articles I write. Otherwise, I would never have gotten to know ferrets, mice, finches, chinchillas, a three pound Pomeranian, or a 250 pound Mastiff.
CAM: What other talents do you have up your sleeve? Feel free to let us in on your creative side a little more.
SM: I play the piano badly since I have no sense of rhythm for notes, only words. I knit flat things that don’t have to fit, but only if I can use big needles so it doesn’t take too long. I collect odd news items and sometimes they find their way into stories. I’m curious. I have a lot of craft supplies and no time to use them (yet) but want to marble paper and to learn to use alcohol inks. That may be a warm weather activity, given Louie and Ozzie’s offers to help and the need for a well-ventilated work area.
CAM: What’s next for you? Are there other stories in the pipeline?
SM: I’m waiting to hear the fate of several submissions, have a few others that need to make the circuit to find a home, and many in progress. There’s my horse story, “He Was Framed, I Tell You,” coming out in The Big Fang that we mentioned earlier, a story called “Room Service” is in an upcoming anthology about crimes and the movies of the Marx Brothers, edited by Josh Pachter, and another story has been accepted but I can’t talk about it yet. I have three stories in progress with Michael Bracken, as our schedules allow.
Bio: SANDRA MURPHY is an experienced editor, finding her way through the Patchouli haze to keep writers from wandering off-topic or getting lost in research, as writers are wont to do. She lives in St. Louis, downwind of the Anheuser-Bush Brewing Company. On a hot summer day, the smell of hops encourages her imaginary friends to spin tall tales. The line from a Pink Floyd song, “there’s someone in my head but it’s not me” is a fact of life for a writer.
She pens those tall tales for anthologies such as The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Fourth Meal of Mayhem. Her collection of stories, From Hay to Eternity: Ten Devilish Tales of Crime and Deception, is available at Untreed Reads and the usual outlets. “Lucy’s Tree” in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods won the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2020 Derringer Award. She also edited the anthology, A Murder of Crows.
More Interviews to Come
We have more authors from this anthology and hope you’ll join us each week to see into the minds of the authors whose stories share a common theme yet are quite distinct. Until then … happy reading.