20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice

by Michael Bracken

My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.


I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”


It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”


Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”


I picked-up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”


Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”  

19 March 2018

Genre-ly Speaking

by Steve Liskow

When I retired from teaching and returned to writing after a hiatus of over twenty years, I found myself turning to crime fiction without a second's thought. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, and most of the other golden age writers, and I grew up on The Hardy Boys, so it made sense to me.

On the other hand, my theater cronies knew me only as an English teacher with three graduate degrees, and they kept asking "why mysteries?" They obviously thought I should be producing something "more serious," which I guess meant "literary."

Many people still look down at mysteries and romance as something you scrape off your shoe, but I don't know why. Keep in mind that the idea of genre or non-genre writing is a fairly new distinction. I'm too lazy to research, but I'd guess that it began either between the two world wars or after World War II. Book stores began sorting the books to guide customers to their preferences. I'm sorry about that because you never know what you'll find if you dig through everything instead of just what you'd ordinarily read. I still remember my ninth-grade teacher chiding a classmate for reading only books about basketball. With a straight face, she urged him to try football or baseball, too. Most of us got her point.

As for the larger issue, I think it was Samuel Johnson who first said that only a blockhead writes for something other than money, which means that you want to produce something that will sell enough to make your effort worthwhile. If it happens to survive beyond the first press run, that's even better. A good story will last, and those are the books that used to show up in school. We teach or taught very few books that didn't sell because if they didn't sell, they didn't survive. The Great Gatsby is a notable exception. Several years after Fitzgerald's death, his publisher found over half the original first press run sitting in a warehouse, some twenty years after the original lukewarm reviews.

Between 1970 and 2003, I taught all levels of tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade English at two high schools and a community college. We updated the curriculum at least three times during that stint, and all these books appeared in classes at one time or another. We generally called them classics then even though some were contemporary. Look how many are really mysteries, sci-fi, romance, or westerns.

A good story is always a good story. So there.

Sherman Alexie:  Reservation Blues                       Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
John Ball:  In the Heat of the Night                         Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights                            Albert Camus: The Stranger
Truman Capote:  In Cold Blood                              Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
Anton Chekhov: The Sea Gull                                Alice Childress: Wedding Band
Kate Chopin:  The Awakening                               Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
Walter Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident
Robert Cormier: After the First Death, The Chocolate War
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness
Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," "The Open Boat"
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov
Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
Euripides: The Bacchae                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
William Faulkner: The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust, "A Rose for Emily"
Charles Fuller: A soldier's Play, Zooman and the Sign
Edith Hamilton: Mythology                                   Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Castorbridge
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, The House of the 7 Gables, "Young Goodman Brown"
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller          Franz Kafka: The Trial, "Metamorphosis"
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining
Jerzy Kosinski: Steps, The Painted Bird, Being There
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird                       Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'Arthur
Jerome Laurence & Robert E. Lee: Inherit The Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Babbitt
Carson McCullers; The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible
Toni Morrison: Beloved, The Bluest Eye            George Orwell: 1984, "Politics & English Language"
Alan Paton: Cry the Beloved Country               Mario Puzo: The Godfather
Eric Maria Von Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
Jack Schaeffer: Shane                                      Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Antigone
William Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's             Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of       Venice  (During my theater career, I acted in productions of Hamlet, Midsummer, Much Ado,             Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, and Directed versions of Dream, Much Ado,         Merchant, 12 Night, and ran lights for a production of Macbeth)
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice & Men, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels              Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Slaughterhouse-5, Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House
Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men             Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One
H. G. Wells: The Time Machine
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence
August Wilson: Fences                                    Owen Wister: The Virginian
Richard Wright: Black Boy, Native Son

For good measure, we had the Bible in a history of religions course, too, and that covers pretty much every genre all by itself. People who look down their noses at genre miss the point. I wonder how much enjoyment they really get from reading...if they actually do any of it.

18 March 2018

The Digital Detective, Banking part 3

by Leigh Lundin

bank vault
This continues a series of articles about computer fraud. Originally I practiced a career of systems software design and computer consulting, but I sometimes came upon a more shadowy world, that of computer crime. I seldom sought out fraud but I sometimes stumbled upon it, picking up undetected clues others missed.

This episode doesn’t deal with crime, per se, but it includes a con, minor as it is. The scheme required a little ‘social engineering’ and, though the word might be Yiddish, no one can schmooze like Southerners.

The story came to my attention while consulting for banks, this one deep in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. My landlord for part of the stay was an eccentric but colorful codger. He talked about a neighbor who leased farm land from him but failed to pay his rent. Outsiders might expect he pulled on a jug of rye whiskey as he talked, but all he did was lean back in his recliner, sip beer, and twirl a never-lit cigarette while a cheerful woman less than half his age clattered in the kitchen. I jotted down his story long before I became a writer, so kindly forgive error and stylistic issues as I strove to capture his dialogue.
corn picker
1950s era corn picker
Damn Ernie. I hounded that man all summer long for the rent. Finally last fall, I hooked up my corn picker and started up the corn rows. Now a corn picker ain’t a quiet machine, and lo and behold, neighbor Ernie come dashin’ out of his farmhouse yellin’ and cursin’ that I’m stealing his corn.

I said to him I couldn’t possibly be stealing corn off my own land, unrented land at that. He steamed and stormed and said the seed and planting labor had been his, and anyway he was just a little late with the rent, three or four months, maybe four or five, weren’t nuthin.

I told him that I was just going to keep picking corn for myself until someone showed up with rent money. He dashed off like banshees themselves chased him. Pretty soon he comes back waving his checkbook.

I said, “Ernie, are you sure there’s money in that account?” Oh yes. He told me twice there was, so I said there’d better be, and he said he wanted the corn I’d picked. I told him to consider the already picked corn interest and collection fees. Fact is, I finished the rest of that row, which he just hated.

So the skinflint S.O.B. hustled off to hitch up his combine and wagon, and I find myself a few bushels better off than I was before. I cleaned up and headed in town to the bank, right past Ernie who’s racing his machinery through the fields.

At the bank, I always get in Molly’s line. She’s a sweet, buxom lass, and I’d been thinking about asking her out.

Anyway, I get up to her teller window and she said the account’s a bit short to cover the check. I asked her exactly how short, and she said she wasn’t allowed to tell me that.

So darlin’, I cajoled, is this check completely worthless, or did Ernie at least come close? Looking at her computer, she said he was purty close.

Well, I says to her kind of reflectively, I want to tell my neighbor Ernie how much he needs to cover my check. Like would he have to deposit only $10? No, she said, ten dollars wouldn’t cover it.

Well, says I, would $20 or $30 do? No, she smiled at me, it’s not quite enough.

Hmm, says I, I wonder if $40 or $50 would suffice? Um, she said to me, that first amount ought to cover it.

Thank you, I says, I’ll tell that rascal he needs to put $40 in the bank. By the way, sweet thing, can I have a deposit slip? And you think maybe I can call you up? For, uh, you know, maybe dinner Saturday?

So I walked out of there with a bounce in my step, a deposit slip and her phone number. I was feelin’ purty good. What I did was get in my car and circle around through the bank’s drive-thru. I already had Ernie’s account number on the check, so I just filled out the slip and shot it through the air tube with two $20 bills. Sure enough, the receipt came back showing $1002.39. Good on Molly.

But wait, I say, I almost forgot to cash a check. I send over Ernie’s $1000 check and this time I got back a thousand dollars.

Fair enough. I probably had $40 in shelled corn and a lesson I ain’t gonna rent to Ernie no more.

Ernie got stupid, though, and instead of being grateful I didn’t bounce his worthless ass along with his worthless check and turn both over to the sheriff for collection, he raised holy hell at the bank yelling someone manipulated his account.

I took Molly to the horse show that Saturday. Now I tell you personal like, you want to get a lady in a receptive mood, bein’ around horses will do it. Something about women and horseflesh– just a word to the wise.

Anyway, Molly, she confided the bank said it was apparent someone had taken liberties, but they couldn’t blame the girl who took the deposit and they couldn’t blame the teller that cashed the check. They just gave everybody a stern reminder warning.

Ernie wanted to call the authorities, but the branch manager explained Ernie’d be the one in trouble for writing bad checks. He didn’t mention Molly could have gotten in trouble if they’d figured out her role.

Molly said she knew I’d manipulated her and wanted to know if I’d asked her out from obligation or guilt. I said I didn’t want to sully a relationship thinking I used her. She needed a lot of reassurance about that, and so Friday nights and Saturday nights we just get romantic and I give her plenty of reassuring. Been about a year now. Figure we can go on with this for a long, long time.
And he winked at the cheerful lass in the kitchen doorway.

Commonly in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ‘out’ sounds are pronounced like a Scottish ‘oot’. Thus he really said, “I’d been thinking aboot asking her oot.”

17 March 2018

25 Years in Shorts

by John M. Floyd

No, this isn't a post about Jimmy Buffett. But I'll tell you this: the topics of my SleuthSayers columns come from everywhere--books or stories I've read, movies I've seen, music or news I've heard, other writers I've talked with, etc.--and they're sometimes inspired by the columns written by my fellow bloggers at this site (probably because their ideas are better than mine). I was especially intrigued by some of the recent posts by Michael Bracken, Robert Lopresti, O'Neil De Noux, and others who've been reminiscing about their writing careers, their published works, and the way they'd marketed them. So, piggybacking on that subject, here's a quick look into the past . . .

I've been submitting short stories for publication for almost 25 years--longer than some of my colleagues but not nearly as long as others. Most of my stories have been mysteries, and while my so-called writing career is nothing remarkable, I've been able to reach a few of my goals: several awards, an Edgar nomination, two inclusions in Best American Mystery Stories, an appearance in Akashik Books' "noir" series, and the publication of half a dozen short-story collections.

I've also had some pretty crazy experiences with regard to submissions, sales, dealing with editors, etc,--but more about that in a minute.


As for frequency of publication, my hat's off to several of my fellow SleuthSayers for their many, many short stories in AHMM and EQMM. I'm especially impressed with Robert Lopresti's back-to-back stories in the three most recent issues of Hitchcock. I'm not yet up there with my heroes regarding the two Dell magazines: I've so far sold 16 stories to AH and two to EQ. And only once have I had stories in back-to-back issues of AHMM: May and June 1999, with a story in their March 1999 issue as well. I did, however, have stories in four consecutive issues of The Strand Magazine (from June 2016 to Sep 2017)--the Strand's published 16 of my stories--and after the upcoming issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine I will have placed stories in the first three issues of BCMM. I've also been in the past six issues of Flash Bang Mysteries, I've had stories chosen for three consecutive Bouchercon anthologies, I've made Otto Penzler's top-50-mysteries list for the past four years, and between 2013 and 2015 I had five stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

Though not primarily a mystery market, Woman's World has been kind to me as well--last week I sold them my 96th story there--and I've appeared in back-to-back issues of WW five different times. This is ancient history, but to those of you who remember the pubications, I had 17 stories and 20 poems in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, 8 stories and 17 poems in Mystery Time, 19 stories at Amazon Shorts, and 7 stories in Reader's Break. Other long-defunct markets that featured my stories include Murderous IntentOrchard Press Mysteries, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker CasebookEnigmaDetective Mystery StoriesHeist MagazineThe Rex Stout Journal, Desert Voices, Ancient PathsCrime & SuspenseAnterior Fiction QuarterlyDogwood Tales, and The Atlantean Press Review. (We won't talk about how many rejections I've received from the above publications, because I honestly don't know the number--but it's a big one. A lot higher than my number of acceptances.)

One last statistic: my collections of short fiction--Rainbow's End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), Deception (2013), Fifty Mysteries (2015), Dreamland (2016), and The Barrens (coming in 2018)--contain a total of 240 different stories. As for novels, I've written four of them, all of which I like and two of which are out with an agent, but all of them, alas, remain unpublished. My heart's really in the short stuff.
Welcome surprises

In the icing-on-the-cake department, my story "Molly's Plan," which first appeared in the Strand, was chosen to be part of The New York Public Library's permanent digital collection, and another of my stories, "The Tenth Floor," was recently included in a 600-page book with 108 different authors from 11 countries, which is up for a Guinnesss World Record for the largest short-story anthology ever published. Several stories of mine have also been published in Braille and on audiotape, taught in high schools and colleges, and translated (last month) in Russia's leading literary journal, although I can't say any of those accomplishments were on my wish list. They were what we at IBM used to call "bluebirds": they just happened to fly in through the open window.

Okay, enough tooting of my own horn. The following is the goofy part of all this:

Weird tales

- Twice I've had stories appear in Woman's World under someone else's byline. Thankfully WW paid me and not the other writer, but it's strange to look at one of your own stories in print and see an unfamiliar name beside it. I never did find out whether the dastardly impostor liked my stories or not. Lesson #1: Once you sell a story and it's out of your hands, anything can happen.

- On three different occasions editors have contacted me asking to buy stories I sent them more than two years earlier. On two of those occasions I happily sold them the stories in question; on the third I had already given up and sold it someplace else. None of those editors ever explained why those submissions were still lingering in their records, and I didn't ask. My wife suspects they just fell behind the piano or the refrigerator and stayed there awhile, as some of our important papers at home tend to do.

- I have twice received acceptance letters for stories that I didn't write. In both cases I contacted the editors and said I wish this were me but it's not.

- I once published a short fantasy story, "Chain Reaction," in Star Magazine, and proudly appeared alongside accounts of alien kidnappings, Bigfoot sightings, and three-headed chickens. Lesson #2: If you've been paid, don't worry about it.

- I've had at least a dozen stories accepted by magazines that then promptly (before my stories could be published), went out of business.  See Lesson #1.

- Most of my stories seem to be in the 1000- to 4000-word (short story) range, but my three Derringer Awards were in the short-short, long story, and novelette categories. Yes, I know that doesn't make sense.

- I was once told by an editor that the 12-page story I'd submitted "should have ended on page 7."

- I've published poems in better-known markets like EQMMWriter's DigestGrit, The Lyric, Mobius, Capper's, Byline, Writers' JournalFarm & Ranch Living, etc.--BUT I've also published poems in Volcano QuarterlyThe Pipe Smoker's EpheremisBarbaric YawpHard Row to Hoe, Feh!, The Aardvark AdventurerBootsCreative JuicesAppalling Limericks, Tales of the Talisman, Nutrition Health ReviewMythic Delirium, SmileHadrosaur TalesOuter DarknessThe Shantytown AnomalyDecompositionsStarLineFirm NoncommittalACafeBreakThe Church Musician Today, The Pegasus ReviewBlind Man's RainbowKraxSophomore Jinx, And many other wild and crazy places. For the record, 31 of my poems appeared in Rural Heritage, 34 in Rhyme Time, 47 in Tucumcari Literary Review, 33 in Laughter Loaf, and 55 in Nuthouse. (Did I mention that my poetry is more lighthearted than profound? Bet you would've never guessed.) Anyhow, I challenge you to come up with more creative magazine names than some of those above.

- My short fiction has also appeared in publications with strange (and clever) names: Champagne ShiversMouth Full of BulletsShort Attention Span MysteriesAntipodean SF, Ethereal Gazette, Illya's HoneySimulacrumGathering StormMeet CuteScifantasticFireflies in Fruit Jars, Cenotaph, Thou Shalt Not, Dream International QuarterlySniplitsT-ZeroAfter DeathThe Norwegian AmericanLost WorldsFicta FabulaJust a MomentThirteenLines in the Sand, Phoebe, We've Been TrumpedHorror LibraryMatilda Ziegler Magazine for the BlindPebbles, Spring Fantasy, Eureka Literary MagazineSpinetinglerTrust & TreacheryPenny DreadfulSweet Tea and Afternoon TalesWriter's Block MagazineQuakes & StormsReadWriteLearn, Scavenger's Newsletter, NefariousShort Stuff for GrownupsListenThe Taj Mahal Review, Mindprints, Inostrannaya LiteraturaMad Dogs and Moonshine, and Yellow Sticky Notes.

- Years ago I was about to submit a story to AHMM, and at the last minute I asked my wife to read it first. She did, and said she thought I should change the ending. I changed it completely, sent it in, and it sold, Later, editor Linda Landrigan told me she bought it because of the ending. Lesson #3: When your spouse speaks, listen. Especially if she's smarter than you are.

- While most of my short stories are mystery/crime, I've also published 57 westerns, 20 romances, 103 SF/fantasy stories, and 23 "literary"/mainstream stories.

- The second story I sold to AHMM ("Careers") was less than 1000 words; the third story I sold to them ("Hardison Park") was more than 10,000 words.

- I have twice been paid in advance for short stories not yet written. (That doesn't happen often--at least not to me.)

- One of my stories, "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," came within two weeks of being filmed. The cast and crew were on board, the screenplay was polished and ready, locations had been arranged, I was told to invite friends to the set, original music had been written for it (I still have the CD), and suddenly everything stopped and everyone went home. Sad but true. Lesson #4: Don't trust the movie business.

- I once won a $30 gift certificate to Amazon in a contest for 26-word stories whose words had to begin with each letter of the alphabet, in order. My story, called "Misson: Ambushable" was Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP. (Hey, what did you expect, in 26 words? Fine literature?)

- I've never published a story written in present tense. I don't mind reading them, but when it comes to my own writing, I guess I prefer the old "once upon a time" approach.

- One of my stories, "A Thousand Words" (Pleiades), has been reprinted seven times; two other stories, "Newton's Law" (Reader's Break) and "Saving Mrs. Hapwell" (Dogwood Tales Magazine), have been reprinted six times each; and at least four of my stories have been reprinted five times each. Lesson #5: Recycle.

- I once sent the same story to two different publications at the same time, then sent another story to two other publications as the same time. As it turned out, one of the two places I'd sent the first story accepted it, and one of the two places I'd sent the second story accepted that one. So all was well; I just sent withdrawal letters to the two markets that hadn't yet responded. BUT it made me think: What if both those first two places had wanted that first story, or if both the second two places had wanted the second one? I would've had to withdraw an already accepted story, which isn't the best way to get on an editor's good side. This is not really a lesson because everyone's mileage will vary, but ever since that time, I've been reluctant to simultaneously submit my work.

- My payment for one of my early story sales was a lifetime subscription to the magazine.

- When my publisher (Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press) and I were having trouble coming up with a title for my fourth collection of short fiction (Joe has usually given those books the same title as one of the included stories), we solved the problem this way: we changed the name of an as-yet-unpublished story to "Deception," included it in the collection, and made that the title of the book as well. Lesson #6: Think outside the book-box.

- One of my stories in the Strand ("Bennigan's Key," 5000 words) featured only one character and had no dialogue.

- My longest published short story ("Denny's Mountain," Amazon Shorts) was 18,000 words. My shortest ("Mum's the Word," Flashshots) was 55 words.

- At our local Kroger store, I once went through the checkout line with three copies of a magazine that contained one of my mystery stories. The checker said, around a wad of chewing gum, "You got three of these." I told her I knew that. "But they're three of the same issue," she said. "I know," I replied. "Actually"--I stood up a little straighter and lifted my chin--"I have a story in this issue." She gave me a long, blank look and said, "That'll be $4.80." Lesson #7: You're probably not as big a deal as you think you are.

- One of my stories, "The Garden Club," was written start-to-finish between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, after I woke up sick and feverish and couldn't get back to sleep. I submitted it as soon as I got home from the trip, and the first editor I sent it to bought it. In the acceptance letter she said it had the best ending she and her staff had read in twenty years.

- A producer who was planning to film one of my stories called me and said he needed a logline for it, for marketing purposes. I said I didn't know what a logline was. He told me to find and read an old copy of TV Guide, and hung up. I found a copy in a back closet, and one of the entries said something like "Little Joe confesses to Hoss and Adam that he's fallen in love with an Indian girl." Understanding dawned, and I came up with what I thought was an effective logline. The producer even liked it. But the movie never got made. See Lesson #4.

- I once sold a story called "Wheels of Fortune" to an Australian magazine that published only on CD-ROM, and was required to read my story aloud and send it to them as a recording. I still have the magazine-on-CD that they later mailed to me, but I have never listened to my story.

- After my first submission to the Strand (the story was "The Proposal," the first one I ever sold them), editor Andrew Gulli phoned me and said he liked the story, but his staff was unfamiliar with the kind of poison I had used. I told him that was because it wasn't real--I made it up. He paused just long enough to really scare me, then said, "Okay." Lesson #8: If something in your story just won't work, invent something that will.

- More than 90% of my published stories were written in third-person POV.

- I appeared in every issue of the magazine Mystery Time from 1994 until its demise in 2002 (17 issues).

- One of my short stories was rejected almost two dozen times. I later heard that a national magazine was looking for Christmas stories, so I changed the setting of my oft-rejected story from summer to winter, included gloves and icicles and Christmas lights and gifts and carols, and sold it for much more than I would've made at any of the previously-attempted markets. Lesson #9: Don't give up.

And that's that. If you would, let me know about some of your own strange experiences, in dealing with editors or writing stories or novels or marketing them. What are some of the most unusual or notable things you've had happen to you, as a writer?

Lesson #10 (to myself): Don't write such a long column, next time . . .

16 March 2018

We Got the Funk... and The Point!

Thomas Pluck

"You don't have to write." --Lawrence Block

That's from LB's "tape" (now available as a digital file) of writing affirmations. I bought it for the hell of it after reading his excellent and helpful book Write For Your Life, which I also recommend. I love it because I get to hear my literary hero tell me how great I am for an hour, but he also says that I don't have to write. In the beginning, I questioned the wisdom of such an affirmation. For those with anxiety, it is a godsend.

This is my favorite author photo of LB, from the affirmation tape:
He didn't need no pony tail.

You do not have to write.

The world will keep on spinning. The only person who will beat you up over it is yourself. The anxiety of that appointment with the writing desk can crush you, and that's what the affirmation is meant to counter. Just sit there and fart around and some words are sure to come out. (Along with a certain amount of flatus). Joe Lansdale has more of a tough-love approach with it. If you don't have to write, don't. Don't bother us with your scribbling if this is something you're doing because someone else says you ought to write a book, or you think it might be "fun." If you're driven, then you will write.


I let a book sit for two weeks. The same book I was chunking along with since winter began, the one I hit 65,000 words with in record time, came to a halt for a number of reasons. I got the flu. Work projects ate up my sleep, and I need a good night's sleep to operate. And then I let the anxiety creep in. I started worrying about how good the book would be, which is poisonous to a first draft. You can fix it later! I had a framework and an outline, I knew the scenes I needed to write, but the path to get there became a twisty maze of passages all alike. I even used that line in the book! (If you're not an old nerd like me, it's from Zork and Colossal Cave, two of the first text-based computer games written in the '60s.)

So to put it mildly, I was in a funk. A capital F Funk.

Which reminded me of my friend Matthew C. Funk, a once prolific crime writer who seems to have all but stopped writing. Which is a damn shame. Matt excelled at the hardest boiled stories from the Desire projects in New Orleans, and police stories set there. His stories were short and sharp, like a hideout punch dagger to kidneys. The last I'd heard he had a novel whose publisher went belly-up, and it hasn't yet found a new home. Which is a shame, because I'd really like to read City of NO, as it was called when Exhibit A had it. I reached out to Matt but haven't heard back yet. You can read some of Matt's stories at Shotgun Honey. Matt was also an editor for Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and helped me edit my early Jay Desmarteaux story "Gumbo Weather," which attracted the attention of agent Nat Sobel, and the story later appeared in Blood on the Bayou for Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

I know another writer who seems to have stopped after that imprint shuttered its windows, and it is a damn shame. They are both fine writers and the genre is lesser without their perspectives. Last night, an hour before we went to see A Wrinkle in Time--more on that later--I sat down and banged out half a chapter of my sprawling Louisiana novel, returning to the part set in Angola prison, and damn it felt good. The characters felt alive, and I felt proud to have given them brief life on the page.

I wonder if it was LB telling me I didn't have to, or my fear of meeting a similar fate if my publisher collapsed, or if it was Champion Joe Lansdale's Texas boot kicking me in the patoot that made me write when I thought there was no point to it? Or was it the freedom of not having a point?

Then again, as Harry Nilsson taught me, everything has a point. Even Oblio, the one kid from Pointed Village who was born without a point on his head, on his wonderful children's album, aptly named The Point!. Listen to it if you haven't. You may know the songs "Me and My Arrow" and "Think About Your Troubles", which had some success. Arrow is Oblio's pointy-headed dog, who jumps on his head so he can play ring-toss with the other kids. See, they toss rings and catch them on their pointy heads.... see the trippy animated movie, if you don't believe me!

Listen, it was the seventies. This made sense then. Or we pretended it did. My father, a burly construction worker who made Andrew Dice Clay's parody character seem realistic, loved this album. After he died, I listened to his vinyl copy, and while it's simplistic, it does have a point. Everything has a point, nothing is pointless. Writing this book doesn't have to have the purpose of creating a great follow-up to Bad Boy Boogie. It could be a learning experience. I'm weaving four narratives, and it is both invigorating and challenging, and even if I fail, I will have become a better writer in the process. So that's the point.

Depression, and "funks"--as I like to call non-clinical depression--are insidious. The clinical kind, you can only try to head off. Most people need medication and therapy and I won't diminish their struggle. Anxiety, which I have, is bad enough. But funks can be battled. It's not a fight, and you're not weak when you fail. You need to learn yourself, and see when they are coming, and do what you can to derail them or ride them out. I know that I feel better when I write on a schedule, but sometimes the story needs to simmer, and it's not ready to move on. For me, sitting at the desk and listening to music that goes with the story, or going for a walk--tough in the weather we've had lately--are both tools I use. When I go for a walk WITHOUT MY PHONE I am often amazed how story problems shake loose as I tread the uneven slate sidewalks of my "quaint" town. I like hikes as well, and Eagle Rock's trails will get more of my tracks once the snow melts.

Watching good movies and reading good books helps as well. I liked Black Panther and Annihilation. The former is just a good superhero and science fiction story that makes you challenge your assumptions. It's less violent than most--they use EMP weapons and hand to hand more than firearms, thanks to bulletproof vibranium armor--and is one of the best comic book movies out of the enormous bunch. And it's an origin story, so you don't need to have seen any other movies or read the books to enjoy it. Just plain good storytelling as well. Begins in media res, explains just enough, and ties everything together. The villains even have a point, no one is all good or bad, and there are a lot of characters to love.

Annihilation is more of a horror tale than science fiction. It uses the investigation of a terrifying anomaly to explore what it means to be human, and if a human being ever really knows another, which is one of my favorite subjects. It's beautiful, scary, entertaining, and puzzling, but if you don't like ambiguity... it may not be for you. It is more like Predator than 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduces humanity to terrors we can barely understand and cannot fight or control, so Lovecraftian with a dose of Crichton. I was expecting a story more like Arrival so it took some processing for me, but if you go in with the right expectations, you will be satisfied. And it is a movie we will be talking about for a long time.

The most polarizing film of late seems to be A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved. I have not read the books. I went in cold, and if you didn't like the changes made from the books, I can't argue with you. On its own, I found it beautiful and inspiring, and one of the best explorations of how a child deals with low self-esteem. It reminded me of Wonder Woman in a small way. When Diana walks up the ladder out of the trenches into No Man's Land, a lot of us burst into tears of joy. She was an outsider who refused to accept this is the way it is and her actions were the response, they are that way because you permit them to be. If you go in cold and accept the story at face value, Wrinkle will give you many, many such emotional moments as young Meg overcomes her self-doubts. It struck a nerve with me, because while my father didn't vanish into a wormhole, my parents did divorce when I was seven, and it was a personality-altering event. I became a mouse. Look at me and you wouldn't believe it, but it took years of physical and emotional training to break out of my introverted shell, and I still find parties about as fun to navigate as whitewater rapids.

The story is for children and throws no bones to adults. It never winks at the camera. You will either accept Oprah as a towering goddess of light or you won't. I chose to accept, and found it very rewarding. Chris Pine (Dr Murray), like everyone in the movie, is completed unabashed in their emotions. We are used to unabashed cruelty, but seeing that applied to wonder, joy, love, doubt... we often see it as mawkish, thanks to the "cool" factor that Madison Avenue has told us is paramount to protect our weak inner selves, preferably with a costume of expensive clothing and accessories, maybe an Omega Seamaster? I thought he was excellent, he reminded me of a cross between Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan. The villain is a childish and hateful universal force, and Ms. Which (Oprah) describes how it bends us toward evil so perfectly that it choked me up. We are all little children, sometimes. We just get better at hiding it.

The only movie I can compare it to is What Dreams May Come, which was also beautiful and unafraid to talk about love. It was also mocked for it. We've been fed bitter and cynical pablum for so long we can have trouble experiencing wonder. Cynicism is easy; if you can't win, why fight? Because fighting it is the point.

See how I tied all that up there?

P.S., You can listen to the full album of The Point! on YouTube before you go buy it.

15 March 2018

Babylon, Babylon

by Eve Fisher

Baker Banana.jpg
Baker - 1926
My husband and I have been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix.   It's a guilty pleasure, not because of the sex, which is actually pretty unappealing.  (NOTE to future producers to broaden your audience:  most women aren't turned on by naked women being taken by big fat slugs in kinky and/or violent ways, i.e., raped or whored. Just a thought.) 

No, my real problem is that it's so historically inaccurate. (Yeah, I think that way.)  For example, the video below (SPOILER ALERT - there is some nearly nudity).  My problem isn't with the girls in bananas - that's straight up Josephine Baker - but the people on the dance floor in the video, who are basically freaking line dancing.  I mean, it is a 1920's Berlin nightclub, full of smoke, alcohol, and opium, so there wouldn't be much coordinated syncopation going on, if you know what I mean.

Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role
The Blue Angel, 1930
Plus, like Cabaret, there's the constant effort to ram home (in more ways than one) how decadent 1920s Berlin was, but using modern Hollywood ideas of what kinky / sexy is.  Take a look at Marlene Dietrich:  that's her breakthrough role, as Lola in The Blue Angel.  That was the hottest, sexiest, kinkiest thing that had ever been seen on film in 1930's Berlin.  Well, let me assure you that, in Babylon Berlin everyone has been made up, eyebrowed up, thinned down, shampooed and conditioned, and generally made into someone entirely different than what was cooking in the Berlin stews of the 1920s.  They did the same thing in Cabaret.  Only in Cabaret, everyone's pretty clean cut - even Sally Bowles.

Liza Minelli doing Dietrich in Cabaret
Actually, you can tell that Cabaret's an American movie because it uses "divine decadence" to promote straight up family values.  Sally Bowles has Daddy issues, will do anything for money and/or love and/or attention, and is sleeping all over the place (I think it's the first movie where the word "syphilis" is used in a joke), even though she's "as fatale as an after-dinner mint".  But after she has an abortion, well, it's pretty obvious that Sally's going to end up on the skids, the streets, and the morgue.  In the same way, the menage-á-trois weekend with Sally, Brian and Max, is there to confirm how futilely, half-assedly decadent the German nobility was.  That's why, when the blue-eyed blond-haired youth starts singing "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", he seems like a refreshing change to the Cabaret Berlin Babylon.  And even after the camera has pulled back and shown the Nazi uniforms and swastikas - I'm not entirely sure that the director grasped that some people might still root for them.  Pauline Kael noticed in her review at the time that "Bob Fosse, the choreographer-director, keeps the period—Berlin, 1931—at a cool distance. We see the decadence as garish and sleazy." (Wikipedia).  In other words, we're observers, safely at a distance, and at a distance, the Nazis can look good:  At least they'll clean the place up.

But back to Babylon Berlin, which does not have THAT problem, but instead suffers from massive PCS, a/k/a Plot Complexity Syndrome:  No one is ever who or what they seem, to the point where you can't help but wonder where they're buying all those disguises, and what phone booth are they using to put them on.  And why no one ever recognizes someone's long-lost whatever by their freaking voice, which wouldn't change, even if everything else has had plastic surgery...  And of course, every twist has another twist that twists back on itself and then corkscrews.  And it would take a silver bullet from the hand of Dracula himself to kill some people off.  Shooting them, pushing them off tall buildings, beating them to a pulp - it just makes them mad.

The problem with PCS, in movies or in novels, is that the excessive plot takes up all space for actual characters.  Yes, we're given heroes and heroines, but they don't have time to actually, think about anything, or have more than four basic emotions, fear, lust, anger, and...  well, maybe just the three.  They're too busy:  there's sex, there's violence, there's the few moments actually at work, there's more sex, there's drugs, and they're always running from or to or after somebody or something.  That's another reason I call Babylon Berlin a guilty pleasure:  there's no there there, except for the plot, and that'll just give you a headache.  Stick with the visuals, kid, it's a lot more fun. 

Pasqualino Settebellezze 1975 film poster.jpgThat cannot be said about my favorite of all "babylon" type movies:  Lina Wertmüller's 1975 Seven Beauties.

Seven Beauties is what they call a picaresque movie.  Episodic, and all revolving around our hero Pasqualino Frafuso a/k/a Settebellezze, i.e., "Seven Beauties".  He's called that because he has seven very unattractive, unmarriageable sisters, and his role as the man is to keep them all virtuous until marriage.  Meanwhile, of course, Pasqualino's doing every woman he can get his hands on.  Giancarlo Giannini is brilliant in the role:  Pasqualino is a self-obsessed dandy, a wanna-be Mafioso, and a fool - God, what a fool! - and we can't take our eyes off of him.

Here's the basic plot:  Pasqualino kills a pimp who's whored out his oldest sister.  That lands him in jail; he pleads insanity. That lands him in the insane asylum; he volunteers to fight in WW2. And that lands him in hell. He ends up in a German concentration camp, and how our hero survives that has to be seen to be believed.

How everyone who survives has to be seen to be believed.   (To the right is the clip shown at the Oscars.  While I couldn't find it with subtitles, I'm not sure that it needs it.)

Along the line, Seven Beauties expresses ideas about Italian manhood, womanhood, life, survival, and the long-standing difference... dislike...  sometimes war, between Northern and Southern Europe.  This shows up in everything European, literature, art, habits, war.  The Southern view of Northern Europeans is that they live so much in their minds and their jobs that they've lost all sense of nature, of humanity.  As Pedro, an anarchist in the concentration camp says:  
Pedro: But soon, very soon, a new man, a new man will be born. He’ll have to be civilized, not this beast who’s been endowed with intelligence and obliterated the harmony in the world and brought about total destruction just by disturbing nature's equilibrium. A new man… able to rediscover the harmony that’s within.
Pasqualino: You mean, put things in order?
Pedro: Order? No, no, the orderly ones are the Germans. No, a new man in disorder is our only hope. A new man… in disorder.
Meanwhile, Northern Europeans look down on Southern Europeans as a lazy group of hedonists who work only enough to get in a harvest and then spend the rest of their time eating, drinking, and screwing.  They're poor, and it's their own damn fault, they're like rats or sheep or...  Why do you think the Germans enjoyed putting the economic screws to the Greeks so much?  They deserved it.

Look, the real war between the North and the South is, at base, the war between the rich and the poor.  And the poor win because they will do anything to stay alive.  The Commandant of the concentration camp in Seven Beauties says to Pasqualino, "You disgust me. Your thirst for life disgusts me. You have no ideals. You have found the strength for an erection, that’s why you'll survive. All our dreams for a master race—unattainable.”  

Seven Beauties has all of the decadence, sex, and violence that anyone could want - plus a hell of a lot of humor that pushes the boundaries of everything and everyone.  But it also has a thirst for life - a sheer enjoyment of life - that no other "babylon" movie I've ever seen has.  

Seven Beauties, dedicated to:

The ones who don't enjoy themselves even when they laugh. Oh yeah.
The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh yeah.
The ones who should have been shot in the cradle. Pow! Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "Follow me to success, but kill me if I fail," so to speak. Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "We Italians are the greatest he-men on earth." Oh yeah.
The ones who vote for the right because they're fed up with strikes. Oh yeah.
The ones who vote blank ballot in order not to get dirty. Oh yeah.
The ones who never get involved with politics.  Oh, yeah.
The ones who....  

Watch the rest of the opening sequence on the right and find out who the others are.

BTW - Lina Wertmüller became the first woman in history nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties (and it didn't happen again until 1993, with Jane Campion's The Piano) and Giancarlo Gianinni was nominated for Best Actor for playing Pasqualino.
John Avildsen won that year for Rocky.  Lina was robbed.

14 March 2018

The Girl in the Lagoon: Martin Cruz Smith

David Edgerley Gates

Martin Cruz Smith made his bones with Gorky ParkI remember its jaw-dropping singularity, almost a science fiction conceit, where the oddness of the whole is captured by tilting everyday detail ninety degrees from square. It got its effects from accumulation. There was also a slight alteration of rhythm, a kind of stutter or hesitation to the language, the words careful and exact, but somehow dealt face-down, like a card trick. You were surprised when they were turned over, showing a jack when you expected an ace. It felt, you might say, a little Russian, an unfamiliar alphabet, a new terrain to navigate.

Of the next two Renko books, Polar Star was terrifically compelling, and Red Square, for my money, delivered the most satisfying finish, but in between Gorky Park and Polar Star came a standalone, Stallion Gate. The guy gets my vote for sheer audacity. Stallion Gate is about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. I've nibbled around the edges of this subject meself, and you can only go one of two ways, I think, either gnomic and allusive or full frontal. No half-measures. Smith takes the bet, all or nothing, and Stallion Gate is high-risk, spending the writer's own capital, not coasting on the interest. He almost recovers his investment. The book is just that - almost. You can make out the shadow it casts, and the signature of the wind scouring the sand, but it never quite fills its own sails.

There have been eight Arkady Renko thrillers in all, to date, and in between, three more novels without him. Rose, which came out in 1996, is to my mind very underrated, a Victorian historical Gothic (not at all pastiche), a steam engine of a book, a mechanical wonder, hissing and dripping with condensation, levers and armatures, drive shafts and metal fatigue, shaking the rails. Sort of a cross between John Buchan and Wilkie Collins. December 6th, from 2002, is a Tokyo spy story - the title gives that away - and a nice play on the gaijin as secret agent, first cousin to the Raj-boy Kim, echoes of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. I found it hugely entertaining.

Which brings us to the latest release, actually in 2016, The Girl from Venice. I'd call it a departure, or at least somewhat. It has the guileless and obstinate Martin Cruz Smith hero, marooned by his honor, and the ominously claustrophobic menace of the time period, the exhausted last gasp of Fascist Italy, the Americans clawing their way north, the Germans fighting a stubborn rearguard action. On the other hand, Cenzo, the lead, has an endearing sweetness to his nature, and to all intents, the book is at heart a romantic fable.

Magic realism isn't something you'd anticipate from this writer, and The Girl from Venice isn't, exactly. But there's an unexpected playfulness. I kept waiting for the darkness to swallow everybody up, and it doesn't happen. Yes, we definitely get some nasty, sinister people drifting in and out, and the girl Giulia is the last survivor of a Jewish family, lost to the fortunes of war. For all his clownishness, Il Duce has caused enormous human dislocation and suffering. You're not saddened in the least when the Red partisans catch up to him. This stuff happens, though, mostly off-stage. You don't get a lot of explicit. The heroics, too, are kind of muted and self-deprecating. like Cenzo himself. We know innocence is a casualty of war, and all too many innocents, but in this telling, basta.


I met Bill Smith at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe, a few years back. He was getting over some grievous upper respiratory crud, his voice playing hide-and-seek, but he was extremely game and gracious. He did a long Q&A (the most recent book was Three Stations), and soldiered through with humor and patience. He gave good weight.

We talked briefly the next day, about the end of the Cold War, mostly, and when at one point I mentioned having been a Russian intelligence linguist, he admitted he didn't really speak much Russian. I think my jaw did literally drop. Bill ducked his head and smiled. He'd always used a wingman, he said, the better to get it right.

Red Square turns on a mistranslation from English to Russian, or more specifically, a misunderstanding by an American whose idiomatic Russian is almost but not quite native. "Square," a public space, vice "square," the geometric shape, but in Russian usage, two different words, ploshchad' for the place, kvadrat for the other.

Where did Bill Smith, whose command of Russian isn't what it might be, happen across the distinction? Perhaps it was luck, reaching out to pluck at his sleeve like an old Baba Yaga on the Moscow subway platform, trying to sell books of matches or locks of Stalin's hair.