05 December 2016

Oh No! You Did..n't























OH NO! YOU DID..N'T
by Jan Grape

Have you ever told a published author what was wrong with their book? Max Allan Collins has told the story of a lady coming up to him at a mystery con and said,"Want me to tell you tell you what's wrong with your book?"

Mr. Collins said, "No." and walked away.

He wasn't being rude. It's just when the book is already published if he made a major mistake, it's just too late. The book is already published. There is just nothing to be done at this point.

I've never said anything like that to an author but I did tell two authors at two different times they had made one small error in their book. I wasn't trying to be a smart-alec but honestly thought they might want to know if they had made an error so that next time they wouldn't make that same error. But this was when I had only published about 12 or 15 short stories and had NOT published a novel. Not sure they appreciated my input.

The first author I said something to was Ed Gorman. I don't remember when it was but I think it was one of his short stories. It was set in the fifties and dealt with a high school girl wearing blue jeans or Levis. He writes about the girl buttoning her jeans in front. I don't know about where you lived in the early to mid-fifties but where I lived in a small town, girls didn't wear front button or zipped jeans. Girls wore jeans that buttoned or zipped on the left side. We called them Girl's Jeans. And Boy's Jeans buttoned and/or zipped in the front. The exception was "loose girls" might wear Boy's Jeans. And everybody knew she was loose. It was just understood that it was easy to get to second or third base with her. I went to school with a girl who wore Boy's Jeans and she had a bad reputation. I'm not sure Mr. Gorman appreciated my insight. He did thank me, but he probably was being polite. The thing is, nice girls in the fifties didn't wear pants very often, even if it was cold.

I don't know whose idea that was. Probably some man because it was many years before women wore pants even way before the fifties. We probably were very lucky to have managed to wear them in those years. When my daughter was in the first or second grade, on a very cold day I sent her to school in a dress and a pair of long pants. The school sent her home, this was in Austin, Texas, in the mid-sixties and told it was against school policy. It was okay if she wore leggings or tights under her dress, but not pants. That was stupid. When it's cold you really need tights and pants when you're little. They changed the dress code after that, I'm sure other mothers complained.

The other author I gave corrective information to was a man who shall remain nameless but he wrote books set in Michigan. He had part of his book set in Texas and he called the highway patrol, THiP. Like they call them in other states, notably in California because of the "CHiPs" television show. In Texas, the highway patrol is named Texas Department of Public Safety. And we do call them DPS for short. This author, did thank me, but in another book he did the same thing so guess he didn't believe me or didn't care.

I know it probably doesn't matter but I have this weird feeling that any little detail that jars a reader out of the fiction or fantasy of the book is just not good. I'm reasonably sure that most of us try very hard to make sure what we write is a true and correct as we can make it.

One thing that bugged my husband no end and he let authors know it every chance he got was when an author uses the word cement as a synonym for concrete. And author after author does it. I guess they feel that it doesn't matter to most people. And to most people it doesn't. But to Elmer Grape who was in commercial construction for thirty years and worked with concrete all those years, it just bothered him. CEMENT is the powder that is mixed with sand, gravel and water to make concrete. The finished product is CONCRETE. Sidewalks, platforms, houses, streets, all are made of concrete.
I actually blame the use of cement as a synonym comes directly from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES. They all called their swimming pool the CEMENT POND. That was the beginning and it caught on and became one of those interchangeable words.

This idea grabbed my attention a few days ago when I was reading a book by a famous best selling author. He had a book set in Texas where a girl, maybe around 14-15 years old wearing a strapless sundress to school. I really don't think so. However, maybe I'm behind times now and perhaps it's allowed nowadays.  It only jarred me for a few moments and I went ahead with the intriguing story, but it did stick in my mind.  Anyway, I didn't write and correct him. And I didn't even call the school district to see if I was right.

However, I thought this might be a good time to write this up in my column. It only takes a few minutes to Google something to find out what the proper word is for what you write. Even better if you can talk to a person who is in the profession you are writing about. Find out if you have to or ask them for the proper jargon. It might not seem too important to you but you don't want a reader throwing your book across the room in disgust because you used "Cement" instead of "Concrete."

And maybe even if you really do want to tell an author what's wrong with their book. They might not appreciate it. A little minor correction? Okay, maybe that's not too bad. But don't blame me if someone says to you...Oh, no! You Did..n't.

04 December 2016

Writing the Obvious

by Leigh Lundin

What makes a good writer?
He English good.


We take for granted our favorite authors are good writers. Like a talented musician, an Olympian gymnast, or an Oscar-winning actor, they entertain us on a professional level. We might not always experience a virtuoso performance, but we’re satisfied if we receive our money’s worth.

A few decades ago, I got to know workers in a factory. A supervisor– a portly, prejudiced and petty little man, lucky to have a job at all– complained about managing Portuguese women. Mr Eddy infamously said, “Their English, they don’t speak good.” In office jokes, that morphed into “They don’t English good.” He of the immense girth never understood the giggles behind his back nor grasped the fact the Portuguese senhoras had him well in hand. When the ladies answered the phone, the conversation went like this:
“Is Mr. Eddy ’round?”
“He shore is.”

Of course the man was complaining about the accent while failing technically correct English himself. Both are among the standards by which we judge people’s ability to communicate.

Regarding pastiches, I tend toward a dour viewpoint. Few authors who attempt take-offs of Sherlock Holmes and other great characters reach the high bar in my mind. There are exceptions including Dale Andrews and James Lincoln Warren.

Last month, I read David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider's Web, a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lagercrantz’s version was… adequate. I couldn’t lay down Larsson’s novels, but while Lagercrantz’s effort was moderately entertaining, it wasn’t unputdownable.

I thought about what we admire in writing. A dozen or more factors may strike us as fine craftsmanship, and we may at various times accept differing conclusions. We may mix-and-match, perhaps appearing contradictory to others but no doubt consistent without our own mind.

Take for instance our own B.K. Stevens’ collection, Her Infinite Variety. I read the first two stories featuring Iphigenia Woodhouse and her professor mother. You will not find characters like them elsewhere. They’re engaging and Mrs Prof Woodhouse, well… She’s the kind of person you’d affectionately delight in unless she was your own mother. Then you’d frantically Google ‘matricide’. In discussing the characters, Bonnie mentions Nero Wolfe, but it’s more complicated than that: Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor. If it sounds complicated, it’s simply fun.

Following are a few writing criteria that could appeal to us readers.
Technically Correct
In some ways, this is both the most and least obvious, the English teacher criterion. We don’t notice the mechanics until bad grammar, spelling, or punctuation intrudes upon our consciousness. An author has to do is get the basics right, but a writer like Art Taylor is much more than an English professor.
Character
Jan Grape is able to sketch characters without bogging the reader in descriptions. Most of us enjoy character-driven stories and we tend to remember great characters from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lector. Mysteries found in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody / Ramses series aren’t especially noteworthy, but her characters in the larger storied context are wonderful. As Steve Liskow points out, your character is your brand.
Plot
I admire a clever plot. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent strike me as clever, clever plots. The versatile John Floyd has dreamed up hundreds of smart plot lines.
Beautiful, Poetic
Moving, Powerful
Descriptive: Visual, Aural (5+ Senses)
Sometimes the writing is so elegant, we follow it instead of the action. Janice Law, for example, uses word art. A personal opinion poll reveals in no particular order: Baudelaire, Willian Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace, William H. Gass, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Pynchon, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, Tao Lin, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Virginia Woolf.
Clever Wording
Clever Wordplay
While the above are noted for their word-smithing, Chaucer and Voltaire are known for misdirection. Voltaire says one thing but means another. Similarly, Chaucer is equally hard to pin down.
I enjoy wonderful wording on a small scale. Erika Jahneke may be disabled, but her writing dances: “Lotta gimps, lotta problems. Nobody I see all day has a leg to stand on.” “Flirtatiousness is not usually considered an independent-living goal.” “As a human being, his best ratings would come if God graded on the curve.”
I find a few mystery writers particularly rewarding in their descriptions: John Lutz, Sue Grafton, Caroline Graham, Brian Freemantle, F. Paul Wilson, Michael Marshall Smith, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Nelson DeMille, Noah Hawley, Susan Dunlop, Sparkle Hayter, and Anne Perry. Short story specialist Rob Lopresti is another smart, smart word guy.
Descriptively Precise, Accurate
Exact writing is highly valued in technical writing and legal circles, but beyond brain surgery and rocket science, accuracy is critical when baking a cake, sewing a shirt, or building a boat. When it comes to fiction, Michael Crichton comes to mind. Likewise, James Lincoln Warren uses great precision in his historical novels. I also point to our Melissa Yi’s Hope Sze medical series. And then we come to a special case, Brian Thornton. Who else would dare write The Book of Bastards?
Informative
Some authors are known for authentic minutiae, whether historical or relating to some specialized subject such as archeology, glass-blowing, or bell-ringing… or economics like Eve Fisher, spying by David Edgerley Gates, and old Parisian pickpockets by RT Lawton. Our Paul Marks lovingly describes historical Los Angeles and O'Neil De Noux depicts New Orleans much as Jeffrey Deaver paints New York City. The trick is to make the subjects interesting, not bore the reader with useless trivia, but allow an open reader to gather a little knowledge. I’ve written a short story (yes, I know I should submit it sometime) of an actual mystery set in the British Midlands. It’s accurate down to fine details including names, documents, and court testimony.
Funny
Janet Evanovich is known for her humor in her Stephanie Plum series. Likewise our Melodie Campbell writes comedy, combining droll with drama. Barb Goffman writes gentle pieces from absurd situations such as kidnapping a groundhog.
Clever Cultural References
At one time, educated people were well-versed in classical literature. At a minimum, everyone understood the Holy Bible and many had at least a smattering of Greek and Roman mythology. Mention Sisyphus or Cerebus, Scylla or Charybdis, and listeners knew who you were talking about. To be sure, Harry Potter draws upon classic literature and mythology, but these days audiences are more likely to expect pop references.
Clever White Space
You may wonder about this item. This falls in the less-is-more category. While shorter chapters and less dense wording allow text to ‘breathe’, they won’t by themselves mend bad prose. But in this situation, consider Lindsey Davis’ Falco series. In One Virgin Too Many, she has two or three chapters in a row with about the same number of sentences. Why? She uses the technique to portray an intimate seduction scene. Trust me, it works.
Clever Bland
How can bland represent good writing? Most of the previous examples draw attention to the author, especially the beautiful and the cleverly descriptive. The story slows or even stops as the reader ponders the golden words on the page. But a more subtle writer, perhaps self-effacing but certainly disciplined, secrets himself behind the scenes, letting the puppets entertain the audience without making them aware of his (or her) presence. Ideally the story maintains a brisk pace allowing the reader to submerge in the setting among the characters and the plot. Lee Child impresses me as an author who disdains frills; he stands back and lets the action do the talking. That says a lot.

As Julie Andrews or John Coltrane might say, these are a few of my favorite things. What constitutes fine writing in your book?

03 December 2016

Writing What I Knew



by John M. Floyd


How many times have we, as writers, heard that we should "write what we know"? I'm not sure I always agree with that piece of advice--I'd rather it be "write what you feel comfortable writing," or "write the kind of things you like to read." What you know--or at least what I know--isn't always interesting enough to carry a story. Besides, if Asimov, Bradbury, Verne, Heinlein, Serling, etc., had written only what they knew . . . well, you've heard that argument before.

But in the case I'm about to describe, I chose to heed the advice.

Work files

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of the current issue (Oct.-Jan.) of Strand Magazine, which contains one of my stories, called "Jackpot Mode." It's one of those tales that was fun to write, partly because--for a change--I covered a subject that was extremely familiar to me, once upon a time.

A bit of boring background, here. I hired on with IBM right out of college, back when the pharaoh was building the pyramids, and stayed with the company for thirty years. (That time-span included a four-year leave-of-absence to the Air Force.) I worked as both a marketing rep and a systems engineer, and for most of my career I was what was then called a "Finance Industry Specialist," which means I spent a lot of time in banks, from Atlanta to Anchorage, Boston to Burbank, Minneapolis to Manila. My specialty area was the software for IBM teller stations, check-processing systems, and ATMs.

Which brings us to my Strand story. Financial institutions have always been prime fodder for crime writers, and for the past forty years bank robbers seem to have had an unusual fondness for automated teller machines. There must be something especially tempting about the fact that so many thousands of dollars are sitting right there in a box near the sidewalk--never mind the fact that it's encased in half a ton of steel. Even in this day and age, stories of dimwitted, would-be thieves trying to blow up, drill through, or drag away ATMs are regularly featured on the evening news. These attempts, as I'm sure you know, almost always fail. So I figured, why not write a story about a couple of inside guys--a bank programmer and an equipment repairman--who team up and try to do it the right way?

Technicalities

I should mention at this point that not everything I put into this story works exactly the way I said it does--after all, I don't want somebody using information in my fictional frolics to actually steal a small (or large) fortune. But most of it is technically correct. In the olden days ATMs would occasionally suffer electronic or mechanical indigestion and spew cash like oversized slot machines until the error was found and corrected. We had a term for this thankfully rare occurrence: it was called "jackpot mode." (I saw it happen only twice, during routine off-line testing.) It also served as what I thought was a good story title.

Like several of my recent mysteries for the Strand and other magazines, this one ran a little long, around 8000 words. But there was a lot of detail involved as well as a lot of money, and I can never resist putting in multiple plot twists. If you read the story, I hope you'll like it.

Mining your past

Do you often find yourself using personal memories and first-hand knowledge from your jobs, hobbies, etc., to come up with fictional material? If you do, and if these experiences are unmodified, I can only assume your life has been more eventful than mine. I suppose I could write about making ill-fated stock market investments, or watching Netflix movies until four in the morning, or regularly mowing my wife's newly planted flowers that I mistake for weeds--but who'd want to read about that? Instead, my stories usually consist of normal, routine happenings that I then inject with steroids, asking myself "what if" and plugging in exaggerations that (hopefully) make those incidents more interesting and entertaining than they were in the real world.

The person I always think of when this subject comes up is Nevada Barr, an excellent mystery writer who once lived the kind of life her fictional heroine lives now. Nevada was a park ranger for many years, like the main character of her twenty-plus novels, and the author's familiarity and comfort level with the National Park settings and her protagonist's occupation make her books authentic and believable--and even educational. (She once said she wasn't quite as brave and daring as Anna Pigeon is, but Nevada's face is always the one I picture in my mind when I read about Anna's adventures.) Most writers aren't fortunate enough to have that kind of background--and when they don't, they have to make up for it with research and imagination.


Author Marie Anderson once observed, in The Writer, "I used to write what I know. I used to write about infertility, motherhood, suburban middle-class life, blue-collar Catholic childhood, law school from a dropout's perspective. I'd send out those stories and never see them again, not even the SASEs. Then, somewhere, I came across a better rule: know what you write."

That sounds better to me, too.



02 December 2016

Covers, Baby

by O'Neil De Noux

Harlan Ellison once told me a book cover should have one strong image, the writer's name and maybe one thing about the book. He didn't mention awards listed on a cover because if he wore a military uniform with medals for each of his writing awards, he'd look like a general from a banana republic. We mortals with fewer awards can list one, but I don't recommend cluttering a cover with too many things in the days of thumbnails (the computer kind).

Covers can be good or bad, sometimes really bad.

I'll start with the cover of my first book. I raced to my favorite bookstore the day it came out because my publisher hadn't sent my contributor's copies yet (or a proof of the cover). I helped open the first box of books and - oh, no. They misprinted my name. It's De Noux not Denoux. I knew I'd catch hell from my family and did.

"What's the matter with you? You can't spell your own name?" You see we have country cousins who spell their name Denoux and we city slickers in New Orleans spell it with a space. The cover was also sensationally awful. Here it is:



1988 edition                                          2015 edition

When I became an Indie writer, we reissued the entire series. I took photos of New Orleans cemeteries for these NOPD Homicide novels. It's good I was trained as a US Army combat photographer. When I went to the cemeteries, I carried my Glock (I'm still a cop) because New Orleans cemeteries only look peaceful. There have been armed robberies in them. No one bothered me and I got some good cover photos.

The original cover of my third novel, BLUE ORLEANS, was even worse. I'd made a preemptive strike and sent them a photo of NOPD's unique star-and-crescent badge before they put something like an NYPD shield on the cover. Still...


1991 edition                                    2015 edition

Until I became an Indie writer and could control my covers, they remained pitiful. Especially the gobbly-gook on the back covers. On the back cover of my second novel THE BIG KISS, some idiot wrote - THERE'S A RED DRAGON LOOSE AT MARDI GRAS. The book is not about a serial killer, it's a gangster novel about the Mafia and doesn't take place at Mardi Gras. They labeled my fourth novel BAY CITY BLUES. What the hell? The nearest bays to New Orleans are Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and Barataria Bay, down by the Gulf of Mexico, which is about 100 miles from the city.


Super busy 1992 edition                                    2015 edition

Here is the cover of THE LONG COLD (cover art a commissioned oil painting). At least what's written on the back cover is from the book. I think the award finalist notation on the front cover adds clutter to such a busy piece of art but how many times do you get a novel nominated for a SHAMUS?


Judge a book by it's cover? Of course we do. You see a crappy cover online you move along. Clip art looks like clip art, like a child trying to design a cover. There are many sites where you can purchase excellent photos or drawings for as low as $15 for single use on a cover. My last book published by a traditional publisher allowed me to choose the photo from a group of single use images and it came out well. When the rights reverted to me, I used a photo of a model's legs. Since I took the photo, there was no rights issue. Both covers grab attention.


Original Cover                                    2016 cover

I'm no expert but I know what attracts the eye and in these times of thumbnail searches through amazon.com and smashwords.com, I believe a cover should catch the eye.

TIP: If you don't have the ability to design a cover using Adobe InDesign or Photoshop, get your image and go to the nearest community college or university's art department. Seek out a college student majoring in graphic design and hire the student to design your cover. They can add this work to their portfolio and you can cut a bargain with them. I've seen it work.

SECOND TIP: Demand a good cover from your publisher (if you go that route). And PLEASE get a proof of your cover beforehand.

www.oneildenoux.net


01 December 2016

Loaded Magazines

by Leigh Lundin

This is the last in a series about broad-range magazine writing. Thanks to all my colleagues who’ve chimed in these past several days.

Milking a Story

When I was 15, the American Dairy Association sponsored a youth conference, inviting a hundred boys and a hundred girls for a weekend in Indianapolis. The symposium represented a lot of firsts for many kids: first hotel stay, first formal dinner, first formal dance, and first time adults seemed to take us seriously.

It was marketing, of course, but on the side of the angels. It focused on micro- and macro-nutrition, from food on a personal scale to feeding a burgeoning population. The upshot was that the ADA and its partners (Wonder Bakeries, Kraft, Green Giant, etc) sponsored an outreach competition, encouraging participants to propagandize civilization through our teenage charm.

In my case, they knew not what they were unleashing– a mad scientist bent on world domination through robots, alligators, and power-hungry computers. And eventually crime stories, but that would take a while.

That summer, I wrote articles for newspapers desperate to fill vacant space, The Shelbyville News, The Indianapolis Star. Mainly I wrote speeches. Radio WSVL (now WSVX), set literally in the middle of a corn field, gave me broadcast time. I shudder to think how awful those radio chats might have been. But, community presentations became my thing. At small gatherings, I gave talks using props like Albert my alligator or sometimes taking along my robot. Amazing when I think how tolerant adults were back then. Possibly I stunned them into submission.

The feminine participant of our county, Susan DePrez, grew up in a neighboring town and was a year ahead of me in school. We vaguely knew one another. In other words, she was a pretty, sophisticated, teenage older woman and I was the kid dweeb. There’re makings for a movie here, Hollywood.

Documenting everything, I clipped the articles from the newspapers. With luck, they’ll never again surface to embarrass me, but as it turned out, Susan and I won the respective girls’ and boys’ divisions of the competition. Another dinner and a check, followed by glory, fame and fortune.

The Art of the Article

In school, I didn’t get it. How could I be a writer? I had nothing to say. How could I? I lived in a boring time in a boring school in a boring place… It took a while for matters to *click*.

In the meantime, I had desultory articles published here and there: a New England sailing periodical called OffShore specializing in photographs of tall ships, articles for a zoo newsletter, and occasional articles for Datamation and InfoWorld magazines for those of us in computing. This last brought about my first experience with a heavy-handed editor who chopped a manuscript into unrecognizability, completely altering the meaning of the article. Fortunately, editors since have been kind and applied a much lighter touch.

Mr Strangebottom

Occasionally in movies you’ll see some computer guru who peers at multiple screens as he madly types away. In real life, that’s seldom seen these days but 20-25 years ago, multiple monitors were much more common. The alternative for users who wanted more than one terminal session was a physical switch to bounce between screens.

Ta-da! I wrote a package that allowed such super-users to switch via software… no extra hardware required. Unfortunately, salesmen had no clue how to market it, let alone describe it. In response, I wrote a fictional introduction to the manual describing how Mr. Strangebottom and his programming staff might use the product. After an initial “you can’t put humor in a tech manual” objection from the sales people, the fictional introduction achieved a modest cult following. Fame and glory followed.

I wrote similar introductions for our other software products, including a backup-restore package, an email encryption routine Oliver North should have bought, and a couple of others. The writing was possibly passable, but now I realize creativity was bursting in my veins.

First Contact

Two things happened about the same time. I sent a story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine way before my writing skills were ready. The editor at the time, Eleanor Sullivan, found minor humor in the cover letter and sent the manuscript back with an encouraging personal note. That was kind of her.

Meanwhile, I proposed an idea for an article to ComputerWorld, the daily newspaper for computing professionals. In fact, I pitched an interview of an unusual fellow who wanted to legally change his name to a number. The editor said, “We don’t do interviews especially of non-notable people.” I pointed out (a) national news outlets were trending with this story and (b) I happened to know this guy, without explaining how vague and tenuous my acquaintanceship was.

The editor grew interested but expressed doubt I could pull off an interview while television and national magazines were vying for his attention. I expressed 90% confidence in landing an interview, about sixteen times my actual estimate given sunny skies and a good wind.

“Okaaaaay, sonny. If you think you can. we’ll take a look at it.” I considered that a sale.

Then I had to convince Mr 1069 (One-Zero to his friends) to sit down with me. As it turned out, he desired recognition by computing professionals, the curators of information numeric. As I would discover, professional acceptance or at least cognizance lent validation and perhaps legitimacy to his quest. Interviews by the networks and major publications like Time Magazine were nice, but ComputerWorld offered something kindred to his digital soul.

Perhaps because I wasn’t a professional interviewer, he felt comfortable as we chatted late into the night, barely pausing for food intake. To my surprise and possibly ComputerWorld’s, they ran my article on page two.

I stumbled upon that long ago interview on-line. Google had indexed it as part of their Google Books project. To my surprise, it reads a little better than I remembered. It’s not prize-winning journalism, but I had persuaded one party to grant an interview and convinced a newspaper to publish it. That has to count for something!

Here now is the outcome of 1069's mission to change his name:


And the saga continues and continues and continues… (Thanks to ABA for these links.)

30 November 2016

Writing for Whackademia

by Robert Lopresti

When Leigh - or was it Velma? - suggested a theme week about writing for non-mystery magazines, I said I could contibute nothing.  Then I realized that if you include academic journals I have a bit to say.

You have probably heard of "publish or perish," the idea that college faculty have to do research to get tenure and keep their jobs.  And you are right.  The intensity depends on the field and the institution.  I know people who are expected to publish several short articles a year, and others whose job security hangs on making it into certain major journals.

Fortunately neither of those apply to me, but I am expected to appear in scholarly journals.  So what's the difference between one of those and a magazine?  At the most basic, a scholarly (or academic, or peer-reviewed, or refereed... they all mean essentially the same thing) journal is one where, rather than deciding on the fate of an article herself, the editor sends it to people who have written on similar subjects (peers) for their assessment.

This is considered the gold-standard, the most reliable and authorative type of publication.  And having said that, let me introduce you to Retraction Watch, a website that simply lists scholarly articles that have been renounced by their authors or publishers because of errors.  These errors could be anything from deliberate fraud to an accidentally screwed-up graph.  Some authors have been known to retract an article because, decades after publication, the science turned out to be wrong.

And don't forget Scholarly Open Access, a website created by librarian Jeffrey Beall, which reports on what he calls "predatory journals," which look like scholarly material, but will accept anything you will pay them to publish.  "Vanity publishing!" you shout.  Well, yes.  But it's more complicated than that because in some academic fields you are expected to pay a per-page fee for publication - or at least if you want the article to be "open access," so anyone can read it.  It is so common that many universities have funds to pay for their professors page fees.  Or if a grant pays for your research, you can figure it into the grant request.  But the non-predator journals still reject most articles that are submitted, and won't take your fee until their referees have reviewed your work.


If you have begun to suspect that publishing scholarly journals is a license to mint money, there are many who will agree with you.

Let's get to a few of my own experiences in the field.  Many years ago I did some research which I thought was interesting but probably not worth a publication, so I put it up on a webpage of my own.  The managing editor of an editor read my work and invited me to turn it into an article for his journal.  Great!  I updated the info and submitted it, and waited.

And waited.  And waited.  Eventually (I think a year later) the editor-in-chief contacted me to say he had found the manuscript stuck in a desk drawer.  If I wanted to update it again and resubmit it he would consider it (!).

Another time I felt obliged to explain to the committee who was evaluating my work for, say, 2011, that the reason I included an article  published in a 2010 journal issue was that the publisher had been running late and slapped the wrong date on  so a year would not be missing from the journal's run.  And yes, these were both considered respectable publishers.

Calvin C. Chaffee, House librarian, and luckless hero of my article.
But my favorite story of scholarly hijinks involved the Congressional Serial Set.  These books have been published since the 1830s and basically include reports to and from Congress.  I found something very bizarre in one volume and showed it to my friend August A. Imholtz who is an expert on the Set.  We wound up co-writing an article which was published under the name "'Reckless and Unwarranted Inferences': The US House Library Scandal of 1861."  As befitted such a pompous title we wrote it with great seriousness and a flurry of footnotes.

As soon as it was published in a scholarly journal, with August's kind permission, I rewrote the same bit of history for laughs and sent it to American Libraries magazine which paid me for it (now that's the direction money is supposed to flow in publising) and put it up on their website with the title How Overdue Books Caused the Civil War.


You can read the lighter version by following the link above.  In either version the story is this: After Lincoln was elected and southern states started to secede the New York Times published an article claiming that the southern ex-congressmen were stealing books from the "Congressional Library" to start their own. It turned out to be a mixture of wild gossip, bad journalism and shoddy library management.  Oh, and it involves the Dred Scott Decision.  Really.

Because when you dive into the academic swamp you never know what you will find. 

29 November 2016

To the MMs and Beyond


by John M. Floyd




Like most of you who read this blog, I like mysteries. Mysteries of any kind--shorts, novellas, novels, plays, movies. And one good thing for those of us who write and read mystery short stories is that there are a number of magazines that specialize in that genre: AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mystery WeeklyFlash Bang Mysteries, Over My Dead Body, Crimespree, Mysterical-E, and so on. I submit stories to these publications on a regular basis, and sometimes, when the stars line up just right, I get stories published there. FYI, one of the best lists of these short-mystery markets can be found at my friend Sandra Seamans's website, My Little Corner.


I should probably mention here that a lot of the MMs are no longer in business. Examples include Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, Mystery Time, Orchard Press Mysteries, Detective Mystery Stories, Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, New Mystery, HandHeldCrime, Mouth Full of Bullets, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Nefarious, The Rex Stout Journal, Crime and Suspense E-zine, Blue Murder, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, Black Mask, Whispering Willows Mystery Magazine, Raconteur, and Crimestalker Casebook. I have fond memories of many of these, because they were extremely kind to me and my creations.

Genrecial profiling

Here's the rest of the story. As you know from the other columns at this blog over the past several days, mystery publications are not the only markets for our shorts. There are a number of general-interest magazines, sometimes even the literary journals, that occasionally publish mystery stories. (On the other side of the coin, there'll always be those who consider mysteries and other genre stories inferior, but that's another matter.)

The saving grace here is that, thankfully, not everyone thinks mysteries are limited to whodunits. Elmore Leonard, who won the Edgar Award and was recognized as a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America, once pointed out that he had never in his life written a story or novel in which the identity of the villain remained unknown until the end. He wrote crime/suspense fiction, not traditional mysteries.

Otto Penzler's definition, clearly stated in the introduction of each edition of his annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology, is that a mystery is any story in which a crime, or even the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot. If you write a story that fulfills that requirement, you've written a mystery. This rather broad definition can apply to a lot of unlikely stories. One can write a romance, a science fiction tale, a Western, a horror story, even a literary piece, and if a crime plays a major role in the story, it can--theoretically at least--also be categorized as mystery fiction.

Crashing the party

What are some of these "other" markets? I'll let real life be an example: most of my mystery stories are and have been published in the mystery magazines listed above--but my mysteries have also appeared in the following NON-mystery publications, some of which are still around (Google their sites for more info):

Thema
Spinetingler Magazine
Prairie Times
Western Digest
Amazon Shorts
Grit
Champagne Shivers
Ancient Paths
Star Magazine
Pleiades
The Big Adios
Thirteen Magazine
Short Stuff for Grownups
Writers' Post Journal
The Atlantean Press Review
Eureka Literary Magazine
The Copperfield Review
Yellow Sticky Notes
Scifantastic
Sniplits
Woman's World
Desert Voices
Phoebe
Writers on the River
Dogwood Tales Magazine
Ethereal Gazette
Cenotaph
Scavenger's Newsletter
The Oak
Dream International Quarterly
Kings River Life
Star*Line
Apollo's Lyre
Medicinal Purposes
Pebbles
The Villager
Short Tales
Futures
Seeds
Green's Magazine
The Saturday Evening Post
Roswell Literary Review
Flashshot
Untreed Reads
Taj Mahal Review
Just a Moment
Reader's Break
Writer's Block Magazine
Illya's Honey
T-Zero
The Mid-South Review
Pages of Stories
Ficta Fabula
Spring Fantasy
Lines in the Sand
Mindprints
Anterior Fiction Quarterly
Mythic Delirium
Flash Tales
Lost Worlds
Simulacrum
Listen Magazine
Penny Dreadful
Hadrosaur Tales
Pegasus Review
Outer Darkness
Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind

Some of these are paying markets and some pay only in copies--and I've had multiple stories published in most of them (19 at Amazon Shorts, 4 in Dogwood Tales, 4 in Flashshot, 7 in Reader's Break, 5 at The Saturday Evening Post, etc.).

I also have a mystery story ("Flu Season") in the November 4th issue of The Norwegian American, another ("Survival") in the November 26 issue of Kings River Life, and a third mystery ("A Green Thumb") coming in January in Seeds, edited by my old buddy Michael Bracken. Again, in keeping with the theme here, none of these three publications deals exclusively with mystery shorts.

NOTE 1: My reference to The Saturday Evening Post is its print edition, which is published every two months. That's where my five stories for them have appeared--and three of those five fit the criteria for mysteries. BUT . . . the SEP also has an online version that I'm told specializes in mystery fiction. I've not verified that and I've never submitted to the online edition, but it might be worth checking out.

NOTE 2: I didn't mention anthologies. I've sold a lot of stories to both mystery and non-mystery anthos. Sandra's My Little Corner website also lists anthology "calls for submissions," and so does Ralan.com. As you probably know, anthologies--like magazines--are among the markets that are examined to determine Edgar nominees, Best American Mystery Stories candidates, etc.

Chick fic

Several references have been made this past week to Woman's World, which of course is not a mystery magazine (WWMM?) but which has always included one romance and one mystery in each weekly issue. These mysteries are a little different in format from most that I write: for one thing, they're very short--700 words max--and for the past dozen years or so, they've been "interactive," which means the solution to the mystery is provided separately at the end of the story so the reader has a chance to solve it herself/himself.

Their November 28 issue featured my 82nd Woman's World story (all but two have been mysteries), and I recently sold them my 83rd, which is scheduled to appear shortly. Almost all my mysteries for WW have included the same two co-protagonists--a retired schoolteacher named Angela Potts and one of her former students, Sheriff Chunky Jones--which is probably why I've been fortunate enough to sell so many of them. Readers AND writers seem to like "series" stories because of the familiar characters: readers know what to expect, and writers are able to get quickly into the plot without much need for backstory. Feeling adventurous, I deviated from the path a few years ago and sent Woman's World a mystery starring two other main characters--a female sheriff named Lucy Valentine and her nagging mother Fran--from another of my series. WW bought and published the story, but when I asked if I should continue on that track for a change, the editor said no. "We want more Angela stories," she said, and I saluted and obeyed. I'm not very smart, but I'm smart enough to write what they tell me they like.

WW specifics

For anyone who's interested, Woman's World pays $500 for mystery stories, and the fiction editor is Patricia Gaddis. Longtime editor Johnene Granger retired at the beginning of this year. FYI, the email address to use for submissions is FictionPro@WomansWorldMag.com if you've had a contract with WW in the past; if you've not had a contract with WW before, the submissions email is Fiction@WomansWorldMag.com. For problems only, you can contact Patricia at her personal email address, Prose@dnet.net.

More guideline info: Put "mystery submission" in the subject line of your email, and attach your story as a Word document, double-spaced, 12-point font. You should receive an auto-reply confirmation that your story's been received, but you won't get any further responses unless your story is accepted. If you've heard nothing back in four months, assume it was rejected. You should submit holiday-themed stories two to three months early, and snailmailed submissions will still go through if you don't have access to email--but again, be aware that you'll only get a response if your story is accepted. (Most of the above info is paraphrased from WW's "unofficial guidelines for 2016," which are the only guidelines I've seen.)

If you decide to send them a mystery, remember that 700 words is the absolute limit, and be sure to include the "solution" in that wordcount. Stay away from too much sex and violence (at least in your story) and also avoid politics, religion, or anything controversial. And whatever you do, don't put a pet in jeopardy. Seriously.

Final thoughts

I'm told that we'll soon wrap up this "themed" week about writing for non-mystery magazines, so it might be appropriate to mention several different sources of market information. They are (1) the Internet, (2) the print reference Novel & Short Story Writer's Market, (3) trade magazines like Writer's Digest and The Writer, and (4) the publications themselves. Any of these should tell you whether certain markets would be receptive to mystery/crime submissions.

Another option for getting your short stories published is of course to ignore the traditional venues altogether and--although I've not personally waded into those waters--self-publish them via Amazon and elsewhere. Steve Liskow, our latest employee at the SleuthSayers asylum, posted an extremely helpful column recently, on the subject of self-publishing--here's a link.

In summary, you can sell mystery stories to mystery magazines, non-mystery stories to non-mystery magazines, or (as in my long list above) mystery stories to non-mystery magazines. The only thing I've not yet done is sell a non-mystery story to a mystery magazine. So the only formula that doesn't work is NMS = MM.

Main thing is, don't let your completed mystery manuscripts sit there in a drawer, as I once did. If they're good enough, they'll find a home and a readership. And if you do choose to submit them to traditional markets, remember that there are also places other than the big mystery mags that might take them.

Go ye, and procrastinate no more.