Showing posts with label Bouchercon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bouchercon. Show all posts

16 June 2018

Conference Memories


by John M. Floyd



I haven't been to a writers' conference in a while, although I'm scheduled for at least three in the coming months. But I've been reading a lot of blogs and other posts by writer friends who have been attending conferences regularly. Besides making me want to go also, it's reminded me of things, good and bad and ugly, that have happened to me at conferences in the past.

Here are some that stand out in my memory:



- Ten or twelve years ago, at "Murder in the Magic City" in Birmingham, I wound up sitting beside author Harley Jane Kozak during a presentation. We chatted awhile, and even though I didn't recognize her name I said, "Don't I know you? You sure look familiar." Neither of us could figure out where our paths might've crossed before, and I couldn't help noticing--and being puzzled by--the amusement on her face. Only later did I realize why she had looked so familiar: she was an actress as well as a writer, and I'd watched her on TV the night before, in Arachnophobia.

- Highs and lows: At Bouchercon in Baltimore several years ago, two different ladies approached me after seeing my name tag and said they loved Angela Potts (one of my series characters). Music to my ears. Later at that same conference, a guy asked me if I was famous. I said, "No, sadly, I'm not." He said, "Can you point me to somebody who is?"


- Before my first and only trip to the Edgar ceremony in New York, the publisher of my books told me to try to get a photo of me with Stephen King, who was up for Best Novel that year. At the reception, I reminded my wife Carolyn of this, and she pointed to King and said, "Well, there he is--go talk to him." I gave her my cell phone to take the picture with, walked over to SK, and he was kind enough to chat with me for a minute or two. When I got back to our table I saw Carolyn looking at my phone and said, "Did you get it?" She looked up at me and said, "Get what? I was texting with Karen [our daughter]."

- When I spotted Otto Penzler in the midst of a huge crowd in the lobby of the conference hotel at the Raleigh Bouchercon I asked him, "Do you know everyone here?" He smiled and said, "No. But everyone here knows me." I loved that. And I bet he was right.

- I was once invited by author Steve Hamilton, who was a fellow IBM employee at the time, to a private screening of a short film adapted from one of his stories. The story was "A Shovel With My Name on It," and the resulting movie was retitled "The Shovel," and starred David Strathairn. That gathering remains one of my most enjoyable experiences at a writers' conference. This was at another "Murder in the Magic City"--Jan Burke and Steve were the guests of honor that year, and two of the kindest writers I've ever met.

- I think I mentioned this in a SleuthSayers post awhile back, but I happened to meet Lee Child at a Bouchercon in Cleveland not long after he had served as guest editor for Otto Penzler's annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology. That was one of the years when one of my stories' titles was mentioned in the appendix of the book, a story that made the top 50 but not the top 20. I remember babbling my thanks to Child for that mention of my story, even though the story itself didn't get included in the book. Only later did I learn that those top 50 are chosen by Otto, and then the guest editor picks the top 20 . . . so what I had done was thank Mr. Child for NOT choosing my story. (Sigh.)

- At a Bouchercon several years ago I was crossing a hotel lobby when I was hailed by unnamed Editor #1, who informed me that they'd decided to publish one of my submitted stories. While I was thrilled to hear that news, I was a little worried too, because Editor #1 had held onto that story for a long time and hadn't responded to my inquiries about its status--so I had since given up and submitted it elsewhere, to unnamed Editor #2. After leaving Editor #1 (on one side of the lobby), I quickly searched out and reported to Editor #2 (on the other side of the lobby) that the story I'd submitted to their publication was now no longer available. Editor #2 accepted my apology and graciously agreed to withdraw that story from consideration, and all was well, but I went to bed that night resolving to never again send a story someplace before being absolutely certain that it was no longer being considered elsewhere. (Have I mentioned that this is a crazy business?)

- I attended a writers' conference four or five years ago that was held at one of he big casinos on the Gulf Coast. I had a good time and attended some educational and informative panels, but I must tell you, attendance at some of those sessions was sparse. That happens, when gambling and/or sun-and-sand are close by. I was reminded of the IBM banking conferences I attended in south Florida in the Good Old Days. I specialized in finance at IBM, so I went to a lot of those conventions, and anytime questions arose about a particular banker's absence from a particular session, the answer was always "He couldn't be here--he had to go study float management." In other words, he was outside at the pool. Another memory of conferences and conventions held in casino locations: my clothes always smelled like tobacco-smoke afterward.

- At one conference reception, I took what I thought was a sausage ball from a tray of hors d'oeuvres (in Mississippi we call them horse divers) and it turned out to be a piece of liver. I chomped down on it just as someone behind me, with a lady's voice, said, "Excuse me, aren't you John Floyd?" I am usually unknown to anyone outside the walls of our home, so I turned to say hello--at the very same moment that my taste buds sent a red-alert message to my brain that this was liver and not sausage. I remember gagging violently and squeezing my eyes shut, and when I finally opened them again whoever was behind me had disappeared/fled. To this day I hope she just chose to wander off before she saw my look of agony, but I doubt it. (Another sigh.)

- One of the sessions I attended at a writers conference in Mobile a few years ago featured a young woman teaching writers how to set up their own websites. I wasn't really interested, but I sat down and started listening to her anyway. The following weekend, after getting back home, I used what I had learned to create my own site, from scratch, and it went live that Sunday night. I can't remember the name of the presenter, but I owe her a great debt. Sometimes those panel sessions and presentations pay off!

- At the top of my "bad" list is an experience my wife and I once had at a conference hotel: the alarm clock was set wrong and couldn't be changed, the closet-rods were mounted too low to allow normal clothes to hang properly (much less those as long as mine), the shower head couldn't be adjusted, the bedside radio turned itself on in the middle of the night and couldn't be reset (or unplugged), a shelf immediately above the sink was too large to allow us to bend over and spit after brushing our teeth, our view from the window was a brick wall ten feet away, every single light in the room was too dim, the peephole in the door was set at waist-height, etc., etc.--we counted almost two dozen aggravations and inconveniences. And most of these weren't things that were malfunctioning--they were just designed that way. A week earlier we'd been to one of my class reunions, where we had to stay at a Super 8 Motel (the only lodging in that town); its nightly rate was several hundred dollars less than this conference hotel, and it was ten times more guest-friendly. Just saying.

- At the top of my "good" list for conferences are meetings at the bar (or dinner or elsewhere) with some of my heroes, heroines, and online acquaintances. I won't list names here for fear of leaving someone out, but you know who you are. Seeing and talking with and getting to know other writers is, to me, by far the best reason to attend any of these conferences. Great memories!



And that's my pitch, for today. What are some of your highlights and horror-stories about conferences you've been to?

Inquiring attendees want to know . . .


11 June 2018

Motivation or Get Outta That Rut?



Jan Grape and daughter Karla J. Lee
by Jan Grape

I think all writers sometimes feel in a rut. 

I think all creative people sometimes feel in a rut.

Maybe even a lot of people sometimes feel they're in a rut.

My daughter and I were having this conversation the other night.

She works eight or nine hours a day in an office, spending a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Then there's the 20-30-40 minute drive home depending on  the traffic. By the time she walks into her house and put on her comfortable shorts and T-shirt, pours a glass of wine and walks outside to her deck overlooking a river, all she wants to do is chillax. She makes a quick dinner and vegges out in front of the TV until bedtime.

She's a songwriter but has trouble getting motivated to pick up her  ukulele and creating a song. "I think I'm in a rut," she says.

Do y'all know that ukuleles are very popular again? When I was a young girl I would go visit my dad and bonus mom in the summer. I would beg my dad to play his uke and sing. And he would often agree. He played songs like "Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue" or "I Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack" or "Lazy Bones." I love it. Now there are little pockets of uke players all over the country. Think I even saw a singer/player on THE VOICE tv show. (but I digress.) 

I understand being in a rut. I'm retired and have time to write, but I've often listened to my lazy self and after doing a few chores or trying to get my allergies or arthritis pain under control, I wind up vegging in front of the TV and never manage to get a word written on my next story. It seems that I'm in a rut.

It's all about motivation.

 How do you get motivated? What works for me may not work for you but I have to sit myself down and realize that I am in a rut with my life and decide to do something about it. 

Calling a good friend I haven't seen in months and inviting she and her daughter to meet me at a new Tex-Mex restaurant I've been wanting to try. 

Signing up for Yoga class. Signing up to volunteer someplace: meals on wheels, local library, visiting a children's hospital or nursing home each week, helping out at a soup kitchen. Just something to make it out of that rut.  Take a daily walk, learn to quilt or paint or to play piano. You can fill your days with something different.

If you're retired like I am, when you get up in the morning, fix your hair and make up if you're female, shave if male and dress if going to an office. Check your day planner then go to your writing work space.

Several years ago I was at a Bouchercon and Sue Grafton was giving a talk to four or five hundred people and she said if you have sat down at your computer and your writing time is three hours, stay there for three hours. Even if you stare at the computer screen and only write the word THE. Sit there for the full three hours.  Write something, anything and once you do this, hopefully, only one time of three hours with a blank screen, your creative muse will kick in. Because who wants to sit writing nothing for more than one day?  

If you are still working, it's a little different. And you are the only one who can decide what works best for you. Get up an hour earlier to write each day or three days a week. Or set your goal to write four hours a day on Saturday and four hours a day on Sunday. Whatever works for you. 

Just do something during the week that gets you out of your rut. Pack a sack lunch and go outside to eat in the park. Buy a ticket to a concert on a Friday night. Spend Sunday afternoon in a museum. 

You can decide to make your own happiness and to get out of your rut, JUST DO IT. 





25 May 2018

Suspense In Stories That Aren't Suspense Fiction

By Art Taylor

In a couple of weeks I'm going to be leading a presentation and workshop at the 4th Annual Spring Writing Intensive at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The session is about crafting suspense, and it borrows its title from the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog—"Something Is Going To Happen"—but when I was planning this with the program's organizers, they threw in a surprise: They had already scheduled a session on genre fiction, and they didn't want mine to be focused on mysteries.

Crafting suspense but not in the mystery genre?

Well, I'll admit some surprise at the request—but only since people who ask me to present at these kinds of gatherings usually want me talking about genre fiction. Truth is, I think the broader scope here actually makes for a more interesting discussion—about the range of different approaches available for capturing a reader's curiosity, introducing the stakes of a plot, getting that reader invested, getting him or her to turn that next page.

Here's the full description of my session:

Hooking your readers with a killer opening—that’s a must. But how do you get them to turn not just the first page but the next too? and then the next? …and the next? Crafting suspense may seem like the special province of crime fiction writers, but literary writers and genre writers both can profit from heightening tension, escalating conflict, tossing in the unexpected left turn, and generally keeping readers focused on the idea that “something is going to happen,” (to borrow the title of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s weekly blog). This session draws on work by writers including Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and Scott Turow to illustrate various techniques for incorporating suspense into your own work.

...though as I'm prepping for the session itself, and here with a couple of recent events, I'm considering substituting a couple of authors for those mentioned above.

I'm writing this post just as news comes out about the death of Philip Roth, one of my own favorite novelists, and earlier this week I picked up the collection Last Stories by William Trevor, who died in 2016—another favorite writer and one of the great masters of the short story, not just now but ever. Neither of these writers is known for flashy, grabby openings; in fact, the New York Times' book review of Trevor's Last Stories commented directly on his low-key approach: "Most notably, his stories open with comments so blandly informational, so plain and unnoticeable, that they arouse no expectation and appear to promise little."

And yet, I find myself drawn in quickly to Trevor's stories, to stakes which are at once high but muted, their intensity downplayed but maybe all the more engaging for it.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Trevor's "Making Conversation" from this final collection:

'Yes?' Olivia says on the answering system when the doorbell rings in the middle of The Return of the Thin Man. The summons is an irritation on a Sunday afternoon, when it couldn't possibly be the meter-man or the postman, and it's most unlikely to be Courtney Haynes, the porter.

A woman's voice crackles back at her but Olivia can't hear what she says. More distinctly, the dialogue of the film reaches her from the sitting room. 'Cocktail time,' William Powell is saying, and there's the barking of a dog. The man Olivia lives with laughs.

'I'm sorry,' Olivia says in the hall. 'I can't quite hear you.'

'I'm not used to these answering gadgets.' The woman's voice is clearer now. There is a pause, and then: 'Is my husband there?'

'Your husband?' Frowning, more irritated than she has been, Olivia suggests the wrong bell has been rung.

'Oh, no,' the voice insists. 'Oh, no.'
The opening scene continues on for three more short paragraphs, but this is enough, I think. The opening scenes set the stage for all that follows: Two women connected by the husband of one of them, their conversation about those connections (though the title "Making Conversation" refers to something else entirely). The pace is leisurely, it would be charitable to say—a sketch of a Sunday afternoon, a small interruption. So is there... suspense?

Certainly there are questions raised here, both within the scene and pointing further ahead. What was said in that crackle that Olivia doesn't hear? Is the woman at the wrong address? Does Olivia know her husband? Is he perhaps even the man sitting there watching Return of the Thin Man?

Spoiler alert, that's not him, but as for Olivia knowing the woman's husband at all....

Conventional approaches to suspense might require the drama to be amped up more forcefully. Not a ring of the doorbell but a blaring of it—the bell pushed and held. Or someone pounding on the door itself. Not a voice lost in a crackle but a voice screaming, shouting, demanding. The irritation would become anxiety or fear. That word insists would need to tremble with a little more menace.

And yet I find myself drawn forward—and the story amply rewards, mysteries in bloom, though perhaps not the kinds of mysteries we think of with genre fiction.

As for Philip Roth, I just reread the opening of my favorite of his books, The Human Stain. I'll quote the first two paragraphs—and you can find the full first section of the opening chapter at the Random House website here:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail—a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
No rush of suspense here—none that I can see—and not even drama in the sense of conventional scene-building. It's all exposition and description. But the foundation for tension is laid: in the words affair and confided, for example; in the contrasts between the idea of an affair and the description of "church-ruled, hardworking goodwives" and "stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it"; in the contrast between miseries "concealed" and a face which "hide[s] nothing"; and then in the disparity between the main characters' ages—71 and 34—and their educational backgrounds, a classics professor and a high school dropout.

Needless to say, undramatic as all this is, there's plenty of drama ahead.

But does this count as suspense as well?

How about if you add in the chapter title looming over this bit of confidence? "Everyone Knows." 

Such are the questions I'm going to try to explore in my session at St. John's—perhaps not with these passages, which I've chosen mainly because Trevor and Roth have been on my mind today, this week, but with similar ones, looking to see how writers introduce small bits of tension and conflict from the start, how they raise the stakes bit by bit, often in excruciating ways, and, of course, what we other writers might learn from these moves.

Anthony Award News


A bit of news since my last post here: I'm honored that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award for Best Short Story, alongside stories by my fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman and by Susana Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. As I've mentioned before, my story was part of the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, also a finalist for an Anthony in the anthology category, and featuring stories by several more of our SleuthSayers family. Been a great year for this anthology, and I'm thrilled to have been invited to be part of it. Oh! And I hope you'll enjoy the story itself, which you can read here for free.

See you all at Bouchercon in just a few months!

28 April 2018

When is a Mystery not a Mystery?

by Melodie Campbell

Homeless. Not me, luckily. I still have four walls and a roof plus dog on the couch. But my kick-ass story, A Ship Called Pandora, that had a wonderful future and clear economic security is now homeless.

The genres are tricky things. If I write a mystery and set it in the past, it’s considered a historical mystery. So, if we are classifying it, we would call it a Mystery first, and then Historical, as a subgenre of mystery genre. Everyone’s happy.

But what if I set it in the future?

This is exactly what has happened to me recently. For the very first time, I was asked to write a crime story for an anthology, without going through the usual submission process. The anthology had the delightful premise: anything goes. That is, I could write any subgenre, and set it anywhere, anytime. *rubs hands in delight*

A particular story had been percolating in my brain for weeks, pounding to get out. My friends and readers know that I like writing from the other side of the crime spectrum. In The Goddaughter series, I write from the point of view of a mob Goddaughter who really doesn’t want to be one, but keeps having to pull off heists to bail out her family. The books are fun, and weirdly, justice is done by the end, regardless of her family connections.

So this new story was going to feature a kick-ass female marshal from the witness protection program. Her job is to arrange the ‘hide’ after someone has testified in court. Thing is, the transportation is by space travel, because the plot is set far in the future.

I sent it to the anthology editors. They loved it. One of my best twists ever, they said. They liked the fact that it was hard-edged – unusual for me. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then two months later, they came back. The publisher was having second thoughts. He thought the science fiction setting would not be a good fit for a mystery anthology. *author reaches for gun*

So they asked if they could reprint one of my award-winning stories instead. I gave them a favourite (Hook, Line and Sinker) that was also hard-edged. This is the one that had me sharing a literary shortlist with Margaret Atwood (Atwood won.) It would have a second life, which is always nice.
Meanwhile, I had this story on my hands, one that everyone loved, written especially for an anthology, that was now homeless. *pass the scotch*

This was the time of Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. I was hanging with the AHMM gang, who were recording me reading my own work, Santa Baby, for a podcast to go up on their site. (It’s there now *does happy dance*) So I asked if they would be interested in reading it.

Sure, was the answer. Sometimes they publish stories set in the near future. I didn’t think this one would qualify. I was right.

They didn’t take it. But they did suggest sending it to their sister Dell mag, Asimov’s Science Fiction Mag.  I might. But I'd rather have a mystery market.

My point is this: Usually, we classify a story as a mystery if the plot is a mystery. The setting comes second. A historical mystery is still classified as a mystery. A mystery with a strong romance element is still a mystery if the plot is a mystery plot. But in the case of a future setting, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The setting is key to the classification.

I probed a bit among my author contacts. One said that he had written a series billed as sci-fi mystery, and this was his baffling and witty conclusion: he managed to alienate the mystery readers, and confuse the sci-fi readers. Sales were a lot better when they reclassified the thing as sci-fi only

So to answer that initial question: When Is a Mystery not a Mystery? When it’s set in the future.

What about you? Have you come across this before? Any suggestions?

UPDATE:   The intrepid editors at Mystery Weekly Magazine say they love A Ship Called Pandora.  It comes out soon. 

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
on AMAZON


Here's another fun scifi crossgenre book: CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier… especially when you're also a spy!
(Good thing I had a traditional publisher for this one. Because I have NO IDEA where to promote this.)

10 April 2018

Epiphany of a Blue-Collar Writer

by Michael Bracken

Art Taylor and me trying to out-charm one another.
At the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, Art Taylor and I were paired for Speed Dating, an event in which pairs of authors move from table to table around a room and spend a shared two minutes at each table introducing ourselves and our work to mystery fans. The instructions were to speak for one minute each, the beginning, mid-point, and end time of our two minutes announced by the ringing of a bell. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, authors were expected to respond to the neutral stimulus of the bell by launching immediately into a conditioned response: blatant self-promotion. The premise seemed a bit automatonic to me.

I “knew” Art prior to this pairing because we occasionally crossed paths on the Internet and spoke for a few minutes at the Short Mystery Fiction Society lunch at the New Orleans Bouchercon in 2016. So, I asked, via email, if he might be interested in spicing things up. Art may look like a mild-mannered English professor, but deep down he’s quite the radical, and we kicked around several ideas.

We didn’t have an opportunity to test drive our ideas before Speed Dating began Thursday morning, so Robert and Terri Lopresti had the misfortune of being first to witness our unrehearsed song-and-dance. Art and I soon fell into a groove, though, and by the time we presented at our last table we had perfected a Broadway-worthy performance.

Rather than each of us filling a minute talking about our work and ourselves, I introduced Art and he talked about “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning), a 2017 Anthony Award nominee. Then he introduced me and I discussed “Dixie Quickies” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #1). We wrapped things up by suggesting that readers interested in learning more about our work purchase Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books) because they could easily compare and contrast how we took the same assignment and created radically different stories. (Art’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha; my “Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38” may only be eligible for an honorary Harlan Ellison longest title award.)

And here’s where this incredibly long anecdote is leading: While preparing our introductions, we needed, given the time constraints, to focus on one key aspect of the other’s writing career that would be memorable and easy to relate to listeners who might know nothing about us. In my introduction of Art, I focused on the number of awards and award nominations he’s received. In his introduction of me, Art focused on the number of short stories I’ve written.

In our emails leading up to this decision, I compared us to Walmart and Tiffany. (To stretch this analogy to the absurd: I have a store on every corner, filled with mass-produced goods suitable for every consumer; Art has only a few locations, each offering polished jewels to those with refined taste.) Art was polite enough not to agree with my self-assessment.

I long ago accepted my place in the writing hierarchy: I am a blue-collar writer, the type of grunt who gets up each morning, puts on his writer pants, and produces words.

Day in. Day out.

I do my best, my work gets published, and I’ve established myself as a solid middle-of-the-anthology, back-of-the-magazine writer who rarely misses deadlines. When I was younger, I bemoaned my place in the literary universe. I was dismayed by the world’s failure to recognize my genius (a common ailment among the young who feel the world owes them something just for participating) and was frustrated when I attended conventions and sat on panels with writers who had produced a mere handful of stories yet had somehow captured the zeitgeist of the moment.

That changed about ten years ago.

There’s nothing like heart surgery to refocus your attention on what’s important, but my epiphany, such as it was, didn’t arrive in a flash; it developed slowly. After quadruple heart bypass surgery in September 2008, three days after turning 51, I realized I was a grouchy old writer, complaining about the new-fangled publishing world and the writers who inhabit it. I also realized I had accomplished what many writers of my generation had not: I had survived—not just literally, thanks to surgery, but literarily as well. Many of the writers who captured the zeitgeist of their time were of their time and have since burned out, stopped writing, and turned to other things. By plodding along as a blue-collar writer, producing words day in and day out, I created, and continue to create, a substantial body of work.

On a personal level, I learned be happy, to enjoy what I have rather than stress about what I haven’t. On a professional level, that meant a return to writing for the joy of writing, a refocus on the creative act rather than on the end goal of publication, fame, and fortune. Surprisingly, or perhaps not to those who’ve experienced something similar, I not only enjoy the act of writing more than ever before, but I am reaping unexpected benefits.

Because I now realize the publishing world owes me nothing—that there are no prizes just for participating—I enjoy seeing my name on the cover of a magazine, I appreciate the kind words of a reader, and I share the joy of other writers’ achievements.

And if we’re ever paired up for Speed Dating, let’s try to make it fun!

Interested in playing compare and contrast? Art Taylor and I have stories in the current issue of Down & Out: The Magazine. Later this month, I will read my D&O story, “Texas Sundown,” at Noir at the Bar Dallas. Join us, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas, Texas. In other news: “My Stripper Past” appears in Pulp Adventures #28 and “One Last Job,” wherein I discuss the genesis of my recent Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “The Mourning Man,” is a guest post at Trace Evidence.

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.

GOT IT?

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, WAS IT?

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.”

THAT THEN?

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.”

HAD ENOUGH?

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.”

THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT

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.”

06 December 2017

Some Short Story Collections by Great Living Mystery Writers

by Robert Lopresti

Last week I wrote about Bouchercon and said that this time I would provide my favorite quotations from the con.  But here it is holiday shopping season.  So this seemed more appropriate.

I mentioned being on a panel at Bouchercon called "Reader Recommends."  I went there determined to be the champion of short stories.  I even prepared a list of recommendations.  To make the list a book had to be a) a collection (not an anthology), b) by a living author, c) currently in print, and d) contain a story I consider wonderful. 

Apologies to those not included.  I had to stop at two pages.



Some Short Story Collections by Great Living Mystery Writers

The mystery field started with short stories and some of the best work is still being done there.  Here are some single-author collections by current leaders in the field.

Block, Lawrence.  Enough Rope.  The MWA Grand Master can write funny, noir, hardboiled, whatever he sets his mind to.  Try “Hot Eyes, Cold Eyes” and follow the twists.

Dubois, Brendan.  The Hidden.  Award-winner Dubois is one of the most popular authors in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  In this collection, “The Final Ballot” is a brilliant tale about a blue-collar woman seeking justice, or at least vengeance, when her daughter is attacked by the son of a presidential candidate.

Estleman, Loren D.  Detroit is Our Beat.  Estleman is best known for his books about private eye Amos Walker, but try these stories about the Four Horsemen, the only racket squad cops left in Detroit after everyone else has gone off to fight the Nazis.  Try “Death Without Parole,” about a cop killer who walks free on a technicality, but not for long.

Forsyth, Frederick.  No Comebacks.  Known for his thriller novels, Forsyth   explores different worlds in the short form.  “Privilege” is a brilliant legal David-and-Goliath story.

Floyd, John M. Dreamland. Floyd is one of the most-published mystery authors in the short story realm.  Try “Hunters,” which starts out like a standard hitman tale, and takes a surprising direction.

Grafton, Sue.  Kinsey and Me. You know her novels but Grafton is one of the best living authors of PI short stories.  “A Poison That Leaves Not Trace” should convince you.

Hockensmith, Steve. Dear Mr. Holmes.  Hockensmith’s “Holmes on the Range” series is about two cowboy brothers, Old Red who is a brilliant but illiterate detective, and Big Red, his very funny Watson.

Lawton, R.T. 9 Historical Mysteries.  Lawton has five different series running in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  “False Keys” is the first story about a young pickpocket-in-training in the Paris of Louis the Fourteenth.

Lovesey, Peter.  The Sedgemoor Strangler and Other Stories. Master of the historical whodunit, Lovesey has several books of shorts.  This one is highlighted by “The Usual Table,” which keeps its secrets to the very end.

Muller, Marcia. The McCone Files.  Sharon McCone was more or less the first modern female PI character.  But quality, not just primacy, got Muller the Grand Master and Eye Awards.  “The Final Resting Place” won the Shamus Award for best PI story.

Powell, James.  A Dirge for Clowntown. Canadian Powell has an imagination like a machine gun, firing crazy ideas in all directions.  The first three stories, for example, are about Inspector Bozo, protecting the mean streets of Clowntown where residents are killed by being smacked in the face with poisoned pies, and an invasion by mimes is a major threat.

Pronzini, Bill. Small Felonies.  The MWA gave him the Grand Master Award.  The Private Eye Writers gave him the Eye Award for lifetime achievement.  And here he gives you fifty short mysteries.  Try “Incident in a Neighborhood Tavern,” starring his most famous character, the “Nameless” detective.

Rozan, S.J..  A Tale About A Tiger. Rozan has won prizes in both the long and short form.  Enjoy “Hoops,” featuring her NY private eye Bill Smith, which was nominated for an Edgar.
 
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn.  The Early Conundrums.  Rusch writes wonderful  mystery shorts.  Also novels.  Also science fiction.  The stories in this book are about unlikely partners: Spade, an obese software millionaire, and Paladin, a beautiful young private eye.  Together they keep science fiction conferences safe and solvent, while negotiating their own prickly antisocial relationship.

Warren, James Lincoln.  The 1% Solution. Award-winning author Warren is best known for tales of Alan Treviscoe, an 18th century insurance investigator, but his imagination travels broadly.  Each of the four novellas in this book is inspired by a great writer in our field.  “Shikari,” for example, is the best Sherlock Holmes story you will ever read that does not include Sherlock Holmes.


This list was compiled by award-winning mystery writer Robert Lopresti, who is far too modest to include his own Shanks on Crime.  roblopresti.com