Showing posts with label Down & Out Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Down & Out Books. Show all posts

13 April 2018

Agatha Award Finalists: Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

The annual Malice Domestic convention is right around the corner—April 27-29 in Bethesda, Maryland—and two of us SleuthSayers have stories up for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story: Barb Goffman with “Whose Wine is it Anyway?” and me (Art Taylor!) with  “A Necessary Ingredient” (mine with ties to other SleuthSayers as well, since the anthology which includes it, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea, was co-edited by Paul D. Marks and features stories by several members of our group too). Three other fine writers/fine stories round out the slate: Gretchen Archer’s “Double Deck the Halls,” Debra H. Goldstein’s “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” and Gigi Pandian’s “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn.” The Agatha Awards will be presented at the annual Agatha Awards Banquet on Saturday evening, April 28.



In advance of the big weekend, I invited the finalists to answer a question about their nominated stories, and I’m glad to share these reflections here. Please note that you can read each story for free through links in the paragraph above and in the headers to each response below. 

Here’s the question: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing your particular short story and how did you overcome it?

And the responses, in alphabetical order by last name:

Gretchen Archer on “Double Deck the Halls”

The biggest challenge I faced writing “Double Deck the Halls” was also the most fun. One of my characters, in dire need of salvation, couldn’t speak. She could only communicate by humming Christmas carols. My mission, as her author, was to find appropriate song lyrics for her to hum so she could help her rescuer, a senior citizen with nothing but the retirement accessories she had on her person, save her. First, the lyrics had to fit the story, as in answer specific questions and convey detailed instructions. Not only that, the lyrics had to be in the public domain for me to use them. Writing a character who could only communicate in holiday tunes was so much fun. (And challenging!) 

Barb Goffman on “Whose Wine is it Anyway” from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet 

My biggest challenge in writing the story was overcoming the issue that I rarely drink wine (or any alcohol) and didn't know enough about cabernet to use it properly in a story. (I know. Sacrilege!) The anthology requirements were that the story had to involve a mystery/crime involving cabernet and it should be lighthearted. So I started doing research. I scoured the internet, reading wine websites, wine blogs, even newspaper stories involving wine. The most interesting item I came across was a Japanese hotel that fills its hot tubs with red wine, but I couldn't come up with a good idea stemming from that tidbit.

 Finally I read about how some people can be fatally allergic to the sulfites in red wine, including cabernet sauvignon, and an idea began forming. What came to me was a story about a seventy-year-old woman, days from retirement from a job she's loved for decades. But in these final hours, she realizes she hasn't been appreciated as she should have been. So she decides it's time to teach some lessons about the importance of caring more about people than appearances, and what I learned about wine allergies enabled me to make the story work. So the moral of my personal writing story here is that you don't have to be an expert on a topic to write about it. You can always learn the information you need to make your story work. Just keep at it.

Debra H. Goldstein on “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine 

“The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” combines the impact of an exchange between a nine-year-old boy and an adult during a Civil Rights era evening where there is a murder in a house where the sheets are changed more than once a night. My biggest challenge was to make the voices of the child and the adult believable and recognizable to the reader. It was easy to establish the heat and tension of the setting of a 1960’s non-air-conditioned kitchen through references to the linoleum floor, catching a breeze through the screen door, and grabbing a glass from the drainboard, but making the characters’ voices realistic rather than stereotypical required nuanced layering of details. Rather than pounding the reader with what the characters said, wore, thought, and did, my challenge was to present a sufficient build up of these things, sentence by sentence, to trigger each reader’s personal reactions and memories. By engaging the reader through evoked recollections or associations, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” hopefully succeeds in establishing and resolving a crime while contrasting the innocence and bravado of childhood as it is lost with an adult’s acceptance of life as it is. 

Gigi Pandian on “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn”
 
I write fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, stories in which a big part of the fun is that clues are hidden in plain sight for the reader. “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” is a locked-room mystery, the style of mystery popularized in the Golden Age of detective fiction that takes puzzle plots to the extreme by solving a seemingly impossible puzzle.

Whenever I begin writing a new locked-room story, my biggest challenge is to set up a clever twist so the big reveal is satisfying to the reader—something that seems impossible, but if you pay attention closely, you can see what really happened.

I’ve always loved puzzle plot stories with a satisfying twist; they epitomize why I love mystery. Locked-room mysteries are the ultimate puzzle, and can be the foundation to build so much more into a story. Impossible crime stories frequently include hints of the supernatural, creating a Gothic atmosphere that’s like reading a ghost story—but there’s always a rational explanation.

To meet the challenge of coming up with fresh ideas for impossible crime stories, my process is that I work first on a paper notebook that I fill with ideas. Sometimes a short story comes together quickly, and sometimes it can take years between when I think of an initial idea and when the ideas come together to make the twist successful. There’s one story draft I wrote five years ago, and I’m not yet satisfied with the ending so I haven’t send it out yet! But happily, I’ve written enough impossible crime stories that turned out successfully that I have a collection of Jaya Jones locked-room mysteries being published later this year.

The twist in “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” was also challenging because there’s a double-twist at the end. That made it one of my most challenging—but also satisfying—stories I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Art Taylor on “A Necessary Ingredient” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea

Though I was pleased to have been invited to contribute a story to a private eye anthology and though I love and often teach works by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, etc. in my classes at George Mason University, I’m not actually a regular writer of private eye stories and don't think I've ever written anything traditionally hard-boiled. I think I’ve only had two PI stories published before—one a parody, the other steeped in the fantastic—and while I wanted to write this one a little more straight, the small-town North Carolina setting (my assigned region to help the anthology’s stretch “from sea to shining sea”) also posed some challenges  in terms of any potential hard-boiled leanings: No mean streets in my town for my main character to go down, for example.

My solution? With "A Necessary Ingredient," I tried to put yet another twist on the conventional PI tale—Ambrose Thornton has “Private Detective” on his office door but he’s really just an unassuming guy seeking a quiet spot to read old crime novels—and then I drew as much on the traditions of regional crime fiction, in the spirit of Margaret Maron, for example, as I did on the legacy of Hammett, Chandler, or Macdonald in terms of crafting character, setting, and plot. When a new chef in town tasks Thornton with finding a special bean prized in French cooking (a bit of gentrification, this little restaurant), our detective sets out not down any means streets but instead on a tour of local farmer’s markets, roadside vegetable stands, and greenhouses. And while Ambrose references a couple of classic gumshoes here and there, a key twist in the story offers my own nod toward Maron's influences—hopefully keeping the balance of several traditions in play and satisfying readers across a wider spectrum.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Malice in just a couple of weeks! 

31 January 2017

Editing from Sea to Shining Sea

by Paul D. Marks

Anton Graff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, an anthology of private eye stories (bet you couldn’t figure that out from the title) that I co-edited with Andy McAleer was released yesterday. And while I think it’s a great book with a terrific variety of writers and PI stories—and I hope you’ll all pick up a copy—that’s not exactly what I’m going to talk about here. But it is the jumping off point. And while this might be a little on the BSP side, it’s really meant to talk about the editing process for an anthology.

This is the second volume in the Coast to Coast series, so my second at bat wearing the editor’s green eyeshade.

The process is interesting, at least to me. Maybe once I’ve edited twenty books the novelty will have worn off. But right now everything about it is new and exciting. One of the most unusual aspects of the Coast to Coast editing process is that Andy and I have worked together on two volumes now, and we’ve been friends for many years, and yet we’ve never met in person. We’ve done all of our editing via email, snail mail, phone, etc… So I thought it might be fun to include Andy in this blog and get some of his thoughts on the editing process.

The first step in the process is coming up with a subject or theme for the book. The first volume was Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, which is pretty much what the title says, murders across the country, from coast to coast.

Private Eyes is the topic for the second volume. And we’re currently thinking up something for the third, though I think we know what it’s going to be….

Next you have to figure out who would be right for the topic. And in our case, since one of the themes is “coast to coast” we have to try to find people from across the country who would be good for that topic and who could set their stories dotted across the map. So even though there might be ten people in L.A. who would be great for the subject matter, we can’t use them all. And the absolute hardest part of the process for me is not being able to use all the great writers out there and having to whittle it down. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and don’t feel bad if you haven’t been asked. There’s a lot of different criteria that goes into choosing authors and one of them with these volumes in particular is trying to get people from various parts of the country, that coast to coast thing you know. Still it pains me when I can’t ask certain people or when people ask me if they can be in it, but for one reason or another we have to say no.

Since these volumes are not done via an open submissions process, we ask people to contribute. Some say yes, others have other commitments. And you have to try again—until you get the right mix—which is fine because there’s a lot of great writers out there. But with our series, as I said, we have the added dimension of having to be spread out from coast to coast so that does make it a little more difficult. But eventually you get your batting lineup. One major hurdle crossed.

Andy McAleer
According to Andy the hardest part of editing was: “…the fear of rejection from authors. I set my heights rather high for the authors I wanted. I wanted authors who knew the PI genre backwards and forwards and knew how to use that knowledge to tell a great story. Everyone I asked very generously agreed to contribute a story. Then I’m like, what was I worried about!”

While waiting for the stories to come in and since we’re both writers as well as editors, Andy and I are working on our own stories for the volume. We’re also in touch with the publisher and his people about cover art, contracts, and all the various other minutia that goes into getting it all together.

Andy said this about his experience writing his story for the anthology: “It was very difficult for me. In this case my story ‘King’s Quarter’ was the first piece of fiction I’d written since I’d returned home from Afghanistan three years prior. I just couldn’t create. So I boxed myself in by making promises I had to keep, having little faith I could make it happen. But like all the other contributors I made a promise to do something and to do it on time. I wasn't about to let my partners in crime—especially Paul—down. This forced me to write and complete what I started.”

As the deadline approaches the stories start to come in and we have to set about reading them. Usually a quick-ish first read just to get the gist and make sure most of the nuts and bolts are in place. Then deeper reads. And as the deadline for getting the stories in gets closer and some still haven’t come in you start panicking. So you begin to nudge people. On one of the volumes one person had to drop out, but we had enough stories to cover.

As Andy says, “Paul and I were committed to getting the manuscript into the hands of our publisher, Down & Out Books, on their schedule not ours. We already knew we had professional authors working with us, so we knew we were going to get great stories in manuscript form—and get them on time!”

Then the editing process begins in earnest, assisted by my wife Amy, who is a pretty darn good editor. As a writer, I know I don’t like it when editors change my words or voice or other things in too big a way. Or when they get captious on me. Or, when they’ve heard some “rule” from on high and now everything/everyone has to follow that rule. One of the reasons I wanted to move out of screenwriting was to have less chefs spoiling the stew, so to speak. So I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for authors and their words. And I hate to change those words ’cause I know how much I hate to be changed. I want to keep the authors’ voices and visions intact. I think that’s important. I will suggest changes if I see problems. I just don’t want to stomp on the voice of the author. And Down & Out was great in respecting our request to be able to do that.

Andy’s best advice for would-be editors: “PLAN. Respect the authors’ and publisher’s time. Paul and I were good about having a definitive game plan before we approached Down & Out with the idea of a second volume of Coast to Coast. We made sure we had realistic deadlines for the contributors and hoped they would find Coast to Coast a worthy project. After the publisher found this acceptable we approached the authors and they seemed okay with the specs. We also created story guidelines so the authors would not have to guess what we wanted. Word limit, what locations in the country were available since we didn’t want multiple stories from the same city—and of course, a private eye had to be the central figure. Last advice, once you have the authors aboard—if they’re professionals—just leave ’em alone. They’ll get the job done.”

Moi
After we do our edit, it goes to the publisher for their edits. Then back to us. And sometimes the publisher wants changes and we try to work with them so everyone is happy. Or we or they will question some colloquialism or other thing and we’ll have to go back to the author to make sure it’s what they want to say. Eventually, the editing gets done. Then it goes back to the publisher for the final touches, putting it all together, marketing and all that good stuff until release day. And after that it’s nothing but glory, right? Right… Awards, fame, riches, groupies. Ah, the glamorous life of the writer.

Andy summed up what he liked most about working on this anthology: “The stories cover so many interesting areas of the country, so I know I had a lot of fun learning about local customs and local word usage. That’s the great thing about crime fiction—you have fun while learning. Seeing the finished project. Something that represents eighteen months of work—satisfying—but best of all is seeing your fellow authors in print, knowing that they created something original for this volume with the intent of pleasing their readers.”

And then it’s on to the next volume before we even have time to hit the Left Bank for a quick absinthe and rest on our laurels.

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Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.