Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts

17 June 2017

Talk/Don't Talk


by John M. Floyd



Everybody seems to like dialogue. It can do a lot of things for a story, writingwise: advance the plot, deepen characterization, "show" rather than "tell," improve the pacing, etc. Besides, its just fun to read. I think it was Lawrence Block who said nothing engages a reader like listening to the people in a story talking things over.

It's also fun to write. And it's easier to write, I think, than plain old description and exposition, because when my characters speak I can hear them in my head.
Enrolling in discourse

The truth is, most of my short stories are heavy on dialogue. I've even begun a few of them with the intention of writing the whole thing in nothing but dialogue. One such story, "Careers," was published in AHMM years ago and another, "Doctor's Orders," at Amazon Shorts--the first was 1000 words in length, the second 6000--and I can still remember the fun I had writing those. It'll probably be no surprise to you when I say that many of my favorite genre writers--Harlan Coben, Joe Lansdale, Nelson DeMille, Stephen King, Lee Child, Greg Iles, Janet Evanovich, Steve Hamilton, Carl Hiaasen, Robert B. Parker, Jack Ritchie, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake--are/were absolute wizards in the use of dialogue.

Some movies that are almost all-dialogue come to mind: Sleuth, Twelve Angry Men, The Hateful Eight, Proof, The Breakfast Club, and Glengarry Glen Ross, to name only a few. Several of these were originally plays, which makes sense.

BUT . . .

(You knew there had to be a but in there somewhere, right?)

. . . there are also some well-known stories that don't include much--or any--dialogue.

Personally, I've only created a few (none of them well-known) that are seriously short on dialogue. One of my stories, "Bennigan's Key," a 5000-worder published a few years ago in The Strand Magazine, has no dialogue at all. But since it was prose, I was at least able to use unspoken thoughts (sometimes called "internal monologue"). The same could be said about Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire."

The sound of silence

In movies, the no-dialogue approach is harder to pull off. After all, a screenwriter can't tell you what the characters are thinking. He or she has only two ways to convey information to the audience: action and speech. And if no one's speaking . . .

Even so, here are some excellent films that contain little or no dialogue: Life of Pi, Quest for Fire, The Bear, Cast Away, GravityAll Is Lost, The Revenant, Apocalypto, Walkabout, and The Gods Must Be Crazy.

One of those--All is Lost, a 2013 film with Robert Redford as a lone seaman who battles the elements--contains only one spoken word: a common and graphic expletive, uttered after a frustrating setback. And despite the fact that nothing else is said during its almost-two-hour run, the movie manages to hold the attention of the audience throughout. An impressive feat.

NOTE: It occurred to me only after jotting down those little-or-no-dialogue movies that all ten of them involve characters who spend the whole story walking around (or running around or floating around) in the Great Outdoors. I suppose a lot needs to be happening around them, to have any kind of interesting plotline.

Speaking your mind

Can you think of other movies, or stories or novels, that tell the entire tale using no dialogue? If you're a writer, have you published anything written that way? How hard was that to do? Have you written any plays, or other kinds of fiction, that use almost nothing but dialogue? If you had to pick one of the two extremes--all or none--which would you prefer?

"Let's hear it for a lot of talking," Dialogue Dude says.

Quiet Dude makes no reply . . .






03 June 2017

Zoning Out


by John M. Floyd



All of us have heard of it, and all of us have experienced it, from time to time (but never enough, it seems). It's special and wonderful and elusive--and no, it's not fame or fortune. What am I talking about?

It's something I've often heard called the Hot Zone, or just the Zone. It's a feeling, or a state of mind, that we as writers are sometimes able to achieve, and when we're reached it our ideas seem to blossom and the words seem to flow and the whole world just seems right. When we're in the Zone we're invincible, unstoppable; we can do no wrong. Author Carolyn Wheat once said, "Getting to that state, and staying there for as long as possible, is the key to writing success."


I used to play a lot of golf, and even though I'm weary of sports analogies, I can still recall the warm and weird "feeling" that came with the confidence of sometimes knowing, during a swing, that the ball was going to go exactly where I wanted it to go. (That feeling was rare, and many of the balls I hit have never been found--but when the sensation was there, it was exhilarating.) The same thing happens occasionally during other activities, including some of my writing sessions.

But I was serious when I said it's elusive. Ariel Gore observed, in her book How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead, "Where do I go to write a story? I don't. I just sit here, waiting and waiting and waiting till the story begins to come to me. Then I sit very, very, very still and try not to scare it off. If I grab at it, it might run under the sofa and hide."

John Simmons, in a piece he wrote for Writers & Artists, said, ". . . When I'm in that zone, I'm not always aware of it. It's a wonderful feeing when you realise afterwards that you've been there. I think it's part of the addiction of being a writer."

More quotes:

"An athlete has her training schedule, the date of the event stamped in her mind, the excitement of the crowded stadium to trigger her best. An actor has his script, his rehearsals and, when it matters, the glare of the lighted stage. The writer has nothing. Hence all the mad little rituals we hear about, having to use a 4H pencil, a Moleskine notebook, having to be in a particular spot, in a certain room, at exactly this time of day, drinking this kind of tea, smoking this brand of cigarette. All desperate attempts to propitiate inspiration, to have ordinariness and originality somehow intersect." -- Tim Parks, "The Writer's Zone."

"The runner's zone is a situation that occurs when you have run for a long time, and your body finds a 'place' where it hits its peak performance. Your body synchronizes your breaths and moves more efficiently. When a writer gets in the zone, inspiration, imagination, posture, keyboard command, focus and concentration, and even the perfect amount of emotion all settle in, making us type much faster, make fewer mistakes, automatically correct the mistakes we do make, and essentially enter a supercharged writing mode." -- Scott Kuttner, "How to Find the Writing Zone and Stay There"

It even got mentioned in the current crime novel I'm reading (Home, by Harlan Coben). The book's protagonist, former NBA star Myron Bolitar, is watching his nephew play basketball in Myron's old high-school gym, and Coben says, "You could see it right away. The greatness. Myron studied his nephew's face and saw that look of what they called 'being in the zone,' focused yet relaxed, on edge yet laid back, whatever terminology you wanted to use, but really it could all be summed up in one word. Home. When Mickey was on the court, like his uncle before him, he was home."

The big question, then, is how do we writers ensure that we reach this mystical place, often and regularly? Well, everybody has different ideas about that. Peter Shallard, in his article "Psychological Tips for Getting in the Writing Zone," said, "Hardly anyone knows how to get in the zone to produce top quality written material. This is about having the state of creativity (or productivity, or whatever is relevant) on tap . . . ready to go, whenever you need it."

Z marks the spot

So how DO we find our way into the Zone? As always, most treasure maps are false, or at least misleading. I've found that some of the "hints" we're given in how-to-write books are maddeningly vague: clear your head, breathe deeply, meditate, find your rhythm, leave your troubles behind, etc. That kind of advice is no help to me--or, I suspect, to anyone else. Of course we need to clear our heads of everything except writing, in order to do our best work. But how?

The following is one of those "do as I say" lists, rather than "do as I do," since I don't seem to be able to make myself obey these rules. But a lot of my writing friends swear that these are the things they do to increase their chances to reach (and frolic in) the flowery meadows and bubbling fountains of the Writing Zone.

1. Write in the same place every day.

This could be the desk in your home office, a recliner in your den, a chair on your sun deck, a swing in your back yard, or anyplace that just feels "right" and comfortable. But let's face it, most writers have schedules that make this hard to do, at least for any length of time. For some, it might be a seat on the commuter train to the office and back. Whatever works.

2. Write at the same time every day.

This is another rule that, for many of us, might or might not be possible. If your daily routine allows it, I can see that it could help. And I've heard that the time should be early in the day rather than late, because our minds are fresher before facing all our daily non-writing problems. Again, if you can do this, fine. Since I'm a night-owl anyhow, most of my fiction is produced in the wee hours (the midnight zone?)--but I don't assign myself a time slot. I can, and do, write pretty much anytime, and anyplace.

3. Surround yourself with encouraging/inspiring sounds.

Many writers say they require a certain kind of music during their writing sessions; others prefer a busy public place with people-noises, like a coffeeshop or the food court in the mall--or a city park with the soothing sounds of birds and traffic and laughing children. I even know writers who use white-noise machines or tapes of rain on the roof or of seagulls and the surf. What I prefer, like Simon and Garfunkel, is the sound of silence. I'm not a solitary person, usually: I like to have things going on around me. But when I write, I want it quiet.


Game analysis and zone defense

If I had to assign percentages, I'd guess that at least half my writer buddies make a sincere attempt to follow the three rules I mentioned. And I say More power to 'em--if that helps, do it. If I did it, I might create better stories, or at least create them faster. But we all have our own methods, and I've been fortunate enough to somehow reach that strange and hypnotic plateau pretty regularly without knowing for sure how I got there.

What do you do, to maximize your writing efficiency/productivity? Is this "zone" state of mind something that happens to you often, or seldom? Do you write in the same location every day? Same time(s)? Do you listen to classical music while you work? Jazz? Rock? Country? The sounds of nature? The Mystic Moods Orchestra?

To each his own.



And by the way, sincere congratulations to my old friend and fellow SleuthSayer O'Neil De Noux, for being nominated earlier this week for a Shamus. Well done!!







20 May 2017

Genre-Hopping and Conclusion-Jumping



by John M. Floyd



In one of the forums (fora? fori?) that I regularly read online, members have been reporting their writing goals for 2017, and whether their year-to-date progress is meeting their expectations. After all, we're almost halfway done. As for me, I'm not much of a goal-setter (or goalkeeper), but those discussions have made me, for a change, take a look at my own writing output.

Non-vital statistics

So far this year, I've had 14 short stories published and I have 12 accepted and upcoming. They cover several genres, but it's skewed heavily toward crime stories. Twenty of those twenty-six are mystery stories, two are westerns, two are fantasy, one's horror, and one's romance. The interesting thing is that even those descriptions are misleading, since all six of my non-mystery sales still involve some degree of crime and/or deception. So I suppose they're "mixed-genre" stories: western/mystery, fantasy/mystery, etc.
I don't think that's unusual. Most of the writers I know genre-hop from time to time (it's the only kind of exercise I really enjoy), and I suppose there are pluses and minuses involved. Yes, it helps to be consistent and market your fiction to a specific audience and "establish a brand"--but it's also fun to dabble in more than one kind of writing. Some of my favorite novels, movies, and stories are hybrids. The Princess Bride was a romance/adventure/comedy/fantasy, To Kill a Mockingbird was a mystery/literary/Southern/coming-of-age/courtroom drama, and one reviewer called The Man From Snowy River a romantic Australian western.

What always surprises me is that most readers, and some writers, don't buy into the widely-accepted definition of "mystery" fiction. As has been said many times at this blog, a short story or a novel can be considered a mystery if a crime is central to the plot. That's enough to get you into a mystery magazine or onto the mystery shelves in the bookstore. And some definitions are even broader: it's a mystery if the story contains even the threat or the implication of a crime. Even so, many reviewers of the well-known "best-of" mystery anthologies always complain because an included story was not what they consider to be a mystery. The conclusion to which they have jumped is that it has to be a traditional mystery, and that the identity of the villain must be kept secret until the ending. It doesn't. Mysteries don't have to be whodunits. They can be howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. Or howtheygotawaywithits.

A juggling act

Back to the subject at hand. I recently saw an online piece by author Nathan Bransford, who pointed out that genre-hopping is not always the best move. He says, and rightly so, that switching from one genre to another usually works best after a writer has already achieved a certain level of success and recognition. In another piece, author Kimberley Grabas seems to agree: "Ideally, the 'wise' course of action is to specialize. To conquer your niche first. Then branch out (if you wish) after you've gained some mastery in one area and have developed a sizable following around that genre." Sure, John Grisham wrote A Painted HouseBleachersPlaying for PizzaSkipping Christmas, etc., none of which had anything to do with crime or courtrooms--but he's John Grisham.

I should mention here that some authors are incredibly good at switch-hitting. Who would believe, unless he/she knew already, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, or Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry? Think about it: "3:10 to Yuma" was Elmore Leonard, Exit to Eden was Anne Rice, and Deliverance was poet James Dickey. And by the way, if you've not read the short story "The Last Rung on the Ladder" by Stephen King, I urge you to search it out (it was included in his collection Night Shift). It contains no horror or any kind of creepiness, and is one of the best "literary" stories I've read. It'll bring tears to your eyes.

Longs and shorts

Here's another point: I think genre-hopping is far easier for short-story writers than for novelists. Maybe the establishment of a brand isn't as important for shorties; we work on a much smaller stage and with a smaller potential audience. Also, we shorts writers obviously produce a lot more individual pieces than novelists do (unless maybe you're Stephen King), so wandering off the beaten path now and then isn't as serious a matter as it might be to a novelist or to a novelists's fan base. In any case, I've found that mixing and/or jumping from one genre to another makes the writing process a lot more fun. At least for me.
What do you think? Do you stick to one genre or pingpong between them? If you haven't tried writing/publishing in more than one genre, do you ever plan to? If you have, do you think it's hurt your sales or your ability to reach and keep readers? Do you think the don't-genre-hop "rule" applies more to novels than to shorts? Do you like to write and read "mixed-genre" fiction that combines one or more in the same story--or do you prefer your drinks undiluted and your colors primary? Again, I don't mind hybrids--which probably makes sense. I'm pretty mixed-up anyway.

To each his own.





06 May 2017

Two out of Fifteen–So Far

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eight in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by John M. Floyd

I've enjoyed reading, over the past week, about the families of my fellow SleuthSayers, and especially about the talent (and love of) writing that exists among their family members.

As for my own crew, here's some background. Our immediate family has now grown to 15, not counting my mother, and it's a number that doesn't sound all that big until we all get together (usually every June for a summer outing and every Christmas for a one-to-two-week gathering at our home in Mississippi). Then it's quickly obvious how much larger and younger and louder our group has become.


For anyone who's interested, my wife Carolyn and I have three grown kids and seven blue-eyed grandchildren. Our son Michael is a chemical engineer with DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia; he and his wife Jennifer (also a chem. e. and currently a stay-at-home mom) have three children: Lily (11), Anna (9), and Gabriel (6). David, our second son, is a physician at St. Dominic's Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi; he and his wife Jamie (also a doctor, and currently a stay-at-home mother and aerobics instructor) have two kids: Charlie (9) and Susannah (7). Karen, our youngest child, is also a stay-at-home mom, and a former music teacher at a local elementary school; she and her husband Collin Berger (a computer technician) live in Pearl, Mississippi, and have two kiddos: Richard (4) and Julia (1). My wife and I feel extremely fortunate that we have two of our three children and four of our seven grandkids living nearby and that we're able to have all fifteen of our family together at least twice a year. (We're also thankful for FaceTime--as we used to be for Skype.)

I'm always reminded, any time I think of family, of two old sayings. One is "The offspring done sprung higher than them they sprung off of" (which in my case is certainly true) and the other is "By the time the rich man has enough money to afford children, the fool has enough kids to support him." I especially like that second one. Now, if they'll only support me . . .

As for writers and writing--so far, although several of our brood have done some technical and professional writing, only one (besides me) has shown much interest in creating fiction. That's our granddaughter Susannah--on the left in the photo below, taken last Christmas--who'll be eight years old next month. She's an avid reader, especially of series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and likes to write fantasy stories and tales that involve animals of any kind. (Her people-doctor parents already suspect that they might be raising a veterinarian.) Currently Susannah is collaborating with a school friend, and together they've written several stories that I think have turned out really well. At that age I was probably still trying to learn how to tie my shoes.


So that's it, for the Floyds. One final point: although not many of us are writers, I'm very pleased to say that all of us--even my mom, who's 90--are readers.

That's the important thing. Right?

22 April 2017

The Little Engine That Couldn't: Writers and Self-Doubt


by John M. Floyd



Confidence is a wonderful, magical thing, when applied to creative endeavors. It can sustain us in good times and bad, and when confidence in one's ability is justified it can spur him or her on to great accomplishments.

As for me, I'm no genius, but I try to stay positive and optimistic. I was fortunate in my career with IBM, and I think I do a passable job in my so-called career as a writer. But that doesn't mean I don't suffer lapses in confidence--especially in this crazy world of publishing.

Hills and valleys

I don't personally know a lot of New York Times bestsellers, but I know a few, and one of them told me years ago that she experiences self-doubt on a regular basis. Only half-joking, she said she usually wakes up in the morning thinking Oh God I don't know what the hell I'm doing, then wakes up the next morning thinking You know, I believe I've finally got a handle on this, then the next morning it's This book's going to suck, and everybody's going to find out I'm a fake, and then Okay, I guess I really do know what I'm doing after all, and back and forth and back and forth, day after day. She also told me she doesn't think such feelings are uncommon.

The thing about self-doubt is that it can lead to failure, and failure leads to more doubt, which leads to more failure, and pretty soon the downward spiral is going full speed. And being told not to doubt yourself is like being told not to worry. Everyone worries.

On the other hand, a little doubt can be a good thing, and far better than blind overconfidence. The only time I remember being completely free of self-doubt was a two- or three-week period about twenty years ago, shortly after I'd first started submitting stories to magazines. Having never published anything before, I had submitted five different short stories to five different markets just to see what would happen, and--although I still have trouble believing this--four of those first five stories were accepted, and for the next few weeks I was convinced that I was sitting on a rainbow with the world on a string, like in the old song. I figured Good grief, it it's this easy to get published, I'll just sell a gazillion stories and make a gazillion dollars. That, of course, was not the case. The next thirteen stories I submitted were rejected. Thirteen in a row. That brought me back fast to terra firma, and in retrospect it was one of the best things that could've happened to me. Live and learn.

A necessary evil?

Not necessary, I suppose. But self-doubt is certainly often-present.

Here are a couple of quotes, on the subject. Charles Bukowski once said, "You are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on . . . When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leas to a deeper and more abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act."

And this, from Stephen King: "Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt."

I think that goes for a short work of fiction as well. And here's another point: some feel that self-doubt is cured when one's writing happens to win an award or some other form of public recognition. I don't agree. The times that I've been fortunate enough for that to happen, I've often found myself wondering, afterward, if it was just a fluke, sort of a cosmic burp, never to be repeated. And I've heard others say they feel the same way. Self-doubt, deserved or not, seems to follow most writers around like Pigpen's dust cloud.

So what can we do about it?

Hey, if I knew the answer to that, I would've already done it. But here's some wise advice I saw at Chuck Wendig's blog terribleminds: "The key is to let doubt be clarifying rather than muddying. It's important to know that the doubt isn't yours to carry. It's not about you. You needn't doubt your own abilities but rather some aspect of your current work that feels like it's not coming together. Here your self-doubt serves as the standard-bearer for those instincts rising up from your gutty-works. Follow your heart. Thus, self-doubt helps you improve, which in turn helps you defeat self-doubt."

Well said. But it's a hard feeling to overcome. On the lighter side of all this, I remember something else I once heard: "I tried all that 'positive thinking' stuff. I knew it wouldn't work, and sure enough, it didn't." And the sign on the library door that said, "Low Self-Esteem meeting at 6 p.m.--attendees please enter through the back."


Questions

What are your views? Do you ever find yourself doubting your ability or your effectiveness as a writer? If so, how much does it bother you? How do you deal with it? Did any accolades you've received put it to rest? Do you have any advice to offer us Pigpens?

Oh my. Something else just occurred to me.

What if nobody even bothers to read this post . . . ?






15 April 2017

So Mysterious: a Q&A With Gerald So


by John M. Floyd



Gerald So is a name that's familiar to most of us who write short mystery fiction. In fact Gerald is a past president (2008-10) and past vice-president (2012-14) of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, as well as an author, editor, and publisher. Since 2008, he has published crime-themed poetry, first in The Lineup chapbook series, co-edited with Patrick Shawn Bagley, Reed Farrel Coleman, Sarah Cortez, Richie Narvaez, and Anthony Rainone, and now at The Five-Two weekly website.

I e-met Gerald long ago, and although we've never crossed paths in person, I feel I know him well through our many emails and his many projects. We also share a love of crime poetry. (I've sold more than 300 poems, believe it or not--many of them in the mystery category--to Writer's Digest, EQMM, Grit, Farm & Ranch Living, etc.). Gerald reminded me recently of one of my poems called "Tinseltown," which appeared in The Five-Two several years ago.  (Here's a link.)

Okay, that's my warm-up act. Here's the main event: a brief interview with the crime-poetry king himself, Gerald So.


JF: Gerald, it's great to have you with us at SleuthSayers. Let's start with a clarification: What would you say is the difference between crime fiction and crime poetry?

GS: Mainly, unlike fiction, poetry isn't necessarily narrative. Poetry doesn't have to stick to procedural aspects of genre conventions. It can, for example, depict the aftermath of crime as an emotional moment, before the tendency toward story sets in. Poets have the freedom to approach crime from angles you might not see in fiction. I need occasional breaks from reading and writing crime fiction while poetry has held my interest all along.


JF: How did you get started writing poetry, and especially crime-themed poetry?

GS: I started writing bad poetry in high school. By college, I'd decided fiction was safer ground, but while teaching at Hofstra University I befriended poet Robert Plath, and handled the technical side of the faculty poetry website he edited. In reading the material to be posted on the website, I began to form opinions about it, and then seriously write my own poetry. I broke into print with poetry, not fiction, and decided I wouldn't give it up.

I think the theme of crime worked its way in naturally because powerful inciting events, such as crimes, are what hook and keep me reading anything.


JF: I agree. As I mentioned earlier, you started out publishing The Lineup crime poetry chapbooks. Now that you've published via a website, would you ever consider adding a Five-Two paper format?

GS: Yes, but I'd need more resources and help to make it happen. The advantage of maintaining a poetry blog and ebooks is I'm the only one who has to work on them to see them published. That said, a longterm goal of the site and ebooks is to keep crime poetry in the public eye, to grow interest in the concept until things like print or audio releases, and anything else you might imagine, are within reach.


JF: Can you tell us more about The Lineup series?

GS: The Lineup was a print-on-demand chapbook published once a year from 2008 to 2011. An acquaintance, author Alex Echevarria Roman, suggested the idea of a crime-themed poetry journal, and I ran with it, recruiting friends as co-editors. The Lineup had four editors per issue, each reading and rating all the poems submitted. It was a unique but complicated process, and as my friends turned to bigger projects, The Lineup couldn't be sustained. All four published volumes are still available here, though, on Lulu.com.


JF: The Five-Two, which I've heard you call a "crime poetry weekly," is a great site. Who are some of the authors you've featured in The Five-Two?

GS: Thriller author J.T. Ellison is one of the volunteer audio performers. There have been poems by your fellow Derringer Award winner Joseph D'Agnese and by novelist Peter Swanson. Other frequently featured poets include Robert Cooperman, Jennifer Lagier, Charles Rammelkamp, and Nancy Scott.


JF: What other kinds of writing do you do?

GS: I've written book, TV, and film reviews for Crimespree Magazine, a regular TV/film column for Mysterical-E, and a handful of short stories in various journals. I'm waiting on the status of two shorts whose titles I'm not allowed to mention.


JF: In closing, what are some other current markets for crime-themed poetry?

GS: I don't know many other markets that seek crime poetry specifically as The Five-Two does, but there are always markets for poetry with powerful inciting events, of which crime is just one. Some are Midnight Lane Boutique, Nerve Cowboy, Red Fez, Silver Birch Press, and Yellow Mama.


JF: Which is my hint to try some of these latest markets, and for our readers (hopefully) to try their hand at crime poetry also. Many thanks, Gerald, for joining us today. Keep up the good work!




And thanks to all of you as well. I'll be back next Saturday with my regular SleuthSayers column, and some observations of my own . .  . but I hope you'll tune in anyway.




01 April 2017

Guilty Pleasures


by John M. Floyd




Anyone who posts regularly at blogs like this knows that ideas for topics can come from unexpected places. Today's column is the result of recent discussions I've had with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, who--God help us both--is as obsessed with movies as I am. We've been emailing each other about some recent movies we've seen and why we liked them and why we sometimes prefer the old ones to the new, and so forth. We even decided to exchange lists of favorites, and mine include, predictably, some of the greats--Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird, Double Indemnity, Goldfinger, Psycho, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.

But . . . they also contain a lot that were not so great, and certainly not critically acclaimed. Why, then, did I like them? Why would I spend two hours watching something that probably provides little or no educational value, food for thought, lessons about life, or the broadening of any kind of horizon? My answer: because they're fun. Let's face it, when you sit down to watch something called Snakes on a Plane, you know you're not getting Citizen Kane or The Grapes of Wrath. But sometimes those crazy movies just hit the spot. They're sort of like Hostess Twinkies--I know they're not good for me but I scarf 'em down anyhow.


Diamonds in the rough

The following, in no particular order, are some of my cinematic "guilty pleasures." The funny thing is, they're all movies that, before I saw them, I thought I wouldn't like.

NOTE 1: Some of these actually are high-quality, big-budget movies--but most are not. Very few were mentioned in awards ceremonies. Ask me if I care.

NOTE 2: The films I've marked with asterisks are some of those that I could watch over and over and over again. And I do.

Idiocracy
Get the Gringo
*Rustler's Rhapsody
Seven Psychopaths
Dumb and Dumber
*Bubba Ho-Tep
*A Life Less Ordinary
The Pawn Shop Chronicles
Cashback
Trollhunter
Zathura
Spaceballs
*Used Cars
Undercover Brother
The Postman
Captain Ron
*Silver Bullet
True Lies
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Me, Myself, and Irene
*Cowboys and Aliens
Liar Liar
My Name Is Nobody
Billy Jack
*Under Siege
*Hot Shots, Part Deux
Payback
Open Water
*Escape From New York
Last Man Standing
What About Bob?
The Mist
Kings of the Sun
Australia
The History of the World, Part I
Overboard
*Texas Across the River
The Great Race
Welcome to the Jungle
*Office Space
Lockout
*Lady in the Water
The Night Flier
The Hudsucker Proxy
The Betsy
*Waterhole #3
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Sahara
*Galaxy Quest
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
A Million Ways to Die in the West
*Blazing Saddles
*Cat People (1982)
Vanishing Point
Forgiving the Franklins
*The Book of Eli
Kentucky Fried Movie
The Mothman Prophecies
Necessary Roughness


Non-so-guilty pleasures

One of the thrills of watching movies, to me, is occasionally stumbling across one that you've heard nothing about beforehand, and discovering that it's better than many of those that have been hyped to high heaven. These under-the-radar jewels are those that, once you see them, you remember forever.

Add-on category: excellent movies that no one seems to have heard about:

An Unfinished Life
Killer Joe
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Medicine Man
The Gypsy Moths
The Flim Flam Man
Holes
The Last Sunset
Magic
The Spanish Prisoner
The Ballad of Cable Hogue
Apocalypto
Edge of Darkness
The Cooler
True Romance
From Noon to Three
Red Rock West
The Man From Elysian Fields
The Gods Must Be Crazy
Bone Tomahawk
Sands of the Kalahari
In Bruges
Blood Simple
The Lookout
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
A History of Violence
This Property Is Condemned
Eye of the Needle
The Sea of Trees
Someone to Watch Over Me
The Molly Maguires
Out of Sight
Amelie
Jack the Giant Slayer
The Water Diviner
Mountains of the Moon
The Salvation
Mud
The Chase
The Blue Max
Stranger Than Fiction
Leap of Faith
Heaven's Prisoners
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Brassed Off
Sorcerer
Runaway Train
Always
Hearts in Atlantis
The Homesman
Muriel's Wedding


Q and A

What movies have you seen, that might fit into either of these lists? Can you relate to my delight in uncovering good ones that I'd never heard about before? Do you sometimes find yourself disappointed when you see unsatisfying movies that the critics have all said were great? Do you
ever start watching one that you're sure you'll hate and find yourself enjoying it? Do you sometimes hate to admit you enjoyed it? Do you agree that I probably need to find better things to do with my time?

In closing, I should mention that I like a wide range of movies, from Notting Hill to Goodfellas, from Star Wars to Driving Miss Daisy, from Raising Arizona to Django Unchained. And the same goes for my taste in stories and novels and TV shows. I still write mostly mystery fiction, but I'll read and watch almost anything.

Bleary-eyed and poor, yes. Guilty, no.

Pass the popcorn . . .




News flash: Two weeks from today, in my April 15 column, I'll be interviewing my old friend Gerald So, former president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. We'll talk about crime-related poetry (which, if you haven't tried it, is great fun to read AND write). I hope you'll tune in and help me welcome Gerald to SleuthSayers!

And congratulations to all the Derringer Award nominees!








04 March 2017

Let's Do the Twist


by John M. Floyd



In his book Spunk & Bite, author and publisher Arthur Plotnik says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another."

How true. And what works in language/style also seems to work--at least in this case--in plots. Readers, and viewers too, like it when the story takes a sudden and unforeseen turn. Sometimes it's just a side street that eventually leads us back to the freeway, but occasionally it's a major roadblock that sends us off in a totally different direction, or even headed back the way we came.

Off-balancing act

FYI, I'm not talking specifically about surprise endings, like those in Shutter Island, Primal Fear, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, Presumed Innocent, The Usual Suspects, "The Lottery," "The Gift of the Magi," etc. The reversals I'm talking about can also occur earlier in the story.

Nobody who reads fiction (or watches movies) wants the characters to have an easy, carefree ride. We want our hero or heroine to be challenged, and not only with that initial "call to adventure." We want him or her weighted down with burdens and decisions and constantly-changing threats. And the main thing, here, is changing. Since we as human beings are always worried about changes in our own lives, we as readers are worried when characters face changes--illness, death, divorce, a new job, loss of a job, a new location, strangers who come to town, and so forth--and have to deal with them. It adds to the "uncertainty of outcome" that's such an integral piece of storytelling. This happens in all good stories, but a part of that, especially in genre fiction, is injecting twists and turns throughout the tale.


Shock treatment

I always enjoy movies and novels that contain those in-flight reversals. There are many examples, but the following stories--all of them are films and most were books as well--come to mind because they feature a sudden 180-degree switcheroo in or near Act II: A Kiss Before Dying, Psycho, L.A. Confidential, Executive Decision, Ransom, Gone Girl, Deep Blue Sea, Marathon Man, etc. And I don't mean a slight swerve off the path; I mean a clap-your-hands-over-your-mouth and bug-out-your-eyes stunner that completely changes the course of the story.

The reversals in the movie versions of Psycho and L.A. Confidential were especially memorable because--in each case--the best-known actor in the cast was unexpectedly killed in the middle of the story (early middle in Psycho, late middle in LAC). That also happened when the most famous actor in Game of Thrones bit the dust (well, his severed head did) in the final episode of the very first season. It left viewers thunderstruck, and understandably wondering what other off-the-charts events might happen, and when. If long-term tension is what you're trying to create (as a writer/director) and what you enjoy (as a reader/viewer), this is a pretty effective plot device.


It occurred to me, while I was writing this, that one definition of the word reversal is "a setback, or a change of fortune for the worse"--as in, I suppose, a deep dip in the Dow Jones--and I think that definition holds true for today's topic as well. Reversals in fiction are often for the worse, and that can help the story. More conflict, and more agony for the protagonist, means more suspense.

A sense of misdirection

Other tales that had big mid-story twists: The Maze Runner, Reservoir Dogs, The Departed, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Life of Pi, Sands of the Kalahari, A History of Violence, The Hateful 8, Blood Simple--and almost any short story by Roald Dahl and any novel by Harlan Coben. Those two authors were/are masters of the plot reversal.

With regard to endings, Lawrence Block had an interesting observation about that in his book Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. He said, "The best surprise endings don't merely surprise the reader. In addition, they force him to reevaluate everything that has preceded them, so that he views the actions and the characters in a different light and has a new perspective on all that he's read."

At the risk of repeating myself, I think the same thing applies to twists and reversals during the course of the narrative. If you're good enough, you can use reversals to keep a reader off-balance and still maintain the central storyline. The diversions, when included, should be there for a reason, and not just for shock value and entertainment. The twists should fit in and be logical, and should--ideally--make the journey more interesting to the traveler.

Questions

Do you agree? Is that something you try to do in your own writing, or look for in your reading and/or viewing? What are some of your favorite reversals in movies, novels, and stories? Can you think of some that didn't work well? Which ones surprised you the most? I think I actually spilled Coke on the people around me in the theater when Janet Leigh met her fate in the Bates Motel (that bombshell seemed to drop almost as soon as I got settled into my seat), and I choked on my popcorn when the guy pushed his date off the roof of the building in the first half of A Kiss Before Dying. I'll remember those scenes always. And that's more than I can say for a lot of the novels I've read and the movies I've seen lately.

In real life, certainty and security are comforting. In fiction, the future is always unpredictable.

Or should be.





18 February 2017

As the Credits Go By


by John M. Floyd


In a column I posted at SleuthSayers several months ago, called "Crime (and Other) Scenes," I listed a hundred or so of my favorite movie moments, and the first category was my pick for the ten "best opening sequences." What I didn't mention, there, was that the music accompanying the opening credits can be as important as the images. Examples: The Magnificent SevenStar WarsThe Big CountryTop GunThe Pink PantherA Fistful of DollarsSuperman, and many others. And while that opening music piece often has the same title as the movie, like "Jaws Theme," "Goldfinger," "The Great Escape March," "Theme From A Summer Place," etc., sometimes the director uses a song with its own name, and occasionally one that wasn't originally written for the film.

Which brings us to today's post, and my challenge to you. Can you name the movies whose opening credits used the following fifty pieces of music? The first half are fairly easy; the rest of them, not so much.
(Warning: No Googling allowed. The Shadow knows.)


Here are the songs. Their movies are included below. Good luck!

1. "The Sound of Silence" -- Simon and Garfunkel
2. "Stayin' Alive" -- The Bee Gees
3. "Up Where We Belong" -- Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes
4. "Gonna Fly Now," -- Bill Conti
5. "Suicide Is Painless," -- Johnny Mandel
6. "When You Wish Upon a Star" -- Cliff Edwards
7. "The James Bond Theme" -- John Barry
8. "Born to Be Wild," -- Steppenwolf
9. "Everybody's Talkin'" -- Harry Nilsson
10. "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'" -- Frankie Laine
11. "The Circle of Life" -- Elton John
12. "The Windmills of Your Mind" -- Michel Legrand
13. "Nobody Does It Better" -- Carly Simon
14. "The Deadwood Stage" -- Ray Heindorf
15. "One Tin Soldier" -- Coven
16. "Holiday Road" -- Lindsey Buckingham
17. "Real Gone" -- Sheryl Crow
18. "Moon River" -- Henry Mancini
19. "Little Green Bag" -- The George Baker Selection
20. "Also Sprach Zarathustra" -- Richard Strauss
21. "The Rainbow Connection" -- Kermit the Frog
22. "All-Time High" -- Rita Coolidge
23. "You've Got a Friend in Me" -- Randy Newman
24. "Seventy-Six Trombones" -- Ray Heindorf
25. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- Marvin Gaye
26. "The End" -- The Doors
27. "As Time Goes By" -- Jimmy Durante
28. "I Can See Clearly Now" -- Johnny Nash
29. "Way Out There" -- Carter Burwell
30. "Misirlou" -- Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
31. "Come Softly to Me" -- The Fleetwoods
32. "Best of My Love" -- The Emotions
33. "The Times They Are A-Changing" -- Bob Dylan
34. "Rock Around the Clock" -- Buddy Holly
35. "Hound Dog" -- Elvis Presley
36. "What'll I Do?" -- William Atherton
37. "Tomorrow Is the Song I Sing" -- Richard Gillis
38. "Wish Me a Rainbow" -- Gunter Kallman Chorus
39. "I'm All Right" -- Kenny Loggins
40. "Sixteen Tons" -- Eric Burdon
41. "The Man Comes Around" -- Johnny Cash
42. "Across 110th Street" -- Bobby Womack
43. "For What It's Worth" -- Buffalo Springfield
44. "The Heat Is On" -- Glenn Frey
45. "The Immigrant Song" -- Led Zeppelin
46. "The Puppy Song" -- Harry Nilsson
47. "Summer in the City" -- Joe Cocker
48. "Dies Irae" -- Renny Harlin
49. "Gimme Shelter" -- The Rolling Stones
50. "It Had to Be You" -- Harry Connick, Jr.


Okay, that's it. Please put your pencils down and step away from your desks.


Answers:

1. The Graduate
2. Saturday Night Fever
3. An Officer and a Gentleman
4. Rocky
5. M*A*S*H
6. Pinocchio
7. Dr. No
8. Easy Rider
9. Midnight Cowboy
10. High Noon
11. The Lion King
12. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 version)
13. The Spy Who Loved Me
14. Calamity Jane
15. Billy Jack
16. National Lampoon's Vacation
17. Cars
18. Breakfast at Tiffany's
19. Reservoir Dogs
20. 2001
21. The Muppet Movie
22. Octopussy
23. Toy Story
24. The Music Man
25. The Big Chill
26. Apocalypse Now
27. Sleepless in Seattle
28. Grosse Point Blank
29. Raising Arizona
30. Pulp Fiction
31. Crossing Delancey
32. Boogie Nights
33. Watchmen
34. Blackboard Jungle (and, later, American Graffiti)
35. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
36. The Great Gatsby (1974 version)
37. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
38. This Property Is Condemned
39. Caddyshack
40. Joe Versus the Volcano
41. Dawn of the Dead
42. Jackie Brown
43. Full Metal Jacket (and, later, Lord of War)
44. Beverly Hills Cop
45. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
46. You've Got Mail
47. Die Hard With a Vengeance
48. The Shining
49. The Departed
50. When Harry Met Sally


Please grade your papers. And remember what happened to #6 when he didn't tell the truth.

Here's the deal. If you failed to answer any of the questions correctly, you need to get out more. My mother's almost 91, she probably hasn't watched an entire movie since The Sound of Music, and I think even she could've answered one or two. If you got 10 correct, that's pretty good, but you're still not up where you belong. If you got 20 right, I'm impressed. (All I had to do was pose the questions--I'd hate to see how few I could've answered without the cheat-sheet.) A score of 30 correct is excellent in anybody's book, and if you got 40 right, please send me your email address so I can get some movie recommendations. And if you correctly answered all 50, you are a certified, card-carrying cinema fanatic, and I'm seriously worried about you. To paraphrase the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, no more Netflix for you, one year! Get thee instead to a psychiatric ward.

A final question: Can you think of other opening songs for the list? And how about songs that play over the ending credits--I didn't even get into those. Or the openings for TV shows. ("Those Were the Days," "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," "Movin' On Up," "Runaway," "Harlem Nocturne," etc.) Quizzes for another day, maybe.


This kind of discussion makes me want to pop something like Escape From New York into the DVD player, put on my wireless headphones, crank up the volume, prop up my feet, and escape from more than just New York. Love that movie music.

No sounds of silence for me.






04 February 2017

For Dialogue Lovers Only


by John M. Floyd



All writers have things that we enjoy most (and least) about the process of creating fiction. Some of these preferences, I think, are related to our backgrounds--former journalists/nonfiction-writers seem to be especially good at descriptions and exposition, psychology folks seem to focus on emotions and relationships, teachers like style and editing, engineers seem more comfortable with plotting and structure, etc. Then again, some say our prior and non-writing experiences don't matter a whit; we just like what we like.

I can speak only for myself. My two favorite tasks in writing a story are, for whatever reasons, (1) outlining the plot and (2) writing dialogue. Since we've had a great many columns at this blog about the pros and cons of outlining, I thought I'd focus on my second preference.

Talking points


I love to write dialogue. Probably because I love to read dialogue. When I pick up a magazine or anthology or collection of short stories, I almost always find myself flipping through it and looking for "white space." When I find stories that have a lot of that--which of course means short sentences, which means dialogue--I usually read those stories first. Why? Because dialogue means something's happening. I'm cruising along through the tale listening to people talk (and sometimes scream and shout and argue), and not plodding through all that thick, margin-to-margin writing.

Does that searching-for-white-space approach always work? No. Stories with a lot of dialogue, if they're not done well, can be more tiring and tedious than pure narrative, and, since there's no magic formula for all this, stories written either way can be either wonderful or terrible. I've always said dialogue is like playing the guitar: it's hard to do well and easy to do badly.

But I should point out that the amount of dialogue in a piece of fiction depends on the piece. Three of my recent published stories had almost no dialogue, and one of them had none at all. In fact, of the five widely accepted "elements" of fiction (plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, and setting), dialogue is the only one that's not absolutely necessary. Well, okay, I realize that some stories don't have to have plots either, but most good stories do. Another point: I'm convinced that dialogue is a marketing advantage. If you write two stories of equal quality and one has a lot of dialogue and one has very little, I think the one with more dialogue is easier to sell.

Masters of the craft

My fondness for dialogue is probably one of the reasons I've so enjoyed the books of the late Robert B. Parker. His series novels, whether they're about Spenser or Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall or Virgil Cole, contain a LOT of conversations between characters. And it's snappy, believable dialogue that either moves the plot forward or tells us something about the people in the story. Sometimes it does both. Other writers well-known for the quality of their dialogue are George V. Higgins, Dick Francis, Elmore Leonard, James M. Cain, Carl Hiaasen, Toni Morrison, Harlan Coben, John Steinbeck, Janet Evanovich, Joe Lansdale, James Scott Bell, etc. Advice to fellow writers: Read these authors, then go ye and do likewise.

Contrast that kind of fiction with the work of, say, James Michener or Tom Clancy, whose novels usually contain very little dialogue. Don't get me wrong--I liked their books, and I have all of them right here on the packed and groaning shelves of my home office. But I also maintain that those novels were not as much fun to read as (and certainly took longer to read than) those of Parker, Leonard, Coben, and company.

According to Sol

I think all this goes beyond the "easy-read" aspect. I like dialogue because of the rhythm and sound and feel of the sentences, and the way it can immediately create a reversal or plot twist when needed. In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein called this "oblique" dialogue, which allows the writer to introduce the unexpected. Here are some examples, from that book:

SHE: How are you?
HE: I suppose I'm okay.
SHE: Why, what's the matter?
HE: I guess you haven't heard.

SHE: How are you? I said how are you?
HE: I heard you the first time.
SHE: I only wanted to know how you were.
HE: How the hell do you think I am?

HE: It's beginning to rain.
SHE: What do you suggest?

In all of these, the responses aren't direct, as they often are in real life. They're indirect and surprising, and serve to turn the story in a different direction. It's a great way to advance the plot and keep the reader interested.

The voices in my own head

Something else dialogue can do, as was mentioned earlier, is help with characterization. In a Western mystery story I just finished writing, a man named Wade Carson is knocked unconscious while trying to rob a bank and wakes up lying with his wrists tied in a room that turns out to be a temporary jail cell. Sitting in a chair beside one of the windows is a young woman in men's clothing and boots, with a five-pointed star pinned to her shirt and a Winchester rifle across her lap.

"Where am I?" he asked her.
"In an extra room, behind the sheriff's house. He was planning to rent it out."
"I don't see any bars. What's keeping me in?"
"I am." She lifted the rifle off her lap, then lowered it again.
"And who might you be?"
"I might be Deputy Morton."
"You a real deputy?"
"This month I am." She tapped her star. "This is my uncle's badge--he's home with a broken leg."
He sighed. "An interim jail and an interim deputy."

Later, still under guard, he tells her he'd been on his way to San Francisco, to see a friend.

"Girlfriend?" she asked.
He broke out a grin. "I think you sound jealous."
"That's probably because of your head injury. What kind of friend?"
"An old partner. Wants me to go into business with him."
"What kind of business?"
Carson hesitated. "You'll think it's funny."
"No I won't."
"Banking. My friend owns a bank. And I'm good with figures."
"You're right," she said. "That is funny."
"You won't think so, when I do it. California's a booming place, these days."
"I've never been there."
He smiled again. "Want to go?"

And so on. I'm not saying these exchanges are great writing, but I am saying they're great fun to write. And I'm always pleased at how they allow a reader to be told, in very few words, a lot about the characters who are speaking.

Real vs. realistic

The main thing about dialogue is, you have to make it sound right. Here's another quote, from Stein on Writing. "If you need proof that dialogue and spoken words are not the same, go to a supermarket. Eavesdrop. Much of what you hear in the aisles sounds like idiot talk. People won't buy your novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives, friends, and the supermarket." Stein adds, on that same subject, "Elmore Leonard's dialogue is invented. It is a semblance of speech that has the effect of actual speech, which is what his readers prize." To sum all this up, dialogue doesn't have to sound like what we really say or hear. It has to sound better.

Do any of you writers share my obsession with dialogue? Do you find it harder, or easier, to create than other things in the writing process? Are your stories/novels usually heavy on dialogue, or not?

A final note. Having finished the eighth installment in Robert Parker's Appaloosa series (since his death those books have been written by Robert Knott, who does a good job of imitating Parker's "style" and frequent use of dialogue), I've just pre-ordered the ninth novel, Revelation. It's due out next week, and will continue the adventures of Old West lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.

I can't wait to hear them talking to each other.




31 December 2016

The Pros and Cons of "Pay to Play"


by John M. Floyd



Yes, I know, it's the last day of the year. And yes, I know everybody's talking about resolutions and the best and worst things that have happened to us over the past twelve months, etc. On the good side, my wife and I welcomed a seventh grandchild into the world in 2016, and I had 20 stories published, and 30 more in a collection; on the bad side, we all lost a number of fine authors and actors and musicians and national leaders, and we had to choose a president from two of the most unpopular candidates ever to run for office. But that's all I'm going to say about the past. I'm treating this as just another day, and this is just another column about writing. I do hope, though, that all of you have a healthy and prosperous 2017. Now, back to the matter at hand . . .



Consider this. You're a fiction writer, you've completed your short story or novel, and you're looking for a publisher. With manuscript safely on your hard drive and/or in your outbasket, you do your marketing research, you pick out a magazine or anthology (if it's a story) or a publisher or agent (if a novel), and you study their submission guidelines. And you discover that they require the payment of a "reading fee."

Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?

Here's the deal. In the case of short stories, with which I'm more familiar, writers are sometimes asked to pay reading fees in order for the publication to consider their work. (A few agents and novel publishers do, as well--they used to be called "evaluation fees"--but they shouldn't do this, and most don't.) Short-story publications that charge fees are usually literary journals that publish both print and online versions. They often say these are "administrative" fees that help defray the costs of the websites, databases, etc., that allow writers to submit manuscripts electronically. Most of the reading fees I've seen in submission guidelines are around three dollars, but some are higher.

The question, of course, is: Should you send stories to markets that charge these fees?

Before giving you my opinion (which if converted to cash wouldn't be enough pennies to jingle in your pocket), let me list some of what I've heard are the pros and cons of this issue.


On the positive side:

- Reading fees provide financial support for the magazines. It's a way that we as writers can say thanks to those editors and help them keep their publications in business.

- Since most markets now allow electronic submissions rather than hardcopy subs, a reading fee--especially if it's in the three-dollar range--probably costs the writer less, per submission, than he/she would've had to pay for the postage, paper, printer ink, and envelopes involved in the snailmail process of the Olden Days.

- Reading fees might help those publications to pay (or pay more) to writers for their stories. Some publications, many of them literary magazines, pay only in "copies."

- Fees can "weed out" writers who aren't serious about their craft. Casual or hobbyist writers probably won't go to the expense of sending in stores if they have to pay to submit them.

Negatives:

- Many of the publications that charge reading fees are those that don't pay the writers anything for their stories. And a lot of writers feel that the idea of writing for free and then paying to get published is unfair and even insulting.

- Some of these fee-charging publications have turned out to be scams. The potential for abuse is certainly there, anytime a publication takes money from the writer.

- Reading fees have the hardest impact on the least-wealthy writers. There are some who feel that fees help to create a world where the wealthiest writers have an advantage over those who are less (financially) fortunate. In an Atlantic article, "Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?" Joy Lanzendorfer said, "Fees ensure that people who have disposable income will submit the most."

NOTE 1: Lanzendorfer even points out that some literary magazines' tendency to publish only a tiny percent of unsolicited stories while publishing (and paying) mostly established writers has produced an ethical problem: "When a journal takes reading fees from the slush pile and then pays the writers they solicited, they've created an exploitative system where the unknown writers are funding the well-known ones."

NOTE 2: Thankfully, I can't think of any current mystery magazines that require reading fees.


My take on the subject:

Don't pay reading fees. Period. I realize it's expensive to publish a magazine, and certainly to
maintain an online submission system, etc.--but there's something I really don't like about paying someone to consider a story. It's almost the short-story equivalent of vanity-publishing a novel. If what we create is good enough, why must we writers have to pay anyone anything to get into print?

I know that position is a bit extreme. But I even feel the same way about contests. Some writing contests require an entry fee of twenty dollars or more. I can't imagine doing that, when the odds of my placing my story at a respected market are probably much higher than the odds of winning first place in a contest. Besides, contests want original, previously-unpublished stories, and those are prime candidates for the best magazines. Bottom line is, I don't submit stories to publications that require reading fees or to contests that have entry fees. Again, my opinion only.

This has become a point of argument among writers, just like outlining vs. freewheeling, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, literary vs. genre, past-tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, etc. What are your thoughts?

By the way, please send me $3 with every comment.  And . . .



Announcement: Next Saturday in this time-slot Herschel Cozine, an old friend of mine and of SleuthSayers, will post a guest column on the goofiness of the English language. Please tune in for that! (No payment required.)  






17 December 2016

Twenty Years of B.A.M.S.


by John M. Floyd



I'm not much of a goal-setter, in my writing. Like all of us, I try to do a good job of writing stories and submitting them to markets--but beyond that, I don't feel there's much I can do. If something gets published, great. If something good happens after it's published (awards, other recognition, etc.), that's icing on the cake, and I'm honored and grateful if/when it does. But that's out of my control.

Having said that, I think there are certain things that most mystery writers have on their bucket lists. One might be to win an Edgar, or even to be nominated. Or to win other writing awards, or to have a story picked up for a film. If you're a writer of short mysteries, an additional dream might be to appear in the annual MWA anthology or an Akashic noir anthology.

I've been fortunate enough to grab a few of these golden rings, as have most of you. One of my fantasies was realized last year, when I had a story chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2015.

The B.A.M.S. file

I would guess that almost all of us have looked through volumes of Best American Mystery Stories at one time or another. For those who might be interested, here's a quick overview of the series, and the procedure by which the included authors are selected.

The B. A. M. S. anthologies began in 1997 and have always been published by Houghton Mifflin (later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In his introduction to the debut edition, series editor Otto Penzler explained that he identified and read all the mysteries published during the previous calendar year--1996--and chose the best fifty, which he then turned over to a guest editor. That editor, Robert B. Parker in this case, selected what he thought were the best twenty stories for the publication; the remaining thirty were listed in a close-but-no-cigar honor roll in the back of the book, called "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 1996." This process has been continued every year since. Those lucky enough to be in the "top 20" are notified, early in the year, that their stories will be featured in the book. Contracts are then sent out, the writers are paid, and the anthology is published in the fall.

Where does Otto go to find all this original fiction? "The most fruitful sources," he said in the B.A.M.S. 1997 intro, "are the mystery specialty magazines, small literary journals, popular consumer publications, and an unusually bountiful crop from anthologies containing all or some original work." Apparently the field consisted of around 500 stories at first, and has now expanded to become 3,000 to 5,000 stories a year. His colleague Michele Slung apparently does most of the initial culling, and is, according to Otto, "the fastest and smartest reader I have ever known."

The names of all the guest editors can be found in the opening pages of every edition, but they're so impressive I'll list them here as well:

1997 - Robert B. Parker
1998 - Sue Grafton
1999 - Ed McBain
2000 - Donald Westlake
2001 - Lawrence Block
2002 - James Ellroy
2003 - Michael Connelly
2004 - Nelson DeMille
2005 - Joyce Carol Oates
2006 - Scott Turow
2007 - Carl Hiaasen
2008 - George Pelecanos
2009 - Jeffery Deaver
2010 - Lee Child
2011 - Harlan Coben
2012 - Robert Crais
2013 - Lisa Scottoline
2014 - Laura Lippman
2015 - James Patterson
2016 - Elizabeth George

20/50 vision

As I mentioned earlier, the stories featured in the anthology are the top twenty of the year, chosen by the guest editor. Those named in the Distinguished Mysteries list in the back of the book are the runners-up, the "rest" of the top fifty that were originally chosen by Otto Penzler.

I restated that because most folks don't know about it--including, until recently, me. At the 2012 Bouchercon I had the opportunity to meet Lee Child, one of my favorite authors. I remember saying to him (babbling, probably), "I saw that one of my stories was listed as "distinguished" in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010 . . . and, well, since you were guest editor that year, I'd like to thank you for that honor." He said something kind and gracious and we both went on our way. What I didn't realize at the time was that my story was in the "distinguished" list because it was one of the fifty that Otto had selected, not one of the final twenty that Child chose. What I'd done, essentially, was thank him for not picking my story to be in the book. Good grief.

An SS/B.A.M.S. history

From looking at my own editions of the series, snooping on the Internet, and pestering my fellow mystery writers for information I couldn't find elsewhere, I have created the following unscientific report of current and former SleuthSayers who have wound up either in Best American Mystery Stories or named in its "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list. Please forgive me, and correct me, if I've overlooked anyone.

year       included in book (top 20)              named in "distinguished" list (the rest of the top 50)

1997 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1998 ----Janice Law--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2000 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------John Floyd----------------------------------------------------
2001 ----------------------------------------------------David Edgerley Gates-------------------------------------
2002 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------R.T. Lawton---------------------------------------------------
2003 ----O'Neil De Noux--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2004 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux, David Edgerley Gates----------------
2005 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2006 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux-----------------------------------------
2007 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2008 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2009 -----------------------------------------------------Dixon Hill-------------------------------------------------
2010 -----------------------------------------------------Art Taylor, John Floyd-----------------------------------
2011 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2012 -----------------------------------------------------Eve Fisher, Janice Law, John Floyd--------------------
2013 -----O'Neil De Noux, David E. Gates-----Janice Law, B.K. Stevens-----------------------------------
2014 -----------------------------------------------------David Dean, Elizabeth Zelvin--------------------------
2015 -----John Floyd---------------------------------David E. Gates, Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor--------------
2016 -----Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor-----------------David E. Gates, R.T. Lawton, John Floyd--------------

Observations

Here are some things I found interesting about the above chart:

- As you can see, not one but TWO SleuthSayers have stories that made it to the top 20 and into the book this year: Rob Lopresti and Art Taylor. Both are tremendously deserving of the honor, and--not surprisingly--neither of them is a stranger to the limelight. Both have been recognized with multiple awards and honors over the past several years.

(Art Taylor and I seem to have a strange connection: This year, when he made it into the book, I made the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list; the year I managed to get in, he was in the "distinguished" list; and one year both he and I had stories listed as "distinguished." In other words, I always root for Art all the more, because if he's involved I seem to have a better chance of sneaking somewhere into the picture as well.)

- For the first 18 years of the series (before the 2015 edition of B.A.M.S.), only three SleuthSayers had stories featured in the book (top 20): David Edgerley Gates three times (2000, 2002, and 2013), O'Neil De Noux twice (2003 and 2013), and Janice Law once (1998). And only recently have two SleuthSayers been in the top 20 in the same year--O'Neil and David in 2013 and Rob and Art in 2016.

- When you combine the SSers included in the book and those named in the "distinguished" list, David Edgerley Gates has made the top 50 an astounding seven times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013, 2015, 2016), I've made it five times (2000, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016), O'Neil four (2003, 2004, 2006, 2013), Janice three (1998, 2012, 2013), Art three (2000, 2015, 2016), R.T. twice (2002, 2016), Rob twice (2015, 2016), and Dixon Hill, Eve Fisher, Bonnie Stevens, David Dean, and Liz Zelvin once each.

- David Edgerley Gates's stories were either included or named in the "distinguished" list in four out of five consecutive editions (2000-2004) and in another three out of four (2013-2016). Also, O'Neil De Noux's stories were either included or distinguished in three out of four consecutive years (2003-2006). A lot of fine stories over short stretches of time.

- In only six years out of B.A.M.S.'s 20-year history have no SleuthSayers been included in either the anthology or the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list--but in one of those no-SS years (1997) Criminal Briefer Melodie Johnson Howe was featured in the book, and in another year (2011) CBer Angela Zeman appeared in the "distinguished" list. And by the way, Angela was also included in the book in 2004 and Criminal Brief founder James Lincoln Warren made the "distinguished" list in 2010. (I couldn't resist mentioning those colleagues; Criminal Brief was the forerunner to SleuthSayers, and Rob, Leigh, Janice, and I were all CBers in a previous life.)

- In the before-I-forget department: Frequent SS guest-blogger Michael Bracken was named to the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in 2005.
That's my take on Best American Mystery Stories and its connection with our blog. If nothing else, it might steer you to some SleuthSayers' stories in the old volumes you might already have on your bookshelves. (In the course of putting this column together, I wound up going back and reading a lot of them.) May ALL of us be represented often in B.A.M.S.'s pages in the future.

Many thanks to Otto Penzler, to his assistant(s) and his guest editors, and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, not only for providing us with outstanding reading material but for giving some of us the opportunity, and the great honor, to be a part of the series.

Here's to another twenty years!




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.