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

17 February 2018

Draftsmanship


by John M. Floyd



Offhand, I can't think of many words that have more different meanings than "draft" does. Drafts can refer to breezes, horses, beer, checks, athletics, military service, depth of water, and--yes--preliminary versions of a piece of writing. In other words, you can feel them, harness them, drink them, sign them, get caught by them . . . or write them.

I write a lot of drafts. Mine are usually short, since I write mostly short stories, and the first is often longer than the second, the second longer than the third, and so forth. (I tend to overwrite a bit.) I should mention, too, that my first draft is usually terrible. That doesn't bother me--nobody but me is going to see it anyway--and I think it's better to get as much as possible down on paper than to leave something important out.

I also like to write a first draft all the way through, without stopping to do a lot of analysis on the way. I've never been one of those people who "edit as they go." I don't even pay much attention to punctuation or spelling or grammar in those first drafts. They truly are rough.

A writer friend of mine insists that she doesn't have to deal with drafts--and not because she keeps the windows closed. She just makes every page as perfect as it can possibly be before going on to the next. Her reason for doing that is simple, she says: when she's written the final page of her book or story, she's finished; no corrections or subsequent drafts are needed. The reason I don't do that is simple, too: I might later decide to change something in the plot, or add another character, or take one out, or change the POV. If that happens, and if I've already tried to polish the first scenes and pages to a high gloss, that means I'll have to go back and re-edit what I've already edited. I'm not super-efficient and I'm sure not smart, but I'm smart enough not to want to do the same job twice. Besides, getting the whole thing down on paper, start to finish, gives me a warm and comfortable feeling about the project. It makes it something I know I can handle.

Writing a first draft all the way to the end in one swoop isn't as hard as it sounds, because I'm one of those writers who likes to map the story out mentally before I ever start putting words on paper. I think about the plot for a long time beforehand. Again, that doesn't keep me from later making changes, but it does allow me to have a blueprint to follow when I start writing, and having that structure in mind gives me--as I said--a sense of security. You might not do that or need that, but I do. Different strokes. (By the way, if you outline on paper and if your outline is long enough, sometimes that IS your first draft.)

I occasionally don't even have names finalized when I do a first draft. My hero/heroine might be H, my villain might be V, the hero's best friend might be BF. These are just place-holders, so I can come back later and fill in the names. Same thing goes for locations or situations that will require detailed research, or scenes that need a lot of description--I don't spend the time to do that in first drafts. I'm more concerned about plot points and the flow of the story. (Not that it matters, but I've found it's fairly easy for me to write beginnings and endings. It's the middles that are hard. Maybe that's why I write shorts instead of novels.)

Anne Lamott said, in her book Bird by Bird, ". . . The first draft is the down draft--you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft--you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed or even, God help us, healthy." She also said, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts."

Readers have often asked me how many drafts I write, of a short story, The answer is, it varies. It also depends on how you define "draft." If you go through a work-in-progress and change only one sentence, is that new version another draft? As for me, I don't usually do many extensive re-writes, but I do go back through the manuscript a few times after a third- or fourth-draft polishing and see if there's anything more that needs correcting or fine-tuning. But, as all writers know, you don't want to go over it too much. When you can read through what you've done several times and not find anything glaring, you're probably finished. If you persist too long, you'll get to the point where changes might make things worse instead of better.

How about you? Are you a draft-dodger, and just edit everything as you go? Or do you rehearse and shoot several takes before you print the film? If so, how many drafts does that usually involve? How do you decide how many drafts is too many? How detailed is your first draft? Do you ever outline beforehand, either mentally or on paper? Do you ever write the ending first?

I once heard that a novelist has to be a good storyteller and a short-story writer has to be a good craftsman. Maybe both have to be good draftsmen.

Now, I wonder if I need to do more editing on this column . . .




03 February 2018

"I said, 'He said,'" she said.


by John M. Floyd



We all know there's plenty of room for disagreement in the writing/publishing world: literary vs. genre, characters vs. plot, outlining vs. pantsing, showing vs. telling, first-person vs. third-, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, past tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, and so on. (Thomas Pluck's SleuthSayers column yesterday, mostly about POV issues, is a good example.) One of my favorite discussions, though, is the one about using/avoiding the word "said."

There is apparently a movement now to declare "said" an obsolete word. Its proponents insist that the word is unemotional, boring, and unsophisticated, and that there are many better words we can substitute. The movement's loudest cheerleader, I've heard, is a California middle-school teacher who published a successful book on the subject, and a lot of other educators and writers have climbed onto that bandwagon. One article suggested replacing "said" with "more colorful words like barked, howled, demanded, cackled, snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, or cried."

Elmore Leonard is probably spinning in his grave. One of the commandments in his 10 Rules of Writing was "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." "Never" seems a little extreme, but I think his point was that "said" is a transparent word--the reader's eye skips right over it. Flowery synonyms for "said" can do the opposite of what I as a fiction writer want to do: they can distract the reader from the story itself, and make him or her think about the writing and the writer rather than what's written. I read somewhere that "said"--and probably "asked" as well--is more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It's unobtrusive.

Also, some substitutes for "said" seem to try to explain or clarify things too much. In the sentence "Get out," she demanded, the attribution verb is redundant--we can see that it's a demand. Same thing with "I beg you," he pleaded or "I feel terrible," she moaned. And believe me, I've seen this in a lot of students' stories. It's amateurish overwriting at best and ("I saw you," he observed) hilarious at worst.

Besides Dutch Leonard (I really miss him, by the way), there are other prominent writers who seem/seemed to prefer the word "said" over its synonyms: Larry McMurtry, Ed McBain, Robert B. Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Lee Child, Joe R. Lansdale, Janet Evanovich, Dennis Lehane, Raymond Chandler, Martin Cruz Smith, Stephen King, William Goldman, and John Sanford, to name a few.

I've rounded up several quotes on this issue of "said" avoidance:



". . . Don't tell me your character 'excaimed,' 'stated,' or 'replied.' When in doubt, just use 'said.' That's all. Maybe they 'answered.' They certainly did not 'retort.' You can use 'said' more often than you think . . . it's one of those words that takes a while before it starts sounding repetitive."
-- Ariel Gore, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead

"The best form of dialogue attribution is 'said,' as in 'he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said."
-- Stephen King, On Writing

"Mr. [Robert] Ludlum . . . hates the 'he said' locution and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom 'say' anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: '"I repeat," repeated Alex.' The book may sell in the billions, but it's still junk."
-- Newgate Callender, in The New York Times Book Review

"Editors and critics often refer to melodramatic dialogue tags as 'said bookisms.' They know that these phrases give our story an amateurish look. Your readers might not know what the darn things are called, but chances are that they'll notice them, too . . . In most cases, the word 'said' would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue."
-- Ann M. Marble, "'Stop Using Those Said Bookisms,' the Editor Shrieked."

"[Say is] just too simple and clear and straightforward for many people. Why say something when you can declare, assert, expostulate, whine, exclaim, groan, peal, breathe, cry, explain, or asseverate it? I'm all for variety and freshness of expression, but let's not go overboard."
-- Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I

". . . Some teachers, teachers who were themselves not writers, used to warn against the monotony of the word 'said.' This was wrong-headed advice."
-- Rick Demarinis, The Art & Craft of the Short Story

"In journalism circles, said is a virtue--simple, precise, and unadorned--and alternatives to it are considered frilly and silly. You don't have to agree, but be aware that lots of editors hold this view. Choose your alternatives to said with great care."
--June Casagrande, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences

"We're all in favor of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you're writing speaker attributions the right verb is nearly always 'said.' The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than 'said' tend to draw attention away from the dialogue."
--Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers



You can tell which side of the argument I'm on, here--I prefer "said," and, if asked, "asked"--but I'm not a sign-waving activist. I tend to throw in some whispers, shouts, and murmurs when I feel like it. And, in all fairness, there are a lot of excellent and successful authors, among them J.K. Rowling, Nicholas Sparks, Salman Rushdie, Nevada Barr, John Irving, Patricia Cornwell, and Jan Karon, who regularly frolic in the synonymial daisies of dialogue attribution and come out smelling just fine. Bottom line is, there'll always be writers who love "said," writers who avoid it like Kryptonite, and writers who lobby for verb diversity. It's just another of those debatable issues of style where some things work for some and not for others.

"The choice is yours," he intoned.






20 January 2018

Movie Music


by John M. Floyd



Our house is alive, usually, with the sound of movie music. I've always loved it, and I'd probably be
embarrassed to know exactly how many soundtracks I've purchased in my life, or how many movie themes I've picked out on the piano or guitar, or even how many I've listened to over the past year or so, either on CDs or via my Amazon Echo. It also dawned on me awhile back that the movies I most enjoy watching over and over and over again--I do a lot of re-watching--are those that have terrific music.

Two observations. First, I fully understand that some excellent dramatic films have very little music (Dog Day Afternoon, NetworkCast Away, and Rope come to mind), and some have scores that are--how should I put this?--more functional than memorable. Second, even though I believe that a fine soundtrack cannot make a bad movie watchable, I also believe that a fine soundtrack can make a mediocre movie good or a good movie wonderful. One of my cinematic heroes, Sergio Leone, once said, "It is the music that elevates a movie to greatness." His practice was usually to have composer Ennio Morricone write the entire score first, and then Leone directed the movie to match the music, rather than doing it the other way around.

A sound approach

It's interesting to me as a writer that music can be a tool to help the storytelling process itself. All authors, whether they're writing novels, shorts, plays, or screenplays, want to "connect" with their audience, and in movies the right music at the right time can trigger emotions in the viewer that might otherwise be hard to reach. I never fail to get a tear in my eye when the camera backs slowly away from a distant Tara to include the oak tree and Scarlett standing underneath and the music builds to a crescendo. Or to feel a chill shimmy down my spine when Ripley claws her way to safety in the final moments of Aliens (as James Horner's score is pounding at my brain), or when Rocky runs the steps, or when Indiana Jones chases tanks on horseback, or when Bogie tells Bergman to get on the plane to Lisbon, or during the opening credits of movies like Top Gun or Superman or Goldfinger or The Big Country. And I guess I'm just enough of a romantic to love it when Richard Gere marches into the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet (literally) in that final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman--and I don't think I'd feel any of those thrills without the accompanying music.

Once an officer but no gentleman, I am also no expert on music. I play a few instruments (badly, and for no one's enjoyment but my own), my singing is so pitiful it scares the neighbor's dog, and I've had no musical training (my educational background is, God help us, electrical engineering and computers). But I know what sounds good to me, and I know what I like.

Music to my ears

So here's the deal. If you enjoy a great soundtrack along with your movie-watching, I have taken the liberty of listing fifty of my favorites, in no particular order:

The Natural -- Randy Newman
The Big Country -- Jerome Moross
Legends of the Fall -- James Horner
The Rocketeer -- James Horner
The Godfather -- Nino Rota
Superman -- John Williams
Jurassic Park -- John Williams
Star Wars -- John Williams
The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones
Casablanca -- Max Steiner
Gone With the Wind -- Max Steiner
The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand
Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith
L.A. Confidential -- Jerry Goldsmith
Somewhere in Time -- John Barry
On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- John Barry
Body Heat -- John Barry
Dances With Wolves -- John Barry
Goldfinger -- John Barry
Out of Africa -- John Barry
The Pink Panther -- Henry Mancini
Hatari -- Henry Mancini
Escape From New York -- John Carpenter
Signs -- James Newton Howard
Rocky -- Bill Conti
The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti
Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre
Doctor Zhivago -- Maurice Jarre
Witness -- Maurice Jarre
The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel
Back to the Future -- Alan Silvestri
A Fistful of Dollars -- Ennio Morricone
For a Few Dollars More -- Ennio Morricone
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in the West -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in America -- Ennio Morricone
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach
The High and the Mighty -- Dimitri Tiomkin
High Noon -- Dimitri Tiomkin
Vertigo -- Bernard Herrmann
Psycho -- Bernard Herrmann
Quigley Down Under -- Basil Poledouris
Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder
The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape -- Elmer Bernstein
Dirty Harry -- Lalo Schifrin
True Grit (2010) -- Carter Burwell
Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell
Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer


This is my request: When/if you watch or re-watch any of those, pay special attention to the music. You won't be disappointed.

NOTE 1: Only a dozen or so of the above movies are in the mystery/crime genre. Apologies to my fellow SleuthSayers--this isn't the first time I've wandered away from our usual topic, and probably won't be the last.

NOTE 2: I intentionally listed no musicals, no TV shows or miniseries, no animated features, and--except for L.A. Confidential--no soundtracks packed with classic songs. In doing so, I have regrettably omitted favorites like Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, A Hard Day's Night, West Side Story, Calamity Jane, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Game of Thrones, Lonesome Dove, Lost, American Graffiti, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Top Gun, The Big Chill, Reservoir Dogs, Easy Rider, Pulp Fiction, etc.

Questions

How important to you is the music in a movie? Do you even notice it? If you do, what are some soundtracks you especially enjoyed? As with most lists, I'm sure I forgot some of the best.

If you have recommendations, please let me know. (Cue John Williams's theme from E.T.) I'll be right here . . .




06 January 2018

Three Kings



by John M. Floyd



In my SleuthSayers post last Saturday I mentioned that I'd read some good novels last year. I did, and some good collections and nonfiction too. Some books I've especially enjoyed in the past three months are Don't Let Go (Harlan Coben), The Midnight Line (Lee Child), Uncommon Type (Tom Hanks), Fierce Kingdom, (Gin Phillips), The Last Castle (Denise Kiernan), Goldeline (Jimmy Cajoleas), The Lost City of Z (David Gramm), Artemis (Andy Weir), Hank and Jim (Scott Eyman), The Cuban Affair (Nelson DeMille), Trigger Mortis (Anthony Horowitz), The Rooster Bar (John Grisham), and We'll Always Have Casablanca (Noah Isenberg).

And two more: Sleeping Beauties (Stephen King and Owen King) and Strange Weather (Joe Hill). It's those I want to focus on, today.

Owen King is of course Stephen's son, and so is Joe Hill. Before Sleeping Beauties, I had not read anything written or co-written by Owen before, but I own every novel, novella, short story, and nonfiction book his father has done, and every book by Joe Hill as well: The FiremanNOS4A2Horns20th-Century Ghosts, and Heart-Shaped Box. (I was especially impressed by The Fireman.)

These two latest books were as well written, I thought, as any of the King products in a long time. Sleeping Beauties is a novel, and a long one--720 pages--and features more than 70 named characters. It's otherworldly, of course, and is set in an Appalachian town (most likely in West Virginia, although it never says for sure) and its nearby women's prison. The premise is fascinating: something is causing all the women in town to go to sleep, and when they go to sleep they don't wake up. The villain isn't really the sleeping-sickness; the villains are the men--at least some of them--and all kinds of timely themes are explored here.

One more reason you can't go wrong with this book: Stephen King writes good prison fiction. His novel The Green Mile and novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (from Different Seasons) are among his best works. And I should also mention that I can't see much difference in the style of writing between King's other books and this collaboration with his son. I truly enjoyed it.

The Joe Hill book is Strange Weather, a collection of four novellas that reminded me a bit of Different Seasons, from 35 years ago. In this case the common theme is the weather: violent electrical storms, wind-fueled wildfires, innocent-looking but sinister cloud formations, and downpours of nails and needles.

A quick overview: In the first of the four novellas, Snapshot, an overweight and outcast teenager is threatened by a tattooed killer with a supernatural Polaroid camera; Loaded is a dark story of gun mania and depression and violence in a small town; Aloft (the best of the four, I thought) features a first-time skydiver who falls into a cloud that turns out not to be a cloud at all; and Rain shows us what can happen when thunderstorms produce deadly falling hardware instead of water. Like Sleeping Beauties, these four tales manage to tackle a number of social concerns: racial prejudice, police brutality, gun control, bullying, LGBT issues, etc., etc.

I won't say more. Part of the fun of both these books, and all five of these adventures, is the constant surprises they offer to the reader. But I will say that I'm pleased to find that both of SK's sons seem to have inherited a rare gift. The literary apple didn't fall far from the tree.

Are any of you familiar with the work of either Joe Hill or Owen King--or of their mother Tabitha? If so, what do you think? And how many of you are fans of their father's fiction? At my own booksignings, the comments I receive about Stephen King are always either hot or cold, never lukewarm. It's either I don't read Stephen King at all or I absolutely love his books. I suspect that many of the naysayers have never bothered to read more than a few of his early works, and don't realize his range or his talent.

I've met the elder King only once, at the Edgars (he won, I lost), and I was so awestruck I did little more than shake his hand and babble. I think he's one of the best storytellers of our age, and as long as he keeps writing, I'll keep buying.

That goes for his sons as well.






30 December 2017

Non-Vital Statistics: 2017 in Review



by John M. Floyd



Can't believe this year's almost done. All things considered, I thought it was a good year for novels (The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith, Artemis by Andy Weir, among many others) and also for TV (Longmire's final season, Stranger Things's second season, and a FANTASTIC series called Godless), and a so-so year for movies (I liked Wonder Woman and The Last Jedi, and haven't yet seen Dunkirk or Three Billboards O. E. M.). Surrounded by all this external fiction, I continued to pound away at some of my own. And since short stories are the only thing I know much about, I've put together some writing stats for 2017.


The story board

According to my little three-ring binder, I've had 34 stories published this year. I've listed them below, and since we at this blog have been talking a lot about mystery markets lately, I've also listed the publications they appeared in:

"Unsigned, Sealed, and Delivered" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Winter/Jan 2017 issue
"A Green Thumb" -- The Texas Gardener, Jan 4, 2017 issue
"Relative Strangers" -- Woman's World, Jan 16, 2017 issue
"Merrill's Run" -- Mystery Weekly, Jan 17, 2017 issue
"Gun Work" -- Coast to Coast: Private Eyes (Down & Out Books), Jan 30, 2017
"Elevator Music" -- Meet Cute, Feb 2017
"No Strings Attached" -- Woman's World, Feb 27, 2017 issue
"Movie Night" -- Woman's World, Mar 20, 2017 issue
"Flag Day" -- The Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2017 issue
"Doctor in the House" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring/April 2017 issue
"Sand Hill" -- Gathering Storm Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 2, April 2017
"The Red-Eye to Boston" -- Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Cutting Block Books), April 2017
"Special Delivery" -- Woman's World, May 29, 2017 issue
"Vanity Case" -- Mysterical-E, Spring 2017 issue
"A Thousand Words" -- Kings River Life, May 27, 2017 issue
"Witness Protection" -- Woman's World, June 19, 2017 issue
"Crow Mountain" -- The Strand Magazine, June-Sep 2017 issue
"The Rare Book Case" -- Woman's World, July 3, 2017
"Ace in the Hole" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer/July 2017 issue
"The Sandman" -- Noir at the Salad Bar (Level Best Books), July 18, 2017
"Trail's End" -- Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/Aug 2017 issue
"Mr. Unlucky" -- Woman's World, Aug 7, 2017 issue
"False Testimony" -- Woman's World, Sep 4, 2017 issue
"Rooster Creek" -- Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Sep 2017 issue
"High Anxiety" -- Kings River Life, Sep 9, 2017
"An Act of Deception" -- Woman's World, Sep 18, 2017 issue
"Travelers" -- Visions VII: Universe, Oct 2017
"Life Is Good" -- Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), Oct 2017
"Knight Vision" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Fall/Oct 2017 issue
"Charlotte in Charge" -- Woman's World, Oct 7, 2017 issue
"The Tenth Floor" -- CEA Greatest Anthology (Celenic Earth Publications), Oct 14, 2017
"Teacher's Pet," -- Woman's World, Oct 30, 2017 issue
"Three Suspects and a Murder" -- Woman's World, Nov 27, 2017 issue
"A Christmas Card" -- Woman's World, Dec 11, 2017 issue

NOTE: I didn't count the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which appeared in December, because the date of that issue is Jan/Feb 2018. (It contains my story, "Scavenger Hunt," the second installment of a series I began with "Trail's End" in AHMM's July/Aug 2017 issue.)

More numbers

Of my stories that were published in 2017, 18 appeared in print magazines, 7 in print anthologies, and 9 in online publications. 30 of the 34 went to paying markets, 25 to repeat markets, and 9 to new markets. 28 of these stories were unsolicited submissions, and 6 were by invitation. Genrewise, one was a romance, one was humor, one was science fiction, and 31 were mysteries (although some were cross-genre--mystery/western, mystery/fantasy, etc.). 29 of these were original stories and 5 were reprints. As for settings, 21 took place in my home state of Mississippi, and 13 were set elsewhere. It surprised me a little that only 2 were first-person POV; 32 were third-person. 20 of the 34 were installments in a series (four different series, actually), and 14 were standalone stories. Lengthwise, 17 of the stories were less than 1000 words, 8 were between 1000 and 5000, and 9 were more than 5000.

At this moment, 13 more of my stories have been accepted and will be published shortly, 22 more have been submitted but have not yet received a response, and 30 have been selected by my publisher for a seventh collection of my short mystery stories, scheduled for release in hardcover next summer.

On the downside, I've also received 20 rejections this year, from 12 different markets. That's a lot of misfires, and yes, that means multiple rejections from some places. What can I say? Many of my friends assume that because I've been fortunate enough to sell regularly to certain publications, those places probably just accept everything I send them. I wish.


More wishful thinking

One would also suspect that I could digest all this information and make some kind of informed decision about which stories work and which don't, and where I should submit stories and where I shouldn't. But if one suspected that, one would be wrong. For the life of me I sometimes cannot seem to determine which stories should go where--the square peg doesn't always want to fit in the square slot--and even though I've come to know some of these editors well, I can't predict which stories I send them will be successful and which won't. I also don't seem to be able to foresee which markets will survive for generations and which will put all four feet in the air after a year or so. As the old saying goes, you spends your dollar (or, in this case, your time) and you takes your chances. Maybe I'll get smarter next year.

Questions

To all my writer friends out there, how was 2017 for you? Did you sell a novel or a collection or a story, or have one (or more) published? What great stories/novels did you read? What good movies/TV shows did you watch? Do you write an ongoing series, in either novels or stories? If so, do those seem to sell better than standalone works? Do you have specific writing projects in progress, or upcoming in 2018? If you're a short-story writer, did you try to target only paying markets?

Final question: Are the years passing faster now, or is it just because I'm getting old?

I think I know the answer to that one.












16 December 2017

A Punny Thing Happened on the Way to the Title



by John M. Floyd





How important are titles of novels/stories, etc.? According to my publisher and most editors, VERY. As a result, I try hard to come up with story titles that are interesting or appropriate or--hopefully--a little mysterious. I especially like a play on words or a double meaning.

We've talked at this blog about titles and their importance before, and the fact that some are truly unique and memorable: East of Eden, Atlas Shrugged, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, No Country for Old Men, Gone With the Wind, A Walk Among the Tombstones, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Red Badge of Courage, From Here to Eternity, Jaws, The Guns of Navarone, Cool Hand Luke, The High and the Mighty, Peyton Place, Presumed Innocent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Eagle Has Landed, The Sound and the Fury, Fahrenheit 451, The Color Purple, The Silence of the Lambs, Of Mice and Men, The Maltese Falcon, The Hunt for Red October, Cannery Row, Dances With Wolves, The Caine Mutiny, and so on and so on.

But today I'd like to talk about some of the wittiest (not the best, just the wittiest and cleverest) book titles I can remember. Confession time: I wound up buying many of these books, mainly because of their names. What can I say?--I couldn't resist.

NOTE: I've started out with some of my all-time favorites and ended with the merely amusing. (And yes, I know, I'm easily amused.) I like 'em all.


1. Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man -- Ed McBain

2. The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker -- Ron White

3. Shoot Low, Boys--They're Riding Shetland Ponies -- Lewis Grizzard

4. Here's Looking at Euclid -- Alex Bellos

5. Florence of Arabia -- Christopher Buckley

6. How to Win Friends and Influenza -- Edward Kurtz

7. Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel -- Giles Smith

8. A Hearse of a Different Color -- Tim Cockey

9. The Canceled Czech -- Lawrence Block

10. The Scoreless Thai -- Lawrence Block

11. Bleak Expectations -- Mark Evans

12. Lapsing Into a Comma -- Bob Walsh

13. How to Raise Your IQ by Eating Gifted Children -- Lewis B. Frumkeys

14. I Still Miss My Man but My Aim Is Getting Better -- Sarah Shankman 

15. I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression -- Erma Bombeck

16. Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea -- Chelsea Handler

17. Tequila Mockingbird -- Tim Federle

18. Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger -- Beth Harbison

19. Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining -- Judy Sheindlin

20. No Way to Treat a First Lady -- Christopher Buckley

21. From Here to Maternity -- Sinead Moriarty

22. The War Between the Tates -- Alison Lurie

23. Up From Down Under -- Jeff Apter

24. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies -- June Casagrande

25. If at Birth You Don't Succeed -- Zach Anner 

26. The Elephants of Style -- Bob Walsh

27. Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear -- Ed McBain

28. A Quiche Before Dying -- Jill Churchill 

29. Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead -- screenplay by Neil Landau and Tara Ison 

30. Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School -- Adam Ruben 


I'm not sure how these writers came up with these delightful titles, but I'm fairly sure that when they did, they were delighted also. A word of caution, though. This kind of thing is like similes and metaphors; when they work they're pure gold, and when they don't they can be exploding cigars. Just think of all those cozy cat mysteries or cooking mysteries that are usually pretty darn good once you get into them . . .  but I suspect some of their pun-based titles keep readers from getting into them.

What are some clever titles that you've seen (of books, stories, movies, TV shows, etc.)? And have you come up with any yourself? If you're like me, you might dream up one you think is brilliant, and then your editor/publisher decides to change it. (Sigh.) I did a SleuthSayers post on that very subject, almost a year ago.

Okay, back to my favorites. I've saved the best for last. At a library sale I once saw a book whose title made me stop and laugh out loud. It was Apocalypse Pretty Soon, by Alex Heard. How could I not buy that book? (Besides, it was only a dollar.)


I just wish I'd thought of it first.









02 December 2017

From the Strand to the Subway: An Unplanned Journey



by John M. Floyd



Like most short-story writers, I don't hit a home run every time I go to bat. Some of my stories sell to good markets and some don't, and even though I try hard to make every story as perfect as I can make it before typing THE END and sending it out into the world, it's difficult to predict which ones will be successful and which ones won't. Most of them eventually pay their way, but sometimes they have to be revised a bit before they do.

Never say never

Occasionally, though, you do know--or at least have a feeling--that what you've created might be on target. I remember feeling that way while writing a story called "Molly's Plan," in early 2014. It was a 5000-word story about the robbery of a supposedly theft-proof bank, and was unusual in several ways: the bad guys were the protagonists, it had very little dialogue, everything happened inside an hour or so, and the POV changed at least four times. But I liked all that, and I liked the suspense and the surprises in the story. When I finished it I mumbled a prayer to the submission gods and sent it to editor Andrew Gulli at Strand Magazine.

Andrew bought it, and it appeared in the June-September 2014 issue of The Strand--the 10th of the 16 stories I've published there. I was pleased by the sale and by the positive feedback I received from readers over the next few weeks, but what I didn't know was that even better times were ahead, for this story. In the months that followed, Otto Penzler notified me that "Molly's Plan" had been selected to appear in the 2015 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories; Kirkus Reviews had glowing things to say about my story; a Hollywood agency inquired about film rights; several college teachers requested permission to use it in their fiction-writing classes; and my publisher included it in a sixth collection of my short mystery fiction. A Russian literary magazine even contacted me recently with an offer to translate and reprint it in an upcoming (2018) issue of Inostrannaya Literatura. I suppose my little bank-heist tale has done well for itself.

NOTE: Before you get the impression that I think I'm the fattest goose in the gaggle, I should point out what one magazine editor told me years ago, in his rejection of what I thought was an outstanding science-fiction submission. He said, of my ten-page story, "You should've stopped on page 5." That'll bring you back down to earth pretty fast.



Read--don't sleep--in the subway

What I'm getting around to describing, here, is yet another opportunity that came out of nowhere, this past spring. I was informed that "Molly's Plan" had been nominated to be part of a New York Public Library initiative to bring digital short stories to library patrons and public transit commuters, and I received confirmation the other day that it has now been selected for inclusion. My story will become part of the NYPL's permanent digital collection and will be available via a library mobile lending app called SimplyE. (Here's how it works: when commuters log in to the subway wi-fi network they'll be directed to a library website where there'll be various collections of fiction and nonfiction, similar to a Netflix queue.)

Apparently the driving force behind all this is Plympton, a literary studio in San Francisco. They format the stories into Ebooks, design covers for each, and create cataloguing data. They anticipate launching similar "literature in motion" projects with library systems in Chicago, San Francisco, Toledo, Salt Lake City, Boston, and Pittsburgh, and "Molly's Plan" will be available in each of these. Here's the cover they've chosen to use:


Anything can happen

One of my old schoolteachers told me there's a lesson to be found in every experience you have, and one thing I've learned as a writer is that--with a little luck--short stories can take on a whole new life after publication. (I'm reminded of a column here at SleuthSayers the other day by my friend R.T. Lawton, whose AHMM story "Boudin Noir" was recently resurrected in Otto Penzler's The Big Book of Rogues and Villains.) Published stories can be selected for "best-of" anthologies, reprinted in collections, nominated for awards, translated into other languages, produced as plays, made into movies, etc., etc. They might even be read by passengers on the subway.

What's been your experience with previously-published stories? Have some of yours been recognized with nominations or awards, or reborn in collections or anthos? If so, were they always stories that first appeared in the bigger publications, or were some discovered in lesser-known markets? Do you actively submit your previously-pubbed stories to reprint venues, or have those opportunities appeared out of the blue, via invitations or selections?

I'll close by saying that this to-infinity-and-beyond kind of thing doesn't happen all the time, but it does seem to pop up more often than you might think. There are no guarantees: I believe all of us realize that we might strike out the very next time we step up to the plate. Your newly-written story might not get published at all, and if it does it might appear someplace once and that's it. But you also might get a hit that clears all the bases. You might put together a story that delivers over and over, and makes you proud for years to come. And that's a good reason to keep trying.

One never knows.




18 November 2017

A Book and a Movie



by John M. Floyd



For my post today, I'm making two recommendations: one for a novel I recently read and one for a movie I recently watched. Neither one is a traditional mystery, but both qualify as mysteries since they're both suspense/thriller stories in which crimes are central to the plots. In fact, murders are central to the plots.

The first is Fierce Kingdom, a 2017 novel by Gin Phillips. I think one reason I so enjoyed this book is that I'd heard nothing about it beforehand. I happened to be in a bookstore, noticed the cover, read the inside jacket copy, and bought it. That kind of thing doesn't always work out well for me, but this time it did.

Fierce Kingdom is about a woman and her small son who are visiting a local zoo and are caught up in a killing rampage by (at first) unseen shooters. It's almost closing time, the place is shutting down and night's approaching, and the mother and child find themselves alone and fending for themselves until the outside world can find out what's going on and intervene.

Another thing I liked about this book is that--like a long-ago movie favorite of mine called Wait Until Dark--the characters here know something the killers don't: the mother and child are frequent visitors to the zoo and are familiar with its grounds, even its nooks and crannies. This inside information of course comes in handy as the drama unfolds.

Needless to say, this reader became quickly invested in these two characters, and there were some seriously tense scenes. I loved every minute, and I'm now on the lookout for more novels by Ms. Phillips.

The other welcome surprise I discovered recently was the movie No Escape (2015), with Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. (Not to be confused with the 1994 No Escape with Ray Liotta, though I liked that one too.) This is a story of a businessman (Wilson) who has accepted a job position in a third-world country and is in the process of moving there along with his wife and two young daughters. While in a hotel the family (and Brosnan, a fellow traveler who comes to their aid) suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bloody revolution where Americans are being rounded up and executed on the spot. I should mention here that I've never been a big fan of Owen Wilson . . . until now. I was impressed with his performance in this film, along with that of Brosnan and of Wilson's character's wife, played by Lake Bell.

For the writers among you, the script is especially good, and the story moves at a fast pace, with plenty of action and some breathtakingly scary scenes--in some cases because the story (like Fierce Kingdom) involves children in jeopardy and parents' overwhelming love for those children, which is a sure-fire generator of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension. Or at least the biting of my nails and the edge of my seat. I mean, I really, really wanted these kids to come out okay, and almost everyone in both the book and the movie seemed to be trying to catch these families and kill them. And yes, I know, it was just fiction--but it was good fiction, so it felt real.

Part of my enjoyment of No Escape was probably due to the fact that I could relate to it, in a way. My IBM travels took me to some far-flung locations, and immediately after one of those trips (to the Philippines), I sat here at home in my recliner and watched a machine-gun-blazing coup take place just outside the Manila hotel where I'd stayed only a couple of weeks earlier. In our screwed-up world, violent uprisings like this do happen, popping up out of nowhere, and it's easy to believe that it could happen someplace at the same time an unsuspecting American family arrives there to start a new life.

So that's my report. Was this the best book I've ever read or the best film I've ever seen? No. Have they won any earth-shaking awards? Not that I know about (although Fierce Kingdom is still recent enough that it might). But I do know they were both interesting and entertaining and thoroughly satisfying. At least to me.

Have any of you read this novel or watched this movie? If so, I'd like to hear your opinions.


As of this writing, Fierce Kingdom is still prominently displayed in bookstores and No Escape is still available for streaming via Netflix. Give 'em a try.



04 November 2017

Old Friends and Old Castles



by John M. Floyd


In our columns at this blog, we Sayers of Sleuth try to stick to the subject of mystery writing. I'm often guilty, though, of wandering off topic (especially to things like movies and TV), and sure enough, my focus today is on a book of narrative nonfiction. But today's post is also vaguely connected to the mysterious, because if I hadn't become acquainted several years ago with fellow mystery writer Joseph D'Agnese, he probably wouldn't have recently offered me what turned out to be an interesting opportunity.

Here's what I mean. Back in early September Joe emailed me from his home in North Carolina to tell me his wife, Denise Kiernan, was about to do a nationwide tour for her new book, The Last Castle. In fact I had already heard about the book, and had even pre-ordered it from Amazon a month or so earlier, partly because my wife Carolyn and I had so enjoyed Denise's previous book--a New York Times bestseller called The Girls of Atomic City--and partly because The Last Castle is a narrative history of the Biltmore House, an attraction in Asheville, North Carolina, that we've visited several times over the years.

Anyhow, Joe also explained in his email that one of the stops Denise would make on the tour was Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and that Denise usually prefers not to do a solo reading/signing; when possible, she asks someone she knows to come and appear with her at the event, and in effect interview her about the book in the popular "a conversation with the author" format. And since I'd met Joe and Denise a couple of years ago in Raleigh and we've swapped several books and emails since then, he asked if I'd like to appear with Denise at the event in Oxford, which is only about three hours' drive from my home near Jackson.

So that's what we did, on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 25. I drove up there, met with Denise beforehand to strategize and catch up a bit, and then she and I spent an hour or so discussing her book in front of an audience of readers and writers. She was of course a better interviewee than I was an interviewer, but I think we all had a good time, and everyone (except Denise, already an expert) learned a great deal about the famous Biltmore estate, the Vanderbilts who constructed it, and America's Gilded Age. Afterward she signed a bunch of books and we all stood around and chatted until seven or so, at which point I headed home and Denise drove to Memphis to catch a flight the following morning to New York, her next stop. (She'd spent the previous two days in Seattle and L.A. I remember once being told that national book tours are like attending Epcot Center in Florida: Every Person Comes Out Tired.)

I should mention here that Square Books is one of several excellent and widely-known independent bookstores here in Mississippi--others include Lemuria in Jackson and Turnrow in Greenwood--and that the bookstore staff there in Oxford showed both of us an incredibly warm welcome. Many thanks to Richard Howorth, Alissa Lilly, Toby Morrison, and everyone else at Square Books. Denise had been to Oxford twice before, to speak at Ole Miss, and my most recent trip there was as one of the signers of Mississippi Noir a year ago, but we both agreed that this trip was the most fun.


A final note. Like The Girls of Atomic City (subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II), The Last Castle is a fascinating book about a fascinating place and time in our history. Many of you probably know that the Biltmore House is the largest private residence in America, a sort of giant French Renaissance chateau constructed by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800s. What you might not know is that the house is 175,000 square feet (larger than the castle where Downton Abbey was filmed), with 250 rooms, 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, located on an estate of around 125,000 acres. And the people involved in its history are no less interesting than the setting. According to the description/subtitle on the front cover of Denise's book, The Last Castle is "the epic story of love, loss, and American royalty in the nation's largest home." I couldn't have said it better myself. And by the way, this book also made the New York Times bestseller list, as soon as it was released.


If you've read The Last Castle already, you know what a literary achievement it is. If you've not read it, I hope you will. It's a marvelously entertaining and eye-opening look at not only an American landmark but at America itself.

To Joe D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan: Thank you for allowing me a small connection to all this. I had a great time.




07 October 2017

Writing for the Record


by John M. Floyd



Like many of my fellow writers, I've had my share of unusual experiences. I once had three stories in four months in AHMM (the March, May, and June 1999 issues); I once did a signing at a flea market, right in there among the T-shirts and yard ornaments and velvet paintings; I've twice had stories in Woman's World that listed someone else's byline; I've published poems in places like Volcano Quarterly and Appalling Limericks; one of my short stories was rejected twelve times before it finally sold; I've had stories published in Braille and on audiotape and translated into Russian; and I once drove 150 miles to do a library presentation where only two people showed up (and both of them worked for the library). Etc., etc., etc.

But something happened recently that was even stranger than any of those. A writer friend from Los Angeles named Eric Guignard, who has also edited several anthologies I've appeared in, contacted me with information about an opportunity. He began his email with "There's this little project I stumbled across that you might be interested in . . ."

The project was an attempt by a publisher in South Africa to--again, in Eric's words--"create the biggest book of short stories ever for The Guiness Book of World Records."

Here's the deal:

CEA Greatest Anthology Written, published by Celenic Earth Publications, will include 111 original short stories, each between 3000 and 8000 words, written by 111 different authors around the world. The book is an attempt at a Guiness World Record for the most authors contributing to a single volume of short fiction.

Shaun M. Jooste, a writer/publisher from Cape Town, South Africa, began working on the project in April. He applied to Guiness World Records, challenged the existing record of 50 writers, and stated that he could double that number in an anthology that he would then publish. After GWR granted him permission for the attempt and sent him a truckload of requirements and guidelines, Shaun put out a call for contributors, read all the submissions, and categorized them by genre. The book will then be "authenticated and verified" according to specifications by Guiness. To attain World Record status, 1000 copies of the book must be printed and at least 500 print copies and 500 e-book copies must be sold. (For anyone who's interested, it is available now for pre-order here and will also be sold via Amazon.)


The anthology, which will be about 600 pages, will feature authors from South Africa, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Nigeria, Mexico, Bolivia, and Switzerland. The main genres included are mystery/crime, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and romance (with about 2% children's, 4% LGBT, and 4% historical).

Eric and I received word last month that our stories will be included. Mine, which is called "The Tenth Floor," is a 4000-word fantasy tale about a teenager who buys an artifact from a pawn shop as a gift for his grandmother and then finds that it's also a portal to another world. Not a mystery, but it contains several plot twists, and one of my favorite endings. And the timing of the anthology call was perfect: when I found out about the opportunity, this story was already completed and sitting here in my to-be-submitted stack.

Everything about this project is a little unusual--including the five-page contract I received a few weeks ago. It stated that authors will retain reprint rights but will not be offered royalties; their payment will be the permanent inclusion of their names in The Guiness Book of World Records. I decided I could live with that.

Eric, a Bram Stoker Award winner, agrees. In fact he told me that inclusion in Guiness World Records has always been one of his bucket-list items. I had honestly never thought about it--but now that it's a probability, I'm pretty excited.

Maybe if I talk about that at one of our libraries, more than two bored employees will show up.

Or maybe not.





30 September 2017

Black Cats and Roosters



by John M. Floyd



Robert Lopresti mentioned here at SleuthSayers a few weeks ago that he enjoys reading behind-the-scenes reports about the writing of short stories. Where authors get their ideas, where they find their characters, how they come up with titles, how/why they construct plots in a certain way. And Art Taylor's column yesterday featured some of those stories-within-the-stories from the current Anthony Award nominees.

I agree with Rob, and Art too--I think that kind of thing is fascinating. Because of that (and because I couldn't think of anything else to write about, for today), I decided to post a "look-inside" view of my short story "Rooster Creek," which appears in the current, and debut, issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.

First, a word about that issue. One of the thrills, for me, of being included there was the fact that just about every author in the story lineup is a friend of mine. I've always especially enjoyed reading stories written by people I already know, and this was a chance for me to do a lot of that. I'd like to take this opportunity to once again thank John Betancourt and Carla Coupe of Wildside Press for allowing me a spot at the table with such talented writers.


Story time

"Rooster Creek" is a 7500-word tale that combines three genres: western, mystery, and (to a lesser degree) romance. That was an easy choice for me, since (1) I've always been crazy about westerns, probably because I grew up watching so many on primetime TV; (2) I'm sappy enough to like a good love story; and (3) one of the job requirements of working in the SleuthSayers asylum is a fondness for anything with an element of mystery/suspense.

Here's a quick description of my story: After the death of her mother, twentysomething Katie Harrison is traveling cross-country by stagecoach to live with her older sister, and stops along the way to visit her childhood home. She runs into a multitude of problems, including the theft of her cash and luggage, and is forced to remain at the remote homestead as a servant to its current owners, Maureen and Jesse Carter, until she can earn enough in wages to continue her passage west. At the core of the story is a mystery: the Carters' former housemaid has disappeared, and Katie soon suspects that she's been murdered. With the help of two unlikely allies--a giant black handyman named Booley Jones and a traveling firearms-salesman named Clay Wallace--Katie burrows deeper into the strange lives of her employers/captors, and she eventually winds up alone and fighting for her life.

Structurewise, I decided early on that this story needed to be "framed" such that it begins very near the end then flashes back to the beginning and tells the story in the past. The action then builds to the point where the reader left off, and the climax and conclusion follow shortly afterward. This nonlinear approach--the first scene is sort of a glimpse-into-the-future prologue--doesn't always work, but when it does, I think it can make for more effective storytelling. I hope that's what I accomplished here.


Getting started

Having said that, here are the opening paragraphs of the story:


Katie Harrison swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and looked out at the greenish-brown plains and hills stretching away to the horizon. Sparrows flitted and chirped in the branches overhead, and even in the dappled shade the midday sun was warm on her shoulders. But Katie barely heard the birds, barely felt the heat.

Underneath her feet, the chair shifted an inch, and her heart lurched. She winced as the noose tightened around her neck. The fingernails of her bound hands bit into her palms, behind her back. Then the wobbly chair on which she stood stabilized and she let herself breathe again. Above her, although she couldn't see it, the rope was looped over the limb of an oak that had once supported a wooden swing that she'd played on as a child, twenty years ago.

Ten feet away and to her left, a silent and stonefaced woman with red hair sat and watched from a second chair. Beside the redheaded woman stood a huge black man in a battered hat and bib overalls. His face, usually relaxed and peaceful, had a pained look. Katie had met both of them only a month earlier, after she'd trudged empty-handed and muddy all the way up the wagon-rutted road from the town of Perdition. Only a month. In one sense, the time had passed quickly; in another, it seemed like years since she stopped down off the stagecoach from Lincoln Wells and asked the old fellow behind the counter in the stage office where she could hire a buggy to take her up the old north road.

Ain't much out that way, he had said to her, hunched over his paperwork.

I know, she'd replied. That's where I grew up.



And then we hop back to a scene with her in the stagecoach office, and the real adventure begins there.


Plot and characters

Another point, about the structure of this story. As in most novels and screenplays and in some longer short-stories, a lot of elements of the mythic-structure/heroic-journey model apply here. First, in Act 1, there's the heroine's usual and uncomplicated life, then a "disturbance" that upsets the routine (in this case, her inability to rent transportation to get her where she wants to go), then an unexpected encounter (with a young boy who needs her help) which delays her acceptance of the "call to adventure," and finally her eventual crossing-the-threshold transition into unfamiliar and threatening territory. Act 2 features the appearance of mentors and allies (a kindly hired hand and a traveling gun salesman), several run-ins with evil forces, steadily rising action, and finally a crisis/setback that paves the way for the climax. Then, in Act 3, there's the final confrontation between the heroine and the villain and the heroine's later return, as an older and wiser person, to her everyday, pre-adventure life. The old hero's-journey template still works.
I knew before I started writing "Rooster Creek" that I wanted the protagonist to be a strong-willed young woman, which is a little unusual for me, and it turned out later that the main antagonist was a woman as well, which was a lot unusual for me. But it seemed to fit, and the more I got into writing about the villain the more I could see her and hear her. I even had the villain always speaking of herself in the third person, which (as fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law and I discussed, when we talked about this), made her seem not only weird but even more sinister. These crazy little extra "quirks" can be the difference, I've found, between a merely okay character and a really vivid character. Janet Hutchings told me a couple of years ago that one reason she bought one of my mysteries for EQMM was that my main female character was seven feet tall. But that--literally--is another story.

The hired hand in this piece, Booley Jones, is a composite of a number of folks I knew, growing up in small-town Mississippi, and the same is true for some of the other characters. As for detailed descriptions of the players, I never do much of that. I can see these people clearly in my imagination as I'm writing about them, but I think it's important that the reader be allowed the freedom to also imagine what they look like. Stephen King once said, in his book On Writing, "I'd rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well." I'm no Stephen King, but I think that's good advice.


Entitlement

One more thing. The title of this story was a result of my not being able to decide on a satisfactory title even after the writing was finished. I tried using embedded phrases, characters' names, double meanings. and just about every other technique, and when nothing worked, I came up with the name of a geographical feature instead--Rooster Creek--and went back and set the house and farm and most of the action alongside its willow-shaded banks. Sometimes simple is best.

And that's the story of my story. If you read it, I hope you'll like it, and even if you don't read it (or don't like it), be sure to read the other stories in the magazine. John and Carla have put together a great debut issue.

Long live Black Cat Mystery Magazine.




16 September 2017

A Trivial Pursuit


by John M. Floyd



Yes, I know: there are a lot of productive things I could and should be doing right now, instead of writing a trivial post about trivia. But, as I've confessed in the past, I love little-known facts about fiction and those who create or portray it.

So, for the next few minutes, I challenge you to forget about the stock market and North Korea and politics and global warming and take a look at these worthless little tidbits about movies and novels and actors and writers. Since they surprised me when I learned about them, I hope they (or at least some of them) might surprise you as well.


- Ian Fleming wrote the children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

- Jack Kerouac typed the novel On the Road on one continuous roll of paper 120 feet long.

- Dooley Wilson (Sam, in Casablanca) didn't know how to play the piano.

- Dr. Seuss wasn't a doctor, of any kind.

- Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door to Mark Twain in Hartford, Connecticut.

- The names of the policeman and the cab driver in It's a Wonderful Life were Bert and Ernie.

- Both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were extras in Field of Dreams.

- Between 1982 and 1984, Nora Roberts wrote 23 novels.

- The announcer who replaced Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer (played by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam) was Pat Sajak.

- Mel Brooks wrote the lyrics to the theme from Blazing Saddles.

- Steve Buscemi is a former NYC firefighter.

- The final Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, was nominated for eleven Oscars and won all of them.

- Before writing The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown was a pop singer. One of his solo albums was called Angels and Demons.

- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, a drawing of R2D2 and C3PO appears on a column in the Well of Souls.

- The novel Catch-22 was originally titled Catch-18.

- Robert Louis Stevenson burned stories based on readers' informal responses, Leo Tolstoy's son rescued the manuscript of War and Peace from the ditch where Tolstoy had thrown it, and Tabitha King pulled the discarded manuscript of Carrie from Stephen King's wastebasket.

- James Arness (Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke) and Peter Graves (Jim Phelps of Mission: Impossible) were brothers.

- William Atherton, who played the obnoxious TV reporter in Die Hard and Die Hard 2, sang the "What'll I Do?" theme song during the opening credits of the 1974 (Robert Redford/Mia Farrow) version of The Great Gatsby.

- "Goldeneye" was Ian Fleming's name for the Jamaican beach house where he wrote all the James Bond novels. Sting later used the same desk to write the song "Every Breath You Take."

- One of the voices of E.T. was that of Debra Winger.

- Clint Eastwood composed the main theme ("Claudia's Theme") for Unforgiven.


- Tom Wolfe, who was six-foot-six, preferred to write standing up, using the top of his refrigerator for a desk.

- In The Abyss, many of the underwater scenes were actually filmed in smoky air, using fake bubbles.

- Olivia Newton-John's grandfather, Max Born, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1954.

- Both Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie dictated their novels. (Though ESG typed his earliest work.)

- To make some of the spacecraft seem larger in the movie Alien, director Ridley Scott filmed his own two children outfitted in miniature space suits.

- Rowan Atkinson has a master's degree in Electrical Engineering.

- Singer Tex Ritter ("Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'," from High Noon) was actor John Ritter's father.

- Actor/director Anthony Hopkins composed the music for the movie Slipstream (2007).

- Clyde Barrow once wrote a letter to Henry Ford (it's on display at the Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan) praising the V-8 Ford as a getaway car.

- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the first book written using the typewriter.

- Clint Eastwood did all his own mountain climbing--no stuntmen--in The Eiger Sanction.

- Most of the cast and crew of The African Queen got sick from the water. Only Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston were unaffected because they drank only whiskey.

- Evelyn Waugh's first wife's name was Evelyn.

- Tom Hanks is a descendant of Abe Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

- The first U.S. paperback edition of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale was published with the title You Asked for It.

- Michael Myers's mask in Halloween was a two-dollar Captain Kirk mask, slightly altered and painted white.

- Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew novels, was really a pseudonym for a team of several different writers.

- Hoyt Axton (the father in The Black Stallion) wrote "Heartbreak Hotel."

- Melissa McCarthy and Jenny McCarthy are first cousins.

- The original title of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. It was reversed when Newman decided to take the role of Butch rather than Sundance.

- The same author (Larry McMurtry) wrote Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment.

- Frank Oz was the voice of Yoda, the Cookie Monster, and Miss Piggy.

- Mickey Spillane ordered 50,000 copies of his 1952 novel Kiss Me, Deadly to be destroyed when the comma was left out of the title.

- Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller's girlfriend) has had two fathers-in-law: Sean Connery and Jim Henson.

- Director John Carpenter composed the music for most of his movies.

- Noah Webster was T. S. Eliot's great-uncle.

- Ian Fleming got the name for his fictional spy from a book he owned called Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond.

- The charcoal sketch of Kate Winslet in Titanic was actually drawn by director James Cameron.

- Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore were roommates at Harvard.

- J. K. Rowling came up with the names for the houses at Hogwarts while on a plane. She jotted the names down on a barf bag.

- The keypad on the laboratory's door lock in Moonraker plays the five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

- Author Sidney Sheldon created the TV series I Dream of Jeannie and The Patty Duke Show, and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

- When the kid in Home Alone 2 walks into the Plaza Hotel, the person he asks for directions is Donald Trump.

- Tom Clancy was part owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

- Cormac McCarthy wrote with the same typewriter for more than fifty years. When it broke, he auctioned it off for more than $250,000 (to donate to charity).

- In World War II, Roald Dahl was a fighter pilot, Donald Pleasance was a POW, Christopher Lee was an undercover agent for British Inteligence, and Charles Durning was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.

- When a hurricane hit the set during filming of Jurassic Park, the pilot who choppered the crew to safety was the man who had played Indiana Jones's pilot, Jock, in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

- The top three most-read books in the world are The Holy Bible, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, and the Harry Potter series.

- In The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, Fleming was played by Sean Connery's son Jason.

- Actor Sam Shepard wrote 44 plays; one of them won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979.

- The roles of both John McClane in Die Hard and Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry were first offered to Frank Sinatra.

- When J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, she typed three separate copies of the manuscript because she couldn't afford copying fees.

- Samuel L. Jackson's Pulp Fiction quote from Ezekiel was originally written for Harvey Keitel's character in From Dusk to Dawn.

- Chocolate syrup was used as blood in Psycho's shower scene; it was also used as the Tin Man's oil in The Wizard of Oz.

- Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was eighteen, and it was published when she was twenty.

- Mystery writer John Sandford, a.k.a. John Camp, won a Pulitzer for Non-Deadline Feature Writing in 1986 for articles about the life of a Minnesota farming family.

- Of his 70-plus film roles, Gregory Peck played a villain only twice (I think), in Duel in the Sun and The Boys From Brazil.

- Dolph Lundgren has a master's degree in Chemical Engineering.

- In the UK, Fifty Shades of Grey is the best-selling book of all time.

- George Lucas had a dog named Indiana.

- Robert Duvall had a bit part as Steve McQueen's cab driver in the movie Bullitt.

- The Salvation (2014) was a Western filmed in South Africa, with a Danish director and actors from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, the U.S., and England.

- Haley Joe Osment, the boy who "saw dead people" in The Sixth Sense, played Forrest Gump's son five years earlier.

- Tippi Hedren (The Birds) is the mother of Melanie Griffith and the grandmother of Dakota Johnson.

- Kurt Vonnegut managed America's first Saab dealership.

- Denzel Washington and Jeff Goldblum both played thugs in 1974's Death Wish.

- As a child, Roald Dahl--the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory--was a taste-tester for Cadbury's chocolate.

- Nathaneal West's 1939 novel The Day of the Locust features a character named Homer Simpson.

- In High Plains Drifter, one of the headstones in the cemetery was inscribed with the name Sergio Leone.

- Married (at one time or another): Geena Davis/Jeff Goldblum, Rachel Weisz/Daniel Craig, Calista Flockhart/Harrison Ford, Marlo Thomas/Phil Donahue, Rita Hayworth/Orson Welles, Uma Thurman/Gary Oldman, Dyan Cannon/Cary Grant, Lorraine Bracco/Edward James Olmos, Catherine Keener/Delmot Mulroney, Mia Farrow/Frank Sinatra, Christie Brinkley/Billy Joel, Barbara Streisand/Elliott Gould, Brooke Shields/Andre Agassi, Lisa Marie Presley/Nicolas Cage, Mary Steenbergen/Malcolm McDowell, Isabella Rosselini/Martin Scorcese, Madonna/Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller/Will Arnett, Michelle Phillips/Dennis Hopper, Mimi Rogers/Tom Cruise, Helen Hunt/Hank Azaria, Drew Barrymore/Tom Green, Katherine Ross/Sam Elliott, Scarlett Johanssen/Ryan Reynolds.

-Dated (at one time or another): Helen Mirren/Liam Neeson, Anjelica Huston/Jack Nicholson. Sarah Jessica Parker/Robert Downey Jr., Courtney Cox/Michael Keaton, Whoopi Goldberg/Frank Langella, Carrie Fisher/Paul Simon, Jeanne Tripplehorn/Ben Stiller, Meryl Streep/John Cazale.

- Barbie in Toy Story 3 is voiced by Jodi Benson, who also voiced Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

- Paranormal Activity cost $15,000 to make and has grossed $210 million; Deep Throat cost around $25,000 and grossed $600 million; John Carter cost $350 million and lost $200 million.

- Mickey Spillane was at one time the author of seven of the ten best-selling novels in history.

- Sean Connery wore a toupee in all of his James Bond movies.


And maybe the most valuable and surprising piece of trivia of all:

- Katy Perry's cat's name is Kitty Purry.

(Don't ever say I didn't give you the inside info.)


Can you think of any crazy and lesser-known movie/novel/actor/author facts? Inquiring minds want to know . . .




02 September 2017

A Summer Plot


by John M. Floyd



Question: What do you call a gathering of writers? It can't be a school (that's taken), or a murder or a pride or a gaggle (also taken). Of all the suggestions of collective nouns I've seen, I prefer a plot. It has a nice ring to it, I think: a plot of writers. Not that it makes sense or anything--actually I just needed a good title for this column.


The gathering I'm referring to is one I attended two weeks ago, on Saturday, August 19: the third annual Mississippi Book Festival, held here in Jackson on the grounds of the State Capitol. A plot of several thousand writers (and readers) gathered there from nine a.m. until five p.m., in the blazing sun and stifling humidity of a southern summer, to attend author panels and signings and to buy books and--as our Baptist brethren like to say--to "fellowship." And fellowship we did, all day long and into the night, when our annual "literary lawn party" moved to another site several miles north.

The only official indication we have of this year's total crowd-size is the number of people who attended the forty-or-so panels held in several indoor and air-conditioned venues on and around the grounds, and I'm told that was around 6500--though there were certainly many other folks who came to the event and did not choose to attend a panel. As for me, I was stationed for most of the day at an outdoor and un-air-conditioned venue: the twelve-by-twelve-foot tent assigned to my publisher (Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press) and his four authors--Randy Pierce, Valerie Winn, Susan Cushman, and myself--along with stacks and boxes of our books. A couple of us played hooky long enough to participate in signings and panels throughout the day, but it was still a little crowded there. And really, really hot. But we saw a lot of old friends, met some new ones, and sold a few books as well.


My panel was one of the very last of the day, at four p.m., and although we four panelists and our moderator were sweaty and exhausted by then, so was our audience, so we all managed to get through the hour and have a good time. The panel, called "Voices of Home," was held in one of the rooms inside the Capitol, and--a quick plug, here--it's an impressive building, as are the grounds surrounding it. Especially this year, since we've had such a wet summer and everything is, for a change, as lush and green as a rainforest.

We who took part in the festival were extremely fortunate to have several nationally-known authors and publishers in attendance--Ron Rash, Greg Iles, Otto Penzler, Tom Franklin, Richard Ford, etc.--and even though Saturday's schedule was too hectic to allow much visiting, there were a couple of pre-event functions on Friday night that gave everybody time to get together and chat and catch up a bit. These were held at the home of Eudora Welty and at the historic Old Capitol Museum, and included panelists, sponsors, and guests.


I posted a similar SleuthSayers column at this same time last year, following our 2016 event, and I'll ask the same question again. Do you, as writers and readers, have annual local/regional book festivals like the one I've described? I know of several states that do. If so, have you attended or participated, and did you find it enjoyable? I think most of you will agree that getting together with others in the literary world, regardless of where or how, is usually fun for everyone. Even when the temperature and humidity are both well above ninety.

I asked Otto Penzler if he had expected it to be this hot down here. Gracious as always, he said, "Sure--I love the south." And then gulped about a gallon of water.

Excuse me while I go turn up the A/C.