Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts

12 September 2017

Editing An Anthology Electronically: Stronger Stories, Deeper Relationships

by Elizabeth Zelvin
When I agreed to serve as editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps, the fourth volume of the Murder New York Style anthology series from the New York/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime, I knew the process had to take place online. I had been a professional editor myself for many years. I had used Track Changes, the editing feature of MS Word, with editors of my own fiction. Furthermore, in my “other hat,” I am an online therapist, a pro at text-based communication and relationships in cyberspace. Yet the alchemy of the online editorial process produced benefits that came as a complete surprise. One was stronger stories than I believe could have been achieved by the passing back and forth of marginal scribbles and a couple of rounds of sticky notes. Another was a dialogue between editor and individual authors that took on depth and complexity throughout the process and created bonds that would not have existed otherwise.

Essential to the process was Track Changes. Compared to paper sticky notes (and before that, marginal slips you had to lick—remember those?), Track Changes balloons are infinitely expandable. It wasn’t just a matter of my offering a suggestion, making a correction, or asking for clarification; of the author complying, explaining, or offering an alternative. We could engage in an ongoing dialogue. In a sense, the margins became a mini-chat room. If we needed to converse at greater length, we could move on to emails at any time. The intensive electronic editing process—three rounds of edits—lasted from early April to mid-May. Then came a final trickle of queries through mid to late June, as I noticed unresolved issues, some quite important, while preparing to send the manuscript to the publisher, Level Best Books. In one case, when I got no answer to my email, I phoned the author, thinking the number I had, with a New York area code, must be her land line. Oops. It was her cell phone, and she was at a funeral in Montana—but she answered my question.

Our dialogue touched on many important elements of storytelling: voice, attribution, pace, when to start a scene, when to use backstory, how to introduce a character, what doesn’t need saying, what kinds of details readers skip over. For example, as an aspect of voice, a character mentioning the Brooklyn Bridge would not describe it in terms that might appear in a guidebook. In introducing a character, it’s awkward at best to inject a description of the new character’s appearance into the attribution:
"Stop, or I'll shoot!" the six-foot, blue-eyed, blonde police officer said.
Physical characteristics are better integrated into the narrative or left out altogether.

Certain small flaws cropped up in story after story, including my own. These were stage directions that failed to offer fresh language or to advance the plot.

He nodded.
She looked up.
He turned.
She stood up.
He sat back.
She shook her head.

I kept highlighting these brief sentences, noting: “Delete. Adds nothing, slows the pace.” I was an offender like everybody else. On the final pass, I found the following passage in my own story.

Jimmy and I looked at each other.
“She’s got a point, Mr. Jones,” he said.
“She is good at asking questions, Mr. Bones,” I said.

Out came “Jimmy and I looked at each other.” It wasn’t needed. Why hadn’t I seen that before? I hadn’t edited sixteen other stories before.

Since the New York/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime is responsible for the Murder New York Style anthologies, the contributors come from quite a small pool. Those of us who have been around for a while know each other. On the other hand, many of those who submit stories are relative newcomers. I couldn’t have put names to the faces of some of the authors whose stories I edited, though I might have met them at one or two of our monthly meetings. But after working intensively with them online, I did know them, and they knew me. We had developed a relationship.

As a psychotherapist with long-term online clients, I can assure you that genuine emotion, relationship, and personal growth are possible in text and in cyberspace. People who have greeted online writer friends with a hug the first time they met them face to face at Bouchercon or Malice know what I’m talking about. Did you ever hug an editor with whom you’d only exchanged query letters and paper manuscripts? Our SinC chapter ends the season with a party in June at a delightful venue, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Greenwich Village, before breaking for the summer. This year, every anthology author present whom I hadn’t known before had the same impulse I did: we peered at each other’s name tags, laughed, and flung our arms around each other.

Besides editing Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best Books), which includes her story, "Death Will Finish Your Marathon," Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, set in New York City, and the Mendoza Family Saga, historical fiction about a Jewish brother and sister who sail with Columbus and later find refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Liz's short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. They have been nominated twice for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story.

01 July 2017

Mags and Anthos


by John M. Floyd




The other day R.T. Lawton and I were e-chatting about the new issue of AHMM--this isn't the first time he and I have been fortunate enough to be featured together in those pages--and we got onto the subject of submitting stories to mystery magazines and anthologies. And it occurred to me, also not for the first time, that these days I seem to be focusing as much on anthologies as on magazines.

Names and titles

There are probably several reasons for that. One: There aren't a lot of mystery magazine markets to submit stories to, lately. The longtimers are AHMM, EQMM, The Strand, Woman's World (they publish one mystery and one romance in each issue), and electronic zines like Mysterical-E and Over My Dead Body. (Am I leaving anyone out?) More recently, we also have Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, BJ Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, the upcoming Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and a few others.

And there seem to be more anthologies out there now than there were in the past. Either that, or I'm now more aware of them. Besides regulars like the annual MWA antho, the Bouchercon antho, etc., there are a lot of anthologies from places like Down & Out Books and Level Best Books. As has been mentioned before at this blog, there are some excellent websites (Ralan.com and Sandra Seamans's My Little Corner are two that come to mind) that allow writers to stay up to date on which anthos are out there and which are issuing calls for submissions. Occasionally I've been lucky enough to be asked to contribute a story to an upcoming anthology--and I have yet to turn one of those invitations down.

NOTE: This discussion does not include the annual "best-of" anthologies like Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, etc.

Assets and liabilities

What are the advantages of magazines over anthologies, and vice versa? Well, for one thing, the leading magazines usually give a writer more exposure and (sometimes) higher pay than an anthology. Also, since some of the magazines have been in place for a long time, most mystery writers are already familiar with the kind of submissions those publications want and don't want.


Another point: When you publish in a well-known magazine, whether it's print or online, your story will probably be in their archives forever, like an episode in a TV series. Magazines, like newspapers, are periodicals; an anthology is more of a one-time event, there and then gone, and its individual stories are possibly not as easily retrievable in the future. The flip side of that argument, of course, is that anthologies give the aspiring writer the chance to have his or her work appear in a "real" book, and sometimes alongside big-name authors.

Another item on the plus side of the ledger for anthologies is the fact that, in some cases at least, the response time for stories submitted to anthos is less than for stories submitted to magazines. Also, you might face less competition that you would at the leading magazines, because of the often-tight submission windows for anthologies. Some writers don't find out about these "calls" until it's too late, and even if they do, there might not be enough time for them to write or re-vamp a suitable story. Besides, most anthologies are themed, and that alone can thin the herd. If you can't write (or find in your inventory) a story that fits the theme, you're out of luck.

There are at least three things that I've heard about anthologies that are sometimes considered to be advantages, but aren't. One: Anthos are more likely to accept reprints. Well, some are, and some are not. There are a number of magazines, especially e-zines, that will consider reprints as well. Two: Anthologies, since they sometimes pay via royalties, are a better financial opportunity for the writer. Untrue. As mentioned earlier, this depends solely on the publication--and on how well the book sells. Three: An anthology's editor is often a fellow author, and might be a friend or acquaintance and therefore more apt to squeeze your story in. That's certainly possible--but I consider myself a friend to several magazine editors, and I assure you that doesn't guarantee publication. The best editors, regardless of the kind of market they oversee, are more interested in acquiring quality stories than granting their buddies a free pass.

Questions and answers

I haven't gone back and studied the statistics, but I suspect that I now submit about the same number of stories to anthologies as to magazines. My question for you short-story writers is, how about you? Do you actively search out antho submission calls? Are you ever invited to submit? Do you usually stick to the tried-and-true magazines instead? Do you ever target non-mystery magazines with your crime stories? Do you use either of the market-listing sites I mentioned, and maybe some others also? What has your success rate been, for both magazines and anthologies?


One market we haven't talked about is collections of your own short stories. Have any of you tried publishing collections of your shorts, either at big or small traditional presses? Any successes there? If so, did those books consist mostly of your reprints or of your original stories? Has anyone self-published a collection, maybe via Amazon? Any experiences you'd be willing to share with the class?

Thanks in advance. And meanwhile, keep writing!



22 October 2016

Passport to Murder! Announcing...the Bouchercon 2017 Anthology Competition

by Melodie Campbell

First, a bit about Destination:TORONTO

Toronto the Good
Hogtown
The Big Smoke

Toronto has had a lot of nicknames, but I like this description best:
Toronto is “New York run by the Swiss.”  (Peter Ustinov, 1987)

He meant that in a good way, of course!  Toronto is a big city - the Greater Toronto Area is more than 6 million.  Our restaurant scene is second to none.  We may be the most diverse city in the world.  How great is our diversity?  When I worked in health care, our government agency had 105 dialects spoken by staff! 

It's my great pleasure to be part of the Bouchercon 2017 Committee.  Many of you know my friends Helen Nelson and Janet Costello, who are the conference co-chairs.  With these gals in charge, you know it will be an unforgettable conference.  Come to our town, for a great Crime Time!

You can check all the details here:  www.bouchercon2017.com

 DRUM ROLL......  announcing PASSPORT TO MURDER,
the Bouchercon 2017 Anthology

Even if you aren't registered for Bouchercon 2017, you can still enter the anthology competition!

Our theme is the convention theme—Passport to Murder—so include a travel theme with actual travel or the desire to travel with or without passports. And it must include at least a strong suggestion of murder or a plan to commit murder…. All crime sub-genres welcome.

Publication date: October 12, 2017.
Editor: John McFetridge
Publisher: Down & Out Books

All stories, by all authors, will be donated to the anthology as part of the overall donation to our literacy charity fundraising efforts. All profits on the anthology (including those of the publisher) will be donated to our charity.

Guests of Honour for Bouchercon 2017 will be invited to contribute to the anthology. For open submissions, preliminary selection for publication will be blind, by a panel of three judges, with final, blind selection by the editor.

The details:
  • The story must include travel and at least a strong suggestion of murder or a plot to commit murder.
  • Story length: a maximum of 5000 words
  • Electronic submissions only.
  • RTF format, preferably double-spaced
  • Times New Roman or similar font (12 point)
  • Paragraph indent .5 inch (or 1.25 cm). Please do not use tabs or space bar.
  • Include story title and page number in document header.
  • Maximum of one entry per author
  • Open to both writers who have been previously published, in any format, and those who have never been published.
  • The story must be previously unpublished in ANY format, electronic or print.
  • Please remove your name or any identifying marks from your story. Any story that can be associated with the author will either be returned for correction (if there is time) or disqualified.
  • Please include a brief bio in your submission form (max 150 words) and NOT in the body of your story.
  • After Bouchercon 2017 and Down & Out Books expenses have been recovered, all proceeds will be donated to Bouchercon 2017’s literacy charity of choice.
  • Copyright will remain with the authors.
  • Authors must be prepared to sign a contract with Down & Out Books.
  • Submissions must be e-mailed no later than 11:59 P.M (EST) January 31, 2017. Check the website (www.bouchercon2017.com) for full details and entry form.

15 October 2016

Anthopology


by John M. Floyd



An-tho-pol-o-gy: The study of various aspects of writing stories for books that include the work of several different authors.

Okay, I made that up. There's no such word. But maybe there should be.

I like to tell my students that there are two primary markets for the short stories they write: magazines and anthologies. Personally, I tend to explore magazine markets first, because some anthologies are receptive to reprints, and I like to get double duty out of my creations--but anthos can be profitable also, in both payment and exposure. And recently I've found myself sending a fair number of my stories, original and reprints, to anthologies. (There are actually four markets out there for short stories: (1) mags, (2) anthos, (3) self-publishing, and (4) collections of your own stories. I've not yet self-pubbed anything, but I have had five collections published, plus a sixth that was released this past week.)

Besides the fact that there are anthos that take reprints and those that don't, there's another distinction that should be made. (1) Some anthologies send out "calls for submission," where writers can submit stories for consideration in much the same way they would to a magazine market, and (2) some anthologies hand-pick and invite certain authors to contribute stories. A few anthos do a little of both: they invite a few specific authors and they also put out a call for unsolicited work.

As a writer, I've recently placed stories in anthologies that I "auditioned" for after being told they were seeking submissions (examples: the Blood on the Bayou Bouchercon antho, We've Been Trumped by Darkhouse Books, etc.) and I have other stories uncoming in books that I was asked to contribute to (examples: a Private Eye anthology by Down & Out Books and a horror antho by a Bram Stoker-winning editor I've worked with before). And sometimes even that can be a combination of processes. I submitted an unsolicited story to editor Tom Franklin for Mississippi Noir (Akashic Books) that didn't fit his guidelines (it was a reprint, which was stupid of me), so he asked me to send him an original story instead, which he accepted and included in the book. Writing and publishing, as I've said before, is a strange business.

NOTE 1: One advantage of anthologies that issue "calls for submission" is that there's always a deadline. The stories have to be sent in by such-and-such a date because the antho needs to be published by such-and-such a date. And that sometimes-narrow window of time automatically cuts out part of the competition, and ups the odds for acceptance/inclusion. Some writers won't even be aware that there is a call for submission until it's too late to send a story in, and even those who do see it and are interested might not have a story available (or enough time to be able to produce one) that fits the guidelines.

NOTE 2: I'm not talking here about annual "best-of" anthologies like Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories. When your already-published story winds up being selected for and reprinted in one of those, that's great, but that's also pretty much out of your control. I'm talking more about anthologies that either request stories from certain writers or choose from the unsolicited submissions of others.

The best situation, obviously, is for the editor to contact you and ask you to submit a story. It's flattering, it involves no marketing effort, and when it happens you can be fairly certain that your "solicited" story will be included. But the funny thing is, even though I'm always honored to be asked to contribute to an anthology (who wouldn't be?), I'm also one of those odd folks who find it harder to conform to someone else's idea for a story than to dream up an idea of my own. So when the theme/mood/genre of an anthology is very (sometimes too) specific, I often find it more difficult to write a story that I'm satisfied with. Don't get me wrong: I do it. And I work on it until I am satisfied. But I still think it's easier to come up with my own ideas, make up stories from those ideas, then search for matching markets than to create stories with the pre-set themes and ideas of others.

What are some of your experiences and opinions on all this? Do you actively seek publication in anthologies? If so, how do you find them? Have you always been able to squeeze through the submission window in terms of time and story-theme? Are you often asked by an editor to contribute to an antho? Have you ever turned down such a request? Do you find it easy to write a story-on-demand? Have your published stories ever been selected for some of the "best-of's"?

On the subject of Best American Mystery Stories, let me again congratulate my SleuthSayers colleagues Rob Lopresti and Art Taylor on making the newly-released 2016 edition of B.A.M.S.--Good work, guys! (And I noticed that R.T. Lawton, David Edgerley Gates, and I managed to make the "close-but-no-cigar" list in the back of the book, this time. It's not the Top 20 of the year, but it's the Top 50; when I saw my story in the list, my head swelled until I had to adjust the strap on my baseball cap.)

Since I seem to be wallowing in self-congratulatory mode, I have another announcement: my latest collection of short mystery fiction was released on October 10, with a launch at Lemuria Books here in Jackson, Mississippi. It's hardcover, thirty stories, 352 pages, 90,000 words, and titled (appropriately) Dreamland.


And yes, a few of the included stories previously appeared in . . . anthologies.

I'm not an anthopologist for nothing.








30 September 2016

Anthologies Everywhere

By Art Taylor

Today is the last day of the week-long Fall for the Book festival, based at George Mason University with events in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland. I've worked with Fall for the Book for many years in various positions, and my contributions this year were primarily focused on a few of the mystery and suspense programs throughout the week. Thursday night, for example, I moderated a panel of writers from the local Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, including Maya Corrigan, Dan Fesperman, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and David Swinson—part of an evening that also included a talk by Lyndsay Faye, author of Jane Steele.

Earlier in the week, on the festival's official opening day, I moderated another panel with members of three regional chapters of Sisters in Crime: Donna Andrews, Diane Davidson (half of the team co-writing as Maddi Davidson), Maria Hudgins, and Heather Weidner. Our topic there was anthologies, since these three chapters are now behind two series of anthologies: the Chesapeake Crimes books, including most recently Storm Warning, from the Chesapeake Chapter, and two volumes of Virginia is for Mysteries from the Central Virginia Chapter and from Mystery by the Sea, the Southeastern Virginia Chapter.

That chat was terrific, I thought, and emphasized both the benefits of anthologies from various perspectives and the responsibilities inherent in producing those anthologies.

On the first point, maybe the benefits are obvious. From the reader perspective, anthologies offer the chance to sample a variety of authors in a single book—find which you like and pursue their works further. From a writer perspective, anthologies offer the reverse—the chance for exposure to more readers—but also the opportunity to work as part of a larger community of writers, often a wide-ranging community, from veterans to first-timers; and on that latter point, beginning authors get the chance to experience in microcosm the entire process of publication, from editorial feedback and revision, to the book launch, to the marketing beyond.

The behind-the-scenes on that process is where the responsibilities come in: from ensuring an objective and professional selection process (perhaps relying, as the Chesapeake Crimes series does, on different judges each book to select stories) to maintaining a solid editorial review of each entry (both at the global level and in terms of copy-editing) and then to overseeing the publication itself—and making sure the publisher stays properly on top of things.

Much of this is often on a volunteer basis, of course—with the Chesapeake Crimes series, neither the authors nor the editors receive monetary compensation, and proceeds benefit the chapter itself. But the other benefits maybe far outweigh the questions of royalties: in terms of a nice publication credit, good exposure, and a renewed sense of literary citizenship.

Thinking about the panel, I realized that over the last few weeks, I've been in the midst of a good bit of anthology news—and grateful for it.

Back at Bouchercon in mid-September, I was thrilled to accept the Anthony Award for Best Anthology on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, including my fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens as well as 19 other contributors: J.L. Abramo, J.D. Allen, Lori Armstrong, Rob Brunet, P.A. De Voe, Sean Doolittle, Tom Franklin, Toni Goodyear, Kristin Kisska, Robert Mangeot, Margaret Maron, Kathleen Mix, Britni Patterson, Karen Pullen, Ron Rash, Karen E. Salyer, Sarah Shaber, Zoë Sharp, and Graham Wynd. (A good cause here too, with proceeds benefiting the Wake County Public Libraries in North Carolina, host of last year's Bouchercon.)

Then just this week, Malice Domestic announced the stories accepted for the upcoming anthology Murder Most Historical, and I was proud to have been a member of the selection committee there, along with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson. Contributors there include: John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, KB Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O'Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

And early next week brings the publication of this year's Best American Mystery Stories anthology—a dream come true for me, since editors Elizabeth George and Otto Penzler have included in this latest edition my story "Rearview Mirror," the opening section of my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. Fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti also has a story there—"Street of the Dead House"—and we're both in find company, alongside the likes of Megan Abbott, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard, among many others. Can't wait to see the book myself!

And all this doesn't even begin to mention the anthologies that I picked up and perused at Bouchercon itself, including the new Bouchercon anthology Blood on the Bayou, the ultra-lush collection In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, and the just-released Sunshine Noir, in which "seventeen writers from around the globe tell of dark doings in sunny places."

Plenty to celebrate here, and plenty of good reading ahead too.



13 May 2016

Anthony Award Finalists: Best Anthology or Collection

By Art Taylor

Last week, Bouchercon announced this year’s finalists for the Anthony Awards, and I was pleased to get two mentions on that slate: one for my own writing, with On The Road With Del & Louise (Henery Press) earning a nomination for Best First Novel (just on the heels of winning the Agatha in that category the week prior), and another on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 (Down & Out Books), which earned attention in the Best Anthology or Collection category. I’m honored, needless to say, with the attention! And congratulations as well to fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, whose Agatha-nominated novel Fighting Chance earned another honor as a finalist for this year's Anthony for Best Young Adult Novel—great news all around!

Soon after the Anthony news came out, I reached out about hosting here a quick chat with the other finalists for Best Anthology or Collection:

I have a couple of these anthologies already on the shelf, and I’ll be picking up the others soon, and just wanted to offer a chance for all of us to share some information about our respective collections and the writers who contributed.

Two questions each below, and everyone’s stepping to the podium (so to speak) in alphabetical order. Join me in welcoming them to SleuthSayers today!

First, while the titles of our respective collections already might give some sense of what readers will find on the pages within, how would you describe your own editorial principles/guidelines in selecting stories for and shaping your particular anthology—or in Chris’s case, for sorting through and considering your own stories?

Christopher Irvin: Witnessing the collection come together, story by story, was one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing the book. I'd kept an assortment of lists in notebooks over the past few years of potential line-ups for a collection, but it wasn't until late 2014 (when I was seriously thinking of pitching a collection) that I began to recognize themes of family, melancholia, regret, etc., that were present in nearly all of my work. It was a revelation that has since made me step back and reflect more on my work and the decisions (conscious, or more likely unconscious) that I make in my writing. Long story, short, the selection fell in along the above mentioned themes, trending a tad more 'literary' toward the end, especially with the four new stories in the collection. It's been fun to see how my work and interests have evolved over the past few years. It's one of the reasons I  really enjoy reading other author's collections as well.


Thomas Pluck: When you're putting together an anthology to fight child abuse, it inspires all sorts of anger in the contributors. It's a subject that we don't want to think about, and when we do, it quite rightfully ticks us off. The strong abusing the weak. So the natural instinct is for writers to tackle the subject head-on, and write about it. The first Protectors anthology has many more stories about children in danger, and while it was a great success, it made for a tough read. For the second book, I specifically asked for other kinds of stories. The book is called Heroes for two reasons: it's a loose theme, and the Protect H.E.R.O. Corps is who the book benefits. That stands for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative; the HERO Corps is a joint effort between USSOCOM and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to train and hire wounded veterans as computer forensic technicians, to assist law enforcement in locating and rescuing the child victims of predators. It's a very tough job, one that combat veterans are suited for, because they have experience with the toll such a job takes. With such a heavy subject, I wanted lighter stories. And while we do have a few tales where children are rescued, the stories run the gamut from traditional crime and mystery, whimsical fantasy, historical mystery, revenge tales, horror, and tales of everyday heroism. The order was the tough part. It's a huge book of 55 stories. What I did was label each story with a colored sticky note, yellow for sunny or happy, red for rough or bloody, and blue for in between, and I arranged them like a palette. I played around until I could start strong with an uplifting tale or two, then dip to a few hard hitting ones, give readers a break, then hit them again, make them elated, then ease to a strong ending. Like a story.


Todd Robinson: I've always had the idea to do a Christmas-themed anthology. There are a couple out there, but none that feature the kind of lunatic writers that oil my gears, the writers who we published in Thuglit magazine.

I didn't do open submissions on it. I reached out to writers that I'd worked with at least two or three times each—writers who I knew would bring their own distinct styles to whatever they sent my way, and they truly outdid themselves. Considering the narrow theme of Christmas, I'm still amazed at how different each story is from the next. My guys and gals KILLED it.


Art Taylor: Murder Under the Oaks was produced in conjunction with last year’s Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC—which is nicknamed the City of Oaks and hence the collection’s title. In addition to featuring invited stories by some of the featured authors from the 2015 Bouchercon—including Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, Sean Doolittle, and Zoë Sharp—we hosted a contest that garnered more than 170 submissions, which first readers trimmed to 27 that were sent my way. My goal in making the final selections was two-fold: first, I wanted to include the best stories I could, obviously (which wasn’t hard, since so many of the entries in that final batch were terrific in many ways), but second—in keeping with the missions of Bouchercon itself—I wanted to represent as wide a spectrum as possible of the types of stories that fall under that larger genre of “mystery.” Many readers are disappointed is a mystery anthology doesn’t include detective fiction, so I was careful to represent that segment of the genre with both amateur and professional detectives (a police procedural in the mix, in fact). But there are lots of other types of stories beyond that: from the cozy end of the spectrum to some really dark noir, from historical fiction to contemporary tales, a bit of raucous humor here, a more poignant story there, something close to flash fiction alongside a novella, and right on down the line. Balancing that mix was important to me, and I hope attention to that helped to provide something for all readers.


Kenneth Wishnia: First of all, we adopted a generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish noir” policy, which turned out to be prophetic (and how Jewish is that?), because the collection includes stories by a diverse group of authors, including Asian-Canadian author Melissa Yi, Los Angeles’s own Gary Phillips, luminaries as Marge Piercy and Harlan Ellison, and self-professed survivors of Bible Belt redneck culture, Jedidiah Ayres and Travis Richardson—both of whom have been honored for their contributions: Jed’s story “Twisted Shikse” was selected for a forthcoming “best crime story of the year” anthology and Travis’s story “Quack and Dwight” has been nominated for the Derringer and the Anthony Awards. Mazl tov!

I also stressed that submissions did not have to be textbook “Noir with a capital N,” and so we ended up with stories depicting the Holocaust, cynical Jewish humor, the passing of generations, the Golden Ghetto phenomenon, child sexual abuse in the insular Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, anti-Semitism in the mid- and late-20th century United States, and the broader contradictions of ethnic identity and assimilation into American society.

Sounds pretty noir to me—even without the obligatory doomed detective and femme fatale slinking around dark alleys.


Second: There’s a whole range of different ways to tell a story, of course—but are there certain elements that consistently stand out to you as the hallmarks of a great story?

Christopher Irvin: Make me care, right? That's the bottom line that every editor wants. I need to empathize with characters—good, bad, ugly—no matter how long or short the work, I need to want to come along for the ride. My time spent editing for Shotgun Honey had a major impact on my writing to this end. Much of my writing, especially in Safe Inside the Violence, involves indirect violence or characters on the periphery of violence. Perhaps the run up to a seemingly normal encounter in their everyday lives.

There is a 700 word limit at Shotgun Honey. Authors need to bring it from the first sentence if they want to succeed. Often this results in an immediate violent encounter to up the stakes and keep the story moving. While this can be (and has been) done very well, reading these stories, learning from these stories, pushed me to go in a different direction. 


Thomas Pluck: My own writing, I write what interests me, what terrifies me, what angers me. I go for extremes, life-changing experiences, the things I would never want to discuss in public. It forces me to put my heart into it, and that resonates. While editing anthologies, I have to tone down my relentless inner critic, and just try to enjoy them. If I do, they go in the "good" pile and I think what could make them better, if anything. I have some legendary authors in here like David Morrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Andrew Vachss. I didn't edit those stories, obviously. If there were typos in the manuscript, we corrected them together. There are a few authors who have their first publication here, who needed a little editorial help for clarity. That's my mantra: clarity, economy, then art.

What makes a great story? For me, I lose myself in them. The characters, the world, the story itself, they can't be ignored. Harlan Ellison's "Croatoan" is one. It begins with a scene so real, then descends into a nightmarish dream world, like the character is spelunking in his own subconscious. "Placebo" by Vachss is another, so spare, like a folktale. Not a word wasted. Some writers have that gift, a voice that draws you into their world. You either have it or you don't, the best we can do is trust the voice we have and let it do the work.


Todd Robinson: For me, it always starts with a great character voice and their arc within. If I don't care about the characters, why in sweet fuck-all would I care about their story?


Art Taylor: In the fiction workshops I teach at George Mason, I often quote John Updike on what he looks for in a short story: “I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.” That may sound kind of broad, but it strikes me as solid criteria—and solid advice for writers too in crafting their own stories. A couple of words I come back to time and again are compression and balance. In terms of compression, I look for stories that start as close to central action as possible (the conflict hinted at right there in the first paragraph or first line) and then rely on sharp and suggestive details rather than lengthy explanations—glimpses of larger lives and bigger stories beyond the edges of the page. Balance can refer to many things: between character and plot, for example (each informed by the other), or between beginnings and endings—especially in terms of endings that seem both surprising and inevitable in some way, as if every line, every word, has been building inexorably toward where the story ends up. When a writer can manage compression and balance—and then entertain all along the way… well, that story is a keeper, for sure.


Kenneth Wishnia: I was looking for the same elements that I look for in a great novel: vivid, compelling writing (Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Feeding the Crocodile,” which is up for an ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story), a suspenseful set-up that engages the reader right away (Charles Ardai’s “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die”) or a non-traditional story that makes me laugh at life’s absurdities (Rabbi Adam Fisher’s “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah”). Some authors hit the trifecta (David Liss’s “Jewish Easter”), but I would have accepted any combination of two out of three, or even just one if the author really nailed it.


A quick final word from Art: Do check out all these anthologies yourself—and look forward to seeing everyone in New Orleans later this year!




18 November 2015

Bouchercon: Vision Revision

by Robert Lopresti

First things first: in my last piece in this space I complained about something I thought Sisters In Crime did at Bouchercon.  It turns out it was actually done by SmashWords.  I don't know where I got my misinformation and I apologize to Sisters In Crime and to anyone who read my piece before I corrected it.  Now onto today's fresh blunders…

As I mentioned last month, I am pleased as punch to have a story in Murder Under The Oaks, an anthology published in October to celebrate Bouchercon, the annual mystery convention, held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina.  I am also delighted that the profits go to Wake County, NC libraries.  How can I argue with a cause like that?

This photo shows me at the end of the assembly line, eighteen or so authors signing their stories.  I'm the last guy because my story ends the book.

When I heard about the proposed anthology I went through my old files, searching for an appropriate piece.  I was happy to give a story to charity, but only one that had already been rejected by the major markets.  This doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the tale; most of my stories that have  been nominated for awards were rejected at least once along the way.

I settled on "On The Ramblas,"  which is set in Barcelona.  (Well, I don't have any set in Raleigh... yet.)  I pulled up the file for an edit and decided the plot was fine and the writing was okay, but immediately the question of theme came up.

Eileen Gunn said that "'Theme' is what the critics use to describe what you did."  Someone else said theme is what the story is about other than the plot and the characters.  I prefer the latter definition.

Usually I don't know what the theme of a story is until I am in the final edits.  That's when a sentence in the text will pop up in front of me and I'll think: Oh, THAT'S what it's about.  But in the case of "On The Ramblas" I knew early on that the theme was: What does it take to make you happy?

Happy American tourists on the Ramblas,
with animals.
My story is about two American tourists in Spain. Frank is miserable because he would rather be back home making business deals. His wife, Helen, is unhappy because Frank is making sure she is. My third character, Josep, is a Catalonian pickpocket, and he is brokenhearted because his girlfriend left him, taking his team of thieves with her. He is not only lonely (say that three times fast) but he is trying to do his job without the proper co-workers. What will happen when these freight trains of unhappiness collide on the Ramblas, Barcelona's main tourist shopping street?

So I thought I was all set in the theme department. But as soon as I sat down to revise I realized that there was a second theme, begging to come out and play.  It was right there in the first sentence:  Tourists wandered through the Ramblas like sheep, waiting to be fleeced.  I loved the animal/people metaphor.  I realized I could punch up that connection.

(A little inside baseball here: technically  my metaphor is a motif which I am using to build a theme.  I say that strictly to show off to the English majors.  Back to business.)

Of course , there is a connection  between  happiness and the people/animal thingie.  Back in Philosophy 101  my professor quoted John Stuart Mill to explain the importance of her topic: It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.

There was one more thing I needed to do before sending in the story. It was recommended that the submissions include a reference to oak trees.  (Remember the title of the book?)  So I searched the web to see if there was 

The other end of the line,
with editor Art obscuring Margaret Maron.
any interesting connection between oaks and Spain.  There was!  And here's the beauty part: the connection has to do with animals. This is the sort of thing that happens when a writer is "in the zone." Things fall into place with spooky precision. It is the sort of thing that makes one invoke the muse or other magical explanations. I only wish it happened more often.

So I sent the story in, editor Art Taylor accepted it, and as a reward for his good taste and erudition he was invited to join the ranks of the SleuthSayers.

That last part is a joke: his name was brought up by someone who knew nothing about the anthology.  But I am glad to be in the book and I hope, well, that it makes you happy.

19 November 2014

Hold the anchovies

by Robert Lopresti

When I saw that someone was working on an "Anthology of Cozy Noir" my first thought was that that was the craziest idea I had heard in a while.

My second thought was "Hey! I've got a story that would fit there."

The fact that those two thoughts fit so closely together may explain why I have not quit my day job to live off my royalties yet.

Be that as it may, Andrew MacRae apparently agreed with my second thought because he bought my story and gave it the lead-off position in his book which has been published this month.  I am looking forward to reading the rest of the stories.  (In fact, I have read some of them now and here is the proof.)  But, selfish devil that I am, I am going to talk a little about my own.

"The Roseville Way" is about a couple who meet on the east coast and move to the wife's midwestern hometown to open a pizza shop.  Problem is, there doesn't seem to be much demand for New York style pizza in Roseville and things are not going so well.  


Then a couple of men arrive from the New York area, a retired businessman and his younger assistant.  Both of Italian ancestry, both looking like they have survived a few fights.  They love  the pizza.

Is it possible the old guy is a former mobster, maybe on the run, and the younger man is his bodyguard?  And do the shop owners want to argue with success?

I trust you can see how we have aspects both cozy and noir here.

I can tell you exactly where this story idea came from.  In fact, if you used to read the Criminal Brief blog, I did tell you about it.  (Please note that this was back in 2007.  When I say I am a slow writer, I mean it.) 



Sitting in a pizza parlor just off Dupont Circle I acquired an idea for a mystery story. Since I was in the capital city of a major nation, surrounded by power, intrigue, and scandal, naturally I came up with a story about blue collar people in a small town. The human mind is a strange beast.

And here is more evidence for the strangeness inside a writer's cranium.  There is a scene in my new novel, out next spring, set in a pizza parlor in Washington D.C.  How can one mostly nondiscript place inspire two completely different pieces of fiction?

Oddly enough, this double-dipping happened to me once before, as I explained here. 

Anyway, I hope this will inspire you to read a short story.  Or eat some pizza.  In either case, happy digesting.