Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

11 March 2017

Short Story or Novel?

by B.K. Stevens


My mother, of blessed memory, never took my pretensions as a writer very seriously. Even after Alfred Hitchcock's had been publishing my stories for over a decade, I could never get her to subscribe to the magazine. Once, I gave her a gift subscription as a Mother's Day present. She didn't renew it. "So they've accepted some stories from you," she said. "Who knows if they'll ever accept another?" She had a point. Who knew? Despite her skepticism, I kept giving her copies of the stories I'd published, and she always read them and often made shrewd comments. "Why did you throw that idea away on something so short?" she said after reading one story. "That was a clever idea, much better than the ideas for your other stories. You could've used it for a novel, maybe made some real money."

Again, she had a point. And I've never forgotten it--my mother was one of the smartest people I've ever known, and she had a way of being right about things. Over twenty years later, I've taken that story out again and am trying to turn it into a novel. I won't mention the title, since the attempt may come to nothing. But I figure after so many years, no one but my husband and our daughters will remember that story, so why not see if the idea will work as a novel? At any rate, the experience has gotten me thinking. Is there a way of knowing which ideas will work best as short stories, which will work best as novels? Obviously, I'm no expert on that subject, at least not according to my mother. So I decided to see what some far more successful writers have to say. Maybe my mother would have respected their opinions. (Then again, maybe not.)

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block scoffs at the notion that novels require stronger seminal ideas than short stories do. The same ideas, he says, can work for either--in fact, short stories always require strong ideas, and novels often don't. He gets more "sheer enjoyment" from writing short stories than from writing novels, but each story "requires a reasonably strong idea, and the idea's used up in a couple of thousand words. I've written whole novels out of ideas with no more depth to them than short-story ideas, and I've written other novels without having had a strong story idea to begin with. They had plot and characters, to be sure, but those developed as the book went along." Most people, Block says, can't come up with enough ideas to make a living by writing short stories; he cites Ed Hoch as an example of one of those rare people who could. "So I take the easy way out," Block says, "and write novels." For most people, he believes, that's the more practical choice. So if you get a good idea for a story, stretch it out into a novel. I think my mother might have agreed.

John Gardner might have agreed, too, at least to some extent. In The Art of Fiction, he discusses several ways of developing an idea for a novel or story. One way is to start with an idea for a climax and then work backwards--how did this event come about? "Depending on the complexity of the writer's way of seeing the event," he says, "depending, that is, on how much background he [or she] feels our understanding of the event requires--the climax becomes the high point of a short story, a novella, or a novel." At the outset, the writer may not know which length will work best: "Writers often find that an idea for a short story may change into an idea for a novella or even a novel."

Gardner does think, however, that these three forms of fiction differ in fundamental ways. A short story usually has a single epiphany, a novella may have several, and a novel may have a completely different structure: "Whereas the short story moves to an `epiphany,' as Joyce said--in other words, to a climactic moment of recognition on the part of the central character, or, at least, the reader . . . the novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes to a much more firm conclusion." Novels, on the other hand, should avoid a "firm conclusion" and make "some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity." Gardner takes a swipe at mysteries and other traditional narratives when he says "too much neatness" mars a novel: "When all of a novel's strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike . . .a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use." So for Gardner, it doesn't seem to be that some ideas are inherently more suited to short stories than to novels. Instead, the crucial difference may lie in the writer's way of developing and resolving that idea--or, in a novel, of not resolving it.

Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, thinks short stories free the writer from the need to achieve the sort of resolution novels demand. In her introduction to the 1950 Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, she says many early English short stories, such as those by Henry James and Thomas Hardy, try to treat the same sorts of "complex and motivated" subjects novels do. That approach, she says, is a mistake: No matter how expertly crafted they may be, short stories that are essentially "condensed novel[s]" will not achieve the "heroic simplicity" that should be their trademark. In such stories, "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension." Consequently, these stories "have no emotion that is abrupt and special; they do not give mood or incident a significance outside the novelist's power to explore. Their very excellence made them a dead end; they did not invite imitation or advance in any way a development in the short story proper."

Bowen considers de Maupassant, Chekov, and Poe among the pioneers who truly broke free from the novel and explored the new, distinctly different possibilities the short story form offers. A short story, according to Bowen, should not begin with a complicated plan for a plot, as a novel might. Rather, it "must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to make the writer write." Short stories must be carefully written, "but conception should have been involuntary, a vital fortuity. The sought-about-for subject gives the story a dead kernel." Bowen's ideas about the plot and structure of a short story are interesting enough to quote at length:
The plot, whether or not it be ingenious or remarkable, for however short a way it is to be pursued, ought to raise some issue, so that it may continue in the mind. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longeurs of the novel, is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth. It can, while remaining rightly prosaic and circumstantial, give scene, action, event, character a poetic new actuality.
In fact, she says, the short story may have less in common with the novel than it does with some other art forms: It should have "the valid central emotion  and inner spontaneity of the lyric" and should be "as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture."

Flannery O'Connor might take issue with Bowen's contention that a short story should spring from "an impression or perception." In both novels and short stories, O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aims of Fiction," "something has to happen. A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plan don't have a gift for telling a story." She says the choice between novel and short story may depend primarily on the writer's "disposition." I can't resist the temptation to quote her comparison--or, rather, her friend's comparison--of the experiences of writing these two kinds of narratives: "She says that when she stops a novel to work on short stories, she feels as if she has just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves." Since novels are a "more diffused form" of fiction, O'Connor says, they may suit "those who like to linger along the way" and have "a more massive energy." On the other hand, "for those of us who want to get the agony over in a hurry, the novel is a burden and a pain."

In another essay, "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor defines a short story as an interplay of character, action, and meaning: "A short story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is a meaning that derives from the whole presented experience." Of these three elements, character (or "personality") is primary: "A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality." Although she says a short story's action must be "complete," her understanding of "complete" definitely doesn't seem to involve the sort of "conclusiveness" Bowen sees as a flaw in many novels. O'Connor describes (without naming) her "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" as an example of "a complete story," even though the action breaks off in a way many readers might find abrupt (to put it mildly). For O'Connor, the story is complete because her exploration of the central character is complete: "There is nothing more about the mystery of that man's personality that could be shown through that particular dramatization." So perhaps writers shouldn't start by deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel. Perhaps they should start by deciding if a character is likely to generate a good story. "In most good stories," O'Connor says, "it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story."

Edith Wharton, by contrast, thinks characters are supremely important in novels but not in short stories. As she says in The Writing of Fiction, "the test of the novel is that its people should be alive. No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can." On the other hand, "some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation." The differences between characters in novels and those in stories are so great, in Wharton's opinion, that the short story could be considered the "direct descendant" not of the novel but of "the old epic or ballad--of those earlier forms of fiction in all of which action was the chief affair, and the characters, if they did not remain mere puppets, seldom or never became more than types." That seems harsh--did Wharton see the characters in her own "Roman Fever," for example, as no more individualized than "puppets" or "types"? Nevertheless, she insists "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel."

Wharton shrugs off some other ways of deciding whether a subject is suited to a novel or a short story. For example, she says the number of "incidents, or external happenings" doesn't matter much. Many incidents can be "crowded" into a short story. But a subject that involves "the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" isn't right for a short story, and neither is one that involves "producing in the reader's mind the sense of a lapse of time." Short stories should avoid such subjects and shouldn't try to achieve such effects. Instead, they should strive for "compactness and instanteneity" by relying on "two `unities'--the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex, which requires that any rapidly enacted episode shall be seen through only one pair of eyes." These limits, however, apply only to stories that are truly short; a remark Wharton makes at one point suggests she might have 5,000 words in mind as a typical length. She also mentions an "intermediate" kind of narrative. The "long short story," she says, might be suitable for "any subject too spreading for conciseness yet too slight in texture to be stretched into a novel."

"One of the fiction writer's essential gifts," Wharton maintains, "is that of discerning whether the subject which presents itself to him [or her], asking for incarnation, is suited to the proportions of a short story or a novel." It's too bad the writers quoted here don't offer us more consistent advice on such an essential matter. When I started working on this post, I knew these writers wouldn't agree about everything. I hoped, though, they might agree about something. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. If there's even a thread of consensus running through these essays and chapters, I missed it. At least I found the disagreements interesting; at least they pushed me to think about what I should focus on as I try to make that decades-old short story work as a novel. What about you? Do you agree with some of these writers more than with others? Or do you have other criteria for deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel? I'd love to hear what you think.

# # #
Gardner discusses the novella as well as the short story and the novel; Wharton discusses "the long short story. This year, the Anthony ballot adds the novella (8,000 to 40,000 words) to the usual list of categories. So I'll just casually mention that my "The Last Blue Glass" (Hitchcock's, April 2016--9,470 words) would qualify as either a short story or a novella. So if your short story dance card is already full, you might consider "The Last Blue Glass" as a novella. You can read it here.




13 February 2017

Great Short Stories Revisited



by Jan Grape

I've been reading short stories in anthologies published in 1990s and 2000s. I blushingly admit I have stories in them and it started as a project of rereading my stories. Some I had forgotten like "Whatever Had To Be Done" published in Deadly Allies by Doubleday in 1992 and Bantam paperback in 1993. This was the first collaborative anthology by the Private Eye Writers of America and Sisters In Crime. It was edited by Robert J. Randisi and Marilyn Wallace. This story was probably my second story ever published where I actually received money. I had published two or three stories for small indie magazines that were subscription only and I was paid in copies.

The very first short story I had published happened in 1981 or so and I got $100 for it. It was not a mystery but a Christmas story published in the Wichita Falls City Magazine. I don't even have a copy of it anymore because Elmer, our kids and I moved a few times I remember. I think still had copies  on the last move to Austin. When Elmer and I moved out of our house and into our RV full time we ran out of time and I have no idea where my copies of that magazine wound up.

I do remember the story pretty well. My main character was myself and it was about returning to a small town and in every store I entered, people were friendly and full of the Christmas spirit. If I made a purchase the store gift-wrapped my purchase for free. I compared that joyful attitude to major city stores in Houston where I lived at the time. I'm not sure how the story ended and I don't remember the editor's name, gosh it was  35 or 36 years ago. However, I'll never forget her phone call to me. "Jan, I'm calling to tell you we're publishing your short story." I remember gushing a bit and then she said, "Actually, the story has already been published in this month's issue and along with a check for $100 I'm sending four or five copies of the magazine."

I was beside myself as was my family. I had been trying to be published for a couple of years, had a private-eye novel almost finished and this was my big dream. Good thing I didn't quit my day job because I didn't publish anything else for FIVE years and then only a couple of small articles, which I was paid real money for but nothing over the hundred I had first received.

The first, second and third stories I sold happened all about the same time. In Invitation to Murder published first in hardcover by Dark Harvest in 1990, paperback by Diamond in 1993, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg, featured my story, "A Bunch of Mumbo Jumbo." In  Mary Higgins Presents Malice Domestic, from Pocket Books in 1993, featured "Arsenic and Old Ideas."
I received verbal acceptance, contracts and money all around the same time although Mumbo Jumbo was actually published first.

After than I was in many theme anthologies, in about 10-12 Cat Crime, Partners In Crime, Deadly Allies 11, Lethal Ladies 1 & ll, Santa Clues, Midnight Louie Pet Detectives, Murder For Mother and White House Pet Detective. I was lucky in that I found editors, including Bob Randisi, Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg who liked what I did and kept buying my stories.

My 1998 Anthony Award winning story, "A Front Row Seat," was in Vengeance Is Hers anthology, edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins published by Penguin/Signet in 1997, featuring all hard-boiled women writers.

Shortly after that I finally sold my first Zoe Barrow, Austin policewoman novel and have only written a few short stories since. I enjoy the short form and have been able to feature my female private-eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn in around ten stories. They were characters from my very first novel which never sold.

I am so proud that many of my fellow SleuthSayers are short story writers and are being nominated and winning awards. I think the short story will continue to thrive although at times we think the heydays are over. I do appreciate Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine & Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine who keep publishing wonderful short stories every month. Maybe one day soon I'll crack that market.

10 December 2016

The Twist

by B.K. Stevens

At this time of year, it seems appropriate to focus on a short story that would make almost anybody's list of Christmas favorites, especially since that story offers valuable lessons to mystery writers. O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" isn't a mystery, but it does a brilliant job of pulling off something many mysteries strive to achieve. I'm talking, of course, about The Twist. An excellent twist, like an excellent gift, reflects both generosity and good judgment. An expensive gift that doesn't suit the recipient probably won't delight, and a suitable but stingy gift isn't likely to inspire much gratitude. By being generous with the reader but exercising good judgment as a writer, O.Henry gives "The Gift of the Magi" the perfect twist.

It's hard to imagine that anyone reading this post hasn't already read "The Gift of the Magi." But if Scrooge-like middle-school teachers and the perversity of fate have conspired to rob you of that experience, please read the story here before going on. It will take you only a few minutes, and I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy it. If you can't spare those few minutes, please don't go on. For I'm about to spoil a classic ending.

It's fairly easy to surprise readers with a twist that pops up out of nowhere. A bomb explodes without a trace of foreshadowing, or the murderer turns out to be a minor character who makes only two brief appearances in the novel, never saying or doing anything that could arouse rational suspicion. It's much harder to create a surprising twist if we shower readers with all the evidence they need to see the ending coming.

That's exactly what O. Henry does in "The Gift of the Magi." From the opening paragraphs on, it's clear Della and Jim have little money to spare for Christmas gifts. It's also clear they love each other. True, the story emphasizes her love for him, not his for her, but her devotion is so sweet and unreserved we assume, rightly, it can't be a tragically unrequited passion. We also learn, in the first two pages, that Della and Jim each have one treasure. Della has long, magnificent hair, and Jim has a fine gold watch he inherited from his father and grandfather. O. Henry spends a long paragraph explicitly comparing these treasures: Della's hair would put the Queen of Sheba's jewels to shame, and even King Solomon, with all his wealth, would envy Jim's watch.

That's all we need to know. No writer could be more generous with helpful information--and O. Henry is so completely generous that he also doesn't try to distract us with the easy tricks of red herrings or irrelevant details. He is utterly open and fair. If he cheats at all, he cheats with his title. "The Gift of the Magi"--singular, not plural. But the magi gave more than one gift, and there's more than one gift in this story. By using "gift" and not "gifts" in his title, O. Henry may be trying to trick us into thinking Della's gift for Jim is the only one that matters. It's a tiny trick, though, and a clever, subtle one. I think we can forgive him.

At any rate, O. Henry gives us all the evidence we need to figure out his crime-free mystery, and he gives it to us early. Less than halfway through the story, when Della sells her hair so she can buy a chain for Jim's watch, we should be able to conclude, "Well, Della and Jim love each other, neither has much money, and each has one treasure. And it's Christmas. If Della sacrifices her one treasure to give Jim something to enhance his watch, I bet Jim will sacrifice his one treasure to give Della something to enhance her hair. No doubt about it--there are some ironic twists coming."

But I don't think many readers do see the twists coming. (And if they do, chances are they first read the story so long ago that they no longer remember how prescient they were--unlike those irritating people who say, "Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits." I can't stand those people.)

How does O.Henry keep us from predicting his ending? I think we can ascribe his success to his good judgment as a writer. First, he wisely chooses to make "The Gift of the Magi" a short story, not a novel. I don't think the plot would work nearly as well if we couldn't read the story in one sitting. First of all, O. Henry would have to destroy its focus by filling pages with extraneous subplots and details. And if we took a break before reaching the last page, if we put "The Gift of the Magi"" down to go for a walk or drive to work, we'd have time to think things over, and we might figure out what the ending will be. (I've read plenty of mystery novels that would have worked better as short stories, that might well have sneaked their twists past me if I hadn't had time to analyze the evidence while folding laundry or letting my mind wander during a boring meeting.)

But "The Gift of the Magi" is a very short story, and also a very absorbing one--I'd guess few if any readers can put it down before reaching the last page. The action pushes us forward without pause, and the protagonist is so lovable and so troubled that she instantly wins our sympathies and our full attention. That's another example of O. Henry's good judgment. He keeps us so intent on Della's dilemmas and decisions that we don't stop to think about what Jim might be feeling or doing.

O. Henry accomplishes that, partly, by not letting us see Jim until the final pages. Imagine how different the story's effect on us might be if O. Henry had begun with a scene of the couple at breakfast, had let us hear Jim make some gloomy remark about Christmas gifts, or let us see him holding his watch in his hand and gazing at it moodily. Instead, O. Henry begins his story after Jim has gone to work, when Della is alone in the flat, counting and recounting her pitiful hoard of coins. Jim gets mentioned often, but we see him only as the reason for Della's despair, not as an independent character who might be grieving over similarly meager stacks of coins and contemplating desperate measures of his own.

Instead, we focus only on Della, and there's plenty to keep that focus constant and sharp. Della's misery touches us, and so does her admiration for Jim--we're moved by her capacity for affection. (By "we," I mean readers capable of being moved by sweetness and innocence. A Grinch would think Della's being silly. If you are a Grinch offended by any story tainted by sentimentality, you don't like "The Gift of the Magi," and you won't like anything I'm going to say about it. Perhaps you'd rather go read some Sartre.) When Della looks in the mirror, turns pale, and abruptly lets down her hair, we wonder what's going on in her mind. Moments later, when she quickly puts her hair up again and hurries out of the flat, we get a glimmer of what she plans to do. Before we can think it through, we come to the quick little drama of her encounter with the horrible Madame Sofronie, memorably characterized in four well-chosen words--"large, too white, chilly." After only a few lines of dialogue, the hair is gone, and Della leaves clutching her twenty dollars. We may feel torn between conflicting emotions, impressed by Della's ingenuity and courage but appalled by the harshness of her sacrifice.

We have no time to dwell on those emotions, though, because the story rushes on. Now we're caught up in Della's search for the perfect present for Jim. She never pauses to wonder about what Jim might be giving her for Christmas, never takes a moment to gaze into a shop window and sigh over the tortoise shell combs on display. That's consistent with Della's character--she's so selfless that she thinks only about Jim's present, cares only about his happiness. It's also further proof of O. Henry's good judgment. If it ever occurred to Della that Jim might be shopping, too, we might start speculating, and that might spoil the twist. By making Della's quest so single minded, O. Henry keeps our thoughts from drifting off in dangerous directions.

And he never lets the pace slow. Della's two-hour search is described in three short sentences. Then, for one paragraph, we share her joy when she finds the perfect watch chain. But the next paragraph plunges us into new anxieties as Della gets busy with her curling irons and frets about how Jim will respond when he sees her shorn. We ache for her as she hears Jim's steps in the hallway and whispers a quick prayer: "Please, God, make him think I am still pretty."

Jim's reaction, we think, will provide the story's climax, and we wait to see what it will be. The nastiest-minded noir addicts among us may hope Jim will respond with rage, may hope the story will end with a nice little murder-suicide demonstrating the cruel absurdity of human existence. Most of us probably expect Jim to be dismayed and perhaps angry at first but then to embrace his wife, declaring that he now loves her more than ever, that in his eyes she's now more beautiful than ever. This is, after all, a Christmas story.

Few of us, I think, expect any climax beyond Jim's reaction. O. Henry has done such a masterful job of ensnaring us in Della's thoughts and emotions that we don't see any further ahead than she does. When Jim stares at his wife, stunned into speechlessness, we think, as she does, it's because he can't adjust to the change in her appearance. As she pleads with him, it doesn't occur to us that there might be a deeper reason for what O. Henry describes as Jim's "trance." Not until Jim pulls a package from his pocket, not until Della opens it and sees the combs Jim bought for her to wear in her long, beautiful hair, do we realize why he was so paralyzed by surprise. We don't see that twist coming until Della does.

It's a clever twist, an ironic twist, a satisfying twist--and not an utterly devastating one. Della weeps when she first sees the combs, but she recovers quickly. "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" she says, and we share her relief. Soon, Della will be able to wear the combs. What a nice climax.

But it's not the climax. There's one more twist coming--a twist we could have foreseen but probably didn't. When Della assures Jim that her hair will grow back soon, it probably doesn't occur to her to wonder about how Jim paid for the combs. Since we share her perspective so completely, it probably doesn't occur to us, either. And when she remembers the watch chain, we may, like her, think Jim's delight in it will erase any lingering regrets about Della's hair.

Then we get the final twist, and everything makes sense. Of course, we think. Earlier in the story, Della says only "something fine and rare and sterling" would do as a gift for Jim, and anything she offers him must reflect his "quietness and value." Just as someone as selfless and loving as Della would give up her most prized possession to buy a present for her husband, someone as "fine and rare and sterling" as Jim would give up his most prized possession to buy a present for his wife. Della has told us everything we need to know about Jim. We should have seen this twist coming. But we probably didn't, because Della didn't. So the final twist hits us as hard as it hits her, and it's even more devastating than the first one. Della's hair will grow back, but the watch Jim inherited from his father and grandfather is gone forever.

Now O. Henry's good judgment as a writer comes into play again. He didn't begin his story too early by letting us see Jim brooding at breakfast, and he doesn't extend it too long by letting us see Della's reaction to the news that Jim has sold his watch. We've already seen Della weep when Jim gives her the combs. We don't need to see her weep again. So when she gives Jim the watch chain, he demonstrates his "quietness and value" by smiling, telling her he sold his watch, and suggesting they sit down to dinner. That's our final glimpse of Della and Jim. The last twist has fallen into place, and its impact is profound. No need to drag things out by belaboring the irony, or by showing us their dismay and recovery. I think O. Henry ends his narrative at exactly the right moment.

He does, however, add one paragraph of commentary, and I suspect many modern readers will criticize him for that. In this last paragraph, O. Henry is teaching us how to interpret his story. He is making its moral explicit. He is--horrors!--telling and not showing. We sophisticated modern readers know how wrong that is. We know writers must let their stories speak for themselves and leave the work of interpretation to the reader. Writers must never sermonize, must never end their stories with paragraphs such as this one:
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
I'll admit it--I'm not sophisticated enough to despise this paragraph. Schmaltzy as it is, I love it. I choke up every time I reread it. I enjoy the quiet humor of the suggestion that the original magi may have given gifts "bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication," enjoy the juxtaposition of different uses of "wise." I'm moved by what the paragraph says about true wisdom, and about how some kinds of foolishness rise to become wisdom of the highest sort. And I appreciate the help this paragraph gives me, for I'm not completely confident I would have seen all the story's implications on my own.

I may be wrong. This paragraph may in fact be merely clumsy and inartistic. (I'd definitely never write a story ending with a similar paragraph. Old fashioned as my own tastes may be, I'm savvy enough to know almost any modern editor would reject a story containing such a paragraph, and almost any modern reader would condemn it.) In any case, this paragraph drives home the point that the best twists are more than clever bits of plotting. The best twists illuminate both character and theme. They express ideas. Informed by the writer's generosity and good judgment, they can transform a story into a delightful, perceptive gift to the reader.

Happy holidays to all!

26 November 2016

Want Street Cred? Write for Magazines!

by Melodie Campbell

Many readers here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Suburban Toronto.  (I started teaching fiction writing there before the wheel was invented.  We had to push cars uphill both ways to get them to campus...okay, I'll stop now.)


Students often ask me how to get a novel published.  I say: "Walk out of this classroom right now and become a media personality."

Everyone in the class laughs.  But it's no laughing matter, really.  Most of the bestselling crime authors in Canada were media personalities first.  It's no coincidence.  Being a newspaper or television 'name' gives one a huge visibility advantage.  You leap the slush pile.  And chances are, you know someone who knows someone in publishing.

But launching a new career doesn't work for all of us, particularly if we are mid-career or soon to qualify for senior's discounts.  (Of course, you could still murder someone and become a celebrity.  I have a few names handy, if you are looking for a media-worthy victim...)

In order for a publisher to buy your book, they have to read it first.  I know at least one publishing house that receives 10,000 manuscripts a month.  How in Hellsville can you possibly get noticed in that slush pile?

Here's how:  Develop street cred by publishing with magazines!

How I got my start:

In 1989, at the tender age of twenty plus n, I won a Canadian Living Magazine fiction contest.  (Canadian Living is one of the two notable women's magazines in Canada. Big circulation.)  After that, I pitched to Star Magazine (yup, the tabloid) listing the Canadian Living credit in my cover letter.  They said, "Oh look.  A Canadian.  How quaint.  See how she spells humour."  (I'm paraphrasing.)  Anyways, Star published several of my short shorts in the 90s.  The Canadian Living credit got me in the door.

With several Star Mag credits under my belt (weird term, that - I mean, think of what is under your belt) I went to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They liked the Star credits and published some of my stories.  Then I got a several-story contract with ComputorEdge.

So ten years ago, when I had a novel to flog, I already had 24 short story publications in commercial magazines.  That set me apart from everyone else clawing to get in the door.

Writing for magazines worked to launch my author career.  I'm now with two traditional publishers and my 11th book (The Bootlegger's Goddaughter - phew! Got that in) comes out in February.

Writing for magazines tells a publisher several things:

1.  You write commercially salable stories.  This is important for book publishers.  If you have published in commercial magazines, it tells a publisher that someone else has already paid you for your fiction.  They deemed your obviously brilliant stores worthy of a wide enough audience to justify putting their money into publishing them.  It's much like the concept of 'peer review' in the academic world.

2.  You accept editing.  A magazine writer (fiction or nonfiction) is used to an editor making changes to their work.  It's part of the game.  If you have been published many times in magazines, then a novel publisher knows you are probably going to be cool with editing.  (Okay, maybe not cool, but you've learned how to hold back rage-fueled comments such as "Gob-sucking fecking idiot! It was perfect before you mucked with it."

3.  You work to deadline.  Magazines and newspapers have tight deadlines.  Miss your deadline, and you're toast.  Novel publishers are similarly addicted to deadlines.  Something to do with having booked a print run long in advance, for one thing.  So they want authors who will get their damned manuscripts in on time.

Here's something to watch out for if you are going to write for magazines:

Kill Fee
If you are publishing with a major magazine, negotiate a 'kill fee.'  (This doesn't mean you get to kill the publisher if they don't print your story.)  A kill fee is something you get if the mag sends you a contract to publish your story or article, and then doesn't publish it.  Usually a kill fee is about half the amount you would be paid if they had printed it.

Why wouldn't they print your story after they agree to buy it?  Sometimes a publisher or editorial big wig leaves and the new big wig taking over will have a different vision for the mag.  Sometimes a mag will go under before they actually print the issue with your story.  That happened to me with a fairly well-known women's mag.  I got the kill fee, and the rights back. I was able to sell the story to another magazine.

Which brings me to a final point:  Note the rights you are selling.  Many mags here want "First North American Serial Rights."  This means they have the right to publish the story for the first time in North America, in all versions of their magazine.  (For instance, some magazines in Canada publish both English and French versions.)  But what happens after that?  When do rights return to you?  Two years after publication? (Very common.)  Or never?  Are they buying 'All Rights?"  It's good to get rights back, because then you can have the story reprinted in an anthology someday.  Make sure your contract stipulates which rights they are buying.

Of course, I always say, if they pay me enough, they can keep all rights, dress them in furs and jewelry, and walk them down Main Street.  I have the same attitude re film companies that might want to swoop up my novels for movies.

Melodie Campbell writes the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series of mob comedies, starting with The Goddaughter.  It features a different kind of 'kill fee.'

 On Amazon

12 November 2016

Camouflaging Clues

by B.K. Stevens

"The grandest game in the world"--that's how Edward D. Hoch describes the duel between mystery writer and mystery reader. In an essay called "The Pleasure of the Short Story," Hoch explains why he prefers mysteries "in which the reader is given a clue or hint well in advance of the ending. As a reader myself I find the greatest satisfaction in spotting the clue and anticipating the author. If I overlook it, I don't feel cheated--I admire the author's skill!"*

And it takes a lot of skill. In any mystery where this "grandest game" is played, the delightful challenge offered to readers poses daunting challenges for writers. We have to provide readers with clues "well in advance of the ending," as Hoch says. In my opinion (and I bet Hoch would agree), we should provide plenty of clues, and they should start as soon as possible. As a reader, I feel a tad frustrated by mysteries that hinge on a single clue--if we don't pick up on a quick reference indicating the killer was wearing gloves on a warm day, we have no chance of figuring things out. I also don't much enjoy mysteries that look like whodunits but are really just histories of investigations.
The detective questions A, who provides a scrap of information pointing to B, who suggests talking to C. Finally, somewhere around F, the detective happens upon the only truly relevant clue, which leads straight to a solution that's obvious now but would have been impossible to guess even three minutes sooner. That's not much fun.


But working in lots of clues throughout the mystery isn't easy. Hoch identifies "the great clue bugaboo" that plagues many detective stories: "Clues are inserted with such a heavy hand that they almost scream their presence at the reader." Especially in short stories, Hoch says, avoiding that bugaboo requires "a great deal of finesse." I think that's true not only in whodunits but also in mysteries that build suspense by hinting at endings alert readers have a fair chance of predicting before they reach the last page. Luckily, there are ways of camouflaging clues, of hiding them in plain sight so most readers will overlook them.

Here are five camouflage techniques--you've probably used some or all of them yourself. Since it wouldn't be polite to reveal other writers' clues, I'll illustrate the descriptions with examples from my own stories.That way, if I give away too much and spoil the stories, the only person who can get mad at me is me. (By some strange coincidence, all the stories I'll mention happen to be in my recent collection from Wildside Press, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime.)


Sneak clues in before readers expect them: Readers expect the beginning of a mystery to intrigue them and provide crucial back story--or, perhaps, to plunge them into the middle of action. They don't necessarily expect to be slapped in the face with clues right away. So if we slide a clue into our opening sentences, it might go unnoticed. That's what I tried to do in "Aunt Jessica's Party," which first appeared in Woman's World in 1993. It's not a whodunit, but the protagonist's carrying out a scheme, and readers can spot it if they pay attention. Here's how the story begins:
     Carefully, Jessica polished her favorite sherry glass and placed it on the silver tray. Soon, her nephew would arrive. He was to be the only guest at her little party, and everything had to be perfect.
     Five minutes until six--time to call Grace. She went to the phone near the kitchen window, kept her eyes on the driveway, and dialed.
     "Hello, Grace?" she said. "Jessica. How are you? Oh, I'm fine--never better. Did I tell you William's coming today? Yes, it is an accomplishment to get him here. But it's his birthday, and I promised him a special present. He even agreed to pick up some sherry for me. Oh, there he is, pulling into the driveway." She paused. "Goodbye, Grace. You're a dear."
I count at least six facts relevant to the story's solution in these paragraphs; even Jessica's pause is significant. And there's one solid clue, an oddity that should make readers wonder. Jessica's planned the timing of this call ("time to call Grace"), but why call only five minutes before her nephew's scheduled to arrive? She can't be calling to chat--what other purpose might the call serve? I'm hoping that readers won't notice the strange timing, that they'll focus instead on hints about Jessica's relationship with her nephew and the "special present" she's giving him. I've played fair by providing a major clue. If readers aren't ready for it, it's not my fault.

Hide a clue in a series of insignificant details: If a detective searches a crime scene and finds an important clue--an oil-stained rag, say--we're obliged to tell readers. But if we don't want to call too much attention to the clue, we can hide it in a list of other things the detective finds, making sure some sound as intriguing as an oil-stained rag. I used this technique in "Death in Rehab," a whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2011. When temporary secretary Leah Abrams accepts a job at a rehab center, her husband, Sam, doesn't like the idea that she'll be "surrounded by addicts." Leah counters that being around recovering addicts will be inspirational, not dangerous, but Sam's not convinced:
"They're still addicts, and addicts do dangerous things. Did you read the local news this morning?" He found the right page and pointed to a headline. "'Gambling Addict Embezzles Millions, Disappears'--probably in Vegas by now, the paper says. Or this story--`Small-time Drug Dealer Killed Execution Style'--probably because he stole from his bosses, the paper says. Or this one--`Shooter Flies into Drunken Rage, Wounds Two'--the police haven't caught that one, either."
Savvy mystery readers may suspect one of these news stories will be relevant to the mystery, but they can't yet know which one (this is another early-in-the-story clue). In fact, I've tried to make the two irrelevant headlines sound more promising than the one that actually matters--and if you decide to read the story, that's a big extra hint for you. About halfway through the story, Sam mentions the three news stories again. By now, readers who have paid attention to all the clues provided during Leah's first day at work should have a good sense of which story is relevant. But I don't think most readers will figure out murderer and motive yet--and if they do, I don't much care. I've packed this story so full of clues that I doubt many readers will spot all of them. Even readers who realize whodunit should find some surprises at the end.

Separate clues from context: We're obliged to provide the reader with clues and also, I think, to provide the context needed to interpret them. But I don't think we're obliged to provide both at the same time. By putting a careful distance between clue and context, we can play fair and still keep the reader guessing. In "The Shopper," a whodunit first published in a 2014 convention anthology, a young librarian's house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. That's unsettling enough, but her real worries begin when the burglar--a pro the police have nicknamed The Shopper--starts sending her notes and returning some things he stole. He seems obsessed with her. Also, two men she's never seen before--one blond, one dark--start showing up at the library every day. She suspects one of them might be The Shopper, but which one? (And who says you can't have a puzzling whodunit with only two suspects?) Then things get worse:
    
She didn't really feel like going out that night, but she and Lori had a long-standing date for dinner and a movie. It'd be embarrassing to admit she was scared to go out, and the company would do her good. But when she got to the restaurant, she spotted the blond man sitting in a booth, eating a slab of pie. He has a right to eat wherever he wants, she thought; but the minute Lori arrived, Diane grabbed her hand, pulled her to a table at the other end of the restaurant, and sighed with relief when the blond man left after a second cup of coffee.
     The relief didn't last long. As she and Lori walked out, she saw the dark man sitting at the counter, picking at a salad. He must have come in after she had--had he followed her? She couldn't stand it any more.
I'd say there are five major clues in this story. Two are contained--or, in one case, reinforced--in these paragraphs. A reader keeping careful track of all the evidence could identify The Shopper right now, without reading the remaining seven pages. But since these clues are revealing only in the context of information provided five pages earlier, I'm betting most readers won't make the connection. The Shopper's secrets are still safe with me.

Use the protagonist's point of view to mislead readers: This technique isn't reserved for mystery writers. In "Emma Considered as Detective Fiction," P.D. James comments on Jane Austen's skillful manipulation of point of view to conceal the mysteries at the heart of her novel. Emma constantly misinterprets what people do and say, and because we readers see things from Emma's perspective, we're equally oblivious to what's really going on. In our own mysteries, unless our protagonist is a genius who instantly understands everything, we can use the same technique: If our protagonist overlooks clues, chances are readers will overlook them, too. In "A Joy Forever" (AHMM, 2015), photographer Chris is visiting Uncle Mike and his second wife, Gwen. Uncle Mike is a tyrant who's reduced Gwen to the status of domestic slave--he orders her around, never helps her, casually insults her. Gwen takes it all without a murmur. After a dinner during which Uncle Mike behaves even more boorishly than usual, Chris follows Gwen to the kitchen to help with the dishes:
     As I watched her standing at the sink, sympathy overpowered me again. She was barely fifty but looked like an old woman--bent, scrawny, exhausted, her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. And her drab, shapeless dress had to be at least a decade old.
     "You spend so much on Uncle Mike," I chided. "The golf cart, all that food and liquor. Spend something on yourself. Go to a beauty parlor and have your hair cut and styled. Buy yourself some new clothes."
     She laughed softly. "Oh, Mike really needs what I buy for him--he really, really does. And I don't care how my hair looks, and I don't need new clothes." Her smile hardened. "Not yet."
     I felt so moved, and so sorry, that I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "You're too good to him."
Chris sees Gwen as a victim, as a woman whose spirit has been utterly crushed by an oppressor. Readers who don't see beyond Chris's perspective have some surprises coming. But in this story, by this point, I think most readers will see more than Chris does. They'll pick up on clues such as Gwen's hard smile, her quiet "not yet." I had fun playing with point of view in this story, with giving alert readers plenty of opportunities to stay one step ahead of the narrator. It's another variation on Hoch's "grandest game."


Distract readers with action or humor: If readers get caught up in an action scene, they may forget they're supposed to be watching for clues; if they're chuckling at a character's dilemma, they may not notice puzzle pieces slipping by. In "Table for None" (AHMM, 2008), apprentice private detective Harriet Russo is having a rough night. She's on a dark, isolated street, staking out a suspect. But he spots her, threatens her, and stalks off. Moments later, her client, Little Dave, pops up unexpectedly and proposes searching the suspect's car. Harriet says it's too dangerous, but Little Dave won't listen:
 
He raced off. For a moment, I stood frozen. Call Miss Woodhouse and tell her how I'd botched things--let Little Dave get himself killed and feel guilty for the rest of my life--follow him into the parking lot and risk getting killed myself. On the whole, the last option seemed most attractive. I raced after Little Dave.
     He stood next to the dirty white car, hissing into his cell phone. "Damn it, Terry," he whispered harshly, "I told you not to call me. No, I won't tell you where I am. Just go home. I'll see ya when I see ya." He snapped his phone shut and yanked on a back door of the car. It didn't budge. He looked straight at me, grinning sheepishly.
     That's pretty much the last thing I remember. I have some vague impression of something crashing down against me, of sharp pain and sudden darkness. But my next definite memory is of fading slowly back into consciousness--of hearing sirens blare, of feeling the cement against my back, of seeing Little Dave sprawled a few feet away from me, of spotting a small iron figurine next to him, of falling into darkness again.
I hope readers will focus on the conflict and confusion in this scene, and on the unseen attack that leaves Harriet in bad shape and Little Dave in worse shape. I hope they won't pause to take careful note of exactly what Little Dave says in his phone conversation, to test it against the way he's behaved earlier and the things people say later. If readers are too focused on the action to pick up on inconsistencies, they'll miss evidence that could help them identify the murderer.

We can also distract readers with clever dialogue, with fascinating characters, with penetrating social satire, with absorbing themes, with keen insights into human nature. In the end, excellent writing is the best way to keep readers from focusing only on the clues we parade past them. Of course, that's not our main reason for trying to make our writing excellent. To use Hoch's phrase again, mysteries invite writers and readers to participate in "the grandest game," but that doesn't mean mysteries are no more than a game. I think mysteries can be as compelling and significant as other kinds of fiction. The grandest game doesn't impose limits on what our stories and novels can achieve. It simply adds another element that I and millions of other readers happen to enjoy.

Do you have favorite ways of camouflaging clues? I'd love to see some examples from your own mysteries. (*Hoch's essay, by the way, is in the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat, published in 1976, revised and reprinted several times since then. Used copies are available through Amazon.)


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.

16 August 2016

Shannon and Jess Get Short with Readers

by Shannon Baker and Jessica Lourey

Thanks, Barb Goffman, for giving up her blogging spot so Shannon Baker and I can visit, and thanks to SleuthSayers for this warm welcome! We brought popcorn and root beer floats but don’t know if there is enough to go around, so raise your hand quick if you’re hungry/thirsty.

Whee! See all those hands, Shannon? You pass out the treats while I handle the intros.

The beautiful Shannon and I are on a whirlwind 25-stop blog tour, an idea that seemed genius when we realized our next books both release on September 6. Shannon’s is Stripped Bare. It’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife and is about a woman sheriff in the Nebraska Sandhills. My book is Salem’s Cipher, a breakneck thriller about a race to save the first viable U.S. female presidential candidate from assassination. Both books are available for preorder.
Today, we’d like to talk about short stories, primarily because Barb is an Agatha Award-winning short story WIZARD, and so this is sort of a gift to her. Except not really, because Shannon and I blow at writing short stories. So, it’s either an un-gift in that we could never match Barb’s insight, or a huge gift because we’ll have set the bar so low that you’ll clamor for Barb’s return, even if she doesn’t bring the ice cream like we do.

Shannon here, adding her two cents: While Barb is undoubtedly the queen, don’t believe Jess when she says she’s not great at short stories. For a treat, grab hold of her Death by Potato Salad, Murder by the Minute. You WILL laugh.

These chips aren't in the story.
They're just funny.
Shannon, you vixen, sneaking in the kind words like that. Thank you. Now tell me, what’s the first short story you ever published?

Shannon: The Phoenix chapter of Sisters in Crime, Desert Sleuths, periodically publishes an anthology and were kind enough to take on my first short story in SoWest: Desert Justice. It combined my love of the Grand Canyon and my delight at killing off lousy men. It’s roughly based on a 9-day river trip I convinced my non-lousy husband to paddle with me. Hiking, riding rapids, jumping into waterfalls, all the good stuff. He loves an exciting adventure, but has some claustrophobia and a mild fear of heights (despite being a pilot). At one point, lying with a damp sheet over us because the nights were so incredibly hot, he turned to me and sweetly said, “This is like a fucking Outward Bound trip.” Ah, good times.

Not Shannon.
Jess here. Shannon, you make me laugh. And want to take river trips, weirdly. Okay, my first published short story was “The Locked Fish-cleaning Room Mystery.” Snappy, yes? I wrote it at the request of a group of Minnesota crime writers, William Kent Krueger among them, who were putting together an anthology called Resort to Murder. When I was asked to contribute, I said yes. I figured I could write novels, so why not short stories?

Folks, that’s like figuring you can paint a house, so why not carve the Taj Mahal on a piece of rice. I failed miserably and repeatedly until I decided to research classic crime fiction shorts. I stumbled across the locked room mystery (a la Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders at the Rue Morgue”) and fell in love with its neat and sweet format. I strapped a Minnesota setting onto that structure, and voila!

Shannon, do you have a technique when it comes to writing short stories?

Shannon: No. Hell no. I wish I did. I’m going to try your method, whatever it is, because we’re both giving away shorts if readers preorder our books. I haven’t written mine, yet. I get hives thinking about it. What’s your best advice on this?

Jess again. I wish I had a technique. I write short stories like a kid runs down a hill: poorly, hoping not to fall on my face. I am exploring novellas right now, though, because there are two books left in my humorous Murder-by-Month series, and my agent and my publisher are taking forever to figure out that contract. I miss the characters in the series, and it turns out that I am free to write about them in a novella form. How fun is that? I think novellas might be a growing self-pub market.
Not a kid but still funny.

What do you think about self-pubbing, Shannon, whether short story, novella, or novel?

Shannon: (whining) Why are you asking me the hard questions? Yes, sure. I’d love to self pub. But I’d have to write something first, wouldn’t I? The not so secret thing about me is that I’m really lazy. Right now, I’m working hard on the Kate Fox series and happily letting a publisher figure out the cover, distribution, and production side.

That’s it today with lazy Shannon (my favorite piece of furniture) and Hard-Question-Asking Jessie. Stick with us on our road trip as we head to Word Nerds tomorrow for a little friendly banter and a writing tip or two. We promise to make a potty stop along the way if you need it.

Share your favorite short story writing tip (god, please), or leave a comment below for a chance to win an advance copy of Salem’s Cipher or Stripped Bare.

Not these kind of tips!
And for even more fun:

If you order Salem's Cipher before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to salemscipher@gmail.com to receive a Salem short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!

If you order Stripped Bare before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to katefoxstrippedbare@gmail.com to receive a Kate Fox short story and be entered for a book gift basket mailed to your home.

You’re welcome to preorder each to enter each contest.



Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's 2014 Excellence in Teaching fellowship, and leads interactive writing workshops all over the world. Salem’s Cipher, the first in her thrilling Witch Hunt Series, hits stores September 2016. You can find out more at www.jessicalourey.com, or find Jess on Facebook or Twitter.

Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink, a fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder set in western landscapes of Flagstaff, AZ, Boulder, CO, and Moab, UT. Seconds before quitting writing forever and taking up competitive drinking, Shannon was nominated for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 Writer of the Year. Buoyed with that confidence, she acquired an agent who secured a multi-book contract with Tor/Forge. The first in the Kate Fox Mystery Series, Stripped Bare, will release in hardcover September 2016. Set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, it’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

29 May 2016

One-Oh-One & Counting

by R.T. Lawton

Hi. I took a few months off from blogging at SleuthSayers on Fortnight Fridays in order to work a term as chief judge for the 2016 Edgars Award in the Best Novel category for those hardcover mysteries published in 2015. Turns out, reading 509 books in a nine and a half month period, plus all those admin duties, writing my own stuff, taking care of two young grandsons and finding that my warranty was expiring at a faster rate than I cared for, wore me down. Appears I'm not as bulletproof as I used to be.

My 31st story in AHMM is in this issue
For those of you who joined the SleuthSayer family in my absence, I'll bring you up to speed with a short bio. I'm a retired federal agent, Vietnam vet '67-'68 (man, was that a long time ago), served three years on the Mystery Writers of America national Board of Directors and I primarily write short stories. The latter of which brings us to today's topic. And yes, you should probably consider this as having a couple moments of BSP.

For a writer just starting out, the first acceptance, check and publication is electrifying to that writer's ego, which contributes to their desire to write more. In the time that follows, each and every additional acceptance, check and publication is greatly valued and quickly becomes a statistic to be carefully recorded in said writer's bibliography. In my case, the first was a $250 biker story to Easyriders magazine and was submitted under a double alias. As federal agents, we weren't allowed to have outside employment of any kind, so the story byline was a street nickname from the bike gangs and the check came in one of my undercover aliases for which I had a driver's license. It went from there.

Obviously, a short story author with any proficiency can stack up stats faster than most novelists, mainly due to the difference in word count required for each of the two categories. Which also means a short story author can submit a new manuscript more often and has less time involved in each writing project than does the author of a novel. I always thought my bent to create short stories was based in some aspect of short attention span tendencies, but now as I write this, I also suspect a desire for more instant gratification for my writing labors. Unfortunately, one does not get rich writing short stories.

As the years rolled by and I updated my bio as a panelist for various writers conferences, I always had to increase the numbers for those short stories of mine that had been published in the past. Sometimes, the increase in numbers merely crept along and other times they took nice jumps. Of course, if I turned out as much writing material as our fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd, I would have entertained the notion of acquiring some of those little, yellow minions to keep track of my submissions, acceptances, publication dates and to run all those Woman's World magazine $500 checks to the bank. (John, did the bank ever give you a free toaster for depositing that bucket load of checks?)

French church with St. Leonard's remains
Anyway, in the middle of April 2016, I received an e-contract from Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for "The Left Hand of Leonard." In case you're wondering about the title, the story concerns the remains of St. Leonard in a time when holy relics were bartered, sold and even stolen. It is the 6th story in my 1660's Paris Underworld series involving a young orphan, incompetent pickpocket, and is my 34th story to be sold to AHMM. You probably won't see it in print for another year. It is also my 100th short story to be accepted for publication. Okay, that's the BSP.

So now that I've reached this numerical peak, the problem is how do I keep score for the future in my bios after one more sale occurs? I assume that the acceptable method for that point is "over one hundred short stories." But, at what point do the numbers change after that? Increasing by single digits would be tiresome after a while. The same with increasing the amount by tens. Surely, "over 150 short stories" would be acceptable when and if  the time comes. However, I don't know that I could live long enough to wait for "over two hundred short stories." If anyone knows the proper etiquette for this type of situation, please let me know. Other than that, it's good to be back in the family.

NOTE: After I wrote the above blog, I got an e-mail on May 8th from Greg Herren, the editor for the 2016 Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou. That meant I had to change the blog title. Seems my story, "Hell Hath No Fury," has been accepted for their anthology. There is no pay, all benefits go to support the New Orleans public library, but that acceptance does go toward my 101st publishing credit, so it's a win-win situation and I'm happy.

See you again in a month.

07 April 2016

Illustrated Mayhem

by Janice Law

It was a great grief to me when, sometime between the late ’50’s and the ’70’s, publishers stopped illustrating adult fiction. Not that illustrations for adults ever rivaled the glories of children’s books. Forget the full color splendors for volumes like Treasure Island created by N.A. Wyeth or the marvelous line of  John Tenniel’s pictures for Alice in Wonderland.

Just the same, quality novels often had line drawings to enliven the blocks of text which too often today are set up tight to save paper or, in the case of certain popular authors, given ludicrous amounts of spacing and giant margins in order to create a “big” book. Would we had pictures with either or both!

For a time in the ’80’s the lack of illustrations was to some extent compensated for by the care and technical skill of cover art. The book jackets Houghton Mifflin supplied for my first four Anna Peters novels, had beautifully wrought and realistic collage paintings, done by hand, mind you, not on the computer. And this for what were definitely ‘mid-list’ novels. Those jackets, too have gone by the board.

I’ve been thinking about illustrations, especially illustrations for mystery novels and stories, because during a dry spell in painting, I did covers and illustrations for two little three-story collections. I wanted to learn how to put up ebooks, and thought that three mystery short stories (originally published in Alfred Hitchcock and Sherlock) and three stories of the uncanny  (two unpublished, one in the old Fantasy Book, would make good test projects.


Thanks to the kindness of a very patient techie somewhere in Texas, The Double, (the mysteries) and The Man Who Met the Elf Queen are now available for 99¢ from iBooks. The Elf Queen book has chapter illustrations, too. Thus ends the commercial!

All the illustrations were done freehand on my Wacom drawing slate with an electronic pencil. Not everyone likes the process: basically one holds the pad in one hand and “draws” on the white surface with the pen, producing lines over on the computer screen. A certain ability to disassociate is probably helpful, but I like it a lot, because it is easy to combine line with perfect flat areas of color, flowed in via an icon that looks like a bucket.

The only caveat is that enclosed areas must be perfectly enclosed. Even one pixel missing and the flowed color swamps the entire image. Thankfully, there is an Undo button, and even for someone who is not neat and tidy, the bucket tool enables the creation of perfect flat ‘print like’ areas of color.
So much for technique.

The bigger problem for the non-professional is, I think, consistency of image. It is not too hard to produce an attractive illustration. What is difficult is making a character look recognizably the same in different settings and from different angles.

I now appreciate another difficulty. The writer has a notion of what a character, setting, or action should look like and, having suggested that satisfactorily in print, she is sometimes surprised by the changes the illustrator produces. But graphic design has its reasons. When I finished the drawing of the Elf Queen, I thought to check my story. Oh, dear, she was supposedly wearing a sable trimmed cloak! Too bad, the addition of dark brown fur, in addition to being more work, would upset the color balance.

Similarly, the Magus in The Potion of the Empress had dark eyes in print, unsurprising as he was an ancient Roman. However, both an older drawing done in an early Apple graphic program, and my new color version, gave him a chilly light eye, very necessary given the shadows that formed his background.

If nothing else, trying to devise pictures for these little web books has given me sympathy for the illustrators at AHMM who have been illustrating my Madame Selina stories. Do they fit my ideas of the medium and her assistant? Usually not, or not entirely, but they are none the worse for that, being appropriate in size and pattern and style for the magazine and all different, too, which is really interesting.

Just the same, I thought I’d try my hand at both her and Nip and was pleased with the results, but I know better than to attempt a series of panels where I need to keep their features and expressions consistent. Amateur drawings can be lovely but the graphic novel – or even illustrations for a series – are best left to the pros.