31 December 2015

Ghoulies and Ghosties

by Eve Fisher

On this Seventh Day of Christmas (seven swans a-swimming...), I'd like to discuss a Victorian tradition:  Ghost Stories for the holidays.
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
  - Traditional Scots prayer
ghost photo woman scared by apparition
1860s : Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Or, it says in Andy Williams’ classic Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

In Victorian England, Christmas Eve (and pretty much the whole Twelve Days of Christmas) was the traditional time to tell ghost stories.  People would rake up the fire, sit there with their mulled wine and roasting chestnuts, and scare the bejeezus out of each other.  M. R. James, the provost of Kings College, Cambridge, had a tradition of inviting students and friends to his rooms on Christmas Eve where he'd read them a ghost story he'd written. Charles Dickens published ghost stories every year at Christmas in his periodical, All the Year Round, as did other contributors like Wilkie Collins.  And, of course, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which four ghosts are prominent characters (you have to include Jacob Marley!), and the Ghost of Christmas Future was supposed to give you nightmares.

But if you really want nightmares, read Dickens' The Chimes.  Toby Veck, a poor ticket-porter, and his daughter, Meg - about to be married to Richard, a young laborer - are confronted by Alderman Wick.
Alderman Wick and company
‘You are going to be married, you say,’ pursued the Alderman.  ‘Very unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex!  But never mind that.  After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife.  You may think not; but you will, because I tell you so.  Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down.  So, don’t be brought before me.  You’ll have children—boys.  Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings.  Mind, my young friend!  I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down.  Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby.  Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets.  Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved, to Put all wandering mothers Down.  All young mothers, of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down.  Don’t think to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me; for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down.  And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefully, and impiously, and fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down!  If there is one thing,’ said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, ‘on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down.  So don’t try it on.  That’s the phrase, isn’t it?  Ha, ha! now we understand each other.’
And things only get worse from there.  Poor Meg!  Poor Toby!  And when Toby, looking for solace on a cold New Year's Eve, goes up to the church to hear the bells, and falls to his death, his ghost is shown a future complete with his darling Meg now abandoned, starving, with a newborn, no hope or mercy anywhere on earth, and racing for the river...  Let's just say that The Chimes is so bleak that it makes Cormac McCarthy look like a comedian.  Yes, Dickens does supply the mandatory happy ending, but until then...  it's a treatise on the ultimate result of Victorian economic theory (primarily Utilitarianism and Malthusianism), and a legal system designed to eliminate the poor the hard way. This fun read for the holidays is available for free here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/653/653-h/653-h.htm

But not all ghost stories were so obviously political or polemical.  Most were just designed to scare people.  The above mentioned M. R. James was very good at this. He said that every ghost story must "put the reader into the position of saying to himself, 'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'"  Allow me to recommend "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad" (http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/150).   "Rats" isn't bad, either.

FS Coburn. Photograph: British Library/Robana via Getty

And The Paris Review has a great blog post listing five forgotten Christmas Ghost Stories (check it out here http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/19/ghosts-on-the-nog/).

Why did the Victorians love ghost stories at Christmas? Well, it was dark and cold and beside a good fire was the place to be.  The nights are extremely long, and all the old, pre-Christian traditions knew that the veil between here and there was very thin around the winter's solstice.  And Christmas Eve - with Christmas Day coming almost immediately - was a time when ghosts could walk the earth and finish their unsettled business, relatively safely (for humans at least).

There was also, among the wealthy, the little issue of gas lighting, still in its infancy, which emitted carbon monoxide, which had a tendency to make people see things.  And, sticking with the wealthy, let's not forget that, in a Victorian world where almost everyone had servants, and yet those servants were expected to be almost invisible, leading to houses with separate entrances, staircases, even hallways for servants, people would be unexpectedly popping in and out of dark places on a regular basis.  Were they always people?

And the poor, huddled around their fire and their candlelight, both sending shadows and ripples of shadows, flickering in the never-ending drafts (there's a reason people - even skinflint Ebenezer - had bedcurtains), squeaky windows, rattling latches, shuddering shutters, and corners dark as the devil's foot...

Besides, people just like to be scared.

Speaking of which (and part of what sparked this blog), I recently read a ghost story by Dylan Thomas called The Followers.  I can't find a free e-text, but go check out Dylan Thomas' Complete Short Stories, and enjoy a story that starts out perfectly normal, nothing strange going on, as two young lads try to find something to do on a dull, boring, wet night in a city...  I can assure you, it adheres to Mr. James basic rule:  'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'

But it's still not as scary as "The Monkey's Paw":  Keep the lights on.

Happy New Year!

30 December 2015

Good Cop Story, Bad Cop Story

by Robert Lopresti

I read a lot of short mystery stories. I like them, plus they are market research.  And of course I need them to create this and this.

By coincidence,  in the last week I read two tales about tough, world-weary homicide cops.  One was pretty good.   The other was  - meh.  I didn't bother finishing it.  Naturally, I was curious about why one worked, for me, and the other didn't.

I am not going to identify the story I didn't like - what would be the point?  But the story I did enjoy was "Rizzo's Good Cop," by Louis Manfredo. It appears in the December issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story I didn't like is about an obvious murder.  Manfredo's is about a suspicious death. Did the vic jump out the window, fall, or get pushed? 


But that's not the important difference between the stories.  Here is what I concluded about that.

In the other story we are told the cop is weary, that the job is soul-killing, that he's frustrated, that things don't make sense.

In Manfredo's story the two police detectives take beer out of the victim's fridge and help themselves.  Rizzo, our hero, says "We got us a murder here, buddy.  A genuine, twelve-hour-a-day pain in the ass murder."  When a female cop jokingly asks "So whatcha got for me, honey?" Rizzo replies "Thirty years ago, plenty."

You see the point?  Very similar character.  But one story tells.  The other shows. 

It's an old rule of story-telling (uh, story-showing?). And like all such rules, it isn't true every time.  But in this case it makes all the difference to me.


29 December 2015

You Should Never Assume ...

by Barb Goffman

There's a famous episode in the original version of TV's The Odd Couple in which Felix Unger (the late, great Tony Randall) appears as his own attorney in court. Under Felix's questioning, a witness testifies that she assumed something, at which point Felix interrupts her, grabs a blackboard (conveniently sitting right there in the courtroom), and says, "You should never assume because when you ASSUME"--picture him writing the word in all caps on the blackboard--"you make an ass of you and me." Picture him now circling the ass, then the u, then the me. It's a wonderful scene (available on YouTube here) that makes a good point about assumptions. Problem is, people often don't realize when they're making assumptions.
Never ASSUME!

Take the simple moist towelette. You know, the little damp napkin you get in rib joints and other messy places to help you clean up. The towelette comes in a little square paper wrapper. And on the back are instructions: Tear open and use.

How helpful.

Tear open packet and use.
Whoever wrote those instructions assumed you know what the towelette is for and how to use it. Why the writer then figured you needed to be told to actually use the darn thing is beyond me, but what's clear is that an assumption was made. At least this assumption is funny. But assumptions can also be dangerous.

I recall visiting family when my oldest niece (who shall remain nameless here so she doesn't hate me) was twelve. She was going to make her own lunch for the first time. Her mom was proud, said she knew the kid could handle it, and left the room. My niece picked up a can of something, placed it in a bowl, set that bowl in the microwave, closed the door, and was about to turn on the microwave when I screamed, "No! You'll burn the house down." She was quite surprised because the can's instructions had said to put the contents in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for a certain time period. The instruction-writer had assumed my niece would know to open the can and pour the contents into a bowl, not put the can itself inside the microwave. Ah, assumptions.


They also can be a bane of fiction writers. I once wrote a short story in which a character was given a pie and she remarked that she'd surely love it since she adored blueberry pie. A member of my critique group said, "She hasn't cut it open. How can she know it's blueberry?" I realized I had pictured the pie with a lattice crust so the character could see the inside, but that information hadn't made it onto the page. I just assumed the reader knew my intentions. Tsk tsk tsk.

I often see assumptions in the novels and stories I edit for other authors. They know their plots so well, they assume they've told or shown the reader everything necessary for their scenes to make sense. Alas, that's not always the case, which is why it's always good to have an editor or beta reader who can point out when assumptions have weaseled their way in.

But assumptions can also be helpful in stories. We know that people wrongly assume things all the time, so it's believable when characters assume things, too. For instance, in my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February issue of this year's Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, three men are murdered in New Jersey, one dressed as Santa, one as Frosty the Snowman, and one as the Easter Bunny. Assuming the men's costumes were relevant to their deaths, Santa decides Jersey is too dangerous this year; he's not coming for Christmas. That assumption sets the stage for my sleuth (the head of everything magical that happens in NJ) to investigate the murders and try to save Christmas. (Want to read the story? It's on my website. Click here.) 


Assumptions can also be a bad guy's undoing. In a story in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (scheduled for publication in April 2016), an amateur sleuth is able to solve a mystery because the bad guy (or gal) assumes something that turns out not to be true. (I'm editing the anthology, and trust me, you'll want to read it. Great stories.)

Which brings us back to Felix Unger. He says "never assume." But I say assumptions can be helpful--as long as you make them purposely.

Have you read any mysteries with good, purposeful assumptions or bad, unintended ones? I'd love to hear about them below (but be nice!). And I hope you all have a wonderful 2016.


28 December 2015

My Solution to Crazy Days



MY SOLUTION TO CRAZY DAYS

                    by Jan Grape


This year, 2015, somehow got absolutely crazy in December. And I don't have anyone to blame. Let me explain.

In my family this year, I have two birthdays, two college graduations, Christmas and a wedding all in a thirty day period. And just before the wedding, there's one more birthday.

My oldest grandson, Riley Fox, was born on December 20th. And his beautiful lady, Coor Cohen, was born on December 15th. That means birthday presents for both of them. It's just not fair for December babies to not get birthday presents just because they happened to be born in the same month that Santa comes to town. Many families, and I've even done it for Riley before, buying him a little extra present or spending a little more on his Christmas present to make up. But you just know as a little kid they somehow feel cheated. Some families give their December children a half-year party in June or July. It's not too easy to know what to do.

My only granddaughter, Jackie Lee graduated from Texas State University on December 12th. And her fiance, A.J. Vaughn, graduated the same day, also from Texas State, but her ceremony was at 10 in the morning and his was at six in the evening. I'm totally proud of both of them.

Of course, Christmas happened on December 25th. I have three grown children with spouses and five grown grandchildren. That surely means a few presents. And even have nieces and nephews that I want to remember.

My second oldest grandson, Jarred Lee, has a birthday on January 9th. Once more I can't just add a little extra to his Christmas present. Even a small gift seems to be the right thing to do.

On January 17th, my beautiful granddaughter, Jackie is getting married to the love of her life, A.J. Vaughn. Really looking forward to this wedding.

Guess I sound like I'm complaining but I'm really not, just trying to explain how crazy it could be shopping for all these special events and special people.

Except, I have a secret weapon. I give presents of money. Many people think that's horrible. They think you should go out to malls and search for just the right present. Or at least get on the computer and learn to cybershop. But I learned this trick from my bonus mom several years ago...give money. One size fits all and the color is always right.

It works for me and keeps me from going totally insane this time of year. See you in 2016.

27 December 2015

The Long and the Short of it



by Dale C. Andrews
"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
                                                    Lewis Carroll 
                                                    Alice in Wonderland 
EQMM uses stories of almost every length. 2,500-8,000 words is the preferred range, but we occasionally use stories of up to 12,000 words and we feature one or two short novels (up to 20,000 words) each year, although these spaces are usually reserved for established writers. Shorter stories are also considered, including minute mysteries of as little as 250 words.
                                                   Writers’ Guidelines 
                                                   Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 

Charles Dickens
telling it short
        Back in the 1980s I taught legal writing to first year law students at American University. The course involved a series of written assignments, leading up to a legal brief at the end of the semester. Invariably the first question I would get in anticipation of the first written assignment was “how long does it need to be?” My answer was always the same -- as long as it takes to do it right. When the students’ responses were collective eye rolls I would offer this further advice: Think of the assignment as a scroll, not a book. The number of pages is irrelevant. Dickens' A Christmas Carol tells its story in about 90 pages.  Bleak House takes over 640.  

       But, of course, in life pages and words are not irrelevant. In the real world we invariably encounter limiting rules within which the game must be played. Some of these rules are explicit -- every court, for example, sets the maximum word limits for various genre of legal documents. Other rules are implicit, but that does not mean that they can be ignored. So the trick is to tell the story, beginning to end, but with an understanding of the rules of the field in which you are playing. 

       At first blush the extent of that “field” can be deceiving. Let’s say you are writing a short story with an eye toward publication in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. With that in mind, take a look at the Writers’ Guidelines from EQMM set forth above. 2,500 to 8,000 words, with the possibility of 12,000 words? Quite a range, right? But think again. EQMM publishes what averages out to about ten stories in each issue. (That used to be eleven or 12 -- until a few years back when Dell Publications shrunk the magazine from 140-some pages to around 110.) So, in any given year there are now about 120 slots in EQMM, and a like number of slots in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, for which all short story submissions are competing. And don’t forget that if your short story comes in on the longer end of the range you have probably lessened your chances before the story is even reviewed -- publishing a tale in a longer format necessarily means that those “extra pages” have gobbled up the pages that otherwise would be available for other stories. 

       The advent of e-books and e-publications has tempered this a bit, since they are not bound (pun intended) by the restrictions of paper. But even given this, by and large the hardest story to sell has historically been the novella. Clocking in at 8,000 to 40,000 words the novelette and novella are the stepchildren of fiction -- too long to fight for space as a short story, too short to sell as a separately bound volume.

     I know of what I speak here. The first story I ever submitted, "The Book Case," was originally 78 pages long, around 23,500 words. When I sent it in to EQMM I acknowledged in my cover letter to Janet Hutchings that I fully understood that the story was almost certainly un-publishable because of its awkward length, but I thought she might like to see it. I likely was miraculously spared the near certain fate of instant rejection solely by the fact that a story featuring Ellery Queen at the age of 102 solving one last case, landed in sympathetic hands. Janet held the story for a number of months, then sent suggested edits -- radical edits -- that eventually chopped the tale down to around 30 pages and something just under 15,000 words. And even that is too long.  Reportedly "The Book Case" is the longest story ever published by EQMM’s Department of First Stories. 

       Is the answer to all of this to simply write longer -- to aim not for a short story but a full length novel? Well, yes and no. It is certainly true that a novel affords much more space for character development and intricacy of narrative. But even then, there are practical limits that affect the commercial viability of all submissions. Novels run from 70,000 to 90,000 words, generally. (For some mysterious reason Science Fiction novels are “allowed” to run longer!) And while e-publications may be more accommodating to all genres, the standard rule is that most print publishers are wary of submissions that go much beyond these general limits because of the increased printing and distribution costs that are entailed in placing longer works. 

       There is a lot of evidence out there to suggest that many authors share the tendency to “write long.” Stephen King’s fourth novel, The Stand, was originally deemed too long to publish and King, under orders from his publisher, cut the book down by over 150,000 words to a still-long 823 pages when the first edition was published in 1978. These cuts, as King explains in the later full length version of the The Stand, were dictated not by art but by economics. The book was too long to sell for what it would cost to print it. As King explained it: 
The cuts were made at the behest of the accounting department. They toted up production costs, laid these next to the hardcover sales of my previous four book, and decided that a cover price of $12.95 [remember, this was 1978!] was about what the market would bear.
And $12.95 didn’t cover the printing costs of a book running over 1,000 pages. 

       Obviously the cuts grated on King, who subsequently re-issued the novel in 1990 at 1,153 pages. When the longer edition was published I read it with the original version along side, since I was curious as to what was new. Sometimes there were simply new descriptive paragraphs, but there were also entire aspects of the novel that were not present in the 1978 version -- Fran Goldsmith’s family in Maine, the trip through the Eisenhower Tunnel. Which version was better? Clearly the final one. But apparently not enough so to see it published before King had the literary clout to tell his publisher I don’t care what you think, we’re publishing the whole thing! 

       Although The Stand is one of the starkest examples of condensing a work for publication, there is other evidence of authors who were only able to lengthen their works when they had acquired the trump card of established success. J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter volume, The Philosopher’s Stone, contains 76,944 words -- well within the parameters of typical novels. But by the time she had established her financial clout those rules no longer applied. The final Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows, waddles in at a hefty 198,227 words. And a predecessor volume -- The Order of the Phoenix -- weighs in at 257,045 words. Another example? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit contains 95,022 words. But when we get to volume 1 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy we are looking at 177,227. 

Worth the read -- all 944 pages!
       Some writers thumb their literary noses at the idea of standardized lengths even when they have not reached the literary (and financial) stature of King, Rowlings or Tolkien. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is 1,088 pages in paperback. Carl Sandburg in the 1940s wrote a multi-generational novel entitled Remembrance Rock (ever heard of or read that one?) that also was 1,088 pages. And science fiction writer Tad Williams rounded out his Sorrow and Thorn series with To Green Angel Tower -- 1083 pages.  The third volume of Justin Cronin's popular The Passage trilogy, The City of Mirrors, due out next year, reportedly will weigh in at around 1,000 pages. And just recently first-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg published City on Fire -- a 944 page mystery set in New York City in the mid-1970s. (City on Fire was recently named one of the top 50 novels of 2015 by The Washington Post and I, for one, liked it so much that I was sad to reach that final 944th page.) 

       Most of us, though, lack the luxury of being able to ignore word and page constraints. For us the simplest route to success is to play by the rules. Let's end where we started, with short stories and, particularly, mystery short stories. With a great deal of help from Janet Hutchings I learned my lesson with "The Book Case." Unless you are really lucky, long will not sell. To compete for one of those few short story slots that are still out there, the author has to be ruthless with his or her prose. When I write a story I edit many times, trying to get the tale as spare as possible. And then, when I think that I am finally there, I do one more thing. I print out the story and read through it in its entirety looking at each and every word and asking myself whether that word can be eliminated. Surprising, even after heavy editing, lots of words are still candidates for omission. An amazing amount of tightening can be accomplished by doing this. 

       The irony of the process is that if you are eventually successful, and manage to place your story with EQMM or AHMM, your ultimate reward will be that your payment will be calculated -- by the word!

26 December 2015

Blame it on Barbie (in which we cry foul on Hollywood writers for always making the bad girls brunettes)

By Melodie Campbell  (Bad Girl)

It's Christmas week!  Time for a fun post.  How many people will be going to movies over the holidays?  Maybe even something by Disney?  Watch out for those dark haired babes...

Here it is, the fifty-something anniversary of the birth of the Barbie doll, and I’m uncomfortable.  Coincidentally, it is also the fifty-something anniversary of me, and I’ve got to ask: is Barbie having more fun than I am?  Am I missing something by not being blond?

Okay, okay, so this smacks of insecurity.  But who wouldn’t be insecure, being brunette these days?  Did the Prince go looking for a dark-haired Sleeping Beauty?  Did Charming find a gorgeous black-haired scullery maid at the end of the glass slipper?  Face it, scullery types:  if you’re brunette, you’re going to have to find your own prince.

I blame it on Barbie.  Three quatrillion blond Barbies with bunny bodies since 1959, and no brunette bimbo in sight.   It’s enough to make you go for botox.

So what is it about us dark-haired babes?  Why are we constantly being portrayed as witches in Hollywood?  In Westerns, you can tell the bad guys from the good guys by their black hats.  In Disney, you can tell the bad girls by their dark hair.

It’s not only Disney.  The Networks are no better.  Remember Dynasty?  Sweet Linda Evans, with her blond bob.  And then there was scheming Joan Collins…

Witchy women, evil women – all of them brunette, you can bet your peroxide.  It’s a fact; a witchy brunette nearly butchered 101 darling Dalmatians for their spotted fur.  And in The Wizard of OZ, Glinda the good witch was blondie-blond.  The nasty old Witch of the West was as brunette as they come. 

That’s us – nasty.  And no wonder, the way we are always portrayed.

What can you expect, when the best role model we-of-dark-tresses had as young kids was Natasha Fatale (“Whatever you think, Darlink”) of Boris and Natasha fame on Bullwinkle.  Good Ole Bullwinkle.  I used to imagine he had a raging animal crush on the sexy, dark-haired Natasha. And who wouldn’t?  Sexy and savvy.  She was my role model.  It’s taken me years to kick the “Darlink” habit and start pronouncing Gs.

Things got better when Morticia came along.  Now, she was a classy role model.  Granted, my parents got a bit upset when I dyed my confirmation dress black and started writing poetry about graveyards. But more than one male (prince or frog) has mentioned to me that Caroline Jones was the object of many adolescent daydreams.

Well, at least they call us sexy.  In fact, “sultry” was the word Commander Riker used in a Next Generation episode on the holodeck.  “Give me sultry,” he said, and when a blonde vision popped up in the New Orleans jazz bar, “No, she’s got to be brunette.”
Thank you, Commander Riker!

Fast forward to SHERLOCK with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. A man who has no interest in women.  Except for one: THE Woman.  Irene Adler.  In the books by Arthur Conan Doyle, she may have been blond.  In the television show, she is a brunette siren.  And Nemesis for poor Sherlock.

So far we can chalk up nasty, sexy, sultry and bad.  Clever but cruel.  Usually foreign and sneaky.  Throw in green eyes, and you’ve got the classic Hollywood Evil Woman.

Evil, evil, evil.

So be a little careful before you start to criticize this column.  I might put a hex on you. 

Melodie Campbell writes funny books, like the award-winning mob Goddaughter series, starting with The Goddaughter.  She is a natural brunette, so I suggest you buy them.
On sale for $2.25!  Amazon

25 December 2015

All I Want for Christmas Is....

By Art Taylor

A Christmas Day blog post is likely to get lost amidst all the other revelries: family, food, music, presents, and more. Here at the Taylor-Laskowski household, we'll be enjoying all those things—and have already been indulging a couple of early Christmas presents. In lieu of a lengthy post here, how about a photo of a little boy enjoying his new Polar Express train?



Here's a bonus glimpse at a Christmas Eve present that Tara and I have already dived into!


And here's a close-up of one of our favorite ornaments—one that might well be of interest to the mystery-minded readers here as well.



Happy holidays to all—and best wishes for a great start to 2016!

24 December 2015

An Editor's Christmas Gift to Aspiring Authors

by Brian Thornton

Happy Christmas Eve! In honor of the holiday, I offer the aspiring authors among our readership the following interview with my good friend – freelance book editor Jim Thomsen. First, a bit more about Jim:


Jim Thomsen came to book editing from the newspaper world, where he spent twenty-four years as a reporter and a copy editor. After leaving that field in 2010, he founded Desolation Island Editing Services, working primarily with self-publishing novelists and authors with traditional publishing contracts who don't trust the quality of their in-house editing process. Jim specializes in line editing, which bridges attention to issues at the story level with the objective discipline of copy editing. He lives in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he can be found pounding his delete key at the local pubs and coffee shops. 

Let's get to the interview!


Thanks for taking a few moments to be interviewed, Jim. Let's start with the basics: what sorts of editing jobs do you perform, and how do they differ?

I do all levels of editing, from developmental work to proofreading, but have found that line-editing is my wheelhouse and have been moving toward making it my focus the last few years. Line editing isn't well understood. A lot of people think it is the same thing as copy editing, but it is as different as it is necessary. I'll illustrate here: 

Suppose you're an author who has gotten a developmental edit. You've done a massive rewrite based on the dev editor's suggestions. The author may think: "Hey, now I'm ready for copy editing — somebody to straighten out my sentence structure and enforce consistency within and conformity to style, and so forth." 

But, Dear Author, you're really not. You need someone who can do the copy editing while providing a second line of defense on story issues that may not have been entirely resolved in your rewrite. What I do, in addition to all the work a copy editor does, is: 

— Strip away expositional fat
— Root out inconsistencies and implausibilities in storytelling and character (If her blouse was green at the beginning of a scene, why is it white now when she hasn't left the table at the restaurant?)
— Query the author about points of plot or character that don't make complete sense or seem to contradict information earlier given
— Fact-check information (this is where my skeptical-journalist background comes in handy)


That's what I like to do, and that's what I'm good at. 

So, sort of a hybrid editor– someone who embodies the basics of copy editing and developmental editing. Sort of a midwife for the writing process, if you will?

Right. I think of myself as a great two-for-one deal. The key is in making authors see that they need the first part of the two-fer. 

You deal with a lot of first-time authors in your line of work. What sorts of mistakes do you see popping up over and over again in their writing?

1. An inch of action, a mile of exposition. There is no greater hallmark of the author who hasn't learned his craft that the inability to suppress the impulse to put the action on pause after a first few paragraphs —if that — and explain the backstory to everything. The minute you do that, you lose your reader. I'm a fan of writing-craft guru James Scott Bell, who says this repeatedly: "Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanation if you're engaging them in the moment." And, he says, when you do explain, marble it in. A little at a time. Argumentative dialogue is a better vehicle for this than narrative. 

Usually the situation is this: Your story is starting in the wrong place. Or the backstory is actually the story.

2. A failure to maintain tension from sentence to sentence. This kind of goes hand-in-hand with #1, in that the minute you step away from a point-of-view character in conflict with himself and with exterior forces or people, your writing goes slack — and so does the reader's attention. Every single passage must thrum and hum with what James Scott Bell calls "pleasurable uncertainty." If you open with a scene between a husband and wife, or a husband and kids, they'd better have colliding agendas and withheld information. Nobody wants to read about happy people. They want to read about people in life-threatening torment trying desperately to figure out how to be happy by the end. It's amazing how often writers don't realize this or shrink from it.

Got any tips as to how to avoid these rookie mistakes?

A: Be an immersive reader of the authors you admire and the books you find yourself wanting to read over and over. And study the craft. My recommendation is to read James Scott Bell's best guides: WRITE GREAT FICTION: PLOT & STRUCTURE, ELEMENTS OF FICTION: CONFLICT & SUSPENSE, and REVISION AND SELF-EDITING FOR PUBLICATION. I'm less concerned with inspiration than perspiration. Everybody's got great ideas, but fewer people know how to wrangle them and massage them into something a lot of somebodies would want to read. 

What sort of manuscript makes you glad you took the gig? And why?

Just that hum and thrum I described. That pleasurable uncertainty. That sense of professionalism and polish. The acceptance of the discipline of revision, again and again and again, and from an author that not only can accept constrictive criticism but craves it. A touch of artistic spark within well-oiled craft. An original and accessible voice. That sense the author knows that what you leave out is as important as what you put in. I care much, much more about that then whether your sentences are full of nested clauses or whether you use too many adverbs or you have a blind spot for homonyms. I don't fault the author for that. Their job is to tell a story that kicks the world in the ass. The other stuff is my job, and if they've done theirs, I'm more than happy to do mine.

Any last bits of advice? 

I have two favorites, from others smarter than me. One: "All writing is rewriting." In other words, don't inflict what we in the business call "vomit drafts" on an editor. It's a waste of your time and mine. I step in when you've absolutely taken your book as far as you can on your own. The other one is "Dialogue isn't conversation; it's conversation's greatest hits." Conflict-free chitchat dialogue is another common hallmark of the craft-challenged writer.

Okay, that's a wrap. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, pal. Happy Holidays!

23 December 2015

The Dickens Mystery

David Edgerley Gates


It's probably not any secret or surprise that our more familiar Christmas traditions date back to mid-19th century England and the Victorians. Victoria's reign began in 1837; her Saxony-born husband Prince Albert is supposed to have introduced the Christmas tree - a German custom - to Britain. Father Christmas apparently goes back to pagan times, the midwinter solstice, but Santa (a corruption of the Dutch Sinter Klaas, St. Nick) only showed up in the 1800's. The railway and the ha'penny stamp brought about the Christmas card, which dates to 1843, and that same year Dickens published A CHRISTMAS CAROL.


Dickens. Mmmmh, okay. I'm sure we have some differences of opinion, here. Both his critical reputation and his general popularity have gone up and down wildly in the last hundred years, and in fact they ricocheted pretty crazily during his lifetime. Some people admire his mechanics, some people think he's painting by numbers. Some people admire his sentiment, some people consider it treacle. Oscar Wilde remarked that a man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell, and that's hard to improve on. His technical skill is pretty much acknowledged, but then again, as Forster says, all his characters are more or less flat. They have no inner life to accommodate their outward eccentricities, they're simply a collection of gestures, their purpose entirely dramatic.

This isn't by any means a weakness. Quite a few writers ring effective changes on the skin-deep, and Dickens gets a lot of mileage out of his eccentrics. (His most lasting character of any depth is the city of London, too, and its many voices.) A CHRISTMAS CAROL draws its strength from the promise of redemption, and surely the fact that its spirits are familiars. Dickens himself was enormously entertained in the writing of it, and years later, reading it aloud and playing all the parts, for his immediate family or for a paying audience, he relished every cadence and effect. The story's got staying power. Nor do I think it's any real stretch to say Dickens effectively invented our idea of Christmas, or at least embodied it. He wasn't the first guy to write about it, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL wasn't his first shot - or the last, either - but it's the one that sticks to your ribs. And it's bulletproof. You can't fix it because it ain't broke. I was in 5th or 6th grade when I saw an adaption the 8th grade put on, and I was transported by it. Scrooge McDuck, or Alistair Sim. It goes the distance, and it's impervious to harm. That's the test. That it seems both faithful and new, every time.

The 'mystery' of Dickens - if you choose to put it that way, and I will - isn't the unfinished DROOD, or putting his wife out to pasture, in favor of an unsuitable attachment, or the most curious incident of the Staplehurst railway crash, blind chance saving his life. The mystery is his fresh eye. Dickens is not original, in the sense of discovery, but he reimagines the known, turning it back to front. What's different about him, and the difference he makes, is that he has a way of seeing the world, both in detail and in large. He uses, in effect, camera movement. He pulls focus. He approximates the zoom lens, or the dolly shot. Dickens was fascinated by the theater, by all kinds of stage business, tricks of the trade. How did he come by this sensibility, that I'd call cinematic? There's no analog for it, technologically, in his era. And yet Dickens seems so much of his time, a representative figure. I can't account for it. The pleasure is in the writing.


22 December 2015

Have a Holly Jolly Crime Season

by Paul D. Marks

Since Christmas is a couple+ days off and New Years a week or so away, but as we’re in the middle of the holiday season, I thought I’d try to find some appropriate movies and books for the season. And though I wrote this over a week ago it seems that great minds think alike as Eve also did a post on holiday movies. Luckily there’s really not any crossover in our choices.

Mine are appropriate for people who are into crime for whatever demented reasons we are. So, much as I love Miracle on 34th Street, The Shop Around the Corner, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and others—and by the way, that’s my way of getting these non-crime holiday movies that I like mentioned here—the focus here will be on holiday movies/books with a crime element. Though I will exclude horror and stick to mystery and thriller.

So, without further ado:

Movies:




Christmas Holiday – Deanna Durbin is a torch singer in a dive club. There’s violence and insanity. And Southern gents—nasty Southern gents. Prison breaks and Murder. And murder cover-ups. So I ask you, what the hell more do you want in a Christmas movie? Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham of all people. And directed by Robert Siodmak, one of noir’s iconic directors. Maugham and Siodmak, a match made in......Hollyweird.






Comfort & Joy – My wife’s favorite on this list. In fact, she made me add it at gunpoint. A 1984 Scottish movie about a radio DJ who gets stuck in the middle of a feud between rival ice cream trucks. The grisly carnage of melted ice cream on velour upholstery is not for the faint of heart.





Die Hard – There’s a Christmas party happening in the Nakatomi Building in LA (incidentally not too far from where I lived when the real building was going up and I could see its progress every day).  Everybody’s happy! Until some guy named Hans Gruber—you know he’s a bad guy with a name like that—spoils everybody’s fun, taking them all hostage. Luckily, there’s a barefoot Bruce Willis in the head ready to save the day. So Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow—of course, in LA when you say that you might not be talking about condensed water...



Die Hard 2 – “Another basement, another elevator...how can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” asks Bruce Willis’ John McClane in the first of 739 sequels to Die Hard. (Don’t get me wrong, I like ’em...except for that last horrid thing set in Russia, and maybe that’s the real crime here re: the Die Hard movies.) It’s Christmas Eve, Bruce is waiting for his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) at Dulles Airport in DC. Franco Nero arrives around the same time, a South American drug dealer being brought here to stand trial. But the bad guys have other plans for him. Not a creature was stirring, not even a louse, ’cause what they didn’t know was that John Mclane was in the house. So Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!




Holiday Affair – Robert Mitchum gets Janet Leigh fired from her job in a department store. Hilarity ensues. Maybe not really a crime story, but since Mitchum is the cause of Leigh’s losing her job, we’ll call that a crime and let it squeak by. Besides, who’s a bigger iconic noir actor than Mitchum—that’s enough to let it qualify.







Home Alone – Cuter than beans Macaulay Culkin gets left behind by his oblivious family when they go on vacation. Hey, that’s nasty stuff. And there’s burglars (hence crime) in the form of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. And if you’ve seen Goodfellas you know what a nasty SOB Pesci is. So we’re good here for a crime Christmas movie. And it’s directed by Chris Columbus and, if you listen to some people, you know that Mr. Columbus is the cause of all the problems in the New World. Crime, baby!





Ice Harvest – John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Randy Quaid. From a book by Scott Phillips.  Christmas Eve. Wichita, Kansas. A mob lawyer, a pornographer and a mob boss (walk into a bar...). What the hell more do you want in a Christmas movie?






LA Confidential – Hey peeps, on the lowdown, who do you think of when you think of Christmas? Bethlehem? Hell no! Santa Claus, you nuts? James Ellroy of course. It’s Christmas time. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is beating up a wife abuser. The cops are having a Christmas party in the station. They decide to beat up some Mexicans. It’s Bloody Christmas. But keep it quiet, friends, off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush. So what is your valediction, boyo? Kevin Spacey’s is Rollo Tomasi. Mine is just Rolos.



Lady in the Lake – On Christmas Eve, Philip Marlowe wants to publish his mystery stories, but the publisher wants to hire him as a detective instead, can’t imagine why. But we here all know that’s just a way of saying go jump in the lake (and maybe you’ll find the lady in there), we’re not interested, like saying “we love it, but it’s just not right for us at this time” and “good luck with it elsewhere”. Robert Montgomery directs and stars as Philip Marlowe in this experimental (photography-wise) version of Chandler’s book. The subjective cinematography is interesting but wears after a while.





Lady On a Train – Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin again) is on a train heading for New York at Christmas. Reading a mystery book. She looks out the window to see a man in another window getting clomped on the head. But no one will believe her. Think Rear Window on steel wheels. And from there the plot thickens into a nice roux of murder and mystery with Ralph Bellamy, David Bruce, Edward Everett Horton and Dan Duryea. It’s more fun than a barrell full of gunpowder. And anything with Dan Duryea is worth watching. And Deanna’s not too bad either.

Lethal Weapon – Mel Gibson beating up bad guys, doing his Three Stooges Routine, getting drunk and blessing out an LA Sheriff’s deputy with every expletive and racial slur he can think of in his drunken state—oh wait, that last bit was real life. But Lethal takes place during the Christmas season and even has a clip from the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol on a TV in the movie and some Christmas songs. Yup, it qualifies.



Remember the Night – Barbara Stanwyck. Fred MacMurray. Black and white photography. Crime. A 1940s flick. You’re thinking Double Indemnity, aren’t you? Nope! This flick came a few years before. Stanwyck is a shoplifter, arrested right before Christmas. MacMurray is the DA prosecuting her, but he feels sorry for her and takes her home to his family for the holidays. Fun ensues.







And last and maybe least Santa Claus Conquers the Martians – well, the crime here is that this movie exists at all. Though my wife does have fond memories of it from when she was a kid. Go figure kids’ tastes... If you like cheesy sleazy with terrific production values (is my nose growing?) this is the movie for you.






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And now for some favorite movies set during the holiday season, even if they don’t have crimes in them:

Can’t Buy Me Love (Well, it’s partially set during the holiday season and it’s my list so I can do what I want!)
Christmas Story, A
Christmas Carol, A, in its many forms
It’s a Wonderful Life
Miracle on 34th Street – my personal fave, followed by the one below:
Shop Around the Corner 

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I’m sure I’ve left some of your faves out, so make your own damn list and check it twice.


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Novels:

I was going to try to pick out a handful of Christmas murder mysteries. But the list is long and I came across Janet Rudolph’s lists of holiday mysteries. She collected a more complete list than I ever could. So I thought instead of my compiling a few titles, I’d give links to Janet’s comprehensive lists:

2015 Christmas Mystery List/s:

A to D: http://www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-mysteries-authors-d.html
E to H: http://www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-crime-fiction-authors-e-h.html
I to N:  http://www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-mysteries-authors-i-n.html
O to R:  http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-mysteries-authors-o-r.html
S to Z: not yet available


2105 Hanukkah Mystery List:

http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/11/chanukah-crime-fictionhanukkah-mysteries.html


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And my wish list for Santa (’cause I'm pretty sure he reads this blog):


  1. A slot car racing set
  2. Bob Dylan to come out with Volume 2 of his Chronicles autobiography
  3. Mark Lewisohn to come out with Volume 2 of All These Years, his Beatles bio
  4. Rain for California
  5. An Edgar award
  6. Another Shamus award
  7. An Academy Award
  8. A trip to the Amazon
  9. A Macavity Award
  10. An Anthony Award
  11. The Croix de Guerre
  12. The Idi Amin Most Medals Award (take a look at his chest sometime)
  13. Rain for California
  14. My hair back in all its former glory (see pic)
  15. Vintage Marx playsets
  16. Rain for California
  17. A computer that doesn’t drive me nuts
  18. Every noir movie ever made to be available for streaming free
  19. And, of course, World peace, ’cause Miss America’s got nothin’ on me.
  20. And...Rain for California.




AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO EVERYONE!



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And speaking of Christmas, how 'bout picking up a copy of Vortex, White Heat, LA Late @ Night or Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea – hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t invent commercialism at the holidays. Or signing up for my newsletter.



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