19 August 2022

Filling the Blank Walls in My Life


One of the joys of genre fiction is that it reliably generates cool art. While writers are probably best known for staring at the blank page, we occasionally struggle with blank walls as well. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed seeing how writers decorate their offices and living spaces with enlarged, framed images of the covers of their books, anthologies to which they’ve contributed, and magazine covers sporting a mention of their name.

I want to discuss another source of art that many of us have never considered. I need to step back slightly in time to 2012, shortly after I’d sold my first story to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Back then, I had Google alerts set to ping me anytime someone reviewed one of my books. (I have since ceased the practice. At the time I was obsessed with collecting any mention of my titles and immediately bringing them to the attention of my publishers, so they could be sure to get in their requisite number of daily yawns.)

Imagine my surprise to learn one morning that one Tom Pokinko blogged about reading and enjoying my AHMM story, “Button Man.” This struck me as weird, since the story hadn’t been published yet. Turns out, Mr. Pokinko, then based in Ottawa, was an artist commissioned by AHMM to illustrate the story. He posted a “pencil” sketch of the image he intended to create, and later posted the final “pen and ink” drawing. (You’ll learn in a second the meaning of these quote marks .)

“Button Man” (AHMM, March 2013) was a historical set in the late 1950s in New York’s Garment District. It was fun to see how Mr. Pokinko illustrated rolling racks of clothing and period dress that brought the scene to life.


Copyright © Tom Pokinko

Five years later, my wife and I had moved to a new house. Our office was larger than the previous one we’d shared. Finding myself staring at a fresh set of blank walls, I suddenly thought of Tom’s drawing. I wrote and asked if he would be willing to sell me the “original” drawing—that is, if he still had it and had no further use for it.

Tom gently informed me that there was no original drawing to speak of, since he (and most artists working today) create digital images, which they can more easily edit and transmit to their art directors. He offered the next best thing: a high-quality digital print on acid-free paper and archival inks that will not fade over time. He would matte the image, and sign it prior to shipping.

His only advice was to stick closely to the size of the image as it had run in the magazine. Any larger, and we’d sacrifice print resolution. Digest-size magazine pages appear stubby, but the images that run on them are necessarily designed to be somewhat tall and thin to stay out of the gutter and margins. We settled on a 8 1/2 x 11-inch print, fitted to an 11 x 17-inch matte. That’s a fairly standard frame size, by the way, which held down costs on my end.

A few years later, the cycle repeated itself. AHMM hired illustrator Tim Foley to create an image for my Sherlockian story, “A Respectable Lady” (AHMM, July/August 2017 ). If you’re a regular reader of the magazine, you will recognize Mr. Foley’s cross-hatched style immediately. He’s a longtime contributor to many publications who is over-the-moon proud of his AHMM work, which has allowed him to illustrate the work of everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Rob Lopresti! Mr. Foley maintains a running tally of all his AHMM pieces on the website, and is trying to amass a hard copy collection of all issues in which his work appeared. (That’s where you come in, author! See below for details.) I had a sense of déjà vu when I contacted Mr. Foley. He was happy to sell me a signed digital print, and offered the same advice on sizing I had heard from Mr. Pokinko. In less than a month, after a visit to his local copy shop, I had another piece for the office wall.


Copyright © Tim Foley

I enjoy collecting art this way because, in a sense, the pieces were custom-made for me, or at least for whichever story of mine they illustrate. In the process, I learned that the magazine sends artists a copy of the story, which they read to conceive their image. Predictably, Dell Magazines are not high-paying illustrator’s markets, so artists are usually delighted to re-sell existing work at a reasonable price to the writer who inspired it. (Think of it as the artistic equivalent of story reprints.) In total, I spent $170 acquiring the two pieces.

If you’re thinking of acquiring AHMM or EQMM art, look for the credit line as it appears under the published image. Chances are, the artist can be easily contacted via their website.

I have not made a careful study of this, but it appears that not all digests commission art for stories. In some cases, they simply download images from stock agencies. I’ve also learned that it’s worth asking yourself if you enjoy the image in question before contacting the artist. There’s one AHMM picture that will never appear on my wall. If you don’t love it (or even like it), you’re probably better off continuing to stare at that blank wall until something desirable comes your way.

* * * 

Help out an artist! Tim Foley wants to locate paper copies of all the AHMM issues that have featured his work. If you’re like me, you probably have more copies on your shelves than you know what to do with. Tim’s list is here; the dates of the missing issues are indicated in BOLD. Contact him if you have a copy you can spare. You will probably also discover that he illustrated some of your stories well!


See you in three weeks with yet another story about mysterious art!


Joe
josephdagnese.com

18 August 2022

The Pastry War


 Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Strong nation seizes on a historically unremarkable event as an excuse for a war declaration on a weaker nation, with the actual intent of bullying the weaker nation into agreeing to a political/economic settlement advantageous to the strong nation.

"Sure," you say. "History is rife with these sorts of examples. Take the Opium wars between Great Britain and China, as just one such example."

Good example, however, the one I'll be writing about during this week's turn with the blog took place in the Western Hemisphere.

"Well," I hear you say, "The United States intervened throughout the Caribbean islands, Central and South America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

I'm thinking of one such intervention that took place further north and west. And earlier.

"Oh," you think. "Mexico. The Mexican-American War?"

Mexico is definitely involved, but this was even earlier.

And the inciting event, according to the bully nation in this instance, was the vandalism of a pastry shop. If we're thinking in stereotypes, which county do you think most likely to get all worked up over pastry?

You read right. Pastry.

Stuff like this.

Now I hear what you're thinking? Can't be, right? Which country has elevated the making of pastry into high art? Why, France, of course.

Yep. We're definitely talking about France. The simple (and by "simple," I mean, "In no way, shape or form, 'Complete.'") answer is that the French government actually started a shooting war over a pastry shop.

A French pastry shop.

Obviously not the French pastry chef in question.

Owned and operated by a French citizen.

In a nice suburb of Mexico City.

Here's a quick overview of the rest of the story: after Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the forces which had ousted the Spanish failed to unite behind any one leader for long, and quickly turned on each other. Thus the 1820s and 1830s in Mexico tended to be violent, unsettled times. One of the many results of this state of affairs was the frequent looting of locally owned businesses.

Usually these business owners had little recourse in such situations. Crime was rampant, the central government hopelessly corrupt and weakened by factionalism, and in no position to either crack down on rioters and looters, political or otherwise, or to make meaningful compensation to those whose businesses suffered as a result of these frequent outbursts of public violence.

One such victim of one such riot was a French citizen whose family name has come down to us, unaccompanied by a first name. This "Monsieur Remontel" cited an 1828 riot in the fashionable "Parian Marketplace," which occupied a bustling corner of the tony Mexico City suburb of Tacubaya, at that time a getaway playground for Mexico's richest where they could escape the heat and dust of neighboring Mexico City.

In Monsieur Remontel's complaint requesting compensation from the Mexican government for damage done to his pastry shop during the Parian Marketplace Riot, he was quick to point that the rioters who trashed his shop were in fact Mexican Army officers in uniform. And only had these officers destroyed Remontel's property, they had eaten ALL of the unfortunate man's pastries!

Remontel's shop was valued at roughly 1,000 pesos. He insisted on being compensated to the tune of 60,000 pesos.

Not surprisingly Remontel's efforts went exactly nowhere with the Mexican government, and so he turned in frustration to the French government. He submitted the same outlandish number (60,000 pesos) to the government of King Louis-Philippe. And in this, Remontel had company. Plenty of French citizens had advanced claims against the Mexican government in the years since 1821.

So the French started throwing their weight around. Their ambassador got laughed out of the Mexican legislature when he presented his government's demands for compensation. French newspapers took up the drum beat demanding satisfaction, and Remontel's little pastry shop captured the country's imagination. In no time at all the French navy was blockading Mexico's busiest port, Vera Cruz.

Of course there was more to the French aggression than merely seeking reparations. France wanted economic concessions.

During the years since Mexico won independence, the French had built a robust trade with the country, coming in third behind only the United States and Great Britain. Unlike the other two, though the French still paid taxes on both imports and exports moving through Mexico's ports.

During the next year the French navy seized dozens of merchant vessels attempting to leave or enter Vera Cruz, bombarded and eventually took the massive fort defending the harbor, and did immense damage to the already teetering Mexican economy. Add in that the war the French termed the Guerre des Pâtisseries and the Mexicans called the Guerra de los pasteles gave the eternally troublesome General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (of "Alamo" infamy) the opportunity to get back into the national spotlight, losing a leg in battle with the French, and giving him a platform to make more mischief in pursuit of his never-waning ambition.

In 1839 the British (who, along with the Americans were losing money because of the on-going French blockade) succeeded in negotiating an end to the hostilities. In exchange for an end to the blockade, Mexico agreed to compensate French citizens (including the much aggrieved Remontel) to the tune of 600,000 pesos, and to lower taxes on French trade.

With the ink still dry on the treaty, the Mexican government once again fell, and the one that replaced it reneged on the promised payment, as did every succeeding government for the next two decades.

With the United States consumed by its own civil war, the French saw an opportunity to collect on this war debt, and used it as a pretext to invade Mexico again, this time conquering the country and installing an Austrian nobleman as the puppet "emperor" of Mexico. This "empire" lasted (at considerable expense to the French government) until the recovered United States threatened an invasion in support of the ousted Mexican government in 1867, and the French withdrew, with little to show for their second intervention in Mexico.

And on top of all of that, Monsieur Remontel never saw a single peso of his much-longed for compensation.

And that's it for me this time. See you in two weeks!

17 August 2022

Getting Motivated



In detective stories - that section of the mystery world where someone is actually trying to solve a crime - the sleuths often spend some pages pondering the motives of the suspects.  Why would the nanny want to shoot the chiropodist?

This means, of course, that the author has to think about these topics as well.  But not just for the bad guys.  As playwright David Mamet said: In every scene every character has to want something.

So let's talk about the motives of the protagonist, which in our example is the character trying to solve the crime.  Why is she doing that?  Several possibilities come to mind:

* Money.  Private eyes are generally in it for the Benjamins.  So are cops, right?

* Justice.  Our hero is determined to bring the bad guy to court.

* Vengeance. The bad guy killed our hero's partner/mother/cat.  (Not cat!  Readers will scream if you harm an animal!)

* Curiosity/Nosiness/Boredom.  The amateur sleuth is on the case.

* Love/Friendship.  Your sweetie is accused of the crime or is danger from the baddie. 

* Ego.  See how smart I am?

* Self-preservation.  The theme that launched a dozen Hitchcock movies:  Our hero is accused of the crime so she has to figure out whodunit to save her own skin.

Those are the main ones I can think of.  Feel free to add more.   

You may be thinking: Hey, a character might be motivated by more than one of these.  Very observant of you.  As I have written here before, it is naive to think that any person, real or fictional, has only one motive.

This subject has been on my mind because of a story I have in the current issue of Mystery Magazine.  The protagonist of "Kill and Cure" is trying to find out who killed a college student.  He is doing so on behalf of the young man's mother.

Ah, so he's doing it for Money.  Well, not exactly.  He isn't getting paid.  We'll get back to that.

Is his client seeking Justice?  Nope.  She actually wants our hero to kill the man who killed her son.  So her motive is Vengeance. 

But what's in it for the protagonist?  Well, it turns out he's dying and his only chance of survival is getting into a medical trial that the victim's mother is running.  And she will only let him in if he discovers the murderer and kills him.  Oh, did I mention that he is a professional assassin?

So his motive is Self-preservation.  But, of course, things get more complicated...

 It may seem like I am giving away the whole story line.  Trust me, I'm not.  This is just the premise of "Kill and Cure."  I hope it gives you a, uh, motive to read it.


 


16 August 2022

Finding the Sweet Spot Between Overexplaining and Underexplaining


I read two mysteries in the past week that I enjoyed very much. One was a cozy, the other sort of a historical (it involved time travel). The juxtaposition of reading them back-to-back brought a writing question to the fore: How do you find the balance between not wanting to spoon-feed the reader key facts and not wanting to leave them confused?

In one of these books, as the sleuth put the clues together and figured out whodunit, she laid out her thought process. Fact A led to fact B, which led to fact C. Consequently, the sleuth knew, Character X was the killer. I reread the section multiple times. I agreed about facts A, B, and C, but how--I wondered--had the sleuth jumped from fact C to knowing whodunit? While I had correctly guessed the killer, I hadn't been sure of why this character had committed murder, and reading this part of the book didn't enlighten me. Ultimately, I realized there was a key fact, D, which hadn't been mentioned while the sleuth was figuring things out. The author had left room for the reader to guess about fact D so the reader could draw her own connections between the facts and the killer's identity.

In the other book, the sleuth not only talked about facts A, B, and C. She talked about facts D, E, F, and G, drilling down, showcasing her thought process. By the time she realized who the killer was, there was no way the reader would have any question how she came to that conclusion. The author had left a roadmap that would have made Rand McNally proud.

Image by rawpixel.com

Which author's approach was the right one? Trick question! They both were right. Some authors simply like to give readers more room to draw their own conclusions than others do. There's nothing wrong with either way of doing things.

Of course, not all readers would agree, and that's the rub.

I've read reviews where readers complained about plot holes because the author, like in my first example above, didn't explain how the sleuth came to a certain conclusion. I've also read reviews where readers complained because they didn't like how the author spelled all the details out, as if the author didn't trust the readers to be smart enough to draw their own conclusions.

What's a poor author to do? Seems you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

The problem is that some readers are more literal than others. They need or want the facts to be spelled out because, without them, these readers won't see how the sleuth reached her conclusions and might think you have a plot hole. These readers don't want to have to work so hard while relaxing with a book.

Other readers are more intuitive and feel patronized if an author explains or (from these readers' perspective) overexplains things. For these readers, part of the fun of a puzzle mystery is being given the room to figure things out for themselves, and when that fun is denied them, they become aggravated.

This isn't to put readers in either group down. I can be pretty literal myself and often encourage clients to explain things a bit more, helping the reader to connect the dots. Yet there certainly are times when I read a book and think, we know, we know, get on with it. Every reader has their own tolerance for how much explanation they like and need. The challenge for authors is to satisfy readers who are more literal-minded while at the same time satisfying readers who enjoy making connections. Satisfy everyone, no matter where they fall on the reading spectrum!

Image by rawpixel.com
No problem, right? Just give readers enough breadcrumbs to lead them to the solution, but not so many that the pacing is negatively affected.

You're cursing at me under your breath, aren't you? I get it. It's easy to say, not so easy to do. But here's my suggestion for finding that sweet spot: First, figure out what your natural inclination is. Are you more literal-minded or more intuitive? Do you tend to overexplain or underexplain? Then, once you know which way you tend to lean, make sure you have a beta reader or critique partner or editor who leans the other way. 

An author whose natural inclination is to assume the reader will make logical jumps would be well served by a more literal-minded editor who can point out where there are gaps in the sleuth's thought process. In contrast, an author whose natural inclination is to spell out every little detail would probably benefit from a reader who is good at making connections and who can highlight where the author explained so much that the writing began to drag. Between the two of you, you hopefully will find a good middle ground so your literal-minded readers won't feel lost, yet your intuitive readers will still feel challenged.

Good luck!

15 August 2022

What I've Learned Since Then (It's a Start)


Okay, in our last episode, I discussed some of the mistakes I made trying to publish a novel I first conceived in 1972. It changed radically between then and 1980, when I submitted the third complete revision as my sixth-year project at Wesleyan and my advisor encouraged me to send it to publishers… again.

Night Moves manuscript

I gained about a dozen more rejections. Soon after the last one arrived, I became heavily involved in community theater for the next twenty-plus years. After 1981, I wrote no fiction until 2003, when I retired from teaching and our theater lost its performance space the same week.

While the theater searched for a new location, I looked at that novel again. For the first time, I took it seriously and read books on writing and marketing fiction. In May 2004, I attended several excellent workshops at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. I even sold some stories that grew from writing prompts in those sessions. And between 2003 and 2007, I wrote four or five more novels, none of which sold, but which kept getting better.

I sent those novels out with a proper query and synopsis (finally, right?). Books that would eventually become Blood on the Tracks, Cherry Bomb, and Who Wrote the Book of Death? gathered 210 rejections among them while I learned more about plotting, pacing, and selling. I set Blood in Detroit because of a chance meeting with a classmate at my high school reunion, and I changed everything except the name of the female protagonist (Megan Traine) several times between 2003 and 2008 because of feedback buried in the 115 rejections.

Cherry Bomb started as Good Morning Little School Girl, a sequel to Blood, but the first half of the story was an incoherent mess. Years later, I moved it to Connecticut and the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious trafficking area, and it worked much better as a Zach Barnes story.

My bound copy of the project.
The theater used it as a prop in
Bell, Book & Candle, hence the
pentagram (not closed)

By then I'd learned enough about plot and pace to see that the biggest problem with Patchwork Guilt, the name I'd used on the grad school project (I don't remember the other titles before that one) was pace. The story covered most of a school year in chronological order, but the inciting incident didn't occur until January. With nothing at stake, the first half of the book was literary quicksand. I thought resequencing the scenes would solve most of the book's problems, so I broke the MS down as the other WIP taught me to do: I made each scene into a separate word file so I could change the order more easily.

I published Who Wrote the Book of Death? with a small local publisher, but knew none of my other novels would fly with them. They had a maximum word limit of 70K, and I hated their cover and edit. I explored CreateSpace and talked to a theater colleague who designed posters for several plays I directed. He also designed book covers, so I self-published heavily-revised versions of the rejected novels, learning to format more effectively through trial and error. 

SJ Rozan's Absent Friends showed me how to resequence Patchwork Guilt, and I figured out that giving the date or time of each scene made things clear. I don't remember when I changed the title to Postcards of the Hanging, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It's a line from Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row," from his 1965 LP Highway 61 Revisited, and the story takes place in 1964-65. It's about the scandal and public outrage over a teacher accused of rape. I had originally been inspired by Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust and Lucas Beauchamp, but I was also thinking of a northern version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I graduated from high school in 1965, so the protagonist was a year younger than me. The early drafts changed geography and details from a real scandal my senior year, but the vibe and attitudes were right. Years later, I submitted the finished book to a contest where the judge praised my research and historical accuracy. Well, it wasn't history when I wrote the first draft.

I sent out carefully revised synopses and got another break when an agent told me she didn't handle YA books. I'd never considered the book YA even though the narrator/protagonist was 16, but I saw how my synopsis gave that impression. I needed to fix that.

Hooked by Les Edgerton discusses how to write effective openings, and it gave me the solution. I wrote a prologue and an epilogue that served as a frame story for the rest of the book. When agents or editors asked for the first 25 pages or first few chapters, they got the prologue, then the "real" story, which now opened with the teacher being accused of rape in January.

I think I wrote the prologue and epilogue in 2011. That same year, I self-published The Whammer Jammers. My theater colleague designed the cover and Chris Knopf generously blurbed it. Less than two months later, I republished Who Wrote the Book of Death? with a new cover and a new edit that removed the 800-plus commas my former publisher added. Other revised rejects followed: Cherry Bomb, now moved to Connecticut, Run Straight Down, and eventually Blood on the Tracks, the original Detroit novel under its fourth title and with a protagonist who was no longer a grown-up Robbie Daniels, the protagonist of Postcards.

By then, I understood more about plotting, pacing, and description. Following Rozan's example, I added dates to the individual scenes and threaded flashbacks through the present action, layering in the clues and character work. 

My biggest surprise was that I rewrote almost nothing in the 30-year-old text. I added the prologue and epilogue, and I changed the order of the scenes, but I only added one transition scene (about three paragraphs), cut some of the original opening exposition, and expanded two scenes late in the book. That's all. I don't think I even rewrote any of the dialogue. I took that as a sign that I'd been on the right track all those years before.

I self-published the book in 2014, 42 years after starting the first draft.

I still have a lot to learn, but I think I finally got that one right.

14 August 2022

Fingerprints: Not So Elementary


Can a character in a mystery and crime novel have no fingerprints or altered fingerprints? This would make for a fascinating plot twist.

Fingerprints are used to identify people because each one is unique. Formed during pregnancy, fingerprints remain the same throughout life.

Fingerprints are also usually a durable identifier. In one famous case, a gangster in the 1930s, John Dillinger, tried to destroy his fingerprints by burning his fingertips with fire and acid. In the end, his skin regrew and his fingerprints were still intact.

However, details on fingerprints can be temporally changed

Some jobs, such as bricklayers, dishwashers and those who work with chemicals such as calcium oxide, may lose some details in their fingerprints but the ridges grow back once these activities stop.

Some medical conditions can impact fingerprints temporarily. Skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis may cause temporary changes to the fingerprints, but upon healing the fingerprints will return to their original pattern.

Other medical conditions can leave people with no fingerprints at all.

A genetic disorder, adermatoglyphia, causes a person to have no fingerprints. Scleroderma is a disease associated with changes in skin elasticity, hardness, and thickness and eventually make a patient with scleroderma a “fingerprintless person”.

Some people treated for breast or colon cancer with the chemotherapy drug capecitabine may have a side effect called “hand-foot syndrome,” which sometimes can lead to loss of fingerprints.

fingerprint

What about a criminal who wants to change their fingerprints? One interesting option is surgical, “using plastic surgery (changing the skin completely, causing change in pattern – portions of skin are removed from a finger and grafted back in different positions, like rotation or “Z” cuts, transplantations of an area from other parts of the body like other fingers, palms, toes, soles.”

There’s an interesting case proving this actually works. A woman used this surgical method, “skin from her thumbs and index fingers were reportedly removed and then grafted on to the ends of fingers on the opposite hand. As a result, Rong's identity was not detected when she re-entered Japan illegally.”

Maybe we are entering a whole new era where we now have the knowledge that fingerprints aren’t as reliable as they once were, can even be changed and we now could have new plots twists.

13 August 2022

There Will Be Math (or, a Few Story Statistics)


2010, Aix-en-Provence, and I'm standing at a velvet rope in the Musée Granet. The rope is the only thing between me and a manual inspection of any painting in the gallery. I could have a right good art appreciation lesson before the guards swarmed. I stayed lawful and legit, but what if someone hadn't? What exactly would swarm? A story idea was born, and it started me on an unexpected path.

My first crime story. My first good crime story submitted, anyway. And my first acceptance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.. There are ten more AHMM acceptances since that museum caper and 29 others out or headed your way. If by now you're thinking there will be math in this post, you're right.

That first AHMM (2014)

In all honesty, I didn't start out writing stories with any count goal in mind.

I was drafting an ambitiously doomed novel and hoping for credits to pad my queries. A fine plan, other than the doomed novel part.

The novel is shelved. The stories still trickle out a few per year. A person learns a few things on a path like that. The stories get better, I hope, or the author gets smarter. Talent is a factor in acceptance, but I'm being honest here. Luck gets involved. Tons of talented writers are out there writing tons of great stories. Not all of those catch an editor's eye.

Which mean it's important to share the wisdom. Math-style. Buckle up.

WORD COUNT IS NO ACCIDENT

We're a crime blog, so I'll filter the acceptances down to crime stories. I prefer to read printed stuff, so I'll filter again down to crime stories run or contracted to run in a print edition. I'll filter a third time for paying markets plus a conference anthology with charity proceeds. I want to see y'all printed and paid.

A print edition means print production costs. These constraints should inform a submission strategy. Precious few crime markets--or any markets--take novellas and novelletes these days. AHMM is one of those, to include the annual Black Orchid Award. Still, magazines have only so much room for magnum opus novellas. And for every long story, a print market needs multiple shorter stories to balance the issue. Not too short. Flash stories can create inverse balance issues. I go for the middle ground.

Oh, that Goldilocks zone, 3500 to 4500 words. Convert that word count to time, and you have a ten-ish minute, single-sitting read--nicely suited for my kind of character build and high note.

The average length in this group is 4,200 words. The eleven AHMM stories average 4,500, mostly off two longer stories featuring the same character. The eight in other markets average 3,800. Long pieces wear me out (more below), and shorter pieces are hard for me to nail. I don't spend much time on either.

READING IS CARING

Often, what goes without saying should be said most. Print markets have sample issues, either the current one or a back issue. Read them. Reading a market is essential to submission prep, or else I don't give the submission much chance. Respect-wise, markets can and should have editorial tastes. Not to sense a given market's taste is to be unprepared. As for AHMM, Managing Editor Linda Landrigan recently gave a lengthy interview to Jane Cleland here that is gold for anyone wanting to submit.

I'm molasses-in-winter slow at getting a piece ready. Six to nine months is warp speed. For AHMM, I'm usually in the eighteen month range before I feel confident enough to submit. Why rush something when AHMM prints six editions each year?

The numbers in red above are earlier manuscript versions floated to anthologies. These calls can be great motivators to get a draft finished. Deadlines are a thing with anthologies, whether I'm ready ready or not. Those early rejects did me a huge solid. A version of the French caper story went first to a MWA call. Rejection provided a chance to slow down and rewrite my AHMM breakthrough story.

STORIES OF DISTINCTION

Here's the thing about story variety: You have to be a varietal. At least bring a twist on something not done to death. If you're playing it tried and true, other someones have already bombarded these markets with a similar idea. I mean, distinctiveness is to break through that crowd. By side-stepping it.

Avoid–avoid–the first or easiest thoughts. People have been writing stories for a lo-ong time. That first idea has been done. But five or eight or so ideas down a brainstorming list is a prime nugget.

Inching out on a limb involves risk. Checking the mail has risk, too. Paper cuts. Wasp stings. Meteors. I say go for it.

"Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson" (AHMM, 2015) is about twenty bucks in counterfeit. Twenty bucks. The difference maker is how the main character can't let an easily recoverable loss go. I've used hot chicken as an unhealthy religious experience, lottery audits as a stardom dream, and the surprisingly real phenomenon of walnut-jacking.

Another path to distinctiveness is approach, or how a story is told. Who takes center stage, how events are structured, what's the emphasis and slant. This path is inexhaustible. I'm character-centric. Premise follows, yin and yang. Plot and structure are the scaffolding. "The Cumberland Package" has a dark moment scene where main character literally disassociates for 412 words

. 412. In a short story. But whenever in angst I deleted that dark moment, the story fell apart. I kept the fugue, as to go down swinging. The story was a Derringer finalist.

Art theft and organized crime in the South of France isn't exactly original ground. To Catch a Thief got there first, among others. My thief in that French caper story had a turn of phrase, though, an Eeyore outlook on life but committed to the craft, like if Dortmunder had gone upscale and failed at that, too.

Speaking of Westlake, there's the dying art of style. I invest in a voice, broadly and for each story. I'm not afraid to use this for hijinks. But style is another risk. Style adds editing work. Maddening work, and style can backfire with an editor. AHMM's famed openness feeds my luck--but so does the energy put into each submission.

A MILLION CRIMES IN THE CITY

Murder in deft hands makes for awesome whodunnits.

Clues, red herrings, evidence, science, suspects. That's a lot. In that sense, I'm lazy. And also realistic. Writing a clever mystery isn't what draws me to the chair. Character is. Other writers bring more passion and skill to the whodunnit. I'll read those A-gamers' work and write in my wheelhouse.

This faux body count might surprise. Nine. That's on purpose. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, murder is a means to another end, or it's a desperate reaction to something way out of hand. I start with the small change--relationship friction turned toxic, street robbery, drug muling, art capers that should've stayed clean--and see how out of hand things should get. If the character has to solve a crime, fine. Sometimes, I shake my lazy bones loose and write a mystery.

I've tried hard to learn from success and failure. I know first person is more my thing. Crawling inside a main character's head and way of speaking rewards my approach. I've learned to keep the vocabulary simple. A thesaurus is a great place to find the wrong words. And I track story stats so there's an objective way to keep improving. Okay, also I'm compulsive. But mainly the objectivity thing.

IN ALL

  • Pros submit to pro markets. To compete, write and submit professionally.
  • Don't rush a piece. It only gets one chance with a dream market. Be surer than sure you're researched and ready--ready ready--to click send.
  • Don't settle on an easy plot or premise. If you've read it before, so has the editor. 
  • When in doubt, mid-range length is your friend.
  • Read what you love. Write where your skills are.

If breaking in to these markets is your dream, keep dreaming. Don't be discouraged. Be intentional. Put in the work. I'm Exhibit A that there comes a moment. Mine was at that French velvet rope and wondering who might hop it.