17 June 2021

All's Well That Ends in a Story


Since everything that happens could be turned into a crime, every crime can be used again, and everyone is a potential character, or at least part of a character.  And every story has another way it can be told.  (You should hear some of the ones I've been told at the pen.  Or at the laundromat.)

Ripped from the internet:


Well, there's a game that's hard to resist:

Gone With the Wind: Spoiled rich girl pines for married KKK guy.  Marries another guy for spite and 2 others for money.  She keeps the plantation.  (Historical Romance.  Warning:  Contains material that some might find offensive.)
The Fountainhead:  Spoiled rich girl pines for lusty architect, but marries 2 men for their power in order to keep him unsuccessful, because if she can't have what she wants, she'll destroy it.  (Warning:  Contains material so inane that some people have mistaken it for a political manifesto.)  

NOTE:  I'm beginning to see a pattern here...  

SECOND NOTE:  Speaking of political manifestos: 

The Communist Manifesto:  Classic apocalyptic thriller of good vs. evil, in which the proletariat rises up against the evil capitalists in a violent apocalyptic revolution. The resulting dictatorship of the proletariat causes the state, family and religion to wither away and die, and everyone lives freely in an endless paradise on earth.  (Claims scientific basis, but really based on German philosophy.)

NOTES:  Very poor experiential track record. Much easier to read than Das Kapital. Also suffers from what is now the libertarian mindset in that it assumes two "facts" that have never been in evidence when it comes to human beings: (1) that we always act rationally and (2) that we always care about their neighbors. 

Emile, or On Education:  Influential treatise on the education of young children, whose author put each one of his five children into an orphanage. 

1984:  The World State keeps everyone in line in a totalitarian oppression based on constant fear and propaganda.  

Brave New World:  The World State keeps everyone in line through unlimited sex, drugs, and entertainment.  

NOTE:  What is it with these patterns?

And back we go to spoiled rich girls:

The Razor's Edge:  Spoiled rich girl falls for dreamy new age guy, but marries for money.  Later kills his fiancee; is surprised when he doesn't appreciate it. He gets enlightened; she doesn't.

To be fair, there are also a whole list of novels / books / stories / plays / movies about spoiled rich guys:

Eugene OneginAnna Karenina, etc., there's a shoal of Russian characters, all interchangeable.
Adam BedeTess of the d'UrbervillesEast Lynne, and every other Victorian seducer.  
But let's let Tregorin in The Seagull sum it all up for all of them: 

The plot for the short story: a young girl... happy and free, like a gull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom.

The Southern version is different:  from Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury to Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:  A post Civil War Southern gentleman, neurotic, introspective, supposedly intelligent, spends his time whining and drinking, but almost never screwing.  (Which is why his sister / fiancee / childhood sweetheart ends up in bed with the roughest trade she can find.)

On to other things:

Finnegan's Wake:  An Irish wake (in case you don't know, endless drinking & talking) and a resurrection (or maybe not).
NOTE:  It helps if you read it aloud, while drinking Irish whiskey, with an Irish accent and a high pitched voice (like Joyce's, below).  Or you could read Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage, and discover the joys of jacking in as well.  (Look it up.)  


Finnegan's Wake is best known for its polyglot language that includes English, Latin, Gaelic, and some words that he made up himself.  The opening line:  "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs" - can give you the impression that you understand it.  How about this?

"Wold Forrester Farley who, in deesperation of deispiration at the diasporation of his diesparation, was found of the round of the sound of the lound of the Lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphalnabortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk."  

Speaking of interesting words, perhaps invented, the other day a friend of mine mispronounced "speculum" as "spacula".  I replied that a spacula was the offspring of Dracula and a kitchen utensil, which is exactly what a speculum often feels like.  

Ah, vampires:

The Twilight Series:  A handsome vampire likes to play with his food.

As John Franklin once lectured in Laskin, SD, in a hopefully soon to be finished story by yours truly


"Continental European vampires are predators, pure and simple. But the fictional vampires of England and America are like cats:  they play with their food. And only Americans would come up with vampires that not only play with their food, not only fall in love with it, but want to have sex with it.  That and American Pie makes one suspicious of American kitchens."

BLATANT SELF PROMOTION:

My story "Collateral Damage" is in Murderous Ink Press' Crimeucopia: We're All Animals Under the Skin.  Available at Amazon.

And my story "The Sweet Life" will be in the July/August Issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  That's my 30th story in AHMM!  Thank you to the late, great Cathleen Jordan and the current editor, Linda Landrigan!  


16 June 2021

Keeping You in Suspense


 

I was thinking recently about suspense and the fact that many people these days seem to use the terms "suspense fiction" and "mystery fiction" interchangeably.  There is an overlap, but they are not identical.

I think we can all take a swing at defining mystery, but what is suspense fiction, exactly?

Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, famously differentiated between surprise and suspense.  If two men are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off under it, we are surprised.  But if we see the bomb beforehand and hear it ticking as the men sit casually talking about the weather -- that's suspense.

Worldcat defines suspense fiction as "works whose prime purpose is to produce a feeling of frightened anticipation."  While any author of stories or novels wants the reader to feel impelled to keep reading, with suspense fiction that nervous urge is the main - or at least a main - goal.  

As I said, though, not all crime fiction is focused on suspense.  But does all suspense fiction involve crime? 

A few years ago I asked on Facebook and again on the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list for suggestions of great suspense short stories that do not involve crime.  It led to some interesting discussions.  First of all, I received a lot of suggestions that were not short stories: novels, plays, and even a poem.  ("Casey at the Bat" certainly is suspenseful, although it doesn't have that "frightened" aspect Worldcat mentions.) 

But about half of the actual stories that were suggested were subject to arguments.  Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is great suspense fiction, but is it  crime fiction?  Apparently what happens in it is legal in that community.


Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a story of a man sentenced to die for sabotage during a war, but since he is a civilian, does that make it a crime rather than a war story?

Someone argued that Edgar Allan Poe's  "Murders in the Rue Morgue" qualifies and I scoffed that at first.  But I'm damned if the nominator didn't have a point.  By most definitions what occurs in the story is not a crime.*  However, since it unquestionably a detective story I am leaving it off my list.

The biggest category of non-crime suspense story I could find is people-versus-nature, which makes sense.  See, for example, Jack London's "To Build A Fire."  


Another tale in that category is "The Drover's Wife," by the great Australian writer Henry Lawson.  His simple tale involves a ranch woman left alone with her young son, a dog... and, as it turns out, a very large snake.  An Australian actress named Leah Purcell has recently adapted it into a feminist novel, play, and movie, none of which I have yet encountered.

What you see below is my personal compilation of Great Suspense Stories Without Crimes.  Please add your own suggestions.

Bierce, Ambrose - "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

DuMaurier, Daphne - "The Birds."

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins - "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Jackson, Shirley - "The Lottery."

Kinsella, W.P. - "Pius Blindman is Coming Home."

London, Jack - "To Build A Fire."

Lawson, Henry - "The Drover's Wife."

Saki - "The Open Window."

By the way, there was a great radio show called Suspense and Bob and Ray used to mock it with... Anxiety!

* Although I argue otherwise in my short story "The Street of the Dead House."


15 June 2021

Cleveland


    A few years ago, my family and I visited Cleveland. We spent a great day wandering around inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I had a good meat at a nearby bar my wife learned about through an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. If I swing back to Cleveland, I'd like to take a little time and visit the James A. Garfield Memorial at Lake View Cemetery. I've been fascinated by Garfield since I read the biography, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard. 

    The larger point is that while I have visited Cleveland and enjoyed myself, I have not even scratched the surface of the city. I will, therefore, happily defer to anyone who might be in a better position to speak to today's question. What has made Cleveland a hotbed for the development of search and seizure law? 

    On June 10, 1968, the United States Supreme court handed down Terry v. Ohio. The case's facts are straightforward. A Cleveland police officer stopped a man he suspected was about to commit a robbery and patted him down. The officer found a gun. The Supreme Court recognized the right of a police officer, with reasonable suspicion based on his or her training and experience, to detain and frisk a suspect. The stop and frisk was born. 

    The pre-Terry world had two categories of police/citizen contact. A voluntary encounter--an officer has a conversation with a civilian--and an arrest. Terry v. Ohio introduced the concept of a "detention." Consider the consequences. If the police saw a masked man holding a prybar and shining a flashlight outside your house at midnight, the Terry decision is the officer's authority to detain him for an investigation. 

    Consider the consequences. If a misguided police officer wants to harass someone, the Terry decision provides a lower bar for the opportunity. (Chief Justice Warren discussed this issue at the time of the decision.) 

    The Supreme Court gave this round to the police. 

    I can't count the number of cases I've looked at which were some variation of a Terry stop. 

    But Cleveland cases go the other way as well. Mapp v. Ohio was a win for defendants. 

    On May 23rd, 1957, Cleveland police got a tip that a bombing suspect might be at the apartment of Dolly Mapp. The police knocked and asked permission to enter. Mapp refused to admit them without a search warrant. 

    Later, more police returned. They forced their way inside the apartment. The police showed Mapp a piece of paper. She grabbed it and stuffed the "warrant" inside her dress. The police recovered the fake search warrant. The handcuffed Mapp and searched her apartment. They found the suspect, some gambling paraphernalia and a small stack of pornographic books. Mapp claimed an earlier tenant had left the magazines. 

    After Mapp refused to testify at the trial of gambling higher-ups, she was prosecuted for the pornography. She was convicted even though the search warrant was never produced. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed. Although the search warrant's validity was sketchy, the police had not used the kind of force which "shocks the conscience." This holding was in line with existing precedent. 

    The U.S. Supreme Court pivoted. They held that "all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is...inadmissible in state court." 

    There may be other ways to treat police misconduct, civil liability or increased training and supervision. The court, however, held that without the exclusionary rule, the Fourth Amendment's protections would merely be "form words" that would be "valueless and undeserving of mention in a perpetual charter of inestimable human liberties."

    That round to the defendants (Or, perhaps to those who want to be secure in their homes, safe from unreasonable government intrusion.)

    Mapp and Terry will be included on most lists of landmark 4th Amendment cases. Both changed the trajectory of the way police operate in this country. Perhaps it's the water, the mix of Lake Erie with a splash of Cuyahoga River which makes the city ripe for 4th Amendment litigation. Maybe we need a resident to weigh in on this one. This much remains clear. Regardless of where they are set, criminal legal thrillers and police procedurals all carry a little bit of Cleveland around in them. 

    Until next time. 

14 June 2021

Character Twists


It’s fairly common at readings and panels for writers to be asked whether character or plot provides the starting point for their work. Where do you begin? Which motivates your process most? 
 
But here’s a twist on those questions that I personally find more interesting—particularly for short story writers: Is your focus primarily on plot or character at the end of your stories? 
 
 In my essay “The Short Mystery” from the recently released How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook From Mystery Writers of America, I made the following statement: 
 
Writers often (too often?) strive to sneak a plot twist into the final line. The ink was an exotic poison! The money was counterfeit! Those women were twins! But while such reveals can surely offer immediate pleasures, I would argue that character twists are often more effective. A new perspective on a character the reader has gotten to know, a secret desire that complicates motives, an unexpected action that nonetheless seems perfectly in character—these might provide the reader a deeper satisfaction. 
 
Crafting the essay for that new handbook challenged me to think more critically about the principles and strategies guiding my own writing—and to reflect as well on some of the stories I’ve best loved and admired as a reader—all of which led to that paragraph being, from my perspective at least, one of the most important in the essay. So I was grateful when my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti emailed to ask specifically about the idea of a character twist—and to invite me to return to the blog to write about it at a little greater length. (Rob is also a contributor to How to Write a Mystery, I should add—along with another SleuthSayer, Stephen Ross. Even more reasons to check out the book!) 
 
Unfortunately, in the same way that writing the handbook essay helped to clarify things for me, trying to draft this post—several drafts, in fact—has driven home something I hadn’t fully thought about: It is terrifically hard to write about endings and what makes them work. There are two reasons for this. 
 
First, the best endings are integrally related to many aspects of the larger tale—not just plot but character and theme and motif and tone and even small turns of phrase, building on and resonant with that larger design. As Poe wrote, talking about the ideal tale, “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design”—as he called it, the “certain unique or single effect” intended by the story. In order to feel that ultimate effect, a reader needs to have experienced all those other words first. (Three italicized words there, I know—emphasis intended!)
 
The second reason: spoilers! …primarily in terms of “surprises I shouldn’t spoil for the reader” but also in another way. Trying to summarize and explain Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind,” the first story I planned to talk about here, I realized how much I was simplifying and flattening and spoiling at a more basic level the experience of one of my own favorite stories.
 
I wanted to discuss “Red Wind” in part because of Chandler’s own essay “The Simple Art of Murder,”
in which he argues against the “arid formula” of some detective fiction (British and traditional primarily) and complains about that tradition’s characters as “puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility” doing “unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.” Chandler’s plots, of course, took on their own formulas, and some of his characters ended up inhabiting their own one-dimensional unreality, engendering their own kinds of cliches, but I do love so much of what he wrote.
 
The trouble is, “Red Wind” has a fairly complicated plot. As detective John Dalmas himself remarks, “a murder and a mystery woman and a mad killer and a heroic rescue and a police detective framed into making a false report”—and his summary arrives not even halfway through the story. 
 
Whenever I teach the story, I have to reread it carefully, having myself forgotten most of the twists and turns and how they work and why they matter and, honestly, whether I should care. But one key thread of the plot stays with me: a strand of pearls, a gift to a woman named Lola from a lover who’d died in the war, a strand of pearls she has lied about to her husband, to dodge his jealousy. As Lola tells Dalmas: “If it hadn't been for [Stan’s death], I’d be Mrs. Phillips now. Stan gave me the pearls. They cost fifteen thousand dollars, he said once. White pearls, forty-one of them, the largest about a third of an inch across. I don't know how many grains. I never had them appraised or showed them to a jeweler, so I don't know those things. But I loved them on Stan's account. I loved Stan. The way you do just the one time. Can you understand?” 
 
The pearls have been stolen and—skipping big portions of that byzantine plot—Lola needs Dalmas to get them back.
 
…which he does, but unlike Lola, Dalmas recognizes that they’re fakes. 
 
The character twist happens in the wake of that realization—and this is the point at which, in my drafts of this post, I saw how laborious it was to summarize the story, how much my summary undermined what I see as the story’s beauty, how much trying to explain the experience of an ending generally is like trying to explain the punchline of a joke… a move which inevitably ruins the joke.
 
So I’m going to cut the five paragraphs I wrote to summarize and explain the ending, and instead, I’m going to urge you to read the story, which is widely available, and then to leave this assessment instead: Throughout the story, Dalmas has been the prototypical Chandler hero— tough guy, loner, wisecracking, cynical, disillusioned, hardboiled to the core—but in the final scene, he reveals concern and empathy and he gestures toward a moment of grace, preserving Lola’s illusions even as he finds own disillusionment unfortunately confirmed.
 
The twists and turns of “Red Wind”—I struggle to remember those, to keep them straight each reread. But that final scene, the final image of Dalmas by the ocean—that’s a keeper. That’s art.
 
Apologies here, but for the other stories I’m going to mention, I’m taking the same approach—not risking deflating the power of a story by summarizing it and instead talking in more general terms about what stands out. I’ll encourage you to read each and provide links where I can. 
 
Stanley Ellin
Stanley Ellin is another favorite author and another who seems a master of the character twist. His “Moment of Decision” famously stops short of explaining what happens next at a pivotal and potentially life-endangering moment in a bet between the two main characters, but as I explain when I teach it, the story is nonetheless complete—because the focus isn’t on plot but on character. “The Moment of Decision” closes on the moment when the philosophy held so dearly by one of those characters—his massive surety of self, his belief that “for any man with a brain and the courage to use it there is no such thing as a perfect dilemma”—when that belief is irrevocably upended. 
 
Another of Ellin’s great character twists comes in “The Question,” which focuses on a father and son relationship and explores the morality of the death penalty. The father—the narrator—is an “electrocutioner,” a term her prefers to executioner, and his monologues reflects on his work, how he came to this duty, questions of criminality and justice and responsibility, and then his relationship with his son: “The truth was that the only thing that mattered to me was being his friend.” In the final scene of the story, that son asks his father a question about his work: “But you enjoy it, don’t you?”—which seems to be the question of the title, but it’s not. The important and revealing question is the final line of the story, another surprise, another upending, a revelation about the narrator that’s been hinted at throughout the story and then, in the final line, dramatically brought into view. 
 
A couple of years ago, I taught “The Duelist” by David Dean, another fellow SleuthSayer, and it may well be my favorite of Dean’s stories; it originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Here again, trying to summarize the story would inevitability reduce it, shearing away the story’s suspense and its emotion and more. In short, however, it’s the story of a “fearsome marksman,” Captain Horatio Noddy, and of his unlikely challenger, Darius LeClair, a “small, portly stranger” who seems to fumble his way through every encounter and into his own duel with Captain Noddy. The story’s surprises are many—unexpected twists and tensions nearly every step of the way—but it’s only in the final lines that an element of Darius’s character steps to the forefront as a motivation, something that’s been mentioned briefly in earlier scenes but which takes on greater depth, quietly devastating depth, in the final, heartbreaking reveal. (You can hear David Dean read the story at the EQMM podcast—and you should.)
 
My own story “Parallel Play” also deals, in its own way, with a showdown between two people—a mother home alone with her son and the father of a boy who attends the same pre-school playspace. That man has become fixated on the woman and ultimately holds her hostage one rainy afternoon while trying to explain himself to her—explain the connection he feels between them. At the end of the story—spoiler alert—she kills him, but in telling the story I skipped over that scene, skipping ahead to the aftermath, and only returning to the killing in the final lines of the story. I remember a member of my writing group asking why I’d decided to do that—why not just keep the story linear? But my goal there wasn’t to emphasize what happened but rather to explore why it happened, to explore something about that young mother that I had touched on throughout the story, even as I’d tried to keep an aspect of that “something” hidden until the final lines… where I’d hoped to emphasize that hidden-in-plain-sight aspect of character inside the violence of the scene I’d saved for last.
 
In all these cases, I recognize that I’ve been analyzing endings without explaining the endings… but I also hope that I’ve encouraged you to actually read these stories with an eye toward the point I’m trying to make. There are others that jump to mind as possibilities for exploration: Ruth Rendell’s “The Fallen Curtain” and “The New Girlfriend,” for example, and Karin Slaughter’s “The Unremarkable Heart,” just off the top of my head. And I’m sure that others here might add their own to the list—and, in fact, I hope you do. 
 
As you might imagine, I’m always looking for more good stories to read. 
 
Art Taylor is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense. His work has won the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Macavity Awards. He teaches at George Mason University. Find out more at www.arttaylorwriter.com.

13 June 2021

Dr. Josh Trebach and his Tox Murder Mysteries


I usually interview people and write articles, but not today.

First, let me introduce you to Dr. Josh Trebach, an emergency physician and toxicology fellow at NYC. You can follow him @jtrebach on twitter and following him is a treat for anyone interested in the lovely combination of medicine and mystery.

Second, let me explain why I didn’t interview Dr. Trebach. He writes murder mystery threads. They are so perfectly written, that I asked him for permission to put them, largely unedited, in an article.

So, here’s how he introduces his mysteries: Buckle up - it’s tox murder mystery thread.

Without further ado, here are two of his mysteries. 

Tox murder mystery #1.

A 45 year old man is found dead in the orthopedic room of an emergency department. He has no signs of trauma and no past medical history.

What do you think happened?

Clues

  1. The man was hired by the hospital to clean drain pipes blocked by plaster washed down the sink by silly residents. (Stop washing your plaster down the sink! I see you!! STOP DOING IT! It's nasty and gross)
  2. The material used to make the splints was Plaster of Paris. This product is still used today.
  3. The man was using sulfuric acid to clean the drain and dissolve the clogged up Plaster of Paris. I'm a toxicology fellow, not a drain declogging expert, what do you want from me? I don't know why they used that.
  4. What happens to Plaster of Paris when its gunked up in the pipes?  It gets chewed up by bacteria. Under anaerobic conditions, the bacteria can make a nasty, thick (thicc?) calcium sulfide sludge.
  5. Sulfuric acid + Calcium Sulfide = ??? UGHHHHH chemistry.

Yet, the answer is in here. These two combine in the following chemical reaction, giving us our answer.

  CaS + H2SO4 → CaSO4 + H2S  

The culprit: Hydrogen Sulfide gas was formed by the chemical reaction above and it caused the man to die pretty quickly. Perhaps the only thing abnormal on the patient's skin exam was his silver wedding ring that had tarnished after reacting with the gas.

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that classically smells like rotten eggs . It gets inhaled into the body and interferes with oxidative phosphorylation and causes cellular hypoxia. What does this translate into? Rapid unconsciousness and cardiopulmonary arrest.

Hydrogen sulfide is scary. People will die in groups because whenever someone (not wearing PPE) goes to rescue the victim, they become exposed to the gas and then pass out/die… and the cycle continues.In fact, at ~1000ppm, breathing will STOP after just 1-2 breaths.

Treatment: Moving the victim to fresh air and giving oxygen, in addition to good supportive care and respiratory/ventilatory support, is key. Antidotes such as sodium nitrite work by inducing methemoglobinemia which scavenges the hydrogen sulfide.

Tox murder mystery #2.

A 33 year old woman is found dead in a bank vault. She has no signs of trauma and no past medical history.

What do you think happened?

Clues

  1. The woman was a bank employee doing normal bank employee things. Unfortunately, when she went into the bank vault, it locked behind her. Whoopsies.
  2. She waved at the camera. She banged on the doors. She pulled the fire alarm (but nothing happened?). She tried her phone but had no service and couldn't even tweet. Imagine the horror.
  3. She figured she would wait an hour or so until someone else opened the vault… yet, over the course of 30 minutes, the woman slowly dropped to the ground and suffocated to death. What happened? Why did she die so quickly? Let’s learn about asphyxiants!
  4. Asphyxiants cause harm by suffocation. There are two categories of asphyxiants– chemical and simple. Chemical asphyxiants (like hydrogen sulfide) interrupt the body's ability to deliver or utilize oxygen.
  5. Simple asphyxiants displace the oxygen in the air, making it so there's less oxygen around for you and your body. Thus, when you take a deep breath, you get a mouthful of NOT OXYGEN. Your body/mitochondria are like "ew seriously?"… and then you suffocate.
  6. But what does any of this have to do with our case? Well, ask yourself--why is there a fire alarm in a bank vault? Most times when you pull a fire alarm, you trigger a water sprinkler system...but then that would cause the money to get nasty and wet. Gross.
  7. So the fire alarm doesn't trigger the release of water. But how else can you put out a fire? By using a CARBON DIOXIDE-BASED FIRE EXTINGUISHER SYSTEM! By releasing carbon dioxide and displacing the oxygen, the combustion reaction cannot occur and fire is put out!

Unfortunately, this woman sealed her fate the moment the fire alarm was pulled. Carbon dioxide filled the bank vault and she suffocated from this simple asphyxiant. Education about the risks with these extinguishers is key– these are preventable deaths.

Simple asphyxiants are everywhere. Virtually every gas (except oxygen) can act as a simple asphyxiant– the dose makes the poison. There are even cases of people dying after being in a room with a bunch of dry ice (sublimation reaction leads to lots of carbon dioxide).

Treatment: Get away from the simple asphyxiant. Get to oxygen. This seems remarkably simple, but unfortunately, can be very challenging in some situations (like when you are trapped in a bank vault).

12 June 2021

Walk It Off


A few years ago, a semi-prominent literary journal rejected a story I'd submitted. Nothing unusual there, either my rejection by semi-prominent literary journals or my wince when the email arrived. Rejection stings. You walk it off. Several months later, the journal apologetically emailed again and, citing submission manager software issues, wanted to be very clear that my story had been rejected. Right, as if the first rejection and subsequent non-appearance of my piece hadn't dialed me in.

You walk off a two-fer the hard way. 

The journal meant well, of course. And actually, I don't remember which story wears this badge. This spring, I was restoring backup files onto a new laptop after its predecessor met a laminate floor at speed. A cat was involved. This cat. She knows what she did. Anyway, I was restoring my Outlook file, and here was a rejection letter folder, an entire archive of every submission gone down in flames. Why the hell was I holding onto that mojo? What if Marie Kondo found this out? 

Delete.

I've been writing short stories for ten-ish years. I'm not a prolific submitter because I'm not a prolific writer, but ten years is sample size enough. I've been form-rejected and non-responsed. I've gotten emphatically fast rejections and rare gems with improvement feedback. Every one needs that moment where you grit past it. The skin thickens. The savvy grows. There are tons of great writers submitting, way more than elite market slots. I learn that intellectually, but writing isn't purely intellectual. I walk things off.

It's how this world spins. Look, I'm currently open for acceptances, but a certain submission onus is on me. Rejections, then, have a major silver lining, once understood as part of the process. Processes not involving cats can be influenced. On some level, controlled. As in, rejection letters--and even better, rejections avoided through honest pre-assessment--are growth checkpoints. 

Wikipedia
Question 1: Was the story in fact ready to submit? 

Once, after a rejection from a darn competitive anthology, I discovered what I'd submitted had editing notes still in the manuscript. Yikes. If ever a piece deserved to get rejected and then re-rejected by surprise attack, here it was. 

Root cause: I'd somehow screwed up final version file names. The clean version, as formatted precisely to specs, shot me its j'accuse from the hard drive. Only time this has ever happened, but the process gap had wasted my time and worse, an editor's. You can bet I added checks to my elaborate submission ritual.

Question 2: Is the story any good? 

Okay, a reject. It's been walked off. But it's just possible, isn't it, that what I submitted wasn't a stroke of literary brilliance soon awash in laurels? Yes. Yes, it is. 

From Kenner!
(by way of Pinterest) 

It's also possible I did my job. That I put a strong effort together which simply got outmuscled by something better. Tip of the hat. Or my piece didn't gel with a particular editor. Maybe the story needed more time before it should've gone out. Deadlines happen. Maybe I would change a minor this or that, but time waits for no writer. If I'm proud enough of where a version stands, off it goes before a window closes. If back comes the rejection, I walk that off, more and more happily. I mean, it's not like Catzilla demolished my laptop, right? Here are fine story bones free to find a better form. I'll have at those manuscripts again and with fresh perspective. Since 2013, I've gotten 10 stories into AHMM (1 forthcoming) and 5 into Mystery Weekly (counting their upcoming anthology). Earlier, easy-baked versions of these stories racked up 29 rejections elsewhere. 

Question 3: How Sure Am I About Question 3?

I'm a trained finance guy. I keep spreadsheets. With numbers on them. One number is what I used to call a hit rate. That is, of the stuff I write, how many pieces have legs enough that I'll sweat the sweat and bleed the blood necessary for publication quality. 

In those ten-ish years, there are 81 short stories that I admit to writing (a handful of unpublished wrecks have been disowned). 35 have been published or are awaiting publication. Another 6 are new prospects for tidying up. That leaves the other 40 having a sit-in on my hard drive. 

A troublesome 40. Some feel as strong and stronger than the published stuff. Some, well, I don't want to talk about it. But most are tweeners, a possible salvage job with effort. Maybe, but how realistic is that salvage? How much effort would it take versus, I don't know, writing another story? Ten years of rejects is teaching me cruel honesty in my true hit rate, as time-delimited. 


Example: I wrote a flash piece last summer. Started it around 9am. Around noon I understood this thing had flaws. By early afternoon, those flaws were better described as a dumpster fire. Even Ann Lamott would've cringed and said this was no first draft to chase. By dinner, I finished it and filed it away forever in some subfolder oubliette. Hopefully, the cat got it.

Second example: In 2018, I wrote a piece that, to this damned day, I think might be the most darkly funny thing I've done. Its rejection history suggests otherwise. One editor thought it was a traditional horror piece. I've got nothing against horror, mind you, but it's not a genre I reach much, let alone understand the story markets. I'd already misread my own piece and its real fit. 

Sorry, story. Trap door time.

Hey, at least it won't make me walk off another double rejection.

11 June 2021

Writing Soundtrack


 I wrote a few weeks back about being on a jazz kick. It's what I listen to while I work in the morning, when I drive Uber, and sometimes when I write. In fact, on Sunday mornings, I have the Morning Jazz playlist on while everyone else is asleep. Yes, I'm that guy, the one who gets up early even on Sundays.

But what is good music for writing?

In all honesty, it depends on the writer. This came up on the Liminal Fiction scifi group about a week ago. What do we listen to when we write? The answers were all over the place. Some want absolutely no sound whatsoever. Others want ambient or classical, something unobtrusive. Jazz fits that bill when I also want something quiet and in the background. (And then my curated jazz playlist includes Herbie Hancock's "RockIt" and a couple of selections from Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell. Not exactly quiet jazz.)

This being a primarily science fiction and fantasy group, it did not surprise me that many of those responding liked soundtracks. Not playlists of classic and obscure tunes like Cruella. More like Marvel, Star Trek, or Apollo 13. This is definitely mood music, a concept I truly understand. I wrote Second Hand Goods and Bad Religion with a lot of Metallica and Alice in Chains as Nick was a very angry man in those stories.

But when I wrote Northcoast Shakedown all those years ago, I channeled a lot of blues and blues rock. Some of this came from an author friend giving me two Rory Gallagher CD's. It was also a time when most of us in the crime community, even some cozy writers, fell head over heels for the music of Tom Waits. So, Northcoast and a lot of the short stories I wrote in the 2000 had an earthy feel to them, like someone was in the background playing wailing blues solos or wooden acoustic. 

These days, I write first thing in the morning. I have about two hours before I have to help my wife start her day and make my way downstairs to the office. I work at home. During breaks I give myself to write, I play jazz in the morning and vinyl in the afternoon. The vinyl ranges from Sinatra to the Beatles to AC/DC. 

For me, music is brain juice. I write well enough in silence, but a lot of that has to do with the two hours I spend at the beginning of the day. I also read then. But when full time in the office was a thing, I would go to Starbucks on my lunch break. It had music, coffee, and best of all, no coworkers. (Sorry, coworkers, I love ya, but I really need to put our shared day job aside and reboot.)

So what do you listen to when you write? Do you listen to anything? Anyone listening to the sounds of cicadas as they get words in? (Spoiler alert: I'm not. My ears hurt.)