31 August 2013

Marketing 101

by John M. Floyd

A quick explanation: my title implies that this is an instructional piece, but it's not. My plan today is to tell you a little about how I approach marketing my writing, and to--more importantly--ask you what your approach is. So this is actually sort of a fishing expedition. Besides, I once heard some good advice about teaching and mentoring. I was told that good instructors don't say "This is how you do it"; good instructors say "This is how I do it," and then let the student take it from there. Not everything works the same way for everybody.

Another qualification: this is a discussion about marketing short stories, not novels. Most of us here at SleuthSayers have written both, but my expertise (if I have any at all, which I often doubt) is in the area of shorts rather than longs.

Given those clarifications, here are a few random notes on the topic of selling what you've written.

Beating the bushes

In the old days I usually located markets for my stories via the Novel & Short Story Writers Market, an outstanding print reference by Writers Digest Books, published each fall. I still buy every new edition, and I still look at it from time to time, but most of my scouting is now done via the Internet. I either consult a list like the ones at ralan.com or my friend Sandra Seamans's blog, or I Google phrases like "short fiction markets" or "short mystery markets" and see what turns up. If a particular site looks promising, I find a hotbutton called "submission guidelines" or "writer's guidelines" and I'm in business.

Question: How do you go about finding markets for your stories?

The latest and greatest

I usually submit my new mystery stories to one of four places, first. They are The Strand Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Woman's World. How do I decide which? That's usually based on either content or length, or both. The Strand prefers stories of between 2000 and 6000 words; EQMM will consider stories up to 12K; AHMM will also take submissions of up to 12K, and seems to be more receptive than EQ to occasional stories with paranormal elements; and WW wants 700-word mysteries featuring a "solve-it-yourself" interactive format.

Another good print (and paying) market is Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and I've sold several mysteries to a Colorado publication called Prairie Times (which also pays). Online markets (e-zines) include Over My Dead Body, Mysterical-E, Kings River Life, and Orchard Press Mysteries. OMDB is a paying market, Myst-E and KRL are not, and I'm not sure about OPM. There are certainly others I haven't mentioned--if any of you have favorite markets for mysteries, I'd like to hear about them.

The other two possibilities for short stories are anthologies and collections. The already-mentioned ralan.com features a number of current anthologies, and there are many more that are associated with organizations, writers' groups, charities, etc. (Anthologies also often seek reprints, which can be handy.) Collections are, well, collections--of one author's stories rather than those of a group of writers.

Submission accomplished

The way you submit a fiction manuscript is determined from the writer's guidelines for that market, and it's usually done in one of three ways:

Snailmail. It seems a little out-of-place in this day and age, but some short story markets, including AHMM, still require submissions via regular mail, along with the cover letters and postage and envelopes that have to accompany them. A disadvantage of this method, besides the time and expense, is that responses sometimes seem to take longer.

Submission via the publication's website. A growing number of markets (EQMM is one) now allow fiction subs via an online "form." You just (1) enter your name and the title of your story, (2) type a cover letter into the appropriate box, (3) browse and select the computer file containing your manuscript, and (4) click SUBMIT. A good thing about website submissions is that you can then check the status of your manuscript (received, rejected, accepted) online, at any time.

E-mail. Sending your stories this way involves one of two approaches: (1) attaching the manuscript or (2) copy/pasting the text of the story into the body of the e-mail. The first is the easier--you just type your cover letter into the e-mail and then attach the manuscript's file. NOTE: When e-mailing a story I always use the word "submission" somewhere in the subject line, whether I'm told to or not.

The care and feeding of editors

There are a few rules of thumb on this subject, and I think they're mostly just common sense:

- Don't contact editors via phone. Stick to snailmail or e-mail.
- Don't pester them unnecessarily.
- Don't include anything in your cover letter that's not relevant.
- Don't staple your manuscript.
- Don't tell them where your manuscript has been rejected.
- Don't use uncommon fonts (Courier and Times New Roman seem to be the standards).
- Don't put a copyright notice on your manuscript.
- Don't use a font size of less than 12-point.
- Don't divulge your Social Security number until/unless your story's accepted.

By the way, if an editor asks me to change something in my story, I do it. I mean, why not? When I try to later sell it someplace as a reprint, I can always change the story right back to the way I had it originally. Question: What's your take on editorial changes, requested or otherwise?

The Hints & Tips file

A few pointers, for anyone who might find them useful:

To prevent spacing and formatting errors when copy/pasting a manuscript into the body of an e-mail: (1) take out any special characters like italics--you can substitute an underscore before and after the text to indicate italics, (2) single-space your story with no indentions and with double-spacing between paragraphs, (3) save the story as a .txt file, (4) close the file, (5) open the file again--it will now be in Courier 10-point font--and (6) copy/paste the newly formatted manuscript into your e-mail after the cover letter. To be absolutely certain everything looks right, you can always e-mail it to yourself first.

If I want to snailmail multiple stories to the same market in separate mailings, I usually print the story's title in pencil on an inside flap of its SASE. That way, if I get a rejection letter that doesn't mention the title of the rejected story (many of them don't), I can look inside the SASE flap and see which story it was.

I don't use an editor's first name until after he or she contacts me and either (1) uses his or her first name or (2) addresses me by my first name. After that, we're on a more casual basis forever, but until that time it's Dear Mr. Smith or Dear Ms. Jones. And if I don't yet know for sure if an editor is male or female, I play it safe and use the full name in salutations: Dear Pat Jones, Dear Lee Smith.

I used to fold shorter stories (less than five pages, say) in thirds and mail them in #10 business envelopes, but lately I've been submitting my snailmailed manuscripts flat and paper-clipped in a 9 x 12 envelope, no matter what the length. (For stories of more than 25 pages I use a butterfly clip instead.) Editors have told me they hate folded manuscripts, and--believe me--I want to make reading my stories as easy for them as possible.

More observations, more questions

- E-mailed submissions and online plug-it-into-the-box-at-the-website submissions are easy and economical, but I suspect that those processes (because they're easy) have led to a higher number of submissions to those publications. Even though snailmailed subs are a lot of trouble (and expensive, if you do enough of them), there are those writers who say it might actually be an advantage, since it probably means less competition. Once again, though, this isn't a decision the writer makes--it's usually dictated by the publication.

- Would you ever consider collecting your unpublished stories into a book? So far I have chosen not to. Only two of my 130 stories collected in my four books were originals--the rest were previously published. Not only did that allow me to get double duty (and double payment, I suppose) out of those stories, my publisher said he felt more comfortable with that approach because it was less of a financial risk for him: each of the stories had already been "vetted" and accepted someplace by at least one editor.

- I don't think writers should ever pay anything to anyone--an agent, publisher, editor, anybody--to consider or publish their work. I don't pay reading fees or even contest entry fees. Maybe I'm just cheap, but there are plenty of editors and publishers out there who'll pay you for what you write--I can't see doing it the other way around. What are your views on this?

- I've not yet waded very deeply into the e-book/e-story marketplace. I have a couple of stories at Untreed Reads (a mystery and a western), I had twenty or so stories at Amazon Shorts a few years ago, and my most recent two books are available via Kindle, but otherwise I've concentrated more on print markets and--to a lesser degree--e-zines. I'd love to hear the opinions of those who have tested the e-waters.

- I'm sort of middle-of-the-road on simultaneous submissions. I recognize that the best way to get published faster is to send the same story to different markets at the same time, but I also know I don't want the (admittedly remote) possibility of two places accepting first rights to one of my stories. That not only puts egg on your face, it can put a black mark beside your name forever, on some editor's list--and all these editors know each other, by the way. I've heard some writers and writing teachers say you should ignore the "no simultaneous submissions" request/demand that many pubs put in their guidelines because the editors expect you to simultaneously submit anyway, but I think it's a little risky. No one wants to suddenly find out he has two dates for the dance and then have to tell one of them, "Sorry, but I've already asked this other girl, and . . ." How do you feel about this issue?

In closing . . .

I should point out that, despite all my efforts to write well and market wisely, my rejections probably still outnumber my acceptances. Sad but true. But it's also true that it doesn't bother me a lot. I just try to send out more submissions and write more stories. Today I'll be at a booksigning in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and that's a good thing, storywise--I always seem to meet people at signings who later become quirky fictional characters.

Proof of my persistence: A few days ago I submitted eight mysteries and one sci-fi story to six different markets. And this month I've sold new stories to both Woman's World and The Saturday Evening Post. The main thing is, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

When someone tells me there's a lot of attrition among writers, I just say "Then don't get attritted."

I'm pedalling as fast as I can.

30 August 2013

Street Psyche, Part 2

To continue my last post on state of mind or psy-ops while working undercover, here's a tale from the streets of getting into an opponent's head and staying alive. Remember, what you're doing out there may not be real, but you're portraying it as reality so the other side believes it.
Snake (his street name) was a state agent working a large river town known for its criminal past. That evening, he was setting up to do a buy-bust on a cocaine dealer we'll call Sammy Di Luna, a real hardcore street criminal. Snake needed a money man to guard his flash roll, so he invited me in on the deal. All I would probably have to do was sit in the car across the street from the dealer's house until the go-down. Surveillance was made up of local police detectives I hadn't worked with before this deal. They were supposed to set up a couple of blocks away as back up. Everything ready, Snake went into the house, while I waited in the undercover car with my 9mm automatic in one hand and a .357 revolver in the other. All was well.

Ten minutes later, Snake was back to the car. He told me that Di Luna had called a runner to bring a pound of coke to the back door at the side of the house. When the back porch light went off, then Snake was supposed to go back in the house to see what he was buying. He also warned me that standing just inside the kitchen door frame, Di Luna had an AR-15 with the sears filed down so it would operate as an automatic assault rifle. Stuff like that is always comforting to know.

Pretty soon, we observed someone appear at the side door, then leave. The back porch light went off. Snake went inside to see the goods. I got on the concealed radio and warned the surveillance cops about the altered rifle. But then those guys were already aware of Di Luna's rep for violence.

When Snake returned to the car, he said the coke was there. Time for the go-down. I got on the radio and told surveillance to hit the house. In the meantime, to get a head start, Snake and I got out of the car. Di Luna now showed at his front window watching us, so I flashed the money over the top of the vehicle to allay any suspicions on his part. Apparently satisfied, Di Luna left the window and closed the front curtains. Snake and I headed across the sidewalk, up the cement steps, across the short front lawn and onto the front porch.

Surveillance arrived and took up positions. Turned out, they weren't keen on hitting houses containing violent felons. They positioned themselves behind trees and cement objects well away from the door, leaving Snake and I as sole occupants of the porch to make any entry. Not the type of gung-ho cops I was used to working with. By this time, Di Luna looked out the window to see what was taking so long to give him his money. He quickly locked his front door.

It wasn't any time to delay entry and give Di Luna opportunity to flush the coke. Snake held the screen door open while I started kicking at the door and hollering FEDERAL AGENTS at the top of my lungs. Damn door was solid oak. Took several kicks to crack it open. By now, Di Luna had retreated to the back of the house, probably where his rifle was located. I finally stepped into his living room with a big pistol in each hand and bellowed that he was under arrest. Don't know if his mind got frozen by all the loud noises, he thought the situation out and decided to go with the live-to-fight-another-day philosophy or if he firmly believed he had suddenly met someone as crazy as he was even though he clearly had superior firepower. (I picked the last.) In any case, his head slowly appeared around the kitchen doorway. He peered into the living room, then his empty hands showed. Shaking his head, he surrendered.

Snake and I cuffed him, took him down to the police station and into the processing room, a small enclosure with one door and no windows. After fingerprinting Di Luna, Snake let me know he wanted to have a conversation with the prisoner to make sure his informant didn't get harmed later. I stepped back and those two had their conversation, but it didn't go well. Snake looked at me, so I figured to give it a try. Using short words and direct speech, I made it plain that the informant was to come to no harm. Di Luna smiled and said, "Yeah, well what about...?" and he brought up the name of an informant used by the city cops in this same river town against a motorcycle gang president, but who was killed later in a different state while working for another agency. In his own sly way, Di Luna was trying to tell us something we didn't want to hear.

I tried a different tack. Using the speech that Don Corleone used in the Godfather to let his enemies know that as part of the truce he was bringing his youngest son home and would not accept any accidents, even lightning or being shot by a cop, I told Di Luna we too weren't accepting anything that even looked like an accident. Same reply from this hard core criminal still being sly.

Last resort, I took off my long-sleeve denim shirt and bullet proof vest. (In those days, the vests did not protect the wearer from rifle bullets, so it wouldn't have done me much good in Di Luna's living room anyway.) Then I handed my pistol to Snake and asked him to wait outside. At that point, Di Luna let us both know he understood what we were saying. This time he was serious, the slyness was gone.

How far would I have gone? Not far. We weren't and aren't allowed to beat up prisoners. Worst case scenario, I'd have had to come up with some kind of snappy retort that movie heroes have screenwriters for and then found an excuse for not following through on an implied threat. What the hell, I had two things going for me on the way in. One, people in the past have told me I have hard eyes. It's a look that unsettles some people, criminals included. Two, I'd already bluffed out Di Luna in his own living room. Figured I had the mental edge to do it one more time. Call it a second round of psy-ops. I'm not a tough guy, I merely projected that image once upon a time period in my life.

There's probably some of you out there wondering now if maybe Sammy Di Luna wasn't as tough as his reputation led others to believe and that's why he backed down. Maybe he was hard on the outside and all soft jelly when it came to actual blood letting. So, here's the rest of the story as I got it from detectives years later.

Shortly after Di Luna served his time and got out, he and his old partner in the cocaine trade were playing pool in a dirt floor bar in that same river town. They had a few beers and walked out into the parking lot with Di Luna's arm around the shoulders of his old friend. Turned out Di Luna had been holding a grudge for his old partner having brought Snake into the fold even though his partner was not the informant. Whipping out a long-blade folding knife, Di Luna cut his old partner's throat and bleed him out in the parking lot.

Hey, on second thought, maybe I just got lucky on using a quick psy-ops concept on that crazy guy in his own living room, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time. In any case, the winners get to tell the story in their own way and go home at night. The losers, well they usually get to walk around muttering to themselves in a confined space.

Ride easy until next time.

29 August 2013

You Can't Make It Up

Okay, let's take a break from doom and gloom and look at some crazies.  I was looking through an old folder of newspaper clippings - come on, admit it, we've all got them - and I found the following:

"Walking in a Winter Wonderland"
[Or, how to stand out in a crowd.]
Maryland - The middle of summer may be a good time to buy a snowblower — but not a good time to steal one.  A man who must have forgotten what season it was stole a truck with a large motorized snowblower on the back in Maryland during last week’s 100-degree-plus heat wave.  Cops caught the alleged crook because he was the only one riding around town with a snowblower.

Man Insists He Has a Permit for the Meth 
[From the Department of That's what they all say...] 
Arizona - Police say that a man scaring people at a gas station was carrying several bags of meth with him at the time.  The man insisted to police that he had a permit for all that meth, according to court documents obtained by New Times Believe it or not, there's no such thing as a meth permit.

Stroke Rids Man of Lifelong Stutter, Improves Personality
[Or, do not try this at home.]
Japan - Since childhood, he had stuttered severely, and was regarded by family and friends as "serious, hard-grained and taciturn".  But when he returned to consciousness a few days following the stroke, he was a different man.  He no longer stuttered, nor has he since, and his personality has become cheerful, talkative, easygoing and to some extent, childlike, the doctor said. 

Only Witness in Robbery Trial Dies on the Stand
Oklahoma City - a 67-year-old laundromat employee who had taken the witness stand to describe an armed robbery suffered a heart attack before she could identify her assailant, and died despite the prosecutor's attempts to save her with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  "I asked her how she felt when the guy pointed the gun at her, and the expression on her face kind of changed.  Her arms dropped to her side...  I can't believe she survived an armed robbery, and then this."  But the state plans to continue with its case against the accused, who stole $77. 

Sheriff Waives Hearing in Sheep Case
[This is my favorite news clipping of all time.]
Van Buren, MO. - The sheriff of Dyer County, Tenn., and another man waived a preliminary hearing Monday in the theft of a sheep found in their motel room.  [Yes, you read that correctly.]  The Sheriff and another man, both of Dyersburg, Tenn., were to be arraigned Sept. 10 in Carter County Circuit Court on a charge of felony theft.  Both were free on $10,000 bond each.  The prosecuting attorney said that the sheep, stolen from the farm of Associate Circuit Judge Hedspath [Yes, you read that correctly, too] had been shot and skinned.  Part of the carcass was thrown out a window of the motel room as officers knocked on the door.  [But at least it wasn't being used for immoral purposes.]

28 August 2013

Soldier Boy

Those of you who follow my posts on SleuthSayers know I have a low opinion of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, but you may be surprised that my take on Bradley Manning is quite different. (Two other high-profile courts-martial rendered verdicts this past week, but the three cases have little to do with each other.)

The first question is what Manning did. Essentially, he delivered a core dump of classified materials to WikiLeaks. Two questions follow on the first. 1) Did he compromise sources and methods? Without a doubt. 2) Did he put the lives of soldiers in combat at risk? The answer appears to be more or less no, but it's a hedged bet.

The most serious offense he was charged with was Aiding the Enemy, but the trial judge acquitted. He was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, and drew a thirty-five-year sentence, convicted on twenty counts, in all.

People unfamiliar with the UCMJ---the Universal Code of Military Justice---don't realize how inflexible it is, by design. Its obvious purpose is to enforce discipline in the ranks, both officers and enlisted. But it guarantees equal treatment, and protects the rights of the accused. In other words, the UCMJ is meant to guard against the imposition of arbitrary punishment. You can no longer be flogged for minor infractions, on the word of your captain alone, as was the rule during the Age of Sail. The power of the officers over you is structured, and not a matter of their personal whim. This is known formally as Chain of Command. Are there abuses of the system? Of course. The military is a hierarchal organization, with the strengths and weaknesses that entails, and highly formal. Duty is an obligation, freely chosen, but not a bargaining chip.

My own experience of the UCMJ was an Article 15, for Failure to Repair, and it cost me a loss in rank I had to claw back. To explain the vocabulary: an Article 15 is non-judicial punishment, administered by your commanding officer; Failure to Repair means not reporting to a required formation, which is a slap on the wrist compared to Dereliction of Duty; and, for the record, I admitted my guilt. In cases like this, the commanding officer has a certain amount of latitude, and can impose a fine, or reduction in rank, and even revoke your security clearance, but you won't go to jail. That takes a court-martial.

What does this have to do with Manning? For one thing, my job was much the same as his, battlefield analysis, even if my war was cold (the Russians and the Warsaw Pact) and his was hot. We worked under similar restrictions, and had access to secure documents and databases. Both of us, presumably, understood the consequences of the unauthorized release of restricted materials. In fact, it remains an article of faith among almost everybody I know who's worked in the spook trade that your lips are forever sealed.

Much has been made of Manning's unsuitability for the military, generally, and more specifically for his job description, handling sensitive stuff. Given his behavior patterns, he should have had his clearance pulled, and been relieved. Why didn't this happen? Because they needed warm bodies, and as manifestly unfit for duty as Manning so obviously was, they kept him at this station. The kid was desperately out of his element. His gender-identity issues have surfaced since, but even at the time, he was trapped in a hostile workplace environment, and almost certainly bullied. He was queer in the old-fashioned sense, meaning the odd guy out, an easy target for ridicule. The larger point is, that he tried going through channels. He made his unhappiness known, and although his First Sergeant did try to help him find his feet, nobody bit the bullet and recommended his immediate discharge, not only for Manning's own good, but for the success of the overall mission.

This isn't to excuse, in any way, Manning's criminal acts. He violated basic military discipline, and he broke the cardinal rule of the intelligence world. (The question of whether his airing those secrets on the Internet serves some greater good is moot, or at least not the purpose of this post. In the event, I don't buy that defense.) My real disappointment isn't with Manning, anyway. What's instructive about this whole, sorry enterprise is that the chain of command failed a soldier. Square peg in a round hole, Manning was still one of their own, and they betrayed his trust. There's more than enough guilt to go around.

27 August 2013

The Hardy Boys Mystery

       On a fall night in 1956 The Mickey Mouse Club, which back then ran on ABC every night between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., premiered a new serial adventure titled The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure. My life-long love of mysteries began that night.

      I was so awed by Disney’s television adaptation of the first Hardy Boys mystery, originally published as The Tower Treasure, that I immediately went out in search of Hardy Boys books that I could devour on my own. Naturally, the first place I tried was the library. But when I summoned up the courage to ask the librarian where I might find the library's collection of Hardy Boy books she looked aghast.  Her eyes widened, she snorted  and then, looking down over the tops of those half spectacles, informed me that the Hardy Boys series was simply not the sort of book that one found in a library.

       This was astonishing to me at seven. Why would the library refuse to stock an entire series of books?  Particularly a popular series written for kids?  But no matter.  I was on a mission. I persevered. 

Stix, Baer and Fuller, Clayton Missouri
circa 1956
"Second floor, Books."
       The neighborhood bookstore also did not carry the Hardy Boys, and I sensed in them, too, a degree of disdain when I asked about the books. But this was the 1950s, a time when department stores were truly stores with departments. So the next time I went shopping with my parents at the neighborhood Stix, Baer and Fuller department store (a St. Louis fixture back then) I headed straight for the book department. And there they were. Row after row of hardcover Hardy Boy mysteries, each for sale for $1.00. I immediately purchased the first three books in the series, exhausting my saved allowance funds, even though my mother warned me that, at age 7, I probably would have an extremely difficult time reading them.

     I didn't. As soon as we got home I wedged myself into the corner of the living room sofa and was lost in the marvelous adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy.  I think that it was those books that really taught me the joy of reading for pleasure.

       For the next several years Hardy Boy mysteries topped every one of my birthday and Christmas wish lists. But as I got deeper into the series things began to bother me. How could Frank and Joe remain, respectively, 16 and 15 years old in each mystery? And who was this “Franklin W. Dixon” who had written the marvelous series, beginning way back in the 1920s? 

       As time passed, like every other fan of the Hardy Boys, I began to grow up. My taste for mysteries had been whetted and more and more my collection of Hardy Boy books sat gathering dust on the bottom shelf of the bookcase as I turned to Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen and others. But I never forgot about Frank and Joe, and if asked, I would readily volunteer that my thirst for detective fiction, in fact my appetite for reading fiction, began with, and was fueled by, their exploits. 

       If the theme of my last article, on pseudonyms, was John Steinbeck’s admonition that “we can’t start over,” the theme of this one must be Thomas Wolfe’s “you can’t go home again.” Have any of you tried to go back, as adults, and re-read a Hardy Boys book? Or a Nancy Drew mystery? It is only when I attempted this myself that I finally understood the librarian's aghast look as she stared down at me over her half specs when I was seven. No two ways about it, the Hardy Boys are repositories of atrocious writing. 

       Back in 1998 Gene Weingarten, staff writer for The Washington Post (and a very funny man) reached the same conclusion in a wonderful article chronicling his own adult-rediscovery of the works of Franklin W. Dixon: 
Now, through my bifocals, I again confronted The Missing Chums [which is the fourth volume of the series]. Here is how it begins:
 "You certainly ought to have a dandy trip."
"I'll say we will, Frank! We sure wish you could come along!"
Frank Hardy grinned ruefully and shook his head. . . .
 "Just think of it!" said Chet Morton, the other speaker. "A whole week motorboating along the coast. We're the lucky boys, eh Biff?"
"You bet we're lucky!"
"It won't be the same without the Hardy Boys," returned Chet.
Dispiritedly, I leafed through other volumes. They all read the same. The dialogue is as wooden as an Eberhard Faber, the characters as thin as a sneer, the plots as forced as a laugh at the boss's joke, the style as overwrought as this sentence. Adjectives are flogged to within an inch of their lives: "Frank was electrified with astonishment." Drama is milked dry, until the teat is sore and bleeding: "The Hardy boys were tense with a realization of their peril." Seventeen words seldom suffice when 71 will do:
"Mrs. Hardy viewed their passion for detective work with considerable apprehension, preferring that they plan to go to a university and direct their energies toward entering one of the professions; but the success of the lads had been so marked in the cases on which they had been engaged that she had by now almost resigned herself to seeing them destined for careers as private detectives when they should grow older."
Physical descriptions are so perfunctory that the characters practically disappear. In 15 volumes we learn little more than this about 16-year-old Frank: He is dark-haired. And this about 15-year-old Joe: He is blond.
These may be the worst books ever written. 
       Gene Weingarten captures perfectly the surprise and disappointment that a returning reader encounters when cherished childhood memories are found to have been premised not on greatness but on hack mediocrity.  His reaction (and my own) to discovering, as an adult, the shortcomings of the mystery series we loved as children is not uncommon. It is, in fact, almost universal among those who attempt to “go home again” to those Franklin W. Dixon volumes that highlighted our childhood. 

       When Benjamin Hoff, bestselling author of The Tao of Pooh re-read the Hardy Boys as an adult he felt compelled, like Pygmalion, to try to set things right. Mr. Hoff went so far as to re-write the second book in the series, The House on the Cliff and published his re-imagined story, re-titled The House on the Point, complete with two appended essays analyzing the original Franklin W. Dixon work. A noble attempt to re-build that childhood home that he had returned to only to find in shambles.

       But ultimately you can’t do it. Here is what Austin Chronicle reviewer Tim Walker wrote of Hoff’s futile attempt: 
Benjamin Hoff's loving tribute to his boyhood heroes the Hardy Boys recalls The House on the Cliff, the second installment of the original series. As one would hope, Hoff's book is executed with a literary sensibility far superior to the original's. While the narrative seldom attains the gentle flow of Hoff's The Tao of Pooh, its many historical and physical details lend fine verisimilitude, and Hoff has drawn its characters with a real human depth that is absent from the stories that have been selling strongly for 75 years.
[But] any Hardy Boys tribute will run up against the thorny fact of the originals' bad writing. The plots make little sense, the wooden dialogue is in some way an improvement on the cardboard-cutout characters, and the boys themselves take on lethal dangers with barely a second thought in an otherwise sober setting that doesn't make the fantasy element of the book clear. . . . Hoff's book is worth reading, but if it fires you up to re-read the Hardy Boys, understand that you'll be doing it only for nostalgia.
Edward Stratemeyer
       So. Who was this Franklin W. Dixon, and how could he have produced such a popular but, at base, awful series of books? The answer to that question is pretty much common knowledge now.

       In fact, there never was a “Franklin W. Dixon.” The name is a pseudonym utilized by a number of contract writers who produced the Hardy Boys series and the Nancy Drew series ("written" by the equally fictional Carolyn Keene), for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a self-proclaimed “packager’ of books established in 1905 to provide reading material for young adults (and to make money along the way). The syndicate was the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, who wrote the first Bobbsey Twin book before realizing that producing series of childrens’ books under different pseudonyms, ghostwritten by hired writers, would play better in the marketplace. This assumption proved entirely correct. By 1930, the Stratemeyer Syndicate had sold over 5 million copies of its ghosted books and basically controlled the U.S. market for childrens’ books. 

       One of Stratemeyer’s greatest successes was the Hardy Boys. The original series consisted of 58 installments, and was followed by several related series, re-imagining Frank and Joe in more modern times. The latest, The Hardy Boys Adventures, was launched in 2013, and new volumes are currently being published in that series. From the date of the original publication of The Tower Treasure in 1927 there has never been a year when the Hardy Boys series was out of print. 

Leslie McFarlane
     While many authors toiled away producing the hundreds of Hardy Boys installments under the Franklin W. Dixon name, for the first twenty two books in the original series, the scribe who oversaw Frank, Joe, their friends and family, and the city of Bayport was a frustrated author and gentleman named Leslie McFarlane. The entire Hardy Boys series therefore owes a lot to the foundation provided by McFarlane in those first twenty-two installments.  But according to his daughter Norah Perez, McFarlane’s reaction to the series, and to his own efforts in helping to create it,was quite simple: “He hated the Hardy Boys.” 

       McFarlane, like all subsequent Hardy Boys authors, toiled in secrecy in return for a pittance. He was required to sign a confidentiality agreement obligating him never to divulge his authorship of Franklin W. Dixon books. In return he, and the later writers, were paid “princely” sums ranging from $75.00 to $100 per book in the early years to produce new installments in the series, each rigidly premised on outlines supplied by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift series were all written under the same arrangements.   Attempts by McFarlane and subsequent authors to vary from the script, or to breathe life into the characters reportedly were dealt with quickly and ruthlessly by the editorial pens of the syndicate.

       Did all of this grate on McFarlane? You bet. Gene Weingarten’s article collects and analyzes entries from the detailed diaries that McFarlane kept over the years. 
“The Hardy Boys" [series] is seldom mentioned by name [in McFarlane’s diaries], as though he cannot bear to speak it aloud. He calls the books "the juveniles." At the time McFarlane was living in northern Ontario with a wife and infant children, attempting to make a living as a freelance fiction writer.
Nov. 12, 1932: "Not a nickel in the world and nothing in sight. Am simply desperate with anxiety. . . . What's to become of us this winter? I don't know. It looks black."
Jan. 23, 1933: "Worked at the juvenile book. The plot is so ridiculous that I am constantly held up trying to work a little logic into it. Even fairy tales should be logical."
Jan. 26, 1933: "Whacked away at the accursed book."
June 9, 1933: "Tried to get at the juvenile again today but the ghastly job appalls me."
Jan. 26, 1934: "Stratemeyer sent along the advance so I was able to pay part of the grocery bill and get a load of dry wood."
Finally: "Stratemeyer wants me to do another book. . . . I always said I would never do another of the cursed things but the offer always comes when we need cash. I said I would do it but asked for more than $85, a disgraceful price for 45,000 words."
He got no raise. 
       McFarlane eventually gritted his teeth and abandoned the series when he realized that the pressures of grinding out new installments had driven him to alcoholism. After shaking that addiction at a treatment center McFarlane never wrote another Hardy Boys book and instead went on to a relatively successful career as a novelist and screenwriter. But the ghosts of Frank and Joe continued to haunt him. Reportedly when McFarlane was near death in 1977 he would awaken from a diabetic coma screaming, having hallucinated that upon his death he would only be remembered for writing the Hardy Boys. 

       So, what's the take away here?  Were we all just wrong as kids?  And what about the fact that after reading the Hardy Boys, or the "sister" Nancy Drew series, most of us went on, and graduated to better books, doing so with an instilled love of reading, and of mysteries?

     A funny thing about trying to re-live parts of one’s childhood. Through an adult’s eyes things just don’t look the same.  Returning to our earliest literary loves can be as unpalatable as returning to Gerber's baby food.  If you try this anyway (the literature, not the baby food), be prepared for some disappointment, or worse. But at the same time remember that what we saw, and did, as children, and what inspired and molded us, made us what we are today. No matter how bad those Hardy Boy books may be when viewed through adult eyes -- our own now, or that aghast librarian’s I encountered in 1956 -- Frank and Joe (and Nancy Drew) for many of us provided that initial flame, the catalyst that ignited a lifelong interest in mystery fiction.

       So, well done, Franklin W. Dixon (and everyone behind his curtain). Poorly written, but still, in the end, well done!

25 August 2013

The Dissidents

by Louis A. Willis

From the introduction: Certainly one of the aspects that made putting this collection together so cool for us as editors and contributors was our respective  backgrounds in activism and community organizing. The lessons we took away from those experiences were not only about the need for a incisive power analysis and being aware that goals and objectives have to be constantly readjusted, but just how indomitable are the spirits of everyday working people, be they dealing with faceless slumlords, police abuse, rights on the shop floor or simply banding together to get a stop light erected at a street corner for their kids.

I’m reading my way through the many anthologies on my bookshelves, but not in any systematic way. I usually pick an anthology based on catchiness of the title. With Send My Love And A Molotov Cocktail: Stories of Crime, Love and Rebellion, I thought about how the versatile crime and mystery genre is often used to tackle social issues. These days I read fiction for pure enjoyment not profound insights on the human condition. So, as I began reading, I had to keep an open mind and not judge the stories based on the authors’ opinions toward the social issues. I chose three stories for this post based not on the issues but on the authors. 

I chose “Bizco’s Memories” by Paco Ignacio Taibo II because I need to read more stories by foreign authors, especially those south of the border. “Bizco’s Memories” is a  framed story about how political prisoners are treated more harshly than common prisoners in Mexico. As I read, I thought about the SleuthSayer posts on narrative voice. In framed stories there are, of course, two voices. In this one, the inside voice, Bizco, an unreliable narrator, tells a story to the outside voice of how the political prisoners exacted revenge on the common prisoners who had been harassing them. Bizco doesn’t end the story but merely stops talking. I sensed another voice or style, that of the translator and editor, Andrea Gibbons.

I chose “Poster Child” to see how social novelist (as I like to refer to her) Sara Paretsky handles the abortion issue in a short story. Antiabortion activist Arnold Culver is found dead on a park bench with antiabortion fliers stuffed in his mouth. Dr. Nina Adari is the prime suspect because she was seen arguing with the dead man earlier and because he had attacked her clinic several times. Rookie detective Liz Marchek and her partner, veteran Oliver Billings, are assigned to the case. When a picture of Liz entering the abortion clinic shows up in a batch of photographs Culver took, she is ordered off the case. Ignoring the order, she pursues and solves the case. My initial reaction to story: didn’t like it because Culver comes close to being an issue instead of a believable character. However, after thinking about it for a couple of hours, I decided Paretsky avoids preaching in her own voice about the rightness or wrongness of abortion but is, nevertheless, on the side of choice. To describe how she makes her point and avoids preaching would be a spoiler.

I chose Penny Mickelbury’s “Murder...Then and Now” to get a sense of what she is about before reading her novels, which I have on my shelf among the African American writers of crime and mystery fiction. In a town in the northeast, the KKK plans to march down the main street and burn an effigy of Black Power. To express their anger, five Black students from the unnamed university plan to throw Molotov cocktails on the roof of the police station where the KKK meet. In the “Then” section, before the students can carry out their plan, two of the them are murdered and a third is charged. In the “Now” section, forty years later, a fourth student is murdered. To describe the motive and method of the murders would be a spoiler. A good story that makes its point without hitting you over the head: beware of betrayal.

I commend the authors for avoiding forcing their characters to spout their creators’ opinions on the issues.

24 August 2013

3D Printing: the Next Big Thing

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I've been hearing a lot lately about 3D printing—or producing or constructing or “making.” I was excited enough to write a post about it on my other group mystery blog, and it surprised me that the topic got so little response. I can't believe the SleuthSayers and their (our) friends won't have more to say about this the-future-as-predicted-in-science-fiction-has-arrived technology. In fact, one of us, I think Leigh, was right on top of the story about the 3D-printed gun.

My hubby was particularly annoyed that all the hoopla about weapons cast all the extraordinary constructive uses of 3D making, present and projected, into the shade. He started bringing information and whatever samples he could get his hands on home after going to an exhibition of the latest 3D technology (he uses high-end copiers in his job at a university) and visiting a store in lower Manhattan called MakerBot where you can actually buy a "replicator"—a term long familiar to Star Trek fans—for the home.

I also saw a YouTube video of in which the son of an old friend introduced the speaker at a design event in San Francisco about “the maker movement.” He said: “With simple and affordable 3D design software... access to digital fabrication services, [and] desktop 3D printers, ‘makers’ are turning their home offices into home factories.”

On the face of it, this new technology is a good thing. The speaker my friend’s son introduced was the CEO of TechShop, which bills itself as “America’s first nationwide open access public workshop.” From the website: “TechShop is a playground for creativity. Part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center, TechShop provides access to over $1 million worth of professional equipment and software...at TechShop you can explore the world of making in a collaborative and creative environment.”

Among the applications of 3D technology already in use is the making of relatively inexpensive prototypes of any kind of design. My husband brought home a cute little nut and bolt from the convention center exhibit (as at most conventions nowadays, there weren’t a whole lot of freebies) and a brightly colored expansion bracelet from the 3D store. Printed items listed on the site 3Ders.org include a robot that scoots along power lines checking for damage, individualized shoes in custom sizes, toys, high-performance bike parts, and fashion sunglasses.

Medical applications are also in use. An article on 3Ders.org describes how doctors are creating 3D-printed models of patients’ bone structure and organs to prepare for complex surgery. “Since the model is a facsimile of the patient's actual physiology, surgeons can use it to precisely shape metal inserts that fit along a patient's residual bone.” Even better, the patient spends less time in actual surgery, substantially reducing the risk of things going wrong.

And then there's the gun. I'm a mystery writer. Of course I'd thought of it the moment I heard about 3D technology. A May 5 article on 3Ders.org reported:

“Defense Distributed showed off the world's first entirely 3D printed gun last Friday and announced its plan to publish the blueprints for ‘The Liberator’ on its blueprints archive Defcad.org this week.

There was a big brouhaha about it in both government and the media. Guns aren't mentioned on the home page of 3Ders.org today (as I write this on June 6, getting ahead with my posts). The lead story is: "3D printed mini yellow ducks debut in Hong Kong."

Like every innovation in history, this new technology can be used for good or ill, depending on what people choose to make of it both literally and figuratively.

23 August 2013

The Immortal Timing of Elmore Leonard

Buddy Hackett said, “Ask me what’s the secret of comedy.”   
Johnny Carson started to say, “What’s the secret of…” and Buddy yelled, “Timing,” very loudly, right in his face. It killed me. Timing is important — Johnny Carson has a throw pillow in his house that has embroidered on it, “It’s All in the Timing.” 

The excerpt above is from How To Play In Traffic by Penn Jillette and Teller, published in 1997 and reportedly now out of print. But, whether or not the book’s out of print, this excerpt deftly demonstrates comedy timing.

Or, perhaps in this case: counter-timing.

Timing isn’t only important in comedy, of course; it’s crucial in many sports, such as archery or running (when should a runner add that final burst of speed, for instance?). And, in my opinion, timing is also often crucial to the success of a story.
In Memoriam

Whether that story’s a suspense, mystery, romance, or even literary, timing often makes as big a difference between “hit” or “miss,” as it does on the archery range. Just the right “oomph” has to come at just the right moment, after a long period of climbing tension, or everything can fall flat and lifeless.

This is one problem I don’t believe the late Elmore Leonard suffered from.

In fact—comedic timing or suspense timing—I think he had a great sense of both. How else could he have turned out a work like Get Shorty?

Frankly, I believe folks will be reading Elmore Leonard for decades, if not centuries to come. And, though the reasons they sight for reading him may change over time, I believe his “timing” will be a major ingredient for his writing’s longevity, perhaps even immortality.

How did he do it? 

A comedian can physically stop speaking, wait a beat or half-beat, then deliver the punch line. But, how does one accomplish the same thing in the written word?

A writer can’t very well write “Stop and wait a beat before reading the next sentence, please.” Yet, Elmore Leonard’s timing was terrific.

I believe Leonard gave us a pretty good hint, four years ago on Criminal Brief, when he wrote: “I’m a believer in white space, the setting off of text (and illustrations) with surrounding ‘emptiness’ to lend readability and visual attraction. William Morrow and HarperCollins charge dearly for white space. …”

He wasn’t necessarily talking about timing when wrote that. But, I strongly suspect his belief in the “white space” had a lot to do with his success in timing.

Think about it:

How often does a comedian wind along on a story, raising the comedic tension — only to suddenly drop into silence for a beat, before delivering a verbal snap-kick that sends the audience reeling?

That silent beat, or half-beat, is timing.

And, in the written word as Elmore Leonard dished it up, I think the printed equivalent was often hidden in the white space he so revered.

If white space, alone, did the trick, of course, I’m sure we’d see far more books with two or three lines of blank space between certain lines. And, that’s not terribly common, even in Elmore Leonard’s work. In fact, thumbing through four of his novels while researching this column, I found that he only did that to denote scene changes — a pretty common practice, I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, how does white space help with timing?

I think the answer is that it works in the interplay of other elements. In that same post on Criminal Brief, Leonard posted his ten tips for writers as follows:
  1. Never open a book with weather. 
  2. Avoid prologues. 
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. 
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said,” he admonished gravely. 
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." 
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. 
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. 
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. 
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. 

Taken together, and in conjunction with a statement he made around the same time: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” we’re left with a clear understanding of his desire to achieve spare or stripped-down writing.

I took the opportunity to examine this list on a few other sites, and found it interesting, however, that Mr. Leonard made it clear: There is room for compromise.

As he pointed out at one point: these are ten rules that work for him; he’s not suggesting they work for everyone. In one case he explains, “If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.” 

More importantly, he adds: ‘There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."’

Reading what a character says, translating that into the “the way he talks” and using this to create a visual construct of the character may seem to be asking a lot from the reader. But, in an Elmore Leonard work it seems only natural.

He writes the character so that a reader can hear the cadence of that character’s voice, the “beat” of his words. Sometimes, it’s a staccato beat. At others, it’s a languid throb. But the beat is there! And, injecting abundant white space, which is the natural outcome of spare writing, in just the right way, can then create a gestalt of sorts that results in remarkable literary timing—right there on the page.

Is this idea crazy? 

According to the New York Times, Mr. Leonard said: “The bad guys are the fun guys. … The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.” 

Of course, timing has to fit naturally into the voice that’s present, or the slight gear-change required to assure proper timing may signal a ‘heads-up!’ to the reader. This might work on occasion, but I suspect a more subtle manifestation of timing renders a bigger response on the part of the reader. 

And, Elmore Leonard was a master of this.  Perhaps that's why so many of his narrative view points seem to stem from the so-called 'bad guys;' perhaps they provided voices with the requisite cadence for successful timing.

Or, maybe I'm wrong.

One final comment on Mr. Leonard’s timing:

He passed away in his Bloomfield Township, Mich. home on Tuesday. And, the timing of his passing—from the viewpoint of this reader was:

“Too Soon! Oh, far too soon.”

22 August 2013

Going to Great (or Short) Lengths

Kwik Krimes
Appearing in a volume of short mysteries, Kwik Krimes has gotten me thinking about writing lengths. Although some of my SleuthSayers colleagues will surely disagree, I am convinced that most writers have a favored length or lengths. Lengths in my case. The Anna Peters novels rarely ran more than 240 pages in typescript; my latest straight mystery, Fires of London, was about the same length and with the new, smaller modern type, printed up to 174 pages. My stand alone novels, on the other hand, are in the 350 page range, while my short stories cluster between 12- 17 pages in typescript, with most in the 14-15 page range.

Why this should be so, I have no idea. I just know that beyond a certain length lies the literary equivalent of the Empty Quarter. The Muse has decamped and taken all my ideas with her. As for the very short, I find it intensely frustrating as the required word limit looms when I’ve barely gotten started.

It seems that the big, multi-generation saga, the weighty blockbuster thriller, and the thousand page romance are not to be in my repertory, nor, at the other end of the spectrum, is flash fiction. I’m not alone in this. Ray Bradbury wrote short; Stephen King writes long. Ruth Rendall is on the short side of the ledger, though the novels of her alter ego, Barbara Vine, run at least a hundred pages more. Elizabeth George’s novels started long and are getting steadily longer; the late, under-rated Magdalen Nabb wrote blessedly short, while my two current personal favorites, Fred Vargas and Kate Atkinson, are in the Goldilocks Belt: moderate length and just right.

Classic novels show a similar pattern. Lampedusa’s great The Leopard is short. So is Jane Austen’s work, although most of the other nineteenth century greats favored long. Except for the Christmas Carol, Dickens’ famous novels are all marathons, as are works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and most of the novels by George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte, although the latter’s sister Emily produced the great, and compact, Wuthering Heights.

Would Emily Brontë have gone on to write the triple decker novels beloved of the 19th century book trade? One hopes not, as changing lengths is not always a happy thing for a writer. Dick Francis, whose early mysteries I love, started out writing short and tight. Novels like Flying Finish and Nerve were not much over 200 pages in length. Alas, with fame came the pressures for ‘big novels.’ I doubt I’m the only fan who has found his later work much less appealing.

Other writers have had a happier fate. Both P.D. James and John Le Carre produced short early books then hit their stride with the longer and more complex works that have made their reputations. In a reversal of this trajectory, Stephen King has profitably experimented with some short works on line.

Still, my own experience has been that I do my best work within fairly strict lengths. I’ve tried a couple of times to manage Woman’s World’s 600 word limit. Neither was a happy experience, although I recycled one story and sold it to Sherlock Holmes Magazine – but only after I’d expanded the material to my favored length.

So why am I now appearing in Otto Penzler’s Kwik Krimes, a little volume of 1000 word mysteries, along with 80 other people who are perhaps more in touch with brevity than I am?
The answer lies in Samuel Johnson territory. The good doctor, himself, a working writer who had to grub for every shilling, famously said that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” However idealistic a writer is and even however unbusinesslike she may be, the Muse leans to Dr. Johnson’s opinion.

There is something about being asked for a story – how often does that happen!– with the promise of a check to follow that lifts the heart. Most writers’ short stories are composed on spec. They emerge from the teeming brain and are sent on their way with a hopeful query, most likely to be returned with a note that they are “not quite right for us at this time.” One can be sure that they will never will be right at some future time, either.

So, a firm request is a great inspiration. I said I’d give it a try, and voila, an idea presented itself. I proceeded to steal an strategy from one of the greats– only borrow from the very best is my motto– and turned out the 1001 words of “The Imperfect Detective.” A thousand words? Close enough.