31 October 2013

Happy Halloween!

by Brian Thornton

Or should that read, "Happy All Hallows Eve"?

Most everyone is familiar with the history of this holiday, an anachronistic throw-back to times when the dark of night was barely cut by the brightest of candles or bonfires. To a time when human beings were much more likely to run from a report of a goblin sighting than running to take pictures of it.

Let's face it, there's something visceral in us (and don't ask me to explain the biochemistry of it all here, because if you're waiting for that, you're in for a looooong wait!) that reacts strongly and positively to a good scare. Whether it's tied in with the notion of Thanatos, the so-called "death impulse," I can't say.

I just know that there is something enticing, enthralling, and horrifying about the supernatural. Modern science notwithstanding, we are only a few generations out of the cave, a blink of the eye in the life-span of a species.

As a result, logic provides no succor in the split second that something terrifying (like a zombie, ghoul, or even, for some folks, clowns) jumps out at us. What we're experiencing in that split second is something that ties us inexorably to those ancestors who made the first paintings on cave walls.

I'm opening up the comments section to ask the following three questions, in honor or All Hallows Eve:

1. What scares you? REALLY scares you?

2. Is there a favorite Halloween-themed book or movie you revisit every year?

3. What is the scariest "new" thing you've read or seen this year?

Here are my answers:

1. The Borg, from Star Trek. The notion of losing my individuality on that level is truly unsettling for me.

2. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (movie) and The Night Stalker (book) by Jeff Rice (no relation to Anne Rice). This is the book upon which they based the Darren McGavin TV movies/series about Karl Kolchak.

3. "At the Mountains of Madness," by H.P. Lovecraft. Read it this week. My first time reading it. Lovecraft does a masterful job of taking what starts out as a rather mundane academic recounting of an expedition to Antarctica by scholar/explorers from the fictional Miskatonic University, and slowly ratcheting up the tension as layer after layer of the everyday is stripped away, until the climax, with the narrator and a colleague running pell-mell down an ancient, alien-built subterranean corridor with a shapeless, faceless prehistoric horror called a "Shoggoth" hot on their heels. Well worth a read, if you're not familiar with his work. (Especially today of all days!;) )

So how about it, dear readers. What are your three answers to my three questions?

Happy Halloween!

30 October 2013

Media Blitz

by Robert Lopresti

A long time ago, Robert Benchley wrote the following about his most famous piece, "The Treasurer's Report:" I have inflicted it on the public in every conceivable way except over the radio and dropping it from airplanes.  (And as proof, here is a short, hilarious movie version.)

I am thinking about that because this autumn is seeing my own work coming at the public from a variety of directions.  Not to worry; the phase will pass and by December I will sink back into obscurity.  But let's go over the details of my temporary onslaught.

As I wrote last time, September marked my first appearance in an e-book anthology.  I am sure by now you have all run out (or run your cursor over) to buy a copy of Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble.  Right?

I am happy to inform you you won't have to spend any money for this next feature (although I do like dark chocolate if you're thinking of a gift).  This one is a freebie.

Linda Landrigan, who edits Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, suggested doing a podcast of my story "Snake in the Sweetgrass," which appeared in the December 2003 issue of AHMM.  And if it isn't up now here  it should be by next week.

She sent me the recorder they use and after much diligent practice I was able to record the story with only three mistakes.  And that was the best I could do.  Three different mistakes every time.  (It wasn't like I consistently tripped over the same tongue-twisting phrase, alas.)  Linda assures me they can clean that up.

But here is the cool part.  My story is about an elderly Kentucky fiddler and the title refers to a traditional fiddle piece that is his personal signature tune.  It seemed logical to include a recording of that tune in the podcast.

The problem with that is that I made up the name.  There is no such tune. 

No biggie.  My daughter, Susan Weiner, is a fine composer so she created a tune that matched the description in the story.  And then, extra special treat, my wife Terri Weiner recorded it on the fiddle.

So it is a real family operation and I recommend it highly.  But if that isn't enough to entice you to give it a listen, here is a bonus.  Remember, I said this is a media blitz. 

The January/February issue of Hitchcock's comes out November 4 and I am thrilled to report that the cover story is "Devil Chased The Wolf Away," a sequel to "Snake."  And while you can read "Devil" without experiencing "Snake" you will definitely enjoy them more if you read (or listen to) "Snake" first.

And next Wednesday I will explain how "Devil" came to be written, much to my surprise.

29 October 2013

Magna Cum Murder

I spent last weekend among old friends.  I attended Magna Cum Murder, a mystery conference that's been held in Indiana for the past nineteen years.  For at least its first decade, Magna was based at the Roberts Hotel in Muncie.  The Roberts was a great old pile from the 1920s, with a potted-palm lobby out of an Edward Hopper painting.  One of the conference legends has Mary Higgins Clark and friends singing around a lobby piano being played by Les Roberts (the PI writer, not the guy who owned the hotel).  The Roberts also had the perfect bar for a small conference: big enough to hold a bunch of mystery writers and small enough to make them rub elbows.  I fondly remember sitting at that bar with Ralph McInerny, watching a World Series game.  Can't remember who was playing.
View of the Roberts Lobby, Showing the Mary Higgins Clark Piano
When the Roberts Hotel closed, Magna soldiered on using Muncie's convention center and a collection of satellite motels.  But as the Bouchercon occasionally proves, it's hard to do a convention without a central hotel.  This year, Magna moved to Indianapolis, to a private club older than the Roberts, the Columbia Club.  Though the club is private, it was open to Magna attendees, and the result was something very like Magnas of old.

The Columbia Club, New Home to Magna Cum Murder

The driving force behind Magna is Kathryn Kennison, a great friend to mystery writers and book lovers in general.  Kathryn set Magna's classy and welcoming tone back in 1994, and has maintained it ever since.  And every year she works the miracle of drawing a big-name guest of honor to a small Midwestern conference.  This year's honoree was Steve Hamilton.  Our banquet speaker was Hank Phillippi Ryan.  They still come to Indiana for Kathryn.

Guest of Honor Interview:  Hank Phillippi Ryan and Steve Hamilton

A big advantage of a small conference for the writer is the opportunity to speak with a good percentage of the attendees.  That's assuming you "work the room," making yourself available to fans and doing such daring things as sitting down at a table full of strangers.  It's not the easiest leap for some writers to make, including this writer.  Small conferences are good for the fans and for aspiring writers (as yet unpublished writers, someone called them this weekend) because of this same intimacy.

Magna's First Panel: John Desjarlais, Albert Bell, Molly Weston, William Kent Krueger, and Unidentified Moderator 

One of the reasons I sometimes fail to work the room at Magna is that I'm too busy catching up with writers I only see there. (I'm not naming names for fear of leaving someone out.) As important as book promoting is, it's also important for me to keep in touch with writers I admire, to be encouraged by success stories and to condole over the frustrations of the writing life. This year, I even got to watch another World Series game in another Magna bar.  (And yes, I do remember who was playing.)

Two Award-winning Writers, Sandra Balzo and Ted Hertel, Jr.,and Two Distinguished
 Critics, Gary Warren Niebuhr (holding his favorite book) and Ted Fitzgerald

Next time you're on Facebook, check out the Magna Cum Murder page.  You'll see some very professional photos of the attendees and of the Columbia Club (unlike the grainy group shots reproduced here, which were made with my very small camera.)  And if you're looking for a weekend away with new old friends next fall, consider Magna's twentieth anniversary celebration in October.  Next year's details should be available soon on Magna's web site, along with an online registration form.  I'll remind you later.   

28 October 2013

More of the Favorites

More of the Favorite Mysteries of the Century

In case you've forgotten, the 100 favorites were chosen by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.  The book was published in 2000 and edited by Jim Huang.


To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar (1960)
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carre (1963)
The Deep Blue Good-Bye by John D, MacDonald (1964)
The Chill by Ross MacDonald (1964)
In The Heat of the Night by John Ball (1965)
Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes (1965)


Time And Again by Jack Finney (1970)
The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (1970)
No More Dying Then by Ruth Rendell (1971)
An Unsuitable Job For a Woman by P.D. James (1972)
Sadie When She Died by Ed McBain (1972)
Dark Nantucket Noon by Jane Langton (1975)
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (1975)
The Sunday Hangman by James McClure (1977)
Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller (1977)
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (1978)
Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas (1978)
Whip Hand by Dick Francis (1979)
One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters (1979)


Looking For Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker (1980)
Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell (1981)
The Man With a Load of Mischief  by Martha Grimes (1981)
Death by Sheer Torture by Robert Barnard (1982)
The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes by K.C. Constantine (1982
 "A" Is For Alibi by Sue Grafton (1982)
The Thin Woman by Dorothy Cannell (1984)
Deadlock by Sara Paretsky (1984)
Strike Three You're Dead by R.D. Rosen (1984)
When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman (1985)
Sleeping Dog by Dick Lochte (1985)
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block (1986)
Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (1986)
The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman (1986)
Rough Cider by Peter Lovesey (1986)
The Monkey's Raincoat by Robert Crais (1987)
Old Bones by Aaron Elkins (1987)
The Killings at Badger's Drift by Caroline Graham (1987)
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (1987)
A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George (1988)
The Silence of the Lamb by Thomas Harris (1988)
A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman (1988)
Death's Bright Angel by Janet Neel (1988)
Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke (1989)


Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard (1990)
If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O by Sharyn McCrumb (1990)
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990)
Sanibel Flats by Randy Wayne White (1990)
Aunt Dimity's Death by Nancy Atherton (1992)
Booked to Die by John Dunning (1992)
Bootlegger's Daughter by Margaret Maron (1992)
The Ice House by Minette Walters (1992)
Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr (1993)
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King (1993)
Child of Silence by Abigail Padgett (1993)
The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly (1994)
The Yellow Room Conspiracy by Peter Dickenson (1994)
One For The Money by Janet Evanovich (1994)
Mallory's Oracle by Carol O'Connell (1994)
A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross (1994)
Who in the Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford (1995)
Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry (1995)
Blue Lonesome by Bill Pronzini (1995)
Concourse by S.J. Rozan (1995)
Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane (1996)
The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte (1996)
A Test of Wills by Charles Todd (1996)
Dreaming of the Bones by Deborah Crombie (1997)
Blood at the Root by Peter Robinson (1997)
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill (1998)

 I know some of you might complain that your favorite author isn't listed.  Please remember this list was compiled by the mystery bookstore owners or managers or staff. The bookstores were all members of the Independent  Mystery Booksellers Association. And the selections were not necessarily best-sellers. These were the favorites of each store and some members picked on the criteria of "what books would I want to have if I were stranded on a desert island." Sometimes, if the author had a continuing character, then the first in the series was listed, when that author had repeats from more than one store. Another criteria was an author or book was one the bookseller recommended to their customers most often. That was one of the fun things for me in our bookstore...when a customer asked for a new author.  New to them, although the book might have been written years ago. Most mystery readers enjoy an author who had a series and naturally they wanted the first book in the series.

This was a fun project. We owe Jim Huang a big debt. For getting the IMBA members to compile this list and publishing it.

Okay, class, how many to you know and/or have read?

27 October 2013

Stranded and Kwiked

I began thinking last month what I’d write about this month and my mind was totally blank until I received my first issue of the Strand Magazine. Imagine my delight when I saw John Floyd’s “Secrets,” a slow-paced story with a fast moving plot and rising tension in which two strangers, a man and woman, meet on a ferry boat in what appears a coincidence (it’s not but to say anymore would be a spoiler). The plot ends, but the tension doesn’t drop and the story doesn’t stop because the plight of the two characters continues, suggestively, in the reader’s imagination.

The other stories in the magazine are good, but the one that also interested me was Joseph Heller’s (1923-1999) unpublished "Almost Like Christmas,” written sometime between 1945-1969. Why would the editors publish a story about Christmas several months before Christmas. Because it is not about the holidays; it is a story that “ ...gives readers a provocative glimpse of seething race-related prejudice in an otherwise respectable small town,” (editor). In a town where black farmers from the south are allowed to buy land, a white teacher’s effort to integrate the schools results in three white boys badly beating a black boy. One of the white kids is stabbed, and the black kid is blamed. As an angry mob begins to form with the intention of hunting down the black kid, the atmosphere becomes “Almost Like Christmas.” In view of some of the violent incidents involving race these days, the story is very topical.

Reading Janice’s post on length prompted me to reread Poe’s essay “Philosophy of Composition” in which he states “It appears evident...that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting....” but he admits this limit may be “overpassed” except in poetry. Her post also sent me to Amazon to buy Kwik Krimes. Editor Otto Penzler “thought it would be fascinating to see what authors could conjure if given the specific assignment of producing a mystery, crime, or suspense story of no more than one thousand words.”

I didn’t read all 81 stories before having to post this article. All, except one, of the 34 stories that I managed to read are well crafted and seem to comply with the word limit, plus or minus a word or two. I say seem because I didn’t count the words of each story, but based on page length, each is four pages long, plus or minus one or two pages. The disappointing story was the page and half “Acknowledgement.” It has no conflict though it suggests what happened to the narrator. It is like the acknowledgements in books thanking mama, daddy, uncle, aunt, agent, and anybody else who may have helped or hurt the author. To say what the ending suggests would be a spoiler. Since there is no mystery, suspense, or crime, it isn’t a story and seems out of place in this collection.

I give a big shoutout to Janice’s masterful story “The Imperfect Detective” in which the detective comes up with the perfect solution. It is so well crafted that any discussion of the plot would be a spoiler. 

If you haven’t already, add Kwik Krimes to your to-read list. Not only can you read one story in a single sitting, you can read three or four or, if you’re a speed writer, even more. 

One problem I have with reading flash fiction, short stories, and short short stories is the difficulty of avoiding spoilers in discussing them. If anyone has a solution to this problem, help.

But maybe I don’t need help because, according to an essay I read by Jonah Lehrer in the Internet magazine Wired two minutes before posting my article, “Spoilers Don’t Spoil Anything.” The article is certainly food for thought and a post on SleuthSayers if I can get around to thinking about what spoilers really do.

26 October 2013

Market First, Write Second

by Michael Bracken

NOTE: I am sincerely pleased to welcome my friend and two-time Derringer Award-winning writer Michael Bracken as a guest blogger. Even though he is the author of several books--including All White Girls, PSI Cops, and Tequila Sunrise--Michael is better known as the author of more than 1,000 short stories, including crime fiction published in Big Pulp, Blue Murder, Crime Factory, Crime Square, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Espionage, Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin, High Octane Heroes, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Muscle Men, Needle, Out of the Gutter, and many other anthologies and magazines. Additionally, he has edited five crime fiction anthologies, including the three-volume Fedora series. Learn more about him at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com and CrimeFictionWriter.blogspot.com. (Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) — John Floyd

Though the ability to self-publish through Kindle and other platforms is changing publishing, most beginning and mid-career short story writers who desire conventional publication are quite familiar with the write-submit-write-submit process of writing a story, sending it to the best paying/most prestigious market and then, if the story is rejected, sending it to the next best paying/next most prestigious market and working down a list of markets until the story is accepted or no markets remain.

When writers take a write-first, market-second approach to publication--this is the approach touted by most advice-givers and how I began my writing career--they are following a time-tested path to publication. Over the course of a long-term career, though, a highly prolific short story writer may have multiple opportunities to flip that process on its head so that they take a market-first, write-second approach. I know I have.

I'm in my mid-50s and have been writing professionally since I was a teenager. I am the author of more than 1,000 short stories and have had one or more short stories published each month for 124 consecutive months as I write this. Almost every short story I write gets published and these days I rarely write short fiction on speculation.

Following are some of the ways a short story writer can follow a market-first, write-second approach to publication.

Writing to Order

This happens when an editor provides an outline, a word count, and a deadline, and it results in a guaranteed sale. Some editors build their publications from the inside out, preferring not to rely on the randomness of slush pile submissions to provide all of their publication's necessary content. Instead, they work with a handpicked group of writers to provide all or a significant portion of their publication's content.

I thought this practice died with the pulps but I discovered this practice was still alive and well in the early 2000s when I became one of those writers.

I have been writing women's fiction for most of my career, breaking into one magazine after another through slush pile submissions. The editor of one magazine returned some of my slush pile submissions with extensive revision instructions, which I followed, and then published the revised versions. Once I understood what she wanted, she began publishing my slush pile submissions without requesting revisions.

One day I received an email from her wherein she provided a one-paragraph description of a story she wanted, provided a deadline, and asked if I could write the story. I could and I did.

For the next few months I received one story assignment each month. Then one Friday evening I received an email from the editor telling me that another writer had missed her deadline and asking if I could write the story previously assigned to that writer. And could I have it in her hands first thing Monday morning?

Even though I had never written a 5,000-word story in two days I told her I could. Then I did. From then until the magazine ceased publication I wrote two or three stories to order each month, or roughly 25% of that magazine's entire content.

Lesson: Before you ever have the opportunity to write fiction to order you must establish yourself as a reliable contributor who understands an editor's needs and can deliver short stories consistently and on deadline.

Writing to Invitation

This is when an editor provides a theme, a word count range, and a deadline, and it nearly always results in a sale.

Many anthologies are filled by invitation only and there are multiple ways one can be included among the invitees. The first and most obvious is to be a best-selling author whose name on the cover will move books. For the rest of us, becoming a frequent anthology invitee involves a combination of professionalism, persistence, formal and informal networking, and luck.

Invited contributors who are not cover-worthy may have established themselves as writers who produce publishable fiction to deadline with a minimum of fuss. Often an invitation comes as a result of a previous working relationship or a pre-existing professional or social relationship, but invitations can sometimes seem to come out of the blue.

Several years ago I sold two short stories to the editor of a men's magazine based in California. When the editor left that position he moved to Germany, and one day I received an email from him inviting me to contribute to an anthology he was putting together for a German publisher. I have now written stories for three of his invitation-only anthologies and have been invited to contribute to two more.

Beginning in 2007 I sold a few stories to the editor of several open-call anthologies. When he grew tired of dealing with unprofessional writers and wading through slush piles filled with unpublishable material, he switched to invitation-only projects. I was one of the writers he invited, and between his open-call and invitation-only projects I've places stories in nine of his anthologies.

As an active member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, an organization whose members communicate primarily through a Yahoo group, I often enter discussions there about writing, editing, and publishing short mystery fiction. Through contacts I've made on that list I've been invited to contribute to at least three fiction anthologies and one non-fiction anthology.

I have also received unexpected invitations. I once received an invitation from a well-known editor of horror anthologies with whom I had never worked and learned later that a contributor to Fedora, the first anthology I edited, recommended me. I placed stories in two of that editor's invitation-only anthologies. Recently I was invited to contribute to an anthology by a writer whose work has appeared in several of the same anthologies as my stories.

"Getting Out of the Box," my Derringer Award-winning short story published in Crime Square, was written at the invitation of Robert J. Randisi, a writer/editor with whom I have crossed paths many times through the Private Eye Writers of America and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Lesson: Publishing is a small world. What you do today will impact your career for many years to come. Your professionalism, specifically when dealing with editors and more generally when dealing with writers, who might someday become editors, will be remembered and rewarded.

Writing to semi-invitation

This is when an editor provides a theme, a word count range, and a deadline well in advance of posting an open call, and this can often result in a sale.

For a variety of reasons, some editors continue to post open calls to their anthologies, but a few of these editors give their regular contributors an advance heads-up.

Writing to semi-invitation is similar to writing for a repeat market (see below), but with the knowledge that the editor is actively seeking a submission from you. However, for whatever reason, the editor doesn't want to commit to purchasing your work sight-unseen. It may be that you haven't quite nailed that editor's tastes or it may be that the editor is hoping to find short story gold in the slush pile and wants the freedom to bump a pretty good story from one of the semi-invited for a brilliant story discovered in the slush pile.

This is a transition stage for a short story writer. Receiving a semi-invitation is an indication that you have impressed an editor with previous submissions but you haven't quite nailed this editor's needs or tastes. Before writing a new story in response to a semi-invitation, review previous acceptances and rejections from this editor. Try to determine the strengths of the accepted stories and the weaknesses of the rejected stories before you begin.

I've placed at least 20 short stories with three different editors who do this, and nearly every story I wrote for those editors that didn't make the cut has been placed elsewhere.

Lesson: Receiving your first semi-invitation may be a sign that you are improving your skills as a market-first, write-second writer but haven't quite made the transition. Realize, though, that some editors prefer to edit open-call anthologies and the best relationship you will ever develop with them is to become one of the writers with whom they share anthology calls well in advance of opening up their slush pile.

Writing for a repeat market

This involves contributing new work to an editor or to a publication that's already published several of your stories and the editor has indicated she's open to more. This regularly results in a sale.

The editor never requests specific submissions from you, but implicitly (by continuing to publish your stories) or explicitly (by mentioning a desire to see additional work) encourages you to continue submitting. Your submissions probably bypass the slush pile because you have demonstrated an ability to produce market-appropriate stories on a regular basis. Unfortunately, you cannot assume that any specific submission will result in a sale either because you haven't truly mastered the market's needs or because it is a prestigious market that draws submissions from hundreds or even thousands of potential contributors, some of whom are better known, more talented, and harder working than you are. That you have cracked this market more than once is a testament to your ability and determination.

For each of the past 37 consecutive months I have placed one to four short stories with the editor of a pair of women's magazines who has never requested a submission from me. Her primary method of communication is emailing me contracts and, unfortunately, the occasional rejection.

Writing regularly for repeat markets can lead to write-to-order opportunities and to submission invitations, but repeat markets are equally likely to disappear. I've had many long-term repeat markets dry up after an editor was replaced or the magazine changed editorial direction, but I've also had sales increase when new editors looked to existing contributors to fill their needs. And, more than once I've sold stories to the new editor that the previous editor rejected.

Lesson: There is a well-known business belief that it is far easier to keep a current client than it is to gain a new client. The same thinking applies to writing for repeat markets because it is often easier to write and place a new story with a repeat market than it is to write and place a new story with a new market.

Writing to specifications

This involves writing a story specifically to fit the requirements of an open-call anthology or to fit the requirements of a specific magazine.

Writing to specifications is where you begin the transition from a write-first, market-second career to a market-first, write-second career. You may have grown tired of putting your stories on the slush pile merry-go-round and have realized that inspiration is fickle. One day you see an open call for submissions to an anthology that intrigues you or you wonder why you just can't place a story with a magazine to which you've submitted a substantial number of short stories.

You carefully examine the anthology's call for submissions or the magazine's guidelines. Then you find anthologies the editor has previously produced or you gather a substantial number of the magazine's back issues and you study them. You're looking for commonalities among the published stories that may or may not be mentioned in the official guidelines.

Commonalities may be obvious. For example, every story published in True Confessions is narrated in first person, and Woman's World has a strict word-count requirement. Some commonalities may not be obvious and will require a great deal of effort to determine. The commonalities may be in the writing (lush vs. lean) or it may be the gender of the protagonists (mostly male or mostly female) or it may be the overall tenor of the stories (upbeat vs. downbeat).

Once you complete your market study, you write a new story, incorporating as many of the commonalities you discovered as you possibly can.

Writers who don't work like this sometimes view this extensive prewriting market research as the equivalent of painting a picture by using a paint-by-the-numbers kit. It isn't. This market research is the equivalent of studying a project carefully so you know which tools to pull from your literary tool chest in order to successfully complete your writing project. And for some of us, a short story isn't successfully completed until it's published.

Lesson: This may be the best method for breaking into a new market or placing a story with a new editor. Do this often enough and soon you will be writing for repeat markets, and editors of open-call anthologies will give you advance notice of new projects. If you establish your ability to provide finished short story manuscripts on time and on theme, and your interaction with editors remains professional at all times, you may have the opportunity to contribute to an invitation-only anthology or even have the opportunity to write short fiction to order.

Additional thoughts

Becoming a market-first, write-second writer isn't appropriate for every short story writer. The advantages are sometimes counterbalanced by disadvantages.

Nearly every short story I write gets published, but the majority of my work appears in publications out of the mainstream. For example, over the years my crime fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Espionage, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and a handful of anthologies from top publishers, but far more of my crime fiction has appeared in men's magazines. These days much of my crime fiction appears in anthologies--such as the recently published High Octane Heroes (Cleis Press)--which did not mention mystery or crime fiction anywhere in the call for submissions.

Frequent publication in multiple genres has not translated into reader recognition. Several editors who recognize and appreciate my work keep me busy at the keyboard, and a handful of prolific short story writers recognize my name because we often write for the same publications. At the same time, the likelihood of being recognized at a science fiction or mystery convention is slim, and it can be frustrating to have published more short fiction than the combined output of all the other writers on a panel and yet be the least recognized person on the stage.

Shifting sands

Publishing is changing rapidly and everything I know about it may be obsolete before the year ends. I have self-published some short fiction (primarily reprints) for Kindle and other e-readers, but my writing career is still heavily dependent on conventional publication. Despite all the changes in publishing, the market-first, write-second approach to conventional publication allows me to continue a multi-decade string of short-fiction success.

I know there are many more paths to publication than there were when I began but no matter which path you follow, success begins with good storytelling, good writing, market knowledge, professionalism, and persistence.

Trust me. If it took actual talent to become a successful short story writer, I'd still be chasing publication.

25 October 2013

Coffin Ed & Grave Digger Jones

Go back in time to the Sixties. The Police Action in Korea was over and the Vietnam Conflict was going full bore. Riots raged in the streets of many major U.S. cities, for one reason or another. Political agendas were being pushed by every group that thought they had the solution for everybody else. People believed anything was possible, even while poverty dragged at the lower classes. Change was blowing in the wind but still had a long ways to go.

Now find your way to Harlem, above 110th Street, in Manhattan. This is no longer the glitz, glamour and jazz culture of the Roaring Twenties Harlem when cash and booze flowed freely. This is the afterwards Harlem of decaying tenant buildings, corrupt officials, hard to get money and the erection of instant slums. Booze still flowed in bars, after hours joints and house rent parties, but now weed and H had been added to fuel the mixture. Crime ran rampant and violence became an occupational hazard. In the environment of Harlem Precinct, only a certain breed of cop could enforce the law.

Into this stewpot of pimps, prostitutes, weed heads, junkies, con men, gangsters, numbers bankers, thieves, muggers, and killers, author Chester Himes created two police detectives to keep law and order. The citizens of Harlem nicknamed them Coffin Ed and Grave Digger. They were there to protect the common people, the working stiff, the unwary, the naive square. Yet most times, Ed and Digger found it was all they could do to keep the lid on the city's garbage can.

Chester Himes tells their story better than I, so in his words:

Coffin Ed Johnson & Grave Digger Jones

The car scarcely made a sound; for all its dilapidated appearance the motor was ticking almost silently. It passed along practically unseen, like a ghostly vehicle floating in the dark, its occupants invisible.

This was due in part to the fact that both detectives were almost as dark as the night, and they were wearing lightweight black alpaca suits and black cotton shirts with the collars open....they wore their suit coats to cover their big glinting nickle-plated thirty-eight caliber revolvers they wore in their shoulder slings. They could see in the dark streets like cats, but couldn't be seen, which was just as well because their presence might have discouraged the vice business in Harlem and put countless citizens on relief. (Hot Day Hot Night, 1969, originally Blind Man With a Pistol)

Lieutenant Anderson had been on night duty in Harlem for over a year. During that time he had come to know his ace detectives well, and he depended on them. He knew they had their own personal interpretation of law enforcement. Some people they never touched--such as madams of orderly houses of prostitution, operators of orderly gambling games, people connected with the numbers racket, streetwalkers who stayed in their district. But they were rough on criminals of violence and confidence men. And, he had always thought they were rough on dope peddlers and pimps, too. So Grave Digger's casual explanation of Dummy's pimping surprised him. (The Big Gold Dream, 1960)

Coffin Ed was defiant. "Who's beefing?"
"The Acme Company's lawyers. They cried murder, brutality, anarchy, and everything else you can think of. They've filed charges with the police board of inquiry..."
"What the old man say?"
"Said he'd look into it..."
"Woe is us," Grave Digger said. "Every time we brush a citizen gently with the tip of our knuckles, there's shysters on the sidelines to cry brutality, like a Greek chorus." (Hot Day Hot Night, 1969)


On the south side, Harlem is bounded by 110th Street. It extends west to the foot of Morningside Heights on which Columbia University stands. Manhattan Avenue, a block to the east of Morningside Drive, is one of the corner streets that screen the Harlem slums from view. The slum tenants give way suddenly to trees and well-kept apartment buildings where the big cars of the Harlem underworld are parked bumper to bumper. Only crime and vice can pay the high rents charged in such borderline areas. That's where Rufus lived. (The Big Gold Dream, 1960)

The Valley, that flat lowland of Harlem east of Seventh Avenue, was the frying pan of Hell. Heat was coming out of the pavement, bubbling from the asphalt; and the atmospheric pressure was pushing it back to earth like the lid on a pan. (The Heat's On, 1966)

"...The Coroner's report says the victim was killed where he lay. But nobody saw him arrive. Nobody remembers exactly when Chink Charley left the flat. Nobody knows when Dulcy Perry left. Nobody knows for certain if Reverend Short even fell out of the goddamned window. Do you believe that Digger?"
"Why not? This is Harlem where anything can happen."  (The Crazy Kill, 1959)

"Trouble?" Grave Digger echoed. "If trouble was money, everybody in Harlem would be millionaires."  (The Real Cool Killers, 1969)

A Few Notable Citizens

Uncle Saint
Both fired simultaneously.
The soft coughing sound of the silenced derringer was lost in the heavy booming blast of the shotgun.
In his panic, Uncle Saint had squeezed the triggers of both barrels.
The gunman's face disappeared and his thick heavy body was knocked over backward from the impact of the 12-gauge shells.
The rear light of a truck parked beneath the trestle in the middle of the avenue disintegrated for no apparent reason. (The Heat's On, 1966)

Jackson & Imabelle
Assistant DA Lawrence studied Jackson covertly, pretending he was reading his notes. He had heard of gullible people like Jackson, but he had never seen one in the flesh before.

*           *           *           *             *
Suddenly a Judas window opened in the door....
There was a turning of locks and a drawing of bolts, and the door opened outward.
Now Jackson could see the eye and its mate plainly. A high-yellow sensual face was framed in the light of the door. It was Imabelle's face. She was looking steadily into Jackson's eyes. Her mouth formed the words, "Come on in and kill him, Daddy. I'm all yours." Then she stepped back, making space for him to enter. (For Love of Imabelle, 1957, originally A Rage in Harlem)

Casper Holmes (crooked Harlem politician)
Casper Holmes was back in the hospital.
His mouth and eyes were bandaged; he could not see nor talk. There were tubes up his nostrils, and he had been given enough morphine to knock out a junkie.
But he was still conscious and alert. There was nothing wrong with his ears and he could write blind.
He was still playing God. (All Shot Up, 1960)

al fin

Chester Himes was born in 1909 to middle class parents, served time in Ohio for robbery, took up writing while in prison, moved to France to find a better life, won France's La Grand Prix du Roman Policier award for the best detective novel of 1957 (first in his Harlem detectives series), has his original manuscripts in the Yale University Library, and later died in Spain. Three of his detective novels were made into movies, titled: A Rage in Harlem (For Love of Imabelle), Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue (The Heat's On).

24 October 2013

A Question of Grammar

by Eve Fisher

In the course of a misspent life, I've noticed that words are tricky things. Slippery. Even though most people think they know exactly what words mean, what a passage means, what this SAYS - well, maybe not. There are two main reasons for this:

(1) We all interpret everything we read, hear, or say through the filter of our own separate minds, and we can never QUITE get across what is in our minds.

EXAMPLE: I taught (briefly) a creative writing class, and the first exercise I did was say words, and have everyone write down the image it conjured in their minds. Then we compared images. "Apple" was represented by Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, the Apple record logo and, of course, the computer. So much for precision in language - choosing the exact word that everyone will understand the same way...

(2) The actual grammar of language, learned as infants, coded almost into our DNA, leads to far more ambiguity than anyone ever talks about.

I have a lot of examples for the second one, which I personally think is very important. Some of it comes from when I put myself through undergraduate school by teaching ESL classes. I taught Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian, Vietnamese, and Puerto Rican students, and in the course of teaching them English, I learned a lot about my language, their languages, language in general.

English has the largest vocabulary on the planet, because we have incorporated, adopted, and stolen words from every culture we've run across. This gives us a huge array of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives to choose from. So many, that foreign students often got fed up. Just take a look at Roget's Thesaurus some time to understand why.

English has an obsession with time. Most languages make do with simple present, simple past, simple future, conditional past/conditional future (woulda/coulda/shoulda), and the imperfect past (the way things USED to be). English laughs at that simplicity, and slices and dices time until we swim like a fish in a multi-dimensional chronology that we take for granted. The prime example is that English (as far as I know) is the only language with three - count them, THREE - present tenses: I do. I do that often. I am doing it right now. I eat. I eat here often. I am eating. Drove students crazy, and they usually just stuck to the simple present, because they could never figure out the others.

But English is sweet when it comes to nouns, because we don't gender them. ALL our nouns are gender-free. The book; the chair; the woman; the man. All European languages, of course, decline nouns (changing the end depending on where it stands in the sentence) and they also gender nouns - they are male, female, and (sometimes) neuter. What this means is that the pronoun you use after you use the noun must match the gender of the noun. This is a piece of cake in English: I took the book to the library, where I gave it to the librarian. But in French, it would be I took the (male) book to the library, where I gave HIM to the librarian. Well, what's the big whoop about that, you might ask? Allow me to provide an example where changing the pronoun changes the meaning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5, King James Version)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Au commencement était la Parole, et la Parole était avec Dieu, et la Parole était Dieu. Elle était au commencement avec Dieu. Toutes choses ont été faites par elle, et rien de ce qui a été fait n'a été fait sans elle. En elle était la vie, et la vie était la lumière des hommes. La lumière luit dans les ténèbres, et les ténèbres ne l'ont point reçue. (John 1:1-5, Louis Segond version)

Or, to translate it literally from French to English [my emphasis added], "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. SHE was in the beginning with God. All things were made by HER, and nothing of what was made was made without HER. In HER was the life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not receive HER."

A slight difference. With implications. For one thing (aside from all questions of faith or Catholic doctrine) I think it helps explain the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and the concept (later doctrine) of Mary as Mediatrix of all the graces.

On a lighter note, my favorite example of differences in translation:

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (KJV, Matt. 5:5)
"Heureux les débonnaires, car ils hériteront la terre!" (Louis Segon, MAtt. 5:5)
Let me assure you, les debonnaires are not the meek... they are the good-natured, the easy going. THEY will inherit the earth, at least in France!

Pronouns matter; words matter; grammar matters. Think about that the next time you read a Maigret, or a Steig Larsson - or the next time someone tells you, "just do what it says."

PS:  By the way, the fact that all of the quotes above are from the Bible is in no way deliberate - it's just that the Bible has about the only books that I've read both in French & English.  Almost all the other books that I have read in French, I have only read in French.

23 October 2013

End of Days

I've been reading Max Hastings' ARMAGEDDON, which is about the last year of WWII in Europe, from D-Day to the German surrender. It's a door-stopper of a book, but he's a very skillful writer, and he lays out the campaign in vivid detail.

He tells the story from the shifting points of view of the four major armies, British, American, German, and Russian, and he makes even as confusing a fight as Arnhem transparent in its folly. (Hastings doesn't suffer fools gladly, and Montgomery comes in for his lumps, but so do quite a few others.) I highly recommend it.

Now, he's got a book out about the origins of the First World War, called CATASTROPHE. You'd think this ground had been pretty thoroughly plowed, but Hastings revisits an earlier argument, that Germany was the primary belligerent, and is most at fault for starting the war.

Many of us, probably, take for granted the received wisdom that Europe's major players in 1914 went over the cliff like lemmings, helpless in the grip of events they couldn't control, both the Entente and the Central Powers caught in a tangle of alliances that didn't allow them any wiggle room.

This is the case Barbara Tuchman makes in THE GUNS OF AUGUST, still the most influential history of events, and her view is backed up by Sir John Keegan and Paul Fussell, among others, but it wasn't always so.

Winston Churchill always held Germany responsible, as did a number of his contemporaries, John Buchan, for one. (Churchill is in fact known to think that both wars were continuous, and that the years from 1918 to 1939 were no more than a static interlude of false hope.) This is why Woodrow Wilson had such a tough sell at Versailles, because Clemenceau and the Brits insisted that the Germans accept full blame, and pay crippling reparations. The humiliation of the peace, and the collapse of the German economy, almost certainly led to Weimar's paralysis, and the rise of Hitler.

So the calamity of 1914 is well worth another look, and Hastings takes a very contrary position. In his reading, Germany is the aggressor, and Russia, France, and Great Britain were forced into the war by necessity. Germany was at this time Britain's chief rival, both in Europe and the world. They challenged Britain's fleet, and British colonial interests, in Africa and elsewhere. Britain's fortunes, politically and economically, rested on a stable international order. German amibitions upset that order.

After the June, 1914, assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Bosnian nationalist, London had every reason to believe Berlin would exploit the Balkan crisis. Leaving aside the fact that Austria-Hungary had its own internal tensions, Germany did indeed turn the situation to their advantage. Their intention, if they could persuade France to remain neutral, was to attack Russia, but avoid a war on two fronts.

In the event, when Germany invaded Belgium that August, beginning their offensive in the West, to eliminate the French threat, everybody's calculations went off the rails. You have to look at the chronology of mobilization, which is complicated, and then decide whether Germany was bluffing, or trying to buy the pot, without in fact going to war, but it seems to me Hastings has got it right. The actions of the British, the French, and the Russians were taken in reaction to German saber-rattling. A general European war might never have happened, if Germany had shown any interest in conciliation, but their air was to dismantle British hegemony, and establish a German one, in central Europe, annexing Poland, and across their colonial empire, particularly in central Africa. The result, in a word, was catastrophe, for all involved.

The sense that nobody in particular caused the war,that it was a slide over the brink, brought on by accident, mutual suspicion, intransigence, or denial---Christopher Clark's book about it is called THE SLEEPWALKERS---is somehow oddly comforting, as if we're not responsible for history, which has its own logic and momentum, and sweeps us away, captive to a fall of the dice. But man makes history, for good or ill. We're captive to our own nature. In the end, nothing is written, and the waters are uncharted.

22 October 2013

A Back Story

       My article today is going to be a little on the lite side. Mea culpa, but let me explain.

       Once a year I teach a graduate course at the University of Denver on the history of transportation development and regulation in the United States. My wife refers to this this as my annual “teachapalooza.” What I do is deliver a 7 hour lecture on transportation development in the United States. This means I cover about 38 years and hour. 

       Even though I have done this for five years now, the task is still daunting and preparation consumes a large amount of my time for a week or so prior to the course. This year’s teachapalooza was last Wednesday, and I flew back to Washington D.C. last Thursday. This would normally have provided me with ample time to pull together an article for Tuesday except for one little fact -- my wife and I were scheduled to leave Saturday for a family reunion in Nags Head North Carolina. And our beach cottage there has (believe it or not) no internet. 

Available at news stands!
       Everything, therefore, came down to Friday. And what you, faithful (I hope) readers have is a shorter entry this time around. So, what I thought I would do, within the constraints outlined above, is tell a funny back story about writing pastiches and, specifically, about writing my recent Ellery Queen story, Literally Dead, which appears in the December edition of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

        One of the hurdles involved in writing a pastiche -- at least a pastiche concerning a character, such as Ellery, who is still in copyright -- is that each story I write has to be cleared prior to publication by the heirs of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Luckily for me submitting stories to the Dannay and Lee families is far from a burden -- they have always been accommodating and, more to the point, it has been great fun to get to know, and to exchange emails with, the likes of Richard Dannay and Rand Lee. This is something that, as an Ellery Queen fan for decades, makes my day. 

        But back to today's story.  As I have said on many occasions, I abhor spoilers. Nevertheless I’m going to tell you just a bit about what transpires in Literally Dead since the story that follows only makes sense if you have been forearmed. 

        To begin with, it hardy tells too much to point out that in every Ellery Queen story someone inevitably must bite the dust. No exception with mine. While that crucial (and lamented) central character takes a few pages in my story to be done in, if you have any background at all in reading “fair play” mysteries you will have seen it coming from the very beginning.  The story introduces a famous author, Jennifer Kaye Rothkopf, who has just completed the seventh, and (to the dismay of many) final, volume of a fantasy series that tells the story of a young man who has been educated in a famous sorcery school. As I said, you can easily guess what is going to happen to poor Jennifer. 

        When the story was accepted for publication by Janet Hutchings I sent it off, as usual, to RIchard Dannay, himself an intellectual properties attorney in New York City, so that he could share it with the other Dannay and Lee heirs for their (hoped for!) approval. In due course I received the following email from Richard: 
Dale: Well done! I must say that your description of the murdered victim, author of the seven-book fantasy series involving a young sorcerer, led me to believe that you would be invoking the last two words of "The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats." Anyway, here's the agreement [allowing for the use of Ellery and other Queen-created characters]. If okay, just email back a signed and dated copy. Best. -- rd 
        Okay. Even as someone who is sort of known for his supposed in-depth knowledge of the works of Queen I was completely stumped. I had only the vaguest memory of the story to which Richard referred. I immediately went to my Ellery Queen library and found the story, one of the entries in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, published way back in 1934. My copy of the short story anthology was no spring chicken itself -- the volume still had the receipt in it. I had purchased it for ten cents at a used book fair in St. Louis in 1961, when I was all of 12 years old.  I remembered reading the stories at the time, but not since. No wonder it had faded from memory. 

       I resisted the temptation to turn to the last page in search of the two words to which Richard alluded. Instead I sat down to re-read the story for the first time in 50 years. (Gad, I hate being able to say that!) 

        Suffice it to say this story, sadly, was not Ellery at his best.  It also featured more gore than the reader of a golden age mystery usually anticipates, including the serial demise of those cats. But I persevered, all the way to the last page.  And right up until the bottom of that page I had absolutely no idea what Richard was talking about. And then all became clear. 

        The last two words in The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats are “Harry Potter.”

[Correction Note:  The original version of this article referred to the works of Ellery Queen as being "in the public domain."  The obvious error in that statement is that it should have said "Ellery Queen is NOT in the public domain."  Oops, and sorry about that!  Richard Dannay, in an email, called my attention to this error.  The Queen works are not in the public domain and are, in fact, as Richard points out, protected under copyright laws.  The article has been changed to reflect that fact.  

Also deleted from this version is a reference to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes works as being in the public domain.  That reference has been omitted in light of the continuing (and very interesting) litigation relating to the literary protections that currently are to be accorded to the Sherlock Holmes stories.  

-- Dale C. Andrews, January 5, 2015]

21 October 2013

Thoughts on Writing

Today, I offer some greats thoughts on writing, used with his permission, from the multiple award winning author, Joe R. Lansdale. Joe's new book is The Thicket, recently released.  A story set at the turn of the Century and the East Texas oil boom. Young Jack Parker faces tragedy and catastrophe time and time again as love and vengeance follows him.  Oh, and don't forget to give a listen to Restless, the new album by his daughter, Kasey Lansdale.    — Jan Grape

by Joe R. Lansdale

  1. When I write I seldom know where it is going. I discover this every day. Now and again a story drops full blown into my head and it is just a matter of putting it down as quickly as possible, and in some cases novels are like that. Most of my work comes fast but I still work to make it good, and the next day I start all over by rereading what I wrote the day before.
  2. I try and do a reasonable amount each day so I'm a hero every day. Three to five pages is what I work for, but I don't fight it if I get more. I rarely get less. I can't remember when I got less, but it happens. This amount of pages is perfect for me, but may not be for you. But I suggest something reasonable. If I try to write a lot of pages day after day I burn out, and I push the story uncomfortably, and past what my subconscious is working on.
  3. I write each day until I feel myself starting to fizzle. When I feel that I usually quit, so that when I finish I can put it away in my head and let my subconscious work. I rarely ever work consciously on something, and it's why I don't collaborate much, because you almost have to do that when you work with someone. I like to write and quit and not think about it anymore, other than in the subconscious way. When I get up the next morning and start out again it is there. On the rare occasion when it's not I take a day off. If it's not there two days in a row, then I know I'm just being lazy and I play a word game or tell myself I will write one sentence or one paragraph, and this usually turns into a day's work.
  4. I don't prepare for the next day's work when I finish. I let it go and try not to do that. Once in a while something will come through or I'll see something that will cause me to spring up in the middle of the night and start typing. But mostly if I think too much about it, it's like burning a short wick, but if I forget about it until it's time, the wick is lengthened overnight. I try not to think about success or failure but only that I want to make it good and entertain myself. As I have said before I write for me because I'm the only audience I truly know. I don't write for the reader, but when I finish I hope the reader is a lot like me. Frankly, when I write I try to write like everyone I know is dead. This way I'm not worried about what anyone thinks.
  5. Another thing that works well for me is to read a little before I write. It can be fifteen minutes or an hour. This makes words feel comfortable. I try to read something different from what I'm writing, but not necessarily. I try to read off and on throughout the day, and have some days where I take the whole day off to read because I know I need it. I have some weeks where I read more than others, but I always read, and I usually manage three or four books a week—novels, or the equal in short stories, not to mention a variety of odds and ends I might read. Reading is the fuel, and you have to fill up the tank constantly.
  6. I have had some writers tell me they don't like to read when they write, but since I write a lot, when would I read? I don't think there's anything wrong with reading while you write. For me it would be wrong not to read while I write, or miss out on reading because it's something I love to do, even if I did not write.
  7. You should try to write naturally, I think, and what is natural to one may not feel natural to another. You should try to write in such a way that when your writing is examined it seems as if it is written on air and hard to duplicate. What makes writing work really well isn't the subject matter—though that helps. It's the way the writer puts it down and a good writer can make something normally banal seem interesting.
  8. Thinking ahead too much gives you time to worry. Let each new day be just that: a new day. Surprise yourself. Somedays the surprises won't be as good as others, but they should still be worth it. And the days it really surprises you, that's great. When you look at it finished you might be amazed to discover that it's all pretty surprising. You hope.
  9. Lastly, anyone who takes these thoughts and suggestions as law-of-the-land should be tarred and feathered. Well, made stand in the corner. These suggestions work for me and have worked for many others and might work for you. And they might not. But to find your method you have to experiment. Some of the way I work is advice I got from a writer who I spoke to years ago, and he doesn't still work that way.

Lots of readers have asked if I would do a writing book, and I think about it. But I also think that writing books haven't done much for me. Two have helped, and only for certain things. One had one piece of advice I have used, and the other had advice that helped me when I was starting out, but would probably be worthless to anyone starting out now. The first helped because it had the idea of writing only one page a day. That became three to five for me. The other had a lot of market advice that applied to the era in which it was written. That helped. Not so much now.

So many writing books have charts and arcs and all manner of things that really have nothing to do with the sound of the prose, the voice of a character, attitudes based on their past ... all of which you as a writer should know. I don't chart that past. It becomes too solid then. At some point I know why a character acts a certain way, good or bad. And I know too that whatever character I write about, they have to have both traits. Good and bad. But telling someone that and them doing it is another thing altogether.

Do I write for money? Yes and no. I write because I love to write, but I write with the plan to get paid. I pay bills by writing. I love to do it, but also love to do it for a certain amount of money. But I would write for nothing if I had a story I wanted to write and there wasn't a paying market for it. I would write it and put it away if I had to. Or I would sell it to a lower-paying market. I try not to do that, but I do from time to time.

You should write to be paid and start in the best market possible. Have faith in yourself. If it doesn't place where you like, go down the list. Find a home. Seeing something in print you're proud of spurs more creativity and more checks. You need both in this life. Starving and being paid poorly does not make you an artist.

For me writing is a passion, not an obsession. One is good and fun, the other feels a little like you're stalking yourself. I have to have things in my life other than writing to love the writing. I think if all I had was writing it would consume me. Not the life I want.

20 October 2013

William McGonagall– One Really Bad Poet

William McGonagall
William McGonagall
Imagine a poet so bad, so awful, so lacking in metaphoric skill and seemly imagery, that he left audiences appalled, unable to absorb the shock of the abuse of the English language. When he recited his works in pubs, patrons pelted him with fish and flour, rotten eggplants and eggs. Unsurprisingly, he died a pauper.

I hasten to add that this poet (and actor, tragedian, and weaver) was not North American or even Australian, but British, Scottish to be precise, known as the poet of Dundee. In 1893, he felt so abused, he wrote a poem threatening to leave his fair town, whereupon a newspaper wrote he'd probably stay for another year once he realised "that Dundee rhymes with '93".

But as bad as this poet was, his works live on and remain in print to this day. Web sites and encyclopedia articles appear in his honour. A few years ago, a collection of his poems sold for £6600, more than $10,000. Nearly a century after his death, fans erected a grave marker in his honour. One of his contemporary admirers wrote without irony "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this." This is William McGonagall.

Marked for Greatness

Hoping to secure a royal patron, he wrote to Queen Victoria with a sample of his work. A clerk for VR returned a polite thank you note, which McGonagall misinterpreted as praise. He trekked on foot to Balmoral Castle in a driving storm, soaked to the skin. Upon arrival, he announced he was the Queen's Poet, which surprised the guards and greeters who well knew Alfred, Lord Tennyson. They sadly turned him away, leaving him to trudge back to Dundee, a 200km round trip.

Author Stephen Pile explains it this way: McGonagall "was so giftedly bad, he backed unwittingly into genius." So like Edward Bulwer-Lytton and William Spooner, William Topaz McGonagall became famous for actions in the breach rather than talent. Or maybe they were all smarter than we.

Before we turn to his most (in)famous poem, I should mention 'Topaz' was not his middle name. Rather, acquaintances constructed an elaborate joke and 'punked' him, so to speak. They sent the poor poet an official looking letter from the Burmese King Thibaw Min, appointing McGonagall Burma's poet laureate and knighting him Topaz McGonagall, Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant Burmah. Thereafter, McGonagall referred to himself as "Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant."

Frankly, I'm starting to think McGonagall may have been a mad genius.

Less than Serious Portrayals

I'm grateful to our SleuthSayers fans. Shortly after this went to press, a reader sent a link to a discussion of the poet and a partial reading by the actor Billy Connolly.

That, in turn, led to this comic skit from four decades ago. The web page doesn't elucidate, but Spike Milligan of The Goon Show and Q5-Q9 fame appears to play McGonagall. I'm not 100% certain, but I believe Peter Sellers is playing Queen Victoria.

And now, a reading…

In the following poem, most readers content themselves with the first and last stanzas without further torturing themselves with those in between. Feel free to do the same.

The Tay Bridge Disaster

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say–
"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say–
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.