24 January 2019

The Pensieve and the Ouroboros

by Brian Thornton

So I recently raced a deadline on a story I needed to write for an anthology I've been working on in one form or another for the better part of a year. I'd wrapped my edits on all of the contributions of the other authors being featured in said anthology, and I needed to finish my own piece for publication.

And then I did what I so often do in January.

I got sick.

Death's Door. Walking pneumonia.

Guess what? Deadlines don't care.

And as much as I complained and moaned and kvetched about the need to work on this story while feeling absolutely as if I had just been run over by a truck (and taking very little in the way of sick time off from my day gig), there was a part of me that would not let go of the writing project, that insisted I get out of the sick bed and work my way through the story.

And a weird thing happened.

I slogged through a complete draft, and given how lousy I felt, I departed from my standard writing process on it. I usually circle back and revise as I go on a first draft. I re-read, I polish, and then I move on. This method, while slow-going, has always done a pretty decent job of keeping my head in the story, or, as I am fond of saying to my Harry Potter-loving wife: "in the Pensieve."

I haven't read the books, just love the movies. But the analogy is apt.
I've talked about it before, especially here, at some length. Every writer knows what it's like to try to keep one's head in the story during the time it takes to finish the story. It's like dipping your head into the Pensieve, the magical pool in the headmaster's office at Hogwarts where you can skate through the memories of other people. And that's about as poetic and allegorical as I will likely ever get about the act of creating fiction.

This time, however, I didn't go back and polish as I wrote. I had an ending and I had a plot. So I wrote the beginning, then the ending, and then I galloped through the middle (so often cursed by struggling writers as "the muddle."). And it worked.

Not only did I manage to keep my fevered head in the metaphorical pensieve, I think I managed to answer another of writing life's little niggling questions as well. Namely:

What is the secret to staying energized and on track as a writer?

And the answer is: make like an Ouroboros.

The earliest known artistic representation of the snake eating itself tail-first: known by the Greeks as the Ouroboros.
That's what good writing thrives on. Making like an Ouroboros.

I know I just said I jettisoned the part of my writing process where I circled back during first drafts and revised, polished and cleaned up as I went. So now I'm saying you ought to make like the ancient snake symbol which completes a circle by swallowing its own tail?

Yes. That is precisely what I'm saying. In order to keep your head in the story, you've got to be producing. The power you generate when you're really committed, deeply engaged with the writing progress, can tend to energize, rather than exhaust you.

So like the Ouroboros, the creative energy of your writing will tend to feed upon itself, and fuel your next session, and your next, and your next. It can sustain a writer nearly indefinitely, if that writer can figure out how to balance everything else going on in their life, and surf that wave, keep their head in the story, and let the energy created keep pushing them onward toward the finish line.

Those of you who get it, get it. And you know exactly what I'm talking about.

So how to do it?

The toughest part seems to be getting started. The second toughest, once started, is not allowing oneself to ever be completely stopped.

In other words, always be working on something. Even if it's writing in your journal (you know, the one you keep where you write about your works in progress. If you don't have one, GET one!). Keep that pump primed and the word count will keep flowing.

If I sound pie-in-the-sky optimistic, sue me. I am publishing my first piece of complete fiction for the first time since my son was a year old.

He's SIX now.

And this is a good thing, because I have several projects lined up for the year, and I really can't afford an extended writing drought.

So I guess I need to keep making like this:



So I can keep doing this:



And on that note, I've got another deadline to get cranking on. See you in two weeks, when I'll be ready to give details on the one I just sent off to the publisher!

23 January 2019

Stopping Power

David Edgerley Gates

"You know that's my ought-six - look at the size of that hole!"
                                                                                           (The Wild Bunch)

There's a longstanding disagreement in gun circles about how much gun you need, which is basically unanswerable. Talking about caliber and magazine capacity, bullet weight and muzzle velocity, is like talking to fly fisherman about lures. Everything's relative, and in the end, it all comes down to whether or not you catch the fish.

The benchmark people generally use is the one-shot stop. In point of fact, a .22 short in the back of the head will kill you, and it's conventional wisdom that mob hitters like it because the .22 short is subsonic, so you can use a suppressor. On the other hand, if we're talking about a person of large body mass charging at us with a sharpened screwdriver in their hand, and possibly whacked out on Angel Dust, many law enforcement personnel would choose the .45 ACP, which has a solid, immediate impact.

More than a few things come into play here, not least adrenaline and endorphins. FBI studies indicate that the average number of rounds fired in a close engagement are two-point-something. Obviously, this means some people empty a full magazine and some people never get a shot off, but for the sake of argument, let's simply say that if you're lucky, you'll have time for two shots. Your range instructor will tell you to aim for center body mass - but he or she won't say 'aim,' they want you to point and shoot, they want you to acquire the modified Weaver with muscle memory, don't second-guess yourself, let the reptile brain lock it in.

The rest is kinetic energy.

In the 1870's, during the Indian Wars, the U.S. Army issue sidearm was the Colt single-action, chambered in .45 Long Colt. These were replaced in 1892 by a double-action revolver, with a swing-out cylinder for the faster reload, in .38 caliber.  In the Philippine Campaign, the .38's proved ineffective, and eventually the Army adopted the .45 ACP autoloader designed by John Browning, the 1911.

Cop shops follow fashion, of course. For many years, everybody carried .38's. Revolvers, usually Smiths or Colts, the Model 10 or the Police Positive. And they shot off-hand, body at right-angles to the target, the shooter's arm fully extended. The two-handed stances, Isosceles and Weaver, were a later development. Same with the ammo. Sometime in the 1960's, the .357 S&W Magnum, developed some years earlier by Elmer Keith, hot-loading the .38 Special, found new favor with state troopers and highway patrol. With a muzzle velocity of 1200 to 1500 feet per second, the .357 readily penetrated an unarmored vehicle.

Then, in the 1980's (and I may not have the dates exactly right - or maybe the shift isn't all that exact, either), a lot of big-city police departments went to semi-autos, Smith, Sig, and Glock. They were primarily high-capacity nine-millimeters: Glock furnished a 17-round magazine. Not everybody was a fan.

One cop I know told me a story. He and his partner had a felony traffic stop. They approach the car on either side. His partner's over by the driver's door. The passenger points a weapon at him. My buddy's taken up position by the right front fender. He draws his gun and fires. And misses, from no more than five feet away. Because the curve of the windshield deflects his first shot. The muzzle velocity of the 9MM is 1500 fps, but the bullet weight is too light. Heavy and slow is more effective.

For all I know, this story is apocryphal, or exaggerated for effect. When cops tell war stories, they tend to tell the self-deprecating ones, where they're the butt of the joke. I think the story's true, though. You hear GI's say similar things about the Beretta nine - it underperforms. You want something that puts the other guy down flat on his ass.

To this end, the FBI cozied up to the 10MM, a pet project of Col. Jeff Cooper, who was also an enormous influence on combat pistol shooting generally (he founded what later became Gunsite). The first pistol chambered for it, the Bren Ten, was essentially a boutique gun, but Colt came out with the Delta Elite, and Smith with the 1076. It turned out the 10MM had too much felt recoil for a lot of shooters. and the grip frame was cumbersome, a consequence of the oversize magazines. (In the event, FBI Hostage Rescue and SWAT teams use the 10MM, but it's a specialty weapon.) Smith & Wesson shortened the cartridge case and came up with the .40 Smith, now one of the most widely used commercial loads in law enforcement.

There is, in all of this, an orphan. Back in the late 1920's, the .38 Super was introduced, a pistol cartridge designed for the recoil-operated 1911 automatic, based on the .38 ACP but loaded to higher pressures. It was hot. It would go through a car, it could penetrate a bulletproof vest. John Dillinger is said to have carried one. 

Now, truth be told, I didn't know from the .38 Super, because it had fallen from favor. It got knocked off its perch by the .357 Mag. The first I heard about was when it made a cameo appearance in Stephen Hunter's Black Light - a shoot-out in a cornfield with Bob Lee Swagger's dad, Earl - and it was characterized as a real pistolero's weapon. Come to find out, Steve Hunter hadn't been conversant with the .38 Super, either. He found out about it when he was reading up on The Wild Bunch, and it turns out they couldn't use .45's in the movie, because the 1911 wouldn't cycle .45 blanks. You could only fire one shot. The workaround was that they bought surplus .38 Supers down in Mexico, and the guns ran all day.

OK, if you're Steve Hunter, what do you do with that information? You say to yourself, How soon can I get me one? (And as a footnote, what do you do if you're me, with that information? You go on GunBroker.)

I know you're rolling the tape back - why Mexico? Because in Mexico, and a number of other countries in Central and South America, they restrict the heavier pistol calibers to military and police. You can't legally own a .45, for example. (We're not talking about the cartels, we're talking about legal civilian use.) The heaviest chambering allowed is the .38 Super, and there's a big after-market.


I know much of this is only of interest to gear nuts like me (or Steve Hunter), but it has to do with getting things right, which means knowing what questions to ask. I love picking up odd details, and often as not the collateral information is every bit as interesting as whatever your original focus was. We're magpies, distracted by something glittery in our peripheral vision.


22 January 2019

I've Crossed A Line -- Warning: Rated X for Expletives

by Barb Goffman

You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take the New York out of the girl. That's my explanation for why I often pepper my speech with expletives. Anyone who read my 2017 column  titled "The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing" knows I'm quite comfortable with the word fuck. I've used it and other curse words in my stories without issue.

How often? I just ran a search of my published stories, and here are the results:

  • Asshole -- used in two stories (6% of all my published stories).
  • Fuck -- used in two stories (6%). A surprisingly low number. I'll have to work on that.
  • Shit -- used in four stories (12%).
  • Bastard -- used in five stories (16%).
  • Bitch -- used in fifteen stories (48%!). I might have to tone this one down.
Given these results, you'd think I didn't often write light cozy stories. And yet there's one big curse word missing from the list. One word that, until last week, I had never used in a published story. Can you figure out what it is? Here's a hint: it rhymes with the word for the smallest animal in a litter. See, I have so much trouble with this word, I'm squeamish about even typing it here, in an academic (ish) discussion about using curse words in my fiction. The word is ...

Cunt. There I said it.

And I'm cringing.

There is just something about this word that, to me at least, crosses a line. I know some of you are reading this thinking I must have no lines. But I do. And cunt crosses it. That's why I never say it. And until now I've never used it in my fiction.

So why did I make this exception? And was it a good choice?

To answer these questions, let's turn to the story in question. It's my newest story, "Punching Bag," which was published last week in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries, an e-zine that showcases crime flash fiction. I'm delighted that not only did editors BJ and Brandon Bourg choose to publish it, but they also chose it as the cover story and as the editors' choice story for the issue. It's the story of the darkest day in an emotionally abused teenage girl's life.

Let's stop here for a moment. I'm afraid that anything I say from here on will ruin the story for you if you haven't read it. So please go do so. The story is only 748 words long--the equivalent of three double-spaced pages. You can read it really quickly by clicking on the title in the prior paragraph. Then come back.

Okay, you've read it? Good. (I hope you liked it.)

You'll notice that the use of curse words is minimal. Toward the end the mom says the daughter is stupid and calls her a "disappointing, ungrateful bitch," and other unspecified names. That was all I planned to say about the matter originally, figuring readers could extrapolate from there. But one of my trusted beta readers told me she didn't think the girl was justified in killing her parents. She thought the girl came across as spoiled and selfish. I was surprised. I definitely didn't want that. I wanted readers to understand this girl, to be on her side, despite that she does a horrible thing. So I felt I needed to up the ante. That's when I added the part about her mom calling her a "self-centered cunt."

I figured if anything in this story was going to turn readers' perception of this girl from spoiled to sort-of justified, it would be that. If the word cunt crosses a line for me, I hoped, it would cross a line for readers, too--at least any readers whose line hadn't already been crossed by the mom's behavior.

So I submitted the story. But I worried. Was the use of the word cunt too much? Would it keep the story from being accepted? Then, once the story was accepted, I worried about readers. Would the word turn them off? Especially readers who know me primarily for my lighthearted, funny stories? The answer: So far, so good. I've gotten some feedback on "Punching Bag," and it's all been positive, with no one mentioning my use of that word. This response has helped me feel better about my choice, despite that the word still makes me cringe.

What do you think? Would you have been on the girl's side at the end if I hadn't included the "self-centered cunt" line? Or did the line push you onto the girl's side? Or do you think I went too far? What words cross your line?

One final note to my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti: Last week you wrote briefly about your newest flash short story (which is fewer than 700 words long), saying you were keeping things short because only English professors could get away with writing something about a story that is longer than the story itself. Ha ha, Rob! I have proven you wrong, because this blog about "Punching Bag" (excluding this paragraph) is 29 words longer than the story itself, and I am no English professor. Do I get a prize? Please don't make me become an English professor. I wouldn't last. I'd surely get written up for cursing in front of my students.

21 January 2019

Know When To Fold 'Em

by Steve Liskow

Successful poker players recognize when they don't have a winning hand and fold before they toss good money after bad. It's like the Old Kenny Rogers song. Eventually, you learn lessons that work the same way in writing. Some ideas are bad, and repeating them won't make them any better.

 Last year, I participated in three author events that featured a cast the size of a Russian novel. Last March, my library brought 31 authors together, from all genres, and asked us to speak for five minutes each. That's two and a half hours of speakers for an event that would only last three hours. Many of us cut our remarks short or didn't speak at all, but by the time everyone was through, most of the audience left. So did many of the authors. I sold two books and don't know if anyone else sold more than that.

On a beautiful Saturday in June, the first perfect beach day of the season, I joined 18 other mystery writers at a Barnes & Noble. My experience is that if you put more than four writers in the same genre together, they cancel each other out. To make things even worse, this store wanted us to speak for 15 minutes each (Math wasn't the manager's strong suit), and a demonstration against the current immigration policy took off a mile away at the same time we did. We outnumbered the patrons who came into the store, even with a Starbuck's downstairs.

The same results transpired with 15 writers at a local venue in December. We represented several genres, but how many people come to an event planning to buy 15 books? I talked to ten of the other writers (most of us left early), and nobody sold a book.

Was it Einstein who said insanity is running the same experiment over and over the same way and expecting to get different results? Whoever it was, he was right.

Last summer, another library where I'd been trying to get a workshop off the ground for four years invited me to participate in a local event. Pending further details, I said I was interested. The tentative date was April, which gave me time to order books, get a haircut, and iron a shirt, right?

Three weeks ago, the librarian sent the result of four months' planning. They wanted four mystery writers to present a panel (No topic mentioned) from 10:30 to 11:30. Three more panels would follow, and all authors could sell and sign books from 2:30 to 4:00. No refreshments, no activity while panels that people might not wish to attend, no further details.

I decided this was a losing hand and bailed out (See Einstein and Kenny Rogers).

Since November, two indie bookstores have opened within 15 miles of my condo. One offers a consignment split with local authors at 55%-45%, the worst deal I've ever seen. Writers pay a fee to get into the store's data base to sell those books, and the store will only take three copies of a book. Given that arrangement, I can't break even. But if they DON'T sell the three books, they don't refund my fee. As real estate magnate Hollis Norton said back in the 80's "It takes money to make money, but nobody said it had to be your money."

Buh-bye...

The other store requested an email through their site that included a book title, ISBN, synopsis, cover shot, my website, my social media, and a bio. I was tempted to include a blood sample, but couldn't attach it to the email. I don't want to do an author event, but I'd like to know the consignment split. I've sent them three emails over the last month.

They haven't responded yet. This looks like another bad hand.

I only sent a story to one market that didn't pay. They offered to promote my newest book, though. They published a black and white photo with no explanation on pulp paper (the dark cover became three blobs in shades of gray), formatted my story so the right margin looked like a seismograph, and asked me to get two reviews. The people I asked both gave the magazine a two-star review on Amazon and got hate mail in return.

Sayanora, Kid. Have a nice day.

Maybe I'm getting grumpy in my old age. Or maybe I've finally figured out that  I can use the time to write another scene or story. Or practice guitar. Or pet our cat. Or...

20 January 2019

Florida News– Year in Review

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard
It’s been quite a while since the last posting vis-à-vis the madness that constitutes Florida. Ask Dave Barry. Ask Carl Hiaasen. Ask Fark.com, which awarded Florida its own tag, the only state to have earned that, er, particular honor. It’s time to review this past year.

Scott-Free

Tallahassee, FL.  Since we last spoke, our crooked Governor Rick Scott has now become our crooked Senator Rick Scott. I use the word ‘crook’ accurately and advisedly. After all, this is a crime site, not a political blog, and from a criminal standpoint, Rick Scott has made us all proud. In the land of crooks, cons, and craziness, how did he accomplish such singular honor?

Scott engineered the most massive Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history. After fines of $1.7-billion– that’s ‘billion’ with a ‘B’– he left the lucrative health care business a very wealthy man. In 2010, he turned his jaundiced sights on a fresh target– politics– where he outspent the Florida Republican party to win the nomination, and then outspent the Florida Democratic party to win the governorship. Now he becomes an unbecoming senator. Pass the fermented orange juice, please.

Reptilian Brain

St. Augustine, FL.  Sheesh. Stay out of the pool if you can’t tell a crocodile from an alligator. But wait, there’s more: The dude’s accused of  jumping in while wearing Crocs. A reptilian brain trumps no brain at all.

Leave Fluffy Alone!

Clearwater, FL.  Where’s that crocodile when we need him? A year and a half earlier at Orlando Executive Airport, an alligator took a bite out of an airplane wing. That’s not unusual, but this plane was in flight.

Tuff Mothers

Sarasota, FL.  My tiny 5-foot nothing mom was a fearsome spitfire, but these bitches fight with broken glass. It’s that reptilian brain, see.

Bouncing’s Not Only for Checks

Jacksonville, FL.  It’s not funny. Police are hunting a masked man who beat a dozing laundromat patron with a pogo stick. Was it a lack of coordination or the extra starch? Next Up: Assault with a deadly unicycle.
Note:  When I first heard this story, I chuckled in disbelief at the peculiarity of Florida. Later I learned the victim died from the oddball attack. It’s wise to remember even the goofiest crimes can have dire real-world consequences. To my knowledge, police have not located the perpetrator nor know a reason for the attack.

Extra Starch Again: It’s the Carbs

Yulee, FL. Stick a fork in it,” a North Florida man took seriously. He stabbed a poor woman in the head for undercooking his potato. What an idiot. Think she’ll ever bake a spud for him again? Lucky for him, Nassau County jail serves all the fries he can eat.

Damn, the Driver Missed

Jacksonville, FL.  Why chase ambulances when clients come to your door?

No Relation to Catherine the Great

Citra, FL.  I’m… I’m without words… and creeped out. I’ve heard of kinky pony girls, but this bizarre bozo leaves me speechless.

Kill ’em with Kindness

Milton, FL.  Can’t say our bad guys don’t wield a sense of humor. In Santa Rosa County, a wannabe killer scrawled ‘kindness’ on the blade of his machete and attacked his neighbor. The real shocker is this product of Florida education spelt the word correctly.

It’s the Carbs, Man

Lake City, FL.  Let’s close on a sweet, feel-good story ya gotta love. Cops rescued a stolen Krispy Kreme Doughnut truck and about a zillion maple-glazed, which they (munch, munch) shared with homeless folks. (urp, ’scuse me)

Orlando, FL.  An Orlando officer showed considerably less humor when he complained to a call-in talk show about that stereotype of police and doughnuts. A radio engineer isolated the background noise and realized he was phoning from a Dunkin’ Donuts.

19 January 2019

For Fun or for Profit?


by John M. Floyd


In a discussion with some fellow short-story writer friends several weeks ago, a familiar question was asked:

How much should we expect to be paid for what we write?

Oddly, about a third of the group maintained that if you write well, then by God you should be paid well for it. Another third said it all depends. The final third said they just want to be published, period--any kind of pay would be icing on the cake.

It will surprise none of you that most of the folks who insisted that we must always be paid well are those established authors who publish regularly in prestigious markets--and the writers who didn't care whether they're paid or not are mostly beginners. The middle third were, well, somewhere in the middle.

I'm one of those. I have an odd take on this issue. In theory, I agree with the first group. Fiction writers, like any other craftsmen, should expect fair compensation for what we create, and we shouldn't waste the result of our hard work on those who won't or can't pay us for it. It's sort of like the hot-dog vendor on the street corner. He has something of value to sell and he has customers who want his product. They don't expect him to work for nothing.

Actually, though (and I'm a little reluctant to admit it), this whole writing gig is so much fun, I'd probably continue to do it whether I sold anything for real dollars or not. Writing is, after all, not my primary career; I'm retired from my primary career. And the truth is, even though I like money as well as the next guy, I do sometimes (not often) submit stories to markets that either don't pay or pay very little, and I do it for a couple of reasons. One is that some of these publications helped me out when I was just getting started, and gave me places to at least get a byline or two--and most of these places still have the same editors, many of whom I consider friends. So, yeah, I'll occasionally send one of them a story, and feel good when they publish it. Another reason is, I might see an interesting-looking but non-paying market that considers reprints and send a story there as well. It's not that I don't value these reprints. I do. But sweet Jiminy, i have hundreds of them and they're just sitting there on my computer, doing nothing. I might as well suit them up and send them out into the world again and get some more good out of them.

I recently read Playing the Short Game, a book by Douglas Smith about how to market short fiction. Not how to write it; how to market it. Smith's view on this was Don't ever, ever send a short story to any market that doesn't pay professional rates. And I see his point. You might not become rich using that approach--not many short-story writers are--but you'll at least get a fair payment for what you've written. He also makes the argument that you should be trying to build a respectable resume, and any place that publishes your story and doesn't pay you professional rates for it probably isn't a place you want to list as a publishing credit in your bio. (Professional rates are usually considered to be at least six cents a word.)

I must confess that, despite my occasional support of certain nonpaying markets, most of the stories I currently submit are sent to places that pay well. It's not just the money; it's validation. It's the pat on the head that you feel you deserve for producing something worthwhile. I can't help thinking about one of the how-to-write books on my shelf by Lawrence Block, called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. A key word in that title is and. He didn't say "for fun or profit."


Anytime this subject comes up, I recall an incident that happened to me years ago, when I was gainfully employed. I was standing around with a bunch of co-workers one day, at a client location, when one of my non-writer colleagues appeared with a copy of a magazine that had recently published one of my stories. He was showing my story to everyone, and another person in the group asked me how much I was paid for it. I hemmed and hawed and stalled for a while, but finally he insisted I tell him the amount. So I did. His reaction, after he'd closed his mouth and uncrossed his eyes, was: "Are you kidding? That little story's not worth that much." I wasn't offended--but my reply to him was an honest one: "Actually, it's worth whatever someone will pay you for it." And I still believe that. I've seen a lot of expensive pieces of abstract art that I'd be embarrassed to hang in my neighbor's doghouse--but it was probably worth a lot to whoever bought it.

One more thing. I've focused on short fiction here for two reasons: (1) I write mostly short stories, and (2) novels don't follow the same rules, regarding payment. But generally speaking, do you feel we as fiction writers should always be paid professional rates for our work? Can you think of a situation where you'd "sell" a short story--or maybe a novella, let's say--to a place that doesn't? How do you editors out there, of both magazines and anthologies, feel about all this? Should writers be expected to contribute a story to an anthology that doesn't (or might not, in the case of royalties) pay a fair amount for a story? What would you consider to be a fair amount? As a writer, have you ever published something in a magazine that paid you only "in copies"? Let me know--we po folks have to stick together.

By the way, Velma, I'm still waiting for my SleuthSayers check . . .




18 January 2019

Police Training

Police Training in the 21st Century
by O'Neil De Noux

The cover story of the Fraternal Order of Police Journal's December 2018 Issue is entitled PUBLIC SITES UNDER ATTACK: TACTICS FOR SECURING LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES, ENTERTAINMENT VENUES AND MORE.



Interesting piece. Good stuff for a writer to know as it details changing police tactics and techniques to mitigate threats to the law enforcement officers and the public. Since nothing is off limits to terrorists, the vulnerability of people in public places is addressed as well as protection of police stations.

Obviously police officers must remain on alert to any threat. One way is ongoing training. When I was a university police officer, we trained repeatedly on how to handle emergencies on campus, from fire to natural disaster (we were in hurricane alley) to active shooter on campus. Every semester break, we conducted a mock attack on different buildings to keep our home-field advantage. We studied every area of campus.

The FOP article lays out how to locate vulnerabilities of hard and soft targets. It lists: 1. Perimeter security. 2. Officer positioning. 3. Controlling access. 4. Detection systems (such as video surveillance) and 5. Emergency planning. The informative article is concise.

Training is paramount. As is quick reaction. The men and women I worked with were fearless. In the few events we had on campus (all turned out to be false alarms – a student accused of pulling a gun on another actually pulled out a cell phone), the rapid response of our officers was impressive.

One observation by the trainers - old school cops like me and others, while we moved a little slower, were quicker to react decisively. Comes from working big city streets, I suppose.


http://www.oneildenoux.com

17 January 2019

Three Tips For Organizing Your Novel Writing

by Robyn & Brian Thornton

For today's blog entry, I am pleased to be joined by my better half, Robyn Thornton–a seasoned professional at the practice of time-management.

In one of my previous blog posts, I mentioned how incredibly organized my wife Robyn is, and how she has helped me to organize my own writing projects. In the Comments section of that post, my blogging partner Eve Fisher asked whether Robyn was willing to work with other writers.

Since Eve pinch-hit for me last Thursday (Double Deadline HellMore on that in my next post)–THANKS Eve!, I asked Robyn whether she'd be willing to team with me on this post and pass along some organizational tips to our readers (BOTH of them!).

And so here we are!

Everyone has struggled to set goals and stay on track toward them. Momentum is a dicey proposition. Once lost it can be hell to get back.

This is especially true of writing in general and fiction in particular.

One way to ensure your progress doesn't flag is to conceptualize your writing project holistically, get the idea down on paper, and then "chunk it out," as Robyn says: break it down into manageable component parts, progress toward which is easily tracked, depending which system you choose to use to do the tracking.

Below are three tips to help you better organize your writing project:

ONE: Whether you're a pantser or a planner, set daily and weekly goals for yourself. Whether it's word count, page count, chapter count, number of Roman numerals/bullet points in your outline, number of character analyses completed, etc. It's important that these goals are realistic and attainable.

TWO: Once you've set your goals, WRITE THEM DOWN. This is one way to help solidify them in your thoughts, and get you to commit to them in a conscious and intentional manner.

There are as many ways to chart your progress as there are writers doing the charting. The whole point of the maneuver though is to have a process which allows you to chart your progress through your project, and show measurable results as you go.

While there are many organizational formats out there, we're going to focus on one called a Kanban Board. Kanban has an interesting backstory: originally developed by engineers at Toyota in the late 1940s, it was inspired by how groceries order stock. Its highly visual style and easy-use communication made it incredibly effective for managing projects.

An example of a Kanban Board
In the decades since its use has grown outside of the auto industry, Kanban boards are industry standard project management and team delegation throughout the corporate world, especially in America.

Another example of a Kanban board.
Robyn helped me make up my first Kanban board this summer for a writing project which has since wrapped. As if the simple, clean, easy-to understand visual style weren't enough of an incentive to try out a Kanban board, I have to say, it's inexpensive to boot!

While there are plenty of electronic versions out there, the physical ones only require a piece of posterboard, markers, and post-it notes.

That's it.

The resulting organizational system is so intuitive it's like Eli Whitney's cotton gin: once someone came up with it, it was ridiculously easy to replicate!

Which leads us to our final point:

THREE: Now that you've given yourself the tools to help you both chart and stay your course, don't beat yourself up if you miss a day here or there. The beauty of the Kanban board is that you can be agile and creative in moving around the sticky notes representing your goals, ideas, etc., and therefore it's simple thing to regroup, reassess, and reprioritize.

It's also incredibly rewarding to move a sticky note into the "DONE" column, and be able to take momentary stock of how far you've come, and what is left before you. At times I've found it outright inspiring.

And that's it for this installment! Thanks Honey! That was fun! And for my loyal readers (BOTH of you) I'll be back in my regular slot next week!

16 January 2019

Ellery and I

by Robert Lopresti

This is going to be a short one because I don't have a lot to say.  What I don't have a lot to say about is that I have a short story in the January/February 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery magazine.

Naturally I am delighted by this fact, but I am not going to spend a lot of time discussing it because, 1) I have an essay up at the EQMM blog doing just that, and 2) "Please Do Not Disturb" is flash fiction, less than 700 words long, so how much can I say about it?  It would be ridiculous to write something longer than the story I am writing about.  (Only English professors get away with that.)

Stirling Castle, a mile from the hotel that inspired my story.
So, let's talk instead about my long, somewhat rocky relationship with EQMM.  I discovered it in high school, after I had already been hooked by Alfred Hitchcock''s Mystery Magazine.  (They were not yet sister, er, brother, magazines yet, by the way, having different publishers.)  EQMM has the greater reputation but I have always preferred AHMM, probably because it shaped my sense of what a story should be.

And, logically enough, I have been much more successful in selling to the magazine I prefer.

The first time I ever sent a story to a publisher was 1976.  I was in graduate school but somehow managed to find time to write a mystery tale.  Naturally I sent it to EQMM.  They sent it back faster that a rabid radioactive skunk, because it was awful.  Don't ask to see it now.  As Robert Benchley said about his diary, no one will read it as long as I have a bullet in my rifle.

I then sent it to Hitchcock's, which showed excellent taste by rejecting it as well.  I finally made it into print in 1979 with a story in Mike Shayne'Mystery Magazine, and scored in Hitchcock's two years after that.

Ellery Queen stayed out of my reach,  but I persisted.  Boy did I persist.  "The Shanty Drummer"  broke the drought, appearing in the August 2009 issue.  That's right.  It took thirty-three years.  It was my seventy-seventh submission there

The second sale took only five years.  "The Accessory" graced the June 2014 issue   And now only four years later here I am again.  Apparently their resistance is weakening, slightly.

So, you can see this as a story of determination and persistence triumphing, or the advantage of being too dumb to know when you're beaten.  I'll take either one.

I'm going to stop now because this column will be longer than "Please Do Not Disturb" if I go on much

15 January 2019

The Gardner Museum Heist of 1990 – And He Seemed Like a Nice Enough Guy

by Paul D. Marks

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away or at least it seems that way since I’m talking about the 1990s, I met a guy through the Writer’s Guild (WGAw) who claimed he knew what happened at the Gardner Museum. In case you don’t remember, on March 18, 1990 there was an audacious theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Two guys dressed like cops stole thirteen works of art valued at a mere 500 million dollars (or 300 million according to some reports, but what’s a couple of mil between friends?). It seemed like pretty easy cut & run heist. And they still haven’t recovered the stolen works and no one’s been thrown in the slammer for it.


The missing artworks are: The Concert by Vermeer (c. 1664–1666); Self-Portrait by Rembrandt (c. 1634); The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (1633); A Lady and Gentleman in Black by Rembrandt (1633); Landscape with an Obelisk by Govert Flinck (1638); Chez Tortoni by Édouard Manet (c. 1878–1880); Cortege aux Environs de Florence by Degas (c. 1857–1860); Program for an Artistic Soirée 1 by Degas (1884); Program for an Artistic Soirée 2 by Degas (1884); Three Mounted Jockeys by Degas (c. 1885–1888); La Sortie de Pesage by Degas (date unknown); An ancient Chinese gu (vessel) (c. 1200–1100 BC) ; A bronze eagle finial (c. 1813–1814).

"The Concert" by Vermeer

Now, just to set the scene, this is the top ten from Billboard magazine’s Top Hot 100 songs of 1990: "Hold On,” Wilson Phillips; "It Must Have Been Love,” Roxette; "Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinéad O'Connor; "Poison," Bell Biv DeVoe; "Vogue," Madonna; "Vision of Love," Mariah Carey; "Another Day in Paradise,” Phil Collins; "Hold On," En Vogue; "Cradle of Love," Billy Idol; "Blaze of Glory," Jon Bon Jovi.

These weren’t what I was listening to then, except maybe Billy Idol (I was and still am more into alt music) and some of these may have come out after March, but just so you remember – or don’t – what was going on back then.

"A Lady and Gentleman in Black" by Rembrandt

Also, Dances with Wolves got Best Picture, Seinfeld was on in first run. Jurassic Park, the book, came out in 1990. Postmortem (Kay Scarpetta, #1) came out in 1990. And we were using Windows 3.0 (introduced in May). Cell phones were ancient by today’s standards. In 1989 the first really portable cell phone came out, the Motorola Microtac 9800X. And, remember dial-up modems and that chhhhhhh sound and getting disconnected every five minutes.

So back in the day, as they say, back before Facebook, Twitter and even before the Google Search Engine started (1997), we had this thing called BBSes – computer bulletin boards. You could log onto them and chat back and forth in green or amber text, depending on your monitor. The Writers Guild had one. I used to chat with a lot of people about a lot of things there. And somehow I met a guy named Brian McDevitt and we became friendly over the BBS. He seemed like a nice enough guy with a story to tell.

"Chez Tortoni" by Edouard Manet
Turned out he had a production company – and a nice house in a good part of town. He invited me over and we became friends or friendly, if not fast friends. I didn’t know about his past then, though I did know he claimed to know something about the Gardner break-in.

I remember sitting out by his pool, talking scripts and Hollywood and other BS. I think I was hoping he might option a screenplay for his company. And he seemed like a nice enough guy.

I went there a few times. We shot the breeze, ate, had a few beers. He seemed to have a lot of money and definitely wasn’t playing the role of the starving artist. He seemed like a nice enough guy.

"La Sortie de Pesage" by Degas
As time went on, controversy blew up in the Guild over him. Some Guild members were seeing cracks in his façade, starting to see through his act. They tried to get him removed from a committee chairmanship, and maybe even from the Guild – hard to remember after all these years. But not for his involvement or knowledge of the Gardner heist, but because he lied to the Guild about his background. Ultimately, I believe they were unable to have him removed.

Before the Gardner heist, McDevitt was involved in another theft: According to the LA Times: “McDevitt also spent time in jail in connection with the 1979 theft of more than $100,000 in cash and bonds from a Boston bank and was charged with two separate felony thefts from Massachusetts department stores in 1989 and 1990. He was convicted of one and pleaded guilty to the other.” All of which actually might make him perfect for Hollywood, though they like their crooks out in the open. So, if he had just been honest he might have been accepted. And he could have gone to rehab and written a book. Maybe one of the majors would have optioned the book and made it into a movie.

Napoleonic Bronze Eagle Finial
And though there were other suspects, because of his background with the previous theft, he became a suspect in the Gardner heist, though he was never charged. Unfortunately, he died in 2004 without giving up any information on the robbery, though he did claim to know where some of the paintings were.

I remember him telling me he knew something about the theft, but not that he had participated in it. Of course, this was before his backstory came out. But he seemed like a very nice guy.

The heist remains unsolved and there is a handsome reward for anyone with info on the whereabouts of the stolen art. From the Gardner’s website:
“The Museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen works.

Despite some promising leads in the past, the Gardner theft of 1990 remains unsolved. The Museum, the FBI, and the US Attorney's office are still seeking viable leads that could result in safe return of the art.

The Museum is offering a reward of $10 million for information leading directly to the recovery of all 13 works in good condition. A separate reward of $100,000 is being offered for the return of the Napoleonic eagle finial.

Anyone with information about the stolen artworks or the investigation should contact the Gardner Museum directly. Confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed.”
So, if you have some info now’s the time to get into gear, get that Rembrandt out of your basement, and get that reward.

I’m not sure why this popped into my head recently. Maybe I heard something somewhere. Or maybe it just bubbled up from the deep like the bubbles at the La Brea Tar Pits. But either way, the crime has never been solved. The art has never been returned. My “friend” never came clean. He died young, apparently taking his secrets to the grave. And to this day, no one knows for sure who stole the artworks.

He might not have been all he seemed to be – and was maybe more on some levels. But he seemed like a nice enough guy. But isn’t that always the way with con men?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Dave Congalton of KVEC Radio interviewed me. Check out the podcast here. My part comes in at 20 minutes, 30 seconds into the recording.

***

As awards nomination season is upon us, just a gentle reminder that I've got the following short stories that are eligible for 2018:


"There's An Alligator in My Purse" from the "Florida Happens" Bouchercon 2018 Anthology.

"The Practical Girl's Guide to Murder" from Mysterical-E - Spring 2018.

And in the novel category, Broken Windows:

And Broken Windows has been getting some great reviews. Here's a small sampling:


Kristin Centorcelli,Criminal Element: 

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"


"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

14 January 2019

Block Party

by Steve Hockensmith

A month ago, I blogged here about the agonizing decision I faced: What to write next? And you know what? I'm still agonizing.

My new book is out, I don't owe a publisher another one, and I haven't promised anyone a short story or script. I'm totally free. And I'm totally paralyzed.

Well, not totally paralyzed. I am capable of making up my mind. The problem: I'm too capable. I make up my mind what to write every three days. Which moots whatever decision I made three days before. I'm like the Flash playing tennis with himself, batting the "What to do?" ball back and forth until it's a scrap of ragged rubber and there's a flaming trench worn into the asphalt.

Please don't call it "writer's block." Steve Hockensmith does not get writer's block! (Sorry for lapsing into third person there. Steve Hockensmith doesn't do it often. Only when Steve Hockensmith feels the need to declare something Steve Hockensmith considers key to Steve Hockensmith's identity. What can I say? In some ways Steve Hockensmith is a real weirdo.)

The closest I come to writer's block, I think, is the twenty or thirty minutes I stare blankly at the screen, motionless except for the occasional slurp of coffee, when I'm trying to get my brain in gear and start a blog post. I already went through that this morning before I began writing this and, man, did it suck.

Some writers actually experience that excruciating paralysis for weeks? Months? Years? No wonder we have a reputation for emotional stability and clean living. Or not.


Actually, people don't tend to think of writers as mercurial drunks anymore. The reason: Most people don't think about writers at all. We're like Santa's elves -- the behind-the-scenes suppliers of fun and magic -- except even more overlooked. Like if Santa's elves had elves. The kind who never even get to sit on a shelf because they're not allowed out of the workshop basement.

But hey -- we didn't get into this biz for the shelf-sitting, right? We got into it for the...for the...for the....

Wait...why do we do this to ourselves?

Oh, yeah -- cuz we're writers. End of story.

If only writing a story were as easy as declaring "end of story." "It was a dark and stormy night," you type. "End of story." And then two months later a check for $500 shows up in your mailbox. Unfortunately, it requires a bit more work than that. The first step, as established above: deciding what the hell you're gonna write about. Which is usually kind of exciting but sometimes feels like slow-roasting your brain with an apple cider reduction and farmer's hash.


Looks like the kind of thing Hannibal Lecter would enjoy with a nice chianti, doesn't it? Me, I'm tempted to serve it with something a little stronger.


Come back in thirty days for my next column, when I'll either announce that I've finally decided (definitively!) which idea to turn into a book or that I'm checking into the Betty Ford Clinic.


13 January 2019

Nurse burnout: Maitre d' or Sentinel?

by Mary Fernando

“The hospital doesn’t have Splenda.” was a response on a Patient-satisfaction survey. “This somehow became the fault of the nurse and ended up being placed in her personnel file.”
That happened.

Surveys used to assess nurses also ask questions like, “During this hospital stay, after you pressed the call button, how often did you get help as soon as you wanted it?” 

Hospitals with high patient-satisfaction scores get more money, so nurses are under pressure to do everything they can to make patients happy.


Also in the news: “Forty-nine percent of registered nurses under 30 and 40 percent of registered nurses over 30 experience burnout, according to one study — a sobering statistic for healthcare providers who want to improve patient care.”

These two things are related.

“Nurses are not waitresses or waiters,” says Nurse Smith, who has been a floor nurse and is now a nurse educator. “I see nurses as sentinels. A sentinel stands guard and is constantly on alert.

 “When a nurse walks into a patient’s room, there are a hundred things going through their mind. They are looking at monitors, carefully selecting which ones are important given the patient’s disease and treatment. They need to understand not just the physiology but the pathophysiology of the disease so that they can assess the patient and monitor their progress or decline.

“If an elderly demented patient starts to act a little wonky, is it just the waxing and waning of their dementia? Could it be some form of a hypoxia, perhaps a stroke? They need to have the assessment abilities to know if this could be a serious issue, when to call in the doctor and which tests could help clarify what is happening with the patient.

“They also need to assess when patients need more time. And it is not always the loudest patient. It may be the very ill patient whose blood pressure is dropping and a good nurse needs to attend to them.”

 The name of the game is not patient satisfaction - it’s patient safety.

So, surveys asking patients if the nurse came when they were called are completely inappropriate. The nurse must be given the clinical respect to make decisions about which patient needs attending to urgently and which patient can wait. What matters is did the patient get better? Did that nurse monitor and save lives of the very ill first? Even if some patients had to wait for ice chips. 

Nurse Jonathon - a nurse with over a decade of experience in the emergency room, critical care and in management - explains that numerous issues contribute to burnout in nurses.

“There are often too few nurses per patient and that is not safe,” says Nurse Jonathon. He points out that in an emergency room there could be a number of patients that should be admitted to the ICU but are waiting for a bed. These patients require constant care but there may be six to 9 other patients, or more, that the nurse needs to watch over and care for.

‘We are the ones who monitor patients,” says Nurse Jonathan, “No one else but your nurse monitors you 24/7. Everything from heart rates to breathing to blood pressure. We constantly assess patients.

“Most nurses have a passion for excellence and we want to get everything right. If something happens to our patient, we can’t stop. We must move on and take care of the next patient. We can’t stop for a second. These are peoples’ lives.

“Hospitals don't help staff to cope with these feelings. A debriefing would help. To understand what happened.”

Nurse Smith explains, “As the patient goes through their journey in hospital, it’s the goal of the nurse to help them advance every shift - to get home or at least get better. At the change of shift, it’s like a relay race - you pass the baton to the next nurse who continues the journey.”

Handing off your patients and doing so safely is one thing. But what if you are handing over too many patients for the next nurse to handle? Worry. Because all good sentinels watch and keep those they stand guard over safe. 

Many surveys demand nurses do a job that has no resemblance to the job they were trained to do. Nurses feel the pressure to do certain things to get good scores on these surveys. Ultimately though, nurses want to do their real job. The one they were trained to do. They want to keep watch over patients to keep them safe, to intervene when they need to and to have enough time to do this job well. They were trained as no one else is to do their job.

Letting nurses do their job, having enough nurses to do the work safely and having an opportunity to debrief from stress would go a long way to reducing burnout. Oh, and holding the Splenda comments.

Note: The real names of the nurses were not used. Both practice in the United States.

12 January 2019

Stephen's TV Chocolate Box 2018

by Stephen Ross

It's January, so it's a good time for me to reflect on the things I watched last year on television (TV shows, movies). And just a reminder, the best chocolate in the box for 2017 was Breaking Bad (which I finally got around to bingeing, after everyone else on the planet). Needless to say, there were a few Bertie Bott's farm-dirt flavored chocolates in 2018's box, and they were duly spat out. So, on to the good ones:

Dark Bittersweet 

I watched a handful more episodes of Black Mirror and its self-contained tales of technological terror, and it's still as great as ever. If you don't know this show, it's like the Twilight Zone, if Rod Serling had been British, on serious narcotics, and obsessed with messing with your head. Best episode in 2018: "Metalhead" — because it was taunt and tight, gave no ducks, and was in black and white (because at the end of the world there will be no color left).


Almendra de chocolate 

El Ministerio del Tiemo (The Ministry of Time). I like history, and I like science fiction. This show (3 series, 34 episodes) came out of Spain and put the two together. The premise of the show is that the Spanish government has a top secret division that has the facility to travel back in time; and their job is to put things right when historical events go astray, e.g., Salvador Dali painting a cell phone, the Spanish Armada actually defeating the English, Alfred Hitchcock getting kidnapped at the premiere of Vertigo. The show has a lot of humor; there's even a reference to the US having its own facility to travel in time: The Americans call it a "Time Tunnel." (Time Tunnel was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid.)





Nougat Nutty 

The Lobster. I like weird movies. And they don't come much bat-shit weirder than this one. If I told you the premise of this movie, you'd think I was nuts. Watching it, at times, reminded me of the first time I saw David Lynch's Eraserhead. Stars Colin Farrell & Rachel Weisz. Filmed in Ireland.





Salted White Chocolate

The Terror (1 season, 10 episodes). History mixes well with many genres, and here it's thrown into the icebox of the Arctic Circle along with horror. In the mid 19th Century, two ships, one of them called The Terror, set out from England to find (and chart) the Northwest Passage in the icy waters between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The two ships, and their crews, were never seen again. All completely true. This show (based on a doorstop-sized novel) speculates (fictionally) on what happened to them. And it isn't pretty. I read a review someplace of this show that described it as "beautiful and horrific." Yep. This was without doubt the best thing I watched last year. Great cast, good script, fantastic design, music, and photography. And very scary... Terror? Oh, yeah.

Peppermint Crème

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (first season) also had some nice writing, a great cast, and great art design (60s retro cool). It's about witches, if you didn't know. A friend of mine described it as Harry Potter dipped in acid and silly putty. If you're of the Christian persuasion (and don't have a robust sense of humor), this show might not be for you.




Other tasty treats in 2018: Stranger Things (season 2), Death in Paradise (first 5 seasons), Tientsin Mystic (season 1), Frankenstein Chronicles (season 2), The Detectorists (seasons 1 & 2), Atlanta (season 1), The Bletchley Circle (seasons 1 & 2).

So, what were your favorite TV treats in 2018?

And happy watching in 2019! I hear there's a TV adaption of Catch-22 on the horizon (a favorite book of mine from my youth).


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11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)

By Art Taylor

In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:


  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 


Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!