31 January 2024

BSF (Best Stories Forever)

This is my fifteenth annual review  of the best short stories of the year, selected from my weekly-best choices at Little Big Crimes.  Feel free to cite this list but please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti's Best of the Year list at SleuthSayers" or similar phrasing, NOT "SleuthSayers Best..." because my fellow bloggers are stubbornly independent souls who occasionally disagree with me, as foolish as that seems.

There are sixteen winners this year, one more than last time. Thirteen of the stories are by men; three by women.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is the big winner, with six tales.  Black Cat Weekly scored two, as did an anthology from Random House. Five were written by my fellow SleuthSayers.  

Six of the stories are funny.  Five have fantasy or science fiction elements. Two are private eye stories.  Two are police stories.  Two are by foreigners.  Seven of the authors are repeat offenders.  

Enough. Please pass me the envelopes.

Marcel   "Martin, the Novelist," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023. 

Martin is a successful novelist with one great flaw.  He kills off his characters. His publisher  extracts a promise that no one important will die in his next book, or no money.

That's hard enough for Martin to bear but even worse is a visit from one of his characters, who is very unhappy with the plot.  Everybody's a critic, right? 

Cody, Liza, "Never Enough,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

This is Cody's third appearance on my best list.   

Sheena, the narrator of this tour-de-force novella, is a horrible person.  She never refers to her only child  as anything but "the annoying kid."  She has nothing but insults for her only two friends, one of whom she says "I don't like much."

But worse, when she decides that "the marriage was worn as thin as the hall carpet," she set her sights on an artist.  The fact that he had been in a  relationship for decades only made it more of a challenge. Sheena is a scary, narcissistic, probably delusional, menace.  You wouldn't want to meet her, but she makes a fascinating protagonist.

De Noux, O'Neil, 
"Of Average Intelligence," in Black Cat Weekly, #85.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer is a retired police officer, and it shows.

"No offense, Office Kintyre.  But I'm smarter than you."

Have you taken offense yet?  I certainly have.  Attorney Matt Glick is the speaker and he has recently killed his wife.  The cops have a ton of circumstantial evidence against him and he has a ready explanation for every bit of it.

In fact the only thing Glick doesn't have  a ready work-around for is his own smug superiority,... 

Dean, David, "Mrs. Hyde,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2023.

This is my friend and  fellow SleuthSayers' fifth appearance on this list, which makes him champeen of the world.  No one else has been in more than four times. 

Dr. Beckett Marchland  is an alienist, which is to say, a Victorian-era psychologist.  He receives a troubling letter from a woman who reports that her once loving and kindhearted husband is being changed for the worse by a bad companion.

The woman is Mrs. Edward Hyde.  The wicked friend is Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Faherty, Terence, "The Incurious Man,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This is the fourth appearance here  by yet another .SleuthSayer alum.

Owen Keane is a private detective starting a new job.  On his first day, taking the train from New Jersey to New York City, he encounters something very strange.  Every day for a week a woman near Rahway has held up a sign for people on the train to see.  The signs seem ominous, if not threatening, and refer to Giovanni and Elvira, whoever they are.

Everyone on the train is fascinated by the signs except one man who ignores them.  His lack of interest interests Keane...

Finlay, C.C. "The Best Justice Money Can Buy,"  in The Reinvented Detective, edited by Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, Caezik SF and Fantasy, 2023. 

What if the whole justice system was for-profit?  Crimes would not be investigated unless the victims, or someone else, pay for the police time.  Criminals could shell out dough to get out of prison.  (Well, today we call that hiring a good lawyer, don't we?)  And so on.

Detective Chung is not a fan of the for-profit system but today it works in her favor, because she eye-witnessed the son of the wealthiest woman in the country committing a hit and run.  And this gives her leverage, if she can figure out how to use it...

Helms, Richard, "Spear Carriers,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

This is the third time   Helms had made my best of the year list.

Dave and Sam have bit parts in a Broadway play, as policemen.  They only show up at the very end which leaves them with a lot of time on their hands.  One night Dave goes out for a bite in his police uniform-costume and the clerk gives him his food for free. "Thank you for your service."

This happens because Dave is wearing his costume - which is to say, something that looks very much like a police uniform. . That gives Sam an idea...

 Hockensmith, Steve, "The Grown-Ups Table,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,   January/February 2023.

This is the third best-of-the-year appearance by SleuthSayer Hockensmith.  2023

It's Christmas dinner at a dysfunctional family.  Uncle Dan  can't stop spouting the philosophy of his favorite right-wing radio host.  And there is Cryptique who, until we turned goth a few months ago, was named Bobby.  

But the main character is Tia who has just graduated to the Grown-Ups Table.  And she is carefully orchestrating the dinner conversation to reveal who murdered the family matriarch, Gammy Bibi.   

Linn, Ken, "A Flash of Headlights,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

Brody does yard maintenance.  A year earlier he was charged with a DUI.  He has been sober ever since, just barely. He makes a casual spur-of-the-moment decision to do what he considers a friendly gesture.  This leads to a tragedy which affects people he cares about. Every move Brody makes feels like it will make things worse. 

Narvaez, Richie, "Shamu, World's Greatest Detective,"  in Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West, Down and Out Books, 2023.

Shamu is an orca at SeaWorld (the eighteenth to bear that name) and thanks to new technology she is able to communicate with people.  Turns out she is, as the title says, a brilliant detective.  The story is narrated by her assistant, Angie Gomez.

One of the pleasures of this story is Shamu's dialog.  Here she is talking to her police nemesis: "I can solve the case in time for you to get home and rest your minuscule human brain."

Petrone, Susan, "The Silent Partner,"  in Cleveland Noir, edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

It's 1970.  The narrator writes about baseball history for the Cleveland Press.  He has to cover the 50th anniversary of the day a Cleveland player was killed by a pitch thrown by a Yankee.

The more he investigates  the more it appears that something weird happened.  Weird, like the beanball being deliberate?  Much weirder than that.

Roanhorse, Rebecca, "White Hills,"  in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

White Hills is everything Marissa ever wanted, right down to the welcome sign by the community mail drop reminding everyone of the HOA rules. Some people don't like HOAs, but Marissa loves them. 

Marissa is perhaps a bit shallow and self-satisfied with  her wealthy new husband.  She constantly rattles off  popular cliches and mantras.  But does she really fit in in White Hills?

One night she springs two surprises on her husband.  The one she is excited about: she's pregnant.  The one she didn't give a thought to before mentioning: she's part Native American.  And suddenly things change...

Sheehy, Edward, "Lavender Diamond,"  in Crimeucopia: Boomshakalaking! Modern Crimes for Modern Times, Murderous Ink Press, 2023.

I'm done writing first-person point-of-view stories.  My latest saga of a modern family stretching back several generations, voiced by 72 first-person characters including pet dogs and cats and a crow circling the narrative dispensing omniscient commentary, had been soundly rejected by dozens of publishers.

So says our protagonist.  But it gets confusing he visits a library where he encounters...

A tall dude, six-feet-four with a shaved head, wore a gold chain over a tight turtleneck that showed off a thick musculature gained from years of pumping iron at Cumberland Correction on a narcotics charge.  Inside the joint the dude known as Craz had been the leader of a brutal and murderous prison gang.

How does he know all this?  Have we wandered into third person omniscient narration?  Hmm...


Thielman, Mark,  "Steer Clear,"  in Reckless in Texas: Metroplex Mysteries, Volume 2, edited by Barb Goffman, North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, 2023.

 This is the fourth time  my fellow SleuthSayer has appeared in this list.  

 As punishment for an indiscretion with his boss's ex-wife  Detective Alpert of the Fort Worth Police has been assigned to look into the disappearance of a steer.  Funny story with a satisfying solution.

Van Camp, Richard, "Scariest. Story. Ever," in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

The narrator has just made it to the finals of the "Scariest. Story. Ever." contest using a story he learned from a village elder.  Tomorrow he will be flown to Yellowknife for the finals.  He needs to find an even better story to tell, so he goes to another elder, his Uncle Mike, and tries to convince him to tell him a properly horrifying tale. Is this a crime story? Sort of. Definitely.  Read it and see. 

Walker, Joseph S., "A Right Jolly Old Elf,"  Black Cat Weekly, #120, 2023.

This is the third story by my friend  to make the best of the year list.  

Marty is a no-talent who manages to marry into an influential family.  Sounds good, right? Alas, the family happens to be the Irish mob.  They get tired of him being useless and decide he has to become part of a robbery.  He will attend an office party dressed as Santa while his two brother-in-laws, dressed as elves, slip off to rob another office. What could possibly go wrong?

30 January 2024

Guest Post: The Short and the Long of It

Joseph S Walker
Joseph S Walker

I read my first Joseph S. Walker story when I found “Riptish Reds” in the slush pile for Mickey Finn, 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books, 2020), and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on several projects since.

Joe has received the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction, twice received the Al Blanchard Award, and been nominated for an Edgar Award and twice for a Derringer Award. He’s also had stories in three consecutive editions of The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and is the only writer to have the same story selected for inclusion in both The Best American Mystery and Suspense and The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

Joe, my wife, and I caused a minor kerfuffle at Bouchercon Minneapolis in 2022 when Temple—who uses her birth name (Temple Walker)—sat between us at the awards ceremony. This lead a few people who didn’t know any of us to think she was Joe’s wife and wonder why she was paying so much attention to me.

Anyhow, here’s Joe describing how he approaches writing stories of various lengths.

— Michael Bracken

The Short and the Long of It

by Joseph S. Walker

How long is a short story, anyway?

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. One particularly precise answer is offered by the Short Mystery Fiction Society: a Short Story is between one thousand and four thousand words in length. This defines one of the four categories in which the Society presents annual Derringer Awards, the others being Flash (under 1,000 words), Long Story (4,000-8,000), and Novelette (8,000-20,000).

I’ve written roughly one hundred and fifty pieces of fiction. The vast majority, by SMFS standards, are either Short Stories or Long Stories. As I said in introducing myself to a group of writers recently, I’m a short story specialist. I even said I have a short story mind, which, in retrospect, sounds like an insult shouted during a tense English Department faculty meeting.

Even a short story mind, though, can stretch on occasion. February 1 sees the release of “Run and Gun,” the third piece I’ve published that meets the SMFS definition of a novelette. It’s the second entry in Chop Shop, a series of crime novelettes, created and curated by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, all involving car theft and a Dallas chop shop run by the enigmatic Huey. Chop Shop is a spiritual heir to Michael and Trey Barker’s Guns + Tacos, twenty-four novelettes linked by a Chicago taco truck selling illicit firearms; my contribution to that project was “Two Black Bean and Shrimp Quesadillas and a Pink Ruger LCP.”

I was deeply honored to be invited to contribute to both series, and there was no way I was going to turn such opportunities down. Accepting, however, led to immediate blind panic: exactly how do I go about writing something three times as long as my average story?

Is the process of writing longer inherently different?

I imagine different writers have different answers to that question. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that, yes, I’ve come to think of writing novelettes as a fundamentally distinct undertaking from writing short stories. It’s the difference between making a pearl and building a poker hand.

Most of my short stories start with something akin to the grain of sand that, by irritating an oyster, eventually becomes the core of a pearl. This might be an image, a character, a line of dialogue—almost anything. I think of, say, a bartender in a rural community who playfully but forcefully refuses to answer a cop’s questions about where he came from. I build this out into a story by asking questions about the bartender and the cop, coming up with logical reasons for them to be in this relationship and (hopefully) interesting things to happen to them. The core of the story, though, is still that bartender refusing to talk to that cop, and everything else grows from that and relates back to it (this specific grain of sand ultimately became my story “The Last Man in Lafarge”). This works, I think, because the short story is an inherently concentrated form. It has focus. It is, in fact, defined by focus.

I quickly found this process didn’t work for a novelette—at least, not for me. The kind of tight unity that defines a well-written short story gets stretched thin as a piece of fiction lengthens. Other elements impose themselves on the attention of both the reader and the writer. The novelette isn’t about a single thing; it’s about the relationships between multiple things. The short story is singular focus. The novelette is complex structure.

Instead of building out from a single point, I write novelettes by forging connections between multiple ideas/characters/images/seeds and building out from those. I’m drawing cards from a mental deck, discarding some, occasionally drawing more. For my Guns + Tacos story, my first card was a character who feels emasculated when the illegal gun he buys turns out to be pink. Another was a magazine story about wealthy art collectors displaying replicas of their prize pieces to foil potential thieves; a third the image of a cheerleader with an ice pick. Draw a few more cards. Shuffle them around and see what emerges. Keep it up, and eventually you’ll have a hand you can bet on.

For “Run and Gun,” the cards I drew include an abandoned truck stop, a news item about progressive activists in Texas, the bumper stickers on a friend’s Honda Civic, marginal notes in a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises, and my impression of the tourists in Dealey Plaza, all caught up in a story of car chases, blackmail, and murder. I think I turned it into a winning hand, and I’m looking forward to readers letting me know if they agree.

29 January 2024

Made by hand.

            I never learned how to create on a typewriter.  I tried, but I just couldn’t do it.  Instead, I wrote in tiny cursive so I could fit as much as possible on a yellow pad, since pads were expensive when you didn’t have much money. 

            I eventually evolved a useful compromise, where I would advance the work as far as I could by hand, then type it up, double-spaced, which I would continue revising through subsequent drafts.  But I could never conjure those first words and sentences solely through mechanical means. 

             (Ironically, I’d learned touch typing in high school to such a proficiency that I could work as a Kelly Girl, leading to a nice gig at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, but that’s another story.)

            But then I was introduced to my first word processor.  It was a Wang, which no one under fifty remembers, but was the de riguer method of digital composition in its heyday.  I immediately fell in love with that sickening green screen and those pixilated, poorly kerned characters.  The real beauty was you could modify and correct on the fly, balance out the formatting and be able to read the polished result as soon as it emerged from the printer.  This was sorcery, a seamless blend of human imagination and electronic technology.  I never wrote creatively in longhand again, unless it was to sign my federal tax return.

            Another wonder was the speed you could achieve with a computer.  Even the slickest IBM Selectric felt clunky and under-powered in comparison.  That you could quickly repair all the typos and mangled constructions caused by such reckless haste, in real time, only encouraged more daredevil velocity. 

            Since the Wang was modeled on the minicomputer, you worked on a (nearly) dumb terminal hooked up to a central disc storage unit in a secret room somewhere in the office, lorded over by the emerging class of IT professionals just beginning to hone their technical and interpersonal skills.  I once lost a whole day of work because a tech wanted to scoot out early and just flicked off the machine.  In a reverse Big Bang, pages of copy, due the next day, collapsed into one tiny green dot in the middle of the screen, forever irretrievable.

             Unlike disasters faced by earlier pioneers, no one was killed in the catastrophe, though the thought crossed my mind.

            Now that we’ve reached the point where Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” is nearly realized, all you hear is people bitching about technology.  Official magicians like Gandalf and Saruman the White never had to put up with that kind of kvetching.  No matter how powerful, how convenient, how fast and furious our devices become, they’re never good enough.  You can have virtually the entirety of human knowledge at the tips of your fingers, but really, only 60 Hz -110 PPI screen refresh rate?   What is this, the Middle ages?


I’ve been known to hurl invective at any number of glowing screens, but in my heart, I’m actually grateful.  I feel the same way about air travel, even when snaking through the TSA line at JFK.  It doesn’t seem possible that all I have to do is be hungry, sleepless and crippled by leg cramps for only a little over six hours and I’m in Ireland.  Tell that to the ragged refuse making the reverse trip in steerage. 

            But my deepest gratitude is toward my laptop, which feels like an extension of my inner being.  I avail myself of only a tiny fraction of its functionality, and I’m often lost in the simplest management of files, formats, upgrades, applications and other torments that gush at me on a relentless basis, but what really matters is how fast and easy it is to convert my cacophonous jumble of thoughts and feelings into words on the page, with only the limitation of talent to stand in the way. 


28 January 2024

The Road to Perdition

1913 New Year's resolution postcard

Everyone who made a New Year's resolution, singular or plural, raise your hand. Okay, you can put your hand down. 

A month has now passed since you vowed to make some sort of change to better your life. How many of you made a resolution which had to so with your writing?  Did that resolution have the goal of writing a set number of words within a fixed time period? Or maybe the goal of selling X number of stories per year?  How many of you are reaching or are on track to reach that goal? Show of hands.

You might want to know that a 2023 market data research report by Gitnux shows that 50% of people make a New Year's resolution, but only about 8% of those people keep it. Whoa! So much for good intentions. And, only 64.6% of those people keep their resolution past the first month, which means that more than one third of these resolutionists have dropped out of their own well-intended program. My friend, the odds are against you. You may already have both feet well on the road to perdition.

Now, we don't want you to end up being roasted in some writers' hell, or even temporarily delayed in a writers' purgatory, so listen up, here's what you're gonna do.

First, you should always choose a goal where you have control. If your stated goal was to sell more stories, then you are probably already in trouble. For instance, should the readers, and therefore the editors, agents and publishers, decide that your chosen genre is going out of fashion this year, that is something over which you have no control. Under those circumstances, your well-intended goal becomes more difficult, if not impossible to achieve. If you don't believe that can happen, then ask yourself where the westerns went.

You also have no control over a situation where the editor receives more than one story similar in plot, story arc, ending, setting, etc. and therefore your submission is rejected because he only has room for one of these similar stories. Or, if the editor suddenly decides to put a themed edition together for that month and your story, as great as it is, doesn't fit the theme. Or, my favorite, "Your submission doesn't fit our needs at this time." You, as the writer, have no control in these types of situation

The second way to help you not break your resolution(s) is to choose a reasonable goal to begin with. Can you really write a thousand new words a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year Sure, your favorite author may be able to accomplish that feat, but don't set yourself up for failure and disappointment because of a goal set too high. Remember, time must also be set aside for rewriting, editing, promoting, networking, conferences, meetings, family time and just plain living. You can always start out with a lesser goal and gradually raise the word count as time goes by and you become more proficient at your craft.

Okay now, everybody with a good idea on how to make a New Year's resolution and/or how not to break one…


27 January 2024

Five Ways to Rock Characterization in the Mystery Novel

I've taught fiction writing at college for over 20 years.  If I had to drill it down to one sentence, the number one thing I've learned is this:

Readers fall in love with characters, not plots.

Yes, plot is essential for a crime novel.  It's the glue that holds everything together.  But think about the crime series you have loved.

If I were to ask readers of the Goddaughter series what they love about it - and I have - they always say the humour, first.  But a close second is the protagonist, Gina Gallo, plus her wacky cousin Nico - and particularly, the banter between them.  If I ask what they liked about specific novels, like The Goddaughter Caper, they say, 'is that the one about the underground funeral parlour, or the art gallery heist?'  If I'm lucky, they say that.

Because most readers don't remember plots.  They remember characters.

They might remember that a plot was good.  That it was well-crafted.  That it took them by surprise.  And I hope that is true.  But my readers always tell me they go back for more because 'they want to find out what happens to Gina and Nico."  They don't want to say goodbye to their book friends.

Last week, I was asked to speak about characterization in the crime novel, at a library conference.  Here's what I presented:

➊  MAKE US CARE – You want to create a protagonist that the reader likes and can care about.

We are going to put your protagonist in danger, and readers need to like the character so that they will care about what happens, to keep reading.

In The Merry Widow Murders, I create sympathy for Lucy by showing her grief for her late husband, who died of TB after being gassed in WW-1.

She’s only in her 30s and she’s trying to move on, but the grief sneaks up on her with certain triggers, as it does for me.

➋  HAVE A SIDEKICK – A crime book should be ACTIVE – that is, it should move along at a good pace.

A secondary character who acts as a sidekick will allow your book to have lots of dialogue. Instead of your protagonist constantly in monologue thinking about the case, they can discuss it with their sidekick. This creates more white space on the page and moves a book more quickly.

In the Merry Widow Murders, Elf, a pickpocket- turned-maid is Lucy’s sidekick.

She also provides comic relief, as they banter constantly.

➌  MOTIVATION IS KEY – Why is your protagonist getting involved in the investigation? Why are they risking their LIFE? Someone has already killed once. They could do it again. There has to be realistic motivation why your main gal or guy would take on that risk.

In The Merry Widow Murders, Lucy and her sidekick maid Elf find a dead body in their stateroom.

They need to find the killer before the authorities suspect one of them for being the killer.

➍  3-5 GOOD SUSPECTS – A mystery book should give the reader a challenge.

That’s why we read them. You need to develop 3-5 possible suspects, make them different and well-drawn, each with sufficiently believable motivation for wanting to kill the victim.

➎  MAKE A REALLY GOOD VILLAINRemember that the killer is never a villain in his own eyes.

He has what he thinks is believable motivation for doing what he is doing. The world or someone has done him wrong, and he is only getting what he rightly deserves by committing this crime.

At the same time, KEEP THE VILLAIN HIDDEN. In a thriller, the antagonist can be known because the book is about the preventing of the crime. But in a mystery, you have to keep the identity of the killer hidden until the very last chapters. It takes real skill to accomplish this without giving it away early on.

I'll speak more on motivation in a future post.  Meanwhile, I hope you feel motivated to look at some of my books, including The Merry Widow Murders! Available at all the usual suspects.

26 January 2024

The Successful Writer’s Guide to a Guilt- and Success-Free New Year!


You're a winner, dude!

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

If you’re me (and I sincerely hope you’re not) the New Year is already weighing you down. Maybe you openly drafted some resolutions back in December that you hoped would sharpen and expand your writing career and author business. Maybe you merely dispatched a fervent wish heavenward to the Muse, asking for guidance as you prepared for a fresh twelve months. But here it is, the third week of January, and the fragile ladder to success you’d hoped to build is wobbling.

Frankly, it’s all just too much work, isn’t it? How are you supposed to write and edit the stories that move you, while holding down a “real” job, spending time with ones you love, wresting joy from this moment on earth, while still appeasing the Gods of Ceaseless Book Promotion?

Fear not, dear scribes! I spent a stupid amount of time between November and December scouring the internet for advice on the writing craft and its necessary evil, “business.” I delved into the state of book marketing, social-media-ing, and all the rest. I attended webinars, watched courses, absorbed podcasts, and connected with movers and shakers in the burgeoning new world of Author-Care Professionals. Here’s what I learned.

Be sure you follow every one of these pieces of advice. Your career depends on it.

It would seem logical that since humans write, and all humans are different, that everyone would have a different writing pace and working style. Don’t believe the hype! If you want to succeed in the writing racket, you must not only murder your darlings but also Unlearn Your Fuzzies. That is, the molly-coddling thoughts of working at a pace that’s “right” for you. Tough love, writers: There is no right for you. There is only one way—the Successful Way.

In the hot new world of churn-and-burn publishing, if you are not writing at least 10,000 words a day, you’re destined for failure. Stop listening to the fancy-pants bestsellers who say that they write 1,500 words in the morning, before ingesting a light lunch, brewing a mug of mint tea, and turning their attention to fan mail, tending to their author brand, and blah blah blah. They can play that game, because they’re tools of the man. The rest of us can’t. Luckily, several excellent books can teach you what you need to know. Maybe you start small, writing only 5,000 words a day before ramping up to 10,000. After consuming those reasonably priced ebooks, sign up for each author’s $797 course that will school you on the hot new world of “Rapid Release.” Some courses cost a little more, some a little less, but ones ending with 9 and 7 are the best.

Need help? Hire a developmental editor, accountability mentor, and a coach. You need all three on your “support team.” The best are aligned with quasi-academic institutions you may never have heard of, but all have placed at least one short story at prestigious publications. (“Prestigious” = markets paying in copies only.) Developmental editors charge $3,000 to assess your novel, mentors $3,000 to $5000 to be on-call annually, and coaches $100 an hour for virtual sessions. Beware professionals who quote round figures. Coaches who charge $197 an hour, for example, are the best.

Fearful of overspending? Get over it. What’s your career worth? Besides, you can use Assfirm or Blarna to pay it off in sixty-seven easy payments. Every dime is tax deductible. Take your credit card out of its holster, because you’re gonna need it.

If you’re launching a book, don’t just announce it on on Facepants, Twerper, and Instapork! Who are you, Grandma? Sign up for Megadon, Shreads, and BlueEarth, and DisChump as well. If you want followers to lay actual eyeballs on your announcements, you must pay to play! For as little as $2,797 or even $3,797, you can book an exciting package that will see you and your book feted by up to 30 blogs, and Instapork and DikTok channels. Your book has not lived until a 16-year-old influencer has sung its praises. I’m not going to say you’re a loser if you resist this new class of social media titans, but I just did!

Oh, and by the way, regarding your writing? Feel free to open with the weather! Research shows that Elmore Leonard’s books have never been celebrated by DikTok influencers. Nor did he ever plumb the lucrative reverse-harem romance, or dinosaur/werewolf erotica markets. Look where those missteps got him! Feel free to write entire books about the weather! The hot new thing in spicy romance is Nimbus-Cumulus-Stratus ménage à trois fiction!

True fact: Facepants and Junglezon have both recently debuted the exciting new world of AI-driven online marketing. No longer will you need to a) dream up clever copy, and b) hire a “human” designer to create book promo ads, and c) rack up stock image agency fees. Simply upload the entire text of your book to Facepants, and a legion of helpful bots will ingest your prose, generate clever ad copy—with images!—and populate their respective sites with instant ads touting your tome. Entrust these helpful corporate entities with your credit card digits and you’re good to go. They will spend your money in the most prudent way possible, or the bot’s name isn’t Bleep-Bleep-Ka-ching!

You know all those people who signed up for your newsletter six years ago, expecting you to write them once in a blue moon when you had a book out? Scrape those suckers off your boots, and get with the program—the hot new newsletter program, Gobstack, that is—and start spitting out newsletters three times a week. Enable the Monetize-The-Crap-Out-of-This function, and soon your adoring followers will have you rolling in sweet, sweet cash! The more you noodge, you more you earn!

Since Junglezon bought the ever-popular book site Goodbleeds, you can now offer book giveaways to your adoring potential readers. Upon payment of a very reasonable $599, your new book will be free to a select number of readers. (At press time, developers are trying hard to lower that price to $597 to align with the market.)

You will need some additional software to make your literary dreams come true. Sign up for your own website store, Flickstarter campaign, and AI art generation-cum-AI-cowriting software. Use the latter to craft sales copy, outline plots, and dream up ideas for future books—only. No one is suggesting that you use such things to write your own stories! That would be unethical.

With all these new author tools, you’re sure to succeed. But we understand that you may occasionally need a daily break between your first crop of 6,000 words and the second. By all means, step outside, stretch, and smell a freaking rose. Just make sure to snap a photo of that bud, and Instapork it as soon as you get back to the cockpit.


Joseph D’Agnese is a writer who occasionally writes fiction. If you squint real hard, the foregoing sorta could be.


25 January 2024

Where's the Stuff?

Eve Fisher avatar

by Eve Fisher and Leigh Lundin


My SleuthSayers compadre Leigh Lundin
sent me the following email the other day:

Leigh (avatar)
      Eve, I've long wondered what happens to possessions when prisoners are incarcerated. Without a family or girlfriend or close friend, they wouldn't be able to pay a mortgage.
    But what about personal goods, valuables and items with sentimental meaning. It wouldn't be fair for, say, a landlord to keep them (unjust enrichment), but what does… or doesn't happen?

Well, I thought about that for a while, and decided that the outcome would largely depend upon whether or not the apartment or house was a crime scene in an ongoing investigation. Leigh also comments on foreclosure and eviction situations.


Right now, the Gilgo Beach serial killer suspect is in jail, pending trial, no bail has been granted, and the police are combing that house from top to bottom for evidence. His personal goods, valuables, and items with (slight shudder appropriate here) 'sentimental meaning' are probably boxed up by now and in evidence rooms downtown.

The same is true of the 2022 Moscow, Idaho killings suspect, at least some of whose property – as well as his parents' – is in police hands. (BTW, I still disagree with demolishing the house where the victims lived before the trial – I know the police signed off on it, but still… Who knows what evidence still lurked there?)

And don't even think about keeping your laptop and cell phone if you've committed assault, manslaughter, or worse. The first thing law enforcement wants to see is your computer, email, texts, etc. And, as I've said many times before, do not put anything on any social media that can be used against you in a court of law.  


If you have money and are allowed to post bail, great, you don't have to worry about your property very much even if you are alone and no one cares. You go home, hire a good lawyer, and keep on keeping on. However, DO NOT try to saw the ankle monitor off, because you're gonna go right back to the slammer.

But say you're not allowed bail, or can't afford it, or get lost in the system? Or you get convicted and "catch a heavy case", i.e., go to prison for a long time?

Well, I'm not sure how long the landlord has to hold your apartment or your stuff until re-renting it and tossing the stuff out into the yard – or his pocket.

Leigh (avatar)
  TL/DR: Once a Writ of Possession (eviction) is executed, and a landlord comes into possession of personal property, landlord is required to hold and give ten business days notice before disposing of goods. Eviction of a non-military tenant typically take 30-60, even 90 days. Eviction rarely takes less time but a bad renter can take much longer.
    The clock for eviction is partially spelled out by statute and partially how long it takes to get the case before a judge. See, eviction becomes a lawsuit. If a renter resists eviction, in most cases a landlord/landlady is frozen from taking further action until a judge’s decision: no harassing visits, no shutting off utilities, no interference in residents’ lives. The minimum is about a month, but an unscrupulous tenant or a squatter can draw eviction out months or more while not paying rent.
    An exception centers around a 7-day Notice to Cure involving situations that put the property at risk: accidental or deliberate damage, housing unauthorized residents, allowing unauthorized pets, violating association rules, dealing drugs, prostitution, and so on. In that case, a landlord may not only move faster, but can be forced to do so.
    Except for pictures and photos, tenants may not remove items affixed to the property, i.e, drapes, blinds, etc. I don’t find the procedure for final disposition spelled out in statutes. By tradition and under the watchful eye of a deputy, landlords set tenant's possessions ‘on the curb’. Landlords are not allowed to help themselves nor allow others, but over time, goods tend to scatter until picked up by garbage collectors.
    I’ve seen curb disposals in nice neighborhoods where furniture and household goods disappeared with a day or two. Contrary to common expectations, when a poor tenant was evicted in a not-nice complex, the lady’s personal goods remained untouched for a week.
    The homeowner can pay off the certificate any time within the seven year period.

And I have no idea what the bank / mortgage company would do, other than foreclose, and have someone clean it all out. Who knows where it goes then?

Leigh (avatar)
  TL/DR: In a foreclosure, personal property rights transfer to the new owner.
    Foreclosure rules differ considerably in that a change of ownership is involved. The two main reasons I can think of are (1) failure to meet mortgage payments and (2) failure to pay taxes. Homeowner and condo associations have ways of forcing evictions, but other than suing homeowners into oblivion, I don’t know how they work.
    Obviously, if a homeowner doesn’t pay his mortgage, he risks losing his house. The note holder then can exercise his right to repossess the property. Unlike a tenancy, once a mortgagee take possession he can dispose of personal property as he wishes.
    Failure to pay taxes puts a property at risk but not immediate foreclosure. In Florida, an unpaid tax bill turns into a tax certificate, which the public may buy at auction. The certificate can not be redeemed within the next two years but must be cashed in before year seven, else it is forfeited. Between years 2 and 7, the holder can have the county clerk sell the property ‘on the courthouse steps’, a figurative term, no longer literal. The new owner taxes possession of any real and personal property left behind.
    I couldn’t find specific instructions, but it’s safer– and kinder– to attempt a ten day notice.

Worst Case Scenario:

Worst case scenario with family: Kalief Browder spent 1,000 days in Rykers Island because his family couldn't afford the $3,000 bail that was set, the criminal justice system was overcrowded, and between the judge(s) and his court-appointed attorney, his case was delayed for 3 years, without any trial at all. Eventually, it was dismissed. Tragically, two years later, he hanged himself. (Wikipedia)


If you really don't want law enforcement in your house, looking over your possessions and confiscating the same, don't shoot someone while wearing an ankle monitor. Luke Eagle Star, of Rapid City, SD, shot a woman in the arm about a week ago, and then ran. Police were able to track Mr. Eagle Star because he was still wearing his ankle monitor. They are currently working "to gather additional details," and I'll bet that apartment/house is going to get a real going over.  And considering that he MIGHT have shot his girlfriend, I'd say most of the contents are going to go out in the snow... (Rapid City)

Florida Statutes Ch 83§62, Ch 83§67, Ch 715§104, Ch 702§035-702§10

24 January 2024


Anthony Burgess once remarked that the Elizabethan Age was word-drunk – Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, Thomas Nashe (“an upstart crow”) – and as it spilled into the next century, the Book of Common Prayer published in 1604, the King James Bible in 1611, and the First Folio in 1623, we recognize the shaping of the English language into a modern tongue, a vernacular for the commons, in its meaning of the community at large.

What we see, in literature, politics, and religion, is a leveling effect. Not that the language becomes gross, or inexact; the reverse. It becomes more specific, and at the same time, includes more variety. The vocabulary expands beyond the cloisters, or the manners of court. In part, this is a function of class breakdown, the permeability of social and economic barriers: the collapse of feudalism. Also, the essential message of the Reformation is that you can have a personal relationship with God, independent of the interpretation of Scripture by the Church. There’s an obvious political message here, too. Your loyalty to any earthly power isn’t ordained, it isn’t written in stone, it derives from your consent.

I’d suggest that language – or more specifically, let’s say ‘usage’ – is an instrument of democratization. The term vernacular can be defined as indigenous, or local, such as a dialect; natural, or vulgar, or ordinary. In other words, a common manner of speech, in both senses: something everybody shares, or something you turn up your nose at.

Or perhaps there’s no real contradiction. My grandmother actually wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, back in the Bronze Age, complaining about their slogan, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Amazingly, somebody in PR actually wrote her back, saying basically that their target audience wasn’t grammar-adjacent, so suck it up.

This is the Bad Money Drives Out Good argument, and I’m not sure I’m on board with it. Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder, remarks that Hammett took murder out of the drawing room and dropped it in the street.  

He goes on to say a number of other things, some of which I disagree with, but his point is that the supposed gentlefolk of the English country house were given the bum’s rush, and the effete Philo Vances were shouldered out of the queue by the more muscular and less fastidious Sam Spade, or the Continental Op. It’s an exaggeration, and the hard-boiled and the cozy still keep company, but Chandler’s put his finger on it.

It’s no secret, either, that Chandler wasn’t a big fan of Mickey Spillane, and he clearly feels Spillane is pandering to the market, the brutality, the contempt for women, the furious, feverish psychological dream landscape, but at the same time, Chandler recognizes the inevitability.

This is an old conversation. The more accessible literature becomes, or citizenship, or Holy Communion, is the mystery cheapened, or diluted? For the previous initiates, yes. The literate, the propertied, the baptized – the chosen ones. Who wants to give up the secrets of a fellowship that sets you apart? By definition, it excludes the other, the unwashed, the unread, the unholy. We make it too easy for them. They should have to jump insuperable hurdles, rehearse impenetrable, Talmudic catechisms. Once you open books to these people, libraries of knowledge, you no longer hold the keys. You lose the power of voice.

Mickey Spillane, in any case, is fish in a barrel. I happen to like Spillane (“How could you?” “It was easy”), but you can understand how Chandler would think he debased the culture.  Chandler’s a snob. For our purposes, let’s pick somebody else. Chester Himes. Himes is definitely genre, and Coffin Ed and the Grave Digger don’t fit all that comfortably into Chandler’s “down these mean streets a man must walk who’s not himself mean,” but Himes is giving us Harlem from the native perspective – although Himes seems like an outsider looking in, dispossessed, and always an exile, the books are still unapologetically black.

We see something similar in science fiction and fantasy over the last, say, thirty to forty years. There was very much a time when it was boy’s club, and pretty much white boys, too.

Alice Sheldon published as James Tiptree, under the probably accurate assumption that SF readers wouldn’t buy stories by a girl. The community is notoriously cranky and hidebound, for all that they’re supposed to be looking to the future.

Ursula Le Guin made waves with The Left Hand of Darkness (ambiguous genders), and then along comes Chip Delany, not only colored, but queer. Sakes alive, the pearls that got clutched.

The lesson would appear to be, that opening the door to opportunity doesn’t water the whiskey. Our literature, our world, is reinvigorated, even reinvented. This is the purpose of a living language. It undermines orthodoxy, and in an Age of Lies, we could use a few choice words.

23 January 2024

I Have First-Line Envy

I've written before about a Facebook group I belong to in which we celebrate good first lines (sometimes first paragraphs) in books and stories, often crime stories. A first line can be a thing of beauty, with lyrical language that draws you in. It can have suspense, leading you to need to know what comes next. It can portray a setting that's so beautiful you yearn to live there. It can showcase a character's voice, one that's edgy or interesting or downright funny--someone you can't wait to spend 300 pages with.

I've read a lot of good first lines over the years and some that didn't draw me in. Interestingly, some of the ones I thought weren't great received raves from others, which just goes to show how subjective writing can be.

But before today, I can recall only once reading a first line that made me wish I had written it myself. (More on that other book below.) I haven't read this book (it's coming out next week), but damn, this sentence makes me want to:

It is a sad day, indeed, when even an orgy does not interest me.

That's the first sentence in Of Hoaxes and Homicide by Anastasia Hastings, coming out on January 30th. Why do I love this opening line? To quote Shakespeare, let me count the ways.

First and foremost, this sentence makes me laugh. The voice tells me this is a character I'll enjoy reading about. The sentence is also attention-grabbing. Do I want to learn more about what is going on in this book? Oh yes, I do, especially because the author's word choices let the reader know this isn't a hardboiled book; it's softer, slower-paced, making the mention of an "orgy" all the more interesting and surprising--in the best way. The writing also is lyrical. Imagine the sentence without the word "even." It wouldn't have the same flow, the same punch. The author's words have a wonderful rhythm.

That's a whole lot to accomplish in a first sentence. Anastasia Hastings, I tip my hat to you.

What's the other great first line I wish I'd written? The first sentence in Julia Spencer-Fleming's wonderful first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter:

It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.

I read that sentence, and I was all in. Thankfully, the book lived up to the promise of its first line. Will Of Hoaxes and Homicide do the same? I sure hope so.

Do you have a favorite first line you'd like to share, dear reader? Please do.

Before I go, the Malice Domestic board of directors would like to remind you that this year's convention will run from April 26-28th, and registration is open. If you're not familiar with Malice, it's a fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery, though you will find attending authors write lighter and darker books too. The convention is held each year in North Bethesda, Maryland. You can learn more at the Malice website: www.malicedomestic.net. Due to technical difficulties, the registration link on the website isn't working, but you can register by clicking here. (And no, I'm not on the Malice board. Just spreading the word for them.)

22 January 2024

Park It

Quick: What's wrong with this paragraph?

Logan turned onto Main Street and parked the car under a maple tree. He squinted his eyes against the sunset and saw Mary and Brown standing in front of the grocery store. Mary spoke and Brown nodded his head. He said something and she shrugged her shoulders. Finally Brown waved his hand and walked away. Mary turned to Logan and winked her eye. "I tried to warn you," he muttered.

Give up?

Well, for whatever other weaknesses it may have, it is 25% longer than it needs to be. The version below contains the same information and 18 fewer words:

Logan turned onto Main Street and parked under a maple. He squinted against the sunset and saw Mary and Brown in front of the grocery. Mary spoke and Brown nodded. He replied and she shrugged. Finally Brown waved and walked away. Mary turned to Logan and winked. "I warned you," he muttered.

As Will Strunk said: "Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words."

21 January 2024

Harsh Words

words (graphic)

One of our correspondents sent an article, ‘31 of The Most Hard-to-Pronounce Words in the English Language’. In actuality, the problem isn’t necessarily difficulty vocalizing the words, but associating their voicing and spelling. As their web page explains, English doesn’t always follow a strict likeness between its writing units (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes). Remember the sound-alike spellings of ‘fish’? Ghoti? Pheti?

This disconnect can result in embarrassing mishaps.

  • A French friend asked directions to the ‘Moe-Jave Desert’.
  • A national brand of canned food advised the consumer to “let the air excape.”
  • Dan Quayle couldn’t spell ‘potato’.
  • George Bush Jr couldn’t pronounce ‘nuclear’.
  • I can’t spell, uh… More on that in a moment.

I’ve watched words change meanings such as ‘nimrod’. Originally it was a Biblical name, which came to mean sharpshooter or good hunter, and recently has now come to mean a dolt, an idiot.

words (graphic)

I’ve also observed words change pronunciation. Thanks to a horrible branding ad campaign, the word ‘chic’ changed from a pronunciation of ‘sheek’ to ‘chick’. Ugh. When I was a child, ‘pot pourri’ sounded like ‘POE poor-ree’. Years later when I heard my mother call it ‘paht POORy’, I questioned her about changing the pronunciation. She said, “I gave up.”

Yatch Yacth Yacht

A story circulates amongst boaters about a sea captain who each morning extracted a slip of paper from a drawer and read it before putting it away again. One night a deckhand sneaked in and read it. It said,

Port = left; starboard = right.
sailboats: ketch versus yawl

Me, I have difficulty recalling the difference between a ketch and a yawl… I know I want one, either will do. But my real nemesis is the word ‘yacht’.

I can NOT spell that damn word for anything. I had to look up the spelling for this article after getting it wrong TWICE.

In a similar vein, I suspect I’d have more than usual trouble with the word ‘height’ except I used it several times a week in my technical career (and still use it in SleuthSayers HTML). It’s downright cruel that its sister dimension, ‘width’, has a different ending, ‘th’ instead of ‘ht’.

Speaking of technical, I used to confuse trigonometry with nude sunbathing. ‘Tangential’ tended to come out ‘tangenital’.

The Good Housekeeping list dates back a few years and was picked up by Secret Life of Mom

Secret Life of Mom / Good Housekeeping™ Hard Words
accessory espresso lackadaisical nuptial scissors
anemone February library onomatopoeia specific
choir hyperbole mischievous pronunciation squirrel
colonel isthmus murderer remuneration supposedly
coup jalapeno niche rural synecdoche
epitome juror nuclear schadenfreude worcestershire

They ironically end the list with ‘vocabulary’. I suspect they omitted the word ‘yacht’ because no one could spell it. (Damn, I had to look it up again.)

In their word list, I have to be careful not to spell ‘expresso’ and step carefully when writing ‘mischievous’. Other challenging words rattle about in my head, but I’ll end with a historical note.

Mr Monk Mangles the Monastery

In the days before the printing press, monks copied manuscripts by hand. In a particular abbey, the original was copied once and stored away in a vault, and that copy would be copied, and its copies recopied, to propagate across Europe.

A novice approached the abbot and said, “Reverend Father, we’re doing it wrong. By recopying copies, any errors will be reproduced in subsequent versions. I believe we should always copy from the original.”

The abbot was impressed. He said, “You’re right, lad,” and descended to the vault. An hour later, monks passing the doorway heard sobbing. A friar grew brave enough to enter and ask the abbot what was wrong.

The abbot said, “The word celebrate… We left out the R.”

What are your word nemeses?