12 July 2020

Writers: Get Thee on Twitter


When I told Leigh Lundin that Twitter is a great place for writers, he balked and then told me to write that story.

When Leigh gives me marching orders, it’s always a fascinating journey.

Writers often use Twitter to promote their work. I use Twitter to hear stories because writers are addicts. All of us. We are addicted to people. We watch people in cafes, in our homes and on the streets. We listen carefully to the stories people tell us and, as readers, we read stories. Even if the article or book isn’t about people’s stories - we ferret them out anyway.


Can anyone tell stories within the restrictions of Twitter’s 280 characters? I would have once answered that it was unlikely but, after a few years on Twitter, I’m now of the opinion that the best stories are often told in 280 characters - or less.

The story of the this time is COVID-19, and what you read on Twitter is very different than the news.

In the news - online, print, TV and radio - the infection rates and deaths are presented and often experts discuss the issues. You can find these articles and even follow these experts on Twitter.

However, many of the important stories of COVID-19 aren’t in the numbers - they are stories from the frontlines. Not just the stories by doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, but the stories of patients who find themselves fighting this virus.

There are stories of worry and outright fear, frustration and courage, advocacy and defeat.

When people write about these times, I hope these many voices find their way into those books. I understand that some people prefer the view from 30,000 feet - looking at the numbers and the spread, the policies and the politics.

For me - and I hope for many of us - the real stories are those of people. Each and every one has a world they live in, people they love and who love them. The tragedy of COVID-19 rests in these stories, whether they are healthcare workers putting their lives on the line, living away from their families to stay at the bedsides of patients or whether they are patients with  COVID-19 and are battling against it from the other side of the bed - these are the stories that matter.

A tragedy is often defined in two ways:

1. An event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.

2. A play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character.

I prefer the latter definition: great suffering is only understood from the perspective of one person - the nuances, the thoughts, the feelings, the impact on others  - and life is not a play but each and every person is a main character in their own life.

Twitter has helped me understand the lives of those in the United States during COVID-19 - those who are pushing for opening up the economy and get back to work - to return to normal. Some people use the hashtag #COVIDIDIOT for these people, arguing that they are ignoring the science and putting people’s lives at risk. However, if you read their stories, you will see that these people often live on the margins, have no savings and have no way of feeding their family without working. They risk losing their homes, being evicted even from rental homes, and their fear of homelessness and hunger seems more real to them, more tangible, than a virus they can’t see. They are not idiots. They are people struggling. 

There are scientists using their graphs, their studies, trying so hard to educate us all on the dangers of this virus, the need for measures such as masks to limit its spread and save lives. They are struggling too, trying - often for the first time - to turn their academic understanding into something that everyone can grasp.

There are doctors and nurses, often posting pictures of the scars on their faces from masks, telling us how they have no more ICU beds and begging us all to stay home and wear masks.

There are politicians, giving their story of caution or throwing caution to the wind, with policies they hope will help.

This time is a complicated time. Everyone has a perspective and a story.


Part of Leigh’s marching orders were to also explain how to DO Twitter.

Every story has a main character and on Twitter, you are your main character. Whatever you try to say or do, people will figure you out - so I suggest you simply be the person on Twitter that you are in real life.

In fact, do all of Twitter the same way you do real life. If Twitter is a place you spend some time in, then follow people because you find them interesting, just like you would invite the most interesting people for dinner.

Like a dinner party, where you listen more than you speak, on Twitter, read more than you tweet. Read people’s comments, go to their profiles and read their tweets if you like what the say but also if you don’t.

If you interact with someone and like them, treat it like your own private dinner party and enjoy. If you have an interaction that is unpleasant - also treat it like your own dinner party and don’t put up with it - block or mute them and carry on. Or better yet - if you know there could be trouble because the views are so upsetting to you, then just read and learn.

So, my advice? If you are feeling you need to hear the stories of our times - go on Twitter.

11 July 2020

First Drafts Ain't Pretty


Special treat today. I am a member of the Mystery Writers of America - Northwest Chapter. Last month we had an online meeting, featuring Dana Haynes speaking on: "Writing in Quarentine: How to Keep Your Fiction Moving, Even When the Damn Coronavirus Means You Can't!" I was impressed enough to invite him to write a piece for us on a topic of his choice.

Dana is the author of the new mystery/thriller novel, ST. NICHOLAS SALVAGE & WRECKING, which marked his debut with Blackstone Publishing in 2019. This is Haynes’s eighth published mystery. The sequel, SIROCCO, is set for a January 2021 release.

He has spent 25 years in Oregon newspaper newsrooms, split between weeklies and dailies. He currently serves as managing editor of the Portland Tribune. He has won awards as a reporter, columnist and editor. A native of the Pacific Northwest, he also served as spokesman and speechwriter for the mayor of Portland, Oregon.

— Rob Lopresti


FIRST DRAFTS AIN'T PRETTY…
You can't fix what's not on paper, so get your manuscript finished, warts and all, then worry about making it perfect

by Dana Haynes

I don’t know a novelist who hasn’t had a book come unraveled because he or she smashed into a wall. Not a writer’s block; those I can handle. I mean a writer’s Great Pyramid of Giza, bringing the whole project to a screeching halt.

Those indomitable walls are the one that make us put manuscripts on the back burner, then in a file cabinet, then in recycling.

I found a solution. It works for me. It might work for you.

The secret is in reimagining the purpose of a first draft. A first draft isn’t the place that you seek perfection. It isn’t a final draft. If it were, we’d call it that.

The purpose of the first draft is to get the narrative down on paper.

You can’t fix that which isn’t on the page.

The other secret is to keep moving forward through a first draft. The all-important words, the ones that give us goose bumps and that secretive little grin when we’re standing in line at a coffee shop, are “The End.” My trick for writing means that every day, week after week, month after month, I draw closer to “The End.”

Some writers can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Try this trick, and you’ll find the light at the end of the tunnel will require you to wear sunglasses.

Here’s what I do in first draft.

I write about 10 pages, stop, read ’em, and see if I’m happy. Are they pretty good? Do they advance the story, or help with character development, or set up a joke? Yeah? Good, move on.

I write the next 10 pages, stop, and read those 20.

(Note: “10 pages” could mean eight, or 12, or whatever. This isn’t rocket surgery. If you hit the end of a chapter and you’re in the ballpark, call it “10”).

I write the next 10, stop, and read those 20 — which is to say, pages 11-to-30. Write the next 10 and read 21-to-40.

I call these Go-Backs.

What am I looking for? Well, not perfection. If your first draft isn’t a pig’s breakfast, you’re doing it wrong. I ask: Did this scene fit the narrative? Do I round out anyone’s character? Is there a clue-drop or a reveal? Is there a setup for a visual or verbal joke?

I don’t do a ton of lovely, layered description in first drafts. For instance, if Katalin Fiero Dahar (one of the heroes of “St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking” and “Sirocco”) walks into a tavern, I might write the first draft like this:

Fiero parked her bike, doffed her helmet, and stepped inside the tavern [scripto]. She spotted Finnigan, already at a booth, ordering drinks.”

That funky word in brackets, “scripto,” is a note to myself that I’m gonna want to describe the bar.

I just don’t have to do it today. This is my first draft. My goal is to get to “The End,” remember? Plenty of time to describe stuff later.

I just wrote a scene in which Finnigan and Fiero are on the run in an automobile junkyard east of London. What do I know about British cars? Bupkis. So I wrote,

“It was a graveyard of old trucks. Chassis here, axles with single wheels there, bits of engines and drive trains from [splaino] scattered about…”

My term in brackets, “splaino,” is a note to myself: If they’re in a modern-day junkyard in England, what English trucks might have been built, say, 50 years ago? That’s some bit of research that’ll be a mild distraction to do someday.

Just not today.

(If you’ve ever been lost on the island of Venice and asked a local how to get to, say, the Rialto Bridge, they’ll point forward and say, “Drito. Semper drito.” It means “always straight.” Why? Because it’s a damn island: You simply can’t get that lost, and no matter if you turn left, right, or straight, eventually you’re gonna see a sign that leads you to the Rialto. So you might as well go straight. In the labyrinth that is Venice, it’ll get you where you’re going as well as any other direction. In first drafts, you should routinely mutter to yourself, “Drito. Semper drito.”)

When I get to more-or-less Page 100, I stop, put the manuscript down, wait a week or so, print it out, and read all 100. That’s what I call a Read-Through.

Now I’m making note of bad writing that I can fix; changes that will help the narrative; noting the “scriptos” and “splainos” that require a bit of gussying up.

And I ask myself: Do these first 100 pages serve the narrative? Is this a book I’d want to keep reading? Have I meandered? Are the pace and flow good? Does the dialogue ring true? Am I happy?

Yes?

Then write the next 10 pages.

If not, this is a good time to sit down and ask myself: What was the original idea for the novel? If I’ve strayed off it, am I straying into a better novel? Or do I need to jettison a bunch of this stuff and start over?

Once I have that answer, I realize, look, I’m more than a quarter of the way to “The End.” I’m making real progress. Let’s keep going. Semper drito.

This method of writing works so well for me that I generally can write the first draft of a 400-page novel in about three months. Then I can take my own sweet time to do the second, third, fifth, eighth drafts that will be needed to make this a novel. I’ve built the table and it stands sturdy. Now I can the time to sand the wood and varnish the surface.

If you get majorly stuck in your early draft, you likely won’t ever finish the novel and the writing process will grow less and less satisfying. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, hell, I probably should write Chapter 3. Oh, and schedule that colonoscopy…” then the bloom is off the rose and you ought to just chuck it in.

Go-Backs and Read-Throughs mean I’m always, always moving forward. I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I just turned in my ninth novel to my publisher and I can safely say: Every hour spent writing it was a blast, all the way through and out the other side of the tunnel to “The End.”

10 July 2020

Sleepless In Seattle?


I'm curious. Do you live in or near a big city? Maybe NYC or LA? If so, do you have a strong opinion about fireworks right now?

And by *fireworks* I don't mean the Independence day, everyone cheering when they light up the sky variety. I mean the every-thirty-minutes-keeps-you-up-all-night kind of fireworks.

Are you exhausted?  Cranky? Confused?

Have you called the [insert: police, fire department, congressman, shrink, other authority] to complain and hopefully make it stop so you can go back to sleep?

One thing's for sure, complaints are way up in 2020 versus this time in previous years.

Lucky for me, from my sleepy suburban vantage point, we've only had a few incidences of late-night pyrotechnics that could probably be attributed to beer-induced July 4th warm-ups. But I understand many, many friends and family members residing in larger cities across the USA have been singing the insomnia blues for weeks. And still are.

New York City ~ Chicago ~ Los Angeles ~ San Francisco ~ Boston ~ Denver ~ Philadelphia

Hmmmm, a modern-day mystery to be solved. Whodunit? And maybe even more compelling, whydunit?

Color me--a writer and reader of crime fiction--invested.

For the past few weeks, I've scoured social media feeds, googled news articles, watched YouTube interviews, and checked in with friends who live in or near those cities. Word from my daily scrolling is that these all-night fireworks aren't being hailed as celebratory (Independence Day traditional and amateur shows notwithstanding), as much as ominous.

I ruled out the run-of-the-mill illegal fireworks shenanigans from collectors who are bored with the pandemic's shelter-in-place orders, because too many cities were being inundated simultaneously across the country and the onslaught was so relentless.

Were said pyros honoring the front line workers who still battle against the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite varying levels of lock downs?

Are they resulting from the Black Lives Matter protests? Or counter-protests?  I ruled this theory out when I learned that fireworks sales spiked two weeks before George Floyd's murder.

Are they some other kind of coordinated protest?  I steered clear of the mounting conspiracy theories ranging from the fireworks displays covering up actual gunfire and a government attacks, all of which flirt with paranoia.

Even weeks later, no one seems to know for sure, nor has any group claimed responsibility. If only we knew who and why, then authorities could attempt to assuage the onslaught. For now, we are a captive, involuntary audience.

And then it hit me...

As a writer who lives and dies by generating suspense in my fiction, I'm reluctantly impressed with these faceless antagonists. They hooked me with their nocturnal coordinated attacks (minus the loud explosions, because kids, pets and those suffering from PTSD are in hell). I can't stop researching and questioning.

But isn't that what we crime writers strive for with every story we write?  To keep our readers in suspense so they can't sleep at night for wanting and needing more information? To follow every stray clue to somehow solve the impossible riddle? To ultimately find relief in the answers.

As they say, the suspense is killing me.  Do you have any theories about these  fireworks?



PS ~ Let's be social:

09 July 2020

Fine! If He Can't Be Treasury Secretary....


"The pure ermine of the Supreme Court is sullied by the appointment of that political hack."
The New York American, March 17th, 1836


The bust in question.
Today's post kicks off with a quick reference back to Monumentgate: namely, the debate on whether or not to remove the bust of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney from its current perch in the U.S. Capitol building. And then I'm going to try to tie all three posts together with the theme which clearly connects them.

First: Taney (pronounced "Tawny"), who served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1836 until his death at age eighty-seven in 1864. The current debate is whether to remove the bust of him which resides on the old Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol, and replace it with a bust of the first African-American justice, Thurgood Marshall.

Like a number of the men memorialized in those statues currently causing such a commotion both here and abroad, Taney was a Southerner (born and raised in Maryland). Also like so many of them, he was a member of the planter aristocracy (Taney's family holdings produced mostly tobacco). There can also be little question that Taney believed, as did so many of these other men, that slavery was the bedrock on which "Southern culture" rested, and therefore must be protected.

However, unlike most of these other monumental (see what I did there?) subjects, Taney freed his slaves. Also unlike so many of his fellow Southerners occupying positions of authority in the United States government, Taney did not resign his position when secession came (as one of his fellow Supreme Court justices did). And like fellow slave-holders such as Thomas Jefferson, he seems to have had mixed feelings about slavery, however important he may have felt it was to the Southern way of life. 

Now bear in mind that Taney's home state of Maryland never actually seceded from the Union. What's more, Taney was in his eighties by the time hostilities broke out in December of 1860. It's not like he was going to join the army. What's more, his public writings and statements during the Civil War make clear Taney's opinion that the Southern states possessed the inherent right to secede from the Union, and what's more, he also clearly blamed Abraham Lincoln for said secession in the first place.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
It makes you wonder how, if given the chance, Chief Justice Taney might have ruled on the myriad court challenges to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the constitutional amendments which eventually enfranchised all native-born Americans and granted them both citizenship and the right to vote.

It shouldn't.

Because the existing record of Taney's legal work both as a trial lawyer and as a federal judge paints a pretty clear picture of how Taney felt about the legal status of both slavery and of enslaved peoples of African descent. Let's look at this record.

Taney famously stated in open court in 1819 that slavery was "a blot on our national character." Of course, he was defending an abolitionist against a charge of incitement to riot at the time. So does that statement really count? 

After all, Taney, wasn't just a lawyer. He was also a politician. And, as the quote which kicks off this blog post notes, something of a political hack, at that.

Initially a Federalist, Taney changed his party affiliation in 1828, in the middle of a four-year term as State Attorney General for Maryland. This was in coordination with his support for the presidential candidacy of Democrat Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. When Taney left office as Maryland's attorney general in 1831 he quickly found himself filling a succession of positions in Jackson's cabinet.

Jackson lost most of his cabinet over the "Petticoat Affair."
First he spent six weeks serving as acting Secretary of War, replacing John Eaton, who resigned as part of the infamous "Petticoat Affair." Then Jackson gave Taney plenty to do as Attorney General of the United States. 

Jackson had come to power at the head of a coalition of Southern and Western state interests intent on curbing federal overreach and asserting states' rights. Taney supported the view that local governments (in the form of the states) were the bedrock of good government, and that these institutions were more inherently aligned with the direct will of "the people."

Of course, "the people" did not mean all people. In a May, 1832 court appearance in his capacity as U.S. Attorney General Taney argued in support of a South Carolina law stating that free black sailors who came ashore while their ships were in South Carolina ports could be imprisoned. Taney reasoned that:

The African race in the United States even when free, are every where a degraded class, and exercise no political influence. The privileges they are allowed to enjoy, are accorded to them as a matter of kindness and benevolence rather than of right...And where they are nominally admitted by law to the privileges of citizenship, they have no effectual power to defend them, and are permitted to be citizens by the sufferance of the white population and hold whatever rights they enjoy at their mercy. They were never regarded as a constituent portion of the sovereignty of any state... They were not looked upon as citizens by the contracting parties who formed the Constitution.

How do you think the guy who wrote that would have viewed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments? Remember these words. More on them below.

After a couple of years of representing the Jackson administration's interests in court, Taney found himself in line for an even more powerful position when Jackson fired his Treasury Secretary over a difference of approach in getting rid of the Bank of the United States. Jackson believed the Bank was illegal and wanted to destroy it. Taney supported the notion of independent "State" banks, and was more in line with Jackson on this than his predecessor. So Jackson named Taney as his new Treasury Secretary.

The only problem was that the Anti-Jacksonian ("Whig") party controlled the Senate, and Taney would need to be confirmed by the Senate in this new position as Treasury Secretary. Partly because of his (and Jackson's) stance on the Bank of the United States, and partly because of their loathing for Jackson personally, the Whigs managed to block Taney's confirmation. He bears the dubious distinction of being the first executive branch nominee on the history of the United States to fail to gain Senate confirmation.
Was Jackson EVER really this placid?

Furious, Jackson attempted to appoint Taney to an open position on the U.S. Supreme Court. Again, the Whig-controlled Senate blocked his appointment. But Jackson, not known for being either forgiving or a quitter, wasn't done.

It should be noted that during his eight years in office Andrew Jackson succeeded in completely remaking the Supreme Court, with an unprecedented five appointments. How this came to pass I intend to address in my next blog post. For now, suffice to say that the next time a position on the Court came open, it was that of the Chief Justice, on the occasion of the death of the long-serving John Marshall.

Third time was a charm, mostly, because there had been an election in the interim and Jackson's Democrats now controlled the Senate, so he got Taney on the bench in March of 1836. The quotation that leads off this entry was published in response to Taney's appointment.

Taney quickly developed a reputation for careful, nuanced reasoning during his tenure on the Court. He might have come up as a political hack, but he was also clearly very concerned with being taken seriously as a legal theorist. His rulings in landmark cases throughout his first two decades on the Court won him respect on this front. 

They also constitute a clear-cut record of Taney's thinking on the issue of slavery and the role of both it and of African slaves in American society. Time and again Taney and the Jackson-appointed Southern majority on the Supreme Court ruled to support what Southerners termed their "peculiar institution."

This all came to a head with the historical event for which Taney is probably best known: his authorship of the Supreme Court's notorious majority opinion in the federal case of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). In this sweeping ruling, dealing with the question of whether a slave taken by his owner into a state or territory where slavery was outlawed was to be considered free, Taney went far beyond the narrow scope of the question before the court, and attempted to settle the broader questions of the legality of slavery and the role of African-descended peoples, be they slave or free, in American society.

As he had argued twenty-five years earlier in the South Carolina port case quoted above, Taney maintained that because their status had not been expressly spelled out by the framers of the Constitution, African Americans had no legal status in the American legal system, and thus, were inherently barred from becoming citizens (never mind that when the Constitution was drawn up in 1788 five of the original thirteen states already afforded free blacks the right to vote). As a result blacks–free or slave–were legally disqualified from bringing suits in federal courts. Under the Constitution, Taney ruled, blacks possessed "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

You probably know what happened next. Rather than settling the slavery question "once and for all," Taney's decision brought down a firestorm of criticism on his and the Court majority's heads. If anything the Dred Scott  decision helped bring about the violent sectional conflict so many–including Taney's political benefactor Andrew Jackson–had worked so hard to forestall. 

In the words of historian Daniel Walker Howe: "Taney's blend of state sovereignty, white racism, sympathy with commerce, and concern for social order were typical of Jacksonian jurisprudence...
Ironically his devotion to state sovereignty and white supremacy in the long run contributed to the dissolution of the Union Andrew Jackson loved."

So should that bust of Taney in the U.S. Capitol come down? Should it be replaced with one of fellow Marylander, the Baltimore-born, brilliant lead attorney in the ground-breaking Brown v. the Board of Education civil rights case, and eventual first African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall?

Of course.

But don't just take my word for it. Ask the Maryland State Assembly and the Baltimore City Council. Both entities removed bronze statues of Taney from their grounds back in 2017.

Tune in next time when I take on the question of how Andrew Jackson managed to get five of his own hand-picked justices placed on the Supreme Court in a mere eight years.

See you in Two Weeks!

08 July 2020

Widdershins



People have commented about what kind of entertainment is appropriate - if appropriate is even the word - for this odd time. Do we embrace it, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, or Camus, or turn to escapism? Conventional wisdom has it that screwball was so popular during the Depression because it didn't reflect actual living conditions. On the other hand, during the polio epidemic, there was a brief vogue for the iron lung as a story element. Noir mirrors a specific postwar unease, which overlaps Cold War nuclear anxiety. Kiss Me Deadly or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Godzilla is the atomic metaphor writ large and reptilian.

I seem to be in retreat, myself, falling back on comfort food. Instead of post-apocalyptic, I set sail instead with Dorothy Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

Now, right up front, let's admit some of these are pretty lightweight. Whose Body?, the debut, is contrived and gimmicky. Clouds of Witness is stronger, mostly because the stakes are higher. Unnatural Death seems labored, to me, and basically unconvincing - although it introduces the estimable Miss Climpson. I don't think Sayers (and Wimsey) really hit their stride until The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and I think also this is because Bellona is to some degree about the effects of the Great War on Wimsey and his generation.

Sayers wrote novels of manners; contrivance is less important than character. Wimsey is himself nowhere near the foppish dilettante he affects to present - this is a Scarlet Pimpernel device. (You can easily imagine Leslie Howard in the part, deceptively languid.) Wimsey was a major in the Rifles, and was invalided out. There's a scary moment in Whose Body? when he imagines hearing German sappers digging below, and Bunter has to talk him down and put him to bed. The relationship between Wimsey and Bunter is the spine of the stories.

The other thing we have to acknowledge, which for some readers could be a deal-breaker, is that the language of the period singes the present-day ear. You remember that the books started in the 1920's, so astonishingly, they're almost a hundred years old. This isn't to apologize for Sayers' vocabulary, or rather, the accuracy with which she reports the vocabulary of the British class structure. She doesn't necessarily share their prejudices, but you doubt she's inoculated against them. Then again, Wimsey seems to be playing a part, 'Lord Peter' a kind of self-parody, so how much of this is affectation? It's hard to distinguish between the narrative conventions and Sayers' personal feelings. She herself was apparently quite astonished when somebody suggested anti-Semitic tropes in her work.

The three strongest books are the late-runners, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Gaudy Night. Murder Must Advertise because it's so effectively mannered - as a novel of manners ought - and because Sayers makes fun of her own successful career as an advertising copywriter. The Nine Tailors because the mystery is so elegant, the bell-ringing so exact, and the surrounding fen country so beautifully evoked. Gaudy Night is an outlier, granted, because it's of course Harriet's book, not Peter's, but the atmospherics are extraordinary, overheated and claustrophobic.

I also recommend The Documents in the Case, which is a standalone, without Wimsey, but the forensics reveal at the end is worth it all by itself.

The other thing about the language in the books, though, is how much it represents a world of the past. Not the late Victorian era of Holmes, but a time we think we can almost reach, from our own experience. Not that many degrees of separation. The period between the wars could be our parents, or theirs. You remember hearing an expression, as a kid, that made no sense whatsoever, because the context belonged to a previous generation. "Clean your plate," my grandmother might say, "think of those starving children in Belgium." Her reference is the First World War.

My personal favorite in the novels is widdershins, which means counter-clockwise, but Wimsey uses it in a particular way, "We do no harm in going widdershins, it's not a church." This puzzled me, until I unearthed a more sinister definition, invoking malign spirits. Originally, however, it seems simply to describe a cowlick or a case of bad hair. And there's the charm.  

07 July 2020

Purchase. Read. Vote.


Though the first Bouchercon was held in 1970 and the first Anthony Awards presented in 1986, Bouchercon 2020 will be, if I’ve counted correctly, only the tenth time an Anthony has been presented for an anthology or collection.

As a contributor to three Anthony-nominated anthologies and the editor of one, it may be selfish to suggest that I wish an Anthony were awarded in this category every year.

As a voracious writer and reader of short mystery fiction, though, I think this is a great way to recognize the contributions of short-story writers and editors, and I believe their work should be honored every year. After all, crime fiction novelists have multiple opportunities to receive awards, far more than do short-story writers and editors.

PAST RECIPIENTS

The award seems to have had slightly different names over the years, and here’s a look back at past winners. The publishers of Anthony-winning anthologies/collections include both major publishers and small presses, and the editors tend to be well-known. Bouchercon’s own anthologies have won twice and, coincidentally, the only publisher to have won twice published the Bouchercon anthologies.

2018 Best Anthology—Gary Phillips, The Obama Inheritance (Three Rooms Press)

2017 Best Anthology or Collection—Greg Herren, Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out)

2016 Best Anthology or Collection—Art Taylor, Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 (Down & Out)

2015 Best Anthology or Collection—Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon (Pegasus Crime)

2001 Best Anthology/Short-Story Collection—Lawrence Block, Master’s Choice II (Berkley)

1996 Best Short Story Collection—Marcia Muller, The McCone Files: The Complete Sharon McCone Stories (Crippen & Landru)

1995 Best Anthology/Short Story Collection—Tony Hillerman, The Mysterious West (Harper Collins)

1994 Best Anthology/Short Story Collection—Martin H. Greenberg, Mary Higgins Clark Presents Malice Domestic 2 (Pocket)

1992 Best Anthology/Short Story Collection—Sara Paretsky, A Woman’s Eye (Delacorte)

2020 NOMINEES FOR BEST ANTHOLOGY OR COLLECTION

There are five nominees for Best Anthology or Collection this year, each equally deserving. If you enjoy short stories, and if you want to read several great stories, you should order all five. Within the pages of these anthologies you will discover Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Shamus Award-nominated short stories, an Agatha Award-winning story, a Derringer Award-winning story, and at least one story selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken (Down & Out Books)

¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Col√≥n (Down & Out Books)

Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman (Wildside Press)

Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)

Murder A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Gos, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)










So, order all five, read them closely and, when you receive your Anthony ballot this year, vote for the anthology you feel most deserving.

SIDE NOTE: SLEUTHSAYERS WELL REPRESENTED

Though Art Taylor is the only SleuthSayer to receive an Anthony for Best Anthology, Paul D. Marks co-edited the Anthony-nominated Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out), and Barb Goffman and I each edited an anthology nominated this year. So, SleuthSayers are well represented in this category.


Sandra Murphy and I have a collaboration—“Goobers”—in The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths (Mango) edited by Maxim Jakubowski; my story “Caked” appears in the June issue of Thriller Magazine, and my story “El Despoblado” appears in the June issue of The Digest Enthusiast.

06 July 2020

Second Best


By Steve Liskow

Anybody remember a golfer named Craig Wood, big in the 30s and 40s? He was the first golfer--maybe still the only one, in fact--to come in  second in all four major championships (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship) by losing a play-off. He eventually won two of those tournaments, too, and finished with 21 career victories.

He once said, "It takes a pretty good guy to come in second."

Besides bartenders, who remembers the guy who comes in second?

Writers do.

In 2006, my daughter told me about a short story contest she heard about from, of all people, her ex-mother-in-law. I'd never heard of the Crime Bake Writers Conference or the Al Blanchard Story Award, but mere days before the deadline, I sent them a story.

A few months later, Leslie Wheeler, the coordinator of the contest, emailed to say my story placed in the top 10. She urged me to send it to Level Best Books the following year because that fledgling publisher, which featured the Al Blanchard winner in their annual volume, would surely take it. I did, and after 356 rejections for various novels and short stories, that story became my first published work.

In 2007, I entered another story in the contest and won Honorable Mention. That meant neither money nor publication, but I attended the conference and got my picture taken holding the cool certificate. Over the next year, I sent that story to 21 other markets that turned it down. Then I sent it to Level Best again and they grabbed it.

I hate the way I look in pictures, especially when they shoot before
I even know they're going to do it.  
 In 2008, I entered another story in the contest and won another Honorable Mention. I sent that  second-best to 22 markets, and they all turned it down again.

Are you sensing a trend here?

I sent it to Level Best (again) and they took it (again). At that year's awards ceremony, Leslie announced that I'd placed in the top ten three years in a row. Level Best published my first four works to see print. Since then, I've sold stories and novels elsewhere, but the consistent close calls show how subjective judging is for prizes, or even for regular sales. Once you get beyond basic grammar and formatting, it's all a matter of taste.

Fourteen years later, I have published three stories that won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard, the third appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That story was also accepted for an anthology that I withdrew from because the contract rang alarm bells. Everyone liked that story, but most of them not quite enough. Go figure.

I've had other near misses. Last winter, I got a letter telling me my third entry in the Black Orchid Novella Award competition (My first two both won) earned--you guessed it--Honorable Mention. I didn't get a certificate (How is that a mention?) and was left with a story nearly 17,000 words long. That's going to be a hard sell somewhere else, but who knows? Opinion and taste, right?

In 2013, Blood on the Tracks won Honorable Mention for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel Award. It finished in the top ten of over 1500 entries, but all I received were the judge's glowing comments. No money, no mention in the magazine. I did sell four copies of the book over the next two months, though.

That same year, MWA named me a finalist for the Edgar for Best Short Story. At the banquet, I met Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter, who were in the anthology with me, and they both autographed my copy of the book, which made the trip worthwhile all by itself. Lehane, whom I'd met before, won the Edgar for Best Novel that year. Slaughter turned out to be even more fun than Lehane, even though she beat me out for the short story award. There are worse fates than losing a writing award to Karin Slaughter.
I hate this picture even more than the other one, but Karin Slaughter
was fun to talk to. So was Teresa Soldana, who lost to her, too.

The following year, I asked Laura Lippman for a blurb and mentioned my near miss. She told me that my Edgar nomination was "huge" and that I would surely find someone who was in a position to help me out.

The next year, I was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel, a category that no longer exists. I lost there, too, but that book sold three copies in the next two weeks.

Since 2006, I have been short-listed for nine awards that I have not won. Seven of those stories sold somewhere else eventually, and the other two are still floating around in submission purgatory. One is that Black Orchid novella.

I currently have stories entered in both the Al Blanchard and the Black Orchid contests. I need one more certificate to fill the top of my book case. And, who knows? Maybe Laura Lippman or Karin Slaughter is dropping my name somewhere...