Showing posts with label AHMM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label AHMM. Show all posts

15 May 2024

Saying Uncle



I am delighted to have a story in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Professor Pie is Going to Die" is about an actor who starred in a local children's TV show in the sixties, returning to that city for a nostalgia fair, and finding out some people there don't like him. Don't like him a LOT.

I wrote a piece about that at the AHMM blog, Trace Evidence, and you might want to read it before we go any further. It talks about the hundreds of local kiddie shows that were on the air during that era.  But I want to write about one that started a little later.

I read the Wikipedia article about this program and it disagrees with my memory on some important points. Of course, Wikipedia is never wrong so be warned, because you are about to read what I remember hearing when I lived in New Jersey.   You can always check out their view.

When I was growing up the Garden State had zero TV stations (okay, there was an educational channel in Newark, but no kid worth his yoyo would watch that).  

But in the seventies cable television came along.  There was one such station in West Orange which made its living entirely on infomercials, but the FCC said they also had to make some cultural contribution.  So in 1974 they put out an ad for someone with experience in children's television.

What they got was Floyd Vivino.  

He had no experience in children's television.  He did have a sense of humor, some wacky friends, and the ability to play the piano.  What he created was The Uncle Floyd Show, which was a cross between a children's program and a satire on children's programs.  To say the structure was loose is like saying Antarctica is chilly.  Someone once told Floyd "I'd love to see your outtakes" and he said "You do.  Every day."  One episode consisted mostly of Floyd arguing with repo men who wanted to collect the station's piano.


The show had comedy sketches and puppets and music.  Not just Floyd's piano either.  Hipsters adored him and he therefore attracted some of the hottest bands of the time: the Ramones, Bon Jovi, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cyndi Lauper, to name a few.  David Bowie wrote a song about him, and explained that he had been introduced to the show by another fan, John Lennon.

Uncle Floyd even put out his own recordings.  I remember his puppet Oogie being interviewed on the hippest music station in New York and bragging that Floyd's new single was expected to sell "in the high dozens." Here  he is performing it live.


Like many kid's shows Floyd's received art from his admirers. He would show the camera a drawing submitted by little Jimmy in Brooklyn, age 23, or Bobby, 19, of Greenwich Village.  All reported with a straight face, of course. 

The show ran until 1988.  Not surprisingly Floyd has performed in various media and revivals to this day.

All of this has very little to do with my story in Hitchcock, but I guess it's part of my story in real life.



17 March 2024

51 and Counting


51

There's an old saying that figures don't lie, but liars do figure. However, one can also choose those figures from the data which are more favorable to the point one wishes to make. This person is usually called the expert in that field. Therefore, following in the footsteps of some of our fellow SleuthSayers bloggers in their blog articles which contained personal statistics from their writings and/or published works, here are some of my own figures. Make of them what you will.

Note: The following come only from my short stories published and/or accepted by AHMM.

The data starts in 2001 with my first acceptance, "Once, Twice, Dead," at 3,030 words for a payment of $280, and it currently concludes in March 2024 with my 51st acceptance "Murder Alley," at 5,300 words for a payment of $480. All of this makes for a total of 258,330 words for a total payment of $21,376 for all 51 of the stories.

The majority of my short stories range from 3,530 words on the low end to 8,060 words on the high end with a per story average of about 5,065. Of course, when you are writing your own stories, please remember that every story should have just as many words as it needs to tell that story. My word count total for all my short stories sold to AHMM comes to 258,330.

Added to the above figures are monies earned from AHMM reprints:

  •      Great Jones Street ($500)
  •      The Big Book of Rogues and Villains ($250)
  •      Black Cat Mystery Weekly ($50)
  •      Japanese Mystery Magazine ($200)

51 accepted     28 rejected       64.56 % AHMM acceptance rate

$21,376 Initial Payment earned, plus $1,000 for reprint rights on AHMM stories equals $22,376 total.

My conclusion from the data is that approximately 358K words would make about three novels at about 86K words each. Assuming a $500 advance or less per novel from a small publisher, many of these don't earn out in royalties. The author frequently spends the advance money for advertising in one form or another because small publishers don't have much of a budget for PR or advertising. It's a sad state of affairs for a beginning writer. However, I do think that a novel writer gets more prestige in the writing community for having a published novel under their belt.

Since I am not a prolific writer, it would take me a long time to write those three novels from my short story statistics. Not to mention that an editor/agent/publisher would be expecting a new novel every year for me to succeed in the writing game, therefore I'm better off staying in the short story business. Right now, it's fun. If I had to write 86K publishable words a year, it just might quickly turn into work.

So, there you have my story.

See you in print.

Somewhere.

03 January 2024

Chatting with Shanks


 


"So," I said. "When did you decide to become a thief?"

Leopold Longshanks raised his bushy eyebrows.  "Seriously?  Talk about blaming the victim."

"I don't know what you mean."

He leaned on my kitchen table, pulling his coffee cup closer. "I mean I'm a fictional character and if I steal it's because that's what you wrote."

"True enough, I suppose.  I was just trying to open the conversation."

"Sure, and make me look bad in the process." He shook his head.  "The readers will know who's responsible."

"Well, what would you have said instead?"

Shanks looked at the ceiling.  "Let's see.  I would have pointed out that  you ride a bicycle every day."

"Unless there's ice on the ground.  I'm not crazy."

"The jury's still out on that.  For one thing, you're sitting here talking to a figment of your imagination.  But my point is, it's not surprising that you thought of a way to steal a bicycle."


I reached for my own coffee.  "Well, mystery writers' brains do tend to head toward crime, as you would know."

"Correct.  But since you are relatively honest--"

"Relatively?"

Shanks shrugged.  "Just because you haven't been accused of of plagiarism yet..."

"Very funny.  Go on."

"Well, you had to think of some way to use your technique for bike theft without risking jail time.  You thought of me even though I am somewhat exercise-averse."

"You're lazy, even for a writer."

Shanks waved a finger.  "Don't insult our peers.  The point is, you  realized that you could send me on a writer's retreat and they are often held in park-like settings, where there might be bicycles available for the guests. After that, the plotting was easy."

"It looks easy if someone else is doing it," I replied.


"Well." Another shrug.  "Easy for me.  I'm a much better writer than you."

"Only because I created you that way."

"As you often remind me." He sipped more coffee. "When does 'Shanks in Retreat' come out anyway?"

"The January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It's already available."

"Excellent.  Why don't you tell all those nice readers to turn off this blog and go get a copy?"

"I think you just did."

"Clever of me." He looked across the kitchen.  "Got any donuts?"  


 

26 November 2023

50th


In January 2006, I attended my first MWA Board of Directors meeting at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. At the start of the meeting, the vice-president had each attendee sitting around the conference table introduce themselves and tell what they wrote.

Sitting there among several best-selling novelists, I told them I wrote only short stories, and concluded with I doubted I'd live long enough to get as many published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as the famous short story author Ed Hoch had. At the time, I had only eight stories published in AHMM, whereas Ed went on to have 450 in EQMM, plus I don't know how many in AHMM before he passed two years later.

My first story ("Once, Twice, Dead") published in AHMM's November 2001 issue, was set in the Golden Triangle. Kathleen Jordan was the editor and her web page said she wanted mystery stories in exotic locations. To me, Southeast Asia was exotic, I'd seen it for myself in '67, so I submitted the story and she bought it.

Elation soon turned into panic when I realized I had no second story to submit. The next story had to be high quality, else I could be considered as a one-trick pony. After much brainstorming, the Twin Brothers Bail Bond series was born. Kathleen bought the first three in the series before she passed.

Shortly after Linda Landrigan took over as editor, she sent me an e-mail requesting some changes in that third story which had already been accepted, bought and paid for, though not yet published. I figured this was probably the end of my short career in AHMM. Since the editor is the boss, I made the requested changes and went on to sell her seven more stories in that series.

I soon branched out to The Armenian series set in 1850s Chechnya; the 1660s Paris Underworld series, involving a young, inept pickpocket trying to survive in a criminal enclave; the Holiday Burglars series;  and The Golden Triangle series, involving two feuding half-brothers vying to take over their warlord father's opium empire in the mountain jungles of Southeast Asia.

In my Prohibition Era series, "Whiskey Curb" is set in a Manhattan location where actual gangsters used to sell and trade liquor. It is my 49th sale to AHMM and is published in their Nov/Dec 2023 issue. The third story in this series was rejected with the dreaded doesn't fit our needs at the moment type comment. The fourth story in the series is currently resting in the editor's e-slush pile, waiting for a verdict.

Naturally, there are some standalone stories not necessarily conducive to acquiring series status. And, there are some potential series stories which died aborning because I had already written and submitted the second story in the series before the first one was rejected.

And now, we come to my first ever P.I. series. An earlier post talks about the genesis of my first ever P.I. story, "Leonardo." Unfortunately, it will have to find a different home, since it was rejected by AHMM. Seems that the upper brass does not want any stories mentioning teens and sex. My P.I. broke up a ring of pornographers. Nothing graphic, mind you, just the rescue scene and the mention seemed to nix the story. So, put that on your list of No-Nos and save yourself the trouble.

Here's the interesting part to go with the paragraph above. On 09/24/23, I received an e-mail from AHMM accepting the second story in my intended P.I. series. Same protagonist and sidekick, different crime. In which case, "Recidivism" becomes my 50th story sold to AHMM. Thank you, thank you.

Returning to the beginning of this blog, it appears I'm a long way from Ed Hoch's 450 stories in EQMM and I don't know how many in AHMM. Furthermore, with my fading eyesight, body parts which are showing the wear of a life well lived, and a brain like that cheese made in an European country where the natives yodel at each other in their mountains, I seriously doubt my sold/accepted numbers in AHMM will make it to as high as 100, or even to the number of years in my age.

God, I wish I were 50 again.

01 November 2023

What's It All About?



 I've been thinking about what individual stories are about.  I don't mean plot.  Do I mean theme? Maybe so.

What brought this to mind was an interview with  Tim Minchin, Australian comedian. singer, and composer of the bestselling musical Matilda.  He said that all of his work is about the same thing: How do you lead an ethical life?

As you see, that's a deeper "about" than just plot.  So let's play around a bit...

The very first mystery story, Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is about the triumph of rational thought.

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is about evil lurking under the surface of the ordinary (definitely a recurring theme for her).  Or is it about atavistic hangovers in civilization? Certainly a tale can be about more than one thing.

Susan Glaspell''s "A Jury of Her Peers" and Roald Dahl's "Lamb the the Slaughter" are both about men's inability to see things from women's point of view.  

Donald E. Westlake said "I believe my subject is bewilderment.  But I could be wrong."

My own first published story, which you can read here, is about the effects of  betrayal.  My story "Why" is, logically enough, about motive.

I suppose my favorite "about," which comes up again and again in my writing and my favorite stories is the possibility of redemption: someone trying to fix a mistake.


The reason I am pondering all this is that "When You Put It That Way" appears in the November-December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It is my fortieth story there.  

And it is about economics.

What?  Capitalists versus socialists?  Evil corporate monopolies? Progressive versus regressive taxation?

None of the above.  I have heard economics defined as "the study of the  allocation of scarce resources,"  

In my story, that resource is personnel.

My protagonist is a district attorney faced with an unsolvable dilemma.  1. A billionaire just killed two people.  2. The sheriff thinks she has evidence of a serial killer.  

The dilemma: Both crime scenes need a lab technician immediately and he only has one to send.  I put plenty more obstacles in his path, but that's the essence of the problem. Scarce resources.

As I was writing this blog I was reminded of something I was told by a friend who is in the biz: "An economist is someone who, after a battle, shoots the wounded."

Come to think of it, "Shooting the Wounded" would have been a pretty good title for my story.  But I like "When You Put It That Way."

I hope you do too.


 

02 August 2023

Hobo Blues



  I am delighted to have a story in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Law of the Jungle" is the second story I owe to Utah Phillips.  (Or possibly the fourth.  We'll get back to that.)

As I have written before, Bruce Phillips, also known as U. Utah Phillips the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, was many things: veteran, pacifist, anarchist, Wobbly, singer, songwriter, raconteur, and railroad bum, to name a few.

His song about the Orphan Train movement inspired me to write "Train Tracks,"  which also appeared in AHMM. In fact, he wrote an entire album of songs about railroads and hoboes.


So when I heard about the book by Ian McIntyre it was inevitable that I bought it.  On The Fly! is a collection of literature about railroad hobos, written by the hobos themselves. The publcations run 1879 to 1941.  The most famous author included is Jack London (although, oddly enough, his piece is about a trip by boat).  The book includes everything from cartoons and poetry to a death-row interview with a serial killer.  It is utterly fascinating.

I was almost halfway through it when the part of my brain that looks for story ideas, the entity I call the Miner, finally woke up and said : "Hey! Write about this!"

So I did.  "Law of the Jungle" is set in 1910 and centers on a teenager who runs away from home and meets an older hobo named Scottsdale Hank.  They ride the rails and encounter a crime and the kid, who takes the moniker or road name Jersey White, learns about life on the bum.


Oh, why did I say I might owe Phillips for four stories?  Well, since he was the highlight of the first folk festival I ever attended I give him a lot of credit for turning me into a folkie.  And if that hadn't happened I wouldn't have written two stories about Kentucky fiddler Cleve Penny.

And I may have more reasons for gratitude because I am currently writing another story about Scottsdale Hank.  Turns out I have a lot to say about hoboing.

I also wrote an essay about a different aspect of  "Law of the Jungle" and you can read it at the AHMM blog, Trace Evidence.

14 March 2023

Do You Taboo?



 I have a story in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, my 38th appearance there, I believe. 

"The Accessores Club" involves a group of criminals discussing a crime one of them has committed.  If you want to know why I chose that premise, you can find out in a piece I wrote for Trace Evidence, the magazine's blog.  What I want to write about today is a little different.

You see, I had to decide what sort of crime my characters would be discussing.  And as I have said before, plotting (as opposed to premise or character) is the hardest part for me.  

But I had recently come up with a plot device I thought would work: a nifty method for kidnappers to retrieve a ransom payment.  I had a problem with using that, although I'm not sure whether to call my dilemma an ethical issue or an artistic one (if I can use a great big grown-up word like art to describe my stuff).

I have written about kidnappings before.  In fact I have invented so many tales about swiped children that a co-worker of mine said he wouldn't let me near his offspring.  He was kidding.  I think.

But those tales had always been told from the viewpoint of the good guys (well, at least good-ish), trying to catch the kidnappers.  The premise of this story would require the kidnapper to be the protagonist.  And I was not comfortable with giving the main role to someone doing such a heinous deed.  Especially since I was hoping this would be a funny story.

On the other hand, a ransom demand doesn't necessarily require a human victim, does it?  And so my bad guy swipes a rare orchid plant and demands a hefty payment to return it.  

Which struck me as kind of funny.  And my characters agreed.  “Did you have the plant on the phone crying for mercy?” one asked.

So I chose that approach and it worked well enough to sell.  But would it be appearing in AHMM if I had made another choice?


Maybe not.  None of my stories about kidnapped children made it into those pages - although all of them found happy homes in other publications.

Every publication has its taboos (or at least strong preferences) and our field as a whole seems to have at least two. 

For example: Why didn't I have my protagonist kidnap, say, a dog?

Because the conventional wisdom for many years has been that in a mystery you don't hurt an animal.  I have been to panels at several conferences over the years where writers spoke with bemusement about the fact that you can massacre half of a small English village and still describe the book as a cozy, but heaven help you if, even in a noir thriller, you harm one whisker on a kitty's head.  It's a weird thing.

I'm not sure the rule about harming children is as deeply ingrained.  A few year ago I read in rapid succession novels by two well-known authors in which kidnapped children were murdered.  Both books were well-written and the violence was not gratuitous, but I will admit it didn't make me eager to read their next volumes.

Last year I started work on a story inspired by actual events.  I thought I had found an interesting way of recounting the tale but I froze up halfway through when I realized that two animals, family pets, were shot to death.  Did I really want to write about that and endure the fury that would follow?

I decided I didn't so I put the story aside.Then one day the Muse said: Hey dummy!  You write FICTION!

Oh, right.  So I went back to the scene, laid  my godlike authorial hand on the shooter's weapon and deflected the bullets.  The dogs may have suffered psychological trauma but they were otherwise unscathed.

Whether the story sells is, of course, up to different hands.


Meanwhile, what taboos do you refuse to write about?  Or read about?


07 March 2023

On the Road to Someplace Else


    I sat at my desk a while back, intending to write a short story about a private eye. Hard-boiled and world-weary, I envisioned an arc where this paladin of the pavement would walk some mean street and, likely, do the wrong thing for the right reason. 

    In my imagination, I pictured a Shamus Award-winning character. Heck, readers would love this guy so much that they'd create new awards to bestow upon him. In my imagination, he was that good. Ever humble and appreciative, I'd always accept their adulations on his behalf.

    He might have a worn trench coat for armor and keep a bottle of cheap whiskey in his desk drawer to help silence the demons of a life lived hard.

    I don't know. For the story to exist, the words had to cross the gulf between my mind's eye and that blinking cursor on the blank screen. The distance on that day was farther than I had anticipated.

    The tough guy couldn't make the leap.

    What do you do when the story refuses to come together?

    Strategies for overcoming the problem differ for everyone trying to write. Some people forge ahead, dropping bad word after bad word onto the page, thrilled that no one else will see the roughest draft, confident that editing will transform the ugly. Others recommend separation. Take a walk or do some vigorous exercise, some task to clear the impediment blocking the path forward. If I walk far enough or exercise hard enough, I'm too worn out to work at my desk. That also solves the problem.

    I could open a door, look inward, or try another Zen-like technique proposed online for getting unstuck with a story.

    Surrender is a final strategy. A writer might admit defeat in this round. Save what's there. My computer file labeled "Not Shamus" contains notes, including the alliterative paladin of the pavement, along with a few other bumper sticker jottings. They've been put aside for another day.

    I started fresh on a new blank screen. This story thread didn't have the baggage of the earlier character. The story contained a different protagonist. He'd been the junior varsity of my imagination. When the presumptive star couldn't perform, the coach looked to him to step forward.

    That plucky little bench warmer was Doyle Tuchfield, the main character in "A Study With Scarlett." Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine included my story in the March/April issue. 

    Faint traces of the old story remain. Rather than a contemporary private eye, Tuchfield is a Victorian-era detective specializing in on-scene investigations. As a veteran of some of the Civil War's major battles, Tuchfield, too, might be a bit world-weary. And we know that his sparse office has a desk. A bottle might be stashed there somewhere. 

    Setting "A Study With Scarlett" in an earlier era also allowed a Holmesian element to be added to the story. The small homage was noted with the main characters named Doyle and Scarlett.

    It is never the wrong time to have a Sherlock Holmes reference. Since their first publication in 1887, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have remained in print. The original stories may be found in seventy languages. An eponymous magazine and countless websites, pastiches, parodies, and fan fiction entries are available for reading. The present, however, may be a particularly good time. Characters that Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned, like Mycroft, have their own books (Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse).  Characters he didn't create have been featured in Netflix movies (Enola Holmes by Nancy Springer).

    I started off intending to write one story. On the way, a different tale emerged. A splash of homage combined with a few hints of the original. There was also some research conducted while standing in my darkened closet, but you'll have to read the story to see if you might guess what that was all about.

    Those original notes remain on my computer, along with fragments of other tales and titles for stories that I've never begun. I may get around to visiting them someday. That, I suppose, depends on the road ahead.

    Until next time. 

25 December 2022

Following in John's Footsteps


Back on November 5th, John Floyd wrote a SleuthSayers blog about three stories he had published in AHMM this year. In the article's conclusion, he asked several questions concerning what elements of writing other authors published in AHMM had used, such as Point of View, sub-genre, series vs. standalones, etc.

As I lag along in John's footsteps, you can easily see the difference in the size of our prints. For one thing, I only have about 160 published short stories, whereas John has about eight or nine times that many. In any case, I was going to answer some of his questions in the comment section, except that my answers kept getting longer and longer, therefore I turned those answers into my own blog and here it is.

The first story I sold to AHMM was a standalone set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia and is not part of the much later 9 Tales from the Golden Triangle series. At the time, the AHMM website said that then editor Kathleen Jordan was looking for stories set in an exotic location. In my mind, the area of the Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos and Thailand) fit the bill for an exotic location, so I submitted my story and she published it. I was launched.

After that, I had to come up with something new in hopes that I wasn't just a one-trick pony. The result was the 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond series. Ten stories in AHMM, in which the reader solves each mystery at the same time the story characters do and with the same clues. It seems the Proprietor in this series only accepts special clients, who subsequently end up falling from high places, being run over by an errant taxi cab (but then they were outside the painted lines of the crosswalk at the time), go deep water swimming without the proper breathing apparatus, get crosswise with their homicidal partner, or are otherwise rendered deceased, yet the bail firm always made a profit. These stories are told in 3rd Person from the POV of the lowly and long-suffering bail bondsman, Theodore. All titles contain some form of the words bail or bond in them. Sayings of Mahatma Gandhi are prominent in many of the stories, however the meanings of these sayings are now sinister, not at all what the great pacifist had intended.

The next series was The Armenian, a trader of goods along the Cossack cordon on the Terek River and south of the river into Chechen country. As a neutral party in the long-standing conflict between Muscovy forces and Chechen hill tribes, The Armenian is often tasked with finding a resolution for local crimes. 9 published stories in all, 6 of them published in AHMM. All were told in 1st Person from the viewpoint of either The Armenian or the Little Nogai Boy. These historical mysteries are set in the 1850s when Russian Tsars were expanding the empire. (9 Historical Mysteries Vol 1 & 2)

Next was the 1660s Paris Underworld series involving a young, orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a criminal enclave. Naively considering himself to be good at his profession, he is often drawn into the schemes and scams of others. 9 published stories in all of which 8 were published in AHMM. All are historical mysteries told in 1st Person POV. (9 Historical Mysteries Vol 1 & 2)

Since humor keeps me sane, I soon turned to humorous capers with the Holiday Burglars series. 13 stories total with 12 published in AHMM. All the capers and titles concern well-known holidays, plus there is a double meaning on the titles. Told in 3rd Person, story characters Beaumont and Yarnell become involved in several bungled burglaries. (9 Holiday Burglars Mysteries)

My 9 Tales from the Golden Triangle series could be considered as an historical thriller set in the mountain jungles and opium fields of Burma, Laos and Thailand during the Vietnam War. Two half-brothers from different cultures vie to see who will inherit their warlord father's opium empire. 9 stories of which 7 were published in AHMM. All are told in 3rd Person POV with much of the plot based around old country Chinese proverbs.

And then, there is my Prohibition Era series of which one story has been published in AHMM and one has been bought but not yet published. The 3rd story was rejected, so it cannot truly be called a series yet. However, I recently submitted another story in this hoped-to-be-series. All are told in 3rd Person POV.

One of my standalones won the 2022 Edgar, but the storyline and background are not conducive to turning this story into a series.

Of course, there were also potential series which died aborning. They didn't get past the 2nd submission before I saw the rejection handwriting writ upon the wall.

There was the EZ Money  Pawn Shop series. Two rejections and out. I even interviewed a real pawn shop manager, and believe me, he was uneasy about the whole deal. Not sure what he had to hide. Stories told in 3rd Person.

For the Bookie series, I interviewed a real bookie. Again, two rejections and out. Told in 1st Person. I was surprised the bookie consented to be interviewed, but then he did almost marry into the far edge of our extended family. He might have erroneously thought it was good for one Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.

The 1900s French Indo-China series, using the old capitol of Hue along the Perfume River as background. Told in 1st Person. Two and out, with a 3rd one abandoned in mid-story. 

The Exterminator series concerning a scheming family of bug exterminators working their scams through their fake business. One and out with two more on the plotting board. Told in 3rd Person.

ETC.

Even with 49 stories sold to AHMM, I guess some stories just aren't destined to become a series.

One last set of facts. Most of my AHMM stories run from 3,500 words to about 5,000 words, with two topping out in the neighborhood of 8,000 words. Each story took as many words as was needed to tell that particular story.

Reading back over this article, I think the AHMM editor and I would agree that if I ever got that first story (a standalone at that point) published, then more than likely I would try to turn those characters and their situation into a series. Why not?


     HAPPY HOLIDAYS to  all !!!




06 November 2022

Skabengas!


What the Bad Guys Wear this Season © South African Paramount Marauder

An Unexpected Heroine

Seldom do we encounter a housekeeper who singlehandedly defeats a criminal terrorist cell. On television, such a heroine would have a CIA backstory, keep a 10mm in her spatula drawer, and be trained in seventeen different ways to kill a bad guy with a broken pair of nail scissors. But no, Nellie appears so extra ordinary, she becomes extraordinary. Our calm and self-possessed iqhawekazi unpacks her most formidable weapon, her wits.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine arrived mere minutes ago, seven hours before today’s publication deadline. It contains stories by my betters, Eve, Janice, Mark, and O’Neil, and  a rare chance to see one of my stories in print. I’ll discuss the genesis of the story another time, but let’s discuss language… or in this case, languages.

South Africa has thirty-five languages, eleven of them official. My story, ‘The Precatory Pea’, is sprinkled with expressions from several. The Netflix television show Blood & Water illustrates how South Africans speak, sometimes coloring sentences with two, three, or four languages.

We do the same thing without realizing. We North Americans mix in Spanish, French, and Latin, plus numerous American Indian place names. We’re the richer for it.

The Name of The Name

“The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes.’”
“Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.
“No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man.’”
“Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?’” Alice corrected herself.
“No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ‘Ways and Means’, but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”
“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is ‘A-sitting On A Gate’, and the tune’s my own invention.”

The table below contains unusual mixed-case words like siSwati, isiXhosa, and isiZulu. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might note, Zulu is a Nguni language but isiZulu is the name of the language… or something like that. The particulars fomented a searing war within Wikipedia. British Wikipedian’s were outraged, claiming the names were at best stolen loan-words or worse, made-up slang. South African editors responding by quoting the Oxford Dictionary, South African Edition, which Wikipedian’s initially didn’t believe existed. So, if you aspire to be ultra-obsessively, compulsively correct (and Good Lord who doesn’t?), Zulu is the people, isiZulu is the language.

Complicating the issue is what computer people call ‘camel case’, mixed capitals and lower case, but this is not unusual in South Africa spelling. For example, the name of the province where I lived is KwaZulu-Natal… birthplace of the Zulus.

I’m admiring and grateful Alfred Hitchcock’s chief editor Linda Landrigan took in stride these issues of languages on the other side of the planet. How terrific is that!

The Fame of The Name

“Must a name mean something?” asked Alice in Wonderland.

Well, yes. Meanings of names used to be important in Western civilization. They often denoted something about the child or birth (Tuesday, Ginger), or religion (Mary, Josh), an occupational name (Carter, Fisher), a place name (D’Arcy, DuPont), or pretty much anything at all (Pearl, Rose). Society has let these lapse from shared memory, but meanings of names remain important in other cultures. An African family naming their little girl Treasure or Precious softens the hardest heart.

I’m not the only one, but I have a habit of relating names to the character of people in my stories. Sometimes I use sounds; sometimes I go by popularity. In the telling of ‘The Precatory Pea’, I took into account ethnicity and name meanings of characters, e.g, Sipho– gift.

Pronunciation

To my ear, South African English combines the sounds of British English with American Deep South vowels. “I like to ride my bike,” sounds like, “Ah lahk to rahd mah bahk.”

I enjoy the sound of several isiZulu terms. It happens to be a click language, so once in a while a *click* pops out. Many words use onomatopoeia. Anyone who’s been around aged farm machinery knows the sound of a tractor, ganda-ganda. A rattletrap vehicle is a skedonk. A bad guy is a skabenga– you can hear the word spit out in disgust.

I suspect Dutch Afrikaans has influenced some pronunciation. For example, ‘th’ sounds are pronounced with a hard T. The talented actress Charlize Theron is exceptionally tolerant of Americans mispronouncing her name, but in her home country, it’s spoken as Teron.

Johannisburg, Johannisberg, Johannesburg… I never know which spelling to use, never mind tasting the riesling. I learned it pronounced with a ‘Y’ as in “Yohannisburg.” So what happens? My hostess corrects me… “Johannesburg.” And then her Afrikaner friend corrects me back, “Yohannesburg.” I get verbal whiplash… or toungelash. At least all agree on Jo-burg pronounced as Joe-burg).

Salade Lyonnaise (salad of Lyon, France)

Salade lyonnaise is delicious, perhaps not often made with African spinach. Its distinguishing feature is warm vinegar and oil dressing with bacon scraps, heated but not so hot to wilt romaine, endive, or whatever lettuce you have at hand. Finish with chopped egg on the greens and dribble savory dressing over it. Try it!

Glossary

Many words have both formal and informal variants. Informal forms and plurals are in parentheses.

term definition, description   language
Arch Desmond Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Setswana
bakkie pickup truck
Afrikaans
bandile increased isiNdébélé, isiXhosa
bok, buck any horned, antelope-like ruminant Afrikaans, English
buhle handsome isiNdébélé, isiXhosa
deurmekaar confused
Afrikaans
dof daft, dumb, stupid
Afrikaans
dwaal dazed
Afrikaans
en and
Afrikaans
hawu expression: wow, whoa, pfft isiXhosa, isiZulu
impi war, warriors
isiZulu
induna foreman, overseer
isiZulu
injakazi slut, bitch
isiXhosa
inyanga (plural izinyanga) healer
isiZulu
isangoma medicine man, witch doctor, diviner, spirit talker, seer isiZulu
isigebengu (skabenga, plural izigebengu) bad guy, criminal, villain isiZulu
isipho (sipho) gift isiNdébélé, isiXhosa
isiXhosa language of the Xhosa isiXhosa, English
isiZulu language of the Zulus isiZulu, English
kokayi summoner, caller of the people together Shona
mach schnell hurry (verb), quickly, now
German
Madiba Nelson Mandela (clan name)
isiXhosa
magondo hyena
Shona
mampara idiot, cretin
Afrikaans
marogo African spinach isiZulu, isiXhosa
moegoe cretin, stupid person
Afrikaans
nelisiwe satisfied
isiZulu
nkosana prince
isiXhosa
rooibos South African red tea
Afrikaans
salade lyonnaise salad of Lyon: egg, heated vinegar, oil, bacon French
schalk varlet, knave, servant
German
Selous Scouts controversial Rhodesian multi-race guerrilla special forces English
skedonk jalopy, beater, dilapidated car, junker isiZulu
svitsi hyena
Shona
uDokotela physician, doctor
isiZulu
umlungu (mlungu) white person
isiZulu
umndeni (mndeni) family
isiZulu
umthakathi (tagati) sorcerer, witch
isiZulu
umuthi (muti) medicine; any liquid of useful purpose isiZulu
voortrekker pioneer
Afrikaans
xiang si dou aphrodisiac love beads
Chinese




  (parentheses imply informal variants or plurals)

Appreciation

I owe thanks to Simon for describing Selous Scouts and approving the finished story. I extend appreciation to ABA for helping me get the wrongs right and the rights better. Thanks to RT Lawton for reading and advising. And I thank the real Nelisiwe, a gentle soul, an open heart, and a lovely person. She’ll be shocked to learn she’s known a world away. Nellie, I miss our shared lunches.

13 August 2022

There Will Be Math (or, a Few Story Statistics)


2010, Aix-en-Provence, and I'm standing at a velvet rope in the Musée Granet. The rope is the only thing between me and a manual inspection of any painting in the gallery. I could have a right good art appreciation lesson before the guards swarmed. I stayed lawful and legit, but what if someone hadn't? What exactly would swarm? A story idea was born, and it started me on an unexpected path.

My first crime story. My first good crime story submitted, anyway. And my first acceptance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.. There are ten more AHMM acceptances since that museum caper and 29 others out or headed your way. If by now you're thinking there will be math in this post, you're right.

That first AHMM (2014)

In all honesty, I didn't start out writing stories with any count goal in mind.

I was drafting an ambitiously doomed novel and hoping for credits to pad my queries. A fine plan, other than the doomed novel part.

The novel is shelved. The stories still trickle out a few per year. A person learns a few things on a path like that. The stories get better, I hope, or the author gets smarter. Talent is a factor in acceptance, but I'm being honest here. Luck gets involved. Tons of talented writers are out there writing tons of great stories. Not all of those catch an editor's eye.

Which mean it's important to share the wisdom. Math-style. Buckle up.

WORD COUNT IS NO ACCIDENT

We're a crime blog, so I'll filter the acceptances down to crime stories. I prefer to read printed stuff, so I'll filter again down to crime stories run or contracted to run in a print edition. I'll filter a third time for paying markets plus a conference anthology with charity proceeds. I want to see y'all printed and paid.

A print edition means print production costs. These constraints should inform a submission strategy. Precious few crime markets--or any markets--take novellas and novelletes these days. AHMM is one of those, to include the annual Black Orchid Award. Still, magazines have only so much room for magnum opus novellas. And for every long story, a print market needs multiple shorter stories to balance the issue. Not too short. Flash stories can create inverse balance issues. I go for the middle ground.

Oh, that Goldilocks zone, 3500 to 4500 words. Convert that word count to time, and you have a ten-ish minute, single-sitting read--nicely suited for my kind of character build and high note.

The average length in this group is 4,200 words. The eleven AHMM stories average 4,500, mostly off two longer stories featuring the same character. The eight in other markets average 3,800. Long pieces wear me out (more below), and shorter pieces are hard for me to nail. I don't spend much time on either.

READING IS CARING

Often, what goes without saying should be said most. Print markets have sample issues, either the current one or a back issue. Read them. Reading a market is essential to submission prep, or else I don't give the submission much chance. Respect-wise, markets can and should have editorial tastes. Not to sense a given market's taste is to be unprepared. As for AHMM, Managing Editor Linda Landrigan recently gave a lengthy interview to Jane Cleland here that is gold for anyone wanting to submit.

I'm molasses-in-winter slow at getting a piece ready. Six to nine months is warp speed. For AHMM, I'm usually in the eighteen month range before I feel confident enough to submit. Why rush something when AHMM prints six editions each year?

The numbers in red above are earlier manuscript versions floated to anthologies. These calls can be great motivators to get a draft finished. Deadlines are a thing with anthologies, whether I'm ready ready or not. Those early rejects did me a huge solid. A version of the French caper story went first to a MWA call. Rejection provided a chance to slow down and rewrite my AHMM breakthrough story.

STORIES OF DISTINCTION

Here's the thing about story variety: You have to be a varietal. At least bring a twist on something not done to death. If you're playing it tried and true, other someones have already bombarded these markets with a similar idea. I mean, distinctiveness is to break through that crowd. By side-stepping it.

Avoid–avoid–the first or easiest thoughts. People have been writing stories for a lo-ong time. That first idea has been done. But five or eight or so ideas down a brainstorming list is a prime nugget.

Inching out on a limb involves risk. Checking the mail has risk, too. Paper cuts. Wasp stings. Meteors. I say go for it.

"Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson" (AHMM, 2015) is about twenty bucks in counterfeit. Twenty bucks. The difference maker is how the main character can't let an easily recoverable loss go. I've used hot chicken as an unhealthy religious experience, lottery audits as a stardom dream, and the surprisingly real phenomenon of walnut-jacking.

Another path to distinctiveness is approach, or how a story is told. Who takes center stage, how events are structured, what's the emphasis and slant. This path is inexhaustible. I'm character-centric. Premise follows, yin and yang. Plot and structure are the scaffolding. "The Cumberland Package" has a dark moment scene where main character literally disassociates for 412 words

. 412. In a short story. But whenever in angst I deleted that dark moment, the story fell apart. I kept the fugue, as to go down swinging. The story was a Derringer finalist.

Art theft and organized crime in the South of France isn't exactly original ground. To Catch a Thief got there first, among others. My thief in that French caper story had a turn of phrase, though, an Eeyore outlook on life but committed to the craft, like if Dortmunder had gone upscale and failed at that, too.

Speaking of Westlake, there's the dying art of style. I invest in a voice, broadly and for each story. I'm not afraid to use this for hijinks. But style is another risk. Style adds editing work. Maddening work, and style can backfire with an editor. AHMM's famed openness feeds my luck--but so does the energy put into each submission.

A MILLION CRIMES IN THE CITY

Murder in deft hands makes for awesome whodunnits.

Clues, red herrings, evidence, science, suspects. That's a lot. In that sense, I'm lazy. And also realistic. Writing a clever mystery isn't what draws me to the chair. Character is. Other writers bring more passion and skill to the whodunnit. I'll read those A-gamers' work and write in my wheelhouse.

This faux body count might surprise. Nine. That's on purpose. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, murder is a means to another end, or it's a desperate reaction to something way out of hand. I start with the small change--relationship friction turned toxic, street robbery, drug muling, art capers that should've stayed clean--and see how out of hand things should get. If the character has to solve a crime, fine. Sometimes, I shake my lazy bones loose and write a mystery.

I've tried hard to learn from success and failure. I know first person is more my thing. Crawling inside a main character's head and way of speaking rewards my approach. I've learned to keep the vocabulary simple. A thesaurus is a great place to find the wrong words. And I track story stats so there's an objective way to keep improving. Okay, also I'm compulsive. But mainly the objectivity thing.

IN ALL

  • Pros submit to pro markets. To compete, write and submit professionally.
  • Don't rush a piece. It only gets one chance with a dream market. Be surer than sure you're researched and ready--ready ready--to click send.
  • Don't settle on an easy plot or premise. If you've read it before, so has the editor. 
  • When in doubt, mid-range length is your friend.
  • Read what you love. Write where your skills are.

If breaking in to these markets is your dream, keep dreaming. Don't be discouraged. Be intentional. Put in the work. I'm Exhibit A that there comes a moment. Mine was at that French velvet rope and wondering who might hop it.

29 June 2022

The Powers That Be



At the risk of sounding unAmerican, I have never been a big fan of comic books or graphic novels (with one notable exception). 

Superhero movies don't do much for me either.  In spite of that I think I have seen a dozen of them, and half of those were about Batman.  (Yes, I know he isn't a superhero.  But he is, of course, the World's Greatest Detective.)

I believe I have only seen one superhero movie in a theatre, and that was by accident.  The film I came to see broke so I agreed to see Superman II instead.  Didn't much care for it.

But a few years ago I was thinking about the public's love for such characters and an odd thought popped into my head: What if someone thought they had a super power?  Well, that might be interesting.

Of course, it would have to a pretty minor super power.  If you thought you could fly or become invisible you would soon be disillusioned.  After some thought I wrote this opening:

When Randolph was six years old, he discovered he could control gravity.   

Not completely, of course.  He couldn’t make things fall up, or even hover in the air.  But once something started to drop, he could influence its direction.

He figured this out one rainy day when his mother told him that, no, he couldn’t go outside, so he should find something to do and stop complaining or she’d give him something to complain about.

Randolph had sat by the window, looking into the street, and noticed a drop of rain poised on the glass.  It began to slip and he thought: Go to the left.

And it did, shimmying down to the far end of the pane.  So he could do that.

The rest of the story follows our hero (?) through his life.

Is Randolph delusional or does he really have a form of psychokinesis?  That is one question that lies at the heart of "The Lord of Falling Objects" in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, on sale now.

The other question is of course: Why does this story belong in a magazine for crime fiction?  Read it and the pieces will, ahem, fall into place.