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

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.


30 March 2022

Unknowing What You Know


Rebecca K Jones
Rebecca K Jones

In 2020, Rebecca Jones was named the top Arizona felony prosecutor by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council, one of the highest honors in her field. In addition to her work for the state of Arizona, Rebecca also writes compelling crime fiction.

Her debut publication was in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's "Department of First Stories" in 2009, and her debut novel, Steadying the Ark, was published by Bella Books this spring. She's also got several new short stories coming out — one in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, another in an anthology due from Down and Out Books this November — and she's translated short fiction by Thomas Narcejac from French to English for two anthologies I edited in recent years.

Her writing and her translations are not the reason I know her, though. Actually, I've known her since long before she began to write and translate: I'm her father, and I couldn't possibly be prouder to introduce her to the Sayers of the Sleuth.

— Josh Pachter

 

Unknowing What You Know

by Rebecca K Jones

If not for NaNoWriMo in 2015, I might have written a different book altogether– or none at all. Although I’d written short stories– including a collaboration with my father, Josh Pachter, which appeared in EQMM in 2009– and wrote a lot of non-fiction for my day job, I’d never had much interest in trying to write a novel. As it happens, my mom told me about National Novel Writing Month a few days after it began on November 1, and on the spur of the moment I decided to jump right in.

Writing a sixty-thousand-word piece of fiction in a month was intended to be an experiment, nothing more. Could I sustain the pace over four weeks while working at a demanding full-time job? Could I produce an interesting product? I had no idea– but this seemed like a challenging way to find out.

At the time, I was a sex-crimes prosecutor at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona, and had worked in that position for about three years. Since my workload didn’t leave me with a lot of free time, I figured my best bet was to follow that age-old piece of advice and “write what I knew.”

What I knew, what I lived and breathed all day every day, was sex crimes. I handled all kinds of cases– child molest, adult rape, child pornography, plus a wide range of miscellaneous offenses including voyeurism, public sexual indecency, and whatever else crossed my desk.

That sounds like a grim description, and it was a pretty grim life. I wound up leaving MCAO in 2018 to prosecute complex drug trafficking and racketeering cases for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office– a job I enjoyed for four years before recently switching to appellate work at the same office.

Back in 2015, when I challenged myself to write a novel in a month, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be a young, gay, female sex-crimes prosecutor. As it happened, I had already written a short story featuring just such a character, Mackenzie Wilson (although she hadn’t yet made it to sex crimes when I wrote “Failure to Obey,” which appears in the current issue of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine). I liked Mack in that first story and decided to graduate her to sex crimes, but that’s where the resemblance between my character and my real life ended. Mack is a great attorney, but she has a number of maladaptive coping strategies that I’m relieved we don’t share. Of course, who knows, she might say the same about me.

It isn’t unprecedented for prosecutors to become novelists. Linda Fairstein and Marcia Clark are two of my favorites, and they both write courtroom thrillers that I find exciting. Marcia Clark also wrote a non-fiction book about her most high-profile case– I don’t need to remind you which case that was, do I?– and she’s certainly not the only prosecutor to have taken that route. There’s even a former Maricopa County Attorney with a true-crime book about a high-profile case. (In that one, defense counsel actually wrote his own true-crime book, about the same case, and wound up consenting to being disbarred for his trouble!)

It can be tricky, though, to write about real cases. Although I’ve tried some crazy cases, none of them has the drama necessary for a compelling read– and writing about cases before their appeals deadline tolls would be ethically questionable at best.

Most prosecutors don’t participate actively in investigations, and a book set entirely behind a prosecutor’s desk– watching most cases end up with plea agreements and few of them actually going to trial– who would want to read that? The day-to-day reality of being a prosecutor– like the day-to-day reality of most jobs (I hope, or is it just mine?)– is that, when you get right down to it … it’s pretty boring.

An additional consideration for me was that I knew there would have to be some bad actors in my story– judges, defense attorneys, even prosecutors and cops who didn’t do the right thing, or weren’t smart, or otherwise weren’t heroes. As a person who works with attorneys, judges, and (until recently) cops all day every day, I didn’t want my real-life colleagues wondering if they were being lampooned or speculating as to the inspirations for my characters. 

So for those reasons– ethics, drama, and my desire to be a nice person– it was crucial that my book be wholly fictional. Although I tried to present the legal process faithfully, I found that I had to take some liberties. The “big case” that Mack deals with, for example, winds up in trial within about six months. In reality, it would take years to get such a case in front of a judge and jury, but where’s the dramatic tension in that?

Steadying the Ark, novel

While juggling all of these considerations, I wrote my sixty thousand words in November 2015, and, by the end of the year, I finished a first draft of the book.

One of the most time-intensive parts of the revision process was ensuring that any accidental similarities between the cases and people in my novel and the cases and people I dealt with in real life were edited into oblivion. Once I was satisfied that I had a draft I could consider “final,” I began to shop the manuscript around to publishers– and it was released as Steadying the Ark in March of this year by Bella Books.

When Bella bought it, they told me they envisioned Mack as a series character. That was, as you can imagine, music to my ears– but it was also terrifying. Now, I realized, I’ve got to invent a whole new set of made-up people? I have to make sure I don’t accidentally write about real cases again?

For as long as I can remember, though, I’ve been a person who loves a challenge, so I am currently hard at work on a new adventure for Mackenzie Wilson. Next up? Homicide cases– which I’ve never handled, so am busy.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have spent ten years doing work I love– work that makes my community a safer and better place. In a way, Steadying the Ark is a love story. It’s not about, but it’s dedicated to the real-life people who face the darkness day in and day out and come out the other side having done work that matters. It is my attempt to show readers how brave and dedicated these individuals are. I hope I’ve been successful!

16 February 2022

The Beat Goes On


 Mea culpa... I forgot to mention in this article that James Lincoln Warren also critiqued the current novella for me, for which I was very grateful...


Back in 2011 my friend James Lincoln Warren asked me to critique a piece he was submitting for the Black Orchid Novella Award competition.  I did and naturally "Inner Fire" won.  (Oh, all right.  It would have won even without my two cents worth.)

But that got me thinking.  Maybe I could come up with a BONA-worthy entry of my own.  The contest is co-sponsored by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and the Wolfe Pack, which is the Rex Stout fan club.  It celebrates the Novella form in which Stout wrote more than thirty adventures of Nero Wolfe.

While the contest does not require it, most of the winners have followed the classic Stout formula of having a younger narrator who assists an older detective.  Warren's did.

Design by James Lincoln Warren
So what I came up with was this: Thomas Gray, fresh out of business school in Iowa in 1958, moves to Greenwich Village to take over the coffeehouse founded by his late uncle.  There he meets Delgardo, he of the ever-shifting first name, a beat poet who supplements his shaky literary income by solving crimes.  The resulting story "The Red Envelope," won the BONA in 2012.

It was always my plan to write a sequel, and hopefully a series.  I set two rules for myself: 1) each title would be one word away from a Stout title (for example, he wrote The Red Box), and 2) each story would move ahead one month through time.

The first novella took place in October so I used my librarian superpowers to see if anything interesting happened in New York in November, 1958.  And I hit the jackpot: that was the moment when the great quiz show scandal hit the fan.

So I knew that my story would have Delgardo trying to help a friend who had been a big winner on a game show and  was now afraid of getting caught up in the scandal.

Next I needed a name for the game show, which could also serve as my story's title.  I realized Stout's penultimate novel gave me the perfect one-off name.  And so "Please Pass the Loot" was born.  You will find it in the March/April issue of AHMM.

As usual R.T. Lawton critiqued it for me and so did James  but I also owe a thanks to Steve Steinbock, mystery writer and critic.  I needed a particular kind of clue for the story and I knew Steve would be able to provide it.  He hasn't read it it and I hope he likes it when he does.

I hope you do too.

One added note: I haven't seen the issue yet but if I am reading the AHMM webpage correctly my piece is the last one in the magazine.  This gives me a warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling.  Back in the late  1960s when I started reading AHMM the last story was always the one and only novella.  Makes me feel a connection to Fletcher Flora, Clark Howard, Bill Pronzini, Pauline C. Smith, George C. Chesbro,  and so many other greats...


30 January 2022

From the Response Time Front


It's a frequently asked question on the Short Mystery Fiction Society posting board as to how long the wait time is for  replies on short stories submitted to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  The publication's website does not currently provide an official response time, so I mostly depend upon other submitting authors to get an idea of how long my submissions will ne relaxing in the magazine's e-slush pile.

In the last year, according to my personal notes, the response times I had received were running at about eleven to twelve months. Based on that information, I expected to get a reading and a response about November 29, 2021 for my November 29, 2020 short story submission. Therefore, my mind settled in to wait until then with no expectations until about that date.

As time drew close, I learned that two of our contributing SleuthSayer authors (John Floyd & Rob Lopresti) had each recently received a response of acceptance about fourteen months after they had submitted their stories. I subsequently readjusted my mind to a new date of January 29, 2022. Come the evening of January 9, 2022, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an e-mail of acceptance from the AHMM editor. That made for a thirteen month and one week turnaround. The editor must've been reading like crazy over the Christmas and New Years holidays, while the rest of us were socializing, in order to knock three weeks off the response time during that short of a period of time.

Naturally, I understand that some authors don't like that long for an acceptance or rejection on their submission. And yes, it does tie up a story for a length of time. In which case, my suggestion is to write more stories, send out more submissions and forget about them for a while. In the meantime, to improve your odds, write and submit more.

As for my track record, the AHMM editor had just accepted my 48th story in her magazine. That gave me a 66.66% acceptance rate. I will admit the acceptance rate had been higher than that at one time, but it seems I hit a speed bump last year when I received a run of four straight rejections. Now, with that 48th acceptance in hand, I will use this information to more carefully decide what story content and writing style to send her in the future, which should improve my odds. It's a learning curve.

One more slant on the long wait time. It has been mentioned before that whereas EQMM has a shorter turnaround time, that editor tends to read the first few pages of a submission and if the author doesn't capture her interest in those pages, then the read is finished. The editor of AHMM tends to read the entire manuscript, which admittedly does take more time.

Of course, there is another fairly well-paying publication out there where the author's submission is not acknowledged as received and the author may never receive a reply of acceptance or rejection, in which case the submission sets in limbo unless the author sends an e-mail or letter of withdrawal.

In the end, it's the author's story, the author's time involved and the author's decision or business model as to how they wish to proceed on where to submit their creations.

Best of luck to you all. I love reading good stories.

And, while you are here, give us your thoughts on the submission process.

04 December 2021

The Z-Files


  

We've seen a lot of recent posts at this blog about mystery short-story markets--their editors, content, guidelines, response times, pay rates, preferences, etc.

Today I'd like to talk about preferences again, and specifically about a story of mine that was accepted by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine earlier this week. It's a 6000-word story called "The Zeller Files," one I wrote and submitted to them just over a year ago. It includes a crime that's essential to the plot--all mystery submissions should have that--but it's not your usual mystery/crime/suspense story. In fact it's as much science fiction as mystery, which as the months passed led me to suspect it might not stand much of a chance. But it also features something else that I thought made it an even bigger longshot, for publication: It's set during the pandemic.

I don't just mean it was written during the pandemic, although it was. I mean it includes references to the wearing of masks, social distancing, and other things most of us never even thought about until early last year. Some of that ties into the crime itself, which in this story is a bank robbery and its aftermath.

The plot

Here's what happens: Software engineer Eddie Zeller and his wife Lisa find out from their local newspaper's gossip-column that a couple named Fairmont from another part of the country are moving to their small town. The problem is, Andrew Fairmont and his wife were once famous because of their highly publicized report of being kidnapped and observed by aliens many years ago--and so was Eddie Zeller. (Lisa jokingly refers to Eddie's story as The Z-Files.) He and Lisa also know that the number of self-professed alien-abduction-survivors in the U.S. is tiny, and Eddie suspects that the federal government keeps a file and a close eye on all these victims and their activities. So, what are the odds that not one but two of these people would wind up in the same town as a third who already lives there? Could the Feds--or even the victims' otherworldly kidnappers--somehow be trying to gather all of them together for some reason? If so, why? 

Eventually the Zellers, who are unemployed and struggling because of the impact of Covid on their careers, resort to extreme and criminal measures to try to get the funds they'd need to get out of town, possibly even out of the country, to avoid whatever disaster Eddie is now convinced is being planned for them. During all that, they of course run into the Fairmont family, who have their own mysterious agenda, and Eddie soon comes to understand that it's not only the government who's been tracking them, all these years. 

Concerns and conclusions

My point is, this story has two liabilities. It is (1) mixed-genre and (2) set during the pandemic. The first oddity, since what I mixed in was science fiction, would automatically make the story unsuitable for mystery markets like EQMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the Strand, and others, and I was afraid the woo-woo element would make acceptance doubtful even for places like AHMM, which is a little more receptive to the occasional western, humor, fantasy, or SF story. Mostly, though, I was worried that the second odd thing--the Covid angle--might prevent it from being accepted anywhere.

Let me explain that. Since the pandemic began, I've written several mystery stories featuring the virus and the restrictions and requirements it presents. (After all, that's been the reality of our world for the past two years--and besides, how could a crime writer resist using a situation where everybody's already running around with masks covering their faces?) But alas, no matter how much I liked those stories and how much fun I had writing them, all were rejected soon after I'd submitted them. Some of them were rejected immediately, and some more than once. 

Since Mama didn't raise no fools, I finally got the message and started changing those stories by removing any and all references to the pandemic (enter Dr. Watson, exit Dr. Fauci)--and when I did that and submitted them again, every one of those stories sold. All, that is, except one. I had submitted "The Zeller Files" to AHMM almost fourteen months ago, on 10/6/20, so that particular story had not yet been changed. It had also not yet been rejected, since the jury was still out--and then, lo and behold, it was accepted by AH this past week. Say Hallelujah.

Here's what I learned from this: Never say never, with regard to questionable or controversial story content. If you believe it works, and if the guidelines for the market(s) you're targeting don't specifically say no, give it a try. The odds of success might be less, but--and I truly believe this--if a story seems to the writer to be good enough, it probably is good enough, and will eventually find a respectable home. As for "The Zeller Files," if you happen to see it when it comes out, I hope you'll have half as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

Questions for the class

Now . . . what's your opinion on writing pandemic-based or pandemic-setting stories or novels? Have any of you tried it? Have you even wanted to try? I've heard some writers say it would be too depressing, for both the reader and the writer. And if you have written those stories, have you seen any success at placing them in a magazine or anthology? If you've created a novel containing pandemic references, have you been able to find a publisher for it? 

How about mixed-genre short stories? I feel sure you've written those, but have you submitted any of them to mystery markets? Any successes, there? What about stories that include both a different genre AND a dose of the virus?

In summary, I can certainly understand if the only masked characters you choose to put into your fiction are either committing a crime, skiing in Aspen, trick-or-treating, or riding a white stallion to the tune of "The William Tell Overture." But I'm here to tell you, you might want to try writing a Covid story now and then, and see what happens.

Sometimes it works.





28 November 2021

Using All Your Resources


I was in the process of writing this blog article about how writers should use all of their creative resources to get a new story started and then I got sidetracked. Was the correct word sources or resources? Might be best to have a look. I went to Google as the deciding judge. Sources vs. resources.

Uh huh.

They lost me in their definition examples when they used the sun as both a source of energy and as a resource of energy. So, I'm just going to use the word resource and you readers can decide on your own which word is correct under these circumstances, source or resource.

Anyway, to get back on track, I don't know how the rest of you authors get your ideas going in order to create a new story. Short story or novel, take your pick.

I usually go to sleep putting my brain on notice to come up with something and then wake up with a character in trouble in whatever type of scene, write the scene down that morning and then come up with a plot at a later time. Or take a walk and daydream along the way. That's probably why I have so many story starts setting in computer files waiting to be finished. Of course, this way I always have something to continue writing on.

Even so, my brain doesn't always cooperate at sleep time or on walks, in which case the well runs dry and any lowered bucket hoping to fill up with fresh elixir only bumps against moist sand. But, working undercover and with sly criminals for twenty-five years, I learned early on that it was best to have more than one trick in the bag.

So, I've got this Huey pilot buddy who has done a few things in his time that I'm not allowed to talk about and has a fine brain of his own. He is not a writer himself, but he does understand some of the basics and he likes mysteries. So, we get together every so often and bounce story ideas off each other. Maybe five percent of what he comes up with is pure gold. For instance, a few years ago, he came up with an Archimedes science solution to apply to one of my stories set in the 1660s Paris Underworld series. This solution gave me the second half of the story and an ending. AHMM subsequently published the story, "Of Wax and Watermarks."

And then, a couple of years ago during one of our brainstorming sessions, he produced two main characters and several very visual scenes set it modern day Italy. All I had to do was stitch the scenes together, add the dialogue and come up with the ending. It was like being handed an outline. The story felt like it almost wrote itself.

Did it get published?

Yes it did.

Mystery Weekly Magazine (now known as Mystery Magazine) snapped it up and placed it in their September 2021 issue.

I don't know if any of you writers out there have someone you can bounce story ideas off of as a resource, but you might consider the concept.

As for me, I'll keep the guy around as a resource. I might even ply him with a little Vanilla Crown Royal from time to time to loosen up the corners of his mind for creativity. As a sometime resource, he's gold.

So, what resources do you have in your bag of tricks?

31 October 2021

The Women in my Writing World


Kathleen Jordan

Thinking to give AHMM one more try back in the year 2000, I went to their website to see what type of story they wanted. Kathleen Jordan was the editor at the  time and the website said she wanted stories set in exotic locations. I just happened to have finished a story ("Once, Twice, Dead") set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia. I figured you couldn't get much more exotic than that, so I sent it in. She bought the story and it was published in AHMM's Sept 2001 issue.

The high of being published in a major mystery magazine quickly ran into the speed bump of reality. What next? Or, was I merely a flash in the pan, a one-trick pony?  I had no story ready to submit next. And, any story I did come up with needed to be of high quality in order to obtain a second sale. It also needed to be different from other stories already out there. So, I looked around and decided to borrow from the best.

Isaac Azimov in his Black Widower series had a character who solved mysteries just by hearing someone relate the circumstances. Nero Wolfe had Archie bring him the clues he needed. And, on the darker side, Lawrence Block had his Ehrengraf series with a crooked attorney who always got his guilty clients off by shady means without going to trial. Plus, in a biography of Dashiell Hammett, it seems that Hammett was acquainted with a pair of brothers in San Francisco who operated as bail bondsmen and used their criminal clients to commit robberies and burglaries. All of this being perfect fodder for a new story.

What to name it if it became a series? Well, let's see, back in the early 1970s, Kansas City had a gang of bank robbers, dope dealers and killers known as the Black Mafia. Two of its members were known on the street as Twin and Twin Brother. Through several incidents on some of the darker streets of the city, Twin and I got to know each other quite well before he joined Twin Brother in prison. So, for a story series, let's have an intelligent but crooked proprietor of a bail bond firm solve mysteries from the clues brought to him by his minion, a not so bright bail agent who is afraid of his boss. And, perhaps all of their clients are guilty criminals who accidently fall from high places, go deep-water swimming without the proper breathing equipment, get hit by an errant taxi cab (but hey, they weren't exactly within the marked crosswalk at the time) or somehow managed to take up temporary residence in the morgue, while the bail firm always makes a profit on the transaction. Thus, the Twin Brothers Bail Bond series was born and Kathleen Jordan bought the first two stories.

Linda Landrigan

Kathleen passed and Linda took over as the editor for AHMM. Suddenly, I was an orphan, I'd lost my rabbi. My first introduction to Linda was when she asked for some changes to the second story in the series, a story already bought and paid for. Maybe this wasn't going to be a series after all.  I made the requested changes and submitted the third story. She bought it and seven more with the same characters. I had a foot in the new door.

At the Las Vegas Bouchercon bar, Linda bought the drinks and I got bold enough to inquire what she would like to see in my future writing. She suggested a Moriarty type character to go up against the proprietor of the bail bond firm. Therefore, in "The Other Bondsman" I created Herr Morden (Mr. Murder), the German phonetic of ermorden: to murder.

Years later at breakfast in Manhattan, I asked the same question again. Linda replied that in my Armenian series set in 1850s Chechnya, she would like a story told from the little Nogai boy's point of view. This was a character who in several preceding stories never had more than three lines of narrative and zero lines of dialogue. She got her story ("The Little Nogai Boy") which then got me a sale and a Derringer nomination. Goes to show that networking and personal relationships can help keep those acceptances coming. To date, I'm at a 66% acceptance rate with AHMM and have four submissions waiting in their e-slush pile.

Pat Dennis

When I went to the Las Vegas Bouchercon, I arrived a couple of days early in order to attend Jerry Healy's all-day novel writing seminar. As I'm sitting in the front row waiting for the session to begin, a lady dragging an oxygen tank on a two-wheel cart, walks up behind me. "You're my screen saver," she says. I had never met this woman before and at the time, I wasn't totally sure how I could be a screen saver. But, I was flattered to be recognized. Turned out she was the editor of the anthology Who Died in Here?. All of the anthology stories submitted had to be set in a bathroom of some type. Payment was $25 and an air freshener. She (Pat Dennis) had accepted my story, "Flying Without a Parachute," based on a real incident where a heroin deal had gone bad and the protagonist/defendant temporarily escaped arrest by leaping from a third story window. Defendants really should know that cement driveways make for a hard landing when you are three floors up. I had a lot of fun promoting that anthology. (acceptance rate 100%, one story.)

Johnene Granger

The Short Mystery Fiction Society had a posting several years ago about Woman's World magazine buying (at that time) 900-word mini-mysteries for the grand payment of $500. I sent them one and the column editor, Johnene Granger, subsequently bought nine more. Since I had a steep learning curve as to what topics were acceptable and what wasn't, my acceptance rate with this publication hovered around 33%. Sometimes, the column editor wanted the story, but for some reason the magazine's chief editor rejected the story. However, when Johnene moved on and a new column editor took over, I could not sell a single mini-mystery to them. So, I took my five thousand dollars and faded away, leaving  that market to our own John Floyd who has now sold over a hundred of his stories to them. You just can't beat success. Good on ya, John.

Kerry Carter

I kept reading posts about authors selling stories to Mystery Weekly Magazine, so I finally sent them a humorous story ("The Job Interview") about three individuals trying to rob the same bank at the same time. The editor, Kerry Carter, bought it.

In that time period, the magazine paid one cent a word through PayPal. I will admit to some confusion when PayPal then took a small fee. Through a small amount of research, I discovered that the magazine is a Canadian company in which case PayPal charges a conversion fee when converting Canadian Loonies to U. S. Dollars.

No sweat, I subbed them a second humorous story ("The Clean Car Company") in which a criminal can obtain a "clean car" the same way he can get a "clean gun" in order to commit a crime. The magazine subsequently raised their payment rate to two cents a word. I sent another submission ("The Story Game"), also accepted. Then they put out a submission call for humorous stories for an anthology (Die Laughing), so I sent them "Blue Light Special" My acceptance rate currently stands at 57% (4 out of 7).

And, as mentioned in a previous post, Kiti is my First Reader, part-time publicist, part-time social media person, all-around mental support and wife of 41 years. Guess my acceptance rate here must be okay to make it all those years.


ADDENDUM:

I can now happily add Barb Goffman to this list. She recently asked if she could reprint "Black Friday" (10th in my Holiday Burglars series) in an upcoming issue of Black Cat Weekly: Barb Goffman Presents. The manuscript has been submitted, the edits have been made and the contract has been signed. Now, I'm just waiting to see it in print. And, I may or may not be working with Barb again, depending upon whether it is Barb or Michael Bracken who edits my submission to our SleuthSayer anthology.


It's a good life.

07 September 2021

Maps


author Mark Thielman
Mark Thielman

     When my wife and I got married 30+ years ago, our friend Kathy gave us the Complete Atlas of the World as a wedding present. The book is an oversized coffee table volume with a jet-black cover. The blue marble of the world as seen from space adorns the front. It was intended as a metaphor for our new life. Kathy challenged us to explore and to dream of the places we'd go. We thought it was a cool gift at the time. We still do.

    What's interesting about pulling out that old atlas now is to see the changes written across the pages. The book seems heavy, fixed, and permanent. But there on page 50 is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one solid band of unified color spanning a huge piece of Eurasia. Or on page 98, the Africa map with its hard, unchanging boundaries for Ethiopia and Sudan. I could go on but you get the idea.

atlas

    I've been thinking a great deal about travel lately. This was supposed to be my first SleuthSayers blog after Bouchercon. I had assumed I'd jot down some observations about the conference, congratulate the winners, reference the people I'd been able to meet in person, and intersperse those thoughts with the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of New Orleans. That blog will have to be postponed until after the 2022 conference in Minneapolis. (I anticipate different tastes and smells.)

    I've been looking forward to traveling. I've missed waking up someplace different, knocking about exploring and discovering. I've missed seeing sights and trying foods. A couple of weeks ago in this blog, Robert Lopresti mentioned a bit of a conversation he overheard at a previous Bouchercon. Those lines made their way into a story. Let me add that to the list. I've missed collecting dialogue souvenirs. Not only have I missed going away, but I've also missed returning home to my familiar, and the simple joy of knowing where the things I use to construct my daily life are located.

    Although my wife and I haven't been hermits since the COVID onset, we have limited our venturing out to new places. The question, "where should we go?" as often as not has been replaced by "should we go?" Although the answer has sometimes been yes, spontaneity has seen an additional hurdle placed in its path.

AHMM

    The September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The Map Dot Murder." The tale is set in a small west Texas town. The high school's social studies teacher is murdered. His classroom is map festooned. Yet, most of the town's inhabitants are people who haven't gone anywhere. They've lived their lives within the town's boundaries. Some residents like it that way. Others resent it. A few have never bothered to think that they might have options.

    Just as I should have been finalizing my plans for Bouchercon– circling topics on the schedule of events, composing snappy answers to questions for my panel, and sending final emails to arrange get-togethers– comes my story about staying put. You know the timeline for stories. Tapping out the story on your keyboard takes a while. Rewrites, edits, and polishing add some more time. Then you send it off, drumming your fingers while waiting for an acceptance email. Finally, the movement to publication requires another chunk of time.

    The story should have come out as I was preparing to travel. Instead, it was published as I was sitting at home, folding my map from the journey I didn't take. Like the Complete Atlas of the World, perhaps it serves as a reminder about the illusion of fixedness.

    I hope you enjoy the story. And, whether you're at home or on the road, stay safe.

    Until next time.

woof