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

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.


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.