Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock. Show all posts

03 November 2020

When News Gathering and Entertainment Values Collide


It seems appropriate on this Election Day to end all Election Days to write about a short story I have in the current (November/December) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: "Eat, Drink, and Be Murdered." It's a whodunit. Not what you'd call a political story at all. But it involves a newspaper and its role in our democracy, and, sadly, these days that has become a political topic.

The story is about the owner of a small city newspaper and the lengths she'll go to try to save the paper because she believes in the important role journalists play in our society as a check on government--national and local. I grew up believing in that role. While reporters sometimes make mistakes, because that's what humans do, I believe most of them are good people who strive for accuracy and fairness, sometimes risking their lives to share the news. It breaks my heart that so many people these days think otherwise, that they don't believe what reputable news organizations report and repudiate journalists as the enemy. They are anything but. Journalists play a vital role in our democracy.

This negative mindset toward journalism is not the only reason many newspapers are struggling these days and so many others have closed. The advent of the internet has, as we all know, led many people to seek their news online, often without wanting to pay for that privilege. But news gathering isn't free. Even if all newspapers went completely digital so that the cost of paper and printing could be saved, there still would be reporters to pay, as well as editors, graphic artists, photographers, the people who work in advertising and composition and circulation and probably other departments I'm not thinking of right now. 

I appreciate the newspapers that offer online editions and allow people to check out the occasional article for free. But I also understand why newspapers have firewalls and only allow you to view a limited number of stories per month without paying. Democracy has its price, and one way to help keep democracy going is to support newspapers, which shed sunlight on government and remind politicians that they work for us, not the other way around. You support newspapers by paying for your news. And you support democracy and the First Amendment by treating journalists with respect.

Now I'll get off my soapbox and tie this back in to my story. In "Eat, Drink, and Be Murdered," Meghan, the owner of that newspaper in a small Virginia city, is facing the same financial crunch that so many papers are these days. She's come up with what she hopes will be a great solution: running snarky restaurant reviews. She thinks they're all in good fun, that there's no such thing as bad publicity--for the newspaper or the restaurants. The reviews will encourage readership and advertisers, she predicts, who'll be attracted by the increase in circulation. And she's right. There is an increase in circulation after the new reviews start to run, and advertising grows too. But there are also some things Meghan didn't expect: angry restaurant owners, a bomb threat, and ... of course, murder. It's a difficult lesson for Meghan to learn, that easy solutions can have steep, unexpected costs, especially when news gathering and entertainment values collide.

This issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine can be purchased from the usual sources, including bookstores and newsstands. If you subscribe to the print version, they'll mail a copy to your home every other month. You also can read the magazine digitally. Individual copies and subscriptions can be purchased for your Kindle and other types of e-readers. Magazines need support these days, just like newspapers. So if you have some dollars to spare and would like to bring some regular entertainment into your world, I encourage you to consider a subscription to AHMM and/or its sister publication, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, for yourself, a friend, and/or family member this holiday season.

If you've read "Eat, Drink, and Be Murdered," I hope you loved it. If you haven't, I hope you get the magazine and read it right away. But not before you vote. If you haven't voted yet, please do that first. Then tomorrow, go buy your local newspaper, read the election results that have come in so far, and maybe even take out a subscription to the paper. Newspapers need your support to stay afloat. Our democracy needs their spotlight to stay afloat too.

25 October 2020

Evolution of a Story


 Originally, I was going to title this one as "Three Strikes and a Home Run on a Bunt." But that is too long for a title, and as baseball fans know, technically a batter only gets three strikes and then he is out of the batter's box. He doesn't then get another chance to swing at the ball. So, pay attention here because this is the way this game went.

Strike One
Back in the 90's, another short story author proposed that he and I should write a private investigator story together, a story set in the corrupt river-town of Sioux City during the Prohibition Era. At the time, the proposing author had several more published short stories than I did, but he had also received several rejections from AHMM. So, our plan was to co-author the story and submit it to AHMM and he would then get a story into their magazine, well, at least half a story. Since he and I liked the same authors and the same type of stories, it should have been easy working together.

I wrote part of the story and passed it to him. He wrote the next part of the story and passed it back. And, so on until the story was finished. Were there any problems? Of course there were. We didn't agree on the title, the private eye's name or even his height, among some of the important issues. Consulting with other fellow writers as intermediaries resulted in evenly divided opinions or else a third suggestion which neither co-author wished to implement. In the end, there was a lot of coin flipping. I submitted the story with both author's names  for the byline to AHMM. They rejected it. The editor must've had her own coin. At separate times afterwards, my co-author submitted our manuscript to two small press magazines he had previously been published in. In turn, each magazine accepted the story, but then went toes up before a contract could be signed. The story never saw print. With all the fun I'd had on this joint project, I swore to myself to avoid any short story collaboration in the future. This worked for about twenty years.

 Strike Two
Now, we move forward to the 21st Century. An author, whom I highly admire and was already in AHMM, inquired about the two of us co-authoring a short story for AHMM. I explained my prior situation and declined the proposal. A couple of years later, the inquiry came again. By the third request, I decided what the hell, give it a try, see how it goes. I then created a partial story outline proposal involving a bent cop and a gangster during the Prohibition Era, but a completely different plot than the story in Strike One. Next, I wrote about 1,000 words in the POV of one of the two main characters and passed the partial outline and story start to the other author for his turn to write about 1,000 words in the POV of the other main character. After the pass, other projects seemed to have come along and everybody went their separate writing ways. No harm, no foul.

Strike Three
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about a gangster in 1930's New York City during (you guessed it) the Prohibition Era. Completely different plot than the ones in Strike One and Strike Two. I shipped the manuscript off to AHMM via e-mail in August 2017. The rejection came back in July 2018 with the editor's comments that it looked like I was setting the story up for a series. (Remember her comment for later.)  And, the editor was correct, I had intended for the story to become a series.

The Bunt

Looking through my story starts one day for something to write, I came across my old 1,000 word start from the abandoned Strike Two project. Years had passed without any progress, so I blew the dust off and continued the story. Only now, I changed the story to be written solely from one main character's POV, the bent cop. I finished the outline and the story as I wrote. The manuscript went to AHMM in February 2018 and was accepted in January 2019.

The Ball Keeps On Rolling
In the early part of August 2020, I got an e-mail from the Managing Editor of AHMM saying that I will have a story coming out in their Nov/Dec 2020 issue, but she had been on vacation and was trying to catch up, so she didn't yet know which story it would be. Since they had at the time six of my purchased-but-not-yet-published stories setting in inventory, I obviously didn't know which one it would be either.

The Home Run
In last August, Rob Lopresti e-mailed me with a link to the preview of the Nov/Dec 2020 AHMM issue. The last line in the 2nd paragraph in the Editor's Preview section says: "And R.T. Lawton introduces us to a new series in "A Matter of Values."

And yep, that's the bent cop and gangster story from Strike Two and The Bunt, but I wrote that one as a standalone story. Let's see now, one is a standalone, two is a sequel and at least three is a series, unless you count that as a trilogy, in which case it takes four. This means that in order not to disappoint the editor, I now have to come up with two or more new stories involving those same two main characters and then get contracts for each of those stories.. What a problem to have. Goes to show, you just never know how things will go in this game of ours.

27 June 2020

What Went Wrong – (and pass the Scotch)


My friend and colleague John Floyd has inspired me many times, but this time for a singularly bizarre post:  Things that go wrong in the life of an author.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Publisher Version

1.  The publication that never was.  John, you mentioned in your recent post Strange but True, that you have received acceptance letters from publishers who then realized they sent them to the wrong person.  I can do you one better (if you really want to call it that.)

This year, I received a very public congratulations from the Ontario Library Association for being a finalist for their YA award.  I was thrilled!  It was my first YA crime book, after 16 adult ones, and they don't usually give awards to crime books.  I basked in glory and excitement for about five minutes until I realized the title of the book they mentioned was not the book I had written.  There ensued a very public retraction.  Everywhere.  And apology.  I am not sure there is anything more embarrassing than receiving a very public apology for an honour snatched back from you.

2.  It isn't often a publisher buys ads for your book and we all celebrate when they do.  The publisher of Rowena and the Dark Lord was out to create gold.  The first book in the series was a bestseller.  So they decided to throw money at book 2, advertising it at more than two dozen places.  And throw money, they did.  Throw it away, that is.  Unfortunately, the ad company misspelled the title of the book in all the ads.  ROWENA AND THE DARK LARD might be popular in cooking circles, but it didn't make a splash with the epic fantasy audience to which it was targeted.

3.  Back in the mid 90s, I was making it, or so I thought.  Had some stories with STAR magazine.  Broke into Hitchcock.  And later, big time, with Moxie magazine.  Remember Moxie?  Up there with Good Housekeeping and Cosmo? No, perhaps you don't.  I was really pleased when they offered me a 50% kill fee of $750.  Not that I wanted to collect it, but it was a status symbol back then to get offered kill fees in your short story contract.  Unfortunately, if you story is killed because the magazine goes under, ain't nothing left for a kill fee.  Big time becomes no time.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Event Version

1.  It's always tough when you are shortlisted for a prize and you don't win.  It's even tougher when you are actually at the gala event, and all your friends are waiting for you to be named the winner.  Tougher still, when you are shortlisted in TWO categories, and you don't win either.

But that doesn't touch the case when you are the actual Emcee for the event, you've just finished doing an opening stand-up routine to great applause, you have media there and a full house, you are shortlisted in two categories, and you don't win a sausage.  And still have to run the rest of the event from the stage.

This is why they invented scotch.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Agent Version

1.  No fewer than THREE big production companies have approached my agent about optioning The Goddaughter series for TV.  This has gone on for four years, and included hours of negotiating.  "Really excited - back to you on Friday!" said the last one.  That was last summer.  I'm still waiting to see any money.

2.  My first agent was a respected older gent from New York.  Sort of a father figure, very classy.  Like some - okay many - agents, he wasn't the best at getting back to us in a timely manner, particularly by email.  We kind of got used to it.  So it was with some shock that I got a phone call from another author, who had discovered that the reason we hadn't heard back from J is because he had died two months before.  Nobody had gotten around to telling us.

I have a really good agent now. She's still alive, which I've found is a huge advantage in an agent.

Here's the book that was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award last year, along with that short story that also didn't win (pass the scotch):



Remember the A-Team?  We're not them.  
But if you've been the victim of a scam, give us a call.  
We deal in justice, not the law.  We're the B-Team.
At all the usual suspects including....

17 June 2020

Fancies and Goodnights


The July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstands yesterday (are there still newsstands?) and I am delighted to report that I have a story  in it.  (After I typed that I saw the cover.  Wow!  AHMM has really been on a roll the last few years with great covers.  I am proud to benefit from that again.)

"The Library of Poisonville" is full of literary references, appropriately enough.  The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges' great story "The Library of Babel," which inspired my piece, and also to a work by Dashiell Hammett.  Most of the references are obvious, but I thought I would write about an author who my story only touches on tangentially.

John Collier was born in London in 1901.  He was reading Hans Christian Andersen by age 3.  As a teenager he told his father he wanted to be a poet.  Believe it or not, that was fine with dear old Dad, who never required him to get a job or even go to university.  (His work contains several  odd father-son relationships.)

By age thirty he had switched his emphasis to fiction which gave him the chance to show off his, um, unique imagination.  (In what way unique?  Well, his first novel was entitled His Monkey Wife, or I Married A Chimp.)  His story collection Fancies and Goodnights won both the Edgar Award and the International Fantasy Award.    And how often has one book scored both of those?

My favorite Collier story - which I list among my all-time favorite fifty crime tales - is "Witch's Money." In spite of the title this is no fantasy, but rather a tale of cross-cultural misunderstanding in which the arrival of an American painter in a village in southern France leads, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, to utter destruction.

His writing style tended toward the flowery and sardonic, reminding me of Saki, Roald Dahl, Avram Davidson, and James Powell.  His work has been adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays for the Hitchcock show and movies; most importantly he was part of the team the wrote The African Queen.

Of all of his works the one that has been adapted for other media the most is probably "Evening Primrose," about a poet who rejects society by living what might be the ultimate consumer dream: dwelling secretly in a department store.  It was even turned into a TV musical starring Anthony Perkins, with songs by Stephen Sondheim!

"I sometimes marvel," Collier once wrote, "that a third-rate writer like me has been able to pass himself off as a second-rate writer."

Here are some of my favorite lines from this first-rate writer:

"Alice and Irwin were as simple and as happy as any young couple in a family-style motion picture.  In fact, they were even happier, for people were not looking at them all the time and their joys were not restricted by the censorship code." - Over Insurance

"How happy I might be if only she was less greedy, better tempered, not so addicted to raking up old grudges, more affectionate, with slightly yellower hair, slimmer, and about twenty years younger!  But what is the good of expecting such a woman to reform?" - Three Bears Cottage

Actress and screenwriter: "I think I'd like to play Juliet."
"It's been done."
"Not as I shall do it.  You shall write a new script, especially for me." - Pictures in the Fire

"So Mrs. Beaseley went resentfully along, prepared to endure Hell herself if she could deprive her husband of a little of his Heaven." - Incident on a Lake

"Annoyed with the world, I took a large studio in Hampstead.  Here I resolved to live in utter aloofness, until the world should approach me on its knees, whining it apologies." -Night! Youth! Paris! And the Moon!

"As soon as Einstein declared that space was finite, the price of building sites, both in Heaven and Hell, soared outrageously." -Hell Hath No Fury

"The young man was greatly taken aback to hear a gorilla speak.  However, common sense reminded him that he was in a city in which many creatures enjoyed that faculty, whom, at first sight, or at any hearing, one would hardly credit with sufficient intelligence to have attained it." -Variation on a  Theme

"It is the fate of those who kiss sleeping beauties to be awakened themselves."  -Sleeping Beauty

"The first cognac is utilitarian merely.  It is like a beautiful woman who has, however, devoted herself entirely to doing good, to nursing, for example.  Nothing is more admirable, but one would like to meet her sister." - Old Acquaintance

If you have read this far I have an offer for you.  As I said, my reference to Collier's work in "The Library of Poisonville" is obscure, but it should ring clear to any fan of the man.   If someone can tell me which of his stories I referred to - and where - I will send that person an autographed copy of the magazine or something of equally dubious merit.  First responder only!


31 May 2020

How It All Came Together


At the time, I had eleven short stories in my Holiday Burglars series. That's my humor series, at least as far as I'm concerned. All eleven stories had been sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and all of them had seen print in their magazine. Now, it was time to write another story in the series.

10 of the first 11 stories are
now available in paperback

So there I sat, with a list of holidays in one hand and a list of potential valuables to steal in the other hand while staring at a blank computer screen. No title, no plot. Just two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, impatiently waiting for me to tell them what shenanigans they are up to for in this next episode. I can hear Beaumont saying, "Get a move on, bud. We don't like being unemployed. We need to go steal something."

Okay, they need something to steal. Preferably an exotic item or an object which is out of the ordinary and reader-attention-getting. We'll have to work on that part. Normally, the holiday comes first in the brainstorming process and that leads to the item to be purloined which leads to the weird situation our two burglars subsequently find themselves in.

So far, we've used up eleven different holidays in previous stories. What's left on the list? Cinco de Mayo? Nope, no current ideas for that one. How about Chinese New Year or Vietnamese Ahn Tet? Sorry, nothing there for now. Well, St. Patrick's Day is on the horizon and you do know some people from your old Texas Street neighborhood in Rapid City, friends who really liked to party. Yeah, of course, the Texas Street Hereford Society.
L to R: Scott, Dan, Fast Eddie, R.T. (holding the tail) and Bob
L'il Tex is the bucket calf in front.
(he just got run through the car wash at the dealership
and doesn't have a clue what's going on)

Let's tighten the focus down to Fast Eddie in the middle. (How this five-member society came into being and some of its subsequent antics can be saved for another time.) Fast Eddie was the heir apparent to a car dealership, a Registered Black Angus ranch and a working commercial cattle ranch. He was also well known in all the bars in Rapid City. The rest of us society members always said that if Eddie died first, we would bungee cord his body to a refrigerator dollie, put a drink in his hand and wheel him through all his favorite bars for one last Grand Tour.

That gives us drinking, St. Patrick's Day and a story character like Fast Eddie after he has passed on. Time to brainstorm the story plot.

What if Yarnell has just entered an Irish bar on St. Pat's Day to meet with his partner in crime, Beaumont? Over green beers and loud Irish music from the jukebox, Beaumont informs Yarnell that they now have a contract to steal a body.  Yeah, that should grab the reader's attention.

Moving on. It seems that a fellow burglar (Padraig, or Paddy as he is known to his associates) has died and his widow has arranged to have the wake at a funeral home. Some of the deceased's long-time drinking friends got into the party spirit, stole the corpse from his coffin while the widow wasn't looking, bungee corded the deceased to a refrigerator dollie and took him on a bar tour. The widow then hired Yarnell and Beaumont to find her wandering deceased husband, steal him back and get him to the funeral home in time for scheduled services, else the contract is void and thus no payment. The story is now open for anything to happen.

As a side note, while the widow may have thought Padraig (Paddy) was a potential saint while he was living, by the time he is returned to the funeral home, there may be evidence that his reputation is tarnished beyond repair.

The resulting story, "St. Paddy's Day," 12th in the series, was submitted to AHMM on 06/13/19 and accepted by their editor on 04/16/20. If I had to guess, I'd say it will probably see print in their March/April 2021 issue.

And there you have it. Another brainstorming session turned into a salable story.

Wish they all turned out that well.

BUSINESS NOTE:   Normally, the acceptance e-mail says that a contract will be coming via e-mail in about 30 days, but I usually get the e-contract in about two weeks, print and sign two copies and immediately mail them to DELL Publishing's contract person. Then, I wait for the check. However, due to the pandemic, the e-contract for the above story took about 42 days to arrive and the instructions were different. For this contract, I printed out and signed one copy. This signed copy was then scanned and e-mailed to DELL's contract person. Saves me postage on mailing the signed contract back to them. We'll see how long it takes for this check to arrive. Hey, I'm just glad to still be selling.

29 April 2020

Robbing Victor to Pay Shanks


As I mentioned  here not too long ago, I think one of my writing strengths is premises and one of my weaknesses is plots.  A result of that is a notebook full of ideas which will probably never bloom into short stories.

Several pages of said notebook are devoted to Shanks, the crime-writing character who has appeared in a bunch of my stories.   Years ago I dreamed up this idea: Shank is on a committee trying to restore a Depression-era opera house in his city.  It would be called the World Theatre, which would let me use the title (snicker) "Shanks Saves The World."

I liked it a lot.  Only problem: What would my hero do to get the money for the restoration?

Sort of a big plot gap, right?  And so the story sat in my notebook for years.  But then I had a breakthrough.

I have mentioned before here that I also wrote a series of stories about Uncle Victor.  He is the elderly, eccentric relative of a crime boss.  His nephew reluctantly tolerates him because doing so was the last request of  the previous godfather.  So when Victor decides to become a private eye, nephew Benny pulls strings to get him a license.

Several stories about this odd duck made it into print but then my market for them, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, went the way of all periodicals and I moved onto other things.

However, I remembered that I had written a story in which an aging music producer hires Victor to hunt down some musicians he cheated and now wants to do right by  The draft was still sitting in my files.

So what if we offer Uncle Victor a well-deserved retirement and send Shanks to the producer instead, asking for a big donation for the theatre where, by a wonderful coincidence, some of the old man's bands used to perform?  And the producer says, to get my money you have to find these musicians I ripped off decades ago...

Suddenly I had a plot.  The result, titled (as you probably guessed) "Shanks Saves The World," is featured in the current (May/June 2020) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  It is my 31st appearance there, and Shanks' tenth.


I am especially glad the story made it into this issue because another Shanks story, a sort of sequel to this one, will coming out this summer in an anthology.  More on that in a later installment.

And speaking of more, if you want to read a completely different essay I wrote about "Shank Saves The World," you will find it at Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.

And I hope you enjoy the story.  Now back to my notebook...

26 April 2020

Pride, The Fall, Redemption



PRIDE:
They say that Pride goeth before The Fall. That's me. For a lot of years, I was a man of consequence, but lately, Father Time has found it humorous to saddle me with age and thus remind me of the limitations I now have. Used to be, I lived the life, whether it was kicking doors,riding roundup, scuba diving, ziplining, branding calves, over the road on Harleys, coming in hot in Hueys, traveling to exotic lands and places... It was a rush.

And then came The Fall.

THE FALL:
In the beginning, it was more a series of little trips and stumbles. A health thing here, a degenerating vision thing there. Sorry pal, you're going to have to slow down to a walk, no more running for you. I was never a top athlete, one who was going to run a marathon, but c'mon knees, ankles, feet, wind, where'd you go? Yeah, I know, I never acted my age, especially in later years, but that was a good thing. It kept me going. Sure, I saw others in my different groups slowing down with age, but that was them. This was me. For a long time, even the mirror was on my side. What the hell happened?

And then, about three weeks ago, Father Time decided that the art of multi-tasking should now be beyond my capabilities. I should no longer be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Of course, I swear I was not chewing gum at the time of the trip, stumble and fall, but down I went anyway. The sidewalk won that bout. I came off second with scrapes, bruises, stitches and a nicked temporal artery. Man them things leak a lot of red stuff. Even the mirror said it didn't like me anymore. Something about if I had bolts in my neck, then I'd have a pieced-together face like Frankenstein's monster. I tell you, I gotta get a new mirror.

The ER doc sewed me up and I figured I could go home and be done with this fiasco. Much later, a nurse came in with discharge papers and explained which direction to walk to get to the ER waiting room where I could wait for my wife to collect me. Cell phones don't get reception in the ER rooms themselves, so I had to wait patiently until I got to the ER waiting room to call my wife for a ride home. AND, since I had no other clothes, AND since relatives are not allowed in ER rooms these days to even bring you fresh clothes, AND since the hospital will not loan you one of their fashionable backless gowns, I had to wear my long-sleeve, denim shirt which was thoroughly soaked with O-Positive, in order for me to leave the ER and go into the waiting room.

Fortunately, there were only two people sitting in the waiting room. Don't know how they got in as neither was a patient. Both had the appearance of street people. However, it was a large waiting room, so no problem keeping my social distancing. Then, I start listening to their conversation which consisted mostly of two related topics; cocaine and overdosing. Seems they had a friend in the ER as a patient. Guess the security guard must've had a soft spot in his heart to let them wait inside and occasionally inquire of the admission staff about their friend. But wait, it gets better.

The door from the ER rooms and into the ER waiting room opens and in strolls a "gentleman" with a long braid of hair hanging down his back and a lengthy key chain hanging from his belt down to his knees and back up into his front pants pocket. Obviously he doesn't have a cell phone because he goes straight to the free, old-style phone on the wall. I have no idea who he calls, but some of the first words out of his mouth quickly grab my attention. Words like: "No, I'm not escaping." Yeah, I know I was supposed to be outside the house at noon for them to pick me up." "No, I'm not trying to escape." "Look, just stall them." "No, don't tell them I'm at the hospital." "I told you, I'm not escaping." Then, he hangs up. Since the door back into the ER automatically locks after it closes, one of the two armed security guards has to let him back into the ER

This particular armed guard, who has previously been content to drink coffee and chat with the admissions people at the ER front door now turns and notices me in my slightly wet, drying from red to very dark red shirt. Coffee and chit chat go by the wayside. He casts a wary eye on me and immediately takes up a position against a nearby wall, with his arms crossed over his chest and a hard look in his eyes. I am now a person of interest.  It must be the company I've been keeping. Thank God my ride soon showed up so the guards could relax and go back to drinking coffee.

REDEMPTION:
Home at last. Fresh clothes. A pocketful of extra strength Tylenol. Yes, we did stop at the scene of the crime on our way home, but still can't figure out how or why the fall happened. It will just have to remain as one of those unexplained mysteries, but I can tell you there won't be any gum chewing in my future, for sure. I'll also have to avoid the mirror for a few days (we aren't getting along lately), but hey, everybody's got some problems these days.

And then.

I did what? You got to be kidding me.

Well then, forget all that other stuff.

I JUST SOLD ANOTHER STORY TO ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE.

That makes 46 short stories they've bought from me.

Hey, I'm almost good again. I'll see what the mirror has to say about it.

08 February 2020

Why The Detective Stopped By


Somehow I managed to get a fantasy tale into the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Detective Who Stopped by Bedford Street” tells the story of an unnamed New York police detective who uses an unusual method to crack stubborn cases. When he’s stumped, he visits a quaint vintage shop in Greenwich Village and listens to a beat-up old radio that the proprietor has vowed never to sell. When tuned correctly, the radio broadcasts critical moments in a case. The clues are often vague, but our detective is a clever sort, isn’t he? With the mysterious radio and the unstinting support of the shop’s mysterious proprietor, our nameless hero closes an impressive number of cases, and becomes a legend in the department, to his everlasting embarrassment.
 I can remember the exact moment the idea popped into my head. It was right when I was trying to finish another story that was resisting easy closure. Two years later, I can see that the few strands of the radio story—what Robert Lopresti wisely calls a “magical shop” story—were inspired by two different things.
The first is a famous John Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio.” It first ran in the New Yorker in 1947, but I first came upon it in 1981, when a paperback collection of the writer’s work (The Stories of John Cheever) was published and became a huge hit with people like me who’d never heard of Cheever. I bought my copy off a mass paperback stand at K-mart.
You owe it to yourself to check out the story. Current subscribers can read it at the New Yorker website, but for some reason you can also find the entire text online. In the piece, a New York couple discovers that their brand-new radio picks up conversations of people living in their apartment building. And so ensues the kind of sordid middle-class drama that Cheever was famous for. I don’t want to say more because it’s not my place to do so. It’s bad enough I swiped Cheever’s premise; I’m not going to give his ending away.
Back to our cop and his magic radio. I was probably a few hundred words into my story when I realized my biggest plot challenge: I needed to come with as many different audio clues as possible for our detective to grapple with. As I quickly figured out, it’s tricky to do that. For example, the most obvious clue is having a victim mention the name of his or her murderer. You can only trot that one out once.
Here, two classic movies were instructive, if only to remind me just how slight audio evidence can be. In the 1974 Coppola film The Conversation, everything hinges on the various shades of meaning of a recorded chat between two people. We know exactly what the two people say, but the meaning is unclear because we aren’t privy to the subtleties of context. In DePalma’s 1981  Blow Out, the critical sound of a car tire blowing out isn’t fraught with meaning until our hero finds audio of the sound that immediately precedes it.
In my story, I dispensed with the long-hanging fruit first, then worked my way up the ladder of audio complexity. The detective’s greatest triumph comes when he identifies a murderer based on the killer’s strange tic.
And now, since I’ve annoyingly danced around the plots of three, no, four creative works, I should probably be more forthright about the origins of the second big element in this story: the so-called magical shop itself.
Weirdly, I have always been a sucker for such shops, ever since I was a kid. For few years in my youth my father rented an office space above an Italian deli in the New Jersey town where I grew up. The office building was strangely trapezoidal, which meant that one window in my Dad’s studio jutted out like the bow of a ship, overlooking the main drag of my hometown.
My hometown’s business district, as depicted in an old postcard, long before I arrived on the scene. (The Blue Onion not pictured.)
I used to like sitting in that window and drawing pictures of the impossible cute gift shop across the street. If I’m not mistaken, it was called The Blue Onion, and its blue-painted, shingle roof and gable were anomalies in an otherwise boring Jersey town filled with pizza joints, strip malls, sanitized stucco buildings, and yes, that Kmart I mentioned earlier. I must have sketched dozens of versions of the Blue Onion, in all seasons, but its Christmas appearance—two front windows decked out with twinkling lights and faux snow—was probably my favorite.
In the 1990s, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took the train across the Hudson to New York City each morning to go to work. From the PATH station to my job at Scholastic, I walked past a charming shop on Bedford Street. It was the sort of place that sold antiques and “vintage” objects side-by-side with beautiful new objects carefully curated by the proprietor. I never went in, but I imagine that everything in it was ridiculously expensive.
 (credit: Denise Kiernan)
Later, when I went freelance, I conned my way into writing a twice-monthly “destinations” column for the now long-gone New Jersey section of the New York Times. All I did for these pieces was chase down places in the state that trafficked in, as my gruff editor once put it, “quaint shit.” I know it’s got a gritty reputation, but Jersey has lot more of these sorts of places than Tony Soprano would like to admit.
I now live in a town in North Carolina that has quaintness in spades—shops and entire barns devoted to relics from another time. Emporia like these always seem to promise a hell of a lot more than they deliver. But foolishly, if I have a few minutes, I still go peek inside them. I don’t know why. I can’t afford anything in them half the time, but still I browse. I suppose, like my detective, I go looking for the magic.
 josephdagnese.com


17 December 2019

Merry Movie Mayhem


With Christmas and Hanukkah only a few days away, here’s some last minute Merry Mayhem stocking stuffers. As of the time of this writing, a few days before its posting, most were still available and some are available streaming. The movies aren’t necessarily Christmas-related, just good stocking stuffers for those who like to read, write and watch crime fiction. And I’ve tossed in a bunch of non-crime-related movies at the end. All in no particular order. So, roll film:


The Godfather and its two sequels: Godfather I is one of the greatest movies ever made. And Godfather II is even better. Three isn’t as bad as I first thought it was and if one can get around Sofia Coppola’s Valley Girl Mafia chic it’s pretty good actually. You can get them individually, in a set or as the Godfather Saga where they’ve been cut together chronologically. I’ll take my Godfather any way I can get it.

Chinatown and Two Jakes: At the risk of being repetitive, Chinatown is one of the greatest movies ever made. And one of the best and most perfect screenplays I’ve ever read. When task master Amy was trying to get me to pare down on things, she “made” me get rid of a ton of screenplays I had – lots of good ones, too. But one of the few that I kept was Chinatown, which still sits on a shelf in my office for inspiration. Some people don’t like the subject matter, they find it repulsive. But it’s still a terrific movie. And the sequel, Two Jakes, also isn’t as bad as I first thought it was. But it’s best to watch it right after you view Chinatown so everything that it refers to is fresh in your mind. That will enhance your enjoyment of it.

In a Lonely Place: Tied for my second favorite movie of all time (see towards the end for the other second fave). And yes, I like the movie better than the book it’s based on. It resonates with me on so many levels. Back in the day, the Smithereens did a song called In a Lonely Place, inspired by the movie. It even has some lines from the movie. I really like this song. I got a poster of the movie from Pat DiNizio, the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter of the Smithereens. And when I look at the poster I like to think that DiNizio was also looking at that very poster when he wrote that song.

Film Noir 10-Movie Spotlight Collection: Okay, even if you don’t have anyone to get this for, get it for yourself. It’s one of the best collections of noir I’ve seen. It includes: This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, Double Indemnity, Phantom Lady, The Blue Dahlia, Black Angel, The Killers (1946 version), The Big Clock, Criss Cross, Touch of Evil. There’s not a bad movie in the bunch. And it includes the ultimate film noir imo, Double Indemnity. Plus Blue Dahlia, which Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay for. But they’re all good to great. Some have commentaries and other features. I’ve given this as gifts to a few people and I’m always envious when I do. I have all the movies, but in other versions, but somehow I still want this set for me. One great set.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection: If you like Hitchcock and you don’t already have these or know someone who might enjoy them it’s a great Hitch starter set. I say ‘starter’ because there’s so many more. But this includes one of my two fave Hitchcock movies, Vertigo (the other being The Lady Vanishes). And most of the movies here are terrific, though there’s some I’m not all that fond of. Plus there’s lots of extra features. Movies in the set are: Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot.

Pulp Fiction: Everybody knows this one. It’s a terrific movie. And would make a great stocking stuffer, along with Reservoir Dogs.

Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile: Two movies based on Stephen King stories. Not horror tales, like he’s generally known for. And I tend to like his non-horror stories – like these and Stand by Me – much more than the horror ones. You can get these two in a set, both directed by Frank Darabont. A terrific two-fer.

Thin Man Boxed Set: Unfortunately, I think I was wrong about this one still being available. Well, it is still available but it’s over 200 bucks. So maybe another time when it’s reissued. We all know the Thin Man movies. The playful banter and plentiful drink. One of my film school teachers wrote one of them – I always thought that was so cool. There’s other good William Powell Myrna Loy movies as well, especially Libeled Lady and Love Crazy.

LA Confidential: I’m a James Ellroy fan, though not as much as I used to be. This is one hell of a good movie based on his book. And, though I loved the book, after watching the movie about 500 times, I reread it and think I actually like the movie better.

Here’s some non-crime movies that might work, too:

Reuben Reuben: A minor gem and a great satire. Here’s a couple quotes from the movie:

“There's nothing I cherish more than the truth. I don't practice it, but I cherish it.”

And later:

“That’s where they live. (Points to sign that says “Birch Hills”.) And in other subdivisions with names like Orchard View and Vineyard Haven. All of them named, God help us, for the woods and the vineyards and the apple trees they bulldozed out of existence to make way for the new culture.”

After Hours: Something a little different from Martin Scorsese.  The Grateful Dead sang, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” They might have been writing about Griffin Dunne’s very long, odd night in this movie.

Casablanca: Number 1 fave movie, bar none. Do I really need to say anything about this?

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: What can I say about this? They changed the world – at least they changed my world.

Uncle Buck: One of two John Candy/John Hughes movies on this list. Uncle Buck doesn’t always get great reviews, but I like it. I think it’s funny and warm.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: The other John Candy/John Hughes film on this list. Also funny with a warm heart.

My Cousin Vinny: I’ve seen this in whole or in part about 1,000,000 times. And I always laugh. It never gets old.

Can’t Buy Me Love: Patrick Dempsey as a high school student who finds out the real price of being popular. And the title is from a Beatle song that’s played in the movie. How can you go wrong?

It’s Alive: Ramones concert footage. Great stuff from a terrific, punchy band. Gabba Gabba Hey! Johnny Ramone came in #28 on Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 guitar players. See why on this 2 DVD set. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/100-greatest-guitarists-153675/johnny-ramone-154110/

They Might Be Giants: A man (George C. Scott) thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. His psychiatrist, Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward), might think so, too…sooner or later.

Soldier in the Rain: A special movie, starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. If it doesn’t touch your heart you don’t have one.

Fred and Ginger movies, individually or boxed: always good for the holiday spirit

Ghost World: My other second favorite movie, along with In a Lonely Place. I’m not a teenage girl, but I totally relate to the alienation these characters, played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, feel. And for those who haven’t seen it it’s not a horror movie despite the title. (Also w/ Steve Buscemi.)

Sideways: a wonderful movie for writers, even more than for people who hate Merlot.

I don’t think he’s really talking about wine here:

Miles (Paul Giamatti): “Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.”

Here’s a link to another SleuthSayers piece I did on Christmas movies with both a Christmas and crime element. Some movies you might think are missing from today’s list might be found here: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/12/have-holly-jolly-crime-season.html

I could keep going, but all good things must come to an end and maybe crime doesn’t pay but it pays to watch these movies.

So have yourself a Merry Little Mayhem Murderous Christmas. Happy Holidays Everyone!

~.~.~

BSP: Oh, and maybe a couple stocking stuffer books:



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30 October 2019

The Last Lesson: Queen vs Hitchcock



Two weeks ago I reported that I had been invited to speak to the Northwest branch of the Mystery Writers of American on the subject: "Ten Things I learned Writing Short Stories."  I listed nine of them and promised to deliver the last one this week.  Here goes!

10.  What's the difference between Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine?  That's the second-most common question I hear about my writing.  (The first is the dreaded WDYGYI?)

For many years my reply was simple: AH buys my stories and EQ doesn't.  But since EQ has surrendered to my dubious charms several times I have to come up with some better distinction.  So here are a few.

Origin stories.  I mean the origins of the magazines themselves.  I think they are useful in thinking about how the editors think: What is in the magazine's DNA, so to speak?  Because as the old saying goes "What's bred in the bone, comes out in the flesh."

EQ was started in 1941 under the editorship of Frederic Dannay, one half of the author Ellery Queen.  Besides being an author and editor, Dannay was an anthologist and a historian of the mystery field.  He was determined to cover all aspects of the field (as opposed to Black Mask Magazine, for example, which had focused on hardboiled) and to stretch the definition of the mystery as well.  Therefore it was not unusual for him to print stories from around the world, stories from "literary" authors who were not considered mystery writers, and reprint stories that had been forgotten or that no one had previously thought of as belonging to the crime field at all.  EQ, for example, was the first American magazine to publish the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.  EQ retains a keen sense of the history of the mystery field, which leads to publishing parodies and pastiches.

AH, on the other hand, was founded in 1956.  The film director had no direct role in the magazine, simply licensing the use of his hame and likeness.  For many years the introduction to each issue was written in his voice.  The magazine was not inspired by his movies as much as by his very popular TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which actually filmed some stories that had originally appeared in the magazine.  Like the TV show, the magazine leaned toward suspense, twist endings, and a macabre sense of humor.  It still does.

Distinctions today.  EQ has regular departments.  Going all the way back to Dannay's day it has featured the Department of First Stories, which has premiered the work of up-and-coming artists who went on to fame such as Harry Kemelman, Henry Slesar, Stanley Ellin, and Thomas Flanagan.  Every issue features Passport to Crime, a story translated from another language.  EQ also owns the rights to the Black Mask name and often features a story in that magazine's hardboiled style.

My description of the beginnings of AH may have left you with the impression that their selection of story types is narrow. In fact, the opposite is true.  You can find examples of westerns and science fiction in its pages, as long as crime is front and center. Fantasy elements  may slip in.  (The rare ghost story can show up in either magazine; for some reason ghosts are the one bit of woowoo that is allowed in the mystery world.)

And some more quick generalizations.

EQ seems to lean more toward the grim, the longer, and the fair-play detection stories.

AH appears to favor the lighter, the shorter, and the twist ending.

It is important to be clear that everything I am saying here is about tendencies, not absolutes.  You can find exceptions in every issue, but if you are trying to decide which magazine to submit a story to first, this might help you.

One thing both seem to insist on, is high quality, which may explain why my overall sale record at AHMM is only about 33% and much worse at EQMM.

Your mileage, needless to say, may vary.


25 August 2019

My Small Business Plan


I'm not getting rich from my writing sales, so I'm grateful I don't have to rely on writing for my main income, otherwise my office would be a cardboard box in some alley with a long extension cord running up to someone's outside electrical outlet. You know, for a coffee pot and a computer.  In any case, regardless how you look at your writing, it's probably best in the long run if you have a business plan. For one thing, you want to keep track of your income and expenses (lots of expenses) so as to avoid paying too much to the tax man. Seems he always has one hand in your pocket.

So, having said that, here's the accounts receivable part of My Small Business Plan. It's got to be a small plan, you see, because I only write short stories, which don't pay much over any one year period, and the occasional cowboy poem, which doesn't pay at all. The important thing is, I have a plan and I'm finally using that Business Degree which Uncle Sam paid for after I responded to that nice letter draft he sent me way back in 1966.

Mine is a three-part plan

Part 1 - Short Stories
     I write short stories for paying markets. First submissions go to the higher paying publications. In case of a rejection, I work my submissions down the payment ladder until the story sells or goes into inventory. All of this is common sense and most writers already know this part. Moving on.

Part 2 - Reprints & Other Secondary Markets

   I was surprised one day to read about a market call from a company named Great Jones Street for reprints. This was a startup venture to put short stories on cell phones where readers paid a subscription to read the stories. I sold them seven reprints for $500 while they were collecting a base inventory. Ultimately, they got on the wrong side of the ledger and went out of business.
     In a different situation, Otto Penzler paid me $250 to use one of my reprints in one of his many anthologies. Since then, I've seen other markets for reprints. It's like found money.

     Another good use of short stories, whether they were previously published or not, is putting them into e-collections. So, after I had a list of previously published stories, plus an inventory of unpublished short stories, I started looking at Amazon for Kindle and Smashwords for other e-readers. Both of them are free to setup your e-books, all you need is to figure out how to format e-books. It is a different setup for each of the two companies, but due to advances in software, it is now easier than it used to be. Fortunately for me, I had a Huey pilot friend who made the mistake of saying, "I can figure that out." And he did. In 2011, we turned some of my short stories into four e-collections: 9 Historical Mysteries, 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond Mysteries, 9 Chronicles of Crime and 9 Deadly Tales. Kindle paid royalties by EFT and Smashwords paid via PayPal. Then in 2018, we added two more e-collections: 9 Holiday Burglars Mysteries and 31 Mini-Mysteries. These last two led to Part 3.

Part 3 - Paperbacks
     Kindle Direct Publishing recently acquired Create Space, which published paperback books. It was while uploading one of my last two e-books that I was faced with a new situation at the end of the upload. The Kindle software inquired if I wanted to also publish my e-book as a paperback. What the heck, one more form in which to offer potential buyers a choice to spend money on my books? I immediately checked yes only to discover that I needed my cover in a different format for this option. After all, an e-book only needs a front cover, while a paperback needs a front cover, a spine and a rear cover.

I went back to my Huey pilot friend. He is now figuring out the requirements for a paperback and we are working on the final details. The paperback has a fixed charge, plus a very small charge for every page, none of which the author pays upfront. It's all covered by the buyer when he purchases the book. First, you need to decide what size of book you want and the size of font you prefer. Those two items and the length of your manuscript will determine how many pages your book will have. Then, KDP has a program where you enter the number of pages your book will have and the program will tell you the minimum price you have to put on your book, which is also the cost to KDP for printing your book. Naturally, you want to make a profit, so you also enter the price you want to charge and the program will tell you your royalty profit. Simple, huh?

Well, we'll see. Seems there's a bleed factor on the cover when it comes to cover size. My friend says he's got it figured out, and while he did teach me how to fly OH-6 and OH-58 observation helicopters, I think this cover and formatting thing is over my head. It's nice to have friends.

QUICK UPDATE: A week and a half ago, the 1st paperback went live. We are now working on the conversion of the other five from e-book to paperback.

You've now heard about My Small Business Plan. Do you have your own plan? Feel free to share. Or are you still working on one? We'd like to hear about that too.

13 August 2019

Strange Impersonation


I was looking for a movie to watch and Strange Impersonation, directed by Anthony Mann, sounded interesting, so I put it on.

And since I’m going to use this movie to make a larger point I’m going to give away various plot elements. I could use other, better-known movies, but as this is less-known and will work just as well illustrating the point, I figure it’s better to give the store away here. I’m using this movie to make a point about most, if not all, movies that do this.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Here’s the basic plot as told by Bruce Eder on All Movie: “Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is a dedicated research scientist who is very close to a breakthrough in her field of anesthetics. She allows herself to be used as the subject of an experiment, and becomes the victim of sabotage by her jealous assistant (Hillary Brooke), who is her rival for the affections of the same man (William Gargan). Nora is scarred by the accident, but fate takes a hand when a vicious blackmailer (Ruth Ford), part of an extortion scam that was being worked on her, breaks in to her apartment. In the ensuing struggle, the lady grifter is killed and then mistaken for Nora, while the real Nora goes into hiding. Taking the identity of the dead woman, she realizes how she has been betrayed and maimed and plots an elaborate revenge, undergoing reconstructive surgery that changes her whole appearance. She then reintroduces herself into the lives of her former associates, in her new guise, and begins her revenge. Before her plans can be concluded, however, her masquerade backfires on her, when she finds herself accused by the police -- of the murder of Nora Goodrich” (https://www.allmovie.com/movie/strange-impersonation-v111934#ASyuCJD6Q4IVUJxw.99)


Okay, it sounds pretty convoluted, but just go with it, ’cause that’s not the point of this post.

It started going along pretty well. Nothing great, but I didn’t turn it off either.

So, after the ‘accident,’ and after the blackmailer dies and is mistaken for the scientist, the scientist leaves her fiancĂ© and her life behind. She heads out west. Has plastic surgery to look like the woman who was blackmailing her. She then returns to the city as that person and begins on a course of revenge against her former assistant. She insinuates herself back into her former fiancĂ©’s life, trying to steal him back from his new lover, her former assistant. Before she can pull it all together, everything backfires on her and she finds herself accused of murder—the murder of herself (though really, as we know, the blackmailer).


Okay, still convoluted, but interesting.

EXCEPT…

…that all of the revenge part of the plot turns out to be a dream. Everything after the explosion/‘accident’ didn’t really happen. It was all a dream in the scientist’s head after the accident. So all the emotion and excitement and concern that we invested in the character/s was for nothing. Because none of it was real. There were no real consequences. The assistant didn’t really make an explosive compound that disfigured the scientist. The scientist didn’t really get plastic surgery, return to exact her revenge, which was thwarted before should could finish it and she wasn’t really arrested for the murder of…………herself.

None of it happened. Because it was a dream.

And because it was a dream it’s a cheat. And it makes me angry and it makes me feel like I wasted 68 minutes of my life. I don’t like movies where major plot elements turn out to be dreams. I’ve invested myself, I’ve given over my suspension of disbelief. And then none of it matters.

I won’t name other movies or TV shows where things have turned out to be dreams, because I don’t want to give them away for those who haven’t seen them (with a couple exceptions below). But I can’t think of one that I like once I learn the events that took place were just a dream and didn’t really happen. There are, however, a couple of exceptions: one film noir that I like fairly well where much of it turns out to be a dream, but even that one which, if there is an exception to the rule is it, disappoints me in the end because again, there was no real jeopardy. There were no real consequences. So what did it all amount to? Nothing. The other exception is The Wizard of Oz, but that whole story is a fantasy. We’re not supposed to buy it as a real story as we are with other movies.

(Just as a side note here: I’m not talking about movies like Spellbound, where dreams are used to analyze a character and figure them out. That’s fine. I’m talking about movies where we learn that much of the action was a dream and thus didn’t really take place within the context of the story.)

Freud might have loved dreams and found them useful in psychoanalyzing people. But in my opinion, in a movie they’re nothing but a cheap cheat.

What do you think? Do you find movies based on dreams a cheat? Do you feel deceived after you’ve seen them? Let us know.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

23 July 2019

The Future of Writing


Many of us have nostalgic, warm feelings of curling up with a book in the rain. For a lot of us here at SleuthSayers it’s more than likely a mystery or a thriller, though I’m sure we all read many different kinds of books, mainstream fiction, non-fiction, a little of everything.

But how many of our kids have that warm feeling? How many of our kids enjoy reading just for the pleasure of it? How many people read paper books anymore? And are young people reading these days? They do seem to read YA books, maybe on Kindle and iPad but not often in paperback. But they are reading less than previous generations and spending more time playing games on their phones, texting and watching movies instead of reading. More distractions and shorter attention spans. They’ve grown up with everything being faster and getting instant gratification. Do they ever read classics or history or something that’s a stretch for them? And how many never read anything longer than a  Facebook post or Tweet?


My wife, Amy, who takes the train to work, says, “I notice on the train a lot of people staring at their phones. Some are reading, but the really serious readers have paperbacks or Kindles and don’t read on their phones. Most are texting or playing games. And it’s time that could be spent reading but they don’t. And that’s scary. I understand wanting to do something mindless and entertaining for a little while, but we also need to exercise and stretch our brains and imaginations sometimes, too.”

It seems to me that, while there are still some places to buy books besides Amazon, and that people still read, I’m not sure how many people read or what they’re reading. So the question is, is fiction a dying art? And how does that affect our writing?

Many people, of all ages, would find Don Quixote slow to come to a boil. Nothing happens for too long. That’s the way it is with a lot of books from earlier times and not even all that earlier. Hemingway was known for his “streamlining” of the language, but many people these days find his books slow going.

The same applies to movies. Even movies made 20 or 30 years ago are too slow for many people today. And when they watch movies they often watch them on a phone with a screen that’s five inches wide. How exciting is that? And many movies today are of the comic book variety. I’m not saying no one should read comic books or enjoy comic book movies, but it seems sometimes like that’s all there is in the theatres.

And novels have become Hollywoodized. I like fast paced things as much as the next person, but I also like the depth a novel can provide that movies or TV series often don’t. And one of the things that I liked about the idea of writing novels was being able to take things slower, to explore characters’ thoughts and emotions.

In talking to many people, I often find there’s a lack of shared cultural touchstones that I think were carried over from generation to generation previously. That also affects our writing. Should we use literary allusions, historical allusions? If so, how much do we explain them? And how much do we trust our audience to maybe look them up? The same goes for big words.

Way back when, I was writing copy for a national radio show. Another writer and I got called on the carpet one time and dressed down by the host. Why? Because we were using words that were “too big,” too many syllables. Words that people would have to look up. So, we dumbed down our writing to keep getting our paychecks. But it grated on us.

But in writing my own books and short stories I pretty much write them the way I want to. I’m not saying I don’t stop and consider using this word instead of that. But I hate writing down to people. When I was younger I’d sit with a dictionary and scratch pad next to me as I read a book. If I came on a word I didn’t know I’d look it up and write the definition down. And I learned a lot of new words that way. Today, if one is reading on a Kindle or similar device, it’s even easier. You click on the word and the definition pops up. That’s one of the things I like about e-readers, even though I still prefer paper books. But I wonder how many younger people look up words or other things they’re not familiar with.

And what if one wants to use a foreign phrase? I had another book (see picture) for looking those up. But again, today we’re often told not to use those phrases. Not to make people stretch. I remember seeing well-known writers (several over time) posting on Facebook, asking if their friends thought it was okay to use this or that word or phrase or historical or literary allusion because their editors told them they shouldn’t. That scares me.

So all of this brings up a lot of questions in my mind: What is the future of writing? Are we only going to write things that can be read in ten minute bursts? And then will that be too long? What does all this mean for writers writing traditional novels? Will everything become a short story and then flash fiction?

In 100 years will people still be reading and writing novels? Or will they live in a VR world where everything is a game and they can hardly tell reality from fantasy?

So, what do you think of all of this?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.




Also, check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus Award-winning novel, White Heat.



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com