Showing posts with label B.K. Stevens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label B.K. Stevens. Show all posts

07 February 2017

A Good Mystery Writer is like a Magician


Kids have long known that if you want a specific toy for your birthday or Christmas, you need to start dropping hints early. Picture Ralphie, the star of the movie A Christmas Story, telling everyone who'll listen that he wants a Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot range-model air rifle. (He needed to start dropping hints early just to get the whole name out.)
You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

Kids who grow up and become writers still love dropping hints. They're just more subtle about it. Think about the movie The Sixth Sense. (Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen this movie, dear Lord, stop reading and go watch it right now before returning here. You're welcome.) Haley Joel Osment gave the film's big secret away when he looked right at Bruce Willis and told the audience, "I see dead people." But the film was written so well that the viewer likely (hopefully) didn't get the hint until the big reveal at the end.

As a writer, it can be a lot of fun to drop in hints designed to fly right past the reader, knowing that when the story's secret is revealed at the end, the reader will say, "Ohhh, I should have known," because the clues were all there if only the poor reader had noticed them.

And that's really such an important part of writing mysteries--acting like a good magician, distracting readers from the clues that are right there on the page so the readers can be surprised at the end.

I was reminded of this point last week while watching a rerun of Modern Family. The TV show isn't about crime or mystery, but the writers must read them. In the episode titled "The Alliance" (season eight, episode eight), the story starts with members of the large extended family casually talking about where they all could go on a big family vacation. The vacation discussion is portrayed as background music. Something mentioned and then forgotten as the real meat of the episode begins. But when you get to the end, you realize there's been a long con going on, and the clues were buried right before the viewers eyes in multiple scenes. It was so much fun to realize I'd been tricked. And then the writers took it a step further and showed how they fooled you with each clue. Excellent writing!

Of course there are a lot of good examples of writers who hide clues right before your eyes. If you're a movie fan, you might want to check out Screenrant.com. They have a page where they discuss The Ten Best Movie Clues You Totally Missed.

And, last but not least, are books and stories with well-hidden clues. One story in which I successfully hid the clues (at least I think I did) is called "Ulterior Motives," which came out a few years ago in an anthology named Ride 2. All the stories involved cycling. Mine was the only mystery--and actually the story had two mysteries. The central plot revolved around a teenage girl who volunteers for a political campaign and is threatened. Who's behind the
threats is the main mystery (as well as whether the campaign is successful), and I hid some clues along the way addressing those questions. But there's a second mystery in the tale, one buried so well--again, I hope--that the reader doesn't even realize the mystery is at work until the end. Early in the story it's mentioned that a quirky burglar is at work in town, going into people's homes and taking small items, then leaving them in the homeowners' mailboxes. Who is the burglar, and why does he/she act so oddly? I had fun burying those clues. Although it was a bit disconcerting when I read one review that showed the reviewer hadn't recognized some of the clues, even at the end. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Can you hide a clue too well? Maybe.

In a more recent story, "The Best-Laid Plans," I drop some details along the way foreshadowing what's to come. The main character, Eloise, writes cozies. Her antagonist, Kim, writes edgier mysteries. The characters' personalities match the mysteries they write. So when Kim insults Eloise publicly just weeks before they are both to appear as honored guests at a mystery convention, it makes sense that Eloise responds with a plan of revenge--a cozy plan. How does it turn out? I don't want to ruin it for you. But bear in mind that the characters' personalities affect their habits and how they deal with stress, so if you read carefully enough, you might be able to see where the story is going. But the ending should still take you by surprise. The story was published in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. You can read it at my website. I'm honored that this story is currently a finalist for the Agatha Award, up against tough competition, including from two of my fellow SleuthSayers, B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor, as well as from writers Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read all the stories online. Head on over to the Malice Domestic website, where the story titles are links either to the stories themselves or a way to buy them.

So, what's your favorite movie, TV show, or book with hidden clues and why? Let's all add to each others' to-be-read/watched list.

20 January 2017

Ending Before the Ending


by Art Taylor

Earlier this week, Robert Lopresti posted his list of the best short stories of 2016—a fine slate of stories, and it was great to see a couple of my own favorites in there as well, along with some stories I didn't know and now need to track down.

One of those stories—"The Last Blue Glass" by fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens in Alfred Hitchock's Mystery Magazine—has been on my mind recently, as has another story by one of our group—"Stepmonster" by Barb Goffman in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning—not solely because of how much I enjoyed and admired them (I did, and I do!) but because of a structural approach that each story shares. (Each story is linked so you can enjoy and admire for yourself!)

In several ways, the stories might seem to have little in common. "The Last Blue Glass" is a much longer story, covering nine years; it's presented in the third person, from the perspective of a woman who goes from newlywed wife to troubled widow; and it is fairly traditionally told, summary and scene gliding one into the other to navigate those long years and the moments key to the story. In contrast, "The Stepmonster" is narrated in first-person and takes place over a fairly short amount of time, two short scenes, and with a twist, one scene commenting on the other in ways that I won't divulge so that readers can enjoy the twist themselves.

But while the overall structures and time-frames and points of view are different, each story centers on a moment of revenge—though even as I write that, I recognize that center might well be a misleading word, since the "central" action of each story isn't at the center of its tale; in fact (small spoiler alert?), those moments of revenge never actually occur within the confines of the stories themselves. It's this latter similarity that struck me as I reflected on the stories—how each story draws to its end by looking ahead, past the final word of the story and into the (figurative) blankness beyond, where the next bit of the drama, arguably the most dramatic bit, will actually happen.

The structure of Barb's story is unique because that forecasting of the drama circles back on itself, as you'll see when you read it. What happens in the beginning of the story foreshadows what will likely occur next. And in Bonnie's case, the final scenes sketch out the narrator's intentions and how the plans should play out. But likely and should are key words here, and the authors' decisions in each case not to dramatize these scenes allow the reader's imagination a greater degree of involvement—allowing the story to linger on in that imagination, the events to spool ahead in the reader's mind beyond the so-called "end" of the story proper.

A few years back, I wrote a short essay to help debut the then-new blog "Something Is Going to Happen" from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and I took the blog's title as a starting point for my thoughts on open or unfinished endings, where the something that is going to happen next is hinted at but not fully dramatized. In my post, subtitled "Perched on the Edge of What Happens Next" (and linked here), I talk about a couple of Stanley Ellin stories I admire and particularly "The Moment of Decision," certainly one of my all-time favorite stories, which (another small spoiler!) ends dramatically just before the moment in the title, leaving the reader both to wonder what decision is reached and to ponder what decision he or she would make in similar circumstances (a question which has provoked great discussion in my classes when I've taught this story, I should stress).

I won't revisit every point of that post, but reading and studying Bonnie's and Barb's stories reveal to me again of the importance of structuring your storytelling (as much as your plot, not the same thing) and of the power in handing over some of that process to the readers themselves, drawing them in, involving them if not even making them complicit (and I'll stress again that each of these stories is about revenge).

And yet, looking back over that post for EQMM and some of the stories I sampled there, and looking at Barb's and Bonnie's stories, I also realize that there are a couple of different ways that "ending before the ending" might play out—with different ways of involving the reader and different effects on their experience.

One approach, like Ellin's, is to leave something fundamental unanswered and some aspect of the ending more fully unresolved. While I would argue—vigorously—that Ellin's story isn't "unfinished" (a much longer and more detailed post), there are clearly two dramatically different choices that could be made by the narrator, and each choice could then branch out into several different outcomes, depending on other factors in the story. In short, that blank page beyond the final sentence is filled with unanswered questions and possibilities; an enterprising writer could, by my count, pursue at least four distinctly different combinations of events, each with their own stakes, to describe what happens next. (Note to any enterprising writers: Please don't try to write the ending. The story is really fine like it is.)

In a similar vein, Ed Gorman's "Out There in the Darkness" (which I also mentioned in the original EQMM post) ends with a looming sense of dread but little certainty about what's ahead—a character "waiting" but will the thing he's waiting for actually transpire? There's little certainty how the rest of his story will play out, but the sense of doom and dread are palpable—more so because we the reader share it, perched on the edge of the unknown.

The second approach is to wrap up the story more fully, pointing to what's ahead without dramatizing it actually happening. In this case, the reader's imagination still fills in some of the blanks but in a more focused way. At the end of David Dean's fabulous "Ibrahim's Eyes" (available as part of EQMM's podcast series), there's little doubt about what will happen mere seconds after the final words of the story, so the reader doesn't need to wonder or ponder over unanswered questions; instead, what the reader does is conjure up those next moments for him/herself—engaged more fully in that process, I would argue, than if David had simply written the next lines. Pulling back, letting the reader fill in to complete the story, is here too a powerful move—without the uncertainty of the first approach I mentioned above (inviting the reader's intellectual engagement, particularly in the Ellin story) but with perhaps a greater emotional involvement.

Barb's and Bonnie's stories lie closer to this latter approach, I think—sketching out, as I said, the events that will follow, the characters' plans/expectations for what's next. Obviously those plans might not play out exactly as these characters expect but the level of uncertainty there is lesser than in a more open ending and the effect is different, ultimately bringing the reader emotionally closer to the characters, even complicit in their plan.

Speaking of sketching, I feel like I'm still only sketching out some of my thoughts on this topic—even here taking a second try at refining my thoughts on this idea. But in the spirit of leaving endings open, I hope there's room for readers here to do their own thinking on the topic—and again, I hope I've spurred you to read these fine stories themselves. 

14 January 2017

Revision: Murder by Pencil


"Murder your darlings"--that may be the most famous piece of advice about revision, one that's been attributed to just about everybody but really, apparently, originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British writer and critic born in 1863. I think it became famous because it so vividly sums up two facts almost all writers instantly recognize as true:
  • Revision is mandatory.
  • Revision hurts like hell.
We labor so hard to bring our words into this world that sending any of them back into the void feels wrong. It feels like murder--a kind of murder even mystery writers don't enjoy. And according to Quiller-Couch, the words we labor over hardest, the ones we love best, are probably the ones we most need to obliterate. How can we force ourselves to be as pitiless as we know we need to be? Is there any way to make the process less painful?

Several years ago, I ran into two essays that transformed the way I revise. Both had been around for decades, but I hadn't encountered them before. (They were in a prose anthology I used in a first-year composition course I was teaching. I chose the anthology because I hoped it would help students improve their writing. If it helped them half as much as it helped me, it was a good choice.) While both essays contain many valuable insights about writing, they've made a difference for me primarily because each recommends one specific technique that has helped me murder my darlings more efficiently.

The first essay is Donald M. Murray's "The Maker's Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts," published in 1973 and available online here. Murray first discusses the early stages of revision when most writers, he says, focus on "the larger problems of subject and form." Then he discusses the stage when writers move "closer and closer to the page," working through the manuscript sentence by sentence, sweating to make every word right. At this stage, Murray finds it best to work "in short runs, no more than fifteen minutes at a stretch." If he tries to keep going longer than that, he says, "I become too kind with myself. I begin to see what I hope is on the page, not what is actually on the page."

At first, this approach sounded strange to me--it seemed too fragmented--but I gave it a try. It works. Now, when I reach the final stage of revision, I set a timer for fifteen minutes (or usually, to be honest, thirty) and start working. I'm alert, I'm focused on revision, and I'm determined to find ways to make improvements. When the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break. I put in a load of laundry or do some other household chore, I respond to an e-mail, or I read a chapter of someone else's book. Sometimes I exercise (I should do that more often), and sometimes I fix a snack (I should do that less often). When the break is over, I attack the manuscript with renewed alertness, focus, and determination.

I think this approach helps me revise more effectively; I know it makes me more ruthless. When I try to revise without taking breaks, it's too easy to slip out of revising mode and into reading mode. I start enjoying the characters and smiling at the dialogue. After all, I created this manuscript--it's natural for me to love it. But if I want other people to love it, too, I can't afford to go easy on it. I have to scrutinize it critically and be prepared to murder any little darlings that aren't as good as I'd like to think they are. Revising in short runs helps.

The other essay is William Zinsser's "The Act of Writing: One Man's Method," written in 1983. (If he'd written it more recently, he probably would have called it "One Person's Method.") Again, there's lots of good advice about revision in general, one specific technique that stands out for me. When he was teaching writing at Yale, Zinsser says, he would read through students' essays and "put brackets around every component . . . that I didn't think was doing some kind of work." The "component" might be a single word, such as "the adverb whose meaning is already in the verb (blare loudly, clench tightly)," or it might be an entire sentence that "essentially repeats what the previous sentence has said." "Most people's writing," Zinsser says, "is littered with phrases that do no work whatever. Most first drafts, in fact, can be cut by fifty percent without losing anything organic."

I don't know exactly why the brackets work so well, but they do. When I'm reasonably satisfied with the content and general shape of a manuscript, I print a hard copy and go through it again, looking for words, phrases, sentences, and--who knows?--whole paragraphs I might be able to cut. I always use a pencil, not a pen. That way, any hasty decisions I make while revising can easily be reversed, anything I cut can readily be restored. Sometimes, I can cross things out immediately, confident they aren't doing "some kind of work" and will never be missed. Often, though, I hesitate. Okay, so maybe that phrase isn't strictly necessary, but I like it--it's a darling--and I hate to cut it. So I put it in brackets and move on, postponing the final, painful decision. Later, when I go back and see a page studded with half a dozen or more bracketed words, phrases, and sentences, I realize how much tighter and sharper the page can be if I find the courage to make the cuts. Usually, I grit my teeth and cross out everything in brackets, and the page snaps into shape.

Maybe it's easier to murder our darlings if we do it in stages. We put a component on trial by bracketing it, we later weigh all the evidence about the page or the chapter as a whole before reaching a verdict, and only then do we convict and execute. And when I look back at a page and see only a few brackets, I know I've slipped into reading mode and haven't been ruthless enough. It's time to take a break, and to come back in ten minutes determined to find more suspects to put on trial.

You could also, I'm sure, type the brackets, or highlight possibly superfluous components, or find some other way to use this technique without printing a hard copy. For me, though, for revision, a hard copy and a pencil work best. Maybe that's because I'm a dinosaur who wrote her first manuscripts on yellow pads and manual typewriters. Or maybe there's a real advantage to getting physically closer to our manuscripts during the last stages of writing, to having our hands travel over our words as we make our final decisions about their fates--which ones to keep, which ones to change, which ones to murder.

I do know these two techniques have made a difference for me, and that's taught me another lesson. Before I read these essays, I'd been writing for decades, teaching writing for decades. I considered myself an expert on the writing process, and I thought my own process was set. These essays proved me wrong. We never know enough about writing. No matter how experienced we are, we can still learn from what other writers have to say. Some of the books and essays we read will simply repeat things we already know, and some we'll reject as just plain wrong. Once in a while, though, if we keep reading, we'll find valuable new insights, ones that might even make us revise our approach to revision.

How do you approach revision? Can you recommend techniques that have worked for you? 

# # #

Last year, the day before I planned to leave for Malice Domestic, I tripped on a stupid throw rug, fell, broke my right arm, injured my left leg, and ended up going to the emergency room rather than to Bethesda. I've gotten rid of the throw rug, and of every other throw rug in the house, and hope to make it all the way to the conference this year--but I've learned not to take anything for granted. If you're also planning to go to Malice and haven't yet completed your Agatha nominating ballot, please consider "The Last Blue Glass," a short story that appeared in the April, 2016 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can read it here. (Even if you aren't going to Malice, you might enjoy the story. I worked hard on revising it.)






11 December 2016

The Gift of the Maggid


Yesterday, Bonnie wrote about plot twists. She should know– B. K. Stevens practices the twist herself– the literary kind– as I’ve been learning in her short story collection, Her Infinite Variety.

She goes on to mention
“… those irritating people who say, ‘Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits.’ I can't stand those people.”
Uh-oh. I’m one of those people. I even, er, violated at least one of her stories that way. Well, I don’t say it out loud, but you know– the mind leaps ahead – What would I do? – and sometimes hits upon the right result. Do other readers see it the same way? If we manage to figure out where the plot’s headed, then we might see a little self-satisfied glimmer reflected and mumble, “Genius!” And if we can’t, then we take pleasure the author fairly fooled us.

Stevens — Her Infinite Variety
The Girl from Iphigenia

Fact: Once upon a time in a small New England town, a middle-aged woman worked in the data entry department for a shoe company. The story surrounding Edna was that her domineering mother had never allowed her to date, but made her devote herself to caring for her parents and an unmarried aunt. Beyond bringing in an income, it’s possible Edna’s pedestrian workday had become an escape into normalcy. Why do I mention this? Let's talk about Her Infinite Variety.

Last week, I touched upon a trio of the author’s series characters included in two of the book’s eleven stories– Iphigenia Woodhouse, her irascible professor mother, and ‘Little Harriet’ Russo, the assistant who becomes their foot detective. I hinted at the complex relationship: “Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor.”

But there’s a fourth character, the ever-patient Detective Barry Glass, inamorato of the divine Miss Iphigenia, known as That Man by her mother with considerable bile and venom. If she hasn’t already done so, I hope Bonnie publishes a collection of her Woodhouse stories so we might learn if Iphigenia and That Man Glass ever manage to slip into something more comfortable, i.e, the hay mow, the woods, or the bedsheets.

Bonnie’s article yesterday and Leah Abrams’ children’s religious studies gave me the idea for today’s offbeat title. A ‘maggid’ was an often wandering Slavic Jewish storyteller and teacher popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Temp

The author gives us a sample of another series character, Leah Abrams. Family is important to Leah, her husband Sam and daughters Sarah and Rachel. You notice the Biblical names and may rightly assume quiet piety is important within their home.

Leah, with a PhD in communications, constantly researches material for scholarly volumes, which might or might not see the light of day. In these cosies, we see a parody of those books in self-help courses.

To study workplace psychology, Leah takes interesting office jobs such as temping for a psychic hotline company and counseling for a fancy rehab center. Wherever she works, she stumbles upon murders. Naturally, her friend, Lieutenant Brock, ably facilitates her in finding the perpetrators.

The Rest

B. K. Stevens provides seven additional stand-alone tales, including a Mary Higgins Clark winner, ‘The Listener’. All the clues are there for the astute reader.

I’ve still a couple of stories to go, but I admire the collection. For a smart Christmas or Chanukah gift, you’d be hard pressed to shop for better than Her Infinite Variety, or indeed any of the books from our SleuthSayers members.

Many of our friends and followers have books on the shelves and the on-line marketplace for the holidays. (Elizabeth, does that include you?) Rather than accidentally omit one of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I invite you to add your titles in the comments.

Happy reading!

10 December 2016

The Twist


At this time of year, it seems appropriate to focus on a short story that would make almost anybody's list of Christmas favorites, especially since that story offers valuable lessons to mystery writers. O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" isn't a mystery, but it does a brilliant job of pulling off something many mysteries strive to achieve. I'm talking, of course, about The Twist. An excellent twist, like an excellent gift, reflects both generosity and good judgment. An expensive gift that doesn't suit the recipient probably won't delight, and a suitable but stingy gift isn't likely to inspire much gratitude. By being generous with the reader but exercising good judgment as a writer, O.Henry gives "The Gift of the Magi" the perfect twist.

It's hard to imagine that anyone reading this post hasn't already read "The Gift of the Magi." But if Scrooge-like middle-school teachers and the perversity of fate have conspired to rob you of that experience, please read the story here before going on. It will take you only a few minutes, and I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy it. If you can't spare those few minutes, please don't go on. For I'm about to spoil a classic ending.

It's fairly easy to surprise readers with a twist that pops up out of nowhere. A bomb explodes without a trace of foreshadowing, or the murderer turns out to be a minor character who makes only two brief appearances in the novel, never saying or doing anything that could arouse rational suspicion. It's much harder to create a surprising twist if we shower readers with all the evidence they need to see the ending coming.

That's exactly what O. Henry does in "The Gift of the Magi." From the opening paragraphs on, it's clear Della and Jim have little money to spare for Christmas gifts. It's also clear they love each other. True, the story emphasizes her love for him, not his for her, but her devotion is so sweet and unreserved we assume, rightly, it can't be a tragically unrequited passion. We also learn, in the first two pages, that Della and Jim each have one treasure. Della has long, magnificent hair, and Jim has a fine gold watch he inherited from his father and grandfather. O. Henry spends a long paragraph explicitly comparing these treasures: Della's hair would put the Queen of Sheba's jewels to shame, and even King Solomon, with all his wealth, would envy Jim's watch.

That's all we need to know. No writer could be more generous with helpful information--and O. Henry is so completely generous that he also doesn't try to distract us with the easy tricks of red herrings or irrelevant details. He is utterly open and fair. If he cheats at all, he cheats with his title. "The Gift of the Magi"--singular, not plural. But the magi gave more than one gift, and there's more than one gift in this story. By using "gift" and not "gifts" in his title, O. Henry may be trying to trick us into thinking Della's gift for Jim is the only one that matters. It's a tiny trick, though, and a clever, subtle one. I think we can forgive him.

At any rate, O. Henry gives us all the evidence we need to figure out his crime-free mystery, and he gives it to us early. Less than halfway through the story, when Della sells her hair so she can buy a chain for Jim's watch, we should be able to conclude, "Well, Della and Jim love each other, neither has much money, and each has one treasure. And it's Christmas. If Della sacrifices her one treasure to give Jim something to enhance his watch, I bet Jim will sacrifice his one treasure to give Della something to enhance her hair. No doubt about it--there are some ironic twists coming."

But I don't think many readers do see the twists coming. (And if they do, chances are they first read the story so long ago that they no longer remember how prescient they were--unlike those irritating people who say, "Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits." I can't stand those people.)

How does O.Henry keep us from predicting his ending? I think we can ascribe his success to his good judgment as a writer. First, he wisely chooses to make "The Gift of the Magi" a short story, not a novel. I don't think the plot would work nearly as well if we couldn't read the story in one sitting. First of all, O. Henry would have to destroy its focus by filling pages with extraneous subplots and details. And if we took a break before reaching the last page, if we put "The Gift of the Magi"" down to go for a walk or drive to work, we'd have time to think things over, and we might figure out what the ending will be. (I've read plenty of mystery novels that would have worked better as short stories, that might well have sneaked their twists past me if I hadn't had time to analyze the evidence while folding laundry or letting my mind wander during a boring meeting.)

But "The Gift of the Magi" is a very short story, and also a very absorbing one--I'd guess few if any readers can put it down before reaching the last page. The action pushes us forward without pause, and the protagonist is so lovable and so troubled that she instantly wins our sympathies and our full attention. That's another example of O. Henry's good judgment. He keeps us so intent on Della's dilemmas and decisions that we don't stop to think about what Jim might be feeling or doing.

O. Henry accomplishes that, partly, by not letting us see Jim until the final pages. Imagine how different the story's effect on us might be if O. Henry had begun with a scene of the couple at breakfast, had let us hear Jim make some gloomy remark about Christmas gifts, or let us see him holding his watch in his hand and gazing at it moodily. Instead, O. Henry begins his story after Jim has gone to work, when Della is alone in the flat, counting and recounting her pitiful hoard of coins. Jim gets mentioned often, but we see him only as the reason for Della's despair, not as an independent character who might be grieving over similarly meager stacks of coins and contemplating desperate measures of his own.

Instead, we focus only on Della, and there's plenty to keep that focus constant and sharp. Della's misery touches us, and so does her admiration for Jim--we're moved by her capacity for affection. (By "we," I mean readers capable of being moved by sweetness and innocence. A Grinch would think Della's being silly. If you are a Grinch offended by any story tainted by sentimentality, you don't like "The Gift of the Magi," and you won't like anything I'm going to say about it. Perhaps you'd rather go read some Sartre.) When Della looks in the mirror, turns pale, and abruptly lets down her hair, we wonder what's going on in her mind. Moments later, when she quickly puts her hair up again and hurries out of the flat, we get a glimmer of what she plans to do. Before we can think it through, we come to the quick little drama of her encounter with the horrible Madame Sofronie, memorably characterized in four well-chosen words--"large, too white, chilly." After only a few lines of dialogue, the hair is gone, and Della leaves clutching her twenty dollars. We may feel torn between conflicting emotions, impressed by Della's ingenuity and courage but appalled by the harshness of her sacrifice.

We have no time to dwell on those emotions, though, because the story rushes on. Now we're caught up in Della's search for the perfect present for Jim. She never pauses to wonder about what Jim might be giving her for Christmas, never takes a moment to gaze into a shop window and sigh over the tortoise shell combs on display. That's consistent with Della's character--she's so selfless that she thinks only about Jim's present, cares only about his happiness. It's also further proof of O. Henry's good judgment. If it ever occurred to Della that Jim might be shopping, too, we might start speculating, and that might spoil the twist. By making Della's quest so single minded, O. Henry keeps our thoughts from drifting off in dangerous directions.

And he never lets the pace slow. Della's two-hour search is described in three short sentences. Then, for one paragraph, we share her joy when she finds the perfect watch chain. But the next paragraph plunges us into new anxieties as Della gets busy with her curling irons and frets about how Jim will respond when he sees her shorn. We ache for her as she hears Jim's steps in the hallway and whispers a quick prayer: "Please, God, make him think I am still pretty."

Jim's reaction, we think, will provide the story's climax, and we wait to see what it will be. The nastiest-minded noir addicts among us may hope Jim will respond with rage, may hope the story will end with a nice little murder-suicide demonstrating the cruel absurdity of human existence. Most of us probably expect Jim to be dismayed and perhaps angry at first but then to embrace his wife, declaring that he now loves her more than ever, that in his eyes she's now more beautiful than ever. This is, after all, a Christmas story.

Few of us, I think, expect any climax beyond Jim's reaction. O. Henry has done such a masterful job of ensnaring us in Della's thoughts and emotions that we don't see any further ahead than she does. When Jim stares at his wife, stunned into speechlessness, we think, as she does, it's because he can't adjust to the change in her appearance. As she pleads with him, it doesn't occur to us that there might be a deeper reason for what O. Henry describes as Jim's "trance." Not until Jim pulls a package from his pocket, not until Della opens it and sees the combs Jim bought for her to wear in her long, beautiful hair, do we realize why he was so paralyzed by surprise. We don't see that twist coming until Della does.

It's a clever twist, an ironic twist, a satisfying twist--and not an utterly devastating one. Della weeps when she first sees the combs, but she recovers quickly. "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" she says, and we share her relief. Soon, Della will be able to wear the combs. What a nice climax.

But it's not the climax. There's one more twist coming--a twist we could have foreseen but probably didn't. When Della assures Jim that her hair will grow back soon, it probably doesn't occur to her to wonder about how Jim paid for the combs. Since we share her perspective so completely, it probably doesn't occur to us, either. And when she remembers the watch chain, we may, like her, think Jim's delight in it will erase any lingering regrets about Della's hair.

Then we get the final twist, and everything makes sense. Of course, we think. Earlier in the story, Della says only "something fine and rare and sterling" would do as a gift for Jim, and anything she offers him must reflect his "quietness and value." Just as someone as selfless and loving as Della would give up her most prized possession to buy a present for her husband, someone as "fine and rare and sterling" as Jim would give up his most prized possession to buy a present for his wife. Della has told us everything we need to know about Jim. We should have seen this twist coming. But we probably didn't, because Della didn't. So the final twist hits us as hard as it hits her, and it's even more devastating than the first one. Della's hair will grow back, but the watch Jim inherited from his father and grandfather is gone forever.

Now O. Henry's good judgment as a writer comes into play again. He didn't begin his story too early by letting us see Jim brooding at breakfast, and he doesn't extend it too long by letting us see Della's reaction to the news that Jim has sold his watch. We've already seen Della weep when Jim gives her the combs. We don't need to see her weep again. So when she gives Jim the watch chain, he demonstrates his "quietness and value" by smiling, telling her he sold his watch, and suggesting they sit down to dinner. That's our final glimpse of Della and Jim. The last twist has fallen into place, and its impact is profound. No need to drag things out by belaboring the irony, or by showing us their dismay and recovery. I think O. Henry ends his narrative at exactly the right moment.

He does, however, add one paragraph of commentary, and I suspect many modern readers will criticize him for that. In this last paragraph, O. Henry is teaching us how to interpret his story. He is making its moral explicit. He is--horrors!--telling and not showing. We sophisticated modern readers know how wrong that is. We know writers must let their stories speak for themselves and leave the work of interpretation to the reader. Writers must never sermonize, must never end their stories with paragraphs such as this one:
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
I'll admit it--I'm not sophisticated enough to despise this paragraph. Schmaltzy as it is, I love it. I choke up every time I reread it. I enjoy the quiet humor of the suggestion that the original magi may have given gifts "bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication," enjoy the juxtaposition of different uses of "wise." I'm moved by what the paragraph says about true wisdom, and about how some kinds of foolishness rise to become wisdom of the highest sort. And I appreciate the help this paragraph gives me, for I'm not completely confident I would have seen all the story's implications on my own.

I may be wrong. This paragraph may in fact be merely clumsy and inartistic. (I'd definitely never write a story ending with a similar paragraph. Old fashioned as my own tastes may be, I'm savvy enough to know almost any modern editor would reject a story containing such a paragraph, and almost any modern reader would condemn it.) In any case, this paragraph drives home the point that the best twists are more than clever bits of plotting. The best twists illuminate both character and theme. They express ideas. Informed by the writer's generosity and good judgment, they can transform a story into a delightful, perceptive gift to the reader.

Happy holidays to all!

12 November 2016

Camouflaging Clues


by B.K. Stevens

"The grandest game in the world"--that's how Edward D. Hoch describes the duel between mystery writer and mystery reader. In an essay called "The Pleasure of the Short Story," Hoch explains why he prefers mysteries "in which the reader is given a clue or hint well in advance of the ending. As a reader myself I find the greatest satisfaction in spotting the clue and anticipating the author. If I overlook it, I don't feel cheated--I admire the author's skill!"*

And it takes a lot of skill. In any mystery where this "grandest game" is played, the delightful challenge offered to readers poses daunting challenges for writers. We have to provide readers with clues "well in advance of the ending," as Hoch says. In my opinion (and I bet Hoch would agree), we should provide plenty of clues, and they should start as soon as possible. As a reader, I feel a tad frustrated by mysteries that hinge on a single clue--if we don't pick up on a quick reference indicating the killer was wearing gloves on a warm day, we have no chance of figuring things out. I also don't much enjoy mysteries that look like whodunits but are really just histories of investigations.
The detective questions A, who provides a scrap of information pointing to B, who suggests talking to C. Finally, somewhere around F, the detective happens upon the only truly relevant clue, which leads straight to a solution that's obvious now but would have been impossible to guess even three minutes sooner. That's not much fun.

But working in lots of clues throughout the mystery isn't easy. Hoch identifies "the great clue bugaboo" that plagues many detective stories: "Clues are inserted with such a heavy hand that they almost scream their presence at the reader." Especially in short stories, Hoch says, avoiding that bugaboo requires "a great deal of finesse." I think that's true not only in whodunits but also in mysteries that build suspense by hinting at endings alert readers have a fair chance of predicting before they reach the last page. Luckily, there are ways of camouflaging clues, of hiding them in plain sight so most readers will overlook them.

Here are five camouflage techniques--you've probably used some or all of them yourself. Since it wouldn't be polite to reveal other writers' clues, I'll illustrate the descriptions with examples from my own stories.That way, if I give away too much and spoil the stories, the only person who can get mad at me is me. (By some strange coincidence, all the stories I'll mention happen to be in my recent collection from Wildside Press, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime.)

Sneak clues in before readers expect them: Readers expect the beginning of a mystery to intrigue them and provide crucial back story--or, perhaps, to plunge them into the middle of action. They don't necessarily expect to be slapped in the face with clues right away. So if we slide a clue into our opening sentences, it might go unnoticed. That's what I tried to do in "Aunt Jessica's Party," which first appeared in Woman's World in 1993. It's not a whodunit, but the protagonist's carrying out a scheme, and readers can spot it if they pay attention. Here's how the story begins:
     Carefully, Jessica polished her favorite sherry glass and placed it on the silver tray. Soon, her nephew would arrive. He was to be the only guest at her little party, and everything had to be perfect.
     Five minutes until six--time to call Grace. She went to the phone near the kitchen window, kept her eyes on the driveway, and dialed.
     "Hello, Grace?" she said. "Jessica. How are you? Oh, I'm fine--never better. Did I tell you William's coming today? Yes, it is an accomplishment to get him here. But it's his birthday, and I promised him a special present. He even agreed to pick up some sherry for me. Oh, there he is, pulling into the driveway." She paused. "Goodbye, Grace. You're a dear."
I count at least six facts relevant to the story's solution in these paragraphs; even Jessica's pause is significant. And there's one solid clue, an oddity that should make readers wonder. Jessica's planned the timing of this call ("time to call Grace"), but why call only five minutes before her nephew's scheduled to arrive? She can't be calling to chat--what other purpose might the call serve? I'm hoping that readers won't notice the strange timing, that they'll focus instead on hints about Jessica's relationship with her nephew and the "special present" she's giving him. I've played fair by providing a major clue. If readers aren't ready for it, it's not my fault.

Hide a clue in a series of insignificant details: If a detective searches a crime scene and finds an important clue--an oil-stained rag, say--we're obliged to tell readers. But if we don't want to call too much attention to the clue, we can hide it in a list of other things the detective finds, making sure some sound as intriguing as an oil-stained rag. I used this technique in "Death in Rehab," a whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2011. When temporary secretary Leah Abrams accepts a job at a rehab center, her husband, Sam, doesn't like the idea that she'll be "surrounded by addicts." Leah counters that being around recovering addicts will be inspirational, not dangerous, but Sam's not convinced:
"They're still addicts, and addicts do dangerous things. Did you read the local news this morning?" He found the right page and pointed to a headline. "'Gambling Addict Embezzles Millions, Disappears'--probably in Vegas by now, the paper says. Or this story--`Small-time Drug Dealer Killed Execution Style'--probably because he stole from his bosses, the paper says. Or this one--`Shooter Flies into Drunken Rage, Wounds Two'--the police haven't caught that one, either."
Savvy mystery readers may suspect one of these news stories will be relevant to the mystery, but they can't yet know which one (this is another early-in-the-story clue). In fact, I've tried to make the two irrelevant headlines sound more promising than the one that actually matters--and if you decide to read the story, that's a big extra hint for you. About halfway through the story, Sam mentions the three news stories again. By now, readers who have paid attention to all the clues provided during Leah's first day at work should have a good sense of which story is relevant. But I don't think most readers will figure out murderer and motive yet--and if they do, I don't much care. I've packed this story so full of clues that I doubt many readers will spot all of them. Even readers who realize whodunit should find some surprises at the end.

Separate clues from context: We're obliged to provide the reader with clues and also, I think, to provide the context needed to interpret them. But I don't think we're obliged to provide both at the same time. By putting a careful distance between clue and context, we can play fair and still keep the reader guessing. In "The Shopper," a whodunit first published in a 2014 convention anthology, a young librarian's house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. That's unsettling enough, but her real worries begin when the burglar--a pro the police have nicknamed The Shopper--starts sending her notes and returning some things he stole. He seems obsessed with her. Also, two men she's never seen before--one blond, one dark--start showing up at the library every day. She suspects one of them might be The Shopper, but which one? (And who says you can't have a puzzling whodunit with only two suspects?) Then things get worse:
    
She didn't really feel like going out that night, but she and Lori had a long-standing date for dinner and a movie. It'd be embarrassing to admit she was scared to go out, and the company would do her good. But when she got to the restaurant, she spotted the blond man sitting in a booth, eating a slab of pie. He has a right to eat wherever he wants, she thought; but the minute Lori arrived, Diane grabbed her hand, pulled her to a table at the other end of the restaurant, and sighed with relief when the blond man left after a second cup of coffee.
     The relief didn't last long. As she and Lori walked out, she saw the dark man sitting at the counter, picking at a salad. He must have come in after she had--had he followed her? She couldn't stand it any more.
I'd say there are five major clues in this story. Two are contained--or, in one case, reinforced--in these paragraphs. A reader keeping careful track of all the evidence could identify The Shopper right now, without reading the remaining seven pages. But since these clues are revealing only in the context of information provided five pages earlier, I'm betting most readers won't make the connection. The Shopper's secrets are still safe with me.

Use the protagonist's point of view to mislead readers: This technique isn't reserved for mystery writers. In "Emma Considered as Detective Fiction," P.D. James comments on Jane Austen's skillful manipulation of point of view to conceal the mysteries at the heart of her novel. Emma constantly misinterprets what people do and say, and because we readers see things from Emma's perspective, we're equally oblivious to what's really going on. In our own mysteries, unless our protagonist is a genius who instantly understands everything, we can use the same technique: If our protagonist overlooks clues, chances are readers will overlook them, too. In "A Joy Forever" (AHMM, 2015), photographer Chris is visiting Uncle Mike and his second wife, Gwen. Uncle Mike is a tyrant who's reduced Gwen to the status of domestic slave--he orders her around, never helps her, casually insults her. Gwen takes it all without a murmur. After a dinner during which Uncle Mike behaves even more boorishly than usual, Chris follows Gwen to the kitchen to help with the dishes:
     As I watched her standing at the sink, sympathy overpowered me again. She was barely fifty but looked like an old woman--bent, scrawny, exhausted, her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. And her drab, shapeless dress had to be at least a decade old.
     "You spend so much on Uncle Mike," I chided. "The golf cart, all that food and liquor. Spend something on yourself. Go to a beauty parlor and have your hair cut and styled. Buy yourself some new clothes."
     She laughed softly. "Oh, Mike really needs what I buy for him--he really, really does. And I don't care how my hair looks, and I don't need new clothes." Her smile hardened. "Not yet."
     I felt so moved, and so sorry, that I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "You're too good to him."
Chris sees Gwen as a victim, as a woman whose spirit has been utterly crushed by an oppressor. Readers who don't see beyond Chris's perspective have some surprises coming. But in this story, by this point, I think most readers will see more than Chris does. They'll pick up on clues such as Gwen's hard smile, her quiet "not yet." I had fun playing with point of view in this story, with giving alert readers plenty of opportunities to stay one step ahead of the narrator. It's another variation on Hoch's "grandest game."


Distract readers with action or humor: If readers get caught up in an action scene, they may forget they're supposed to be watching for clues; if they're chuckling at a character's dilemma, they may not notice puzzle pieces slipping by. In "Table for None" (AHMM, 2008), apprentice private detective Harriet Russo is having a rough night. She's on a dark, isolated street, staking out a suspect. But he spots her, threatens her, and stalks off. Moments later, her client, Little Dave, pops up unexpectedly and proposes searching the suspect's car. Harriet says it's too dangerous, but Little Dave won't listen:
 
He raced off. For a moment, I stood frozen. Call Miss Woodhouse and tell her how I'd botched things--let Little Dave get himself killed and feel guilty for the rest of my life--follow him into the parking lot and risk getting killed myself. On the whole, the last option seemed most attractive. I raced after Little Dave.
     He stood next to the dirty white car, hissing into his cell phone. "Damn it, Terry," he whispered harshly, "I told you not to call me. No, I won't tell you where I am. Just go home. I'll see ya when I see ya." He snapped his phone shut and yanked on a back door of the car. It didn't budge. He looked straight at me, grinning sheepishly.
     That's pretty much the last thing I remember. I have some vague impression of something crashing down against me, of sharp pain and sudden darkness. But my next definite memory is of fading slowly back into consciousness--of hearing sirens blare, of feeling the cement against my back, of seeing Little Dave sprawled a few feet away from me, of spotting a small iron figurine next to him, of falling into darkness again.
I hope readers will focus on the conflict and confusion in this scene, and on the unseen attack that leaves Harriet in bad shape and Little Dave in worse shape. I hope they won't pause to take careful note of exactly what Little Dave says in his phone conversation, to test it against the way he's behaved earlier and the things people say later. If readers are too focused on the action to pick up on inconsistencies, they'll miss evidence that could help them identify the murderer.

We can also distract readers with clever dialogue, with fascinating characters, with penetrating social satire, with absorbing themes, with keen insights into human nature. In the end, excellent writing is the best way to keep readers from focusing only on the clues we parade past them. Of course, that's not our main reason for trying to make our writing excellent. To use Hoch's phrase again, mysteries invite writers and readers to participate in "the grandest game," but that doesn't mean mysteries are no more than a game. I think mysteries can be as compelling and significant as other kinds of fiction. The grandest game doesn't impose limits on what our stories and novels can achieve. It simply adds another element that I and millions of other readers happen to enjoy.

Do you have favorite ways of camouflaging clues? I'd love to see some examples from your own mysteries. (*Hoch's essay, by the way, is in the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat, published in 1976, revised and reprinted several times since then. Used copies are available through Amazon.)

08 November 2016

Election Day short stories


by Barb Goffman

I hope you'll excuse me for this short post. As I write this on Monday, the 7th, I'm on day twenty of bronchitis, and while I'm improving, I'm certainly not well.

I hope you'll all celebrate with me, too, because as you read this, it's Election Day, i.e., the end of what feels like the longest election season ever. While we all hope our own candidates will win, in the end, some people will be disappointed, but I hope we can all work to come together in the coming days for the good of ourselves and our nation.

One way to come together is to talk about a common love--short stories. And on this day, it seems perfect to focus on ones involving elections.

I've written one short story involving an election, "Ulterior Motives," which appeared in the anthology Ride 2, published in 2012. (This is an anthology series all about bicycles.) When asked to describe the story back then, I wrote: In "Ulterior Motives" a teenage girl finds herself in danger when she gets involved in a local civic campaign and learns that in politics, everyone has an ulterior motive.

My editor came up with his own description of the story: There's a mystery in this small town, and a secret, and a teenaged girl at the middle of it all who doesn't think the adults around her understand much. Which maybe they don't.

I got the idea for this story from a sad real-life event. Back in 2012, I read about a county in Oregon that was having such money problems, it had to cut back on its policing, with officers on patrol only a few hours each day. And because of the cutbacks, police might not respond to every call, including burglaries, the article said. Well, that got my writer's wheels spinning, and "Ulterior Motives" was born. The story involves a local campaign to get a bond issue on the ballot to fund a sheriff's department in similar straits to the real-life Oregon county. It may sound like a dry topic, but the story is told from the point of view of a teenage girl who cares very much about what happens, and she does her best to make an impact on the campaign. There's humor and danger and, hopefully, everything readers want in a mystery short story. I'm particularly proud of this story because of its local nature. So many political mysteries involve presidential elections. Not too many short stories that I know of involve local campaigns, which can have such a profound impact on day-to-day living. (If I'm wrong on this point, I hope you'll let me know, sharing story information in the comments.)

One other political short story (okay, it's a novella) worth mentioning here is by fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens. The story is "One Shot." This description of the story is from B.K.'s website:


 When rising politician Karen Dodd pushes through the toughest gun-control bill in Ohio’s history, she thinks it’s her ticket to the governor’s office. But soon after she announces her candidacy, on the day she’s slated to receive an award from a gun-control organization, Karen Dodd is found dead in her comfortable suburban home, one bullet through her heart.

Okay, so that's two short stories perfect for Election Day. I hope you'll check them out, and I hope you'll share your favorite Election Day short stories in the comments. In the meanwhile, happy reading. And go vote!





08 October 2016

Mrs. Malaprop Lives!


Affectation, Henry Fielding declares in the preface to Joseph Andrews, is "the only source of the true Ridiculous."

That principle holds true for language. We may get irritated with people who confuse "your" and "you're" or "accept" and "except." Usually, though, we're not tempted to ridicule them--certainly not if they're very young or haven't had many educational opportunities, probably not even if they're well-educated adults who ought to know better. After all, everyone makes mistakes.

Unless something is so riddled with errors that it's obvious the writer didn't even try to proofread, most of us are more inclined to forgive than to ridicule. (I certainly hope you'll forgive me for any mistakes I've made in this post. It's terrifying to write on this sort of subject, knowing I could slip up at any time.)

But when writers are guilty of affectation--and especially when affectation is compounded by ignorance--ridicule begins to seem like an appropriate response. Some literary characters have become famous for sounding foolish when they try to impress others with inflated language. In Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Dogberry announces that he and his men have "comprehended two aspicious persons" and later declares a prisoner will be "condemned into everlasting redemption" for his misdeeds. (I checked several copies of Much Ado, by the way, and they all said "aspicious," not "auspicious." So you don't have to forgive me for that one.) In Sheridan's The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop complains she has little "affluence" on her niece, who is "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." When these characters make us laugh, I think we're laughing at their affectation, not their ignorance: They become ridiculous not because they have limited vocabularies but because they're trying to show off.

And Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop have plenty of modern descendants. "My new thriller is the penultimate in suspense!" a novelist proclaims. The poor thing probably thinks "penultimate" means "more than ultimate." But since it actually means "second to last," "the penultimate in suspense" isn't much of a boast. "If you're searching for the meaning of life," a motivational speaker says, "I can offer you a simplistic answer." The speaker could have said "simple" but probably thought it sounded too--well, simple. Instead, the speaker opted for the extra syllable, unintentionally admitting the answer he or she is about to give can't adequately explain life's complexities. "If you follow my advice," the astrologer promises a potential client, "you will always be fortuitous." The astrologer may think "fortuitous" is a more elegant way of saying "fortunate." But to the extent his or her promise means anything, it means the potential client will always be ruled by chance. In all of these examples, the real problem is affectation, not ignorance. (True, we sometimes laugh at the things people say even when there's no affectation involved. For example, it was hard not to chuckle when Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by just watching" or "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." But an affectionate chuckle isn't the same as ridicule. Yogi wasn't putting on airs, just scrambling things up a bit--that makes a big difference.)


People who dress up their sentences with foreign words or phrases may also be suffering from affectation affliction. I love HGTV--like Food Network, it's one of my default channels--but the constant use of en suite grates on my nerves. "Here's your magnificent master bedroom," a star of Love It or List It or some such show will say, "and here's your spa-like en suite." Then he or she throws open the door to what used to be called a master bathroom.

Has en suite become fashionable because "master bathroom" sounds politically incorrect? I don't think so. After all, the same people who use en suite still say "master bedroom"--once, I heard an HGTV host refer to a "master en suite." And if the connotations of "master bathroom" make us uncomfortable, we can always say "owner's bathroom." No, I think en suite is appealing because it has that special air of sophistication, that added note of elegance, that je ne sais quoi. In short, it's appealing because it sounds so darn French. Unfortunately, to anyone who knows even a little French, it also sounds silly. "En suite" is a phrase, not a noun; it means "in a suite," not "bathroom." Two or more rooms that form a unit might be described as rooms en suite, but referring to a single room as "an en suite" doesn't make sense.

It also doesn't make sense for invitations to ask people to "please RSVP," or for menus to say a roast beef sandwich is served with "a cup of au jus." And if the menu also lists a "soup du jour of the day"--sacre bleu! The point isn't that we all need to know French--certainly not--but that we shouldn't try to sound impressive by using words or phrases we don't really understand. The advice George Orwell offers in "Politics and the English Language" can save us from a lot of embarrassing mistakes: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Linguistic affectation can take other forms, too. Malapropisms are silly but relatively innocent. Driven by a desire to impress, people abuse the language without realizing it. But sometimes, I think, people are so driven that they push ahead even when they're fully aware of what they're doing.

That brings us to the world of politics, and to the world of television journalism. Like many others during this election year, I've been watching far too much cable news lately. And I've heard far too many reports that go more or less like this:
Top Democratic advisors meeting today to discuss strategies for the next phase of the campaign. On the other side of the aisle, Republican spokespeople responding to the latest controversies and countering with charges of their own. And both candidates issuing statements predicting victory. In Florida, officials warning of worsening conditions. In international news, NATO leaders calling for more joint action against terrorism, North Korea announcing more missile tests, and Vladimir Putin posing shirtless for more photographs.
Here we have five so-called sentences but not a single complete verb, just a plethora of present participles. As a result, we don't really know when things are happening. Have top Democratic advisors already met today? Are they meeting now? Will they meet later this afternoon? We can't be sure. We might think the present participle at least rules out the possibility that the meeting already happened, but that's not a safe assumption. I've often heard news anchors use the present participle, without any auxiliary verbs, to refer to past events.

I don't know when this preference for verbs without tense began. Maybe it's a recent development, or maybe it's been around for a long time, and I just haven't noticed it until now because I don't usually watch so much news. It does seem to be widespread. I sampled three cable news networks to make sure, and I never had to wait long to hear an ing string. I also don't know why the trend developed. It could be that news writers are so determined to use only "strong" verbs that they avoid all forms of to be and other auxiliaries. My best guess is that news writers (or, more likely, producers or executives) decided that unadorned present participles are more dramatic than regular old verbs, that they're sexier, more immediate, more exciting. "FBI investigators revealing startling new facts"--if we don't know exactly when something is happening, we might think it's happening right now. Better stay tuned. If that's why news networks are dangling all these enticing participles in front of us, I'd say it's another form of affectation. And it's a particularly calculating form, a deliberate misuse of language to mislead and manipulate. I don't want to overstate the problem, or to suggest news networks have evil intentions. At worst, they're guilty of trying to drive up ratings, and I suppose that's natural enough. But I don't like it when people twist the language to try to limit my understanding or control my reactions. And as a long-time English professor, I know that plenty of students already have a hard time understanding what a sentence is. If the news networks are muddying the waters still further, that's a shame.

We probably can't do much to reform the language of cable news, and malapropisms of one sort or another will probably always be with us. Affectation has deep roots in the human soul. But we can at least try to keep our own use of language as free of affectation as possible. To the extent that our writing has any influence on others, we can try to make sure our influence is positive. How can we do that? I've always found some advice E.B. White offers in The Elements of Style helpful, even inspirational. "The approach to style," White says, "is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

That about sums it up.

# # #

Do you have favorite examples of malapropisms, or of other forms of inflated language? I'd love to hear them.


30 September 2016

Anthologies Everywhere


Today is the last day of the week-long Fall for the Book festival, based at George Mason University with events in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland. I've worked with Fall for the Book for many years in various positions, and my contributions this year were primarily focused on a few of the mystery and suspense programs throughout the week. Thursday night, for example, I moderated a panel of writers from the local Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, including Maya Corrigan, Dan Fesperman, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and David Swinson—part of an evening that also included a talk by Lyndsay Faye, author of Jane Steele.
Earlier in the week, on the festival's official opening day, I moderated another panel with members of three regional chapters of Sisters in Crime: Donna Andrews, Diane Davidson (half of the team co-writing as Maddi Davidson), Maria Hudgins, and Heather Weidner. Our topic there was anthologies, since these three chapters are now behind two series of anthologies: the Chesapeake Crimes books, including most recently Storm Warning, from the Chesapeake Chapter, and two volumes of Virginia is for Mysteries from the Central Virginia Chapter and from Mystery by the Sea, the Southeastern Virginia Chapter.

That chat was terrific, I thought, and emphasized both the benefits of anthologies from various perspectives and the responsibilities inherent in producing those anthologies.

On the first point, maybe the benefits are obvious. From the reader perspective, anthologies offer the chance to sample a variety of authors in a single book—find which you like and pursue their works further. From a writer perspective, anthologies offer the reverse—the chance for exposure to more readers—but also the opportunity to work as part of a larger community of writers, often a wide-ranging community, from veterans to first-timers; and on that latter point, beginning authors get the chance to experience in microcosm the entire process of publication, from editorial feedback and revision, to the book launch, to the marketing beyond.

The behind-the-scenes on that process is where the responsibilities come in: from ensuring an objective and professional selection process (perhaps relying, as the Chesapeake Crimes series does, on different judges each book to select stories) to maintaining a solid editorial review of each entry (both at the global level and in terms of copy-editing) and then to overseeing the publication itself—and making sure the publisher stays properly on top of things.

Much of this is often on a volunteer basis, of course—with the Chesapeake Crimes series, neither the authors nor the editors receive monetary compensation, and proceeds benefit the chapter itself. But the other benefits maybe far outweigh the questions of royalties: in terms of a nice publication credit, good exposure, and a renewed sense of literary citizenship.

Thinking about the panel, I realized that over the last few weeks, I've been in the midst of a good bit of anthology news—and grateful for it.

Back at Bouchercon in mid-September, I was thrilled to accept the Anthony Award for Best Anthology on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, including my fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens as well as 19 other contributors: J.L. Abramo, J.D. Allen, Lori Armstrong, Rob Brunet, P.A. De Voe, Sean Doolittle, Tom Franklin, Toni Goodyear, Kristin Kisska, Robert Mangeot, Margaret Maron, Kathleen Mix, Britni Patterson, Karen Pullen, Ron Rash, Karen E. Salyer, Sarah Shaber, ZoĆ« Sharp, and Graham Wynd. (A good cause here too, with proceeds benefiting the Wake County Public Libraries in North Carolina, host of last year's Bouchercon.)

Then just this week, Malice Domestic announced the stories accepted for the upcoming anthology Murder Most Historical, and I was proud to have been a member of the selection committee there, along with Martin Edwards and Kathy Lynn Emerson. Contributors there include: John Betancourt, Susanna Calkins, Carla Coupe, Susan Daly, P.A. De Voe, Michael Dell, Carole Nelson Douglas, Martin Edwards, Kathy Lynn Emerson, Peter Hayes, Nancy Herriman, KB Inglee, Su Kopil, Vivian Lawry, Edith Maxwell, Catriona McPherson, Liz Milliron, Kathryn O'Sullivan, K.B. Owen, Valerie O Patterson, Keenan Powell, Mindy Quigley, Verena Rose, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Marcia Talley, Mark Thielman, Victoria Thompson, Charles Todd, Elaine Viets, and Georgia Wilson.

And early next week brings the publication of this year's Best American Mystery Stories anthology—a dream come true for me, since editors Elizabeth George and Otto Penzler have included in this latest edition my story "Rearview Mirror," the opening section of my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. Fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti also has a story there—"Street of the Dead House"—and we're both in find company, alongside the likes of Megan Abbott, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard, among many others. Can't wait to see the book myself!

And all this doesn't even begin to mention the anthologies that I picked up and perused at Bouchercon itself, including the new Bouchercon anthology Blood on the Bayou, the ultra-lush collection In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, and the just-released Sunshine Noir, in which "seventeen writers from around the globe tell of dark doings in sunny places."

Plenty to celebrate here, and plenty of good reading ahead too.