Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts

14 January 2020

Copyediting tips


A lot of editors wear one hat or another. They do developmental editing or copyediting. Not both. But not me. While I prefer developmental work, I also happily do copyediting. Helping make a manuscript consistent appeals to the anal-retentive side of my personality. (And while we're on it, yes, I know, that looks wrong: copyediting. It should be copy editing, don't you think? But the Chicago Manual of Style is what most (all?) publishers rely upon for fiction, and Chicago says to use copyediting and copyeditor. So I will here, even as I shiver while doing it.

Anyway ... it's late and I'm short on time tonight, so I'm going to quickly talk about two copyediting problems I spot all the time, not just in fiction, but on blogs and Facebook and, basically, everywhere. Both issues deal with when it's appropriate to set words or word phrases off by commas.

You think you know the answer? Let's see. I'm going to post some example sentences and you decide which ones are properly punctuated.

Example 1

A) My short story "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" was published in 2018.
OR
B) My short story, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," was published in 2018.

Example 2

A) My newest short story "Alex's Choice" was published in Crime Travel.
OR
B) My newest short story, "Alex's Choice," was published in Crime Travel.

So what do you think? In each example, was (A) or (B) correctly punctuated? Based on a mistake I see often, I'll bet most of you (including you writers out there) said (B) for both. And I say to that ...

Buzz!

You lose that round. In Example 1, the correct answer is (A). But in Example 2, the correct answer is (B). Why? It all has to do with whether the story titles are necessary for the sentence to be clear.
A pot roast dinner because ... why not?


You set a story title (or any information) off with commas when that information is not necessary for the sentence to be clear. So let's look at Example 1. If I wrote it without the story title it would say: My short story was published in 2018. That would probably leave you thinking, "Which story are you talking about? You've had a lot of stories published. You even had more than one published in 2018." And you would be right, which is why you need to know the story title for that sentence to be clear. Since the story title is required, you don't set it off with commas. So the correct punctuation for the sentence in Example 1 is: My short story "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" was published in 2018.

Turning to Example 2, here's how it would read without the story title: My newest story was published in Crime Travel. Assuming again that you're familiar with my work, do you need the story title to know what story I'm talking about? Nope. I only have one newest story, so I don't need to say its name for you to know which story I'm talking about. Since the story title isn't necessary in that sentence, if I were to add it, the title should be set off with commas, as such: My newest story, "Alex's Choice," was published in Crime Travel.

Think you've got it? Let's try again.

Example 3:

It's 2006, and I call my sister and say, "My short story was nominated for an award." She would congratulate me and know exactly which story I'm talking about because at that time I only had one story published. As such, if I'd included the story title in the sentence, it would have been  unnecessary detail, so it would have been set off by commas: My short story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," was nominated for an award.

But let's say I had two stories published in 2005. If I called my sister a few months later and said, "My short story was nominated for an award," she would ask, "Which one?" She can't tell which story I'm talking about because it could have been my first story published in 2005 or my second one. So I have to revise my sentence to make it clear: My short story "Murder at Sleuthfest" was nominated for an award. Since the story title is necessary for the sentence to be clear, it's not set off by commas.


Paul Rudd
Here's another example, just to be sure you've got it. Assume I'm not a bigamist and I'm married. Which is correct?

A) My husband Paul Rudd reads more than I do.
OR
B) My husband, Paul Rudd, reads more than I do.

If I had just one husband (and if I have to make one up, Paul Rudd is a good choice), his name would be set off by commas because you wouldn't need to know his name for this sentence to be clear. If I had simply said "My husband reads more than I do," you'd know I'm talking about Paul Rudd.

But what if I were a bigamist? Then if I said, "My husband reads more than I do," you would rightly say, "Which husband? Paul Rudd or Robert Downey Jr.?" (If I'm going to be a bigamist, I might as well do it right.) So for that sentence to be clear, I'd have to say: "My husband Paul Rudd reads more than I do." You'll notice there are no commas in that sentence because dear Paul's name was necessary for the sentence to be clear.

More Paul Rudd
Let's move on to something related: Which versus That. I see the word "which" used so often when the correct word in a particular situation is "that." When do you use "which" and when do you use "that"? If information is necessary to a sentence, you use "that" and no commas. If information is unnecessary to a sentence, you use "which" and commas.

Example:

I've just gone shopping and come home with one new blouse. I put it on and show it to my husband, Paul Rudd. (Set off by a comma because I'm no bigamist!) And he says, "Your new top is pretty." And I smile, pleased that he liked my new top. There was no confusion in our conversation. He could have said, "Your new top, which is blue, is pretty." But he didn't have to mention the color because I only bought one new top, so I know which top he's referring to. Since the color wasn't necessary for the sentence to be clear, the information was set off by commas and the word "which" was used.

You can never have
enough Paul Rudd
But what if I'd come home with two new blouses? I model both of them for Paul and say, "What do you think?" He replies, "Your new top is pretty." Instead of smiling, I say back, "Which one are you talking about? The red one or the blue one? You don't think they're both pretty? I spent hours looking for two tops I thought you would like, and you can't even bother to have a kind word for both of them, you son of a ..."

Oh, wait, sorry, back to grammar. So you see, Paul's declaration that my new top was pretty was ambiguous because I hadn't bought just one top. So I calmly ask Paul which one he's referring to, and he says, "Sorry, I should have been clear. Your new top that's blue is pretty. The red one's ugly as sin." Since the color blue was necessary for me to know which blouse he liked, the information was not set off by commas and the word "that" was used.

And now I'm off to therapy since I can't even have a happy marriage with an imaginary husband.

24 December 2019

My Secret About "Alex's Choice"


This column is about my newly published short story "Alex's Choice" in the anthology Crime Travel. If you plan to read the story, I recommend you do so first before proceeding here. What I'm about to reveal isn't a plot spoiler but it may impact your reading experience.

Okay. Let's get started. (And if you just read the story, I hope you liked it!)

When you start writing a short story or novel, you have some basic decisions to make. Who will my main character be? What will this person's name be? Job and hobbies if relevant? Appearance? What journey will the character face? And perhaps one of the biggest questions, what will the character's gender be? Maybe that question shouldn't be important, but it is, as it can (though it doesn't have to) affect so much in how a story is told.

It's a decision I've made for the main characters as well as the minor ones in all of my stories, except for one. When I wrote my story "Alex's Choice" (published earlier this month in the crime/time-travel anthology Crime Travel), I purposely chose not to make that decision for the title character. I chose the name Alex because it was the most gender-neutral name I could think of. Alex could be short for Alexander or Alexandra, for Alexi or Alexa or Alexis. Or the name might not be a nickname at all. I polled Facebook friends, asking if they thought someone named Alex would be a boy or girl with no other clues. For those who hazarded a guess, the results were pretty evenly split. So is Alex in my story a twelve-year-old boy or girl or perhaps even nonbinary? I never tell you. The answer is up to the reader.

Actually, I wrote the story hoping the reader would not consciously make that decision. Given that the name could be viewed as male or female, I hoped it would lead each reader to assume--without realizing it--that Alex is of the same gender as that reader. That was important because I wanted readers to remember stories they read as a child, fantasies or adventures that swept them away, and to get that same feel from this story. By not telling the reader Alex's gender, I allowed every reader to identify with Alex and perhaps picture themselves as Alex. At least I hope I did.

While I've done no research on this, I'd guess my decision not to tell the reader Alex's gender is similar to the gender-neutral approach to the Choose Your Own Adventure books popular when I was a kid. "You" were the main character, as I recall. The books were oriented toward every child. The main character's gender was never mentioned, likely because the author and publisher wanted every child to be able to see themselves as that character and go on that adventure. (Illustrations in some the books unfortunately depicted the main character as a boy, but I believe the stories themselves never did that.)

This no-gender-mentioned approach added challenges to the writing process. For instance, when talking about toys Alex had when younger, as well as activities Alex enjoys now, I chose things that I hoped readers wouldn't  associate as male or female. This was important because, while boys can play with dolls and girls can play with action figures, for some readers, a reference to dolls will automatically make that reader think the character is a girl, and a reference to action figures will automatically make the reader think the character is a boy.

One choice I made that made the writing process a little easier was telling the story in first person. I didn't have to avoid using pronouns in reference to Alex.

Of course I'm not the only writer to have ever written about characters' whose genders are ambiguous throughout the entire tale. Most such novels and stories, it seems, have been penned in the science fiction realm. As for crime fiction, my research has turned up the Detective Hilary Tamar four-novel series by the late Sarah Caudwell. Tamar's gender is never revealed in any of the books. In Steven Rigolosi's novel Androgynous Murder House Party, the author never reveals the gender of any of the seven main characters in the book. He hints near the end about some of their genders, but they are only hints. And Louise Penny has a character in two of her books, Bean, whose gender is never revealed.

So now you know a big secret about "Alex's Choice." If you read the story before you read this column, did it work--did you picture yourself as Alex? Did you assume Alex was the same gender as you? I'd also love to know if you've read any of the other books/authors I've mentioned above. If so, did not knowing the characters' gender affect the reading process and your enjoyment of the works?

And if you're now intrigued and are dying to buy Crime Travel or are at least thinking about it, here's some helpful information. It has fifteen short stories. The authors with stories in the book are: Melissa H. Blaine, James Blakey, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, Brendan DuBois, David Dean, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Barbara Monajem, Korina Moss, Art Taylor, Cathy Wiley, and, of course, me. We've had some solid reviews. To find them, just Google Crime Travel and my name. (I edited the book.) The anthology is available in trade paperback and ebook. (A hardcover version is coming but hasn't been shipped from the printer yet.) You can buy Crime Travel from the usual online sources. Indie bookstore Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, also has copies they are happy to mail to you.

I wish you a wonderful holiday season and new year. And happy reading!

03 December 2019

No Flux Capacitors Here


When I sent out my call for stories for Crime Travel, the crime/time-travel anthology I edited--coming out this Sunday from Wildside Press--I eagerly wondered what ingenious methods of time travel the submitting authors would come up with.

They did not disappoint.

Sadly, no one used a flux capacitor and a DeLorean, the magnificent means of time travel from the wonderful eighties movie Back to the Future. (And I didn't even need a time machine to see that movie in the theater when it came out. I was in high school, just like Marty McFly.) But the authors whose stories I accepted did come up with interesting means of temporal transportation, some a bit conventional, others ... well, let's take a look.
Doc Brown built a time machine out of a DeLorean.
Photo credit: JMortonPhoto.com & OtoGodfrey.com

In addition to pods and wristbands and watch-like devices, the Crime Travel authors used: sneezing (Anna Castle has one hell of an imagination); a particle-beam weapon (because, why not?); a closet (my closets just have clothes in them--so disappointing); a clear-walled cube with barber chairs with seatbelts (gotta have safety measures when you're traveling through time); a gold circlet (it's a hair accessory and a time machine all in one; talk about making it work--Tim Gunn would be so proud); and two elevators. Two of 'em. (Linwood Barclay may have a new book with elevators that send people to their deaths, but we have elevators that send people through time!)

One method of time travel used in the book is so unusual but cool that I don't even know how to describe it outside of its story's context. Eleanor Cawood Jones ... care to take a whack at that description? And in Art Taylor's story ... was it the pendant, Art, or the candles or a mere touch of the hand that set things in motion? Maybe we should leave it for the reader to decide. And in David Dean's story, well, sometimes you just have to want something bad enough.

This wasn't the photo but it's similar. So lovely.
As for me, I used a bicycle, an all-white one that only appears on the anniversary of mistakes--things that wrongly happened in its family's past that the bicycle thinks someone needs to go back in time to fix. (Don't look at me like that. If a bicycle can travel through time, it also can think.) A few months before I wrote my story, "Alex's Choice," I saw a picture of an all-white bicycle with beautiful flowers in its basket. That image stuck with me, and I decided to use the bike in my time-travel story.

I would have thought that's all I had to tell you about my decision to turn a bicycle into a time machine until this past week when I saw a new commercial for Xfinity using the cuddly alien E.T. from the classic movie of the same name. In the ad E.T. returns to Earth to visit Elliott. The long version of the commercial (available here) shows grown-up Elliott's kids riding their bicycles into the sky with E.T., just as the kids did in the movie way back in 1982. I don't think I've seen E.T. since the summer it was out in the theater, yet that scene with the kids riding their bikes into the night sky must have stuck with me because in "Alex's Choice" the bicycle flies too, and at night to boot.

That's the beauty of fiction--be it short stories or novels, movies or TV shows--when done right, fiction can take you to another time, be it in your imagination or your memory or even to something you didn't realize you remembered. I hope the stories in Crime Travel do that for you.

The anthology's official publication date is this Sunday, December 8th, which is Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The book will be on sale in ebook, paperback, and hard cover. I'd be honored if you'd time travel with us to past decades and even past centuries. I'm confident you'll enjoy the ride.

And if you're in the Northern Virginia area, please come to our launch party this Sunday at Barnes and Noble, 12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr., in Fairfax. The event will run from 1 - 3 p.m. Authors James Blakey, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley will join me to celebrate. We'll  talk about our stories and our inspirations and some of us might even dress up in the time period of our stories as we pretend to be time travelers. Eleanor dressed as a 1960s flight attendant? James as a 1950s PI? Adam as a 1980s security guard? And Cathy ... well, that's going to be a surprise you'll have to come to see. Other than actual time travel, I can't imagine what would be more fun than that.

12 November 2019

Crime Travel -- How Did We Get Here?


It seems odd yet also right that the publication date for a time-travel crime anthology seems to be sneaking up on me. It feels like ages ago when I put out the call for stories for Crime Travel. (It was about a year and a half ago.) And it feels like I've been waiting for years for the publication date to approach (maybe I have ... because, you know, time travel). But now, suddenly, the launch date is less than a month away--how did that happen?--and I'm scrambling to write this blog.

If only I could go back and write this at a more leisurely pace ...

It's August 2013. I let my beloved dog Scout go a month ago, and now I'm writing a time-travel story involving a dog. I can't bring Scout back but maybe with this fictional dog ... My friend and former critique group partner C. Ellett Logan reads the story after it's done and tells me I don't need to join a bereavement support group. I've clearly worked it all out on the page.
Scout

Later that year: The story, now named "Alex's Choice," is rejected for the first time.

2014 - 2016: I keep fiddling with the story, keep sending it out, keep getting rejections. Time travel stories can be a tough sell.

July 2016: I send the story to Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I expect she too will pass because the story doesn't feel right for the magazine, but I figure it can't hurt to try. Linda ultimately does turn the story down, but says she liked a lot about it and it made her cry. Yes! I made Linda cry. (I know. That shouldn't make me happy. (Sorry, Linda.) But getting that reaction from her is good.)

September 2017: I gripe with my friend Donna Andrews about this story that I can't sell, and she says, "Why don't you put together your own anthology?" She has the perfect name for it, too: Crime Travel. I think about this a lot. I have experience putting together anthologies. I've done a bunch with Donna and Marcia Talley (the Chesapeake Crimes series), as well as editing one of the Malice Domestic anthologies. But this would be the first one I'd do all on my own, including choosing the stories. I'm intrigued but worried about the time commitment. Ultimately, intrigue wins out ...

Thanks for the
support, Carla!

November 2017: I talk with Carla Coupe, the then number two person at Wildside Press (who is now blissfully retired) about this anthology idea, and she likes it. We spend the next few months ironing out details.

June 2018: I put out the call for stories. Scared I'll be overrun with submissions, I only share the story announcement with the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Chesapeake Chapter of Sister in Crime (my home chapter), the Guppies Chapter of SinC, and with my fellow bloggers here at SleuthSayers. I mention in the call for stories that the royalties will be donated to a literacy charity yet to be chosen.

November 2018: The deadline has come, and I have 53 stories to choose from. I wonder what in the world I was smoking earlier that fall when I decided to not read the submissions as they came in and instead to wait until I had them all to start my review. I had pictured myself somehow reading them all in one blissful snowy weekend. Maybe that could happen if I were a speed reader or could actually time travel. Otherwise ...

December 31, 2018: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope.

January 31, 2019: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope. Instead I find myself struggling to read all the stories while getting my paid work done too.

February 19, 2019: Finally, the decisions have been made. Fourteen stories have been chosen for the anthology, and I'm including my own "Alex's Choice" too. (Hey, I didn't start this process for nothing.) I'm so excited for the authors whose stories were chosen because they're all really good. I'm sad for the authors whose stories I had to turn down. And I'm exhausted because it sounds like the hard part is done but I know the hard part is really just beginning.

Spring and summer 2019: Editing, editing, editing. Proofreading too.

Also spring 2019: Our charity is chosen. All royalties will be donated to 826DC, a Washington, DC, nonprofit designed to help children and teens improve their creative and expository writing skills, as well as help teachers inspire children to write.

Late August 2019: The publisher, John Betancourt, sends me the cover. I love it so much, it is ridiculously hard not to share it with the world immediately.

September 6, 2019: Kristopher Zgorksi hosts our cover reveal on his BOLO Books blog. Thank you, Kristopher!

Fall 2019: ARCs go out. I hear back from some of the recipients quickly, and they all have good things to say. Whew!

November 2019: Contributor Eleanor Cawood Jones arranges our launch party. Thank you, Ellie! It will be on ...

Sunday, December 8, 2019: This is our official publication date, our launch party date, and it's Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The trifecta! (Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day is a real holiday. You can look it up!)

The launch party will run from 1 - 3 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Fairfax, Virginia (12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr, Fairfax, VA 22033). The following authors are scheduled to be at the launch event (and some of them might even dress up in the time period of their story): James Blakey, me (Barb Goffman), Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley.

Maybe with the help of time travel
the rest of the authors will make the launch
The rest of the authors with stories in the book, who alas can't make it to the launch, are: Melissa H. Blaine, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, David Dean, Brendan DuBois, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Barbara Monajem, and Korina Moss. So pleased to have four fellow SleuthSayers involved.

And now, with only two hours until this blog is to be posted at midnight November 12th, I feel grateful for all the people who have had a hand in making the dream of this book come true, as well as for the people who will buy this book and enjoy these stories.

If you like time travel and if you like crime stories, I truly think you will love this anthology. It is already available for pre-order directly from the publisher in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook. It's been a long time coming for "Alex's Choice," the story I wrote six years ago in Scout's honor. I hope when you read it you'll agree that it has been worth the wait.

22 October 2019

Meet the Finalists for the 2019 Anthony Award - Short Story Category


We have only nine days until the fiftieth annual Bouchercon—the world's largest mystery convention—begins in Dallas, Texas. I know some of my friends started (and finished!) packing weeks ago. Others are taking a more leisurely approach, thinking about what they'll take and planning to pack a couple days before they embark. And then there will be some like me, who with the best of intentions will end up packing the day I leave. But no matter if you're a planner or pantser—oops, wrong column. Take two. But no matter if you're a planner or procrastinator (much better), you likely will need something to read on your travels. That's where today's column comes in.

At Bouchercon, all attendees will be able to vote for the Anthony Award in several categories, including one dear to our hearts here at SleuthSayers: the short story category. Five stories published in 2018 are up for the award. And since short stories can be read quickly, you Bouchercon attendees hopefully will have time to read them all between now and the voting deadline on Saturday, November 2nd, whether it be right now or this upcoming weekend or while you are at the airport. So what are the nominated stories and where can you find them? Follow me …

I'm delighted to host here my four fellow nominees. I've asked them each to answer two questions. First, what is your story about—what's your thirty-second elevator pitch? Second, what do you like best about your story? After each author's answers you'll find a link through which you can read that story online for free. Enjoy! Then those of you at the convention can come hear us talk about the stories at our panel at 4 p.m. on Saturday, November 2nd, in the Pegasus room. The panel will be moderated by Angela Crider. The Anthony Awards presentation will begin that evening at 6 p.m. May the best story win!
—Barb Goffman

"The Grass Beneath My Feet" by S.A. Cosby (published in Tough on 8/20/18)

"The Grass Beneath My Feet" is about an incarcerated man who gets a day pass to pay his respects at a funeral home to the mother who betrayed him.

I think my favorite aspect of the story is the sense of freedom it evoked amid so much loss.

You can read "The Grass Beneath My Feet" by clicking here.


"Bug Appétit" by Barb Goffman (published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine)

"Bug Appétit" is about a con man who flatters his way into Thanksgiving dinner at a rich girl's home, planning on getting away with his stomach full of good food and his pockets full of expensive jewelry. But he's not the only one with secrets—as he learns the hard way.

My favorite part of this story is the humor. I love making people laugh, and I was able to do it in "Bug Appétit" by combining a con man who doesn't pay attention to what he thinks are unimportant details, a grandmother who's not afraid to share her thoughts, and a mother who loves to experiment in the kitchen. Put them all together and you have quite an interesting Thanksgiving dinner.

You can read "Bug Appétit" by clicking here.


"Cold Beer No Flies" by Greg Herren (published in Florida Happens)

"Cold Beer No Flies" is about vengeance, really. My main character is a poor, struggling young gay man trapped in a small Florida panhandle town, who gets an opportunity to not only punish someone who treated him badly but also to get out of town and start a new life.

I think one of the greatest frustrations in life for me is injustice. And while my main character was denied justice originally, he made his own justice. And even though he had to commit a crime of his own to get that justice, I like the idea of him getting away with it. Maybe that's not legitimate, legal justice, but it kind of balanced the scales for me.

You can read "Cold Beer No Flies" by clicking here.



"English 398: Fiction Workshop" by Art Taylor (published in the July/August 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine)

"English 398: Fiction Workshop" charts the secret romantic relationship between a college student and her creative writing professor—a battle of wits and wills unfolding within the student's short story draft for a writing workshop, in the professor's office hours, and then against the backdrop of the larger university.

With "English 398: Fiction Workshop," I really enjoyed experimenting with structure—piecing together a patchwork mosaic with a lot of different elements and even different voices: the draft of the student's story (within the larger story), punctuated by snippets from the professor's lessons about crafting short fiction; the feedback from students within that writing workshop, critiquing both the story and the student herself; and then, later, the voice of another student, writing a column for the school paper about… well, that would be giving away too much. Writing the story, I kept fighting concerns (fears (dread)) that readers might find the whole structure messy and hard to follow, but I’ve felt very relieved with the reception that it’s received—readers putting all those pieces together into a coherent whole, hopefully a satisfying one!

You can read "English 398: Fiction Workshop" by clicking here.


"The Best Laid Plans" by Holly West (published in Florida Happens)

Set in 1948, "The Best Laid Plans" is about Bev Marshall, the driver in a criminal gang run by her boyfriend, Joe Scullion. The crew makes a good living burglarizing affluent neighborhoods on the eastern seaboard, but when Bev learns of Joe's recent infidelity, she decides this job will be her last. The story opens with Bev's foot on the gas pedal, ready to leave the crew high-and-dry after they load the car with stolen treasures. But when she arrives at a run-down Miami motel, ready to fence the goods, things don't work out quite the way she planned.

I really love the story's atmosphere. I worked hard to create the mood, adding small details here and there to add authenticity, and I'm delighted with the result. I actually wrote the bulk of "The Best Laid Plans" many years ago as part of a novel set primarily in 1948 Philadelphia, with action in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Miami, Florida. As sometimes happens, the book never got finished, but after a thorough revision of the first chapters, it ended up making a terrific short story—one that holds a special place in my heart.

You can read "The Best Laid Plans" by clicking here.

08 October 2019

Open Your Heart and Bleed


What are your stories about?

I’m not interested in elevator pitches—“My stories are about a plucky private eye who searches for missing labradoodles with the aid of her grandfather’s long-dead schnauzer.”—but rather about the underlying themes in one’s work.

I’m pondering this question, as I have many times before, because Barb Goffman, moderator of “Short and Sweet but Sometimes Dark,” a short story panel at this month’s Bouchercon, asked participants to send her two recently published or about-to-be published stories to aid in her preparation.

As I looked through mine, I was reminded of how often I write about the lingering impact of expired relationships. Whether relationships end by choice or not, former lovers (survivors, in the case of death) carry emotional weight all the rest of their days, and this weight, in one form or another, informs much of my fiction.

I NEVER SAID GOODBYE

Michael Bracken, Heartache-bound
I had known Vickie since sixth grade, and she sat behind me in homeroom when I was a fourteen-year-old ninth grader at Mason Junior High School in Tacoma, Washington. I visited her home, where we played games, watched television, and dined with her family. Our first date—an unchaperoned date, no less—would be the first dance of the school year, held in a multi-purpose room with a stage at one end, theater seating at the other end, and a hardwood gymnasium floor between the two. Because Tacoma had public transportation, I would take the bus from home—a mere block from the junior high school—to hers a mile or so away, return with her, and attend the dance.

Between the time I asked Vickie to the dance and the day of our date, I learned that my parents and I would be moving to Fort Bragg, California, and we were leaving the morning after the dance. I told no one.

As planned, I picked Vickie up at her home and we traveled by city bus to the junior high school. We sat in the theater seats, listening to the music and watching some of our classmates on the dance floor. Vickie repeatedly asked me to dance, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to tell her I was moving, but I couldn’t.

After a while, she grew frustrated and left. Alone.

The next day I climbed in the back seat of my parents’ car, and we moved to California.

I never saw or talked to Vickie again.

I never told her I was leaving, I never said goodbye, and I have carried that weight for nearly fifty years.

MAYBE I DID THIS TIME

I did not have another girlfriend until I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Yvonne, a junior, served on the school’s newspaper staff with me, and we dated during the last semester of my senior year, the same semester my mother died during heart surgery. More than a girlfriend, she was one of the few people (along with my best friend Joe and my English teacher Mrs. Richmond) who helped me cope with the loss of my mother.

Even so, I struggled with my mother’s passing, and my stepfather and I did not get along. So, my grandmother traveled to Fort Bragg to take me home with her.

I think I told Yvonne I was leaving—I hope I did—but once again a budding relationship was truncated by events beyond my control, and at least two years passed before I again opened my heart.

AND THEN MY HEARTACHES BLED INTO MY STORIES

Over the years, I have survived many additional heartaches—the deaths of loved ones, the slow disintegration of relationships that began with such promise, relationships truncated for reasons beyond my control—and those heartaches bled into, and continue to bleed into, my fiction.

So, when I selected two stories for Barb, I found myself unable to find two in which the end of a relationship didn’t play at least some small part in the tale. I chose “Who Done It,” coming next month in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Woodstock,” forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (I didn’t select “Love, Or Something Like It,” forthcoming in Crime Travel [Wildside Press], which Barb edited, because the theme is much too obvious.)

I could have selected any of several other stories because dealing with the emotional weight of expired relationships has long been an underlying theme in my work, just as it has in my life.

Still, if you prefer the elevator pitches, catch me when I’m feeling less confessional.


My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” published last year in Tough, has been named one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in this year’s The Best American Mystery Stories. This is the second time one of my stories has made the list (the first, “Dreams Unborn,” made the 2005 list); last year my story “Smoked” actually made it into the anthology.

Join us at the launch party for The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down and Out Books) at Murder By The Book in Houston on October 21. Seven of the contributors—Chuck Brownman, James A. Hearn, Scott Montgomery, Graham Powell, William Dylan Powell, Mark Troy, and Bev Vincent—will join me to discuss the anthology and their stories, and to sign copies. If you can’t get to the signing, contact Murder By The Book. I suspect they’ll let you preorder a copy that we can sign for you and that they can ship after the event.

01 October 2019

Daring to Paint on a Grin


Welcome to October, the month of everything spooky. So it seemed a no-brainer to me to invite a good friend of mine to guest blog today on SleuthSayers because she just had a short story come out in an anthology all about clowns. Yep, those guys and gals with face paint and big red noses who sneak out of your closet at night and … well, I'm not sure what happens next. I've never minded clowns myself, but I know they scare the bejesus out of a lot of people. So if you're one of them, or if you happen to like clowns, this blog post is for you. If you enjoy funny authors and funny crime short stories, this post is definitely for you. And if you've read this far, then you'll certainly want to keep reading, because here, finally, comes the good stuff. I hereby present my friend Eleanor Cawood Jones.

— Barb Goffman

Daring to Paint on a Grin

by Eleanor Cawood Jones

Recycling. I’m into it; chances are you’re into it. But now I’ve gone and recycled a clown. I don’t know that it’s particularly beneficial to the environment, but it’s sure been a lot of fun.

Enter backstory, stage left: Many, many years ago (okay, 2015, but who’s counting?) I was fortunate enough to receive an email containing a writing prompt and instructions from my friend Gretchen Smith. It went pretty much exactly like this: “Here’s the call for Malice Domestic 11. Write this now.” Well, lo and behold, the call was for convention-themed mystery short stories. And had I not once been snowed into a casino-hotel in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during an ice storm where there was a clown convention going on?

I had. (Could happen to anyone, right?) And if that’s not fodder for a murder, I must ask you what is.

And this is where my God-given ability to attract weird paid off, because “Killing Kippers” became my first traditionally published short story in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. And believe you me, I never thought anything good would come out of that convention experience. This after an initial run through Gretchen, who turned a laborious two pages into one catchy paragraph at the beginning, and a second laborious edit by Barb Goffman, who gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten from an editor.
I’d gone on and on in describing the action, and Barb’s words were simple. “Don’t do this to yourself.” So I turned all that snore-y prose into dialogue, and it allowed me to keep the description, add some humor, and keep the story moving. I think my friendship with Barb was largely born through revisions on that story. I believe she brought out the best story I had in me.

Yeah. … This was supposed to be a short bit about a recycled clown story, but as I’m writing it’s turned into a reflection on good friends, a sharp poke in the arm when you need to get going, and good editing advice. Because that story, although it remained largely intact from the first draft, took a village, and I was so utterly proud when it made it into print.

I was proud, too, because it’s the only story I may ever write where the point of view is first-person-drunk. (Don’t judge—I was surrounded by clowns for four days at a bar. How would YOU have coped?)

Many, many years later (this year) Barb sent me a call for an anthology based in England that planned to turn the clown stereotype on its ear. There are all those books and movies about scary clowns—but what are clowns afraid of? What’s behind that face paint and big red nose? The editor, Dave Higgins, said he’d accept reprints, and I shipped Kippers off to him.

Later, I was so delighted to hear that Kippers was going to be resurrected in the UK in Bloody Red Nose: 15 Fears of a Clown, and with co-authors who are largely from the horror genre to (oversized, floppy) boot. Delighted right down to my British Isles DNA. And now it’s out– official release date was Friday the 13th. Bwah ha ha! With this phrase on the back cover from Dave: “In a world filled with menace, dare to paint on a grin.”

So now … she’s ba-a-a-aaack! Kippers is here, along with fourteen other stories sporting titles like “Corn Stalker” and “The Killer Clown Massacre” and “Clowns on the Run.” And I've had the personal excitement of finding an editor and fourteen other authors I’d never met before. If you’d like to try something different and new I invite you to pick it up and enjoy. It’s a delight and joy to be in this new book with a revitalized story. And a horror writer? Never thought of myself that way. But, heck, if former nun Alice Loweecey can do it, why can’t I? (Insert evil grin here.)

So that’s this week’s recycling. Or maybe reincarnating. Yeah—a reincarnated clown. There’s a story in there somewhere, right? Maybe I’m a little bit of a horror writer after all.

Who else writes or reads in more than one genre, and was it by accident or design? For me it was as accidental as stumbling into a clown convention. But did I mention that could happen to anyone?



Eleanor Cawood Jones began writing in elementary school, using #2 pencils to craft crime stories starring her stuffed animals. Her stories include “Keep Calm and Love Moai” (Malice Domestic 13: Mystery Most Geographical) and “All Accounted For at the Hooray for Hollywood Motel” (Florida Happens). Coming soon: “O Crime, in Thy Flight” in Crime Travel and “The Great Bedbug Incident and the Invitation of Doom” (Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder). A former newspaper reporter and reformed marketing director, Eleanor is a Tennessee native who lives in Northern Virginia and travels often. You’ll find her rearranging furniture or lurking at airports.


Bloody Red Nose is available in paperback and ebook in all the usual places, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And you can find Eleanor on Facebook under her full name and on Twitter under @eleanorauthor.

17 September 2019

Pithy and Thought-Provoking...or Not


by Michael Bracken

I’ve been so busy the past month that I’ve not had time to draft something pithy and thought-provoking. In August, I traveled to Colorado to attend the debut of a play written and directed by my youngest son. Then Temple and I traveled to Indiana to visit my daughter—whom I’ve not seen in eight years—and her family, which includes grandchildren we met for the first time. Before, between, and after the trips, I’ve been reading through submissions to a special issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and working on Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (due out in 2020) and Mickey Finn 2 (due out in 2021).

So, I dove into the files and found the following, a presentation I gave to the Mystery Writers of America’s Southwest Chapter at their September 2018 luncheon in Houston.


SHORT STORIES: FROM CONCEPT TO SALE, HOW THIS FORM CAN SATISFY

I write short stories. A lot of them.

In a publishing environment where many writers bemoan the lack of markets for short fiction, I’ve placed more than 1,200 short stories. That’s 4.2 million words, give or take, or the equivalent of 70 short novels.

When I began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, short story publication was considered the first step to becoming a genre novelist. Writers learned their craft by publishing short fiction in the popular magazines of the day before grappling with the complexity and length of novels. They established writing credentials, providing heft to their query and cover letters, and developed a readership before their first novel ever hit the wire racks at the grocery store.

That doesn’t seem to happen much today, and many writers, perhaps encouraged by the ease of publication offered by low-cost self-publishing, leap directly into novel writing without first establishing their writing skills and publishing credentials. Among those who succeed as novelists, some write short stories as an afterthought and some established novelists write short fiction only at the invitation of anthology editors. Whether they succeed or fail as novelists, few writers make a sincere effort to write short stories and fewer still earn a significant portion of their income from short fiction.

That’s a mistake.

Writing short fiction has several advantages over writing novels. A writer who devotes time and attention to short fiction can explore different genres, can experiment with different styles, and can develop a familiarity with several genres faster than most novelists. Additionally, short story writers quickly discover which genres play to their strengths and can avoid, or at least mitigate, the career damage caused by spending too much time dabbling in inappropriate genres.

As high school students, my best friend and I were determined to become the next Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. For several years I kept science fiction short stories circulating among all the professional and semi-professional science fiction magazines, but I achieved only modest success. On the other hand, after encouragement from the editor of a men’s magazine, I sold the first three mystery short stories I wrote. I have since sold short fiction in nearly every genre—with particular success in crime fiction and women’s fiction—and I continue to try new things.

Markets for short fiction no longer assault you at every magazine rack the way they did during the heyday of the pulp magazines or even during the 1970s when I began my career. Back then I could easily locate several dozen magazines devoted to short fiction—mystery, science fiction, and women’s fiction the most prevalent.

While some genre magazines remain—Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s among them—and new genre magazines come and go, the best markets for short stories may be publications not known for publishing fiction. The weekly publication Woman’s World, for example, publishes 104 short stories each year, one romance and one mystery each issue.

Finding markets for short fiction, therefore, becomes a literary treasure hunt, one that only the truly dedicated attempt. I regularly stand at magazine racks and thumb through magazines I don’t normally read, looking for evidence of short fiction. I also search for on-line publications and print publications that maintain an on-line presence, looking for publications I can’t find at local newsstands. Sometimes what I find is clearly identified as fiction; sometimes it isn’t. For example, the short stories I used to write for True Story were presented as if they are, in fact, true.

Literary and small press publications—both on-line and in print—also publish fiction. Unfortunately, they often pay little or nothing. Prior to submitting to small press publications, I examine them carefully to determine if the stories they publish are well written and presented in a professional manner, if the contributors include writers well-known in their genre, and if any stories they have published have later been nominated for awards or been included in best-of-year anthologies.

General interest magazines are increasingly hard to find as publishers target narrower and narrower demographics. So, one of the most important things to remember in today’s publishing environment is the need to write to market.

While many writers prefer to write first and seek appropriate publications later, I’ve found it beneficial to target my markets before I begin writing. Targeting markets is a two-step process that involves understanding the conventions of the genre or sub-genre in which I write and then understanding the publications for which I wish to write.

Many of today’s publications seek to address a particular audience. A close examination of any magazine will reveal a great deal of information about the publication’s readers or, at least, the readers the publication is attempting to reach. Often the fiction contained within these publications presents characters the readers see as “just like me” or an idealized “just like me,” so the more I know about the readers, the better I am able to develop appropriate characters and plots when I write for these publications.

On a more practical level, I determine how many short stories the magazine publishes each issue, the length of the stories, what genre or genres are represented, and any stylistic requirements the magazine may have. Once I’ve done all that, it’s time to write.

The keys to successfully placing short stories—presuming basic literacy and some minimum level of talent—are high productivity and dogged determination. Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more—sometimes as many as nine!—stories published each and every month. That’s 178 consecutive months. And beginning in July I’m three months into a new streak. That doesn’t happen without producing a lot of material.

While I don’t write fiction every day and don’t set daily page count or word count goals the way other writers do, I do set goals. I determine how many sales I’d like to achieve in a given year, and then I determine how many short stories I must complete to reach that goal. When I first began pounding the keyboard as a teenager, my goal was to sell one story. To anybody. After I achieved that, my goal was to sell a second story. Back then I completed dozens of short stories for each one that finally reached publication. My odds have improved since then and I now complete approximately eleven stories for every ten that sell.

I also keep manuscripts circulating on the firm belief that my work will be published eventually. These days some of my stories are written on assignment and many others are accepted by the first or second editor to read them—in part because I’m a more experienced writer and in part because I have a better understanding of the markets—but a few of my published stories were seen by dozens of editors before acceptance and one story—“I Can’t Touch the Clouds for You” (Sun, July 25, 2005)—spent thirty years visiting slush piles before reaching print.

Writing short fiction has allowed me to entertain many readers, to work with editors across multiple genres, and to generate steady income from writing while developing my craft.

And, if I ever decide to write another novel, I’m going to have one hell of a cover letter.

My story “Love, Or Something Like It” appears in the forthcoming Crime Travel (Wildside Press), an anthology of time travel mysteries, edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman. Learn more and preorder here.

10 September 2019

Music to Write By


by Barb Goffman

Some people need silence to write. I could go either way. Silence works. But sometimes, so does music. Certain songs just put me in a creative mood. Here are a few songs/albums that I sometimes work to:

Songs from Ally McBeal. Yes, the show aired about twenty years ago, but the music is still peppy and/or soulful. Either way, it gets my fingers flying. Thank you, Vonda Shepherd and all the other artists on the album.

My favorite songs on the album are "Searchin' My Soul," "Walk Away Renee," and "Maryland." But I can't listen to any of these songs individually if I want to use them for creative purposes. My brain knows the order they appear on the album, and if I don't hear them in that order, I get pulled out of what I'm doing.

Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish. I played this album over and over in the mid-90s as I filled out my law school applications. It kept me in the zone. And it does the same today. I listen to it while writing and while editing.

Funny thing is I can't name a single song on this album off the top of my head. It works that well as background music--it blurs into my subconscious, keeping me from getting distracted.

The soundtrack from the movie Somewhere in Time is one of my go-to albums in the winter. You may think that's odd because the movie wasn't set in the winter, but there's something about this music that feeds my creativity on cold gray winter days.

One nice thing about this album is it's all instrumental, and the songs are somewhat similar to each other, so they blend from one to the next easily, and I don't even notice them really, yet they help keep me focused.


I also have individual songs that I play on repeat. "Under Pressure" by Queen is one of them. It won't work when I'm editing, but for writing, oh, baby, this song does it for me. I set it on repeat and type, type, type away.

So those are some of my go-to music choices. The key to all these songs is that they make me feel energetic but they're not distracting. What I notice is when the music ends.

How about you? Do you need silence to write? Can music help you? What works for you?

20 August 2019

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy


A few years ago I was editing a manuscript in which an amateur sleuth found a dead body. A couple of paragraphs down, she made a joke. It raised my eyebrows. "Too soon," I said in a note to the author.

Don't get me wrong. I love humor, especially black humor. Ranging from wry observations to slapstick situations, humor is important because it can lighten a book's mood. But you have to know when to be funny--and when not to. In the case I mentioned above, I suggested having the sleuth wait a couple of pages before she makes light of the situation. The author did so, and it made all the difference.

Today I'm pleased to welcome as a guest author my friend Sherry Harris, who knows all about writing humor, including the importance of timing. Sherry writes great books and takes edits like the pro she is. Sherry writes the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries about a woman in Massachusetts who runs garage sales for other people. Sherry's here today to expound on balancing comedy and tragedy in mysteries. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy
 
by Sherry Harris
 
I was sitting at the bar at Writers' Police Academy (this sounds like the start of a bad joke) when I started talking to a woman near me. I asked her what she wrote and she told me. She then asked what I wrote, so I told her I wrote a cozy series--the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. She said, "Oh, well I write serious books." I replied that I wrote serious books too. That I don't think murder is funny, but that I did use humor in other parts of my books.

I'm caught somewhere in between comedy and tragedy. In my most recent book, Let's Fake a Deal, (published July 30th), there are two parallel story lines. As the book opens Sarah is arrested for selling stolen goods at a garage sale and a few chapters later a friend of hers is arrested for murder. I was shocked when someone who interviewed me said they thought the first chapter (where Sarah is arrested) was one of the funniest scenes they've ever read. When I wrote the scene my vision of Sarah was that she was really scared. I guess that just proves humor is in the eye of the beholder. After the interview was over, I reread the scene with a different mind-set and saw how it could be interpreted that way.

Where do I add the humor? I'd like to tell you I carefully plot it all out in advance but I don't. I'll make a decision early in my writing process on how to add some humor. For Let's Fake a Deal, I tossed around ideas with my independent editor, Barb Goffman. (Hi, Barb, thanks for having me here today.) We came up with the idea that Sarah could do a garage sale for a woman who was obsessed with cats. Not a crazy cat woman who has twenty cats living with her, but a woman who wants to make the front of her house look like the face of a cat. To afford that she has to sell off her massive collection of cat-morabilia. So the cat-tastic garage sale was born.
Kishi Station in Japan was redesigned to resemble a cat in honor of a beloved local stray cat. (Can you see it?) This station isn't in the Sarah Winston books, but it's a great example of what a dedicated cat lover could do with enough funds.
But the Sarah Winston books have more than funny situations. Each of my books is set partially on an Air Force base, and I weave in difficulties military families face. In Let's Fake a Deal, one of Sarah's friends, who has been selected for promotion to colonel, has an IG (inspector general) complaint filed against her, which holds up her promotion. I did a lengthy interview with a friend who served as a Navy JAG for 23 years. We talked about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Then I interviewed other women I knew who had served. The interviews fascinated and horrified me. Their stories are woven into the book.

I hope the titles add some humor and Sarah is funny. She's not funny in a slapstick, "slip on a banana peel" kind of way, but she has an optimistic outlook on life. Her observations about life add humor to the books. But I also want her to be multilayered so when she stumbles over a dead body Sarah hurts, and when she sees someone die she reacts like a real person would. 

****
 
Sherry Harris is the Agatha Award-nominated author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. She is the President of Sisters in Crime, a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers.
 
In her spare time Sherry loves reading and is a patent-holding inventor. Sherry, her husband, and her guard dog, Lily, are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next.  (Barb here: That's what she thinks. I'm not letting her move away ever. No how. No way.) 
 
 
 
Twitter: @SHarrisAuthor
 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SherryHarrisauthor

Instagram: SherryHarrisAuthor

30 July 2019

Living in a Writing Rain Forest


by Barb Goffman

Recently Michael Bracken wrote here on SleuthSayers about living in a writing desert. He doesn't have a lot of authors who live near him in Texas. So he doesn't have author friends he can easily meet up with for lunch or a drink or a plotting session. In response to my comment that a friend once said that here in the Washington, DC, area, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery author, Michael said:

"I often wonder, Barb, how much being part of a thriving writing community or being in a writing desert impacts how our writing and our writing career develops. I sometimes think that if I moved somewhere where one can't swing a dead cat without hitting a mystery writer I might get too excited. I'd have too much fun being a writer and not enough time actually writing."

Well, I'm here today to say that I know with certainty that if I were living in a writing desert instead of the opposite (which I'm guessing is a writing rain forest--all that water, right?) I would not be writing these words on this blog, and I wouldn't be writing fiction at all.
A real rain forest

I remember when I first got the hankering to try to write crime fiction. It was in my first or second year of law school, and I had an idea for a book. I thought I would start writing it in my spare time (ha!), perhaps over the summer. But summer came and went, as did the rest of law school and my first year of practice as an attorney. And guess what? I didn't write that book. Not even one page. 

One day I was thinking about the book. I wanted to write it, but three years (or so) had passed. Why hadn't I started writing? And I realized it was because I didn't know how to write a book. Legal briefs and memoranda, yes, those I knew how to write. Newspaper articles, yes, I could write those too. (I was a reporter before I went to law school.) But I wasn't trained in writing fiction. It was a mystery to me. (Ha again.) I knew there were rules I didn't know. I couldn't imagine how to start. Looking back, I realize I could have bought any number of how-to books, but I didn't. Instead, I decided that I didn't know how to write fiction, so I should just give up that dream.

But the dream wouldn't give up on me. Perhaps a week later, I saw an ad for an eight-week course starting in just a few weeks at a place called The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They were offering an introductory course on writing a mystery novel. The class would be on Saturday mornings, which fit into my schedule. The Writers Center was just a mile from my apartment. And I could afford the course. It was like fate was calling to me, "Don't give up!" 

So I signed up for the course, and here I am, nearly two decades later, with 32 crime short stories published, four more accepted and awaiting publication, wins for the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards under my belt, as well as 27 nominations for national crime-writing awards. As for that first book, the one that prompted all of this ... I stopped writing it after chapter 12 or so. But I wrote another novel after it, and that one I finished. It sits in a drawer, awaiting one last polish. I may get to it someday ... or not because I've realized I love short stories, and when I get time to write, that's what I want to work on. So I do.

I never would have learned all of that and done all of that and accomplished all of that if I had been living in a writing desert. Without that first class at The Writers Center, I wouldn't have started writing fiction. I also wouldn't have been introduced to Sisters in Crime, specifically to members of the Chesapeake Chapter. I wouldn't have heard about mystery fan conventions Malice Domestic and Bouchercon. I wouldn't have started writing short stories. (I started down my short-story path because the Chessie Chapter had a call for stories for its anthology Chesapeake Crimes II.) Boiling it all down, if I were living in a writing desert, I wouldn't be me, not the me I've become. I'd probably still be working as an attorney instead of working full-time as a freelance crime fiction editor. (The pay is worse but the work suits me so much more.)

Living in this rain forest also has affected my life in other ways. My closest friends these days are all writers. When I lived in the Reston area, four other mystery authors lived within two miles of me. Other close friends lived less than a half hour away. We would go to lunches and dinners, talk about writing and plotting and life. Now that I live a little farther away, those meals happen a little less frequently, but they still happen. And thanks to Facebook, I'm never far from my writing tribe. It is the modern-day water cooler. I also talk to my pals on the phone regularly. (Yes, I'm a throwback!)

So I am utterly grateful I don't live in a writing desert. I can't imagine who I'd be if I did. And while I hope no one ever actually swings a dead cat my way, if that were the price I'd have to pay, I'd pay it. But who would swing a dead cat anyway? Mystery lovers are animal lovers, and we like our cats--and dogs--alive and slobbery. But that's a blog for another day.
***

And now for a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that a few days ago my story "Bug Appétit" was named a finalist for the Macavity Award for best mystery/crime short story of 2018. And I'm doubly happy to share this Macavity honor with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, along with four other talented writers, Craig Faustus Buck, Leslie Budewitz, Barry Lancet, and Gigi Pandian. The winner will be announced on October 31st during Bouchercon. If you'd like to read "Bug Appétit" it's available on my website here. Or if you'd like to hear me read it to you, you can listen to it here. Once you reach the podcast page, click on my story title (Episode 114). Enjoy!

09 July 2019

Plot, Not Snot!


by Barb Goffman

Realism. It's something authors strive for and readers look for. If I see something in a book that seems completely unrealistic, it may make me stop reading. And while readers will often suspend their disbelief for a good story, it behooves authors not to push readers too far.

So when I see an author striving to get the details right, I'm pleased. But allow me to let you in on a little secret ... it's possible to go too far.

Yep. There are certain things I don't want to read about, especially in detail. Here are some:

  • Snot. Yes, in crime fiction, you may have characters who cry. And yes, in real life, there may be snot associated with that crying. But I don't want to read about it. It's gross. So if it's not necessary to the plot (and really, when was the last time snot was necessary to the plot?), cut it. Please! 
    Showing tissues, good. Snot, bad.
  •  Vomit. Sure, sometimes the contents of a character's stomach may rise. Saying that bile entered someone's throat can be a good way to show a character's reaction to a disgusting situation. Even saying a person threw up can be okay. But showing the vomit leaving the body in graphic detail, nope, nope, nope. Don't do it. Please!
  • Farting. Another thing that happens in real life that I don't want to read about unless you can make it germane to the plot. Good luck with that one.
  • Using the toilet. Yes, we all do it. And sure, if you want to mention someone went to the restroom, go for it. People can talk privately in restrooms. They can wash their faces while contemplating the horrible thing they just witnessed. And they can go in there to take care of bodily functions. All fine. But when that stall door closes, the reader in me begs you to fade to black. I don't need to know the details about what goes on in there. Please, please, please.
  •  Phlegm. Similar to vomit. Yes, it happens. Nope, don't want to see it.
I'm told that these rules don't apply to fiction aimed at children. That kids love books that talk in detail about bodily functions. Not having been a child in a long time, I will have to accept that premise as true. But I'm interested in hearing from readers with kids on this matter. Do your kids like reading about all this disgusting stuff? Is there an age at which it ceases to be something fun and turns into something gross? And is there a difference between boys and girls on this matter?

Okay, readers, weigh in please. Have I missed anything? What do you not want to read about in graphic detail on the page? Tell me what is snot necessary for you.