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

11 December 2018

Would You Eat THAT?

by Barb Goffman

All my life I've been a picky eater. When I was very little, my mother tried to force me to eat foods I didn't like in order to encourage me, I'm sure, to not be so picky. But after I vomited beets all over the kitchen floor, she let me make my own choices.

Fast forward to adulthood. I'm still a picky eater--less so than in childhood but more so than many other adults. I know this from dining out with friends, though the point always hits home whenever one of those food quizzes comes up on social media. You know the ones: How many of these weird-sounding foods have you tried? I always surprise my friends (well, maybe not some who know me really well) because I score soooo low. Despite knowing I'm picky, the extent of it always seems to surprise people.

For instance, I once took a quiz about vegetables; how many had I tried? The grand total: 18 of the 110 vegetables listed, putting me in the lowest two percentile for the quiz. (Eighteen was actually a higher number than I'd expected.) I also took a quiz about Jewish food. I'd tried 38 out of 100 of  'em. Friends had thought I'd score higher on this quiz since I'm Jewish, but 38 was pretty darn high for me.

Oh, no! It's Mr. Bill! (You see it too, right?)
But those are specialized quizzes. What about overall pickiness? Here, Buzzfeed came in handy. They had a quiz to look at just how picky I am. All I had to do was check the foods I wouldn't touch, and there were a lot of them: hard cheese, soft cheese, blue cheese, goat cheese, cottage cheese. (You must be thinking I don't eat any cheese, but it's not true. Grilled cheese, good. Pizza, good!) And there were more foods on the quiz that I find it hard to believe anyone would eat, because I sure wouldn't. Bone marrow. Nuh uh. Tripe. No way. Sweet bread. Are you kidding? Blood sausage. Just the name makes me queasy. Bull testicles. Oh, come on! And last, but not least, the evil cilantro. No way, no how. Not gonna happen. At least soap doesn't pretend to be a food group.

Yet even as I write this, I know there are people out there who have probably tried all these foods and asked for seconds. I know this because I am friends with a particularly adventurous eater: author Catriona McPherson. She and I have a game we play. She tries to find normal foods I've actually tried or will eat again. I try to find a weird (at least to me) food she hasn't tried. A round might go like this:

Catriona: "Have you tried a pear?" She's probably thinking, I've got her here; everyone has tried pears.
Me: Buzz. As I do the Rocky dance, I proudly proclaim, "I have never had a pear. That's a point for me."
Now it's my turn.
Me: "Have you tried bull testicles?"
Catriona: "Sure have. Yum! That's a point for me, and the round is tied!"

Actually, I don't recall if I've ever asked Catriona about bull testicles. Catriona, get ready for the next round.

It's usually difficult for me to score any points off Catriona because she is so adventurous. That vegetable quiz, the one where I had tried 18 of 110 vegetables--Catriona had tried 103 of them! I once asked her about a whole bunch of Jewish foods, but she had once attended a seder, so she trounced me in that game. And she's Scottish, so she's eaten all these foods I'd never even heard of before I met her--foods I wouldn't go anywhere near now that I have heard of them. (Tripe. Really, Catriona?) Amazingly, I've found one food she's never tried but I have: candy canes! Not that I like candy canes. I don't think I'd ever eat another one. And I'm sure I only had a bite of the one I tried in the past. But I tried it!

The beauty of being a picky eater is I read a lot of article about food. Not to learn to make them, of course, since cooking is something else I don't do. But I'm fascinated by foods other people will eat that I won't go near with a giant fork. And learning about foods sometimes gives me story ideas. That is partly how I came up with the idea for my most-recent story, "Bug Appétit," which appears in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  It involves what I would deem weird food, but not everyone agrees (based on my research), and that makes for an unusual plot (and unusual Thanksgiving dinner!).
Bug Appétit!

If you want to read "Bug Appétit," it's not too late. The current issue of EQMM should remain on sale until around Christmas. I've seen copies at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. And you can order digital copies through Magzter. Or you can subscribe to the magazine, in print or electronically, here: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/.

As to the quizzes I mentioned above, here they are, in case you want to try them out. For the vegetable quiz, click here. For the Jewish food quiz, click here. And for the Buzzfeed overall pickiness quiz, click here. But I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the Buzzfeed quiz. After I answered all their questions, they told me, "You're not too picky." They clearly don't know me at all.

20 November 2018

Putting the Happy in Happy Thanksgiving

by Barb Goffman

It's two days until Thanksgiving, and I bet some of you are stressed. Maybe it's because you're cooking and ... it's the first time you're hosting, and you want it to be perfect. Or your mother-in-law is coming, and your turkey never lives up to hers. Or the weatherman is predicting snow on Thanksgiving and you're afraid that your relatives won't show up ... or maybe that they will.

Or maybe your stress stems from being a guest. Are you an introvert, dreading a day of small talk with the extended family? A picky eater, going to the home of a gourmet who makes food way to fancy for your tastes? Or are you a dieter, going to the home of someone who likes to push food and you're likely to spend the day going, "no thanks, no rolls for me," "no thanks, no candied yams for me," "no thanks, no cookies for me," ... "dear lord, lady, what part of no thanks don't you get?"

No matter who you are, or what your situation, Thanksgiving can cause stress. The best way to deal with stress is laughter. And that's where I come in. So set down that baster and get ready to smile, because I've got some fictional characters who've had a worse Thanksgiving than you.

Paul and Jamie Buchman from Mad About You
 

They tried so hard to make the perfect dinner ... only to have their dog, Murray, eat the turkey.


Rachel Green from Friends


All she wanted was to cook a nice dessert for her friends ... only to learn too late that she wasn't supposed to put beef in the trifle. It did not taste good.


The Gang from Cheers 


Those poor Thanksgiving orphans. They waited hours for a turkey that just wouldn't cook ... only to then suffer the indignity of being involved in a food fight. (For anyone who's ever read my story "Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy," this Cheers episode was the inspiration.)


Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond


She was determined to have a happy Thanksgiving despite her overly critical mother-in-law ... only to drop her uncooked turkey on the floor three times before flinging it into the oven. Yum.



Arthur Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati




He wanted to create the greatest promotion ever, inviting the public to a shopping mall and providing free turkeys ... live ones ... only to learn too late that turkeys don't fly so when you toss them out of a helicopter from 2,000 feet in the air they hit the ground like sacks of wet cement.


Garner Duffy from "Bug Appétit"


All this con man wanted for Thanksgiving was to eat some good food at his mark's home before stealing her jewelry ... only to learn too late that her mother is an ... inventive cook. ("Bug Appétit" is my story in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I'm so pleased to have heard from several readers who enjoyed it, including one who called it "hilarious.")

So, dear readers, I hope you're smiling and feeling less stressed. If you'd like to read my story, you could pick up a copy of the current EQMM, available in some Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million bookstores, as well as in an electronic version. You can find more information about getting the magazine here. The issue also has a story from SleuthSayer alum David Dean that I'm sure you'll enjoy.) As to the TV episodes mentioned above, I bet you can find them all online.

Until next time, please share your favorite funny turkey day story (fictional or real) in the comments. Happy Thanksgiving!

16 October 2018

The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror

by Michael Bracken

Michael Bracken and Josh Pachter
celebrate September birthdays
while at Bouchercon.
I’ve been writing long enough to recognize many of the obstacles that interfere with productivity. I’ve experienced the death of a parent, the death of a spouse, two divorces, four marriages, multiple job changes and relocations, heart surgery, and any number of other consequential life events. Yet, I can’t recall ever facing the obstacle that blocked my writing path throughout the middle half of this year.

During 2016 and 2017 my writing took a great leap forward, and my work was recognized in unexpected ways—leading to a lifetime achievement award in 2016; having a story included in The Best American Mystery Stories in 2018; placing stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and several new publications; and having other mystery writing opportunities fall into my lap. Unfortunately, sometime this spring all that good news overwhelmed me.

For many years, my schtick was to tout my productivity. I was the back-of-the-magazine, middle-of-the-anthology guy, the writer editors relied on to fill pages because they knew I was likely to turn in something on time and on theme that required little or no editorial sweat to make publishable.

For years I pounded out stories because writing was fun, and my head was (and is) filled with more stories than I will ever put on paper.

And then I stopped being that guy.

PLAY BECOMES WORK

I don’t know exactly when things changed, but I began to view my writing through a different lens. Instead of asking myself, “Is this fun?” I began asking myself, “Is this important? Is this significant? Is this noteworthy?”

And the answer, too often, was “no.”

I didn’t stop writing, but I set stories aside because they weren’t important, significant, or noteworthy. Then stories I did think were important, significant, and noteworthy—stories I felt confident would sell the first time out because I knew my markets—bounced back from editors with form rejections.

My mojo was no mo’.

WORK BECOMES PLAY

I did not have writer’s block. I didn’t stop writing but writing became a job I didn’t want to go to and didn’t want to do when I got there because it had stopped being fun.

This is how I felt in early September when Temple and I left home for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Unlike New Orleans, where Temple and I spent almost as much time wandering around the French Quarter as we spent at the convention, and Toronto, where I participated in numerous events, St. Petersburg was more about hanging out.

Like many attendees, too many interactions with fellow writers were little more than “how ya doin’?” as we crossed paths on our way from one place to another. I did manage some interesting conversations about writing with Barb Goffman and Art Taylor, had some long conversations with Josh Pachter about all manner of things, and spent time with Trey R. Barker, both alone and in the company of our wives.

Michael Bracken, Frank Zafiro, and
Trey R. Barker bond over a mutual love
of taco truck cuisine.
I also spent a great deal of time hanging out on the veranda with a revolving group of editors and writers affiliated with Down & Out Books. Over the course of the convention, a joke Trey and I shared expanded into a project that we pitched to D&O Publisher Eric Campbell on that veranda. As we did, Frank Zafiro and other writers made suggestions that expanded the scope of our idea into something Eric liked so much he asked for a formal proposal.

By the time Temple and I reached the airport to leave St. Petersburg on the last day of Bouchercon, Frank Zafiro had already written several thousand words for the project, and within a week of returning home Trey and I put the formal proposal in Eric’s hands and began work on our own contributions.

As I write this, we have not yet received the go-ahead from Eric, but it doesn’t matter. I’m about 9,000 words into a 15,000+ word novella that isn’t important, significant, or noteworthy.

And writing it is damned fun.

“Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile” appears in Shhhh…Murder! (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae), and it’s the fifth story of mine to be included in Robert Lopresti’s list of best stories he’s “read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

09 October 2018

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected

by Barb Goffman

Whether you're a seasoned writer or a first-timer, submitting a short story to any publication probably involves anxiety. You wouldn't have written the story if you didn't enjoy doing it. You wouldn't have submitted the story for publication if you didn't hope it's good enough and want the editor to say yes.

Hearing that someone else likes your work is validating. Knowing that strangers will read your work is invigorating. Telling your family that you made a sale is good for the soul.

But not every story sells, especially on first submission. Editors usually try to be kind in their rejection letters, at least in my experience. They might say that they got a lot of submissions, and  many of the stories were wonderful, but they simply couldn't take them all. Or they might say that your story just wasn't a good fit for the publication, but please don't take it personally. Or they might say that they received a very similar story from someone else and simply couldn't publish both in the same book. It's this last type of rejection I'm going to focus on here. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Like an excuse.
There are all kinds of rejection.

And yet ...

I can tell you from personal experience that authors sometimes get very similar ideas. Sometimes this might be expected, especially when anthologies have narrow(ish) themes. For instance, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin' (which I co-edited) received a bunch of submissions involving revenge. (No big surprise.) A call for stories for a culinary anthology might result in a bunch of submissions involving poisoning. A book that wants weather-related short stories might receive multiple submissions about folks who are snowbound and someone is murdered.

But even when an anthology's call for stories is broad (let's say, the editor wants crime stories with a female protagonist), you can still end up with several similar stories under consideration. One reason could be that authors are subject to the same national news, so it would make sense if several might be inspired by the same news story, especially a big one. For example, I'd bet there are lot more #MeToo-type stories being written and submitted now than three years ago.

Authors also might be inspired by other industry successes. For instance, when vampire novels were all the rage, I knew several short-story authors writing about vampires, too. These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.

I imagine that when novels with unreliable protagonists became big, more than one editor received short stories with unreliable protagonists, too. Perhaps some authors were following the trend, but I bet others simply were inspired and wanted to see if they could pull off an unreliable narrator, as well.

There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, but you can see how editors might end up with two similar stories to choose from. Or more. They all might be great, but an editor likely will only take one because he doesn't want the book to be monotonous.

And then, of course, there's the weird scenario, when two authors respond to a very broad call for stories with an oddly similar idea that isn't inspired by the news or trends or, it seems, anything. These two authors were simply on the same wavelength. This scenario is what made me decide to write about this topic today.

When Bouchercon put out its call for stories last autumn for the anthology that came out last month (Florida Happens), they asked for stories "set in, or inspired by, Florida and its eccentricity and complexity. We want diverse voices and characters, tales of darkness and violence, whether they are noir, cozy, hard-boiled or suspense. Push the boundaries of your creativity and the theme! Note: the stories don't have to actually be set in Florida, but can be 'inspired' by itso a character can be from here, it can be built around a piece of music about Florida; etc."

That's a pretty broad theme. With that theme, I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bunch of submissions involving older people, since Florida is where many people retire. And I wouldn't be surprised if they received a lot of submissions involving the beach or the ocean, since Florida is where so many people vacation. But what are the odds that two (or maybe more) authors were going to submit stories about missing cats?

And yet, that is nearly what happened. Hilary Davidson wrote one such story. Her story in the anthology, "Mr. Bones," is about a missing cat. My story in the anthology, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," involves a missing pot roast. But as originally planned, that pot roast was going to be  ... yep ... a cat.

If you've read my story, you can imagine how changing the pot roast into a cat would make the story incredibly darker. It was the darkness that got to me. When I was writing and reached page two of the story, I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't write the story as planned with the object going missing being a cat. (Sorry for being vague, but I don't want to spoil things if you haven't read the story.)

Thank goodness for my unease, because I like the story much better with the pot roast. It makes the story lighter. Funnier. And it turned out that using the roast likely increased my chances of my story being accepted because I wasn't directly competing with Hilary Davidson (who wrote a great story). Indeed, imagine if I had gone through with my story as originally planned. The people who chose the stories would have had two submissions involving missing cats! And they likely would not have taken both stories.

So the next time you get a rejection letter and the editor says, please don't take this personally, take the editor at her word. You never know when someone else has an idea quite similar to yours. The world is funny that way.

18 September 2018

Put Some Feeling Into It

by Barb Goffman

Authors often hear the advice to write what you know. The advice is usually offered to make sure the author gets plot details right. You wouldn't want to write a story about a police officer if you know nothing about police procedure. You wouldn't want to write about skydiving if you know nothing about the sport. Getting details wrong annoys readers who knows those details. And you don't want that. You want readers to turn pages without noticing, to be enveloped by the story, not disengaged by errant details.

The beauty of such a predicament is you can find out what you need to know. You can interview police officers. You can go on ride-alongs. You can watch skydivers. You even could jump out of a plane. (The emphasis here is on you. I would not jump out of a plane for any amount of money. I like it when my stomach isn't six feet below the rest of my body.) Ultimately you can learn the information you need to provide a true reflection of whatever it is you choose to write about.

But correct plot details will only get you so far. If you want to write a story that readers love, you need to write characters that are real, and that means characters that react like real people do. This is what readers are talking about when they say they don't like two-dimensional characters. They don't want to read about someone who's all good or all evil. After a while, such characters become predictable and boring. Readers want to see the shades of gray. They want to see characters acting like real people do, with all the emotion that entails.

And the good part about all this? You don't need to interview people or go on ride-alongs to get these details right, though you can. (And is there a "right"? More on that below.) To get emotions and emotional reactions right, all you need are two things: a good imagination--which I hope you have if you're a writer--and you need the special sauce of solid writing, empathy.

First imagination: A good imagination will enable you to understand, to truly picture, whatever scenario you're writing about. And I don't mean to simply imagine the setting. I mean imagine who your character is in relation to the conflict in which you are placing him or her in that setting. You could write a setup involving an avalanche, for instance. A character who is an expert rock-climber would react differently to it than one who is a first-timer.

Now once you've got your characters established and your setup and conflict imagined, empathy enters the picture. You may have never been in an avalanche, but can you imagine how someone in that situation might be feeling? I hope so. Dig deep if you have to. Not everyone will react the same way, even first-timers. But react they will in some way. Some will be terrified. Some will be practical. Some might even be invigorated. If you truly know your characters, you should be able to empathize with each one and understand how he or she would react to different situations in thoughts, words, and actions. Showing those thoughts and how they impact the dialogue and actions is what brings the character truly to life.

That brings me to the question I asked above. Can you get emotions wrong? Not if you make them seem realistic. Not if you let the reader understand where the character is coming from. Show a character whose mother just died and he merely shrugs, and your reader might think the character is one-dimensional. They might have a gut reaction that no one would act that way. But if you show the conflict in the character's head, letting the reader understand why he's shrugging, then that action can become believable. And the character is suddenly real.

I dug deep, trying to make my characters real, when I wrote my newest short story, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," which came out last week in this year's Bouchercon anthology, Florida Happens. My main character's husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I've never been in that position, but I've watched friends and family dealing with a parent with such a diagnosis. So I've seen what the reactions can be. But even if I hadn't had this experience, I could imagine it. A character could be horrified, saddened, determined to do the right thing, or some or all of those things at onceor have some other reaction. If you can empathize with who your character is, you can understand how he would react to the situation he finds himself in. And then you need to show it in thoughts and dialogue, as well as actions.

In my pot roast story, my main character, Bev, becomes determined to care for her husband, Charles, in their home, despite that her doctor recommends otherwise. If I had just had Bev decide to care for Charles at home by herself without showing her reasoning, some readers might have gotten aggravated with Bev (or with me), thinking that Bev is reacting unrealistically or stupidly. But I do show Bev's thoughts in the story:

"I was determined to care for Charles in our home for as long as I could. He was my husband. My love. I owed him that."


Four simple sentences, but suddenly Bev's actions make sense. They are believable because the reader can understand where Bev is coming from.

There are a number of other things that happen in the story that might be hard to believe if you didn't understand where the characters were coming from. That's true for most fiction, books and movies.

In Gone With The Wind (not sure why this particular movie came to mind, but here it is), when Scarlet helps Melanie give birth, it might seem unbelievable considering how selfish Scarlet is and how much it must bother her that Melanie is giving birth to Ashley's son, but she does help. And the reader/viewer buys Scarlet's actions because the reader/viewer understands that Scarlet is doing it for a selfish reason, to look good for Ashley, but also for some non-selfish reasons: despite her best intentions, Scarlet has come to care for Melanie and some small bit of conscience is trying to push its way to her surface.


In Casablanca, Rick hated Ilsa for leaving him in Paris. He didn't know why she did it. But once he learned her reasons, he could understand because he could empathize with her. And suddenly she wasn't two-dimensional to him or to the viewer. And that made the story all the more interesting.

So if you want to create characters that readers want to follow, characters that readers love, get to know your characters well and then imagine how each of them would react to the events of your story and then show those reactions. It's the reactions that bring the characters to life. It's the reactions that make them real.

Authors, have you had a book or story that particularly resonated with you or with readers because you created a character that felt particularly real? What was it? And what was it about the character that stood out?

And readers, have you read any books or stories that affected you especially and unexpectedly because the characters felt so true to life? What was one and why?

And finally, if you want to read more about Bev and Charles, you can buy Florida Happens in ebook or trade paperback. Here's a link to the Amazon version. And here's a little more about the story:

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" is about aging with dignity. Bev and Charles live in a retirement community near the Everglades. Their home looks out on a lake in which an alligator named Romeo lives. The couple has always loved watching Romeo. But now Charles has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Romeo has become a source of stress. And these two don't need more stress. When Bev gets injured, she hires an aide to help care for combative Charles. But then items start to go missing, and Bev doesn't know who she can depend on. A friend suggests the aide isn't trustworthy, but Bev begins to wonder if the real person she can't trust is herself.

28 August 2018

Rounding Things Out

by Barb Goffman

A few nights ago as I was brushing my teeth, I glanced at the calendar hanging on my bathroom door. It was about eleven p.m. As I focused on the date, a memory flashed through my mind, and I realized to my horror that I had one hour left of being young.

You see, when the clock struck midnight, I was to turn forty-nine-and-a-half years old, which meant I would be entering ... my rounding years. You've never heard of rounding years? Well, allow me to enlighten you.

It was December 1978. I was nine years old and had been working on a family newspaper all that autumn. It was filled with juicy stories including:

  • Was there some sort of connection between my father and maternal grandfather besides marriage? After all, they both had a growth on their nose in the exact same spot. I know--it's spooky right? Or was it nefarious?
  • One of my brothers had been banned from Idaho after being caught speeding there. In a response to the editor, the subject of the story claimed he had been misunderstood, but this reporter stands by her story. His exact quote: "I can't go back there."
  • My mother was always rushing around. She would always know if she had somewhere to go and could get there without stress if she left early enough. But she always left late so everything was a big rush. This was more a feature piece, since it certainly wasn't news to anyone in the family. Everyone knew.

I typed the newspaper on a typewriter just like this one.
 And then there was the story that sparked this trip down Memory Lane. The article about my dad entering his rounding years. You see, when I was young I was a black-or-white kind of girl. You either lived in the city or the country.  You either were rich or poor. And you either were young or old. I clung to this worldview despite that we lived in the suburbs, were (upper) middle-class, and my parents were middle-aged. As Dad was approaching age fifty, I knew that old age was coming for him. But it felt odd to me that one second you could be young and the next second you could be old. Since I didn't grasp the concept of middle-age, I came up with my own idea: rounding years.

Here's how it works: Up to age forty-nine and a day less than six months, you are young. (Woo-hoo!) Then bam! You hit forty-nine-and-a-half and you've entered this period where your body starts wearing out. (I was nine and didn't really think this through, but let's say that during this time your hair turns gray, your bones start to creak, and you start saying "oof" when you sit down.) You get two full years to slowly turn old. Then when you reach the ripe age of fifty-one-and-a-half, bam again! You are old. It's all down hill from there.

Why did I choose a two-year period from forty-nine-and-a-half to fifty-one-and-a-half? Beats me. I was nine years old and clearly had way too much time on my hands. Plus an active imagination.

So you'll have to bear with me from here on out if I start getting nostalgic for an earlier time or begin doing things that are quirky. (Okay, fine. Quirkier.) I'm no longer young, you see. I'm rounding things out.

But I stand by that Idaho story. It was spot on.

*******

And now, for a little BSP:

Next week I'll be heading to the Bouchercon mystery convention in St. Petersburg, Florida, along with several other SleuthSayers. If you too will be there, I'd love to see you. Here's my schedule:
  • I'll be participating in a mass panel/signing for the new Bouchercon anthology, Florida
    Pot roast, anyone?
    Happens
    , on Thursday, Sept. 6th at 1 p.m. The book is scheduled to be released next Tuesday, the 4th. It includes stories by fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Paul D. Marks, as well as my newest story, "The Case of the Missing Post Roast." The reviews coming in have been excellent. Publisher's Weekly said in part, "These 21 tales are testimony to the wealth of notable crime fiction rooted in the Sunshine State." The amazing Hank Phillippi Ryan called the book, "As crazy-unpredictable as a Florida vacation! These short-story gems are quirky, surprising, original and irresistible. It's a collaboration of mystery rock stars that's absolutely terrific." You can pre-order a copy now by clicking here. Or if you'll be at Bouchercon, you can buy a copy there and come to the signing. 
  • At six p.m. on Thursday, I'll be at opening ceremonies, where (among other things) the winners for this year's Macavity Award will be announced. My story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" is a finalist in the short-story category, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayers Paul D. Marks and Art Taylor, as well as stories by Craig Faustus Buck, Matt Coyle, and Terence Faherty.
  • On Friday the 7th at 1 p.m. I'll be on a panel with my fellow nominees for this year's Anthony Award in the short-story category. I'm honored to share finalist honors this year with Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, Debra H. Goldstein, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. If you haven't read the six nominated stories, it's not too late. They're all online. Click here and you'll find links to reach them all. Read before you vote!
  • On Saturday the 8th at 7 p.m. I'll be at the presentation for the Anthony Award.
Fingers crossed on multiple fronts! I hope to see you there.

25 August 2018

It Gets Harder (Praise and Imposter Syndrome)

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl...in which we admit that praise comes with a nasty side dish)

"the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake" EQMM, Sept-Oct 2018 issue
How the HELL will I ever live up to this?



A while back, I was on a panel where the moderator asked the question,
"Does it get harder or easier, with each successive book?"

"Easier," said one cozy writer, a woman I respect and know well.  "Because I know what I'm doing now."

I stared at her in surprise.

"Harder.  Definitely harder," said my pal Linwood Barclay, sitting beside me.

I sat back with relief.  The why was easy.  I answered that.

"Harder for two reasons," I said.  "First, you've already used up a lot of good ideas.  I've written 40 short stories and 18 novels.  That's nearly 60 plot ideas.  It gets harder to be original."

Linwood nodded along with me.

"Second, you've already established a reputation with your previous books.  If they were funny, people expect the next one to be even funnier.  It gets harder and harder to meet people's expectations."

"The bar is higher with each book," said Linwood.

This conversation came back to me this week, when I got a very nice surprise (thanks, Barb Goffman, for pointing me to it!)  Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewed my latest book, and called me "the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake."

At first, I was ecstatic, and so very very grateful.  Donald Westlake was a huge influence on me.  I still think his book where everyone on the heist team spoke a different language to be one of the zaniest plots of all time.  To be considered in his class is a wonderful thing.

And then, the doubts started.  I'm now looking at my work in progress with different eyes.  Is this plot fresh?  Is it as clever as I thought it was?  Am I still writing funny?

Would Donald Westlake fans like it?

Or am I the world's worst imposter?

So many authors on Sleuthsayers are award-winning.  All of you will, I'm sure, relate to this a little bit.  Was that award win a one-off?  Okay, so you have more than one award.  Were those stories exceptions?  You haven't won an award in two years.  Have you lost it?

Will I ever write anything as good as that last book?

I'm dealing hugely with imposter syndrome right now.  It's a blasted roller coaster.  I know I should be spreading that EQMM quote far and wide, on Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, etc.  Possibly, I should be buying ads.  And at the same time, I'm stalling in my WIP, with the feeling of 'never good enough.'

Luckily, the publisher deadline will keep me honest.  I work pretty well under pressure.  Next week, for sure, I'll get back to the book.

This week, I'll smile in public and suffer a little in silence.

What about you, authors?  Do you find imposter syndrome creeps into your life at times when you should be celebrating?  Tell us below. 



The book causing all this grief:  on Amazon

07 August 2018

All Hail The New Queen

by Barb Goffman

When I first got involved with the mystery world nearly twenty years ago, I noticed something I thought a bit odd. Mystery writers seemed to love the name Kate. Between published books and unpublished manuscripts I read in writing workshops, I saw fictional Kates everywhere. Then I became program chair of Malice Domestic, and it seemed that practically every third book of a registered author had a protagonist named Kate. I remember thinking one day that you couldn't swing a dead cat (or a nice live cozy one, by the fire, on the cover of a mystery) without hitting an amateur sleuth named Kate who was out to save the day. Even today, we have lots of Kates out there: Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak, Laurie King's Kate Martinelli, Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder, and Frances Brody's Kate Shackleton, just to name a few mystery sleuths.

But Kate, my dear girl, I believe your reign is over. Because I've seen a new protagonist on the rise. She's smart, she's sassy, and she is solving crimes EVERYWHERE. Her name is Sarah. (And sometimes Sara.)

I went online to find some Sarahs to tell you all about, and I came up with a dozen in no time at all, living all over the place, and this is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • Sarah Winston solves crimes in Ellington, Massachusetts, when she's not throwing garage sales (and sometimes while she is). This Agatha-nominated amateur-sleuth series is written by Sherry Harris.
  • Sarah Booth Delaney solves crimes in Zinnia, Mississippi, when she's not dealing with a bossy ghost. This series about a southern belle turned private eye is written by Carolyn Haines.

  • Sarah Brandt solves crimes in old New York when she's not delivering babies. This Edgar- and Agatha-nominated series about a midwife turned amateur sleuth in early twentieth-century Manhattan is written by Victoria Thompson.

  • Sarah Grayson solves crimes in North Harbor, Maine, when she's not running her refurbished-goods shop. This series about an amateur sleuth who solves crimes with her cat is written by Sofie Ryan.

  • Dr. Sara Linton gets involved in darker crimes (or at least darker on paper) than the previously mentioned protagonists. This series about a pediatrician and coroner is set in Grant County, Georgia, (before the character moves to Atlanta as part of a second series). This Barry- and Macavity-nominated series is written by Karin Slaughter.

  • Sarah Kelling solves crimes with her art-fraud investigator husband, Max, in Boston. This Anthony-nominated series was written by the late Charlotte MacLeod.

  • Sarah Blair solves crimes in Wheaton, Alabama, when she's not working as a law firm receptionist. This series about an amateur sleuth is scheduled to debut this December. It's written by Debra H. Goldstein. 

The following sleuthy Sarahs I don't know much about (at least not yet):

  • Sarah Woods series written by Jennifer L. Jennings
  •  Sarah Miller series written by Carol Dean Jones
  •  Sarah Hart series written by a series of authors
  •  Sara Mason series written by Mary Deal
  •  Sarah Quilliam series written by Claudia Bishop
I know there are tons more Sarahs (and Saras) out there who are searching for clues as we speak. Dear reader, why do you think Sarah has become so popular for the name of a sleuth? What's your favorite name for a sleuth? (And why?) And please weigh in with names of Sarah mysteries I've missed.

Queen Kate is dead (or at least less popular than before). Long live the new queen, Sarah!


17 July 2018

Find Your Perfect Editor

Introducing Mary Feliz…
When I invited Mary Feliz to blog at SleuthSayers today I gave her wide latitude. I didn't ask her to focus on why she chose to write a cozy mystery series involving a professional organizer in Silicon Valley. I didn't want her to feel obligated to talk about why she made a golden retriever her main character's sidekick or how a wildfire factors into her newest book, Disorderly Conduct, which was published last week. All I asked was she blog about something related to writing. Anything. Little did I know she'd send me a column about how to find a great editor. Let me assure you that Mary is not my client, and this is not a subtle push to sell my services. But Mary does give some good advice here, so get ready to take notes. And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present Mary Feliz!

— Barb Goffman

Find your perfect editor

by Mary Feliz


To start a rumble among writers, try asking “Would you pay an editor?”

Personally, I think great editors are priceless gems. Lousy editors are a waste of time and money. But how do you tell the difference, especially when the perfect editor for your best pal could be the worst one for you?

Make sure you’re ready

Writing advice abounds in low-cost classes, seminars, critique groups and manuscript swaps. Exhaust these options and hone your skills before considering an editor. Jumping the gun means shooting yourself in the foot.

But how do you know you’re ready? Have you polished and submitted at least one manuscript to agents and small publishers, received several requests for full manuscripts, but weren’t offered a contract? An editor might help boost you over the last barrier. Have critique partners given you conflicting advice, but you can’t think of a third solution that will take your baby to the next level? Objective professional editorial advice could help.

If the price tag seems like a good use of your money, you’re either ready or stinking rich. Great editors are pricey ($1,000-$2,000). If you’re prepared to take a second job to pay for the extra help, go for it.

Ask for the right thing

Editorial services have a specialized vocabulary. Make sure you’re asking for (and paying for) only what you need.

  • Developmental editing is what most writers need when they consider hiring an editor. Are your characters strong and individualized? Is your dialogue crisp? Is your plot tedious or full of holes? Developmental editors won’t touch grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but can point to places your submission lags. They won’t make changes for you. Developmental editors are teachers, coaches, and guides. Working with one can be like taking a master class in literature with your own work as the topic. My favorite editor typically nails me on elements of the manuscript I knew were problematic, but that I somehow thought I could get away with. She frequently has to remind me that I'm writing a mystery, not a dog book.

  • Line editors and copy editors scour text for typos and other problems. Line editing may include fact-checking and searching for problems like echo words, clichés, and expressions you use too often or don’t need. I think of them as employing a fine mesh filter to weed out small problems I might not notice on my own, but that are easy to fix. For example, in my latest book, (Disorderly Conduct, which released from Kensington Lyrical on July 10th), a copy editor suggested that I take another look at a segment in which Maggie, who is fiercely protective of her teenaged boys, calmly allows them to climb on a helicopter with a guy who, up to that point, she has suspected was a drug lord. It was a quick fix to have someone point out to her that the boys were well protected, it was an emergency, and well, the dogs weren't afraid of the guy, so maybe there was more to his story. That story is laid out as soon as Maggie has a chance to learn more about the mysterious stranger.

  • Proofreaders come on the scene after all the editing is done to make sure you didn’t install new errors while taking out the old ones. They’ll look at formatting, too. I think of them as quality-control technicians. In Disorderly Conduct, a final proofing after several rounds of edits revealed the presence of a "rattle snack." A quick change of a few letters changed something that sounds like a cat treat back into the dangerous creature the tense scene required.
The 4th book in the
Maggie McDonald series.
Book 1, Address to Die For,
was named a Best Book of
2017 by Kirkus Reviews.

Define your search

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to know when you’ve found it. I outlined my parameters by saying I wanted an experienced developmental editor, preferably one with publishing experience who had worked in my genre with authors I enjoyed reading and respected.

Shop carefully

I asked every writer I knew to suggest editors. Some of them asked agents or publishers. I measured each suggestion against my pre-established criteria, starting with the editors’ websites. If I a website seemed unkept, out-of-date, or sported spelling or punctuation errors, I put a line through their names. I also nixed anyone whose website just didn’t sit right with me, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why. Editing is as personal a professional relationship as you’ll ever have. Trust your gut.

Ask questions

You need be sure that you and the editor are literally on the same page, so you’ll need to ask questions. So will they. Ask how long the process will take, how fees are calculated, when the editor can start, and how they like to communicate. I recommend working with someone who includes follow-up questions in their fees, and who will provide an editorial letter along with any line edits they may also do.

Some editors became prickly when I asked for client names. I crossed them off my list. I needed to feel free to ask any question of my editor, without worrying that it would offend them or make them think less of me.

Samples

Most good editors will ask for a sample of your work. This step is their way of evaluating your writing. If an editor suggests you take more classes before trying again, soothe your hurt feelings with the knowledge that she’s saved you money, time, and frustration. Even the priciest class is less expensive than editorial services.

The perfect match

Ultimately, I found a great editor who fit my genre, writing style, and me. Her suggestions helped catapult my work forward. Her experience as an acquisitions editor for a top New York publisher meant she had contacts among agents to whom she willingly referred me. (Not all editors will offer this surface to all writers.) With her help, I nabbed my initial three-book deal with Kensington. It has expanded into a six-book series with audiobooks.

The not-so-perfect

Why do some writers curse editors? Maybe they had a bad experience. Or maybe they hold the outdated belief that publishers nurture newbie writers, taking a spark of imperfect creativity and fanning it into a conflagration of book tours, movie deals, and celebrity status. It’s a nice fantasy, but if it ever existed, it no longer does. Possibly, these writers believe their non-fiction expertise is sufficient for them to professionally publish their novel without help. I’ll bet my breakfast that they’re wrong. Self-publishing is a misnomer. No one succeeds alone.

Golden retrievers give unconditional
love. Editors, not so much.


Whether you’re hoping to nab a traditional publishing contract or produce a polished project under your own imprint, development editors can help. But only if you do your homework. A bad developmental editor, or one that you chose badly, is worse than no editor at all.

Under what circumstances would you pay an editor? What criteria would you look for?

05 June 2018

Getting the Details Right in a Police Procedural

by Barb Goffman

Police officers' guns are always loaded because they never know when they're going to need them.

This was one of the great tidbits I picked up this past Saturday at my local Sisters in Crime meeting. Our speaker was Mark Bergin, who served on the Alexandria, Virginia, police force for twenty-eight years, retiring in 2014. While on the force, he was twice named his department's officer of the year for drug and robbery investigations. Bergin shared stories and answered questions for over an hour to help us authors get our police details right. Here's some of what he told us. (Any mistakes are mine.) Some of this information I already knew, and maybe you do too, but it's always good to get a refresher:
  • Police work involves a ton of paperwork that you often don't see in novels and short stories.
  • Patrol officers wear twenty-three pounds of gear, such as a radio, gun, extra bullets, a bullet-proof vest.
  • Every cop has extra bullets, handcuffs, radios, pens, and more on them while on duty. 
  • While fictional officers seem to work on one case at a time, real cops are always juggling cases. In the Alexandria police force, the average was six to eight cases at a time, and the officers work each of them as much as they can.
  • Officers always like to sit with their back to the wall, especially when on duty. They want to see the whole room. Bergin called this "hyper-vigilance," and said it especially comes into play when you are in uniform.
  • Cops have a presence that's different from that of other people. Cops look at other people's faces. They give off the impression of being knowledgeable, which is why people often ask them for information such as directions.
  • Ninety percent of an officer's job is maintaining control of a situation. That's done mostly by walking in and being "a presence." Officers also gain control of situations through using a commanding voice, which they're taught, as well as through control holds.
  • Police officers have short hair, look bulky, and are strong. They're not always physically fit because so much of the job is sitting and driving. While on the force, Bergin worked out a lot to have big arms so he'd look like he could win a fight, which was designed to make people not try to fight him.
    Mark Bergin
  • Officers receive extensive training so that they get "muscle memory." In times of crisis, this memory kicks in so they will automatically do things the right way without having to think about it.
  • Cops typically stay in the same police department throughout their career because--unless you are a chief or deputy chief--if you switch departments, you always have to start at the bottom. This is true even of homicide detectives. If an officer moves to a new city and thus a new place of employment, the officer starts out on patrol and has to work his/her way up the ladder again. 
  • Ninety-five percent of the time, prosecutors don't get involved in police cases before an arrest. The exceptions can be for homicides, bank robberies, and when there is a series of crimes that seem to be by the same perpetrator. 
  • Preliminary investigations of most crimes are done by patrol officers. The exceptions are rape and homicide cases, which go to detectives right away.
  • Police investigate missing-person cases immediately; the twenty-four-hour waiting period often portrayed in TV and movies is a myth. However extensive resources may not be immediately available for a search.
  • Patrol officers are strictly controlled in what they are allowed to do. For instance, they must ask for permission to do follow-up work on cases they're interested in that have already been handed off to detectives. 
  • Most cops don't worry about fear interfering with their ability to do their jobs because the hiring process/training program weeds out potential officers with this problem. Potential officers with fear issues either are trained to overcome them or they leave the program.
  • While fear isn't a problem for most officers, stress is. They think they could be attacked at any moment, and thus are always on guard.
  • Ninety to ninety-five percent of police officers never fire their gun at another person.
  • In Alexandria, Virginia, the police department has three shifts of officers working each day. Officers work ten-hour shifts. Eighty-five to ninety percent of each shift is spent on the street. (I didn't get the chance to ask if this information is representative for most departments.) 
I hope I got all these details right. I asked Bergin to drop by today, so if I made any errors, he hopefully will weigh in in the comments. And if you have any questions, please pose them in the comments. I hope he will be able to answer them.

Now that he's retired from police work, Bergin has turned to writing fiction. His first novel, a police procedural titled Apprehension, is scheduled to be published this fall by Inkshares/Quill. More information about the book is available here.

Thanks very much, Mark Bergin!
 

15 May 2018

Giving Thanks

by Barb Goffman

It may be six months until Thanksgiving, but when the urge to thank people moves you, I say, go with your urges.

Writing fiction might feel like working in a vacuum because so much of the time the author is sitting alone in front of a computer, typing away. Even if the writing occurs in a public place, the writer is essentially toiling alone (except for the voices in her head). But we all need help from time to time, and it's a wondrous thing to work in an industry--the mystery community--where people are willing to help others, even eager to do it. They were helped along the way, and they like to give back by helping others.

Take Barbara Ross. She's a mystery writer from New England. Last month she gave a presentation to my local Sisters in Crime chapter in Virginia about promotion--what works and what doesn't. We didn't pay her to do this. She was going to be in the area and has a bit of expertise in this subject and didn't mind spending a chunk of her day sharing her knowledge with others, so she did. Mystery writers do things like this for others all the time. Heck, it's what so many of the blog posts here at SleuthSayers aim to do: help other writers. To all the Barbara Rosses out there, thanks.

There are other people we writers often turn to for assistance: subject-matter experts. I was reminded of this recently when I was answering a question posed to me about my newest short story, "Till Murder Do Us Part." The question was: Do police officers really use peppermint-scented masks to avoid terrible odors at death scenes. (A sheriff's chief deputy wears just such a mask in my story.) And my answer was yes, some do. I got the information from a subject-matter expert who gives his time, free of charge, to help authors get details right. It's also how I knew to call this particular character a chief deputy. So to Lee Lofland and all subject-matter experts who help authors get their  lingo and other details right, thank you.

You don't have to be a professional in any particular field, however, to have useful information for an author. Personal experience can be wonderfully helpful. When I was writing "Till Murder Do Us Part," I needed to know what it looked, smelled, and sounded like when a cow exploded. There's only so much information I could find online. I needed someone with personal experience to answer my questions. Bless my Facebook friends; they came through. None of these people are farmers, but they all spent time on farms growing up, had firsthand knowledge with exploding cows, and didn't mind providing pertinent details. So thank you to my friends Bob Harris, Gwen Mayo, and Teresa Wilder for their help with these details. And thank you to everyone I know who has, over the years, shared personal information that enabled me to get details right. Everyone is an expert in their own lives, after all. You just need to know who to ask about what.

For instance, if you need information about writing, ask some writers. Just today, I had a friend who was feeling down because she hasn't yet had luck selling her first novel. (It's great--I've read it--but sometimes these things take time. Not every agent is right for every author and book.) I figured it might help her to hear from other authors who had a lot of rejection before they had success, so I asked my Facebook friends to share their stories. And did they. About thirty authors shared their stories of querying and querying and querying until, finally, they had success.
Not the right paper for professional
queries, but very pretty





Three of these authors sent out more than 400 queries each, and for two of them, when they finally got published, their first book was nominated for major awards. These are perfect examples of the importance of persistence. Hearing these personal stories helped my friend, and my heart was warmed that so many people shared what some might think is embarrassing information in order to help another writer have confidence to continue querying. Rejection is just a step on the journey to success, but it's never easy. So to all my fellow authors who shared their stories on my Facebook page yesterday, and to authors everywhere who regularly share their insights to help others get published, thank you.

The list of people to thank feels endless, which is lovely, because it shows that wherever you turn, there are helpful people. Thank you to the agents, editors, and publishers who have taken a chance on me and other writers. Every one of us was new at some point and needed someone to give us our big break. Thank you to all of you who've done that.

Thank you to the bookstores, librarians, reviewers, and bloggers who buy our books and share them with the world. You help make our dreams come true. And finally, we authors would be nowhere without readers. You buy our books, enabling us to buy our food and feed our dreams. So thank you.

Before I end, a little BSP with a little more thanks thrown in: First, the launch party for Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (in which I have my cow story, "Till Murder Do Us Part") is this Sunday, May 20th, at the Central Library in Arlington, VA, from 2 - 4 p.m. If you're in the DC area, I hope you'll come to the event and share in our celebration. Books will be sold and snacks will be served.

Second, this past week I was honored to have my short story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" nominated for an Anthony Award, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor and authors Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. You can read my story on my website by clicking here. Art's story is available here. Debra's story is available here. Hopefully Susanna's, Jen's, and Hilary's stories will be available to read for free online soon. In the meanwhile, you can buy the books these stories were published in. Congratulations also to SleuthSayers Thomas Pluck, nominated in the best paperback original category, and Paul Marks, nominated in the best anthology category.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to send in ballots for the Anthony Award nominations, and especially thanks to everyone who listed my story on their ballot. With so many good stories published each year, receiving an honor like this is, well, an honor. A true honor. So ... thanks.

If you have someone you'd like to mention or thank who helped you on your life's journey, I welcome you to do it in the comments. And thanks for reading.