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

30 March 2021

What Drives Me ... And Maybe You Too


Why do people write fiction?

  • For enjoyment? That seems likely. 
  • For money? I guess that could be true, although except for a lucky few, writing fiction is certainly not the road to riches many people probably presume it is. 
  • Because they feel compelled to? I've heard people say that.
  • Because they are good at it (or fancy they are) and are driven by the need for praise and validation? Ding ding ding, we have a winner. 

If the question is why I write fiction, my answer is enjoyment and, I'm embarrassed to say, the need for praise. That became glaringly clear last week when something happened--I'll keep the details to myself--and I realized that far too much of my self-worth is wrapped up in the need for positive feedback on my work.

I would think that this far into my writing career, especially considering that I have had a fair amount of success, the joy I derive from the act of writing should be enough. I shouldn't need validation on top of that. But I do. 

No matter how much I enjoy writing (yes, sometimes it's a slog, but sometimes it's not), when I'm finished, I immediately crave feedback. That's why I used to send stories out more quickly than I do now, often too quickly, because I couldn't help myself. Thankfully, in the past few years I've become stronger, giving my stories time to cool so I can give them a good edit before I send them out, but it's a struggle each time I get to the end. I probably still send some stories out too quickly, resulting in unhappy rejections.

This is why I am much more excited on a day a story is accepted for publication than on actual publication day. A story's acceptance is direct feedback that someone I respect liked it enough to decide to publish it. The acceptance email might even have some comments about what the editor liked about the story. Publication day likely doesn't involve that same kind of feedback. Sure I might hear from people who congratulate me on the publication--and I'm not knocking that feedback at all; bring it on!--but such words are different from someone reading the story itself and telling me that they liked it and, even better, why. Some stories are published and I never hear any feedback from readers regarding whether they liked it. I may never even know if it's read. It can be a bit of a letdown.

That's why I read my reviews. It's why I search for them. Some of you reading this are probably shaking your head at me. "Never read your reviews!" I've heard the advice more than once. But still they pull at me like a drug. I seek them out. I bet some of you reading this column do too.

As someone who was raised in a home that emphasized academic achievement, I can understand how I ended up this way. A good primary-school student does homework that is returned regularly, often with check marks or stars. As the student gets older, there are tests and report cards that hopefully have the expected high grades, which result in praise or acknowledgement that you met familial expectations. I was primed my whole life while growing up to want the positive feedback that comes from doing a good job. And that desire hasn't disappeared now that I'm an adult who writes fiction. Instead, I'm like Pavlov's dog. Whenever I've put in the work and written what I believe is a good short story, I crave corresponding (hopefully positive) feedback.

I recognize that I shouldn't place so much power over my self-image in the hands (and the words) of others. I should derive joy from the act of writing, especially since I have enough experience to know when my work is good. I should not need external validation. But I do.

Perhaps others do too. I likely am not alone in this. This is why I urge readers to let authors know if you read their stories or books and like them. Public reviews or comments are good, but even a private email would be fine. It doesn't have to be detailed like a book report or written well enough to get an A. An email that said, "I just read X and it made me laugh. Thank you," would make me float all day long.

And now I open this blog to your (hopefully kind) comments. You know how much I love feedback.  

 ***

But first, a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" was named a finalist last week for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story published last year. (Talk about external validation!) It appeared in the September/October  2020 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Also nominated in my category are my fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, as well as Shawn Reilly Simmons, Gabriel Valjan, and James Ziskin. 

The Agatha winners will be announced in July during More Than Malice, this year's online Malice Domestic convention. You can learn more about the convention (and register at an early-bird price) here. And if you'd like to read my nominated story, you can read it by clicking here. Or you can listen to me read it to you on the Ellery Queen podcast by clicking here. The story runs for 32 minutes. Enjoy!

09 March 2021

Saying yes when you want to say NO!


I'm a person who has trouble saying no, at least in professional situations. In private, no problem:

"Want to come visit?" No! Why would I do that? I love being home.

"Want to try this meal made of foods you've never heard of before?" No! Perhaps you've mistaken me for an adventurous person.

"Want to go to a club?" (This was back in my twenties.) Oh God, do I have to? I mean, I know I should. I'm not meeting single men sitting at home with a book, but I like sitting at home with a book. So ... no. (Actually, back then the answer probably would have been "sure," in a frak-why-did-I-answer-the-phone tone. Then, as the minutes would tick closer and closer to the time to head out, my introverted side would say, "What the heck were you thinking? You're not going anywhere." And I'd cancel.)

But for professional matters, no is much harder for me. When you just start out as an author, you'd do anything to be invited to be on a panel or to edit an anthology or write a story for one, or any number of things like that. So whenever opportunities come, I feel like I have to jump at every one. You never know when the offers will stop coming. 

But time is finite. So is energy. Often something has to give. Sometimes you just have to say no. 

I have said yes to too many things lately, so I've started saying no (and feeling really bad about it). The thing I'm saying no to today is writing this blog. I don't mean I'm leaving SleuthSayers. I'm talking about today's entry. It was going to be about coincidences, but I just don't have the time it would take to craft the kind of column I would want it to be. The mere thought of trying to fit it into my schedule is exhausting. That blog is going to have to wait for another day.

For those of you out there struggling with the feeling that you have to say yes to everything, I hear you. The struggle is real. It's okay, though, to say no at times, to put yourself, your sanity, your need for sleep and less stress, first. 

So there is no blog on coincidences today. Instead there's emotional support for those who need it. If you want to say no, just do it. And if you need backup, tell 'em: Barb said it's okay. 

Because it is.

16 February 2021

When Red Herrings Stink


I'm going to go out on a limb and say something that may be controversial, at least among writers: Readers should understand why a red herring (something that is said or happens in a novel or story that leads the reader to a false conclusion) was not the solution to the puzzle by the time the tale is over.

Until recently I didn't think this was a controversial opinion. I thought it was a standard approach to writing mysteries. Sure, I'd sometimes heard authors say before that they didn't need to explain by the end of their stories why Character X said Y because Y was a red herring, but I thought they were mistaken, and since I wasn't their teacher, it wasn't my place to correct their misguided notion. But recently I edited a story by an author I respect, someone who's a solid writer, and the issue arose. Since I was this person's editor, it was my job to say my piece.

I'm going to talk about the story, but I'm completely changing the names and plot so that you can't identify the author because who this person is doesn't matter. In the whodunit story, Princess Consuella tells Annie the Amateur Sleuth that murder suspect Bad Bad Leroy Brown lied about something, based on personal observation, and therefore, it seems, Leroy must be the killer. Princess Consuella was believable and seemed absolutely certain, so I suspect most readers would have finished that scene believing Leroy had indeed lied and thus must have been the killer. It's what I thought. Yet at the end of the story, I learned I'd been fooled. Leroy may be bad, but he never killed anyone--at least not in that story.

I raised the problem with the author--that no explanation of Princess Consuella's statement about Bad Bad Leroy Brown was provided by the story's end. Either Leroy did lie (which by the story's end didn't seem right, since we never learned any reason Leroy would have lied about the issue in question) or the princess had been wrong (but how could that have been true, since she had seen with her own eyes the thing she was certain Leroy lied about, and it wasn't the type of thing that could have been misunderstood, and she had no reason to lie, either). The reader would be left wondering how to reconcile this situation, so some  explanation should be provided, I said. The author pushed back, saying that no explanation was necessary since it was a red herring designed to fool the reader into thinking the wrong suspect was the killer. The reader learns who the actual killer is by the end, and that's what matters, the author said; we don't need to revisit the red herring. 

That response prompted me to do some research about red herrings. Had I been wrong all these years? Did red herrings, by their very nature, not require explanation? To my surprise, I found nothing addressing this issue. There are a lot of articles about crafting solid red herrings, but I found nothing addressing the idea that red herrings should be explained by a story's end, that the reader should be able to understand how she got fooled. Even now, some time later, I remain quite surprised, because if authors can toss in red herrings without eventually providing an explanation for them, it makes writing too easy. It feels like a cheat.

In the case of Bad Bad Leroy Brown, sure, he could have been lying for reasons the reader never learns, despite seeming to have no reason to lie. Alternately, Princess Consuella could have lied for reasons the reader never learns about or she could have been wrong, despite being so certain and giving the reader no reason to explain how she could have been so mistaken. It certainly would make life easy for authors if they could write red herrings that didn't have to be explained in the end, but I think it would leave readers with a bad taste in their mouths. That is why I believe such scenarios need to be resolved. Did Leroy lie and why? Or did the princess get it wrong and how could that be? Without an explanation, the red herring feels contrived. It makes me feel like the author was playing games with me. 

This is why I recommended the author use a little misdirection when the red herring was introduced. More specifically, I suggested that when the princess called Leroy a liar, the author should use the wiggle word "recall" in the dialogue. Notice the slight difference:

Scenario A: The princess slams her hand on the table, its sound echoing throughout the castle. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown is a liar! I was sitting right next to him in the dungeon cafe last week, and he didn't leave money for his meal on the table when he left. I wonder what else he's lying about. I bet he rips off restaurants throughout the kingdom all the time. He's a rip-off artist."

Scenario B: The princess slams her hand on the table, its sound echoing throughout the castle. "Bad Bad Leroy Brown is a liar! I was sitting right next to him in the dungeon cafe last week, and I don't recall him leaving money for his meal on the table when he left. I wonder what else he's lying about. I bet he rips off restaurants throughout the kingdom all the time. He's a rip-off artist."

In Scenario A, the reader ends the story shrugging, thinking Leroy (who has a reputation for honesty, despite his name) had no reason to lie when he said he paid for his lunch, yet the princess's adamant accusation against Leroy remains unexplained. (She too had no reason to lie and her certainty indicated she hadn't made a mistake.)  In Scenario B, the reader can go back and reread the language of the princess's accusation and think, "Oh. The author fooled me."

Here's why Scenario B works: Because (1) the reader has no reason to think the princess lied; (2) the princess seems so certain, so the reader will believe her account; and (3) the princess distracts the reader by slamming the table, muttering about what else Leroy might have lied about, and declaring that he's a rip-off artist, the reader easily could read right past the key words--the princess didn't recall Leroy leaving his payment. When the reader gets to the end of the story, she could flip back to reread the princess's accusation and think, "Oh! It was right there. She merely didn't remember it. I was distracted by her certainty. I was fooled fair and square." That's the way to make a red herring work. That's the way to make the reader feel satisfied rather than feeling played.

Alternately, the reader could learn by the story's end that Leroy did lie for reasons unrelated to the murder. If there was a good reason for his lie, especially something that worked well with the plot, then revealing both the lie and the reason for it could have elevated the story. It also could have left the reader feeling satisfied because, while she was fooled, she wasn't played for a fool. Distracting the reader into missing a key word is playing fair with the reader. In contrast, dropping a lie into the story to fool the reader without any ultimate explanation isn't playing fair,  not to me, at least.

So that's my advice about red herrings. If you're going to use them,  make sure they're explained by the end so they don't seem contrived. Otherwise, you're taking an easy way out and you're not playing fair with the reader. Just like fish that sits out too long, that approach stinks.

I welcome your comments on this issue. And if I'm wrong and there are tons of articles addressing this subject and I need to brush up on my research skills, please share that information too.

***

In other news, here's a little BSP: I recently had a new short story published. "An Inconvenient Sleuth" appears in issue eight of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. In this whodunit, Kendra Silver, Dogwood Valley's celebrated amateur sleuth, is murdered. Who saw that coming? Certainly not anyone who thought  Kendra was invincible because she led a cozy life in a cozy town. But now that someone has killed Kendra, her best friend, Whitney, feels compelled to help the police unmask the culprit.  

Black Cat Mystery Magazine is available in trade paperback and ebooks from all the usual sources. You also can buy it directly from the publisher, Wildside Press, by clicking here.

26 January 2021

Don't Kill the Dog: An Examination of this Fiction Dictum


Don't kill the dog. This advice is commonly given to fiction authors. Readers will put up with a lot, but they won't put up with a dead dog. Or cat. Being a lover of furry friends, I can understand, though I don't hold such a hard line. For me, the question is if the animal's death--or even the animal's jeopardy--is necessary for the story. 

Before you go any further, let me warn you that the rest of this column includes spoilers about some old books, movies, and a couple of my stories. I hope you'll keep reading anyway.

I gave up on a TV series once when a dog was killed just to show how far the bad guy (in that case, a bad gal) would go. The show could have achieved the same effect in another way, so I dropped the series in disgust. Similarly, I once read a cozy (a cozy!) in which a horse was killed. I decided I was done with the author after that because the horse's death wasn't necessary for the story. It was gratuitous, and that crossed a line for me. 

In contrast, I have watched the heartbreaking movie Hachi: A Dog's Tale several times. Based on a true story, it involves a dog in Japan that had no closure after his person died, so he spent the rest of his life living at the train station where he last saw his person, waiting hopefully for the man to come home on the  next train, until the dog ultimately died of old age. That movie bothered me because I disagreed with the dog's family's decision to allow him to live his life waiting for a man who would never return, until he dog eventually died sad and alone. But the movie was based on a true story about a dog named Hachiko, and the dog's actions were the basis for the movie, so I accept the plot, and I happily (and sadly) grab a box of tissues and settle in each time the movie comes on. (Richard Gere being in it doesn't hurt either.)

I've also watched Turner & Hooch a number of times. This wonderfully funny movie stars Tom Hanks as a police detective who takes on the care of an ornery dog who witnessed a murder. Hanks's character grows to love the dog, and when the dog dies at the end, it's heartbreaking. Granted the dog didn't have to die. The people who made the movie could have let him live. But the death was important to the story, and it wasn't done for mere shock value. Therefore, I accept it, though I still cry every time it happens.

What differentiates movies like Turner & Hooch, Hachi, and even Old Yeller, where I could put up the animals' heartbreaking deaths, and the books and TV series I mentioned above, is that in these movies the animals' deaths are not gratuitous. They are instrumental to the story lines. (Note: I've never seen or read Old Yeller. I know what its story is, and I could never watch this movie because the dog in it looks very much like my old dog, Scout. It would be too difficult.)

I know not everyone draws the same line in the sand that I do. For some people, any animal's death, or even an animal's jeopardy, is too much. It's why I worried before my story "Alex's Choice" was published in 2019 whether readers would be done with me because I put a dog in jeopardy. I feared readers might stop at that point--about two-thirds into the story--thinking the dog had died, never to learn that there is a happy ending. But the dog's jeopardy is vital to the story, so I went with it. I similarly worried before my story "An Officer and a Gentleman's Agreement" was published about a decade ago because it involves a dead goat. That death is the conflict from which the plot unfurls, so it wasn't gratuitous and thus passed my personal test of acceptability, but I know it might not pass all readers' tests.

I decided to write about this topic today because earlier this month CrimeReads.com ran a column about why killing dogs is the one line that crime writers can't cross. It was a good column, which analyzed why we feel this way about dogs. You can read it here. But I disagreed with the columnist's conclusion that the reason readers won't put up with the death of dogs in crime fiction is that such dogs can't get justice under the law, unlike murdered humans.

More specifically, the author said that animals, particularly dogs, shouldn't be killed in fiction because there's no legal penalty commensurate with the violation, and thus no true justice can be achieved for the animals. That, the author said, is why readers can't stomach such killings. 

She went on to say that you don't go to jail for killing a dog. Well, that may be true in her home country of Australia (and it's surprising if it's accurate), but it's not true in the United States. Laws vary by state, of course, but they're getting stricter all the time. In my state of Virginia, animal cruelty is a class-six felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500. This isn't one of those laws that's on the books but is never used. That five-year prison sentence has been handed out. Yet even knowing that someone could go to prison for five years (should be more) for killing a dog or cat in my state, I still cringe at the thought of reading something like that in a book, and I cringe at the idea of writing it, and I'll only put up with it if it feels to be a considered choice on the author's part, one that's vital to the story, not made just for shock value.

I think killing a dog (and cat and all other pets, but particularly dogs) in fiction is generally verboten because dogs, like little children, are inherently trusting and cute. (Sorry, but cute probably plays a role.) No matter if you neglect them or mistreat them, they love and trust you anyway. I recognize that there are exceptions for some abusive situations, but overall, I believe my premise holds. Dogs might love their family members more than they do other people, but many (most?) dogs are loving to everyone. Consequently, killing a dog (in real life and in fiction) is not just an amoral act of violence, but it also involves breaking a bond of trust between a complete innocent and a person they trust inherently, especially if that person is who the dog looks to for their care and for their love.

That loyalty and willingness to follow any command, trusting that you have their best interests at heart, makes the animal helpless, in a way. It's why they'll wait for you forever, like in Hachi. It's why they'll risk their lives for you, even if not asked to do so. In Turner & Hooch, the dog gets shot because he is trying to protect Hanks's character. It's a sense of loyalty you rarely see among humans. That is what tugs at readers' heartstrings. And that is why fiction readers can put up with murdered humans but they can't stand reading about the death of  animals, even if some readers, like me, will put up with deaths and jeopardy that are instrumental to their story lines.  

It's not a matter of the animal not being able to get justice that's the problem. It's the betrayal of the animal's trust that readers can't stomach. So if you're going to do it, fellow authors, you better have a damn good reason for it, and you better do it with sensitivity too.

05 January 2021

Birthplace of a Story


Most anyone who's had their fiction published has likely been asked this question: Where do you get your ideas? It's a common enough question that it's spawned a standard joke answer: The Plot Store. My real answer most of the time is, I have no idea. Ideas just pop into my head. I expect that's true with many (perhaps most, maybe all) writers. But sometimes I can point to a story's inspiration.

That's the case with one of the stories I had published in December, "A Family Matter." While driving a few years ago, I passed a house with a clothesline. They certainly aren't uncommon, but for whatever reason it made me remember a story my mom once told about moving into the neighborhood where I grew up. This was in 1962, years before I was born. One day shortly after my parents and siblings moved in, my mom was in the backyard hanging up the laundry on a clothesline when one of the next-door neighbors hurried over to tell my mom that drying laundry on a clothesline just wasn't done there. My mom needed to get a dryer to fit in. I don't know if this story is true or not (my mom sometimes told tales), but seeing that clothesline evoked that memory, from which grew "A Family Matter," a story set in 1962 suburbia about what happens when new neighbors violate the unwritten social code. The story is published in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

That story isn't the first one to spring from me mining my memories. An elementary-school teacher who humiliated me in an attempt to get me to be a better public speaker was the impetus for my story "The Wrong Girl." (If you've read that story, you'll know never to tell me I speak too quickly--even if I do.) "Stepmonster" sprung from anger over my father's perhaps preventable death. "Whose Wine is it Anyway" was the result of my incredulous comment to a work colleague: "I have to plan my own goodbye party?!" An elementary school librarian calling me "an evil little girl" resulted in the story named, no surprise, "Evil Little Girl." And my first published story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," is about a mystery writer who has a ring stolen at a mystery conference, which is just what happened to me. I vowed to make something good come from that bad event, and I did.

The other main source of my story ideas (when I can figure out the source) is the news. It feels bad to say that I hear about someone else's misfortune and think: I can use that! But I'm sure I'm not the only author who does it. "Compulsive Bubba" grew out of a terrible accidental death in which someone waited in a car while it warmed up, not knowing the car's exhaust pipe was covered with snow and the carbon monoxide was backing up into the car. I got the idea for "Ulterior Motives" after reading about an Oregon county whose residents voted down a bond referendum to fund the police department, which resulted in them having police only part time. "Have Gun, Won't Travel" came about after reading about an Ansel Adams print worth a lot of money that sold at a garage sale for practically nothing because the seller didn't realize who created it. (The story was later debunked, but it gave me my idea nonetheless.) "Alex's Choice" was prompted by the horrific death of a family after one of them went into the ocean to save their dog, and when that person didn't come out, the next person went in to save him, and it went from there.

I have other published stories I could add to the sparked-by-the-news list, but since those events figure into story twists, I'm not going to mention them lest someone out there hasn't read those stories yet.

A side effect of admitting you used a real-life event as a story springboard is having people ask if everything in the story really happened. That's a big no. That's why it's called fiction. But just in case you're wondering:

I never tried to kill my fifth-grade teacher.

I never tried to get revenge on the person who found and kept the ring I lost at Sleuthfest (the fact that I don't know who it was is irrelevant, I assure you).

I never tried to kill the woman who was dating my father when he died.

I never tried to kill my boss (none of them, really).

Nothing in "A Family Matter" is based on real life except that clothesline incident (in case anyone has read the story and is wondering).

And I really was not an evil little girl, despite what that school librarian thought. But if you think otherwise, well, it might be best not to tell me. It's always better to be safe than sorry. After all, you wouldn't want to end up on the news, giving someone else a good story idea, would you?

****

If you want to read any of the stories I mentioned above, you can find them listed on my website, along with where they were published. Just click here. And in case you missed my last post, I had three stories published recently: "A Family Matter," discussed above, in the January/February AHMM; "That Poor Woman," a flash story in the January/February Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; and "Second Chance" in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir.

Happy reading!

15 December 2020

Four New Stories, Three This Week, Two Out Today, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree


This is a good month for me writing-wise:

  • I had a new story published yesterday: "Second Chance" in the anthology Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. 
  • Today is the publication day for two more stories: "A Family Matter" in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and "That Poor Woman" in the January/February 2021 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
  • A fourth story, "An Inconvenient Sleuth," is scheduled to be published later this month in issue eight of Black Cat Mystery Magazine
Except when I had five new stories published at once (when my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, came out in 2013 with five new stories and ten reprints), I've never had so many stories published in one day, one week, or one even month. I've also never had stories published in AHMM and EQMM at the same time. It's a nice way to end a year, especially this year.

I generally like to talk about stories when they're available for purchase. So here's information about the three new stories that are already out:

"Second Chance" is a tale of twin brothers who were placed in separate foster homes at age ten. Now eighteen, one finds the other, but the reunion is not the stuff of Hallmark movies. I hope you'll consider picking up a copy of Mickey Finn. It's published in ebook and trade paperback, with twenty stories perfect for the noir reader on your holiday gift list. You can buy it from all the usual sources, as well as from the publisher here.

"A Family Matter" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is set in 1962, the closest I've ever come to a historical story. In this tale, Doris and her neighbors are determined to move up the ladder of success together. When a new family that moves in next door doesn't know the unwritten social code, Doris makes it her business to help them conform. This story was inspired by something that happened to my mom when my parents and siblings (years before I showed up) moved into a new neighborhood.

"That Poor Woman" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is a flash story about a crime victim who takes the law into her own hands.

You can find individual issues of AHMM and EQMM at bookstores and newsstands. For a paper subscription of either magazine--or both, they make a great holiday gift--click here for AHMM and here for EQMM. As of 11 p.m. last night (Monday night), the new issues scheduled for publication today (Tuesday) aren't up yet on the AHMM and EQMM websites, but they should be soon.

You can also get electronic individual issues as well as subscriptions for your Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other readers. Learn more here about EQMM and here about AHMM. (Because I've had friends unable to easily find the Kindle pages before, here's the EQMM Amazon link and here's the AHMM link.)

I'll talk about "An Inconvenient Sleuth" next month, after the issue of BCMM comes out.

It's interesting that these four stories are all coming out in the same month because I didn't write them all around the same time. I wrote "Second Chance" in 2014, "A Family Matter" in January of 2018, "An Inconvenient Sleuth" in February of 2018, and "That Poor Woman" in October of 2019. As you can imagine, some stories take a long time to sell. (I submitted "A Second Chance" five times before Michael Bracken took a chance on it. (See what I did there?)) Other stories sell on their first submission. But no matter how long it takes for a story to sell and then be published, I'm always glad when a new story comes out. So that makes this week--and this month--a good time for me.

I'll be back in 2021. In the meanwhile, happy holidays and happy reading.

24 November 2020

So Many Murder Methods, So Little Time


How can I kill you? Let me count the ways.

Last month, I was on a Bouchercon panel titled What's A Weapon: Choosing Ways to Murder. We had a fun hour-long discussion of inventive ways to commit murder. You can watch it here. Knowing that my memory often isn't great, before the panel I made a list of all the murder methods I've used in my published short stories, as well as how many times I've killed someone that way. I read the list during the panel, omitting guns, knives, and poisons, because we'd been told the panel's focus was supposed to be unusual methods of murder. Guns, knives, and poisons were all been-there-done-that. But I like the usual methods, so here's my list, including guns, knives, and poisons (oh my!).

My preferred ways to kill (or at least go down trying)

Poison: Six times

Causing a fatal allergic reaction: Five times

Shoving/Tripping down the stairs/hill: Four times

Strangulation: Four times (three with your hands, once with twinkle lights)

Shooting: Three times

Hitting with a car: Three times 

Stabbing: Twice

Bashing with a rock: Once

Bashing with a shovel: Once

Carbon monoxide poisoning: Once

Chimney asphyxiation: Once*

Getting eaten by an alligator:  Once

Overdose of medication: Once 

* I would never kill Santa. Well, probably not. But it was a good illustration for chimney asphyxiation.

Takeaways

They say that poison is a woman's game. For me, at least, that seems to be true. It's my go-to method. It doesn't require brute force, just the sneakiness and will to do it and the patience to wait for it to work. I have all of those qualities in abundance. I mean, my characters do.

Trying to get someone to die from an allergic reaction is similar to killing via poison, since for the victim, the food or medicine would have a similar affect to poisoning. But while you could use a particular poison to kill anyone, killing via allergic reaction requires knowledge of the victim's allergy and how that allergic reaction could play out. Therefore, it requires more due diligence on the part of the killer. As such, I put it in its own category. You might categorize your murder methods differently, of course. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. Your local police department does as well.

Killing someone by shoving them down the stairs or accidentally tripping them is a wonderful method because it could be viewed as an accidental death. Of course, in fiction people probably die from falls much more often than happens in real life. In the real world, a person tumbling down a staircase might merely break a few bones and the would-be-murderer has to try again. So if you want to kill this way, make sure you have it in you to be persistent, because you very well may have to be.

Of course, some murders can't be planned. You have to take your opportunities when they come. So if you're lucky enough to have your stalker try to sneak into your house through your chimney and he gets stuck (look it up--people, burglars especially, get stuck in chimneys a lot), you could simply light a fire and wait for karma to play out. "I'm so sorry, officer. I had no idea someone was in the chimney. I was just cold." And sorry, I don't mean to make light of stalking. Funny how making light of murder doesn't bother me, but making light of stalking gives me pause.

Strangulation is another method of the would-be killer who's caught with an unexpected opportunity. You may not have a gun or knife on you when you find your evil mother-in-law alone, and she might not be loitering at the top of a staircase just waiting for you. But you always have your hands on you (I hope). Hands are so handy that way. (I know, that was terrible.) If you get the chance to strangle someone and you have a fun thing to do it with at your disposal--such as twinkle lights--I urge you to make use of it. Readers do want to be entertained.

Some murder methods only happen in Florida. When I was a newspaper reporter back in the '90s, you often would hear about weird news stories that came over the wire. Inevitably, 99 percent of the time, they happened in Florida. It was such a regular occurrence that I bet you could tell any person who's worked in the media about a weird news story, and the automatic response would be, "Florida, right?" So when I wrote a story for the 2018 Bouchercon anthology Florida Happens, I came up with what I thought was a quintessential Florida murder method: a man tries to train an alligator that lives in the lake behind their house to eat his wife. And like murder via twinkle lights, it was fun to write. (Hmmm. That Florida story also involved pushing the wife down the hill toward the alligator. I didn't include that in my list--pushing someone down a hill. It needs updating. ... Done.)

I have some more fun methods of murder coming up in stories not yet published. But I don't want to ruin the surprise, so you'll have to wait. 

In the meanwhile, I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and that you don't murder anyone in your family. As much as you might be tempted, murder really is best left for fiction.

03 November 2020

When News Gathering and Entertainment Values Collide


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 October 2020

You're Invited to Check out Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder


Last week the ninth volume in the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series, Invitation to Murder, was published by Wildside Press. Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I have been editing these books together since volume four, when I joined the team. The series, showcasing stories from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, has had remarkable success: twenty-six nominations for major short story awards (thirteen Agathas, four Anthonys, three Derringers, five Macavitys, and one Thriller) and eight wins (four Agathas, one Anthony, one Derringer, and two Macavitys). Donna, Marcia, and I are hopeful that readers will enjoy this newest volume just as much. With that in mind, I'm going to talk about the stories in their order of appearance in the book, with a brief description of each and what I think makes it special. 

The book begins with "The Dame and Thadeus Birdwhistle" by Karen Cantwell. In this story, two uppercrust Bostonians learn, to their dismay, that their brilliant and previously polite young son has begun writing a dime detective novel, and he's adopted the lingo and attitudes of his characters. When the boy's mother tries to discover how he's learned the things he knows, she stumbles into a mystery of her own. This is a quirky, delightful story, with dialogue that sings. 

"Secrets to the Grave" by K.M. Rockwood. A proper older woman finds herself the victim of blackmail. But just because she's proper doesn't mean she's a pushover. This story has a wonderful tone. While it's not set in England, I think it will appeal to anyone who enjoys Golden Age mysteries set in small English villages.

"The Mysterious Affair at the Escape Room" by Leone Ciporin. Several relatives, most of whom don't like each other, go to an escape room. The room pays homage to Agatha Christie--as do the events that transpire in that room. This story has a clever premise that pays off in the end.

"The Do-Gooder" by Adam Meyer. When it seems a rich woman isn't subject to the same rules as everyone else, a homeless woman takes it upon herself to see that justice is served. Meyer really brought the main character to life. A wonderful example of deep point of view in action.

"The Problem with Open-Ended Invitations" by Cathy Wiley. When a friend needs a place to stay for a little while, Cynthia offers her a room. And then the friend stays and stays and stays. This story's plot twists and turns in deliciously unexpected directions.

"Muggins" by Josh Pachter. Two cribbage players square off in the park, talking about the game and their lives. This story is a great example of using subtext to propel a plot forward.

"The Killing Winds" by Mary Stojak. After someone tries to kill a PI's assistant, he takes the woman on a trip to Chile, hoping to outrun the gunman. Stojak does a great job with the setting, putting the reader right there with the wind and the mist and the danger of hiking in Patagonia.

"Make New Friends, But Keep the Old" by Jane Limprecht. This is a whodunit set at a retirement home. Limprecht's plot goes in unexpected directions while addressing the important social issue of financial crimes involving the elderly.

"Good Morning, Green Leaf Class" by Sarah Cotter. This story is told entirely via emails among parents of a pre-school class whose prior teacher died, seemingly by accident. A wonderfully structured story that shows the importance of reading between the lines.

"The Great Bedbug Incident and the Invitation of Doom" by Eleanor Cawood Jones. A woman goes to London to attend an event, but when her hotel room has bedbugs and she has to get another one, she winds up in the middle of a murder mystery. Jones showcases her amusing voice with witty dialogue and exposition, including her choice of details.

"Guns and Yoga" by Maureen Klovers. When a gun store seeks to open in an upscale neighborhood, activists' tempers stretch beyond a community meeting. Klovers makes good use of multiple points of view to enable the reader empathize with characters on both sides of the debate.

"RFP/RIP" by Britt Alan. A team of government contractors is working night and day to get a proposal ready for submission. That would be enough to drive anyone to murder. And it does ... This is a story with motives as complex as the characters.

"Aumakua" by Maddi Davidson. Two surfers in Hawaii discuss island folklore while one of them tries to discover the location of missing treasure. Davidson brings Hawaiian culture to life by mixing the islands' history and language into her thriller.

"The Color of Envy" by Joanna Campbell Slan. Set in early 1900s Charleston, two teenaged cousins vie for the same man. An interesting take on the Cinderella story, with some cool science thrown into the mix.

"True Colors" by Robin Templeton. The wife of a high-powered politician takes steps to ensure her past remains a secret. Templeton weaves the main character's backstory deftly into the plot so that it pushes the story forward at each step.

"All Tomorrow's Parties" by Art Taylor. A woman with a drinking problem is determined to put her past behind her and lock down a better future--or die trying. This is another story that brings the main character to life through intricate use of deep point of view, as well as the engaging writing style for which Taylor is well known.

"Sunnyside" by Stacy Woodson. After a life on the run from the mob, Michael ends up in the same retirement home as the guy who's been gunning for him for decades. This story has a great voice, especially the contrast between the main character's dialogue and thoughts.

So that's it. Seventeen stories. I hope you're intrigued enough to pick up the book. Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder is available in trade paperback and ebook formats. If you've already read some or all of the anthology, I'd love your feedback in the comments.

And before I go, this year's Bouchercon will be this Friday and Saturday online. If you've registered to attend, I hope you'll check out my panel, What's a Weapon: Choosing Ways to Murder. I'll be talking about murder methods beyond guns, knives, and poisons with Tori Eldridge, Linda Joffe Hull, and Tessa Wegert, with Alec Peche moderating. The panel starts at 6 p.m. ET (3 p.m. PT) on Saturday. 

And don't forget to watch the pre-taped opening ceremonies, where the Macavity Awards will be announced. I'm up for best short story--fingers crossed! And then tune in for the Anthony Awards gala Saturday at 8 p.m. ET (5 p.m. PT), where I'll be up for the Anthony for best anthology for Crime Travel. Fingers crossed again!


22 September 2020

Let's delve into some word usage issues


English is an interesting, intricate language. No matter how much I know, there's always more to learn. Today I'm continuing an occasional series on words and their usage.

In versus Into

Did you know there's a difference between when to use in versus into? I didn't until I got a recent copy edit back on a story coming out later this year. The copy editor didn't explain why one word was right and the other wrong, but thankfully, we have a little thing called the internet these days, so I was able to consult the quite helpful Cambridge Dictionary. It explained that you use in when addressing where someone or something is right now. You use into when addressing where someone or something is going. Right now, for instance, I am in my kitchen. Later I will walk into my bedroom. I can toss a scrap of paper into the recycle bin. When it lands, it will be in the bin.

What is up with the word up?

There are so many words and word phrases that include the word up, and I see people use the wrong spelling often. For instance, should you use ...
  • setup or set up
  • hookup or hook up
  • makeup or make up
  • pickup or pick up
  • breakup or break up
  • giveup or give ... wait, there's no such word as giveup. Never mind. 
But as to the others, here's the general rule: When you're using the word as a noun, use one word. When you want a verb, use two words. Here are some examples:

  • I set up the camera so it was aimed at the table setup, enabling me to catch the silverware thief.
  • The evil man laughed and said, "I set up your sister for the fall, and it worked." The honorable man replied, "I knew it was a setup, and now the police do too." Then he revealed the wire under his shirt.
  • I hooked up the customer's disabled car to my tow truck, hoping we'd have a hookup later.
  • On the way out of the bar with Jim, my newest hookup, I ran smack into Bob, the tow-truck driver I hooked up with yesterday.
  • My friend Ann hasn't spoken to me since I dropped her makeup bag and her favorite eye shadow cracked. She won't make up with me, no matter how much I beg.
  • The makeup of my days has changed since I stopped begging Ann to make up with me. Now instead of wasting all my time on unanswered texts, I'm hooking up with her boyfriend. (See, hook up can be helpful in all kinds of scenarios.)
  • My brother stole a red pickup. Now he gets to pick up trash by the side of the road as part of his sentence.
  • I wanted to break up with Troy, but my last five breakups happened in this bar too, so I decided to wait until tomorrow and do it over the phone. I'm nice that way.
Sorry to be brief, but I'm out of time. Hope this has been helpful.

01 September 2020

The appeal of epistolary stories


I have a new short story published this month: "Dear Emily Etiquette" in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It's a story told in a series of letters between an increasingly annoyed woman who's invited to her cousin's wedding--but only if she brings a date--and advice columnist Emily Etiquette. This was my first attempt at writing an epistolary story, and I really enjoyed it. I thought I would talk about why.

First it was nice to work with an unusual structure, at least for me. Every letter was akin to a scene, and time could easily pass between each one. A letter was only written when something aggravated the woman enough to put pen to paper, and then Emily Etiquette sent a reply. That resulted in every scene not only moving the plot forward (as they should) but doing so in an interesting and fun way.

It was also fun to tweak a stereotype. Etiquette columnists have a reputation for doing things in a proper manner. Some might even call them prissy. Well, not my Emily Etiquette. Although she gives advice about what she thinks the letter writer (and others) should do in particular situations, she's not above getting a little down and dirty in her comments and her suggestions--they might even seem a bit naughty to people who are willing to read between the lines.

Writing a story in letters also allowed me to make use of an unreliable narrator, not because my letter writers lied, but because the reader only saw the things that were written in the letters. Usually in fiction you'll see a lot of the point-of-view character's thoughts, but with a story told via letters it's not cheating to leave out some thoughts since letter writers are not expected to share all their thoughts. And things that aren't mentioned--at least at first--can end up being important. So epistolary stories are perfect for lies of omission. They allow the POV character to surprise the reader with plot twists.

The final and perhaps most important reason writing a story in letters appealed to me was because I thought readers would be particularly enticed to read those letters. Why? Because it feels wrong. Even though it's fiction and the reader knows the story was designed to be read, there's still a voyeuristic aspect to reading fictional letters. It's like peeking at your older sister's diary (not that I ever did that). You get to learn someone's thoughts and all their dirty little secrets. While this happens with fiction in general, when a story is structured as letters between two people, and you're not one of them, it feels sneaky to read them, as if you might get caught at any moment, and that can be tantalizing--at least for some people (am I revealing too much?).

Here's the wonderful drawing created by Jason C. Eckhardt that accompanies 
my story in the magazine and in the preview on the EQMM website.

Have you ever written or read epistolary stories or books? What did you like best about them?

If you'd like to read an excerpt of my story, you're in luck. Ellery Queen has put one up on their website. You can read it by clicking here. And if you enjoy it, I hope you'll pick up a copy of this issue. EQMM can be found in bookstores (brick-and-mortar ones as well as online) and at newsstands. You can subscribe or buy individual issues in print or electronic copy. Learn more from the publisher here. And since I have a friend who had trouble finding the issue on Amazon, here's that link too.

11 August 2020

Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club


If you like reading crime short stories, and let's face it, you wouldn't be a regular SleuthSayers reader if you didn't, then you should know about Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club. An offering of Wildside Press--which publishes a lot of mystery anthologies, including the Malice Domestic anthologies since their revival a few years ago and this year's upcoming Bouchercon anthology--the ebook club is nearing its third anniversary. It's like a book-of-the-month club, but weekly and with electronic short stories (and some novellas), mostly reprints. The ebook club is different from Black Cat Mystery Magazine, which is edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, though the quarterly magazine is sometimes included as a weekly offering to the ebook club members.
Every week, paid club members get an email telling them about the seven (sometimes more) stories they can download that week in mobi or epub versions. Three or four are crime/mystery stories, the rest are science fiction. Unpaid club members get the same weekly email giving them access to one free story, a specific one each week. All of the ebook club stories are available for two weeks only, giving members an incentive to check in each week (or every other one) to download the new offerings.
A lot of the mystery stories are traditional, in the classic mode, originally published early in the twentieth century. But in June, Wildside began including a contemporary story with the mysteries each week. It is these modern stories with which I'm most familiar because I'm the person who's been choosing them. In the spring, Wildside's publisher reached out to me, asking if I would head up this series of stories, finding reprints I thought were really good. He's labeled this imprint Barb Goffman Presents. (That was a big surprise--a nice one--because I thought I was going to be solely behind the scenes.)
Since then I've read more short stories than I have in years, trying to find ones I love and think would be a good fit for Black Cat readers. (Stories originally published by Wildside Press are off the table.) When I find a story I think would work, I reach out to the author. It makes me feel like Santa Claus, which is pretty cool.
This work has given me an excuse to read many of the anthologies that I bought over the years but never found the time to read. And it's enabled me to share with readers stories that I think are special but might have been overlooked when they came out.
The first story I presented was "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," written by my fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd and published in 2008 in the Strand Magazine. Last week's story, which is still available to paid club members for a few more days, is "The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever" by Frank Cook, originally published in 2009 in Quarry (Level Best Books). And this week's story, which has been chosen as the week's free story for paid and unpaid members, is "The Kiss of Death" by Rebecca Pawel, originally published in 2007 in A Hell of a Woman (Busted Flush Press). Pawel's story is set in the New York City tango community and is a delight to read.
If you want to check out the ebook club, go on over to https://bcmystery.com/. And happy reading!

21 July 2020

The Problem with Writing about Mean Girls


Funny how you can write a story, revise it, edit it down to a certain length, read it again before submitting it, proofread it before it's published, and even read it once more after it comes out, but when you read it yet again five years later, you're surprised by what you see.

That's the position I found myself in last month when I prepared to read my story "The Wrong Girl" at an online DC Noir at the Bar. The story was published in October 2015 in the anthology Flash and Bang: A Short Mystery Fiction Society Anthology (Untreed Reads Publishing). It was a finalist for the Derringer Award in the flash category in 2016. I had been proud of the story. I still am, but there was a bit of language in it that caught me off guard when I read it fresh last month.

The story is about a fifth-grade girl in a private school who's humiliated by her teacher, so she and two friends decide to make her pay. Little do they know when they're planning their revenge that they're not the only ones in the girls' bathroom. A custodian is in there too. Here are her relevant thoughts:
It wasn't the first time I'd heard kids plot against their teachers. Usually they were simply blowing off steam. But sometimes, like now, I could tell the kids meant it. In the past, I'd reported them to the principal. The result every time: parents were summoned, the children pleaded they'd been joking, and the incidents were swept under the rug. No punishments. No consequences. 
Not this time. Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything. I couldn't let that happen again. This time, I'd let the plan move forward far enough that the authorities would have to act.

Finally, justice would be served.

Did you catch the wording that bothered me when I read it fresh last month? Maybe not. Maybe you were swept away by my story and the words blew right past you. But I caught them: "Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The italics are added here for emphasis.

When I read this sentence last month I was struck by how sexist it sounds. Are there no mean boys? No mean men? Why hadn't I written the following instead? "Mean children who faced no consequences grew up to become mean adults who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The story certainly would have worked just as well with those substituted words, and that's how I read it at the Noir at the Bar last month.

But the original version, with the "mean girls" and "mean women" language, is still out there. I've tried to think through why I used wording that makes it sound like girls and women are the only ones who can be mean. Did I use those words because this is a story about girls who are mean, as well as a female teacher who is mean, and I was just being very focused? I hope so. But maybe I had gotten lazy and relied upon a stereotype.

We hear all the time about mean girls. They're in the news. On social media. Heck, there's a movie called Mean Girls and a Broadway show based on that movie. I did a Google search for the term, and got 14 million results. But a search for "mean boys" only yielded 171,000 results. I did a more specific search for news articles about mean girls and got 141,000 hits versus one about mean boys, which got 1,100 hits.

What does this all mean? Are girls meaner than boys? I doubt it. I would think all children and adults have the same capacity for cruelty, regardless of their sex. So why is there so much focus on mean girls throughout our society? I'm sure sociologists have probably studied the phenomenon and could give an answer. I don't have one.

I also don't know for certain why I used those words: Mean girls. Mean women. I would hope, as I said above, that I chose those words because my story was about a mean woman and mean girls. But that raises the question: Why did I write a story about mean girls instead of mean boys? And not just this story. I've written several stories involving mean girls or women.

Another one of my
stories about mean girls,
"Evil Little Girl," can
be found in my collection
These stories often sprang from incidents in my life, and since the incidents involved women and/or girls, I was probably more inclined to create related stories about females. I likely also made these choices because I once was a girl and now am a woman, so I probably have a better grasp on how women think than how men do. My decisions to write stories about mean girls and women also probably stemmed from the fact that we hear so much about them, as I also said above. Maybe the more I hear about mean girls, the more I'm inclined to write about them. All of these reasons probably played a part in my choices.

All of the "mean girl" stories I've written are good (I hope). They're entertaining while also making good points about societal issues. But I fear that by making these storytelling choices (choices of character, plot, and language) I may have helped perpetuate the sexist idea that it's girls and women who are mean far more often than boys and men.

I'm not going to stop writing about mean girls and mean women. It's a topic I'm too interested in (apparently), and I do enjoy writing from the female perspective. Besides, there are mean girls and mean women, so stories about them are realistic. But women don't have a corner on the meanness market. So I'm going to try to take a better look at my choices when I'm writing to see if a mean woman could instead be a mean man, and if it might be appropriate to refer to "mean kids" instead of "mean girls" and make other similar choices. If a story is written well enough, the reader may not notice one way or another. But words can have power, seeping into our psyches, even when we don't notice them. So I'm going to try to do better.

If you're interested in reading "The Wrong Girl," you're in luck. The ebook version of the anthology it's in, Flash and Bang, is half off this month at Smashwords as part of their Christmas in July ebook sale. Go to https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/583654, where you'll be able to pick up the ebook for $2.50.

And before we get to the comments, a little blatant self-promotion: My story "Alex's Choice" from the time-travel/crime anthology Crime Travel was nominated last week for the Macavity Award for best short story published last year. And Crime Travel (which I also edited) was recently nominated for an Anthony Award for best anthology/collection published last year. If you'd like to read "Alex's Choice," it's on my website. If you'd like to read the whole of Crime Travel (which I recommend), you can find the book in trade paperback, hardback, and ebook from lots of bookstores. Stories in Crime Travel have been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity, and Shamus awards, so clearly there's a lot in there for you to like.

30 June 2020

Proofreading during a pandemic


The first paid editorial job I ever had was working as a proofreader. I was in my senior year of high school and saw an ad in one of our local weekly newspapers that the newspaper itself needed a part-time proofreader. I was managing editor of my high school newspaper, and I was beyond excited at the idea of working for an actual non-school newspaper. I called, went in for an interview that day, and was offered the jobtwo days a week after school and into the evening. I was so excited that I accepted on the spot. Only as I was walking out of the managing editor's office did she call after me and say, "Don't you want to know that the pay is?" Oops. The pay was $5 per hour, which I said was great. So much for negotiating. But little did she know, I was so excited, I would have done it for free.

After I went to college, I occasionally was hired for random proofreading jobs. A friend was having a book published with a small press, and I proofread it. When I was in law school, I proofread a new edition of a textbook about white-collar criminal law for the professor who wrote it. These days, I occasionally am hired to proofread novels. Of course I also proofread my own stories before I submit them and, depending on the publication, before they're published. And I proofread anthologies I edit or co-edit, though I always like to have the authors proofread their own stories too, and I rely on any proofreader the publisher provides too. It's always good to have more than one set of eyes.

I've almost always proofread on paper. I think I read more carefully on paper than on the screen. I'm not sure why that is. There probably is research on this very topic, as I'm sure I'm not the only person like this. But I don't need to know why. I just need to know that it's true, and it is true. I know that for certain because tonight I ran a little test to be sure.

I've been offered a new proofreading job. I'd rather not go to the post office during the pandemic, so I was wondering if I could proofread this book on my computer instead of on paper. So I ran the aforementioned test. A friend sent a short story to me in which she introduced a few errors, and I read it on my computer, marked the errors in track changes, and returned the story to her.

Did I catch all the errors? Nope. While I caught some she hadn't known were in there (yay!), I missed two of the ones she introduced. Two mistakes in seven pages is not a good rate. So it's back to proofreading on paper for me, and I'll have to risk going to the post office. (And yes, maybe I wouldn't have caught the errors on paper either, but my track record suggests otherwise.)

One technique proofreaders use to do their work well is to read backward, word by word, so you focus on the words, not the story. (If you get caught up in the story, you might miss errors.) That works for catching actual typos. Most of them anyway—but reading backward doesn't enable you to catch if a typo results in a real word. Sure, you can spot that this wordd is wrong reading backward. But you can't tell that this bird is wrong, as you would need the context of the sentence for that. Reading backward also doesn't enable you to spot if there are missing words in a sentence, although you probably could catch if if the same word appeared twice. (Did you just catch that?)

So I don't read backward when I proofread. And I have to guard against getting caught up in the story that I miss things, so I do different things to stay focused. Often I'll keep a sheet of paper on the page, covering up everything below the line I'm reading, and that seems to help. Sometimes I'll read out loud. When I proofread the criminal law textbook, I found myself reading it out loud in a southern accent. It forced me to read more slowly, enabling me to focus more. It's strange the tricks a person will come up with to get the job done right.

So, authors, do you proofread your works on paper? Or on the screen? Do you have any techniques you use to do a good job? Inquiring minds want to know.

Oh, and before I go, I want to offer a big thank you to Kristopher Zgorski, who mentioned SleuthSayers in his Blog Bytes column in the current issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. If you're a new SleuthSayers reader due to Kristopher's column, welcome! (Heck, if you're a new SleuthSayers reader not due to Kristopher's column, welcome as well!)

09 June 2020

Some thoughts on the short-story-related Anthony Award nominations


While we talk about many things that are writing related here at SleuthSayers (and many things that aren't), our primary focus is crime short fiction. So it's wonderful timing that today, a few hours before I sat down to write this column, the Anthony Award nominations were announced, including for best short story and best anthology/collection published last year.

I'm not going to write long today because I'd rather you take some time to read one of the nominated anthologies or short stories. But I do want to say a few things:

First, thank you to all of the authors who heard about my crazy idea to do a cross-genre anthology, mashing crime with time travel, and submitted stories for Crime Travel back in 2018. (Crime Travel was among the nominated anthologies.) I could only accept fourteen stories (plus one of my own). I wish I could have taken more.

Thank you to everyone who has congratulated me today. I love the camaraderie of our industry. This nomination belongs to the authors in Crime Travel as much as it does to me, and I applaud them.

Congratulations to my fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken (whose The Eyes of Texas: Private Investigators from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was nominated for best anthology) and Art Taylor, who is up twice (!) in the short-story category, once for "Better Days," which appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and once for "Hard Return," which I was proud to include in Crime Travel. I'm so proud of you both!

I'd edited anthologies before Crime Travel, but this was the first time I chose the stories. It was a daunting task. One thing I learned from doing it is that while stories about a theme can be wide-ranging, in different sub-genres with varying approaches to storytelling, the best stories--at least to me--are the ones that touch you. The ones that have heart. And I hope that the nomination for Crime Travel today means that the stories in this book touched a lot of readers just as they did me. Thank you to everyone who read it and nominated it.

So, without further ado, here are this year's nominees for the Anthony Award in the best short-story category and the best anthology category. I hope you'll pick up one of them (or all of them).

BEST SHORT STORY
“Turistas,” by Hector Acosta (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Unforgiven,” by Hilary Davidson (appearing in Murder a-Go-Gos: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Gos)
“The Red Zone,” by Alex Segura (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Better Days,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019)
“Hard Return,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Crime Travel)

BEST ANTHOLOGY OR COLLECTION
The Eyes of Texas: Private Investigators from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken (Down & Out Books)
¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Col√≥n (Down & Out Books)
Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman (Wildside Press)
Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)
Murder a-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)

Happy reading!