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

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!

03 June 2020

Time Share


I have a story in the June issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine, and for that I must thank Barb Goffman, who was my inspiration.  Sort of.

I came up with the idea and the title for the story decades ago but I couldn't see a market for it so I never bothered to write it.  Then, last year, Barb announced that she was going to edit an anthology called Crime Travel, featuring crime-related tales of time travel.

And I realized my old idea fit. Sort of. It was about a physicist who hoped to invent time travel, only to discover that that is impossible - however, it turned out that he could travel through an apparently infinite number of universes.

I asked Barb if that concept might fit in her book, and she said it might.  So I wrote the story.  And Barb rejected it, as she had every right to do.

But heck, I had my story now.  Might as well look for a market.  Mystery Weekly Magazine had published one of my stories last year, a tale with a science fiction bent.  So I sent it to them and voila.  Decades after it was first dreamed up, "In Praise of my Assassin" is available now for your reading pleasure.

It's about time.

19 May 2020

Where To Start?


"You're starting in the wrong place" is something I've told many an editing client. Sometimes authors start their books or short stories too early in a scene, trying to show too much of the normalcy of the world we're entering. It's a good goal, but you can't do too much of it or else you risk the reader becoming bored, waiting for something interesting to happen. So if you start your story too early, you might need to chop off the first few pages. Or chapters.

I recently told a client when I read her sample pages that I didn't know where her story started, but I suspected it wasn't in the first two chapters I had read, which were all backstory. I told another short story author a few years ago that the reader didn't need to see the main character growing up. Let us learn about the relevant parts of her life when they become necessary to the story, but start the tale where the action is. She lopped off the first seven pagesthe first seventeen years of the character's lifeand the story was all the better for it.

Starting in the wrong place is not a problem I usually have myself. I just looked at all my published stories, and in none of them did I ever have to cut off the beginning pages to start the story in the right place. So imagine my surprise when I realized that in the story I'm currently trying to writethe story I began a couple of weeks ago, but the opening scene just hasn't been workingI'd started in the wrong place. I hadn't begun too early in the scene or in the main character's life. I'd started in the wrong place literally. I had the wrong setting.

It was a lightbulb moment. The opening scene hadn't been working because I'd felt the need to show several aspects of one of the main character's personality because of where the action was happening. In that setting, he definitely would be reacting by thinking several thingstoo many thingsand that was causing the pace to be too slow. But now that I've figured out a better setting, I can trim away all those extraneous thoughts and allow the meat of the story to come so much sooner. By starting in the right place literally, I am allowing the story to start in the right place for storytelling purposes too.

As SleuthSayers columns go, I know this is pretty short, but I hope my insights will be helpful to you as you write. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about starting out your stories, both how you decide where in the storytelling to start as well as where to set that opening scene.

17 May 2020

PROMOTING ANTHOLOGIES


Promoting Anthologies

So many of my fellow Sleuthsayers are appearing in anthologies I 
thought it might be a good time to talk a bit about promoting  
them. It's been many years since I owned a bookstore and promoting has changed a lot but maybe a few tips here can help.

Some of us are a lot better at promoting than others.  
Many of us sit in our cubical and write and write and never give a thought to promotion, We really don't want to think about that now. We have to finish this book OR our publisher will promote it, right?

Sadly, NO. Unless you're already a best selling author, your publisher sends your book out with very little pomotion. I never could understand that reasoning. They'll spend $500,000 on X's book when you have 2 other very fine books coming at the same time, by say one new and one mid-list. Why not spend $400,000 on X and $50,000 on the other two. You get the idea but most publishers don't. Could be why so many indie presses are doing very well, thank you.

Okay, I digress. Back to anthologies. No one is really going to push an anthology you happen to have a short story in so, it's all really up to you.

But Jan, I don't like to promote my short stories and I have no idea how to do it and really could care less about it anyway.
Fine, go back to your computer and work on your next story or book. But if you want just a tip or two, please continue reading.

I was blessed because the majority of my stories were in books edited by Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg (RIP both of you) and books they edited sold very well. Even to markets like Japan and Germany and to audio book pulishers. But to promote your own stories in wonderful but somewhat unknown anthologies you have to always include them on your Facebook page or twitter account. And also on your own author page.

Okay, but I already do that, you say. Great, then this is just a gentle reminder for you. But when you do signings for your books, promote the heck out of your stories in an anthology, too.

You will meet people who'll say, "I never read short stories. I'd much rather read a whole book."  I really get into the character of somone like Jack Reacher or V.I. Warshawski or Charlie Harris and Diesel.  Remind them that an anthology is a great way for them to 
discover new writers. Or even to discover  their favorite author namely YOU, just happens to write other characters or even in other genres.

The other reason people say they don't read short stories is they don't have time. Everyone is still pressed for time even though they might be working from home now. They have children to teach or occupy them with things to do or meals to cook or laundry to wash. Remind them that short stories are great for them because, each story is only a few pages long and it starts and ends in those few pages. You won't have to stay up past your bedtime to finish. It only takes 30 minutes so so to read a short story.

Tell them the genises behind the anthology or behind your story. Time Travel edited by Barb Goffman. If you have a story there, find out why Barb did this anthology or tell why you found the  idea so fascinating you just had to write a story for it.

I wrote stories edited by Robert J. Randisi for Lethal Ladies I & II, 
because they were to be Female Private Eye Stories. For his 
Deadly Allies I & II, they were stories by members of Sisters In Crime and members of Private EyeWriters. Of course, all the Cat Crime antologies all feature a cat. I loved doing those because I had two cats, Nick and Nora and could relate. 

I'm sure each of you can come up with a good way to promote your own short stories in the great way you also promote your books but maybe I've sparked an idea or two with you for your short story. 

Now start Promoting. 


28 April 2020

For the Love of Malice


In the spring of 2001, I was taking my first mystery-writing workshop. My instructor, author Noreen Wald, told us—all eight of us, I believe—that we had to go to Malice Domestic. I didn't even really understand what Malice Domestic was, but I knew I wanted to write mysteries, so if Noreen said I had to go, I had to go.

That was the beginning of my love affair with mystery conventions. Over the years I've been to Sleuthfest once and to Bouchercon nine times, but Malice is the convention I never miss. It's a place where I feel at home, among friends who love traditional mysteries, many of whom I now consider family. This year was to be my twentieth Malice, and not getting ready to drive to Bethesda on Thursday for the start of the convention just feels wrong. I'll miss the dinners and the panels—as the former program chair, I always have to plug the panels—and I'll especially miss the hugs. Remember when we all weren't afraid to get within six feet of one another, nonetheless to hug?

But just because Malice is canceled this year doesn't mean that we can't still celebrate the traditional mystery this week and the people who write and read them. The Agatha Award voting will be held later this week (links to read the nominated short stories are below), and the winners will be announced in a live stream Saturday night. The Malice board also will be announcing next year's honorees (who will be sharing the stage with the wonderful people who were supposed to be honored this year, in what I understand might be a supersized Malice), as well as the theme for the anthology to be published in the spring of 2021. I believe the Agatha board of directors will be sending out more information about all of that very soon.

And that brings me back to getting into the Malice spirit. I was talking last week with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor about it and how we could use my blog post today to do it. Art wisely suggested that since one of the great things about Malice is it allows readers to learn about new writers, it would be wonderful to have this year's Agatha short story finalists tell you, our SleuthSayers readers, about some great up-and-coming short story authors. I shared the idea with the rest of our fellow finalists, and they all were in faster than you can read flash fiction.

So, without any further ado, here are five short story writers whom we five nominees admire. I hope you'll check out their work.

Art Taylor, talking about Kristin Kisska (who recently joined our SleuthSayers family)

I admired Kristin Kisska's fiction before I knew that she was the one who wrote it—literally, since her name didn't accompany that first story. "The Sevens" was a blind submission for the 2015 Bouchercon anthology, Murder Under the Oaks, which I edited. Set at the University of Virginia in 1905, "The Sevens" stood out for its intriguing plot and its rich sense of both place and historical detail. It became Kris's first published story, and as editor, I was thrilled to introduce this tremendous talent to the mystery world. Since then, Kris has published short stories in several collections, including two Malice Domestic anthologies—Mystery Most Geographical and Mystery Most Edible—and Deadly Southern Charm from the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters of Sisters in Crime. Checking her website as I write this, I found a more recent story I'd missed: "Prelude" in Legends Reborn. Score! And even better news: Kris just signed with a literary agent for her first novel. Save me a place in line for this next debut—book-length this time!

Shawn Reilly Simmons, talking about S.A. Cosby

I first met Shawn (S.A.) Cosby when I was invited to read at a Noir at the Bar event three years ago in Richmond, Virginia. All of the stories that night were good, but Shawn's was uniquely memorable—he writes gritty southern noir woven through with glittering threads of humor. Since that night in Richmond, Shawn and I have appeared together at N@TB events many times, and have downed more than a few cocktails together at Bouchercon in St. Pete and Dallas, where he won the 2019 Anthony Award in the short story category. He's one of the most upbeat and nicest guys in the mystery world, and each new story he writes brings that unique flair that is his alone. Shawn's newest story is "The King's Gambit," which will appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in June, and his novel Blacktop Wasteland will be published in July by Flatiron Books. It's described as Ocean's Eleven meets Drive with a southern noir twist, and it's recently been optioned for film.

Cynthia Kuhn, talking about Amy Drayer

I had the good fortune to meet Amy Drayer at the Colorado Gold conference, and she immediately impressed me with her smart, engaging perspectives on writing in general and mystery in particular. After she joined our Sisters in Crime chapter, I read her fantastic work and was even more impressed. Amy's writing is compelling, witty, eloquent, and thought-provoking. Her published short stories include "The Clearing" in False Faces: Twenty Stories About the Masks We Wear and "Honorable Men" in Shades of Pride: LGBTQAI2+ Anthology. "Schrodinger's Mouse" is forthcoming in Wild (Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers). She has written short fiction in genres ranging from horror to fabulism, literary flash to pop fiction. The first book in her wonderful Makah Island Mystery series, Revelation, also came out in March.

Kaye George, talking about Joseph S. Walker

Joseph S. Walker came to my attention when he submitted a story, "Awaiting the Hour," for my own 2017 eclipse-themed anthology, Day of the Dark. The story was stunningly good, and I was amazed I'd never heard of Mr. Walker before. I've certainly heard of him since. I gave a couple of stories from that publication to Otto Penzler, and he mentioned Joseph's in his annual publication honoring the best of mystery short stories. Joseph went on to win the Bill Crider Prize at Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas, then the Al Blanchard Award at New England Crime Bake. His latest published fiction is "Etta at the End of the World" in the just published May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Barb Goffman, talking about Stacy Woodson

It seems appropriate for me to end this column talking about Stacy Woodson because I met her at Malice Domestic in 2017, when I served as a mentor/guide to Stacy and fellow Malice first-timer Alison McMahan. Since then Stacy has become one of my closest friends, not only because of our shared love of Mexican food (Uncle Julio's forever!) but because she is as passionate about short stories as I am. Everything she writes showcases not only her raw talent but also her heart. I was honored to edit her first published story, "Duty, Honor, Hammett," before she submitted it to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It not only ran in the magazine's Department of First Stories in 2018, but it went on to win the magazine's annual Readers Award, only the second time in history an author's first published story took the top honor. Stacy has since gone on to be named a top-ten finalist for last year's Bill Crider Prize at Bouchercon, and she's placed a number of stories in Mystery Weekly, Woman's World, and EQMM, where her story "Mary Poppins Didn't Have Tattoos" will appear in the July/August issue. Stacy's most recently published story is "River" in the anthology The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell. "River," like so many of Stacy's stories, gives a window into her experience as a US Army veteran. Given Stacy's insatiable desire to learn and grow as a writer, I have no doubt you'll be reading much more from—and about—her in the future.

I hope you've enjoyed learning about these newcomers to the crime short-story field, who are already wowing readers. Please consider checking out their work. There are so many independent bookstores that could benefit from your business, especially during this pandemic. The stores might be closed, but many are still mailing books out.

And before we go, to those of you who were registered to attend Malice Domestic this year and who either transferred your registration to next year or donated your registration payment to the convention, it's nearly time to vote for the Agatha Awards. The electronic voting is going to begin soon (tomorrow or Thursday, I expect). It's not too late to read the short stories that are nominated for the Agatha. They are:

  • "The Blue Ribbon" by Cynthia Kuhn, published in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible
  • "The Last Word" by Shawn Reilly Simmons, published in Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible
  • "Better Days" by Art Taylor, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Just click on the titles. Happy reading, and I hope to see all of you next year at Malice!

07 April 2020

The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell


I'm delighted to turn my column over today to author and editor Josh Pachter, who has something special to share. Take it away, Josh!

— Barb Goffman

The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell

by Josh Pachter

Today is pub day for The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, which I edited, and which is being released in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats by the good folks at Untreed Reads.

I came up with the idea for this book about two years ago, and was blown away by how eager the authors I contacted were to contribute. I could go on and on about the project, but I’d rather turn the microphone over to the writers and let them tell you about their choices, their challenges, and their triumphs.

Given the opportunity to pick a song from one of Joni's seventeen studio albums, why did you pick the one you picked?

Marilyn Todd (“The Pirate of Penance,” from Song to a Seagull): The lyrics, pure and simple. “She dances for the sailors / In a smoky cabaret bar underground / Down in a cellar in a harbor town.” As soon as I heard those lines, the story wrote itself.

John Floyd (“Bad Dreams,” from Shine): This song is a look at the way we’ve managed to screw up our world, and it got me to thinking about the fact that even the worst dreams sometimes do turn out well. That kicked off the idea of having someone see a terrible vision that might not only come out okay but might even work to his advantage.

Alison McMahan (“Harlem in Havana,” from Taming the Tiger): Not many people know this, but this song is about a real revue, Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana. I was fascinated by everything I read about it. Also, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Cuba a couple of times; the first time, I took my husband on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday to fulfill a bucket list item: his great-uncle, who lived a fascinating life, is buried in Havana, and we were able to visit the grave and pay our respects. By picking this song, I had the opportunity to write about the actual revue and my husband’s great uncle.

Adam Meyer (“Shades of Scarlett Conquering,” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns): This song jumped out at me because it’s so character-driven. It paints a portrait of a beautiful Southern woman who is “dressed in stolen clothes,” feels “dark things” and has “blood-red fingernails,” is trained in Southern charm but also cruel, burns with passion but is ice cold at the same time. She was perfect for a crime story.

What was your biggest challenge in writing your story?

Edith Maxwell (“Blue Motel Room,” from Hejira): The story is set in Atlanta, where I have never been—but, hey, that’s what friends and the Internet are for. My writer pal Jim Jackson has lived around there, and he helped me out with a well-known jewelry store and a classy old-school restaurant. Online maps, photos, and my imagination got me through the rest.

Donna Andrews (“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” from For the Roses): This has always been one of my favorite Joni songs, maybe the favorite. Once Josh told me that I could have it, I re-listened to it, loved it as much as ever, and realized—with a frisson of alarm—that any story that did justice to it would have to be light years away from the humor I usually write. I had to write from a place that was very different from my usual inspiration, someplace much darker. Not the first time I’ve done that, but one of the rare times lately that I’ve had something like this published.

Tara Laskowski (“Both Sides, Now,” from Clouds): My husband, Art Taylor, and I were excited to try to write a story together, as we’d never done anything like that before. We decided we’d write it as a series of letters back and forth between the main characters. However, we were surprised to find just how difficult it was to collaborate. Our methods of writing are very different. I tend to be a faster, get-it-on-the-page kind of writer, while Art—well, he’s very careful and good at what he does and it takes him a little longer. At first, we worried we weren’t going to be able to pull it off, but once we got into a rhythm, the story was actually quite fun to write.

Emily Hockaday and Jackie Sherbow (“Talk to Me,” from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter): Emily says, “I am primarily a poet, so the actual plot was the biggest challenge for me! I’m used to extremely short pieces that aren’t driven by plot but rather image and metaphor, so keeping a plot tight and compelling was something new and different.” And Jackie adds, “The biggest challenge might have been the story’s biggest asset, too, which was working collaboratively. Emily and I work very well together, so it was fun and fruitful to work with her—but we did need to plan out the methods we’d use.”

What about your story makes you the happiest?

Sherry Harris (“Last Chance Lost,” from Turbulent Indigo): It was fun to write something so different than the cozy mysteries I usually write. Getting out of my own head and convincing myself I could write a short story worthy of being in an anthology with such amazing writers was a treat!

Mindy Quigley (“Taming the Tiger,” from Taming the Tiger): All the cats! My story features real cats, literary cats, decorative cats, metaphorical cats, cat-like people, and even Cats, the musical. Unfortunately, it’s set in a time when Cats, the movie, didn’t yet exist. I can’t recommend hate-watching that movie highly enough, by the way. Sit back, consume your favorite hallucinogenic drug, and prepare to marvel at utter debasement of some of the silver screen’s most talented entertainers.

Barb Goffman (“Man to Man,” from Wild Things Run Fast): I loved being in the head of an unlikeable person and still finding ways to make her fun. Word choices. The reactions she has. The way she says things. Writing the character of Cecelia was so enjoyable. I aimed to create someone readers will love to hate, and I hope I’ve succeeded.

Greg Herren (“The Silky Veils of Ardor,” from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter): The goal of my story was to illustrate how our memories of an important time in our lives are different from the way other people remember the same event—sometimes so completely different that the memories seem to belong to different occasions—with reality lying somewhere in the middle. Memory fascinates me, and I was very happy with how playing with that idea turned out in the final story.

We were originally planning a big multi-author launch event for The Beat of Black Wings in Reston, Virginia, close to where many of the contributors and I live, but of course COVID-19 knocked that plan right off the calendar.

Instead, we’ll be doing a Zoom launch tonight, April 7, starting at 7 PM Eastern Time. If you’ve got the free Zoom software for your computer or tablet or the free app for your phone—and, if you don’t, did I mention that they’re free?—all you have to do is click on this link to join us. Please disable your webcam and microphone, so the focus stays on the authors, but you’ll be able to ask questions via chat. (In case the above Zoom link doesn't work, try this one: https://zoom.us/j/7953912062.)

If you haven’t already ordered the book and would like to have a copy, you can get the hardcover or paperback directly from the publisher (with a 15% discount!) at this link and the e-book from the ’Zon here; the authors and I have agreed to donate a third of our royalties to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni’s name, so you'll benefit a worthy cause at the same time you provide yourself with some awesome quarantine reading!

And if you’ve got an Apple Music subscription and would like to listen to the songs that inspired the book’s twenty-six stories, check out this playlist.

Thanks, Barb, both for your own contribution to the book (“Man to Man,” from Wild Things Run Fast), and for turning your SleuthSayers slot over to The Beat of Black Wings today!

17 March 2020

When Extroverts Must Stay Home


Sometimes current events coincide with stories you've already written. This is one of those times.

A friend asked me this morning how I was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. I said that since I work from home, I don't go out much anyway. Consequently, self-quarantining so that I don't inadvertently catch this newest strain of the virus and pass it on to someone with a compromised immune system is not a big problem for me. As the joke goes, I'm an introvert, so I've been preparing for this moment my whole life.

I've seen increased focus in the media and social media over the past decade on us introverts. How we do better working solo than in groups, how we need alone time to recharge, how the world is often so oriented toward extroverts that we introverts sometimes are penalized for not excelling at activities geared toward extroverts. I'm grateful for this focus on introverts, which hopefully has helped open some people's eyes.

We don't usually see people worried about extroverts because much of society is geared toward them. Until now, that is, now that people are being asked to self-quarantine the best they can to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I've seen people post on social media that they don't want to self-quarantine because spending more than a day or two at home makes them anxious, that they need to go out and be among people. If not, they get depressed.

Depression is no little thing. It can affect your emotional and physical health. As someone who understands how the need to be alone can suddenly feel urgent and overwhelming, I get how being cooped up might affect someone who needs to regularly be among people, especially someone who doesn't have family or roommates to spend time with at home. It's something I was thinking about last year as I wrote a story called "Man to Man," whose main character is an extrovert who becomes socially isolated.

This story is coming out in a new anthology, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, which will be published on April 7th by Untreed Reads. The anthology, edited by Josh Pachter, has all of Joni Mitchell's albums represented. My "Man to Man" story is inspired by the song of the same title from her 1982 album, Wild Things Run Fast.

In my story, my main character, Cecelia, ends up effectively self-quarantined at home. She's not physically ill, and there's no virus at play, but Cecelia is cut off from her social network. So she starts staying home, which makes her depressed. Her lack of connection with others makes her depression grow, and her negative feelings spiral, especially regarding her husband, the only person she sees anymore. It doesn't help that Cecelia is spoiled and self-centered. Here she is, thinking about her situation:

"I had nothing happening in my life. No social groups. No events. No trips I was planning. I could barely pay attention to what was on television. No one ever called me, and I had no one to call.

"It felt like I was in solitary confinement. Sure, I was in an upscale high-rise, but the isolation was overwhelming. And things didn't get better when David came home at night. He made me so angry sometimes, I wanted to scream."

Before I wrote the story I'd been thinking that the world is largely geared to extroverts, so I could understand that if an introvert couldn't get alone time, it might make her feel edgy and unhappy and might result in her acting out. (Not excusing bad behavior, just understanding what might prompt it.) Then I started thinking about the other side of the coin. What if an extrovert lost all her outings and interactions, the things that energized her and made her who she is? How might she react? I thought this would be an interesting approach to a character. That's how Cecelia came to be.

I never imagined that my scenario might be playing out all over the world around the time the story was being published. I hope all the Cecelias out there can safely resume their regular lives soon. In the meanwhile, for all of you looking for something to do while stuck inside, you can pre-order The Beat of Black Wings. It will be coming out April 7th in e-book, trade paperback, and hardcover. Pre-ordering of the paper versions is only available from the publisher. You can do it by clicking here. Pre-order of the e-book version is available in the usual places. One-third of the royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell's name, which means you can get a fine book of short stories for you and help a good cause at the same time.

So are you under self-quarantine? If so, how are you spending your time? And to my fellow authors with stories in the book, please tell us about your stories.

25 February 2020

Writer Burnout


Anyone who knows me well knows I'm not a great juggler. If I'm editing a client's book I'm not writing my own fiction. I like to work on one creative project at a time, be it my own or someone else's. And developmental editing is definitely creative for me. Looking for issues with characterization, for ways to enhance a plot, for when pacing sags, and so much more, all tap into my creative side.

That means I only write a few weeks a year. I sometimes have a week here, two weeks there between projects to devote to writing. That's it. Sometimes I go for months without typing a word. And that's why I usually rev up when I have writing time coming, excited for the story or stories I'll create. But not now.

I finished my last editing project a few days ago, with the next one still a few days off, and ... nothing. I thought I had an idea, finally, for a story for the Bouchercon anthology, but the plot doesn't work. I combed through my files of story ideas I email myself year round so I could run with them when the opportunity presents itself. But none of them sparked joy.

I think sometimes you just have to admit that you're burned out and you're not going to get any writing done this week, even though it's your first writing week in ages. And it's okay.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.

The muse will reappear eventually. It always does. But until then, I'm going to go watch a movie with my dog. Happy Tuesday!