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

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.

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!

04 February 2020

Words you think are synonyms--but they're not!



 Are there some word choices that drive you nuts? Or should that be crazy? English is full of synonyms. And it's full of words that many people think are synonymous but actually aren't. For the sake of language purists out there, I'm going to touch on some of these words that often are used interchangeably but shouldn't be.



Eager versus Anxious

Anxious has anxiety wound up in it. (Notice the first four letters in both words are the same!) If you are anxious about something that may happen or that will happen, you are worried about it. Eager, in contrast, has a positive connotation. If you are eager for something to happen, you are ... well, eager. Looking forward to it. So if you lost a tooth and know the tooth fairy always brings you a tidy sum, you are eager for the morning to come so you can check under your pillow. But if you are afraid of the dentist and need to have a tooth pulled, you are anxious about your upcoming appointment.

Convince versus Persuade

The difference here is subtle. You persuade someone else to do something. You convince someone that something is true. Persuade has an action element to it. Convince doesn't. So just remember: persuade to versus convince that. Example: I persuaded the love of my life to marry me by convincing him that I was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Currently versus Presently

Currently means something is happening right now. Presently means something is about to happen. I understand why people think these words are synonyms. The word presently sure sounds like it should mean in the present, but it doesn't. Example 1: Currently I am typing. I am about to finish this paragraph, and presently I'll begin the next one. Example 2: When a plane is a minute from landing, it currently is in the air but presently it will be landing.

Momentarily versus In a Moment

Momentarily addresses how long something is going to happen--for a moment. The term in a moment addresses when something is going to happen. Example 1: In a moment I'm going to pause momentarily (i.e., for a moment) to take a drink of water. Example 2: The terminally ill man may die in a moment or any moment now. But he's not going to die momentarily unless you expect he'll die and then come back to life soon after.

Historic versus Historical

If something is historic, it has importance in history. If something is historical, it happened in an earlier period of history. The election of the first female president of the United States will be historic. The mystery novel set in the year 1900 is considered historical.

Do you have any words you often see used as synonyms that shouldn't be? Please share in the comments.

And a little BSP:

I'm delighted that my short story "Alex's Choice" has been nominated for the Agatha Award this year. The story appeared in the anthology Crime Travel. You can read it on my website by clicking here. I'm nominated along with some fine writers: Kaye George, Cynthia Kuhn, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. The attendees of the Malice Domestic convention will vote on the winner during the convention in May. Links to all the nominated stories are available on the Malice website, which you can reach by clicking here. Then scroll down to the story titles.

14 January 2020

Copyediting tips


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

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

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

Example 1

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

Example 2

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

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

Buzz!

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


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

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

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

Example 3:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Example:

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

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

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

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

24 December 2019

My Secret About "Alex's Choice"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 December 2019

No Flux Capacitors Here


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

They did not disappoint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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