As I write this, 2020 is only a few days away. As you read this, it likely is only a matter of hours. Tomorrow will be about looking forward, and Robert Lopresti will share prognostications from our fellow SleuthSayers. Today, though, is about looking backward.
I’ve had an unusual year, for several reasons, and following is my year-end wrap-up.
If 2019 had a theme, it was collaboration.
I also collaborated as an editor. Trey R. Barker and I co-created and co-edited the Guns + Tacos serial novella anthology series, saw the first six episodes released as ebooks, one each month for the last six months of 2019, and the novellas will be collected in a pair of paperbacks scheduled for release in early 2020. Trey and I are currently editing six novellas for the second season, due out the last half of 2020.
And Gary Phillips and I began work on an anthology scheduled for publication in spring of 2021.
Following a trend that began a few years ago, my output again dropped. I completed only 14 stories (including the collaborations), down from 19 last year, and that was down from 32 the year before, a huge drop from 56 in 2016.
Four stories were written in response to invitations. The rest were written for open-call anthologies, for markets where I’ve previously placed stories, or for no particular market at all.
ACCEPTED, PUBLISHED, AND RECOGNIZED
I had 15 stories accepted for publication. One was horror, one science fiction, one erotica, one a crime fiction/horror mashup, and the rest were various subgenres of crime fiction. Three were reprints; the rest were originals.
I had 22 stories published. One was fantasy, one science fiction, six erotica, and the rest various subgenres of crime fiction. Seven (including all six erotica stories) were reprints; the rest were originals.
My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” first published in Tough, was recognized as one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2018” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019.
I received 13 rejections this year, and any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year.
One of the reasons I’ve written less the past two years may be my involvement with various editorial projects.
Edited this year (mostly) and scheduled for 2020 publication: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir and the second season of Guns + Tacos.
Begun this year and scheduled for 2021 release: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir 2 and an anthology I’m co-editing with Gary Phillips.
Additionally, as mentioned above, I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor.
I ended my review of 2018 with a note that “2019 will be the year I just roll with it. I’ll try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and see what happens.”
That worked out well, so I’m going to approach 2020 the same way. A year from now I’ll let you know how it worked out.
31 December 2019
10 December 2019
This isn’t new territory for me—I’ve edited six published anthologies, including, most recently, The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books), and another (Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir) that’s scheduled for publication next year. I also co-created and co-edit (with Trey R. Barker) the invitation-only serial novella anthology series Gun + Tacos, and I’m currently reading submissions for Mickey Finn 2 and the second season of Guns + Tacos, and I’ve begun work on yet another anthology to be named later.
There is a distinct difference between reading slush for my own anthologies and reading slush for Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The most obvious distinction is the type of stories appropriate for each. My anthologies have all been themed, and most have favored hardboiled, noir, and/or private eye stories. The stories in BCMM are more representative of the many subgenres of mystery.
Though there’s not yet any interesting statistical information to report on my most recent editorial efforts, the seventy-four stories in my first five anthologies earned seven award nominations (Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, Shamus, etc.) and four “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” or “Honorable Mentions” in annual best-of-year anthologies.
All of the above is to establish my bona fides before this:
Editors often discuss the “indefinable something” that separates an accepted submission from a rejected submission. We sit on panels and discuss plot and setting and characterization. We debate whether certain words—such as Dumpster/dumpster—have lost their trademark status and can now be rendered all lowercase. We arm wrestle over the use or non-use of the Oxford comma. We do all of these things when talking to writers and amongst ourselves, but we never seem to mention aloud one of the most telling signs that a manuscript will be rejected.
The manuscript itself.
Sure, we often tell writers to follow Shunn or some similar format, but the appearance of a manuscript when printed on paper isn’t all that we see. With the vast majority of manuscripts now submitted as Word documents, I’ve discovered how little many writers know about using one of the primary tools of their trade.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, the writers least familiar with Word also seem to be the writers most likely to have their submissions rejected.
If I open a file and discover a return at the end of every line as if the story were written on a typewriter, or if I see the title centered on the page through the use of a zillion spaces, or if I see any of several other signs that the writer has not mastered the fundamentals of Word, I’m already negatively predisposed toward the manuscript.
Because the writing often displays the same inattention to detail.
I read anyhow because I am sometimes surprised. Sometimes.
KING OF THE WORLD
If I were king of the world, the czar of publishing, or in some other authoritarian position to impose my will upon writers, I would do the following: Make it mandatory for every writer to master the basics of Word.
Perhaps we could start by having every creative writing program offer a mandatory class in the use of Word as part of the degree plan. Perhaps we could have every writing conference offer a mandatory seminar in the use of Word. Perhaps we could have every critique group treat themselves to an annual refresher course from their most experienced tech-savvy member (or from someone outside the group, if appropriate).
Love it or hate it, Word is the de facto word processing program, and it is a fundamental tool of the trade. If you don’t know how to use the tools of your trade, you hobble yourself. Sure, a brain surgeon might be able to repair your aneurysm with a pipe wrench, but how confident would you feel on that operating room table when he opened up his toolbox?
So, before I’ve even read a word of your manuscript, show me that you know how to use the tools of your trade. Then show me you can write.
Recently published stories include: “The Town Where Money Grew on Trees” in Tough, November 5, 2019, “The Show Must Go On” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #5, “Who Done It” in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Love, or Something Like it” in Crime Travel (Wildside Press).
Earlier this month subscribers to Guns + Tacos received episode 6 of the first season, “A Beretta, Burritos and Bears” by James A. Hearn. Subscribers also received a bonus story that I wrote, “Plantanos con Lechera and a Snub-Nosed .38.” If you want to read all six episodes and the bonus story, there’s still time to subscribe!
30 September 2017
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
Robert Lopresti mentioned here at SleuthSayers a few weeks ago that he enjoys reading behind-the-scenes reports about the writing of short stories. Where authors get their ideas, where they find their characters, how they come up with titles, how/why they construct plots in a certain way. And Art Taylor's column yesterday featured some of those stories-within-the-stories from the current Anthony Award nominees.
I agree with Rob, and Art too--I think that kind of thing is fascinating. Because of that (and because I couldn't think of anything else to write about, for today), I decided to post a "look-inside" view of my short story "Rooster Creek," which appears in the current, and debut, issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.
First, a word about that issue. One of the thrills, for me, of being included there was the fact that just about every author in the story lineup is a friend of mine. I've always especially enjoyed reading stories written by people I already know, and this was a chance for me to do a lot of that. I'd like to take this opportunity to once again thank John Betancourt and Carla Coupe of Wildside Press for allowing me a spot at the table with such talented writers.
"Rooster Creek" is a 7500-word tale that combines three genres: western, mystery, and (to a lesser degree) romance. That was an easy choice for me, since (1) I've always been crazy about westerns, probably because I grew up watching so many on primetime TV; (2) I'm sappy enough to like a good love story; and (3) one of the job requirements of working in the SleuthSayers asylum is a fondness for anything with an element of mystery/suspense.
Structurewise, I decided early on that this story needed to be "framed" such that it begins very near the end then flashes back to the beginning and tells the story in the past. The action then builds to the point where the reader left off, and the climax and conclusion follow shortly afterward. This nonlinear approach--the first scene is sort of a glimpse-into-the-future prologue--doesn't always work, but when it does, I think it can make for more effective storytelling. I hope that's what I accomplished here.
Having said that, here are the opening paragraphs of the story:
Katie Harrison swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and looked out at the greenish-brown plains and hills stretching away to the horizon. Sparrows flitted and chirped in the branches overhead, and even in the dappled shade the midday sun was warm on her shoulders. But Katie barely heard the birds, barely felt the heat.
Underneath her feet, the chair shifted an inch, and her heart lurched. She winced as the noose tightened around her neck. The fingernails of her bound hands bit into her palms, behind her back. Then the wobbly chair on which she stood stabilized and she let herself breathe again. Above her, although she couldn't see it, the rope was looped over the limb of an oak that had once supported a wooden swing that she'd played on as a child, twenty years ago.
Ten feet away and to her left, a silent and stonefaced woman with red hair sat and watched from a second chair. Beside the redheaded woman stood a huge black man in a battered hat and bib overalls. His face, usually relaxed and peaceful, had a pained look. Katie had met both of them only a month earlier, after she'd trudged empty-handed and muddy all the way up the wagon-rutted road from the town of Perdition. Only a month. In one sense, the time had passed quickly; in another, it seemed like years since she stopped down off the stagecoach from Lincoln Wells and asked the old fellow behind the counter in the stage office where she could hire a buggy to take her up the old north road.
Ain't much out that way, he had said to her, hunched over his paperwork.
I know, she'd replied. That's where I grew up.
And then we hop back to a scene with her in the stagecoach office, and the real adventure begins there.
Another point, about the structure of this story. As in most novels and screenplays and in some longer short-stories, a lot of elements of the mythic-structure/heroic-journey model apply here. First, in Act 1, there's the heroine's usual and uncomplicated life, then a "disturbance" that upsets the routine (in this case, her inability to rent transportation to get her where she wants to go), then an unexpected encounter (with a young boy who needs her help) which delays her acceptance of the "call to adventure," and finally her eventual crossing-the-threshold transition into unfamiliar and threatening territory. Act 2 features the appearance of mentors and allies (a kindly hired hand and a traveling gun salesman), several run-ins with evil forces, steadily rising action, and finally a crisis/setback that paves the way for the climax. Then, in Act 3, there's the final confrontation between the heroine and the villain and the heroine's later return, as an older and wiser person, to her everyday, pre-adventure life. The old hero's-journey template still works.
The hired hand in this piece, Booley Jones, is a composite of a number of folks I knew, growing up in small-town Mississippi, and the same is true for some of the other characters. As for detailed descriptions of the players, I never do much of that. I can see these people clearly in my imagination as I'm writing about them, but I think it's important that the reader be allowed the freedom to also imagine what they look like. Stephen King once said, in his book On Writing, "I'd rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well." I'm no Stephen King, but I think that's good advice.
One more thing. The title of this story was a result of my not being able to decide on a satisfactory title even after the writing was finished. I tried using embedded phrases, characters' names, double meanings. and just about every other technique, and when nothing worked, I came up with the name of a geographical feature instead--Rooster Creek--and went back and set the house and farm and most of the action alongside its willow-shaded banks. Sometimes simple is best.
And that's the story of my story. If you read it, I hope you'll like it, and even if you don't read it (or don't like it), be sure to read the other stories in the magazine. John and Carla have put together a great debut issue.
Long live Black Cat Mystery Magazine.
05 September 2017
by Barb Goffman
It's not everyday you get to blog about the premier issue of a new magazine, especially on the very day it's scheduled to launch. And it's especially exciting when the magazine is coming from a publisher that's been around for nearly thirty years, so you can feel confident that the magazine should have staying power.
The brainchild of Wildside Press publisher John Betancourt and Wildside editor Carla Coupe, the magazine is expected to come out quarterly. The first issue features new stories from fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Art Taylor, as well as one from me. (More on that below.) The other authors with new stories in the issue are Dan Andriacco, Michael Bracken, Kaye George, Meg Opperman, Alan Orloff, and Josh Pachter.
Editor Carla Coupe was kind enough to answer some questions about this new venture.
Why did you decide to start this magazine?
To provide an outlet for great short fiction, which we love. We decided to launch Black Cat when certain other mystery magazines cut their publication schedules in half.
How do you hope to distinguish BCMM from other mystery magazines?
We're focusing on edgier, noir-tinged, character-based short stories—which happen to contain a crime of some sort. (A crime is essential, or it isn't mystery fiction.) We don't want fantasy, horror, science fiction, routine revenge stories, or sadism. We do want stories with characters who feel real, in situations that are possible (and plausible), and of course great writing.
Do you have a minimum or maximum word count? How about a sweet spot?
We’re looking for contemporary and traditional mysteries, as well as thrillers and suspense stories. We hope to feature stories by established and new authors, and will include a classic reprint or two in each issue. We aren’t looking for flash fiction, and our sweet spot is for stories between 1,000 and 8,000 words. We will look at material up to 15,000 words in length—but it better blow us away to take up that much of an issue!
It will be for sale at our website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), on Amazon, and hopefully some independent bookstores. US readers can buy a four-issue subscription, so they won't miss any.
You're aiming for it to come out quarterly?
Yes, but as with all our publications, we're not wedded to a strict schedule.
When will submission guidelines go up?
Hopefully this week.
When will you open for submissions?
We'll start accepting submissions at the beginning of October.
We make the decisions together, and so far have agreed on almost every story!
What do you pay?
We pay 3 cents/word, with a maximum of $250.
Is there anything you'd like people to know about the magazine that I haven't asked?
John thinks the response times are often unreasonably long in the short fiction field. Our goal is to respond to most submissions within 2 weeks. (We're going to try for "all submissions"—but in rare circumstances we may take longer.) We also will look at poetry ($5 for short poems, more for longer ones) and cartoons.
Thank you, Carla!
So, readers, here's your chance to read some great fiction in this brand new issue, which is already available for sale on the Wildside website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), and which should show up any moment now on Amazon, if it isn't there already. My story in the issue, "Crazy Cat Lady," is a tale of psychological suspense about a woman who comes home and immediately suspects there's been a break-in, even though everything looks perfectly in order. Go pick up a copy of the magazine. I hope you enjoy it!
Art, John, and all the other authors with stories in this premier issue, I hope you'll comment with information about your tales. I'm so glad to be sharing this moment with you.