Showing posts with label Bouchercon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bouchercon. Show all posts

08 October 2019

Open Your Heart and Bleed


What are your stories about?

I’m not interested in elevator pitches—“My stories are about a plucky private eye who searches for missing labradoodles with the aid of her grandfather’s long-dead schnauzer.”—but rather about the underlying themes in one’s work.

I’m pondering this question, as I have many times before, because Barb Goffman, moderator of “Short and Sweet but Sometimes Dark,” a short story panel at this month’s Bouchercon, asked participants to send her two recently published or about-to-be published stories to aid in her preparation.

As I looked through mine, I was reminded of how often I write about the lingering impact of expired relationships. Whether relationships end by choice or not, former lovers (survivors, in the case of death) carry emotional weight all the rest of their days, and this weight, in one form or another, informs much of my fiction.

I NEVER SAID GOODBYE

Michael Bracken, Heartache-bound
I had known Vickie since sixth grade, and she sat behind me in homeroom when I was a fourteen-year-old ninth grader at Mason Junior High School in Tacoma, Washington. I visited her home, where we played games, watched television, and dined with her family. Our first date—an unchaperoned date, no less—would be the first dance of the school year, held in a multi-purpose room with a stage at one end, theater seating at the other end, and a hardwood gymnasium floor between the two. Because Tacoma had public transportation, I would take the bus from home—a mere block from the junior high school—to hers a mile or so away, return with her, and attend the dance.

Between the time I asked Vickie to the dance and the day of our date, I learned that my parents and I would be moving to Fort Bragg, California, and we were leaving the morning after the dance. I told no one.

As planned, I picked Vickie up at her home and we traveled by city bus to the junior high school. We sat in the theater seats, listening to the music and watching some of our classmates on the dance floor. Vickie repeatedly asked me to dance, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to tell her I was moving, but I couldn’t.

After a while, she grew frustrated and left. Alone.

The next day I climbed in the back seat of my parents’ car, and we moved to California.

I never saw or talked to Vickie again.

I never told her I was leaving, I never said goodbye, and I have carried that weight for nearly fifty years.

MAYBE I DID THIS TIME

I did not have another girlfriend until I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Yvonne, a junior, served on the school’s newspaper staff with me, and we dated during the last semester of my senior year, the same semester my mother died during heart surgery. More than a girlfriend, she was one of the few people (along with my best friend Joe and my English teacher Mrs. Richmond) who helped me cope with the loss of my mother.

Even so, I struggled with my mother’s passing, and my stepfather and I did not get along. So, my grandmother traveled to Fort Bragg to take me home with her.

I think I told Yvonne I was leaving—I hope I did—but once again a budding relationship was truncated by events beyond my control, and at least two years passed before I again opened my heart.

AND THEN MY HEARTACHES BLED INTO MY STORIES

Over the years, I have survived many additional heartaches—the deaths of loved ones, the slow disintegration of relationships that began with such promise, relationships truncated for reasons beyond my control—and those heartaches bled into, and continue to bleed into, my fiction.

So, when I selected two stories for Barb, I found myself unable to find two in which the end of a relationship didn’t play at least some small part in the tale. I chose “Who Done It,” coming next month in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Woodstock,” forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (I didn’t select “Love, Or Something Like It,” forthcoming in Crime Travel [Wildside Press], which Barb edited, because the theme is much too obvious.)

I could have selected any of several other stories because dealing with the emotional weight of expired relationships has long been an underlying theme in my work, just as it has in my life.

Still, if you prefer the elevator pitches, catch me when I’m feeling less confessional.


My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” published last year in Tough, has been named one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in this year’s The Best American Mystery Stories. This is the second time one of my stories has made the list (the first, “Dreams Unborn,” made the 2005 list); last year my story “Smoked” actually made it into the anthology.

Join us at the launch party for The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down and Out Books) at Murder By The Book in Houston on October 21. Seven of the contributors—Chuck Brownman, James A. Hearn, Scott Montgomery, Graham Powell, William Dylan Powell, Mark Troy, and Bev Vincent—will join me to discuss the anthology and their stories, and to sign copies. If you can’t get to the signing, contact Murder By The Book. I suspect they’ll let you preorder a copy that we can sign for you and that they can ship after the event.

28 May 2019

Things You Learn from Editing


by Barb Goffman

As the old saying goes, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. (As a dog owner, I can attest that this is true!) The saying also applies to writers. No matter how much writing experience you have, you still can learn more.

I was reminded of this point recently, as I've been editing a lot of short stories for two upcoming anthologies, one coming out in December, and another coming out next spring. Some of the stories have been written by authors I consider to be short-story experts. Other stories have been written by authors who have had several stories published but who haven't broken out yet, and others still have been penned by authors who are just starting out. And I have learned something from all of them--sometimes simply from reading the stories (even the newest writer can come up with a twist or a turn of phrase that turns my head) and other times from editing them.

It's the editing finds that can lead to especially interesting conversations.

Did you know that SOB is in the dictionary? All caps. No periods. The acronym for son of a bitch is a word all its own, at least according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Even more surprising (to me at least), mansplain has made the dictionary too. I won't bother to tell you what that words means. I'm sure you know.

Turning to homophones, two-word terms often become single words when slang enters the picture. For instance, a woman might go to the drug store to buy a douche bag, but if her boyfriend is being a jerk, she'd call him a douchebag (one word, no space). And descriptions of animal excrement are usually spelled as two words: horse shit, bull shit, chicken shit. But when you mean "no way" or "a load of not-actual crap" you spell it horseshit and bullshit (again, one word, no space). And when you mean that someone is a coward, you call him a chickenshit--also one word. (Thanks to Michael Bracken for helping me see the horse shit/horseshit distinction recently.) It's interesting that horses, bulls, and chickens have had their excrement turned into slang words, yet dog shit is just that. Two words meaning excrement. As I told a friend, I might start saying "dogshit," when I want to say "no way!" just to see if it catches on.

Keeping with the one-word or two-words questions, do you go into a room or in to a room? This may be an obvious thing for you, but it's one of those little things I find myself double-checking over and over. Same for on to/onto, some time/sometime, and so many more. Each of these words has their proper place, so I like to make sure I use them properly.

Yep, that's a bear on a trampoline.
To answer these questions: you go into a room. Into is the correct word if you are showing motion. The onto/on to question also turns on whether you are showing movement. I jump onto the trampoline. I catch on to my boyfriend's lies. As to sometime or some time, this question turns on whether you are talking about a period of time (writing this blog is taking some time) or if you mean an indefinite date (I'll get back to you sometime next month). Thank goodness for Google, without which I would have to memorize these distinctions. Instead I just get to look them up again and again and again.

Well, I hate to cut this column short, but I'm short on time. (Ha ha!) (And that's two words for ha ha, per our friend Mr. Webster.)

Do you have any interesting word usage issues/spelling knowledge you'd like to share? Please do. I'm always eager to learn something new.

******

Oh, and before I go, two bits of BSP: My story "Bug Appétit" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story! This story was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was a finalist earlier this year for the Agatha Award. I'm honored to be an Anthony finalist along with fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor as well as authors S.A. Cosby, Greg Herren, and Holly West. The winner will be voted on and announced at Bouchercon in November. In the meanwhile, you can read my story here, if you are interested.


And if you're anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, on Saturday, June 8th, I hope you'll come to the launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. This anthology from the Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime includes my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne."

The launch party will run from 3 - 5 p.m. at the Libbie Mill - Henrico County Public Library, 2011 Libbie Lake E. St., Richmond, VA. In addition to the usual book launch activities such as book selling and book signing and snack eating, there will be a panel discussion about the pros and cons of writing different lengths of fiction. I'll be on the panel with fellow Deadly Southern Charm author Lynn Cahoon and anthology editor Mary Burton. We hope to see you there!

01 January 2019

The Power of Tenacity


by Barb Goffman

I planned to title this column the Power of Persistence and to write about writing goals. It seemed perfect for January 1st, when so many people make resolutions for the new year. And I do love alliteration. But then I thought, maybe "tenacity" would be a better word than "persistence." The Power of Tenacity might not have the same cadence as the Power of Persuasion, but is it more on point? I had always treated the words as synonyms, but maybe they aren't, I began to think. Maybe I should check. So I did, and it turns out there's an important difference between the two words.

Persistence means trying repeatedly to reach a goal through the same method, figuring eventually you'll succeed. Tenacity means trying to reach a goal through varying methods, learning from each failure and trying different approaches. For anyone with goals for 2019, tenacity seems the better approach.

How does this apply to writing? First, let's talk about getting writing done. Everyone has their own method. Some people write every morning before daybreak. Others write at night. Some people say they will write for a set number of hours each day. Others say they'll write as long as it takes to meet a daily quota. Some people plot out what they're going to write. Others write by the seat of their pants. It doesn't matter what your approach is, as long as it works for you. So with the new year here, perhaps this is a good time to take stock of your approach. Is your approach working for you? Are you getting enough writing done? Enough revision done? Are you making the best use of your time?

I have a friend (and editing client) who used to be a pantser. But she found that after finishing every draft, she had so many loose ends to address and problems to fix, it took her much longer to revise than she'd like. So she started forcing herself to plot before she began writing each book. Not detailed outlines, but she figures out who kills whom, how, and why, what her subplot will be (again, just the basics), and what her theme is. These changes in her approach have enabled her to be so much more productive. She writes faster now, and she needs less time for revision. That's tenacity in action.

Moving on to a finished product, how do you react to rejection? If you have a rejected short story, for instance, after you finish cursing the universe, do you find another venue and send that story out immediately? Or do you re-read it and look for ways to improve it? And if a story has been rejected several times (there's no shame here; we've all been there), do you keep sending it out anyway or put it in a drawer to let it cool off for a few months or years until perhaps the market has changed or your skills have improved?

If sending a story out a few times without revising after each rejection usually results in a sale for you, great. Then your persistence works, and it means you have more time for other projects. But if it doesn't, if you find yourself sending a story out a dozen times without success, then perhaps you should consider a new approach. After a story is rejected, say, three times, maybe you should give it a hard look and see how it can be changed. Maybe you should let it sit in a drawer for a while first, so when you review it, you'll have a fresh take.

And if you're getting a lot of rejections, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate your markets or what you write. I know some writers who started their careers writing science fiction, but it turned out that they were much better suited to writing mysteries. Once they let their true selves out on the page, they started making sales. I know a writer who's been working on a novel for years, but she can't seem to finish it. Yet she's had a lot of success with short stories. If she were to decide to only write short stories and let the novel lie fallow, that wouldn't be a failure; it would be tenacity in action: finding what works for her.

I was about to write that the one thing you shouldn't do is give up, but there might be value in letting go. If your goal is to write a novel or short story, but you never seem to finish your project, and the mere thought of working on it feels like drudgery instead of joy, then maybe being a professional writer isn't for you. There's no shame in that. Not every person is suited to every task. When I was a kid I loved swimming, but I was never going to make a swim team. I wasn't fast enough. Maybe with a lot of practice and other changes I could have gotten there, but I didn't want to take those steps. And that's okay. I enjoyed swimming for the fun of it, and that was enough for me. Maybe writing for yourself, without the pressure of getting to write "The End," is what gives you joy. If so, more power to you. And maybe it turns out you don't want to finish that book or story you started writing. That's okay too, even if you did tell everyone that you were writing it. You're allowed to try things and stop if it turns out they aren't the right fit for you.

But if you believe writing is the right fit, yet your writing isn't as productive as you want it to be, or your sales aren't as good as you want them to be, then be tenacious. Evaluate your approaches to getting writing done, to editing your work, to seeking publication. Maybe you need to revise how you're doing things. Are you writing in the morning but are more alert in the evening? Change when you write. Is your work typically ready to be sent out into the world as soon as you finish? If you get a lot of rejections, maybe it's not. Maybe you need to force yourself to let your work sit for a while after you finish, so you can review it again with fresh eyes before you start submitting. Do you have a contract, but your books aren't selling as well as you'd like? Perhaps you should find someone you trust who can try to help you improve. No matter how successful you are, there's always something new to learn. The key is to figure out what works for you and keep doing it, and also figure out what isn't working for you and change it.

That, my fellow writers, is my advice for 2019. Be tenacious. Evaluate what you want, and evaluate your methods for getting there. If your methods aren't working, change them. And if in six months your new methods aren't working, change them again. Work hard. Work smart. And be sure to enjoy yourself along the way, because if you're not enjoying writing, why bother doing it?

***

And now for a little BSP: I usually have one or two of my short stories up on my website so folks can get a feel for my fiction writing style. I just changed those stories. Now you can read "Bug Appétit" (which was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) and "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" (from the 2018 Bouchercon Anthology, Florida Happens). For "Bug Appétit"click here, and for "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" click here. Happy reading. And I hope you have a wonderful new year.

16 October 2018

The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror


by Michael Bracken

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

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

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

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

And then I stopped being that guy.

PLAY BECOMES WORK

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

And the answer, too often, was “no.”

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

My mojo was no mo’.

WORK BECOMES PLAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

And writing it is damned fun.

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

09 October 2018

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected


by Barb Goffman

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

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

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

And yet ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 September 2018

Social Issues in Crime Fiction, and a Farewell


I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel. That's the place to go. --Dennis Lehane, from an interview at Powells.com

 I agree with Mr Lehane and it is one of the reasons I chose crime fiction as the method to tell my stories. That and realizing that I wasn't finding stories about my family or the people I knew in "literary" fiction, except on rare occasions. I don't think you can write about crime without staking your position on many social issues. Even if you don't comment on them directly, you are affirming the status quo in one way or another--stating that "all is well" or "what ya gonna do, that's the way things are." Even the definition of crime is a social issue statement. At Bouchercon, I attended the criminals in fiction panel, and during the Q&A I asked, "How do you define a criminal?"

I asked the question because first of all, actual questions are rare at any writer panel. Most of the time they are manifestos or statements twisted into the form of a question, such as "the unpublished novel about my pet squirrel's ghost solving crimes would be bigger than The DaVinci Code, don't you agree?" So I wanted to give the writers something to chew on, but unfortunately I didn't get any good answers.

One writer used the legal definition, which means anyone never charged with a crime--either because they eluded police or their status and privilege acted as a Get Out of Jail Free card--isn't a "criminal." Which makes no sense at all. Jack the Ripper isn't a criminal, he was never caught. Is someone who is pardoned a criminal? Are you a criminal for life if you've done your time, but an upstanding citizen if you've been acquitted because your victims signed NDAs or disappeared? Our heroic protagonists often break dozens of laws, but they're okay. The most popular genre today, superheroes, act as vigilantes, above the law either by government sanction or their own moral code, and we cheer them on. They are criminals.



As for Get Out of Jail Free cards, police unions give out paper or gold cards to their members to give to friends and family for preferential treatment, and badges to put on windshields to avoid traffic stops, so I guess anyone who's good friends with an American police officer is unlikely to be a criminal by the legal definition, "just don't kill anybody," one recipient was told. We permit this and think it won't lead to abuse. I'm sure the strict moral codes of all involved come into play.

People from the "underbelly of society" as Lehane calls it don't get these too often, they are the hidden tax base that American municipalities leech for revenue, keeping them in a cycle of probation to give jobs to our bloated drug-war-fueled criminal injustice system, but whenever I read about corruption it's about a few "bad apples" like the guys in Don Winslow's The Force. We always forget the other half of that adage: they spoil the whole bunch. I know that's sacrilege these days, saying that our warrior caste of Heroes are complicit in a corrupt system and anyone who says "I hate bad cops! They make my job harder!" but can't produce a list of cops they got jailed for corruption is helping rot the barrel, but yes, that's what I'm saying. And when we write stories about police that ignore that unarmed black men are shot in their homes and turned into criminals, that prosecutors withhold evidence to make their cases, that judges take kickbacks to send kids to private prisons, we are the bad apples, too. Oh, that's unpleasant? That can't be entertainment? The fantasy section is over there.

Am I without sin? Hardly. I've been that cowardly guy who chuckled nervously when a man with power over me said something terrible about women and confessed to mistreating them. It's the same thing. We perpetuate it. It's our problem, not women's. I've tried to do better. I've helped train police to constrain violent people without having to shoot them, tase them, or choke them to death for selling cigarettes. I've tried to write that whether you wear blue uniforms or prison sweatpants, that you are human and have your reasons for what you do, whether those reasons are for the greater good or for personal gain, and make it entertaining in the process. They are not mutually exclusive. If you think they are, take it up with Lehane, Hammett, Hughes, Himes, Chandler, Paretsky, Mosley, and Block--who gave us openly corrupt cops in both Scudder and his cozy Burglar series.

The young bloods in crime fiction are not shoving "social issues" down your throat. It has been the crux since Hammett "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley," as Chandler said. Even cozies today take on social issues. It is in crime fiction's DNA. Maybe we don't quote scripture, maybe we prefer Lil Wayne. He's sold 100 million albums, do you know who he is? Big as George Harrison (RIP, my favorite of the fab four). If you think "kids today" are stupid when they are the most active young generation in politics since the late '60s because you saw some edited crap on the Jay Leno show, my suggestion is to get out more. Take your head out of the Venetian vase and put it on the streets.

Thanks for listening to this rant. It will be my last for SleuthSayers. Thank you to Robert and Leigh for letting me speak here, and for all of you for reading and commenting. Fare well.

18 September 2018

Put Some Feeling Into It


by Barb Goffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

04 September 2018

Prolific Slacker


by Michael Bracken

When Brian Thornton described one project for which he wrote an average of 1,425 words/day (“La Joie de l’Écriture,” my heart palpitated with anxiety. That’s almost 2.5 times greater than my production rate during the best year for which I have records.

In 2009 I wrote 216,310 words, an average of 593 words/day. In 2017, my worst recorded year, I produced only 130,600 words, an average of 387 words/day. Neither average comes close to Brian’s assertion that “most of the working writers” he knows “cite a thousand words per day as a healthy goal.” My writing production isn’t healthy; it’s anemic.

That’s because I’m a slacker, never producing near as many words on any given day as I know I’m capable of producing. I allow myself to get sidetracked—by research, by other story ideas, by Twitter tweets, by Facebook posts, by blog posts, by new online forms of solitaire—and I look up later to discover I’ve only produced a paragraph or two.

And yet, I wrote 75 short stories in 2009 and 32 in 2017, so even my least productive year resulted in a significant number of completed works.

SKEWED NUMBERS

Maybe the way I track word counts skews my numbers. I don’t track words as I produce them; I only count the words in completed, submission-ready manuscripts.

In any given year I produce an ungodly number of partial manuscripts, stories I’ll finish one of these days, if I live long enough.

I set the stories aside for a variety of reasons. Some are beginnings without endings. Some are story doughnuts, missing the all-important middle that gets readers from beginning to end. Some are rough outlines. Some are stories beyond my current ability to write. Many, though, are stories without markets. For example, I continue generating story ideas for confessions, even though the last two confession magazines ceased publication more than a year ago.

SETTING GOALS

As a short-story writer (and, likely, as with any other kind of writer), what matters most are finished manuscripts, so I’ve never set writing goals that involve number of words or number of pages or amount of time spent at the keyboard.

My annual goals, ever since setting them many years ago, are 52 acceptances and 52 new stories each year, or an average of one of each per week. Reprints carry the same weight as originals when counting acceptances, so the six reprints I placed a few weeks ago brought my total acceptances for the year to 32, which put me exactly on schedule as I write this. My production of new stories this year to date totals a paltry 13.

I have several stories near completion, but even were I to complete them all before month end, I would remain behind schedule. There are several reasons for the reduction in output, some of them, perhaps, the subjects of future posts, but the net result is that I am unlikely to meet my writing goals this year.

As a prolific slacker, I don’t chide myself for failing to meet my productivity goals nor do I allow myself to slip into a woe-is-me funk that further erodes my productivity. Instead, I do my best to deal with the things that sap my creativity or keep me away from the keyboard. Then, like now, when I am at the keyboard, I spend a little less time playing solitaire and a little more time stringing words together.

I may never join the ranks of the thousand-words-a-day working writers Brian cited—heck, this post won’t even reach a thousand words!—but I’ve found that my slacker’s approach allows me to produce an ever-growing body of work.

So, no matter how you set your goals—by the word, by the page, by the manuscript, or by the length of time at the keyboard—realize that you may not always meet those goals.

Whether you do or you don’t, the most important thing you can do is to keep pressing forward. As my youngest son recently said, you don’t fail until you quit.

Released at the end of August, Blood Work (Down & Out Books), edited by Rick Ollerman, celebrates the life of Mystery Writers of America Raven Award-winning Gary Shulze, long-time owner of the legendary Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis. Gary left an indelible mark on the crime fiction community across the world before he passed away in 2016 due to complications from leukemia. The anthology includes my story “Backlit.”

If you’ll be at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg this week, stop in on “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Orange Juice—Writing Pulp,” a panel in which I’ll join Frank De Blase, Kate Pilarcik, and moderator Steven Torres. We’ll start squeezing oranges at 4:00 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

And I’ll be speaking about “Short Stories: From Concept to Sale, How This Form Can Satisfy,” at the noon MWA-Southwest luncheon, September 15, at Carraba’s, 1399 South Voss, Houston, Texas.

28 August 2018

Rounding Things Out


by Barb Goffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

And now, for a little BSP:

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

16 June 2018

Conference Memories



by John M. Floyd



I haven't been to a writers' conference in a while, although I'm scheduled for at least three in the coming months. But I've been reading a lot of blogs and other posts by writer friends who have been attending conferences regularly. Besides making me want to go also, it's reminded me of things, good and bad and ugly, that have happened to me at conferences in the past.

Here are some that stand out in my memory:



- Ten or twelve years ago, at "Murder in the Magic City" in Birmingham, I wound up sitting beside author Harley Jane Kozak during a presentation. We chatted awhile, and even though I didn't recognize her name I said, "Don't I know you? You sure look familiar." Neither of us could figure out where our paths might've crossed before, and I couldn't help noticing--and being puzzled by--the amusement on her face. Only later did I realize why she had looked so familiar: she was an actress as well as a writer, and I'd watched her on TV the night before, in Arachnophobia.

- Highs and lows: At Bouchercon in Baltimore several years ago, two different ladies approached me after seeing my name tag and said they loved Angela Potts (one of my series characters). Music to my ears. Later at that same conference, a guy asked me if I was famous. I said, "No, sadly, I'm not." He said, "Can you point me to somebody who is?"


- Before my first and only trip to the Edgar ceremony in New York, the publisher of my books told me to try to get a photo of me with Stephen King, who was up for Best Novel that year. At the reception, I reminded my wife Carolyn of this, and she pointed to King and said, "Well, there he is--go talk to him." I gave her my cell phone to take the picture with, walked over to SK, and he was kind enough to chat with me for a minute or two. When I got back to our table I saw Carolyn looking at my phone and said, "Did you get it?" She looked up at me and said, "Get what? I was texting with Karen [our daughter]."

- When I spotted Otto Penzler in the midst of a huge crowd in the lobby of the conference hotel at the Raleigh Bouchercon I asked him, "Do you know everyone here?" He smiled and said, "No. But everyone here knows me." I loved that. And I bet he was right.

- I was once invited by author Steve Hamilton, who was a fellow IBM employee at the time, to a private screening of a short film adapted from one of his stories. The story was "A Shovel With My Name on It," and the resulting movie was retitled "The Shovel," and starred David Strathairn. That gathering remains one of my most enjoyable experiences at a writers' conference. This was at another "Murder in the Magic City"--Jan Burke and Steve were the guests of honor that year, and two of the kindest writers I've ever met.

- I think I mentioned this in a SleuthSayers post awhile back, but I happened to meet Lee Child at a Bouchercon in Cleveland not long after he had served as guest editor for Otto Penzler's annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology. That was one of the years when one of my stories' titles was mentioned in the appendix of the book, a story that made the top 50 but not the top 20. I remember babbling my thanks to Child for that mention of my story, even though the story itself didn't get included in the book. Only later did I learn that those top 50 are chosen by Otto, and then the guest editor picks the top 20 . . . so what I had done was thank Mr. Child for NOT choosing my story. (Sigh.)

- At a Bouchercon several years ago I was crossing a hotel lobby when I was hailed by unnamed Editor #1, who informed me that they'd decided to publish one of my submitted stories. While I was thrilled to hear that news, I was a little worried too, because Editor #1 had held onto that story for a long time and hadn't responded to my inquiries about its status--so I had since given up and submitted it elsewhere, to unnamed Editor #2. After leaving Editor #1 (on one side of the lobby), I quickly searched out and reported to Editor #2 (on the other side of the lobby) that the story I'd submitted to their publication was now no longer available. Editor #2 accepted my apology and graciously agreed to withdraw that story from consideration, and all was well, but I went to bed that night resolving to never again send a story someplace before being absolutely certain that it was no longer being considered elsewhere. (Have I mentioned that this is a crazy business?)

- I attended a writers' conference four or five years ago that was held at one of he big casinos on the Gulf Coast. I had a good time and attended some educational and informative panels, but I must tell you, attendance at some of those sessions was sparse. That happens, when gambling and/or sun-and-sand are close by. I was reminded of the IBM banking conferences I attended in south Florida in the Good Old Days. I specialized in finance at IBM, so I went to a lot of those conventions, and anytime questions arose about a particular banker's absence from a particular session, the answer was always "He couldn't be here--he had to go study float management." In other words, he was outside at the pool. Another memory of conferences and conventions held in casino locations: my clothes always smelled like tobacco-smoke afterward.

- At one conference reception, I took what I thought was a sausage ball from a tray of hors d'oeuvres (in Mississippi we call them horse divers) and it turned out to be a piece of liver. I chomped down on it just as someone behind me, with a lady's voice, said, "Excuse me, aren't you John Floyd?" I am usually unknown to anyone outside the walls of our home, so I turned to say hello--at the very same moment that my taste buds sent a red-alert message to my brain that this was liver and not sausage. I remember gagging violently and squeezing my eyes shut, and when I finally opened them again whoever was behind me had disappeared/fled. To this day I hope she just chose to wander off before she saw my look of agony, but I doubt it. (Another sigh.)

- One of the sessions I attended at a writers conference in Mobile a few years ago featured a young woman teaching writers how to set up their own websites. I wasn't really interested, but I sat down and started listening to her anyway. The following weekend, after getting back home, I used what I had learned to create my own site, from scratch, and it went live that Sunday night. I can't remember the name of the presenter, but I owe her a great debt. Sometimes those panel sessions and presentations pay off!

- At the top of my "bad" list is an experience my wife and I once had at a conference hotel: the alarm clock was set wrong and couldn't be changed, the closet-rods were mounted too low to allow normal clothes to hang properly (much less those as long as mine), the shower head couldn't be adjusted, the bedside radio turned itself on in the middle of the night and couldn't be reset (or unplugged), a shelf immediately above the sink was too large to allow us to bend over and spit after brushing our teeth, our view from the window was a brick wall ten feet away, every single light in the room was too dim, the peephole in the door was set at waist-height, etc., etc.--we counted almost two dozen aggravations and inconveniences. And most of these weren't things that were malfunctioning--they were just designed that way. A week earlier we'd been to one of my class reunions, where we had to stay at a Super 8 Motel (the only lodging in that town); its nightly rate was several hundred dollars less than this conference hotel, and it was ten times more guest-friendly. Just saying.

- At the top of my "good" list for conferences are meetings at the bar (or dinner or elsewhere) with some of my heroes, heroines, and online acquaintances. I won't list names here for fear of leaving someone out, but you know who you are. Seeing and talking with and getting to know other writers is, to me, by far the best reason to attend any of these conferences. Great memories!



And that's my pitch, for today. What are some of your highlights and horror-stories about conferences you've been to?

Inquiring attendees want to know . . .