Showing posts with label Crime Travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Crime Travel. Show all posts

10 December 2019

Pull on Your Galoshes, We’re Headed into the Slush Pile


Earlier this year I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor, replacing the irreplaceable Carla Coupe. Unlike Carla, who performed multiple duties for Wildside Press prior to her retirement, my primary responsibility as the junior co-editor is to read and assess submissions.

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.

The second distinction is the decision-making process. With my anthologies I make the final decisions and the anthologies succeed or fail due to those decisions. BCMM, on the other hand, has two decision makers. Though John Betancourt, as publisher and senior co-editor makes final decisions, the co-editorship is structured such that every accepted story has been approved by both editors.

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.

BONA FIDES

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.

Why?

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).

Perhaps, and this may be a radical thought, we could suggest that writers and would-be writers read the instruction manual, use the help menu, or use a search engine to find instructions on the internet for how to do things such as indent a paragraph, center a line of text, insert an em-dash, insert headers and automatically number pages, and do any of a number of other things that should already be part of a writer’s skill set.

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!

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.

12 November 2019

Crime Travel -- How Did We Get Here?


It seems odd yet also right that the publication date for a time-travel crime anthology seems to be sneaking up on me. It feels like ages ago when I put out the call for stories for Crime Travel. (It was about a year and a half ago.) And it feels like I've been waiting for years for the publication date to approach (maybe I have ... because, you know, time travel). But now, suddenly, the launch date is less than a month away--how did that happen?--and I'm scrambling to write this blog.

If only I could go back and write this at a more leisurely pace ...

It's August 2013. I let my beloved dog Scout go a month ago, and now I'm writing a time-travel story involving a dog. I can't bring Scout back but maybe with this fictional dog ... My friend and former critique group partner C. Ellett Logan reads the story after it's done and tells me I don't need to join a bereavement support group. I've clearly worked it all out on the page.
Scout

Later that year: The story, now named "Alex's Choice," is rejected for the first time.

2014 - 2016: I keep fiddling with the story, keep sending it out, keep getting rejections. Time travel stories can be a tough sell.

July 2016: I send the story to Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I expect she too will pass because the story doesn't feel right for the magazine, but I figure it can't hurt to try. Linda ultimately does turn the story down, but says she liked a lot about it and it made her cry. Yes! I made Linda cry. (I know. That shouldn't make me happy. (Sorry, Linda.) But getting that reaction from her is good.)

September 2017: I gripe with my friend Donna Andrews about this story that I can't sell, and she says, "Why don't you put together your own anthology?" She has the perfect name for it, too: Crime Travel. I think about this a lot. I have experience putting together anthologies. I've done a bunch with Donna and Marcia Talley (the Chesapeake Crimes series), as well as editing one of the Malice Domestic anthologies. But this would be the first one I'd do all on my own, including choosing the stories. I'm intrigued but worried about the time commitment. Ultimately, intrigue wins out ...

Thanks for the
support, Carla!

November 2017: I talk with Carla Coupe, the then number two person at Wildside Press (who is now blissfully retired) about this anthology idea, and she likes it. We spend the next few months ironing out details.

June 2018: I put out the call for stories. Scared I'll be overrun with submissions, I only share the story announcement with the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Chesapeake Chapter of Sister in Crime (my home chapter), the Guppies Chapter of SinC, and with my fellow bloggers here at SleuthSayers. I mention in the call for stories that the royalties will be donated to a literacy charity yet to be chosen.

November 2018: The deadline has come, and I have 53 stories to choose from. I wonder what in the world I was smoking earlier that fall when I decided to not read the submissions as they came in and instead to wait until I had them all to start my review. I had pictured myself somehow reading them all in one blissful snowy weekend. Maybe that could happen if I were a speed reader or could actually time travel. Otherwise ...

December 31, 2018: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope.

January 31, 2019: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope. Instead I find myself struggling to read all the stories while getting my paid work done too.

February 19, 2019: Finally, the decisions have been made. Fourteen stories have been chosen for the anthology, and I'm including my own "Alex's Choice" too. (Hey, I didn't start this process for nothing.) I'm so excited for the authors whose stories were chosen because they're all really good. I'm sad for the authors whose stories I had to turn down. And I'm exhausted because it sounds like the hard part is done but I know the hard part is really just beginning.

Spring and summer 2019: Editing, editing, editing. Proofreading too.

Also spring 2019: Our charity is chosen. All royalties will be donated to 826DC, a Washington, DC, nonprofit designed to help children and teens improve their creative and expository writing skills, as well as help teachers inspire children to write.

Late August 2019: The publisher, John Betancourt, sends me the cover. I love it so much, it is ridiculously hard not to share it with the world immediately.

September 6, 2019: Kristopher Zgorksi hosts our cover reveal on his BOLO Books blog. Thank you, Kristopher!

Fall 2019: ARCs go out. I hear back from some of the recipients quickly, and they all have good things to say. Whew!

November 2019: Contributor Eleanor Cawood Jones arranges our launch party. Thank you, Ellie! It will be on ...

Sunday, December 8, 2019: This is our official publication date, our launch party date, and it's Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The trifecta! (Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day is a real holiday. You can look it up!)

The launch party will run from 1 - 3 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Fairfax, Virginia (12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr, Fairfax, VA 22033). The following authors are scheduled to be at the launch event (and some of them might even dress up in the time period of their story): James Blakey, me (Barb Goffman), Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley.

Maybe with the help of time travel
the rest of the authors will make the launch
The rest of the authors with stories in the book, who alas can't make it to the launch, are: Melissa H. Blaine, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, David Dean, Brendan DuBois, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Barbara Monajem, and Korina Moss. So pleased to have four fellow SleuthSayers involved.

And now, with only two hours until this blog is to be posted at midnight November 12th, I feel grateful for all the people who have had a hand in making the dream of this book come true, as well as for the people who will buy this book and enjoy these stories.

If you like time travel and if you like crime stories, I truly think you will love this anthology. It is already available for pre-order directly from the publisher in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook. It's been a long time coming for "Alex's Choice," the story I wrote six years ago in Scout's honor. I hope when you read it you'll agree that it has been worth the wait.

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.

17 September 2019

Pithy and Thought-Provoking...or Not


by Michael Bracken

I’ve been so busy the past month that I’ve not had time to draft something pithy and thought-provoking. In August, I traveled to Colorado to attend the debut of a play written and directed by my youngest son. Then Temple and I traveled to Indiana to visit my daughter—whom I’ve not seen in eight years—and her family, which includes grandchildren we met for the first time. Before, between, and after the trips, I’ve been reading through submissions to a special issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and working on Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (due out in 2020) and Mickey Finn 2 (due out in 2021).

So, I dove into the files and found the following, a presentation I gave to the Mystery Writers of America’s Southwest Chapter at their September 2018 luncheon in Houston.


SHORT STORIES: FROM CONCEPT TO SALE, HOW THIS FORM CAN SATISFY

I write short stories. A lot of them.

In a publishing environment where many writers bemoan the lack of markets for short fiction, I’ve placed more than 1,200 short stories. That’s 4.2 million words, give or take, or the equivalent of 70 short novels.

When I began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, short story publication was considered the first step to becoming a genre novelist. Writers learned their craft by publishing short fiction in the popular magazines of the day before grappling with the complexity and length of novels. They established writing credentials, providing heft to their query and cover letters, and developed a readership before their first novel ever hit the wire racks at the grocery store.

That doesn’t seem to happen much today, and many writers, perhaps encouraged by the ease of publication offered by low-cost self-publishing, leap directly into novel writing without first establishing their writing skills and publishing credentials. Among those who succeed as novelists, some write short stories as an afterthought and some established novelists write short fiction only at the invitation of anthology editors. Whether they succeed or fail as novelists, few writers make a sincere effort to write short stories and fewer still earn a significant portion of their income from short fiction.

That’s a mistake.

Writing short fiction has several advantages over writing novels. A writer who devotes time and attention to short fiction can explore different genres, can experiment with different styles, and can develop a familiarity with several genres faster than most novelists. Additionally, short story writers quickly discover which genres play to their strengths and can avoid, or at least mitigate, the career damage caused by spending too much time dabbling in inappropriate genres.

As high school students, my best friend and I were determined to become the next Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. For several years I kept science fiction short stories circulating among all the professional and semi-professional science fiction magazines, but I achieved only modest success. On the other hand, after encouragement from the editor of a men’s magazine, I sold the first three mystery short stories I wrote. I have since sold short fiction in nearly every genre—with particular success in crime fiction and women’s fiction—and I continue to try new things.

Markets for short fiction no longer assault you at every magazine rack the way they did during the heyday of the pulp magazines or even during the 1970s when I began my career. Back then I could easily locate several dozen magazines devoted to short fiction—mystery, science fiction, and women’s fiction the most prevalent.

While some genre magazines remain—Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s among them—and new genre magazines come and go, the best markets for short stories may be publications not known for publishing fiction. The weekly publication Woman’s World, for example, publishes 104 short stories each year, one romance and one mystery each issue.

Finding markets for short fiction, therefore, becomes a literary treasure hunt, one that only the truly dedicated attempt. I regularly stand at magazine racks and thumb through magazines I don’t normally read, looking for evidence of short fiction. I also search for on-line publications and print publications that maintain an on-line presence, looking for publications I can’t find at local newsstands. Sometimes what I find is clearly identified as fiction; sometimes it isn’t. For example, the short stories I used to write for True Story were presented as if they are, in fact, true.

Literary and small press publications—both on-line and in print—also publish fiction. Unfortunately, they often pay little or nothing. Prior to submitting to small press publications, I examine them carefully to determine if the stories they publish are well written and presented in a professional manner, if the contributors include writers well-known in their genre, and if any stories they have published have later been nominated for awards or been included in best-of-year anthologies.

General interest magazines are increasingly hard to find as publishers target narrower and narrower demographics. So, one of the most important things to remember in today’s publishing environment is the need to write to market.

While many writers prefer to write first and seek appropriate publications later, I’ve found it beneficial to target my markets before I begin writing. Targeting markets is a two-step process that involves understanding the conventions of the genre or sub-genre in which I write and then understanding the publications for which I wish to write.

Many of today’s publications seek to address a particular audience. A close examination of any magazine will reveal a great deal of information about the publication’s readers or, at least, the readers the publication is attempting to reach. Often the fiction contained within these publications presents characters the readers see as “just like me” or an idealized “just like me,” so the more I know about the readers, the better I am able to develop appropriate characters and plots when I write for these publications.

On a more practical level, I determine how many short stories the magazine publishes each issue, the length of the stories, what genre or genres are represented, and any stylistic requirements the magazine may have. Once I’ve done all that, it’s time to write.

The keys to successfully placing short stories—presuming basic literacy and some minimum level of talent—are high productivity and dogged determination. Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more—sometimes as many as nine!—stories published each and every month. That’s 178 consecutive months. And beginning in July I’m three months into a new streak. That doesn’t happen without producing a lot of material.

While I don’t write fiction every day and don’t set daily page count or word count goals the way other writers do, I do set goals. I determine how many sales I’d like to achieve in a given year, and then I determine how many short stories I must complete to reach that goal. When I first began pounding the keyboard as a teenager, my goal was to sell one story. To anybody. After I achieved that, my goal was to sell a second story. Back then I completed dozens of short stories for each one that finally reached publication. My odds have improved since then and I now complete approximately eleven stories for every ten that sell.

I also keep manuscripts circulating on the firm belief that my work will be published eventually. These days some of my stories are written on assignment and many others are accepted by the first or second editor to read them—in part because I’m a more experienced writer and in part because I have a better understanding of the markets—but a few of my published stories were seen by dozens of editors before acceptance and one story—“I Can’t Touch the Clouds for You” (Sun, July 25, 2005)—spent thirty years visiting slush piles before reaching print.

Writing short fiction has allowed me to entertain many readers, to work with editors across multiple genres, and to generate steady income from writing while developing my craft.

And, if I ever decide to write another novel, I’m going to have one hell of a cover letter.

My story “Love, Or Something Like It” appears in the forthcoming Crime Travel (Wildside Press), an anthology of time travel mysteries, edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman. Learn more and preorder here.