Showing posts with label EQMM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label EQMM. Show all posts

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com








22 February 2020

No More Downer Books! (aka Does anyone else out there hate unreliable narrators?)


I’m tired of downer books. I don’t want to be depressed after reading for three hours. Bear with me: I’ll explain further.

The problem is, most of the downer elements of grim books involve women who are victims. Either victims of crime, or victims of a patriarchal society. Scandinavian Noir is full of the first. In fact, most noir novels include a female who is murdered and often hideously mutilated. That’s so much fun for women to read.

So here goes:

I don’t want to read any more books about women who are abused or downtrodden. I know there are several good books out there right now featuring such women. Some are historical. Some are current day. It’s not that they aren’t good. It’s just that I don’t want to read any more of them. I’ve read enough.

Imagine, men, if most of the books you had read involved men who had been victimized, or relegated to second class status by another gender. One or a few might be interesting to read. But a steady diet of these? Would you not find it depressing? Not to mention, discouraging?

I don’t want to read any more books about neurotic women, or women who can’t get it together.

I dread more ‘unreliable narrators.’ Salient point: did you notice that most (okay, every single one I can think of) unreliable narrators on the bestseller lists recently are women? Does that say something to you about how society views women? It does to me. No more ‘girl’ books.

I don’t want to read any more books this year with female protagonists that are written by men. Yes, that means some of the bestselling crime books out there. They may be very well written. But these rarely sound like women’s stories to me. They aren’t written with the same lens.

What I want: books with intelligent female protagonists written by women. I want more women’s stories. Books that I can be proud to hand on to my daughters, and say, see what is possible? She isn’t a victim! She’s someone like you.

Trouble is, I can’t FIND many books like that. The bestseller lists today are filled with protagonists who are unstable, neurotic women. Let me be clear: a lot of people enjoy these books. They may be very well written. They wouldn’t be on bestseller lists, otherwise.

But I’m tired of them. I want a ripping good story with a female protagonist, written by a woman. I want a strong, admirable protagonist I can relate to and care about. Hell, I want to *be* the protagonist for a few hours.

And not come away feeling downtrodden.




Bad Girl writes loopy comedies to blow away the blues. And she guarantees that the women protagonist and secondaries in her books kick butt.

THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS - latest in the "Hilarious" (EQMM) mob goddaughter series - no blues allowed! On Amazon

30 October 2019

The Last Lesson: Queen vs Hitchcock



Two weeks ago I reported that I had been invited to speak to the Northwest branch of the Mystery Writers of American on the subject: "Ten Things I learned Writing Short Stories."  I listed nine of them and promised to deliver the last one this week.  Here goes!

10.  What's the difference between Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine?  That's the second-most common question I hear about my writing.  (The first is the dreaded WDYGYI?)

For many years my reply was simple: AH buys my stories and EQ doesn't.  But since EQ has surrendered to my dubious charms several times I have to come up with some better distinction.  So here are a few.

Origin stories.  I mean the origins of the magazines themselves.  I think they are useful in thinking about how the editors think: What is in the magazine's DNA, so to speak?  Because as the old saying goes "What's bred in the bone, comes out in the flesh."

EQ was started in 1941 under the editorship of Frederic Dannay, one half of the author Ellery Queen.  Besides being an author and editor, Dannay was an anthologist and a historian of the mystery field.  He was determined to cover all aspects of the field (as opposed to Black Mask Magazine, for example, which had focused on hardboiled) and to stretch the definition of the mystery as well.  Therefore it was not unusual for him to print stories from around the world, stories from "literary" authors who were not considered mystery writers, and reprint stories that had been forgotten or that no one had previously thought of as belonging to the crime field at all.  EQ, for example, was the first American magazine to publish the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.  EQ retains a keen sense of the history of the mystery field, which leads to publishing parodies and pastiches.

AH, on the other hand, was founded in 1956.  The film director had no direct role in the magazine, simply licensing the use of his hame and likeness.  For many years the introduction to each issue was written in his voice.  The magazine was not inspired by his movies as much as by his very popular TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which actually filmed some stories that had originally appeared in the magazine.  Like the TV show, the magazine leaned toward suspense, twist endings, and a macabre sense of humor.  It still does.

Distinctions today.  EQ has regular departments.  Going all the way back to Dannay's day it has featured the Department of First Stories, which has premiered the work of up-and-coming artists who went on to fame such as Harry Kemelman, Henry Slesar, Stanley Ellin, and Thomas Flanagan.  Every issue features Passport to Crime, a story translated from another language.  EQ also owns the rights to the Black Mask name and often features a story in that magazine's hardboiled style.

My description of the beginnings of AH may have left you with the impression that their selection of story types is narrow. In fact, the opposite is true.  You can find examples of westerns and science fiction in its pages, as long as crime is front and center. Fantasy elements  may slip in.  (The rare ghost story can show up in either magazine; for some reason ghosts are the one bit of woowoo that is allowed in the mystery world.)

And some more quick generalizations.

EQ seems to lean more toward the grim, the longer, and the fair-play detection stories.

AH appears to favor the lighter, the shorter, and the twist ending.

It is important to be clear that everything I am saying here is about tendencies, not absolutes.  You can find exceptions in every issue, but if you are trying to decide which magazine to submit a story to first, this might help you.

One thing both seem to insist on, is high quality, which may explain why my overall sale record at AHMM is only about 33% and much worse at EQMM.

Your mileage, needless to say, may vary.


03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore


An author out standing in his field
If you have time for only one blog in your busy life obviously it should be SleuthSayers.  But if you can fit in more, you might want to consider Something Is Going To Happen, the blog of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.*

They recently featured an interesting piece by Dave Zeltserman in which he described his "personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers."

It's a fun concept.  Can you reduce the pantheon of the greats down to four?

I'm not going to reveal Mr. Z's choices, because you should definitely go read his piece for yourself, but I will list my own and invite you to do the same in the comments.  You will find that I overlap with his, but we are not identical.

My monument is arranged in the order I discovered the writers.

Rex Stout.  The first adult mystery writer I found after Conan Doyle.  He was the pusher who got me hooked.  Stout is all about character and voice.

Especially voice.

Nero Wolfe: "Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth."

Archie Goodwin: “When the day finally comes that I tie Wolfe to a stake and shoot him, one of the fundamental reasons will be his theory that the less I know the more I can help, or to put it another way, that everything inside my head shows on my face. It only makes it worse that he doesn’t really believe it.

Occasionally Stout has moments of plotting excellence (e.g. Too Many Cooks) but more often Wolfe and Archie have to carry him over bumps in the road.

Donald E. Westlake.  I first read his story "Come Back, Come Back," in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks.  It was a dead serious story about a cop suffering from a possibly fatal heart condition trying to convince a wealthy, perfectly healthy business executive not to commit suicide.

In high school I discovered his early comic classics, what David Bratman  called "the nephew books," in which some luckless schmuck finds himself in deep doodoo (The Spy in the Ointment, God Save the Mark, etc.)  By the time Dortmunder tried (and tried and tried...) to steal The Hot Rock I was hooked.   Westlake was the master of chaos, crisply described.  Movies based on his books usually failed because they couldn't capture his narrative tone.


Dashiell Hammett.  I confess I am not a fan of most of his novels (the exception being you-know-what).  But the Continental Op is everything the private eye story wants to be.  And could that man write an ending!  I'd give several toes to write a last paragraph as good as the one in "The Gutting of Couffignal."

Stanley Ellin.  Like Hammett, he had one great novel.  Stronghold is about a young man who grew up bitter on the outskirts of a community of modern Quakers (Ellin was one).  As a full-fledged adult psycho he brings back a gang to kidnap all of their women, yearning for either ransom or a bloody shootout with the cops.  But the Quakers won't cooperate with violence, even by calling the police.

Ellin's genius was for the short story.  "You Can't Be A Little Girl All Your Life" was a story about rape a decade before its time.  "The Question" is a quiet reflection by an executioner that turns into a stunning social comment.  And "The Payoff," well, the ending is just a punch in the gut.

So, while I brush away the stone scraps and clean off my carving tools: Who would you put on your mountain, and why?

*Also, Trace Evidence, from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

09 April 2019

Hey, Mister


Say, mister. Will you stake a fellow American to a meal?

            — Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Yes, it's very pretty. I heard a story once – as a matter of fact, I've heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs. “Mister, I met a man once when I was a kid,” it always began.

            —Rick Blaine (Bogart again, in Casablanca)


Okay, to be honest, I’m not really sure how apropos these quotes are for the following piece. But hey, mister (and Ms.), why not look for an opportunity to get Bogart into a piece?

I get the equivalent of “Hey, mister” sometimes when people that I know and sometimes people I don’t really know tell me they’ve got the greatest idea since the Moviola (remember those, Larry Maddox?) was invented. And if I write it for them we’ll both be rich. Or if I write it for them, they’ll take half of the gobs of profits and I can have the whole other half. So like Dobbs in Treasure of Sierra Madre, they want me to stake them to a completed script or manuscript from their original, fabulous, never-been-done-before, get rich quick, idea.

I have a friend, let’s call him Friend, who is a non-stop idea machine. Not just for writing projects (both film and prose) but for pretty much every other thing under the sun. If he could just get one done he might actually make that million bucks. But he never does. He’s all talk and no sit-down-and-do-it. Re: writing he wants me to sit down and do it and split the billions we’ll make. He’s enthusiastic and the ideas fly out of him at a million miles an hour. Some ideas better than others, but nothing that makes me want to pull out a contract and say “Yeah, let’s do it.” He’s a fount of ideas, but I’ve been approached by others as well. They don’t seem to realize that I have ideas of my own.

Moviola
On another occasion, an old girlfriend and I got back in touch for a short time – let’s call her Girlfriend. It was nice catching up with her. But right off the bat she said her husband wanted to talk with me. He liked film noir. He had friends who liked film noir. When she originally put me in touch with him I think I naively thought that he’d want to shoot the breeze about noir films or books…….or God-forbid even one of my books. But nope. Right away, he asked me to read a couple scripts by his friends and see what I could do with them. Well, both for legal and other reasons, I never even downloaded the scripts he sent me. Therefore, never looked at them. They, too, might have been the greatest thing since the Moviola, but I’ll never know. And I thought it was odd that he had the chutzpah as to ask something like that right out of the gate of someone he didn’t know, had never talked to, etc. But then, he’s a lawyer, so maybe it’s to be expected…

I’m approached fairly often with these fabulous offers, which I take about as seriously as the fabulous offers I see on late-night TV or hear from telemarketers. I try to help people whenever I can, as I’ve been helped by others. But one thing I don’t necessarily want to do is work on someone else’s idea at this point in my life. I’ve done that in the past. But that’s not where I’m at now. I don’t need the headaches of working with someone else, especially someone who wants it done their way but wants someone else to do it their way. And I have plenty of ideas of my own. Several hundred written down in a couple files on my computer.

So when someone gives me the equivalent of “Hey, mister, can you stake a fellow American to a script or manuscript or whatever,” I try to politely turn them down.

What about you?


~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

The Anthonys. Well, from the BSP Department and since Anthony voting is still in progress, I hope you'll consider voting for Broken Windows in the Best Paperback Original Department.



The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

05 March 2019

Who needs oysters? Pumpkin pie will get your libido pumping!


I have a secret. ... I spend too much time on the Internet.
Okay, fine. Anyone who's my Facebook friend already knows that about me. But since admitting the problem is the first step to conquering the problem ...

Wait a minute. Who says spending a lot of time on the Internet is a problem? If I hadn't done that, I might not have read some articles that helped me write "Bug Appetit," which is my short story that became my first sale to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and is a current finalist for the Agatha Award. It's not like you just inherently know that pumpkin pie is an aphrodisiac. No, sir. I had to read an article in the New York Daily News about it and then remember that great tidbit when the right time came.

What, you say? Pumpkin pie? An aphrodisiac? Tell me more.

Okay.

According to the Daily News, researchers say the sweet, spicy scent of pumpkin pie increases men's sexual desire. And cooking the pie with pumpkin seeds can be even more useful for getting your man in the mood. The seeds are full of zinc, which increases testosterone and thus also increases desire.

Another helpful article on the Internet says that the smell of pumpkin pie can increase blood flow to the penis by forty percent. Thank you, https://science.howstuffworks.com. Pumpkin pie can influence women's arousal too, though blood-flow numbers weren't offered.

This all may explain why you know a lot of folks born at the end of August. Yep, they're likely Thanksgiving babies, thanks (pun intended) to the pumpkin pie served as holiday dessert. 

So if you want to entice your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend or even someone you met the prior night at a speed-dating event (this idea is from my story--not my real life--honest), bake some pumpkin pie with the seeds in it. You could end up having a story-worthy tale, if you're the kind to kiss and tell.

How does this play out in "Bug Appetit"? You can read it yourself to find out. The story's right here online for your reading pleasure. The folks at Ellery Queen called it "twisty, humorous, and creepy." What more could you want?

And don't worry if you're spending too much time on the Internet. My experience is that it can really pay off. Happy reading!

12 February 2019

Agatha Award short-story finalists for this year


Given that I am swamped with work, I've decided to take the easy way out this week and write something short for you. But never fear. I'm a short-story writer, so brevity is my friend.
Allow me to introduce the finalists for this year's Agatha Award in the short-story category, all of whom know how to make every word count. I'm pleased to be one of the nominees, along with my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, and the three other finalists, all of whom I'm also proud to call my friends. So without further ado, the finalists and their stories. Each title is a link to that story, for your reading pleasure.

  • Leslie Budewitz. Her story "All God's Sparrows" was published in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  


  • Barb Goffman. (Yep, that's me.) My story "Bug Appetit" was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.



Attendees of the Malice Domestic mystery convention will be able to vote for their favorite story during the convention this May. In the meanwhile, happy reading! See you in three weeks.

08 January 2019

Looking Backward, Looking Forward


To steal and mangle some other writer’s most famous opening line: My dual career in 2018 was the best of times and the worst of times.
I received 47 short story acceptances and had 34 stories published, including one in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018. I became editor of a regional gardening magazine; turned in The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of Texas private eye stories to be released by Down & Out Books in fall 2019; selected the stories for Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, the first in an annual anthology series to be released each fall beginning in 2020; with co-creator/co-editor Trey R. Barker began work on the serial novella anthology series Guns & Tacos; and was approached about writing a novel, something I haven’t done in near-on twenty years.

On the other hand, my productivity fell through the floor, and I completed only 19 new stories, including one co-authored with Sandra Murphy that will be published in a Maxim Jakubowski-edited anthology in 2019.

I previously discussed two of the reasons for the decrease in output, one psychological (“The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror”) and one the time-consuming side-effect of increased sales (“Do You Want Cheese with That Whine?”). Not mentioned in either post are my increased editing responsibilities, both crime fiction anthologies and magazine non-fiction.

THE WRITTEN

I write a fair amount in any given year, but I only track the word counts of completed short fiction, and in 2018 I wrote 19 stories totaling 68,250 words. Unfortunately, this is the worst year since I started keeping track in 2009. (In 2009, my best year, I wrote 75 short stories totaling 216,310 words.)

The shortest story was 250 words, the longest story was 13,500 words, and the average length was 3,592 words.

Four stories were written by invitation. The rest were for open-call anthologies, for markets where I’ve previously placed stories, or for no particular market at all.

Seventeen of the stories are crime fiction of one sub-genre or another, one is a cross-genre mix of science fiction and crime fiction, and one is horror.

THE PUBLISHED

I had 34 stories published in 2018. Eighteen are crime fiction, 11 are erotica, one is fantasy, and four are romances.

Sixteen stories appeared in print publications, seven in web-based or electronic publications, and one appeared on the web and in print. Ten were released in audio format.

Twenty-nine of the stories are originals and the rest are reprints (“Smoked” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018) or audio releases of previously published stories.

THE SOLD

Forty-seven stories were accepted for publication. Twenty-three are crime fiction, 20 are erotica, three romance, and one fantasy. A few counted as erotica are cross-genre (erotic crime fiction, erotic fantasy, etc.).

Thirty-six stories are originals and 11 are reprints or audio rights of previously published stories.

Two pieces of crime fiction were “accepted” by anthologies I am either editing or co-editing, perhaps proving that sometimes it is who you know.

Note that I wrote no erotica, fantasy, or romance in 2018, yet I placed original stories in all three genres.

THE REJECTIONS

I received 39 rejections in 2018, and any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year.

I received one unacceptance. An anthology that accepted a story in 2016 was cancelled in 2018, and my story—which had been paid for—was returned. The story sold to the next editor who saw it, resulting in a second check.

I also received my first-ever unrejection. A magazine rejected one of my stories and six weeks later contacted me and asked if the story was still available. It was. Read more about what happened at “The Rejection Reversal with Michael Bracken.”

THE FUTURE

For the past several years, my annual goals were to complete and submit an average of one short story per week and to receive an average of one acceptance per week. At the beginning of 2018, following the 2017 collapse of two of my primary markets, I realized these goals were no longer realistic. So, my primary goals in 2018 were to rebuild and re-establish myself as I moved into new markets and/or new genres.

During 2018, I placed work in several new or new-to-me markets but made no significant progress in cracking new genres. Though I did sell one fantasy short story, saw another published, and wrote one horror story, I made no other efforts to expand my genre palette. Instead, I concentrated on writing various sub-genres of crime fiction, including some not previously part of my oeuvre.

As I look forward to 2019, I’ve decided not to set concrete goals. The past year was filled with so much change that I’m unable to envision how things might shake out. More editing opportunities? More submission invitations? That novel I was approached about?

I’ve no clue.

So, I think 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. Maybe by the end of 2019 I’ll once again have a clear view of the future and can set concrete goals for 2020.

Until then, I’m prepared for a wild ride.


The tail-end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 saw several stories published: “Little Bubba Visits the Roadhouse” in EconoClash Review #3, “The Fishmonger’s Wife” in the Winter 2019 issue of Pulp Literature, “Split Decision” in the January 2019 issue of The Digest Enthusiast, and “Wishing Tree” in the January/February 2019 Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

11 December 2018

Would You Eat THAT?


All my life I've been a picky eater. When I was very little, my mother tried to force me to eat foods I didn't like in order to encourage me, I'm sure, to not be so picky. But after I vomited beets all over the kitchen floor, she let me make my own choices.
Fast forward to adulthood. I'm still a picky eater--less so than in childhood but more so than many other adults. I know this from dining out with friends, though the point always hits home whenever one of those food quizzes comes up on social media. You know the ones: How many of these weird-sounding foods have you tried? I always surprise my friends (well, maybe not some who know me really well) because I score soooo low. Despite knowing I'm picky, the extent of it always seems to surprise people.

For instance, I once took a quiz about vegetables; how many had I tried? The grand total: 18 of the 110 vegetables listed, putting me in the lowest two percentile for the quiz. (Eighteen was actually a higher number than I'd expected.) I also took a quiz about Jewish food. I'd tried 38 out of 100 of  'em. Friends had thought I'd score higher on this quiz since I'm Jewish, but 38 was pretty darn high for me.

Oh, no! It's Mr. Bill! (You see it too, right?)
But those are specialized quizzes. What about overall pickiness? Here, Buzzfeed came in handy. They had a quiz to look at just how picky I am. All I had to do was check the foods I wouldn't touch, and there were a lot of them: hard cheese, soft cheese, blue cheese, goat cheese, cottage cheese. (You must be thinking I don't eat any cheese, but it's not true. Grilled cheese, good. Pizza, good!) And there were more foods on the quiz that I find it hard to believe anyone would eat, because I sure wouldn't. Bone marrow. Nuh uh. Tripe. No way. Sweet bread. Are you kidding? Blood sausage. Just the name makes me queasy. Bull testicles. Oh, come on! And last, but not least, the evil cilantro. No way, no how. Not gonna happen. At least soap doesn't pretend to be a food group.

Yet even as I write this, I know there are people out there who have probably tried all these foods and asked for seconds. I know this because I am friends with a particularly adventurous eater: author Catriona McPherson. She and I have a game we play. She tries to find normal foods I've actually tried or will eat again. I try to find a weird (at least to me) food she hasn't tried. A round might go like this:

Catriona: "Have you tried a pear?" She's probably thinking, I've got her here; everyone has tried pears.
Me: Buzz. As I do the Rocky dance, I proudly proclaim, "I have never had a pear. That's a point for me."
Now it's my turn.
Me: "Have you tried bull testicles?"
Catriona: "Sure have. Yum! That's a point for me, and the round is tied!"

Actually, I don't recall if I've ever asked Catriona about bull testicles. Catriona, get ready for the next round.

It's usually difficult for me to score any points off Catriona because she is so adventurous. That vegetable quiz, the one where I had tried 18 of 110 vegetables--Catriona had tried 103 of them! I once asked her about a whole bunch of Jewish foods, but she had once attended a seder, so she trounced me in that game. And she's Scottish, so she's eaten all these foods I'd never even heard of before I met her--foods I wouldn't go anywhere near now that I have heard of them. (Tripe. Really, Catriona?) Amazingly, I've found one food she's never tried but I have: candy canes! Not that I like candy canes. I don't think I'd ever eat another one. And I'm sure I only had a bite of the one I tried in the past. But I tried it!

The beauty of being a picky eater is I read a lot of article about food. Not to learn to make them, of course, since cooking is something else I don't do. But I'm fascinated by foods other people will eat that I won't go near with a giant fork. And learning about foods sometimes gives me story ideas. That is partly how I came up with the idea for my most-recent story, "Bug Appétit," which appears in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  It involves what I would deem weird food, but not everyone agrees (based on my research), and that makes for an unusual plot (and unusual Thanksgiving dinner!).
Bug Appétit!

If you want to read "Bug Appétit," it's not too late. The current issue of EQMM should remain on sale until around Christmas. I've seen copies at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. And you can order digital copies through Magzter. Or you can subscribe to the magazine, in print or electronically, here: http://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/.

As to the quizzes I mentioned above, here they are, in case you want to try them out. For the vegetable quiz, click here. For the Jewish food quiz, click here. And for the Buzzfeed overall pickiness quiz, click here. But I wouldn't put a lot of stock in the Buzzfeed quiz. After I answered all their questions, they told me, "You're not too picky." They clearly don't know me at all.

25 August 2018

It Gets Harder (Praise and Imposter Syndrome)


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl...in which we admit that praise comes with a nasty side dish)

"the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake" EQMM, Sept-Oct 2018 issue
How the HELL will I ever live up to this?



A while back, I was on a panel where the moderator asked the question,
"Does it get harder or easier, with each successive book?"

"Easier," said one cozy writer, a woman I respect and know well.  "Because I know what I'm doing now."

I stared at her in surprise.

"Harder.  Definitely harder," said my pal Linwood Barclay, sitting beside me.

I sat back with relief.  The why was easy.  I answered that.

"Harder for two reasons," I said.  "First, you've already used up a lot of good ideas.  I've written 40 short stories and 18 novels.  That's nearly 60 plot ideas.  It gets harder to be original."

Linwood nodded along with me.

"Second, you've already established a reputation with your previous books.  If they were funny, people expect the next one to be even funnier.  It gets harder and harder to meet people's expectations."

"The bar is higher with each book," said Linwood.

This conversation came back to me this week, when I got a very nice surprise (thanks, Barb Goffman, for pointing me to it!)  Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewed my latest book, and called me "the Canadian literary heir to Donald Westlake."

At first, I was ecstatic, and so very very grateful.  Donald Westlake was a huge influence on me.  I still think his book where everyone on the heist team spoke a different language to be one of the zaniest plots of all time.  To be considered in his class is a wonderful thing.

And then, the doubts started.  I'm now looking at my work in progress with different eyes.  Is this plot fresh?  Is it as clever as I thought it was?  Am I still writing funny?

Would Donald Westlake fans like it?

Or am I the world's worst imposter?

So many authors on Sleuthsayers are award-winning.  All of you will, I'm sure, relate to this a little bit.  Was that award win a one-off?  Okay, so you have more than one award.  Were those stories exceptions?  You haven't won an award in two years.  Have you lost it?

Will I ever write anything as good as that last book?

I'm dealing hugely with imposter syndrome right now.  It's a blasted roller coaster.  I know I should be spreading that EQMM quote far and wide, on Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, etc.  Possibly, I should be buying ads.  And at the same time, I'm stalling in my WIP, with the feeling of 'never good enough.'

Luckily, the publisher deadline will keep me honest.  I work pretty well under pressure.  Next week, for sure, I'll get back to the book.

This week, I'll smile in public and suffer a little in silence.

What about you, authors?  Do you find imposter syndrome creeps into your life at times when you should be celebrating?  Tell us below. 



The book causing all this grief:  on Amazon

21 June 2018

The Mysterious Women of Dell Magazines: Janet Hutchings


Janet Hutchings
Janet Hutchings
photo by Laurie Pachter
Yesterday we began a series of interviews with the editors of the Dell mystery magazines. We began with Jackie Sherbow, we finish tomorrow with Linda Landrigan. But today we welcome Janet Hutchings.

— Robert Lopresti

Janet Hutchings has been the editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine since 1991. She is a co-winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Ellery Queen Award and the Malice Domestic Convention’s Poirot Award, and in 2003 she was honored by the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention for contributions to the field. Under her editorship, EQMM was named Best Magazine/Review Publication by Bouchercon 27 and in 2017 was celebrated by Bouchercon 48 for Distinguished Contribution to the Genre.



Relate a piece of history about your magazine.

EQMM made history with its very first issue. When founding editor Fred Dannay released the magazine to the world in the fall of 1941 he was offering readers an entirely new type of publication. He’d decided to bring together between the covers of a single magazine stories of such widely different sorts that the combination would create a new type of audience for the mystery short story. Everything from what he called realistic stories of the hardboiled school to classical whodunits in the style of England’s Golden Age of mystery to stories no one would even remotely have considered mysteries before, by mainstream and even literary writers, were to be included. It was all, he said, “frankly experimental.”

Previously there had been the pulps, focused on hardboiled action-based stories, and the slicks, which published about one mystery per issue of a more traditional kind, but there was no single publication for readers who liked both forms—or for those who liked an even wider mix of stories. EQMM’s first issue sold more than 90,000 copies and the magazine soon began to exert an influence not only upon mystery fiction—helping to define the boundaries of the genre as we know it today—but upon the wider culture. At least one recent contemporary scholar has argued that EQMM was one of the many forces that influenced the postmodernist movement in the arts and literature. Modernism had made a clear distinction between art (or what we might call “high art”) and popular culture. Postmodernism rejected that distinction. But rejecting that divide was exactly what Dannay was doing in the early days of EQMM, mixing the high brow and the popular—the “literary” and the genre story.


What is one thing you wish everyone would know about your publication?

One thing I wish everyone would know not just about EQMM but about short-story magazines in general is that they are not just agglomerations of stories. In recent years various e-publishers and websites have been making individual stories available for sale or for free reading. But what the reader gets by subscribing to a short-story magazine is not simply a collection of individual stories, it is—or should be—a more complex reading experience.

The magazine should be designed to take the reader on a journey, via the juxtaposition of the stories, sometimes also by thematic convergences, and sometimes by means of commentary that may accompany a given story (the most famous example of the latter being Fred Dannay’s lengthy introductory essays for so many of the stories in early EQMMs). A short-story magazine should also seek to broaden readers’ tastes by offering, occasionally, something the readership would not necessarily be expected to like. I hope short-story magazines are never replaced entirely by short stories sold individually, because if that happens, a place in which discovery can occur will be lost. It’s an editor’s job to stretch readers’ horizons.


What does a typical workday for you look like?

There’s no typical day. I’m a little obsessive about keeping up with reading. When I hold a story for more than two or three weeks it’s usually either because something special is going on or because I like the story and hope eventually to find a space for it. Whenever possible, I devote one day a week entirely to reading. In recent months, social media has also been taking up a lot of my time: we now blog, podcast, and post on Twitter and Instagram—in between our primary duties, which are curating, editing, and finalizing each issue for the printer.


Have you always been a fan of mysteries?

I always read and enjoyed mysteries, from childhood on, but I was not a really dedicated fan until I got a job at the Mystery Guild in the 1980s. We got to read virtually every mystery novel that was published in a given year there, and it was so much fun! Still publishing some of the authors I first read there—such as Simon Brett.


Aside from short mystery fiction, what other parts of the genre do you enjoy?

I’ve had very little opportunity in recent years (with eyes always tired from reading submissions) to keep up with what’s going on at novel length in the field; nevertheless, I don’t feel out of touch with the genre as a whole. I once wrote that from our small outpost as editors of short-story magazines, we get to see the whole of the broad, fascinating universe of mystery and crime fiction.

I don’t consider the mystery short story to be a single form. It is, it seems to me, a multiplicity of forms in terms of length, and also a multiplicity in terms of structure. There’s everything from the miniature novels that Ed Hoch wrote for EQMM for so many years to the circularly structured twist-in-the-tail story (and much in between). I call the twist story “circular” because when you get to that final twist you see that it is what the whole story had to be leading up to. Flash fiction is another separate form, and in its compression it often has to convey whatever is necessary to the story through imagery; it says a lot in a very few words and in this it can sometimes have a lot in common with poetry. There’s so much more that falls under the mystery short story umbrella than I can mention here.


What great short story or collection have you read recently?

I am currently reading Joyce Carol Oates’s new collection Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense. I’ve been a fan of Joyce’s work for decades—long before I came to EQMM!


What is your personal editorial philosophy?

This isn’t easy to characterize succinctly. First, although I sometimes offer thoughts about how I think a story might be improved, I see my job as editor as fundamentally different from that of a critic or a teacher. My first responsibility as editor is to our readers. I read as a sort of proxy for them. And reading for them means I have to try to read in the way that they will read the finished magazine—for enjoyment, in other words, and not critically. When I sit down to read submissions, what I’m hoping for, no matter what the subgenre of the story, is to be taken out of my own life and all that surrounds me and be pulled entirely into the world of the story. I like all types of mysteries—indeed, all types of stories. Genre is not very important to me. A story will generally succeed or fail for me depending on how deeply the author is able to immerse me in it. And it isn’t always the best-crafted story that succeeds in doing this. It’s often the inexperienced Department of First Stories author who holds me captive from first page to last. I think this has something to do with passion (perhaps before writing becomes a job) or with the fact that first efforts often draw deeply from experience that has profoundly affected the author.

When I do attempt to give advice, I try to approach each short story as an organic whole. I know a lot of writers and also teachers of creative writing put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the separate parts of a story. The opening line is something that seems to be given a lot of weight. I often hear writers advised that they need an “attention grabbing” opening line. I think too much emphasis is put on this. A great opening line may be vital to a writer in getting the creative juices flowing. Some writers have told me they have to have an attention-getting opening line as the seed for the story. That’s fine. But from a reader/editor’s perspective what makes the opening line good or bad is how it serves everything that follows it in the story. Endings, it seems to me, are harder. I think an ending should have a sense of inevitability that derives from all that goes before it. But again, it’s the story as a whole—the particular story—that is my focus, not any rules I could formulate.


What do you love about short stories?

The tightness of the structure, and the fact that they can be read in one sitting. As Edgar Allan Poe pointed out, what you can read in a single sitting has the potential to have a profound impact. Life does not intervene.


What’s a place you’ve traveled to that has stuck with you, and why?

I lived in England for most of my twenties, and since those are formative years, I’m sure the affinity I have for most things British will never leave me. It’s wonderful having so many British writers contributing to EQMM, though that was none of my doing; it must be credited to my predecessor, Eleanor Sullivan. In geographical terms, EQMM’s reach has always been wide. From the earliest days, the magazine has looked for the best in mystery and crime stories from all over the world. There were 13 international contests run in the early years of the magazine and they received submissions from nearly two dozen countries.

One of my favorite departments is Passport to Crime, which we launched in 2003 with a crime story per month in translation. I’m not much of a traveler these days, but two trips I’ll never forget were the Soviet Union in the 1970s—it was like waking up in a war movie from the 1940s, with rationing and not much color and no advertising— and Costa Rica a couple of decades later, where I spent a night in a rain forest in a storm, with the animals seeming to generate as much noise as a NYC street. These days, I let our Passport authors take me where I want to go.


Where did you grow up?

The Chicago area, “flyover country.” Which is funny because I was once accused by an author whose work wasn’t accepted to the magazine of being an insular New Yorker with no understanding of the Midwest. I love my adopted city and state, but the Midwest will always be a part of me.

Thanks, SleuthSayers, for hosting the Dell Mystery Magazines editors! Tomorrow, Linda Landrigan.

20 June 2018

The Mysterious Women of Dell Magazines: Jackie Sherbow



Jackie Sherbow
photo by Ché Ryback

Leigh Lundin had the wonderful idea of inviting some of our favorite editors to sit for interviews. As the guiding hands at the mystery side of Dell Magazines (EQMM and AHMM) they have a huge influence on our field by bringing new readers and writers into it. Tomorrow we will feature Janet Hutchings, and Friday will star Linda Landrigan. But today we have the delightful Jackie Sherbow.
— Robert Lopresti

Jackie Sherbow is the Associate Editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She is also the editor of Newtown Literary Journal and her poetry has appeared in places like Day One, Moonchild Magazine, and Luna Luna Magazine. She lives in Queens, New York.



What is one thing you wish everyone would know about your publications?

First and foremost, that they (still) exist. This of course seems like child’s play to anyone reading SleuthSayers, but you don’t know how many people come up to us at events and say the words “I didn’t know you were still around,” or otherwise think we’re publishing reprints of older issues. It’s wonderful to speak with readers who have a long-time, nostalgic connection to the magazines (and/or have unearthed their parents’ or grandparents’ collections, which they remember from childhood), but I think there’s no reason why short mystery fiction shouldn’t have a wide and growing audience—especially since so many different modes of contemporary and traditional fiction fall under that umbrella and can be found in the magazines.


What are you reading right now?

I’m reading the short-story collection Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti, and Eye Level, poems by Jenny Xie. I am usually reading two or three books concurrently, and trying to catch up on magazine or journal subscriptions too—I try to balance my reading between short stories, novels, poetry, and nonfiction at all times. Looks like I need to pick up some nonfiction.


What other hobbies or jobs do you have?

I’m the editor of a community-based literary journal in Queens called Newtown Literary, and I’m involved with the nonprofit organization that publishes it. I am also a writer (of poetry) and a runner (albeit a very slow one).


Dottie
Do you have any pets?

I’ve somewhat recently adopted a small asthmatic cat named Dottie (after Miss Fisher’s companion in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). And now I’m the kind of person who has attached a photo of the cat to this e-mail.


What great short story or collection have you read recently?

I loved Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which came out last year from Graywolf Press and has received a handful of awards and nominations since then. A story that really unnerved me recently was “The Midnight Zone” by Lauren Groff, originally published in the New Yorker and reprinted in The Best American Short Stories of 2017. I had to put it down and give it a break before finishing it. I read a lot of short horror as well as—naturally—crime and thriller, but I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to a story. Very uncomfortable, but very memorable.


What do you love about short stories?

As a poet, I’m always impressed by fiction in general: what an author can pull off in terms of plot while also concentrating on theme and form—and as we know this is accentuated in a short story, where there’s less wordly “real estate.” As an editor and reader of short fiction, I particularly find intriguing the plot and character arcs in a short story (especially when there’s a mystery—which there almost always is!). I find that in a short story, imaginative leaps, experimental form, and other playful or innovative methods can be pulled off more successfully. And I really love how reading a short story on its own and then among others (whether in a single-author collection or a periodical or anthology) can bring out something new in the work. In terms of practicality, I’m a fairly slow reader, so short stories tend to strike me more in this way than a series of novels do.


Who is your favorite author?

Gabriel García Marquéz.


If you knew you’d be deserted on an island, what book would you bring?

One Hundred Years of Solitude.


What is your personal editorial philosophy?

In general I edit for clarity, consistency, and then refinement in service of the author’s voice and the entirety of the piece. I think that everything in a piece of writing matters, down to the smallest element of punctuation, but that it’s important as an editor to examine the power structures underlying the use of different types of language. I think it’s irresponsible not to do this. In everyday life, I think it can be pernicious to promote unsolicited, moralized adherence to traditional correctness without thinking about it. Language is a gift and powerful tool, and I think the words, style, and usages we choose to employ (or choose not to) have a cumulative effect on our communities.


Aside from short mystery fiction, what other parts of the genre do you enjoy?

I am a fan of mystery novels, television shows, and movies, and I am fascinated by true crime, but I would have to say the community of writers, readers, and fans. I think mysteries bring people together. Speaking of which, thank you, SleuthSayers, for inviting me, Janet, and Linda to participate.

Thank you, Jackie. Tomorrow, Janet Hutchings.