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

31 July 2020

Dying Message


Earlier this month, fellow SleuthSayer Joseph D'Agnese blogged about USA's founding father and Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe's famous last words, "I am murdered!" before he died from having been poisoned.

In my humble opinion, as far as last words go, Wythe won.

So, over mugs of coffee a few mornings ago, when my crime writer friend, Josh Pachter, first mentioned the use of "Dying Message" as a literary device, I wanted to know more.

Take it away, Josh...

KK: Can you explain the "dying message" trope for us?

Well, sure! But let me start by explaining why Kristin is asking me this question.

In mid-July, she drove down to my new home outside Richmond, Virginia, to pick up a piece of furniture my wife Laurie and I no longer needed for her daughter's first college apartment. I made a pot of coffee and, while Laurie teleworked, Kristin and I sat out on our new deck and talked. I don't remember exactly how it came up, but I asked Kristin if she was familiar with the old "dying message" trope, she said she wasn't, I explained it...and her eyes lit up. "Can I interview you about this for SleuthSayers?" she asked.

So here we are.

I suspect that many of the Sayers of the Sleuth are already familiar with the dying message, and some are probably far better versed in its history than I am, but, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say on the subject.

Ellery Queen may not have invented the concept of the "dying message" clue, but Fred Dannay and Manny Lee--the cousins who wrote as EQ--were certainly its most active proponents, and many of their novels and short stories rang changes on the concept.

Here's a basic description of how it works:

Person A murders Person B and leaves the scene. But--sacre bleu!--Person B is not dead yet, after all, and regains consciousness long enough to want to tell the police who killed him. Unfortunately, there's no working phone at hand, so Person B can't simply call the police and tell them who did the dirty deed.  There is, however, a piece of paper and a pen, so Person B leaves a cryptic note, identifying his killer.

"But," you say, "why a cryptic note? Why doesn't Person B simply write Person A's name?

Ah, well, because, despite the fact that he's dying, Person B has the presence of mind to realize that person A might return to the scene of the crime--and, if she does, she'll see the piece of paper with her name on it and destroy it.

And that's the "dying message" trope, resulting in a story the heart of which is the protagonist's mental struggle to figure out the meaning of the cryptic clue.

Far fetched? Certainly.

Realistic? Perhaps not.

But I'm reminded of something my buddy Les Roberts--the author of 20+ novels featuring Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich--once did.  In one of Les' books, Milan trails a suspect to a Monday-evening performance of the Cleveland Symphony. When the book came out, Les received hundreds of letters from irate Clevelanders, pointing out that the Cleveland Symphony  doesn't play on Mondays. Les printed up a form letter he sent back to every complainer: "The Cleveland Symphony might not play on Mondays, but my Cleveland Symphony plays whenever I damn well tell them to."

His point? This is fiction, folks, and in fiction an author can do whatever the hell he wants to do. He is the puppet master, and the puppet master gets to pull the strings.

So Ellery Queen wrote lots of dying-message stories, and the question of whether or not such a thing would ever happen in real life is frankly irrelevant.

To keep the device from going stale, the cousins eventually began to come up with variations on the theme, such as oral dying messages (in which only part of the victim's dying words are heard, or the victim's last words are misunderstood, or the victim mispronounces a key word or words) and the "accidental dying message."

I'll give you an example.

In "GI Story," which first appeared in EQMM in 1954, Clint Fosdick is murdered, and it's clear that he was killed by one of his three stepsons: Linc Smith, Woody Smith, or Wash Smith. Before Clint expires, he scrawls the letters "GI" on a piece of paper, but all three of the Smith Brothers--:::cough:::--are former soldiers, so the message could apply equally well to any of them.

Ellery, however, finally realizes that Clint had no intention of leaving a cryptic message. In fact, "Fancy verbal acrobatics are the pleasant preoccupation of detective fiction," Ellery says, poking fun at his own trademark trope. "In real life, they don't happen...Clint Fosdick, in writing those two letters...was trying to do just one thing: name his killer."

The three brothers, Ellery realizes, were named after American presidents--Abraham Lincoln Smith, Woodrow Wilson Smith, and George Washington Smith--and the dying man was beginning to write the word, "GEORGE" when death took him immediately after he completed the down stroke of the second letter of his murderer's name. Et voila! 


KK: Have you used the "dying message" trope yourself, Josh?

Why, yes, Kristin, as a matter of fact I have!

My second published story--"E.Q. Griffen's Second Case," which originally appeared in EQMM in 1970 and will be reprinted in The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which I co-edited with former SleuthSayer Dale Andrews and which will be published by Wildside Press later this year--is a dying-message story, in which a guy is murdered outdoors and pulls loose a chunk of the tarry stuff that sort of grouts sidewalk panels together and writes a clue to the identity of his killer on the sidewalk.

After Dale and I co-edited our original Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside, 2018), I started writing a series of pastiches of EQ's "Puzzle Club" stories, and the first three of them are all dying-message stories: "A Study in Scarlett!" (EQMM, May/June 2019), "The Adventure of the Red Circles" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020), and "The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle" (EQMM, forthcoming).

I also had two dying-message stories appear in print in 2018: "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Murder" (Mystery Most Geographical, Wildside) was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and "50" (EQMM, Nov/Dec 2018), in which my E.Q. Griffen character returns, finished second in the magazine's Reader Award balloting. You can download and read both of those stories for free at this link.

Dale, by the way, has published  four Ellery Queen pastiches in EQMM, and all four of them are dying-message stories. His latest, "Four Words," will appear in the Sep/Oct 2020 issue, on sale August 13.

And for those who'd like to read more about the "dying message" trope, there's an excellent discussion at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog, and another (filled with spoiler-protected examples) at Fandom website.


KK: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat, Josh.  Oh, and by the way, check out this little gem I found while preparing my post...a signed copy of our co-contributed Malice anthology.  C'est magnifique!


Josh Pachter is an author, editor, and translator. More than a hundred of his short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has edited and co-edited a dozen anthologies, including The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads, 2020), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2020) and The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (forthcoming from Down and Out Books in 2021).  His translations of stories by Dutch and Flemish authors appear regularly in EQMM. Earlier this year, he received the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement and became the first person to win both the Golden Derringer and a competitive Derringer in the same year.

PS ~ Let's be social:

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

21 February 2020

More about Opening Lines


More about Opening Lines

I feel the opening line of a short story or novel is the most important line in the piece. First impressions are the strongest, especially for a beginning writer who wants an editor to read beyond the first page of a manuscript.

"The first page sells your book being read, the last page sells the one you're writing." – Mickey Spillane."

The same goes for short stories, maybe more so.

Over the years, I put together information given by writers and editors. As I've said so many times before, there is no one way to write anything and what follows are just suggestions.

The opening of a novel or short story could capture the attention of the reader with an original hook.

1. THE OPENING SHOULD PROMISE ... SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

How?
a. By presenting compelling events
b. By presenting an unusual character
c. By presenting a vivid setting
d. By using striking language or dialogue
e. By an unusual presentation of ideas

It should arouse expectation with a promise of more to come.

It should let the reader in on WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, or WHY.

In your opening scene(s) you may want to establish:

a. Who is the main character?
b. What is the situation (the problem)?
c. Where is the story taking place (setting)?
d. When is the story taking place (time frame)?
e. Why did this situation happen?
f. How did the situation happen?

You may want to include a cliffhanger that makes the reader want to read on.

You opening should set the tone of the story.

The strongest type of opening usually hooks the read with action (physical or psychological).

The story does not generally open at the beginning of a situation. It usually opens at the high point of action.

EXAMPLES:

Character Opening – If you are writing a character-driven piece.
Atmosphere Opening –Take your reader to a unique setting.
Action Opening – Start in mid-scene.
Dialogue Opening – Promises the reader there is a emphasis on communication between characters.
Philosophical Opening – Prepares the reader this may be a reflective piece.
Emotion Opening – Promises emotional conflict.

In a 2013 interview, Stephen King stated, "... an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story ... it should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

King went on with, "For me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about 'voice' a lot, when I think they just mean 'style'. People come to books looking ... for the voice. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection – a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing."

Award-winning short story writer John Floyd gives us, "I've always heard that ideal openings should (1) introduce you lead character and/or (2) establish the setting (time, place) and/or (3) introduce conflict. A fourth goal is to make the reader curious about what might happen."

Important Note:
A good opening line is like the opening move in a battle. If you do not follow up a good opening, you could lose the battle.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Editor Janet Hutchings gives us, "Some writers have told me they 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 good or bad is how it serves everything that follows in the story."

Writing novels and short stories is a trade. A profession. Not a philosophical exercise.

OK – we have all read excellent novels and short stories which did not have a good opening line, which proves again there is no one way to write. In the epigraph in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury quotes Juan Ramón Jiménez – "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Hey Paul,
Here is Charley. Gone but never forgotten.



Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com

15 February 2020

Building "Crow's Nest," Jan/Feb 2020 EQMM





Some of my favorite columns by my fellow SleuthSayers have been those that give us a sneak peek into the creation of the mystery stories they've published. I suppose it makes sense that I would like that kind of thing--I'm also a sucker for those little behind-the-scene "bonus" features included on most DVDs. I enjoy finding out where scenes were filmed and who else was considered for the roles and how the screenwriters got their ideas in the first place. Trivia galore.

So . . . what I thought I'd do today is talk about my short story in the January/February (current, at least for a couple more weeks) issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It's called "Crow's Nest," and is a standalone tale about an old guy who gets involved by accident in a conflict between a bunch of local gangsters and a couple of amateur criminals. Bottom line is, it's about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which is, by the way, a pretty good definition of commercial fiction.


Character stuff

Quick setup: The "hero" of this story isn't a hero at all. Amos Garrett is a regular guy, a retired farmer who lives with his wife out in the boonies and doesn't have a lot of thrills in his life, which is just fine with him--until he stops his truck one day to help a young lady with a flat tire and no spare and a dead cellphone. Afterward, there's more than enough excitement to go around (or I hope there is). Robbery, murder, lies, betrayals, revenge, etc.

One of the things I wanted to do with this story was feature an older protagonist. Amos is pushing seventy-five--older than I am, but not by much--and so is his wife, and they live high on a hill in a house that's fairly ordinary except for one thing. It has a railed platform on top that allows an unobstructed view for miles around. They use it as sort of a patio, and call it their Crow's Nest, like the perches on the masts of tall ships where sailors watched for whales, or enemy vessels, or dry land. In this story, it comes in handy for something else.

Amos is an uncomplicated guy. He drives an ancient pickup, goes fishing and hunting now and then, owns an old fifty-caliber buffalo gun that he inherited but hasn't fired in years because the recoil hurts his shoulder, and still likes to go to cattle auctions even though he's long since sold all his cattle. He's also old-fashioned in his thinking: he loves his wife, he helps those in need, and he believes in trying to do the right thing.

The other protagonist (heroine?) is a woman named Wendy Lake ("Sounds like an apartment complex," she tells Amos, when they meet), and she IS complicated--sweet and meek at times and scary-tough at others. I won't say too much about her because she's the basis of most of the twists and turns the story takes--but I will say she's the exact opposite of Amos. He's old, she's young; he's local, she's an outsider; he's calm and cautious by nature; she's not; he lives pretty much by the rules; she doesn't. The POV alternates between these two for the entire story.

Plot stuff

As has been discussed often at this blog, writers get their initial ideas from a lot of different places, and those starting points usually fall into three categories: settings, characters, or plots. I usually begin with the plot, partly because I think story is more important than anything else and partly because the plot just seems to be the first thing that pops into my head. Then and only then do I come up with characters who I hope are interesting and settings that I hope are convincing and appropriate. Lots of folks do it the other way around--characters first, or settings first. Different strokes.

In the case of this story, my first glimmer of an idea came from a movie I watched years ago, an Australian "western" called Quigley Down Under. It won no Oscars and maybe didn't deserve any, but it was a riproaringly good story in terms of action and excitement. It had a great cast, a great plot, a great score, a great setting, and one scene in particular that stayed with me long afterward.

Picture this. American-in-a-strange-land Matthew Quigley, played by Tom Selleck, has been beaten senseless by the villain's men and carted off into the outback, to be left for dead. He and a young lady (Laura San Giacomo, if anyone remembers the TV series Just Shoot Me) are dumped unconscious from a buckboard in the middle of nowhere, and the two henchmen climb back into the wagon and prepare to leave. As Captain Kirk would say, the situation is grim.

Then Quigley comes to, lures one of the bad guys back down off the wagon, and--still lying down--kills him with a hidden knife. Thug #2, thankfully smarter than he looks, sees this and takes off in the wagon alone, headed away across the flats, but (also thankfully), Thug #1, now dead, was carrying Quigley's Sharps long-range rifle when he got stabbed, so our hero, trying to clear his head, wipes the blood and sweat and dirt from his eyes, loads the gun, crawls into position, props the three-foot-long barrel of the Sharps on the dead body of Thug #1, and takes careful aim. Meanwhile, Thug #2 is going hell for leather, flying across the desert, scared to death and leaning forward in his seat and looking back over his shoulder and whipping the horses as hard as he can and getting smaller and smaller and smaller in the distance. Knowing that he'll have only the one chance and knowing that if his bullet doesn't hit its tiny target Thug #2 will get home safely and report what happened and a small army will come back and kill him and his lovely still-unconscious companion, Quigley takes his time and squeezes off his shot and blows T#2 right out of his wagon seat, half a mile away. Heavy sighs of relief, fading music, end of scene. All is well.

So, using that as sort of a launch pad, I built a present-day plot whereby the young Wendy gets rescued from her car troubles by Amos Garrett, and he takes her home with him to call for roadside assistance. But of course the power is out at the house and so is the landline and she stays the night as the guest of Amos and his wife, and since Wendy says she and her brother are gun collectors Amos shows her his old .50-caliber Sharps--the one that buffalo hunters used in the Old West--and lets her have some target practice out back before supper. She's a surprisingly good shot. The next morning when phone lines are repaired she makes her call for assistance . . . but of course she isn't exactly who she claims to be (who is, in a mystery?) and she didn't call who she'd claimed she called, and the two people who come for her aren't car-repairmen and they definitely aren't friendly, to either her or the Garretts. A lot happens from that point, and part of it involves a long-range shot by Wendy with the buffalo gun, with time running out and everybody's lives hanging in the balance. (Sorry that preview ran so long.)


I should mention here that the scene I remembered from the movie resulted in less than one page of the twenty-one pages of my story manuscript--but it did serve as a starting point, the tiny match that lit the fire. It happens that way sometimes.

Theme stuff

If pressured, I guess I would say there are several "themes" featured in this story--crime doesn't pay, lend a hand to the needy, the end can indeed sometimes justify the means, there are varying degrees of good and evil, love is more important than money, villains should get what they deserve, and so forth--but I admit I don't usually give much thought to illumination and life-lessons in fiction. I just try to tell an entertaining story, and if there's something to be learned form it, fine; if there's not, I might've at least saved you from half an hour of network TV, and believe me, that can be a blessing. I've never understood writing instructors who say you must come up with the theme first, before you start writing. My feeling is, don't waste time worrying about that. If you write a story and it turns out good, then it'll have a theme.

One more thing. One kind reader told me the other day, via email, that she liked my foreshadowing of a couple of things that happened near the end of this story--one of them involved an early view of several old mailboxes on the same post, something you see a lot in rural areas of the south, and which turned out to be meaningful later. I appreciated her noticing that, because I love doing that kind of thing in a story. Some of my writer friends seem to think foreshadowing is hard in short fiction because the stories aren't long enough for it to work. That's not true. It just depends on when and how you do it.



And that's all, folks. Thanks for indulging me. If you happen to read my story, I hope you'll like it. If you read it and don't like it, hey, maybe you'll have learned something not to do in your own stories.

Two things I know for sure: (1) I'm grateful that EQMM liked it, and (2) it was a lot of fun to write.


See you in two weeks.



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


by Robert Lopresti

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.

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.

02 March 2018

Stories to Novels: Reading the Complete Continental Op


By Art Taylor

Over the last couple of months, I've been reading aloud to my wife Tara the stories in The Big Book of the Continental Op, the first print collection ever of all of Dashiell Hammett's stories featuring the unnamed detective. We've read fifteen of them so far, and as I write this, we're about three-quarters through the novelette "The Whosis Kid"—and on the edge of our seat each time someone new comes through the apartment door with pistol(s) in hand! (The room's getting crowded now, with the Op and five other people all vying for space to maneuver.)

Our readings stem in part from a New Year's resolution to read the whole collection this year—rereading stories in some cases—and the title doesn't lie, it's a big book, and it's a mammoth achievement too, thanks to the hard work of editors Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter. But I've been interested in Hammett and particularly the Op stories long before, even having taught some of them in my classes at George Mason University, and I was thrilled with the earlier gathering of these stories in an e-book series.  (See my 2016  SleuthSayers interview with Rivett on that project.)

I've read some of these stories before, as I mentioned, but some—even some well-known titles—I'm enjoying for the first time. And what's struck me at several times is how Hammett used the short stories as a testing ground for ideas, characters, and scenes.

I've said before—and will argue again (and again)—that short stories can't fully be apprenticeships for writing novels. While writing short stories can help writers learn some of the fundamentals of crafting characters and shaping scenes and sharpening dialogue, etc. But the short story and the novel are two vastly different forms, with different requirements and different challenges. The leap isn't entirely a natural one, and I've talked to as many fine novelists who say they've never been able to write a short story as I have with fine short story writers who've struggled to complete a novel.

That said, however, I've also written before about Hammett's own transition from short story to novel—with his first two novels loosely put together as novels in stories with the seams smartly covered up. Both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse appeared as serialized stories in Black Mask, each installment with its own narrative arc, even as the fuller narrative arc emerged only in the connecting of the story cycles. I've written about this before too; see my essay here for the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog. And one of the things I'm most excited about in the new Big Book of the Continental Op is seeing those story cycles in their original forms: "The Cleansing of Poisonville," "Crime Wanted—Male or Female," "Dynamite," and "The 19th Murder," which became Red Harvest; and "Black Lives," "The Hollow Temple," "Black Honeymoon," and "Black Riddle," which became The Dain Curse. In these cases, it's not just that Hammett used the short story as a training ground for the novel but that he used the architecture of the short story as the building block for the larger structures.

Beyond those specific stories and those specific novels, the early stories in the new collection have been opening up new perspectives on Hammett's artistic process—exciting discoveries for me, even if others have likely written on them elsewhere. Take, for example, that scene from "The Whosis Kid" I mentioned above. The Op and a woman named Inés Almad and a guy named Billie are together in her apartment; then in comes the Frenchman Edouard Maurois and a fellow with a big chin (appropriately called Big Chin); and at our last stopping point the title character steps in, a black revolver in each hand. What everyone's doing there—well, neither the reader nor the Op know at this point in the story, but the Frenchman seems to be looking for something that Inés is supposed to have—and that she claims she doesn't but the title character does. And all through the scene, I couldn't avoid thinking about Sam Spade, Bridgid O'Shaugnessy, Joel Cairo, Casper Guttman, and Wilmer Cook all crowding together in that pivotal scene in The Maltese Falcon. (Again, we haven't finished "The Whosis Kid" yet, but I'm thinking things don't look good for Inés here.)

Similarly, reading "The Golden Horseshoe," about the Op's hunt for missing Norman Ashcraft, who left his wife and disappeared, how could I not think of the famous Flitcraft Parable—and not just because of the echo between the names. That story from The Maltese Falcon—a digression that's been discussed and argued over endlessly—gets an earlier treatment here as a case itself, and it's fascinating.

Elsewhere, in "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," Porky Grout (what a name!) seems a prototype for  characters in later stories and novels. (On a side note, I just read this New York Times review of the 1974 collection The Continental Op, which focuses on Porky Grout—and I disagree with the take here. In recent conversation, Peter Rozovsky mentioned Porky and talked about the story's moments of real emotion, a glimpse inside the Op's feeling—so true.)

And then beyond plot and scene and character, I've also found myself marveling as seeing Hammett's style evolving—and his boldness about his writing. Even in a very early story, "The Tenth Clew," he includes a chapter that seems more impressionistic, certainly less plot-driven, with the Op floating in San Francisco Bay, horns blowing around him, swimming, trying to survive. It's a marvelous passage, and one that another writer might simply have skipped (or another editor might simply have cut).

In short, reading The Big Book of the Continental Op has delivered not just some fine, fun stories, but also significant glimpses both into the evolution of an artist and into the process of artistic creation. Still many stories to go—and the rest of the year to read them!—and looking forward to them all.

BIT OF BSP


Since my last post here, Malice Domestic has updated its website with links to all of the finalist for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. You can find them all here.

So pleased again to have my story "A Necessary Ingredient" among the mix here—and shout-outs again to two fellow SleuthSayers: Barb Goffman, my fellow Agatha nominee, and Paul D. Marks, co-editor of Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, where "A Necessary Ingredient" first appeared.