Showing posts with label Ellery Queen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ellery Queen. Show all posts

30 March 2021

What Drives Me ... And Maybe You Too


Why do people write fiction?

  • For enjoyment? That seems likely. 
  • For money? I guess that could be true, although except for a lucky few, writing fiction is certainly not the road to riches many people probably presume it is. 
  • Because they feel compelled to? I've heard people say that.
  • Because they are good at it (or fancy they are) and are driven by the need for praise and validation? Ding ding ding, we have a winner. 

If the question is why I write fiction, my answer is enjoyment and, I'm embarrassed to say, the need for praise. That became glaringly clear last week when something happened--I'll keep the details to myself--and I realized that far too much of my self-worth is wrapped up in the need for positive feedback on my work.

I would think that this far into my writing career, especially considering that I have had a fair amount of success, the joy I derive from the act of writing should be enough. I shouldn't need validation on top of that. But I do. 

No matter how much I enjoy writing (yes, sometimes it's a slog, but sometimes it's not), when I'm finished, I immediately crave feedback. That's why I used to send stories out more quickly than I do now, often too quickly, because I couldn't help myself. Thankfully, in the past few years I've become stronger, giving my stories time to cool so I can give them a good edit before I send them out, but it's a struggle each time I get to the end. I probably still send some stories out too quickly, resulting in unhappy rejections.

This is why I am much more excited on a day a story is accepted for publication than on actual publication day. A story's acceptance is direct feedback that someone I respect liked it enough to decide to publish it. The acceptance email might even have some comments about what the editor liked about the story. Publication day likely doesn't involve that same kind of feedback. Sure I might hear from people who congratulate me on the publication--and I'm not knocking that feedback at all; bring it on!--but such words are different from someone reading the story itself and telling me that they liked it and, even better, why. Some stories are published and I never hear any feedback from readers regarding whether they liked it. I may never even know if it's read. It can be a bit of a letdown.

That's why I read my reviews. It's why I search for them. Some of you reading this are probably shaking your head at me. "Never read your reviews!" I've heard the advice more than once. But still they pull at me like a drug. I seek them out. I bet some of you reading this column do too.

As someone who was raised in a home that emphasized academic achievement, I can understand how I ended up this way. A good primary-school student does homework that is returned regularly, often with check marks or stars. As the student gets older, there are tests and report cards that hopefully have the expected high grades, which result in praise or acknowledgement that you met familial expectations. I was primed my whole life while growing up to want the positive feedback that comes from doing a good job. And that desire hasn't disappeared now that I'm an adult who writes fiction. Instead, I'm like Pavlov's dog. Whenever I've put in the work and written what I believe is a good short story, I crave corresponding (hopefully positive) feedback.

I recognize that I shouldn't place so much power over my self-image in the hands (and the words) of others. I should derive joy from the act of writing, especially since I have enough experience to know when my work is good. I should not need external validation. But I do.

Perhaps others do too. I likely am not alone in this. This is why I urge readers to let authors know if you read their stories or books and like them. Public reviews or comments are good, but even a private email would be fine. It doesn't have to be detailed like a book report or written well enough to get an A. An email that said, "I just read X and it made me laugh. Thank you," would make me float all day long.

And now I open this blog to your (hopefully kind) comments. You know how much I love feedback.  

 ***

But first, a little BSP: I'm delighted to share that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" was named a finalist last week for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story published last year. (Talk about external validation!) It appeared in the September/October  2020 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Also nominated in my category are my fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, as well as Shawn Reilly Simmons, Gabriel Valjan, and James Ziskin. 

The Agatha winners will be announced in July during More Than Malice, this year's online Malice Domestic convention. You can learn more about the convention (and register at an early-bird price) here. And if you'd like to read my nominated story, you can read it by clicking here. Or you can listen to me read it to you on the Ellery Queen podcast by clicking here. The story runs for 32 minutes. Enjoy!

05 January 2021

Birthplace of a Story


Most anyone who's had their fiction published has likely been asked this question: Where do you get your ideas? It's a common enough question that it's spawned a standard joke answer: The Plot Store. My real answer most of the time is, I have no idea. Ideas just pop into my head. I expect that's true with many (perhaps most, maybe all) writers. But sometimes I can point to a story's inspiration.

That's the case with one of the stories I had published in December, "A Family Matter." While driving a few years ago, I passed a house with a clothesline. They certainly aren't uncommon, but for whatever reason it made me remember a story my mom once told about moving into the neighborhood where I grew up. This was in 1962, years before I was born. One day shortly after my parents and siblings moved in, my mom was in the backyard hanging up the laundry on a clothesline when one of the next-door neighbors hurried over to tell my mom that drying laundry on a clothesline just wasn't done there. My mom needed to get a dryer to fit in. I don't know if this story is true or not (my mom sometimes told tales), but seeing that clothesline evoked that memory, from which grew "A Family Matter," a story set in 1962 suburbia about what happens when new neighbors violate the unwritten social code. The story is published in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

That story isn't the first one to spring from me mining my memories. An elementary-school teacher who humiliated me in an attempt to get me to be a better public speaker was the impetus for my story "The Wrong Girl." (If you've read that story, you'll know never to tell me I speak too quickly--even if I do.) "Stepmonster" sprung from anger over my father's perhaps preventable death. "Whose Wine is it Anyway" was the result of my incredulous comment to a work colleague: "I have to plan my own goodbye party?!" An elementary school librarian calling me "an evil little girl" resulted in the story named, no surprise, "Evil Little Girl." And my first published story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," is about a mystery writer who has a ring stolen at a mystery conference, which is just what happened to me. I vowed to make something good come from that bad event, and I did.

The other main source of my story ideas (when I can figure out the source) is the news. It feels bad to say that I hear about someone else's misfortune and think: I can use that! But I'm sure I'm not the only author who does it. "Compulsive Bubba" grew out of a terrible accidental death in which someone waited in a car while it warmed up, not knowing the car's exhaust pipe was covered with snow and the carbon monoxide was backing up into the car. I got the idea for "Ulterior Motives" after reading about an Oregon county whose residents voted down a bond referendum to fund the police department, which resulted in them having police only part time. "Have Gun, Won't Travel" came about after reading about an Ansel Adams print worth a lot of money that sold at a garage sale for practically nothing because the seller didn't realize who created it. (The story was later debunked, but it gave me my idea nonetheless.) "Alex's Choice" was prompted by the horrific death of a family after one of them went into the ocean to save their dog, and when that person didn't come out, the next person went in to save him, and it went from there.

I have other published stories I could add to the sparked-by-the-news list, but since those events figure into story twists, I'm not going to mention them lest someone out there hasn't read those stories yet.

A side effect of admitting you used a real-life event as a story springboard is having people ask if everything in the story really happened. That's a big no. That's why it's called fiction. But just in case you're wondering:

I never tried to kill my fifth-grade teacher.

I never tried to get revenge on the person who found and kept the ring I lost at Sleuthfest (the fact that I don't know who it was is irrelevant, I assure you).

I never tried to kill the woman who was dating my father when he died.

I never tried to kill my boss (none of them, really).

Nothing in "A Family Matter" is based on real life except that clothesline incident (in case anyone has read the story and is wondering).

And I really was not an evil little girl, despite what that school librarian thought. But if you think otherwise, well, it might be best not to tell me. It's always better to be safe than sorry. After all, you wouldn't want to end up on the news, giving someone else a good story idea, would you?

****

If you want to read any of the stories I mentioned above, you can find them listed on my website, along with where they were published. Just click here. And in case you missed my last post, I had three stories published recently: "A Family Matter," discussed above, in the January/February AHMM; "That Poor Woman," a flash story in the January/February Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; and "Second Chance" in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir.

Happy reading!

15 December 2020

Four New Stories, Three This Week, Two Out Today, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree


This is a good month for me writing-wise:

  • I had a new story published yesterday: "Second Chance" in the anthology Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. 
  • Today is the publication day for two more stories: "A Family Matter" in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and "That Poor Woman" in the January/February 2021 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
  • A fourth story, "An Inconvenient Sleuth," is scheduled to be published later this month in issue eight of Black Cat Mystery Magazine
Except when I had five new stories published at once (when my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, came out in 2013 with five new stories and ten reprints), I've never had so many stories published in one day, one week, or one even month. I've also never had stories published in AHMM and EQMM at the same time. It's a nice way to end a year, especially this year.

I generally like to talk about stories when they're available for purchase. So here's information about the three new stories that are already out:

"Second Chance" is a tale of twin brothers who were placed in separate foster homes at age ten. Now eighteen, one finds the other, but the reunion is not the stuff of Hallmark movies. I hope you'll consider picking up a copy of Mickey Finn. It's published in ebook and trade paperback, with twenty stories perfect for the noir reader on your holiday gift list. You can buy it from all the usual sources, as well as from the publisher here.

"A Family Matter" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is set in 1962, the closest I've ever come to a historical story. In this tale, Doris and her neighbors are determined to move up the ladder of success together. When a new family that moves in next door doesn't know the unwritten social code, Doris makes it her business to help them conform. This story was inspired by something that happened to my mom when my parents and siblings (years before I showed up) moved into a new neighborhood.

"That Poor Woman" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is a flash story about a crime victim who takes the law into her own hands.

You can find individual issues of AHMM and EQMM at bookstores and newsstands. For a paper subscription of either magazine--or both, they make a great holiday gift--click here for AHMM and here for EQMM. As of 11 p.m. last night (Monday night), the new issues scheduled for publication today (Tuesday) aren't up yet on the AHMM and EQMM websites, but they should be soon.

You can also get electronic individual issues as well as subscriptions for your Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other readers. Learn more here about EQMM and here about AHMM. (Because I've had friends unable to easily find the Kindle pages before, here's the EQMM Amazon link and here's the AHMM link.)

I'll talk about "An Inconvenient Sleuth" next month, after the issue of BCMM comes out.

It's interesting that these four stories are all coming out in the same month because I didn't write them all around the same time. I wrote "Second Chance" in 2014, "A Family Matter" in January of 2018, "An Inconvenient Sleuth" in February of 2018, and "That Poor Woman" in October of 2019. As you can imagine, some stories take a long time to sell. (I submitted "A Second Chance" five times before Michael Bracken took a chance on it. (See what I did there?)) Other stories sell on their first submission. But no matter how long it takes for a story to sell and then be published, I'm always glad when a new story comes out. So that makes this week--and this month--a good time for me.

I'll be back in 2021. In the meanwhile, happy holidays and happy reading.

01 September 2020

The appeal of epistolary stories


I have a new short story published this month: "Dear Emily Etiquette" in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It's a story told in a series of letters between an increasingly annoyed woman who's invited to her cousin's wedding--but only if she brings a date--and advice columnist Emily Etiquette. This was my first attempt at writing an epistolary story, and I really enjoyed it. I thought I would talk about why.

First it was nice to work with an unusual structure, at least for me. Every letter was akin to a scene, and time could easily pass between each one. A letter was only written when something aggravated the woman enough to put pen to paper, and then Emily Etiquette sent a reply. That resulted in every scene not only moving the plot forward (as they should) but doing so in an interesting and fun way.

It was also fun to tweak a stereotype. Etiquette columnists have a reputation for doing things in a proper manner. Some might even call them prissy. Well, not my Emily Etiquette. Although she gives advice about what she thinks the letter writer (and others) should do in particular situations, she's not above getting a little down and dirty in her comments and her suggestions--they might even seem a bit naughty to people who are willing to read between the lines.

Writing a story in letters also allowed me to make use of an unreliable narrator, not because my letter writers lied, but because the reader only saw the things that were written in the letters. Usually in fiction you'll see a lot of the point-of-view character's thoughts, but with a story told via letters it's not cheating to leave out some thoughts since letter writers are not expected to share all their thoughts. And things that aren't mentioned--at least at first--can end up being important. So epistolary stories are perfect for lies of omission. They allow the POV character to surprise the reader with plot twists.

The final and perhaps most important reason writing a story in letters appealed to me was because I thought readers would be particularly enticed to read those letters. Why? Because it feels wrong. Even though it's fiction and the reader knows the story was designed to be read, there's still a voyeuristic aspect to reading fictional letters. It's like peeking at your older sister's diary (not that I ever did that). You get to learn someone's thoughts and all their dirty little secrets. While this happens with fiction in general, when a story is structured as letters between two people, and you're not one of them, it feels sneaky to read them, as if you might get caught at any moment, and that can be tantalizing--at least for some people (am I revealing too much?).

Here's the wonderful drawing created by Jason C. Eckhardt that accompanies 
my story in the magazine and in the preview on the EQMM website.

Have you ever written or read epistolary stories or books? What did you like best about them?

If you'd like to read an excerpt of my story, you're in luck. Ellery Queen has put one up on their website. You can read it by clicking here. And if you enjoy it, I hope you'll pick up a copy of this issue. EQMM can be found in bookstores (brick-and-mortar ones as well as online) and at newsstands. You can subscribe or buy individual issues in print or electronic copy. Learn more from the publisher here. And since I have a friend who had trouble finding the issue on Amazon, here's that link too.

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.

28 May 2019

Things You Learn from Editing


As the old saying goes, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. (As a dog owner, I can attest that this is true!) The saying also applies to writers. No matter how much writing experience you have, you still can learn more.
I was reminded of this point recently, as I've been editing a lot of short stories for two upcoming anthologies, one coming out in December, and another coming out next spring. Some of the stories have been written by authors I consider to be short-story experts. Other stories have been written by authors who have had several stories published but who haven't broken out yet, and others still have been penned by authors who are just starting out. And I have learned something from all of them--sometimes simply from reading the stories (even the newest writer can come up with a twist or a turn of phrase that turns my head) and other times from editing them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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


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

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

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

26 March 2019

Can You Hear Me Now?


Thanks to the fine folks at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a recording of me reading my Agatha Award-nominated short story "Bug Appétit" will be available online at the EQMM website beginning April 1st. (It's true. No April Fool's here.) When they asked me to make the recording, my biggest concern was technical. How could I get a good version of me reading my story in Virginia up to New York, from where it would get uploaded to the EQMM podcast site? That may sound like a no-brainer to many of you, but for me, well, let's just say I'm not really great with new technology. I'm still waiting for someone to teach me how to use the Bluetooth in my car.
Eventually things got worked out technologically speaking (thank you, Jackie Sherbow), so I was able to focus on my next worry: I have five speaking characters in my story. How was I going to make them sound different enough that the listener would be able to tell them apart? If you're reading the story on paper (or on a screen), you can see when a speaker changes, even without a dialogue tag, because you'll see a closing quotation mark, then a change in paragraph, and the next line of dialogue opens with an open quotation mark. You're not going to have those visual signals with audio. My friends told me not to worry--ha!--and said that surely it would all be fine.

"Bug Appétit" was in the
Nov./Dec. 2018 issue
Skeptical, I realized procrastinating was doing me no good. So I put those worries aside and moved on to the next ones: Was I properly pronouncing all the words in the story? Would I talk too quickly?--something I've been accused of in the past. Would I insert verbal tics (umms, etc.) without realizing it? To address these concerns I looked up the words I was unsure of, including researching regional pronunciations, and practiced reading out loud. Then I recorded the story, sent it off to New York, and now I wait anxiously for April 1st to arrive for the recording to be posted so I can see (or more precisely, hear) if I did an okay job.

In the meanwhile, here are some things I've learned from this experience:

(1) Even if you think you've written a funny story, you can't laugh at your own jokes while you read the story aloud. This is tougher than you'd think when you're a hoot. (Just saying.)

(2) While Alexa may be good at a lot of things, pronunciation isn't one of them. When I asked her how to pronounce "sago" (as in sago grubs), which I spelled out for her, she pronounced it for me--the same way I would have said it instinctively. Woo-hoo! But then she said that she's not often good at pronouncing things and while she's always improving, maybe I shouldn't rely on her. So much for technology.

(3) "Pecan pie" is one of those terms that is pronounced differently in various parts of the United States. Where I grew up on Long Island, it's pronounced PEE-can pie. (Every time I say it or think it, I can hear Billy Crystal saying it over and over in When Harry Met Sally. "Pee-can pie. Pee-can pie. Pee-can piiiiie." But on the West Coast, where my story is set, many people pronounce it pih-KHAN  pie. I had to practice to say it right.





(4) Practice doesn't always make perfect. When you read aloud, you instinctively say a word the way you've always said it, no matter how much you practice. Or at least that's what happened to me, which is why I had to stop and re-read that part for the recording. Twice. That pih-KHAN pie was hard fought.

(5) No matter how hard you try to remove background noise, when you're recording something, there will always be a plane flying overhead.

(6) And when you have a dog named Jingle, he will become velcro right when you want to start recording and then he will live up to his name, moving and scratching and jingling over and over and over, so you have to stop and restart the recording over and over and over. And over.

(7) Eventually you'll get so frustrated you'll tug his collar off and tell him to be quiet (perhaps with some expletives mixed in). When he finally does it and falls asleep, you'll sigh in relief, but beware: your bliss will be short-lived. Because within a few minutes the dog will start to snore. Of course he will.

(8) Effecting five different voices plus the one saying the internal monologue is not easy. I found that I physically tried to embody each character, stretching tall with my nose raised whenever the mother spoke, tilting my head sideways to get the amused dad's voice right, and internalizing the narrator's voice from season two of Fargo when I read the exposition. The only voice that came really easily was the grandma's--a woman who spoke her mind. Go figure.

(9) Reading a story aloud takes much longer than you'd expect. Much longer than reading it silently. Let's hope that means I read it slowly enough without any verbal tics. And, um, if I, um, included some tics, um, please don't tell me.

(10) If the fine folks at EQMM ever ask you to record one of your stories for their podcast, jump at the chance. It was a lot of fun. But first, arrange for your dog to go on a long walk before you hit record. The last thing you want listeners to hear while you're reading your story is someone snoring in the background.

19 March 2019

Sometimes The Big Sleep Comes Too Soon



This post will be a little different than the normal post for me.

Anne

My friend Anne Adams died in February, from breast cancer that had metastasized and for which the treatments had become ineffective. This is what she said in one of her last e-mails to me: “I’m feeling OK, but not doing well in terms of treatment. I’ve pretty much gotten to the end of anything that works for me. My doctor is looking for some trials, but unless something like that turns up, I’m looking at about 2 to 3 months before I’ll be doing The Big Sleep.”

Unfortunately, both she and the doctors turned out to be right.

She had been fighting this for years, and had better times and worse times. So it wasn’t a total shock on the one hand, but on the other it was. She was relatively young – not old enough for Medicare. I’ve known her for decades and at one time we were very close, though not as much lately. But we still kept in touch.

We initially got together through a buddy of mine she was seeing and when they came into town (L.A.) one time I met her. Then, when she moved here on her own and wanted to get into the film biz, I was one of the few people she “knew,” so we got together and became fast friends, initially bonding over our love of movies, both classic and contemporary (at least contemporary for when we met, not so much movies today). Since our schedules were fluid we often got together to go to screenings and for the movies we missed in the screenings we’d often go see at a matinee the day they opened. We loved movies, as well as Hollywood history. But our friendship expanded to much deeper levels as we got to know each other over time.

She encouraged my writing in the dark days before I’d had any success and she brought me up short if I whined too much about the business. She didn’t have any trouble getting established in the business, working mostly in post-production or as a producer. We saw a lot of each other in those days, traveled together, and just had a very close relationship that withstood the test of time, even if it wasn’t as close as it once was. So she was very intrinsically involved in my life.

In fact, without a push from Anne I might not have gotten together with my wife, Amy. I met Amy when another friend “roped” me into helping produce a live old time radio benefit for UNICEF (that’s a whole ’nother story…). A friend of Amy’s had also volunteered her to work on it. And we met there, but I didn’t think Amy would remember me after our brief encounter that first night. And I only knew her first name and sort of where she worked. So I was a little hesitant to call her. But Anne said, “Well, what do you have to lose? All she can do is say ‘no’.” So I called Amy and the rest – to make a long story short – is history. But I might not have followed through if not for Anne giving me that little prod, so I owe her much for that.

Anne was at my wedding and my bachelor party (which was not limited to guys, though Amy wasn’t there). In fact, she also sort of MC’d and “produced” our wedding.

Anne also did something else for me/us that I will always be grateful for – besides pushing me to call Amy – though it might seem superficial on the surface. Once she got established here she knew a lot of people. And one of them is one of the band members in Paul McCartney’s band. I am and forever will be the Ultimate Beatles Fan. And Anne got Amy and me backstage to see him. It was an amazing moment.

Amy, Anne, Paul


We had recently talked about getting together but it never happened as the disease progressed rapidly.
In one of our last correspondences, she said, “I’m getting tons of emails (but nobody wanting the stove, [an antique stove she was trying to place before she died] of course), so this text will be short. Let’s plan to talk after the holidays.” Well, we never did talk after the holidays. We never saw each other again. Her disease progressed and she passed on on 2/16/19. Here’s a link to her obit on Legacy . com: https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/name/anne-adams-obituary?pid=191640884

Anne, McCartney drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., Paul,
former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda in blue shirt in background 

I’ll just finish that off by saying I miss her and will continue to do so.

~~~

Clyde

Clyde Williams is another friend who died of cancer recently. I met him when I was looking for someone to do a voiceover for a promotional video. He had a great voice, very expressive. After we met on that project we became friends.in b

Clyde led an adventurous and exciting life. He served in Viet Nam. And said he had once been on a security detail or honor guard for JFK. He was even scouted by the Dodgers. But his true love was art and painting.

You would have thought we didn’t have all that much in common, but we really did. He was from Loosiana. A cowboy. An artist

I am none of those things. And if I could draw a decent stick figure it would be a major feat. Though I do live in cowboy country now, so we had that in common. And Clyde liked it up here, kept saying how much he’d like to move here.

In an article from the LA Times (“Black Cowboys Honored for Reel Contributions, 8/1/2000-LA Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2000/aug/01/news/cl-62235 ), he said, “‘My grandfather had me herding cattle as a kid,’ Williams said. ‘I understand the cowboy and the body of the horse. I started sketching them when I was 6. It's a passion. That's why I'll always be a cowboy in my heart.’”

He painted western and cowboy art, black cowboys and Buffalo soldiers, African-Americans in the military, as well as Indians and other western scenes. His work was exhibited at the Autry Museum of the American West. He loved the whole cowboy culture and he loved to read western novels, particularly Louis L’Amour. He had almost every if not every one of his books in hardback and was very proud of that. I helped to fill out his collection and that made us both happy. He also liked all stripe of western/cowboy movies.

Clyde and I could and would talk for hours, about anything and everything. He liked to talk about the changing nature of his neighbored. About wanting to do more acting or voiceovers. And he’d always ask about my wife Amy, whom he was very fond of.


He’d also talk about the red tape and hassles at the VA. And in the last year or two that kind of talk and talk of his disease featured more and more in our conversations. And there’s certain things I’d like to add here but feel that I can’t for personal reasons.

I also hadn’t talked to him for a while. No particular reasons. That’s just how things go, as I’m sure you know. I found out he’d died when I sent him a Christmas card and it came back marked “Deceased.” That was quite a shock.


I didn’t know him as well nor as long as I’d known Anne, but we bonded quickly and became friends. Sometimes you just click with someone. He gave me several prints of his works and I treasure them, both for what they are and as a symbol of our friendship.

And I miss him, too.

~~~

As writers, I think a lot of us strive for some kind of immortality through our writing. We hope to be remembered after we’re gone. Some achieve that, most do not. The way most people remain “alive” is in our memories, as we think about them, reminisce, deal with our regrets. Anne and Clyde will remain alive as long as I’m living – I know I’ll think of them often.

So the moral of this piece is – if I can get a little preachy – every time something like this happens I vow to not let things go so long, vow to get together, go to dinner, etc. But they often don’t get acted on, because we’re human. So don’t put things off. You’ll regret it as I do now. And I’m telling that to myself again now – don’t put things off. And I know I’ll do it again as others will do it with me. That said, I have a date next week to see a friend I haven’t seen in ages, but someone I’ve known since forever, a friend and former writing partner. And I hope that nothing happens to get in the way of our connecting so I won’t have anymore regrets, at least not for a while.

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

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