Showing posts with label Flash Bang Mysteries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flash Bang Mysteries. Show all posts

07 May 2019

The Importance of a Solid Beginning

by Barb Goffman

 "Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly; "Tis the prettiest little parlor that you ever did spy."

--"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt

I spent the last few days at the Malice Domestic mystery convention, learning about new mystery novels and stories, catching up with old friends, and listening to panels about books and writing. One topic that particularly interested me was the importance of first lines.

I was reminded of some research results I learned in journalism graduate school nearly three decades ago. If I remember correctly, the average newspaper reader first looked at the photo accompanying an article, then at the headline, then at the cutline (caption) under the photo, and then, maybe, started reading the article. If the author didn't grab the reader in those first ten (or was it thirty?) seconds, it wouldn't matter how good or important the rest of the article was; that reader was never going to know what it said.

I don't know if these results would still be the same today, though I'd guess readers probably spend even less time considering whether to read an article, especially because sometimes all they see is a photo and the headline; then they have to decide to click if they want to read more.

And this all brings me to this question: how do these results apply to reading novels and short stories? Before buying or borrowing a book, do readers look at the cover (akin to the newspaper photo), then the headline (the title), then the cutline (perhaps a blurb on the cover), and then check out the first sentence or first page before deciding whether to buy or borrow a book? I'd bet that a lot of readers do.

My approach is to look at a book's cover and to consider its author. If I'm intrigued by the cover, if it has the right mood, or if the book is written by an author I've enjoyed before, I might decide to read it without gathering any additional information. If I'm still unsure, I'll read the book's description and maybe some reviews online. I don't usually check out the writing--the first line or first paragraph--before before deciding whether to move forward. Maybe I should do that because the quality of the writing will definitely affect whether I ultimately read to the end or give up early. If a writer has lured me in, like the spider with the fly, I'll probably keep turning those pages. But if I don't care about the characters, I might stop after two or three chapters. Sometimes I'll flip to the end of a whodunit to see if my guess about who the bad guy is was right. But sometimes I don't even care about that. As the saying goes, life is too short to waste time on bad books.
How's this for an anthology
cover that lures the reader in?


I take a more lenient approach with short stories, perhaps because the short story is my preferred medium. Unless the writing is poor or the story is particularly boring or way too dark for me, I'll usually read the whole thing. But that doesn't mean that a solid first line or first paragraph isn't important. Indeed, that opening can sometimes make or break the "is this boring?" decision.

That said, thinking about the openings to my own short stories, I hope other readers are even more lenient than I am. For while I sometimes write openings that, I hope, make readers react, luring them in with a splash, at other times, I use the opening to bring readers into a particular setting, where they might see something important. It might not seem exciting, but it sets the stage for all that comes. And at other times, the opening is all about setting the mood.

Here are some examples:

  • Murder's always a sin. But it especially feels like sacrilege when I get called from church on a Sunday morning because a body's been found. 

"Till Murder Do Us Part" in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies

This is a mood opening, as well as an opening with a bang. I hoped this beginning's mood would lure the reader in, as would the knowledge that the reader is embarking on a murder case with a caring, honest sheriff.

  • Looking back, I should have known something was wrong when the pot roast disappeared.

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" in Florida Happens

With this first sentence, I aimed to convey that something odd--and funny--was happening, something that the main character was overlooking. That, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

  • It was the night before Thanksgiving, and Garner Duffy stood just inside the entrance of the community center, scanning the large room. He knew exactly what he was looking for.

"Bug Appetit" in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

By using an opening similar to that of Clement Clark Moore's famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," I hoped to get the reader into the mood to read a holiday-related story. And I hoped the second sentence would make the reader wonder what Garner was looking for and read on to find out.

  • "The defense calls Emily Forester."
  • My attorney squeezed my hand as I rose. If anyone noticed, they probably viewed it as a comforting gesture. I knew better. Bob was imploring me to use his plan, not mine. Too bad, Bob. This was my murder trial, and we were doing things my way.

"The Power Behind the Throne" in Deadly Southern Charm

This opening drops the reader into the middle of the action and, I hoped, intrigues the reader to want to see what happens next with this headstrong defendant.

  • They say appearances can be deceiving. No one knows that better than me. Everyone's always thought I had it made. Only kid in the richest family in town with a steady supply of cool new clothes and fancy vacation plans. Never had a worry.  

"Punching Bag" in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries

This opening is more of a setting-the-stage opening. There's no pounding action here. Instead, the reader is invited into the life of a minor--the character's age isn't clear yet. There's the hint of secrets. Of a family unraveling.That something is definitely wrong. All of this, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

Do these opening work? Do they achieve their goal of luring the reader into the story? Of letting the reader know that something interesting, something enticing, something the reader *must* know  about is happening? I certainly hope so. Because as I learned in journalism school nearly three decades ago, if you don't lure the reader in, it doesn't matter how good the rest is because a lot of people won't bother to read it.

Do you have any favorite opening lines? Please share in the comments and include why you think that line works so well.


22 January 2019

I've Crossed A Line -- Warning: Rated X for Expletives

by Barb Goffman

You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take the New York out of the girl. That's my explanation for why I often pepper my speech with expletives. Anyone who read my 2017 column  titled "The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing" knows I'm quite comfortable with the word fuck. I've used it and other curse words in my stories without issue.

How often? I just ran a search of my published stories, and here are the results:

  • Asshole -- used in two stories (6% of all my published stories).
  • Fuck -- used in two stories (6%). A surprisingly low number. I'll have to work on that.
  • Shit -- used in four stories (12%).
  • Bastard -- used in five stories (16%).
  • Bitch -- used in fifteen stories (48%!). I might have to tone this one down.
Given these results, you'd think I didn't often write light cozy stories. And yet there's one big curse word missing from the list. One word that, until last week, I had never used in a published story. Can you figure out what it is? Here's a hint: it rhymes with the word for the smallest animal in a litter. See, I have so much trouble with this word, I'm squeamish about even typing it here, in an academic (ish) discussion about using curse words in my fiction. The word is ...

Cunt. There I said it.

And I'm cringing.

There is just something about this word that, to me at least, crosses a line. I know some of you are reading this thinking I must have no lines. But I do. And cunt crosses it. That's why I never say it. And until now I've never used it in my fiction.

So why did I make this exception? And was it a good choice?

To answer these questions, let's turn to the story in question. It's my newest story, "Punching Bag," which was published last week in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries, an e-zine that showcases crime flash fiction. I'm delighted that not only did editors BJ and Brandon Bourg choose to publish it, but they also chose it as the cover story and as the editors' choice story for the issue. It's the story of the darkest day in an emotionally abused teenage girl's life.

Let's stop here for a moment. I'm afraid that anything I say from here on will ruin the story for you if you haven't read it. So please go do so. The story is only 748 words long--the equivalent of three double-spaced pages. You can read it really quickly by clicking on the title in the prior paragraph. Then come back.

Okay, you've read it? Good. (I hope you liked it.)

You'll notice that the use of curse words is minimal. Toward the end the mom says the daughter is stupid and calls her a "disappointing, ungrateful bitch," and other unspecified names. That was all I planned to say about the matter originally, figuring readers could extrapolate from there. But one of my trusted beta readers told me she didn't think the girl was justified in killing her parents. She thought the girl came across as spoiled and selfish. I was surprised. I definitely didn't want that. I wanted readers to understand this girl, to be on her side, despite that she does a horrible thing. So I felt I needed to up the ante. That's when I added the part about her mom calling her a "self-centered cunt."

I figured if anything in this story was going to turn readers' perception of this girl from spoiled to sort-of justified, it would be that. If the word cunt crosses a line for me, I hoped, it would cross a line for readers, too--at least any readers whose line hadn't already been crossed by the mom's behavior.

So I submitted the story. But I worried. Was the use of the word cunt too much? Would it keep the story from being accepted? Then, once the story was accepted, I worried about readers. Would the word turn them off? Especially readers who know me primarily for my lighthearted, funny stories? The answer: So far, so good. I've gotten some feedback on "Punching Bag," and it's all been positive, with no one mentioning my use of that word. This response has helped me feel better about my choice, despite that the word still makes me cringe.

What do you think? Would you have been on the girl's side at the end if I hadn't included the "self-centered cunt" line? Or did the line push you onto the girl's side? Or do you think I went too far? What words cross your line?

One final note to my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti: Last week you wrote briefly about your newest flash short story (which is fewer than 700 words long), saying you were keeping things short because only English professors could get away with writing something about a story that is longer than the story itself. Ha ha, Rob! I have proven you wrong, because this blog about "Punching Bag" (excluding this paragraph) is 29 words longer than the story itself, and I am no English professor. Do I get a prize? Please don't make me become an English professor. I wouldn't last. I'd surely get written up for cursing in front of my students.

29 July 2017

Four Stories


by John M. Floyd



July has been a busy month for me, in terms of the SleuthSayers blog--it has five weekends, so it was my duty to post three columns, on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Saturdays. For this last assignment, I thought it might be fitting (and, yes, easy) to talk about four of my short mystery stories that appeared in publications with a July 2017 issue date. Three of them were in magazines, one in an anthology.

Hitched with the team

First, I was fortunate enough to be featured alongside three of my fellow SleuthSayers--R.T. Lawton, O'Neil De Noux, and Steve Liskow--and two of my old friends--Joe D'Agnese and Robert Mangeot--in the July/August 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (which actually went on sale last month). My story there, called "Trail's End," is the first of a new series featuring rural sheriff Ray Douglas and his lawyer/mystery-writer friend Jennifer Parker. The two of them are in sort of an on-again-off-again relationship and, not surprisingly, wind up in the middle of a murder investigation on their way back from a trip to New Orleans.

NOTE 1: After finishing several drafts of this story, I was having a hard time coming up with a suitable title, so I changed the plot around a little, placed the murder scene at a motel, put it at the end of a road at the edge of a swamp in the middle of nowhere, and named the motel the Trail's End.

NOTE 2: Someone recently asked me why the women in my stories are usually smarter than the men. I replied that I try to write fiction that comes close to the way things are in real life.

One more thing about this story. An old friend from my hometown named Cheryl Grubbs told me a couple of years ago that she hoped I would one day use her as a character in one of my creations. As fate would have it, Sheriff Douglas's deputy in this story is named Cheryl Grubbs. And by the way, the second installment in the series has been purchased by AHMM and will appear sometime in the coming months, so Deputy Grubbs will be back again then. Cheryl, if you're reading this, I hope you'll like her.

The book thief

My second July story, "The Rare Book Case," also came out in late June, but appeared in Woman's World's July 3 issue--WW copies go on sale almost two weeks before the issue date--and is an installment in my series about retired schoolteacher Angela Potts and her former student Sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones. Most of the stories in that series were written for Woman's World, but other Angela/Chunky adventures have appeared in Amazon Shorts, Flash Bang MysteriesRocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales, and my short-story collection Fifty Mysteries: The Angela Files.

This one is set on the Fourth of July, and involves the theft of a rare first-edition novel from a locked case at Abner Smith's bookstore. The thief, long gone now, was seen by one of the store's customers but not by the owner, and when the sheriff is summoned certain things in the customer's description of the suspect don't seem to add up. Fortunately the bossy Ms. Potts--who as usual is on the scene even though she probably shouldn't be--is especially good at that kind of math, and saves the (Independence) day.

Maintaining law and daughter

My third story of the month, in the Summer 2017 issue of B.J. Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, is a new episode in a series I've been writing for a long time, featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her mother Frances. Fran usually helps her daughter solve mysteries (whether Lucy wants her to or not), but her main goal is to get Sheriff Valentine married so Fran can become a grandmother, a mission that has so far been unsuccessful. Other stories about these two, which I've named the "Law & Daughter" series, have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mysterical-E, Woman's World, Futures, Mouth Full of Bullets, Seeds, Kings River Life, my short-story collection Dreamland, and several anthologies.

This story in Flash Bang is called "Ace in the Hole," and involves the gangland kidnapping of a guy named Ace McGee, who seems to be destined for a late-night burial in a pit at a construction site. Working with Fran and Lucy to try to keep Ace alive and above ground is teenaged genius Donna Fairley, which is also the maiden name of one of my old IBM co-workers. (Warning to my family, friends, and acquaintances: you guys have a way of showing up as characters in my stories, so you better be nice to me . . .)

A neo kind of noir

The last of my July-dated publications, "The Sandman," is a standalone story included in the anthology Noir at the Salad Bar, from Level Best Books. (Actually this isn't the last one, but until just before time for this column to post, I thought it was. My fifth publication with a current date, a story called "Crow Mountain" in Strand Magazine, is described below. Hang on . . .)

"The Sandman" is possibly the most intense of the stories I'm discussing here, but I still tried to plug a bit of humor in. The title refers to a character named Sanderford, and the plot involves a couple of underworld loan-sharks who target the owner of a local bar. This mystery is more of a howdunit than a whodunit, with a few twists thrown in (I can't seem to resist that), and was great fun to write.

I'm especially honored to have been featured in this book alongside friends Michael Bracken and Alan Orloff. Noir at the Salad Bar was released on July 18.

Getting lucky at WW

I also have another Woman's World story, called "Mr. Unlucky" out right now, but its issue date is August 7 so I'm not counting it as one of my July stories. (That issue appeared at our Kroger store on July 27, so I picked it up yesterday along with a jug of milk and a loaf of bread. Seriously.) This was my 89th story to be published in Woman's World, and in recent weeks I've sold them #90 and #91. So far, 82 of those have been installments in my Angela-and-the-Sheriff series.

"Mr. Unlucky" is a whodunit about a robbery at a local furniture store, and involves a mysterious note on which is written the name of an old TV show and movie called Mr. Lucky. I'm a certified, card-carrying movie addict, so anytime I can work something cinematic into one of my stories, it makes it even more fun to write. Upcoming is a Labor Day story scheduled for the September 4 WW issue (on sale August 24) and a murder mystery in the September 18 issue.

Breaking news . . .

I only just found out that I also have a story in the current (June-Sep 2017) issue of Strand Magazine, just released. Yes, as I said, I know that makes five stories rather than four, but instead of changing the title of this post at the last minute, I figured I'd tack this onto the end. The story is "Crow Mountain," about a fisherman who encounters an escaped convict deep in the woods, and what happens as a result. If you pick up this issue, I hope you'll like the tale--it's a little different. And I'm proud to have been featured alongside one of my longtime heroes, Max Allan Collins.


Anyhow, that's my midsummer report. (You might notice I didn't mention my rejections, which are many.) If any of you have recent--or not-so-recent--successes to announce (publications, acceptances, completions, etc., of either shorts or novels), please let me know via the comments section below. Everybody likes hearing that kind of news.



Speaking of fortunate events, today is our wedding anniversary. Carolyn and I were married 45 years ago in a galaxy far, far away (Oklahoma), and tonight most of our kids and grandchildren will be here at our house for dinner. I can't think of a better way to celebrate.

Familywise AND writingwise, I wish all of you the best.