Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Floyd. Show all posts

04 July 2020

Political Fiction



Happy Fourth of July, everybody!  But today's column is, alas, not about Independence Day.

I'm also not talking about mystery writing, or about my own stories or books. (I usually stay as far away from politics as possible, when I write.) Today I'd like to feature--and recommend--the work of Christopher Buckley, an author whose novels I've enjoyed for a long time. He's the son of the late William F. Buckley, and writes mostly humorous political fiction.

I should phrase that another way. He writes mostly satire. Not all nis novels are political--but all are humorous. I was doing such heehawing while reading one of his books a few weeks ago, my wife asked me if I was reading something by Janet Evanovich. I said no, but this was just as hilarious, in a more subtle way. Author Tom Wolfe has called Buckley "one of the funniest writers in the English language," and that might be true.

Here are some of his novels, all of which I've either read or re-read over the past year or so, with a quick description of each:


Thank You for Smoking (1994)

Nick Naylor is a spokesman (smokesman?) for the American tobacco industry, and he's so good at being slick and unethical and deceitful, he's made enemies of everyone from the medical and scientific  communities to the FBI to an army of anti-tobacco terrorists. This novel was adapted into a 2005 movie starring Aaron Eckhart, Mario Bello, Sam Elliott, and half a dozen other names you would recognize. (I watched it again last night.)


Little Green Men (1999)

The story of John Banion, a famous Washington talk-show host who is abducted by aliens, becomes a hero to millions of UFO believers, and launches a crusade in favor of full-scale government investigations of extraterrestrial sightings and activity.


No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002)

When Elizabeth MacMann, the First Lady of the U.S. (widely known as Lady Bethmac), is tried for the murder of her husband, her only hope is a notorious defense attorney who also happens to be her former boyfriend from law school.


Florence of Arabia (2004)

Arabian official Florence Farfarletti stirs up Washington by hatching a plan for female emancipation in the Near East, using TV shows and a team that includes a CIA assassin, a flashy PR rep, and a brilliant gay bureaucrat.


Boomsday (2007)

A tale of a young blogger who causes a social uproar when she suggests that Baby Boomers be given government incentives to commit suicide by age 75. The main opponents are the Religious Right and of course the Boomers themselves, but a surprising number of Americans seems receptive to the idea.


Supreme Courtship (2008)

When U. S. President Donald Vanderdamp has a hard time getting his nominees appointed to the Supreme Court, he decides to back a judge already popular with the masses--because she's the star of a hit reality-TV show.


They Shoot Puppies, Don't They? (2012)

Washington lobbyist "Bird" McIntyre sets out to discredit the Chinese by trying to convince the American people that China is plotting to assassinate the Dali Lama, a risky plan that threatens to start another world war.


The Relic Master (2015)

Set in 1517, this is historical satire rather than political satire: the story of Dismas, a relic hunter who--with the assistance of artist Albrecht Durer, three thugs-for-hire, and a maiden Dismas has rescued from assailants--conspires to replicate and sell Jesus Christ's burial shroud. USA Today described it as "Indiana Jones gone medieval." I think this one's my favorite, of all Buckley's novels, and amazingly accurate, historically.


The Judge Hunter (2018)

The thrilling adventures of an inept Englishman named Baltasar (Balty) St. Michel, who's dispatched from London to the New World in 1664 to bring in (to justice) two judges who helped murder a king. Probably my second favorite.



One of Buckley's novels I'm looking forward to reading is Make Russia Great Again, to be released next month. I'm told it features Herb Nutterman, President Trump's White House chief of staff, who finds himself embroiled in both Russian intrigue and Trump's reelection campaign. (Talk about current events . . .)



Again--don't worry, you're not at the wrong blog. Even though these are not mysteries, they include crimes galore, from ancient to modern-day, and they're fun to read. Anybody else a fan of this kind of fiction? Of humorous fiction in general? Of Christopher Buckley? Who are some of your favorite writers of humor or satirical stories/novels?

Thanks for indulging me. Next time, in two weeks, it's back to more mysterious topics . . .






20 June 2020

A Movie Quiz for the Pandemic




Before I start, let me say a quick thank-you to all those who commented on my last two posts, on the Do's and Don'ts of writing. That can be a touchy subject, because all of us have our own ideas about the "rules" of writing fiction, and I was pleased that both posts seemed to kick off a good exchange of views about everything from grammar/style to the story-submission process. Thanks again.

As for today's column, I have noticed that my fellow SleuthSayers seem to be writing a lot of posts lately about the coronavirus and social injustice and other meaningful issues. Since I admire them and I admire that, I considered doing the same for my post today.

But didn't. The truth is, I'm sort of tired of the news.

So . . . today's offering is a quiz for movie lovers. If you fall into that group, try your hand at the following questions.
What do these movies have in common?


Example:

Top Gun / Iron Eagle / The Blue Max / Flyboys
Answer: fighter pilots


1. The Breakfast Club / Clueless / Napoleon Dynamite / Ferris Bueller's Day Off

2. Peggy Sue Got Married / A Sound of Thunder / Deja Vu / Back to the Future

3. On the Beach / Miracle Mile / These Final Hours / Melancholia

4. Rocky / Cinderella Man / Million Dollar Baby / Raging Bull

5. Dante's Peak / Krakatoa, East of Java / When Time Ran Out / The Devil at Four O'Clock

6. Hellfighters / There Will Be Blood / Boom Town / Oklahoma Crude

7. The Eiger Sanction / Touching the Void / Free Solo / K2

8. Terminal Velocity / Point Break / The Gypsy Moths

9. The Cincinnati Kid / Molly's Game / A Big Hand for the Little Lady

10. Victory / Kicking and Screaming / Bend It like Beckham

11. Match Point / Battle of the Sexes / Love Means Zero

12. Apocalypto / The Emerald Forest / Romancing the Stone / Mogli / Medicine Man

13. The Greatest Show on Earth / Water for Elephants / The Wagons Roll at Night

14. The Outlaw / The Left-Handed Gun / Dirty Little Billy / Young Guns

15. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral / My Darling Clementine / Hour of the Gun / Tombstone

16. The Gathering Storm / Darkest Hour / Into the Storm / The Eagle Has Landed

17. The Aviator / Rules Don't Apply / Melvin and Howard

18. Pearl Harbor / The Descendants / Diamond Head / From Here to Eternity

19. The Big Easy / Tightrope / Cat People (1982) / A Streetcar Named Desire

20. Mystic River / Gone Baby Gone / Patriot's Day / The Town / The Departed

21. Bullitt / Vertigo / The Rock / Pacific Heights / Dirty Harry

22. Crocodile Dundee / Mad Max / Walkabout / The Man from Snowy River

23. The Quiet Man / Ryan's Daughter / The Wind that Shakes the Barley

24. Death on the Nile / Evil Under the Sun / Dead Man's Folly / Murder on the Orient Express

25. Lady in the Lake / The Long Goodbye / Poodle Springs / Murder, My Sweet / The Big Sleep


Answers:

1. high school
2. time travel
3. the end of the world
4. boxing
5. volcanoes
6. oil wells
7. mountain climbing
8. skydiving
9. poker
10. soccer
11. tennis
12. the jungle
13. the circus
14. Billy the Kid
15. Wyatt Earp
16. Winston Churchill
17. Howard Hughes
18. Hawaii
19. New Orleans
20. Boston
21. San Francisco
22. Australia
23. Ireland
24. Hercule Poirot
25. Philip Marlowe



Now . . . What TWO things do the following movies have in common?


Example:

Sleepless in Seattle / Joe vs. the Volcano / You’ve Got Mail 
Answer: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan


1. Field of Dreams / For the Love of the Game / Bull Durham

2. The Longest Yard / Semi-Tough

3. The Hustler / The Color of Money

4. Sully / Cloud Atlas / Cast Away

5. Alien / Aliens / Galaxy Quest

6. National Velvet / Thoroughbreds Don't Cry / The Black Stallion

7. The High and the Mighty / Island in the Sky / Flying Leathernecks

8. Crimson Tide / The Poseidon Adventure

9. The Shawshank Redemption / The Green Mile

10. The Jewel of the Nile / The Ghost and the Darkness

11. Rio Bravo / Texas Across the River / Five Card Stud / Four for Texas

12. Seven Days in May / Tough Guys / The Devil's Disciple / Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

13. The Odd Couple / The Front Page / Out to Sea / The Grass Harp / Grumpy Old Men

14. Good Will Hunting / Chasing Amy / Dogma / Jersey Girls

15. Heat / Righteous Kill / The Godfather, Part II / The Irishman

16. Eyes Wide Shut / Days of Thunder / Far and Away

17. Barefoot in the Park / The Chase / The Electric Horseman

18. The Wedding Singer / Blended / 50 First Dates

19. Serena / Silver Linings Playbook / Joy / American Hustle

20. Pretty Woman / Runaway Bride

21. Speed / The Lake House

22. Key Largo / The Big Sleep / Dark Passage / To Have and Have Not 

23. State of the Union / Desk Set / The Sea of Grass / Adam's Rib / Pat and Mike

24. North by Northwest / Notorious / Suspicion / To Catch a Thief

25. Rope / The Man Who Knew Too Much / Vertigo / Rear Window


Answers:

1. Kevin Costner and baseball
2. Burt Reynolds and football
3. Paul Newman and pool
4. Tom Hanks and plane crashes
5. Sigourney Weaver and outer space
6. Mickey Rooney and horses
7. John Wayne and airplanes
8. Gene Hackman and boats
9. Stephen King and prisons
10. Michael Douglas and Africa
11. Dean Martin and the old west
12. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas
13. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau
14. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
15. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino
16. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise
17. Jane Fonda and Robert Redford
18. Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler
19. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper
20. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere
21. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves
22. Bacall and Bogart
23. Hepburn and Tracy
24. Hitchcock and Cary Grant
25. Hitchcock and James Stewart


Bonus question:

What odd/unusual thing do the following movies have in common?

Example:

Presumed Innocent / Regarding Henry
Answer: Harrison Ford as a lawyer


1. Just Cause / Finding Forrester / Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 
2. Nighthawks / Cobra / Copland / Tango and Cash
3. Will Penny / The Big Country / The Last Hard Men / Pony Express
4. Bandolero / 100 Rifles / Hannie Caulder
5. The Devil's Disciple / Elmer Gantry 
6. The Cooler / The Juror / Fun with Dick and Jane / Motherless Brooklyn
7. Batman Begins / Immortal Beloved / The Dark Knight / The Prisoner of Azkaban
8. Awakenings / Patch Adams / Flubber / Good Will Hunting / Nine Months 
9. Deep Impact / Olympus Has Fallen / London Has Fallen
10. Hombre / Cool Hand Luke / The Left-Handed Gun / Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


Answers:

1. Sean Connery as a professor
2. Sylvester Stallone as a cop
3. Charlton Heston as a cowboy
4. Raquel Welch as a cowgirl
5. Burt Lancaster as a preacher
6. Alec Baldwin as a bad guy
7. Gary Oldman as a good guy
8. Robin Williams as a doctor
9. Morgan Freeman as the President
10. Paul Newman gets shot at the end




How'd you do? In my opinion, the first section was pretty easy and the second section and bonus items were hard. (But I sure had fun putting them together. As my wife could tell you, I'm easily entertained.)

Can you think of some I missed? Groups of movies with the same actors or acting duos or actors playing against type? Movies about the same topic or famous person or location, etc.? Let me know.

Next time, I'll get back to more serious matters. Maybe.


Everybody stay safe!




06 June 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 2





Back again. This is the second part of a two-column discussion about the craft of writing and the so-called "rules" writers should follow. Last Saturday's post featured some of the things I think writers should NOT do, plus a few of my own pet (and petty?) peeves. Today's column will cover, in no particular order, things I think we SHOULD do when we write fiction and submit it for publication. Especially short fiction, since that's the kind of storytelling I do most.

Here we go.



Do's

- Do hyphenate most multiple-word adjectives. Easy-to-read story, locked-room mystery, one-horse town, three-alarm fire, elementary-school teacher, child-abuse center, out-of-town guest. This streamlines your story and, yes, makes it easier to read. Sometimes it even provides clarity. Unhyphenated, high school age students could be taken the wrong way.

- Do put the most important part of a sentence at the end of the sentence. The tornado caused extensive damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths. (Passable: The monster was standing in the weeds at the edge of the woods. Better: Standing there in the weeds, at the edge of the woods, was the monster.)

- Do make your verbs agree with your subjects. That stack of books is in my way. Neither Joe nor Mary is going to the party. Here are your instructions. Ten years is a long time. My macaroni and cheese was delicious.

- Do use parallel structure when items are in a series. Wrong: You can relax in our sauna, the lounge, or by the pool. Right: You can relax in our sauna, in the lounge, or by the pool. Passable: I like hunting, fishing, and movies. Better: I like hunting, fishing, and watching movies.

- Do use m-dashes instead of hyphens or n-dashes in your manuscript.

- Do include an s after the apostrophe with most possessives ending in sRoss's truck, Mr. Sims's house, Ms. Jones's refrigerator, Colonel Sanders's fried chicken. Don't include the extra when the word following it begins with an s. Colonel Sanders' secret recipe.

- Do choose a or an based on pronunciation, not spelling. An hour and a half, an umbrella, a European vacation, an MBA, a uniform, an SASE.

- Do use the serial (Oxford) comma. Red, white, and blue. Yes, it's optional--but believe me, its use can prevent misunderstandings and, in some cases, embarrassment.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife, and her sister . . . means there were four attendees.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife and her sister . . . means there were two attendees.

- Do make sure those leading apostrophes for things like 'em'tis, 'twas, 'course, '90s, etc., are "curved in the right direction." MS Word tends to aim those the wrong way, and you can fix this problem by typing an extra letter just before the word, typing the apostrophe, and then deleting that letter. That's bassackwards, but it's a good workaround.

- Do use a dash--not ellipses--to indicate interrupted speech. Ellipses suggest a hesitation, or a gradual fade to silence. (I like interrupting my characters because it happens so often in real life, especially in tense situations.) "What exactly do you--" "You know very well what I mean." "Now, wait just a min--" "No, YOU wait a minute."

- Do use an ampersand in certain company names and abbreviations, but not in usual writing. Spell out the word and instead. Correct uses of ampersands: B&O Railroad, AT&T, Tiffany & Co., R&D, Q&A, B&B. 

- Do use commas correctly with names and titles. Grammatically correct: My friend, Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also correct: My friend Tom is retiring tomorrow. I prefer the second sentence; in the first, the commas surrounding the name are acceptable but needless (and might even imply that you have only one friend). INcorrect examples: My friend, Tom is retiring tomorrow. My friend Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also incorrect: Author, Lucy Cooper will speak to our book club next month. I actually saw that one recently, in a Facebook post.

- Do feel free to capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon, depending on the desired impact of that second sentence. The verdict is in: No more stimulus payments. If no added emphasis is needed, leave it uncapitalized. My brother worked hard last night: he dreamed up a story in his easy chair.

- Do feel free to use the word till instead of until, as in I'll be there from noon till three. To me, it's far better than the odd-looking 'til.

- Do use T-shirt instead of tee-shirt. An editor told me the way she remembers this: when you hold the shirt up to look at it, it's in the shape of a T.

- Do remember the difference between convince and persuade. Convince means to cause a person to believe something; persuade means to cause a person to do something. (One involves thought; the other involves action.) I convinced my sister of the importance of social distancing. Helen persuaded her husband to wear a mask. 

- Do capitalize the first word in a title and all other words except short prepositions, short conjunctions, and articles. (Short usually means three letters or fewer, although some sources say four letters or fewer). The Day After Tomorrow, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Flowers for Algernon, Of Mice and Men, Gone With the Wind. I opted for the "four or fewer" rule when I submitted my short story "On the Road with Mary Jo" because I thought a lowercase with looked better there.

- Do use italics for the titles of books, novels, novellas, plays, albums, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines.

- Do use quotation marks for the titles of short stories, poems, articles, book chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

- Do put periods and commas inside closing quotation marks--even if you're also using single quotes within double quotes. "I want to re-read Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" Jane said. The British put their periods and commas outside the closing marks.

- Do put a question mark outside closing quotation marks if whatever's inside the quotes (a song title, say) isn't a question in itself. Jack asked, "Do you like the song 'Good Vibrations'?"   Sue said, "I prefer 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?'" (Note that the question mark ends that second sentence even though the sentence is not a question. There's no additional period.)

- Do use who if it could be replaced in the sentence by he, she, or theyI didn't know who was going to be there. Use whom if it could be replaced by him, her, or them. For whom the bell tolls.

- Do feel free to use contractions in the narrative of a story, not just in dialogue. You're writing fiction, not a legal brief.

- Do use may to imply permission and might to imply a choice. Billy may go to the dance means his mom said it's okay. Billy might go to the dance means he hasn't decided.

- Do use a.m. and p.m. to indicate time. Also acceptable are AM and PM, though I prefer the lowercase letters and the periods.

- Do use combined words like everyday and anymore correctly. The first is an adjective; the second is an adverb. Bob comes home from work every day and puts on his everyday shoes. Since you don't live here anymore, I don't plan to cook you any more meals.

- Do use blond as an adjective and blonde as a noun. The blonde had blond hair. (Blond can also be a noun if you're talking about a male, though I've rarely seen it used that way.) Feel free to disagree--it won't bother me a bit--and if you simply must use blonde as an adjective, use it in reference to a woman.

- Do use sensory input in your story wherever possible. Have your characters hear, feel, touch, taste, and smell things around them. This isn't something that comes naturally to me, so when rewriting I try to make sure I've included it.

- Do use little "beats" of action in scenes. He scratched his beard, she drummed her fingers on the desktop, he shifted in his seat. They let the reader picture what's happening, they allow you to vary the rhythm of the dialogue, they can help reveal a character's appearance or personality, and they can help identify who's speaking without the need for a dialogue attribute. If you insert one of these beats between two lines of the same speaker's dialogue, you can even use it to change the subject in the middle of a paragraph. "I don't want to talk about this anymore." Jenny leaned her head against the passenger-side window. "Turn here, this is my street."

- Do choose as your POV character the person who will most likely learn the most and/or be impacted the most by what happens in the story. The POV character does not have to be the title character or even the main protagonist. Reference The Great Gatsby, Shane, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.

- Do provide details of physical description (if you absolutely must) via dialogue, or reveal it in bits and pieces. Avoid a missing-persons-report info-dump, and if it's a first-person POV story don't have your character stand in front of a mirror and tell the reader what she sees. That, except for the "it was all a dream" plot, might be the biggest land-mine a fiction writer can stumble onto.

- Do try to start your story with some kind of change. A divorce, a marriage, a death, a relocation, a meeting, a promotion, a firing, a financial windfall, a reunion, a diagnosis, an accident, a summons, a new opportunity, a contest win, a career change, an announcement, a phone call, a letter, a visitor, a stranger's arrival in town.

- Do try to identify the five W's--who, what, where, when, why--as soon as possible, in your story. In Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea, this is the opening line: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

- Do consider giving your story a "circular ending," in which the character winds up in the same location as where he or she began. Examples: The Lord of the Rings, The Searchers, The Wizard of Oz, Unforgiven, Escape from New York, Lonesome Dove, many others.

- Do end your story as soon as possible after the point of highest tension. This was one of the late screenwriter William Goldman's strictest rules.

- Do create "gray" and relatable characters by giving your protagonist some bad qualities and your antagonist some good qualities.

- Do make your villain at least as powerful, and as motivated, as your hero or heroine. (Jack the Giant Killer needs a giant.) Always remember that it's the villain, not the protagonist, who drives the plot.

- Do give your characters appropriate names (when possible) that provide a clue to their personalities.  Darth Vader, Stephanie Plum, Thomas Magnum, Draco Malfoy, Holly Golightly, Remington Steele, Frank Bullitt, Barney Fife, Luke Skywalker, Uriah Heep.

- Do consider giving your protagonist a spouse or friend or sidekick with whom to share information. And maybe even to add yet another level of conflict.

- Do convey emotions by "putting them on the body." Her jaw dropped, his heart thudded, her eyes widened, her throat tightened, his knees went weak.

- Do indicate dialect in your dialogue by word choices like Y'all grab them two shovels and carry 'em to the barn, or We don't got to show you no stinking badges or I have happy feeling about you come to visit (an actual email I once received before going to teach an IBM class in Manila)But be careful not to overuse misspellings--editors hate that.

- Do speed up the pace, if needed, by inserting either (1) dialogue, (2) shorter, choppy sentences, or (3) active voice.

- Do slow the pace, if needed, by inserting (1) description, (2) exposition, (3) longer, complex sentences, or (4) passive voice.

- Do include as many levels of conflict as your story will bear. The shorter the story, the less room you have for this kind of thing, but there are plenty of possibilities for conflict: between the hero and another character, between the hero and himself (or herself), between the hero and society, between the hero and the elements (The Perfect Storm, Twister, Everest), between the hero and a nonhuman character (Cujo, Jaws, Alien, Moby Dick), etc.

- Do include full contact info at the top left corner of the first page of your short-story manuscript: name, postal address, phone number, email address.

- Do put the wordcount of your story in the upper right corner of the first page. Either make it the exact wordcount--2785 words--or round to the nearest 100 and type about 2800 words.

- Do center your title and byline between a third of the way and halfway down the first page. I always put one double space between my title and "by John M. Floyd," and then I go down two more double spaces and start the text of the story. I also put the story title in all caps, although Shunn's guide says to use proper case.

- Do number all pages in your manuscript. I never use a footer, but I always put a header at the top right corner of every page except the first, as follows: Floyd / STORY NAME / page#.

- Do use your pseudonym, if you have one, as your byline and in the header of each manuscript page, but use your real name in the contact info on the first page.

- Do use either Courier or Times New Roman font unless the guidelines tell you otherwise. I always use 12-point TNR.

- Do type a centered character of some kind--asterisk, pound-sign, etc.--as an indicator of a scene break, rather than just inserting an extra double-space. I learned this lesson when the published version of one of my stories left out a needed scene break. Now I always use a centered #, except in my book manuscripts, where my publisher prefers ***. My problem with three consecutive asterisks is that if you happen to hit RETURN immediately afterward, Word sometimes automatically inserts a whole line of asterisks and teleports you into Page-Break Hell, a place from which it is hard to escape. (Anyone else ever run into this?)

- Do space down three double-spaces and center the words THE END on the last page of your story. If these words wind up alone at the top of a page, go back to the first page and fiddle around with the vertical placement of the title and byline (move them up or down several spaces in that top third- or half-page) until the problem's fixed.

- Do include a cover letter with all submissions, unless instructed not to. If it's an electronic sub, your cover letter is in the body of your email or the text box provided in the online submission form.

- Do remember, in cover letters, etc., the difference between an anthology and a collection. An anthology is a book of stories by more than one author. A collection is a book of stories by the same author.

- Do include the editor's name in the salutation of your cover letter. Dear Ms. Anderson, Dear Mr. Price, etc. Don't just type Dear Editor or Dear Fiction Editor. If it's not clear whether the editor is male or female, include the entire name: Dear Lee Russell. Also, after the editor has responded to you using only your first name or only his or her first name, feel free to use the editor's first name in all correspondence.


NOTE, for writers of mystery short stories: Do include the apostrophe in the names Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Editor Linda Landrigan says the official titles have apostrophes, although they are occasionally left out for design purposes on covers, etc.




Breaking the rules

- Do feel free to use comma splices (two complete sentences separated only by a comma) if/when needed. In dialogue a spliced comma can capture the exact rhythm of normal speech. It's best used when there's no pause at that point in the spoken piece. I don't care what Dad says, I'm going to the party. Hurry up and finish, I want to go eat. Take your time, I'm just looking. The wrong way to use a comma splice: We finally got home, Fred came over to visit.

- Do use sentence fragments when needed, whether it's in dialogue or not. Because I said it was. So I did. Which turned out for the best.

- Do use a split infinitive if it makes the sentence sound better. To boldly go where no man has gone before has a more pleasant rhythm than To go boldly where no man has gone before.

- Do feel free to use "who" instead of "whom" in informal writing, even when it's not grammatically correct. Sometimes whom just sounds too stiff and proper, especially in dialogue. Picture a ghostbusting service with the slogan Whom you gonna call? 

- Do repeat a word once or more in a sentence if it makes more sense to do so. I once heard this called the Slender Yellow Fruit Syndrome. I was offered a banana and an orange, and I chose the slender yellow fruit. Better to just repeat the word banana.

- Do use rambling sentences when needed (especially effective in high-tension scenes). Joe untied his ankles and grabbed his gun and sprinted down the hall and into the den and threw open the window--and saw the thief's taillights topping the hill at the end of the street.

- Do feel free to use multiple points of view in your short story. The often-heard advice to stick to one POV with shorts is not a requirement.

- Do end a sentence with a preposition if it improves clarity or believability. Especially in dialogue. Nobody at the dance would say, in real life, Is that the guy with whom you came?

- Do use one-sentence paragraphs if needed. Their very isolation can increase their impact, and that's sometimes a powerful way to end a scene or a story.

- Do use very short scenes if needed, or short chapters in a novel.

- Do use a prologue if you want to. Sometimes renaming it Chapter One just doesn't work.

- Do open your story with a line of dialogue if you feel that's best, no matter what you've heard otherwise. Dialogue can be a great "hook," and is a good way to show, not tell.

- Do feel free, in dialogue, to use the occasional gonna and wanta. You shouldn't overdo this--as mentioned earlier, misspellings in dialogue/dialect are taboo to most editors--but making speech sound realistic is a good thing to strive for.

- Do end your story with a twist, if you want. The surprise ending, if done well, is not as out-of-fashion as the critics would have you believe.

- Do leave out the question mark if a statement isn't really a question. "You're a jerk," she said. He replied, "Is that so." Editors often complain about this, but I've won most of those arguments. I happily substitute a period for the question mark if the spoken sentence doesn't lilt upward at the end, as it would if it were a question.

- Do use made-up words whenever needed (I love 'em). His head thunked against the pavement. The helicopter whopwhopwhopped through the night sky.

- Do feel free to start a sentence with a conjunction. Beginning a sentence with And or But can often help the flow of the narrative.


Summary: Sometimes we just have to write what sounds right, regardless of the rules of grammar and style. To use another pop-culture example, try to imagine the Stones singing "I Can't Get Any Satisfaction."



An unresolved issue (is it a Do or a Don't?)

I have a question for all of you. What's your take on this sentence?

Everybody does their own thing.

This bothers me. The writer part of my brain says that should be Everybody does his or her own thing, or his/her own thing, etc., in order for the singular possessive to agree with the singular pronoun. But the practical side of me says, sweet jumpin jiminy, why create a stupid-sounding sentence just to satisfy the rules of grammar? Just say Everybody does their own thing and be done with it.

I've read and heard from many sources that this single-pronoun-single-possessive issue is one of those grammatical rules that has been so universally violated that the incorrect solution has now become acceptable (and certainly more convenient). But the old ways die hard. When I encounter it in the course of writing a story, I've found that I usually choose to reword the sentence to avoid having to make a decision. Something like Everybody take their seats often becomes Everybody sit down.

So the question is, should you be correct and thus overly wordy (or, if you just use his, politically insensitive)? Or should you give in and be grammatically incorrect and use the plural possessive? We all know our language evolves over time--one example is the way certain separated words have eventually become hyphenated words and have then become single words, the way on line morphed into on-line and then online. Has the everybody/their situation done the same kind of thing?

What's your opinion?



In closing . . .

I mentioned last week, in Part 1, that you should take these so-called rules with a grain (or maybe a whole shakerful) of salt. Different folks, different strokes. Another way of saying that:

Good teachers don't say "This is the way you do it." Good teachers say "This is the way I do it," and then let you decide for yourself.

I don't know if I'm a good teacher, but the above is the way I do it. As some of my fellow SleuthSayers are fond of pointing out, your mileage may vary.


Let me know what you think, about all this. See you in two weeks.








30 May 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 1





I had planned a different column for today, but some things I've seen over the past two weeks have steered me in another direction. (As if what I do has any direction to begin with.) In this case, it was a discussion that's been running for some time now at the Short Mystery Fiction forum, which some of you might've seen.

One of the hot topics there has been the craft and so-called "rules" of writing fiction--grammar/style, manuscript formatting, submission guidelines, etc. Something most of us are familiar with, but  something that still raises questions for many writers.


Let me make a confession here: I'm not an editor. I've edited one crime anthology, years ago--it was a lot of fun and a lot of work--and I've edited my own writing and the manuscripts of hundreds of my students in my writing classes . . . but I do no editing for a living and have never edited for a fee and don't plan to, so even though I sometimes (on good days) consider myself a professional writer, I am not a professional editor.

BUT . . . I have blundered into enough holes and cowpatties in this field of fiction writing to remember where they are and point them out. Here are some of them--and yes, many are just matters of personal opinion. Feel free to disagree.

NOTE: I'm starting with the Don'ts that I've always tried to pass along to my writer friends and students. I'll tackle the Do's in my column here next week. (One of the Don'ts ought to be Don't write a 5,000-word blog post, so I'm taking my own advice and splitting this one up into two separate columns.)

First, a map of the landmines:


Don'ts

- Don't overuse adverbs (especially the "ly" kind), don't tell something when you can show it instead, don't use cliches, don't use passive voice when you should use active, don't switch viewpoints too abruptly (there's an adverb!), don't repeat words and phrases, don't use a big word when a small one will do. And so forth.

- Don't overuse adjectives. Three or four in front of a noun is probably too many, like all those speed-bump commas that separate them. Change The hot, dry, dusty, rutted, gravel road to The dusty gravel road. Or just The dusty road. Less is better.

- Don't underline to emphasize text. Italicize instead. Until fairly recently, there were still a few magazines whose guidelines said they prefer underlining, but I think almost all of them now prefer and welcome italics. Remember, underlining was popular when typewriters were the only way to write submittable stories.

- Don't use Grammar Check--or at least don't always believe what it tells you. Fiction writers sometimes do need to splice commas, fragment sentences, split infinitives, and start sentences with a conjunction. (More on that in the Do's section and the "Breaking the Rules" section of next week's column, here.)

- Don't capitalize relationships (mother, mom, father, dad, aunt, uncle) except when addressing those people directly. Yes, Mom, her mother said it's okay for me to go.

- Don't capitalize seasons. I like summer but I love spring.

- Don't say you're nauseous--or at least don't admit it. If you're sick, you're nauseated. If you're making me sick, you're nauseous.

- Don't say feeling badly (even if Trump says it at every opportunity). Unless you have problems with sensation in your fingertips, you're feeling bad, not feeling badly.

- Don't put unspoken thoughts in quotation marks. Italicize instead, or--if it's obvious that it's an unspoken thought--don't do anything to it at all.

- Don't overuse ellipses, parentheses, dashes, or any other marks of punctuation, at least not to the point that they're distracting. That's the biggest problem: snapping the reader out of the story.

- Don't use exclamation points unless the character's pants are on fire.

- Don't use an apostrophe for most plurals, including TVs, DVDs, UFOs, RVs, EMTs, VPs, MRIs, 1980s, and Don'ts. (Unless the apostrophe is needed for clarity, as in Do's.) And for God's sake don't use apostrophes with the plurals of names like the Smiths, the Clarks, etc. Also be careful to position the apostrophe correctly after plural possessives. Wrong: We're going to the Bennett's for dinner. Right: We're going to the Bennetts' for dinner.

- Don't overuse semicolons. I happen to like semicolons--they're perfect when two complete sentences are too closely related to be separated by a period--but editors usually don't like 'em, and I'm trying to cut back to two or three a week. I've found myself using dashes instead, or rewording the text entirely, to avoid using semicolons too often. And I never use semicolons during dialogue--I think it makes speech look too stiff and formal.

- Don't use that unnecessarily. She told me that she likes you. This should be She told me she likes you.

- Don't use that when you should use who. They're the folks who always vote Republican.

- Don't use in when you should use into. She went into the cellar. She's in the cellar now.

- Don't confuse less with fewer. Less involves mass nouns; fewer involves countable units. He has less cash in his pocket. He has fewer coins in his pocket.

- Don't overuse "action" words and phrases that are already overused. He shrugged, she rolled her eyes, he sighed, she frowned, etc. I still use them in my stories and will continue to--people do shrug and sigh and roll their eyes and frown--but I try not to go overboard with it.

- Don't overuse "lazy" words like suddenly, just, very, some, and really. I happily violate this advice as well, but it's still a good rule to know. Do as I say and not as I do.

- Don't misuse the word ironic. Rain on Betty's wedding day isn't ironic. It's just unfortunate. Getting run over by a tobacco truck on the way to buy cigarettes is ironic.

- Don't use postal abbreviations in your story narrative. Nobody enjoys spelling out Connecticut or Mississippi, but to use CT or MS in anything except a mailing address is incorrect.

- Don't use too many characters with soundalike names. Especially those beginning with the same letter, but this also includes anything that might call attention to your writing. For example, you don't want too many names that consist of only one syllable--Bob, Jim, Liz, Sue, Joe, Ed, Tom, Jake, Deb--or that rhyme, like Barry, Gary, Harry, and Larry.

- If you're submitting a short story, don't say anything about the plot of your story in your cover letter. No synopsis is needed unless that's specified in the guidelines.

- Don't say anything in your cover letter that's not relevant to your story or to writing. The editor of a mystery magazine might be interested in the fact that you're also a trial lawyer, but she won't care how many kids or cats you have.

- Don't use any colors, special characters, or weird fonts or font sizes in your manuscript. I don't even put anything in boldface type. (More on this next week in the Do's section.)

- Don't (if guidelines tell you to copy/paste your story into an email) do a straight copy/paste from a Word file--or at least send it to yourself first if you do. Usually it's best to convert your story to a .txt file first, then close the file, open it again, and only then do the copy/paste. Remember too that you'll lose special characters like italics when you convert to .txt, so you'll need to go back in and put an underscore (_) just before and after any words or phrases that need to be emphasized.

- Don't let your writing program put an extra space between your double-spaced paragraphs. Your manuscript should be evenly double-spaced throughout.

- Don't use widow/orphan suppression in your manuscript. It can do funny things to the length of your pages.

- Don't use alliteration unintentionally. My sister Susan saw Sally sitting in the sunshine.

- Don't "do" speech. "I'm fine," he smiled. "I'm not," she sighed. You can't smile or sigh words. Some editors are okay with this, but some aren't.

- Don't be redundant. Repeat again, shrugged his shoulders, nodded her head, shook his head no, exact same, basic fundamentals, free gift, best ever, unexpected surprise. Doubly redundant: nodded her head yes.

- Don't use incomplete comparisons. I get along with Mom better than my sister.

- Don't use too many synonyms for said. I probably sound like Elmore Leonard here, but Stephen King and many other respected authors advise this as well. Said and asked are transparent words--the reader's eye goes right over them. Words like stated and exclaimed and ruminated and queried and declared not only provide unneeded information; they sometimes cause the reader to stop and think about the writer and the writing instead of the story. (Exception: British authors seem to love substitutes for said. They love "ly" adverbs also. Check out the Harry Potters.)

- Don't feel you have to describe people, places, and things in infinite detail. Leave some of this to the reader's imagination.

- Don't supply too much information via dialogue. Are you going to your job at Regions Bank tomorrow, Dad?

- Don't overuse ing or as constructions. He picked up the gun and walked away is often better than Picking up the gun, he walked away or As he picked up the gun, he walked away. All are grammatically correct, but too many ing and as phrases, especially at the beginning of sentences, can give the impression of lazy writing. Read the successful authors--they rarely do much of this.

- Don't lose the reader by not using any dialogue "tags" at all. Nothing's more frustrating than having to count lines backward to see who's saying what.

- Don't use dangling modifiers (modifiers with no clear reference). Opening the window, a bee flew into the room. Crouched behind the fence, his eyes went to hers.

- Don't use misplaced modifiers, which is pretty much the same thing as the previous Don't. The instructor told us to work hard at the beginning of class. My company makes combs for people with unbreakable teeth.

- Don't write run-on sentences (no connecting word or punctuation). I thought the day would never end I was so tired I could drop.

- Don't use the word alright. Doing so is not all right.

- Don't use the word utilize. It might be the most worthless and needless word in the English language, and is heard mostly (of course) in political speeches. Use use instead.

- Don't use flashbacks in a short story unless you have to. If you must, write them as units of dramatic action and not as an information dump. If it's just backstory you need, consider providing it through dialogue. How long has it been now, since Lucy's mother died?

- Don't feel you have to describe every single thing that happens. If the phone rings, you don't need to tell the reader about your character picking it up and saying hello. Just start in on the dialogue. Same thing with a knock on the door.

- Don't only write what you know. Write what you like to read, or what you feel comfortable writing. Besides, research allows you to write what you know.

NOTE: I've heard the worst writing mistake you can make is to confuse it's with its. I've heard the worst public-speaking mistake you can make is to say with you and I or for you and I. (And everybody seems to do that--especially news anchors, who should know better.)



Pet peeves

I don't like reading fees, and I don't submit stories to places that charge them.

I don't like contests. (Most of them, anyway.) I've entered some and I've won a few, but I'd rather submit my original stories to paying markets. The chances of getting published in a respectable magazine or anthology are better than the chances of winning first place in a respectable contest.

I always use a singular verb with collective plural nouns like data and media. Also, as an old IBM guy, I prefer dayta, not datta. I like The dayta is correct. I don't like The datta are correct. In fact that always gives me the giggles, like a whoopee cushion.

When spoken, I think the word lived in short-lived should have a long i (as in arrive), not a short i (as in give). It just sounds more logical--if it's short-lived, it has a short LIFE. I think I'm one of maybe two people on the planet who like to pronounce it that way. If I remember correctly, James Lincoln Warren is the other.

I usually don't like it when nouns are used as verbs. Let's fellowship after the meeting. You two should dialogue about that. Exception: I went home and googled it.

I've grown desperately tired of words and expressions like I got your back, stunning video, iconic, ASAP, I'm all about (this or that), pushing the envelope, sense of closure, and giving it 110%. I'm guilty of using too many cliches anyway, in both speech and writing, so I sure don't use these. The same goes for adjectives like awesome and amazingThe view from the south rim of the Grand Canyon is awesome. My cousin's husband, no matter what she says, is not. He's not amazing, either.

I don't like to write in present tense. I'm not wild about reading present-tense stories either, but I've finally given in, and it no longer bothers me that much.

Other aggravations, while I'm thinking of it, are prescription-drug commercials, personal-injury lawyer commercials, robocalls, televangelists, coconuts, licorice, and almost anything on network TV. Then again, I'm getting old and grumpy, and these have nothing to do with writing.

What are some of your own don'ts, and pet peeves?


Wrap-up (thank God, right?)

The last thing I should point out is Don't overuse instructions about overuse. In other words, Don't pay too much attention to people who tell you how to write, because all of us think we know more than we do, and everyone's different.

Anyhow, in Part 2 next Saturday (June 6), I'll cover the Do's, along with an extremely biased discussion about breaking the rules.

See you then.






18 April 2020

Downer Endings


As most of you know, we at this blog usually write about (1) mysteries or (2) writing or (3) mystery writing. And when the subject is writing, I've noticed that it's usually about either our own creations or about what it is that makes fiction (stories/novels/movies) effective and interesting and entertaining. (As if we know.)

Today I want to talk about stories that don't have happy endings. Movies, specifically. There are of course many of those, and some have endings that aren't just sad, they're downright depressing. Yes, I know, that might not be a good topic to focus on right now, during these uncertain times, but hey, I needed something to post today. Velma, our secretary and first-sergeant here at SleuthSayers, gets grumpy if I don't turn in my column.

For the record, I've always felt that the end of a story doesn't have to be either happy or sad (or even totally believable--look at The Black Stallion, or The African Queen)--but it does have to be satisfying. Every good story needs a problem for the hero/heroine to solve, and if by the end of the tale he doesn't get what he's been seeking, whether it's love or treasure or freedom or redemption or the world championship or whatever, the audience needs to understand why. Some of my favorite movies have clear, positive, cowboy-in-the-white-hat-wins endings. Everybody likes those. Other favorites of mine--Witness, Casablanca, Rocky, Vertigo, Hombre, Chinatown, Rain Man, and many others--end with the hero not getting what he wanted, or what he thought he wanted. But with those stories there was always a reason for that failure, and usually the outcome was for the greater good, or to teach him (and/or the audience) a life lesson. In Dead Poets Society, to mention just one example, the hero is fired from his job, but because of the way it was done the viewer leaves the theater feeling uplifted.

I once heard there are two words that come to mind when the subject is depressing endings: foreign films. That of course isn't always true, but I had to throw it in.

With regard to downer endings in general, I think they come in several flavors:



1. The death of the hero

Cool Hand Luke
Thelma and Louise
Braveheart
Saving Private Ryan
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Love Story
Bonnie and Clyde
Shane
Easy Rider
The Room
The Wild Bunch
Gran Torino

2. A continuation of the disaster/crisis

On the Beach
Night of the Living Dead
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Melancholia
Cloverfield
Fail-Safe
I Am Legend
The Happening
The Birds
Miracle Mile
The Road

3. An unresolved ending

No Country for Old Men
The French Connection
Blade Runner
2001: A Space Odyssey
Inception
The Blair Witch Project
The Wrestler
Doubt
Taxi Driver
The Florida Project
Barton Fink


4. A surprise ending

Shutter Island
The Mist
Planet of the Apes
Primal Fear
Fight Club
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Departed
Atonement
Seven
Soylent Green


NOTE: In my opinion, some of the above (Shane, No Country for Old Men, Seven, The Wild Bunch, Fail-Safe, etc.) were extremely good movies and some (The Happening, The Room, Love Story) were not. This isn't about good or bad or my idea of good or bad; we're just talking about endings.



Not that it matters, but I think the movie that had the most depressing ending ever was The Mist--probably because it was both tragic and needless. I enjoyed the story, but boy that ending was a punch in the gut. If you've seen it, you know what I mean. The odd thing is, the Stephen King novella from which it was adapted wasn't as bleak at the end. (On the flip side, the movie Cujo ended happy and King's novel Cujo ended sad.) The second most depressing ending I can remember was to one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? But it was also satisfying in that it explained with crystal clarity, in its final thirty seconds, its mysterious title.

One more observation: Some movies with depressing subjects have upbeat endings (The Shawshank Redemption, Deep Impact, Ghost, Oklahoma Crude, Stand By Me); some fairly upbeat movies have depressing endings (Somewhere in Time, Titanic, King Kong, Million Dollar Baby); and let's face it, some depressing movies have depressing endings (Leaving Las Vegas, The Road, They Shoot Horses, The Elephant Man, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream). Something for all tastes.


How do you feel about all this? What are some of your favorite downer endings? Which are the worst? Have you ever seen an otherwise good movie whose ending ruined it? Ever seen an otherwise bad movie whose ending saved it? How about those that started bad and went steadily downhill? Have any of your own stories and novels ended with a letdown?

I suppose, since I have nothing positive to add, that's the way I'm ending this column.

Stay safe!

04 April 2020

Creating "Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5, BCMM





Last month I posted a column here about the writing of one of my recent short stories, "Crow's Nest" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020 issue), and during that post I explained that I usually come up with the plot first, then invent the characters, give them a setting to live in, etc. I'm not saying that's the best way to write short stories--I'm just saying that's the way I write short stories.

Not long ago, though, I wrote a story about a pair of modern-day bank robbers called "Rhonda and Clyde," and for this one I made up most the characters first. I had a blurry picture of the plot in my head, but at the beginning it was just a heist-and-pursuit idea with not much detail. Long story short (pun intended), I then wrote the story and sent it to Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and they bought it and published it in their Issue #5, November 2019.

I think the first glimmer of an idea for this story struck me after a re-watching of Bonnie and Clyde. I've always been fascinated with them anyway, and I had recently talked with a journalist friend of mine who'd just returned from visiting the site in northwest Louisiana where the two were ambushed and killed in August 1934. This happened about the same time I was finishing up a story I'd been working on, and since I seem to write these stories like a chain-smoker, as soon as I typed THE END on that previous story I immediately lit up this one.


A character-building experience

I remember first creating my protagonist, who was a woman originally from the south but was now the sheriff at a small town in Wyoming. I wanted her to be strong and level-headed and happy in her job but also a duck-out-of-water, and I wanted her to have a deputy who was also an outsider but who wasn't happy, with either the job or his boss or his location. One of my reasons was that their mild but mutual dislike for each other added a level of conflict to the story before the plot ever really got going. And the more conflict you have in a story, the better. (More on that, later.)

I also came up with a sweet, lonely, and gullible bank teller with the everyday name of Helen Wilson, who gets duped by a married couple named Rhonda and Clyde Felson. Clyde's nickname for Rhonda was Ronnie, which worked well for a pair of lovebirds who robbed banks, and I remember stealing their last name from Fast Eddie Felson, Paul Newman's character in The Hustler. It seemed appropriate. I then added a police dispatcher, a few elderly and Native-American townsfolk, several more bank employees, a motel manager, an old couple on vacation, two state police detectives, and so on. More characters than my stories usually have--and some of the main players, as you might imagine, wound up changing their ways a bit in the course of the tale. I'm not a "literary" writer, but sometimes I try to think like one.

In the weird category, the name of one of my characters came from a highway sign I'd seen as my wife and I drove home from a Bouchercon conference a few years ago. It was one of those big green signs above the interstate--I-85 in this case, heading southwest between Greensboro and Charlotte--announcing the exit for the tiny towns of Spencer and East Spencer, North Carolina. The sign said (and probably still says):


SPENCER
E SPENCER

1 MILE


For some reason I remembered that--my brain works in mysterious ways--and when I needed a quirky name for my bank manager in this story, he became Spencer E. Spencer.


Plot, setting, etc.

Locationwise, the characters started out in North Dakota in my mind, and timewise I wanted it to be winter, which turned out well because the cold weather became a factor in the plot. I soon changed the setting to Wyoming, possibly because I've spent so many hours watching the Longmire TV series. The image I had of Sheriff Marcie Ingalls's office looked amazingly like Sheriff Walt Longmire's, minus a few mounted deer heads. Maybe her decorator watched that show too.

Now that I had the setting nailed down and most of the characters in costume and waiting patiently behind the curtain, I started thinking more about what they were going to do. And once I really got going on the plot itself, that turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I've always found that to be fun, the mechanics of storytelling, the trying to make sure everything flows smoothly and fits together and is satisfying in the end.

I also enjoy plot twists. Some of my favorite short stories, novels, and movies have huge twists and turns, not just at the conclusion but throughout the story. A couple of examples are John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and William Goldman's novel Marathon Man. One scene in particular in Pelham (involving a passenger on the subway) and several chapters in Marathon Man (involving the hero's brother) are designed to completely fool the reader and then delight him shortly afterward when the real situation becomes clear. And these happen in the middle of the story. I love that kind of deception. For one thing, it keeps the reader alert and off-balance, wondering when and whether it might happen again.

What most inspired me to try some of that in "Rhonda and Clyde" was a scene in the final act of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which I first saw on an IBM trip almost thirty years ago--I even remember the city and the theater. It's the scene where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is going door-to-door seeking information about the case. One of the front doors she knocks on turns out to be that of the serial killer they're all looking for, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, but she doesn't know that because nobody knows what he looks like, and when he invites her inside we (the audience) are thinking don't go in don't go in, but she does. Meanwhile, her mentor and his team at the FBI are closing in on the house, and in back-and-forth cuts we see the armed and vested assault team crash through the door and we think they're about to save Clarice. But they find no one home, and only then do we realize that oh my God they're at a different house. Now that's suspense. And it's just one of the reasons Lambs swept the Oscars that year.

I tried to use some of that kind of misdirection in this story, along with some instances of redemption, which I mentioned earlier. It's always satisfying to me as a reader, and a writer, when characters wind up changing, as a result of what happens in the story, their attitudes and the way they look at life.


Info for Otto

One of the nicer things to happen to me this year was being notified that "Rhonda and Clyde" has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, to be published this fall. As he always does, series editor Otto Penzler asked for a short piece about the story to accompany my bio in the anthology, and part of what I wrote goes along with the how-to-construct-a-story subject I've been discussing here today.

The following will appear in the "Contributors' Notes" section of B.A.M.S. 2020:


If I recall, my first inspiration for "Rhonda and Clyde" came on a bitterly cold day. (We don't have many of those here in the south, thank God.) It probably put me in a Fargo frame of mind, because when I created Wyoming sheriff Marcie Ingalls that morning, the image of the movie character Marge Gunderson sort of jumped into my head, and it stayed there throughout the planning of the story. That choice of a protagonist wasn't surprising; I've always liked stories about strong and smart women in law enforcement, and the way their colleagues (and the criminals) often make the mistake of underestimating them.

I also remember wanting to (1) give her a deputy she didn't particularly like and (2) make the villains a husband-wife team, maybe because I especially enjoy writing dialogue and I knew both those partnerships would give me a lot of opportunity for that. This line of thinking was a bit different for me, because I usually start with the plot and only then come up with the characters. In this case I created my players first and then dreamed up something for them to do, with some twists and reversals along the way. Anyhow, once I had all that in mind, I sat down and wrote the story in a couple of days' time--and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Maybe an occasional cold snap isn't a bad thing . . .




The truth is, if the elements of fiction--plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, setting--are all in place and effective in a story, it doesn't much matter how they got there. All of us approach the planning and writing of a story in different ways, and whatever works, works. This is just how it happened this time.

How do you do it? Plot first? Characters first? Setting first? Theme first? A mix of several of these? Do you always do it the same way, or vary from time to time? What's been most successful for you?


In closing, I want to again express my thanks to John Betancourt and Carla Coupe at Black Cat M.M. for accepting and publishing this particular story and to Otto Penzler and C. J. Box for choosing it for inclusion in the 2020 edition of B.A.M.S. It's always gratifying to see something that you've written show up in magazines and anthologies that you respect and admire.


Best to all of you, writers and readers alike. Stay safe!

21 March 2020

Super-Short Stories


Note the hyphen in the title: this post is not about short stories that are super. It's about stories that are super-short. And it's a result of the many responses I've received about a creation of mine that was published last week at a market called 50-Word Stories.

Besides being fun to write, these mini-stories--I've heard them called "sudden" fiction--are good practice. If you set out to write something short, especially something with a predetermined wordcount, you know you can't waste any words. It's a concept we writers need to keep in mind for longer stories as well, but with very short stories it's vital.

What do some of these tiny stories look like? Here are some examples.


50 words

My recent effort at 50-Word Stories is titled "Mum's the Word"--which they misspelled as "Mom's the Word," not that it matters; that title might be better than my own. It's a dialogue-only piece that was originally published years ago at a place called Flashshot.

Here's a link to my story, and since it's so short I've reprinted it here:


"A 50-word story? Impossible."
"You're wrong."
"Try it."
"Okay: Honey, I'm pregnant."
"What?"
"Just kidding."
"Not funny."
"How about: I'm pregnant, and it's not yours."
"What!?"
"Kidding again. How many words, so far?"
"34."
"Let's stop. I'm hungry."
"For what?"
"Pickles."
"Pickles?"
"How many words now?"
"47."
"And ice cream."


(Thanks again, by the way, to those kind folks who posted comments at the bottom of that story.)


45 words

Here's another short-short-short, this one not quite fifty words, written by my friend Kate Fellowes. She informed me that it recently won the San Diego Public Library's annual Matchbook Short Story Contest (!). Notice how much information she managed to pack into so few words:


Who stole my youth? The detective I hired uncovered the truth. "They were in it together," he said, passing me photos. Father Time showed no remorse, his face kind and gentle. Mother Nature was unrepentant. "Honestly, darling," she said when questioned, "what did you expect?"


I really, really like that story. Thank you, Kate, for giving me permission to reprint it here.


26 words

Still counting down, I want to mention a story I included in a SleuthSayers post several years ago. I wrote it for a contest--the instructions said to compose a 26-word story such that each word begins with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. (Contestants were allowed some wiggle-room in that we could use words like Xcept and Xtended and Xterminated for the letter X.) All this struck me as a challenge, which it was, and it turned out to be even more fun than I'd thought. I wrote eight or nine Xperimental stories before picking the one I wanted to send in--here are a few of those I considered submitting:


A baboon cage, discovered empty. Facility gurus hired investigator JoNell Kendrix. "Lost monkeys," Nell observed. "Probable quick reasons: smuggling, theft, utter villainy. Who, Xactly? You, zookeeper!"

All Balkan country doctors exhibit frequent generosity, high intelligence, jovial kindness, likable manner. Numerous other physicians quite regularly seem to undertake video work--Xample: Yuri Zhivago.

Alphabetically blessed children don't ever feel glum. However, insecure jaded kids like me (named Oliver Prattlebloom) quite rarely say things. Unless: "Very well, Xavier," "Yes, Zachary."

American Broadcasting Company department executives: Footage gathered here includes John Kennedy's last moments. No other producers quickly responded, so this unedited video will Xcite you. Zapruder.

Since you're probably rolling your eyes by now and searching for a Tylenol or a barf-bag, let me assure you that I agree: none of those seemed to hit the spot. (I have some more near-misses, but I'll spare you.) I finally wrote and submitted this one instead, which I titled "Mission Ambushable."


Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP.


That story, which I realize is still a groaner, wound up winning second place in the contest, which resulted in a $30 Amazon gift card that got used about ten seconds after it hit my inbox. (I don't recall what the first-place story was, but I remember consoling myself that it wasn't as good as mine. What were those judges thinking . . . ?)


12 words

And here's another of my masterpieces, called "The Pain in Spain":

She ran with the bulls at Pamplona;
One stuck her, another steptona.

(Okay, that's a poem, not a story. But you'll have to admit, it's profound literature.)


8 words

I read someplace--I think it was in a how-to-write book by English novelist E. M. Forster, though I can't remember its title--that a story can be defined as a series of related events. An example of this, he said, is the following eight-word sentence:

The king died and then the queen died.

Nor much of a story, you say? Maybe not. But since it involves two events that are related to each other, it meets the requirements. And in case you're interested, I recall that Forster went on to illustrate the difference between a story and a plot. He said that while those eight words make it a story, adding two more words can make it a PLOT:

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

Interesting, I thought.


6 words

One of the shortest stories I've seen, again and again over the years--you probably have, too--is the following six-worder:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Some say its author was Ernest Hemingway, but that's never been proven. I still love it. In fact, if I think about it too long it brings a tear to my eye--and I admire any story, poem, novel, or movie that can do that.


Not to be outdone, here is my own six-word story, called "Radio Silence."

"Entering Bermuda Triangle. No problems whatsoev--"

That one was submitted also, to a six-word flash-fiction contest. It not only didn't win, it never even got a response. (Not that I let rejection bother me; I choose to believe it fell behind the piano and the judges never saw it.)


A final word

I'm afraid I don't know of any story examples of fewer than six words. If you do--or if you know of other shorties under fifty words, especially those you've written yourself, please let me know in the comments. And for those of you who have done this kind of thing, did you find micro-writing interesting? Challenging? Fun? Hard? More trouble than it's worth?



By the way, that SleuthSayers post I mentioned, about the alphabet-soup contest? I remember closing it with the following thought. It seems to apply here too:

Alas, Boring Columns Do Eventually Finish.



See you in two weeks.

07 March 2020

Pure Goldman





The name William Goldman might or might not be familiar to you. It's probably familiar to me only because I watch, and have always watched, a lot of movies. All of us are familiar with Goldman's movies.

I intended to write this column more than a year ago, shortly after I heard about his death, but I just never got around to it. There is general agreement that screenwriter William Goldman was a man of incredible literary talent, and I've long been a fan of not only his screenplays but his novels and memoirs. (I think Adventures in the Screen Trade should be "must" reading for all writers of fiction.)

Very quickly: William Goldman was born in Chicago in August 1931 and died in New York in November 2018, and over the course of his long career he won two screenwriting Oscars (for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men), won two Edgars (for Harper and Magic), and received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writer's Guild of America.

I won't go into a lot of detail about his life; if you want that, there's plenty of information available. What I'd like to do here is give you a list of some of his accomplishments. He was the author of the following screenplays, novels, and books.

Note: I have not included any of his plays, TV scripts, unproduced movie scripts, or short stories. And--not that it matters--the asterisks indicate my favorites in each category.

Movies:

Masquerade (1965)
Harper (1966)
*Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Hot Rock (1972)
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
*Marathon Man (1976)
*All the President's Men (1976)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Magic (1978)
Heat (1986)
*The Princess Bride (1987)
Twins (1988)
*Misery (1990)
A Few Good Men (1992)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Year of the Comet (1992)
Chaplin (1992)
Indecent Proposal (1993)
Last Action Hero (1993)
Malice (1993)
Maverick (1994)
Delores Claiborne (1995)
The Chamber (1996)
*The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Fierce Creatures (1997)
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Absolute Power (1997)
The General's Daughter (1999)
*Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Dreamcatcher (2003)
Wild Card (2015)

Novels:

The Temple of God (1957)
Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow (1958)
Soldier in the Rain (1960)
Boys and Girls Together (1964)
No Way to Treat a Lady (1964)
The Think of It Is . . . (1967)
Father's Day (1971)
*The Princess Bride (1973)
*Marathon Man (1974)
*Magic (1976)
Tinsel (1979)
*Control (1982)
The Silent Gondoliers (1983)
*The Color of Light (1984)
Heat (1985)
Brothers (1986)

Nonfiction:

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969)
The Story of A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)
Wait Till Next Year (1988)
*Hype and Glory (1990)
Four Screenplays (1995)
Five Screenplays (1997)
*Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade (2000)
The Big Picture (2001)


William Goldman was, along with screenwriters like Kubrick, Sorkin, Wilder, and a few others, one of the very best in the business, and the three movies he adapted from his own novels--Magic, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride--are, in my opinion, among his finest. There are things about all three (ventriloquists' dummies, dentists' chairs, giants who like rhymes, etc.) that'll probably stay in my head forever. And his nonfiction was especially interesting to me because of the way he wrote. He presented facts as if he were sitting in the chair next to you, chatting instead of lecturing. Those of you who've read him know what I mean.


Goldman once said, of himself: "I don't like my writing. I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I've ever written, not that I'm proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation."

Author Sean Egan once said, of Goldman: "He was one of the late twentieth century's most popular storytellers."

I know which I'd rather believe.

All of us, writers and moviegoers alike, can learn from his work.