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

02 September 2023

Where'd THAT Story Come From?


I have a couple of new mystery stories out, and after some questions about them the other day from one of my (two) fans, I figured I'd give you the "stories behind the stories."

The first of the two is "The POD Squad," in the current (Sep/Oct) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. This is the eighth installment of my Sheriff Ray Douglas mystery series--seven of those have appeared in AHMM and one in the now-defunct Down & Out: The Magazine.

I remember deciding, before the writing started, that for this story I wanted to add another protagonist alongside the sheriff and his crimesolving girlfriend Jennifer Parker--and this wound up being a bright high-school student named Billy Osmond, whose last name became necessary when I got around to choosing a title (more about that later). Billy became part of the plot when he attended the annual science fair that served as the setting for the first part of the story, so my hero and heroine could meet him.

Another thing I wanted to include in this story was three different mysteries in three separate locations. I'd done that once before, in a story called "Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, Jan/Feb 2018) and the multiple cases in multiple places made the plot more fun to write. Also, as before, I wanted to make two of those mysteries-within-the-mystery turn out to be directly connected, late in the story. This time around, all three crimes would be robberies of some kind, one of them minor and the other two more serious--and I wanted the high-school kid to provide some assistance to the grownups in solving them. 

To say more about the plot would probably involve spoilers, but I'll mention something I alluded to earlier: "The POD Squad" was one of those stories that didn't immediately suggest a title to me while I was plotting it. In fact I still didn't have a title when I finished the writing. Well, that's not exactly true: I had several titles in mind, but I thought all of them were pretty anemic. For inspiration I finally went back to an old TV show called The Mod Squad, about three young and mismatched city cops. I liked the clever rhyme of that title and the makeup of the trio (one white guy, one white woman, one Black guy), and since my team of three "detectives" was also diverse (man, woman, boy) I decided to call them The POD Squad. To make that possible, I gave Ray and Jen's helper the last name of Osmond so they could jokingly be the Parker-Osmond-Douglas squad. The only time that's mentioned in the story is in one brief exchange of dialog near the end--but it solved my title problem. 

I should add that I had a great time writing this story, partly because of the constant banter between the two investigators and their new and temporary team member, and also because of the need to put the supposedly separate plots on a collision course and come up with what I hoped would be an unexpected and satisfying ending. (Dialog and plotting have always been my favorite parts of writing, anyway.) The story turned out to be around 5000 words, which is about what I was aiming for in the planning stages.

The second of these two recent stories is called "Cargo," which came out last Sunday in Issue #104 of Black Cat Weekly. This was the fifth "new" story I've written for BCW--most of my stories there have been reprints--and was chosen by co-editor Michael Bracken as his "pick of the week." (Thanks, Michael--and thanks to both you and Barb Goffman for again featuring one of my creations.)

"Cargo" is also around 5000 words, but in almost everything else it's way different from my AHMM story. Specifically, this one is (1) a standalone instead of a series installment, (2) made up of fewer characters, (3) set in the distant past, (4) set in a non-Southern location, (5) more violent, (6) a how-do-I-survive story instead of a whodunit, and (7) a love story in addition to a mystery. Besides all that, it's different because it's based on my own background. "Cargo" is about an incident in the life of a young lieutenant at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma who is assigned as Officer of the Day, one of those usually dull "additional duties" that come around about once a year and sound more important than they are. OD duty basically involves spending the night and some of the day in the control tower and offering any needed assistance to the air-traffic and flight-line folks, including the greeting and hosting of any visiting dignitaries who might be passing through. To make a long story short (pun intended), this tale was based on one of the times I myself served as Officer of the Day, during my years at Tinker in the 1970s. And the fact that I wrote it in first-person POV made it seem even more real to me.

While there are a lot of similarities to my experience that night and the setup is the same--even down to what movie was playing at the base theater--the events of the rest of the story are far different, and certainly more exciting, than what happened in real life. Just as in the story, two colonels flew in that evening in a transport plane carrying the coffins of two soldiers, and I was required to do some things I hadn't done before--but I doubt I would've been brave enough or smart enough to have handled the fictional part of all this as well as my fictional counterpart did. (Isn't it great the way the Clark Kents and Bruce Waynes of the world can become all-powerful when they need to be, in these stories we write?) Even so, because I was there, the telling of the story brought back plenty of memories of that time and place and situation.

I also wanted to make this a "framed" story. I don't do that often, but for this one it seemed to be appropriate: At the beginning, an old man is telling his granddaughter the story, then we switch to the past for the story itself, and at the end we go back to the grandpa and grandchild for the wrapup, and for what I hope might be a final surprise. This approach is nothing new; examples of framed narratives are everywhere. Some that I especially remember are novels/movies like The Princess Bride, The Green Mile, Titanic, etc.--and when they work, they work well.

Anyhow, that's my overview of the kinds of things that inspired these two stories. If you happen to read one or both of them, I hope you enjoy the time spent.

Questions: How often do you, as a writer, write stories with more than one plotline? (Novels often use them, as subplots or even parallel plots--I like to read those and to watch movies that feature them--but I seldom see a lot of that in shorts.) How about stories that draw heavily on your own personal experiences? Finally, do you like "framed" stories that start in the present, go back to the past, and end up in the present again? Have you tried writing them?

Okay, enough of that. If you're still reading this, thanks for sticking with it.

Now get to work on your next story . . .

19 August 2023

I Don't Say Eye-ther (Nor Nigh-ther, Nee-ther)


I love language and all its oddities, and one of its quirkiest quirks has always fascinated me. (It has also probably frustrated anyone trying to learn English as a second language.)

I'm referring to words with more than one acceptable pronunciation. I can't think of a huge number of those, but here are some, off the top of my head.

NOTE 1: I'm not talking here about words that are pronounced differently when they do double duty as nouns or verbs, like tear, object, wound, dove, desert, lead, etc.

NOTE 2: Not that it matters, but my personal preference for each of these is the first pronunciation listed.

either -- ee-ther vs. eye-ther

neither -- nee-ther vs. nigh-ther

data -- dayta vs. datta (both of them work, but I still think datta sounds hilarious)

envelope -- inn-velope vs. onn-velope

caramel -- care-amel vs. cahr-amel (rhymes with car) 

aunt -- aint (rhymes with faint) vs ahhnt (rhymes with font)

horror/horrified -- hah-rer/hah-rified vs. hore-er/hore-ified

vase -- vaise vs. vahz

pajamas -- pah-JOMas vs. pah-jAMmas

length/strength -- linkth/strinkth vs. lenth/strenth (I'm not sure why that 'g' is sometimes dropped)

schedule -- sked-jull vs. shed-jull

leisure -- lee-zure vs. leh-zure 

tournament -- turnament vs. toornament  

apricot -- ay-pricott vs. app-rickott

foyer -- foy-er vs. foy-yay (always raise your nose and your eyebrows if you say foy-yay)

mentor -- menter vs. men-tore (I like both of these--I go back and forth)

route -- rowt vs. root

root -- root (rhymes with food) vs. rut (rhymes with foot)

adult -- ah-DULT vs. ADD-dult

often -- awf-tunn vs. ahh-fun

coupon -- coo-ponn vs. coopun

roof -- roof (rhymes with proof) vs. ruff (rhymes with tough)

celtic -- selltick vs. kelltick

candidate -- canndah-ditt vs. canndah-date

advertisement -- ad-ver-TIZE-ment vs. ad-VER-tiz-ment

crayon -- cray-un vs. cray-yonn

syrup -- surr-up vs. seer-up

Sunday -- Sundy vs. Sun-day

Caribbean -- Cah-RIB-ee-un vs. Care-ah-BEE-un

Missouri -- Mizzoorah vs. Mizzoo-ree

Nevada/Colorado -- Ne-vodda/Colla-rodda vs. Ne-vadda/Collo-raddo

Oregon -- ahra-gun (sounds like bargain) vs. ore-a-gun (sounds like organ)

Florida -- Flah-ra-da (sounds like far) vs. Flore-a-da (sounds like floor)

Some pronunciations, obviously, are usually regional--that list follows--and I confess I will continue to use the first pronunciation listed on these, whether it's right or not. Examples:

dog/frog/coffee/dawn/lawn -- dawg/frawg/cawfee/dawn/lawn vs. dahg/frahg/cahfee/donn/lonn

class/glass/pass/ass -- uses a "mash" sound vs. a "mass" sound

pecan -- pah-CONN vs. PEE-cann

praline -- praw-leen vs. pray-leen

handkerchief -- haink-erchiff vs. hann-kerchiff

oil/boil/coil/soil -- uses an "aw-ull" sound (two syllables) vs. an "aw-ee-ul" sound (three syllables)

school/cool/pool/fool/rule -- ool (one syllable) vs. oo-wull (two syllables)

can't -- caint (rhymes with paint) vs. cant (rhymes with pant)

On the subject of regional words: I've heard people say rurn for ruin, arn for iron, herrikin for hurricane, crick for creek, pitcher for picture, etc., etc., but I doubt many folks would consider them acceptable pronunciations. And I won't even get started on the stupid ways a lot of people--including newscasters--pronounce New Orleans. By the way, if you haven't read it, check out my fellow SleuthSayer Jim Winter's column here yesterday, on regionalisms.

Here's a bit of trivia. Aluminum (al-LOO-min-um) is not only pronounced (al-loo-MIN-ee-um) in England, it's spelled aluminium. So the same chemical element is both spelled and pronounced differently in America and in England.

One more thing: Two other "optional" pronunciations are ta-mayto vs. ta-motto and pa-tayto vs. pa-totto--but I didn't list them because I've never in my life actually heard anyone sober say ta-motto or pa-totto. Maybe that's just me.

How about you? What words have you heard that can be pronounced two or more different ways, and all the pronunciations are considered acceptable? What are your personal preferences, with those? Also, have I listed any words that you feel should have only one acceptable pronunciation?

Or are you hah-rified by all this dayta? I think I am.

See you in two weeks.

05 August 2023

Sequels, Not Equals


Question: Have you ever seen a really good movie, hoped afterward that someday there would be a sequel to it, and then been sorely disappointed when that happened? Join the club. 

The Rule is . . .

Most sequels fall short of the originals. Here are some that come to mind, that I had actually looked forward to seeing:

Jaws 2

Return to Snowy River

Escape from L.A.

Speed 2: Cruise Control

Be Cool

Wonder Woman 1984

Staying Alive

Independence Day: Resurgence

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The Sting II

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory

Return of the Seven 

The Jewel of the Nile

Grease 2

Evan Almighty

Rocky II

Blues Brothers 2000

There are many, many more. By the way, for this post, I'm focusing on immediate sequels. Movies like Robocop 3, Moonraker, Lethal Weapon 4, Police Academy 6Jaws: The Revenge, and Jurassic World: Dominion will have to be covered elsewhere. Well, hopefully not.

The Good, the Bad, and The Good

Something worth noting, about sequels: Occasionally, the second installment in a series can be terrible and the third can be excellent. Examples:

Back to the Future, Back to the Future Part II, Back to the Future Part III 

Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade

Men in Black, Men in Black II, Men in Black III

But only occasionally. In most cases, nothing after the first movie is all that great. My opinion only.

Creative names

One thing that movie sequels do have going for them--they can have clever titles (some of them a little too clever). Here are the ones I remember:

Oceans Twelve

102 Dalmations

Hot Shots, Part Deux

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

Another 48 Hours

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

Honey, I Blew Up the Kid

The Whole Ten Yards

Beethoven's Second

2 Fast 2 Furious

Finding Dory

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Mama Mia: Here We Go Again

Any Which Way You Can

The Lion King 1 1/2

Daddy Day Camp

The Net 2.0

Sharknado 2: The Second One

Look Who's Talking Too

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

The Naked Gun 2 1/2

After the Thin Man

House II: The Second Story

Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money

Can I Do It 'Til I Need Glasses?

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd

But a cool title doesn't mean a good story. 

Dumb and Dumberer

Exceptions to the Rule

Thank goodness, some sequels seem to defy the odds. Here are ten that I think were better--a few of them far better--than the first in the series:

From Russia with Love

The Godfather Part II

For a Few Dollars More

The Road Warrior

The Silence of the Lambs (yep, it was a sequel: Lecter first appeared in Manhunter)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Empire Strikes Back

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A Shot in the Dark

And in my humble opinion, the absolutely all-time best movie sequel:


A question, and a reassurance

Which movie sequels, good and bad and ugly, do you remember most?

Promise: Don't worry--I'm not planning a sequel to this post.


29 July 2023

Here Come da Judge


True story: While I was trying to figure out what to post for today, I was asked by a writer friend to serve as a judge for an upcoming fiction competition. This kind of thing would probably be nothing new for you, and wasn't for me either--I've judged dozens of fiction-writing contests over the years. (That says nothing about my qualifications; it's just something that happens when you've been around and writing for a long time. In any case, I was honored to be asked.)

I'm sure you know the types of contests I'm referring to. Some are local, some regional, some have solo judges, some are judged by committee, some have cash prizes, some are sponsored by groups or conferences that have the winning stories appear in an anthology. Arguably the most prestigious competitions (certainly for mystery writing) are those for national awards like the Edgar, Shamus, etc.

Anyhow--long story short--since opportunity has knocked, I figured I 'd use that for today's post.

To me, judging writing contests is a mix of fun and work. Fun because some of the entries you have to evaluate turn out to be great stories; work because most of them don't. But I assure you I've learned a lot about writing from each of these endeavors, and I've also learned quite a bit about what I suspect editors, agents, and publishers have to go through every day in the process of selecting which stories/novels to publish.

An example, and some observations:

Assume you have been asked to be a judge, and you find that you'll have a hundred short-story manuscripts to consider, and your task is to pick the best three.

When your stack of entries arrives, I predict that about a fourth of them, maybe a fifth, will turn out to be good, well-written stories. That's just usually the way it happens. Also, another fourth of the stack will be terrible stories. Those that are left--about half--will usually be somewhere in between. I realize that's a big generality and that there's nothing certain about what you'll find in any set of manuscripts to be judged, but so far I've found that the old 25-50-25 percent division is pretty close. Strange but true.

Another observation: whether you're one of a group of judges or if you're doing it all yourself, you'll probably find that your first read-through of the stories is to weed out the bad ones. That sounds like a negative way to approach all this, but it's natural, and is pretty much the way editors do it. If/when you find things in a story that just don't work at all, that story goes in the reject stack and you move on to the next one. The stories that are left when you're done are the ones that'll be re-considered. (This, by the way, is the whole premise of Noah Lukeman's excellent book The First Five Pages. It says that a publisher/agent/etc. can usually decide in the first five pages of a novel manuscript whether to reject it. For short stories, it's obviously a much shorter span--maybe the first page or two, or even the opening paragraphs.

Once the rejected manuscripts are put aside, you'll probably then re-read the others and do the same thing all over again, this time comparing them with each other in terms of quality. Again, I predict you'll end up with anything from fifteen to twenty-five out of a hundred that are truly good stories, and then you'll have to decide which of those are the very best.

One thing that I find difficult is when the contest organizers require you to fill out a detailed scoresheet evaluating different parts of each story, assigning points to things like plot, characterization, dialog, setting, viewpoint, and theme, and coming up with an overall total to determine the winners. I'll do that if I'm forced to, but I think it's unnecessary work. Good stories don't always hit the normal checkboxes. Some of the best stories I've ever read do strange and unusual things with plot, POV, and so forth--you know what I mean. I prefer contests that allow the judges, solo or teamed, to come up with which stories they think are deserving of the top honors without resorting to the detailed "Fiction Writing 101" lists and rules and checkboxes. But that's just me.

I also don't like it when contest organizers tell me I must read every story all the way to its end. That's a terrible waste of time. If you're going to trust me enough to be a judge, trust me enough to know when to reject a story, and--as mentioned earlier--that decision might happen early in its reading. 

As for whether the judging is "blind"--some contests withhold the authors' names--that precaution honestly doesn't make any difference to me. Some of the best stories I've seen have come from writers whose names I didn't know at the time, and some stories by known authors have disappointed me. As it turns out, the upcoming competition I mentioned will feature blind entries, which is of course an effort to assure entrants of its fairness. But I think it rarely matters to a judge.

NOTE: One thing I try not to do (although I have, when I didn't know it at the time) is serve as a judge for a competition that requires entrants to pay fees. I don't agree with that practice and I don't enter those contests, just as I don't submit stories to markets that charge submission fees. 


Do you often participate in the judging of writing competitions (big or small)? Have you ever done so? Did you enjoy the experience? Did you learn anything from it? Are there any past judging gigs that were particularly fun or interesting for you? Did you have a set routine by which your evaluations were made? If a team effort, what did you think of working with other judges? How about the scoring process? Did you find it overly restrictive, or were you given free rein?

I've already mentioned that this kind of request (to be a judge) was nothing new. Well, neither is the fact that I said yes. When the person asking is a friend, it's hard to say no.

I'm hoping I'll find some great stories.

15 July 2023



I have always said, anytime the discussion turns to the fiction-writing process, that I'm an outliner. Maybe not on paper, but at least in my head. I have to have a roadmap in mind, before I start writing, of where my story's going and how it's going to get there. (I find the "plotting" phase to be the most fun part of writing, anyway.) The few times I've tried to do otherwise I've wound up wasting a lot of time and effort.

Having said that, though, I confess that I often change that predetermined route once the trip gets started, and especially at the end. Even if I've kept the ending I first had in mind, I sometimes add to it, to create a "second ending."

I know how silly that sounds. Here's what I mean.

In an early story I sold to AHMM, called "The Powder Room," the rich owner of an engineering firm is confronted in his office by a robber, but manages to snap a photo of the armed intruder and slips the camera into a safe that has a time-lock, and then tells the robber what he's done. Unable to open the safe and now afraid to kill the owner, the frustrated thief is forced to leave emptyhanded. That was my original ending. But before submitting the story, I had a brainstorm and made the robber attempt to blow up the safe in order to destroy the camera and its evidence--this was, after all, a civil-engineering/construction firm, with dynamite on the premises. This addition to the plot added several pages to the story but made it (I thought) much better. It also gave me an improved title, since the area where the explosives were stored was nicknamed the powder room. And then, in the final paragraphs, I revealed that no photo had been taken after all, which made it sort of a triple ending. Editor Linda Landrigan later told me those extra twists were the reason she bought the story.

Since then, I've found myself doing that a lot. I'll finish a story and then sit back and look it over, and in the process I'll see the possibility for adding another development of some kind, thus creating a story with an "extra" ending. The addition doesn't have to be long or involved--it can be no more than a few paragraphs. But if used, it tacks on another reversal, and sometimes that works well. 

An instance of this technique happened in the movie Die Hard. The unlikely hero has defeated the villain, has rescued the damsel in distress, and has prevented the theft of millions of dollars, among other things. Everyone's celebrating and hugging and slapping him on the back and happy music is playing, and we think the show's over and we're thinking boy that was a good movie--and suddenly one of the terrorists we thought was dead pops up with a machine gun aimed at our already wounded and bedraggled hero. Whoa, Nellie! But, as it turns out, the crazed terrorist is immediately shot dead by a cop who has become a friend of the hero and who (we learned earlier) has been secretly afraid for years to fire his weapon at another person. This add-on scene lasts only a minute or so, but it's shocking and thrilling and hugely satisfying. It's one of the things I remember most about the story. 

NOTE: I realize I've just revealed the ending to those who might not have seen the movie, but I have a feeling anyone who'd want to see Die Hard probably saw it years ago.

Here's an example of a successful short-story add-on. The story "Man from the South," by Roald Dahl, was adapted into several different short films, one of them for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. (Warning: more spoilers ahead.) The story's plot follows a crazy gambling-addicted old man who makes a bet with a young stranger who boasts that his cigarette lighter will never fail. (This is the 50s, remember.) The bet is that if the young man's (McQueen's) lighter will light ten times in a row, the old man (Lorre) will give him his new car. But if it doesn't, Lorre will chop off McQueen's little finger. Near the end of the suspenseful contest, during which McQueen's hand is strapped to a table and Lorre stands ready and wild-eyed with a meat cleaver every time the lighter's flicked, Lorre's wife comes into the room and stops everything, saying her husband has nothing to bet with, and that the car is hers. That appears to be the end of the story. But then two other things happen. First, as McQueen and his girlfriend are standing there dazed, she puts a cigarette in her mouth, he absently raises his lighter to it and flicks the wheel--and it doesn't light. Second, Lorre's wife reaches for the car keys on the table, and the camera reveals that she's missing three fingers off her hand. Those two things were enough to make an already good story great.

Other examples:

- The wonderful summit-meeting-tape scene at the end of Escape from New York, after the escape itself is completed.

- The unexpected death of Tracy (Diana Rigg) at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (I heard someplace that in the novel, Ian Fleming originally didn't plan for her to die--or even for Bond to marry her).

- The second half of the movie A History of Violence, which turned it into an entirely different story.

- The Shawshank Redemption's ending changed from ambiguous to happy (with escapee Morgan Freeman on a Mexican beach on the way to his reunion with Tim Robbins).

- The movie Layer Cake (also known as a James Bond audition tape) had its ending changed from happy to sad, when Daniel Craig is shot dead.

- The death (by shark) of the female scientist was added to the end of Deep Blue Sea.

- Instead of Hitchcock's original ending (featuring a bird-covered Golden Gate Bridge), The Birds ends with a weird scene where Rod Taylor and the others escape in a car while a bunch of suddenly lazy and disinterested birds watch them go.

- The long mother-alien-stowaway scene at the end of Aliens, after the survivors are supposedly safe. 

The point is, I have learned to look for the opportunity to do this kind of thing in my own stories. And it's truly surprising how often it turns out to be possible. Matter of fact, it happened with a story I just completed this past week. I wrote the story I had planned, ended it as planned--I was pleased with the outcome--and then I mulled over it awhile and thought "what if . . ." and wound up adding another section to the plot, which almost doubled the size of the story and created a different (and better, I think) ending. I don't know yet whether the story'll sell, but I'm a lot more satisfied with it now, and ready to send it off to a market.

Oddly enough, this kid of technique did NOT happen with my story "The Deacon's Game," which appears in the current (July/August) issue of EQMM. That story was written exactly as I'd planned it, ended as I'd planned it, and stayed that way. It was, however, unusual in other ways: (1) it involved no detectives or detection at all and (2) I included more than two pages of expositional "wrap-up" after the point of highest tension--which can be taboo and is something I seldom do. But I guess it worked in this case, showing that sometimes a simple and straightforward ending is best.

I will continue, though, to look for those opportunities, for the aforementioned reasons. Who doesn't want to try to make a good story into an outstanding story? 

So, how about you? Do you ever find, in looking back over one of your stories or novels before submitting it, the need to add a bit more to the ending? Maybe to radically change it? Has that usually worked? Can you give some examples? How about spotting that add-on approach in stories or novels you've read or movies you've watched?

Anyhow, that's it for today. Don't worry, I'm not adding anything to the end of this post.

See you in two weeks.

01 July 2023

Another Box of Chocolates (15 Years Later)


Back in 2008, when I and three fellow SleuthSayers (Leigh, Rob, and Janice Law) were posting every week at a mystery bog called Criminal Brief, I wrote a column--a quiz, actually--about quotes from movies, called "Dialogue Is Like a Box of Chocolates." The idea was that fictional dialogue--you really don't know what you're gonna get--can sometimes outlast the stories themselves. It was a long list, and since there wasn't enough space to include some quotes that I really liked, I later came back and posted another one--and caused more trouble, yes, that's trouble, right here in River City.

For anyone--at least any movielover--who didn't see those two posts, here's a reprint of the second one. It includes fifty more quotes from the big screen, about half of them from mystery/crime/suspense movies. So if last night you dreamed you went to Manderley again, or if you woke up screaming STELLA or ADRIAN, or if you just picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, try your luck at this quiz. Go the distance, make my day, show me the money, use the Force, and do that voodoo that you do so well. If you answer them all, you're king of the world and I'm your number one fan. If you don't, well, no worries, mate, don't flee the interview--tomorrow is another day. And we'll aways have Paris. Any questions, anyone? Anyone?

Okay, here we go. Just remember: As long as you hit that wire with the connecting hook at precisely 88 mph the instant the lightning strikes the tower . . . everything'll be fine.

Answers are provided below--but no peeking. (That means you, Leigh . . .)

1. Tell them Inspector Callahan thinks there's a two-eleven in progress at the bank.

2. That plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops.

3. If I don't come back, tell Mother I love her. / Your mother's dead, Llewelyn. / Well then, I'll tell her myself.

4. Anybody hear that? It's an impact tremor, that's what it is. I'm fairly alarmed here.

5. And that was the end of Grogan--the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog . . . and stole my Bible.

6. You are in need of a soothsayer. / How did you know? / I'd be a fine soothsayer if I didn't. 

7. This lighter has sixty-two different functions. Sixty-three if you wish to light a cigar.

8. Funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man. I had to come to prison to be a crook.

9. I'd like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back? / How to you feel about Cleveland?

10. That's a Smith and Wesson--and you've had your six.

11. Don't open my pantry, Father. I found one of them in there and I locked him in.

12. What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today.

13. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

14. You just shot an unarmed man! / He should've armed himself.

15. When you said you chased tornadoes, I thought that was just a metaphor.

16. Travis! Bring your gun!

17. That was the end of my religion period. I ain't sung a hymn for 104 years.

18. I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.

19. I want Ness . . . dead. I want his family . . . dead. I want his house . . . burned to the ground.

20. Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?

21. Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world.

22. Have you ever killed anyone? / Yeah, but they were all bad.

23. Raise your hands--and all of your flippers.

24. He's in a gunfight right now. He'll have to call you back.

25. I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids. / It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.

26. This was no boat accident.

27. On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? My job?

28. You know, the one thing I can't figure out, are these girls real smart or real real lucky?

29. There's only one rule. Once you go in . . . you don't come out.

30. You can shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em . . .

31. By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William the Second, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.

32. I don't want to get any messages saying that we're holding our position. We're not holding anything. Let the Hun do that.

33. Igor, help me with the bags. / Certainly. You take the blonde, I'll take the one in the turban. / I was talking about the luggage.

34. The next time I say something like let's go to Bolivia, let's go to Bolivia.

35. Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry.

36. We rob banks.

37. I just noticed that a fancy pilot like Slick over there doesn't have his picture on your wall. What do you have to do to get your picture up there anyway? / You have to die, sweetie.

38. Down your weapons put.

39. Ain't had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin' a little thirsty. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen.

40. That ditch is Boss Kean's ditch. And I told him that dirt in it's your dirt. What's your dirt doin' in his ditch?

41. The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea.

42. I'm always frank and earnest with women. In New York I'm Frank, in Chicago I'm Ernest.

43. I asked for a car, I got a computer. How's that for being born under a bad sign?

44. I'd like to report a truck driver who's been endangering my life.

45. Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody's gonna do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too.

46. You know anything about a guy who goes around playing a harmonica?

47. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

48. I once asked this literary agent, what kind of writing paid the best. He said, "Ransom notes."

49. What is your nationality? / I'm a drunkard.

50. Is this coincidence, or are you back on the case? If so, goody goody.


1. Dirty Harry -- Clint Eastwood, speaking into a phone in the cafe across the street

2. North by Northwest -- Man standing in the road, to Cary Grant

3. No Country for Old Men -- Josh Brolin / his wife / Brolin

4. Jurassic Park -- Jeff Goldblum

5. Romancing the Stone -- Kathleen Turner, narrating 

6. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum -- Zero Mostel / Buster Keaton / Mostel

7. Our Man Flint -- James Coburn, to his boss Lee J. Cobb

8. The Shawshank Redemption -- Tim Robbins

9. Tootsie -- director / cameraman

10. Dr. No -- Sean Connery to inept assassin Anthony Dawson

11. Signs -- veterinarian M. Night Shyamalan to former priest Mel Gibson, in front of the farmhouse

12. Groundhog Day -- Bill Murray to Andie MacDowell

13. The Usual Suspects -- Kevin Spacey

14. Unforgiven -- bystander / Clint Eastwood

15. Twister -- Jami Gertz to Bill Paxton

16. Old Yeller -- Dorothy Maguire to son Tommy Kirk

17. Little Big Man -- Dustin Hoffman

18. The Wizard of Oz -- Margaret Hamilton to Judy Garland

19. The Untouchables -- Robert DeNiro to his assembled goons

20. Rear Window -- James Stewart to Grace Kelly

21. A Shot in the Dark -- Herbert Lom to his assistant

22. True Lies -- Jamie Lee Curtis / former governor Schwartzenegger

23. Men in Black -- agent Tommy Lee Jones to alien

24. Under Siege -- Erika Eleniak, on the satellite phone to the top brass

25. The Thin Man -- Myrna Loy / William Powell

26. Jaws -- Richard Dreyfuss, while examining shark victim's body

27. The Green Mile -- Tom Hanks to prisoner Michael Clarke Duncan

28. Thelma and Louise -- Stephen Tobolowski to fellow cop Harvey Keitel

29. Escape from New York -- narrator, describing Manhattan Federal Prison

30. (But it's a sin) To Kill a Mockingbird -- Gregory Peck to his children at the kitchen table

31. The African Queen -- Peter Bull to captives Bogie and Hepburn

32. Patton -- George C. Scott, during speech to troops

33. Young Frankenstein -- Gene Wilder / Marty Feldman / Wilder

34. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Newman to Redford

35. It's a Wonderful Life -- angel Henry Travers to James Stewart

36. Bonnie and Clyde -- Faye Dunaway

37. The Right Stuff -- customer in bar / Kim Stanley

38. The Empire Strikes Back -- Yoda to the opposition

39. The Ballad of Cable Hogue -- Jason Robards, while wandering in the desert

40. Cool Hand Luke -- prison guard Luke Askew to Paul Newman

41. Oh, God -- George Burns, replying to a lawyer's question in court

42. The Long Kiss Goodnight -- Samuel L. Jackson

43. Ferris Bueller's Day Off -- Matthew Broderick to audience

44. Duel -- a frazzled Dennis Weaver, into the phone

45. High Noon -- Katy Jurado to Lloyd Bridges, in her hotel room

46. Once Upon a Time in the West -- Jason Robards

47. The Terminator -- Michael Biehn to Linda Hamilton, referring to Ahhhhnold

48. Get Shorty -- Gene Hackman

49. Casablanca -- German officer / Humphrey Bogart, at a table in Rick's

50. Hannibal -- Anthony Hopkins to Julianne Moore, on the phone

And that's that. Again, I hope some of those brought back fond memories--if so, goody goody. If not, rest easy--I'm about quizzed out. (In other words, ain't gonna be no rematch. Don't want one.)

Anybody up for a toga party?

17 June 2023

A Western Fantasy


I'll start by stating the obvious. This is a mystery blog, I'm a mystery writer, and most of you are (I suspect) mystery readers. Some of you are mystery writers as well--thank God we can be both. And even though the vast majority of what I write is mystery/crime, I also like writing other genres now and then. I think most of us do.

You're probably familiar by now with a publication called Black Cat Weekly. It's a product of Wildside Press, its editor/publisher is John Betancourt, and its acquisition editors are my fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and Michael Bracken. One of the ways BCW is different from most of the magazines we talk about at this blog (besides the fact that it's an e-magazine and there's a new issue every week) is that it's not exclusively a mystery/crime publication. It features a wide range of stories--science fiction, mystery, fantasy, etc.

I've been fortunate enough to have some of my stories appear in Black Cat Weekly, but these past two weeks brought something new for me: I had stories in back-to-back issues. The first one, Barb's "pick" for Issue #92 on June 4 (thank you, Barb), was a lighthearted crime story called "On the Road with Mary Jo." It was published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, won a Derringer Award a year later, and remains one of my favorites because I still remember how much fun I had writing it. (Over the years I've found that to be a fairly good litmus test for how well a story might do later, out there in the world.) Anyhow, the "teaser" I gave to Barb when she asked for one was "Two dimwitted criminals, a carjacking, a bank robbery, and an experimental self-driving getaway car. What could possibly go wrong?" What happens, of course, is that almost everything goes wrong. If you should read this crazy tale, I hope you'll like it.

But the title of my post today refers to my story that appeared in BCW this past week. It's called "High Noon in the Big Country"--Michael's "pick" for Issue #93 on June 11 (thanks, Michael)--and is sort of a mixed-bag Western/crime/fantasy story that's heavier on the horse-opera and paranormal genres than on the mystery genre. In this story, a guy named Eddie Johnson is on his way through Wyoming on horseback and happens onto a little cabin standing alone on the flats at the foot of a mountain range. The funny thing is, it's a place he recognizes even though he's never been there before. He even recognizes the lady who owns the cabin. 

It is soon revealed that Eddie lives in the year 1989, and grew up going to movies every spare moment (can you spell "autobiographical"?). He especially loves Westerns. As a result of this lifelong cinematic obsession, he occasionally finds himself living, literally, in two alternating worlds. One is the present day--the late 20th Century--where he's on his way to South Dakota to play a small role (along with his horse) in a movie an old friend of his is filming there. The other world is set a hundred years ago, in the Old West. This double life of his scares him at times, but he's mostly grown accustomed to it. Anyhow, when he rides into the valley and sees the cabin, Eddie lapses into this other, long-ago world, and realizes this frontier lady is actually a character in a movie he has seen a dozen times, so he not only knows about her, he knows about her problem. She's worried about losing her homestead to a ruthless cattle baron who lives nearby. And while Eddie's not a brave gunfighter riding in to save the day, he does have a few things that might help the situation, like some items from the next century that he happens to be carrying with him on his trip. 

The fun of this story, at least for me as I was writing it, was trying to blend the events of those two time periods into something that--like any Western--makes the good guys get what they deserve while the bad guys also get what they deserve. In our modern world of blurred lines, I think the old-time, clear-cut, white-hat-vs.-black-hat code of life and justice is one of the things I like most about Westerns. Bottom line is, this is probably one of the weirdest stories I've ever come up with, and I hope readers will enjoy it.

As I've said before, on Facebook and elsewhere, I owe sincere thanks to both Barb and Michael for allowing me to be a small part of Black Cat Weekly--both now and over the past couple of years. That magazine's a winner.

If you've seen issues of BCW, what do you think? Do you like the fact that it offers such a wide variety of stories? Any favorites so far? Have you had any of your own stories appear there? If you haven't seen or read an issue, I hope you will.

Meanwhile, stay cool--it's already hot as a two-dollar pistol down here--and keep writing and reading. 

See you in two weeks.

03 June 2023

Springtime Stories

I live in Mississippi--the land of magnolia blossoms, blues music, and gator-related accidents (just kiddin'), and where spring thankfully sprang early this year. That was fine with me--I'm one of those folks who absolutely hates cold weather, and when temperatures start to rise it helps not only the greenery but my mood in general.

I've also been fortunate in the story department, this spring. For my SS column today I thought I'd take a look at the different kinds of stories of mine that were published in the past two months, and where they appeared. (This is also the kind of post that requires no work or research, so there's that, too.)

Here goes.

April 1 -- "A Bad Hare Day," Mystery Magazine, April 2023 issue. Most of my stories at MM and its predecessor, Mystery Weekly, have been regular, traditional crime stories between 2000 and 5000 or so words, but this is one of what Mystery Magazine calls You-Solve-It mysteries, flash-length puzzle stories written with an "interactive" format that lets readers try to figure the solution out for themselves. This story involves an attempted robbery by a guy in a bunny costume who performs for a birthday party at the mansion of a Southern big-shot, and is an installment of a series that I long ago labeled my "Law and Daughter" stories, featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her amateur-sleuth mother Fran. "A Bad Hare Day" is about 1000 words and was submitted and accepted back in February 2022. I understand there's a fairly long queue for the You-Solve-Its, so--as in this case--it can sometimes be a while before accepted stories show up. FYI for those writers who don't already know this: Mystery Magazine is one of those publications that pay on acceptance, and they do it promptly--so, many thanks, Kerry!

April 3 -- "Theft at the Rest Stop," Woman's World, April 3, 2023, issue. Editor: Alexandra Pollock. Woman's World's guidelines say their mini-mysteries--which they call Solve-It-Yourself mysteries--should be 700 words max, though mine are always much shorter, between 500 and 600 (once those started working, I've stayed at that length ever since). This particular story is a whodunit involving a crowd of people at a rest stop on an interstate highway, one of whom has stolen a fellow traveler's wallet. On hand to do the police work are Sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones and his former fifth-grade teacher Angela Potts, a duo who have served me well at WW (thank you sincerely, Alex Pollock!). A reader once told me Chunky and Angela remind her of Sheriff Taylor and Aunt Bee, which I took as high praise--but in truth, my sheriff is far lazier and larger than Andy, his "assistant" is smarter and nosier and bossier than the TV sheriff's mild-mannered aunt, and both of my crimefighters live in a town that so far has never been given a name. For those who're interested, "Rest Stop" (my original title) is 529 words and is my 127th story at WW. It was submitted in February 2023 and accepted later that month.

April 10 -- "Summer in the City," More Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, Down & Out Books. Editor: my psychedelic fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. As I told Michael while I was writing this story, I probably had more fun plotting it than I've had with any in a long time. Required content for this anthology was (1) a private-investigator protagonist and (2) a plot involving a notable event from the 1960s. I think the moon landing and Woodstock were taken, so I chose the Detroit riots, a crime-spree of looting and arson and violence that took place there in July 1967. One of my story's unlikely heroes is a college student from the South who's taken a summer job selling Webster's Dictionaries door-to-door in Flint, Michigan, one of the places that saw spinoff riots that same month. The crime in this story, though, isn't looting and shooting--it's diamond smuggling, which was big business in certain areas back then, and the plot involves a missing delivery of South African jewels, the bad guys' efforts to find them, and a private eye hired to locate and rescue the dictionary-salesman kid who's gotten himself caught in the middle of it. I gave the story the title of a song: "Summer in the City," by The Lovin' Spoonful, which was recorded the year before but was still popular during what would come to be known as The Summer of Love. The story is about 5800 words, was submitted in January 2022, and was accepted that same month. (Michael, it's always a pleasure and honor to be in one of your anthologies.)

April 25 -- "The Florida Keys," Crumeucopia: Strictly Off the Record, Murderous Ink Press. Editor: John Connor. Florida stories are always fun to write because it's such a crazy place (just ask another fellow SleuthSayer, Leigh Lundin), and most of this one takes place at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, a setting I loved and knew well from my IBM days. The story features a vacationing exotic dancer named Roxanne Key, her husband Dennis, their daughter Jacqueline, and a world-weary detective team named Mason and Biggs. This is more of a whydunit than a whodunit, and includes plenty of clues that were great fun to plant and hide, and also the kind of goofy humor that wouldn't fit into a lot of the mystery/crime stories I've written lately. "The Florida Keys" runs about 2500 words, was submitted in October 2022, and was accepted in January 2023. Big thanks to John Connor (!), who also edited my five previous Crimeucopia stories.

May 1 -- "Shadygrove," Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of James BrownDown & Out Books. Editor: Gary Phillips. This was the first of two of my stories published this May that were written for music-themed anthologies. This one was based on Brown's song "Try Me," but I gave the story a different title--in fact the title is the name that one of my characters gave to the setting of the story: a small stand of cottonwoods on the edge of a stream in Central Texas. It features a bounty hunter, the woman he loves (or thinks he loves), and several deadly members of an outlaw gang. The thing that made this story fun to write, for me, was its plot twists: there are at least four surprise reversals in the course of the story, which I hope are as entertaining for folks to read as they were for me to create. All of us know you have to be careful with this kind of thing--it's easy to put too many twists in a story--but I hope it worked, here. "Shadygrove" is around 3200 words, was submitted in October 2021, and was accepted a month later. Though it took awhile to get into print, it was worth the wait--Gary's a great editor.

May 23 -- "The Devil's Right Hand," Weren't Another Way to Be: Outlaw Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Waylon Jennings, Gutter Books Rock Anthology Series. Editor: Alec Cizak. Outlaw fiction?--How could I not want to write a story for a book of outlaw fiction? And who doesn't like the music of Waylon Jennings? For this antho, Alec wanted us to use the song titles as the titles of our stories, and that seemed to work well here. Mine's about a regular guy who gets mistaken on the trail for a famous outlaw in the 1880s, and an ill-advised plan to have him use that uncanny resemblance to rob a bank in the prairie town of Longbow. Like "Shadygrove," this one has twists and reversals galore. There are some bad folks who start out good and good folks who start out bad--I always like that--and a setting that I found myself sad to leave when the writing was finished. Characters include an aimless drifter, a snake-oil salesman (saleslady, actually), a tired sheriff, a smart deputy, and a legendary but reluctant gunfighter. It wound up around 5500 words, was submitted in August 2022, and was accepted the following month. I've had the good fortune to work with Alec on three stories before this one, and he came through as usual. Matter of fact, just about all the anthologies I've been in for the past several years have been blessed with fine editors.

May 26 -- "Last Day at the Jackrabbit," Strand Magazine, Issue #69. Editor: Andrew Gulli. A reader/friend told me this past week that this story reminded him a bit of Hemingway's "The Killers" (I was flattered but I suspect the similarity came from its being set in a diner). In my case it was the Jackrabbit Diner, named for its owner, Jack (you guessed it) Hopper. Jack doesn't show up in the story, though--he's at home drunk as a skunk, as usual--and his head waitress, Elsie Williams, is this story's protagonist. Her less-than-brilliant boyfriend, Mike McCann, has just robbed the players of a high-stakes poker game in a nearby city, never realizing that they're also members of a much more dangerous group--and now they're after him. The lovebirds try to fly the coop, but complications ensue. Another FYI: This story idea began with its ending, and I worked backward from there. It was an ending inspired by the final scene of the 1974 movie adaptation of John Godey's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three--and it's stayed on my mind for more than forty years. I also divided the story up into five parts, which I don't usually do. The sections were: 1. Extermination, 2. Redirection, 3. Coverup, 4. Killing Time, and 5. Termination. More than you wanted to know, right? Anyhow, "Last Day at the Jackrabbit" was my 25th story at the Strand--it's 4000 words, it was submitted in October 2022, and it was accepted in January 2023. Andrew Gulli, by the way, is wonderful. (Hope he reads this . . .)

I have several more stories coming up this month, and I 'm sure my feelings about those will be as fond as my memories of the ones above. I've said this many times, and I truly mean it: One of the reasons I love writing short stories is that every one of them is so different. I get to try lots of varied plots, places, characters, etc., and do it over and over and over again, without having to wait months or years between projects. No offense, novel writers--you're still my heroes--but I dearly love writing these shorts. 

If you're a writer, what are some of your recent published stories? Any we might not have heard about? Which are your favorites? Which markets are you most attracted to lately, with your submissions? What kinds of stories are you working on now--or waiting to have published?

I hope you're having as much fun with this stuff as I am.

20 May 2023

Pay to Play?--A New Look at an Old Question


Today's column, like many of my SleuthSayers posts lately, was triggered by something I happened to see online--in this case a recent discussion about whether short-fiction writers should send stories to markets that charge submission fees.

So . . . should you or shouldn't you?

The answer's up to you. Personally, I don't like submission fees, and I don't send stories to those places that charge them.

NOTE: We're not talking about fees to submit novel manuscripts, or fees paid to an agent or publisher, or fees for reviews or contest entries. I would say No to all those too, but the topic here is the submission of short stories.

Another question: Is it even legal for a publication (usually a magazine) to charge fees for story submissions? That answer to that is Yes. But why would they do it?

I've heard them give several reasons:

1. To offset operational costs like printing, payroll, website hosting, and other expenses

2. To allow them to pay the writers whose stories are accepted and published.

3. To reduce the competition and, as a result, speed up response times.

4. To serve as a substitute for what writers once paid for postage, paper, envelopes, printing, etc.

(Reasons #3 and #4 remind me of a Richard Gere quote from the movie Breathless (1983). His girlfriend says to him, on the subject of ambition, that she has to think about the future. He replies, "The future? Yeah, I heard about it. Never seen it. Sounds like bullshit to me.")

Another reason for charging submission fees--sometimes called reading fees--could be that the whole operation is a scam. There are certainly some of those out there, but for this discussion let's rule them out and focus on legitimate markets.

Speaking of legitimate markets, it's disappointing to me that so many literary magazines charge submission fees. Yes, I know, many of them are financially-strapped university journals--but some are high-level and highly-respected publications, and most don't even pay the authors whose stories are accepted. I won't say I haven't been tempted to pay them the three dollars or five dollars or whatever it takes to submit a story--but I have resisted that temptation. If by chance I did pay up, and happened to get accepted and published in one of those, I think the fact that I'd paid to have my story considered would make me a little less proud of it. Another way of saying that is, I would have more respect for those respected markets if they chose not to charge a fee to submit.

The really frustrating thing is that many of the stories published in lit journals come from established, well-known writers who do get paid for their stories, while only a small percentage comes from the slush pile of beginning or less-recognizable writers who won't get paid even if they happen to get accepted. Add to that the fact that those struggling writers are probably less able to afford the submission fees that they must pay just to be considered. I can picture a frowning Lt. Columbo turning at the castle door and saying to the king, "One more thing. Just to make sure I understand this: The peasants are funding the party so you guys can drink and dance?" But maybe I'm being too cynical. 

Now, having said all that . . . Is there any middle ground, here? Well, I've noticed that some places will waive their fees if you submit early enough in the month, and the fees would kick in only after a certain number of submissions have been received. Others charge no submission fee if you're a subscriber to the publication or if you belong to a related organization, and still others charge varying fees depending on whether you want editorial feedback, etc. But they're still fees.


As I implied in the title of this post, this issue of charging submission fees is nothing new. Whether you pay them or not boils down to how much you believe in the old saying that money should flow to the writer and not the other way around.

Anyhow, that's my update, and certainly my opinion only. What's your take on all this? Do you ever pay submission fees to publications? If not, why not? If you do pay fees, how do you decide when and where? Only pay them to the most respected markets? Only when the fee is low? Only occasionally? Please let me know in the comments section. (Don't worry, there's no charge.)

Whatever your policy is, happy writing, and good luck with every story you send in!

I'll be back in two weeks.

29 April 2023

Simultaneous Submissions


When I was teaching courses on writing and selling short fiction (my final classes were five years ago this month), there were three questions I usually asked those students who already had some experience:

1. Do you outline your stories, or just start writing and see where it goes?

2. How do you begin your stories? With a character? A setting? A plot? A theme?

3. Do you submit stories simultaneously, or to only one market at a time?

Mostly I asked these questions because I thought the answers were interesting. As for number one, about half the students in any given class always said they outline and half said they don't. The answer to number two was usually "with a character." The third question, like the first, was often a 50/50 split. I never tried to change the way students answered these--but I did try to point out a few things, about question #3.


A simultaneous submission, for those of you who don't know, is the sending of the same story manuscript to more than one market at the same time. (This is different from multiple submissions, which involves sending several different manuscripts to the same market, either at once or over a short period.) At first glance, simultaneous submissions seems a sure-fire way to increase your odds of getting a story published in the least amount of time. And actually, it does increase your odds. If more than one editor is considering your story, you have a better chance of selling it soon--and after all, one acceptance is all you need.

Therein, however, lies the problem. One acceptance is not only all you need--it's all you want. What if you've sent your story to three different editors and more than one of them say "yes"?

In real-world terms, it's like asking a young lady to go with you to the school dance and then asking another before you get an answer from the first, just to make sure you don't wind up sitting home alone that night. That approach seems a little foolhardy to me. Writers, and high-school kids as well, have enough troubles and stress already; they don't need to actively look for more.

The Good

There are, of course, writers who love simultaneous submissions, and I understand why. Again, it helps their chances of getting published. As for the risks, those who do it regularly say the risk is small. Getting a story accepted at all isn't easy, so there's fairly little danger that several different editors in several different places at the same time will like a particular story enough to buy it. Besides, some of those markets state in their guidelines that they "allow" simultaneous submissions, so what's the harm?

Think about that for a minute. Let's say you send out a mystery story to two separate markets. If one of those two markets rejects your story, all's well and good--you still have another egg in your basket (or, if you're a hunter, another load in your shotgun). If the second market happens to reject it also, you're back to square one, but all is still peaceful in the world. And if the first market rejects it and the second market accepts it, well, everything's great--you've not only made a sale, you've saved yourself a lot of time. And in fact that's the way simultaneous submissions usually work. Either two rejections, or one rejection and one acceptance, with time saved either way. Nothing wrong here, folks.


But let's say that first market says "yes." In that case, you send the editor of the other market a polite note withdrawing your manuscript from consideration there, while still celebrating your good fortune at market #1. Market #2 probably won't take offense at this; you're not telling them the story's been accepted elsewhere, you're just telling them you'd like to withdraw it. But they won't be overjoyed either. Editors are smart, and a withdrawal note like that, polite or not, tells them that another editor has probably been looking at the story also, and decided to buy it. You've still not broken any writing rules--but it's not something you want to do too often.

The Bad (and the Ugly)

Now consider another scenario. Let's say that market #1 accepts your story and, during your celebration, market #2 later says "yes" as well, possibly before your withdrawal note reaches #2, or before you think to send the note, or before they have an opportunity to read it. If that happens, you have stepped in an extremely stinky place in the cowpasture. You will now have to tell one of those two editors that your story--even though they have spent time reading it and possibly discussing it with their staff and have told you they want to buy it--is no longer available to them. And they'll know why.

But why should they mind? you might ask. Their guidelines said they allow simultaneous submissions. My answer to that is, it doesn't matter--they still won't like it. And they'll remember you. They'll most likely put a little black mark beside your name, and those can stay in place a long time. 

One more thing. We're not talking just about stories that might be submitted to several markets on the same day. Simsubs are also stories that are sent to one market and then later sent to another market before you receive a response from the first. The point is, your story is being considered at more than one place at the same time. This kind of delayed-submission situation is where I personally have run into trouble. Twice. In each of those instances I had submitted a story to one market that hadn't responded in so long I assumed it had been rejected, so I submitted that story to a different market, and then--wouldn't you know it?--the first market sent me a note accepting the story. In each case, after a few bad words and some acid reflux and some visions of two-dates-to-the-prom, I sent a carefully-worded withdrawal letter to that second market. As it turned out, the editor who received the withdrawal note seemed to take it well and I don't think any damage was done--but I still remember how bad I felt having to do that, and after the second time it happened, I resolved never to make that kind of mistake again.


Bottom line is, I think the possible risks of simultaneous submissions outweigh the advantages. I believe that after sending a story to an editor, you shouldn't send that story anyplace else until you've received a response (yea or nay) from that editor. If you feel that's a waste of time, I have two suggestions. One is to send the story first to a market that you know will respond fairly quickly--there are several of those, and that'll cut down the wait time. The other suggestion is to write more stories while you're waiting, and send those to other markets. 

So, to go back to those first three questions to my classes, my own answers would be: (1) I outline my stories (at least mentally) before beginning, (2) I aways start with a plot, not characters or setting or whatever, and (3) I don't do simultaneous submissions. Once again, I would never try to encourage you to do what I do on questions #1 and #2--different strokes, and all that--but I would encourage you to give a lot of thought to #3. That one's a roll of the dice, and when it comes to writing and publishing, I'm not a betting man.

If you're a writer, what do you think about simultaneous submissions? Do you or don't you? Have you or haven't you? If you haven't done it already, would you or wouldn't you? Any war stories, about this kind of thing? Please let me know, in the comments section below. I'd also love to hear the opinions of editors, if any of you decision-makers are reading this.

By the way, I have submitted this column only to SleuthSayers and to noplace else. (Who else would have me . . . ?)

Upcoming news: Next Saturday, May 6, I'll be featuring a guest post by my friend Judy Penz Sheluk in this space. I hope you'll tune in.