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

04 February 2023

Midstory Surprises


I've always enjoyed plot twists. I love it when a novel or movie or short story suddenly changes direction--and it doesn't have to be a surprise ending like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects or Planet of the Apes. Effective twists and reveals can happen anywhere in the story, and in my opinion, the bigger the change, the better.

I've written a lot of these story twists myself, and encountered a lot of them when I'm watching a movie, or reading. So, since I was recently thinking about this kind of thing and also wondering about a topic for today's SleuthSayers post . . . 

Here are a few movies that had what I think are memorable and mid-steam plot twists. I liked them all.

Psycho -- The first of the two big surprises in this movie happens before the midpoint, but it's still a good twenty minutes or so into the story. All of you know what it is--Janet Leigh said in an interview that she only took baths afterward, never showers--and it turns what starts out as a theft-and-getaway story into an edge-of-your-seat horror/suspense film.

Marathon Man -- Midway through the movie, we discover that the two characters we've been watching separately, in their own story-worlds, are closely connected--in fact they're brothers. The novel, by the great William Goldman, used the same surprise, and perfectly. This is one of my favorite midstory reversals.

Titanic -- Starts out as a romance and becomes, when the iceberg shows up, a disaster movie. (Not that we didn't expect it.) This reminded me a bit of what happened in the lesser-known Miracle Mile.

The Village -- This one begins as an otherworldly love story/horror story in which residents of a small settlement live in fear of terrible unseen creatures in the surrounding forest--and then becomes a real-world suspense tale. It's probably worth mentioning that none of my writer friends liked this movie. (What do they know? I loved it.) 

 From Dusk till Dawn -- When a group on the run from the law after a bank robbery stops at a bar in the middle of nowhere, the story turns into a vampire/horror flick. Tarantino at his zaniest.

Gone Girl -- Here, the audience discovers in midstream that the girl who's gone is instead alive and well, and--of course--everything changes as a result. Similar, in that respect, to Laura and The Third Man.

Vertigo -- An investigation suddenly becomes a strange romance. This one also reminded me a bit of Laura

A History of Violence -- At about its halfway point, a small-town hero is revealed to be ruthless former assassin, and because of this, a local crime story becomes a movie about mafia hitmen. Another little-known movie that 's one of my all-time favorites--probably because I've always liked watching Ed Harris and William Hurt.

Sunshine -- This one changes in the middle from a science-fiction film to a horror/slasher movie.

Predator -- Same kind of thing. Starts out as a jungle rescue operation and turns into a science-fiction/horror tale.

The Sound of Music -- A romance movie becomes (admittedly late in the story) a suspenseful drama about escape from the Nazis. Not a great example, but I wanted to at least mention it.

Bone Tomahawk -- Changes suddenly from a Western to a horror movie. (I read someplace that this one starts out as True Grit and becomes Cannibal Holocaust.)

L.A. Confidential -- This is one of five films I can remember (Psycho, Deep Blue Sea, Executive Decision, and Pulp Fiction are the other four) where one of the most famous and top-billed of its actors is unexpectedly killed off fairly early in the movie. Each of these reversals is an absolute and intentional shock, and leaves the stunned audience wondering What else might happen?

Not that it matters, but here are a few more midstory events that changed everything:

- The chest-buster scene in Alien

- The restaurant murders of McCluskey and Solozzo in The Godfather

- Maggie breaking her neck in the boxing ring in Million Dollar Baby

- The T-Rex escape in Jurassic Park

- The near-miss shark attack on Chief Brody's son in Jaws (turned a land-based investigation into a seagoing survival movie).

NOTE: Also interesting about the above five examples is that four of these films were the original installments of what would become hugely successful multi-movie franchises.

Can you suggest other midstream reversals that I've missed or forgotten? Do you think this kind of plot shift--and jolt to the reader/viewer--adds value to the story? Can you think of any surprises like this that didn't work? How about your own writing--if you use plot twists, do they ever happen in the middle of your story or novel? 

That's my rant for today. Take care, and keep writing!

21 January 2023

A Cold Case


Those of you who know me well know I'm not fond of winter weather. My friends in northern climes often say, to irritate me, "I love the changing of the seasons." Well, I love it too, when it changes to spring. I get cold just writing about wintertime, which is something I did for my latest story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

"Going the Distance" (Jan/Feb 2023 issue) isn't a Christmas story any more than Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but it happens during that time of the year, and during a freak snowstorm in the Deep South. That's also the home of the three characters in my Ray Douglas mystery series--former lawyer Jennifer Parker, Deputy Cheryl Grubbs, and Sheriff Raymond Kirk Douglas (his father was a movie fan). In this, the seventh installment of my lighthearted series set in the fictional Mississippi town of Pinewood, Ray and his parters in crime(solving) are investigating what could be the attempted murder of a mutual friend. As usual in these stories, my female characters are smarter than the males (I like for my fiction to reflect real life), but the unusual thing is the frigid weather, which complicates everything. Southerners often don't do well in low temperatures, and we especially aren't good at dealing with snow. We don't know how to walk in it or drive in it, and, as I heard someone say the other day, it tends to make shoppers get into fistfights at the Piggly Wiggly. 

As it turned out, I had a good time writing this story, because it used a familiar setting and it used characters I've come to know and understand. Best of all, it involved something I've started doing in some of these Sheriff Douglas installments: I try to include several different mysteries in the same story--or at least a lot of different sets of clues that could lead to the solution. The first of the good sheriff's adventures, "Trail's End," uses only one main mystery that the reader can try to solve before the protagonists do, but the second, "Scavenger Hunt," has three separate puzzles in the story. The next three installments, "Quarterback Sneak," "The Daisy Nelson Case," and "Friends and Neighbors," have one mystery each; "The Dollhouse" has two; "Going the Distance" has one, but with many different clues; and the eighth installment, "The POD Squad"--which has been accepted at AHMM but hasn't yet been published--again has three completely separate mysteries in one story. I hope that kind of plot complication makes the story more enjoyable to read; I know it makes it more fun to write. A quick note: "The Daisy Nelson Case" is the only story in this series that has appeared in a market other than AHMM. It was published in Down & Out: The Magazine in December 2020.

This apparent reluctance of mine to write tales set in cold weather is nothing new: I can think of only a dozen or so of my stories that took place during the winter months. One was in Strand Magazine, one in The Saturday Evening Post, several in Woman's World, two in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, several in anthologies, etc.--but the percentage is still small. All writers have quirks, and I guess that's one of mine. I suppose I feel more comfortable and more believable making my characters sweat instead of shiver, unless the shivers are a result of the plot.

The same thing goes for locations. I've never done a tally, but I suspect at least three-fourths of my short stories are set in the American South, which I consider to be Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Texas and Virginia are questionable--probably Florida too, for that matter--but I doubt I'd get many arguments about the rest. I've traveled a lot in my years with IBM and the Air Force, and I'm comfortable writing about faraway locations, but I feel absolutely confident writing about my own part of the country, and about characters named Bubba and Patty Sue and Nate and Billy Ray. I went to school with those folks.

How about you? Do those of you who are story-or-novel writers prefer to create stories about things familiar to you or do you enjoy the challenge of setting your fiction elsewhere, or even in different time periods? What do you think are the pluses and minuses of both?

As for me, I'll probably continue spinning tales mostly about my own green and humid corner of the world. I know its people, its towns, its history, its problems--and its weather. Besides, writing about things near my own Zip Code usually means I don't have to do as much research, or go places that require gloves and overcoats. 

Matter of fact, I think I'll go adjust the thermostat.

Have a good two weeks.

31 December 2022

2022 in Review


Around this time every year I usually take a look back at what I've written, submitted, published, and so forth, and put that into a SleuthSayers post--probably because it requires very little effort or imagination on my part. (The imagination machine in my head this late in the year is usually panting and wheezing and ready to put all four feet in the air.)

One problem, though, with my previous summary reports is that I've always included lots of statistics and percentages--probably too many. So this time I'm doing more of a casual observation. The only numbers I'll mention are these: I wrote fewer new stories in 2022 than in 2021--34 vs. 38--and had about half as many stories published this year as last--33 in 2022, 61 in 2021. I can't account for either difference, except that (1) I seem to be writing longer stories now, and (2) many of those stories that were scheduled to come out in 2022 have apparently been postponed until '23. (Best-laid plans and all that.) I currently have 35 stories that have been accepted but not yet published, in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Mystery Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Weekly, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and others--and about a dozen anthologies and podcasts.

Having said all that . . . here are some observations I might make about this past year's literary output:


- I had more publications in magazines this year than in anthologies. I think one reason was that I saw fewer calls for anthologies--but another is that I might not have been as inclined to (or as able to ) produce stories with the themes needed by those anthos I did see.

- Most of my magazine stories published this year were in AHMM, Woman's World, Mystery Magazine, and Black Cat Weekly

- Most of my anthology stories were published in response to invitations by editors rather than via open calls for submissions.

- For a change, I had more "series" stories published this year than standalone stories. They were installments in five different series.

- This year I published (and wrote) more stories based on real historical events. Some of that is due to anthology calls/requests for stories set in a certain time period or certain location, but others--including those in magazines--were just personal preference. I've found I like reading those kinds of stories, so it made sense to start writing more of them.

- All the stories I had published this year were set in the U.S. (Unusual, for me.)

- As always, none of my published stories were written in present tense. I don't usually like reading those, so I don't like writing them. Give me the old past-tense, once-upon-a-time style.

- I did more tuckerizing this year (using friends's names as character names in stories, at their request).

- More of my stories published in 2022 were undiluted mystery/crime/suspense than in years past. Less than a dozen this time were cross-genre, and by that I mean mystery/western, mystery/fantasy, mystery/horror, etc. Far as I know, there was no reason for that; it just happened.

- I had fewer western-themed stories published this year--half a dozen of them, mostly standalone stories in Mystery Magazine and one in AHMM

- I had more stories than usual published this year that were written in first-person POV. Again, I don't know why. Up until now, most of my writing was in third-person (usually third-person multiple), because it often seems to be easier to build suspense and tension via third-person ("As the hero left the apartment, the villain watched him from the window across the street," etc.). But even my crime stories this year were written more in first-person than third.

- My published-in-2022 stories were usually longer (higher wordcount) than in previous years. Some of that was due to fewer stories sold to Woman's World and other flash markets, but also to the fact that I now just seem to be creating stories with more scenes and characters than before. Maybe I can blame that on my watching more cable series like Ozark, Yellowstone, etc., instead of two-hour movies. (Just kiddin.')

- I had fewer stories published this year in online-only publications and in non-paying publications. Almost all were in print markets and in paying markets.

- More of my stories than usual this year were published outside the U.S.

- I had fewer reprints published in 2022 than I normally do--most were original stories. I think that's because (1) more of my anthology stories this year were written specifically for the antho's requirements and (2) I've sold more stories recently to magazines that require previously-unpublished work.

How about you, and your own literary year? Was it a good one, or not-so? Do you see any changes or trends in what you're writing or how you're writing it or where you're submitting and publishing it? Nosy SleuthSayers want to know. 

Now, to the important stuff:

I wish all of you a happy and healthy and prosperous 2023!

See you next year.

25 December 2022

Following in John's Footsteps

Back on November 5th, John Floyd wrote a SleuthSayers blog about three stories he had published in AHMM this year. In the article's conclusion, he asked several questions concerning what elements of writing other authors published in AHMM had used, such as Point of View, sub-genre, series vs. standalones, etc.

As I lag along in John's footsteps, you can easily see the difference in the size of our prints. For one thing, I only have about 160 published short stories, whereas John has about eight or nine times that many. In any case, I was going to answer some of his questions in the comment section, except that my answers kept getting longer and longer, therefore I turned those answers into my own blog and here it is.

The first story I sold to AHMM was a standalone set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia and is not part of the much later 9 Tales from the Golden Triangle series. At the time, the AHMM website said that then editor Kathleen Jordan was looking for stories set in an exotic location. In my mind, the area of the Golden Triangle (Burma, Laos and Thailand) fit the bill for an exotic location, so I submitted my story and she published it. I was launched.

After that, I had to come up with something new in hopes that I wasn't just a one-trick pony. The result was the 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond series. Ten stories in AHMM, in which the reader solves each mystery at the same time the story characters do and with the same clues. It seems the Proprietor in this series only accepts special clients, who subsequently end up falling from high places, being run over by an errant taxi cab (but then they were outside the painted lines of the crosswalk at the time), go deep water swimming without the proper breathing apparatus, get crosswise with their homicidal partner, or are otherwise rendered deceased, yet the bail firm always made a profit. These stories are told in 3rd Person from the POV of the lowly and long-suffering bail bondsman, Theodore. All titles contain some form of the words bail or bond in them. Sayings of Mahatma Gandhi are prominent in many of the stories, however the meanings of these sayings are now sinister, not at all what the great pacifist had intended.

The next series was The Armenian, a trader of goods along the Cossack cordon on the Terek River and south of the river into Chechen country. As a neutral party in the long-standing conflict between Muscovy forces and Chechen hill tribes, The Armenian is often tasked with finding a resolution for local crimes. 9 published stories in all, 6 of them published in AHMM. All were told in 1st Person from the viewpoint of either The Armenian or the Little Nogai Boy. These historical mysteries are set in the 1850s when Russian Tsars were expanding the empire. (9 Historical Mysteries Vol 1 & 2)

Next was the 1660s Paris Underworld series involving a young, orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a criminal enclave. Naively considering himself to be good at his profession, he is often drawn into the schemes and scams of others. 9 published stories in all of which 8 were published in AHMM. All are historical mysteries told in 1st Person POV. (9 Historical Mysteries Vol 1 & 2)

Since humor keeps me sane, I soon turned to humorous capers with the Holiday Burglars series. 13 stories total with 12 published in AHMM. All the capers and titles concern well-known holidays, plus there is a double meaning on the titles. Told in 3rd Person, story characters Beaumont and Yarnell become involved in several bungled burglaries. (9 Holiday Burglars Mysteries)

My 9 Tales from the Golden Triangle series could be considered as an historical thriller set in the mountain jungles and opium fields of Burma, Laos and Thailand during the Vietnam War. Two half-brothers from different cultures vie to see who will inherit their warlord father's opium empire. 9 stories of which 7 were published in AHMM. All are told in 3rd Person POV with much of the plot based around old country Chinese proverbs.

And then, there is my Prohibition Era series of which one story has been published in AHMM and one has been bought but not yet published. The 3rd story was rejected, so it cannot truly be called a series yet. However, I recently submitted another story in this hoped-to-be-series. All are told in 3rd Person POV.

One of my standalones won the 2022 Edgar, but the storyline and background are not conducive to turning this story into a series.

Of course, there were also potential series which died aborning. They didn't get past the 2nd submission before I saw the rejection handwriting writ upon the wall.

There was the EZ Money  Pawn Shop series. Two rejections and out. I even interviewed a real pawn shop manager, and believe me, he was uneasy about the whole deal. Not sure what he had to hide. Stories told in 3rd Person.

For the Bookie series, I interviewed a real bookie. Again, two rejections and out. Told in 1st Person. I was surprised the bookie consented to be interviewed, but then he did almost marry into the far edge of our extended family. He might have erroneously thought it was good for one Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.

The 1900s French Indo-China series, using the old capitol of Hue along the Perfume River as background. Told in 1st Person. Two and out, with a 3rd one abandoned in mid-story. 

The Exterminator series concerning a scheming family of bug exterminators working their scams through their fake business. One and out with two more on the plotting board. Told in 3rd Person.


Even with 49 stories sold to AHMM, I guess some stories just aren't destined to become a series.

One last set of facts. Most of my AHMM stories run from 3,500 words to about 5,000 words, with two topping out in the neighborhood of 8,000 words. Each story took as many words as was needed to tell that particular story.

Reading back over this article, I think the AHMM editor and I would agree that if I ever got that first story (a standalone at that point) published, then more than likely I would try to turn those characters and their situation into a series. Why not?

     HAPPY HOLIDAYS to  all !!!

17 December 2022

An Early Christmas


One thing I've found, as a writer, is that if you get into the habit of writing and submitting short stories to editors regularly, you can usually--not always--expect to sell and get them published regularly. Sure, there are dry spells, we all have those. But if you set a good pace and don't let too much time pass between submissions, all those swallows you send out are eventually going to find their way back to Capistrano--and sometimes they come in flocks. Rejections? Sure you'll get rejections. But if you're careful to send out the best work that you can do, you'll probably find that the writer who gets the most no's is also the one who gets the most yeses.

Publishingwise, the first half of December was good to me this year. I had a story published in the December issue of Mystery Magazine, one in a Golden Age of Mystery anthology, one in the third Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir anthology, one in AHMM, one in Kings River Life, and one in an anthology of previous Shamus Award-winning stories. All of those tales are firmly in the mystery/suspense genre, but most are very different in terms of location, mood, characters, time period, type of crime, etc. If you're at all interested, here are quick summaries of those six stories.

"The Magnolia Thief," Mystery Magazine, December 2022 issue. This is the umpteenth installation of my "Law & Daughter" series featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her crimesolving mother Fran. It's a lighthearted solve-it-yourself mystery about traveling salesmen, motel restaurants, and the theft of a valuable painting of the state flower that was given to the local mayor by the governor. Side note: "The Magnolia Thief" is my seventh story in Mystery Magazine this year--four more have been accepted by MM but not yet published--and my fifth Fran/Lucy story there.

"Burying Oliver," Mickey Finn, Vol. 3: 21st Century Noir (Down & Out Books), edited by Michael Bracken. My story in the third Mickey Finn outing is a standalone tale featuring a young farmer, his wife, his cousin, his dog, and the local sheriff--and, as you might expect, some of those five don't make it out alive. (Actually, most of them don't make it out alive.) "Burying Oliver" probably has more plot twists in its 3000 words than any other story I've written recently, which is one of the things that made this one such a pleasure to create. Quick plug, here: Michael Bracken anthologies are always fun, both to write for and to read, and this book is no exception.

"Old Money," Edgar & Shamus Go Golden (Down & Out Books), edited by Gay Kinman and Andrew McAleer. This anthology contains twelve original stories set in the Golden Age of Mystery, all written by winners of either the Edgar or Shamus Award. The one I wrote specifically for this book, "Old Money," features New Orleans private eye Luke Walker, and is set mostly in 1940s Natchez, Mississippi. The crimes involved are insurance fraud and murder, and the story was great fun to write because of two things: (1) the research I had to do regarding language, cars, businesses, cigarettes, equipment, procedures, buildings, etc., of that time period, and (2) my familiarity with the city of Natchez.

"Going the Distance," Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (Jan/Feb 2023 issue). This is the seventh installment of my series about Sheriff Ray Douglas of Pine County, Mississippi, where a rare Christmas snowstorm serves to complicate an already weird murder investigation. Also featured are Douglas's loyal deputy Cheryl Grubbs and his off-and-on love interest Jennifer Parker. (Even though this issue is dated January/February, I'm told it went on sale this past week, on Dec. 13.) FYI, the eighth Ray Douglas mystery has been accepted by AHMM but is still awaiting a publication date.

"Santa's Helper," Kings River Life, December 14, 2022, issue. Most of my KRL stories over the years have been reprints, but this one's an original Christmas mystery--another installment in my Fran and Lucy Valentine series. In this adventure my amateur sleuth and her sheriff daughter investigate the mugging of pint-sized Al Wilson, half of a two-man team who often perform at Christmas events and parties: Al's giant brother Ernest plays Santa and Al plays what he calls a subordinate Claus with low elf esteem. Obviously, this is an ultra-lighthearted story, and is being given double duty: editor Lorie Lewis Ham is featuring it now in the magazine and will run it again next Christmas as a Mysteryrat's Maze Podcast. Thanks, Lorie!

"Mustang Sally," The Shamus Winners: America's Best Private Eye Stories, Vol. III (Perfect Crime Books), edited by Robert Randisi. This is an anthology of all the Shamus Award-winning stories from 2010 to 2021. My story was originally published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #7: Special Private Eye Issue and was the first installment of my series about present-day private investigator Tom Langford, who takes a case involving the recovery of an engagement ring that went missing under highly unusual circumstances. I was notified this past week that the book is out now but available only via Barnes & Noble. Amazon and other outlets will be getting it soon. 

One special thing about these "early Christmas gifts for me" is that three of these six publications happened only because of my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. Michael was the editor who bought "Burying Oliver" for Mickey Finn, Vol. 3, and he's also the editor who first published "Mustang Sally" in Black Cat Mystery Magazine--a story that went on to win the 2021 Shamus Award and was thus included in the Shamus Winners III anthology. In addition, that Shamus win is the only reason I was invited to write "Old Money" for the Edgar & Shamus Go Golden anthology. So thank you, Michael, for making all three of those publications possible.

Questions, regarding my spree of good luck: Have any of you writers experienced these "when it rains, it pours" spells, with the stories you've submitted? Do you find that these clusters of publications happen more often around the end of the year (because of the approaching holidays, I guess) than at other times? Do you often experience long stretches when nothing you send out seems to be getting published, no matter how often you submit or how hard you try? (I found Bob Mangeot's recent SleuthSayers column on that subject to be interesting.) How do you deal with extended periods of rejection? I can't help recalling what one writer told me years ago, back when everything was done via snailmail. She said she'd found a sure-fire way to prevent getting rejection letters: don't include SASEs. And it worked.

But don't do that. Follow this advice instead: When you get a rejection, send that story someplace else, and then send a different story to the place that rejected you. Never give up, never stop trying. Persistence will pay off, and sometimes in bunches.

Anyhow, that's my pre-Christmas message. I wish all of you a happy and healthy holiday, and many, many publications during the second half of the month--and in 2023! 

See you again here on New Year's Eve.


03 December 2022

Happy in My Shorts


And why wouldn't I be?--I live in what some call the middle of the Deep South, and for about seven months of every year down here, long pants are just too hot. But I'm also happy writing shorts instead of longs, which has a little more connection to this column.

Interesting note: several of my published nonfiction-writing friends complain that they sometimes aren't recognized as "real" writers. Why? Because they haven't written and published fiction. Seriously, they say nonfiction doesn't get as much respect. (According to them, nonfiction doesn't even have its own name; instead, it's nonfiction.) I disagree with this opinion--the nonfiction authors I'm referring to are more talented writers than I am. But this perceived disrespect does seem to be something that bothers them. 

That same (mis?)perception also applies to short-fiction writers vs. novelists. Those who specialize in writing short stories don't get the same respect and recognition as those who write long. Some of that, I think, is justified: writing a good novel is much harder than writing a good short story--though there are some who disagree with that as well. As for me, I love writing the short stuff and I plan to continue doing it until the little workers in my brain get tired of it. Does that mean I'm not a real fiction writer? Maybe it does. But to that I reply, "Who cares? I'm having fun."

I'm reminded of something a writer friend named Neil Schofield once mentioned in a comment responding to one of my weekly Criminal Brief columns. He said, "The short story is not a rehearsal for The Novel . . . it's an end and an art in itself, and a damn exciting and rewarding one."

Another insightful comment on this subject came from fellow SleuthSayer Leigh Lundin:

"I'd add that word limits foster discipline. they help foster better writing habits such as cutting out the fat."

and yet another from Dave Duggins:

"While you're writing and marketing novels, keep writing short fiction . . . they keep your name in front of a reading public while you toil away in relative anonymity creating projects that will take a year or more to write and another year to hit bookstores. Short fiction is a good business decision."

Let me add to this praise of short stories by pointing out some definite advantages to writing shorts instead of novels. I saw these listed someplace long ago, and I think they still apply:

1. Short stories can be resold. And resold many times, to different places. There aren't a ton of markets out there that will consider publishing reprints, but there are some, including anthologies. I have one story that's been reprinted ten times.

2. Short stories give you a sense of completion. You can write THE END, submit your story to a market, and then turn around and write another story the next day that's completely different. That kind of satisfaction and freedom is a big thing, to me.

3. They don't take a long time to write. A novel can take a writer months or even years to complete, while the shorts I write take a matter of days--a week or two at the most. Slam, bam, and then write another one. And if one doesn't sell--well, I know this is negative thinking, but if it doesn't sell you've invested a lot less time.

4. They can help build a resume. Publishing a number of short stories in respected markets can help your career as a writer in several ways. It can make you better known to readers, can attract the attention of other editors, and can--if it's important to you--increase your visibility to agents and publishers of longer works.

5. They're good practice. Crafting marketable short stories gives you valuable experience, especially in how to write tight and compact. That's something that can help when it comes to writing anything, from flash stories to novels to nonfiction to screenplays. Fictionwise, shorts can also teach you a lot about story structure--plot points, character arcs, etc.

6. You don't need an agent. Many writers are advised to try to find an agent before they try to publish a novel--and that's not a bad idea. As a writer of shorts, I do have an agent, and he's been a great help to me on things like foreign sales, movie deals, and such--but the fact is, most short story writers don't have an agent and don't need one. Certainly not at first.

NOTE: I've been careful not to list the DISadvantages of writing short vs. long, the biggest of which are money and fame. But who wants to be rich, right? Besides, most novel writers aren't rich either. Or famous.

In addition to all the above . . . writing short stories is fun. I write a lot of them, and when I'm not actually writing I'm putting them together in my head. As I've often said, none of my time is wasted anymore. If I happen to find myself waiting around for some something or someone--my wife, a friend, our kids/grandkids--I use that time to dream up plots and characters. (Talk about living in a fantasy world . . .)

A final point. If you're not a writer but you read a lot, consider trying to write a short story. Since they are short, it shouldn't be as daunting a task as a novel. And if you're already a novelist or a nonfiction writer, you might want to try your hand at writing shorts as well. Think of it as a break from your normal routine. At the very least, it might recharge your batteries.

So. What do y'all think? If you write, what kind of writing do you do? Ever tried to experiment a bit? Have you tried writing short stories and found you enjoy it? Did you find it relaxing? Challenging? Do you write both short and long? Fiction and non-? Have you experienced any of those six advantages I listed above? Are you sick and tired of these questions?

In closing, here's something else I heard long ago: Writing a good novel requires a better storyteller; writing a good short story requires a better craftsman. I suspect that's true. 

Not that it matters. In the publishing world, there's room for both.

19 November 2022

Treasures from the Sock Drawer

Like all writers, I have a lot of ideas for stories. When one of them occurs to me, I try first to figure out whether it's marketable, and if I think it is I go ahead and write the story. If the idea seems a little anemic, I store it away until I can (1) develop it into something better or (2) combine it with another idea. Several stories that I've written lately have come from this second approach.

Most ideas seem to appear to me from thin air, but sometimes I see a call for a short-story anthology whose theme kicks off an idea that might not have happened otherwise. (Barb Goffman's Crime Travel was one of those, and Michael Bracken's Jukes & Tonks, and a couple of Josh Pachter's music-themed anthologies.) At other times--not often--I go back to ideas that I had and stories that I wrote many years ago, stories that I felt weren't strong enough to submit. And whenever I dig those manuscripts out from under the bed or from the back of my sock drawer and look at them I usually realize how good a decision it was to hide those stories from any chance of public view. Most of them were terrible, and serve to remind me of just how little I knew when I first started trying to write short fiction.

But now and then I find that some of those old stories can be repaired and made presentable, and when that happens it's like finding a silver dollar on the sidewalk, or a free gift among all the bills in your mailbox, or a pair of clean underwear in your dorm room in college. In other words, a pleasant surprise. And the rewriting of some of those old manuscripts can actually be enjoyable.

Most of my favorite stories have been written fast: I get an idea, think about it a while, write the story, edit it, and send it off to a market. But a few of my favorite published stories didn't start out as a blinding bolt from the blue; they came from unearthing those aforementioned old stories and trying to breathe new life into them. One of those was "Molly's Plan," a dot-matrix-printed manuscript about a bank heist that I found hidden not in my sock drawer but in a cardboard box on the bottom shelf of a closet in one of our back bedrooms. I took it out, dusted it off, worked on it for a week or two, and sent it to Strand Magazine in the spring of 2014. It wound up getting published there, went on to be selected for Best American Mystery Stories the following year, and has since been reprinted overseas, considered for film, and chosen for inclusion in the permanent digital archives of the New York Public Library. Another was "Calculus I," an unsubmitted and forgotten story I'd written in the mid-'90s about two engineering students' plan to cheat on a college exam. I found the manuscript, rewrote and retitled it, and sold it in 2019 to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post and later to a foreign publisher. I usually judge the worth of my stories by how much fun they were to write, and I had a great time writing (in this case, rewriting) both of those. And I almost missed them completely.

A few weeks ago I found several more of those old unsubmitted manuscripts in the back of one of my file cabinets (I'm not the most organized person in the world), and while two or three of those stories look promising, the others are probably too weak to ever grow into anything more. I won't throw them away--I never throw away anything I've started writing--but if I use them at all it might be to try to salvage some parts and pieces from them to insert into something more current.

Okay, question time. Have any of you writers discovered older stories in your files that you later reworked and marketed? Any success with those? Do you have other projects (teaching moments?) that you gave up on and will probably never revive? Do any of you save your story ideas for later use? How and where do you save them? In your head? In a Word file? In the "notes" app on your phone? Do your story ideas usually come in a burst of heavenly light, or do they seep in during deep thought, or come from "prompts" like anthology submission calls or themed issues of a magazine? Please let me know, in the comments.

As for my situation, I have re-filed several of those old manustcripts that I recently found--this time I put them in a folder called "in progress" (a hopeful label if ever I heard one)--and I'm actively reworking the others. If I'm lucky you'll soon see those somewhere in a publication. And meanwhile, I'm trying to stay alert to any new ideas that happen to come along.

One last observation: They can be quick as rabbits, these story ideas, and if you're not careful they show up and then scurry off into the bushes before you can grab them and hold on. Especially those that appear in the middle of the night. But when you do catch one, and when it turns out to be something you can develop into a story you're proud of . . . well, that makes all this worthwhile.

Good hunting, to all of us.

05 November 2022

Three Hitchcock Stories


I'll begin on a happy note: I received word a few weeks ago from Jackie Sherbow at Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine that one of my short stories, "Going the Distance," will be included in their Jan/Feb 2023 issue, coming out next month. More about that in a later post.

On that subject, I've been fortunate enough to have three other stories featured in AHMM already this year--the first time I've had three in one year at AH since, I think, 1999. And the strange thing is, these three stories are different in almost every way. (I think that kind of variety is one of the things that makes this magazine fun for readers and writers as well. It's like a box of chocolate mysteries: you never know what you're gonna get.)

The first of my three stories was "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" (Jan/Feb 2022 issue). At 2300 words, it's the shortest story of mine that AHMM has published in a long time. It's not a whodunit, or even a real mystery--it's more of a straight crime story, about a violent and unforeseen event in the lives of two brothers on a fishing trip. The first half of the story takes place inside a vehicle and is almost entirely dialogue, and the last half is about an incident at a quick-stop gas station that's tied to something the two guys heard earlier on their truck's radio. It's a standalone story set in the rural South, it's told via the POV of one of the brothers, and it's different from most of my stories in that there are no female characters. (Well, there's one, a sister who's a partner in their small business, but she's only mentioned in passing.) One of the things that made this story so much fun to write is that movies and the love of movies play a vital part in the storyline, and the thing that saves the main characters' lives involves a well-known Hitchcock plot device called a MacGuffin (which probably made AHMM more receptive to the story). The original title was even "MacGuffins," but editor Linda Landrigan suggested a different title to make it easier to use in a cover illustration.

My second story at AHMM this year was "The Dollhouse" (May/June 2022), one of those whose title has a double meaning. This one is a whodunit, in fact it's two whodunits because it contains two separate mystery plots that are seemingly unconnected at first: one is a murder mystery and the other is an incident at a local high school. It's a bit more typical of my other recent stories in AHMM because it's the sixth installment of a series featuring southern sheriff Ray Douglas, his ex-lawyer girlfriend Jennifer Parker, and his deputy Cheryl Grubbs. (My upcoming story in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue is the seventh installment, and the eighth has been accepted at AHMM but so far has no publication date.) "The Dollhouse," which runs about 5200 words, is about the same length as most of my latest AH stories. It's told from the sheriff's POV and again contains a great deal of dialogue, mostly between him and his two crimesolving partners.

My third story, "The Donovan Gang" (Sep/Oct 2022) is different in a lot of ways. First and foremost, it's not present-day. It's sort of a whodunit Western set in 1907, in the Arizona Territory. Second, it mentions several real people from that time period, and actively involves another real person as a part of the plot. Third, almost the whole story happens inside a confined space: the interior of a stagecoach--which again gave me an opportunity for lots of talking between the characters. The six passengers are a preacher, an actress, a journalist, a lawman, a saloon girl, and a dentist--and there are another half-dozen minor players, some of them offscreen-only. The story is a standalone and is told from the young journalist's POV. Also, it's a fairly typical length, around 4100 words. The fact that it's set in the Old West isn't unusual for me--I love to write Westerns--but it is unusual for AHMM. Twist Phelan and I have agreed to call those "historicals with horses." 

One thing these three stories do have in common is that they're all told in first-person, which has always been the case in the series I mentioned but not in most of my standalones, which are usually third-person. These three are also all written in past tense, but those are the only kinds of stories I write. I don't mind reading present-tense stores, but I don't like to write them. (I'm actually not crazy about reading them either, but I've accepted it.)

As for upcoming stories at AHMM, I have three that have been accepted but not yet published. Two of them, as I said, are more installments of my Ray Douglas series and one is, believe it or not, a standalone science-fiction story. So yes, I can say from experience that Linda will certainly consider stories other than mysteries, so long as a crime is present in the plot, and in fact AH is one of only two respected mystery magazines (that I'm aware of) that are receptive to stories with paranormal elements. The other is Mystery Magazine. Remember that EQMM has been known to publish the occasional otherworldly tale but usually doesn't, and both Strand Magazine and Black Cat Mystery Magazine prefer undiluted crime stories.

For those of you who are writers, what's been your experience, with the kinds of stories you've had accepted and published at AHMM? Are they shorter? Longer? Series stories? Standalones? Do any of you stick to traditional mysteries? Has anyone had success with other genres there? And what kinds of stories have you most enjoyed reading at AHMM? How about the kinds of stories you submit to other markets? Is there any subject matter, like Covid, that you try to avoid completely? Inquiring (nosy) minds want to know. 

Meanwhile, thank you as always for stopping in at SleuthSayers. Keep writing and reading--and have a good November.

29 October 2022

And Don't Call Me Shirley


As I get older, I'm often reminded that my memory's not what it used to be. Example: One night last week, while my wife and I were watching the news, I asked her what I thought was a reasonable question about a guy who was being interviewed on the street. "Why in the world," I said, pointing, "would someone wear both a belt and suspenders?" It was of course more of an observation than a question, and right away it seemed somehow familiar to me. I spent the rest of the newscast trying to remember where I'd heard that expression before. 

Later that night I did some snooping around on YouTube and--sure enough--I found this clip, from Once Upon a Time in the West, which solved my belt-and-suspenders mystery. When I told my wife about it. she made an observation of her own. She said, not for the first time, "I think you watch too many movies."

Guilty as charged, there. I happen to love movies. And over the years I've picked up a lot of sayings that I first heard spoken in big-screen dialogue. Some of them are silly, some are wise, and most of them stay in my head for a long time afterward. Which led of course to this post.

Here's my question to you: How many film quotes do you recognize, from the following three lists?

NOTE: Given my sophisticated viewing preferences, you can expect to see more quotes here from movies like Jaws and Blazing Saddles than from movies like Schindler's List and Anna Karenina. Sorry, but that's just the way it is.

List #1. 10 lines of dialogue that almost everyone knows.
 (I trust you to supply the movie names. If you've been lost on a jungle island for the past eighty years or so and your rescuers have a computer handy, I have provided video-clip links.)

1. Here's looking at you, kid.

2. I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.

3. May the Force be with you.

4. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

5. You're gonna need a bigger boat.

6. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

7. If you build it, he will come.

8. Bond. James Bond.

9. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

10. Go ahead. Make my day.

List #2. 100 quotes you probably/possibly know, if you're a movie lover:

1. You can't fight in here--this is the War Room. -- Dr. Strangelove

2. Show me the money. -- Jerry Maguire 

3. I coulda been a contender. -- On the Waterfront

4. Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By." -- Casablanca 

5. Surely you're not serious. / I am serious. And don't call me Shirley. -- Airplane!

6. I'm the king of the world! -- Titanic

7. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. -- The Godfather

8. Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. -- Forrest Gump

9. What we have here . . . is a failure to communicate. -- Cool Hand Luke

10. You can't handle the truth. -- A Few Good Men

11. That plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops. -- North by Northwest

12. Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emporer of Rome. -- Gladiator

13. Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip. -- Raiders of the Lost Ark

14. You talking to me? -- Taxi Driver

15. Love means never having to say you're sorry. -- Love Story

16. Is it safe? -- Marathon Man

17. Put up your arms--and all your flippers. -- Men in Black

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

19. I wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner. -- The Silence of the Lambs

20. Say hello to my leetle friend. -- Scarface

21. Open the pod bay doors, Hal. -- 2001: A Space Odyssey

22. The stuff that dreams are made of. -- The Maltese Falcon

23. Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. -- The Princess Bride

24. Travis! Bring your gun! -- Old Yeller

25. Who ya gonna call? -- Ghostbusters

26. Made it, Ma! Top of the world! -- White Heat

27. They call me Mister Tibbs. -- In the Heat of the Night

28. Seven years of college, down the drain. -- Animal House

29. I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! -- Network

30. We got trouble, right here in River City. -- The Music Man

31. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. -- Rebecca

32. Who are those guys? -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

33. Please welcome the very excellent barbarian . . . Mr. Genghis Khan! -- Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

34. I'm walking here! I'm walking here! -- Midnight Cowboy

35. After all . . . tomorrow is another day. -- Gone with the Wind

36. STELLA! -- A Streetcar Named Desire

37. I'll have what she's having. -- When Harry Met Sally

38. He can't go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can't. -- Jaws

39. I see dead people. -- The Sixth Sense

40. Plastics. -- The Graduate

41. I'm George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean . . . your destiny. -- Back to the Future

42. Houston, we have a problem. -- Apollo 13

43. I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man. -- True Grit

44. You had me at "hello." -- Jerry Maguire

45. I don't understand. All my life I've been waiting for someone, and when I find her . . . she's a fish. -- Splash 

46. Shaken, not stirred. -- Goldfinger (and many other Bond movies)

47. There's no crying in baseball. -- A League of Their Own

48. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead. -- Escape from New York

49. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the finest pilot anyone had ever seen. -- The Right Stuff

50. It's alive! It's alive! -- Frankenstein

51. Rosebud. -- Citizen Kane

52. Remember me? I came in here yesterday and you wouldn't wait on me. Big mistake. -- Pretty Woman

53. He's fleeing the interview! -- Fargo 

54. What in the wide, wide world of sports is goin' on here? -- Blazing Saddles

55. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. -- Wall Street

56. Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you? -- The Graduate

57. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. -- Casablanca

58. Heeeeere's Johnny! -- The Shining

59. It was beauty killed the beast. -- King Kong

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

61. Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. -- It's a Wonderful Life

62. Tell 'em to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. -- Knute Rockne: All-American

63. Put some Windex on it. -- My Big Fat Greek Wedding

64. 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. -- Romancing the Stone

65. Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape. -- Planet of the Apes 

66. I saw it. It was a run-by fruiting. -- Mrs. Doubtfire

67. Be careful, out there among them English. -- Witness

68. ADRIAN! -- Rocky

69. I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too. -- The Wizard of Oz

70. Roads? Where we're going, you don't need roads. -- Back to the Future

71. Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool. -- The Hustler

72. I volunteer as tribute. -- The Hunger Games

73. Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. -- Casablanca

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

75. Have fun storming the castle. -- The Princess Bride

76. Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for? / Nothing. -- North by Northwest

77. Michael, we're bigger than U. S. Steel. -- The Godfather, Part II

78. Give me ten men like Clouseau and I could destroy the world. -- A Shot in the Dark

79. To infinity and beyond! -- Toy Story

80. Docta Jones, Docta Jones! No more parachutes! -- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

81. This was no boat accident. -- Jaws

82. I don't have to show you any steenking badges. -- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

83. WILSON! -- Cast Away

84. When you said you chased tornadoes, I thought that was just a metaphor. -- Twister

85. A lie keeps growing and growing until it's as clear as the nose on your face. -- Pinocchio

86. I want Ness . . . dead. I want his family . . . dead. I want his house . . . burned to the ground. -- The Untouchables

87. Hasta la vista, baby. -- Terminator 2: Judgment Day

88. What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today. -- Groundhog Day

89. All I wanna do is go the distance. -- Rocky

90. That'll do, pig. That'll do. -- Babe

91. They're heeee-re. -- Poltergeist

92. I killed him for money and a woman--and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. -- Double Indemnity

93. We rob banks. -- Bonnie and Clyde

94. I'll be back. -- The Terminator

95. These aren't the droids you're looking for. -- Star Wars

96. There's only one rule: Once you go in . . . you don't come out. -- Escape from New York 

97. Sometimes nothin' can be a mighty cool hand. -- Cool Hand Luke

98. Round up the usual suspects. -- Casablanca

99. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again. -- Gone with the Wind

100. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing. -- To Kill a Mockingbird

List #3. 50 quotes rarely recognized, but cool anyway (some of my favorites):

1. Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England. -- The Cider House Rules

2. I've got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead. -- In the Heat of the Night

3. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. -- The Usual Suspects 

4. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor that we're aware of. -- Men in Black

5. Any man don't wanna get killed, better clear on out the back. -- Unforgiven

6. That's a negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full. -- Top Gun

7. All these things I can do, all these powers . . . and I couldn't even save him. -- Superman

8. The next time I see Blue Duck, I'll kill him for you. -- Lonesome Dove

9. A wed wose. How womantic. -- Blazing Saddles

10. You got ten seconds to run like hell. Then dynamite, not faith, will move that mountain into this pass. -- The Professionals 

11. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dusty street. And for what? A tin star? -- High Noon

12. Ain't had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin' a little thirsty. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen. -- The Ballad of Cable Hogue

13. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow, like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star? -- Romancing the Stone

14. Oh, my. I hope that wasn't a hostage. -- Die Hard

15. I'll take those Huggies and whatever you got in the register. -- Raising Arizona

16. He just saved your life, and Elizabeth's too. And he saved mine, and Arliss's. We can't just shoot him, like he was nothin'! -- Old Yeller

17. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF? -- Speed

18. I wish they wouldn't land those things here while we're playing golf. -- M*A*S*H

19. O Captain, my Captain. -- Dead Poets Society

20. Love means never having to say you're sorry. / That's the dumbest thing I ever heard. -- What's Up, Doc?

21. Come on, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball. -- The Natural

22. We find the defendants incredibly guilty. -- The Producers

23. I'm always frank and earnest with women. In New York I'm Frank, in Chicago I'm Ernest -- The Long Kiss Goodnight

24. Moneypenny, what would I do without you? / My problem is, you never do anything with me. -- On Her Majesty's Secret Service

25. I see you've been missing a lot of work. / Well. I wouldn't say I've been missing it. -- Office Space

26. I'm thinking your head would make a real good toilet brush. -- Heaven's Prisoners

27. The horse is too small, the jockey's too big, the trainer's too old, and I'm too dumb to know the difference. -- Seabiscuit

28. I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals. -- Butch Cassidy

29. Go do that voodoo that you do so well. -- Blazing Saddles

30. All you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, and charge me for a chicken salad sandwich. / You want me to hold the chicken? / I want you to hold it between your knees. -- Five Easy Pieces

31. Where is your commanding officer? / Blowed up, SIR! -- Stripes

32. You are in need of a soothsayer. / How do you know? / I'd be a fine soothsayer if I didn't. -- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

33. This lighter has sixty-two different functions. Sixty-three if you wish to light a cigar. -- Our Man Flint

34. Funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man. I had to come to prison to be a crook. -- The Shawshank Redemption

35. That's a Smith and Wesson--and you've had your six. -- Doctor No

36. Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? -- Raiders of the Lost Ark

37. That was the end of my religion period. I ain't sung a hymn for 104 years. -- Little Big Man

38. Here are your names: Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blond, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink. -- Reservoir Dogs

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

40. He's in a gunfight right now. He'll have to call you back. -- Under Siege  

41. You know, the one thing I can't figure out, are these girls real smart or real real lucky? -- Thelma and Louise

42. You can shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em . . . -- To Kill a Mockingbird

43. What happened to the old bank?--it was beautiful. / People kept robbing it. / Small price to pay for beauty. -- Butch Cassidy

44. If you build what, who will come? / He didn't say. -- Field of Dreams

45. Ain't gonna be no rematch. Don't want one. -- Rocky

46. He did it! He missed the barn! -- Cat Ballou  

47. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? / So help me, Me. -- Oh, God!

48. I once asked this literary agent, "What kind of writing paid the best?" He said, "Ransom notes." -- Get Shorty

49. You've got me? Who's got you? -- Superman 

50. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off. -- Alien

And this is me, signing off. If you have a favorite film quote, or even one from TV (I had to draw the line somewhere), please let me know in the comments section.

Next Saturday, I'll be here with something about, believe it or not, mystery writing. Meanwhile, keep watching those movies.

15 October 2022

Second Chances


A common question for fiction writers is Do editors often ask you to revise and resubmit a short story?

The answer, in my case, is no. Most of the editors of the magazines and anthologies I submit to tend to either accept a story or reject it, period, with no reasons mentioned and no second chances. 

But not always. Occasionally I'll send a story in and get back a note from the editor saying the submission almost made it but not quite, and asking if I would consider changing such-and-such and resubmitting? In that case, my answer is usually yes. In fact I can't think of a time when it wasn't yes. I make whatever change(s) they want, whether it's deleting something controversial, adding something that relates more to their theme or their market, revising the ending, etc. I have two reasons for trying hard to do what they ask me to: (1) it always results in a sale--at least it has for me--and (2) if/when I later sell that story as a reprint or use it in a collection of my own, I can change it right back to the way it was at first. So, simply put, why not?

I know a lot of folks who don't agree with giving in that easily, who resist/decline most editorial suggestions to revise and resubmit. To them I would say Fine--do what you want. But--again--I like to sell what I write, and I want to please the editor if I can. I also try to be agreeable when editors ask for changes after acceptance. Chances are, I'll be sending more stories to that publication in the future, and I'd prefer to be labeled Easy to Work With.

All this is not to say I've never suggested some alternative ways of changing things. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. And to argue at all depends on how strongly I feel about the changes.

Most after-acceptance requests for revision are too minor to ever think twice about. An editor once asked me if I could change "He cut his eyes at me" to something else because she wasn't familiar with the concept of eye-cutting. I changed it to "He gave me a suspicious look," which in my opinion wasn't as effective but which I also didn't consider worth fussing about. Other requests (whether pre-acceptance or post-) have involved revising story endings to be more upbeat, less happy, more concise, etc. In every case I can remember, I have saluted and merrily made that kind of change. And, as I said earlier, sometimes changed it right back again after publication.

One editorial discussion I recall--and I think I've mentioned it before at this blog--happened when Strand Magazine editor Andrew Gulli phoned me after the first story I ever submitted to him, back in 1999. He said the story was under consideration but he had a question about a poison I used in the story to do away with a main character's wife. "None of us here have ever heard of that poison," Andrew said. "Where'd you find out about it?" As it turned out, there was a reason they hadn't heard of it: I made it up. So after a long and awkward silence, I answered, "I made it up." Another pause. Andrew said, "You made it up?" I said, "Yep. I made it up." Yet another long silence dragged by. Finally he said, "Okay." And that was it. The story was published with my imaginary poison, which I think was derived from the oscolio blossoms of East Africa or some such thing, and the story went on to be listed by Otto Penzler in Best American Mystery Stories as one of the top 50 mysteries of that year. I learned a valuable lesson from that exchange: if you need something to perform a particular task in fiction and there's nothing available in real life that fits the bill, sometimes it's okay to dream up something believable that does work, plug it in, and go happily on your way. But I still remember how scared I was as a fairly new writer, saying what I said to a real editor.

I have so far never been asked to make structural plot revisions or change things like POV or my choice of the viewpoint character. Those would, after all, be major requests--if those things were wrong I suppose the story would probably have been rejected outright. I have, however, been asked now and then (by one market in particular) to change a story's title. Again, I almost always agree to that. And--very honestly--my titles are sometimes changed at that market without their ever even asking my permission. When that happens it always makes me feel a bit like Rodney Dangerfield, but the resulting paycheck seems to help a lot in soothing that discomfort.

The funniest dispute I've heard about, between editor and author, was described to me awhile back by one of my oldest and most-admired writer friends. I won't use names here, but the editor asked the writer to change the way one of the characters in a story set in the middle ages addressed a local warlord. The character said "milord" and the editor preferred "Sir Knight." The writer said "Sir Knight" sounded clumsy, and preferred "milord." The editor also objected to the phrase "like shit through a goose." The writer replied that the speaker was a soldier and should sound like one. After a long pause (I can relate to those) the editor sighed and said, "Tell you what. I'll trade you the milords for the shits." And that's what they did.

Question: What are some your own experiences, with regard to editorial requests? Are you often asked to make changes to a submitted short-story manuscript, either before or after acceptance? If so, have you usually agreed, or resisted? Did you win or lose the argument? What's the oddest/funniest thing you've been asked to change?

As my friend said to me following the description of his above encounter with the editor, sometimes that kind of back-and-forth game can be fun. After all, how many things in life are negotiable anymore?

That's it for today. Keep writing, and keep negotiating.

01 October 2022

Fictional Mistakes (Onscreen and Off)

I watch a lot of movies, thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, and mostly from my La-Z-Boy in the den. I usually prefer mysteries, thrillers, westerns, etc., and tend to avoid message-movies, superheroes, and foreign films--but in the right mood I'll give anything a try.

One of the things I find myself looking for in movies are little mistakes in either the plot or the filming that somehow slip through. I don't necessarily mind them, I just seem to notice them more, lately. Worse than film mistakes, I think, are errors in printed fiction; I look for those, too. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Here's a list of movie goofs that come to mind, goofs that I'm sure some of you have noticed yourselves. Some are tiny, some are glaring, and I suspect all are embarrassing to the filmmakers.

Just for fun . . . remember these?

North by Northwest -- In the cafeteria at Mount Rushmore, Eva Marie Saint pulls a gun and shoots Cary Grant--but several seconds beforehand, a young boy in the background (who's looking in the other direction and doesn't even see her) covers his ears in anticipation of the gunshot.

Casablanca -- Dooley Wilson (Sam) didn't know how to play the piano--so his hand movements never match the music.

Shane --  While Alan Ladd is talking to the little boy in the shed, a dark-colored car can be seen through the window in the distance, moving left to right. The movie is set in the 1860s. 

Pulp Fiction -- In one scene a young man comes out of the bathroom and shoots at both John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (and misses)--but before the bathroom door even opens, several bullet holes are already there in the wall behind Travolta and Jackson.

Gladiator -- A metal gas canister is clearly visible underneath an overturned chariot in one of the battle scenes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach use dynamite to blow up a bridge in the Civil War several years before dynamite was invented.

Gone With the Wind -- More of the same. GWTW featured several scenes using not-yet-invented lamps with cords. In one street sequence in Atlanta, there are lightbulbs in what should've been gas fixtures.

A Streetcar Named Desire -- In a scene with Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter, he's obviously mimicking her lines with his lips while she's speaking them.

Double Indemnity -- Fred MacMurray's character is a bachelor, but his real-life wedding ring is visible on his finger several times during the movie.

Never Been Kissed -- A sign made by the math club that Drew Barrymore joins features an incorrect value for Pi.

Vertigo -- Kim Novak loses a shoe in the water and then has both of them on right after that.

Rear Window -- An injured and stationary Jimmy Stewart, a photographer with an expensive telephoto-lens camera in his lap most of the time, never takes a single photo of the mystery scene or of the neighbor he suspects has committed a crime.

Psycho -- As Janet Leigh lies dead on the floor, her pupils are contracted when they should be dilated. (Afterward, ophthalmologists told Hitchcock there were eyedrops that could achieve that effect, and he used them for corpses in later movies.)

Star Wars -- At one point, a tall stormtrooper bumps his head against the top of a doorway.

Pretty Woman -- At breakfast, Julia Roberts is eating a croissant she's holding in her hand; a few seconds later she's holding and eating a pancake instead.

Ocean's Eleven -- More food problems. The container for Brad Pitt's shrimp cocktail changes from a glass to a plate, and then back to a glass again.

It's a Wonderful Life -- The angel reveals that Jimmy Stewart's brother died at the age of nine, but the birth/death dates on his gravestone say he was eight.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- The candy man accidentally whacks a little girl under the chin when he lifts a countertop.

Twister -- Debris from a tornado crashes through the windshield of a vehicle containing stormchasers Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, but moments later the windshield is magically unbroken.

The Wizard of Oz -- When Judy Garland meets the Tin Man, she and the Scarecrow oil his rusty joints for him so he can move--even though tin doesn't rust. In the same movie, after the Scarecrow gets a brain, he states the Pythagorean theorem--incorrectly.

Braveheart -- A white van is visible in the background during a battle scene.

The Star Wars series -- Every single planet has the same gravitational force, which in reality would be almost impossible.

Quantum of Solace -- In one of the dock scenes, an extra with a pushbroom in the background behind Daniel Craig is sweeping the air several inches above the ground.

Titanic -- Leonardo DiCaprio mentions that he once went ice fishing on Lake Wissota, which wasn't formed until 1917. The Titanic sank in 1912.

The Great Gatsby -- DiCaprio enters a house soaked from the rain, but moments later his clothes and hair are completely dry.

The Aviator -- Leo again. As Howard Hughes in 1928, he requests ten chocolate chip cookies while editing his movie Hell's Angels. Chocolate chip cookies weren't around until two years later.

Grease -- A waitress tries to turn off a light switch with her elbow but misses it completely. Seconds later, the lights turn off anyway. 

Hitch -- Will Smith has an allergic reaction that causes the left side of his fact to swell. Later the swelling switches to the right side.

The Karate Kid -- Ralph Macchio wins the final tournament by kicking his opponent in the head, even though such a thing is an illegal move and would be grounds for immediate disqualification.

Mean Girls -- Lindsey Lohan is from Africa in the movie, but there's a picture in her room of her riding an elephant with small ears (Indian) rather than large ears (African).

The Shawshank Redemption -- Tim Robbins's prison escape is via a tunnel covered by the famous movie poster of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.--but that movie wasn't released until a year later.

American Sniper -- A fake baby is obviously substituted for a real one.

Spider-Man -- A mannequin is obviously substituted for Tobey Maguire when he rescues Kirsten Dunst and swings her to safety. (Her hair's even blowing in the wrong direction while they're in mid-swing.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone -- A metal bicycle seat can be seen on Daniel Radcliffe's broomstick during the Quidditch scene. Later, when he's debroomed, the seat's gone.

Back to the Future -- The guitar Michael J. Fox plays onstage in 1955 is a Gibson ES-345 model, with didn't exist until several years later.

Clueless -- Alicia Silverstone crashes into another vehicle during her driving test and knocks her side mirror off--but a few moments later the mirror's replaced.

You've Got Mail -- Tom Hanks puts an olive into his father's martini, the camera cuts to his father and back to Hanks, and he puts the same olive into the same martini.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring -- When Sean Astin and Elijah Wood walk across a field in the Shire, a car is clearly visible in the background.

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- As Harrison Ford sits at an outdoor table in Cairo in 1936, a man in modern clothes (a T-shirt and blue jeans) strolls by in the background. Also in Raiders, later in the movie, you can see the cobra's reflection in the glass that's separating it from Indy.

As silly as most of those are, I think it's even more humiliating to make mistakes in a novel or short story. (Probably because I myself am sometimes the guilty party.) There are many examples of this, but here are a few:

One of the Jesse Stone novels (I forget which one) by Robert B. Parker lapses at one point from third-person into first and back again. My guess is that this happened because all his Spenser novels were first-person.

One of the murders in the novel The Big Sleep was never solved, or even mentioned again. When asked years later about who killed the chauffeur, Raymond Chandler said, "Damned if I know."

In The Tommyknockers, a gun used by Stephen King's protagonist was an automatic at one point and a revolver a few pages later.

The 1631 King James version of the Holy Bible says, in Exodus 20:14, "Thou shalt commit adultery."

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein has a character whose name switches back and forth between Agnes and Alice.

In the novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the Common Room is described as circular, but Ron and Lavender wind up in a "prominent corner" of the room.

The Story of Dr. Doolittle places orangutans in Africa, even though they're found only in Borneo and Sumatra.

There are many more of these, but the most painful mistakes for me are the ones I have made in my own writing. Most of them, thank God, I caught before the stories were submitted, but some of them were caught by editors who told me to correct them (embarrassing!), and a few made it all the way through to publication--in one I stupidly identified a horse as a mare and later tied "him" to a fencepost. The only good thing about mistakes that go all the way to print is that if/when you later sell the stories as reprints, you can correct them.

How about your own writing? Have you made any mistakes in grammar, structure, POV, character names, locations, plot, logic, etc., that wound up getting published anyway? Any that were particularly cringeworthy? How about movies you've watched? What are the worst goofs you can remember? Let me know in the comments section.

Meanwhile, if you're one of those folks who look for these kinds of errors . . . good hunting!

If you're one of those who commit them . . . well, go ye and sin no more.