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

18 August 2018

Wire Paladin, San Francisco


by John M. Floyd



Yes, I know this is primarily a blog about writing and about mysteries--and about writing mysteries--but today I want to mention an old TV series I've been re-watching lately, one that was a cut above most of those in its genre. (Its genre was western, but let's call it historical crime fiction. That'll make me feel less guilty about wandering off topic.)

The show was Have Gun--Will Travel, a half-hour series that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1963. It's something I rarely saw when I was a kid, because it aired on Saturday nights from eight-thirty to nine o'clock (CST), opposite The Lawrence Welk Show, which was on from eight to nine. My mother liked Lawrence Welk and his band, and although my dad and I always lobbied hard for switching channels at eight-thirty to see HGWT, that never happened. The three of us, and my little sister, always sat there and watched Welk and his Champagne Music-Makers for the whole hour before changing channels (thank God) to see Gunsmoke from nine to ten. Funny the things we remember, about childhood . . .


Anyhow, since I missed out on this entire series, I picked up a boxed set of DVDs from Amazon a few months ago that includes all 225 episodes. I'm well into season two by now (seasons back then were far different from the way they are now; each season then contained thirty or forty episodes), and I've found that I love the show. It's a little corny at times, yeah--TV fifty or sixty years ago usually was. But again, it was head-and-shoulders above most of the prime-time network fare of that period.

Very quickly, here's the premise. A gentleman gunfighter named Paladin, played by the not-traditionally-handsome Richard Boone, traveled the Old West helping people solve their problems, which usually involved bad guys. He always tried to avoid violence but of course wound up in the middle of it, and he charged a fee (usually a thousand dollars) for his mercenary services--a free that he sometimes declined or gave to the needy. His business card, which showed up in every episode, displayed the image of a white chess knight and the words HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and WIRE PALADIN, SAN FRANCISCO.

Why was this show so good, when most TV series back then were barely watchable? I think one reason was the quality of the stories themselves, and that means the quality of the writing. Writers for Have Gun included Gene Roddenberry, Harry Julian Fink, Sam Peckinpah, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Irving Wallace, and other fairly familiar names.

Another factor: production values seemed to be higher, for this series. Many of the episodes were shot outdoors and on location instead of at cheap-looking studio sets, more arrention was paid to authenticity, and the "look and feel" of the show was almost always better than what viewers were offered in most TV westerns (or cop shows or comedies, for that matter).

The basic idea was also a good one: Paladin was a gunfighter with a code of honor, but still a hired gun, ready and willing to travel to wherever he was needed (or paid to go). This offered unlimited plot possibilities. Unlike Matt Dillon or Lucas McCain, whose antagonists had to wander into Dodge City or North Fork every week, Paladin could go anywhere, and did--sometimes as far away as Alaska. And the plots were never the same, even though it would've been easy to make them that way. Sometimes the storyline even intersected with the real world: in one episode Paladin was just over the hill from the Custer massacre at the Little Bighorn, and in another he rescued Oscar Wilde from a group of bandits.

Add to all this a few interesting quirks not seen before in a western hero. For one thing, Paladin had a love and knowledge of art and chess and fine wines and opera (he lived at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco), and the ability to quote Shakespeare. Also, he chose to wear a villainous-looking mustache and a black outfit when he was on an assignment, something heroes didn't often do in TV westerns. The icing on the cake: this show had an opening sequence with music by Bernard Herrmann of Psycho and Vertigo fame.

Even the title has become a catchphrase, altered to suit different purposes, like the cartoon Have Time Will Travel, and everybody seems to have heard of HGWT whether they saw the show or not. Someone told me that in one episode of Maverick, another western of that time period, a Kansas sheriff was talking about a gunfighter who had been in town handing out business cards--and viewers immediately knew this was a sly tip-of-the-hat to Paladin.


Do any of you remember Have Gun--Will Travel? Have you ever seen an episode? If so, do you agree that it was fairly unique among the incredible number of prime-time westerns on TV back then?

If, like me, you didn't watch it when it was first aired (or, unlike me, this was before your time), and if you find yourself feeling the urge to watch one (maybe not 225) of those episodes now, many of them are available via YouTube. Check 'em out!

Or, Heaven help us, you could watch Lawrence Welk instead.








04 August 2018

The President Is Missing


by John M. Floyd



No, this isn't a newsflash--Trump's still there. This is just a quick review, of sorts, of the recent novel by James Patterson and Bill Clinton, called The President Is Missing. By the way, never doubt the power of name recognition: I probably would never have bought and read this book otherwise.

Surprisingly, though, I enjoyed it. If you're willing to overlook the (expected) moralizing, I think you might find it to be an interesting--and sometimes thrilling--thriller. It has all the suspense of a typical Patterson novel, plus some insider facts about the White House, congressional dealings, and the Secret Service that I suspect came from the former President.


A confession, here: I like Bill Clinton, despite his faults, and I truly like James Patterson (he once said kind things about one of my stories, so he'll always be a saint, in my view)--and I'm sure my fascination with the co-authors helped me like this book. But I honestly do feel that there's plenty to enjoy about it, for almost anyone who likes a fast-moving, hi-tech, plot-twisty novel.

Some quick facts. The protagonist in TPIM is the current president, Jonathan Lincoln Duncan (he seems loosely based on Clinton--surprise, surprise), who discovers a cyberattack plot to cripple the United States, to the degree that all records and files on all computers everywhere, even personal phones and tablets, would be infected with a virus and permanently deleted. This would be an unprecedented disaster, shutting down the health-care system, finance, transportation, Social Security, welfare, every level of infrastructure, and so forth. Anyhow, the President leaps into action to save the nation. He doesn't actually "go missing," or at least not for long--much of the story, after all, is told in his POV--but he does go off the public grid to the extent that he sneaks away from most of his Secret Service guards and is dodging explosions and terrorist bullets by the time the reader can get properly settled into his easy chair. (Unlike Bill Clinton, President Duncan did serve in the military; in this aspect he reminded me more of John McCain--a war hero and former POW.)

I won't give anything away here, but there's plenty of conflict, both external and internal. The plot includes gunfights, professional assassins, political posturing and turf battles, right vs. wrong soulsearching, and cyberterrorism galore. POTUS even has a rare blood disorder that threatens to kill him before the bad guys do. And--since you might be wondering--yes, there's a mystery featured in the plot: one of the Prez's inner circle at the White House is a traitor whose identity is revealed only at the very end.

Part of my reason for reading this was curiosity, and for Patterson fans, there are plenty of hints that he's steering the ship. Most of the chapters are short, many of them no more than two pages, and there's nonstop action with a lot of plot reversals throughout. The only real drawback I found to this novel was the fact that the entire final chapter was a preachy speech about what makes America great. Overall, though, I liked the book and would recommend it. Even at 500 pages, it's a fast and entertaining read.

How about you guys? Anybody else read this novel yet? If so, what are your thoughts? Are you Patterson fans, or not? Did you think this was up to his usual standards?

The President Is Missing is available everywhere, I suppose, and can be found on Amazon here.

Now I'm waiting for the novel by Trump and Putin . . .








21 July 2018

Full Disclosure


by John M. Floyd



One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?

As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.

My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."


Spelling it out

If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.

(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)

While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.

Motivation, anyone?

How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)

Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.

One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.


True confessions

That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.

Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:



"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)

"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.

"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.

"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.

"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.

But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.



One size seldom fits all

Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.

What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?

Speak up--don't be shy.  Full disclosure!







16 June 2018

Conference Memories


by John M. Floyd



I haven't been to a writers' conference in a while, although I'm scheduled for at least three in the coming months. But I've been reading a lot of blogs and other posts by writer friends who have been attending conferences regularly. Besides making me want to go also, it's reminded me of things, good and bad and ugly, that have happened to me at conferences in the past.

Here are some that stand out in my memory:



- Ten or twelve years ago, at "Murder in the Magic City" in Birmingham, I wound up sitting beside author Harley Jane Kozak during a presentation. We chatted awhile, and even though I didn't recognize her name I said, "Don't I know you? You sure look familiar." Neither of us could figure out where our paths might've crossed before, and I couldn't help noticing--and being puzzled by--the amusement on her face. Only later did I realize why she had looked so familiar: she was an actress as well as a writer, and I'd watched her on TV the night before, in Arachnophobia.

- Highs and lows: At Bouchercon in Baltimore several years ago, two different ladies approached me after seeing my name tag and said they loved Angela Potts (one of my series characters). Music to my ears. Later at that same conference, a guy asked me if I was famous. I said, "No, sadly, I'm not." He said, "Can you point me to somebody who is?"


- Before my first and only trip to the Edgar ceremony in New York, the publisher of my books told me to try to get a photo of me with Stephen King, who was up for Best Novel that year. At the reception, I reminded my wife Carolyn of this, and she pointed to King and said, "Well, there he is--go talk to him." I gave her my cell phone to take the picture with, walked over to SK, and he was kind enough to chat with me for a minute or two. When I got back to our table I saw Carolyn looking at my phone and said, "Did you get it?" She looked up at me and said, "Get what? I was texting with Karen [our daughter]."

- When I spotted Otto Penzler in the midst of a huge crowd in the lobby of the conference hotel at the Raleigh Bouchercon I asked him, "Do you know everyone here?" He smiled and said, "No. But everyone here knows me." I loved that. And I bet he was right.

- I was once invited by author Steve Hamilton, who was a fellow IBM employee at the time, to a private screening of a short film adapted from one of his stories. The story was "A Shovel With My Name on It," and the resulting movie was retitled "The Shovel," and starred David Strathairn. That gathering remains one of my most enjoyable experiences at a writers' conference. This was at another "Murder in the Magic City"--Jan Burke and Steve were the guests of honor that year, and two of the kindest writers I've ever met.

- I think I mentioned this in a SleuthSayers post awhile back, but I happened to meet Lee Child at a Bouchercon in Cleveland not long after he had served as guest editor for Otto Penzler's annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology. That was one of the years when one of my stories' titles was mentioned in the appendix of the book, a story that made the top 50 but not the top 20. I remember babbling my thanks to Child for that mention of my story, even though the story itself didn't get included in the book. Only later did I learn that those top 50 are chosen by Otto, and then the guest editor picks the top 20 . . . so what I had done was thank Mr. Child for NOT choosing my story. (Sigh.)

- At a Bouchercon several years ago I was crossing a hotel lobby when I was hailed by unnamed Editor #1, who informed me that they'd decided to publish one of my submitted stories. While I was thrilled to hear that news, I was a little worried too, because Editor #1 had held onto that story for a long time and hadn't responded to my inquiries about its status--so I had since given up and submitted it elsewhere, to unnamed Editor #2. After leaving Editor #1 (on one side of the lobby), I quickly searched out and reported to Editor #2 (on the other side of the lobby) that the story I'd submitted to their publication was now no longer available. Editor #2 accepted my apology and graciously agreed to withdraw that story from consideration, and all was well, but I went to bed that night resolving to never again send a story someplace before being absolutely certain that it was no longer being considered elsewhere. (Have I mentioned that this is a crazy business?)

- I attended a writers' conference four or five years ago that was held at one of he big casinos on the Gulf Coast. I had a good time and attended some educational and informative panels, but I must tell you, attendance at some of those sessions was sparse. That happens, when gambling and/or sun-and-sand are close by. I was reminded of the IBM banking conferences I attended in south Florida in the Good Old Days. I specialized in finance at IBM, so I went to a lot of those conventions, and anytime questions arose about a particular banker's absence from a particular session, the answer was always "He couldn't be here--he had to go study float management." In other words, he was outside at the pool. Another memory of conferences and conventions held in casino locations: my clothes always smelled like tobacco-smoke afterward.

- At one conference reception, I took what I thought was a sausage ball from a tray of hors d'oeuvres (in Mississippi we call them horse divers) and it turned out to be a piece of liver. I chomped down on it just as someone behind me, with a lady's voice, said, "Excuse me, aren't you John Floyd?" I am usually unknown to anyone outside the walls of our home, so I turned to say hello--at the very same moment that my taste buds sent a red-alert message to my brain that this was liver and not sausage. I remember gagging violently and squeezing my eyes shut, and when I finally opened them again whoever was behind me had disappeared/fled. To this day I hope she just chose to wander off before she saw my look of agony, but I doubt it. (Another sigh.)

- One of the sessions I attended at a writers conference in Mobile a few years ago featured a young woman teaching writers how to set up their own websites. I wasn't really interested, but I sat down and started listening to her anyway. The following weekend, after getting back home, I used what I had learned to create my own site, from scratch, and it went live that Sunday night. I can't remember the name of the presenter, but I owe her a great debt. Sometimes those panel sessions and presentations pay off!

- At the top of my "bad" list is an experience my wife and I once had at a conference hotel: the alarm clock was set wrong and couldn't be changed, the closet-rods were mounted too low to allow normal clothes to hang properly (much less those as long as mine), the shower head couldn't be adjusted, the bedside radio turned itself on in the middle of the night and couldn't be reset (or unplugged), a shelf immediately above the sink was too large to allow us to bend over and spit after brushing our teeth, our view from the window was a brick wall ten feet away, every single light in the room was too dim, the peephole in the door was set at waist-height, etc., etc.--we counted almost two dozen aggravations and inconveniences. And most of these weren't things that were malfunctioning--they were just designed that way. A week earlier we'd been to one of my class reunions, where we had to stay at a Super 8 Motel (the only lodging in that town); its nightly rate was several hundred dollars less than this conference hotel, and it was ten times more guest-friendly. Just saying.

- At the top of my "good" list for conferences are meetings at the bar (or dinner or elsewhere) with some of my heroes, heroines, and online acquaintances. I won't list names here for fear of leaving someone out, but you know who you are. Seeing and talking with and getting to know other writers is, to me, by far the best reason to attend any of these conferences. Great memories!



And that's my pitch, for today. What are some of your highlights and horror-stories about conferences you've been to?

Inquiring attendees want to know . . .


02 June 2018

The Twilight Zone, Revisited


by John M. Floyd



I've often told my writer friends that one of the things that inspired me to write short stories was probably my love of "anthology" TV shows when I was a kid in the fifties and sixties. You might remember some of those: One Step Beyond, Death Valley Days, The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, etc. Unlike series presentations, these featured different stories with a different cast every week--stories with definite beginnings, middles, and endings that could be told in half an hour or so, start to finish. And many of them included surprise endings. Who could forget Hitchcock episodes like "Lamb to the Slaughter" and "Man From the South" (both written by Roald Dahl)?

But the most popular of all those genre anthology shows was about . . .

". . . a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of an's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone."
--Rod Serling, opening narration from Season One


The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons, from 1959 to 1964. I liked it so much that a year or two ago I ordered the complete series on DVD--156 episodes--from Amazon, and last month I finally watched the last of them. Now that I'm done, I think my wife is secretly thrilled to no longer have to listen to that theme music every time she walks through the den, or hear Rod Serling's strange and instantly recognizable voice announcing each episode or giving the audience a teaser for the one "coming up next week."


Having rewatched all five seasons, in order, I've taken the liberty of listing what I thought were the 25 most entertaining episodes, with #1 being the best and scaling down. These are available in many formats, some of them on YouTube, so I've not mentioned any spoilers in case you ever choose to dive back into those shows. I've also included a short description of my top 25--especially my top ten. If you are or were a Zoner, you might recall some of these:



1. "Time Enough at Last" -- Written by Rod Serling and adapted from a short story by Lynn Venable. Burgess Meredith is a man who loves to read, but those around him (his wife, his boss, etc.) allow him no time to do it. One day after he's sneaked into the vault at work to read during his lunch hour, a nuclear blast destroys his building. Protected by the vault walls, he emerges to find that he seems to be the only person left alive in the world. He soon discovers, though, a library with its books still intact--a paradise for a booklover. Or so it seems . . .

2. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" -- Written by Richard Matheson. A pre-Star Trek William Shatner is a nervous passenger on a commercial airliner who looks out the window in mid-flight and sees a hairy monster standing on the wing, trying to rip out one of the plane's engines. But no one else sees it--or believes him. (This show became one of the segments featured in Twilight Zone: the Movie, starring John Lithgow.)

3. "The Grave" -- Written by Montgomery Pittman. Lee Marvin is a gunman hired to track down an outlaw, but before he can catch up to him, the outlaw dies and makes a deathbed vow: If his pursuer ever comes near his grave, the dead man will reach out and grab him. (This episode also features later western stars Lee Van Cleef, James Best, and Strother Martin.)

4. "Walking Distance" -- Written by Rod Serling. Frustrated executive Gig Young travels back to his hometown and discovers that he's also traveled back in time, to when he was a child. He meets his parents, a younger version of himself, etc., and learns that no one can ever regain his youth.

5. "Steel" -- Written by Richard Matheson. In a technology-dominated future, former boxer Steel Kelly is the owner and manager of a robot prize-fighter named Battling Maxo, who's scheduled to fight another robot boxer named The Maynard Kid, for a badly needed $500 payoff. But Maxo breaks down at the last minute, and his owner decides to try to fight Maynard himself.

6. "One for the Angels" -- Written by Rod Serling. Salesman Ed Wynn is told by Mr. Death that he's scheduled to die at midnight. He makes one last sales pitch and convinces Death to let him live, but then finds out someone else must die in his place.

7. "Kick the Can" -- Written by George Clayton Jackson. A resident of a retirement home has decided that the only way to stay young is to try to think and act young. After convincing all but one of his fellow seniors to join him in a game of "kick the can," he and the other players in the game discover they actually are young again. (A variation on this episode also was included in Twilight Zone: the Movie, with Scatman Crothers as a transient nursing-home resident.)

8. "The Last Flight" -- Written by Richard Matheson. A World War I pilot turns tail and deserts his best friend and fellow pilot, leaving him behind to die in an aerial dogfight. The coward then lands at an American air base in what turns out to be modern-day France, and learns that his friend all those years ago--who somehow survived--is scheduled to appear at the base later that day for a visit.

9. "The Hunt" -- Written by Earl Hamner, Jr. After an old man and his dog go on a coon hunt, he returns to find that he has died and now no one can see him or hear him. Soon he wanders into a choice between whether to enter Heaven or Hell.

10. "Third From the Sun" -- Written by Richard Matheson. As their world approaches the brink of nuclear war, a scientist and a test pilot steal an experimental spaceship and make plans for a last-minute escape for them and their families.

11 "Night of the Meek" -- Department-store Santa Claus Art Carney finds a magic gift-bag.

12. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" -- Suburban residents prepare for an alien invasion.

13. "The Masks" -- A millionaire's greedy family waits impatiently for him to die.

14.  "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" -- A town drunk is forced into a gunfight with a sadistic bully.

15. "The Jungle" -- An engineer scoffs at a curse placed on him by a group of witch doctors.

16. "The Lonely" -- A convict on a remote planet is given a woman robot as a companion.

17. "The Eye of the Beholder" -- An outcast undergoes surgery to try to make herself look normal.

18. "The Odyssey of Flight 33" -- A jet airliner travels back to prehistoric times.

19. "Jess-Belle" -- A backwoods witch puts a curse on two lovers before they can marry.

20. "Little Girl Lost" -- a small child disappears into another dimension.

21. "Living Doll" -- An evil Telly Savalas finds that his stepdaughter's doll is out to get him.

22. "Mr. Garrity and the Graves" -- An Old West trickster promises to resurrect dead people.

23. "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" -- A wagon train's leader stumbles into the 20th Century.

24. "The Changing of the Guard" -- A professor forced to retire remembers his former students.

25. "The Long Morrow" -- An astronaut falls in love a month before leaving on a 40-year flight.



A few observations, after watching all 156 episodes:

Most of them were written by Rod Serling, but some of the best came from the imaginations of Richard Matheson (Duel, Somewhere in Time, etc.), Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner, Jr. (The Waltons), and others. One espisode--"I Sing the Body Electric"--was written by Ray Bradbury.

I thought all five seasons contained some fine stories, but the first season probably had more quality shows than the others, and the final two seasons had far more poor ones. It's been said that by that time the writers and producers were beginning to run out of ideas.

Seasons one, two, three, and five featured only 30-minute episodes. For season four they went to hour-long episodes, which proved to be a mistake. Viewers can easily see that there's a lot of padding in many of those fourth-season shows.

Serling loved stories that taught a lesson of some kind, usually about social issues, and many of the episodes that he wrote contained a "message."

Jack Klugman and Burgess Meredith were (I think) the actors most often featured in leading roles on The Twilight Zone. They starred in four episodes each. Other actors included Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson, Dean Stockwell, Robert Duvall, Cliff Robertson, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, Ted Knight, Agnes Moorehead, Buddy Ebsen, Dennis Weaver, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Dick York, Elizabeth Montgomery, Don Rickles, Mickey Rooney, Carol Burnett, Martin Milner, Bill Bixby, Claude Akins, Jack Weston, Anne Francis, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam, Ida Lupino, Vera Miles, Shelley Fabares, James Coburn, and Jackie Cooper.

One episode, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," won an Oscar. It was a French film that Serling bought for $10,000 as an effort to cut production costs, and was the only one not written by him or his team of writers.

Serling's on-camera introductions didn't start until the second season. In the first season it was his voice only, and he appeared on camera only at the end of each show, to introduce the next week's program.

I found it interesting that not many of the episodes were truly scary (in my memory a lot of them were), and almost all the "funny" shows--the ones that were intentionally humorous--were not well done at all. My opinion only.

I also realized that there's a lot to be learned from TZ--especially if you're a writer of short fiction--about plot, characterization, etc. If you're at all interested, there are two books on the show that I found fascinating: The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree, and Everything I Need to Know I learned in the Twilight Zone by Mark Dawidziak.


And now a word from our sponsors . . .




19 May 2018

Hints and Shortcuts


by John M. Floyd





This post is a followup to a column I did two weeks ago called "Manuscript Mechanics." (By the way, Leigh Lundin did an excellent followup already, in his SS post Manuscript Mechanics II the day after mine--check it out also.) As in my first post, much of what I'll say today is pretty basic and should be familiar to you, but I've been surprised at how many writers either don't know these things or have forgotten them.

Imagine I'm telling you an old joke. If you've heard it, feel free to roll your eyes and tune me out. (I'm used to that.) But if you haven't heard it, you might be as pleased as I've been with how much time and how many headaches these hints can save. And, unlike my previous post, the information here can apply to all kinds of writing.

Here goes. A guy walks into a bar . . .



1. Everyone knows about using the keyboard to copy/cut/paste (Ctrl-C, Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V)--but did you know that you can do a "select all" with the shortcut Ctrl-A? Also, if you make a mistake you can undo it without using the dropdown command menu. Just use Ctrl-Z. It'll even back you up more than one occurrence. Hit Ctrl-Z several times, and it'll take you back to whatever previous point you want, repairing missteps as you go. This saved me recently when I was trying to delete a word in a looooooong email I had saved as a draft, and when I hit the delete key my computer thought I was trying to delete the entire email. I wasn't, but it did. I almost panicked, and said some unkind words, and then realized I could hit Ctrl-Z and bring the email back from the ashes. (By the way, for Apple users, the Command key is used instead of Ctrl.)

2. How do you replace italicized text with underlined text, and vice versa? Some markets (AHMM is one of them) prefer underlining instead of italics, in their submissions--but I usually do all my drafts using italics. If you have a completed manuscript that includes italics, you can change italicized text to underlined text for the entire manuscript in one swoop: Open "Find and Replace," click in the "Find What" box, click on "Format" in the dropdown menu, then click "Font" and choose "Italic" and click OK. Then click in the "Replace With" box, and (under Format/Font) choose a single underline under "Underline Style" and click OK. Then click "Replace All," and it's done. To change it back again, reverse the operation.

3. How do you replace straight quotes with curly quotes? As anyone who's converted Courier to TNR knows, it's hard to find and change all the straight-up-and-down apostrophes and quotation marks in a manuscript to proper "curved" apostrophes and quotes. A quick way to do it is to just pull up "Find and Replace" and key a single quotation mark into both the "Find What" box and the "Replace With" box and click "Replace All." Then do the same with double quotation marks. When you're finished, all apostrophes, single quotes, and double quotes should now be corrected.

4. Highlight using the arrow keys. Sometimes it's difficult to highlight certain text with just the mouse. If ever you need to be exact, and (for example) highlight everything up to a particular character but not including that character, you can just hold down the Shift key while pressing the right- or left-arrow key. But here's the real time-saver: If the text to be highlighted (and then copied, changed, deleted, etc.) is a single word, there's no need to stripe it or use the arrow keys. Just double-click on the word, and presto, it's highlighted.

5. What's the best way to copy/paste a manuscript into the body of an email? If a market requires the submission of a manuscript as a part of the email rather than as an attachment, it can be hard to paste the story directly into the body of the email without gorking up the spacing and formatting. Here's a good way to do that without risk: save the manuscript first as a plain-text (.txt) file in your Word program, then close it and open it again, and then paste it into your email. It will now be formatted correctly. NOTE: As I mentioned in my post last week, saving a regular manuscript in plain-text will convert everything to Courier 10-point font whether you want it to or not, and will lose any special features like italics and underlining. Emphasized text can be indicated, however, by typing an underscore (_) immediately before and after any text (letter, word, phrase, whatever) that should've been italicized or underlined. If by chance you save it as .txt and it doesn't convert it to 10-point Courier (this sometimes happens, for some reason), you're still okay--just remember that your special characters are still lost, and you'll still need to substitute the underscores.

6. Turn off widows and orphans. Another way of saying this: Turn on widow/orphan suppression. Like #5, this is more of a safeguard than a shortcut. If widow/orphan control is left activated, you'll wind up with some manuscript pages that look far too short--some of them seem to end two-thirds of the way down the page. So I turn it off. It really doesn't matter to me, and I don't think it matters to editors either, whether there is a single ending line of a paragraph at the top of a page or a single beginning line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page. Consistency is more important.



Please let me know of any other handy tricks-of-the-trade you might've discovered, or even any pet-peeve issues you might have, with all this. Writing is hard enough work already, and I'd like to make it easy as I can, not only for myself but for the editors I send my stories to.

Best of luck to all of you who type and submit manuscripts of any kind. Keep me posted!








05 May 2018

Manuscript Mechanics


by John M. Floyd



I don't like change. I'm sure part of that's because of my age, but also it's just inconvenient. I have certain ways I like to do things, and I'm reluctant to budge from my comfort zone.

One of the things I have changed, though--because I felt I had to--is the way I format the submissions of my short stories.

Old-school

First, a bit of background. When I started sending my work off to editors, back in the mid-nineties, I obeyed the following rules, for my manuscripts:


- Use Courier font
- Double space
- Underline text that needs emphasis
- Use two hyphens for a dash
- Space twice after a period


Those were the marching orders for almost everyone, with minor variations, because computers were still new enough that a lot of manuscripts were being created on typewriters, and all the above tasks could be performed without a word-processing program.

New-school


Now, I do the following:


- Use 12-point Times New Roman font
- Double space
- Italicize text that needs emphasis
- Use em-dashes
- Space once after a period


Alternative-school

Sometimes there are exceptions. Several places to which I regularly submit manucrtipts specify in their guidelines that they still prefer underlining instead of italics. Why? I'm not certain, but I suspect they find underlined text easier to spot than italics when they prepare the manuscript for publication. Whatever the reason, if they want it, I'll do it.

Some places, believe it or not, still prefer Courier font. And when I convert a manuscript to Courier before submitting to those markets, I usually also plug in two spaces after every period. That's a personal preference: I think only one space after a period in Courier makes the words look a little too crowded together. Is that just me, or do any of you agree?

I also submit regularly to a market that prefers two hyphens for a dash (rather than the automatically substituted em dash). Their wish is my command. It's easy to go back through a manuscript and change those dashes.

That same market likes submissions single-spaced except for a double-space between paragraphs, and no indentions at the beginnings of paragraphs. Again, it's pretty easy to comply with this. I just "select all," then hit "single-space" and go back through the manuscript adding one extra space between paragraphs and removing the indentions.

Occasionally, of course, there'll be other specific things editors want you to do: put only your name and page number in the header, put only your story title and page number in the header, type three asterisks to indicate a scene break, don't use the tab key to indent paragraphs, use strange fonts, center a special symbol at the end of the story, etc. Some of these can seem a little nitpicking, and I often suspect they put such demands into their guidelines just to make sure the writer has done his/her homework and has taken the trouble to read the guidelines.

Basic training

Other things I always do, with regard to manuscripts (unless guidelines tell me not to):

- I use standard white 8 1/2-by-11 copy paper
- I use one-inch margins all around
- I put name/address/phone/email info at the top left of the first page
- I put an approximate wordcount at the top right of the first page
- I center the title in all caps about a third of the way down the first page
- I double-space once and type my byline (and center it also)
- I double-space twice after the byline and begin typing the story
- I indent all paragraphs and don't have extra spacing between paragraphs
- I suppress widow/orphan control (allowing widows/orphans)
- I turn off grammar-checking
- I put a header at the top right of every page except page one (Last name / TITLE / Page#)
- I use a centered pound sign (#) to indicate scene breaks
- I double-space three times after the final line of the story and center the words THE END


This isn't saying you have to do the above. It's just what I do.


Everything I've mentioned so far assumes a manuscript that'll be either (1) attached as a file (word.doc, usually) to an emailed cover letter, (2) attached and submitted via a market's website, or (3) printed and snailmailed to an editor. Manuscripts copied/pasted into the body of an email are formatted differently: they'll be plugged in as a .txt file, which--after conversion--is in 10-point Courier font and ignores any special characters, including italicized text. To indicate emphasis in one of these manuscripts, I always type an underscore character just before and just after whatever text I'd like them to italicize in the published version. (Example: I saw it in _The New York Times_.) Most manuscripts pasted into the body of an email should also be single-spaced, with unindented paragraphs and a double space between paragraphs.

Q&A

That's all the information I can think of. How do your submissions differ from these? What are some of the weirdest formatting requirements you've seen, in writers' guidelines? Do you ever submit anything via regular mail anymore? Do you ever use anything except Courier and TNR? Do you use em-dashes or two hyphens? Do you type anything at the very end of your manuscript? How do you indicate a scene break? Do you space once or twice after a period? Main thing is, if what you're doing works, keep doing it.

In two weeks I plan to follow up with several hints and shortcuts to save time when preparing your manuscripts. Meanwhile, keep typing and keep submitting. Best to everyone!

21 April 2018

Mean Girls


by John M. Floyd



A few weeks ago I posted a column about female protagonists ("Let's Hear It for Heroines"), and in putting together my list of those I was a little surprised at how few female heroes have been featured in novels and movies. The same thing goes for female villains, but even more so--Hollywood doesn't seem fond of casting a woman as the bad guy. But I'm fond of those in the following list. I've ranked these evil folks backward, by the way, from least creepy (#25) to most creepy (#1). My opinion only.

NOTE: Evil, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean criminal. It means those who scared me the most. How many of these do you remember?


25. Eleanor Shaw (Angela Lansbury) -- The Manchurian Candidate

24. Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) -- Body Heat

23. Bellatrix Lastrange (Helena Bonham Carter) -- Harry Potter

22. Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) -- Snow White and the Huntsman

21. Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) -- Hocus Pocus

20. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) -- Maleficent

19. Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) -- Friday the 13th

18. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) -- The Chronicles of Narnia

17. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) -- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

16. Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) -- From Dusk to Dawn

15. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) -- Sunset Boulevard

14. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) -- The Wizard of Oz

13. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) -- Gone Girl

12. Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) -- Play Misty for Me

11. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) -- Monster

10. Ellie Driver (Darryl Hannah) -- Kill Bill

9.   Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) -- Natural Born Killers

8.   Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) -- Rebecca

7.   Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) -- Basic Instinct

6.   Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) -- Mommie Dearest

5.   May Day (Grace Jones) -- A View to a Kill

4.   Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) -- From Russia With Love

3.   Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) -- Fatal Attraction

2.   Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) -- Misery

1.   Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Following up on that, here are ten female antagonists who weren't all that scary to me--but I just didn't like 'em. At all. I've ranked these from the least unlikable (#10) to the most unlikable (#1):


10. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

9.  The Warden (Sigourney Weaver) -- Holes

8.  Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) -- Annie

7.  Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey) -- The Goonies

6.  Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) -- The Help

5.  Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) -- The Graduate

4.  Regina George (Rachel McAdams) -- Mean Girls

3.  Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) -- Working Girl

2.  Cinderella's stepmother (Cate Blanchett)--Cinderella

1.  Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) -- The Devil Wears Prada



These lists don't include, of course, bad girls who are likeable--Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis), Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon), etc. But audiences are expected to like them: they're protagonists, not antagonists.

I also left out good/bad shapeshifters like Regan McNeil (The Exorcist) and Carrie White (Carrie), villains from TV series--Cercei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Sister Mary Eunice (American Horror Story), and a bunch of meanies from Buffy the Vampire Slayer--and animated female villains like Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians) and Ursula the Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid). And so on and so on.

As usual, I've included only characters from movies I've actually seen, which leaves out a lot of candidates. Who are some of your favorite female movie villains? Also (he asked, holding up a gender-equality sign), have you featured women as villains in your own writing?

I have. And it's fun . . .



07 April 2018

Options and Preferences


by John M. Floyd



Some quick background, here: Two weeks ago today, my wife and I drove down to Gulfport, Mississippi, where I'd been invited to speak to a meeting of the Gulf Coast Writers Association. The crowd included folks who'd written novels, memoirs, short stories, poetry, and songs (one of the attendees, Patti Ryan, wrote "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places"), and more than an hour of our allotted time was spent, as I'd hoped it would be, in a question/answer session. It was a gracious and enthusiastic group, and I had a great time. Afterward Carolyn and I looked for seafood in all the right places and then headed back home.

Why tell you about all that? Well, some of the things we talked about in the Q&A that day made me start thinking about certain issues that always seem to come up when writers get together. Here are half a dozen of those:


1. Question: Should I outline, or not?

Answer: Do whichever makes you comfortable. Outlining (a.k.a. in-depth pre-thinking) can provide a structure and a sense of security that can be helpful and time-saving when the actual writing starts--even if the writer chooses later to change direction. On the other hand, some writers feel that planning too many things out beforehand would stifle their creativity and make the process boring. To me, outlining or not is like squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube or from the top, or always being early for meetings or always being late, or unrolling the toilet paper from over or from under. I think it all depends on the way our minds are wired.

My preference: Outlining.


2. Question: Should I self-publish or seek a traditional publisher?

Answer: There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Self-publishing allows the writer to keep everything he/she earns from the sale of his stories/novels, but it also means handling and financing all aspects of the project: cover design, layout, production, marketing, publicity, distribution, storage, and a dozen other tasks. Taking the traditional approach means the writer earns a much smaller piece of the pie, but is responsible only for the writing (and, to a smaller degree, marketing and promoting). Self-pubbing can also allow the author to publish sooner, and on his/her own schedule.

My preference: The traditional route.


3. Question: Should I use first-person POV or third?

Answer: It depends on the story. First person is a more intimate but also a more limited viewpoint; the writer can get "closer" to the reader (I did this, I did that) but a story told in first person can't reveal anything to the reader that the POV character doesn't see or otherwise experience firsthand. Third person creates more distance between the writer and reader, but it's less restrictive. If the story or novel needs a large scope, third person can allow the reader to know things that the character(s) don't, which can help generate suspense. I've heard that whodunits are usually told in first person because the hero (detective?) needs to find things out at the same time the reader does, while thrillers are usually third person because the reader sometimes needs to know things before the hero does (Don't go around that corner; they're waiting for you there!).

My preference: Third person. But I like both.


4. Question: Should I use past tense or present?

Answer: Again, there's no right or wrong answer. Suit yourself. Past tense is the traditional, safe, once-upon-a-time way to tell a story, while present tense can create a sense of immediacy (it's happening NOW) that some writers feel is more interesting. It seems that female writers and literary fiction tend to use present tense more than male writers and genre fiction, but I could be wrong about that. I've also heard that present tense can be distracting and false-sounding to some readers, although it doesn't bother me. I think I've gotten used to it.

My preference (for my own stories): Past tense.


5. Question: Should I submit my work simultaneously or one-at-a-time?

Answer: How cautious are you? Simultaneous subs, especially of short stories, can be a little risky. If it backfires, and two markets want the same story, that can damage a relationship with an editor or publisher--especially if the guidelines say "no simultaneous submissions." On the other hand, submitting simultaneously can certainly help you get published sooner, considering the extremely long response times of some publications. Editors would obviously rather have an exclusive look at your submission. This can be a tough decision for the writer.

My preference: One-at-a-time.


6. Question: Should I edit as I go, or finish my draft and then edit?

Answer: There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. If you do edit as you go, and try to make every page as perfect as it can be before you go on to the next, you might not have to do much rewriting later--but you run the risk of having to do double work if your story takes a different direction and forces you to go back and change things you've already polished. Also, if you choose to wait until you finish a rough draft before going back and editing, that can give you a real sense of satisfaction--Hey, I've already got the story down on paper!--but you'll then of course have a LOT of editing to do. I sometimes think outliners are more apt to go ahead and finish the draft first before editing anything, and that pantsers are more likely to edit as they go. But I could be wrong about that (I'm wrong about many things).

My preference: Write the draft in one swoop (whether it's 100 words or 10,000 words), and only then worry about editing.

One question that never seems to come up is this: Should I write a literary story or a genre story? I think the reason it's rarely discussed is that most writers know already which kind of fiction they want to write, because they know what kind of fiction they most enjoy reading. I'm just odd enough to have done some of both, but (because mystery is my first love) I've written a lot more genre stories than literary. Also, as one genre writer said, I'm not smart enough to write a story that's hard to read.


What are your takes, on these issues? Are you an outliner? Do you prefer self-publishing over the hassle of finding a good "business partner"? Do you prefer past tense or present? First-person or third? Do you send your work out to more than one market at the same time? Do you edit as you go? What are some of the other do-or-don't-do questions you get asked, at signings or speaking events?

Vive la difference.



31 March 2018

Space Opera and Horse Opera


by John M. Floyd



Those who know me know I like to write--and read--mostly mystery stories. As for the writing part, my "genre specialty" is made easier because almost any story involving a crime can be considered a mystery.

Today, though, I want to tell you about two pieces of fiction that I recently discovered from other genres, and they're stories that I found exceptional. One's a western and one's science fiction, but both are chock full of crime and deception; does that mean they could be loosely defined as mysteries? Probably not. But I liked 'em anyway.

The first is a Netflix Orginal series called Godless. And I need to clarify that a bit. A lot of TV shows that I've watched lately, like Goliath, True Detective, Fargo, etc. (and unlike Longmire, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, House of Cards, and most others), have been what's become known as "limited-series" presentations--stories that are told start-to-finish in one season. There might be some degree of similarity and continuity between seasons, but mostly the story ends when the season ends, and you wind up with what amounts to a single seven-to-ten-hour, full-character-arc movie. I usually binge-watch them.


Godless is a western, and one of the best I've seen. It features a few familiar faces like Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston and a bunch of lesser-known actors that have become better known as a result of their being cast here. The story involves a legendary outlaw in pursuit of a former friend who betrayed him, but the strangest thing about the show is that it takes place in the fictional La Belle, New Mexico, which is a town of mostly women--all the men have been killed in a catastrophic mining accident. I won't get into too many details here, but this seven-episode series is truly well done, in every way. The writing, the acting, the direction, the cinematography, everything just works. By the way, any of you who might still think of Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber or Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey will barely recognize them here. Daniels is as good in this as he was in the HBO series The Newsroom, and that's saying a lot.

My other recent discovery was a novel called Artemis, by Andy Weir (who also write The Martian). I loved The Martian--book and movie--and I thought this second novel was just as good. The protagonist, a young woman named Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara, is as tough and resourceful as any hero/heroine I've seen in a long time, and outrageous as well. At the start of the book Jazz is a wannabe tour-guide for some of the attractions around Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, and since she can't seem to pass the test to become a guide she makes a living smuggling certain items when they arrive from Earth to her customers here in space. Long story short, because of her lack of funds and need for employment she finds herself a part of a get-rich-quick scheme that instead gets her into deep trouble, including dealing with hitmen who are sent from Earth sort of like the four gunmen in High Noon. You'll wind up cheering her on, while you learn (or at least I did) a lot about life on the Final Frontier.


That's my sermon for today. And don't get me wrong, I've watched a lot of other good movies lately--Wind River, Baby Driver, Arrival, Logan Lucky, Gerald's Game, Hell or High Water, No Escape, Wonder Woman, Bushwick, Mudbound, The Last Jedi, Get Out, Blackway, Bullet Head, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri--and I've read some other good novels too--The Cuban Affair, The Fireman, The Girl from Venice, Dragon Teeth, Home, Gwendy's Button Box, World Gone By, Blackjack, Mississippi Blood, Sleeping Beauties, Goldeline, Fierce Kingdom, El Paso, The Midnight Line, Paradise Sky, The Big Finish, A Column of Fire, etc.--but I believe these two stories were as good as any of them, and better than most. If any of you have seen Godless, or read Artemis, please pass along your thoughts.

I also wouldn't mind some recommendations. I've been devouring collections of short stories lately, mainly those by Bill Pronzini, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Annie Proulx, and (believe it or not) Tom Hanks. I need to get back into some novels.

Meanwhile, happy reading, and viewing.







17 March 2018

25 Years in Shorts


by John M. Floyd



No, this isn't a post about Jimmy Buffett. But I'll tell you this: the topics of my SleuthSayers columns come from everywhere--books or stories I've read, movies I've seen, music or news I've heard, other writers I've talked with, etc.--and they're sometimes inspired by the columns written by my fellow bloggers at this site (probably because their ideas are better than mine). I was especially intrigued by some of the recent posts by Michael Bracken, Robert Lopresti, O'Neil De Noux, and others who've been reminiscing about their writing careers, their published works, and the way they'd marketed them. So, piggybacking on that subject, here's a quick look into the past . . .

I've been submitting short stories for publication for almost 25 years--longer than some of my colleagues but not nearly as long as others. Most of my stories have been mysteries, and while my so-called writing career is nothing remarkable, I've been able to reach a few of my goals: several awards, an Edgar nomination, two inclusions in Best American Mystery Stories, an appearance in Akashik Books' "noir" series, and the publication of half a dozen short-story collections.

I've also had some pretty crazy experiences with regard to submissions, sales, dealing with editors, etc,--but more about that in a minute.

Bio-statistics

As for frequency of publication, my hat's off to several of my fellow SleuthSayers for their many, many short stories in AHMM and EQMM. I'm especially impressed with Robert Lopresti's back-to-back stories in the three most recent issues of Hitchcock. I'm not yet up there with my heroes regarding the two Dell magazines: I've so far sold 16 stories to AH and two to EQ. And only once have I had stories in back-to-back issues of AHMM: May and June 1999, with a story in their March 1999 issue as well. I did, however, have stories in four consecutive issues of The Strand Magazine (from June 2016 to Sep 2017)--the Strand's published 16 of my stories--and after the upcoming issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine I will have placed stories in the first three issues of BCMM. I've also been in the past six issues of Flash Bang Mysteries, I've had stories chosen for three consecutive Bouchercon anthologies, I've made Otto Penzler's top-50-mysteries list for the past four years, and between 2013 and 2015 I had five stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

Though not primarily a mystery market, Woman's World has been kind to me as well--last week I sold them my 96th story there--and I've appeared in back-to-back issues of WW five different times. This is ancient history, but to those of you who remember the pubications, I had 17 stories and 20 poems in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, 8 stories and 17 poems in Mystery Time, 19 stories at Amazon Shorts, and 7 stories in Reader's Break. Other long-defunct markets that featured my stories include Murderous IntentOrchard Press Mysteries, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker CasebookEnigmaDetective Mystery StoriesHeist MagazineThe Rex Stout Journal, Desert Voices, Ancient PathsCrime & SuspenseAnterior Fiction QuarterlyDogwood Tales, and The Atlantean Press Review. (We won't talk about how many rejections I've received from the above publications, because I honestly don't know the number--but it's a big one. A lot higher than my number of acceptances.)

One last statistic: my collections of short fiction--Rainbow's End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), Deception (2013), Fifty Mysteries (2015), Dreamland (2016), and The Barrens (coming in 2018)--contain a total of 240 different stories. As for novels, I've written four of them, all of which I like and two of which are out with an agent, but all of them, alas, remain unpublished. My heart's really in the short stuff.
Welcome surprises

In the icing-on-the-cake department, my story "Molly's Plan," which first appeared in the Strand, was chosen to be part of The New York Public Library's permanent digital collection, and another of my stories, "The Tenth Floor," was recently included in a 600-page book with 108 different authors from 11 countries, which is up for a Guinnesss World Record for the largest short-story anthology ever published. Several stories of mine have also been published in Braille and on audiotape, taught in high schools and colleges, and translated (last month) in Russia's leading literary journal, although I can't say any of those accomplishments were on my wish list. They were what we at IBM used to call "bluebirds": they just happened to fly in through the open window.

Okay, enough tooting of my own horn. The following is the goofy part of all this:

Weird tales

- Twice I've had stories appear in Woman's World under someone else's byline. Thankfully WW paid me and not the other writer, but it's strange to look at one of your own stories in print and see an unfamiliar name beside it. I never did find out whether the dastardly impostor liked my stories or not. Lesson #1: Once you sell a story and it's out of your hands, anything can happen.

- On three different occasions editors have contacted me asking to buy stories I sent them more than two years earlier. On two of those occasions I happily sold them the stories in question; on the third I had already given up and sold it someplace else. None of those editors ever explained why those submissions were still lingering in their records, and I didn't ask. My wife suspects they just fell behind the piano or the refrigerator and stayed there awhile, as some of our important papers at home tend to do.

- I have twice received acceptance letters for stories that I didn't write. In both cases I contacted the editors and said I wish this were me but it's not.

- I once published a short fantasy story, "Chain Reaction," in Star Magazine, and proudly appeared alongside accounts of alien kidnappings, Bigfoot sightings, and three-headed chickens. Lesson #2: If you've been paid, don't worry about it.

- I've had at least a dozen stories accepted by magazines that then promptly (before my stories could be published), went out of business.  See Lesson #1.

- Most of my stories seem to be in the 1000- to 4000-word (short story) range, but my three Derringer Awards were in the short-short, long story, and novelette categories. Yes, I know that doesn't make sense.

- I was once told by an editor that the 12-page story I'd submitted "should have ended on page 7."

- I've published poems in better-known markets like EQMMWriter's DigestGrit, The Lyric, Mobius, Capper's, Byline, Writers' JournalFarm & Ranch Living, etc.--BUT I've also published poems in Volcano QuarterlyThe Pipe Smoker's EpheremisBarbaric YawpHard Row to Hoe, Feh!, The Aardvark AdventurerBootsCreative JuicesAppalling Limericks, Tales of the Talisman, Nutrition Health ReviewMythic Delirium, SmileHadrosaur TalesOuter DarknessThe Shantytown AnomalyDecompositionsStarLineFirm NoncommittalACafeBreakThe Church Musician Today, The Pegasus ReviewBlind Man's RainbowKraxSophomore Jinx, And many other wild and crazy places. For the record, 31 of my poems appeared in Rural Heritage, 34 in Rhyme Time, 47 in Tucumcari Literary Review, 33 in Laughter Loaf, and 55 in Nuthouse. (Did I mention that my poetry is more lighthearted than profound? Bet you would've never guessed.) Anyhow, I challenge you to come up with more creative magazine names than some of those above.

- My short fiction has also appeared in publications with strange (and clever) names: Champagne ShiversMouth Full of BulletsShort Attention Span MysteriesAntipodean SF, Ethereal Gazette, Illya's HoneySimulacrumGathering StormMeet CuteScifantasticFireflies in Fruit Jars, Cenotaph, Thou Shalt Not, Dream International QuarterlySniplitsT-ZeroAfter DeathThe Norwegian AmericanLost WorldsFicta FabulaJust a MomentThirteenLines in the Sand, Phoebe, We've Been TrumpedHorror LibraryMatilda Ziegler Magazine for the BlindPebbles, Spring Fantasy, Eureka Literary MagazineSpinetinglerTrust & TreacheryPenny DreadfulSweet Tea and Afternoon TalesWriter's Block MagazineQuakes & StormsReadWriteLearn, Scavenger's Newsletter, NefariousShort Stuff for GrownupsListenThe Taj Mahal Review, Mindprints, Inostrannaya LiteraturaMad Dogs and Moonshine, and Yellow Sticky Notes.

- Years ago I was about to submit a story to AHMM, and at the last minute I asked my wife to read it first. She did, and said she thought I should change the ending. I changed it completely, sent it in, and it sold, Later, editor Linda Landrigan told me she bought it because of the ending. Lesson #3: When your spouse speaks, listen. Especially if she's smarter than you are.

- While most of my short stories are mystery/crime, I've also published 57 westerns, 20 romances, 103 SF/fantasy stories, and 23 "literary"/mainstream stories.

- The second story I sold to AHMM ("Careers") was less than 1000 words; the third story I sold to them ("Hardison Park") was more than 10,000 words.

- I have twice been paid in advance for short stories not yet written. (That doesn't happen often--at least not to me.)

- One of my stories, "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," came within two weeks of being filmed. The cast and crew were on board, the screenplay was polished and ready, locations had been arranged, I was told to invite friends to the set, original music had been written for it (I still have the CD), and suddenly everything stopped and everyone went home. Sad but true. Lesson #4: Don't trust the movie business.

- I once won a $30 gift certificate to Amazon in a contest for 26-word stories whose words had to begin with each letter of the alphabet, in order. My story, called "Misson: Ambushable" was Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP. (Hey, what did you expect, in 26 words? Fine literature?)

- I've never published a story written in present tense. I don't mind reading them, but when it comes to my own writing, I guess I prefer the old "once upon a time" approach.

- One of my stories, "A Thousand Words" (Pleiades), has been reprinted seven times; two other stories, "Newton's Law" (Reader's Break) and "Saving Mrs. Hapwell" (Dogwood Tales Magazine), have been reprinted six times each; and at least four of my stories have been reprinted five times each. Lesson #5: Recycle.

- I once sent the same story to two different publications at the same time, then sent another story to two other publications as the same time. As it turned out, one of the two places I'd sent the first story accepted it, and one of the two places I'd sent the second story accepted that one. So all was well; I just sent withdrawal letters to the two markets that hadn't yet responded. BUT it made me think: What if both those first two places had wanted that first story, or if both the second two places had wanted the second one? I would've had to withdraw an already accepted story, which isn't the best way to get on an editor's good side. This is not really a lesson because everyone's mileage will vary, but ever since that time, I've been reluctant to simultaneously submit my work.

- My payment for one of my early story sales was a lifetime subscription to the magazine.

- When my publisher (Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press) and I were having trouble coming up with a title for my fourth collection of short fiction (Joe has usually given those books the same title as one of the included stories), we solved the problem this way: we changed the name of an as-yet-unpublished story to "Deception," included it in the collection, and made that the title of the book as well. Lesson #6: Think outside the book-box.

- One of my stories in the Strand ("Bennigan's Key," 5000 words) featured only one character and had no dialogue.

- My longest published short story ("Denny's Mountain," Amazon Shorts) was 18,000 words. My shortest ("Mum's the Word," Flashshots) was 55 words.

- At our local Kroger store, I once went through the checkout line with three copies of a magazine that contained one of my mystery stories. The checker said, around a wad of chewing gum, "You got three of these." I told her I knew that. "But they're three of the same issue," she said. "I know," I replied. "Actually"--I stood up a little straighter and lifted my chin--"I have a story in this issue." She gave me a long, blank look and said, "That'll be $4.80." Lesson #7: You're probably not as big a deal as you think you are.

- One of my stories, "The Garden Club," was written start-to-finish between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, after I woke up sick and feverish and couldn't get back to sleep. I submitted it as soon as I got home from the trip, and the first editor I sent it to bought it. In the acceptance letter she said it had the best ending she and her staff had read in twenty years.

- A producer who was planning to film one of my stories called me and said he needed a logline for it, for marketing purposes. I said I didn't know what a logline was. He told me to find and read an old copy of TV Guide, and hung up. I found a copy in a back closet, and one of the entries said something like "Little Joe confesses to Hoss and Adam that he's fallen in love with an Indian girl." Understanding dawned, and I came up with what I thought was an effective logline. The producer even liked it. But the movie never got made. See Lesson #4.

- I once sold a story called "Wheels of Fortune" to an Australian magazine that published only on CD-ROM, and was required to read my story aloud and send it to them as a recording. I still have the magazine-on-CD that they later mailed to me, but I have never listened to my story.

- After my first submission to the Strand (the story was "The Proposal," the first one I ever sold them), editor Andrew Gulli phoned me and said he liked the story, but his staff was unfamiliar with the kind of poison I had used. I told him that was because it wasn't real--I made it up. He paused just long enough to really scare me, then said, "Okay." Lesson #8: If something in your story just won't work, invent something that will.

- More than 90% of my published stories were written in third-person POV.

- I appeared in every issue of the magazine Mystery Time from 1994 until its demise in 2002 (17 issues).

- One of my short stories was rejected almost two dozen times. I later heard that a national magazine was looking for Christmas stories, so I changed the setting of my oft-rejected story from summer to winter, included gloves and icicles and Christmas lights and gifts and carols, and sold it for much more than I would've made at any of the previously-attempted markets. Lesson #9: Don't give up.


And that's that. If you would, let me know about some of your own strange experiences, in dealing with editors or writing stories or novels or marketing them. What are some of the most unusual or notable things you've had happen to you, as a writer?

Lesson #10 (to myself): Don't write such a long column, next time . . .