15 February 2020
Some of my favorite columns by my fellow SleuthSayers have been those that give us a sneak peek into the creation of the mystery stories they've published. I suppose it makes sense that I would like that kind of thing--I'm also a sucker for those little behind-the-scene "bonus" features included on most DVDs. I enjoy finding out where scenes were filmed and who else was considered for the roles and how the screenwriters got their ideas in the first place. Trivia galore.
So . . . what I thought I'd do today is talk about my short story in the January/February (current, at least for a couple more weeks) issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It's called "Crow's Nest," and is a standalone tale about an old guy who gets involved by accident in a conflict between a bunch of local gangsters and a couple of amateur criminals. Bottom line is, it's about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which is, by the way, a pretty good definition of commercial fiction.
Quick setup: The "hero" of this story isn't a hero at all. Amos Garrett is a regular guy, a retired farmer who lives with his wife out in the boonies and doesn't have a lot of thrills in his life, which is just fine with him--until he stops his truck one day to help a young lady with a flat tire and no spare and a dead cellphone. Afterward, there's more than enough excitement to go around (or I hope there is). Robbery, murder, lies, betrayals, revenge, etc.
One of the things I wanted to do with this story was feature an older protagonist. Amos is pushing seventy-five--older than I am, but not by much--and so is his wife, and they live high on a hill in a house that's fairly ordinary except for one thing. It has a railed platform on top that allows an unobstructed view for miles around. They use it as sort of a patio, and call it their Crow's Nest, like the perches on the masts of tall ships where sailors watched for whales, or enemy vessels, or dry land. In this story, it comes in handy for something else.
Amos is an uncomplicated guy. He drives an ancient pickup, goes fishing and hunting now and then, owns an old fifty-caliber buffalo gun that he inherited but hasn't fired in years because the recoil hurts his shoulder, and still likes to go to cattle auctions even though he's long since sold all his cattle. He's also old-fashioned in his thinking: he loves his wife, he helps those in need, and he believes in trying to do the right thing.
The other protagonist (heroine?) is a woman named Wendy Lake ("Sounds like an apartment complex," she tells Amos, when they meet), and she IS complicated--sweet and meek at times and scary-tough at others. I won't say too much about her because she's the basis of most of the twists and turns the story takes--but I will say she's the exact opposite of Amos. He's old, she's young; he's local, she's an outsider; he's calm and cautious by nature; she's not; he lives pretty much by the rules; she doesn't. The POV alternates between these two for the entire story.
As has been discussed often at this blog, writers get their initial ideas from a lot of different places, and those starting points usually fall into three categories: settings, characters, or plots. I usually begin with the plot, partly because I think story is more important than anything else and partly because the plot just seems to be the first thing that pops into my head. Then and only then do I come up with characters who I hope are interesting and settings that I hope are convincing and appropriate. Lots of folks do it the other way around--characters first, or settings first. Different strokes.
In the case of this story, my first glimmer of an idea came from a movie I watched years ago, an Australian "western" called Quigley Down Under. It won no Oscars and maybe didn't deserve any, but it was a riproaringly good story in terms of action and excitement. It had a great cast, a great plot, a great score, a great setting, and one scene in particular that stayed with me long afterward.
Picture this. American-in-a-strange-land Matthew Quigley, played by Tom Selleck, has been beaten senseless by the villain's men and carted off into the outback, to be left for dead. He and a young lady (Laura San Giacomo, if anyone remembers the TV series Just Shoot Me) are dumped unconscious from a buckboard in the middle of nowhere, and the two henchmen climb back into the wagon and prepare to leave. As Captain Kirk would say, the situation is grim.
Then Quigley comes to, lures one of the bad guys back down off the wagon, and--still lying down--kills him with a hidden knife. Thug #2, thankfully smarter than he looks, sees this and takes off in the wagon alone, headed away across the flats, but (also thankfully), Thug #1, now dead, was carrying Quigley's Sharps long-range rifle when he got stabbed, so our hero, trying to clear his head, wipes the blood and sweat and dirt from his eyes, loads the gun, crawls into position, props the three-foot-long barrel of the Sharps on the dead body of Thug #1, and takes careful aim. Meanwhile, Thug #2 is going hell for leather, flying across the desert, scared to death and leaning forward in his seat and looking back over his shoulder and whipping the horses as hard as he can and getting smaller and smaller and smaller in the distance. Knowing that he'll have only the one chance and knowing that if his bullet doesn't hit its tiny target Thug #2 will get home safely and report what happened and a small army will come back and kill him and his lovely still-unconscious companion, Quigley takes his time and squeezes off his shot and blows T#2 right out of his wagon seat, half a mile away. Heavy sighs of relief, fading music, end of scene. All is well.
So, using that as sort of a launch pad, I built a present-day plot whereby the young Wendy gets rescued from her car troubles by Amos Garrett, and he takes her home with him to call for roadside assistance. But of course the power is out at the house and so is the landline and she stays the night as the guest of Amos and his wife, and since Wendy says she and her brother are gun collectors Amos shows her his old .50-caliber Sharps--the one that buffalo hunters used in the Old West--and lets her have some target practice out back before supper. She's a surprisingly good shot. The next morning when phone lines are repaired she makes her call for assistance . . . but of course she isn't exactly who she claims to be (who is, in a mystery?) and she didn't call who she'd claimed she called, and the two people who come for her aren't car-repairmen and they definitely aren't friendly, to either her or the Garretts. A lot happens from that point, and part of it involves a long-range shot by Wendy with the buffalo gun, with time running out and everybody's lives hanging in the balance. (Sorry that preview ran so long.)
I should mention here that the scene I remembered from the movie resulted in less than one page of the twenty-one pages of my story manuscript--but it did serve as a starting point, the tiny match that lit the fire. It happens that way sometimes.
If pressured, I guess I would say there are several "themes" featured in this story--crime doesn't pay, lend a hand to the needy, the end can indeed sometimes justify the means, there are varying degrees of good and evil, love is more important than money, villains should get what they deserve, and so forth--but I admit I don't usually give much thought to illumination and life-lessons in fiction. I just try to tell an entertaining story, and if there's something to be learned form it, fine; if there's not, I might've at least saved you from half an hour of network TV, and believe me, that can be a blessing. I've never understood writing instructors who say you must come up with the theme first, before you start writing. My feeling is, don't waste time worrying about that. If you write a story and it turns out good, then it'll have a theme.
One more thing. One kind reader told me the other day, via email, that she liked my foreshadowing of a couple of things that happened near the end of this story--one of them involved an early view of several old mailboxes on the same post, something you see a lot in rural areas of the south, and which turned out to be meaningful later. I appreciated her noticing that, because I love doing that kind of thing in a story. Some of my writer friends seem to think foreshadowing is hard in short fiction because the stories aren't long enough for it to work. That's not true. It just depends on when and how you do it.
And that's all, folks. Thanks for indulging me. If you happen to read my story, I hope you'll like it. If you read it and don't like it, hey, maybe you'll have learned something not to do in your own stories.
Two things I know for sure: (1) I'm grateful that EQMM liked it, and (2) it was a lot of fun to write.
See you in two weeks.
01 February 2020
Since I was in a reminiscing mood the other day--and since I was having trouble coming up with an idea for today's column--I took a look at what I'd posted exactly ten years ago at the Criminal Brief mystery blog (the predecessor to SleuthSayers). Oddly enough, my subject that day was one I was discussing with a friend just last week: trivia about writers.
I have taken the liberty of re-posting that piece of nonsense here. You'll see some things that might be a bit off, including my mention of a couple of authors in the present tense who have since died and at least one research mistake (Christie did NOT kill off Miss Marple in Sleeping Murder, as my source said she did)--but I hope you might find a few interesting facts here. I know one thing for sure: our odd fascination with trivial details will always be around.
Anyhow, here's that old column. Where'd all that time go . . . ?
INSIDE INFO, by John M. Floyd
Saturday, January 30, 2010
(Yes, I know this isn't EXACTLY ten years ago--but it's close.)
I like trivia. I always have. I think it's fun to discover little-known and often useless facts about the people and places and things that share our world. Who knows, maybe it's fun because it is useless: the pursuit of meaningless information is more like play than work, and we have plenty enough work in our lives.
Stalking the rich and famous
Apparently I'm not alone in my fondness for unimportant details. We all know how the general public loves to get the skinny on celebrities and their antics. There seems to be no end to the number of fans who want to know what J-Lo wore to her premiere last night or what kind of cereal George Clooney eats for breakfast.
I can understand that, in a way. I like finding out that Sinatra was the producers' first choice to play Dirty Harry, and that E.T.'s voice was really Debra Winger's. But I'm also interested in another area of trivia: writers, and their backgrounds and habits. Because of that, I keep an eye open (both of them, occasionally) for little tidbits that shed more light on the sometimes secret lives of authors.
The quirks of Shakespeare
Here are some of those pieces of information that I've picked up and stored away in notebooks over the years. I can't remember where I found most of them, but at least a few came from a book called Writing the Popular Novel, by Loren Estleman. He calls them "Fiction Facts":
- At one point, Mickey Spillane was the author of seven of the ten best-selling novels of all time.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald kept track of his plotlines by pinning the drafts of his chapters up on his walls.
- When J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel, she typed three separate copies because she couldn't afford copying fees.
- While serving as president of Anderson Manufacturing, Sherwood Anderson abruptly walked out of his office one day to pursue a career as an author (good for him!). Also in the "odd exit" department: Years later, Anderson died from peritonitis after swallowing a toothpick hidden in an hors d'oeuvre.
- Agatha Christie, who was convinced that others might exploit two of her main characters after her death, killed them off in two books--Jane Marple in Sleeping Murder and Hercule Poirot in Curtain--and arranged to have them published posthumously.
- Jack London once ran for mayor of Oakland, California, on the Social Party ticket; Upton Sinclair once ran for governor of California.
- In 1939 Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a 50,000-word novel called Gadsby without ever using the letter "e."
- The prolific John Creasey is said to have written his first published novel on the backs of more than seven hundred rejection letters.
- Jack Kerouac mounted a continuous roll of teletype paper above his typewriter so he wouldn't have to crank in new sheets.
- Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's literary heritage: a number of Bonnie's poems were accepted and published in newspapers in 1933, while she was eluding the FBI--and a letter from Clyde to Henry Ford, praising the Ford as a getaway car, is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
- When asked what one of his stories meant, William Faulkner once replied, "How should I know? I was drunk when I wrote it."
- Erle Stanley Gardner dictated his books orally.
- Arthur Conan Doyle was an ophthalmologist; since it didn't pay particularly well, he took up writing only as a way to make ends meet.
- Frankly, my dear, Margaret Mitchell wrote the ending of Gone With the Wind first and wrote the opening only after the book was accepted for publication, ten years later.
- Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain liked to write lying down, Ben Franklin and Vladimir Nabokov often wrote while in the bathtub, and Lewis Carroll and Ernest Hemingway (after injuring his back in a plane crash) wrote standing up.
- Rescued at the last moment: Tabitha King retrieved Carrie from her husband's wastebasket (the Kings were almost starving at the time), and the son of Leo Tolstoy fished the discarded manuscript of War and Peace out of a drainage ditch.
- Elmore Leonard writes everything in longhand, on yellow legal pads.
- Six-foot-six Thomas Wolfe also preferred to write standing up, using the top of his refrigerator for a desk.
- Charles Dickens's dream was to be a comic actor. Thankfully, he wasn't very good at it and decided on another career instead.
- J. D. Salinger sometimes avoids interruptions by writing in a concrete bunker near his home.
- It is said that Hemingway's simple, terse style came from the fact that he had memorized the King James version of the Bible and could recite it by heart.
- Stephen King wrote the first pages of Misery in a London hotel at a desk that had belonged to Rudyard Kipling.
- Switching horses in midstream: Janet Evanovich started out writing romances, Elmore Leonard started with Westerns, Lawrence Block started with erotica. And both James Dickey (Deliverance) and James Harrison (Legends of the Fall) published poetry long before they published fiction.
- William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) got the idea for his pseudonym from a guard, Orrin Henry, who befriended him while he was serving time in prison for embezzlement.
You get the idea: writers are a different breed, and writing itself is a strange occupation. But, as Stephen the Kingster once said, "It's better than having to pay a psychiatrist."
Just as recycling a long-ago column is better than having to dream up a new one. (I promise I'll post one next time that hasn't been previously driven.)
One more piece of trivia, in the where-has-the-time-gone department: Fifty years ago tomorrow, I signed on with IBM, fresh out of college, and stayed there 30 years. Great jumpin' Jiminy.
A final note: In the comments following this original post, that smartaleck Leigh Lundin asked if I could write my next blog post without using the letter "e." My response was: "Of cours I will." (But I didn't. Mayb nxt tim.)
Have a great February.
18 January 2020
As mentioned in two of my earlier posts at this blog, I'm not one to stray far from my comfort zone in my writing, and I also don't care much for New Year's resolutions, but--at the urging of my publisher, Joe Lee--I'm going to try at least one new thing in 2020.
A quick background note: In the spring of 2006, it was Joe's idea (he owns and operates Dogwood Press here in Mississippi) to put thirty of my previously published short mysteries together in a hardcover collection called Rainbow's End and Other Stories. Thankfully, that book sold well enough for a second printing, and since then Joe's small, traditional press has published six more books of my stories--as well as the work of eight other writers. Another idea Joe had, back in 2015, was to veer away from my usual story-collections and produce a softcover book of fifty of my lighthearted tales with the mysteries in the front of the book and the solutions in the back. That project, called Fifty Mysteries (let's hear it for appropriate titles), was great fun to put together, and has sold well also. I think its success was due to (1) its "puzzle" format, (2) its humor, and (3) the fact that all of its stories feature two familiar characters from my longest-running series--all of which were reasons I thought it might not work. The point is, when Joe has a brainstorm, I listen.
So, what was this latest idea? To publish a book of my poetry.
You heard right. Over the past 25 years I've sold poems to more than 100 different markets, including Writer's Digest, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Farm & Ranch Living, Mystery Time, Wordplay, Futures, Satire, Grit, The Lyric, Writers' Journal, Mobius, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, Capper's, The Mystery Review, and so on. But be aware . . . this is not the deep, profound, life-changing poetry you might find in prestigious literary journals. I'm not a contemporary poet and I noet. This is easygoing, humorous, Ogden Nash-style verse whose sole purpose is to put a smile on your face, and maybe even make you Laugh Out Loud and slap ya mama. The kind of thing that a lot of readers--and editors too, thank God--seem to like. (If you're at all interested, here's a SleuthSayers column I did about Nash and light verse, several years ago,)
The title of this unusual (ad)venture is called Lighten Up a Little, which is also the title of one of the included poems and might, I think, be good advice for all of us. The book will contain 300 lighthearted poems I've published in the aforementioned markets. Some are long (up to four pages) and many are short (as few as four lines), and all are an exercise in rhythm and rhyme and wordplay, because I love that sort of thing. As for subject matter, some of the poems are crime-based, but others cover everything from kids to sports to medicine to politics to movies to animals to technology to writing. The book is scheduled for April 2020.
Note: When the decision to publish was made and Joe and his wizards had started working on the layout, I sat down and drew a little cartoon I thought might work for the cover. I then scanned it and emailed it to my friend Chuck Galey, who's a professional illustrator, and asked him if he knew of any online coloring programs I might use to insert color into my dull-looking black-and-white drawing. Chuck responded by coloring it himself and sending it back to me. Boy, does it help to know the right people . . .
Here's an excerpt from my introduction:
"The following poems, grouped in a dozen categories of 25 each--and most of which are capsule-sized--may be ingested separately or in gulps of several at a time. They were designed to provide temporary relief from everyday stress and fatigue, but seem to also be effective in treating insomnia.
"To those who seek enlightenment, inspiration, and/or insights into the Meaning of Life . . . well, you might want to look elsewhere."
Which is true. No psychology or angst or navel-gazing here. Since I like movie comparisons, this is more of a Blazing Saddles than a 2001. And in case you're wondering what in the world I'm even talking about, here are a few really short examples of the contents:
A WILD ALLI-GATION
The wife of Mean Willie LaBrock
Disappeared off the end of their dock;
Willie claimed that a gator
Just swam up and ate her
But that sounds to me like a croc.
NEVER TOO LATE
"You're Al Capone?"
He said: "That's right."
"You're dead, I thought."
He said, "Not quite."
"Then you must be--"
"So you're retired?"
"That's not for me."
"But how do you--"
"Get by?" he said.
He pulled a gun.
"Hands on your head."
LOVE IS BLURRY
Thought not legally blind, Nate was badly crosseyed
When he married Big Lucy, a mail-order bride;
"Get some glasses," friends urged, but he figured, well, hell,
It might not be too smart to see Lucy too well.
When Purpa's flights were smuggling grapes
Its king escaped in vain;
The Purpals found His Majesty
Aboard a fruited plane.
SOUTH OF SAUDI
If the country of Yemen
Were governed by Britain,
Their gas would be petrol,
Their dresses tight-fittin'.
And sports fans could watch,
For the price of a ticket,
Playing Yemeni cricket.
A BOLD ASSUMPTION
"Since I'm quite debonair, I don't travel by air,"
Leonard bragged, from the helm of his yacht;
A storm came the next day and blew Leonard away--
I don't know if they've found him or not.
THE BOOK DOCTOR
When they're edited, writers have said
Semicolons are something they dread;
What if someone had stolen
One half of your colon
And plugged in a comma instead?
So there's a preview. If you're tired already, be forewarned: there are 293 more of these in the book. Some are silly, some are (I hope) witty, and some are just observations about people and places and situations in our workaday world. I doubt Maya Angelou or Robert Frost would've felt threatened by this masterpiece--but I can also tell you I had a great time writing it.
I'm hoping those who read it (release date April 23!), will feel the same.
04 January 2020
I won't bore you with a long list of what I read this past year--I did consume just as many novels and stories as I did in 2018--but I want to mention a few books that stood out. I truly enjoyed The Deserter (Nelson DeMille), Cari Mora (Thomas Harris), Blue Moon (Lee Child), The Institute (Stephen King), Cemetery Road (Greg Iles), The Boar (Joe R. Lansdale), and Full Throttle (a collection of shorts by Joe Hill).
On the writing side, I wrote 22 new short stories in 2019 (about half the number I produced the year before). The only things notable about that is that most of them this year were much longer stories--I haven't been writing as many mini-mysteries as I used to--and that not as many had local, southern settings. I'm not sure why, on either count; the stories just took a little longer to tell, and the settings happened to be the ones that popped into my head and stayed there.
I had 26 stories published in 2019--eight appeared in anthologies (some by invitation, some by open-call
submission) and 18 in magazines. Of those 26, 19 were to paying markets, 13 to repeat markets, and 13 to new markets. And, if it matters, 22 were to print publications and four to online pubs. Genrewise, two were fantasy stories, one was science fiction, three were about deception not connected to a crime (what do you call that?), and the other 20 were mysteries--although a few of those could be considered cross-genre. Of the 26 total, 18 were original stories and eight were reprints. Settingwise, 12 took place in my home state of Mississippi and the rest were set elsewhere, including the Middle East, Alaska, Texas, Wyoming, and the South Pacific. And I still seem to be publishing a few series stories: nine of this year's stories were installments in two different series and 17 were standalones.
On the nonfiction side, my not-so-short article "Short and Sweet" appeared in a book called How I Got Published and What I Learned Along the Way by Camden Park Press in September, and I wrote 26 columns here at SleuthSayers.
As for rejections, I had 24 this past year. That was actually low, for me. Over my so-called career, I've had more rejections from more different places than Carter had little pills, and I remain unable to predict which stories will fly and which will crash. What can I say? You buy your ticket and you take your chances . . .
In the "upcoming" category, 16 more of my stories have been accepted but not yet published, and 21 have been submitted and have not yet received a response (in other words, I hope they're upcoming). Already-accepted stories are waiting backstage at AHMM, EQMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Tough, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, etc., and several anthologies. No genre-diversity here; all of those forthcoming stories are mysteries.
One of my stories was also optioned to a movie production company in L.A. last year. Fingers are crossed.
How about you?
Was 2019 a good year, writingwise? What are some of your success stories? What and where did you publish this year? Novels? Shorts? Other projects? Mostly magazines? Mostly anthologies? What's forthcoming?
One more thing. To any of you who've read my stories, and to the editors who acquired them, please accept my sincere thanks. To be allowed to continue to do something that's this much fun is a true blessing.
May all of you have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2020!
21 December 2019
How many times have you heard it? All of us write too much.
Alas, this doesn't mean we write too often. It means we write too many words. Certainly in our first drafts, and sometimes in later drafts as well--and one of the ways to make those drafts readable is to cut some of the words out.
Coco Chanel once said, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory." Probably good advice--and overwriting is worse than overdressing. Before your story or novel manuscript leaves the house, you need to look at it and remove a lot of accessories.
The trick, of course, is to know what to take out and what to leave in.
Size does matter
Here's something else you've probably heard. We write (and speak) too many BIG words.
I'm a firm believer that you can sound dumb, even if you're not, by using big words--and you can sound smart, even if you're not, by using simple language. (Of Faulkner and Hemingway, can you guess who I'd rather read? Even if I am from Mississippi.)
Police spokesmen do the big-word thing a lot. I heard the following on our local TV news the other night: "The two motorists exited their vehicles, at which point the first individual discharged his weapon, the other individual responded with gunfire, and both sustained fatal wounds." In other words, they got out of their cars and shot each other dead. I wish they'd just say that and get it over with.
The K.I.S.S. method
No matter how much you'd enjoy showing off your wide vocabulary, and no matter how proud your
mother would be if you did, here are some words (not all of them big) that you probably shouldn't overuse. Especially in dialogue.
Instead of: utilize say: use
myriad many, or countless
avocation occupation, or job
per se really
tranquil calm, or peaceful
plethora a lot (see myriad)
taciturn silent, or reserved
milieu most anything besides milieu
The same goes for phrases, if you like shortcuts.
Instead of: shrug your shoulders say: shrug
nod your head nod
stand up stand
sit down sit
I, personally I
in point of fact in fact
This kind of thing isn't a huge wordsaver, but it can help streamline your manuscript.
It's impossible to talk about "writing tight" without including a few words about dialogue attribution. I'm not rabid enough to say you should never use anything but "said" as a speech tag, but I do think it works better than all the others. Now and then, usually when judging fiction contests or reading first-timers' manuscripts, I come across something like "he vociferated," or "she retorted," or "he expostulated." Don't do that. If you do, you'll have the reader thinking about the writing, and the writer, instead of about the story, and you'll have your submission coming back to you in next week's email. Or tomorrow's.
Unless you occasionally want to have a character moan, or call, or blurt, or shout (all of which work fine, in moderation), just use "said" or "asked." They're both transparent words, and the reader's eye will skip right over them--and that's what you want. The accompanying dialogue, if done correctly, will usually tell the reader how the words are spoken. If you write, "The back yard's on fire," she said, the reader's smart enough to know it probably wasn't whispered.
Sense and sensibility
On the subject of dialogue, it should sound the way people really talk. Or at least reasonably so. I was watching an old western on TV the other night, and a ranch hand shouted to his pardners (I kid you not), "Come quickly!" The Grammar Sheriff would be pleased, but I'd bet the house and farm that nobody in the Old West, except maybe a schoolmarm, ever used the word quickly, especially when things are happening quickly. To be convincing, he shoud've said (the screenwriter should've written), "Come quick!"
Here's another no-brainer: Don't use a lot of corporate buzzwords in ordinary speech or writing. For a while, when I was with IBM, every meeting I went to included words like synergy and paradigm and empowerment. Those tedious, eye-rolling words are seldom heard now, and good riddance.
This is getting away from the main topic, but here are a few words and phrases (some spoken, some written) that I've come to dislike:
No problem -- Almost every waiter/waitress says this, when I thank him/her for something. I know there's no problem. How about "You're welcome"?
Amazing -- The most popular, and misused, adjective in the free world. If you introduce someone as "my amazing boyfriend" and you're not Lois Lane, you should stop doing that.
All about -- A guy on TV the other night said he's all about the environment. And a political candidate awhile back said she's all about law enforcement. Good grief.
I'm like (when used to mean "I said") -- Unless I'm writing teenager dialogue, I'm like, "I don't like 'I'm like.'"
Alright -- Writing "alright" is not all right. It's two words. I've been told this gives English teachers a mild fit.
Everyday -- Same deal. Unless it's used as an adjective, it's two separate words.
Awesome -- I know it's here to stay, but Jeez Louise. The Diamond Head crater is awesome. Your favorite restaurant, not so much.
Stunning video -- How many times have you heard news anchors use this term to entice viewers? I've found that they're usually half right: it's video.
Reach out to -- Am I the only one tired of this cliche? Unless your character is in quicksand, substitute "call" or "email" or just "contact."
Give 110% -- Ballplayers and actors and salesmen cannot give 110%, no matter how many times their coach or director or boss asks them to.
I could care less -- Enough said.
You know -- I'm finally, you know, almost finished, and I'm glad you hung in there, you know, to the end.
What's your feeling, about this whole tight-writing business? What about realistic dialogue? Do you have any pet peeves, with word usage? Is it fairly easy for you to weed out the chaff when you're rewriting? How about everyday speech? Do you find yourself using bigger words than you should? Is your thesaurus still on your desk, or in a Jurassic Park paddock with the other -sauruses (-sauri)?
"Alright, I'm like, 'We're done here,'" he ruminated perspicaciously.
Have a great Christmas.
07 December 2019
In last week's column I talked a bit about experimental writing, and gave as an example one of my recent stories, which was told in such a nonlinear way almost the whole thing flowed backward. In that post I mentioned (and most of the readers' comments agreed) that trying new writing techniques can sometimes pay off, not only in sales but in the enjoyment of writing these "different" kinds of stories.
The more I thought about that, the more I looked back through my old stories, trying to remember other times that I'd broken or at least bent the rules of storytelling. For what it's worth, here are thirty examples that I found:
"Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, 2018) -- A single story consisting of three different mystery cases and three different crimes. (This was an installment in a series, so I felt a little safer trying something like that.)
"The Home Front" (Pebbles, 1995) and "Command Decisions" (The Odds Are Against Us anthology, 2019) -- Two stories told only in the form of letters mailed between characters.
"Life Is Good" (Bouchercon 2017 anthology) -- A story told in three scenes about three separate characters, each in that character's POV. All three scenes have similar beginning lines and similar ending lines. (If you've read it you know what I mean.)
"Careers" (AHMM, 1998) and "Radio Silence" (new) -- Two stories told using only dialogue.
"Benningan's Key" (Strand Magazine, 2012) -- A 4500-word story using no dialogue at all.
"Denny's Mountain" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A 20,000-word mystery written in two parts, and sold and published as two separate entities.
"In the Wee Hours" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A story that takes place entirely in a dream.
"Mission Ambushable" (flash fiction contest, 2008) -- A 26-word story told with each word beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, in order, from A to Z. (The link is to a 2013 SleuthSayers post about this story.)
"The Willisburg Stage" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A Western horror story.
"On the Road with Mary Jo" (EQMM, 2019) -- A 4000-word story in which almost half the dialogue is from an Alexa-like device in a self-driving car.
"A Stranger in Town" (Amazon Shorts, 2006), "Over the Mountains" (Dreamland collection, 2016), and "The Miller and the Dragon" (new) -- Three very long stories told only in verse, reminiscent of Robert W. Service's poetry style.
"Lucy's Gold" (Grit, 2002) and "The Donovan Gang" (new) -- Two stories about passengers inside a stagecoach. (The link to "Lucy's Gold" is to a reprint of that story in Saddlebag Dispatches, 2018)
"Christmas Gifts" (Reader's Break, 1998) -- a story about passengers inside an elevator.
"The Red-Eye to Boston" (Horror Library, Vol. 6 anthology, 2017), "Business Class" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2015), and "Creativity" (Mystery Time, 1999) -- Three stories about passengers inside an airplane.
"The Barrens" (The Barrens collection, 2018) -- A children's fairy tale, with witches and monsters.
"Perfect Crime" (Woman's World, 2014) -- The only story in my longest-running mystery series that's told from the villain's POV. This was more risky than experimental. I was surprised they published it.
"The Midnight Child" (Bouchercon 2019 anthology) -- A story told in reverse.
"Mum's the Word" (Flashshot, 2006) -- A 55-word story using only dialogue.
"The Music of Angels" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2018) -- Sort of a romance story whose three main characters have the first names of our oldest son's three children. (This story was written for them; I think they liked it.)
"Dentonville" (EQMM, 2015) -- A story that includes the killing of a pet--something I don't like, editors don't like, and readers don't like. But this pet is a devil-dog whose death is justified (think No Country for Old Men) and necessary to the plot. The story also includes a seven-foot-tall woman, so it's different in several ways.
"Mythic Heights" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A mystery using nursery-rhyme characters: Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, Jack and Jill, etc.
"An Hour at Finley's" (Amazon Shorts, 2006) -- A story told in three equal parts (scenes), with each part "titled" with the name of its POV character.
I admit that these aren't stellar examples of experimental writing, but all are far different from the way I usually write, and--again--all of them were a lot of fun to create.
Having said that, I want to mention once more that almost all my stories are mysteries told the usual way--linear, past tense, first- or third-person, traditional beginning/middle/end, etc. I'm not as adventurous as my characters. I am, however, fond of inserting plot reversals if possible, not only at the end but throughout my stories--because that's something I like to encounter when I read the stories of others.
To continue my questioning from last week: What are some of the rule-breaking stories and/or novels you've written? Are you working on any, currently? When you do write "experimentally," do you know it ahead of time or do you discover, as you write, that doing things differently might be better? Can you give some examples, and maybe even some links to any that might be available online?
Thanks for indulging me, on all this. See you in two weeks.
30 November 2019
I have always admired writers who are willing to take risks and try new techniques and venture out of their comfort zones. That's hard to do, and I respect them for it. Then again, I also admire people who compose classical music and carve ice sculptures and paint frescoes on the ceilings of cathedrals--but I don't try to do those things, and wouldn't be able to if I did.
As for writing, well, most of my short stories are traditional, past-tense, first- or third-person, once-upon-a-time fiction, the kind of stuff I like to read. I usually leave the stream-of-consciousness, surreal, hyperbolic, slipstreamy exercises to those who are comfortable with that kind of thing, and who--at least supposedly--know what they're doing.
But . . . now and then, once in a blue moon, I find myself clipping on a bungee cord and trying something new. My most recent attempt to wander off the grid resulted in a story I placed in the 2019 Bouchercon anthology, Denim, Diamonds, and Death (Down & Out Books). My story is called "The Midnight Child," and involves the robbery of an East Texas bank by a team of four seasoned criminals. The "different" thing about this story is that it has a nonlinear timeline. Nothing quite as weird as movies like Memento or Pulp Fiction (both of which I loved, by the way), but at least unusual.
Here's what I mean. My story consists of five scenes, the first of which is set at 5:30 p.m., when the team of thieves has already completed the heist and has gathered at a remote spot to divide the loot and go their separate ways. The second scene, though, takes place an hour earlier, at 4:30, when the team commits the crime and makes its getaway. The third scene is even earlier, at 3:40, as they're sitting together at a bar, going over last-minute plans and getting ready to leave and head down the street to the bank. The fourth scene is at 2:55, as they kill time at a nearby motel before driving to the bar. The fifth and final scene jumps ahead to 5:40, and picks up at the point where the first scene left off.
I had never seen things done quite that way before, but that was one of the reasons I found myself wanting to try it. As it turned out, "The Midnight Child" was great fun to write--a lot more fun, I think. than it would've been if it had been told in chronological order. I hope it's fun to read.
Will I ever do this again, with other stories? Possibly. If it seems that might be a good way to spin the tale. Certainly not every story would lend itself to this kind of writing. One thing I don't want to do, and that I believe some authors are guilty of, is to write a story that's different just to be different. I once read a novel written without ever using the letter "e." It was an interesting read (not one occurrence of "the" in the entire book), but it was interesting mostly because I wanted to see how such a thing could be done. It added nothing to the story itself. It seemed more gimmicky than innovative.
Another example: Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men--and The Road too, if I recall correctly--without using any quotation marks to designate dialogue. In my opinion, both were fine books (especially No Country), but not because of that piece of experimental style. I don't think the absence of quotation marks hurt the narrative, but I also don't think it helped. I guess it was memorable, though; I sure remember it. Maybe that was its purpose.
What about you? Have you, in your own fiction, played around with different storytelling techniques? If so, do you think your efforts were successful? Did you enjoy the process? Have you read stories or novels that broke these kinds of rules, or seen movies experimentally filmed? Did you like them? Would you try something like that in your own work, in the future?
Maybe this is all moot. Maybe all art is an experiment, and all artists are innovators.
As for me, call me irresponsible, or just stubborn . . . but I usually prefer the old way.
16 November 2019
Two weeks ago I attended my sixth Bouchercon mystery convention, in Dallas. My wife Carolyn and I drove over from our home in Mississippi, partly because I don't fit well in airplane seats and partly because I just don't seem to have the patience anymore for all the mumbojumbo at the airport. (I really need to try to trade all those frequent-flyer miles left over from my IBM career for something more useful, like frequent-moviegoer tickets.) Anyhow, our mode of travel for this trip was private automobile instead of commercial aircraft, and except for running into a rainy cold front halfway there, we had a pleasant and enjoyable drive.
I also enjoyed the conference. I've heard some writers say they prefer smaller gatherings, but one reason I like Bouchercon is that it IS big, and therefore attracts a lot of writers, some of whom I know from earlier meetings and some from a computerful of emails and blog posts. I also like the fact that it includes readers as well as writers. I'm not saying I have a lot of groupies--my fans are mostly my publisher and my wife, and I'm not always sure about my wife--but it's impossible to write a lot for mystery magazines and not occasionally run into folks at a mystery conference who tell you they like your creations (whether they really mean it or not). And where else can you spot literary heroes like James Patterson, Sandra Brown, Lawrence Block, Elizabeth George, Laura Lippman, Robert Crais, and so on, in the wild? Or sit down and meet face-to-face with your editors? Very few of mine live in the sunny South.
Let me say one thing, up front. I don't go to Bouchercons for the panels and other events. I do attend them, and I always enjoy them and learn something, but that's not my primary reason. I go to Bouchercons to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. I did a lot of both, this time.
Highlights of this year's conference, for me:
- Short-story panel. I was on only one panel this year, and I had fun there--probably because it was made up mostly of longtime friends. It was called "Short and Sweet--and Sometimes Dark," and featured me, James Lincoln Warren, R.T. Lawton, Mysti Berry, Michael Bracken, and (moderator) Barb Goffman. Four of us are current inmates at the SleuthSayers asylum and one (JLW) was my master and commander at SS's predecessor, Criminal Brief, for four years. NOTE: If there are better panel moderators anywhere than Barb Goffman, I have yet to meet them. She's wonderful.
- Catching up a bit with old friends. I won't try to list them here for fear I might leave someone out, but you know who you are. In this sense, Bouchercon always feels a little like coming back to school after summer vacation and seeing all your pals again.
- Meeting for the first time (in person) several longtime email or Facebook buddies: Kevin Tipple, Travis Richardson, Frank Zafiro, Kaye George, Alan Orloff, Rick Ollerman, Dixon Hill, William Dylan Powell, Sandra Murphy, etc.
- The book room. This is always a place to run into people you've been trying to catch, and I love browsing the shelves even though I already own far too many mysteries. I especially enjoyed visiting with Don and Jen Longmuir, who this time oversaw the bookroom but didn't represent their own store (Scene of the Crime Books in Ontario) and who have always been SO good to me in selling the books I bring to Bouchercons. I also had a great time talking with Joe R. Lansdale and his daughter Kasey, who are both wonderful writers, at their book tables--I thought I owned all of Joe's novels and story collections, but I found and bought a few more from him this trip. (Another reason I like Joe Lansdale: He's from East Texas, so I can understand him when he speaks.)
- Signing at the MWA tables. Those who participated were given a half-hour to sit and sign anything anyone brought to us--books, anthologies, magazines, programs, etc. This turned out to be (as expected) more of a visiting session than a signing, but I think it worked. I was seated beside Charles Salzberg and thoroughly enjoyed our time together. That's the great thing about this kind of event--I probably wouldn't have even met Charles otherwise. Thanks, Margery Flax, for assigning me a table.
- An informal get-together of the contributors to Michael Bracken's new P.I. anthology, The Eyes of Texas (which takes the prize, I think, for the best title I've ever seen for an anthology, along with Barb's upcoming Crime Travel antho). About half the authors in Eyes of TX were there, and it was great seeing the ones I knew and meeting the ones I didn't. I admire them all. Some of us even had dinner together the first night and lunch the next day.
Overall, I thought this was one of the best Bouchercons I've been to. The hotel, the events, the guests of honor, the location, the food, everything--except maybe the weather, the first couple days--was excellent. I've heard some horror stories about some of the B'cons I missed, over the years, and I'm glad this one worked so well.
As for regrets, I have only two. One is that I missed seeing several people I had really hoped to meet or reconnect with: Jan Grape, Jim Wilsky, Cathy Pickens, Paul Marks, Jane Lee, Earl Staggs, Greg Herren, Marcia Preston, Dennis Palumbo, a few others, Maybe next time. My other regret is that the Bouchercon anthology signing happened to be scheduled in the same time slot as several other sessions I would have enjoyed attending: the presentation of the Derringer Awards, a Bill Crider tribute, and an Elizabeth George interview. I missed all three, but (as I mentioned) I had a good time at the signing.
So, those are my observations. Did you attend this year? If so, what did you think? Have you also attended Bourchercons in the past? How many? Which of those do you think were the best? Do you plan to make Sacramento next year?
As for this year's conference, I thought it was a great four or five days, spent in the company of friends and acquaintances and my wife and 1800 writers and readers who love mysteries. What could be better than that?
02 November 2019
For many years, one of my favorite writers has been Stephen King. I started with The Stand, which I still consider to be his best novel (next best: 11/22/63), and recently finished his latest, The Institute. Looking up now at my shelves, I count 71 of his books, including a couple that are nonfiction and several that are collaborations. I liked 'em all.
Even though he's prolific, to say the least, King still can't write novels and stories fast enough to suit me, so imagine how pleased I was to learn, several years ago, that his son Joe--pen name Joe Hill--was cranking out fiction as well. I also own all of Hill's books (my favorite: The Fireman), and a few days ago I finished reading his latest, a collection of short stories called Full Throttle.
I won't try to summarize every story in this collection, but I'll mention some that stood out, for me:
"All I Care About Is You" -- A story about the future, and about relationships between humans and machines. I think this is one of the two best stories in the book, and one of several that brought tears to my eyes. Science fiction at its finest.
"Throttle" -- A plot that Hill says was inspired by Richard Matheson's short story "Duel" (and its screen adaptation), this is a story about a group of bikers who are targeted and terrorized by a monster truck and its faceless driver. One of two stories in this book co-written with Stephen King.
"Late Returns" -- In this story a librarian takes a job driving an antique Bookmobile, and finds that some of the customers who visit him on his route have been dead for fifty years or more. An emotional and satisfying story, otherworldly but not horrific.
"Faun" -- Another tale inspired by a late author and one of his masterpieces--in this case Ray Bradbury and his short story "A Sound of Thunder." Here, a team of big-game hunters travels through a magical door in a New England farmhouse to a fantasy-world forest of orcs and fauns and centaurs.
"In the Tall Grass" -- One of the scariest and weirdest of the stories featured here. A young man and woman driving across the country make an unscheduled stop in rural Kansas when they hear a child's voice calling to them from a field of eight-foot-tall grass beside the road. The good Samaritans enter the tall grass to try to find him and find unspeakable horror instead. I didn't like this quite as much as I figured I would, but it's still good, and I thought it was better than the Netflix Original adaptation I watched the other night.
"By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain" -- To me, the best story in the book. The plot involves two children who discover the dead body of a Nellie-like dinosaur at the water's edge, and what happens afterward. A fantastic short story, soon to be an episode of the streaming series Creepshow.
Have any of you read Full Throttle yet? If so, what did you think? Has anyone read Joe Hill?
I'm already looking forward to his next book.
19 October 2019
Okay, put on your thinking hat. It's time for a quiz.
The inspiration for this post came to me some time ago, when a student in one of my fiction-writing classes said, "If my story is ever made into a movie, I wish Steve McQueen could've played the lead." Immediately a young fellow on the other side of the room said, "Who?"
A long silence passed, during which I'm sure most of us in that classroom were thinking the same thing: Are we really THAT old? But sure enough, the King of Cool died almost forty years ago, and there are probably a lot of folks in their teens or twenties who, when they hear the name Steve McQueen, don't think of the Cincinnati Kid or Thomas Crown or the second cowboy in The Magnificent Seven or the guy who blasted through San Francisco in a green Mustang or jumped a prison-camp fence on a motorcycle. They're more likely to think of the other Steve McQueen, the British guy who directed Widows and Shame and 12 Years a Slave.
Hence this quiz. It's not all that hard, but if you haven't seen or revisited some of these old movies via Netflix or Amazon Prime lately, you might be as confused as the young student in my class. At the very least, though, I hope a few of these questions might rekindle some pleasant memories.
NOTES AND DISCLAIMERS: First, any question beginning with "Who" is asking for an actor's name, not a character's name. Second, these are movies, not plays or TV shows, because some of the titles are the same. Third, all movie names refer to the original versions, not remakes.
All set? Grab your popcorn--leave the connoli.
1. What were The Searchers searching for?
2. What made the impact in Deep Impact?
3. What did Ferris Bueller take a day off from?
4. What were the signs in Signs?
5. What was under siege in Under Siege?
6. What was the book in The Book of Eli?
7. What was the planet in Planet of the Apes?
8. What were the passengers riding on in Passengers?
9. What was natural about The Natural?
10. What kind of animals were The Ghost and the Darkness?
11. What was the dish in The Dish?
12. What made the splash in Splash?
13. What was the museum in Night at the Museum?
14. What was supposed to happen at High Noon?
15. What were the Kramers fighting over in Kramer vs. Kramer?
16. What was the army's reason for Saving Private Ryan?
17. What group dug the holes in Holes?
18. What group had The Right Stuff?
19. What group were the warriors in The Warriors?
20. What group were the 12 Angry Men?
21. What happened to the bridge on the River Kwai?
22. What was the Red October?
23. What was The Pink Panther?
24. What was the Moonraker?
25. What was Porky's?
26. What was Pelham One Two Three?
27. What was Soylent Green?
28. What was The Maltese Falcon?
29. What was The Stand?
30. What was Jumanji?
31. What was Galaxy Quest?
32. What was The Green Mile?
33. What was The Sand Pebbles?
34. What was Sleepless in Seattle?
35. What was The Shining?
36. What was The Big Red One?
37. What was The Blue Max?
38. What was Shawshank?
39. What was The African Queen?
40. What was The Breakfast Club?
41. What was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
42. What was The China Syndrome?
43. Where was Mystic River?
44. Where was Notting Hill?
45. Where was Lonesome Dove?
46. Where was Chinatown?
47. Where was Snowy River?
48. Where was the waterfront in On The Waterfront?
49. Who got away in The Getaway?
50. Who was the castaway in Cast Away?
51. Who met the parents in Meet the Parents?
52. Who killed Bill in Kill Bill?
53. Whose daughter was taken in Taken?
54. Whose body was guarded in The Bodyguard?
55. Who was the trainer in Training Day?
56. Who was the mama in Mama Mia?
57. Who got stung in The Sting?
58. Who came Back to the Future?
59. Who escaped from New York in Escape from New York?
60. Who was in misery in Misery?
61. Who was the driver in Drive?
62. Who was chased in The Chase?
63. Who came to dinner in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
64. Who was the cowboy in Midnight Cowboy?
65. Who drove Miss Daisy?
66. Who had a close encounter of the third kind?
67. Who was the pilot in Airplane?
68. Who was the pilot in Airport?
69. Who flew the Phoenix in Flight of the Phoenix?
70. Who had Vertigo?
71. Who looked out the Rear Window?
72. Who was Singin' in the Rain?
73. Who ran The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?
74. Who was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
75. Who were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?
76. Who got left Home Alone?
77. Who rode a blazing saddle?
78. Who was Jackie Brown?
79. Who was Jerry Maguire?
80. Who was Michael Clayton?
81. Who was Austin Powers?
83. Who was Our Man Flint?
84. Who was The Flim-Flam Man?
85. Who was Cat Ballou?
86. Who was Will Penny?
87. Who was Erin Brockovich?
88. Who was Young Frankenstein?
89. Who was The Man with the Golden Gun?
90. Who was The Music Man?
91. Who was The Lady in the Water?
92. Who was Edward Scissorhands?
93. Who was Annie Hall?
94. Who was The Princess Bride?
95. Who led The Dirty Dozen?
96. Who led The Wild Bunch?
97. Who led The Untouchables?
98. Who led the mutiny in Mutiny on the Bounty?
99. Who led the Journey to the Center of the Earth?
100. Who led The Magnificent Seven?
1. A little girl kidnapped by Indians
2. An asteroid
3. High school
4. Crop circles
5. A battleship
6. The Holy Bible
8. A spaceship
9. A talent for baseball
10. Man-eating lions
11. An Australian satellite station
12. A mermaid
13. The Museum of Natural History in NYC
14. The arrival of four killers, on the train
15. Custody of their son
16. All three of his brothers had been killed in combat
17. Children at a juvenile detention camp
18. The Mercury astronauts
19. A New York street gang
20. A jury in a murder trial
21. It blew up
22. A nuclear submarine
23. A diamond
24. A British spacecraft
25. A nightclub
26. A New York subway train
27. A product manufactured from dead bodies
28. A black statuette
29. The confrontation between good and evil
30. A board game
31. A Star-Trek-like TV series
32. The final walk taken by prisoners on death row
33. The sailors' nickname for the gunboat San Pablo
34. A name given to a caller on a radio talk show
36. The First Infantry division, in WWII
37. Germany's highest medal for valor
38. A prison in Maine
39. A boat
40. A group of misfit high-school students
41. A car
42. A nuclear-plant failure, where the meltdown seeps "all the way to China"
46. Los Angeles
48. Hoboken, New Jersey
49. Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw
50. Tom Hanks
51. Ben Stiller
52. Uma Thurman
53. Liam Neeson's
54. Whitney Houston's
55. Denzel Washington
56. Meryl Streep
57. Robert Shaw
58. Michael J. Fox
59. Kurt Russell and Donald Pleasance
60. James Caan
61. Ryan Gosling
62. Robert Redford
63. Sidney Poitier
64. Jon Voight
65. Morgan Freeman
66. Richard Dreyfuss
67. Peter Graves
68. Dean Martin
69. James Stewart
70. James Stewart
71. James Stewart
72. Gene Kelly
73. Dolly Parton
74. John Wayne
75. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach
76. McCauley Culkin
77. Cleavon Little
78. Pam Grier
79. Tom Cruise
80. George Clooney
81. Mike Myers
82. Jim Carrey
83. James Coburn
84. George C, Scott
85. Jane Fonda
86. Charlton Heston
87. Julia Roberts
88. Gene Wilder
89. Christoper Lee
90. Robert Preston
91. Bryce Dallas Howard
92. Johnny Depp
93. Diane Keaton
94. Robin Wright
95. Lee Marvin
96. William Holden
97. Kevin Costner
98. Clark Gable
99. James Mason
100. Yul Brynner
How'd you do? Here's my rating chart:
- If you answered 0 questions correctly, you are either very young or have spent years in solitary confinement.
- If you answered 1-19 correctly, you are either very old or you're not much of a movie fan.
- If you answered 20-39 correctly, you probably like movies but you've also missed some good ones.
- If you answered 40-59 correctly, you are a normal, average, well-rounded U.S. citizen.
- If you answered 60-79 correctly, you are a definite movie fan and a borderline Netflix addict.
- If you answered 80-99 correctly, you either have an excellent memory, you have no social life, or you work in the film industry. Possibly all three.
- If you answered all 100 correctly, you probably should be in solitary confinement. And observed carefully.
Here are ten more, that might make you feel better about all this:
- Who was Forrest Gump?
- Who was Dirty Harry?
- Who was The Big Lebowski?
- Who was My Fair Lady?
- Who was Rain Man?
- Who was Tootsie?
- Who was Ben-Hur?
- Who was Mad Max?
- Who was Spartacus?
And that's it. Next week I'll try to steer the ship back to mysteries and/or writing.
21 September 2019
by John M. Floyd
Today I don't want to talk about mysteries or novels or movies or short stories or the writing process . . . but I do want to talk about words. Specifically about three kinds of words: initials, acronyms, and something called backronyms--and things that I found interesting about them. Bear with me, here.
Definition: The first letters of a name or of words forming part of a phrase.
Most are instantly familiar to us as readers and writers: FBI, CIA, IBM, JFK, LBJ, BYOB, POW, MIA, ADHD, DOA, DOB, SUV, UFO, AKA, DVD, TNT, TGIF, DNA, AM/PM, CST, YTD, ETA, MBA, VP, CEO, IQ, IOU, FDIC, IRS, ATM, AARP, BS, NFL, PGA, CBS, NBC, UHF/VHF, and many, many others. And, more recently, OMG, WTF, BFF, LOL, IMO, IMHO, TMI, BTW, FYI, BCC, and so on.
The words associated with some initials, though, are not so well known:
CVS -- Consumer Value Stores
BMW -- Bavarian Motor Works
WD-40 -- Water Displacement--40th Attempt
3M -- Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing
ESPN -- Entertainment and Sports Programming Network
FAO Schwartz -- Frederick August Otto Schwartz
M&Ms -- Mars and Murrie's
CD-ROM -- Compact Disk Read-Only Memory
RSVP -- Respondez S'il Vous Plait
NOTE: These are not acronyms, because they aren't actual words. The term here is initialism.
Something that's also interesting, I think, is that there are now so many shortened words--abbreviations that have become, in some cases, more familiar than the expanded versions: limo, ad, photo, dorm, stats, hippo, rhino, email, ref, grad, exam, decaf, memo, lube, auto, flu, gator, croc, rep, sub, gym, vet, fridge, bike, semi, sitcom, deli, combo, etc. I doubt that some younger folks even know what a limousine is.
Definition: A pronounceable word formed by the initial letters or other parts of several words.
Again, some acronyms and their component words are well known: POTUS, NASA, ASAP, MADD, AIDS, NATO, etc.
In other cases, we might know the acronym better than we know its parts. Examples:
NERF -- Non-Expandable Recreational Foam
TASER -- Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle
LASER -- Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
RADAR -- RAdio Detection And Ranging
SONAR -- SOund Navigation And Ranging
SCUBA -- Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
CANOLA oil -- CANada Oil, Low Acid
CARE package -- Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (later changed to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere)
PAM -- Product of Arthur Meyerhoff
GEICO -- Government Employees Insurance Company
NABISCO -- NAtional BIScuit COmpany
NASDAQ -- National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotation
SNAFU -- Situation Normal, All F***ed Up
AWOL -- Absent WithOut Leave
HUMVEE -- High Mobility Multi-purpose wheeled Vehicle (actually HMMWV)
KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid
BIT -- BInary digiT
PIN -- Personal Identification Number
MODEM -- MOdulator/DEModulator
JPEG -- Joint Photographic Experts Group
SIM card -- Subscriber Identification Module card
SPAM -- Shoulder of Pork And Ham, or SPiced hAM
AFLAC -- American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus
EPCOT -- Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (or Every Person Comes Out Tired)
Definition: A constructed, deliberately formed word whose initial letters are made to fit a previously determined word or phrase. They may be invented with either serious or humorous intent, and are sometimes called reverse acronyms. Examples:
GROSS -- Get Rid Of Slimy girlS (from Calvin and Hobbes)
TEA Party -- Taxed Enough Already
ZIP code -- Zone Improvement Plan
BASE jumping -- Building, Antenna, Span, or Earth (fixtures you can jump from)
SHERLOCK -- Sherlock Holmes Enthusiastic Readers League Of Criminal Knowledge
RALPH -- Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners
BISON -- Biodiversity Serving Our Nation
COLTS -- Consumer On-Line Transaction System (named for the then-Baltimore football team)
JOVIAL -- Jules's Own Version of International Algebraic Language
GEORGE -- Georgetown Environmentalists Organization against Rats, Garbage, and Emissions
NOISE -- Neighbors Opposed to Irritating Sound Emissions
COBRA -- Cabinet Office Briefing Room A
SPECTRE -- the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion
UNCLE -- United Netword Command for Law and Enforcement
THRUSH -- Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity
KABOOM -- Key Atomic Benefits Organization Of Mankind (from the Naked Gun movies)
MASH -- Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
FIST -- Federated InterState Truckers
WALL-E -- Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class
RED -- Retired, Extremely Dangerous
CHUD -- Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller
Some backronyms are misleading (words mistakenly believed to be acronyms). Examples:
SOS -- Does not mean "Save Our Ship." It was chosen merely because its letters have a simple Morse code representation (three dots, three dashes, three dots).
YAHOO -- Did not come from "Yet Another Hierarchical Official Oracle." Its founders liked the word's meaning of "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth," from Gulliver's Travels.
COP -- Is not "Constable On Patrol."
NEWS -- Is not "North, East, West, and South."
CABAL -- Did not come from King Charles II's five ministers: Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale. Its use predated them.
POSH -- Is not "Port Out, Starboard Home." It's derived from a word for "overdressed dandy."
GOLF -- Is not "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden."
PING -- Is not "Packet InterNet Groper." It's a utility to test (via packets) connectivity between computers.
WIKI -- Is not "What I Know Is." It's derived from the Hawaiian wiki-wiki, meaning fast.
TIP -- Is not "To Insure Promptness."
ADIDAS -- Did not come from "All Day I Dream About Sports." Its founder was Adolf "Adi" Dassler.
AMBER alert -- Did not come from "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response." It was actually named after a missing child, Amber Hagerman.
Some goofy backronyms:
FORD -- Fix Or Repair Daily
BING -- Because It's Not Google
NAVY -- Never Again Volunteer Yourself
DELTA -- Don't Ever Leave the Airport, or Don't Expect Luggage To Arrive
In closing, two of my favorite acronyms/backronyms from my days in the Air Force;
FIGMO -- A soldier who's happily being discharged or transferred (F*** It, I Got My Orders)
OMGIF (FIGMO spelled backward) -- A soldier whose expected discharge/transfer was canceled (Oh My God, I been F***ed)
And a backcronym I found for Lee Iacocca: I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation America. (Couldn't resist mentioning that one.)
OK, FYI, I'm off to the ATM, and then I'm AWOL for two weeks. See you then.