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

16 October 2021

Mystery Magazine


  

Some of you are probably thinking, You left out part of the title. Did you mean Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, or Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, or Black Cat MM, or Sherlock Holmes MM, etc.? Nope, the title's right. Mystery Magazine is the former Mystery Weekly Magazine, which--as most of you know by now--recently renamed itself and thus clarified things a bit, since it's published once a month.


Let me begin by saying that Mystery Magazine (new name or not) is an excellent publication, based in Canada and published by Chuck Carter, and in my opinion it has become one of the half-dozen leading short-fiction mystery markets. It usually features from eight to ten short stories and one interactive "solve-it-yourself" mystery in every monthly issue, it recently raised its pay rates, it pays on acceptance, it responds quickly to submissions, its covers and layouts always look good, and editor Kerry Carter is kind and competent and professional in every way. Another thing that might be interesting to writers is that after submission MM provides a monitoring link that allows you to see how many stories are ahead of yours in their to-be-read queue. The magazine's only drawback is that they don't provide a free author's copy of the issue your story appears in, but to me that's overridden by the fact that they pay so promptly, often on the same day the acceptance email appears.

Another thing to like about Mystery Magazine is that they are receptive to cross-genre stories. By that I mean writers can include the occasional fantasy, science fiction, horror, or Western ingredient along with the mystery/crime element. To give you an idea of how much that open-minded policy has helped me, here are some quick summaries of my stories at MM/MW so far: 


A gambling addict is pursued by murderous loan sharks. A mystery, but mostly a chase story. ("Merrill's Run," Jan 2017) 

A mix of crime and fantasy involving a missing teenager, a thunderstorm, and travel between dimensions. ("Lightning," Sep 2018) 

A lonely blind woman is targeted by a killer. Just a crime/suspense story with nothing cross-genre going on. ("Rachel's Place," Dec 2019)    

Two brothers in the depression-era south--one of whom has visions of future events--try to protect their alcoholic father from old enemies. ("The Barlow Boys," Nov 2020) 

A former combat soldier stumbles upon a bank robbery and is aided by a woman with paranormal powers. ("Charlie's War," Dec 2020) 

A combination Western/mystery/coming-of-age tale with a minor woo-woo element. ("Wanted," Feb 2021)  

A straight crime story set in the cottonfields of northwest Mississippi. ("The Delta Princess," Sep 2021)  

An offbeat mystery/fantasy featuring occasional small crimes. ("The King's Island," Oct 2021)   

A Western about a small town terrorized by a pair of killers. Obvious genre-mixing here, including a tiny bit of otherworldliness. ("Bad Times at Big Rock," upcoming)  


My point is, only a third of these stories were strictly mystery/crime/suspense. The others all had various shades of paint mixed into the genre can--and those stories probably wouldn't even have been considered at some of the other respected mystery markets. I still write mostly straight and undiluted mystery/crime plots and I will continue doing that, but when I do feel the urge to create a cross-genre story, Mystery Magazine is always on my mind as a possible home for it.

One last thing. I'm not alone in my fondness for this magazine. Many of my fellow SleuthSayers have had stories published in MM as well, before and after its name change: R.T. Lawton, Michael Bracken, Eve Fisher, Robert Lopresti, Steve Liskow, Robert Mangeot, Joseph D'Agnese, Elizabeth Zelvin, Melodie Campbell, the late Paul D. Marks and B.K. Stevens, and probably others I'm leaving out.

What are your thoughts, writers and readers, about Mystery Magazine? Have you read it? Enjoyed it? Written for it?

Here's hoping they stay around for a long time.




02 October 2021

Guest Post: Lines That Won't Let Go


  

My longtime friend Judy Penz Sheluk wears and has worn many literary hats: novelist, short-story author, former journalist, former magazine editor, and--especially appropriate for today's column--anthology publisher and editor. Her three Superior Shores Press mystery athologies are all excellent and have been well received, in spite of my connection to each one: I contributed a cover blurb to the first and short stories to the second and third. The most recent of the three books--Moonlight & Misadventure--is the subject of today's guest post.

So . . . please join me in welcoming Judy to SleuthSayers!

--John Floyd


                                                            Lines That Won't Let Go

                                                                by Judy Penz Sheluk

Much has been written about first and last lines, and both are certainly of the utmost importance. But as the publisher and editor of the Superior Shores Anthologies, they aren't necessarily the ones that "seal the deal" for me when I move a submission into the "Yes" pile. Rather, it's those "lines that won't let go," the ones that catch me off-guard or break the tension with a touch of humor. 

While time and space don't permit me to list them all, each of the 20 stories in Moonlight & Misadventure have at least one such magical moment. Here are a few of my favorites:


"Crown Jewel," Joseph S. Walker

Two years ago, Keenan brought a woman he'd seen a few times home and took her to a spare bedroom converted into an audiophile's dream, the walls lined with racks of records, the turntable hooked up to an exquisitely balanced sound system. He showed her the three bins filled with copies of the White Album, each lovingly sheathed in its protective plastic sleeve. She pulled one out at random, turned it over in her hands, and looked at him in utter confusion.

"Don't they have this on CD?" she'd asked. "It would save a lot of room."

That was the last time he saw her.


"Cereus Thinking," Tracy Falenwolfe

No one ever spent time behind the bathhouse because it smelled awful. My grandparents had started telling the campers the sulfur smell came from decaying grasses along the beach, but I knew it was because the septic system was failing, the same way I knew dryer number four would never be fixed, grass would never get planted, and no one who stayed at Manatee Playground would ever see a manatee.


"The Promotion," Billy Houston

Pete looked around in the drawers of Gavin's desk until he found what he wanted. A half-empty pack of cigarettes. There were some matches in the same drawer, and he took those, too. For a moment, he considered going outside, but then lit a cigarette anyway. He'd just killed a man; smoking indoors didn't seem like a big deal anymore.


"My Night with the Duke of Edinburgh," Susan Daly

I took refuge in my glass of Northern Spirit Rye. Granted, I was two months short of twenty-one, but our little group had no use for such arbitrary, state-imposed nonsense. A person could either hold their liquor, or they couldn't.


"Not a Cruel Man," Buzz Dixon

The agent represented a sparkling young singer who'd just landed a starring role in a Disney movie. The producer's modus operandi was to find young, struggling talent, seduce them, dig them deeper and deeper into his own peculiar kinks, document that progression with Polaroids, then leech off their careers. A lot of what the producer liked would result in serious jail time for all involved. In the case of the agent's client, she'd never again be regarded as sweet and wholesome, much less virginal.


"Reunions," John M. Floyd

Larry's previous misgivings felt silly to him. He suddenly said, without thinking, "I hope things work out. With your friend and his wife, I mean."

Roger nodded, looking sad. "I hope so too. If it doesn't--and if I ever found out for sure she's cheating on him . . ."

The man's tone sent another little ripple up Larry's spine. He cleared his throat and said, "What would you do?"

"I don't know." Roger reached down to pat the bulge of the gun under his jacket. "If I met the guy, and if I had this at the time . . . I'm just not sure."


And sometimes it's just a single sentence:

"Scavenger Hunt," Michael A. Clark

It was a good night to hunt for a lost atomic bomb.


About the book: Whether it's vintage Hollywood, the Florida everglades, the Atlantic City boardwalk, or a farmhouse in Western Canada, the twenty authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of "moonlight and misadventure" in their own inimitable style where only one thing is assured: Waxing, waning, gibbous, or full, the moon is always there, illuminating things better left in the dark.

Featuring stories by K.L. Abrahamson, Sharon Hart Addy, C.W. Blackwell, Clark Boyd, M.H. Callway, Michael A. Clark, Susan Daly, Buzz Dixon, Jeanne DuBois, Elizabeth Elwood, Tracy Falenwolfe, Kate Fellowes, John M. Floyd, Billy Houston, Bethany Maines, Judy Penz Sheluk, KM Rockwood, Joseph S. Walker, Robert Weibezahl, and Susan Jane Wright.


About the editor: A former journalist and magazine editor, Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short crime fiction appears in several collections, including The Best Laid Plans, Heartbreaks & Half-truths, and Moonlight & Misadventure, which she also edited.

Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the South Simcoe Arts Council, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Chair on the Board of Directors.


Find the book here.




18 September 2021

Ten Years at SS


  

As you know from my friend Brian Thornton's post yesterday, we Sayers of Sleuth have been at it for ten years now. None of us who started the blog, way back then, knew if it would work or not, and if it would be even half as successful and as enjoyable (to us) as its predecessor, Criminal Brief, had been. All we knew for sure is that we had a good group and we all loved mystery fiction. (By the way, Brian, thanks for the kind words.)

Since I was chosen by my SleuthSayers co-conspirators to "kick off" our new blog with the first column on September 17, 2011, I've been asked to write today about what the blog has meant to me over this past decade (plus one day). The request caught me by surprise, because the anniversary caught me by surprise. Until then, I'd never thought much about how long we've been doing this. Most of the thinking I've done about the blog was probably along the lines of How in the world will I come up with something to write about for my next post?

There have been a lot of them. FYI for those of you who don't read us: I post a SleuthSayers column every first, third, and fifth Saturday, whether I have anything meaningful to say or not--and when I totaled them up the other day (not counting "guest posts" done by my writer friends), it came to 258 columns. Most of those have been on the subject of short mystery stories because that's what I write most. Others were about novels, some were about movies, and some were my random thoughts about the mystery genre or the writing life or the writing process. Looking back over the posts, I found that a surprising number were about style--punctuation, grammar, spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, sentence construction, paragraph construction, word choice, word usage, etc. The kinds of things that I hated during high school English classes but that I now realize are vitally important. At least if you want to get published regularly.

Some of the columns I most enjoyed writing: "Deja Vu All Over Again," about "writing tight"; "The Washed and the Unwashed," about literary fiction vs. genre fiction; Crime (and Other) Scenes," about favorite movies; and "Candy Is Dandy," about the late Ogden Nash.

As for what the blog has meant to me as a writer, here are a few things (besides our fantastic salary) that come to mind:

I've made friends who are now dear to me. Some only online, but many face-to-face as well. At every Bouchercon I've attended I've run into fellow SleuthSayers and "commenters," and when we meet in person it's as if we've known each other for years. Which we have, in a way, because of many, many blog posts, emails, and Facebook messages. I won't name names here because I would certainly miss someone, but you know who you are--and I will always treasure your friendship.

I've learned a lot about the craft of writing. The folks who post and guest-post at SleuthSayers read and write all kinds of fiction, not just mysteries, and many of them have great tips about how to create effective short stories and novels. Some of this stuff you can't find in the style manuals and the how-to books.

I've found out about new markets to target for my stories, as well as helpful facts about publications I was already familiar with. Some of these markets are not well known, and even if they are, the insider information is sometimes the kind they don't include in their submission guidelines.

I've discovered stories, books, and movies I would otherwise never have read or watched. All of us like to pass along recommendations based on what we've enjoyed or learned from, and when you hear these suggestions from those whose opinions you've come to trust, it makes a difference.

I've been forced to write to a deadline. When you know you have to produce an article of around 1000 words at least once every couple weeks, it keeps the writing muscles working. It's nothing like the pressure of a daily-newspaper deadline, but it's still something you're expected to create and deliver on time, and it means you can't just take long breaks from writing. I think that kind of discipline also helps in producing fiction, and is one of the reasons I've been able to turn out so many short stories.

In addition to all these things, I've had a chance to tell others about my own writing. Often that means giving them a behind-the-scenes view of my stories, and sharing whatever information I've picked up about the writing and marketing of those stories. That usually leads to a discussion, and I usually wind up learning more than I'm trying to teach. The bottom line: To be able to reach and swap views with a large number of readers and fellow writers on a regular basis is a rare opportunity, and as a member of SleuthSayers I have that.

In closing, I'd like to thank a few folks. One is James Lincoln Warren, who was the Head Fred at our Criminal Brief blog (without CB there would've been no SleuthSayers) and who was kind enough to recruit me to write the Saturday columns there, back in 2007. JLW, you might not be running the factory anymore, but you're still my hero. Special thanks also to my old friends and SS colleagues Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti for putting up with my foolishness and my stupid questions for ten years (fourteen, actually) and to all the other SleuthSayers as well, present and former. If you look at that list, you'll see that it includes some of the best mystery writers anywhere.

I can sense that Velma, our longtime and bossy assistant/receptionist/first-sergeant, is rolling her eyes and signaling me to wind this up, so I will. My final and most important thank-you is to our faithful readers. Your friendship and loyalty is much appreciated by us all.

I hope you'll stay with us for ten more years.





04 September 2021

Two September Stories


  

No, they're not set in September. One takes place in August and the other in a month that I suppose could've been September, but a time of year was never stated (just that it was hurricane season). What both stories have in common with September is that they were both published on the first day of this month, in two different magazines.


One of the stories is "Friends," in the Sep/Oct issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It isn't a mystery story, although crime is included in the plot. "Friends" is mostly a leisurely conversation between two longtime buddies, one of them a fisherman and one an ex-con, sitting together on the beach of a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico following a tropical storm that wasn't quite a hurricane. The idea for the story came from no more than the fact that I once did a lot of that when I was stationed for six months on the Gulf Coast, in the Air Force. Just sitting on the sand and staring out at the water. I have great memories of that. And how can a few ideas NOT roll into shore when you do that, even if the waves are imaginary?

I think the most different thing about this story, for me, is that it probably comes closer to that vague term "literary" than most stories I write. I wanted to focus more on the complicated relationship between these two friends--and on some details of the setting--rather than on the plot. It's also a pretty short story, around 2500 words. That's not only short for the Post, it's shorter than most of the stories I write these days. It contains only those two characters and only one scene, though there are some things that happen off-screen. The supporting cast is made up of a woman they both know, who's only mentioned in their dialogue, and a truckload of guys who stop and talk with them for a minute about post-disaster cleanup work.


The other story, "The Delta Princess," is in the September issue of Mystery Weekly. As you might suspect with a market like that, it is a mystery, and is firmly centered around a crime--in this case a multi-step, Mission Impossible-like theft of money from the safe of a wealthy landowner. It's long, around 7000 words, and includes a lot of scenes and characters and locations, although the main setting is the cottonfields of the Mississippi Delta. (Write what you know, right?)

The thing I'll always remember most about this story is the idea that triggered it. I've often mentioned, at this blog and elsewhere, that I usually start first with a plot idea and only then create my characters. It was the same with this story, except that the plot began with something my wife said to me, about her sewing.

A little background, here. My wife Carolyn loves to sew. Always has. Not quilting or embroidery or tatting, but sewing. One room of our house is even called The Sewing Room, a mysterious place I usually avoid because I understand absolutely nothing about what goes on in there. Some of what comes out of there, though, are things I can relate to, like dress shirts that actually fit me and bathrobes that are so comfortable I could live in them 24/7 and coats and jackets that not only look good but keep me toasty warm even on the coldest outings. I'm not fond of cold weather.

Anyhow, my point is, she likes sewing the way I like writing--it's relaxing and satisfying to her--and one day I overheard her talking to a friend on the phone about a sewing technique involving something called water-soluble thread. When I asked her about it afterward, she said she occasionally uses it to test out patterns to see if certain things will work and fit the way she expects them to. When the test run (using a stitch called basting, with a long a, as in tasting) is finished, she just applies water to the seams in the fabric, and--presto!--the thread dissolves. It actually disappears, and fast, and the sample garment literally falls apart. Then she can start over and sew it with real thread because she now knows it's right.

I of course didn't hear the rest of what she was telling me. I was too busy thinking WhoaI see a story there. From that point on, all I had to do was come up with a situation where a devious person--a devious seamstress, in this instance--would use that disappearing thread to evil advantage. And all of you know the process: once the seed's been sown, it's not that hard to put together (weave, maybe?) the rest of the tale. The result was "The Delta Princess," a title that I think I can promise will not mean what you might think it means. As one of the characters says, "Sounds like a riverboat." It's not. 

And that's my pitch, about two stories published on the same day--far different from each other in terms of length, genre, mood, complexity, and the magazines that bought them. But both were fun to write. 

If you have occasion to read one or both, I hope you'll like it (or them). Please let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, I need more fodder for the idea machine. Where'd my wife go . . . ?


21 August 2021

Surviving in a Woman's World


This is a topic I've covered before here at SleuthSayers, and even at the Criminal Brief blog before that, because writing stories for the weekly magazine Woman's World seems to be one of the things I'm often asked about, at meetings, signings, conferences, etc. With all the ups and downs in the publishing universe, WW has somehow kept a big circulation over the years, and the part of the magazine I'm most interested in--its short mystery stories--still has a lot of readers.

The occasion for my writing this post today is that I recently sold my 120th story to Woman's World. Not a usual milestone, I know, but since I have no idea how long this lucky streak will last, I decided not to try to wait until 150 or 200 or something equally round.

Also, for those interested in writing for WW, some things about the magazine have changed since my recent columns on this subject, so I'll try to cover those, along with a summary of WW's content preferences, regarding their short mysteries. And I'll include some story statistics, in case that helps.

First, the changes

Over the years, there have been a lot of adjustments to things like story length, format, and payment for the stories in Woman's World. When I first started submitting to them in 1999 (via snailmail) the maximum wordcount for their mini-mysteries was 1000 and the wordcount for the romance stories was 1500. Eventually the romances went down to 1000 words and then to 800, where it remains today. The mysteries went down from 1000 words to its current max of 700, BUT the last two dozen or so mysteries I've sold them have been even less than that; those stories were all between 500 and 600 words each, which is what the editor seems to prefer. (Don't blame me if you write a 550-word story and they reject it--but that length has worked for me.)

The format of the mystery stories is the biggest change, though this happened a long time ago and you probably know about it already. My first mysteries for WW were traditional stories with regular beginnings, middles, and endings, like the romances--but in 2004 the head fred at the magazine, whoever that was at the time, decided to go to an interactive format in which the reader is invited to solve the puzzle. In fact, the mysteries now don't include the solutions at all; there's a separate "solution box" at the end of each story, which usually appears printed upside down on the same page. Note: the wordcount of your manuscript should include both the text of the story (not the title and byline) and the text in the solution box. Also note: the romances have not changed format. They're still traditional short stories, which many feel are easier to write than the solve-it-yourself format of the mysteries. I don't agree. I think the romances are harder to write and harder to sell, but that's just me.

As for payment, the romance stories once paid a flat rate of $1000 each (thankfully, the only two romances I've sold them were in that era), but that payment has since been lowered to $800 and then to (I believe) $720. That's not as big a reduction as it sounds, when you consider that the required wordcount is now only around half what it used to be--so the payment per word has actually increased. Payment for mysteries was once $500 each, and remained so for many years, but was recently lowered to $450. Still almost a dollar a word, though, so it's hard to complain.

The final change I'll mention is that WW now has a different fiction editor than the last time I visited this subject. The first editor I really knew and worked with was Johnene Granger, who held that position for a long time and was one of the most capable and professional editors I've ever known. After Johnene retired Patricia Riddle Gaddis--also a wonderful editor--took over, and recently the reins were passed to Alexandra Pollock. Alex and her colleague Maggie Dillard have been great to work with as well.

My WW statistics:


Number of mysteries: 118 

Number of romances: 2


Series stories: 112

Standalones: 8


Titles changed by the editor (aargh): 59

Titles unchanged (yay!): 61


Third-person stories: 119

First-person stories: 1


Past-tense stories: 120

Present-tense stories: 0


Female protagonist's POV: 37 stories

Male protag's POV (male member of a male/female team): 82 stories

Villain's POV: 1 story


Multiple protagonists (team): 98 stories

Single protags (for standalones, or when the other partner is sick, out of town, etc.): 22 stories


Whodunits: 33

Howcatchems: 85

(N/A for the two romances)


Single villain: 114 stories

Multiple villains: 4 stories

(N/A for the two romances)


Stories in which the good guys win: 115

Bad guys win: 3

(N/A for the two romances)


Stories involving murder: 25

Robbery/burglary: 72

Other crimes: 21

(N/A for the two romances)


Stories changed at editor's request: 9

Stories accepted unchanged: 111


Local/familiar settings: 113

Other settings: 7


Holiday-based stories: 10

Regular stories: 110


1999: 3 stories published

2000-2009: 28

2010-2019: 80

2020-2021: 9

WW mystery hints & tips

NOTE: These are mine, not the magazine's.

  1. Don't go over the max wordcount.
  2. Use a lot of dialogue.
  3. Don't include sex, excessive violence, or strong language. Aim for PG, or light PG-13.
  4. Use humor whenever possible.
  5. Include a female protagonist. If on a team, she should either be there or assisting from afar.
  6. Include a crime--not just the hint or threat of a crime.
  7. Your mystery does not have to involve a murder and it does not have to be a whodunit.
  8. You do not have to have three suspects. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that you do.
  9. Avoid religion, politics, and anything controversial.
  10. Avoid technical jargon.
  11. Don't put pets in jeopardy.
  12. Play fair with the clues.
  13. Make the good guys win in the end.
  14. Use domestic/familiar settings, not international/exotic.
  15. Keep the solutions short. WW sometimes edits mine to be longer, but they start out short.

This column started out short, too. I know this was a lot of info and a lot of numbers, but the requirements set by Woman's World are a bit different from most of the stories we write. FYI, I don't submit as many mini-mysteries as I used to--I write mostly longer now--but the short-short ones are still fun now and then, and WW remains a good market. If any of this helps any of you to sell a story to them, I'm thrilled.

Let me know!

07 August 2021

What the Characters Do


  

Some writers have told me they don't give much thought to the plot of a story. They say they just come up with great characters and then give them something to do. Well, here's the thing: What they do is the plot.

Building Blocks

Putting together a story always starts with an idea. As mentioned before at this blog, these ideas can come from anywhere and can be anything from a beacon that lights up the entire story in your head, all at once, to a tiny spark that you use as kindling to build on. And most writers say those ideas, big or small, begin with either a character, a plot, a setting, or a theme.

My writing process always starts with a plot. The first thing I picture is what's happening, and once I have that firmly in my head I start thinking about characters, locations, etc. I don't do it that way because it's the best way--it might not be the best way. I do it because that's the way my mind works. As I said in the first paragraph, a lot of writers seem to start with interesting characters and only then come up with what the characters do. I start with something that has to be done, and only then plug in the characters that I need to make it happen. That's probably the reason I write genre stories instead of literary stories. Stephen King once said that literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I relate better to ordinary people and I like imagining wild situations to put them in. 


Story vs. Plot

Years ago, I read a good discussion about the difference between story and plot--I think it was by Ronald Tobias, in his book 20 Master Plots. If I'm right about who said it, he said something to this effect: A story is a series of related events. His example: The king died and the queen died. (Not a great story, but it's still a story because it meets the requirements.) Then he said a plot is a sequence of related events that introduces an element of tension or anticipation or suspense. Example: The king died, and the queen died of grief. Or the king died and the queen spit on his grave. Or the king died and the queen rushed to Lancelot's quarters. (I'm not only paraphrasing, here, I'm inventing my own examples--but you get the drift.) 

Another example of a story: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, and drove home. A plot: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, drove home, and buried Jack's body in the back pasture. A plot needs to be something that grabs the reader's interest. 

And yes, I know: short stories don't have to have plots. A vignette, a slice-of-life, a character sketch--none of those have plots, but they still qualify as short stories. An often-used example of a plotless story is Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." Beautiful description and interesting symbolism, but mostly it's an account of a sportsman going through the motions of camping, fishing, cooking what he's caught, etc., and nothing really happens. It's still a story, and a famous one at that, but I think the best stories do have strong plots. Even when I'm reading and not writing, I find myself focusing mainly on the plot. I understand that the characters have to be good and effective and interesting in order to have a quality story, yes, but what I often seem to remember most is the plot.

Closer to home . . .

What are these plots that pop into my own head? As examples, here are mini-synopses for some of my stories published so far this year. If you've read any of my recent creations, some of these might ring a bell. Or not.


A man fleeing from loan sharks gets help from a female alligator-hunter

Two friends attempt to steal from a small-town business that's secretly connected to the mob

A fortune-teller in a New Orleans voodoo shop discovers a customer planning a robbery

A woman's scheme to murder her husband takes a wrong (and explosive) turn

A pool hall in Alaska is the scene of a showdown between townspeople and a trio of killers

In a raging storm, an outlaw happens upon a family in the high plains of west Texas

A new employee at an accounting firm meets a mysterious stranger in the elevator

A farmer wakes up to dreams of terrifying creatures in his cornfield

A veteran con-man's efforts to trick a young lady have unexpected results

A Mississippi sheriff helps his ex-lawyer girlfriend reclaim a stolen inheritance

A legendary gunfighter sides with a prospector and his sister against evil claimjumpers

Two amateur thieves in southern Italy battle an unexpected enemy

The maid for a recently deceased elderly lady becomes the prime suspect in her murder

A hitman walks into a local honky-tonk and hits the wrong man

A small-town sheriff tries to find the prankster who poisoned the mayor's punch

An inmate being transported to a new prison escapes--and interrupts a robbery in progress

A man on the run from the mafia is trapped in the restroom of a neighborhood bar

Members of a movie club help catch a thief at a local soup kitchen

Mob bosses and hitmen show up in a small southern town

A visiting police chief assists D.C. cops in solving an art-theft case

the search for a killer leads a sheriff and his former schoolteacher to a roadside cafe

An anonymous riddler provides the only clue to the robbery of a local Homeowner's Association

A police chief and her sister track two scammers who've emptied a woman's bank accounts

A Bigfoot hoaxster winds up in the middle of a crooked and deadly real-estate scheme

A politician and a gambler in southern Texas find themselves in a desperate situation

A boy receives otherworldly messages in a suburban mailbox

Two strangers who met on a plane flight meet again under far different circumstances

The kidnapping of a prominent businesswoman goes wrong, in almost every way

A wealthy rancher and his mistress plan to bomb a train in the Arizona desert

A year after a nuclear attack, a peaceful settlement must fight an army of armed scavengers

A unknown assistant helps the law solve a case of boat theft

An Old West private eye faces his past when hired to find a cattleman's missing daughter


I'm not saying these are great or ideal plots, but they worked, in terms of getting sold--and if any of them happen to serve as a prompt or catalyst for your own plot ideas, so much the better. (What does their subject matter say about me and my mental health? Let's not go into that.)

Most of these plots are mysteries, and when I listed them in this post I was a little surprised by how many of the mystery/crime stories involve a theft, a kidnapping, etc., instead of a murder. Also, relatively few of the mysteries were whodunits--they were more howdunits or whydunits or howcatchems.


Questions

What's your storytelling process, with regard to first ideas? Do you usually start with a character? A plot? A scene or setting? A theme? Are your plots usually short? Long? Simple? Complex? Twisty? Lighthearted? Violent? What are some of your recent plots?

Whatever they are and however you create them, I think plots are all-important. To me, they're what makes stories fun to read . . . and fun to write.

Let me know what you think.



31 July 2021

Stories, Slightly Used


  

While trying to come up with a topic for today, I re-read Michael Bracken's post earlier this month about reprints, and was reminded what a big part those recycled stories have played in both his and my short-fiction marketing in recent years. So (this isn't the first time I've looked to Michael for writing ideas) I thought I'd post a few memories of my own experiences with regard to previously published stories. NOTE: I think "previously published stories" is to "reprints" what "pre-owned vehicles" is to "used cars." It's probably just supposed to sound better. (I still prefer to say "reprints.")

I didn't realize, when I first started writing for publication in 1994, that you could resell stories that had already been published. But the more I wrote and published and the more how-to-write books I read, I came to discover what an important thing reselling stories was, to the writers of short fiction--and that it's one of the big advantages short stories have over novels. I actually did a SleuthSayers post on the whys and wherefores of reprints last year, but it was more instructional than anything else, and I didn't use any examples. So, today, I'll point out some real experiences.


The Same Old Story

The first short story I re-sold was called "A Thousand Words"--and its length was, coincidentally, about 1000 words. It was a mystery story about a bank robbery, one I'd first published in a literary magazine called Pleiades in January 1995. The reprint appeared in the March/April 1996 issue of Dogwood Tales Magazine, a truly interesting and kind-to-their-writers publication. Like so many, DTM put all four feet in the air after a few years, but I wound up selling them three more stories before that happened. I can't remember how much I was paid for the reprinted story, but I'm sure it was less than I'd earned from the original at Pleiades. Still, reselling it got an older and idle story out of its hammock and out into the world again, and I recall receiving some positive feedback about it from readers. (Not that it matters, but I later sold "A Thousand Words" six more times, here and there.)

More reprints followed, because many of those first stories I sold were now past the "rights-revert-to-the-authors" date and also because I learned to start actively seeking out reprint markets. Over the next several years I sold dozens of them, to both anthologies and magazines. I'm not certain how many stories went to each, but I would suspect a larger percentage ended up in anthologies--especially in recent years. Generally speaking, anthologies seem more likely than magazines to consider previously published work. Then again, some anthos demand only original stories, so always read the guidelines before submitting.

By the way, I am no minor thief: I'm stealing not only Michael's idea but also a couple of his bullet items, as follows:


Most Often-Reprinted Story

The short story I've sold the most times is a 1200-word humorous Western called "Saving Mrs. Hapwell." I'm not sure why it's the one that landed in the most places, but I suspect it might be because it's (1) very short, (2) it's funny, and (3) it's almost all dialogue--three things that can sometimes add to a story's marketability. That story has been published in:

Dogwood Tales Magazine, March/April 1997 issue

Mystery Time, Spring/Summer 2000

Desert Voices, December 2004

Taj Mahal Review, December 2005

Crime & Suspense E-zine, February 2006

Rainbow's End and Other Stories (collection), October 2006

Crime & Suspense I anthology April 2007 

Kings River Life, May 2020

and will appear a ninth time in the Crimeucopia anthology As in Funny Ha-Ha in August 2021.


Most Prestigious Reprints

The reprints I suppose I'm most proud of weren't sales at all; they were out-of-the-blue selections for annual anthologies:

"Molly's Plan" from Strand Magazine, reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2015

"Gun Work," from the Coast to Coast: Private Eyes anthology, in BAMS 2018

"Rhonda and Clyde" from Black Cat Mystery Magazine, in BAMS 2020

"Biloxi Bound" from Strand Magazine, upcoming in Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021


Another Target for "Used Stories"

The three primary markets for short-story reprints are the same as the three primary markets for short stories: magazines, anthologies, and collections of your own work. I've now had seven collections published of my mystery stories--the first seven were by Dogwood Press, a small, traditional publisher that has no connection to the old Dogwood Tales Magazine. Those books of my own stories are:

Rainbow's End -- 30 stories, all of which were reprints

Midnight -- 30 stories, all reprints

Clockwork -- 40 stories, all reprints

Deception -- 30 stories, 93% reprints, 7% original stories

Fifty Mysteries -- 50 stories, 46% reprints, 54% new stories

Dreamland -- 30 stories, 93% reprints

The Barrens -- 30 stories, 93% reprints

An eighth collection is upcoming, from VKN Publishing in Moscow. They're creating a bilingual book containing five of the ten stories I've published in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with those stories featured in English side-by-side with their Russian translations. As stated, all five of those stories will be reprints. 


Bottom Line

As Michael said in his column, the main thing to keep in mind regarding future reprints is: retain the rights to your stories whenever possible. If you've granted "all rights" to whoever publishes a story, that story is no longer yours and cannot be resold. The other thing to remember is to then be on the constant lookout for markets where you might take published stories that are gathering dust and put them to work again. 

Question to my fellow writers: What are some of your experiences, both positive and negative, regarding the marketing of your previously pubbed stories? I would suspect your adventures would be more interesting than mine.


Now . . . I wonder how long I'll need to wait before I reprint this column . . .



17 July 2021

Voices from the Past


  

Years ago, back when you could watch network TV without endangering your brain cells, there was a series of United Airlines commercials I especially remember. One of the two reasons they made an impression was their background music, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which I love, and the other was the voice of the always-unseen narrator. The first time I saw one of them and heard it I knew that voice was familiar--but after repeated viewings I still couldn't figure out whose it was. (No Google or Alexa around in those days.) Finally it came to me. See if you recognize the voice--it starts at about the halfway point in this one-minute commercial from the late '80s.

For some reason I thought about that the other day, and it triggered other memories of overhearing movie or TV dialogue from another room and thinking, I know that voice. Part of that's probably due to the fact that I watch so many movies, but part of it's also because certain voices are just unique--so recognizable that hearing them for only a few seconds can tell you who's speaking.

That got personal a few months ago, when I'd plugged in a Netflix DVD of the James Franco film As I Lay Dying and walked into the kitchen in the middle of the movie to get a snack. As I was heaping ice cream into a bowl I heard a voice so surprising it made me stop in mid-scoop. I hurried back to the TV to see that one of the actors was an old friend from my IBM days named Jim Ritchie--we worked together for years--and who has a voice unlike any other in the world. (Jim also played Matthew McConaughey's father-in-law in A Time to Kill many years ago, but I hadn't realized he had a part in this movie as well.) I later played that scene for my wife after telling her not to look at the screen, and when she heard it she too gasped and said, "Is that Jim Ritchie?" If you want to hear Jim's voice for yourself, here's one of his recent videos.

We as writers understand that physical voices aren't as important to our work as they are in some of the performing arts, unless maybe we're doing a reading or an interview or a podcast. What we produce (thank goodness) is usually intended to be read, not heard. But in the TV or movie business, a distinctive voice is an asset. I can think of several actors like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Tommy Lee Jones, Rosie O'Donnell, Gary Cooper, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Kathleen Turner, Alan Rickman, and others, whose voices also tend to fit in with the characters they play. And some--Bernadette Peters, L.Q. Jones, Fran Drescher, Strother Martin, Steve Landesberg, Jennifer Tilly, Lorraine Bracco, R. Lee Ermey, Holly Hunter, G.D. Spradlin, etc.--whose voices are certainly unique but maybe not immediately familiar to the general public.  

You know, of course, where all this is leading. It's leading to a question.

In your opinion, who are the actors and actresses with the most recognizable voices?

 

My picks:


Katherine Hepburn

Lee Marvin

James Earl Jones

Lauren Bacall

Jack Nicholson

Henry Fonda

Steve Buscemi

Cary Grant

John Wayne

Kirk Douglas

Suzanne Pleshette

Humphrey Bogart

Morgan Freeman

Michael Caine

Samuel L. Jackson

Christopher Walken

Audrey Hepburn

Jimmy Stewart

Jeff Goldblum

Al Pacino

Burt Lancaster

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sam Elliott

Rosanne Barr

Sean Connery


I think I could identify any of those people after ten seconds of listening to them speak.

As you can see from my honest but unscientific list, a voice doesn't necessarily have to be pleasant to be distinctive or easy to recognize. So my second question is, Which actors'/actresses' voices do you LIKE the most?


 My top-twenty choices of voices:


Morgan Freeman

Billy Bob Thornton

Judi Dench

Katherine Ross

J. K. Simmons

James Earl Jones

Patrick Stewart

Jane Seymour

Dennis Haysbert

Emma Thompson

Gerald McRaney

Sam Elliott

Melanie Griffith

Diana Rigg

Ben Johnson

Lee Marvin

Kim Dickens

Barbara Bel Geddes

Powers Boothe

Gregory Peck


Why do I enjoy hearing these folks' voices? I'm not sure. If I had to give reasons, I guess some of them--Freeman, Thornton, McRaney, Dickens--bring back good memories of my southern childhood, and some are soothing and relaxing, and some have a foreign accent that I like . . . and some are just interesting. I think my all-time favorite voice is that of Lee Marvin.

  

A closing note: I always found it fascinating that the voices of brothers James Arness (Gunsmoke) and Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) sounded exactly alike. If you're not old enough to remember those guys, take my word for it.

 

Here's another video I saw on YouTube the other night, on this familiar-voice subject. It's part of an episode of the updated game show To Tell The Truth (one of those many remakes that are sometimes fun and sometimes irritating).

 

And FYI: If you didn't recognize his voice, the narrator in the aforementioned United Airlines commercial was Gene Hackman.


See you in two weeks.



03 July 2021

Hope to Hear from You Soon


  

If you write and sell short fiction, there are three steps you have to take, over and over again: (1) write the story, (2) send it off, and (3) wait for a reply. That third task is the only one you can't control, and often seems to be the hardest.


No one likes to wait a long time to hear back from a story submission. I mean, you've created a masterpiece and you're ready to share it with the reading world, right NOW, and here you sit, waiting for months for some editor to decide if it's worthy. The final insult is that in some cases the best publications can take the longest time to respond. What's an impatient writer to do?

The simple answer: Don't send stories to those publications. Send only to those that respond promptly.

The problem is, that doesn't work for me. I want some of my stories to be featured occasionally in those long-responding publications. So my answer is, submit to them anyway. Send the stories off and wait, like everyone else. But meanwhile, also send stories to places that don't take so long. As in most things in life, it's a balancing act.

In the case of markets for mystery short stories, which ones take the longest to respond? Which are the quickest? Here are my thoughts on that, based on my own experience, for a few of what I consider to be prime markets in terms of quality and/or compensation.


Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine -- Editor Janet Hutchings usually responds to my submissions fairly quickly. It might be a rejection note and it might be an acceptance (I'll let you guess which I get most often), but either way, I usually know within three months, and sometimes two or less. One of my acceptances came after four months, so maybe longer can be a good sign--has anyone else noticed that, or was this a fluke? FYI, payment for accepted EQMM stories is pleasingly prompt, but it might be months before your story is published.

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine -- Linda Landrigan makes no secret of the fact that it takes her a long time to respond to story submissions. For me, that's usually been around eleven months, for both rejections and acceptances. A few of my stories have been accepted after a shorter time, and a few have taken a full year--but eleven months seems to be about right. Do I still send stories to AHMM, despite the long wait time? I sure do--and so do a lot of other writers. (The thrill and satisfaction of an AH acceptance is enough to outweigh the delay.) Also, be aware that AHMM, like EQMM, usually has a backlog such that publication might not happen for many months.

Strand Magazine -- Andrew Gulli is not known for responding right away to submissions, and in fact he sometimes never responds unless he wants to buy the story. When he does want a story, he usually tells you right away, within a few weeks. I have to agree with those who say it can be frustrating to never hear back from a submission--but remember, if you don't like that policy, don't submit a story. I choose to submit to them anyway. If a story's accepted, great, and if it's not, I write them a polite withdrawal note after several months and then send the story elsewhere. On the plus side, my accepted stories at the Strand have usually been published right away, in the next issue.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine -- Editor Michael Bracken often makes all this a bit easier by announcing when he'll be open to new submissions. When the window is open, I've found that he's fairly prompt in responding, and payment is prompt as well. It can sometimes take awhile until your accepted story is published--most magazines plan way ahead, on this kind of thing--but it's worth the wait. Something else I should mention: BCMM, like most of the others I've listed here, seems to be a popular source of award-nominated and "best-of-the-year"-selected stories.

Mystery Weekly -- Kerry Carter is another who responds quickly, and there's the added benefit of having a submission status link that can tell you how many stories are ahead of yours in the reading queue. My response time there, for both acceptances and rejections, has usually been less than three weeks, but--once again--publication of accepted stories can take a while.

Woman's World -- Editor Alexandra Pollock still publishes mini-mysteries (they call them Solve-It-Yourself mysteries now), and although I don't submit to WW as much as I used to, I still send them stories from time to time. In my experience, they either respond after a few weeks or they (like the Strand) don't respond at all, and if I haven't heard from them in three months I send a withdrawal note, after which I change the "format" of the story and submit it elsewhere. Again, I don't complain about their no-response policy--that's just the way the mop flops. If you don't like it, don't send them anything. But be aware that when they do accept a story, payment is quick and generous (for a mystery, it's $450 for less than 600 words) and publication comes soon afterward, usually within a couple of months.

 

Remember, don't take the above observations as fact. I think they're good indicators of recent response times, but they're all based on my own stories to these markets--and besides, I suspect those wait times could change at any point. What are your experiences, with the short stories you've submitted to these and other markets? If you would, let me know in the comments section.

 

Meanwhile, do what I do. I'm not the most patient person in the world, but when I send a story out, I then try to forget about it and work instead on writing and submitting more stories. That's the best way I know to relieve response-time stress. And when you do get a reply, may your answer be a contract and not a rejection.

That's the best medicine of all.


19 June 2021

Moonlight & Misadventure


  

As some of you might've heard, Canadian writer and editor Judy Penz Sheluk released a new crime anthology yesterday called Moonlight & Misadventure: 20 Stories of Mystery & Suspense. This is the third of her Superior Shores Press mystery anthologies--the first was The Best Laid Plans in 2019, the second was Heartbreaks & Half-truths in 2020. It's been my honor to have a connection to all three books: I wrote a cover blurb for the first and I have stories in both the second and third. And although I'm fond of all three anthologies, I'm especially pleased with the stories in M&M.

 

As for the title, which is also the theme, not all the criminal activity in these stories happen at night, but much of it does, and all the stories are connected in some way with the moon. As for misadventures, there are plenty of those, which is as it should be. If everything goes exactly as planned, where's the fun? (I seem to recall that in each episode of Mission: Impossible, the mission should have been impossible because circumstances managed to screw it up every time. But the team somehow came out okay in the end.)

Back to the topic. I wanted to mention at least a few of the twenty stories in Moonlight & Misadventure, so I chose three written by longtime friends of mine. For what it's worth, here are some observations about their stories:

"A Currency of Wishes" by Kate Fellowes. This one starts off with a guy trying to go straight and a pestering uncle trying to talk him into a get-rich-quick heist. Throw in a woman who's interested in the guy but who doesn't know about the uncle and the possible theft, and the tension starts building. It's one of those stories where nothing is crystal clear until the end, and at that point everything comes together in a way that (as Aristotle said) is both unexpected and inevitable. You'll like it.

"Strawberry Moon" by Judy Penz Sheluk. A young lady on her way back from a camping trip has to cross over from Canada to the U.S. The problem is, if you're trying to cross a border in a mystery story, you can be pretty sure there's going to be trouble with the border guards. This suspenseful story, a little shorter than most of those in the book, is another that packs a great punch in the final few paragraphs. Since this is also the editor's story, it needed to be a good one, and it is.

"Crown Jewel" by Joseph S. Walker. Joe Walker is no stranger to mystery anthologies, and I think his story here is one of the best in the book. It begins with Keenan Beech's twin brother Xavier cheating and stealing from him, and when Keenan tries to get back what was stolen he meets a group a lot more devious than the two Beech boys, and meaner too. This tale has fascinating characters, plenty of crimes and threats and double-crosses, some interesting information about an unusual hobby, and plot twists galore. The kind of story I like to read!

And if you want to see the kind of story I like to write, my contribution to this anthology is called "Reunions." It starts off with two passengers on a domestic airline flight, neither of whom know each other. They meet in an unusual way, chat for awhile, and then, when the flight's over, go their separate ways. Any reader of course knows their lives will probably intersect again in some way, but over the course of the story I've included what I hope are enough plot reversals to keep things interesting.

One quick note: It probably won't surprise you to know that the idea for my story--a random meeting of two travelers who later reconnect--came from a personal experience (as so many ideas do). In this case I was flying home once on an IBM business trip to Atlanta and got into a conversation with the guy sitting beside me on the flight. We didn't talk long, but we exchanged names and a few pleasantries before we landed and parted company, and the following day we unexpectedly wound up sitting at a conference table together for a planning meeting at a downtown bank. In real life, this wound up being nothing more than a couple of pleasantly surprised travelers, but in my story the two businessmen re-meet under far different conditions, and with far different results.

Anyhow, these are only a fifth of the stories in this book, and I can honestly tell you I enjoyed them all. I think you will too.


 Thanks, Judy, for letting me join the party, and congratulations on another fine mystery/crime anthology!



05 June 2021

Going to Work in Shorts



Okay, not that kind of shorts.

I write, and have written, lots of different things. Articles, poems, essays, technical manuals, even some unpublished/unproduced novels and screenplays. But what I most like to write are short stories. Shorts of all lengths, as long as they're under 20,000 words: flash, short, vignette, novelette, novella, whatever. My published stories have run between 26 words and 18K words, so there's a lot of leeway. (And here's one of those for-what-it's-worth newsflashes: I've made far more money from the under-1000 word stories than from the longer ones. What was that song lyric from the '60s? "I like short shorts.")

The thing is, I'm not alone in choosing to write short instead of long. I'm sure I'm missing someone here, but I know that my friends R.T. Lawton, Barb Goffman, Joseph S. Walker, Michael Bracken, Sandra Murphy, Josh Pachter, Herschel Cozine, Art Taylor, Eve Fisher, Robert Lopresti, and Stephen D. Rogers write shorts exclusively, at least for now and for the immediate future. I think I can speak for all of them in saying we don't feel we're missing out on anything by focusing on short stories instead of novels. For me, they're just more fun to write.

Since I know "it's more fun" probably doesn't sound like a good enough reason by itself--though it actually is--here are some other things that I believe are advantages to writing short fiction:


1. A sense of completion. I can usually dream up, write, edit, and finish a short story in a matter of a few days, certainly no more than a couple of weeks. That allows me to concentrate on a single plot and a specific group of characters for a fairly short while, and then I'm done with that plot and those people and that setting. I can write THE END, and the next day I can start working on an entirely different story, maybe even in a different genre. That flexibility gives me a great feeling of freedom and satisfaction.

2. Time savings. Most novels take several months and sometimes several years to finish. Most short stories take several weeks at the most. And although I suppose this isn't exactly positive thinking, if your novel turns out to be a real stinker, you might've just wasted a LOT of time. If your short story turns out smelling like a pig sty, you've only wasted a few days or weeks. Besides, I have a tendency to get bored with my characters if I live with them too long--but for a week or two we get along just fine.

3. Resalability. Yes, I know that's not a real word--but maybe it should be. My point is, short stories, unlike novels, can be sold over and over again, so long as the market is receptive to previously published work. Reprints seldom pay as much as original stories, but sometimes they do, and besides, who's complaining?--these are stories that have already been written and published once, and maybe many times, so the work's already done. (NOTE: One instance where reprints almost always pay well is when they're selected for annual best-of anthologies. If that's not icing on the cake, I don't know what is.)

4. Practice. Writing with the tightness and economy of language required for a short story is great experience and training for other kinds of writing, whether it's fiction or non-. Also, a resume of a lot of short stories published in respected magazines or anthologies can possibly help you to later find, if that's what you want, an agent or a publisher or other writing opportunities.

5. No agent needed. If you already have a literary agent for longer work, he or she can sometimes be handy in finding short-story markets as well, and is especially helpful in the case of foreign or film deals. But if you don't already have an agent, no worries. You don't really need one, for short stories. They probably won't want to sign you anyway, if you're writing shorts exclusively.


Another thing about short stories, though I'm not sure it would qualify as an advantage, is that the middle of a short story is, well, short. Middles, you see, are hard for me. As an outliner, I like beginnings and endings--I think they're fun to plan and write. Middles, not so much. And loooooooong middles, which is always the case with a novel, are even less fun. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I find short stories more manageable and therefore easier and more enjoyable to write, from start to finish. 

NOTE: This probably goes without saying, but I happen to enjoy reading novels, and I suspect that all the short-story folks I listed above do, too. I also admire the talent it takes to write good novels. I've just found shorts to be a better fit for me. 

Now, what's the downside of writing only short stories? I can think of only one: as a short-story writer you will probably not become famous or make a zillion bucks from your writing. But here's another newsflash: neither will most novelists.

The truth is, we write because we want to, or--as I heard someone say once--because we can't not write. I think it's great fun to create these characters and situations out of thin air and to fiddle around with them until they're polished and logical and ready to send out into the world. If I'm then fortunate enough for an editor and eventual readers to like the story also--well, so much the better. And to know that I can repeat that process and that thrill again and again and again . . . yes, that's fun.

Who wouldn't want to go to work every day in shorts? It just feels good.




15 May 2021

The Road to Writing "The Road to Bellville"


One of the things I worry about during the planning stage, before sitting down and starting to write a story, is deciding which character can best tell the story.

My V of POV

At the risk of rehashing things all of us already know, let me say something about Point of View in fiction. I've always felt that the viewpoint character should be the person who's most affected by what happens in the story. This isn't necessarily the title character or even the most visible or memorable character. The person who tells the story in To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout, not Atticus. In Shane, it's the little boy. In The Great Gatsby, it's Nick Carraway. In the Sherlock Holmes tales, it's (almost always) Watson. Ideally, it's the character who learns the most from the story's outcome.

In stories (and novels and movies) where there's more than one POV character, the writer has to consider some other things too, like who'll be in the best position to build suspense and/or make the story "flow" well. This is something I ran into in my story "The Road to Bellville," in the current (Spring 2021) issue of Strand Magazine. It's a 6200-word mystery about a rural female sheriff in Florida who's transporting a young female prisoner from one jail to another, and the unexpected things they run into when they make a stop at a roadside cafe on the way. It's also a story of loyalty, deception, escape, pursuit, betrayal, courage, sacrifice, perseverance, redemption, and plenty of lowdown criminal activity.

Characters. plot, etc.

I knew, when I first started thinking about this story, that I wanted to make the sheriff the viewpoint character. She was the one in the best place to tell the story, and would also (as required) be affected the most by what happened. But the more I got into the plot, I realized I needed a multiple-viewpoint story rather than single. That automatically meant the narrative would have to be third-person rather than first-, but that was okay because third-person is a little more comfortable for me anyway if the POV character's not a male. The main thing was, I needed the extra point of view in order to describe some offscreen action that the sheriff wouldn't be in a position to see, and also to generate the tension and misdirection I needed in the middle of the plot. FYI, scenes #1 and #2 and scenes #4 and #5 in this story are from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the middle scene is from the POV of an antagonist (the third one of the main characters).  Symmetrical, I guess, but only because it just happened to work out that way.

Note 1: I've not yet received my copy of the current Strand so I've not yet seen the published version of this story. What I've told you is based on the manuscript I submitted. (Andrew, I hope you haven't changed anything in printing the story.)

Note 2: The name of the fictional Bellville Correctional Facility for Women probably came from my recent re-watching of the movie The Road to Wellville, whose plot and setting and characters bear no resemblance at all to this story. I just liked the sound of the title.

Questions for the class. Anyone? Anyone?

If you're a writer, what are some of the things you consider when you choose the POV through which you tell a story? Which kinds of stories do you usually write in first-person and which in third? Does it matter? How often, and why, do you choose to use multiple POVs? (I've heard some writers say you should never use multiple viewpoints in a short story, which is simply not true.) How do you go about selecting your viewpoint characters? Is the process obvious, or does it require a lot of consideration? And do you ever start writing the story and then change your mind about POV in midstream and have to start over? I sometimes do, even though I call myself a planner and not a pantser.

A final word. If you happen to see and read the story I've been talking about, I hope you'll like it—and I hope these issues I puzzled over during its creation aren't noticeable.

Let me know.

01 May 2021

Stagecoaches and Starships


  

We talk a lot at this blog about mystery/crime markets and which kinds of stores might fit which publications. I especially enjoyed Joseph D'Agnese's column the other day about using well-known figures from history in his mysteries, and I think it's cool that one of those stories of his is in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Also, I liked Barb Goffman's recent post about a story based on a favorite song of hers, for Josh Patchter's new anthology Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The truth is, knowing which magazines/anthologies to aim for with stories of certain content can be a task in itself.

That was one of the things that worried me a bit when I submitted a Western story, "The Donovan Gang," to AHMM eleven months ago. I'd read several Westerns published there over the years, but not many, so I remember thinking that I was taking a chance in sending them one. Be aware, this isn't a contemporary story set in the West, like Hud or No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. This is a story set in southeast Arizona in the spring of 1907, with bandits and saloons and stagecoaches and rattlesnakes and ambushes, much like the kind of 1870s story I published last month in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. But (also like the Post story) I had researched it quite a bit, and it included enough real people and towns and other locations that I thought it might be able to sneak its way into the more respectable category of historical fiction, which does seem to be acceptable at most mystery markets. You say tomayto, I say tomahto.  Even so, I figured it was a long shot.

That's why I was all the more pleased to find out, a few days ago, that AHMM has accepted that story for publication. It probably won't be until 2022 that it finally sees the light of day, since I have three others queued up there also, in their accepted-but-awaiting-publication bin. Still, it's something to look forward to. 

There's another short story I have out to AHMM at the moment that I'm concerned about also, because it's a crime story with a science fiction element. Like Westerns, that kind of cross-genre story seldom shows up in AH--although one of my fantasy stories did appear there several years ago. Once again, if you rely at all on Otto Penzler's oft-quoted definition of mystery fiction, any story that has a crime central to its plot can be considered a mystery regardless of what other genres might be stirred into the mix. At least in terms of qualifying for publication in mystery markets. So I couldn't resist giving it a try.

 

In case anyone's interested, the following is my fairly unimpressive track record, with regard to cross-genre stories at some of the current mystery publications:

AHMM: one fantasy and one Western (upcoming)

EQMM: no cross-genre stories

Strand Magazine: no cross-genre stories

Black Cat Mystery Magazine: two Westerns

Mystery Weekly: one Western, one SF, one fantasy

Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine: no cross-genre stories

And several others--Tough, Shotgun Honey, Mysterical-E, etc.--also have not accepted any cross-genre stories. At least from me.


Four things I should note, here:

1. The above unscientific study should not be taken as an indicator of what kinds of stories these magazines will publish. It's just an indicator of what they've published that I've written.

2. I haven't considered humor or romance in this market list or in the overall cross-genre discussion, only because regular mystery/crime stories often include humor and/or romance elements anyway. You know what I mean.

3. My two mystery/Westerns at BCMM were before Michael Bracken took over as editor. I'm not saying Michael wouldn't consider one--but I am saying the Westerns I published there were before his reign.

4. If ever in doubt about this kind of thing, it never hurts to ask the editor beforehand whether he/she would be receptive to cross-genre elements in a submission.

So far I haven't mentioned anthologies, but it's probably worth saying that mystery/crime anthologies are indeed sometimes open to cross-genre submissions. One of my stories chosen for Best American Mystery Stories a few years ago was a Western, about a private investigator in the Old West (which first appeared in Paul Marks' and Andy McAleer's anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea).


What are your views on trying cross-genre stories at the usual mystery markets? Have any of you done that? Any successes? Which publications have you found to be most receptive to stories with Western/SF/fantasy/horror elements?


Okay, time to sign off. I see that Holmes has put on his cowboy boots and is strapping himself into his jetpack, so he'll need my help.

A writer's work is never done.


P.S. (or maybe BSP.S.): April was a good month, publicationwise. I had a story in Strand Magazine (Spring issue, #63), a story in Woman's World (May 3 issue, released on April 22), a story in Only the Good Die Young (Untreed Reads), a story in Jukes & Tonks (Down & Out Books), a story in Behind Closed Doors (Red Penguin Books), a story in Black Cat Mystery & SF Ebook Club (Wildside Press), two poems in the anthology Moving Images: Poetry Inspired by Film (Bowker Publishing), and six of my WW stories in the new Mini-Mysteries Digest (Bauer Media Group). All except the poems were mysteries. 

 

P.P.S. I've not seen the list yet, but congratulations to all the 2021 Derringer winners!



17 April 2021

Choices and Changes


  

The other day, in a rare fit of office-cleaning, I found an old box of magazines containing my earliest published short stories--this was back in the mid- to late 1990s. Most of those stories, believe it or not, I still like. A few of them, not so much. The point is, the more I sorted through those publications, the more I thought about writing-related things I used to do that I don't do now, and vice versa.

Not that it matters, here are ten things that I noticed and/or remembered:


1. My stories used to be shorter. There were some long ones, too--one of my earliest, a 10,000-word story called "Midnight," remains one of my favorites--but a lot of my stories back then were between maybe 1000 and 4000 words. I've found that most of them now run between 3000 and 8000 or so, and I suspect one reason is that my recent plots seem a little more involved and complex than they used to be.

2. I rarely used first-person POV. I'm not sure why I didn't, because I'm fairly pleased with the way those few first-person stories turned out--but the fact is, for most of my early stories I used either (1) third-person limited (which is, admittedly, almost the same as first-person), (2) third-person multiple (especially when that was needed to build suspense), or, less often, (3) third-person detached (if I didn't want to get into any one person's thoughts, maybe for a surprise ending). These days I probably still use third more than first, but I do write a lot of first-person stories now, and I've found I enjoy it.

3. I didn't write "series" stories. At least not until after I'd been spinning tales for five or six years. I now write seven different series (which include more than 200 stories so far), and I've found them to be both fun and profitable. I still write far more standalones than series installments, but I think it's convenient to always have the possibility of using some well-known (at least to me) characters and settings, if they fit.

4. I wrote stories with no market in mind and only then tried to find places to submit them. Now I find myself writing more stories targeted for particular markets. This is something I think most writers do, as time passes and as they acquire more writing experience. And this kind of tailored writing doesn't make the stories any less fun to create.

5. I didn't write many stories for anthologies. Back then it was mostly magazines. One reason I write a lot for anthologies now is that I've been fortunate enough to get more antho invitations these past few years, and another is that I believe there are just more of those antho markets out there than before.

6. My settings were rarely "local." I wrote more stories set in other states or countries or far-flung fictional locations. Now, a bigger percentage of my stores are set here in the southeastern U.S. Again, I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because I now write a lot of series stories, most of which have southern settings, maybe it's because I don't travel the world the way I used to, and maybe it's because I'm now too lazy to want to do a lot of research. Speaking of research, I almost never wrote historical mysteries or period pieces in my early publishing years, but I now find that I enjoy writing those as well. 

7. I used way too many semicolons. Sometimes one or more per page, and for fiction that might be too many. I don't think I used any that were grammatically incorrect, but they just popped up too often. These days I try not to use semicolons unless I think they're perfect for what's being written, and even then it's hard to find them in the toolbox. I now substitute more dashes and periods.

8. I submitted my stories very soon after finishing them--something I always told my writing students not to do. These days I try to let those completed stories sit there and cool off for a few days or maybe even weeks, and by doing so I hope I've given myself time to catch a few more errors that I would've otherwise missed. (I sometimes wonder, though, if that helps. I've found (too late) several mistakes in some of my recently published stories, mostly typos or inconsistency errors, that even managed to get past the editors and into print. But I try hard to avoid those careless mistakes.)

9. I wrote more twist-ending stories. I still like plot reversals in a story, whether at the end or in the middle, or both. But it doesn't bother me anymore if I don't include a "grabber" right at the very end.

10. I never typed stories straight into the computer. When I first started writing for publication--I used a PC then, but it was an early version, and huge--I always wrote my stories first in longhand and only later transcribed them into files on a diskette or my hard drive (a process that I sometimes called a second draft). Now I just type them in and rewrite onscreen, and when they're finished I submit them electronically. I seldom print copies of my stories at all anymore.


NOTE: I've noticed that some things about my writing have NOT changed. I still create more mystery/crime stories than anything else, I never use a pseudonym, I never write in present tense, I usually start with the plot, I try to put at least some humor into every story, I use a mix of real and fictional locations for my settings, I map my stories out in my head before I start writing, and I seldom "edit as I go"--I write a fast first draft instead and then go back and rewrite. And so forth.


The question is, do these things that I do differently mean I've learned something--or anything--about writing over the past 25 years? Have I gotten better at it? I honestly don't know. All it might mean is that I now just do some things differently. What about you? Is your process and content noticeably different now, from when you began? If so, how?


Oh. Almost forgot. The main thing that's stayed the same: I love fiction writing, absolutely love it, and I suspect I always will.


Thanks for reading my stories.