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

02 December 2023

Rocks in My Socks


This post comes to you today from the Pet Peeves Department here at the SleuthSayers Building. Many of us who work at SS have occasionally posted about annoying words or phrases, usually those encountered in fiction but sometimes those we run into every day in the wild. This is one of those posts, so if you'd rather not hear someone grumble this soon after a day of thanksgiving, feel free to skip it and do something that's more fun. If you do read it, feel free to disagree with its contents. I'll probably look at this next week and disagree with it myself.

As of this moment, though, these are the current burrs under my saddle--or, as Dr. Suess might say, the rocks in my socks:

- Business terms and buzzwords like paradigm, deliverables, added value, takeaways, productivity, etc., when used in everyday speech. "Can you tell me the takeaways from To Kill a Mockingbird?" 

- Modern language in historical fiction. Words/phrases/slang like hairstyle, shenanigans, scrapbook, mommy, daddy, mesmerize, sadist, hello, hit the road, okay, rat him out, etc., have been around awhile, but they still probably aren't as old as you might think. Same thing for most fantasy fiction. "Yo, Gandalf. Whassup?"

- Data/dayta/datta. This is a pronunciation thing. I like dayta. I don't like datta. Can't help it. I also don't like asterix, nuke-ular, and expresso, but those are truly incorrect. Dayta's a personal preference.

- Alright. I like all right. I don't think alright is all right.

- A coffee, as in "I need a coffee." I prefer "I need coffee" or "I need some coffee" or "I need a cup of coffee." To me, saying you want a coffee or an iced tea is like saying you want a bread or a soup. Yes, I realize it's common usage, but it still bothers me. (Irritable Vowel Syndrome?)

- Everyday. I think everyday is an adjective, and only an adjective. "I'm wearing my everyday shoes" is right. "I wear these shoes every day" is right. "I wear my every day shoes everyday" is wrong. Same thing with words like backyard and backseat. "My backseat driver sits in the back seat" is right. So is "My backyard swing is located in my back yard." Switch those up and they're wrong.

- Setup. This one probably hurts my foot more than any of the other rocks. "The operation we set up was a setup" is right. "I setup the rooms without any help" is wrong.

- Impact used as a verb. Yes, I know that's allowed, but I think it works best as a noun. I've noticed that most news anchors and weather forecasters these days are using it as a verb because I guess they think it makes their statements stronger and more powerful. ("Garbage pickup problems impact city residents!" "Cold snap impacts the homeless!") I think affect works just as well. Maybe it's because I have medical people in my immediate family, but I always think of someone who's impacted as someone who's agonizingly constipated.

- Other nouns like dialogue and journal and fellowship used as verbs. "We need to dialogue," or "I've been journaling" or "Come to the church tonight and we'll fellowship" sounds wrong to me. I probably need to Google it (which, for some reason, sounds correct).

- The overuse of as and ing constructions in writing. Since it's not grammatically incorrect, this mistake is sometimes hard to catch in our own writing--but it's silly and amateurish. "Turning, I saw her leave. Running after her, I shouted to her as she climbed into the car. As I reached the sidewalk, she smiled as she waved goodbye. Sobbing, I walked back inside." Talk about instant rejection--that'll do it.

- Phrases like for you and I. It should be for you and me, as in for you and for me. The sad thing is, you see and hear this blunder ALL THE TIME, and from people who should know better.

I could care lessI know this phrase has been around for years, but I still haven't gotten used to it--maybe because it makes absolutely no sense. One word I have finally agreed to use is done instead of finished, but even that one took me a while to accept.

The reason why this happened is because . . . Enough said, about that. A discussion of redundancy would keep us here all day. In fact, it would keep us here all day.

- The use of then without a preceding comma. An article I saw some time ago, and I can't remember where, said that a lot of writers nowadays are doing that. Here's an example: "I waved to my neighbor then started mowing my grass." I think that's incorrect. And sure enough, I noticed last night that this has been done three times already in the new Jack Reacher novel, and I'm only forty pages in. What's up with that? I think it's correct to say either "I waved to my neighbor, then started mowing my grass" or "I waved to my neighbor and started mowing my grass." But if you do use then, I don't like leaving out that comma.

Like. I'm like, don't even get me started on this one.

- Media and data. Those words, like family or group or herd, are collective nouns that I think work best with singular verbs. I like the data is correct. I don't like the data are correct. And I dern sure don't like the datta are correct. And yes, I know that's nitpicking.

- Utilize. I think utilize is a needless word that people say to try to sound more intelligent. Use use instead. Writers often know this, so it's mostly something you hear on TV--and hearing it impacts me!

Writers saying a character crosses to the bar, the bed, the door, the kitchen sink, etc. Example: "John crossed and answered the phone." I realize we should try to use as few words as possible. but if it's necessary to say someone walks across a room I think maybe he should "walk across the room." This is a small thing--most of these are--but I see it so often I thought I'd mention it.

- You guys. Old-school or not, I don't much like referring to a mixed-gender group as you guys. A local TV reporter at a crime scene said "you guys" four times in less than a minute the other might when addressing the news team in the studio. (Full disclosure: I use the phrase occasionally myself. But I don't like myself when I do.)

- The use of Ms. with a woman's first name only. Using Miss with a first name--usually when addressing older ladies--is a sign of familiarity, especially in the south. "Hi, Miss Ellie." Married or not, politically correct or not, it's never, ever Ms. Ellie. If you want to use Ms. (or Mrs.), say Ms. Ewing.

More words/phrases I've grown achingly weary of hearing and seeing: "It is what it is," "no problem" (when did this replace "thank you"?), "stunning video," "iconic," "functionality," "let's do this!" "outside the box," "my amazing husband/wife/etc.," "give it up for," "reach out to," "got your back," "begs the question," "feeling nauseous," "at this point in time," "my journey," "it's problematic," "a sense of closure," "know what I'm sayin'?" "low-hanging fruit," yada yada. For that matter, I don't even like "yada yada." (And sportscasters are a whole 'nother story. I could possibly understand saying "w" in place of "win" if there was any reason at all to do it. Actually it takes longer to pronounce the letter "w" than it does to say the word "win.")

Other things I don't like are air-quotes, chains on eyeglasses, Botoxed lips, flat-billed baseball caps, The Bachelorette, mullets, cold weather, downer endings, present-tense writing, submission fees, head-tosses, loud cellphone conversations in public, and TV commercials urging you to "tell your health-care professional about such-and-such medication." For God's sake, if your doctor needs to be told how to treat your ailments, you need a new doctor.

The good thing about saying I dislike all these things is that the older I get, the more people will forgive me, or just disregard my opinions. ("Hey, he's old, what does he know." Usually spoken with a toss of the head.)

What are some of the annoying things in your life, and especially in the spoken or written words you hear or read? (Not necessarily wrong, but just irritating?) And yes, you can include opinion-column blog posts. The longer this one gets, it's becoming irritating to me too. If you by chance like this kind of thing, here are two of my SS posts from several years ago that talk more about irksome words/phrases, and are a little less opinionated: "Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Wont's, Part 1" and "Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 2." 

Having pointed out all these thorns in my side, I should mention that there are thankfully many things I do like, and not just my family, my house, and my friends. I like seafood, warm weather, Apple computers, lemon-icebox pie, homemade chili, Netflix, straight pool, reclining theater seats, Word Hunt, Joe Lansdale, Harry Nilsson, Cass Elliot, beaches, burritos, mystery magazines, the guitar, the piano, Yellowstone, Jeopardy, and The Sopranos. Not necessarily in that order.

And SleuthSayers. I like SleuthSayers. I hope you do, too.

On that note, next time I promise I'll be more upbeat. Until then, I can't help remembering something a colleague said to me several years ago. "I'm done with all this positive-thinking stuff," he said. "I knew it wouldn't work, and sure enough, it didn't."

Hard to argue with that.

18 November 2023

The Storia Story

It's my great pleasure today to feature a guest post by my friend Josh Pachter. He's practically a regular here at SleuthSayers lately anyway, but in case you don't know, Josh was the 2020 recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement, and after fifty-five years of selling short fiction to EQMM, AHMM, and elsewhere, his first novel Dutch Threat was published this September. He's also the editor of some twenty anthologies, including six (so far!) books of stories inspired by the songs of singer/songwriters and the films of the Marx Brothers, most recently Happiness Is a Warm Gun: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the Beatles. Welcome back, Josh!

— John Floyd

The Storia Story

by Josh Pachter

There's a new market for short genre fiction in town, and since I've been involved with it from pretty close to the beginning my buddy John Floyd has asked me to drop by today and tell you about it. 

On July 24 of this year, I got the following out-of-the-blue email from someone named Todd Gallet.

    Reaching out to see if you might be interested/available for a paid collaboration on our new immersive reading app launching this fall. Storia's vision is to transform reading into a fun, immersive and entertaining routine with a fresh new format for the Gen-Z audience. With a mix of reading, 2D/3D animation, audio, and tactile experiences, we're reinventing the way the mobile generation reads. We are looking to partner with a writer like yourself on an original short story (~2-3K words) for the app. Our story categories include SciFi, Fantasy, Horror, Action/Adventure, and Mystery.

    I'd love to schedule a brief intro call to discuss the project in more detail. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks!

I Googled Todd, of course, and learned that he's an actor out in La-La Land, and Googling "Storia" brought up a bare-bones placeholder web page, nothing more. The pitch was intriguing, but I thought it had a whiff of scam to it, so I cautiously replied to Todd's email requesting more information and cut-and-pasted it to the Short Mystery Fiction Society's listserv, asking if anyone else had gotten the same email I'd received. 

Several of us had (John, Stacy Woodson, and Bill McCormick), while some others I would have expected to have been contacted hadn't been (such as Michael Bracken and Rob Lopresti).

Todd wrote back promptly and answered my questions satisfactorily, and I wound up having a couple of enjoyable FaceTime conversations with him. Before sending him any of my fiction, though, I asked to see the contract he intended to ask contributors to sign. He sent it, I read through it carefully and wrote back to say that I thought it was one-sided in favor of Storia, and asked for about a dozen changes . . . all of which were promptly made. 

John, Stacy, Bill, and I met several times via Zoom--with Bill calling in from his temporary home in Latvia!--and given the revised contract we agreed that it would be worth giving Storia a try.

All four of us have now sold Todd's company one to three stories, and we were all paid the promised amount remarkably quickly. The Storia app doesn't launch until December, so we haven't yet seen the final product, but some brief animation samples that were subsequently posted to the website and some character sketches John received suggest that the quality is going to be solid and that we'll wind up happy with the way our work has been treated.

With all that backstory in place, let me tell you now what Storia is looking for and what they're offering. 

As Todd said in his original email, they're buying genre fiction that runs between two and three thousand words (although the website now suggests that they'll consider stories up to four thousand words.). As we went back and forth by email and FaceTime, I learned that a successful story will begin and end with action that can be animated, and that there'll be animatable moments every couple to four hundred words. Stories can be written in first or third person, past or present tense. Including dialogue is fine, but less talking and more action is better than more talking and less action. 

For an original story, the company is paying a flat fee of a thousand dollars, no royalties, and what they want in return is a permanent exclusive license to use the story in their app. The authors retain the right to include the story in collections of their own short fiction, and it can be reprinted in a year's-best collection, but otherwise Storia owns both the story and its characters for the life of the app.

For reprints, the fee is seven hundred and fifty dollars, and the license runs for ten years on the story and three years on the characters. 

For both originals and reprints, all rights revert to the author if Storia goes under.

A permanent license for an original and ten years for a reprint are lengthy terms, and that might well turn some writers off. On the other hand, I know that I've sold more than a hundred short crime stories over the last fifty years, and only once have I ever been paid a thousand bucks for a single story . . . while I've sold many stories, especially to anthologies in recent years, for a twenty-five-dollar advance against royalties that never materialized. And I don't think I've ever written a story that paid me anything close to seven hundred and fifty dollars in reprint rights over any given ten-year period.

One cautionary note: since Storia buys not only the rights to your story but also to its characters, I recommend against sending them a series story unless you change the names of the characters first.

Also, be aware that the company may ask for revisions--generally to punch up the action scenes--and may ask you to submit the story with the dialogue presented in basic script format.

FLOYD (puzzled)

You mean like this?

PACHTER (patiently)

Exactly, John. (he points to the screen) Just like I'm showing you here.

Go to for more information and a look at some of the company's early character designs and animation samples. You'll also find links for both writers and animators to submit their work (and, if you look closely, thumbnail headshots of John, Stacy--and Michael Bracken, who apparently has now connected with them, after all!) and a "Request Access" button that'll put you in line for early access to a limited amount of free content when the app launches in (if all goes according to plan) December.

Storia seems very interested in building ongoing relationships with writers, and Todd has reached out to me several times to ask me to submit more stories, and most recently he asked if I'd be interested in adapting existing public-domain fiction for the Storia platform.

It remains to be seen whether or not the market will welcome another attempt at presenting short fiction via a smartphone app--anyone remember Great Jones Street?--but at a thousand dollars a story paid in actual money and not just vague promises, this is a bandwagon the Sayers of the Sleuth might well consider jumping on.

04 November 2023

Hitchcock and Sherlock


Like many of our readers here at SleuthSayers, I love short stories. I love reading them and writing them, and I've been doing both for a long time. Writing shorts, for me, started thirty years ago--I submitted my first stories in late 1993--and even then I leaned toward mystery/crime stories. I also wrote some westerns, science fiction, etc.--and still do--but I especially like mysteries. 

I won't get into a lot of things about markets and marketing, but I will mention that two of my stories have appeared in the past few weeks in two of my favorite mystery publications: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. AHMM, as most of you know, has been around since the 1950s and publishes once every two months, and SHMM started out maybe a dozen years ago and publishes irregularly--but both have been good to me and both have editors I like and admire. 

My story in AHMM (Nov/Dec 2023 issue) is "The Zeller Files," and is different in a couple of ways from what I usually write. This story is a mix of two genres--crime and science fiction. It's about a guy named Eddie Zeller, who once survived an alien abduction and was told by his captors that they would return for him someday. When he and his wife Lisa discover that another couple supposedly kidnapped in the past by these same otherworldly beings have recently moved to the town where the Zellers live, Eddie fears that these alien forces might be gathering all the onetime abductees together so they can again be taken, in one swoop--and maybe this time for more than just observation and release. There is also a crime involved, and there's a fair amount of the chasing and zapping and paranoia that you usually find in an X-Files kind of story.

The second difference about this particular tale is that it's one of only a few stories I've sold that were set during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the characters wearing masks and avoiding crowds and dealing with a whole different kind of paranoia. I think both these oddities made the story more fun to write, and--who knows?--might've been what appealed to the editor. At any rate, I was grateful but surprised when AHMM bought it.

The other story is "The Three Little Biggs," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue #32). Its a little different also, from my usual, but it's on the other end of the spectrum from the AHMM story. "The Zeller Files" is longish (5600 words), it's more SF than mystery, it's sort of intense, it's set in the (recent) past, it has only a few characters, and it's a standalone story. "Biggs" is short (900 words), it's a whodunit, it's lighthearted, it's present-day, it has a lot of characters, and it's a series story. In fact it's the umpteenth installment of what I long ago started calling my "Law and Daughter" mysteries, featuring small-town sheriff Lucy Valentine and her bossy mother Frances. 

In this story, Lucy and Fran investigate the strange death of wealthy rancher Elijah Biggs, whose three weird offspring have gathered at the ranch to celebrate his birthday and found his dead body instead. There's a lot of inheritance-squabbling between the siblings in this story (I told a friend last week that it's a bad-heir-day mystery), and if you read it I hope you'll find that the solution fits Aristotle's famous description of endings that are "both unexpected and inevitable."

Quick questions. Everyone reading this probably knows about AHMM, but are all of you familiar with Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine? (It's a publication of Wildside Press and the editor is Carla Coupe.) Have any of you submitted stories to them, or been published there? If so, have you found them easy to work with? Please let me know in the comments. I really like the magazine, I've had a number of stories published there over the years, and I hope it'll be around for many more.

How could anyone resist two magazines with those names in their titles?

Coming attraction: In two weeks my friend Josh Pachter will be here to tell you about his--and several of our--experiences with a new short-fiction market called Storia.

See you then.

21 October 2023

Happiness is a Beatles Anthology


Earlier this week, my old friend Josh Pachter announced the publication of his latest music-themed anthology, Happiness Is a Warm Gun: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the Beatles (Down & Out Books). I'm looking forward to it, for several reasons. One is that I and many of my writer friends have stories featured in there, and a second is that Josh always knows what he's doing with these antho-editing projects. My third reason is that all the stories in the book are based on songs by a group whose music has good memories for me.

I was a schoolkid just learning to play guitar when the Beatles first appeared, and I'll always remember how taken I was with their music, then and over the next few years. I still believe Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison, too) created some of the best songs ever written, and I'm not at all surprised by the fact that their music is still played and performed and appreciated after all this time. When our oldest grandson--he just turned sixteen--came over to our house a couple weeks ago, he and I spent four straight hours on our guitars, picking out some of the songs from the Beatles' later years. He loves their music. (He also dearly loves movies--wonder where he picked that up?)

Anyhow, I hoped as soon as I heard about this Beatles anthology that I'd be able to have a story in it, and somehow I was fortunate enough to sneak in past the palace guards. My story is called "We Can Work It Out," which is also the title of the song that inspired it. And it really did inspire it, because in this story the plot changes direction several times and requires its two protagonists to change with it--they're constantly having to backtrack and re-draw their plans, which weren't that great to begin with. Neither of these two jokers are the brightest bulbs in the fixture (how is it that I can relate so easily to guys like that??), so most of their problems are self-inflicted, but they're still problems that have to be "worked out," and somehow they manage. (With a little help from their friends, which I guess could've also been the title.)

Quick teaser: My heroes in this story, if you could call them that, are two down-on-their-luck roommates working dead-end jobs in east Texas, who decide the best solution to their financial troubles is kidnapping the feisty daughter of a wealthy rancher and holding her for a never-have-to-work-again ransom. And believe it or not, the first part of the scheme--the snatching of the kidnappee at a high-school football game (if you're wondering why a rich socialite would attend a high-school ballgame, you don't know Texas)--works as planned. But soon after that, things start to go the wrong way. NOTE: As a reader I love it when those sudden reversals happen, and as a writer I love it even more. The road to the end should be as bumpy and twisty (and long and winding?) as possible. 

Besides the convoluted plotting, I think the thing I enjoyed most in writing this story was the hiding of Easter eggs in the form of occasional snippets of lyrics from its title song. It's fun to do that, especially in dialog, if it fits and if you don't quote closely enough to get into copyright trouble, and it's not as hard as it might seem. This is the fifth or sixth time I've had stories in music-themed anthologies (most of them Josh's) and since I often find myself humming the title song while I'm writing, those short words and phrases from the lyrics are right there in my head the whole time, waiting to be plucked and used. In fact, here's a suggestion. If you buy and read this anthology and you see in the table of contents a story-title/song-title that by chance you aren't familiar with, Google the lyrics and read them before reading the story. That'll probably make it even more fun.

Questions that come to mind: Have you been involved in any music-themed/music-inspired anthologies? If so, which ones? Did you choose the song for your story, or were you "assigned" one? To what degree did your song inspire your story? Did you incorporate parts of lyrics into your narrative? Did you use the title of the song as your story's title (that's usually the case), or were you free to choose a different title? Did you write your story from scratch, using the song as a guide, or did you renovate and retitle an existing and unsold story to fit the theme? Just wondering.

Bottom line is, "We Can Work It Out" was a story I thoroughly enjoyed writing and Happiness Is a Warm Gun is a project I'm proud to be a part of, and I so appreciate having been allowed to climb aboard. I look forward to reading every story featured, and to adding this book to my already-great memories of the Beatles and their music.

Thanks once again to Josh Pachter for the opportunity.

07 October 2023

September Stories


Here in the south, autumn is finally in the air--well, almost--and I have a few fall stories to report on, at least those from the month of September. Some are seasonally-themed stories; the rest just happened to be published at this time of year. And every one of them is far different from the others. (That's part of the fun of all this, isn't it?)

Anyway, here are six of my recent efforts--two in magazines and four in anthologies:

"Plymouth West," Killin' Time in San Diego (Down & Out Books). Editor: Holly West. (I'm actually cheating a bit by calling this a September publication, but only by a few hours--it's the Bouchercon 2023 anthology, officially "launched" at a signing on the evening of August 31 at the annual conference.) My story is a modern-day revenge tale about a restaurant owner, her budding romance with a mysterious chef, and a traditional but deadly Thanksgiving dinner. It was originally written with a pandemic setting and then changed at the last minute to a regular story--whether that was a smart move I'm not sure, but I was thankful the editor liked it. It's a "framed story" of about 2700 words and takes the form of a narrative by the protagonist to a close friend, shortly after everything happened. It's my sixth appearance in a Bouchercon anthology and its setting is of course the city that hosted the conference.

"Della's Cellar," Ordinary Miracles, September 6, 2023. Editor: Dorothy Day. When I was asked to supply a teaser/logline for this story, here's what I sent the editor: "After a dare goes wrong, young Billy Kendrix finds himself battling with his own conscience." That of course isn't all he battles with, but you find that out later. The story runs about 2300 words, it's set in the rural south (which is where I was raised), and was told from the viewpoint of a twelve-year-old who's involved in a prank that goes terribly off the rails but ends up changing three lives for the better. The only breaking of the law in this story is an incident of trespassing, so it's not a crime tale, but it does include mortal danger, so I suppose it'd be called suspense instead of mystery.

"Silverlake," Monster Fight at the O.K. Corral, Vol. 2 (Tule Fog Press), September 10, 2023. Editor: Lyn Perry. This is about as far from the previous story as it could possibly be. It's certainly the weirdest story I've written in a long time, and for an anthology with the weirdest title. The genre is Western but it's horror/fantasy also (how could I resist that?), and the plot features a weary cowpoke on his way home from a trail drive who stops for the night at a little town called Silverlake and finds a lot more there than he was looking for (think Cowboys & Aliens). This was one of those stories that I wrote to match a theme, which is something I've found myself doing more and more often lately, and I managed to work in a few old frontier legends as well as some scary otherworldly elements. Its wordcount is about 3200, and it's told through the eyes of the traveling cowhand.

"Free as a Bird," Woman's World, September 18, 2023, issue. Editor: Alexandra Pollock. For anyone who's interested in this kind of thing, the story was submitted on 7/10/23, accepted on 7/15/23, and published on 9/7/23 (little-known fact: the on-sale date for WW is always eleven days before the issue date). This story's yet another installment in a series I've written for them for years now, featuring a pleasant but dimwitted southern sheriff and a grouchy retired lady who is (1) his former fifth-grade teacher and (2) a constant pain in his ass. But she's smart--really smart--and consistently helps him solve difficult cases, which works out well for both the sheriff and me. The mystery here involves a prison break and sort of a word-game puzzle that leads to the solution. As usual, the story is only a little over 500 words, and this one's told from the POV of the schoolteacher.

"Liz and Drew and Betty Lou," Strand Magazine, Issue #70, September 2023. Editor: Andrew Gulli. This story isn't exactly a sequel, but it's a followup to an idea I used in a story I wrote for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine several years ago. It involves two high-school students, one of whom's father owns a fancy self-driving sports car. The two teenagers decide one day to play hooky from school, "borrow" the car, and spend a few hours chasing their financial dreams at a local casino--a venture that predictably goes astray. In this case the mishap is that they meet a crook looking for some quick cash. It's a half-serious, half-funny story of about 5900 words, and was--like the EQMM story that preceded it--a ton of fun to write. Strangely enough, the dates on which this story was submitted, accepted, and published were almost exactly the same as the submit/accept/pub dates for the earlier-mentioned Woman's World story (neither the Strand nor WW wait very long to get accepted stories into print). Not that it matters, but I received my author copy of the issue in the mail last week and read it last night.

"River Road," Prohibition Peepers: Private Eyes During the Noble Experiment (Down & Out Books), September 25, 2023. Editor: Michael Bracken. I love private-eye anthologies, and this one's set in one of the most interesting periods in American history. My story--it's around 6000 words--features a PI who's hired by a wealthy landowner to locate his missing wife, and who then finds that it's not an easy task. Much of the action takes place in the woods and swamps of southwest Mississippi, whose historical settings are familiar to me, but the plot also required a good deal of research into the making and selling and transporting of moonshine, so I wound up learning a lot. As for submission details, this story was accepted fairly quickly but was published more than a year and a half afterward--and well worth the wait. NOTE: One place that has a significant role in the story is an actual site about an hour away from my home, and was featured in the old movie Raintree County, with Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Here's a clip from YouTube

NOTE: My story "The POD Squad" is in the Sep/Oct 2023 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, but it came out in mid-August, so I didn't list it here. If you like reading "behind-the-scenes" accounts of stories, I covered that one (and another story, published the last week of August) in a SleuthSayers post last month.

What are some of your recent publications? Were they in anthologies or magazines, or both? Which do you most enjoy writing for? Any successes in new markets? Any publications that were different from the kinds of stories you usually write? Do you find that you need that kind of variety now and then, to keep from getting bored?

Anyhow, that's that. I wish everyone a great autumn. Keep writing--and reading--and I'll see you again on the 21st.

02 September 2023

Where'd THAT Story Come From?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now get to work on your next story . . .

19 August 2023

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


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

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

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

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

either -- ee-ther vs. eye-ther

neither -- nee-ther vs. nigh-ther

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

envelope -- inn-velope vs. onn-velope

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

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

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

vase -- vaise vs. vahz

pajamas -- pah-JOMas vs. pah-jAMmas

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

schedule -- sked-jull vs. shed-jull

leisure -- lee-zure vs. leh-zure 

tournament -- turnament vs. toornament  

apricot -- ay-pricott vs. app-rickott

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

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

route -- rowt vs. root

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

adult -- ah-DULT vs. ADD-dult

often -- awf-tunn vs. ahh-fun

coupon -- coo-ponn vs. coopun

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

celtic -- selltick vs. kelltick

candidate -- canndah-ditt vs. canndah-date

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

crayon -- cray-un vs. cray-yonn

syrup -- surr-up vs. seer-up

Sunday -- Sundy vs. Sun-day

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

Missouri -- Mizzoorah vs. Mizzoo-ree

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

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

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

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

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

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

pecan -- pah-CONN vs. PEE-cann

praline -- praw-leen vs. pray-leen

handkerchief -- haink-erchiff vs. hann-kerchiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in two weeks.

05 August 2023

Sequels, Not Equals


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

The Rule is . . .

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

Jaws 2

Return to Snowy River

Escape from L.A.

Speed 2: Cruise Control

Be Cool

Wonder Woman 1984

Staying Alive

Independence Day: Resurgence

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The Sting II

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory

Return of the Seven 

The Jewel of the Nile

Grease 2

Evan Almighty

Rocky II

Blues Brothers 2000

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

The Good, the Bad, and The Good

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

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

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

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

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

Creative names

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

Oceans Twelve

102 Dalmations

Hot Shots, Part Deux

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

Another 48 Hours

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

Honey, I Blew Up the Kid

The Whole Ten Yards

Beethoven's Second

2 Fast 2 Furious

Finding Dory

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Mama Mia: Here We Go Again

Any Which Way You Can

The Lion King 1 1/2

Daddy Day Camp

The Net 2.0

Sharknado 2: The Second One

Look Who's Talking Too

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

The Naked Gun 2 1/2

After the Thin Man

House II: The Second Story

Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money

Can I Do It 'Til I Need Glasses?

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd

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

Dumb and Dumberer

Exceptions to the Rule

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

From Russia with Love

The Godfather Part II

For a Few Dollars More

The Road Warrior

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

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Empire Strikes Back

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A Shot in the Dark

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


A question, and a reassurance

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

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


29 July 2023

Here Come da Judge


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

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

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

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

An example, and some observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

15 July 2023



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in two weeks.