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

29 August 2020

Once Again in the Bargain Bin

Since I've been in pandemic mode like everyone else, I'm doing a lot of reading, writing, and movie watching. (As if I wouldn't be doing that in non-pandemic mode.) So, in preparing for today's post, I thought it'd be fun to list a few movies that might've flown underneath your radar. We all know there are plenty of good movies that are well known (and should be) and plenty of bad movies that aren't (and shouldn't be)--but in my experience there aren't many good movies that almost no one has heard of.

I did a SleuthSayers column on this subject several years ago, based on my fondness for browsing those big four-foot-wide tubs in Walmart that contain bargain DVDs. I haven't been rummaging around in there for a while--WallyWorld isn't one of the essentials on my COVID list--but I do remember finding some real jewels in those bins in the past, and have mentioned some at this blog. Consider this an update.

A note of caution. These recommendations are my opinion only. A lot of folks, including my wife, don't agree with me about what's worth watching and what's not, in the cinematic universe.

Another note. These are not just obscure movies that I watched and enjoyed. They're obscure movies that I watched believing I wouldn't enjoy them. So they were all pleasant surprises. I'm hoping they might be to you too.

So . . . here are some outstanding lesser-known movies, with a quick note about each:

Wind River (2017) -- A local tracker joins a female FBI agent to investigate a murder on a Native American reservation. Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene.

- From Noon to Three (1976) -- A delightful and unusual western about a bank robber and a mysterious widow. Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland.

- Idiocracy (2006) -- An average guy gets beamed into a dumbed-down future and discovers that he's now the smartest person on Earth. The more I watch the news, the more I'm convinced this could really happen. Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews.

- Suburbicon (2017) -- A George-Clooney-directed tale of regular folks involved in quirky crime. Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac.

- Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) -- A simple jewelry-store heist takes a wrong turn. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) -- Murder and mayhem at a motel on the California/Nevada border. Jeff Bridges, John Hamm, Dakota Johnson.

The Gypsy Moths (1969) -- A skydiving team puts on a show in a midwestern town. Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr, Scott Wilson.

- The Spanish Prisoner (1997) -- A mystery with Steve Martin in a serious role. And it works. Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara.

- An Unfinished Life (2005) -- Love and drama in present-day Wyoming. Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez, Josh Lucas.

A History of Violence (2005) -- An entertaining (and yes, violent) look at current and retired/relocated gangsters. Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt.

- Lockout (2012) -- One of only a few science-fiction movies in this list. Sort of an Escape from New York in outer space. Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare.

- Magic (1978) -- A chilling adaptation of the William Goldman novel. I bet I've watched this a dozen times. Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter.

- Motherless Brooklyn (2019) -- A complicated police drama featuring a detective with Tourette's syndrome. Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe.

- Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) -- Not only is Elvis alive, he's a resident of a haunted nursing home. Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis.

In Bruges (2008) -- One of the quirkiest movies ever made, involving disillusioned Irish hitmen. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes.

No Escape (2015) -- An American family is caught in the middle of a third-world coup. Pierce Brosnan, Lake Bell, and (in a dramatic role) Owen Wilson.

The Last Sunset (1961) -- An old western with a lot of heart, and several good plot twists. Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Carol Lynley, Joseph Cotten.

- A Family Thing (1996) -- A southern bigot discovers that he has an African American brother. Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones.

- Leap of Faith (1992) -- The adventures of a traveling evangelist in Kansas during a drought. Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson.

And my absolute favorites:

- The Dish (2000) -- An Australian satellite-tracking station takes center stage during the Apollo 11 mission. Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton, Roy Billing.

- Galaxy Quest (1999) -- A science-fiction comedy that is (trust me) endlessly re-watchable. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman.

- Rustler's Rhapsody (1985) -- The updated adventures of a 1940s TV-western hero and his sidekick. Tom Courtenay, G.W. Bailey, Andy Griffith, Sela Ward.

Medicine Man (1992) -- A doctor searches for a cancer cure in the Amazonian rainforest. Sean Connery and a pre-Sopranos Lorraine Bracco.

Again, your mileage will vary--but if you find yourself desperate for something to stream or put in your Netflix queue, consider giving one of these a try.

Do you have any barely-known, hiding-in-plain-sight favorites? Let me know what you think.

I'll be back next Saturday with a post about (of all things) writing.

15 August 2020

"Just Shoot Anywhere," Tom Said Aimlessly

A little background, here.  A month or two ago, some writer friends and I were having an e-discussion about literary style--which I consider to be grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, sentence and paragraph structure, word choice and usage, etc. The nuts-and-bolts of writing.

During these conversations, we wound up talking a bit about adverbs. (Writers always do.) And anytime you talk about adverbs and their overuse, someone mentions Swifties. Which took us down a whole nother path.

Then, a few weeks after that, Elizabeth Zelvin wrote an interesting SleuthSayers column about adverbs, and in the comments section afterward I mentioned to her the fact that I was thinking about doing an SS post specifically about Swifties. She seconded that idea, and--be careful what you wish for, Liz--here it is.

The term Swifty, as you probably know, comes from the popular series of books starring teenaged action-adventure hero Tom Swift, which always seemed to include passages like "Here I come," Tom shouted bravely, or "Dad helped me with my project," Tom admitted modestly. Eventually good old Tom, despite his bravery and modesty, became not only a hero but something of a literary oddity because of that style of writing, and readers began poking fun at all those pesky and repetitive adverbs. It probably began with "We must hurry," Tom said swiftly, or something like that, and soon folks were coming up with goofy phrases like "Let's visit the tombs," Tom said cryptically
and "I like modern art," Tom said abstractly. By definition, a Tom Swifty is a sentence linked by some kind of pun to the manner in which it is attributed.

Here's a long list of Swifties I put together, about half of them from combing the Internet and about half from my own not-so-swift brain. I warn you, this kind of thing can get old pretty fast, and although some of these are clever, others are just silly, and some of them you've probably heard or seen before. But I think all of 'em are fun. The ones I like the most are the ones with double meanings and a lot of wordplay. Also, I should mention that Swifties don't have to use adverbs. Whatever generally follows the format and is funny, or quirky, is fair game.

I kept inventing more of them and finding more that I wanted to include, but after considerable frustration I narrowed the list down (??) to 75. By the way, I tried to start with the worst first, so don't bail out too soon. Here we go:

"Stop that horse!" Tom cried woefully.

"Parsley, sage, and rosemary," Tom said timelessly.

"I got kicked out of China!" Tom said, disoriented.

"I'm tired of smiling," moaned Lisa.

"I'll dig another ditch around the castle," Tom said remotely.

"I slipped on the hill to Hogwarts," said J. K., rolling. 

"I invented the Internet," Tom said allegorically. 

"Bring me my soup," said Reese, witherspoon.

"Wasn't that Elvis I saw at the party?" Tom Enquired.           

"I make table tops," Tom said counterproductively.

"I want to sketch Goldwater again," said Drew Barrymore.

"I never get to play the friend," said Willem, dafoe.

"For whom is the bell?" Tom extolled.

"Go on in, I'll just sit here and watch," Peter said benchley.

"I have no flowers," Tom said lackadaisically.

"Don't let me drown in Egypt!" Tom said, in denial.

"3.1416," Tom said piously.

"Shaken, not stirred," said Sean and Roger, bonding.

"I can see right through my father," Tom said transparently.

"Damn, I've struck oil!" Tom gushed crudely. 

"I thought you were Madonna," said the lady, gaga.

"To split infinitives no man has split before," Tom boldly said.

"I must find Moby Dick," Ahab wailed.

"This too shall pass," Tom said constipatedly.

"Dorothy, if you go to Oz again, I'm going with you," Em barked.

"I hate this food," Tom said, whining and dining.

"I told you I'm not fonda this script," Hank said, madigan.

"I can't believe I ate the whole pineapple," Tom said dolefully.

"That doesn't look like an evergreen," Tom opined.

"It's better to steal things together," Tom corroborated.

"I left my car in Phoenix," Tom said, Joaquin.

"I can't, I can't," Tom recanted.

"I'm marryin' Marian," said Robin, robbin'.

"That grizzly is climbing the tree after me," Tom said overbearingly.

"I like movies Down Under," Tom said quiggly.

"Honey, put on that see-through thing," Tom said negligently.

"I left the Xena the crime," said Lucy lawlessly.

"I collided with my bed," Tom said rambunctiously.

"I stepped on Harriet Beecher's toe," said Uncle Tom, gabbin'.

"This girl is gone," said Gillian, fleein'.

"Someone stole my movie camera!" Tom bellowed and howled.

"I play a drunk in this movie," said Hugo, weaving.

"I'm sailing with Noah," said Alan, arkin'.

"That's a big shark," Tom said superficially.    

"What a wascally wabbit," Tom said, befuddled.

"She set my car on fire and left me," Burt said, smoky and abandoned.

"No more pastries for me," Tom de-eclaired.

"Practice, practice," said Isaac sternly.

"I'm rereading the second Gospel," Tom remarked.

"We don't have a home-run hitter," Tom said ruthlessly.

"I make dark movies," Shyamalan said nightly.

"That was a tasty hen," said the Roman, gladiator.

"Charles should shorten his name," Tom chuckled.

"Look at that monster's sandals," Tom said, in a thing-thong voice.

"I know I'm going to hit another bad drive," Tom forewarned.

"I'm a singer," said Taylor swiftly.

"Call me Hot Lips," said Loretta switly.

"I will not finish in fifth place," Tom held forth.

"Call me Fitz," F. said, scott free.

"I'm sick of this lisp," Tom said thickly.

"I'll probably do a test drive before the race," Tom prezoomed. 

"My car's in the shop," said Christopher, walken.

"I'm going to see Elijah," said Joanne, woodward.

"I'm staying right here," said William, holden.

"I've already left," said Faye, dunaway.

"Emily's put on weight," Tom said emphatically.

"Did you steal that sunscreen?" Tom demanded, in a copper tone.

"It's the bawdiest house on the prairie," said Laura Ingalls, wilder.

"That's the last time I pet a lion," Tom said offhandedly.

"I'll think about that tomorrow," Scarlett said vivienleigh.

"An African American woman beat me at tennis," Tom said serenely.

"I'm a scientologist," Tom said, cruising.

"Too bad I can't castle now," Tom said, in Czech.

"I need a man," Eve said adamantly.

"This is mutiny!" Tom said bountifully.

If you're still with me, and if that's not enough . . . the following are my Top Twenty Favorites. Again, some of these I dreamed up in weak moments and others I lifted swiftly from the Web:

"I didn't know I got airsick," Tom said, heaving it aloft.

"Who's Victor Hugo?" asked Les miserably.

"I saw a mockingbird peck Gregory," Tom said harperly. 

"Look at those pasties twirl," Tom said fastidiously.

"I punched him in the stomach three times," Tom said triumphantly.

"Last night I dreamed I went to the movies," Laura said manderley.

"You can be my guest host," said Ellen, to begeneres.

"I like the Venus de Milo," Tom said disarmingly.

"What's that in the punchbowl?" Tom said, deterred.

"Y'all, I'm leavin'," said Dolly, partin'.

"I didn't do anything!" Adam cried fruitlessly.

"I dropped the toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.

"I ate two cans of American beans," said Vladimir, putin.

"Arghhhhh," Dracula said, painstakingly. 

"I'm having an affair with my gamekeeper," said the lady chattily.

"Whiskey gives me gas," Doc Holliday said, with an earp. 

"About hot dogs, my dear, I don't give a damn," Tom said frankly.

"One out of ten bottoms is too big for an airplane seat," Tom said asininely.

"We didn't inhale," Bill and Hillary announced jointly.

"These aren't the droids you're looking for," Tom said forcefully.

Okay, so I never grew up. What can I tell you?

("Believe me, you don't want to read the hundreds I left out," John said, listlessly.)

Now . . . what are your favorite Swifties?

See you next time.

11 August 2020

Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club

If you like reading crime short stories, and let's face it, you wouldn't be a regular SleuthSayers reader if you didn't, then you should know about Black Cat Mystery & Science Fiction Ebook Club. An offering of Wildside Press--which publishes a lot of mystery anthologies, including the Malice Domestic anthologies since their revival a few years ago and this year's upcoming Bouchercon anthology--the ebook club is nearing its third anniversary. It's like a book-of-the-month club, but weekly and with electronic short stories (and some novellas), mostly reprints. The ebook club is different from Black Cat Mystery Magazine, which is edited by my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, though the quarterly magazine is sometimes included as a weekly offering to the ebook club members.
Every week, paid club members get an email telling them about the seven (sometimes more) stories they can download that week in mobi or epub versions. Three or four are crime/mystery stories, the rest are science fiction. Unpaid club members get the same weekly email giving them access to one free story, a specific one each week. All of the ebook club stories are available for two weeks only, giving members an incentive to check in each week (or every other one) to download the new offerings.
A lot of the mystery stories are traditional, in the classic mode, originally published early in the twentieth century. But in June, Wildside began including a contemporary story with the mysteries each week. It is these modern stories with which I'm most familiar because I'm the person who's been choosing them. In the spring, Wildside's publisher reached out to me, asking if I would head up this series of stories, finding reprints I thought were really good. He's labeled this imprint Barb Goffman Presents. (That was a big surprise--a nice one--because I thought I was going to be solely behind the scenes.)
Since then I've read more short stories than I have in years, trying to find ones I love and think would be a good fit for Black Cat readers. (Stories originally published by Wildside Press are off the table.) When I find a story I think would work, I reach out to the author. It makes me feel like Santa Claus, which is pretty cool.
This work has given me an excuse to read many of the anthologies that I bought over the years but never found the time to read. And it's enabled me to share with readers stories that I think are special but might have been overlooked when they came out.
The first story I presented was "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," written by my fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd and published in 2008 in the Strand Magazine. Last week's story, which is still available to paid club members for a few more days, is "The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever" by Frank Cook, originally published in 2009 in Quarry (Level Best Books). And this week's story, which has been chosen as the week's free story for paid and unpaid members, is "The Kiss of Death" by Rebecca Pawel, originally published in 2007 in A Hell of a Woman (Busted Flush Press). Pawel's story is set in the New York City tango community and is a delight to read.
If you want to check out the ebook club, go on over to And happy reading!

01 August 2020

Recognized and Tuckerized

Tuckerization (or tuckerism) is the act of using a person's name (and sometimes other characteristics) in an original story as an in-joke.

It occurred to me, after I started writing this, that I'd done a SleuthSayers piece on this topic almost four years ago, called "Namedropping." If you take the trouble to go back and read that post, be sure to read the comments also, from readers--I think those are more interesting than what I wrote in the column.

Anyhow, I want to say a little more about the subject, especially because I have since discovered that this practice has a name. The term tuckerization is derived from the late Arthur Wilson Tucker, an American writer of science fiction who--that sly dog--made a habit of using his friends' names for minor characters in his stories. (Most of you probably know this already. I think I was the last writer on earth to find out.)

Mr. Tucker would've been proud of me, because I've been merrily plugging the names of friends and fans into my short stories for a long time. (Well, at least friends; the word fans might be overstating things a bit.) The satisfying thing is, every time I've tuckerized someone, I've been encouraged to do it again because the tuckerizee seemed so tickled by it. I would assume that's probably one of the rules of this practice: Do it only if you're fairly sure the person being mentioned will enjoy seeing his/her name in your writing, rather than want to sue your ass off.

My tuckerizing has so far consisted of the following:

As mentioned in the earlier SleuthSayers column . . .

- Teresa Garver, a childhood friend who now lives four hundred miles away, became an English teacher in "Gone Goes the Weasel," Woman's World, June 27, 2013.

- Chuck Thomas, one of my banking customers at IBM, was a mischievous high-school student in "Not One Word," Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, July/Aug/Sep 2002.

- Cheryl Grubbs, a classmate of mine at Kosciusko High School, was featured as a deputy sheriff in "Trail's End," AHMM, July/Aug 2017, which became the first story in a series.

- Charlotte Hudson, a friend and former writing student, appeared in "A King's Ransom," Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue #19, 2015; and both Charlotte and her husband Bill were characters in "Ball and Chain," Woman's World, July 27, 2015. (I said in the previous SS post that Charlotte was in two Woman's World stories, but I later discovered it was one in WW and one in SHMM.)

- Charles Heisley, a fellow engineer and old Air Force buddy, became an officer in the Louisiana State Police in "The Blue Delta," Blood on the Bayou anthology, Sep 2016. Chuck lives in Hawaii now, but he's originally from Florida, so Louisiana wasn't too big a reach.

Since then:

- Deputy Cheryl Grubbs has made additional appearances in two more of my Sheriff Ray Douglas series installments--"Scavenger Hunt," AHMM, Jan/Feb 2018, and "Quarterback Sneak," AHMM, Mar/Apr 2020--and will be featured in two more stories already accepted and coming up at AHMM and one at Down & Out: The Magazine.

- My friend Terri Fisher was a physician in one of my Law and Daughter series stories, called "Doctor in the House," Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring 2017.

- Donna Fairley (the maiden name of one of my IBM colleagues, now Donna Huebsch) was a teenaged genius in "Ace in the Hole," Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer 2017. In real life, I can easily believe Donna might've been a teenaged genius.

- The first names of our oldest son's three children--Lily, Anna, and Gabe--were the first names of my three main characters in "The Music of Angels," The Saturday Evening Post, Sep/Oct 2018. In fact those were that story's only three characters. I didn't tell the kids about it, so when I sent them the magazine and they read the story, they thought that was a hoot.

- My old DP friend Alan Collums (we used to call the computer business Data Processing instead of Information Technology) will make an appearance as a cop in the Jackson, Mississippi, police department in "Friends and Neighbors," a story that AHMM has accepted but hasn't yet published.

Also, I've worked a lot of friends' last names into the names of story titles and fictional locations, over the years: "The Dolan Killings," "Driving Miss Lacey," "Knight Vision," "Purple Martin," "Dawson's Curse," "The Three Little Biggs," "Field Engineering," "Merrill's Run," "Byrd and Ernie," "The Barlow Boys," "Remembering Tally," "An Hour at Finley's," "The Pullman Case," "Dooley's Code," "The Zeller Files," Hardison Park, Chavis Island, Dentonville, etc. This kind of thing is mostly self-serving, because certain names from the past can sometimes just "sound" right.

On the other side of all this, I have found my own name in two stories--both of them written by my SleuthSayers co-conspirators Robert Lopresti and Michael Bracken. I knew about Rob's story beforehand--and blogged about that one in my "Namedropping" post--but I didn't know about my role in Michael's story until I happened across it while reading for pleasure, in the 2017 anthology Passport to Murder (which included stories by both of us). That was a pleasant surprise. O'Neil De Noux and I were both featured in Michael's story--O'Neil as a policeman (which he once was) and I as a systems engineer (which I once was).

What are some of your own experiences, with this crazy practice? Have you tuckerized friends' names in your fiction? If not, have you considered doing it? Have you discovered your own name in the writing of others? If so, were you told about it beforehand? Did you sue 'em? (Just kidding.)

As you might imagine, part of the fun of writing this post was the research it required: I went back and checked most of my stories (not all--there are a lot of 'em) to try to remember the times I had mentioned friends and colleagues and family members as a part of the plot. And that in itself brought back some fond memories.

Lately, though, nobody's been lobbying too much for it--which might be a good thing.

Maybe I'm all tuckered out.

18 July 2020

Stranded During the Pandemic

It's been 22 years since editor Andrew Gulli launched the rebirth of The Strand Magazine, which was originally published in London and turned out 711 monthly issues from 1891 to 1950. The new version is quarterly instead of monthly and published in the U.S., but still includes short fiction by some of the world's best-known writers.

And, occasionally, by me. My latest story there, "Biloxi Bound," is my 19th in The Strand, and its path to publication turned out a little different.


Everything started off as usual. I wrote it the way I write most of my stories: I came up with a plot, I then created a few of what I hoped were interesting characters (six, in this case) to do what needed to be done, I plugged in a couple of storyline reversals (I can't resist that, no matter what), and during the rewriting phase I tried to smooth out any problems that popped up. The whole thing took about three weeks--two weeks of brainstorming and a few days of writing and editing. The writing itself went pretty fast, as it usually does, because I'd spent so much time putting together a mental outline beforehand. As I've said before at this blog, I admire the seat-of-the-pantsers who don't have to bother with all that planning, but this is the way I do it, and the process is actually fun for me.

Anyhow, when I was done with the story I started looking for a place to send it. Stories of mine don't sit around the house long--I kick them out and tell them to go try to make something of themselves. The embarrassing thing is, I always advised my writing students to let their work cool off for a few days or weeks before submitting it . . . but I rarely do that, myself. I probably should. I also told them to do as I say and not as I do.


My first mystery-market choices for this story were the same as always: AHMM, EQMM, The Strand, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Down & Out: The Magazine, maybe two or three more. There weren't any current anthology calls that seemed to match my story, and Woman's World wasn't a possibility because of the story's length and format. I should mention also that those half-dozen publications that I listed meet all the requirements I think are important. They pay their writers, they reach a lot of readers, and they have editors I know and respect.

If I remember correctly, I chose Strand Magazine for this story because I thought it might be a good fit for them in a couple of ways: subjectwise, it was a modern-day urban crime story with all kinds of gangster involvement and plot twists, and lengthwise, it was about 4800 words (their sweet spot is between 2K and 6K). But one never knows. I had sent The Strand several other stories over the past months that seemed to fit also, and I'd never received any word back about those. In military terms, they were deployed but MIA. Regardless, I had a pretty good feeling about this one, so one morning in mid-February I sent it in and crossed my fingers.


I was pleasantly surprised. The editor emailed me only a few days later, saying he wanted to publish it. The quick turnaround was unusual, but not quite a record; I once had a short story accepted via email two hours after submission to an overseas market (but that's, literally, another story). Record or not, I was pleased. I did find myself wondering, though, which issue this story would wind up in. The acceptance note didn't say. I figured it was too late for it to make The Strand's Feb-May issue (sometimes called the Spring Issue), which usually comes out in early March. The truth is, it didn't matter a lot--I was just happy that the story had found a good home.

As fate would have it, the editor emailed me a day or two later to tell me they had decided to rush my story into the Spring Issue, so it would be on newsstands shortly and I would be getting my contributor's copy right away. Another fast and unexpected turnaround.

And then everything changed.


As the Covid-19 cases appeared and began to spread here in this country, I kept writing and sending out stories as always, but I started noticing delays across the board, at several markets--delays in payments, responses, contributor's copies, subscription copies, anthology edits, and publication of already accepted stories. Especially in the case of my Strand story. I heard nothing more about it or the issue or the magazine for several months. Throughout March, April, May, and most of June, their website and Facebook page continued to say the "current issue" was still the Holiday Issue (Oct-Jan). Once I thought about it, though, I realized the silence wasn't that surprising--The Strand is published in Birmingham, Michigan, and nearby Detroit was hit fairly early and fairly hard by virus outbreaks. I could picture a mostly empty building and a staff struggling to do their work from home.

I certainly didn't inquire about it. I figured the folks at the magazine, and everyone else too, had more to worry about than listening to the whining of an impatient author. I just kept writing other stories and sort of forgot about it.


So I was all the more pleased to see a post at the Strand Facebook page in late June announcing the publication of the delayed Spring Issue. Shortly afterward, from its description on their website, I found that the issue also contains stories by Irish author Eoin Colfer and The Papers of Sherlock Holmes author David Marcum, and a previously unpublished story by Louisa May Alcott. There's also an interview with Alan Furst. I've not yet seen anything except the cover, but I expect my subscription copy and contributor's copy will be here soon. The issue might be on the shelves of my local bookstores right now, for all I know, but I haven't darkened their doors since early March.

As for my story itself, "Biloxi Bound" is a tale about two brothers, Mitch and Danny White, who own and operate a small diner called the White House in an unnamed northeastern city. The problem is, their cafe's neighborhood has become a hotbed of violent crime, and there are even rumors that a Chicago mobster has recently moved into the area. As their business steadily declines, one of the brothers, Danny, comes up with the idea that they should relocate to the relatively obscure (and considerably warmer) Mississippi Gulf Coast, a region that he's heard features wealth and casinos on the one hand and regular old country folks on the other. Mitch agrees; it sounds like a plan. But there's also a growing romantic relationship between Mitch and a mysterious customer at the diner, and--as you might guess with this kind of story--crime arrives in a big way at the White House before the two can make good their escape.

So that's the lowdown on this story and the strange trip it took to get into print. Have the rest of you experienced similar delays or other problems at the markets you work with? Are they still ongoing (the problems, not the markets)? How has that affected you and your literary output? How has the pandemic in general affected your output? If you're isolating yourself, and I hope you are, are you treating that isolation as a rare break from work or a chance to produce even more? I've heard some writer friends say they're writing like never before, and others say they've had writer's block ever since all this began.

In closing, I have a piece of good news. Yesterday afternoon The Strand accepted another of my stories, this one submitted several months ago. Once again they didn't specify when it'll be published, but I'm not complaining. I'm just pleased it got a thumbs-up. I wish all my stories did, the first time out.

As for "Biloxi Bound," if you happen to read it I hope you'll like it. With the world as it is, you might see it before I do.

Wait a second. Was that the mailman I just heard . . . ?

04 July 2020

Political Fiction

Happy Fourth of July, everybody!  But today's column is, alas, not about Independence Day.

I'm also not talking about mystery writing, or about my own stories or books. (I usually stay as far away from politics as possible, when I write.) Today I'd like to feature--and recommend--the work of Christopher Buckley, an author whose novels I've enjoyed for a long time. He's the son of the late William F. Buckley, and writes mostly humorous political fiction.

I should phrase that another way. He writes mostly satire. Not all nis novels are political--but all are humorous. I was doing such heehawing while reading one of his books a few weeks ago, my wife asked me if I was reading something by Janet Evanovich. I said no, but this was just as hilarious, in a more subtle way. Author Tom Wolfe has called Buckley "one of the funniest writers in the English language," and that might be true.

Here are some of his novels, all of which I've either read or re-read over the past year or so, with a quick description of each:

Thank You for Smoking (1994)

Nick Naylor is a spokesman (smokesman?) for the American tobacco industry, and he's so good at being slick and unethical and deceitful, he's made enemies of everyone from the medical and scientific  communities to the FBI to an army of anti-tobacco terrorists. This novel was adapted into a 2005 movie starring Aaron Eckhart, Mario Bello, Sam Elliott, and half a dozen other names you would recognize. (I watched it again last night.)

Little Green Men (1999)

The story of John Banion, a famous Washington talk-show host who is abducted by aliens, becomes a hero to millions of UFO believers, and launches a crusade in favor of full-scale government investigations of extraterrestrial sightings and activity.

No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002)

When Elizabeth MacMann, the First Lady of the U.S. (widely known as Lady Bethmac), is tried for the murder of her husband, her only hope is a notorious defense attorney who also happens to be her former boyfriend from law school.

Florence of Arabia (2004)

Arabian official Florence Farfarletti stirs up Washington by hatching a plan for female emancipation in the Near East, using TV shows and a team that includes a CIA assassin, a flashy PR rep, and a brilliant gay bureaucrat.

Boomsday (2007)

A tale of a young blogger who causes a social uproar when she suggests that Baby Boomers be given government incentives to commit suicide by age 75. The main opponents are the Religious Right and of course the Boomers themselves, but a surprising number of Americans seems receptive to the idea.

Supreme Courtship (2008)

When U. S. President Donald Vanderdamp has a hard time getting his nominees appointed to the Supreme Court, he decides to back a judge already popular with the masses--because she's the star of a hit reality-TV show.

They Shoot Puppies, Don't They? (2012)

Washington lobbyist "Bird" McIntyre sets out to discredit the Chinese by trying to convince the American people that China is plotting to assassinate the Dali Lama, a risky plan that threatens to start another world war.

The Relic Master (2015)

Set in 1517, this is historical satire rather than political satire: the story of Dismas, a relic hunter who--with the assistance of artist Albrecht Durer, three thugs-for-hire, and a maiden Dismas has rescued from assailants--conspires to replicate and sell Jesus Christ's burial shroud. USA Today described it as "Indiana Jones gone medieval." I think this one's my favorite, of all Buckley's novels, and amazingly accurate, historically.

The Judge Hunter (2018)

The thrilling adventures of an inept Englishman named Baltasar (Balty) St. Michel, who's dispatched from London to the New World in 1664 to bring in (to justice) two judges who helped murder a king. Probably my second favorite.

One of Buckley's novels I'm looking forward to reading is Make Russia Great Again, to be released next month. I'm told it features Herb Nutterman, President Trump's White House chief of staff, who finds himself embroiled in both Russian intrigue and Trump's reelection campaign. (Talk about current events . . .)

Again--don't worry, you're not at the wrong blog. Even though these are not mysteries, they include crimes galore, from ancient to modern-day, and they're fun to read. Anybody else a fan of this kind of fiction? Of humorous fiction in general? Of Christopher Buckley? Who are some of your favorite writers of humor or satirical stories/novels?

Thanks for indulging me. Next time, in two weeks, it's back to more mysterious topics . . .

20 June 2020

A Movie Quiz for the Pandemic

Before I start, let me say a quick thank-you to all those who commented on my last two posts, on the Do's and Don'ts of writing. That can be a touchy subject, because all of us have our own ideas about the "rules" of writing fiction, and I was pleased that both posts seemed to kick off a good exchange of views about everything from grammar/style to the story-submission process. Thanks again.

As for today's column, I have noticed that my fellow SleuthSayers seem to be writing a lot of posts lately about the coronavirus and social injustice and other meaningful issues. Since I admire them and I admire that, I considered doing the same for my post today.

But didn't. The truth is, I'm sort of tired of the news.

So . . . today's offering is a quiz for movie lovers. If you fall into that group, try your hand at the following questions.
What do these movies have in common?


Top Gun / Iron Eagle / The Blue Max / Flyboys
Answer: fighter pilots

1. The Breakfast Club / Clueless / Napoleon Dynamite / Ferris Bueller's Day Off

2. Peggy Sue Got Married / A Sound of Thunder / Deja Vu / Back to the Future

3. On the Beach / Miracle Mile / These Final Hours / Melancholia

4. Rocky / Cinderella Man / Million Dollar Baby / Raging Bull

5. Dante's Peak / Krakatoa, East of Java / When Time Ran Out / The Devil at Four O'Clock

6. Hellfighters / There Will Be Blood / Boom Town / Oklahoma Crude

7. The Eiger Sanction / Touching the Void / Free Solo / K2

8. Terminal Velocity / Point Break / The Gypsy Moths

9. The Cincinnati Kid / Molly's Game / A Big Hand for the Little Lady

10. Victory / Kicking and Screaming / Bend It like Beckham

11. Match Point / Battle of the Sexes / Love Means Zero

12. Apocalypto / The Emerald Forest / Romancing the Stone / Mogli / Medicine Man

13. The Greatest Show on Earth / Water for Elephants / The Wagons Roll at Night

14. The Outlaw / The Left-Handed Gun / Dirty Little Billy / Young Guns

15. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral / My Darling Clementine / Hour of the Gun / Tombstone

16. The Gathering Storm / Darkest Hour / Into the Storm / The Eagle Has Landed

17. The Aviator / Rules Don't Apply / Melvin and Howard

18. Pearl Harbor / The Descendants / Diamond Head / From Here to Eternity

19. The Big Easy / Tightrope / Cat People (1982) / A Streetcar Named Desire

20. Mystic River / Gone Baby Gone / Patriot's Day / The Town / The Departed

21. Bullitt / Vertigo / The Rock / Pacific Heights / Dirty Harry

22. Crocodile Dundee / Mad Max / Walkabout / The Man from Snowy River

23. The Quiet Man / Ryan's Daughter / The Wind that Shakes the Barley

24. Death on the Nile / Evil Under the Sun / Dead Man's Folly / Murder on the Orient Express

25. Lady in the Lake / The Long Goodbye / Poodle Springs / Murder, My Sweet / The Big Sleep


1. high school
2. time travel
3. the end of the world
4. boxing
5. volcanoes
6. oil wells
7. mountain climbing
8. skydiving
9. poker
10. soccer
11. tennis
12. the jungle
13. the circus
14. Billy the Kid
15. Wyatt Earp
16. Winston Churchill
17. Howard Hughes
18. Hawaii
19. New Orleans
20. Boston
21. San Francisco
22. Australia
23. Ireland
24. Hercule Poirot
25. Philip Marlowe

Now . . . What TWO things do the following movies have in common?


Sleepless in Seattle / Joe vs. the Volcano / You’ve Got Mail 
Answer: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan

1. Field of Dreams / For the Love of the Game / Bull Durham

2. The Longest Yard / Semi-Tough

3. The Hustler / The Color of Money

4. Sully / Cloud Atlas / Cast Away

5. Alien / Aliens / Galaxy Quest

6. National Velvet / Thoroughbreds Don't Cry / The Black Stallion

7. The High and the Mighty / Island in the Sky / Flying Leathernecks

8. Crimson Tide / The Poseidon Adventure

9. The Shawshank Redemption / The Green Mile

10. The Jewel of the Nile / The Ghost and the Darkness

11. Rio Bravo / Texas Across the River / Five Card Stud / Four for Texas

12. Seven Days in May / Tough Guys / The Devil's Disciple / Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

13. The Odd Couple / The Front Page / Out to Sea / The Grass Harp / Grumpy Old Men

14. Good Will Hunting / Chasing Amy / Dogma / Jersey Girls

15. Heat / Righteous Kill / The Godfather, Part II / The Irishman

16. Eyes Wide Shut / Days of Thunder / Far and Away

17. Barefoot in the Park / The Chase / The Electric Horseman

18. The Wedding Singer / Blended / 50 First Dates

19. Serena / Silver Linings Playbook / Joy / American Hustle

20. Pretty Woman / Runaway Bride

21. Speed / The Lake House

22. Key Largo / The Big Sleep / Dark Passage / To Have and Have Not 

23. State of the Union / Desk Set / The Sea of Grass / Adam's Rib / Pat and Mike

24. North by Northwest / Notorious / Suspicion / To Catch a Thief

25. Rope / The Man Who Knew Too Much / Vertigo / Rear Window


1. Kevin Costner and baseball
2. Burt Reynolds and football
3. Paul Newman and pool
4. Tom Hanks and plane crashes
5. Sigourney Weaver and outer space
6. Mickey Rooney and horses
7. John Wayne and airplanes
8. Gene Hackman and boats
9. Stephen King and prisons
10. Michael Douglas and Africa
11. Dean Martin and the old west
12. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas
13. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau
14. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
15. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino
16. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise
17. Jane Fonda and Robert Redford
18. Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler
19. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper
20. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere
21. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves
22. Bacall and Bogart
23. Hepburn and Tracy
24. Hitchcock and Cary Grant
25. Hitchcock and James Stewart

Bonus question:

What odd/unusual thing do the following movies have in common?


Presumed Innocent / Regarding Henry
Answer: Harrison Ford as a lawyer

1. Just Cause / Finding Forrester / Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 
2. Nighthawks / Cobra / Copland / Tango and Cash
3. Will Penny / The Big Country / The Last Hard Men / Pony Express
4. Bandolero / 100 Rifles / Hannie Caulder
5. The Devil's Disciple / Elmer Gantry 
6. The Cooler / The Juror / Fun with Dick and Jane / Motherless Brooklyn
7. Batman Begins / Immortal Beloved / The Dark Knight / The Prisoner of Azkaban
8. Awakenings / Patch Adams / Flubber / Good Will Hunting / Nine Months 
9. Deep Impact / Olympus Has Fallen / London Has Fallen
10. Hombre / Cool Hand Luke / The Left-Handed Gun / Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


1. Sean Connery as a professor
2. Sylvester Stallone as a cop
3. Charlton Heston as a cowboy
4. Raquel Welch as a cowgirl
5. Burt Lancaster as a preacher
6. Alec Baldwin as a bad guy
7. Gary Oldman as a good guy
8. Robin Williams as a doctor
9. Morgan Freeman as the President
10. Paul Newman gets shot at the end

How'd you do? In my opinion, the first section was pretty easy and the second section and bonus items were hard. (But I sure had fun putting them together. As my wife could tell you, I'm easily entertained.)

Can you think of some I missed? Groups of movies with the same actors or acting duos or actors playing against type? Movies about the same topic or famous person or location, etc.? Let me know.

Next time, I'll get back to more serious matters. Maybe.

Everybody stay safe!

15 June 2020

Heartbreaks & Half-Truths

That's the anthology coming out June 18 with one of my stories in it. John Floyd has one in it, too, along with several other people I know. Kate Flora, who founded Level Best Books, accepted my first short story for publication fifteen years ago. K.M. Rockwood suggested the name of a band that appears in one of my novels. Crime writing is a small world.

The back cover copy gives you a good sense of what's in store:

Lovers and losers. Whether it's 1950s Hollywood, a scientific experiment, or a yard sale in suburbia, the twenty-two authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of "heartbreaks and half-truths" in their own inimitable style, where only one thing is certain: Behind every broken heart lies a half-truth. And behind every half-truth lies a secret.

According to my spreadsheet, "Ugly Fat" received fourteen rejections between the end of 2008 and early this year when Judy Penz Sheluk selected it for the anthology. One market told me to re-submit it--and rejected it again. That did wonders for my self-esteem. I assume another market rejected it because I sent it in April 2018 and haven't heard from them yet. That's not unusual, though. I still have seventeen unanswered queries from agents to whom I sent The Whammer Jammers in 2011. That's a major reason I started self-publishing my novels.

I've always loved short stories but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writer's Conference in summer of 2004. Alex Chee, Roxanna Robinson and Chris Offutt were all excellent teachers. Chris also gave me helpful feedback on an early version of what eventually became Blood on the Tracks (Interestingly enough, so did Kate Flora at Crime Bake a year or two later, on a very different draft). I wrote eight or ten short stories in the months after that one-week workshop, and four stories that have seen print came from writing prompts or other suggestions I picked up there.

"Ugly Fat" is different from many of my stories, but similar to a lot of them, too.

Like many of my stories, it has a female protagonist. I worked theater with strong, organized, creative stage managers for thirty years, and most of them were women. My wife is smarter than I am, too (Yes, I grant you, that's no big deal). My novels feature strong women like Valerie Karr, Megan Traine, "Shoobie" Dube, and Svetlana Melanova. Weak or dumb women don't do it for me, and that bias shows up in my writing.

Connie, the protagonist in "Ugly Fat," has been dumped by her cop boyfriend and is now visiting the gym to get back in fighting trim. She stops at a tag sale and finds that her problems are nothing compared to the woman running the sale. Molly's husband dumped her for his secretary and they eloped to Mexico. Now Molly is selling all the guy's clothes, books, and sports gear. She divorced his sorry ass and refers to it as a great diet, in which she lost 170 pounds of ugly fat in one day. Connie sympathizes, but figures out there's more to the story than meets the eye.

The story has dark humor, which I like, and a few music references, also a staple. Telling more would spoil it.

Now, you ask, how is it different from my other stories?

If you don't ask that, you missed your cue.

Well, it's only 2400 words long, one of my shortest published stories. My comfort zone seems to be about 3500--or, if you include my two novellas--about 4300. Excluding the novellas, my two longest stories are roughly 6000 words.

I've always been a process kind of guy, maybe because I taught for so long. More often than not, I know when, where, why, and how I got the idea for a story. I've discussed that before. I try to help people in my workshops realize that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, sometimes several places and ideas at once.

I remember nothing about when or where this story came to me. The draft I sent for the anthology is "Version S," which would be the 19th version. That's far more than usual, and I don't know why there were so many. I usually do five or six drafts over a span of three or four months. Since I sent the story out the first time around Thanksgiving 2008, I probably wrote the first draft in July, most likely after seeing a tag sale or ten within walking distance of my condo any given weekend.

Who knows? Who cares?

Connie's found a home. And she's in good company.

06 June 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 2

Back again. This is the second part of a two-column discussion about the craft of writing and the so-called "rules" writers should follow. Last Saturday's post featured some of the things I think writers should NOT do, plus a few of my own pet (and petty?) peeves. Today's column will cover, in no particular order, things I think we SHOULD do when we write fiction and submit it for publication. Especially short fiction, since that's the kind of storytelling I do most.

Here we go.


- Do hyphenate most multiple-word adjectives. Easy-to-read story, locked-room mystery, one-horse town, three-alarm fire, elementary-school teacher, child-abuse center, out-of-town guest. This streamlines your story and, yes, makes it easier to read. Sometimes it even provides clarity. Unhyphenated, high school age students could be taken the wrong way.

- Do put the most important part of a sentence at the end of the sentence. The tornado caused extensive damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths. (Passable: The monster was standing in the weeds at the edge of the woods. Better: Standing there in the weeds, at the edge of the woods, was the monster.)

- Do make your verbs agree with your subjects. That stack of books is in my way. Neither Joe nor Mary is going to the party. Here are your instructions. Ten years is a long time. My macaroni and cheese was delicious.

- Do use parallel structure when items are in a series. Wrong: You can relax in our sauna, the lounge, or by the pool. Right: You can relax in our sauna, in the lounge, or by the pool. Passable: I like hunting, fishing, and movies. Better: I like hunting, fishing, and watching movies.

- Do use m-dashes instead of hyphens or n-dashes in your manuscript.

- Do include an s after the apostrophe with most possessives ending in sRoss's truck, Mr. Sims's house, Ms. Jones's refrigerator, Colonel Sanders's fried chicken. Don't include the extra when the word following it begins with an s. Colonel Sanders' secret recipe.

- Do choose a or an based on pronunciation, not spelling. An hour and a half, an umbrella, a European vacation, an MBA, a uniform, an SASE.

- Do use the serial (Oxford) comma. Red, white, and blue. Yes, it's optional--but believe me, its use can prevent misunderstandings and, in some cases, embarrassment.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife, and her sister . . . means there were four attendees.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife and her sister . . . means there were two attendees.

- Do make sure those leading apostrophes for things like 'em'tis, 'twas, 'course, '90s, etc., are "curved in the right direction." MS Word tends to aim those the wrong way, and you can fix this problem by typing an extra letter just before the word, typing the apostrophe, and then deleting that letter. That's bassackwards, but it's a good workaround.

- Do use a dash--not ellipses--to indicate interrupted speech. Ellipses suggest a hesitation, or a gradual fade to silence. (I like interrupting my characters because it happens so often in real life, especially in tense situations.) "What exactly do you--" "You know very well what I mean." "Now, wait just a min--" "No, YOU wait a minute."

- Do use an ampersand in certain company names and abbreviations, but not in usual writing. Spell out the word and instead. Correct uses of ampersands: B&O Railroad, AT&T, Tiffany & Co., R&D, Q&A, B&B. 

- Do use commas correctly with names and titles. Grammatically correct: My friend, Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also correct: My friend Tom is retiring tomorrow. I prefer the second sentence; in the first, the commas surrounding the name are acceptable but needless (and might even imply that you have only one friend). INcorrect examples: My friend, Tom is retiring tomorrow. My friend Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also incorrect: Author, Lucy Cooper will speak to our book club next month. I actually saw that one recently, in a Facebook post.

- Do feel free to capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon, depending on the desired impact of that second sentence. The verdict is in: No more stimulus payments. If no added emphasis is needed, leave it uncapitalized. My brother worked hard last night: he dreamed up a story in his easy chair.

- Do feel free to use the word till instead of until, as in I'll be there from noon till three. To me, it's far better than the odd-looking 'til.

- Do use T-shirt instead of tee-shirt. An editor told me the way she remembers this: when you hold the shirt up to look at it, it's in the shape of a T.

- Do remember the difference between convince and persuade. Convince means to cause a person to believe something; persuade means to cause a person to do something. (One involves thought; the other involves action.) I convinced my sister of the importance of social distancing. Helen persuaded her husband to wear a mask. 

- Do capitalize the first word in a title and all other words except short prepositions, short conjunctions, and articles. (Short usually means three letters or fewer, although some sources say four letters or fewer). The Day After Tomorrow, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Flowers for Algernon, Of Mice and Men, Gone With the Wind. I opted for the "four or fewer" rule when I submitted my short story "On the Road with Mary Jo" because I thought a lowercase with looked better there.

- Do use italics for the titles of books, novels, novellas, plays, albums, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines.

- Do use quotation marks for the titles of short stories, poems, articles, book chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

- Do put periods and commas inside closing quotation marks--even if you're also using single quotes within double quotes. "I want to re-read Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" Jane said. The British put their periods and commas outside the closing marks.

- Do put a question mark outside closing quotation marks if whatever's inside the quotes (a song title, say) isn't a question in itself. Jack asked, "Do you like the song 'Good Vibrations'?"   Sue said, "I prefer 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?'" (Note that the question mark ends that second sentence even though the sentence is not a question. There's no additional period.)

- Do use who if it could be replaced in the sentence by he, she, or theyI didn't know who was going to be there. Use whom if it could be replaced by him, her, or them. For whom the bell tolls.

- Do feel free to use contractions in the narrative of a story, not just in dialogue. You're writing fiction, not a legal brief.

- Do use may to imply permission and might to imply a choice. Billy may go to the dance means his mom said it's okay. Billy might go to the dance means he hasn't decided.

- Do use a.m. and p.m. to indicate time. Also acceptable are AM and PM, though I prefer the lowercase letters and the periods.

- Do use combined words like everyday and anymore correctly. The first is an adjective; the second is an adverb. Bob comes home from work every day and puts on his everyday shoes. Since you don't live here anymore, I don't plan to cook you any more meals.

- Do use blond as an adjective and blonde as a noun. The blonde had blond hair. (Blond can also be a noun if you're talking about a male, though I've rarely seen it used that way.) Feel free to disagree--it won't bother me a bit--and if you simply must use blonde as an adjective, use it in reference to a woman.

- Do use sensory input in your story wherever possible. Have your characters hear, feel, touch, taste, and smell things around them. This isn't something that comes naturally to me, so when rewriting I try to make sure I've included it.

- Do use little "beats" of action in scenes. He scratched his beard, she drummed her fingers on the desktop, he shifted in his seat. They let the reader picture what's happening, they allow you to vary the rhythm of the dialogue, they can help reveal a character's appearance or personality, and they can help identify who's speaking without the need for a dialogue attribute. If you insert one of these beats between two lines of the same speaker's dialogue, you can even use it to change the subject in the middle of a paragraph. "I don't want to talk about this anymore." Jenny leaned her head against the passenger-side window. "Turn here, this is my street."

- Do choose as your POV character the person who will most likely learn the most and/or be impacted the most by what happens in the story. The POV character does not have to be the title character or even the main protagonist. Reference The Great Gatsby, Shane, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.

- Do provide details of physical description (if you absolutely must) via dialogue, or reveal it in bits and pieces. Avoid a missing-persons-report info-dump, and if it's a first-person POV story don't have your character stand in front of a mirror and tell the reader what she sees. That, except for the "it was all a dream" plot, might be the biggest land-mine a fiction writer can stumble onto.

- Do try to start your story with some kind of change. A divorce, a marriage, a death, a relocation, a meeting, a promotion, a firing, a financial windfall, a reunion, a diagnosis, an accident, a summons, a new opportunity, a contest win, a career change, an announcement, a phone call, a letter, a visitor, a stranger's arrival in town.

- Do try to identify the five W's--who, what, where, when, why--as soon as possible, in your story. In Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea, this is the opening line: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

- Do consider giving your story a "circular ending," in which the character winds up in the same location as where he or she began. Examples: The Lord of the Rings, The Searchers, The Wizard of Oz, Unforgiven, Escape from New York, Lonesome Dove, many others.

- Do end your story as soon as possible after the point of highest tension. This was one of the late screenwriter William Goldman's strictest rules.

- Do create "gray" and relatable characters by giving your protagonist some bad qualities and your antagonist some good qualities.

- Do make your villain at least as powerful, and as motivated, as your hero or heroine. (Jack the Giant Killer needs a giant.) Always remember that it's the villain, not the protagonist, who drives the plot.

- Do give your characters appropriate names (when possible) that provide a clue to their personalities.  Darth Vader, Stephanie Plum, Thomas Magnum, Draco Malfoy, Holly Golightly, Remington Steele, Frank Bullitt, Barney Fife, Luke Skywalker, Uriah Heep.

- Do consider giving your protagonist a spouse or friend or sidekick with whom to share information. And maybe even to add yet another level of conflict.

- Do convey emotions by "putting them on the body." Her jaw dropped, his heart thudded, her eyes widened, her throat tightened, his knees went weak.

- Do indicate dialect in your dialogue by word choices like Y'all grab them two shovels and carry 'em to the barn, or We don't got to show you no stinking badges or I have happy feeling about you come to visit (an actual email I once received before going to teach an IBM class in Manila)But be careful not to overuse misspellings--editors hate that.

- Do speed up the pace, if needed, by inserting either (1) dialogue, (2) shorter, choppy sentences, or (3) active voice.

- Do slow the pace, if needed, by inserting (1) description, (2) exposition, (3) longer, complex sentences, or (4) passive voice.

- Do include as many levels of conflict as your story will bear. The shorter the story, the less room you have for this kind of thing, but there are plenty of possibilities for conflict: between the hero and another character, between the hero and himself (or herself), between the hero and society, between the hero and the elements (The Perfect Storm, Twister, Everest), between the hero and a nonhuman character (Cujo, Jaws, Alien, Moby Dick), etc.

- Do include full contact info at the top left corner of the first page of your short-story manuscript: name, postal address, phone number, email address.

- Do put the wordcount of your story in the upper right corner of the first page. Either make it the exact wordcount--2785 words--or round to the nearest 100 and type about 2800 words.

- Do center your title and byline between a third of the way and halfway down the first page. I always put one double space between my title and "by John M. Floyd," and then I go down two more double spaces and start the text of the story. I also put the story title in all caps, although Shunn's guide says to use proper case.

- Do number all pages in your manuscript. I never use a footer, but I always put a header at the top right corner of every page except the first, as follows: Floyd / STORY NAME / page#.

- Do use your pseudonym, if you have one, as your byline and in the header of each manuscript page, but use your real name in the contact info on the first page.

- Do use either Courier or Times New Roman font unless the guidelines tell you otherwise. I always use 12-point TNR.

- Do type a centered character of some kind--asterisk, pound-sign, etc.--as an indicator of a scene break, rather than just inserting an extra double-space. I learned this lesson when the published version of one of my stories left out a needed scene break. Now I always use a centered #, except in my book manuscripts, where my publisher prefers ***. My problem with three consecutive asterisks is that if you happen to hit RETURN immediately afterward, Word sometimes automatically inserts a whole line of asterisks and teleports you into Page-Break Hell, a place from which it is hard to escape. (Anyone else ever run into this?)

- Do space down three double-spaces and center the words THE END on the last page of your story. If these words wind up alone at the top of a page, go back to the first page and fiddle around with the vertical placement of the title and byline (move them up or down several spaces in that top third- or half-page) until the problem's fixed.

- Do include a cover letter with all submissions, unless instructed not to. If it's an electronic sub, your cover letter is in the body of your email or the text box provided in the online submission form.

- Do remember, in cover letters, etc., the difference between an anthology and a collection. An anthology is a book of stories by more than one author. A collection is a book of stories by the same author.

- Do include the editor's name in the salutation of your cover letter. Dear Ms. Anderson, Dear Mr. Price, etc. Don't just type Dear Editor or Dear Fiction Editor. If it's not clear whether the editor is male or female, include the entire name: Dear Lee Russell. Also, after the editor has responded to you using only your first name or only his or her first name, feel free to use the editor's first name in all correspondence.

NOTE, for writers of mystery short stories: Do include the apostrophe in the names Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Editor Linda Landrigan says the official titles have apostrophes, although they are occasionally left out for design purposes on covers, etc.

Breaking the rules

- Do feel free to use comma splices (two complete sentences separated only by a comma) if/when needed. In dialogue a spliced comma can capture the exact rhythm of normal speech. It's best used when there's no pause at that point in the spoken piece. I don't care what Dad says, I'm going to the party. Hurry up and finish, I want to go eat. Take your time, I'm just looking. The wrong way to use a comma splice: We finally got home, Fred came over to visit.

- Do use sentence fragments when needed, whether it's in dialogue or not. Because I said it was. So I did. Which turned out for the best.

- Do use a split infinitive if it makes the sentence sound better. To boldly go where no man has gone before has a more pleasant rhythm than To go boldly where no man has gone before.

- Do feel free to use "who" instead of "whom" in informal writing, even when it's not grammatically correct. Sometimes whom just sounds too stiff and proper, especially in dialogue. Picture a ghostbusting service with the slogan Whom you gonna call? 

- Do repeat a word once or more in a sentence if it makes more sense to do so. I once heard this called the Slender Yellow Fruit Syndrome. I was offered a banana and an orange, and I chose the slender yellow fruit. Better to just repeat the word banana.

- Do use rambling sentences when needed (especially effective in high-tension scenes). Joe untied his ankles and grabbed his gun and sprinted down the hall and into the den and threw open the window--and saw the thief's taillights topping the hill at the end of the street.

- Do feel free to use multiple points of view in your short story. The often-heard advice to stick to one POV with shorts is not a requirement.

- Do end a sentence with a preposition if it improves clarity or believability. Especially in dialogue. Nobody at the dance would say, in real life, Is that the guy with whom you came?

- Do use one-sentence paragraphs if needed. Their very isolation can increase their impact, and that's sometimes a powerful way to end a scene or a story.

- Do use very short scenes if needed, or short chapters in a novel.

- Do use a prologue if you want to. Sometimes renaming it Chapter One just doesn't work.

- Do open your story with a line of dialogue if you feel that's best, no matter what you've heard otherwise. Dialogue can be a great "hook," and is a good way to show, not tell.

- Do feel free, in dialogue, to use the occasional gonna and wanta. You shouldn't overdo this--as mentioned earlier, misspellings in dialogue/dialect are taboo to most editors--but making speech sound realistic is a good thing to strive for.

- Do end your story with a twist, if you want. The surprise ending, if done well, is not as out-of-fashion as the critics would have you believe.

- Do leave out the question mark if a statement isn't really a question. "You're a jerk," she said. He replied, "Is that so." Editors often complain about this, but I've won most of those arguments. I happily substitute a period for the question mark if the spoken sentence doesn't lilt upward at the end, as it would if it were a question.

- Do use made-up words whenever needed (I love 'em). His head thunked against the pavement. The helicopter whopwhopwhopped through the night sky.

- Do feel free to start a sentence with a conjunction. Beginning a sentence with And or But can often help the flow of the narrative.

Summary: Sometimes we just have to write what sounds right, regardless of the rules of grammar and style. To use another pop-culture example, try to imagine the Stones singing "I Can't Get Any Satisfaction."

An unresolved issue (is it a Do or a Don't?)

I have a question for all of you. What's your take on this sentence?

Everybody does their own thing.

This bothers me. The writer part of my brain says that should be Everybody does his or her own thing, or his/her own thing, etc., in order for the singular possessive to agree with the singular pronoun. But the practical side of me says, sweet jumpin jiminy, why create a stupid-sounding sentence just to satisfy the rules of grammar? Just say Everybody does their own thing and be done with it.

I've read and heard from many sources that this single-pronoun-single-possessive issue is one of those grammatical rules that has been so universally violated that the incorrect solution has now become acceptable (and certainly more convenient). But the old ways die hard. When I encounter it in the course of writing a story, I've found that I usually choose to reword the sentence to avoid having to make a decision. Something like Everybody take their seats often becomes Everybody sit down.

So the question is, should you be correct and thus overly wordy (or, if you just use his, politically insensitive)? Or should you give in and be grammatically incorrect and use the plural possessive? We all know our language evolves over time--one example is the way certain separated words have eventually become hyphenated words and have then become single words, the way on line morphed into on-line and then online. Has the everybody/their situation done the same kind of thing?

What's your opinion?

In closing . . .

I mentioned last week, in Part 1, that you should take these so-called rules with a grain (or maybe a whole shakerful) of salt. Different folks, different strokes. Another way of saying that:

Good teachers don't say "This is the way you do it." Good teachers say "This is the way I do it," and then let you decide for yourself.

I don't know if I'm a good teacher, but the above is the way I do it. As some of my fellow SleuthSayers are fond of pointing out, your mileage may vary.

Let me know what you think, about all this. See you in two weeks.