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

20 February 2021

As You Wish


FYI, I am not a screenwriter. I'm just a short-story writer who loves movies and has always been interested in the way they're written and made. And one of the things I have observed is that any discussion of screenwriters eventually includes the name William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Misery, Marathon Man, All the President's Men), and anytime you talk long enough about movies that are loved by just about everyone, somebody usually mentions The Princess Bride.


Goldman, who wrote the book and then the movie, once said, "I was going to California on a trip and I told my daughters, 'I'll write you a story; what do you want it to be about?' And one of them said, 'Princesses,' and the other said something about 'brides.' And I said, 'Okay, that will be the title.'"

As it turned out, the movie version of The Princess Bride became a classic, one of those rare films loved by viewers of all ages. I've probably watched it a dozen times, and it even has the approval of my wife and kids and grandchildren, who are sometimes bored crosseyed by my movie suggestions. TPB is unlike any other film I can think of, a weird combination of fairy tale ("Have fun storming the castle"), comedy ("Don't rush me, sonny, you rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles"), love story ("Farm Boy, polish my horse's saddle; I want to see my face shining in it by morning"), revenge story ("My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die"), and adventure story ("You're trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen"). It features pirates, giants, wizards, torture, fire swamps, The Cliffs of Insanity, and R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size). And another thing: The Princess Bride is one of those movies--among them The Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, Lonesome Dove, The Godfather, Cuckoo's Nest, No Country for Old Men, and Shawshank Redemption--that turned out to be as good as the novels and novellas from which they were adapted. That doesn't happen often.

A special treat for me was a book I acquired a few years ago called As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes, who played Westley in the movie. If you're familiar with the story, you might remember that the phrase "as you wish" was the reply Westley always gave Buttercup anytime she asked him for something (like fetching a pitcher or filling a bucket with water or polishing her saddle). And because of that, in one of those moments that make good stories great, there was this exchange at the very end of the movie, when Peter Falk is about to leave after reading the story to ten-year-old Fred Savage:

The Grandson: "Grandpa? Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow."

The Grandfather: "As you wish." 

Anyhow, it's a delightful and educational book about the filming of the movie and about the actors and their roles. In case you don't know, or in case you've forgotten, here's the cast:

Robin Wright as Buttercup/The Princess Bride

Cary Elwes as Westley/Farm Boy/The Man in Black/The Dread Pirate Roberts

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya

Andre the Giant as Fezzik

Wallace Shawn as Vizzini

Chris Sarandon as Prince Humperdinck

Christopher Guest as Count Rugen/The Six-Fingered Man

Billy Crystal as Miracle Max

Carol Kane as Valerie

Peter Cook as The Impressive Clergyman

Peter Falk as The Grandfather

Fred Savage as The Grandson


There's also plenty of interesting inside info about director Rob Reiner, screenwriter William Goldman, and the many ups and downs of trying to put the movie together. Here are a few excerpts from the book:

Rob Reiner: "So I went with Andy [co-producer Andy Scheinman] to Bill's [Goldman's] apartment in New York, and he opened the door and said, 'This is my favorite thing that I've ever written in my life. I want it on my tombstone.' And the subtext was, 'What are you going to do to it?'"

Robin Wright: "My theory is that they were so completely tired of meeting girls--I think I was the five-hundredth girl they saw--at that point they were like, 'Just cast her. Make her the princess.' . . . That was my lucky fate--they were exhausted."

William Goldman: "I remember turning to Rob and saying, "You're setting fire to Robin on the first day?! What, are you nuts? It's not like we can replace her!"

Mandy Patinkin: "It was 1986. My father died in 1972. I read that script and I wanted to play Inigo because my mind immediately went, If I can get that six-fingered man, then I'll have my father back, in my imaginary world."

Cary Elwes (on meeting Andre the Giant): "I remember Rob introducing us, and watching my fingers disappear when we shook hands, completely engulfed by a palm bigger than a catcher's mitt . . . His shoe size was twenty-four and his wrist was nearly a foot in circumference. Standing next to him, I only came to his belly-button."

You get the idea. The point is, if you like movies, and if you liked The Princess Bride, you'll enjoy this book. 

Meanwhile, have fun storming the castle . . .

06 February 2021

Aussies on Hossies


I like Australian Westerns. I think the first one I ever saw was The Sundowners, which I've always remembered because of its music--I'm a sucker for movie soundtracks--and since then I've seen a lot of 'em, some good and some not so, and several of them many times. These oaters from Oz have also been referred to as Kangaroo Westerns, or--in a play on the term Spaghetti Westerns--Meat Pie Westerns. 

Something I've found interesting about all this: The first in the genre was The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), but after that there was a 30- or 40-year gap in the production of Australian Westerns, because of a law there that banned the depiction of so-called "bushrangers" in films. The down-under horse-opera industry picked up again in the forties, and the one I remember most from that time period is The Overlanders--it was filmed before I was born, but I've seen it several times, most recently on YouTube this past week.

Anyhow, here are a dozen of my favorite Australian Westerns, with, in my opinion, the best ones listed first:

1. The Man from Snowy River (1982) -- I'm crazy about this movie. Great acting (especially Kirk Douglas in a double good-guy/bad-guy role), a good coming-of-age plot, and maybe most of all a good love story. And I know I get hung up on this sometimes, but it has a fantastic musical score.

2. Quigley Down Under (1990) -- Mostly American and British actors in an Australian Western, but it works. Who in our universe doesn't like watching Tom Selleck, or Alan Rickman? There's even (spoiler here) a final stonefaced showdown

3. The Sundowners (1960) -- Dated now, but still fun. I liked a lot of movies made in the sixties, and this is the only Australian Western I remember from that decade. Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr.

4. The Proposition (2005) -- A different kind of story, ultra-gritty and violent. Interesting plot and great characters, but don't expect many pretty faces. (I'll watch Guy Pearce in anything, ever since L.A. Confidential.)

5. Mystery Road (2013) -- More of a contemporary mystery than a Western, but it features Old West themes and values, and an interesting plot.

6. The Tracker (2002) -- The title character is a Native Australian hired to help a posse of white men find one of his countrymen who killed a white woman.

7. Australia (2008) -- This movie tries to be an epic and falls a bit short, but with native sons and daughters Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman it worked anyway, for me. Not that it matters, but it has one of the best trailers I ever saw.

8. The Overlanders (1946) -- A story about a cattle drive across the Northern Territory from Wyndham to Brisbane. A very old movie but still fun to watch.

9. Ned Kelly (1970) -- Probably not as as good as some of the later movies about the Kellys (I haven't yet seen 2019's True History of the Kelly Gang), but I enjoyed it. Mick Jagger, believe it or not, in the title role.

10. The Legend of Ben Hall (2016) -- More bushrangers and their mites. Everybody in this movie looks like Jason Robards in Once Upon a Time in the West.

11. Sweet Country (2017) -- Another story of Aussie racism: A Northern Territory Aborigine shoots a white man in self-defense in the 1920s and then goes on the run. (Sort of The Tracker from a different perspective.)

12. Mad Dog Morgan (1976) -- Dennis Hopper in Australia, which is interesting in itself. Low-budget and a little sloppy at times, but enjoyable.

As for other genres, I usually also like Australian comedies (Crocodile Dundee, Muriel's Wedding), mysteries (Dead Calm, Animal Kingdom), war movies (Gallipoli, Breaker Morant), drama (On the Beach, The Dish), and the uncategorizable (Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock). There's just something about Australia.

If you have any favorites--or any I should steer clear of--please let me know. My Netflix queue needs updating.

And that's that. Be safe, keep writing, and help me pray for an early spring. See you in two weeks.

30 January 2021

Behold a Black Cat


I first heard about Black Cat Mystery Magazine when everyone else did, when it was announced in 2017. It started out with John Betancourt and Carla Coupe as co-editors, and quickly became a respected player in the mystery short story community. Last year Carla retired from the magazine and my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken came on board as editor, and BCMM has continued to thrive. Every issue features new shorts by beginning and veteran writers alike.

I've been posting a lot about mystery markets lately (there aren't a great many of them), so today I decided to revisit the stories I've had in BCMM. Here they are, in order:

"Rooster Creek," Issue #1 -- This was a fairly long story, close to 7600 words and a dozen scenes, and was fun to write mostly because of the extra-quirky characters. It was part crime story, part love story, part Western, and one of those "framed" stories that starts in the present, goes back to the past to tell most of the tale, and ends up in the present again.

"Two in the Bush," Issue #2 -- A story more different than any other I've written for BCMM--and the shortest, at 2300 words. It had only two human characters and a parrot, and included only four scenes, two of which are set at a local zoo. Also the craziest ending of any of my Black Cat stories.

"Diversions," Issue #3 -- This story was almost entirely dialogue, around 4000 words, and even though it was one long scene with one setting--the back room of a house that served as an interim jail--it probably contained more plot twists than any of my other BCMM stories. Genrewise, it was a Western mystery, with square-jawed lawmen, tough women, and weasely bad guys, and was a LOT of fun to write. (Dialogue always is.)

"Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5 -- "R&C" was another long story, at 7700 words, and another that had many twists and reversals, mainly because of its many back-and-forth character-POV switches throughout. This story wound up being selected by Otto Penzler and C.J. Box for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, and I used it as a topic for discussion in a behind-the-scenes-of-the-story SleuthSayers column last year.

"Mustang Sally," Issue #7 -- My first private-eye story at BCMM, written because new editor and old friend Michael Bracken announced #7 would be a Special PI Issue. The story was 3200 words and definitely lighthearted, its only crime being an off-screen jewelry-store heist. This was also my only first-person BCMM story, and was the first in a planned series featuring PI Tom Langford and his longtime girlfriend Debra Jo Wells. I just finished writing the second installment, which might or might not ever be published (you know that feeling?).

"The Big Picture," Issue #8 -- I like stories whose titles have double meanings. This was one of those, and at 7800 words it was my longest so far at BCMM. It had a complicated plot with a big cast of characters and several late-in-the-story reversals, and some of the details required a bit more research than I usually have to do.

"The Jericho Train," issue number yet to be announced -- A 4100-word story set in southeast Arizona, and my first at BCMM to involve the planned murder of a spouse. It features an oil baron, his henchman, a bomb, and several women who are always (as in real life) smarter than the men.

 What are the takeaways here, for a writer?

Well, we all know the best way to learn what a particular magazine likes to publish is to read the issues, all of them, if possible, and all the way through. (In BCMM's case that kind of homework is a pleasure, not a chore.) If there are any things to be learned from my own stories at the magazine, I've tried to include them in the following list:

1. All seven of my BCMM stories have plot twists. Some have more than one, and a couple of them have four or five.

2. The average word count is around 5200.

3. Six of the seven stories use third-person POV. Four are third-person singular, two are third-person multiple, one is first-person. (Does this matter? I have no idea.)

4. All are written in past tense.

5. Two have female protagonists, five have male.

6. Only one of the seven has a non-linear timeline.

7. Three have rural settings, four urban.

8. Two of the stories have historical settings, five are present-day.

9. None of them are reprints, per BCMM's guidelines.

10. Three include a lot of violence, the other four not so much.

11. All of the stories except one have multiple scenes. The longest has sixteen.

12. The crimes involved are robbery, burglary, jailbreak, drug trafficking, tax fraud, witness intimidation (obstruction of justice), and murder. Sometimes more than one of these per story.

13. None of the seven stories contain any otherworldly or supernatural elements.

NOTE 1: As Michael reminded me the other day, any analysis of past stories in a magazine (to identify preferences and help you decide what to put in your own stories) should include any past changes of editorship. BCMM's Issue #7 was the first to include stories Michael selected, Issue #8 was the last to include stories Carla selected, and future issues will contain stories selected by both Michael and John (John picks all the classic reprints). If you choose to submit to BCMM, be sure to study their current guidelines here.  

NOTE 2: Remember, stories in BCMM are noticed and considered for best-of anthologies (!).       


The biggest takeaway for me, about Black Cat Mystery Magazine, is that John and Carla and Michael have been extremely professional and kind to me in all our dealings. I'm proud to have been a small part of the magazine, and I thank them all once again. 

To those of you who have been published in BCMM, I welcome your thoughts, in the comments section. Also, those of you who read the magazine!

Best to everyone. Be safe, stay warm, keep writing . . .

16 January 2021

What a Character . . .


How hard can it be, nonwriters often say, to name your characters?

Well, I can think of easier tasks. It's one thing to name them, but it's another to do it well.

The other day I started writing a new mystery story, and I'm making good progress--but I've come to the point where I need to start assigning names. So far my characters are S for Sheriff, P for Prisoner, O for Old man, W for Waitress, C for Cook, and V for Villain. I usually substitute letters as placeholders until I come up with names I really like. Even after I choose the names, they might change several times during the course of the story as new brainstorms roll in, in which case I make extensive use of (but don't entirely trust) the "Find and Replace" utility. I dread the day when I'll probably submit a story someplace with the hero saying something like "It's over, V. Drop the gun."

As all of you know, the choice of appropriate names can be vitally important, and at the very least can make any story better. I think The Silence of the Lambs would've been a great novel and movie regardless of the characters' names, but making the bad guys Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter sure didn't hurt. And sometimes "appropriate" can have a wide range. I think part of Stephen King's success is due to the fact that he often writes about ordinary characters that everyone can relate to, and the names of his protagonists usually reflect that: Bill Hodges, Luke Ellis, Fran Goldsmith, Tom Cullen, Larry Underwood, Annie Wilkes, Robert Anderson, Paul Sheldon, Carrie White. One of his main characters (the novel was The Dead Zone) was named John Smith. Having said that, King can also get pretty creative with character-naming when it's needed: Roland Deschain, Gordie Lachance, Randall Flagg, Percy Wetmore, etc.

Looking back on the novels I've read and the movies and TV shows I've seen, I can recall character names that seem absolutely perfect for their stories. We all know some of those--Atticus Finch, James Bond, Ebenezer Scrooge, Luke Skywalker, Ichabod Crane, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, and so on. A few have become better known than the stories in which they appeared.

Here are plenty more names, categorized but in no particular order, that I think are wonderful. How many of these can you remember?


Barney Fife, Stephanie Plum, Forrest Gump, Hedley Lamarr, Buzz Lightyear, Milo Minderbinder, Jack Sparrow, Ace Ventura, Hawkeye Pierce, Walter Mitty, Holly Golightly, Arthur Fonzarelli, Ron Burgundy, Mary Poppins, Gaylord Focker, Hoss Cartwright, Jack Tripper, Buford T. Justice, Maynard G. Krebs, Marty McFly, Ferris Bueller, Bilbo Baggins


Frank Bullitt, Sam Spade, Woodrow Call, Will Kane, Ellen Ripley, Jesse Stone, Rick Deckard, Han Solo, Sansa Stark, Thomas Magnum, Dana Scully, Jack Shepherd, Joe Mannix, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Peter Gunn, Dan Roman, Rudi Matt, Remington Steele, Thomas Crown, Miranda Priestly, Judah Ben-Hur, Ethan Hunt, Mike Hammer


Keyser Soze, Victor Laszlo, Axel Foley, Vito Corleone, Imperator Furiosa, Boo Radley, Tony Soprano, Daenerys Targaryen, Jonathan Hemlock, Inigo Montoya, Thorin Oakenshield, Wednesday Addams, Lando Calrissian, V. I. Warschawski, Optimus Prime, Dave Robischeaux, Tyler Durden, Jay Gatsby, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Arkady Renko, Tyrion Lannister


Hans Gruber, Gordon Gekko, Francis Dollarhyde, Darth Vader, Uriah Heep, Lord Voldemort, Nurse Ratched, Joffrey Baratheon, Jason Voorhees, Anton Chigurh, Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco Malfoy, Simon Legree, Freddy Krueger, Hector Barbossa, Gyp Rosetti, Black Jack Randall, Amon Goeth, Hannibal Lecter, Kylo Ren, Biff Tannen, Al Swearengen, Lex Luthor

Some of the most interesting names, I think, came from Ian Fleming--

Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Emilio Largo, Francisco Scaramanga, Julius No, Rosa Klebb, Irma Bunt, Felix Leiter, Vesper Lynd, Honeychile Ryder, Tatiana Romanova, Tiffany Case, Mary Goodnight, Kissy Suzuki, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, Pussy Galore, Gala Brand, Solitaire Latrelle, Domino Vitali, Caractacus Potts

--and Quentin Tarantino:

Vincent Vega, Beatrix Kiddo, Marcellus Wallace, Elle Driver, Bridgette von Hammersmark, King Schultz, Hattori Hanzo, Esmeralda Villa Lobos, Perrier LaPadite, Hugo Stiglitz, Broomhilda von Shaft, Drexl Spivey, Santanico Pandemonium

For anyone still with me on this, here are several more, in no particular category. Remember these?

Randle McMurphy, Tom Wingo, Humbert Humbert, Ignatius Reilly, Yuri Zhivago, Sebastian Flyte, Shug Avery, Omar Little, Fast Eddie Felson, Owen Meany, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Jake Spoon, Lisbeth Salander, Clarice Starling, John Boy Walton, Norman Bates, Chili Palmer

In closing (and in the "I wish I had come up with that one" department), here are my five all-time favorite character names:

Snake Plissken

Apollo Creed

Primrose Everdeen

Cullen Bohannon

Napoleon Solo

For what it's worth, here are some character names from my own stories: Ferguson Quillar, Pinto Bishop, Ward Grummond, Lou Mingo, Spencer E. Spencer, Bitsy Hamilton, Monique LaBont, Jabbo Harris, Gary Ironwood, Karim Valik, Madame Zoufou (Queen of Voodoo), Rufe Dewberry, Delbert Wooten, Ham Grogan, Cole "Shooter" Parrish, Abe Callendar, Solomon Wade, CollieBaby Johnson, Forrest DeWeller, Della Bloodworth, Punk Harris, Jasper Luckett, Panama Joe LaPinto, Woodrow Temple, Twelve Becker, Randolph Goodwynter, "Ducky" Duckworth, Doogie Sistrunk, Ophelia Reardon, Chunky Jones, Henrietta Allgood, Nicodemo Ross, Dexter Holtzhagen. I remember trying to tailor each of these to fit his or her character; whether that was effective or not is another matter.

What are some of your favorites, from novels, shorts, movies, TV, etc.? How about character names from your own work?

Now, back to trying to figure out what to call the folks in this latest story of mine.

Any suggestions?

02 January 2021

A Blurb in the Hand


For several weeks now, writers have been blogging about their 2020 accomplishments and whatever writing goals they might've set for 2021. I had intended, for today's post here at SleuthSayers, to continue that discussion . . . but right in the middle of preparing that column I was asked by a fellow writer to supply a blurb for an upcoming project. I dutifully stopped and did that, and afterward it occurred to me that blurbism was a topic I'd never before approached here at SS. Besides, it sounded like a lot more fun than looking back through my writing records for this year. So . . .

Blurbs. Whatchoo talkinbout, Willis?

I've never given much thought to the definition--and the many misdefinitions--of a blurb. To me as a fiction writer, a literary blurb is NOT jacket copy, a teaser, a synopsis, or a review. It is a sentence or two praising a writer or his/her writing, which often appears on the cover of a book written by that author. Blurbs are always positive and hopefully brief, and are especially helpful if the name or reputation of the blurber is recognizable (in a good way) to potential readers. In other words, they're promotional.

Do blurbs really help an author or project? I'm not sure they always do, but they certainly can. Supportive comments and opinions are a good thing, and--who knows?--they might be enough to sway an undecided reader/buyer to take a chance on your writing. At the very least, a few blurbs on the back cover of your book are a better use of space than, say, a larger author photo. I've often seen them used on writers' websites as well.

According to Wikipedia, the history of the blurb began with Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson sent Whitman a letter congratulating him on the publication of LoG's first edition, and included the phrase "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Whitman later had those words printed on his second edition.

How to find one, in the wild (Blurbwatching 101)

So let's say you need, or your publisher tells you they need, a blurb to grace the cover of your upcoming book or for some other marketing endeavor. How do you--or they--get this done? In my experience, there are two ways. You either (1) choose an excerpt from something written about you or your project (in the newspaper, online, in a magazine, etc.) or (2) ask someone to read your manuscript or ARC and contribute a few words to the cause. For me, it's usually option 2. Like most things worth having, blurbs rarely show up on your doorstep; you have to put on your overcoat and boots and go hunting for them.

As for who to ask, I think people you know are the best targets, because you're asking a big favor and they're the least likely to say no. (If you have writer friends like that who also happen to owe you money, that's better still.) And although it sounds a bit snooty, if you have a friend or acquaintance who is widely known--at least in your genre--that's especially good.

Blurbs and sub-blurbs

For each of my seven collections of short mystery fiction, I found out from the publisher how many blurbs they thought were needed and I brazenly asked that number of people to do me the favor of contributing one. These testimonials were usually placed on the back cover of the book, and for the last several of those short-story collections an extra blurb--sometimes shortened a bit--was also featured at the top of the front cover. I continue to be grateful to each and every one of these truly generous writers, because pestering folks for a blurb is asking a favor that requires both time and effort. (You're also sort of asking them to say good things, which in my case might be even more of an effort.) In every instance, I recall being reluctant to make the request--all of us are busy, and blurb-begging is an annoyingly close cousin to BSP--but I bit the bullet and asked anyway. Usually in the form of an email, so if they decided not to, they wouldn't have to tell me to my face (or ear). Thankfully none of the writers I've approached so far have turned me down, and I will always be in their debt for their kindness.


Now put the shoe on the other foot. What if someone asks you for a blurb? Like most of my fellow writers, I have occasionally found myself in this position, and every time that's happened I have accepted the request and provided what I hope was a blurb that would help the author and his/her project. The unasked question that always pops up here is Must I read the whole thing in order to write a satisfactory blurb? The ideal answer would be Yes, and it's what I try hard to do . . . but let's be honest, that's not always possible. To read an entire book on request, out of the blue, takes a lot of time. I do make it a point to read a reasonable amount of the material, but--especially in the case of a story collection or anthology--I think it's also acceptable to read a certain number of pages or chapters or stories and write the blurb based on that. If the parts you choose to read are written well, chances are the rest will be good also.

Bottom line: To receive a blurb by someone you respect and admire is always an honor, and to supply a supportive blurb to someone else can make you feel great also. Possibly the best of all blurbs are those that come unbidden from people you don't know (from reviews, articles, anthology introductions, etc.). For those, too, I am forever grateful.

A case of blurbed vision

Again, how much value do they add? I'm not sure anyone in this universe totally believes every piece of glowing praise contained in blurbs--some of them are surely sincere, and some are not--but good words are always better than bad, and better than none. Even though we all recognize that a blurb might be no more than a kind gesture by a friend or colleague, it's still positive promotion. As for me, I have been fortunate in the blurbs (solicited and unsolicited) that my publisher has selected to print on the covers of my short-story collections. Whether all the words were deserved is indeed another matter--I hope they were, but I'm a little biased.

How much weight do you place on the blurbs you've read, about others and their writing? Does rapturous praise from a big-name writer influence your own thinking about either the author or the work? As a reader, have you ever made a purchase based solely on a blurb? As a writer, have you asked others for blurbs? How did you go about doing that? Have you often blurbed the work of others?

English author Neil Gaiman once said, "Every now and then, I stop doing blurbs . . . the hiatus lasts for a year or two, and then I feel guilty or someone asks me at the right time, and I relent."

Good for him.

And good for you, for hanging in there, throughout the minefield that was 2020.  

By the way, to those of you who have asked, my final count for 2020 was 43 stories published. The only good thing about the whole year. I wish all of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2021!

25 December 2020

A Guest of Christmas Past

On the 13th of December 2009, the predecessor of SleuthSayers, Criminal Brief, launched a Christmas puzzle unique to the web. With all seven CB members contributing, it ran for a week… and a bonus eighth day, with clues appearing every in every article. The solution to the puzzle would reveal a holiday message.

Clue or red herring?

At first, we feared the puzzle would be too easy, that flocks of readers would solve it. Then after the 8th day when solutions didn’t flood in, we became concerned it was too difficult. What we initially concealed was that any one day could have revealed the answer, although we dropped numerous hints along the way.

In an unusual turn, one of our readers kept a diary of her efforts. She was dealing with annoying issues at the time, and picked up puzzle solving as a respite. She shared the notes after the solution was announced, and quite an epic struggle it was. A few times she thought she was on the right track, but wasn’t satisfied and the days ticked away.

And then… and then…

If you’d like to take a shot at it, visit the clues in the series of articles on Criminal Brief. Congratulations if you happen to solve it, but be sure to read the amazing journal of the solver herself, CJ Dowse.

In the meantime, I hope you had a happy Chanukah and are enjoying a safe and happy Christmas. But wait. Below find a charming tiny tale that appeared on the 8th day.

19 December 2020

The Second Time Around


I'm a writer who's been fortunate enough to publish a fair number of short stories. And one of the best things about that is something that never occurred to me until after I'd been doing this for a while: a lot of published stories means a lot of opportunities for reprints.

Unlike novels, short stories can be sold over and over again, if you take the time and trouble to find places receptive to previously published work. There aren't a huge number of those, but there are probably more than you might think.

It's easy to understand why some publications are interested in reprints. After all, "used," in this context, doesn't mean damaged or substandard. The words in stories remain the same--although they do occasionally show their age. And some of the best stories I've read are those that I wouldn't have seen at all if they hadn't been discovered by others and republished in another place. Sure, I enjoy opening up an issue of AHMM or EQMM or The Strand and reading a story that's never been seen before. I think everyone does. But I also like finding and reading anthologies of previously-published tales, some of those written by authors I know and some not. I've even met a few folks who say they prefer to read that kind of book because they know an editor considered those stories good enough to republish and redistribute.

Reborn identities

On the marketing side, authors are aware that they usually can't sell a reprint as easily as an original story, or= expect to be paid as much when they do. But that's not always the case, and when you do sell one and get paid for it, you can certainly look at it as found money. How much were you making from it while it sat forgotten and aging like tobacco leaves on your hard drive? And even if you don't get paid again, you might consider it worthwhile just to get the extra exposure a reprint provides. Different writers have different opinions, on that.

As for publication rights, if the only rights a market has bought to your story is "first rights"--sometimes specified as FNASR (First North American Serial Rights)--then you automatically own and keep the reprint rights. I've also heard reprint rights referred to as "second rights," even though I understand that term also applies to its third or fourth or fifth reprint as well. I've had several of my short stories published more than half a dozen times after their original appearances, and every time that happened, my contracts stated that the publication was acquiring one-time "reprint rights."

Info from the sales manual

The usual way to sell reprints is to find possible markets, decide whether your already-pubbed stories might be a good match, and submit them for consideration. Some of these markets are magazines--especially online zines receptive to stories previously published in print only--and some are anthologies for which your story might fit the theme. Sometimes there's no way to know whether a market--mag OR antho--will consider reprints, but their policy on this is usually indicated in their guidelines. They might say "unpublished stories only," "original stories only," "no previously published work," "reprints considered," "reprints encouraged," etc. Strangely enough, most of the places to which I've sold reprints don't seem to care whether the original story appeared in a high-profile market or a lesser-known market. I suppose the assumption is, most people will not have seen the story, period, and if they did they probably won't remember it. In any case, if you submit a reprint you must be sure to include in your cover letter the fact that your story was previously published, and when and where. I usually include these two sentences: "This story was originally published in the July 1998 issue of Gone & Forgotten Magazine. Since they acquired first rights only, I hope you'll want to use it in a future issue of Here & Now Magazine."

One of the best ways to get a story reprinted, of course, is to have it chosen for inclusion in one of the annual "best-of" anthologies. That's something you can't control, but when it happens it's dancing-in-the-street time, and it's great in several ways: (1) It often gets your story wider exposure than the first time around, (2) it often earns you more money than you were paid for the original, and (3) it requires no effort on your part. But those out-of-the-blue bonanzas don't happen that often. When they do, you thank your lucky stars and hope it'll happen again someday.

Old or new?

One question that was usually asked by those in my writing classes was How much do you have to change in a story to make it an original story instead of a reprint? Opinions vary on this, but I'm pretty strict about it. I think you have to do far more than just change a title and character names and place names, etc., to call an already published story a "new" story. I think the plot, as well as those other things I mentioned, must be substantially different in order for it to be considered a new and original story. In fact I have never even attempted to change an already-published story to the extent that I could call it an original. I once tried changing the names of all the male characters in a published YA story about a bunch of boys to names of female characters so I could market it as an adventure story for girls, and changed some things about the plot as well--but I still called it a reprint, and presented it that way. In my cover letter I said something like "A modified version of this story first appeared in . . ." To do otherwise would be unethical, if not dishonest, and I suspect that if you're ever caught doing it, you will have peed in your Post Toasties when it comes to future dealings with editors. In other words, don't do it. Write a truly new story instead.

For what it's worth, I've recently found several links that will consider reprints, and these have resulted in the sale of quite a few of my older stories. The first link is a bit outdated but still useful and the second is current. Both are good resources. I also occasionally find reprint markets merely by googling "short story reprint markets," "calls for reprint submissions," and so forth.

One more thing. I regularly visit the site when I'm looking for reprint markets. (It's geared to SF/fantasy stories but also includes info on AHMM, EQMM, and other mystery markets.) After choosing one of the categories at the top of the page (pro, semipro, anthology), I type the word "reprints" into the search field so it'll highlight that part of every publication's guidelines as I click through the entries. They'll say either REPRINTS: NO or REPRINTS: YES.

What do YOU think?

So . . . If you're a writer, what's your advice and what are your observations on this subject? Do you actively seek out targets for your previously published stories? Do you know of some publications that regularly feature reprints? Are there websites you visit regularly that can help you find reprint opportunities? Have you had any good or bad experiences when getting your stories reprinted in other publications? Have you had many stories selected for renewed life in "year's-best" anthologies? Let me know.

And that's that. Main thing is, don't just let those stories you've worked hard on sit idle after publication and become one-hit wonders. When the exclusivity period in your contract runs out--it's rarely longer than six months--get those stories back out there and into circulation.

Remember: short fiction is 100% recyclable.

05 December 2020

Locked Down and Writing


I think everyone would agree that 2020's been a downer of a year, so far. A global virus, hurricanes, wildfires, riots, political crises, murder hornets--and the year's not even done yet. As for Covid, my wife and I have medical folks in our immediate family who have some strict rules about behavior during the pandemic, so we've been staying close to home for nine months now. The only people we see are those on Zoom or FaceTime, tellers at the bank drive-thru window, and neighbors at shouting distance.

I've seen only two advantages to all this. First, we no longer get robocalls asking us to book a cruise. Second, I've had a LOT of time to create stories.

2020 (so far) in review

As of the first week in December, I have written 35 new stories, I've had 38 stories published, and I currently have 42 more stories that have been accepted and not yet published. Five of those TBPs are scheduled to come out later this month, and the rest sometime in 2021. In addition, I had a collection of 300 poems published, I signed a contract with an overseas publisher for a bilingual collection of my Saturday Evening Post stories, and an L.A. production company recently extended a film option they bought last year on one of my AHMM stories. So it's been a pretty good year, writingwise.

These past two months have been especially kind to me: Between October 5 and today (December 5), I've had 21 stories published. Of those, eleven were in magazines like Woman's World, Strand Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and ten were in anthologies (The Beat of Black WingsA Grave Diagnosis; Cozy Villages of DeathPeace, Love, and CrimeThe Best American Mystery Stories 2020; etc.). In fact, within those two months I had two stories in Woman's World and two in Mystery Weekly. (Many thanks to those editors!)

If anyone's interested in this kind of thing, here are some numbers and statistics about my literary output since January 1st:

Year-to-date stats for 2020 . . .

21% of my published stories were less than 1000 words, 45% were between 1000 and 4000, 34% were longer than 4000. The shortest was 50 words, the longest was 8000.

89% were mystery/suspense, 2% westerns, 2% romance, 5% humor, 2% science fiction, and 0% literary. In other words, they were 100% fun to write and 0% work.

58% of my published mystery stories involved robberies of some kind, 55% involved murder, 19% involved both. The rest were about other kinds of crimes.

55% of my published stories this year appeared in the past two months. (This was unusual, as mentioned earlier, and I can offer no reason for it. It's just the way the mop flopped.)

66% of my published stories this year appeared in magazines, the rest in anthologies.

20% of my anthology publications were the result of invitations to contribute, and the rest were via open-call submissions or after-the-fact, best-of selections.

43% of my anthology publications and 75% of my magazine publications involved editors I've worked with before.

82% of my published stories were written in third-person POV, the rest were first-person.

100% were written in past tense. I'm not overly fond of present-tense stories.

16% included otherworldly elements of some kind.

29% had a female protagonist.

78% were submitted via email, the rest via online submission systems. For the first time ever, none of my submissions were snailmailed.

89% were published in U.S. markets.

26% were reprints.

84% were published in paying markets.

82% appeared in print publications, the rest were online.

53% were published in new (to me) markets, the rest in places where I've been published before. 

Takeaways, from these percentages: My stories seem to be getting a little longer, almost all of them are mystery/crime, I still submit occasionally to non-paying markets, I continue to sell a reasonable number of reprints, and I still seem to prefer third-person stories.

NOTE: I have written and submitted half a dozen Covid-related stories but--as of this post--all have been rejected. Maybe editors think we hear enough about that subject in the news. Either that, or those stories just aren't very good.

How about your year, so far?

What are your views, on writing during all this isolation and stress and uncertainty? I've heard some writer friends say it has taken away their inspiration to produce stories (at least fictional stories) and others say writing has been an especially important form of therapy for them this year, and a welcome escape. If you have been writing a lot, has the pandemic changed the subject matter at all (darker/less humorous)? Have any of your stories/novels involved Covid, masks, lockdowns, etc? Have editors/publishers been receptive to that?

Maybe this'll all be behind us soon. Meanwhile, I hope you and yours had a great Thanksgiving. Best to everyone!

21 November 2020

The Same Old Story

How many of you have unfinished or unpublished stories (or novels) stashed away in a drawer or under the bed, or in a folder someplace on your hard drive? Most of us do, if we've been writing fiction for a while. Oddly enough, very few of mine are unfinished--when I think of an idea for a short story I usually go ahead and churn it out–but I certainly have plenty that are unpublished and unsubmitted. Alas, typing THE END doesn't always mean it's ready for prime time.

old manuscript

Most of those abandoned stories are those I wrote many years ago, when I was just getting started. Occasionally I dust them off and look them over, and sometimes I go back in and do a complete rewrite, until that story is what I consider to be submittable and battleworthy. I've done that several times, and so far I've always managed to sell them afterward.

One of those rewrites was on a never-submitted story called "Molly's Plan," written in the early '90s about a New Orleans bank robbery. A few years ago I rediscovered it, changed it in about a dozen ways but kept the same title, and sent it to Strand Magazine. They bought it, and it later wound up in Best American Mystery Stories, was reprinted in Russia's leading literary magazine, was selected for New York City's Subway Library project, etc. All this after sitting idle for more than twenty years as a stack of dot-matrix-printed pages in a box in the corner of my home office. A similar thing happened with another long-ago story originally called "Footprints," about a college student involved in a cheating operation. I rewrote the whole thing, retitled it "Calculus 1," which was the name of one of my first college courses, and sold it to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post. That story will soon appear again in a bilingual collection of my SEP stories by a Moscow publishing house. Just call me Ivan.

My point here is that some of those early and forgotten manuscripts of mine had some promise and have been worth revisiting, but in their original state none of them were very good. Which was why I never sent them anyplace. Some things about them that were okay from the beginning, I thought, were in areas I've always been pretty comfortable with: premise, dialogue, hooks, endings, structure, etc. Most everything else about them was terrible.

What was it that made these stories so bad? Here are some of the things I found:

  • Too much repetition. Not just of words or phrases but of ideas and thoughts and plot elements. I probably wanted so badly to make everything clear to the reader, I kept saying the same things too often, in different ways.
  • Too many cliches. At the time I don't think I even realized they were cliches.
  • Too many pet words and phrases. My characters were way too fond of sighing, shrugging, turning, staring, nodding, taking deep breaths, etc. This probably belongs under "repetition," and some of it still shows up in my current creations.
  • Too much description. It took me a while to learn there's no need to describe in excruciating detail things like settings, items, or the way people look or dress. Unless it reveals something vital about either the plot or the character, writers should leave most of that to the reader's imagination.
  • Too much exposition. This is just as dangerous and tedious as the overuse of description– I just didn't know it at the time. Overwriting of any kind is bad, and especially when it involves technical details, which I also happily added to the stew now and then. I guess I figured it'd be a shame to waste all that stuff I had to listen to in engineering school.
  • Too many semicolons. All of them were grammatically correct, but I used them far too often. As I've said before at this blog, semicolons can make your writing appear stiff and formal even though that might not be your intention. I still use too many, but I'm cutting back. (Same goes for parentheses, ellipses . . . dashes--and especially exclamation points!)
  • Overuse of dialect. At first I thought anything that makes dialogue sound more "real" is a good thing. The truth is, using too many slang expressions and misspellings is not only lazy writing, it's annoying to the reader. You know what I mean.
  • POV problems. I found that I often made dumb decisions about viewpoint. I didn't know when to use only one, when to switch, how best to use third-person to heighten suspense, how much head-hopping is too much, and so forth. Basic things that I learned later, mostly by paying more attention when I read.

I'm not saying that's everything that was wrong with my early efforts, but those points come first to mind. I still have several stories (several dozen, actually) sitting out there that are unchanged and unsubmitted and gathering dust. On the one hand, I might take another swing at 'em, one of these days. On the other, I might treat them as training exercises and let them rest in peace.

Do you have some of these underachieving stories lying around in your office, or on your computer? Do you ever try to resurrect them? If so, were they later submitted, and published? Do you look back at some of your early published work and see problems there as well? Do you ever update those published stories a bit when you market them as reprints? What are some of the ways you feel you've improved, in your writing?

Before you ask me, No, not everything I publish is old. I've written 32 new stories so far this year, and I typed this column on Wednesday. Whether it's really finished is another matter--but I'm done with it.

Thanks for indulging me, and best to all of you. Keep turning out that good fiction!

07 November 2020

Pay to Play -- Yea or Nay?

I have often said, at this blog, that I believe writers--novelists. nonfictioners, poets, short-story writers, whoever--should expect to be paid for what they write, and should never have to pay anyone else to get it published. I especially don't like the concept of "reading fees" for those who submit their work to publications. And I practice what I preach: I have submitted many, many short-story manuscripts, and I have never paid a submission fee, and I don't plan to. As the high-school troublemaker once said when asked why he didn't like school, "It's the principal of the thing." The spelling's different, but that's my explanation too.

But … I took part in a discussion about a month ago that offered a look at this issue from another perspective. It wasn't enough to make me change my mind, but for the first time I could at least understand why some publications choose to charge writers for their work.

Hear me out, here. I'd like to see what you think.

The argument against submission fees

For the past several years, it's become common for some publications, mostly literary magazines, to charge writers from two to five dollars or more to submit a short story for consideration. It goes without saying that most of those stories will be rejected, but even if they're accepted, their authors will usually be paid very little, and sometimes nothing at all. What a deal, right? Pay for a chance to win, and even if you win, you lose. Or at least you lose money. I guess what you would gain is prestige, but I find myself wondering how much prestige is involved in an arrangement like that.

As pointed out in the excellent Atlantic article "Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read Their Work?" by Joy Lanzendorfer, this kind of thing is often scorned in all other areas of publishing. If a literary agent even hints at charging reading fees, writers are cautioned to avoid him or her, and the same goes for the publishers of novels and almost anything else except short fiction. But the editors of more and more magazines are doing just that.

And this is happening at a time when everyone's trying to make publishing more diverse, and more accessible to underrepresented groups of writers. I have to ask myself, How does the charging of reading fees fit in, there? The first thing that comes to mind is that the folks hurt the most by submission fees are the ones who might not be able to afford them. If you're already an outsider to publishing, and/or probably aren't among the wealthiest of writers, isn't this kind of thing going to do more to discourage your literary efforts than to encourage them? By the way, the more established authors are often not asked to pay these fees, which makes me wonder if the lesser-known writers are having to foot the bill for everyone else.

The argument FOR submission fees:

The magazines that charge these fees make what might be an understandable point. They say it's not so much about money; it's about the huge volume of submissions they receive. The electronic age has made it easy, maybe too easy, for writers to submit stories. No longer do we have to pay for stamps or paper or printer ink or envelopes or trips to the post office. We either email our stories to editors or use the online submission process via their publications' websites. It's all free, and convenient. As a result, more writers are sending in stories, some of them stories that should never have been written in the first place, much less submitted for publication. So part of the reason for reading fees (also called "processing fees" or "administrative fees") is to cut down on the number of submissions by--supposedly--weeding out the writers who might not be serious about their writing. I'm not sure if that's working, but that's the idea. 

The fees also generate money for the magazines. After all, many of these publications, some of which are college literary journals, don't have full-time people on staff and are struggling to make ends meet--so three or four dollars per submissions can give them some much-needed funds, they say, to do things like hiring more readers to handle the volume. 

So those are the two pluses, for the magazine: fewer unworthy submissions and more cash to pay the bills.

Back to my own views:

To quote Mr. Biden, "Here's the deal." I don't like the concept of submission fees, and by God I won't pay them. On the other hand, I do realize that these underfunded publications need some way to stay afloat. One answer to this, I would think, is for writers like you and me to support the magazines we want to write for in other ways. It would seem that the best of those are either donations or subscriptions. Sure, subscriptions can be expensive, but at least you'd be getting something back from an investment like that, while helping the publications themselves. (I admit that I'm exempt from some of this, because I read--and write for, and subscribe to--mostly mystery magazines, who don't charge reading fees, and not literary magazines, who often do. But I believe the argument stands.)

Now, having said all that, what do you think? Should magazines charge submission fees? Do you, or would you, pay them? Have you done so, in the past? Do you see, as I think I finally do, the reason these publications feel the need to charge fees? Do you think those reasons are valid? What would your solution be, if you were one of those editors? Are you a writer who subscribes to the magazines you submit stories to?

The whole matter is a volatile issue, and to some degree it still irks me when I think about it. But in my old age, I'm trying to be more understanding and more receptive to things I don't like and things I don't agree with. I'm not all the way there yet, but I'm trying.

And that's it. I'll be back in two weeks with a cheerier subject. (I don't know yet what it'll be, but it sure better be cheerier than this.)

Meanwhile, take care, and keep submitting those stories!

31 October 2020

Themed and Tailored


No, I'm not talking about fall outfits. My question is, How open are you to being prompted, guided, or otherwise steered, in determining what you write about?

A little background, first. As I've mentioned before at this blog, I have for the past few years been sending almost as many of my short stories to anthologies as to magazines. The reason is simple: There seem to be more anthologies out there now, than in olden days. Or maybe I'm just getting better (and luckier) at being able to locate their calls for submissions.

A buncha stories in one book

Those antho announcements, when I do find them, are usually a hit-or-miss deal. Either I already have a completed story that might fit the anthology's theme (or not) or I believe I can write one in the time remaining before the deadline. Or not. If I'm extra lucky, it's an anthology that's receptive to reprints and I happen to have one of those that fits the theme sitting there snoozing in the waiting room. If so, I wake it up and send it off, which--if my luck holds and the story gets accepted--is the easiest way in the world to get something published. 

Sometimes, though not often, I'm fortunate enough to get invited to submit a story to a particular anthology. When that happens it's usually because the editor is someone I've worked with before. On half a dozen of those recent occasions, two were requests for a PI story, one was for a time-travel story. and three were for stories based on songs of a certain era or by a certain performer. And even though I didn't have any work already finished or in progress that fit any of those bills, I did have a lot of time before the deadlines and all six were for the kinds of stories I enjoy writing, so for each of those requests I sat down and created a story from scratch. All of them turned out to be fun to write--but truthfully, half of those particular theme-prompts were just for mystery subgenres, and nothing more specific.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it . . .

The fact is, I'm usually not too enthused by suggested themes and topics. I generally prefer to come up with my own story ideas rather than get prompts of any kind, from others, about what kind of story to write. I'm not sure why that is. I certainly know a lot of writers who welcome those kinds of suggestions, and are particularly good at working to a predetermined theme. Some have said they actively seek out submission calls with detailed themes, or even websites for publications that require pre-set titles or content, like the story's opening or closing lines. They feel that those prompts provide the needed inspiration to kickstart their creativity.

There are several of those sites/publications/markets out there. I think one of the better known is called The First Line. Your assignment here, Mr. Phelps, is to use, verbatim, their suggested opening line as the first line of your story. For me, that wouldn't be an impossible mission, but it would be difficult. I can only conclude that my stories work better when the first line is my own and not someone else's. (Another conclusion might be that I'm just not clever enough to come up with a story to match one of those force-fed lines.) A similar market is called, appropriately, The Last Line. They give you the ending sentence, and it's up to you to put together the rest. I haven't yet tried them, but I suspect I'd have a tough time.

Hitch up the team

A close cousin to this subject of writing-to-a-theme or writing-based-on-a-prompt is collaborating with other writers. This is something I've tried but that I've, again, found hard to do. Stated another way, it was fun but didn't result in a sale. (My fellow SleuthSayer R.T. Lawton told an interesting story about collaboration as a part of his column here last weekend.) I'm well aware that this has worked well for some, and I applaud them for it. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the Michael Gregorio team, the Ellery Queen team, Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey, and many, many others, including my friends Frank Zafiro and Jim Wilsky. The process itself varies, of course. I once heard that for each of their two novels together, Stephen King and Peter Straub would each write a chapter, back and forth, throughout the project.

As I mentioned, I think working together that way is demanding. Each of us has his/her own style of writing, and for any two authors to agree enough for the result to be successful can be hard. When it does work, though, I think it's great, because you have a built-in editor/critic/sounding-board as a part of the deal, and two heads are often better than one. The fact that it hasn't worked for me is probably my own fault. (Sorry, Mrs. Floyd, little Johnny just doesn't seem to play well with others.)

My questions for today

Anyhow, class, having said all that . . . Are you one of those writers who are inspired by the challenge of a predetermined theme or prompt? Does that help your productivity? How detailed do you like those prompts to be? Have you sought out markets that provide that kind of thing? Have you submitted stories to them, and if so, how'd you do? Have you written many stories for themed anthologies? Do you do that regularly? Have you been invited to contribute to themed anthologies? Have you collaborated with other authors on either short stories or novels? How did that go? Did you survive with sanity and friendships intact? Would you do it again?

The beautiful thing about this is that we're all different--plotters, pantsers, team players, loners. There is no one correct way of doing it. The right way is (1) whatever is satisfying to you and (2) whatever results in a good story.

Either way, good luck, Happy Halloween, be sure to vote, and set your clocks back an hour. I'll see you in a week.

17 October 2020

And Now for Something Different …

I don't like all movies, any more than I like all novels or short stories–but I like all kinds and genres of movies. Adventure, mystery, romance, horror, western, war, sports, science fiction, fantasy, humor, drama, animated, musical, documentary, silent, foreign, pretty much anything. If it looks interesting to me, I'll watch it–or at least start it. I admit I've grown a little tired of superheroes and zombies, but I'll usually give anything a try.

I will also, occasionally, watch a movie just because I've heard it's off the beaten track. That of course doesn't always turn out well–sometimes you run screaming back to what's safe and familiar. But sometimes it does work.

Innovative, when used to describe movies, can mean a lot of things: a different subject, a different technology, a different approach–anything that might break new ground. Examples: Jurassic Park was the first movie to fully create life-like dinosaurs; Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film; Superman was the first movie to use a computer-generated title sequence. In the not-entertaining-but-interesting department, Star Wars was the first movie to list the entire crew in the closing credits.

If you're into this kind of thing, here are some more "firsts":

The first movie to feature …

  • a GPS device – Goldfinger (1964)
  • a cell phone – Lethal Weapon (1987)
  • a car phone – Sabrina (1954)
  • a toilet being flushed – Psycho (1960)
  • a karate fight – The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  • a rocket launch – A Trip to the Moon (1902)
  • on-screen texting – Sex Drive (2008)
  • an interracial kiss – Island in the Sun (1957)
  • a gay kiss – Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
  • sound – The Jazz Singer (1927)
  • a dog in a starring role – Rescued by Rover (1905)
  • a TV set – Elstree Calling (1930)
  • a PG-13 rating – Red Dawn (1984)
  • an NC-17 rating – Henry and June (1990)
  • the Wilhelm Scream – Distant Drums (1951)
  • scenes shot entirely by natural candlelight – Barry Lyndon (1975)
  • a commercially-released soundtrack – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  • a rock song° in the soundtrack – Blackboard Jungle (1955)
    • "Rock Around the Clock," Bill Haley and His Comets

While not necessarily "firsts," the following are a few movies I've either watched or re-watched over the past months that I can truly say are innovative:

1917 (2019) – The entire movie was filmed in one continuous, unbroken shot. This was done also in Russian Ark and, with a few subtle edits, Hitchcock's Rope. But 1917 takes the viewer on a long journey with many different locations, in one person's POV, from start to finish. I loved it.

All Is Lost (2013) – Filmed with no dialogue. Well, that's not quite right: There's one word, a familiar expletive spoken by the main character (Robert Redford) at a point when things get extra frustrating. To shoot a movie this way, involving only one man and his boat and the ocean, and still make it entertaining, is impressive.

Memento (2000) – This one doesn't just have a nonlinear timeline; it's filmed backwards. Specifically, it's in two sections, the first part chronological and the second part backward. I never saw anything like it.

Vantage Point (2008) – The same story is told multiple times, one after the other, each time using a different character's POV. (Rashomon, if I remember correctly, did almost the same kind of thing.)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) – A "found footage" movie. It wasn't the first to be filmed this way, but it was the one that made the process famous. Troll Hunters, years later, was my favorite of these, and I liked Cloverfield also. (My college roommate and I saw Cloverfield together in the theater in 2008, and we had to leave early because the realistic, jerky camera movement made him sick.)

Psycho (1998) – A remake that was faithfully re-created shot-for-shot from Hitchcock's 1960 classic, just with a different cast, director, etc. It's worth watching if only to see the way it was done.

Boyhood (2014) – Shows actors as they grow in real life. It was filmed from 2001 to 2013 and follows the life of a boy in Texas from the age of six to eighteen. To my knowledge it's the first movie ever to try this.

Executive Action (1996)/Deep Blue Sea (1999)/Psycho (1960) – Each of these is unique in that one of its biggest and most recognizable stars is unexpectedly killed off very early in the story (Steven Seagal/Samuel L. Jackson/Janet Leigh). That's risky, but in these cases it seemed to work.

Adaptation (2002) – A multiple-award-winning film about–believe it or not–the writing of the movie you're watching. Robert Ebert said, "To watch the film is to be actively involved in the challenge of its creation." Weird but fascinating.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) – Two separate Clint Eastwood-directed movies about the same event (the Battle of Iwo Jima), told from two different POVs–the first from the U.S., the second from Japan.

NOTE: One that I've not yet seen is Timecode (2000). It supposedly features four continuous storylines in real-time split screens. It is at this moment in my Netflix queue.

Other movies that are innovative in various ways: The Wild Bunch, Dick Tracy, The Artist, Sin City, Pleasantville, Buried, Idiocracy, Big Fish, Alien, Pulp Fiction, 2001, Open Water, Airplane!, Westworld, M*A*S*H, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Rustler's Rhapsody, The Matrix, Birdman, The Lobster, Being John Malkovich, Cloud Atlas, Flack Bay, Blazing Saddles, Run Lola Run, Dogville, A Fistful of Dollars, The Exorcist, Brazil, Amelie, Melancholia, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar, Titanic, Thelma and Louise, Life of Pi, Dr. Strangelove, Galaxy Quest, Across the Universe, The Sixth Sense.

There are many, many more movies that try something new, with varying results. What are some that come to mind, for you?–and what innovative things about them made them appealing to you (or not)? Any that I should be on the lookout for? Any I should avoid?

Again, different isn't always good. But it's almost always interesting.

Next time, back to the subject of writing.

03 October 2020

A Semifinal Word on Semicolons


Semicolonoscopy [sim-i-co-lun-OS-cah-pee] – An examination to detect abnormalities in the use of a certain mark of punctuation.

A popular topic recently at one of the writers' forums (fori?) was semicolons--their use, their overuse, etc. Should fiction writers even include them at all? 

I think it's interesting that some of my writer friends are banner-waving fans of semicolons, while others say they should be used occasionally but sparingly, and still others avoid them like Kryptonite. And that last group seems to be growing. Many talented writers feel that semicolons should never be used because a period can always do a better job. Kurt Vonnegut once said, of semicolons, "All they do is show you've been to college"--and in her Huffpost US article "Semicolons: How to Use Them and Why You Should," Claire Fallon said, "The semicolon has come to be seen as the gall bladder of punctuation marks: It theoretically serves some sort of purpose, but if it were removed entirely, everything would probably be fine."

My opinion, for what (little) it's worth . . .

I think semicolons, troublesome as they are, should remain a part of your writer's toolbox. Even if you're a fiction writer. But I also think they should be stored in one of the back compartments, along with exclamation points, and I agree that their overuse can make you an embarrassment to friends and family.

So when and why, if ever, should you use a semicolon? I can think of only three reasons, the first two of which are good ones.

1. Use a semicolon to separate phrases in a list that contains commas.

Example: Our Zoom session included writers from Athens, Georgia; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Ruston, Louisiana.

2. Use a semicolon when two complete sentences are too closely related to be separated by a period. And some of them are. (To paraphrase something I saw at the blog Legible awhile back, "A period says, 'Full stop. New idea.' A semicolon says, 'Pause; related idea.'")

Example: "The editor says she loves short stores; they're addictive."

Sure, you could use a period instead--but here I think it would provide too much separation, and too much of a pause.

3. Use a semicolon before a connecting word like therefore, otherwise, instead, or however.

Example: I might as well write this column; otherwise, I'd have to mow the lawn.

I can't recall ever using a semicolon this third way, just as I wouldn't use one before a conjunction like and or but, which is also acceptable in certain situations. I would just reword the sentence to avoid needing the semicolon.

A recent example of semicolonization

Here's something that came up just last week, in a mystery story I finished writing yesterday. The following is a paragraph near the beginning of the story:

The old woman was inching toward him through the trees and undergrowth along the creekbank, her back stooped and her eyes on the water. On her head was a blue baseball cap with a gray ponytail sticking out the hole in the back; in her hands was a pump shotgun. Just as Jabbo was trying to decide whether to hide or run, she raised her head and looked straight at him.

As you can see, I chose (after some hemming and hawing) to use a semicolon in that middle sentence. I realize a period could've been used, but--again--I thought there was too close a connection there, and that a period would've created too much of a "pause." A semicolon just felt right, and gave not just the sentence but the whole paragraph the rhythm I thought it needed. Feel free to disagree. (Hey, I haven't sent the story anyplace yet, so if enough folks do disagree, I might throw pride out the window and change it.)

A disadvantage for fiction writers

I think one of the semicolon's biggest problems is that it can make your writing appear too formal. If you're going for formal, fine, but most of my fiction writing is informal, and the last thing I want to do is have it look stiff or stilted. I certainly don't like to use more than one semicolon every couple of pages. And I never use a semicolon in dialogue. When I see that in my reading, it snaps me out of the story. It just doesn't look or feel right. 

A quick example, here. I just finished re-reading William Goldman's The Princess Bride, and at one point Buttercup's father sees something through the window and says to her mother, "Look!" Irritated and busy with something else, the mother replies, "You look; you know how."

I understand that it's an ideal place for a semicolon, because (as I keep saying) those are two complete sentences too closely related to be separated by a period. To say "You look. You know how." sounds clunky to me, and risks losing the scolding snippiness of the reply. And even though a grammatically incorrect comma sometimes works for this kind of thing (especially in dialogue), I don't think it would, here. The reply "You look, you know how." doesn't feel right, and might even be misunderstood. So the semicolon works. But . . . if I were writing something like that today, instead of fifty years ago when Goldman wrote it, I think I might substitute an em-dash, which it's hard to misuse anyhow. The result would be "You look--you know how." Which might solve the impression-of-formality problem.

The result of that particular semicolonoscopy is obviously a matter of opinion. I'm not even sure about it my ownself. John Sandford, one of my favorite authors, has used a lot of semicolons in dialogue in his Lucas Davenport novels, and colons too, but--for some reason--they don't seem to bother me. (Hey, if you're good enough at what you do, you can get away with a lot.)

The road to Damascus

When I started writing fiction for publication 26 years ago (boy does the time fly) I was guilty of using far too many semicolons, and commas too. I thought there was no end to the clarification those marks of punctuation could provide. I can still get carried away with commas at times, but otherwise I have (hallelujah) seen the light. I've cut way back on semicolons, and exclamation points as well. I probably still use too many dashes and too many parentheses, but we all have our vices. I think one reason I enjoy using dashes and parentheses is that I like to interject "asides" into sentences, when I write and when I speak. But that's another matter, and a discussion for another day.

Sometimes my use of semicolons depends on the project. One of my writer friends for whom I have great respect is also an occasional editor of anthologies, and he's not fond of semicolons. So when I submit a story to him, I make sure there are no semicolons to be found. It's not hard. As I mentioned earlier, the way to avoid or remove semicolons is to construct or reword sentences such that they're just not required.

What's your opinion? Use them whenever you like? Use them in moderation? Weed them out entirely?

In summary …

I plan to continue to use semicolons, annoying or not, when I feel they're needed. I'll treat them like bacon, or Hostess Twinkies, or real ice cream--they're not part of my regular diet, but now and then they just hit the spot.

I'll close on a profoundly serious note, with something from my latest effort, a book of 300 short poems called Lighten Up a Little:

When edited, writers have said
Semicolons are something they dread;
What if someone had stolen 
One half of your colon
And plugged in a comma instead?

Sounds painful, right?

See you in two weeks.