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

06 March 2021

Cover Me--I'm Going In

As if we haven't seen enough blog posts lately about how to sell our fiction . . .

My topic today is cover letters. It came to mind after a Zoom session I attended recently about marketing short stories. We discussed everything from publications to guidelines to editors to contracts, but when we got to the Q&A part, a surprising number of questions were about cover letters. I guess that makes sense: these letters are our first contact with someone who might actually publish what we've written.

Bear with me, here. I realize you probably know most of this already. But if you don't, or if--like me--you sometimes need reminding, here are some essentials about cover letters for short-story submissions.

The first thing to remember: they're not query letters. A query letter is generally sent to (1) a publisher or agent of novels or nonfiction books or (2) an editor of articles, and its purpose is to ask those gatekeepers to allow you to submit something to them for consideration. A cover letter is for short fiction, not nonfiction, and it doesn't ask the editor if he/she wants to see the finished product; it accompanies the finished product, and serves as an introduction.

Having said that, here are some do's and don'ts:

1. Always send a cover letter unless guidelines tell you not to. Think of it as a courtesy. I've submitted a lot of short stories, and I can recall only a handful that were not accompanied by a cover letter.

2. Keep it short. Usually several brief paragraphs, and certainly less than a page.

3. If it's snailmailed, use a single-spaced, business-letter format.

4. If it's emailed, use your cover letter as the body of the message. I single-space mine, with no indentions, one space between paragraphs, and a less-formal comma instead of a colon after the salutation. If you're using an online submission system, type or copy your cover letter into the submission box at the publication's website. 

5. Use the editor's name--"Dear Ms. Martin"--and not just "Dear Editor." If you don't know the name, you can usually find it under "Masthead" or "Staff" or "About Us" at the publication's site.

6. Use Mr. or Ms. before the editor's last name. If you're not certain of the gender, use the full name with no Mr. or Ms. ("Dear Lee Bennett," "Dear Pat Cooper," "Dear Chris Anderson," "Dear J.T. Brown.")

7. Don't address the editor by only her first name until she has already addressed you by your first name in correspondence OR has signed correspondence to you using only her first name. After that, feel free to use first names only. The publishing business is pretty laid-back in this regard.

8. Mention any previous contact you might've had with the editor at a conference or elsewhere, especially if she suggested you send her a manuscript.

9. Include at least two paragraphs in your letter. I think the first should say "Please consider the attached story, 'Story Name,'" or "I have attached the short story 'Story Name' for your consideration," or words to that effect, followed by something like "I hope you'll want to use it in a future issue." The second paragraph is usually a short bio listing several writing credits and awards. If you don't yet have publication credits, mention instead any kind of writing experience you do have. If you include a third paragraph, just say something like "Thank you for your time."

10. Customize your bio to fit the publication you're submitting to. For example, Asimov's probably wouldn't care that you've been published in Woman's World, and literary magazines might not be impressed with genre credits of any kind. If I send something to a lit journal, I mention previous publication in places like Writer's DigestThe Lyric, and Pleiades; if I send to mystery magazines I mention AHMM, EQMM, Strand, etc.

11. Be honest in your bio, but give it the best possible spin. If the only things you've published are two short poems in obscure magazines and a tiny essay in The Paris Review, your bio should probably say, "My previous work has appeared in several publications, including The Paris Review." Truthful without being confession-booth revealing. 

12. Don't try to be cute or witty in your cover letter, or use funky fonts.

13. If submitting via snailmail, don't use fancy stationery. In fact, regular white copy-paper is fine.

14. Don't include a synopsis of your story, or say anything at all about the story or its plot, unless instructed to in the guidelines.

15. Don't mention anyplace else that might've rejected your story, or anything anyone else has said about it (good or bad). 

16. If you don't yet have any writing credits, don't point it out. Instead say something briefly in your bio about your job or your location. Before I'd published any stories, I said something like "I'm a former Air Force captain, I live in Mississippi, and I work for IBM." Bios, at any stage of your career, shouldn't be too wordy.

17. Don't mention how thrilled you would be to see your work in print.

18. Don't ask for comments, criticism, etc.

19. Don't say anything not relevant to your submission. The editor won't care how many cats you have, or that you belong to a quilting group, or that you enjoy hiking in the mountains. (Unless that's an integral part of the story you're submitting.)

20. Don't say anything about rights unless your story's a reprint. If it is a reprint, include in the first paragraph the date of previous publication and the publication's name and issue. ("This story previously appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of AHMM.") The only exception to that is if I'm trying to sell a story that I've already had published more than once. In that case I mention only its first publication and not any subsequent publications. ("This story originally appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of AHMM.")

NOTE 1: These "rules" are not set in stone. I'm well aware that there are other ways to get the job done. But I know this works.

NOTE 2: Something I used to always include in the third paragraph of my cover letters (it's laughable, now): "I've enclosed an SASE for your reply. If my story doesn't interest you, there's no need to return the manuscript itself." Let's hear it for electronic submissions.

In closing:

Dear SleuthSayers Reader,

Please consider the above blog post, "Cover Me--I'm Going In." A modified version appeared in the May 1999 issue of Byline Magazine. I hope you can use its information in your future submissions.

Current bio: John M. Floyd is the author of mostly short stories and SleuthSayers columns. His greatest recent accomplishment is receiving his second Covid vaccination.

Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

John Floyd

21 February 2021

A Buffett Buffet

Why get stoned when there’s rock? Stone crabs and rock shrimp, of course, boiling in sea water seasoned with Old Bay, served outside a rusted beach shack. Delicious.

Unless you’ve been living under a conch shell, you probably heard Margaritaville has a new criminal element in town. Disreputable word-slingers have been spotted skulking amongst the happy drunks at beachside bars, gathered around a piratey privateer, Josh Pachter. This disreputable lot call themselves anthologists. Book 'em, I say, in fact, it’s already booked: The Great Filling Station Holdup.

The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

Let’s face it. Jimmy Buffett is a damn good lyricist. If he’d migrated from Nashville to Tin Pan Alley, he’d reside among the best of Broadway songwriters.

While Buffett is known for lighthearted, cheerful tunes, scratch many a surface and you’ll reveal more serious strata. Take as example the lyrics of Margaritaville:

But there’s booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searching for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
And I know it's my own damn fault.

A reviewer at opines:

The song is about a man spending an entire season at a beach resort, enjoying carefree Caribbean lifestyle with margarita cocktails. There is some lyric confusion about words ‘Wasted away’ in the chorus of the song.

Whut? Seriously? Are we listening to the same song? You can’t hear the tone of forlorn desperation? Sir, put down the rum and step away from the bar.

While many of Buffett’s songs carry a serious secondary layer, a few like ‘Southern Cross’ will break your heart, and some of his early work is downright dark and dangerous. And I like it. But, when Josh Pachter invited me to sail the Buffett brigantine, I was immensely flattered and simultaneously panicked. What the hell could I possibly come up with? Then parts fell into place.

I find it difficult to write about myself. Talk about my work, okay, fine, but talk about me, not so easy. To deflect scrutiny, I hatched the notion of writing about my SleuthSayers colleagues and their stories appearing in Josh’s latest and greatest anthology. Good excuse. And why not include Pachter’s headlining story as well? Let’s begin.

Spending Money
Beach House on the Moon
John Floyd

John sent me his story first, so we’ll start there. Jimmy’s song, ‘Spending Money’, is a light-hearted, whistling ditty. Part of the chorus subtly hints at skullduggery,

A little spending money, money to burn.
Money that you did not necessarily earn.

John has molded his story into a morality play. Greek playwrights could recognize the plot. Russian authors might embrace such a protagonist.

In John’s story, a hint of a pending train wreck hovers in the air, a force that can’t be stopped. The main character has an issue with honesty, a shortcoming of which a rare friend, a waitress, tries to disabuse him of his wayward ways.

To tell you more would tell you too much. I’ve read many of John’s stories and haven’t encountered one like this. Enjoy it.

Tampico Trauma
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
Michael Bracken

I’ve read Michael Bracken over the years, but I hadn’t absorbed what a master of atmosphere he is. From the beginning, you feel like you’ve been dropped into Tamaulipas– no, not a Taco Bell menu item, the Mexican Gulf state. In Michael’s story, you can smell aromatic herbs seasoning the broth, you can hear a touristy guitar.

Buffett’s song is barely 150 words, fewer than twenty lines. In contrast, Michael has fleshed out a complete story, a simmering plot spiced by the kind and compelling Hern├índez hermanas. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t borrow a refrain from another song:

First you learn the native custom,
Soon a word of Spanish or two.
You know that you cannot trust them,
Cause they know they can’t trust you.

Trust me, Bracken has smuggled a lot in a small packet.

The Great Filling Station Holdup
A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean
Josh Pachter

Josh Pachter shuttles us through the dimensions of space, time, and sound, back to a Jimmy country song. Both artists convey an old-fashioned tone, a feeling when informal policing could accomplish more than modern day school resource officers and zero-tolerance policies.

We got fifteen dollars and a can of STP,
A big ole jar of cashew nuts and a Japanese TV.
Feelin’ we’dd pulled the biggest heist of our career.
We're wanted men– we’ll strike again!
But first let’s have a beer.

Josh delivers a surprisingly gentle story. He pays considerable attention to characterization, so by the time the story wraps, you’re glad to witness a happy ending.

And for enquiring minds who want to know, he’s a damn fine editor. He’s also donating a third of the royalties to two Buffett charities, Singing for Change Charitable Foundation and Save the Manatee Club,

Truckstop Salvation
Down to Earth
Leigh Lundin

After Josh’s invitation, I sweated, coming up with zero ideas. As the acceptance deadline approached, I feared having to decline.

One evening, my scalpel-tongued brother Glen mentioned one of his ironic descriptors– dirty, furrin’ lovin’, commie, pinko, hippie, peace queers (considerably cleaned up for our refined audience). I tossed out, “Long-haired, greasy-looking ape,” and immediately wondered where that came from.

Googling found it in a song on Jimmy Buffett’s first album, Down to Earth. The lyrics of ‘Truckstop Salvation’ hinted at an off-camera not-so-pleasant ending.

A silly ditty floated in my brain to the tune of ‘Harper Valley PTA’ (written here in awkward pentameter):

I want to tell you about a valley in Eastern Tennessee.
Good folks and bad struggle in a place called Suwannachee.
No McDonalds, no mall, no factory, no future, no pay,
Then along comes a notice from the local valley TVA.

Those in Washington know you love your rustic neighborhood,
But Congress tells you to give it up for the greater good.
Though eminent domain puts your family in a jam,
Those vacate orders on your doors mean they don’t give a dam.

Once my brain juxtaposed my brother with his Tom Petty hair and live-by-his-own-rules attitude, a Southern gothic began to sketch itself in dark, dark tones. What if Edgar Allan Poe engaged in a forbidden romance with Bobbie Gentry? You know, Deliverance without all the fun and frolic?

Those rock shrimp and stone crabs are rolling to a boil. Beer tub in the sand, nutcrackers at the ready. Pick up the hammer and tongs, have at them.

Florida’s Broward College is sponsoring the launch party. It’s virtual. It’s Zoom. It’s free. It’s 11 March, 2021 at 07:30p. Sign up here!

And yeah, the Jimmy Buffett anthology has lots of damn good stories. Don’t be a crusty crustacean, pre-order at a discount. Do it quickly– it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

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.