Showing posts with label James Lincoln Warren. Show all posts
Showing posts with label James Lincoln Warren. Show all posts

17 November 2019

Plussed (or Non)


Belie – An Ambidextrous Word

Last week I found myself using ‘belie’ in a story. A check for nuances compelled to look it up. Alice tumbled into the rabbit hole.

In the following, let’s use common English sentence structure:
    subject verb object

A sentence might read,
    A belies B.
    Her eyes belied her motives.

I had assumed belie implied (A) put the lie to (B), the subject is true and the object is false. Surely the verb exhibited a grammatical positive and negative polarity.

Not that simple, said my New Oxford American Dictionary. It offered examples both ways. In other words, sometimes (A) was true and sometimes it wasn’t. Polarity wasn’t constant.

Example 1   A ⇉ B
Example 2   B ⇉ A
Her cruelty belies her kind words.
His smile belies his viciousness.
    B is false (the object).
    A is false (the subject).

Logic (to me) says the subject (A) gives lie to or proves false (B). My beloved 3-volume OED long ago became landfill, so I turned to half a dozen internet dictionaries. A search turned up similar conflicting results. They all agreed about disagreement: Sometimes the subject made a liar of the object and sometimes the object made a liar of the subject.

At that point, I needed to deploy the big guns.

James Lincoln Warren
The legendary
James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren.

James’ house, a full-scale reproduction of the HMS Hotspur, contains a brass spyglass and a sixteenth century oak podium with the complete Oxford English Dictionary. At least that’s how I imagine it because I’m envious.

James kindly looked up belie for me and lo, it was as lesser dictionaries indicated. Belie cuts both ways. It doesn’t observe polarity. Sometimes the subject is true, sometimes the object.

James said no context beyond the contrast between the subject and object is necessary for them to be easily understood. Which is capable of deception?

Such amorphism disturbs me a bit. Offhand, I can’t think of another word in which, say, the subject sometimes trumps the object and other times the opposite can happen.

Nonplussed – or Not

Once upon a time in the New Oxford American Dictionary, I stumbled upon the following note:
In standard use, ‘nonplussed’ means ‘surprised and confused’: The hostility of the new neighbor's refusal left Mrs. Walker nonplussed.

In North American English, a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’— more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning: Hoping to disguise his confusion, he tried to appear nonplussed.

This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- is the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. Although commonly encountered, this modern use of nonplussed is not considered part of standard English, and is better replaced by unperturbed, unruffled, unfazed, or composed.
Never, ever had I heard the second ‘American’ meaning. I conducted a local poll of four dozen or so people. Out of nearly fifty responses, only one thought the second might be valid, but self-admittedly from a verbal standpoint, the word nonplussed was ‘not in his wheelhouse’.

I would have argued the point with Oxford, but I wondered if they had fallen victim to what I think of as the Wikipedia Effect or the Google Effect. If you watch Wikipedia, sometimes public content and wording depends on the loudest, most intimidating bully in the room. Higher level editors can often work these issues out, but when the bully is a higher level editor, the point becomes moot– or deleted along with embarrassing history.

If you haven’t experienced the Google Effect, imagine your long-time neighborhood suddenly called a name you never heard of. You enquire: whence did this come into existence? A van driver might hold the key.

Google Street View Mapping Vehicle + Dalek
Google Street View Mapping Vehicle
The Google Effect refers to Google mapping. You may have seen their vehicles driving the streets. Early versions featured cameras on roof-mounted tripods like Disney World used for its old Circle-Vision theatre in TomorrowLand. The latest cars recently spotted in Winter Park are driven by Daleks.

It turns out Google occasionally didn’t know how to name an area. If they couldn’t find a listing, worker bees exercised various options. Sometimes they asked a random resident, “What do you call this place?” Reportedly one label emerged from an erroneous realtor’s sign. It appears the new name for my old neighborhood came from an obscure street a few feet long called Fairview Shores.

In my selective sampling, all of my victims understood the standard meaning of ‘nonplussed’, except for the unsure guy who didn’t use the word at all. I’d like to ask Oxford how they came up with such a notice? What region in this vast country stands accused of this heresy?

An image sticks in my head, one of Oxford University sending a bored post-grad student to New York to document language abominations. He spends his research time in bars and picking up dates on West End Avenue.

Then on 42nd street, he invites for a romantic rendezvous a certain lady, called ‘Bam-Bam’ by her friends and another name entirely by the NYPD. When she sharply turns him down, he says, “You don’t have to act so negative.”

“I’m not negative, I’m non-plussed,” she replies, whereupon he pulls out his 80p Marks & Spencer notebook and starts jotting a new entry.

That’s how it happened. I’m sure of it.



Curious note: During the impeachment hearings, Fox or one of the righter outlets flashed a headline: Dems Seek Heresy Evidence. I’m nonplussed.

05 February 2018

Shades of Gray


John Lutz
John Lutz
featuring John Lutz
When I read the Baltimore Bouchercon guest list, one attendee caught my eye, the primary person I’d like to tip my hat to. Big-name authors find themselves inundated with clutching fans, leaving one to wonder– When does adulation grow old? I relegated myself to someone pointing out John Lutz across the room.

Then James Lincoln Warren arranged a dinner party (the same JLW who notes I write excessive introductions). I knew all the attendees except one couple. I introduced myself.

I almost spilled my drink. I wasn’t sure I heard right. The John Lutz and wife Barbara? Ever play the fantasy dinner guest list game? He’s the Victorian era’s equivalent of inviting Arthur Conan Doyle, La Belle Epoque’s homologue of Agatha Christie. John Lutz is my favorite author of my era.

After I gabbled or blabbled, I settled down at dinner, thoroughly charmed. James’ dinner became my Bouchercon highlight. So, when Jan Grape suggested recruiting John Lutz for an article, I nearly fell off my perch.

Credit for today’s article goes to Jan who is experiencing computer woes, else she would be writing this introduction mentioning Edgar and Shamus and movie awards. Unfortunately, she left me the onerous task of introducing John’s article.

So without further yammer and blather, Jan and I take pleasure introducing Mr John Lutz as he talks about his new spy novel.

— Jan Grape, Leigh Lundin



The Honorable Traitors
by John Lutz

How did I come up with the idea for my new series hero, secret agent Thomas Laker? You might assume that since I’ve written books in every other genre of mystery and suspense fiction, it was logical and predictable that I’d turn to espionage. But there’s nothing logical or predictable about coming up with ideas.

Here’s how it happened: I was reading a World War II history book, which set me musing that spies are our modern Cassandras, doomed to prophecy truly and not be believed. German agents found out where the Allied invasion of France was going to happen, and the generals dismissed their report. Soviet agents found out when the German invasion of Russia was going to happen, and Stalin blew them off. 

Not being believed must be a standard frustration of the spy business. I thought: What if there was a small, super-secret agency that operated in a more freewheeling fashion? Its agents, though of course unknown to the public, would be people with high reputations in the espionage fraternity. When employees of the CIA and FBI were being frustrated by bureaucrats and politicians, they’d turn to the people in my agency.

Honourable Traitors
Knowing that when agents of The Gray Outfit receive ‘actionable’ intelligence, they act.

That was the name that came to me for my agency. I decided to call its top agent Thomas Laker.

As my readers know, I like a hero who’s his own man, and does things his own way. My earlier series characters were private eyes in one-man agencies and retired cops who were so good the NYPD had to call them back to work on their own terms.

Laker’s like that, too– though he does have to report to his tough-as-nails boss Sam Mason, head of The Gray Outfit. Luckily Mason has as much disdain for routine methods as Laker.

My readers will also know that my series characters don’t work entirely alone.  Soon enough they meet up with a woman who gets under their skin.

In Laker’s case, it’s a beautiful and brainy NSA codebreaker named Ava North. The secret she brings him that is too hot for anyone else to handle concerns not her work but her family. The Norths have been Washington insiders for generations. The beginnings of the story of The Honorable Traitors go all the way back to World War II, but its unimaginably violent final act will take place in the future… the very near future.

17 November 2017

Moderating a Short Story Panel


James, Alan, Janet, Travis, Angel, and Barb
At the Bouchercon in Toronto a few weeks ago, one of the highlights was a panel on the short story moderated by my friend James Lincoln Warren. He wrote a long piece on FaceBook about it and graciously gave me permission to edit it and put it up here.

James says he feels like the Godfather of SleuthSayers, and he's right about that. He founded a website called Criminal Brief in which seven writers took turns talking (mostly) about short mystery fiction. When he decided to shut it down several of us grizzled survivors started SleuthSayers.


James is the author of many short stories that have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. Perhaps his best known works are ahe tales of 18th century insurance investigator Alan Treviscoe but he won the Black Orchid Novella Award with a contemporary private eye story. His "Shikari" is, in my opinion, the best Sherlock Holmes story ever written that does not include Sherlock Holmes.

Without further ado, here we go. Any mistakes below can be blamed on me.

— Robert Lopresti



Moderating a Short Story Panel

by James Lincoln Warren

The panelists and I have received comments from the audience that this was their favorite panel at the convention. People have also mentioned how well attended it was—it was SRO, which is very unusual for a short story panel at a crime fiction fan convention.So I decided I'd explain how I structured it and my theories for its unusual success.

First, I think its success was largely due to the wonderful panelists: Alan S. Orloff, Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Travis Richardson, Angel Colón, and Barb Goffman, all of whom are greatly respected in the crime short fiction community. Kudos is also well-deserved by Janet Costello, the Bouchercon Programming Chair, for scheduling such a panel.

But let me begin by explaining why I at first dreaded having it assigned to me.

My working rule as a moderator (and I always prefer to moderate rather than contribute as a panelist) at a fan convention is first and foremost, "Connect the author with the reader." In other words, I want to get at least one person in the audience to read the work of each of the panelists.

The themes for panels at fan conventions usually key on elements relative to a particular subgenre, or things that particular works, in a variety of subgenres, have in common, e.g., a panel about private eyes, a panel about hard-boiled female detectives, a panel on detectives with pets, and so on. Usually on such panels, one of the panelists will be a prominent star writer with a big fan base---those are the folk who are going to come to the panel. In so doing, they will discover lesser known writers whose work is previously unknown to them, but whose stuff they are guaranteed to enjoy. Everybody wins!

Short stories are not a subgenre, like hard-boiled, cozy, police procedural, fair play, romantic suspense, etc. The short story is a form, not a thematic genre, and the subgenres represented by it cover the whole spectrum of crime fiction. This means that other than length, short story writers' works may have very little in common with each other. On top of that, writers like me, who work almost exclusively in the form, are not likely to be stars, because crime fiction has been dominated by the novel since the 1930s. Likewise for the panelists---no matter how wonderful their work, it is bound to have less exposure than the works of novelists. The upshot is that it's unlikely that an audience will be drawn to the panel on account of the names assigned to it.

As I said, my goal is usually to connect every writer on the panel to someone in the audience. But I noticed that on every short story panel I've moderated, when we get to the Q&A, the questions are never about the authors whose work I've tried so hard to expose. Instead, the questions are always about "How do I get published? What are your secrets?"

So I proposed to Janet Costello that for this short story panel, we'd go all the way and make it about writing short stories. I proposed that we'd come up with a list of simple concepts the panel could agree upon, or if they disagreed on the concept, at least recognize its importance, and illustrate how that concept worked by reading examples of it from the short fiction written by the panelists, along with other observations and suggestions from short fiction editors.

But then I ran into some trouble, because I couldn't figure out how to structure the panel, or whom to assign to which nugget of advice. And then it hit me.

Aspiring writers have entire libraries of sound advice available to them on how to write: Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Steven King, and divers others, have all written very good books on it. For access to markets, there's the venerable Writer's Market---every writer I know has bought one at sometime or another. So what's different about asking published writers these questions face to face? We're not going to dispense more wisdom in an hour-long panel than you can get from any of those books.

The answer is, of course, that there is personal interaction. The rookie wants to pick the brains of the veterans. And that's when I realized that the way to run the panel was to make it consist of questions from the audience, and not the questions that I thought should be asked. I had the audience members write down their questions on a leaf from a small tear-out notebook, restricted the questions to one or two, and had them collected and given to me. I would then read the questions, pick the most interesting or generally applicable ones, and get the best of both worlds: the audience would get answers to their personal questions, and I would remain in control of the panel.

To open the panel, I listed five pieces of advice everybody agreed on, and read from the works of the panelists to illustrate each one. This also gave the audience time to phrase their questions and turn them in while we were still able to dispense some basic advice, while also establishing the bona fides of the panelists.

That took about fifteen minutes. The rest of the panel consisted of questions from the audience.

Robert states that I dispensed with several questions on my own with the mantra, "There are no magic bullets." This is true. I did this because, well, there are no magic bullets, no perfect formulas, no foolproof techniques, and aspiring writers must understand this. But there were lots of very interesting questions that were directed individually to the panelists, and some directed at more than one panelist. And as I had encouraged the panelists to speak up when they had something to say about a question pitched to someone else, there was a lot of stuff that got covered from more than one angle.

The personal touch is why everybody loved the panel so much. Now, you can't teach someone to write a commercial crime fic short story in an hour, but a frequent comment was, "I learned so much!" The important point here is that they learned not what any of us wanted to teach, BUT WHAT THEY WANTED TO KNOW. Respect your audience!

All right, that explains why the panel was a success, but it doesn't explain why the house was packed.


I think there are two essential reasons: (1) Janet Hutchings, the editor of the world's leading crime fiction magazine, was being honored at Bouchercon, and people from the audience thought that maybe they'd learn how she picked stories for the magazine; and (2) the subject of the panel, "how to construct the short story", was something they had always wanted, but never before had offered to them. Bouchercon is not a writers conference. It's a fan convention. But we sometimes forget that writers usually start as fans of other writers.

(Now, I don't think that Janet told them exactly how she picks a story, although she gave them some very good advice---be in control of your narrative, do not fixate on the opening but on the whole narrative, and that she could use a lot more fair play detective stories featuring a crime and its solution. I should also mention that I gave a shout out to Janet's colleague Linda Landrigan at EQMM's sister mag, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, who once told me she likes stories that seem to be about one thing, but are really about something else.)

I was extremely fortunate to have so much expertise on the panel, and for Janet Costello allowing me to have my own way with it. It was a helluva lot of fun.

11 September 2016

Don't Bury that Lede


James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
by Leigh Lundin
featuring guest star James Lincoln Warren


Today’s article takes an international bent, one at which the British might cock an eyebrow, South Africans pretend not to look superior, Australians mutter, “WTF?” and Canadians cringe. “Oh, not another American diatribe to confuse the issue.” Yes, I’m talking about spelling, but words of particular interest to writers.

I’ve lived and worked in the UK so I’m a bit schizophrenic about the topic. On good days I might give myself an A- but other days barely a B. When it comes to those plural-singular collective noun & verb combinations, I want to shoot myself, e.g, “Manchester are a great team.” Manchester what? Even Liverpool and Leeds disagree… for different reasons, but do they say Manchester suck or sucks? No… yes… maybe… I’m off on an unwinnable rant.

We can blame the devil in Noah Webster for part of our dilemma, but no one ever credited natural language with logic. It’s up to us poor writers to struggle against the darkness. And the not so poor– Stephen King reportedly insists upon certain ‘international’ spellings. Double points to him because he provides a web page so readers can report typos and other errors.

Story v Storey

Our steadfast friend, James Lincoln Warren, has previously suggested we should use ‘storey’ to refer to a floor within a building and ’story’ for literary uses. JLW writes:

The reason I prefer “storey” to “story” when describing a level of a building above the ground floor is because it is more specific. “Story” can mean several things, but “storey” means only one thing.

For whatever it’s worth, etymologically, both words derive from the same origin, Latin historia. In medieval “Anglo-Latin”, historia was used in both senses as with “story”, i.e., “narrative” and “floor”. The Oxford English Dictionary therefore considers “storey” a variant spelling of “story”, and doesn’t show an example of the spelling with the “e” until Dickens, which suggests to me that the inclusion of the “e” in the architectural spelling is quite recent.

Brilliant and simple, right? So if we use story and storey, why not further distinguish other words the same way?

Cosy v Cozy

We North Americans recognize (or recognise– more on that later) two great British inventions, the cosy and the, er, cosy. One popularly keeps tea warm and the other warms readers of golden age mysteries.

Some American authors happily use this spelling, but exceptions abound including our own Fran Rizer, and why not? She writes Southern cozies with a ‘z’, thank you very much.

I like cosy as a noun, but when it comes to verbs and adjectives, my senseless sensibilities kick in. “She cosied up to him,” seems wrong, like she quoted Agatha Christie while serving him a pot of tea.

But if we expand our North American use of cosy with an ’s’, I suggest we negotiate ‘-ize’ endings. The poor zee (or zed) sees so little use, why not allow it to participate in ‘authorize’ and ‘pressurize’ and ‘legitimize’?

Celebrate, crossword puzzlers, celebrate!

Lede v Lead

The first time I came across ‘lede’, I had to look it up to make certain I wasn’t misreading it. The use of ‘lede’ as a variant of ‘lead’ is even newer than storey, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Lede has been used to mean a headline, but more precisely refers to the opening paragraph of an article or story that summarizes (not summarises) the content following. Waffling Wikipedia suggests lede/lead combines the headline and first paragraph, but the ever precise Grammarist narrows its definition:

Strictly speaking, the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives the gist of the story and contains the most important points readers need to know… allowing readers who are not interested in the details to feel sufficiently informed.

In more dramatic forms, the lede can compare with a hook, but perhaps less obviously in, say, legal and technical writing. Professional journalism practices say a lede must provide the main points of a story, interest the reader in the story, and accomplish those goals as briefly as possible.

Newspapers used to be set in hot and cold lead (molten metal, Pb), so the lede of a hot lead could be cast in cold lead. As an interesting footnote, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language comments upon lede:

Obsolete spelling of lead, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from its homograph lead, strip of metal separating lines of type.

Bury the lede” uses only the lede spelling. It’s sometimes misunderstood as burying a lead article within a newspaper, but it more narrowly means to begin an article with unessentials and postpone revealing salient points or facts until deeper in the body. For example, an editor might bury the lede for popular or political reasons.

Kerb – Curb, Tyre – Tire

If we succeed in making the spelling choices in the English language smaller while making the meanings more exact, why stop with these words? Why not use certain British nouns in exchange for North American verbs? “I tired of the tyre against the kerb, which curbed my enthusiasm.” Yeah, that works.

The words clew/clue seem to have sorted themselves out, although an author like  James Lincoln Warren might employ ‘clew’ in nautical and historical writings.

Back to crime writing, what the hell do we do about ‘gaol’, an unholy Norman abomination that dismays even the Welsh? We turn to James once more:

Interestingly, in Samuel Johnson’s definition of GAOL in his dictionary, he writes, “It is always pronounced and too often written jail, and sometimes goal.” He does, however, also list JAIL under the letter “I”. (There is no "J" section).

Publishing News

Congratulations to James for two stories soon to appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines. Tip your boater to him at the New Orleans Bouchercon.

17 September 2014

Three Years Later...


Three years ago this web site and blog went live with John Floyd’s column “Plots and Plans”. Readers who have been with SleuthSayers from the beginning know it was spearheaded by former members of Criminal Brief, an influential web log devoted to mystery short fiction. CB, as it was affectionately known, had run its course. In 4½ years, it had covered a broad range of topics and insight in the realm of crime-writing. In the same month that Criminal Brief closed shop, September 2011, Leigh, Rob, John, and Deborah - as well as Janice Law, who had just joined CB seven months earlier - launched SleuthSayers. And what a great three years it has been.

Today we celebrate the third anniversary by bringing back all of the regular weekly columnists from Criminal Brief to provide brief updates of what they've done and where they've been during these three years. Let me say I’m glad to be back among old friends once again. So now I welcome to the stage Deborah, John, Melodie, Janice, Rob, Leigh, and Angela. It also seems fitting - we couldn't have it any other way - that Criminal Brief founder James Lincoln Warren will have the final word.

Thank you. And Happy SleuthSayers Anniversary!
— Steve Steinbock


Deborah Elliott-Upton
Deborah Elliott-Upton.  Criminal Brief arrived at a pivotal time of my life. I had finished teaching a series of writer’s workshops and longed for a new challenge. A weekly blog fit perfectly. I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow CB writers, some were new acquaintances, amid some I’d known for a while.  This allowed enough familiarity to be comfortable, enough new to make me strive to do my best. I think we learned from each other as much as we shared our knowledge and experiences with the readership.

My favorite columns to write for Criminal Brief during the four years were one on Nick Carter (great time researching that one!) and two that complimented the other: “Good Bad Guys” and “Bad Good Guys.” Of course, I have fond memories of my very first experience with CB with “Take a Seat” – my entrance to the blogging arena.

When James decided Criminal Brief should end, many of us immediately signed on as SleuthSayers. We met some new writers as columnists and also reached many new readers, too. Personally, I was most grateful for those that traveled with us from old to new blogs.

Taking a sabbatical from SleuthSayers, I went back to school, majoring in psychology. After all these years, I am still curious about what makes people tick and why they do or say or act like they do. These differences make life much more interesting. I plan to never stop learning and I can’t stop writing; both are addictions. I am so happy to be among people who feel as I do.

John Floyd
John M. Floyd.  There’s nothing special going on in my world, which is exactly the way I like it. I still teach fiction-writing classes in the Continuing Education department of a local college, I still carry out my wife’s every order (well, almost every order), and I still read or watch all the mystery/suspense books and movies I can get into my hands or my Netflix queue. In the summers I mow our yard once a week whether it needs it or not, and in the winters I spend a lot of time wishing we lived even further south. Since retiring, most of my traveling has been to visit our children or my mother, or to attend the occasional (but not often enough) Bouchercon.

On the writing/publishing front, I have two novels currently out with an agent who (bless his soul) remains excited and encouraging about them both, but--as always--most of my time is spent writing short stories. Over the past year I've been fortunate enough to place stories at AHMM, The Strand, Woman's World, and The Saturday Evening Post, and unfortunate enough to add a lot of entries to my stunningly long list of rejections. At the moment I have new stories upcoming at both AHMM and EQMM, and my fifth book will be released next month. This one is another collection of shorts, appropriately titled Fifty Mysteries.

Melodie Johnson Howe
Melodie Johnson Howe.  I miss blogging and my blogging buds. But I have been busy, busy. My new Diana Poole novel, City of Mirrors, has been received with raves and I have a contract for the second in the series. I’m writing away and pop my head up to go to Bouchercon, and speaking engagements. City of Mirrors has come out in the UK in e-book, so you Brits out there take a look at it.

I’m looking forward to the Bewitched Fanfare later this month. They will be showing ‘Generation Zap’, the episode I starred in. I will be interviewed afterwards. Who knew there was a Bewitched Fanfare?! It’s in L.A. at the Sportsmen’s Lodge. This should be fun. My long ago acting career is alive!

We have a new puppy called Satchmo in honor of Louis Armstrong. The attendant at the vet thought Satchmo was named after an action hero. I told her he was. Which reminds me of a black standard poodle we had called Madame Bovary. And people kept calling her Ovary. But I digress.

We have a great granddaughter, Addison, who just turned one. Beyond adorable. Bones and I will be married for 50 years in March. What’s in a number? Many years of living, adjusting, talking, laughing, arguing, passion, and always love and respect.

I must leave now to get my roots blonded. I find it’s good for the soul and creativity.

Janice Law Trecker
Janice Law.  Since Criminal Brief shut down, I spent a year writing bi-weekly blogs for Sleuthsayers and discovered that I do not have an endless supply of clever ideas and interesting activities. The SS gang has been kind about allowing me an occasional space.

I have published the three volumes of my trilogy featuring Francis Bacon, painter, as the detective, which is not as impressive as it might sound given that I sent The Fires of London to my then agent in 2006 and did not find a publisher until Otto Penzler accepted it for mysteriouspress.com in 2011. Because I had ignored the hint that the publishing world was uninterested in both me and Francis, I already had the second novel, Prisoner of the Riviera, written by this time. The publishing mills grind exceedingly slowly in my case.

I have also published a volume of short stories – don’t ask me how long Blood in the Water looked for a publisher – and thanks to a suggestion by Rob Lopresti, there have been numerous outings for Madame Selina and her assistant, Nip, in AHMM. I think it is about time Nip acquired a legitimate trade or profession and Madame retired to Newport or Saratoga.

Lately, I have been trying to market some novels close to my heart but apparently not to the demands of the market. As a result, I’m spending a lot of time painting, with quite happy results.

Robert Lopresti
Robert Lopresti.  What have I done in the last three years? Gotten much more than three years older, I think. Sold ten stories, more or less. Won two awards.

The future looks exciting. My first collection of short stories will be self-published quite soon. A new novel will be out next year. (Can't tell you about it yet, but I wrote a lot about it in the first year of SleuthSayers.) And, speaking of blogs, I have a new one starting next year. No, I won't be leaving SS, but I hope a lot of you will enjoy it. Read all about it here on January 7. In fact, I hope all you good folks will keep reading what we turn out here. You make it all worthwhile.

Leigh Lundin
Leigh Lundin.  In comparison with my colleagues, I submit very little but work a lot. I know, I know; I actually have to send things in!

The problem with ADD is that too many things interest me. Not long ago, I helped edit math textbooks and wrote a few chapters for one. More recently I’ve been editing novels of new authors who’ve turned their backs on the self-pub short-cuts and want to present at a professional level.

A couple of stories are wending their way to editors’ desks and I’ve been working on a couple of novel-length projects. Well, one's a novel and one isn't, but more on that later.

In the meantime, SleuthSayers keeps me occupied, albeit with considerable help from my cohorts, especially Rob. And did I mention I spent the better part of a year in South Africa? And would love to again?

Steve Steinbock
Steve Steinbock.  For a fuller disclosure of what I've been up to since the days of Criminal Brief, take a look at my recent guest post here on Sleuthsayers. The short version: Last year I attended a large number of mystery conventions and events - Bouchercon, Bloody Words, The Edgars, and Malice Domestic - as well as, on a lark, a Dark Shadows gathering in Tarrytown, New York. I continue to write my regular Jury Box colum in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

On the personal side, my youngest child just began his senior year of high school. After he graduates, I plan to relocate to Washington State, just a few hours from Sleuthsayer and former Criminal Briefer Robert Lopresti. I spent most of this past summer in the desert region of Eastern Washington as well as in Seattle. I also took my son on a college exploratory trip to California, where we were able to catch up with old friends James Lincoln Warren, Melodie Johnson Howe, and Murder She Wrote and Columbo creator William Link.

Angela Zeman
Angela Zeman.  Hello! It’s been forever since I’ve checked in on SleuthSayers, thanks, Leigh for the invitation. When browsing your blogs, I detected that nobody here has been idle. (Elementary, heh heh.)

Life is good. I'm still attached to the amazing Barry Zeman, who Leigh thinks would make an ideal Mickey Spillane.

Since appearing in the Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Prosecution Rests, I've continued to write and developed a high-end web site. Most of you know that for several years, disk/back issues have disrupted my writing and my life. But tah-dah, it’s over. Well, I’ve had to stop leaping tall buildings. But I’m content with short hops. So, friends, to all directly concerned with my production (you know who you are) whatever I promised you… it’s going to arrive late. But I’m on it, no worries.

Oh yes, I'm 30,000 words into a thriller with a touch of horror. I'm so excited to be writing again!

James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren.  By 2006, I had tried at least twice (two-and-a-half times, if you count my short-lived Diction City Police Department attempt) to establish a presence on the internet as an author with his own blog. Can you say crash and burn? Running a personal web log takes a hell of a lot of work and a monstrous amount of discipline—that, or a pathological graphomania, and I’m a slow writer. Frankly, it isn’t possible to keep such a website completely current, and since new posts were generally erratic, it was also hard to keep it fresh. A blog really needs to be updated every day.

Several of my novelist friends had solved the necessary-update-every-day problem by joining rotating blogs, i.e., they shared the same blog, but each author posted on a regular schedule once a week. So I thought, why not a rotating blog for short story writers?

I pitched the idea to Rob Lopresti, who was enthusiastic, and after both of us had worked in putting together a regular list of contributors, Criminal Brief was launched on May 7, 2007. It was a resounding success.

The “Mystery Short Story Web Log Project” lasted for four and a half years. It was a very different website from SleuthSayers in a couple of ways. First, it had an extremely specific goal, to wit, promoting the crime short story, although other peripherally related topics were tolerated. Secondly, I was the editor and ultimate authority regarding what could be posted. (This latter condition caused some friction now and again.)

But toward the end, its content had gotten so broad that it was no longer even remotely sticking to the topic. Since it had pretty much become a non-paying full-time job for me, this made me unhappy. I was working very hard on something I did not really have a passion for.

Was CB still relevant to its primary purpose? The answer was clearly no. But then I realized that CB had actually accomplished its purpose. I wasn’t willing to let what had been so lovingly been crafted turn into just another author blog, not that I have any objection to such blogs, but the reason Rob and I had founded CB in the first place was because we wanted something unique. Regretfully, I decided to shut it down. That pretty much made everybody unhappy.

So I suggested to the others that if they wanted to continue to write posts, that they establish a new blog among themselves with a broader mandate. The indefatigable Leigh Lundin picked up the gauntlet, and three of the seven authors from CB joined him, which I thought was absolutely grand, and the SleuthSayers shortly thereafter began to pronounce their auguries. Look at them now!

SleuthSayers is a much bigger project than CB ever was. From the short story acorn has grown a mighty oak of crime fiction contributors. Here’s Criminal Brief’s swan song. That will tell you what I think we achieved, and explain my pride in the project. One thing at the time I didn’t suspect was what would happen to that acorn, though—I only left it on the ground. The SleuthSayers themselves are the ones who nurtured, pruned, and watered it into what it is now, and they’re the ones who should be justifiably proud of their accomplishments.

19 December 2012

Picking More Black Orchids


by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago I published in this space the speech I gave when I won the Black Orchid Novella Award. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the experience. After that I promise to shut up about it until the winning story is published in May, when I will start babbling about it again. (Hey, I don't win prizes that often; give me a break.)

Anyway, I was informed by Jane Cleland back in September that I was the winner. The reason for the early tip-off, of course, is to encourage the winner to attend, which is exactly what it did in my case.  But it meant I had to keep my trap shut for three months and that was not the easiest thing I ever did. Ironically, I applied for a promotion at the same time and in my c.v. I had to write "This year I will receive another award for my writing, but I can't tell you what it is. Ask me in December." I'm sure the peers reviewing my file wondered what the hell that was about.

We visit the Saturday farmer's market almost every week and there is a very nice woman there who makes excellent hats out of recycled sweaters. Back in September I joked that the reason I couldn't fit into one of her hats was that my head was swelled (swollen?) because I just found out I had won an award. She asked which one and of course I couldn't tell her. I did tell her last week and naturally she had never heard of the BONA. Another person wondering what the hell that was about.

Anyway, I did go to the Black Orchid events, wearing one of those recycled hats, oddly enough. It started with the Assembly, in which Rex Stout fans gather to hear experts discuss topics related to the Corpus. (Doyle's writings about Sherlock Holmes are known as the Canon; Stout's reports on Nero Wolfe are known as the Corpus, because it suggests the corpulent nature of our hero).

My favorite speaker was Bob Gatten, who spoke about Rex Stout's work as president of the War Writers Board. I hadn't known that Stout organized a program to discourage writers from using ethnic stereotypes in their writing. "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it over here."

Another highlight was David Naczycz of Urban Oyster on the history of beer in New York City, a subject very dear to Wolfe's heart, or taste buds.

But the major event was the Banquet. Terri and I were seated next to Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and James Lincoln Warren, good friend of this blog, and last year's winner. James had an official duty this year, presenting the first of five annual toasts. His was to Rex Stout which he delivered in rhyme. Here is a sample:
In our hearts, we all gather together to meet 
At the brownstone address on West Thirty-Fifth Street,
To drink milk or drink beer, or tonight imbibe wine,
To toast a great soul and inimitable mind.
And I can testify that a considerable amount of wine was indeed imbibed.

Another feature of the annual banquet is that each table is expected to compose and perform a song (set to a familiar tune) about the Corpus. These are always enthusiastic if not necessarily masterpieces. Ira Matetsky the Werowance (i.e. president) of the Pack said of one number "of all the song parodies I have heard, that was the most recent."

Having been warned about this feature in advance I provided my tablemates with seven songs to choose from. They selected this number, to the tune of "Ain't Misbehavin'." (That's a photo of Fats Waller, of "Ain't Misbehavin'" fame, not Ira Matetsky, in case you wondered.)
SOME BURIED CAESAR

I traveled upstate,
I don’t care to go,
I had a big date,
To show up a flower show
Some Buried Caesar,
I blame it all on you
Du-du, du-du-du, dudu-du
The car was loaded,
With orchids and me,
A tire exploded,
My Heron hit a tree.
Some Buried Caesar,
I didn’t hear you moo, Du…

Like Jack Horner

we were cornered
in the pasture,
I climbed faster,
That rescue’s what I waited for
Be-lieve me

While Archie first eyes,
the girl he’ll adore,
I won the first prize,
That’s what I went there for
Some Buried Caesar,
I solved a murder too, Du…
Some Buried Caesar,
That’s what detectives do

Matestsky gushingly described our contribution as "surprisingly competent."

One more thing. To fund unexpected expenses, the Wolfe Pack raffled off a seat for next year's banquet. I do not expect to be able to attend in 2013 but in the interest of contributing I bought one ticket.

Guess who won?

Must have been my lucky night.

29 May 2012

It's Alive!


by David Dean

Have you ever noticed that, as an adult, good news always seems to have a catch?  When I was a kid it was very different.  When something good happened, such as getting great presents on my birthday or at Christmas, I never questioned it and didn't have to hold my breath waiting for the dreaded catch.  After all, what more could be asked of me when I had lived up to my end of the bargain?  If I got a birthday present it was because I had survived another year--done!  As for Christmas, well, if I hadn't been good all year, then what were those presents doing under the tree?  Hah!  No take backs, no conditions.  Then I grew up and became a writer.

Writing, as we all know, is a odd profession that begins with a solitary writer pecking away somewhere all on his lonesome.  Then, once his/her muse has been properly summoned and appeased, said writer produces a manuscript.  This creation, upon subsequent readings, suddenly develops a life of its own and has to be wrestled to the ground in order to regain mastery.  This sad contest can go on for days, weeks, even months or years.  Meanwhile, our chastened writer must write anew, repeating the process over and over, thus populating his world with dozens of clanking, questing creations, some of which he may never drive forth into the greater world and readership.  Instead, they occupy dusty corners of his home, and worse, his imagination, occasionally sitting up and looking about in confusion at having been left behind and glaring with hatred at their creator; rattling chains and straining to have at him.  I believe I read once that the talented James Lincoln Warren has succeeded in having every story that he has written published.  And he should have...if you've read his work then you know that he's very good at what he does.  I have not fared quite as well, yet I persist.  And sometimes this persistence pays off...but there's the catch.

A few years back I wrote a horror novel set in southern New Jersey.  I know what you're thinking, "A horror novel?  Have you lost your mind--what do you know about horror...or even novels?"  Not much, I'm thinking, but that has never stopped me in the past, and it didn't this time.  I wrote it and was moderately pleased that I had come up with something fairly unique and readable; maybe even commercially viable.  Even my editorial board (Bridgid, Julian, and Tanya) didn't condemn it outright, but deemed it "entertaining".  I was encouraged by this ringing endorsement. 

Every agent I submitted it to disagreed.  Dozens...actually more than dozens (I don't think it benefits anyone to go into actual numbers), managed to turn down my generous offer of partnership on this merry voyage.  "Fools!" I cried.  "You damned fools...I'm letting you in on the blockbuster of the year and you say...no?"  They did.

Univeral Pictures "Frankenstein" 1931
After a while, I coaxed the monster back into its cell and padlocked it.  For months afterward, I would be awakened in the night by its cries, threats, and laments.  I drank heavily.  At some point, I can't recall when, the cries, which had been growing fainter and fainter, faded away altogether, leaving the house in silence.  I tried to forget.  I wrote and wrote.  There were successes and failures, but the "Novel" as I had come to call it, kept returning to haunt me at odd, unguarded moments.  Finally, one day when Robin was away for the afternoon, I dug the key out of the clutter of my desk drawer and went down there.  I opened the door...I opened the damned door!  It was still there, barely alive; covered with dust and cobwebs, breathing faintly, with a thready, uncertain pulse.  I dragged it out into the light.  And, of course...it all started again!  I made a few rewrites, a different beginning, tightened up a sentence or two.  It groaned and flailed weakly, but was still unable to rise and stand on its own.  What had I been thinking leaving it alone for so long?  I blamed Robin, she had never cared for horror and made no secret of it.  Perhaps her disdain (for now I could see it for what it was), had seeped into my work, poisoned my best efforts.  I found her watching me in unguarded moments; quickly looking away when I caught her at it.  She hated my novel!  I knew it!  She wanted me to put it away again!

But I schemed and plotted and soon I had found a way around both her and the damned agents!  E-publishing!  That's the ticket.  I contacted a reputable firm recommended by MWA to help me prepare my creation for its entry into the virtual world.  I e-mailed my manuscript to their proofreader.  I didn't need any stinkin' agents, or even a publisher.  I'm the publisher now, baby!  I'm my own man!

The firm contacted me a few weeks later.  After having read my novel, they wanted to publish it.

Say what?

Now this really screwed things up.  I had this all figured out; I didn't need anybody!  But as the words of the email sunk in, I began to chuckle, then laugh aloud.  The irony of it all!  And the wonderful feeling of smugness at being backed in my opinion by a perfect stranger.  This, I suddenly realized, was the gift...the perfect gift!

But then I continued reading...there was more--there was a catch.  The publisher deemed that for us to go forward together more work was required.  My manuscript was in desperate need of a good developmental editor.  If at the end of six months it failed to meet his requirements, then all bets were off.  Oh, how skillfully he had thrown out the bait, how cruelly he had set the hook.  How dare he!  More work?  And what the hell is a developmental editor?

So you see, my friends, there is always a catch.  They know us writers...they know what we want and what we'll do to get it.  We want our creations to stand up and walk on their own.  To breath and bellow!  To be allowed to walk in daylight along with all God's creatures.  But "they" always want more work, and then...more and more work! 

So now I have been graciously granted six months to accomplish what he wants, and he calls the shots--I'm just the writer again; little more than a temporary employee sans benefits.  But there's a chance now...just a chance, I admit, that my baby will yet be set free.  And on that glorious day the whole world shall hear me cry, "It's alive...it's alive!"


Universal Pictures "Frankenstein" 1931
By the way, I know that a lot of you have already been down this road and I'd appreciate hearing your experiences, especially about working with editors. 


04 December 2011

Mrs. Swann Toasts Mr. Wolfe


James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
(photo credit: Reinhard Kargl)
by James Lincoln Warren

On the evening of December 3, 2011, the Wolfe Pack, the international Rex Stout fan organization, gathered for its annual Black Orchid Banquet in New York City, this year celebrating not only his works, but also his 125th birthday. One of the events during the banquet was the presentation of the Black Orchid Novella Award, or BONA, given to the winner of their annual competition for an original novella written in the tradition of Rex Stout. This year, I was honored to be its recipient for my story Inner Fire. Here are my prepared remarks for the banquet.

The old saw that being a writer is the most solitary of occupations is completely wrong. Honestly, I can’t think of a more social activity, because a writer is nobody without readers, and readers form a community, as this gathering tonight so clearly demonstrates. Along those same lines, Inner Fire would never have succeeded without the advice and feedback of several advance readers, most of whom are accomplished mystery writers themselves. The fine writers who provided that advice were Melodie Johnson Howe, Nora McFarland, Robert Lopresti, Steve Steinbock, and John M. Floyd. Additional thanks are clearly owed to Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, the members of the BONA selection jury, and to my wife Margaret. It would also be utterly remiss of me not to express my gratitude to the founder of the literary feast, the great Rex Stout.

When the BONA was first established a few years ago, Linda invited me to submit something for it. At the time I declined because I couldn’t think of anything good enough, but I paid close attention to the results of the competition in subsequent years. Although the rules of the competition state that the story shouldn’t be derivative of the Nero Wolfe milieu, I found the idea of writing a story using the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin model patently irresistible. (I note that it was irresistible to previous winners, too.)

I realized I needed my own spin on the Wolfe/Goodwin paradigm. So I asked myself, what if I Nero and Archie were women? And what if, instead of living in New York, they lived in my town, contemporary Los Angeles? I thought this concept was brilliant, and I was right to think so. It was so brilliant, in fact, that it had already been done twenty years before.

I mentioned that Melodie Johnson Howe was one of my advisors. In 1990, Melodie gave the world her first novel, The Mother Shadow, featuring Claire Conrad, her Wolfe character, and Maggie Hill, her Archie equivalent, the story taking place in L.A. It’s such an excellent book that it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

Knowing this, especially as Melodie is a dear friend, you might wonder how I had the gall to proceed with my own women-in-L.A. take. Well, I don’t know how I did, except to say that once I got my teeth into the idea, I couldn’t not write it. There could be no question, though, of not bringing Melodie into the loop, because I felt I needed her permission to carry on. So I enlisted her to advise me, hoping she would perceive that my story was almost as much an homage to her as to Rex Stout.

In the sequel, my female Nero and Archie weren’t much like Melodie’s. Erica (that is, my girl Archie) is younger and less cynical than Maggie, and Miss Enola (my female Wolfe) is not at all like Claire except in her analytical genius and immense self-confidence. It wasn’t difficult to separate my creations from Melodie’s at all.

No, the tough part was to make Erica and Miss Enola as credibly and convincingly female as the original Nero and Archie were so steadfastly male. I’m the the kind of guy who likes smoking cigars, watching football games clutching a cold beer, and occasionally playing dealer’s choice low-stakes poker with my friends, so writing male characters is easy for me. Female characters are hard. One of the characters in Inner Fire expresses my conundrum. “The biggest difference between men and women,” he says, “is that women think they understand men. Men know they don’t understand women.” So you can see that given my limitations, I had set myself a daunting challenge.
black orchid
I began by assuming a new identity. The byline on the story is “Jolie McLarren Swann”. That is ostensibly the name of a woman. As you have probably observed, I am not a woman. But if you look carefully at the name, you may discover that if you rearrange the letters, one of the possible results is “James Lincoln Warren”. By an amazing coincidence, that happens to be my name.

Inner Fire’s narrator is a callow and attractive young detective named Erica H. Wooding. By the same amazing coincidence as the byline, that is an anagram of “Archie Goodwin”. The senior stateswoman in the story is named “Enola Fowler”. The letters in her name can be rearranged to read “Nero Wolfe L.A.”

I thought that the anagrams would please the puzzle-minded of the tale’s readers, as well as serving to pay direct, if mildly covert, tribute to Rex Stout.

Erica and Miss Enola are not carbon copies of their progenitors, though, and I worked hard to give them their own voices. I have to say that I am especially proud of Erica, since I am categorically not a 23-year-old woman myself, and personally have very little in common with 23-year-old women, but I think she comes across as who she is. I confess I’m in love with her, but I honestly can tell you that having standards of her own, she would never be in love with me.

I’m more in tune with Miss Enola, a woman of my own age who shares many of my more pronounced prejudices about the world. She’s not so lovable as Erica, but in many ways she’s more interesting. Nora McFarland, another of my readers, pointed out to me that her first name taken by itself is an anagram of “Alone”, and that this is a quality essential to her character.

But of course Miss Enola is not alone. She has Erica to keep her company, even if she spends most of her time in her own head. Mostly, though, she will never be alone as long as there are people who love to read detective stories. I hope that when Inner Fire is published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mysterty Magazine this coming summer, you will all have the opportunity to read it. I wrote it for you, and I am deeply and humbly grateful for the honor you have done me in granting me this award. I tell you from the bottom of my heart that it is one of the brightest highlights of my career as an author of crime fiction.