Showing posts with label Level Best Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Level Best Books. Show all posts

25 September 2018

Not a Dry Eye in the House


by Michael Bracken

I cried.

I screamed loud enough to be heard on the far side of the house. Then I cried.

My reaction to the email from Otto Penzler notifying me that my story “Smoked” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 was not the reaction I would have anticipated had I ever thought inclusion was a real possibility. I screamed across the house for my wife, and, by the time she arrived in my office, I was crying. All I could do was point at the computer screen and let Temple read the email herself.

I’ve had many reactions to acceptances and publications, but crying has never been one of them.

DREAM

Having a story selected for The Best American Mystery Stories is a dream that began when I read The Best American Mystery Stories 1998, the second edition of the now long-running series, and I own and have read every edition since.

As an editor, two stories I first published made the 2002 “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” list (“The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women” by Michael Collins and “Teed Off” by Mark Troy, Fedora), and one of my stories made the 2005 list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” (“Dreams Unborn,” Small Crimes).

But actual publication in the anthology? I never thought it was a possibility.

DREAM COME TRUE

Each time my wife and I visit her family, we spend much of the three-hour drive brainstorming story ideas while Temple notes them on a legal pad. Shortly before one such trip, I read the submission call for Level Best Books’ Noir at the Salad Bar, which sought stories that featured “food or drink, restaurants, bars or the culinary arts,” and during that trip my wife filled two handwritten pages with every food-related story idea we could imagine.

Then she suggested barbecue.

By the time we arrived at her family’s home, I knew the story’s setting and primary characters. While Temple visited with family, I filled several more pages of the legal pad with notes, and I created a rough outline. But after inspiration comes perspiration, and the story required several drafts before becoming “Smoked,” the story of an ex-biker in the Witness Security Program after turning state’s evidence against his former gang members. Relocated to a small Texas town, Beau James has opened Quarryville Smokehouse. Then his cover is blown when a magazine food critic names his smokehouse the “best-kept secret in West Texas” and his photo accompanies the review.

Shortly after publication, Robert Lopresti reviewed “Smoked” at Little Big Crimes, and he described the story better than I ever have: “The story takes place in modern Texas, but it has the feeling of an old-fashioned Western, with the bad guys getting closer and the townsfolk having to decide where they stand.”

LIVING THE DREAM

My wife insists “Smoked” is one of my best stories (and believes it would make an excellent movie for Amazon or Netflix!), but she’s obviously biased, and I learned long ago never to trust my own judgment.

So, I had no reason to think “Smoked” had any more of a chance to be selected than any of the many other stories I’ve sent Penzler over the years.

That I was emotionally overwhelmed when Penzler’s email popped up in my inbox is an understatement. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I’m not: I cried with joy.

In addition to “Smoked” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, my story “Texas Hot Flash” appears in the first print edition of Tough and my story “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile appears in Shhh...Murder!

12 September 2017

Editing An Anthology Electronically: Stronger Stories, Deeper Relationships


by Elizabeth Zelvin
When I agreed to serve as editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps, the fourth volume of the Murder New York Style anthology series from the New York/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime, I knew the process had to take place online. I had been a professional editor myself for many years. I had used Track Changes, the editing feature of MS Word, with editors of my own fiction. Furthermore, in my “other hat,” I am an online therapist, a pro at text-based communication and relationships in cyberspace. Yet the alchemy of the online editorial process produced benefits that came as a complete surprise. One was stronger stories than I believe could have been achieved by the passing back and forth of marginal scribbles and a couple of rounds of sticky notes. Another was a dialogue between editor and individual authors that took on depth and complexity throughout the process and created bonds that would not have existed otherwise.

Essential to the process was Track Changes. Compared to paper sticky notes (and before that, marginal slips you had to lick—remember those?), Track Changes balloons are infinitely expandable. It wasn’t just a matter of my offering a suggestion, making a correction, or asking for clarification; of the author complying, explaining, or offering an alternative. We could engage in an ongoing dialogue. In a sense, the margins became a mini-chat room. If we needed to converse at greater length, we could move on to emails at any time. The intensive electronic editing process—three rounds of edits—lasted from early April to mid-May. Then came a final trickle of queries through mid to late June, as I noticed unresolved issues, some quite important, while preparing to send the manuscript to the publisher, Level Best Books. In one case, when I got no answer to my email, I phoned the author, thinking the number I had, with a New York area code, must be her land line. Oops. It was her cell phone, and she was at a funeral in Montana—but she answered my question.

Our dialogue touched on many important elements of storytelling: voice, attribution, pace, when to start a scene, when to use backstory, how to introduce a character, what doesn’t need saying, what kinds of details readers skip over. For example, as an aspect of voice, a character mentioning the Brooklyn Bridge would not describe it in terms that might appear in a guidebook. In introducing a character, it’s awkward at best to inject a description of the new character’s appearance into the attribution:
"Stop, or I'll shoot!" the six-foot, blue-eyed, blonde police officer said.
Physical characteristics are better integrated into the narrative or left out altogether.

Certain small flaws cropped up in story after story, including my own. These were stage directions that failed to offer fresh language or to advance the plot.

He nodded.
She looked up.
He turned.
She stood up.
He sat back.
She shook her head.

I kept highlighting these brief sentences, noting: “Delete. Adds nothing, slows the pace.” I was an offender like everybody else. On the final pass, I found the following passage in my own story.

Jimmy and I looked at each other.
“She’s got a point, Mr. Jones,” he said.
“She is good at asking questions, Mr. Bones,” I said.

Out came “Jimmy and I looked at each other.” It wasn’t needed. Why hadn’t I seen that before? I hadn’t edited sixteen other stories before.

Since the New York/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime is responsible for the Murder New York Style anthologies, the contributors come from quite a small pool. Those of us who have been around for a while know each other. On the other hand, many of those who submit stories are relative newcomers. I couldn’t have put names to the faces of some of the authors whose stories I edited, though I might have met them at one or two of our monthly meetings. But after working intensively with them online, I did know them, and they knew me. We had developed a relationship.

As a psychotherapist with long-term online clients, I can assure you that genuine emotion, relationship, and personal growth are possible in text and in cyberspace. People who have greeted online writer friends with a hug the first time they met them face to face at Bouchercon or Malice know what I’m talking about. Did you ever hug an editor with whom you’d only exchanged query letters and paper manuscripts? Our SinC chapter ends the season with a party in June at a delightful venue, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Greenwich Village, before breaking for the summer. This year, every anthology author present whom I hadn’t known before had the same impulse I did: we peered at each other’s name tags, laughed, and flung our arms around each other.

Besides editing Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best Books), which includes her story, "Death Will Finish Your Marathon," Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, set in New York City, and the Mendoza Family Saga, historical fiction about a Jewish brother and sister who sail with Columbus and later find refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Liz's short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. They have been nominated twice for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story.