Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts

28 July 2020

Writing Squirrels


“Squirrel!”

In the movie Up, Dug is often distracted by squirrels while in the midst of conversations with Carl and Russell in much the same way writers are often distracted by new ideas while in the midst of writing something unrelated.

Writing squirrels are now delivered to the
Bracken household by the barrowful.
I certainly deal with my share of writing squirrels. This, in fact, is one of them. I was writing a scene about a woman in a convenience store when she looked out the window and—Squirrel!—I thought this might make for an interesting SleuthSayer post. I jumped over here, wrote the opening two paragraphs and then—Squirrel!—jumped into another file and noted the title and premise for a humorous horror story I might never actually write and then—Squirrel!—thought of a way to respond to a difficult question in an email, but even before I opened Outlook—Squirrel!—I imagined an opening scene for yet another story, quickly opened a new file, and made some notes.

By then I was exhausted, so I gave up chasing squirrels and wandered off to watch another episode of Foyle’s War.

I still haven’t returned to the scene about a woman in a convenience store looking out the window.

WHERE DO THEY COME FROM? WHERE DO THEY GO?

Writing squirrels are random ideas that hover at the edge of our subconscious, just waiting for a moment when we are deeply engrossed in writing to skitter across our consciousness and divert our attention from the project in front of us. They’re exciting and new—not the drudgery we’re slogging through—so we look away. We make notes, we write snippets of dialog, we draft scenes, and then the writing squirrel disappears. The idea abandons us mid-thought, or it truly is a good idea and we begin work in earnest, turning the writing squirrel into a project that requires our attention. We become deeply engrossed in our new project, certain this is the story that—Squirrel!—and then we’re off chasing another idea.

I think writing squirrels breed in our subconscious, sneaking meals from the mental bird feeder we fill with the random assortment of facts, images, turns of phrase, smells, tastes, news reports, snippets of conversation, dreams, and other detritus. When the squirrels have feasted sufficiently—when they have consumed and digested this smell and that news report and that overheard bit of conversation and that turn of phrase—they dart across our consciousness, letting us know that they have brought us an exciting, new idea.

Writing squirrels are our best friends and our worst enemies. While they often distract us from the task at hand, they often bring us our best ideas. We can neither tame them nor avoid them, we can only—Squirrel!


In addition to The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019) receiving an Anthony Award nomination, several stories from the anthology have also received recognition: “Lucy’s Tree” by Sandra Murphy received a Derringer Award; “See Humble and Die” by Richard Helms was nominated for a Derringer Award and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020; “West Texas Barbecue” by Michael Chandos was nominated for a Macavity Award; and “Weathering the Storm” by Michael Pool was nominated for a Shamus Award. Even though there are four other excellent anthologies nominated for an Anthony Award this year, I’m partial to this one.

07 July 2020

Purchase. Read. Vote.


Though the first Bouchercon was held in 1970 and the first Anthony Awards presented in 1986, Bouchercon 2020 will be, if I’ve counted correctly, only the tenth time an Anthony has been presented for an anthology or collection.

As a contributor to three Anthony-nominated anthologies and the editor of one, it may be selfish to suggest that I wish an Anthony were awarded in this category every year.

As a voracious writer and reader of short mystery fiction, though, I think this is a great way to recognize the contributions of short-story writers and editors, and I believe their work should be honored every year. After all, crime fiction novelists have multiple opportunities to receive awards, far more than do short-story writers and editors.

PAST RECIPIENTS

The award seems to have had slightly different names over the years, and here’s a look back at past winners. The publishers of Anthony-winning anthologies/collections include both major publishers and small presses, and the editors tend to be well-known. Bouchercon’s own anthologies have won twice and, coincidentally, the only publisher to have won twice published the Bouchercon anthologies.

2018 Best Anthology—Gary Phillips, The Obama Inheritance (Three Rooms Press)

2017 Best Anthology or Collection—Greg Herren, Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016 (Down & Out)

2016 Best Anthology or Collection—Art Taylor, Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 (Down & Out)

2015 Best Anthology or Collection—Laurie R. King & Leslie S. Klinger, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon (Pegasus Crime)

2001 Best Anthology/Short-Story Collection—Lawrence Block, Master’s Choice II (Berkley)

1996 Best Short Story Collection—Marcia Muller, The McCone Files: The Complete Sharon McCone Stories (Crippen & Landru)

1995 Best Anthology/Short Story Collection—Tony Hillerman, The Mysterious West (Harper Collins)

1994 Best Anthology/Short Story Collection—Martin H. Greenberg, Mary Higgins Clark Presents Malice Domestic 2 (Pocket)

1992 Best Anthology/Short Story Collection—Sara Paretsky, A Woman’s Eye (Delacorte)

2020 NOMINEES FOR BEST ANTHOLOGY OR COLLECTION

There are five nominees for Best Anthology or Collection this year, each equally deserving. If you enjoy short stories, and if you want to read several great stories, you should order all five. Within the pages of these anthologies you will discover Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, Macavity, and Shamus Award-nominated short stories, an Agatha Award-winning story, a Derringer Award-winning story, and at least one story selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken (Down & Out Books)

¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Colón (Down & Out Books)

Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman (Wildside Press)

Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)

Murder A-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Gos, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)










So, order all five, read them closely and, when you receive your Anthony ballot this year, vote for the anthology you feel most deserving.

SIDE NOTE: SLEUTHSAYERS WELL REPRESENTED

Though Art Taylor is the only SleuthSayer to receive an Anthony for Best Anthology, Paul D. Marks co-edited the Anthony-nominated Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out), and Barb Goffman and I each edited an anthology nominated this year. So, SleuthSayers are well represented in this category.


Sandra Murphy and I have a collaboration—“Goobers”—in The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths (Mango) edited by Maxim Jakubowski; my story “Caked” appears in the June issue of Thriller Magazine, and my story “El Despoblado” appears in the June issue of The Digest Enthusiast.

16 June 2020

News From the Dark Side


A year before I joined SleuthSayers, I wrote “Tales From the Dark Side,” a guest post about editing that included some information about my editing background and several tips on how to please editors.

I’ve touched on editing in some of my subsequent posts, but this time I’m sharing news.

BLACK CAT MYSTERY MAGAZINE

Those of you who have read the recently released Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6—or have used Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read the issue’s editorial—will already know this, but I am now the editor of BCMM.

I joined the BCMM staff at last year’s Malice Domestic, replacing Carla Coupe as co-editor upon her retirement. Earlier this year, after working together on the forthcoming special issue Black Cat Mystery Magazine Presents Private Eyes and reading through all the submissions from last fall’s open call, Wildside Press Publisher John Betancourt asked me to step into the editor’s role while he concentrated on his duties as publisher.

So, I did.

Our goal is to publish quarterly, with three numbered issues and one special issue each year, and John has charged me with ensuring that BCMM is home to the full range of subgenres within our field.

BCMM #6—filled will new stories by Michael Bracken, Trey R. Barker, Patricia Dusenbury, Robert Guffey, John Hegenberger, Laird Long, and Robert Lopresti, and a classic reprint by Bryce Walton—is the last issue in which all the stories were selected by John and Carla. John and I selected the stories for the private eye issue, and subsequent issues 7–10 contain a mixture of stories selected by John and Carla, John and me, and me.

As you likely gathered from the previous paragraph, we have filled the next four regular issues, so it could be as much as a year before we again open for general submissions. Even so, our next special issue—Black Cat Mystery Magazine Presents Cozies—will open for submissions later this year. Keep a close watch at https://bcmystery.com/Guidelines/ for guidelines and information about the short submission window.

DOWN & OUT BOOKS

A few years ago I began work on my first anthology for Down & Out Books—The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From the Panhandle to the Piney Woods—and the number of projects I’m doing with D&O continues to grow.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From the Panhandle to the Piney Woods

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods
was released just before the 2019 Bouchercon in Dallas. In addition to strong reviews and an Anthony Award nomination for Best Anthology or Collection, stories from The Eyes of Texas have been singled out for award recognition:

Sandra Murphy’s story “Lucy’s Tree” earned a Derringer Award.

Richard Helms’s story “See Humble and Die” was nominated for a Derringer Award and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020, due out later this year.

Michael Pool’s story “Weathering the Storm” has been short-listed for a Shamus Award.

Guns + Tacos

Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-created and co-edit with Trey R. Barker released its first season in 2019. Six novellas, released as ebooks one episode each month July–December constitute a season, and, after each season ends, that season’s novellas are assembled into a pair of paperbacks, each containing three episodes.

Season 2—with novellas by Ann Aptaker, Eric Beetner, Alec Cizak, Ryan Sayles, Mark Troy, and a collaboration between Trey R. Barker and me—begins next month. Each episode can be ordered individually, but subscribers receive a special bonus story that non-subscribers don’t. Last season I wrote the bonus story; this season Trey wrote it.

And—good news!—we’ve been approved for season 3.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, the first in what we hope will be an annual anthology series, is set to release this fall. After all the contracts are signed and we get a bit closer to publication date, I’ll share the list of contributors.

Mickey Finn 2, slated for publication fall 2021, is in the last stages of the editing process and the manuscript will soon be delivered to the publisher.

Jukes & Tonks

Jukes & Tonks, which I am co-editing with Gary Phillips, is scheduled for publication in spring 2021. Gary and I are awaiting delivery of the last few stories and then copyediting begins.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

In addition to the above, I remain editor of a bi-monthly consumer magazine for gardeners and a weekly electronic newsletter for gardeners.

BUT WHAT ABOUT SOME WRITING NEWS?

My story “Best Be the Tie that Binds” appears in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6.

You might say I have a vested interest in two of this year’s Anthony Award-nominated anthologies. Crime Travel (Wildside Press), edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman, contains my Derringer Award-nominated story “Love, Or Something Like It.”

09 June 2020

Some thoughts on the short-story-related Anthony Award nominations


While we talk about many things that are writing related here at SleuthSayers (and many things that aren't), our primary focus is crime short fiction. So it's wonderful timing that today, a few hours before I sat down to write this column, the Anthony Award nominations were announced, including for best short story and best anthology/collection published last year.

I'm not going to write long today because I'd rather you take some time to read one of the nominated anthologies or short stories. But I do want to say a few things:

First, thank you to all of the authors who heard about my crazy idea to do a cross-genre anthology, mashing crime with time travel, and submitted stories for Crime Travel back in 2018. (Crime Travel was among the nominated anthologies.) I could only accept fourteen stories (plus one of my own). I wish I could have taken more.

Thank you to everyone who has congratulated me today. I love the camaraderie of our industry. This nomination belongs to the authors in Crime Travel as much as it does to me, and I applaud them. 

Congratulations to my fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken (whose The Eyes of Texas: Private Investigators from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was nominated for best anthology) and Art Taylor, who is up twice (!) in the short-story category, once for "Better Days," which appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and once for "Hard Return," which I was proud to include in Crime Travel. I'm so proud of you both!

I'd edited anthologies before Crime Travel, but this was the first time I chose the stories. It was a daunting task. One thing I learned from doing it is that while stories about a theme can be wide-ranging, in different sub-genres with varying approaches to storytelling, the best stories--at least to me--are the ones that touch you. The ones that have heart. And I hope that the nomination for Crime Travel today means that the stories in this book touched a lot of readers just as they did me. Thank you to everyone who read it and nominated it.

So, without further ado, here are this year's nominees for the Anthony Award in the best short-story category and the best anthology category. I hope you'll pick up one of them (or all of them).

BEST SHORT STORY
“Turistas,” by Hector Acosta (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Unforgiven,” by Hilary Davidson (appearing in Murder a-Go-Gos: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Gos)
“The Red Zone,” by Alex Segura (appearing in ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico)
“Better Days,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019)
“Hard Return,” by Art Taylor (appearing in Crime Travel)

BEST ANTHOLOGY OR COLLECTION
The Eyes of Texas: Private Investigators from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, edited by Michael Bracken (Down & Out Books)
¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas!: Stories to Benefit the People of Puerto Rico, edited by Angel Luis Colón (Down & Out Books)
Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman (Wildside Press)
Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons (Wildside Press)
Murder a-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West (Down & Out Books)

Happy reading!

26 May 2020

AloneStarCon


Though our friends are saddened by the cancellation of this year’s many mystery conferences and conventions, Temple and I spent Memorial Day weekend at AloneStarCon, the first-ever presentation of the Lone Star State’s premier mystery convention. We thought we would share some highlights with you.

This year’s convention was held in a modest venue selected for its proximity to the guests of honor. Convention staff went above and beyond to ensure that every guest felt welcome, and the many presentations were nothing short of exceptional. The distance between any two points in the event facility was negligible, the intimate setting allowed close interaction between writer and fan, and everywhere we turned we ran into our favorite writer. There was never a wait for a table in the restaurant, the food was excellent, and the serve-yourself bar allowed for generous pours of one’s favorite libations.


AloneStarCon
May 22-24, 2020
Hewitt, Texas

Guest of Honor By Default: Michael Bracken
Fan Guest of Honor By Default: Temple Walker
Surprise Guest: Kiwi

First event of the day was the Speed Dating Breakfast, where I had a scant two minutes per table to discuss my story “Sleepy River” in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Here I am holding up a copy of The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods while moderating the panel on anthology editing.

Later, I moderated the panel on creating and editing a serial novella anthology series, and I’m showing the audience the first two volumes of Guns + Tacos.

The Fan Guest of Honor caught me in the lobby, taking a break between panels.

Surprise Guest Kiwi failed to adhere to social distancing suggestions when he joined me in the lobby.

The dealer’s room had quite a selection, and here I am with a copy of Password to Larkspur Lane, one of Temple’s favorite Nancy Drew titles.

After a hard day of paneling and book buying, we found a place at the bar for some much-needed libation.

When we finally made it back to our room the first night, we dumped out our swag bag and found many titles written or edited by the Guest of Honor.

Though we hope AloneStarCon does not become an annual event, we must express our gratitude to the organizers for putting together this stellar event on such short notice.

Until we see you all again, stay safe!


05 May 2020

A River Runs Through It


Although I’ve written and sold short stories in a variety of genres, my crime fiction primarily fits within the subgenres of private eye, hardboiled, and noir. I’ve written many stories in which violence is on the page, sex is on the page, and the climax involves someone getting shot. (The crime fiction I wrote for men’s magazines—prior to their demise as viable markets—often involved climaxes of a different sort.)

While I’ve done well working within these three subgenres, I realize restricting myself to them limits the number of publications that might use my work and relying on shooting someone for a climax lends a certain predictability to my stories.

So, during the past handful of years, I’ve made a conscious effort to expand my crime fiction into other subgenres. “Sleepy River,” in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, is a good example.

STORY GENESIS

I envy fellow short-story writers—Art Taylor, John Floyd, Robert Lopresti, and several others—who write wonderful essays about the inspiration behind this story or that story. I often find those kind of essays difficult to write because I rarely know where my ideas come from.

For example, all I can find in my notes is that I created a Word document for “Sleepy River” on June 19, 2018, and I had, at some point prior to that, roughed out five pages of handwritten notes. There is nothing to indicate where the idea came from, but the key elements of the story—including a rough sketch of the dock where the story begins and ends—are in the notes.

GENRE-CHALLENGED

I’m uncertain what sub-genre “Sleepy River” fits into, but it’s clearly not private eye, hardboiled, or noir.

It’s about what happens to two young girls idling away their time during summer break. There’s no sex, no bad words, and only muted violence. But there are good guys, bad guys, and a dead guy. And nobody gets shot in the climax.

Enjoy.

14 April 2020

Byte Me


Back up your files!

So many stories are no longer accessible.
I’ve been hearing this since the advent of personal computers, and I’ve always tried to adhere to what is, on the surface, good advice.

I no longer have the cassette tapes from my first computer—a Radio Shack TRS-80—but I have a collection of 5.25” floppy disks, 3.5” diskettes, Zip drives, and CDs containing word-processing files created with WordStar and various iterations of Microsoft Word on a variety of PCs and Macintoshes. Except for the CDs, I no longer have any working computers that can read the disks, and the self-extracting archives I created to store large documents and then copied over each time I’ve upgraded to a new computer no longer self-extract. So, even though I have backed up much of what I’ve written, I can’t access the work from the first few, post-personal computer, decades of my writing career.

More than four decades of writing.
On the other hand, almost everything I’ve archived on paper in my six files cabinets is still readable. The few exceptions are contracts I copied using my fax machine before I had regular access to a photocopier or my own copiers and scanners. (Faxes and copies created using thermal fax machines slowly darken over time.)

BLAST FROM THE PAST

How we submitted electronic ms.
Back in the day—sometime after the advent of personal computers with word processing programs and before the use of email for manuscript submission—several of the publications for which I wrote liked to receive electronic files on diskettes. So, I prepared a label with my (no longer valid) contact information as well as information about the disk and what was on it. I’m unsure why the disk pictured was returned to me, but apparently I submitted a story titled “I Hired a Private Eye,” which I saved in Rich Text Format as a file named PrivateEye.rtf on an IBM-formatted diskette.

MUSEUM PIECES

I’ve written before about my typewriters—“Three Typewriters and a Desk”—but I’ve never written about my computers. Alas, they have mostly just been tools to which I have no inherent emotional attachment.

My "computer museum."
My first personal computer was a TRS-80 connected to a small black-and-white television I used as a monitor and to a cassette tape player I used to back up files. I was never able to use it to write, and my most significant accomplishment was learning enough BASIC to create a short, text-based choose-your-own-adventure type game.

My next computer was an IBM PC, provided by a client who subcontracted consulting work to me, and since then I’ve worked my way through several brands of PCs before transitioning to Macintoshes and working my way through several generations of Macs.

I still use both PCs and Macintoshes on a regular basis, but the Mac has become my computer of choice, and I no longer own a functioning PC. Temple calls the collection of dead PCs in the garage my “computer museum.”

PLAN AHEAD

So, backing up your files is still valid advice—especially backing up unsold work and unfinished works-in-progress—but think ahead. How will you access those files next year or next decade when the software used to create the files no long exists and the media they are stored on is no longer accessible?

I certainly wish I’d planned ahead.


“Sleepy River” appears in the May/June 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, due out later this month.

24 March 2020

The Possibly Last Case of Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac


Over the course of two-plus years, I’ve written stories for three anthologies edited by Josh Pachter and, publishing being what it is, all three anthologies are scheduled for release this year, two of them in April, within seven days of each other.

“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” will appear in The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads), scheduled for release April 7.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo” will appear in The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street (Mysterious Press), scheduled for release April 14.

JONI

When Josh first approached me about contributing to the Joni Mitchell anthology, I was intrigued. Though I listened more often to hard rock (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Mott the Hoople, and the like) when I was younger, I was quite familiar with Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and many other singer/songwriters from that end of the musical spectrum.

Several hours after receiving the invitation from Josh, I tried to claim “Woodstock.” By then I knew the protagonist and had roughed out a plot. Unfortunately, one of the conceits for the anthology was that every one of Joni’s albums would be represented by at least one song, and someone had already claimed a song from her album Ladies of the Canyon.

I put that idea aside and binge listened to Joni Mitchell for the rest of the day, finding and reading lyrics whenever a song caught my ear. Thirteen hours after receiving the invitation, I had locked down my claim to “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac,” from the album Night Ride Home.

“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”—the story of a young woman, her boyfriend, and what happens in the back seat of his father’s Cadillac—caught my attention because I thought there was a story hidden between the lines of the lyrics and because I remembered my mother’s big-finned 1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville.

The writing came easily, and six days later I turned the story in. After a few minor editorial adjustments and correction of a few typos, Josh accepted the story.

My take on “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”: When Ray’s dad’s winning streak turns into a losing streak, his Cadillac is repo’d by his bookie, and Ray’s girlfriend takes it upon herself to get the car back.

NERO

Alas, writing “The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo,” my Nero Wolfe parody, did not go as smoothly. I seriously under-estimated my knowledge of the Nero Wolfe canon, and I found myself doing quite a bit of research, writing and abandoning several ideas, and not turning in the initial version of the story until nearly three months after accepting Josh’s invitation.

That’s when I learned I hadn’t done enough research, and during the following six months Josh guided me through two start-to-finish revisions of the manuscript. The story remains essentially the same as in the initial draft—at the insistence of his longtime assistant, an aging detective long past retirement and near the end of his life takes a new case—but I relied heavily on Josh’s suggestions and revision demands to shape the story into its final form.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo”: Convinced someone is stalking her, Baldy Badloss’s dance partner Ruth Entemann hires his boss Tiberious Dingo to learn who and why, and the investigation uncovers more family secrets than any of them expect.

LESSONS

If there are any lessons to learn from these diametrically opposed writing experiences, they may be:

1. Inspiration (“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”) and perspiration (“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo”) both produce publishable fiction.

2. A good editor knows when a light edit is appropriate (“Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac”) and when to demand significant revisions (“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberious Dingo”).

3. A professional writer appreciates a good editor.

JONI, AGAIN

And the story inspired by Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” that Josh nixed when I proposed it? A year later I returned to the idea, wrote the story I had imagined at the time, and “Woodstock” (the story) will soon appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

03 March 2020

Goodbye, Joe


Introduced by Hasbro in February 1964, when I was 6 years old, G.I. Joes were 12-inch action figures—not dolls—created for boys, but I was a few years older when I began playing with them.

Original G.I. Joe lineup.
Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe
Though my own Joes may have suffered their share of pre-adolescent-induced combat trauma, they remained physically intact because I did not have pets to chew on them or siblings to tear them apart. My friends’ Joes were not so lucky and, because my interest outlasted theirs, I soon had a collection of damaged Joes—action figures that had seen too much action and were missing hands, feet, and other body parts.

The many Joes I collected allowed me to create a variety of scenarios, such as battle scenes and MASH units, where the crippled Joes were the star attractions. They had nicknames based on their afflictions—Lefty, Peg-Leg, Spike, Napoleon Blownapart*—and they accepted their roles with nary a complaint.

I didn’t limit my action-packed scenarios to my Joes. I recruited Barbies belonging to my friends’ sisters to serve as nurses and girlfriends, and the Barbies would kick poor Ken—4F and unable to articulate any of his critical body parts—to the curb whenever the Joes were on leave.

STORYTELLING

I had been exposed to storytelling from birth. My mother read to me and, because we did not own a television until I was in third grade, we listened to radio dramas rebroadcast from earlier decades.

But playing with G.I. Joes may be where I first developed my storytelling chops. I created characters with backstories and had them interact with other characters who had their own backstories. I developed inciting incidents or had them forced upon me—the Germans have broken through the line! Lefty’s been captured! The poodle of doom has run off with Peg-Leg!—and my characters and I faced hard choices: whether to stand our ground or retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, rescue Lefty or let him fend for himself, chase the neighbor’s poodle or risk the loss of Peg-Leg’s remaining leg.

During inclement weather, my Joes and I could spend an entire day indoors, fighting battles that raged from my bedroom across the hall into my mother’s or down the hall to the living room and kitchen. An early morning inciting incident would lead to rising action, setbacks, false climaxes, more rising action, a climax, falling action, and resolution. And all before bedtime.

In those heady times, before the reality of adulthood taught me that some fairy tales end with unhappily ever after and I learned to appreciate noir, all of my G.I. Joe stories ended with the heroes vanquishing the villains.

GOODBYE, JOE

I don’t remember when my Joes and I fought our last battle, but they were no longer part of my life by fifth grade. Having grown too old to play with dolls (no matter how they were labeled), I had moved on to other things. Even so, the storytelling skills I first toyed with back then became the foundation of my writing career.

And if I ever get stuck writing a story and need an unexpected twist, the poodle of doom is always lurking in the shadows.


*You really thought I was this clever in third grade?


Mid-Century Murder (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae) contains “Where’s Sara Jane?” a story I co-authored with Sandra Murphy.










“See Humble and Die” by Richard Helms, published in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, which I edited and Down & Out Books published, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.

11 February 2020

Life of Crime Leads to Writing Crime Fiction



Several fellow crime fiction writers, including a handful of SleuthSayers, became crime fiction writers while working in, or after retiring from, law enforcement occupations. I approached my crime fiction writing career from the other direction.

I stole cars.

I don’t remember exactly how many I boosted during my relatively short career, but I would venture to guess at least a dozen, all different models from the same manufacturer.

These weren’t well-planned thefts; they were crimes of opportunity. Though I was too young to legally drive, that didn’t stop me. I saw cars I wanted, waited until the owners were distracted, and took them.

Back at my place, where I had the tools necessary to alter the vehicles’ appearances, I repainted them, and I turned at least two hardtops into convertibles. Then I wheeled them around for a few weeks until another opportunity presented itself.

And another opportunity always presented itself because the boys in my neighborhood were careless, always leaving their Matchbox cars unattended.

FROM CARS TO MOTORCYCLES

I came by my criminality honestly. My stepfather was an “Honorary Hell’s Angel.” At least, that’s what the card in his wallet said.

I don’t know if that’s a real thing or if it was some sort of gag, but my stepfather co-owned a service station, back when service stations did more than sell over-priced snacks and make you pump your own gas, and he actually employed Hell’s Angels as mechanics. Every time I visited the station, usually in the company of my mother, the bikers were there, sometimes working, sometimes not, and their choppers were parked behind the building along with several cars awaiting repair or awaiting pickup after being repaired.

The rest of this story may or may not be true, but this is the way I heard it, and there’s no one left to confirm or deny any part of it.

A group of Hell’s Angels lived in a house across the street from my stepfather’s service station. One night, one of them looked out the window, realized the service station was being robbed, and saw that the guy working that night was in trouble.

So, he shot the robber.

I don’t know if that event was the impetus, but shortly after that, my stepfather sold his part-ownership of the service station and we moved to another state.

FROM MOTORCYCLES TO BICYCLES

My junior high school was probably not as rough as I remember, but I wasn’t the only student who carried a knife for protection, and I once had a revolver shoved in my face while waiting at the bus stop after a school dance by a kid who wanted my bus money.

I was, by that point, building badass bicycles from parts I found in a ravine below a bridge a few miles from my home. I don’t remember what all I discovered during my initial visit, but I returned to the same spot several times and, over the following months, collected frames, handlebars, seats, wheels, and more.

I was much older before I realized I had probably stumbled on the dumping ground of a bicycle thief and that I might have been in possession of stolen goods.

FROM BICYCLES TO STORIES

I was going to wrap this up by suggesting my life of crime led me to write crime fiction, and then I remembered the story of my first professional fiction sale, which I wrote about in my initial post as an official SleuthSayers member. “Smooth Criminal” began “I wrote my first professionally published story when I was 17, sold it when I was 18, and saw it published when I was 19. That’s the story I tell, and the story I’ll continue to tell, but it isn’t the truth. The truth is more complex and involves my committing one of the worst crimes a writer can commit short of plagiarism.”

So maybe my life of crime didn’t actually end when I began writing. Maybe it was just the beginning.

Coming April 14: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street (Mysterious Press), edited by Josh Pachter and featuring “Rollicking new stories written especially for this collection by Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti.”

21 January 2020

Lessons Learned as a Freelancer


I have been freelancing most of my life, but until April 2003 I did it as a side gig while gainfully employed. My initial attempts to freelance full-time came after job losses, and, unable to generate sufficient income as a freelancer, I soon returned to full-time employment.

I can point to many reasons for my initial failures, but key among them may be my inability to hustle. Selling—myself, my services, or my product—does not come naturally. Though I am much better now than I used to be, I dislike cold-calling, I’m not good at asking for work, and I’m not good at closing the deal when an opportunity arises.

Writing short fiction, essays, and fillers allowed me to avoid the parts of freelancing at which I was least successful. I could generate copy and allow it to sell itself when discovered in editorial slush piles. Alas, that method produces highly erratic income.

LESSON ONE

My current run as a full-time freelancer began, as before, with job loss. I did not, initially, consider freelancing as an option, and I prepared my resume intending to seek full-time employment. Within a week, though, the publisher of a monthly newspaper offered me a steady, long-term freelance editing gig that would pay approximately half what my previous employer paid for full-time work.

I took the gig—which lasted almost 15 years—and I dove into freelancing, seeking one-off gigs to make up the income difference.

Three months later, the publisher of a regional consumer magazine offered me a steady, long-term freelance editing gig. I took the gig, which, 16-plus years later, continues.

Even with steady income from two clients, I continued seeking one-off gigs, and that led me to a professional orchestra, where I began, in September 2005, a steady, long-term gig creating advertising and promotional material.

With three steady clients generating more income than I had earned from my previous full-time employment (though sans benefits), I stopped seeking one-off gigs.

I applied the concept of repeat clients providing steady income to my fiction production as well, and I concentrated on producing short stories for a small group of publications that, between them, published several of my stories each month.

LESSON TWO

Each of my income streams requires different, though related, skills, and it is this combination of skills that allows me to continue freelancing.

Writing fiction is my first love, and the ability to create publishable short stories provides my favorite income stream.

The other income streams include:

Writing essays and various forms of non-fiction.

Copywriting (creating advertising and promotional material).

Editing (selecting work for publication) and copyediting (correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar).

Layout/design/typesetting, most often in combination with the other skills.

I trained as a typographer when I was younger, and I maintained many of those skills as printing and publishing transitioned to desktop publishing. So, not only do I copyedit the articles published in the consumer magazine, I also design and layout the pages, and prepare print-ready files for the printing company. The same with the orchestra’s advertising and promotional material. I not only write the magazine and newspaper ads, I also design them and submit print-ready files to the various publications in which they appear.

This combination of skills allows me to take on projects that I might otherwise avoid, and I’ve learned that a diverse set of skills opens up a wide range of opportunities.

LESSON THREE

Prior to my latest venture into freelancing, my experience was almost entirely with print media—newspapers, magazines, brochures, flyers, and all manner of other things that are produced on printing presses. During the past several years, my creative world has expanded. I’ve edited electronic newsletters (one of which I’ve produced every week since April 26, 2006), I’ve written or written for websites, and I’ve written radio and television commercials.

Though I didn’t actively seek out most of these opportunities, none of them would have come my way had I not been open to them.

LESSON FOUR

Throughout all of this, I have continued to write and edit fiction.

While I enjoy all that I do, my first love always has been, and likely always will be, telling stories. So, whenever I find the volume of work skewed too far from what I most love, I seek ways to bring everything back into balance.

SUMMARY

Before I wrap this all up, I must make a few observations:

Somewhere over the years, I stopped freelancing for the orchestra and became a part-time employee. Yet, because I work about 60 hours a week, I’m still a full-time freelancer—a full-time freelancer with a part-time job.

A freelancer’s life is not for everyone. Despite having a few steady clients, the income can be wildly erratic and things many people take for granted—health insurance, sick leave, vacation time—a freelancer just can’t.

So, the lessons:

1. Find and nurture repeat clients.

2. Market your entire skillset.

3. Expand your abilities in multiple directions.

4. Continue doing what you love.

I don’t think I will ever return to a full-time job. At 62, though, the likelihood of being offered a full-time position as anything other than a Walmart greeter is slim, and that’s fine with me.

The first season of Guns + Tacos is now available in two handsome paperbacks: 

Volume 1

Volume 2

31 December 2019

The End is Near


As I write this, 2020 is only a few days away. As you read this, it likely is only a matter of hours. Tomorrow will be about looking forward, and Robert Lopresti will share prognostications from our fellow SleuthSayers. Today, though, is about looking backward.

I’ve had an unusual year, for several reasons, and following is my year-end wrap-up.

COLLABORATION

If 2019 had a theme, it was collaboration.

I collaborated on stories with four writers this year, saw one collaboration published (“Gracie Saves the World,” written with Sandra Murphy, was published in Maxim Jakubowski’s The Book of Extraordinary Historical Mystery Stories [Mango Publishing]) and had three more accepted. Two stories are making the rounds, and two more are still in progress.

I also collaborated as an editor. Trey R. Barker and I co-created and co-edited the Guns + Tacos serial novella anthology series, saw the first six episodes released as ebooks, one each month for the last six months of 2019, and the novellas will be collected in a pair of paperbacks scheduled for release in early 2020. Trey and I are currently editing six novellas for the second season, due out the last half of 2020.

Early in the year I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor and, though my name is listed in the masthead of issue 5, my first real impact on the publication will be the special issue Black Cat Mystery Magazine Presents Private Eyes, due out soon.

And Gary Phillips and I began work on an anthology scheduled for publication in spring of 2021.

NEW WRITING

Following a trend that began a few years ago, my output again dropped. I completed only 14 stories (including the collaborations), down from 19 last year, and that was down from 32 the year before, a huge drop from 56 in 2016.

I wrote (or co-wrote) 67,200 finished words of fiction. The shortest story was 1,600 words; the longest was 17,300 words.

Four stories were written in response to invitations. The rest were written for open-call anthologies, for markets where I’ve previously placed stories, or for no particular market at all.

ACCEPTED, PUBLISHED, AND RECOGNIZED

I had 15 stories accepted for publication. One was horror, one science fiction, one erotica, one a crime fiction/horror mashup, and the rest were various subgenres of crime fiction. Three were reprints; the rest were originals.

I had 22 stories published. One was fantasy, one science fiction, six erotica, and the rest various subgenres of crime fiction. Seven (including all six erotica stories) were reprints; the rest were originals.

My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” first published in Tough, was recognized as one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2018” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019.

REJECTIONS

I received 13 rejections this year, and any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year.

EDITORIAL PROJECTS

One of the reasons I’ve written less the past two years may be my involvement with various editorial projects.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was released by Down & Out Books just in time for Bouchercon, and the first season of Guns + Tacos was released the last six months of the year.

Edited this year (mostly) and scheduled for 2020 publication: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir and the second season of Guns + Tacos.

Begun this year and scheduled for 2021 release: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir 2 and an anthology I’m co-editing with Gary Phillips.

Additionally, as mentioned above, I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor.

UPCOMING

I ended my review of 2018 with a note that “2019 will be the year I just roll with it. I’ll try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and see what happens.”

That worked out well, so I’m going to approach 2020 the same way. A year from now I’ll let you know how it worked out.

10 December 2019

Pull on Your Galoshes, We’re Headed into the Slush Pile


Earlier this year I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor, replacing the irreplaceable Carla Coupe. Unlike Carla, who performed multiple duties for Wildside Press prior to her retirement, my primary responsibility as the junior co-editor is to read and assess submissions.

This isn’t new territory for me—I’ve edited six published anthologies, including, most recently, The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books), and another (Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir) that’s scheduled for publication next year. I also co-created and co-edit (with Trey R. Barker) the invitation-only serial novella anthology series Gun + Tacos, and I’m currently reading submissions for Mickey Finn 2 and the second season of Guns + Tacos, and I’ve begun work on yet another anthology to be named later.

There is a distinct difference between reading slush for my own anthologies and reading slush for Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The most obvious distinction is the type of stories appropriate for each. My anthologies have all been themed, and most have favored hardboiled, noir, and/or private eye stories. The stories in BCMM are more representative of the many subgenres of mystery.

The second distinction is the decision-making process. With my anthologies I make the final decisions and the anthologies succeed or fail due to those decisions. BCMM, on the other hand, has two decision makers. Though John Betancourt, as publisher and senior co-editor makes final decisions, the co-editorship is structured such that every accepted story has been approved by both editors.

Though there’s not yet any interesting statistical information to report on my most recent editorial efforts, the seventy-four stories in my first five anthologies earned seven award nominations (Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, Shamus, etc.) and four “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” or “Honorable Mentions” in annual best-of-year anthologies.

BONA FIDES

All of the above is to establish my bona fides before this:

Editors often discuss the “indefinable something” that separates an accepted submission from a rejected submission. We sit on panels and discuss plot and setting and characterization. We debate whether certain words—such as Dumpster/dumpster—have lost their trademark status and can now be rendered all lowercase. We arm wrestle over the use or non-use of the Oxford comma. We do all of these things when talking to writers and amongst ourselves, but we never seem to mention aloud one of the most telling signs that a manuscript will be rejected.

The manuscript itself.

Sure, we often tell writers to follow Shunn or some similar format, but the appearance of a manuscript when printed on paper isn’t all that we see. With the vast majority of manuscripts now submitted as Word documents, I’ve discovered how little many writers know about using one of the primary tools of their trade.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, the writers least familiar with Word also seem to be the writers most likely to have their submissions rejected.

If I open a file and discover a return at the end of every line as if the story were written on a typewriter, or if I see the title centered on the page through the use of a zillion spaces, or if I see any of several other signs that the writer has not mastered the fundamentals of Word, I’m already negatively predisposed toward the manuscript.

Why?

Because the writing often displays the same inattention to detail.

I read anyhow because I am sometimes surprised. Sometimes.

KING OF THE WORLD

If I were king of the world, the czar of publishing, or in some other authoritarian position to impose my will upon writers, I would do the following: Make it mandatory for every writer to master the basics of Word.

Perhaps we could start by having every creative writing program offer a mandatory class in the use of Word as part of the degree plan. Perhaps we could have every writing conference offer a mandatory seminar in the use of Word. Perhaps we could have every critique group treat themselves to an annual refresher course from their most experienced tech-savvy member (or from someone outside the group, if appropriate).

Perhaps, and this may be a radical thought, we could suggest that writers and would-be writers read the instruction manual, use the help menu, or use a search engine to find instructions on the internet for how to do things such as indent a paragraph, center a line of text, insert an em-dash, insert headers and automatically number pages, and do any of a number of other things that should already be part of a writer’s skill set.

Love it or hate it, Word is the de facto word processing program, and it is a fundamental tool of the trade. If you don’t know how to use the tools of your trade, you hobble yourself. Sure, a brain surgeon might be able to repair your aneurysm with a pipe wrench, but how confident would you feel on that operating room table when he opened up his toolbox?

So, before I’ve even read a word of your manuscript, show me that you know how to use the tools of your trade. Then show me you can write.


Recently published stories include: “The Town Where Money Grew on Trees” in Tough, November 5, 2019, “The Show Must Go On” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #5, “Who Done It” in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Love, or Something Like it” in Crime Travel (Wildside Press).

Earlier this month subscribers to Guns + Tacos received episode 6 of the first season, “A Beretta, Burritos and Bears” by James A. Hearn. Subscribers also received a bonus story that I wrote, “Plantanos con Lechera and a Snub-Nosed .38.” If you want to read all six episodes and the bonus story, there’s still time to subscribe!