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

21 September 2021

Three Best


Over the years, SleuthSayers have been well represented in The Best American Mystery Stories, as John M. Floyd pointed out when he reviewed the first “Twenty Years of B.A.M.S.” back in 2016. One-time BAMS Series Editor Otto Penzler has launched a new best-of-year series—The Mysterious Bookshop Presents The Best Mystery Stories of the Year—and SleuthSayers are again well represented, with stories from three members—Janice Law, John, and me—included within the inaugural annual’s pages.

We thought about sharing trade secrets, such as the value of bribery and blackmail when dealing with best-of-year editors, but it turns out I’m the only one of us with low moral values. Instead, Janice and John have joined me to tell you a bit about each of our stories.

“The Client”
Janice Law

I always find the genesis of a story mysterious, but in the case of “The Client,” I can point to two houses, both in an old mill town near where we live. The great water-powered textile and thread mills of eastern Connecticut created prosperity well into the twentieth century. Their loss brought hard times to the area and to Ray Wilde, the first professional detective I have written about since I ended the Anna Peters series.

Ray was actually devised for an anthology edited by our SleuthSayers colleague Paul D. Marks, and a little story-and-a-half house behind our bank’s parking lot provided, not only a venue for my half-formed plot, but suggested a weary ex-cop sitting through a boring surveillance.

The resulting story was about mostly decent people caught in small crimes, and I figured one and done for Ray. Still, I liked his style and his turn of phrase. Another house, an imposing home gently going downhill, provided a home for his client and a use for an item in my notebook: a photo of an old New England Crime boss and his long-time companion.

Edith Wing, courteous and eccentric, a pillar of the library board and the local church, is an unlikely person to lead Ray into deep water. He likes her and I like her, too. Although the mystery genre is maybe kinder to older females than it used to be, women of a certain age are still usually victims or accessories. But elderly Edith Wing gave me an opportunity to create an intelligent, morally ambiguous character, who, as she puts it to Ray, knows that sometimes there are few good choices.

“The Client” appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (May/June 2020).

“Biloxi Bound”
John M. Floyd

One of my favorite subjects as a suspense writer has been the ordinary guy with an ordinary job who suddenly finds himself in a desperate situation. In the case of “Biloxi Bound,” my protagonist is one of two brothers who own and operate a small diner in an unnamed northeastern city. When their neighborhood becomes a hotbed of violent crime and their cafe begins struggling, they decide they should move to the slower-paced (and warmer) Mississippi Gulf Coast. That’s an area familiar to me because I once lived on the beach there during my Air Force years and have spent most of my life not too far away.

To this scenario I added a retired mobster, a friendly cop, a young employee at the cafe, a mysterious regular customer, and several plot reversals. The crime and violence that the brothers hope to avoid does of course arrive at the diner before they can relocate, and the result is nothing either of them could’ve foreseen. All this made the story great fun to write, and when I finished it I sent it to The Strand Magazine, which has always been receptive to tales with multiple plot twists and surprises.

I’m glad I did.

“Biloxi Bound” appeared in The Strand Magazine (February-May 2020)

“Blest Be the Tie That Binds”
Michael Bracken

Temple and I married the day after Thanksgiving about seven months before I began writing “Best Be the Tie That Binds,” and we spent our honeymoon—brief as it was—in a cabin in Brownwood, Texas. Saturday afternoon, during a brief respite from the rain, we took a leisurely walk through the woods, and a large dog of indeterminate breed came charging at us. I’m no hero, but I stepped in front of my new bride and shouted at the dog until it finally turned and ran back the way it had come. That’s when I began pondering how far a man might go to protect his wife.

“In Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” Robert Connelly, pastor of the Union Revival Baptist Church, faces this decision when his new bride is threatened—via a whisper in his ear—during their wedding reception. When the threat takes physical form, and when he later learns his wife isn’t the only one being threatened, Connelly must reach deep into his past—a past he doesn’t readily acknowledge—to the incident that led to his life as a man of God to seek help from a friend whose life went in an entirely different direction.

Though this story was published in a magazine I now edit, it was accepted for publication by Carla Coupe and John Betancourt well before my tenure as editor.

“Blest Be the Tie That Binds” appeared in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6.

CONCLUSION

John and I often compare notes about the best-of annuals, and between us we identified almost every writer included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and The Best Mystery and Suspense long before their editors/publishers made official announcements. So, it was no surprise when John noted that he, Janice and I have been represented eighteen times—either by having stories included or by having stories named among the Other Distinguished Stories—in each of the Penzler-edited best-ofs, and one of us also made the Other Distinguished list in Steph Cha’s inaugural outing as editor of The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

But we aren’t the only SleuthSayers honored this year. Steve Hockensmith made the Honor Roll in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, and Art Taylor (with co-author Tara Laskowsi) and the late Paul D. Marks made the Other Distinguished list in The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

So, if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it isn’t the value of bribery and blackmail, it’s the value of being a SleuthSayer.

10 August 2021

Pay It Forward


I owe the existence of one of my recurring characters to the kindness of a famous mystery writer.

Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins, received his last Edgar Award nomination for “The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women,” which I published in my first anthology, Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys (Wildside Press, 2001).

Not long after the release of Fedora, in a letter dated April 17, 2002, Jeff Gelb wrote, “Dennis Lynds suggested I contact you to see if you’d like to submit a story in consideration for the erotic mystery anthology series I co-edit with Max Allan Collins, Flesh & Blood.” (I already knew of Gelb from his work on the Hot Blood horror anthology series he co-edited with Michael Garrett.) Gelb provided some general guidelines as well as the pay rate and deadline. Toward the end of the letter, Gelb notes: “I’m sorry to say I’m unfamiliar with your work, but if Dennis recommends you, that’s a pretty strong nod in your direction!”

This was, shall we say, a big break. A famous mystery writer had recommended me to the co-editor of an anthology series published by a major publishing house.

I submitted “Feel the Pain,” a private eye story featuring Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette, and, after making minor revisions at the request of Gelb and Collins, the story appeared in the third book in the Flesh & Blood series: Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003).

“Feel the Pain” became the first of my stories to be selected for a “best of” anthology when Maxim Jakubowski included it in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4 (published in the UK by Robinson, 2005, and in the US by Carroll & Graf, 2005).

I followed up with “Pumped for Information” (XL Girls, 2004), a sequel to “Feel the Pain” that put more emphasis on erotica and less on investigative work, before writing a string of Boyette stories where the erotic content was significantly reduced in favor of solid private eye work: “My Client’s Wife” (Thrilling Detective Web Site, Summer 2007), “Breaking Routine” (Hardluck Stories, Winter 2007), “News Flash” (Untreed Reads, March 2011), and “Yellow Ribbon” (Needle, 2012).

Then, nothing. I moved on to other characters and other stories...until a Boyette story I’d been toying with since 2003 caught my attention again. “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (Tough, April 2018) was named an “Other Distinguished Mystery Story” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019, and I followed up with “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 2020).

I have notes written in 2003-2004 for three additional Boyette stories, but they don’t catch my attention when I reread them. So, I expected Boyette to again go quiet.

Then Michael Pool contacted me about his new publishing venture. I had previously contributed to his Crime Syndicate Magazine, and he received his first Shamus Award nomination for “Weathering the Storm,” a story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019). Pool has started P.I. Tales, a new book publishing venture dedicated to private eye novels and the Double Feature series of paired private eye novellas.

Pool invited me to contribute to the second volume of the Double Feature series, where my novella is paired with Hallmarks of the Job, written by Frank Zafiro, a writer who contributed to and played a key role in the launch of Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-edit with Trey R. Barker.

I considered creating a new private eye and then thought better of it. So, Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette returns in Aloha Boys, the longest story I’ve ever written about him.

In Aloha Boys, Boyette is still adjusting to his new digs above Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings when a homeless woman hires him to find her missing half-brother. Searching for the young man sends Boyette through the depraved underbelly of the local university, reunites him with a mob boss best left in his past, and leads him to question everything he thought he knew about families.

Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys releases August 17 but can be preordered now.

Is this the end of the road for Boyette? I doubt it, but I don’t know when or where he will next appear.

RELATIONSHIPS

Though I originally intended this post to be about a series character and how I continue to write about him, while researching Boyette’s history I was reminded of something more valuable: The importance of relationships within the writing community.

Boyette exists because Dennis Lynds connected me to Jeff Gelb, and the new Boyette novella exists because Michael Pool and I have worked together on other projects. In between, I’ve worked with editors such as Rusty Barnes of Tough, who once suggested I write a novel about Boyette, and his suggestion was on my mind when Pool approached me about writing a private eye novella for Double Feature.

While I’m loath to conclude that who you know is the key to success, it certainly plays a role in the opportunities that come your way.

Most of us break in the same way: by submitting manuscripts via slush piles, submitting our work on spec, hoping that editors will select our stories from the dozens/hundreds/thousands of other submissions. But once that happens, it’s up to us to act professionally, to develop relationships, and to share opportunities with one another.

And always, always, always, pay it forward.

Morris Ronald Boyette and I are forever grateful that Dennis Lynds did.

20 July 2021

Over and Over and Over Again


In “Bad Contracts” three weeks ago, I wrote about selling all rights to several of my stories. Luckily, I’ve not sold all rights to all of my stories.

Retaining rights has allowed me to license reprints and other subsidiary rights—either by actively seeking them or by having editors contact me—and the extra money and extra publications have always been welcome.

Additionally, by retaining rights, I’ve been able to release the audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995) and four short-story collections—Bad Girls (Wildside Press, 2000), Tequila Sunrise (Wildside Press, 2000), Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), and Yesterday in Blood and Bone (Wildside Press, 2005)—each of which contains one or more reprints.

So, what opportunities have I had?

MOST-OFTEN REPRINTED STORY

My most-oft reprinted short story, “The Great Little Train Robbery,” originally appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (June 1985), was reprinted in Detective Mystery Stories (September 2002), in Sniplits (April 2008), and, as “The Great Train Robbery,” in Kings River Life (August 19, 2017).

MOST PRESTIGOUS REPRINTS

“Smoked,” first published in Noir at the Salad Bar: Culinary Tales with a Bite (Level Best Books, 2017), was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), and “Feel the Pain,” first published in Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003), was selected for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005).

MOST CONVOLUTED PUBLISHING HISTORY

“Of Memories Dying,” first published in Midnight (Tor Books, 1985), has the most convoluted publishing history. After it first appeared, an agent told me it would make a great opening chapter for a horror novel, and I began working with it.

Though I was unable to turn it into a novel, I did turn it into a novella. “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unknown” was included in my audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995).

In 2000, retitled as In the Town of Dreams Unborn and Memories Dying, Barley Books released it in England as a small-sized gift book.

In 2002, the original story was included in Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), a collection of my horror stories.

I later wrote “Dreams Unborn,” a non-horror novella prequel published in Small Crimes (Betancourt & Co., 2004), and “Dreams Unborn” was named an Other Distinguished Story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2005.

And the original story—“Of Memories Dying”—was recently reprinted in Horror for the Throne: One-Sitting Reads (Fantastic Books, 2021).

TRANSLATIONS AND OTHER RIGHTS

In addition to straight-forward reprints, I’ve also licensed audio rights to several stories, I’ve licensed foreign-language rights—Chinese, German, Italian—to another handful, and I once negotiated, but ultimately didn’t license, film rights to one.

TAKEAWAY

I’ve listed several of my reprint and subsidiary rights placements, but the point isn’t that I’ve had these opportunities. The point is that all writers who retain rights to their work can license reprint and subsidiary rights over and over and over again.

But whether we actively seek them out or whether the opportunities find us, we must own the rights to our work in order to take advantage of these opportunities.


“Sonny’s Encore” appears in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #9and my private eye story Disposable Women was published yesterday at Tough.

As the editor of Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1I’m quite pleased to note that Alan Orloff received a Thriller Award for his story “Rent Due” and Andrew Welsh-Huggins was nominated for a Thriller for his story “The Mailman.”

29 June 2021

Bad Contracts


During the forty-plus years I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve heard no end of complaints about the bad contracts writers have signed.

I’ve also signed bad contracts, but I’m not about to complain. The difference between most complainers and me: I signed bad contracts knowing full well they were bad. I knew what I was getting into, and, when I balanced short-term benefits against long-term benefits, short-term benefits won.

Mostly during the early years, but continuing up until the mid-2010s, I sold all rights to more than 400 short stories because the promise of immediate payment meant food on the table and a roof over my family’s head. The possibility of potential additional income from the licensing of reprints and other subsidiary rights at some indefinable point in the future was insufficient to counter-balance immediate income.

(“Immediate” is a relative term: even with “pay on acceptance” publications, there’s often a several-week gap between returning a signed contract and receiving payment, and one publisher I worked with slowly stretched weeks into months before finally ceasing all payments.)

The stories for which I sold all rights were often published under pseudonyms or without any byline at all, and they were written in genres for which there was no perceived life after initial publication. So, unless I told you the titles of those stories and where they were published, you might never know they were mine, nor were you likely to see the stories in any form other than original publication.

Until now.

Print-on-demand and electronic books have changed publishing, making it easier and less expensive to release collections of reprints. At least two publishers that own defunct magazines that published my work are doing just that, gathering stories from their archives and assembling them into POD anthologies and eBooks available from various online bookstores.

During the past few years, I’ve been keeping an eye on these publishers’ releases, using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature and my wife’s Prime account to search for reprints of my stories. Often the story titles remain unchanged, so my work is reasonably easy to identify. Even so, I occasionally find stories by other writers with titles identical to mine, which is why I use my wife’s Prime account to dig deeper than just examining story titles.

Recently, I discovered eight of my stories reprinted by two different publishers in three different anthologies: Falling in Love...Again (BroadLit) contains one story, Stroke of Midnight (True Renditions, LLC) contains one story, and Cupid’s Day (True Renditions, LLC) contains six stories. And this isn’t the first time I’ve found stories reprinted without my knowledge. So far, I’ve identified at least twenty.

I don’t expect to be notified when one of these stories is reprinted. The original publishers presented me with all-rights contracts that I willingly signed, and the current owners of those rights can do with the stories what they wish.

Even so, I likely will never sign another all-rights contract (which, for those who don’t know, is not the same as a work-for-hire contract), but, who knows, there may be another bad contract in my future. And if I sign it, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.



In other reprint news: “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile,” 
originally published in Shhh...Murder! (Darkhouse Books, 2018) was released in May 2021 as one of Wildside Press’s Barb Goffman Presents titles, and “Feel the Pain,” originally published in Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003) was reprinted in Modern Mayhem, June 7, 2021.


08 June 2021

Displays of Love



I know I’m lucky. Temple is supportive of, and often takes an active role in, my writing career. Not all writers can say that about their spouses.

Early indicators of Temple’s support include her having a copy of my first professionally published short story framed to hang over my desk and her having the covers of four magazines with my name on their covers printed on mugs so that when I have my morning pick-me-up, I can pick me up.

The latest example involves redecorating decisions precipitated by family tragedy.

The summer before our November 2015 marriage, Temple’s brother Peter unexpectedly died. The two were quite close, and Temple was devastated by the loss of her younger brother.

Peter was a Pearl Jam fan and, after his passing, all nine of his Pearl Jam concert posters—professionally mounted and framed under glass—passed to Temple. So, to honor Peter, the posters became focal points in four rooms: the living room, the dining room, and both of my offices.

My favorite of Peter Walker’s
nine Pearl Jam posters,
this once hung on the wall behind
me when I sat at my writing desk. 
Hanging the Pearl Jam posters not only honored Peter, but their presence reminded Temple of him every day and, because visitors often asked about the posters, allowed Temple to share her memories of Peter. No matter what we did, one of the living room posters was constantly askew, exactly the kind of thing Peter might have done to annoy his sister.

Earlier this year, Peter’s now-teenaged daughter asked for the posters. Though the decision to relinquish them was heartbreaking, Temple gave the posters to her niece, which left large, empty spaces on the walls of four rooms.

The smaller posters in the dining room were replaced with Temple’s mother’s artwork. (Both her mother and my mother were artists, so we have their paintings, watercolors, and drawings decorating nearly every room in the house—but that’s a post for another time.)

One living room wall, which had contained two of the three largest Pearl Jam posters, remained near-barren, as did the wall directly behind me when I’m sitting at my desk, which contained the third of the three largest posters.

Nothing we already owned—and, trust me, we have a great deal of artwork created by our mothers, as well as miscellaneous artwork and posters created by non-family members—seemed appropriate. Temple nixed everything I suggested.

Then one day, as she looked at the covers of the three anthologies I’ve edited for Down & Out Books, she said, “You know....”

She told me that homes should be decorated to reflect their owners and not to reflect the contents of the sale bin at Hobby Lobby. More importantly, replacing Peter’s Pearl Jam posters with my book covers would do exactly that. She would be exchanging something that reflected the essence of her brother, whom she loved dearly, with something that reflected the essence of her spouse. Besides, she said, “They’re really cool covers.”

And a few weeks later, after having the covers enlarged, printed, and framed by CanvasPop.com, the covers for Jukes & Tonks and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir were hanging in our living room, and the cover of The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was hanging in my primary office.

Many writers don’t have spouses who take active roles in their writing careers, and fewer still have spouses who decorate the living room with giant reproductions of their book covers.

As I said at the beginning of this, I know I’m lucky.



When the Private Eye Writers of America’s 2021 Shamus Award nominees were announced earlier this month, I was surprised and delighted to see that two short stories from issue 7—the special PI issue—of Black Cat Mystery Magazine were nominated: Gordon Linzner’s “Show and Zeller” and fellow SleuthSayer John M. Floyd’s “Mustang Sally.” As editor of BCMM, I shan’t play favorites, so I’m hoping there’s a tie vote and that both Gordon and John receive a Shamus Award.

18 May 2021

Who Am I This Issue?


Accompanying an interview with me that The Digest Enthusiast published in June 2018 was a sidebar listing all of the pseudonyms I’ve used over the years, many of them assigned by editors rather than pseudonyms I’ve chosen.
A pseudonym is a disguise
for writers, much like the one worn
by the unrecognizable writer
shown above.

When I first began writing, I toyed with variations of my name before I settled on Michael Bracken. Michael Patrick Bracken was used only once, on my first professionally published short story. Mike Bracken appeared on much of my fanzine work before I turned pro and then, for a few years, on humor, fillers, and similar material.

I’ve published several pieces using one or the other of my self-selected pseudonyms: Rolinda Hay and Patrick Myers.

Additionally, I’ve been published under many house names or pseudonyms assigned by editors: Gilbert Anderson, Michelle Baker, Mel Barton, M. Bayman, Christine Bracken, Angela Brown, Peter Carson, Nick Ford, Linda Hay, Bruce Jones, Ned Parker, Wanda Reed, Frank Sandwell, Gladys Spivey, S. Turnham, Kate Williams, Aggie Winter, and Stan Young.

I wrote several stories for the sex letters magazines, and bylines were usually initials followed by the name of a city—for example: H.D., Glenview, Illinois—and are too numerous to list.

The stories I wrote for the confession magazines—True Confessions, True Love, True Story, and many others—were often published without bylines because they were presented as “true” and the narrator, whatever her name might be, was presumed to be the author.

GUESS MY NAME

There are many reasons why a writer chooses to use a pseudonym and many reasons why an editor foists pseudonyms upon writers.

A writer of erotica, for example, might have a day job as a grade-school teacher, and exposing herself as an erotica writer might negatively impact her day job. A writer well established in one genre might wish to differentiate her work in another genre, even if her use of a pseudonym isn’t a secret.

My use of pseudonyms—especially those assigned me by editors—had more to do with productivity and genre conventions.

I have had as many as four stories published in a single issue of a magazine, and I’ve had stories in multiple consecutive issues of a publication. By assigning pseudonyms to some of the stories, it appeared as if the magazines had more contributors than they actually did.

The confession magazines and sex letters publications also operated under genre conventions that implied the stories were written by real people and not by a bunch of professional writers like me. Some of the confession magazines would put a byline on a story that matched the name of the narrator, but many confession magazines dispensed completely with bylines on their fiction. The sex letters magazines operated under a similar convention: By using only the initials of a letter writer, accompanied by the city and state from which the letter writer supposedly hailed, they gave readers the impression that, again, the letters were written by real people and not by professional writers like me.

KNOW MY NAME

I think the last time I had something published under a pseudonym was in 2011 when I self-published the erotic romance novel Stud as by Rolinda Hay, and the last stories I had published without any byline at all appeared in the July 2017 issues of True Confessions and True Story.

There are several reasons why my use of pseudonyms ended during the past decade, most of them related to the rise of the internet and the decline of print publications. Though I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, much of my short fiction appeared in men’s magazines (a euphemism for publications featuring photographs of naked people and purchased primarily by men) and women’s magazines (primarily those publishing confessions of the sin-suffer-repent variety and purchased primarily by women).

The internet, which allows seemingly unlimited access to photographs of naked people, killed the market for men’s magazines. Dorchester Publishing, which purchased the half-dozen-plus confession magazines then published by Sterling/MacFadden in 2004, later sold them to two different publishers (BroadLit and True Renditions LLC) in 2011. By then, Dorchester had crippled the confession magazines such that the two that survived the company’s mismanagement—True Confessions and True Story—lasted only half a dozen more years.

Additionally, and in part because of the constriction or elimination of what were once my primary markets, most of my work these days falls under the broad umbrella of crime fiction. I am nowhere near able to produce enough crime fiction for any mystery magazine to publish multiple of my stories in any given issue, and with all the competition from my fellow SleuthSayers (I’m looking at you John Floyd) and from other writers, it’s unlikely any mystery magazine editor would ever need to.

So, will I ever again use a pseudonym?

You may never know.


“Double Dipping” was published in the May issue of Mystery Weekly.

The 27 Club” was published in Punk Noir Magazine.


27 April 2021

The Pause that Refreshes


Since the beginning of the year, I have read submissions to Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 3, and the special cozy issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.

I then read, in quick succession, Sara Paretsky’s Brush Back, John Sandford’s Gathering Prey, and John Grisham’s Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. 

When I finished them, I started reading the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which contains work from a significant number of SleuthSayers.

What I didn’t do is write.

That’s almost four months without finishing a new short story, a significant productivity gap considering I’ve had year-long stretches when I produced at least a story a week.

This weekend—only a few days before this post appears—I began writing again. Though I’ve not yet finished anything in my two days back at the keyboard, I’ve made progress on a trio of stories.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS BEFORE

Write every day.

I’ve seen this advice repeated ad nauseam, and it’s good advice. Some writers need this structure in order to be productive, and other writers use it as a way to build a wall between them and their other responsibilities. (“I can’t do that now, this is my scheduled writing time!”)

But writing every day isn’t the only approach to productivity. Over the years I’ve had many writing gaps lasting from a few days to a few weeks. Sometimes real life demands our attention elsewhere, whether it’s a health issue, a family emergency, mandatory overtime at the day job, or a weather-related incident. And stepping away from the keyboard can be—when done by choice—a way to recharge one’s batteries and return to writing refreshed

In my case, time away was the result of a combination of things: a Snowpocalypse, editing responsibilities, and a week or so of binge reading to cleanse my literary palate.

I have returned refreshed, but I see another writing gap in the near future: All those stories I accepted for Groovy Gumshoes, Mickey Finn, and Black Cat need to be edited and prepared for publication.

With any luck, I can squeeze in a good bit of writing before the next pause.


April has been filled with good news:

“Last Waltz Across Texas” appears in the May/June Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

“Soiled Dove” appears in Crimeucopia: We’re All Animals Under the Skin.

“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” appears in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the songs of Billy Joel (Untreed Reads), edited by Josh Pachter.

“If You’ve Got the Money, Honey” appears in Jukes & Tonks (Down & Out Books), edited by Gary Phillips and me. The anthology, which released Monday, April 19, appeared on Amazon’s Hot New Releases list that day (the Kindle edition at #65 and the paperback edition at #67), dropped off, and reappeared the next day (Kindle edition at #29 and the paperback edition at #36).

And the ITW Thriller Award nominees were announced. Two stories from Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books), which I edited, were nominated for Best Short Story: Alan Orloff’s “Rent Due” and Andrew Welsh-Huggins’s “The Mailman.”

16 March 2021

Drafts? I Don’t Keep No Stinking Drafts!



When Eve Fisher wrote “I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not the only one with 50 versions of the same damn story on my hard drive” in her response to Bob Mangeot’s SleuthSayers post “Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around,” I spit my drink across the room. Then I reread Bob’s post and realized I’d missed his mention of having “75 versions” of a story on his hard drive.

Clearly, Bob, Eve, and writers like them live in a different universe than I do. I only ever have a single draft of a story—the current draft, which, when I finish fussing with it, becomes the final draft.

I’ve found that keeping multiple versions of a story encourages me to look backward while I’m working—How did I handle the second scene in version three? Was the dialog in the fifth scene more pithy in version twelve? Why did I insert so many exclamation points in version twenty-seven?—when what I should do, and what I try to do, is constantly look forward.

Perhaps part of the reason I don’t keep multiple versions of stories is that I never actually have multiple versions. I write and edit as I go so that my first complete draft is my final or near-final draft. Often all that’s required at that point is a serious, in-depth proofreading.

Not all writers work as I do. Some pound their way through a draft, dumping everything into it as they go. Then they create a second draft, rearranging scenes, rethinking their characters’ motivations, revising so many bits and pieces that the second draft may actually be a different story. Then they do the same again for a third draft.

DRAFTED

Okay, I lied. There are two exceptions to my having only one version of a story:

1) Early in my career I wrote for men’s magazines. Many of the stories were equally appropriate for genre magazines with one exception: graphic sex. So, I sometimes created two versions of a story: one with graphic sex intended for men’s magazines and one without graphic sex intended for genre magazines. Sometimes the version with sex sold; sometimes the version without sex sold. (And sometimes I sold first rights to the version with sex and later sold the sexless version as a “slightly modified” reprint.)

2) When I receive a copyedited ms. from an editor, I maintain my original version until we’ve completed the editing process and the story’s been published. Then I delete my version and retain only the published version.

DO YOU FEEL A DRAFT?

So, one-and-done or multiple versions? Is one method better than the other?

Nah.

Whether you’re a one-and-done writer or a 75-versions writer, the end result is likely the same: a publishable story.

And that’s what we’re all striving for.

23 February 2021

Writer’s Block of Ice


Today is Saturday, February 20, 2021. I have not written anything more complex than a trio of Facebook posts and a few brief emails since last Sunday. At approximately 6:30 a.m., Monday, February 15, the power went out in the midst of what has become known as the Texas Snowpocalypse, and it did not return until Thursday morning. Temple and I live in an all-electric house in Hewitt, a suburb of Waco, about halfway between Austin to the south and the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex to the north.

Look at the pretty snow.
It’s trying to kill you.

We live in an area with unstable electric power, where power flickers off and on year-round. For that reason, two of our computers are plugged into uninterruptable power supplies, which shield the computers from surges and can keep them running for up to an hour during a power failure, allowing for safe and systematic shutdowns. As soon as we realized the power might not be returning anytime soon, I charged my phone and Temple’s Kindle using one the UPSes. We should have also charged her phone.

As day stretched into night and day and night and day and night, the house grew increasingly colder (ultimately reaching a low of 48 degrees), we learned many things:

Multiple layers of clothing works. I added a new layer each day. By the end, I wore a sweatshirt over a T-shirt, jeans over sweatpants over underwear, slippers (when inside) or boots (when outside) over two pairs of socks. Over all of this I wore a thick Land’s End robe (when inside) or a winter coat (when outside). Accessories included gloves and a scarf.

We come from families of quilters. We have a few store-bought quilts and many quilts made by our mothers and other family members. I’m uncertain how many quilts we actually own because we did not have to dig them all out, but by the end we slept beneath five quilts—without taking off any of the layers of clothing we already wore.

We could not open the garage door more than one-third of the way. The emergency pull that should have disengaged the door from the electric door opening system’s chain did not function properly and we could not fully open the door. Even if we could have opened the door, there was no place we could have gone because everyone around us, all our family and friends, were in the same situation we were. Unable to get the cars out of the garage, we were not able to safely use them to warm ourselves or charge our phones.

Let’s have a cookout.
Chili and tea on the grill.

It is possible to cook a nutritious meal over charcoal briquettes. We often use our grill during the summer for traditional things such as steak and burgers. I used it to cook chili and heat the kettle for tea. We had enough briquettes that I could have prepared a second hot meal if I had needed to.

When the house is almost as cold as the inside of the refrigerator, there’s no real danger in opening the fridge door and rummaging through the contents. Milk remained cold and drinkable, and other fridge items remained edible throughout.

A cat will learn to appreciate covers. Kiwi often sleeps in our laps when we’re seated in the living room and he often sleeps atop me at night. The first night, despite our efforts to cover him, he resisted. As the house grew colder and he began to shiver, we wrapped him up and held him so he couldn’t escape. By the end, he insisted on being wrapped in a quilt.

A GLIMMER OF HOPE

The power flickered off and on for about an hour and a half on Tuesday afternoon, allowing the HVAC system to warm the house by a few paltry degrees.

Wednesday morning, power was restored to Temple’s father’s home. He lives about seven blocks from us. When it appeared that his power was stable, I made a renewed effort to open the garage door. I am not mechanically inclined, but after scouring the internet, I learned how to completely detach the door from the automatic system and opened the door. Temple escaped to her father’s home.

A few hours later, I took Kiwi to his house and returned home. Mid-evening, with no change in our situation likely, I joined them, and we had a warm dinner (leftover chili!), spent the night in a warm house, and had a warm breakfast.

Let there be light!

I returned home Thursday morning to find that power had been restored and the house was slowly warming. Mid-afternoon Temple and Kiwi returned home, I reassembled the garage door, and I showered for the first time since Sunday morning.

We spent Friday listening to transformers explode throughout our neighborhood. Each time, the power would flicker off and then return.

Friday, our community was placed under mandatory water conservation restrictions. So, while we’ve never been without water, we are avoiding showers, have not washed clothes, nor have we run the dishwasher.

Today, with the midmorning temperature above freezing and the roads reasonably clear, we ventured out. We had bills to pay, medications to pick up, and groceries to buy.

I tried to fill my car’s gas tank, but could not find a service station with working pumps.

The crowded grocery store had limited supplies. But we found milk, cheese, and potatoes as well as some canned items that would supplement the food we already had at home.

Many of our fellow Texans have suffered far more than we have—and some even escaped to Cancun—so I’m not about to complain about our experience. Still, I certainly don’t want to ever repeat it.

It will take a long time to recover from what’s happened. In fact, we may have PTSD—Post Texas Storm Disorder.

READING AND WRITING

I did a lot of reading during daylight hours. (I completed two Peter Lovesey novels and am halfway through a third. I strongly recommend his work even if you’re not caught in a Snowpocalypse.)

What I didn’t do is write. I couldn’t. Survival took precedence.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, and I never have. This week, though, I experienced the ultimate writer’s block.

This week I was beaten by a writer’s block of ice.


On February 12, Down & Out Books released Bullets and Other Hurting Things: A Tribute to Bill Crider, edited by Rick Ollerman. The anthology includes my story “The Ladies of Wednesday Tea.”





My story “Family Films” was published by Close to the Bone on February 14.



The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffet, edited by Josh Pachter and published by Down & Out Books, was released February 22. Included is my story “Tampico Trauma” and stories by fellow SleuthSayers John M. Floyd and Leigh Lundin.

21 February 2021

A Buffett Buffet


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

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

The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

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

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

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

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

A reviewer at AZLyrics.com opines:

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

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

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

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

Spending Money
Beach House on the Moon
[musiclyrics]
John Floyd



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

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

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

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

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

Tampico Trauma
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
[musiclyrics]
Michael Bracken



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Truckstop Salvation
Down to Earth
[musiclyrics]
Leigh Lundin



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

12 January 2021

Rolling With It: 2020 in Review


In “The End is Near,” my year-end wrap-up for 2019, I noted, “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.’

Includes my story
Final Reunion”
“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.”

As it turns out, “rolling with it” was the only way to approach 2020. The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into every plan I had or might have considered making. Though Temple and I fared better than many others, my annual income dropped by several thousand dollars. Luckily, her income remained constant, and the money we saved from the cancellation of Malice Domestic and Bouchercon’s conversion to a virtual conference, combined with some belt-tightening, allowed us to end the year no worse off financially than when it started. So, even though we missed spending time with our friends in the writing community, we survived.

NEW WRITING

I previously wrote about the significant increase in my editing workload during 2020 (“Once More, With Feeling”), so I’ll concentrate on how my writing fared this past year.

I completed 104,196 words of new fiction (up from 67,200 in 2019). That’s 26 new stories (up from 14 the previous year), with an average length of 4,008 words.

The shortest was 136 words; the longest 15,000.

The 15,000-word story was the longest solo project I’ve written in decades.

ACCEPTED, PUBLISHED, AND RECOGNIZED

I received 37 acceptances (25 original stories; 12 reprints), up from 16 in 2019. Being an editor has its advantages because four of the year’s acceptances were for projects I’m editing or co-editing.

I saw 38 stories published (18 originals and 20 reprints).

My story “Love, Or Something Like It,” published the previous year in Barb Goffman’s Anthony Award-nominated anthology Crime Travel (Wildside Press), was short-listed for a Derringer Award and “The Town Where Money Grew On Trees,” published November 5, 2019, in Rusty Barnes’s Tough was selected as an “Other Distinguished Story of 2019” in The Best American Mystery Stories. Additionally, my stories “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 20, 2020) and “Woodstock” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020) made Robert Lopresti’s “best mystery story [...] read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

REJECTIONS

I once wrote that any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year, but is a year in which rejections outnumber acceptances necessarily a bad year? It might mean I’m doing a poor job of targeting my submissions or, on the flip side, it might mean I’m stretching myself by targeting new markets or by submitting more to high-end markets.

Regardless, even though it felt as if I received more rejections that I did, I actually received more acceptances than rejections.

I received 23 rejections.

LOOKING AHEAD

I have stories forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, Close to the Bone, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Great Filling Station Holdup, Guns + Tacos (Season 3), Jukes & Tonks, Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol. 2, Mystery Tribune, Only the Good Die Young, and Unnerving.




There’s a taco truck in Chicago known among a certain segment of the population for its daily specials. Late at night and during the wee hours of the morning, it isn’t the food selection that attracts customers, it's the illegal weapons available with the special order.

Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (released as stand-alone novellas during the last six months of 2020) was released as a pair of paperbacks on January 1, joining the Season 1 paperbacks released at the beginning of 2020. Each novella stands alone, so they can be read in any order, and subscribers to the series get a bonus story at the end of each season.

Vol. 1 features novellas by Gary Phillips, me, and Frank Zafiro

Vol. 2 features novellas by Trey R. Barker, William Dylan Powell, and James A. Hearn (Subscribers get a bonus story I wrote)

Vol. 3 features novellas by Eric Beetner, Trey R. Barker & me, and Alec Cizak

Vol. 4 features novellas by Ann Aptaker, Ryan Sayles, and Mark Troy (Subscribers get a bonus story Trey R. Barker wrote)

Order directly from Down & Out Books or from your favorite book retailer.

22 December 2020

All We Want for Christmas is a Fair Shot


Earlier this year, Alex Acks, in “Slush v Solicitations: Just tell us where we stand,” wrote about magazines’ and anthologies’ “complete lack of transparency regarding just how much of their content they actually take from the slush pile versus how much is solicited.” Though writing primarily about SF/F markets, Acks’s comments apply equally to other genres.

TRANSPARENCY

Before I react to Acks’s blog post, perhaps I should provide some transparency about my editorial work.

I edited my first five anthologies more than a decade ago. So, while I’m pretty sure every story in them was selected from slush piles, I don’t honestly remember. I can, however, discuss more recent editorial work.

The Eyes of Texas
: Almost every story came from the slush pile. The one that didn’t was an anomaly. At the Toronto Bouchercon, I discussed the anthology with another writer and mentioned that I was surprised I had seen no stories involving a certain historical event. He asked several questions and later submitted a story in which that event played a role. I accepted the story.

Mickey Finn, volumes 1 and 2: I invited four writers to submit to the first Mickey Finn because I felt they would deliver solid stories around which I could shape the anthology. Three of the writers submitted stories, and I accepted all three. Other than my own contributions, the rest of the stories in MF 1 and all of the stories in MF 2 came from the slush pile.

Guns + Tacos, seasons 1, 2, and 3 (coming July-December 2021): All of the stories included in the first three seasons of G+T were solicited.

Jukes & Tonks (coming April 2021): All of the stories in J&T were solicited.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine
: I suspect several stories in the first issue were solicited (mine wasn’t; I invited myself). I wasn’t involved with the editorial side for the first few issues, but every issue since I joined the staff has been filled from slush pile submissions.

FOUR TYPES OF SUBMISSIONS

In “Slush v Solicitations: Just tell us where we stand,” Acks describes four types of submissions—slush, solicited, backdoor, and select/private—all of which can or do serve as barriers to new writers.

Unsolicited submission via the slush pile is the primary way new writers break into publishing short fiction. However, the slush pile may offer false hope at publications that acquire only a small percentage of their stories from the slush.

So, is it fair to dangle hope in front of new writers by having a slush pile without acknowledging the other three types of submissions and how they impact story acquisition? Acks doesn’t think so and advocates for transparency. If editors are transparent about how they acquire stories and how many stories are actually plucked from the slush pile (as a percentage of total published stories, not as a percentage of total submitted stories), then writers will “know not to waste [...] time or emotional energy on a useless want” where slush piles are more for show, and writers can therefore target submissions to where they feel their stories have the best chance of acceptance.

FROM THE WRITER’S SIDE

Granted, the more information available to writers, the better their odds of success, but in addition to Acks’s desire for transparency, there’s an equally important question that new writers should be asking: How does one rise from the slush pile to become a writer whose work is solicited, whose work will be considered by publications that say they’re closed or that allow submissions via a “submissions portal” with a URL that is “not public”?

The answer is simple: Hard work, good writing, and professional attitude.

Every single magazine with which I have or have had a working relationship began when the editor plucked one of my stories from a slush pile. Almost every working relationship I have with anthology editors began when those editors plucked my stories from the slush piles of open-call anthologies.

I began writing professionally in the 1970s, so much of the information available to new writers today either was not then available or was much harder to acquire. What I knew about publishing came from the pages of Writer’s Digest and The Writer. What I knew about open markets came from the back pages of those same magazines and from the annual Writer’s Market. Later, I discovered newsletters such as Janet Fox’s Scavenger’s Newsletter and Kathryn Ptacek’s The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets.

Even so, I had little or no information about how many published stories were discovered in slush piles, nor how many in a given issue of any magazine were slush pile finds vs. stories that were acquired through some form of “insider” submission (solicited, backdoor, and select/private). What I did know was that the only way out of the slush pile was to submit a well-written story that met the publication’s guidelines.

So I did it. Again. And again. And again.

And now, though I’m a writer whose work is sometimes solicited, I’ve yet to encounter any publication with formal or informal backdoor or select/private submission policies. That may be the difference between SF/F markets and mystery markets, or it might just mean I haven’t yet reached that level of success.

FROM THE EDITOR’S SIDE

You may have noticed that some writers appear in several of my projects, regardless of whether the projects are open-call or invitation-only. If there isn’t some secret handshake, how does this happen?

The reason is simple: these authors provide good stories, well-told, delivered on time and on theme, and they have proven themselves easy to work with throughout the editing process.

YOU GET A FAIR SHOT, AND YOU GET A FAIR SHOT, AND YOU GET A FAIR SHOT

So, yes, there may be publications and anthology editors with backdoor submission policies and secret/private submission portals, and there certainly are many invitation-only projects, but one’s goal as a writer should be to reach the point where one no longer has to battle through the slush pile on a regular basis.

So, should editors be transparent about their processes? I’m with Acks on this: Yes.

Will complete transparency create a level playing field for new writers? Alas, no.

But, really, all a writer wants is a fair shot.

So, for Christmas this year, let’s ensure that every writer has a fair shot.

01 December 2020

Once More, With Feeling


Though writing has gone well this year, I’ve spent a great deal more time on the editorial side of the desk than in any previous year. Editing involves everything from pitching ideas to writing guidelines, reading submissions, editing accepted submissions, formatting files for publication, reviewing publisher copyedits, reviewing covers, assisting in promotional activities, and so much more.

Rereading the full ms. of
Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir
vol. 2. Note the pandemic-
influenced hairdo.
So, this year, in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down or curtailed wide swaths of our economy, I’ve worked (in one way or another) on multiple issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, three volumes of Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, two seasons of Guns + Tacos (with Trey R. Barker), Jukes & Tonks (with Gary Phillips), and Groovy Gumshoes. Some of these were or will be published in 2020, some in 2021, and some in 2022.

Additionally, and not mystery related, I edited six issues of Texas Gardener, a bi-monthly non-fiction consumer magazine, and 52 issues of Seeds, a weekly electronic newsletter. Though there are some similarities in the editorial processes between a non-fiction consumer magazine and a mystery anthology, that’s a discussion best saved for another time.

READ IT ONCE, READ IT TWICE, READ IT A THIRD TIME...

The mystery projects I’ve worked on this year have included both invitation-only and open-call, each with unique challenges, but once submissions start rolling in there isn’t much difference in what happens: A great deal of reading.

1. The first read is cursory. When I receive a submission for any project, I give it a quick read to determine if it adheres to the guidelines and is competently written. Some submissions don’t survive this stage and are rejected. Other stories are held for a second reading.

2. The second read is an in-depth examination of the manuscript and the story. At this point I’m looking at several things. Among them: Does the plot hold together? Do the characters engage me? How much work is involved in preparing the story for publication? If it’s a submission to a themed anthology, does it differ in any way from other submissions? 

3. An accepted story gets a third read. This is the editing pass, a combination of developmental editing, copyediting, and formatting, where I examine every element and correct errors (spelling, grammar), confirm factual information (dates, product names), ensure consistency (character names, place names), and look to plug plot holes. Were I editing novels, development editing, copyediting, and formatting would likely be three separate and distinct processes. Because I work with short stories, I tend to do them at the same time.

4. The edited manuscript usually* gets sent to the author with corrections, changes, suggestions, and questions inserted into the document via Microsoft Word’s track changes function. Any extensive comments or revision requests are included in the cover letter, and the fourth read happens when the manuscript is returned. This read is to ensure that the author has addressed every correction, change, suggestion, and question. This read also involves ensuring that the author did not insert new errors and that I did not miss any in my original editing. This stage may be repeated several times depending on the author and the story. 

5. After all the mss. are merged into a single file, the entire anthology gets the fifth read. This time, I’m looking to ensure consistency across all stories. For example, are words with various spellings spelled the same throughout the entire project (barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-cue, bar-b-que, BBQ), and, if not, are the different spellings justified? I also try to ensure that nothing is lost or has lost its formatting during the process of merging all the files into one.

6. The next read happens when proofs come back from the publisher. I read to see what the publisher’s copyeditor changed and why. I’m checking to ensure that everything is formatted consistently. Often, but not always, proofs are shared so that each author has one last chance to review what the publisher’s staff has done to their story.

So, by the time a story appears in an anthology or periodical I edit, I’ve read it at least six times.

And, sadly, I still miss things.

LIVING WITH THE REPETITION

Once of the most important lessons I take away from all this reading is to be judicious in my selection process. Knowing that I will be reading a story at least six times helps ensure that I select stories I will feel as good about on my sixth reading as I did on my first, either because they were great stories or because, through working with the writer through the editing process, they have become great stories.

On the other hand, is it any wonder why I can’t keep up with all the anthologies and periodicals in my to-be-read pile?

*Sometimes a ms. is so clean there’s no reason to return it to the writer for correction or revision. Sometimes the deadline is so tight that there isn’t time to return it to the writer. At the consumer magazine we rarely involve writers in the editing process, and, as a writer, I’ve worked with many editors, both inside and outside the mystery genre, who do not involve writers in the editing process. 


Speaking of projects I’ve read at least six times:

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir is a crime-fiction cocktail that will knock readers into a literary stupor.

Contributors push hard against the boundaries of crime fiction, driving their work into places short crime fiction doesn’t often go, into a world where the mean streets seem gentrified by comparison and happy endings are the exception rather than the rule. And they do all this in contemporary settings, bringing noir into the 21st century.

Like any good cocktail, Mickey Finn is a heady mix of ingredients that packs a punch, and when you’ve finished reading every story, you’ll know that you’ve been “slipped a Mickey.”

Contributors include: J.L. Abramo, Ann Aptaker, Trey R. Barker, Michael Bracken, Barb Goffman, David Hagerty, James A. Hearn, David H. Hendrickson, Jarrett Kaufman, Mark R. Kehl, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Steve Rasnic Tem, Mikal Trimm, Bev Vincent, Joseph S. Walker, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, and Stacy Woodson.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 releases December 14 from Down & Out Books.