Showing posts with label Strand Magazine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Strand Magazine. Show all posts

01 December 2018

Two Strand Stories: Behind the Scenes



by John M. Floyd



I always find something to like about SleuthSayers posts, whether they stick to the subjects of mysteries and writing or veer off into something else--but some of those I've enjoyed the most are the ones where an author talks in detail about specific stories or novels he or she has written. Sort of an insider's view.

With that in mind--and hoping others might feel the same--I'd like to look at two of my recent stories, one of them in the previous issue of The Strand Magazine and the other in the current issue.

A quick peek

The first story, "Foreverglow" (original title "The Foreverglow Case"), appeared in The Strand's June-Oct issue. It's the story of a regular and not-overly-bright guy who meets and falls for a young lady who, as it turns out, has what she feels is a brilliant plan to steal a fortune in diamond jewelry from the store where she's employed. They manage to work together to pull off the heist--but what happens next was not in their original plan.

The second story, "Lucian's Cadillac," appears in the current (Oct-Jan) issue, which they're calling the Twentieth Anniversary Collector's Issue. It's a tale about three lifelong but unlikely friends--a genius, a "little person," and an ex-football player--who happen to witness a double murder. They testify against the killer, and later wind up on his payback list when he escapes from the state prison. It's sort of a High Noon/Cape Fear kind of story, with three over-the-hill seniors as the targets of revenge.

What's interesting, to me, about these two stories is what I found when I started comparing them. At first glance, they have a lot in common. Here are a few of the

Similarities:

- Both stories have protagonists with common, everyday lives and jobs. I find myself doing this a lot. Heroes don't have to be superheroes.

- Both are about 2500 words in length. This is actually a little short for Strand stories; I think the guidelines still say between 2K and 6K.

- Both are mysteries. This just means a crime is central to the plot.

- Both have characters who are romantically attracted to each other. The two thieves in the first story, and the viewpoint character and a female sheriff in the second. A romantic element, even if minor, can add a level of interest and/or conflict.

- Both are told in past tense. (I probably shouldn't have listed this, since all my stories are past tense. But it is a similarity.)

- Both are standalone stories. One of the two could conceivably become a series, but I have no plans in that direction.

- Both, except for some violence, have family-friendly content. Hell no, the priest and the Republican senator are NOT having an affair.

- Both are set in the present day, and in fairly small and unnamed towns. In one of the stories I mentioned that Atlanta was nearby, but otherwise I didn't see a need to use real, it's-on-the-map locations.

Both have only a few named characters but a LOT of dialogue. (One story has two speaking roles, the other has three.)

- Both include major plot reversals. I find this hard to resist when I write, because it's the kind of thing I like to encounter myself in the stories and novels I read.


But . . . here are some things about those stories that aren't alike at all.


Differences:

- In one story, the protagonists willfully break the law; in the other they don't. Asking the reader to root for the bad guys doesn't always work--but sometimes it does (Get Shorty, The Godfather, Butch Cassidy, etc.).

- One is written in third person, the other in first person. This wasn't even a conscious decision on my part--it just seemed the right way to tell these particular stories.

- One has several different scenes; the other has no scene breaks at all. A factor here is that in one story the action includes different places at different times, and in the other story everything happens at the same location--a neighborhood bar owned by the protagonist--in the space of only an hour or so.

- In one, the romantic element drives the story; in the other it's incidental. What can I say?--Love is mysterious.

One's a heist story; the other's a tale of revenge and survival. As a result, one of the stories has no specific named antagonist, while the other does.

- In one story, the characters are fairly "average"; in the other there'a a lot of diversity. The group of close friends in the second story includes a brilliant scholar, a dwarf, and an overweight former linebacker. Plus a lady sheriff.

- One contains no violence; the other does. This makes sense because one's a try-to-escape-without-getting-caught story, and the other's life-or-death, do-whatever-you-must-to-stay-alive.

- In one, the main characters are young; in the other they're old. The ages, here, are appropriate to the plot: the jewelry thieves are confident but inexperienced, and the three old men facing a deadly enemy are experienced enough not to be confident--besides being physically challenged.

- One has a surprise ending; the other does not. Although I hope both endings are satisfying.


So the two stories have many things in common, including some style/structure elements, but they're vastly different. I think that's to be expected with my stories, and probably with yours as well. If they're too much alike--even those that are "series" installments--they'll be boring to write and boring to read. This applies to novels as well as shorts.

Advice and opinions

For you writers out there, how different from each other are the stories you create? Are most told in the same viewpoint? Do most have the same kind of geographical setting? The same time period? The same tense? The same length? Complex plots? Happy endings? Surprise endings? How about the amount of dialogue? Violence? Sex? Profanity? Humor? Is there any one thing that you find yourself always including, or always avoiding?

Here's some sage advice from Elmore Leonard, and supposedly from Alfred Hitchcock as well: Leave out the parts that people skip.

Easier said than done.








01 September 2018

POSTed, STRANDed, and BCMMed


Situation report: It's been a pretty good summer, writingwise. I worked with my publisher to finish the manuscript of my new story collection coming later this year, I participated in two panels--and moderated one--at our annual Mississippi Book Festival (6400 people attended panels that day), and I've written some short stories, sold some, and had some published. At the moment, I have stories in the current issues of three publications: The Saturday Evening Post, The Strand Magazine, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine. And since I couldn't come up with another topic for my column today, I decided to give you a few "stories behind the stories" for these three shorts.

Of these three, my story in The Saturday Evening Post (the September/October 2018 issue) is the only one that's not a mystery. It's probably more of a drama/romance. It's also the only one that was inspired by actual events. It's called "The Music of Angels," the meaning of which will become clear if/when you read it, and it's short--about 2000 words. (The print edition of the SEP features one piece of fiction in each two-month issue, and so far my stories there have ranged from about 1500 to about 5500 words.)

The first half of this story is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and many years pass. What happens next I won't reveal, here, but since I've told you it's essentially a romance you can probably figure it out. What I hope is entertaining about it is the process, and a surprise or two. I will say that the opening scene, which features two college students who meet at the information desk of their Student Union, happens almost exactly the way it happened to me, in real life. The rest is fictional, but the final part of the story is based closely on my mother, who's 92 and still lives in the house where I grew up.

Another unique thing about this story is that I once promised our oldest son's three children, who all love to read, that I would one day include characters with their names in one of my stories. So the main characters in this one are named Lillian, Anna, and Gabe. It's a small and silly thing, but I think those three kids'll get a kick out of that when they read it.

My story in The Strand Magazine (the June-October 2018 issue) is called "Foreverglow"--original title "The Foreverglow Case"--and was one that I dreamed up while sitting in our backyard swing a few months ago, before the temperature and the humidity and the mosquito population rose high enough to send everyone screaming into their houses. I must've been in a noirish frame of mind that day because the idea that popped into my head was of a blue-collar guy who lets his smarter girlfriend talk him into robbing the jewelry section of the department store where she works. They devise a plan by which she can smuggle a display case of samples of their new Foreverglow collection out of the store to him while she remains inside, and then they can make their getaway the following day after things have calmed down. I hope what happens will be a surprise to the reader, but you probably already suspect that things don't work out exactly as planned. Do they ever?

The third story I have out right now is "Diversions," which appears in Issue #3 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, alongside stories by my SleuthSayers colleagues Eve Fisher and Michael Bracken. This one is also a mystery/crime story, but it's a western (how could I not want to write a western after watching all those episodes of Have Gun--Will Travel?), and features a bank robber who's been caught in the act and is now in custody in a temporary jail and under guard by a female (and also temporary) deputy. The most unusual thing about the story is that the entire plot takes place in less that an hour's time and inside those four walls, and the fact that the inspiration for one of the characters' names came from a road sign on State Highway 25, about forty miles northeast of where I live. On the sign were--and still are--the names of two Mississippi towns, one above the other: LENA, with an arrow pointing west, and MORTON, with an arrow pointing east. One day when my wife and I were driving past on the way to visit my mother, I noticed the words on that sign, and made a mental note. Now, about a year later, the deputy's name in this story is Lena Morton.

I find myself doing that kind of thing occasionally just because it's (1) fun, and (2) different. Which, now that I think about it, is a good way to describe (1) writing, and (2) writers.

So those are my current publications, and a few facts about how they came to be. Upcoming are stories in AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Woman's World, Mystery Weekly, Flash Bang Mysteries, The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, and nine anthologies, including one that also features my heroes Joe Lansdale, Bill Pronzini, and Max Allan Collins. Here's the cover of that anthology, Pop the Clutch, which'll be released on November 1.


Do any of you have stories out, or coming up soon, in magazines or collections or anthologies? Any novels recently released, or scheduled? If so, let me know what they are--and keep up the good work. I hope your story ideas--and mine--keep coming.

See you in two weeks.

02 December 2017

From the Strand to the Subway: An Unplanned Journey




by John M. Floyd



Like most short-story writers, I don't hit a home run every time I go to bat. Some of my stories sell to good markets and some don't, and even though I try hard to make every story as perfect as I can make it before typing THE END and sending it out into the world, it's difficult to predict which ones will be successful and which ones won't. Most of them eventually pay their way, but sometimes they have to be revised a bit before they do.

Never say never

Occasionally, though, you do know--or at least have a feeling--that what you've created might be on target. I remember feeling that way while writing a story called "Molly's Plan," in early 2014. It was a 5000-word story about the robbery of a supposedly theft-proof bank, and was unusual in several ways: the bad guys were the protagonists, it had very little dialogue, everything happened inside an hour or so, and the POV changed at least four times. But I liked all that, and I liked the suspense and the surprises in the story. When I finished it I mumbled a prayer to the submission gods and sent it to editor Andrew Gulli at Strand Magazine.

Andrew bought it, and it appeared in the June-September 2014 issue of The Strand--the 10th of the 16 stories I've published there. I was pleased by the sale and by the positive feedback I received from readers over the next few weeks, but what I didn't know was that even better times were ahead, for this story. In the months that followed, Otto Penzler notified me that "Molly's Plan" had been selected to appear in the 2015 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories; Kirkus Reviews had glowing things to say about my story; a Hollywood agency inquired about film rights; several college teachers requested permission to use it in their fiction-writing classes; and my publisher included it in a sixth collection of my short mystery fiction. A Russian literary magazine even contacted me recently with an offer to translate and reprint it in an upcoming (2018) issue of Inostrannaya Literatura. I suppose my little bank-heist tale has done well for itself.

NOTE: Before you get the impression that I think I'm the fattest goose in the gaggle, I should point out what one magazine editor told me years ago, in his rejection of what I thought was an outstanding science-fiction submission. He said, of my ten-page story, "You should've stopped on page 5." That'll bring you back down to earth pretty fast.



Read--don't sleep--in the subway

What I'm getting around to describing, here, is yet another opportunity that came out of nowhere, this past spring. I was informed that "Molly's Plan" had been nominated to be part of a New York Public Library initiative to bring digital short stories to library patrons and public transit commuters, and I received confirmation the other day that it has now been selected for inclusion. My story will become part of the NYPL's permanent digital collection and will be available via a library mobile lending app called SimplyE. (Here's how it works: when commuters log in to the subway wi-fi network they'll be directed to a library website where there'll be various collections of fiction and nonfiction, similar to a Netflix queue.)

Apparently the driving force behind all this is Plympton, a literary studio in San Francisco. They format the stories into Ebooks, design covers for each, and create cataloguing data. They anticipate launching similar "literature in motion" projects with library systems in Chicago, San Francisco, Toledo, Salt Lake City, Boston, and Pittsburgh, and "Molly's Plan" will be available in each of these. Here's the cover they've chosen to use:


Anything can happen

One of my old schoolteachers told me there's a lesson to be found in every experience you have, and one thing I've learned as a writer is that--with a little luck--short stories can take on a whole new life after publication. (I'm reminded of a column here at SleuthSayers the other day by my friend R.T. Lawton, whose AHMM story "Boudin Noir" was recently resurrected in Otto Penzler's The Big Book of Rogues and Villains.) Published stories can be selected for "best-of" anthologies, reprinted in collections, nominated for awards, translated into other languages, produced as plays, made into movies, etc., etc. They might even be read by passengers on the subway.

What's been your experience with previously-published stories? Have some of yours been recognized with nominations or awards, or reborn in collections or anthos? If so, were they always stories that first appeared in the bigger publications, or were some discovered in lesser-known markets? Do you actively submit your previously-pubbed stories to reprint venues, or have those opportunities appeared out of the blue, via invitations or selections?

I'll close by saying that this to-infinity-and-beyond kind of thing doesn't happen all the time, but it does seem to pop up more often than you might think. There are no guarantees: I believe all of us realize that we might strike out the very next time we step up to the plate. Your newly-written story might not get published at all, and if it does it might appear someplace once and that's it. But you also might get a hit that clears all the bases. You might put together a story that delivers over and over, and makes you proud for years to come. And that's a good reason to keep trying.

One never knows.




19 July 2017

Five Red Herrings 8


by Robert Lopresti


1. Maybe I've been here before.  Five years ago in this space (wow, we've been doing this a long time, haven't we?) I wrote a piece about incidental music in movies and TV, (and by incidental I mean it wasn't written for  that show and is not being performed by a character).  The inspiration was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" showing up in yet another TV show.  I wrote: "It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature 'Hallelujah.'" I now have evidence that I was right (not about the FCC, but about the frequency of that song's appearances.)


I am reading The Holy or the Broken, a book by Alan Light that is entirely about you-know-which song.  It reports that the first appearance on TV was in Scrubs  in 2002.  There were five more visits in 2003 and seven in the year after.  Each performance pays in the $50,000 range, with half going to the author (and his publisher) and half to the performer (and the record company).  Not bad.

By the way, the whole book is fascinating.  If a writer of fiction tried to make up the story of Cohen's "Hallelujah" she would have to sell it as fantasy or magic realism.  It involves two generations of singers dying young, an animated children's film, TV talent contests, the 9/11 attacks...


Meet the new boss
Blonde as  the old boss
2. Blonde on Blonde. Going even further back in my blogging past, in 2008 I commented on my affection for the British TV show New Tricks.  I noted that there seemed to be a rule that all shows about cops working on cold cases (New Tricks, Cold Squad, Cold Case) had to be led by a blonde woman. 

I recently discovered new episodes of New Tricks and all but one of the  characters had been replaced, including the leader.  And yes, the new one is a blonde woman.
from Gratisography


3.  Getcha pretty pictures right here.  Some of us here at SleuthSayers HQ find ourselves from time to time looking for illustrations that we can use without fearing the Long Arm of the Copyright.  The website Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes has a very helpful list of four websites with images free for the using. 


4. Steven on Sherlock.  The latest issue of Strand Magazine (February-May 2017) has a very interesting interview with Steven Moffat, co-producer and co-creator of Sherlock.  Even if you don't watch his show, Moffat's insights into the great original are interesting.  To those who complain about his making the characters young and modern he replies that when Doyle invented Holmes and Watson they were young and used the newest technology available.  They aged into period pieces as Doyle wrote about them for forty years.  He also points out that people don't complain about the James Bond movies yanking the character out of his time period, although Fleming's character was a World War II vet.  Definitely worth a read.


5.  Riding a trend?  But maybe the most interesting thing in the Strand (and my apologies to John Floyd and the other authors of fiction who appear therein) is a full-page ad for Ted Allbeury's novel The Twentieth Day of January.  There are plenty of ads in the magazine for books, but this one is almost forty years old.  So why bring it back now?  Perhaps the plot description holds a clue: 

"Seemingly out of nowhere, wealthy businessman Logan Powell has become President-elect.  But veteran intelligence agent James MacKay uncovers shocking evidence that suggest something might be terribly wrong with the election: is Powell actually a puppet of the Soviet Union?"

Timing is the key to success.







03 December 2016

Writing What I Knew




by John M. Floyd


How many times have we, as writers, heard that we should "write what we know"? I'm not sure I always agree with that piece of advice--I'd rather it be "write what you feel comfortable writing," or "write the kind of things you like to read." What you know--or at least what I know--isn't always interesting enough to carry a story. Besides, if Asimov, Bradbury, Verne, Heinlein, Serling, etc., had written only what they knew . . . well, you've heard that argument before.

But in the case I'm about to describe, I chose to heed the advice.

Work files

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of the current issue (Oct.-Jan.) of Strand Magazine, which contains one of my stories, called "Jackpot Mode." It's one of those tales that was fun to write, partly because--for a change--I covered a subject that was extremely familiar to me, once upon a time.

A bit of boring background, here. I hired on with IBM right out of college, back when the pharaoh was building the pyramids, and stayed with the company for thirty years. (That time-span included a four-year leave-of-absence to the Air Force.) I worked as both a marketing rep and a systems engineer, and for most of my career I was what was then called a "Finance Industry Specialist," which means I spent a lot of time in banks, from Atlanta to Anchorage, Boston to Burbank, Minneapolis to Manila. My specialty area was the software for IBM teller stations, check-processing systems, and ATMs.

Which brings us to my Strand story. Financial institutions have always been prime fodder for crime writers, and for the past forty years bank robbers seem to have had an unusual fondness for automated teller machines. There must be something especially tempting about the fact that so many thousands of dollars are sitting right there in a box near the sidewalk--never mind the fact that it's encased in half a ton of steel. Even in this day and age, stories of dimwitted, would-be thieves trying to blow up, drill through, or drag away ATMs are regularly featured on the evening news. These attempts, as I'm sure you know, almost always fail. So I figured, why not write a story about a couple of inside guys--a bank programmer and an equipment repairman--who team up and try to do it the right way?

Technicalities

I should mention at this point that not everything I put into this story works exactly the way I said it does--after all, I don't want somebody using information in my fictional frolics to actually steal a small (or large) fortune. But most of it is technically correct. In the olden days ATMs would occasionally suffer electronic or mechanical indigestion and spew cash like oversized slot machines until the error was found and corrected. We had a term for this thankfully rare occurrence: it was called "jackpot mode." (I saw it happen only twice, during routine off-line testing.) It also served as what I thought was a good story title.

Like several of my recent mysteries for the Strand and other magazines, this one ran a little long, around 8000 words. But there was a lot of detail involved as well as a lot of money, and I can never resist putting in multiple plot twists. If you read the story, I hope you'll like it.

Mining your past

Do you often find yourself using personal memories and first-hand knowledge from your jobs, hobbies, etc., to come up with fictional material? If you do, and if these experiences are unmodified, I can only assume your life has been more eventful than mine. I suppose I could write about making ill-fated stock market investments, or watching Netflix movies until four in the morning, or regularly mowing my wife's newly planted flowers that I mistake for weeds--but who'd want to read about that? Instead, my stories usually consist of normal, routine happenings that I then inject with steroids, asking myself "what if" and plugging in exaggerations that (hopefully) make those incidents more interesting and entertaining than they were in the real world.

The person I always think of when this subject comes up is Nevada Barr, an excellent mystery writer who once lived the kind of life her fictional heroine lives now. Nevada was a park ranger for many years, like the main character of her twenty-plus novels, and the author's familiarity and comfort level with the National Park settings and her protagonist's occupation make her books authentic and believable--and even educational. (She once said she wasn't quite as brave and daring as Anna Pigeon is, but Nevada's face is always the one I picture in my mind when I read about Anna's adventures.) Most writers aren't fortunate enough to have that kind of background--and when they don't, they have to make up for it with research and imagination.


Author Marie Anderson once observed, in The Writer, "I used to write what I know. I used to write about infertility, motherhood, suburban middle-class life, blue-collar Catholic childhood, law school from a dropout's perspective. I'd send out those stories and never see them again, not even the SASEs. Then, somewhere, I came across a better rule: know what you write."

That sounds better to me, too.



05 December 2015

Posted and Stranded




Sounds like a soldier abandoned at his duty station, right? Actually, what it means is that this month I'm lucky enough to have short stories in The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand Magazine. And there are three reasons I'm writing on that subject today: the first is a "Look, Ma--see what I did!" thing (otherwise known as BSP, with emphasis on the BS); the second is laziness (nothing is easier than talking about your own creations, since you're the only one who knows how and why they were written); and the third is that I couldn't think of anything else to write about, this week.

Anyhow, those two stories, both of which are fiction, are different in several ways. For one thing, the first is short, around 2000 words (most of it takes place inside a plane parked on the tarmac of an airport), and the second is long, around 8000 words. Also, one is fairly easygoing and the other is violent. Besides all that, the first tries to make an observation about right vs. wrong, while the second is a twisty suspense story about murder, robbery, kidnapping, and a few other heinous deeds. In their own ways, I suppose both are mysteries in that they involve puzzles that the protagonist has to figure out--but only one of the two stories fits the generally accepted definition of mystery fiction, because only one involves crimes that are central to the plot.

The only thing truly common to both stories is a rather unintentional "secondary" theme: One of the best ways to deal with the stressful seas of Corporate America is to hold your nose, jump over the side, and swim for shore. Being somewhat familiar with that theme in real life, I felt qualified to use it as a plot element in these stories.

A tale of two ditties

"Business Class," which appears in the current (Nov./Dec.) print issue of The Saturday Evening Post, is both a Christmas story and a fictional account of ethics and (the lack of) common sense in the modern-day business world. The antagonist, like Mrs. Robinson or Apollo Creed or Smokey chasing the Bandit, isn't really an evil villain--he's just an antagonist. He's there to prevent the protagonist from accomplishing what he needs to do. And the only mystery in the story is the "clue" that the hero discovers that allows him to complete his journey.

This story, published on November 1 (at least that's when I received my contributor's copy in the mail) was also made available online at the SEP's website yesterday, December 4. If anyone's interested, here's a link. FYI, The Saturday Evening Post publishes one piece of fiction in each print issue (six stories a year).

My other story, "Arrowhead Lake," is featured in the current (Oct.-Jan.) issue of The Strand Magazine, and with this one I'm on more comfortable ground: it's a crime story with a lot of action, and it's probably more of a thriller than a mystery because it involves ordinary people thrust into a fight-or-flight, life-or-death situation. In this story, which is actually quite a bit longer than a ditty, a successful businesswoman and her underachieving younger brother face off against a couple of ruthless home-invaders with hidden agendas, who do little to hide the fact that the victims probably won't survive to see the end of the tale. What finally happens comes as something of a surprise to both the bad guys and the good guys--and, if I'm lucky, a surprise to the reader as well.

A most pleasant surprise to me was that this issue of The Strand also contains a never-before-published short story by a fellow (and slightly more famous) Mississippian named William Faulkner. In fact, Strand editor Andrew Gulli has managed to unearth and publish quite a few of these long-lost manuscripts lately, by authors like Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, etc. The first I heard about this one was an interview with Andrew on NPR that aired the other day, in which he talked about the new issue. I picked the magazine up at our local Books-A-Million this past week and just finished reading the Faulkner story--I think you'll like it. And I hope you'll like mine also.

The Strand usually publishes four or five pieces of fiction in each issue, and this one includes interviews with Dean Koontz and A. E. Hotchner.

Bonus material

I was also pleased, during a trip to Kroger the other day, to discover one of my stories in Woman's World. (The contract always names the issue in which they expect the story to appear, but that sometimes doesn't hold true, so I usually find out for sure by hearing about it from one of my e-friends who has a subscription or from spotting it myself on the newsstand when I go to the store for necessities like Oreos or potato chips.) This story, my eighth in WW this year, is called "Strangers on the Block," in the December 7 issue, which went on sale on November 26. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this market, WW publishes one mystery and one romance in each issue. You can probably guess which genre I prefer.

A quick note about Woman's World mini-mysteries. They really are minuscule (700 words max), and since the "solve-it-yourself" format was introduced in 2004 they are always interactive, featuring a puzzle and an upside-down "solution box" that allows the reader to try to supply the answer. In my story this time, the amateur sleuth figures out which of the three suspects is the guilty party, and the reader's challenge is not whodunit but howdidsheknowwhodunit?

Several of my present and former co-conspirators at SleuthSayers--B. K. Stevens, R. T. Lawton, and Deborah Elliott-Upton, among others--have sold to WW, and they'll vouch for the fact that writing those little mysteries is a lot of fun.

Counting my blessings

As I have mentioned before at this blog, 2015 has been kind to me, writingwise. I'm sure the Law of Averages will soon catch up to me, but meanwhile I'm having a great time. One of the best things to happen to me this year, on the literary front, was having three of my writing buddies--B. K. (Bonnie) Stevens, Barb Goffman, and Art Taylor--join our infamous group here at SleuthSayers, and the other was getting the chance to finally meet Bonnie and Art face-to-face, along with fellow SSers R. T. Lawton, David Dean, and Rob Lopresti. And to see and visit once again with longtime friends Barb, Dale Andrews, and Liz Zelvin.

Here's to a good year for all of us, in 2016.

18 April 2015

Stranded Yet Again


by John M. Floyd

I consider myself a lucky man. I'm married to a great lady, my children (thank God) inherited her looks and brainpower and not mine, and although I'm no billionaire I'm not homeless either, at least not at the moment. And, with regard to my so-called writing career, these past few months have been especially kind to me.

Much of my recent run of good fortune seems to be linked to the folks at The Strand Magazine. (I've written about that publication in two previous SleuthSayers columns: "Stranded" in November 2011 and "Stranded Again" in July 2014. Which led to the brilliantly original title of this piece.)

Rewind to the morning of January 21, 2015. I was scheduled for a signing that day at a library about 100 miles north of here, so after stumbling out of bed and shoveling down my breakfast I loaded some books into the car and checked Google Maps to see exactly where I was going. I was still squinting at the satellite view of the Montgomery County Library when I heard the DING of an incoming message. I yawned, rubbed my eyes, clicked over to e-mail, and saw a note from my (former) SleuthSayers colleague Janice Law. Before I could open it, two more DINGs, from friends Terrie Moran and Bonnie (B.K.) Stevens. All three of them said, more or less, the same thing: Congrats on your Edgar nomination!

Believe me, there are few things that can wake a person up faster than that. One of my informants (Janice, I think) included a link to the announcement in the Los Angeles Times. Shellshocked, I hopped over there and was reading the article when my cell phone rang--the caller was Andrew Gulli, editor of the Strand. He didn't bother to identify himself--he just said "Have you heard the news?" He went on to tell me that one of my stories, "200 Feet," which appeared in the February-May 2014 issue of the Strand, was chosen as a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story.

How in the world did one of my stories get nominated? I had, and have, no idea. But I assure you that that news made my road trip that day a lot more fun. If the folks in that Friends of the Library group wondered why I had a dopey (or maybe the word is dopier) grin on my face during my signing, they were nice enough not to mention it.

A few days after that, on January 26, I received more good news: the Strand sent me word that it would publish the latest story I'd submitted to them, called "Driver." It has since appeared in their current issue, February-May 2015, and its acceptance was especially pleasant--and surprising--because the story is fairly long, around 10,000 words. I think the magazine's guidelines say they prefer "between 2000 and 6000," and most of my Strand stories have been right in the middle of that range--around 4K. (I like to be as dateworthy a blind date as possible, when trying to woo editors.) I'm not sure why this particular story ran so long. Maybe because it's about a scandal in D.C., and features a limousineload of crooked politicians and their hired help. The crimes and attempted crimes include extortion, robbery, blackmail, and murder, and in this case it just took a lot of words and pages to get everything I wanted into the story.

The third good thing happened almost a month later, on February 19. I received an e-mail from Otto Penzler in New York, informing me that he and guest editor James Patterson had selected one of my stories, "Molly's Plan," for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, to be published this October. (That story was also from the Strand--their June-September 2014 issue.) I've been buying and reading the annual BAMS anthology for years, and although I've been fortunate enough to be shortlisted several times I'd never before made it into the book.

As I recently mentioned to another SleuthSayer, David Dean, this kind of occurrence is proof positive that many things in this writing business are unpredictable. We try to write a story as well as we can, mail (or e-mail) it off, and cross our fingers that it might achieve some level of success. That's all we can do.

Even though I continue to remain pitifully clueless as to which stories will be victorious when I send them out into the world--many of them die slow and painful deaths--I also continue to believe that if you try long enough and hard enough, some will be accepted, published, and occasionally recognized in a way that gives them new life afterward. If there is a key to all this, it's that we have to keep writing and keep submitting. In my case, as one of my old IBM buddies used to say, even a blind hog can root up an acorn now and then.

Will the rest of this year be as kind to me as these past several months have been? I hope so. But I can't help wondering if I have already found and used up all the four-leaf clovers in my 2015 lawn.

Even so, I'm seriously considering the purchase of a lottery ticket.

There might never be a better time.

26 July 2014

Stranded Again


by John M. Floyd

As I was trying to decide what to write for today, it dawned on me that some of the columns I have enjoyed the most by my fellow Sayers of Sleuth were those that revealed the "story behind the story" for certain pieces of their fiction. In fact I've always been interested in behind-the-scenes, how-I-do-it peeks into the processes writers use to come up with their creations. So, to make a long story short (pun intended), I'm going to try to do some of that today.

First, a little background . . .

In November 2011, not long after SleuthSayers began, I posted a column called "Stranded." In it I mentioned one of my short mystery stories, "Turnabout," that had recently been published in The Strand Magazine. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to have five more stories in The Strand; the latest, called "Molly's Plan," appears in the current issue (June - September 2014). Down here in the Southern hinterlands, I saw a copy of this issue for the first time at our local Barnes & Noble this past weekend, and bought one for me and one for my mother (my Biggest Fan).

The glimmer of an idea for "Molly's Plan" began long ago, when I worked for IBM. My job title for many years was Finance Industry Specialist, which sounds more important than it really was; what I did was work with IBM banking software applications, like teller networks, ATMs, check processing systems, etc., which required me to spend most of my time with clients at their business sites. For me, those sites--or work locations, if you want to call them that--were banks.

One of the zillions of financial institutions I visited in the course of my career was a big gray lump of a building with white columns along the front, at the end of a narrow street that was always jammed with traffic. It was a branch of a regional bank, but it looked more like the fusion of a plantation home and a medieval prison. Even its layout was strange: it offered very few parking spaces, no drive-up windows, and limited access in just about every way. Simply stated, it was hard to get to and hard to leave. Because of this--and because my devious mind leaned toward deviousness even back then--it occurred to me that this bank would be extremely difficult to rob. Or at least difficult to escape from, after being robbed. I mentioned that to the branch manager one day, who confirmed my observation. He told me there had never ever been a robbery there, not even so much as an attempt, and probably never would be. As I later noted in the short story that resulted from all this, "Smart rustlers tend to avoid box canyons." The manager was so confident he didn't even bother to have a rent-a-cop on guard duty.

Bottom line is, my impressions and memories of that real-life location formed, years later, the setting for my story. As you might suspect by now, the plan in "Molly's Plan" was to steal a fortune in cash from the vault of this bank, and get away with it.

In the eye of the beer holder

The only other thing I might mention about the story is that, unlike most of my mysteries, this one includes a lot of different points of view. One scene is from the POV of an unnamed narrator, several are from the bank robber, others are from his wife, from a police officer, from a teller, etc. That's a lot of POV switches, for a story of around 5000 words. Most of my short mystery stories, certainly most of the ten that have so far appeared in The Strand, have only one POV--that of the main character.

So why are there so many points of view, in this story? The answer is simple: I felt it would take that many to properly tell the tale. In this case, I wanted to introduce suspense on several levels, and even though I understand the advantages and intimacy of the first-person and third-person-limited points of view, the one big advantage of third-person-multiple POV is that it allows the writer to build suspense and misdirection in ways that are not possible otherwise. Handled correctly, it can be a win/win situation: the writer can conceal certain facts from the reader by revealing only what a particular character sees and knows at a particular time--and the reader, by seeing the action through the eyes of several different characters over the course of the story, can know things about the plotline that the other characters might not yet know. Maybe there's a burglar hiding in Jane's basement, or the money John found under the park bench belongs to the mafia, or the friendly neighborhood cop is actually one of the killers. Or--as Alfred Hitchcock once said in an interview--oh my God, there's a bomb under the table!

Does that approach work, in this instance? I hope so. All a writer can do is try to sell the editor or publisher on his story, and then trust that if it's accepted the reader will enjoy it as well.

Questions:

Do you, as writers, find yourselves calling on personal experiences to come up with most of your fictional settings? If so, how close do you come to the real thing? Do you think that kind of familiarity is necessary, or do you let your imagination supply most of what you need? How much detail do you include?

What type of POV do you use most, in your fiction? Does it depend on the form--flash, short, novella-length, novel-length? Or does it depend mostly (as in my case) on the plot? I once heard someone say that your choice of POV should be dictated by how much you want your reader to know and how soon you want your reader to know it.

Have any of you tried submitting to The Strand? If you've not sent them something, I hope you will. They publish three issues a year with four or five stories in each, and their guidelines say they prefer hardcopy submissions of 2000 to 6000 words. (All of mine so far, I think, have been between 4000 and 5000.) Contact information: Andrew Gulli, The Strand Magazine, P.O. Box 1418, Birmingham, MI 48012-1418. And here's a link to their web site.

Try them out--it's a darn good publication, with a great editor.

As for me, I hope to be Stranded again someday. One never knows.

27 October 2013

Stranded and Kwiked


by Louis Willis

I began thinking last month what I’d write about this month and my mind was totally blank until I received my first issue of the Strand Magazine. Imagine my delight when I saw John Floyd’s “Secrets,” a slow-paced story with a fast moving plot and rising tension in which two strangers, a man and woman, meet on a ferry boat in what appears a coincidence (it’s not but to say anymore would be a spoiler). The plot ends, but the tension doesn’t drop and the story doesn’t stop because the plight of the two characters continues, suggestively, in the reader’s imagination.

The other stories in the magazine are good, but the one that also interested me was Joseph Heller’s (1923-1999) unpublished "Almost Like Christmas,” written sometime between 1945-1969. Why would the editors publish a story about Christmas several months before Christmas. Because it is not about the holidays; it is a story that “ ...gives readers a provocative glimpse of seething race-related prejudice in an otherwise respectable small town,” (editor). In a town where black farmers from the south are allowed to buy land, a white teacher’s effort to integrate the schools results in three white boys badly beating a black boy. One of the white kids is stabbed, and the black kid is blamed. As an angry mob begins to form with the intention of hunting down the black kid, the atmosphere becomes “Almost Like Christmas.” In view of some of the violent incidents involving race these days, the story is very topical.

Reading Janice’s post on length prompted me to reread Poe’s essay “Philosophy of Composition” in which he states “It appears evident...that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting....” but he admits this limit may be “overpassed” except in poetry. Her post also sent me to Amazon to buy Kwik Krimes. Editor Otto Penzler “thought it would be fascinating to see what authors could conjure if given the specific assignment of producing a mystery, crime, or suspense story of no more than one thousand words.”

I didn’t read all 81 stories before having to post this article. All, except one, of the 34 stories that I managed to read are well crafted and seem to comply with the word limit, plus or minus a word or two. I say seem because I didn’t count the words of each story, but based on page length, each is four pages long, plus or minus one or two pages. The disappointing story was the page and half “Acknowledgement.” It has no conflict though it suggests what happened to the narrator. It is like the acknowledgements in books thanking mama, daddy, uncle, aunt, agent, and anybody else who may have helped or hurt the author. To say what the ending suggests would be a spoiler. Since there is no mystery, suspense, or crime, it isn’t a story and seems out of place in this collection.

I give a big shoutout to Janice’s masterful story “The Imperfect Detective” in which the detective comes up with the perfect solution. It is so well crafted that any discussion of the plot would be a spoiler. 

If you haven’t already, add Kwik Krimes to your to-read list. Not only can you read one story in a single sitting, you can read three or four or, if you’re a speed writer, even more. 

One problem I have with reading flash fiction, short stories, and short short stories is the difficulty of avoiding spoilers in discussing them. If anyone has a solution to this problem, help.

But maybe I don’t need help because, according to an essay I read by Jonah Lehrer in the Internet magazine Wired two minutes before posting my article, “Spoilers Don’t Spoil Anything.” The article is certainly food for thought and a post on SleuthSayers if I can get around to thinking about what spoilers really do.

20 March 2013

The Present is Tense


by Robert Lopresti

I am happy to report that the new issue of The Strand Magazine is out.  I haven't seen it yet, but unless the editors are playing a cruel joke on me, it features "The Present," by yours truly.  This is my first appearance in The Strand, and I think John Floyd is the only other member of our little band to show up in those pages so far.

So, what's the story about?  A woman named Maggie goes to the mall to buy a birthday present for her son, and while there she sees a couple of people and -- well, she gets a sense that I think parents are particularly susceptible to; namely, that something is wrong with this picture.

I remember attending a science fiction convention when my daughter was about six.  Such conventions tend to be very friendly places and at one point we were in a hospitality room and my kid was chatting pleasantly enough with a stranger.  I had to leave for a minute and I turned to my wife and said "See that guy?  For all I know he's the nicest person on earth, but don't leave him alone with her."

When I got back my wife told me she had gotten the same creeped-out feeling about the guy.  I have no idea if it was justified.

But that feeling is not where "The Present" comes from.  It actually grew from the last scene, a scene that I suspect is played out a number of times in this country every year.  I wanted to write a story that allowed me to use that last scene.  If you read it I think you'll understand what I'm talking about.

One more thing about "The Present."  It is the first story I have ever written that my eighth grade English teacher might like.  You see, it's full of Meanings.

Now, I have occasionally used a bit of symbolism in a story, but in this one I went hidden-depths-crazy.  Rest assured you can enjoy the story just fine without noticing them, but if you want to unleash your inner English teacher out, here's a chance to give him or her some exercise.

In any case, I hope you enjoy the tale.

26 November 2011

Stranded


by John M. Floyd



A few months ago I got a phone call from Strand Magazine editor Andrew Gulli. That, of course, usually means good news, and it was: he said they had accepted a story I'd submitted to them. He wasn't sure when it would come out, so I've been watching their web site, and last week I noticed that my story was listed as one of those in the newly-released Holiday 2011 issue.

Having completed my investigation, I decided to drive over to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy of the magazine. But there was one more thing to do. Our nearest bookstore, now that Borders has put all four feet in the air, is now almost twenty miles away. No great distance, but since this was late afternoon, and since Jackson's rush-hour traffic reminds me of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, I didn't want to make a special trip all the way over there until I was certain they had the current issue on their shelves; sometimes they've been known to run a little behind. Besides, I'd been there only a few days earlier, to buy the latest Stephen King novel, and the only Strand they'd had in stock on that visit was the previous (June - September) issue. Cautious soul that I am, I called the bookstore and asked the lady who answered the phone if they'd received the Holiday issue. She said she'd check.

When she came back on the line she told me yes, they had the latest issue in stock, but it didn't say anything on the cover about being a "holiday" issue. She was holding it her hand, she said, and down in the bottom corner of the front cover were the words "October through January." That sounded to me as if that adequately covered the holidays, but I wanted to be sure. For all I knew, they might've put out an extra issue this year. I thought for a moment, and after a rare brainflash I asked her if she saw any authors' names on the cover.

"Yes," she said. "Five or six."

"Would you read them out to me?"

"Read them out?"

"I want to make sure this is the issue I'm looking for."

"Okay." After a pause she said, "Alexander McCall Smith . . . Cornell Woolrich . . . Laura Lippman . . ."

I tried to remember if those names had been listed on the web site for the new issue. I thought Laura's had been, but I wasn't positive. "Keep going," I said.

She hesitated. "Woolrich sounds familiar."

"He wrote 'Rear Window,'" I said.

"Rear what?"

"Keep going."

"Three more names," she said. "Harlan Coben?"

"Keep going."

"M. L. Malcolm?"

I could tell she was beginning to lose patience with this. "Keep going."

"John Floyd?"

"Okay," I said, relieved. "That's who I was looking for. Thanks--I'll be over in about an hour to buy one."

"You're going to come over here and buy the magazine just because this guy Floyd's one of the writers?"

"Yeah," I said. "He's really good."

If this were a perfect world, she would have then put down the phone, hurried over to the fiction section, and bought one of my books. After all, employees get a discount. But somehow I doubt that happened.

The truth of the matter is, I can't figure out how I deserve being included in the company of those other folks whose names she read to me. As a friend of mine once said when he first heard he'd received a prestigious award, "They must've made a mistake." But if they did, I'm glad they did. Anyhow, I hotfooted it over to the store and bought the magazine, and in the process I got a lot more than just a contributor's copy. The October - January issue (a.k.a. the Holiday issue, apparently) has some interesting stories and interviews. Here's a quick summary, in order of appearance:

  • "Chameleon in Berlin," by M. L. Malcolm, is an enjoyable tale about spies and passwords and stealth in the cold-war era. It reminded me a little of George Smiley's adventures.
  • Cornell Woolrich's "Never Kick a Dick" brings back a long-lost story that mixes New York gangsters and Miami vice. And this one has an especially effective surprise near the end.
  • "The Adventure of the Vintner's Codex" is a New Year's Eve mystery featuring Holmes and Watson, by Dust and Shadow author Lyndsay Faye.
  • My story, "Turnabout," is--in the introductory words of the editor--"a desert-highway caper full of his [my] trademark twists and turns."
  • The interviews with Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben are--what can I say?--as informative and entertaining as you would expect them to be, from those two authors. LL and HC are among the best crime writers around, and it was fun to get a look inside their heads.
  • "A Very Personal Gift" by Alexander McCall Smith is a tale of love and suspense set in western Australia. This one is probably my favorite story in the group.

Also featured are more than a dozen book reviews and detailed coverage of the annual Strand Critics Awards ceremony, which was held this summer in New York City.

If you've not picked up this latest issue, I hope you will--I think you'll enjoy it. The Strand, like AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, and a few others, has always been a great mystery market for both readers and writers.

There aren't many of them left.

23 October 2011

Friends and Family


black orchidby Leigh Lundin

Five weeks ago, SleuthSayers launched from a core of five committed (in multiple senses of the word) writers to a greater family of fourteen. Coordinating fourteen members might seem a difficult task, but my colleagues are patient with me and their fun, enthusiasm, helpfulness, and professionalism worked miracles.

I list fun first because humor flourished early and easily. For example, Neil's ironic wit and the gentle humor of Jan and Fran melded like ivy in the brickwork of our joint project. I knew Dixon and RT were tough, cigar-chompin', kick-ass guys, but who guessed how riotously funny they are? A writer could do worse modeling characterizations after the criminally sane among us.

But there's more. Behind the scenes, SleuthSayers family members exchange crime notes, music CDs, tobacco tips, and successes. More about this last item in a moment.

Friends in Sly Places

We also depend upon friends such as Jon Breen, Bill Crider, and Women of Mystery, but especially our editors, Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Andrew Gulli at The Strand, and Darlene Poier from Pages of Stories.

Buying your favorite magazines pumps lifeblood into the imagination incubators of our genre. If you're not familiar with Pages of Stories, it's an eMagazine available in eBook format (Nook, Kindle, iPad, etc), PDF, and on-line, where you'll find works by Fran Rizer, John Floyd, and me, to name a few. If you want to taste a classic approach, Steve Steinbock has mentioned Arthur Vidro's Old-Time Detection and Geoff Bradley's Crime and Detective Stories, affectionately called CADS in its British homeland.Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December 2011

Readers Choice Award

Speaking of magazines, if your December issue of Ellery Queen hasn't arrived, rush to your local bookstore to grab a copy now! It contains the ballot (last page) and list (page 83) of stories eligible for the EQMM Readers Choice Award. Listed is English by Leigh Lundin (that's me!), the parable James Lincoln Warren wrote about. Also featured is Elizabeth Zelvin's lauded Navidad. You'll find Neil Schofield's Detour and our friend David Dean listed. You'll notice other names like Doug Allyn and William Dylan Powell. I can't speak for the others, but if you comment with your eMail address, Elizabeth and I will make our stories available to readers upon request.

Wolfe Pack Black Orchid Banquet

The Wolfe Pack, an organization devoted to mystery writer Rex Stout and his most famous creation Archie Goodwin, er, Nero Wolfe, will hold its 34th annual Black Orchid Banquet Weekend December 2-4. Held at the Vanderbilt Suites in New York City, the Black Orchid Banquet will feature television personality and mystery writer Al Roker, introduced by novelist and past Nero Award-winner Linda Fairstein.

The bacchanalia features presentation of the Nero Award for the year’s best mystery novel and the Black Orchid Novella Award for best unpublished mystery novella, presented in conjunction with AHMM. The winning BONA story will be published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
Black Orchid Perfume
Black Orchid Perfume– a beautiful excuse for a noir dame
Rumors and Rumours

After only a month on-line, one of our colleagues credits SleuthSayers with a major professional offer. Details are sketchy, but to the envy of Entertainment Tonight and People Magazine, we're promised a scoop if a major deal is inked.

Mark your calendar for a special guest article. On 4 December, we expect to feature a, ahem, wolfish announcement.

Next week, Louis Willis returns with a fascinating family story about bootlegging.