Showing posts with label Tough. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tough. Show all posts

10 December 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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

BONA FIDES

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

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

The manuscript itself.

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

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

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

Why?

Because the writing often displays the same inattention to detail.

I read anyhow because I am sometimes surprised. Sometimes.

KING OF THE WORLD

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

27 August 2019

Expanding Our Universe



By Michael Bracken

I recently attended an event in which a speaker attempted to encourage inclusiveness, letting attendees know how welcome they were....except those who weren’t. He essentially told attendees that if you don’t think like us, change or be silent.

This is, unfortunately, the same message presented by proponents of the opposite ideology, and it divides groups into an us and them mentality.

And this ties in neatly with something Temple and I have been discussing lately.

The mystery writing writing community, just like the writing communities of other genres, have struggled in recent years to be more inclusive of people (writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, and fans) who are not like us.

While we, as a community, clearly have a long way to go, we often overlook the realities that some of us experience. For example, the people in my non-writing social and business life are quite a homogeneous group.

Within the writing community, however, I have several friends, many acquaintances, and many professional relationships with people who are not like me. They are different ethnicities, have different sexual orientations, come from different socioeconomic classes, hold (or held) a diverse number of non-writing occupations, represent various levels of formal education, come from different geographic regions and different countries, worship differently, and so on. In short, being a writer has exposed me to far more diversity than I ever have been, or likely ever will be, exposed to in my “real” life.

Do we, as a community, still have far to go to ensure equitable opportunities for and equitable treatment of everyone? Absolutely.

And I, for one, appreciate the diversity to which I have been exposed, and I look forward to growing my circle of friends, acquaintances, and professional relationships as our community expands.

LOOKING FORWARD

But taking a moment to appreciate how being a part of the mystery writing community has enlarged my world isn’t the end of the story. A few days ago, as I write this, I attended a presentation about “Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture,” a program specifically targeting non-profit organizations that helps them through the “cycle of change as they transform from a white dominant culture to a Race Equity Culture.”

Changing the culture within an organization, according to the program, involves three steps (I am over-simplifying the steps because the hour-plus presentation only skimmed the surface of the topic):

In the Awake stage, organizations concentrate on increasing representation by the under-represented.

In the Woke stage, organizations strive for inclusion, ensuring that everyone is included in the conversation.

In the Work stage, organizations make specific changes to processes, programs, and operations to “ensure integration of a race equity lens into the organization.”

As a community, we face different challenges than formal organizations, but within our community are several organizations that can make changes, among them booksellers, conventions, publishing companies, and writers’ groups. They can implement some version or variation of the Awake to Woke to Work process within their organizations, and the changes they make will ultimately impact our entire community.

I hope someday soon we will no longer separate ourselves into us and them, because we will all be us—readers, writers, editors, publishers, and fans, all brought together by our love of crime fiction and its many sub-genres.


My private eye story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” which first appeared in the online edition of Tough, now appears in issue two of the print edition. Order a copy here.

25 September 2018

Not a Dry Eye in the House


by Michael Bracken

I cried.

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

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

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

DREAM

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

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

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

DREAM COME TRUE

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

Then she suggested barbecue.

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

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

LIVING THE DREAM

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

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

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

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