Showing posts with label black orchid. Show all posts
Showing posts with label black orchid. Show all posts

22 July 2019

When to Enter


Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.
But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.

08 July 2019

Why I Write


Today, I'm following a trend started by Michael Bracken, R.T., and O'Neil.
Writing is something I've done for so long that I can't imagine not doing it. Restructuring my life without it would be like a dancer having to reinvent himself after losing both legs.

The previous generation of my family included several teachers and two journalists, then called "reporters." My sister and I are the two youngest of eleven first cousins, seven of whom taught at one time or another (One was a principal and another was a superintendent), three of whom were involved in theater, and two of whom became attorneys.

Adults read to us constantly from the time we could sit upright in their laps. My sister and I both read at a fourth-or-fifth-grade level when we entered kindergarten, and I assume our cousins did, too.

When I was ten, the Mickey Mouse Club presented their first serialization of The Hardy Boys, and over the next year, I read every existing book in the series. Naturally, I tried to copy them myself, both sides of a wide-ruled notebook page per chapter, ending with the hero getting hit over the head or a flaming car soaring over the cliff. My mother, who worked as a secretary for the Red Cross during World War II, typed a couple of my stories out, and seeing my word in print gave me a thrill that never went away.

I slowed down in high school and college, but I never really stopped writing. In grad school, I took an American short story class that brought back the urge. Between 1972 and 1981, I taught high school English, earned my Masters and C.A.S (sixth-year) from Wesleyan, worked part-time as a photographer...and wrote five unpublished novels. Then I drifted into theater, where I acted, directed, produced, designed lights and/or sound and helped build sets for over 100 productions between 1982 and 2010. My third grad degree is in theater.
Upper Right, me as the crazy father

 I retired from teaching in 2003, and the theater where I did most of my work lost its performance space a week later. I wanted to revise one of the books I'd never been able to sell, and now I had time to learn to do it right. I read books on craft, attended workshops, and asked questions. Three years and 350 rejections later, I sold my first short story. Four more years and 250 more rejections, and I sold my first novel. Since then five short stories (including that first one) have short-listed for the Al Blanchard Award. I've won Honorable Mention three times, but never won. Two other stories won the Black Orchid Novella Award (Rob Lopresti has also won), and one story, the ONLY story that was accepted the first place I sent it, was nominated for an Edgar.

Linda Landrigan on the left, Jane Cleland on the right. Second Black Orchid

As I write this, most of the other bloggers on this site sell more short stories in a slow year than I have even written in my life. My acceptance rate hovers around seven percent and I have eight stories still floating from market to market looking for a home. My fifteen novel (All self-published since the first one became a terrible experience) will appear late this year or early next year.

Since 2007, when my first story appeared in print, my writing enterprises have been in the black three times, and the largest amount was about a hundred dollars. If I stopped writing today, it wouldn't affect my income or my standard of living.

My quality of life, though, well, that's a different issue.

I was a shy kid. Even though I could play baseball and football and basketball fairly well and had a bike like the other kids, I always felt a little bit outside the group. The writing gave me a retreat that was safe. So did music. I studied violin in firth grade (I really wanted to play piano) and picked up a guitar when the Beatles invaded. I played bass in a fortunately forgotten band in college. I recently started teaching myself piano all these years later, and music appears in many of my stories. Theater shows up occasionally.
One of my last directing gigs

The book I finally got right. 
I don't write for the money or for the recognition. I write because I still like the furniture in my little interior retreat. I love how it feels to send out a story when I know it's the best I can make it. That doesn't mean it will sell. A story I think is one of my very best has 19 rejections and no other appropriate market on the horizon. Another one I love has 15.

So what?

Would I like to make more money writing? Sure. I'd also like to play piano and guitar better, be twenty years younger knowing what I know now, and lose 15 pounds.

But I'll settle for this.

19 December 2012

Picking More Black Orchids


Two weeks ago I published in this space the speech I gave when I won the Black Orchid Novella Award. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the experience. After that I promise to shut up about it until the winning story is published in May, when I will start babbling about it again. (Hey, I don't win prizes that often; give me a break.)

Anyway, I was informed by Jane Cleland back in September that I was the winner. The reason for the early tip-off, of course, is to encourage the winner to attend, which is exactly what it did in my case.  But it meant I had to keep my trap shut for three months and that was not the easiest thing I ever did. Ironically, I applied for a promotion at the same time and in my c.v. I had to write "This year I will receive another award for my writing, but I can't tell you what it is. Ask me in December." I'm sure the peers reviewing my file wondered what the hell that was about.

We visit the Saturday farmer's market almost every week and there is a very nice woman there who makes excellent hats out of recycled sweaters. Back in September I joked that the reason I couldn't fit into one of her hats was that my head was swelled (swollen?) because I just found out I had won an award. She asked which one and of course I couldn't tell her. I did tell her last week and naturally she had never heard of the BONA. Another person wondering what the hell that was about.

Anyway, I did go to the Black Orchid events, wearing one of those recycled hats, oddly enough. It started with the Assembly, in which Rex Stout fans gather to hear experts discuss topics related to the Corpus. (Doyle's writings about Sherlock Holmes are known as the Canon; Stout's reports on Nero Wolfe are known as the Corpus, because it suggests the corpulent nature of our hero).

My favorite speaker was Bob Gatten, who spoke about Rex Stout's work as president of the War Writers Board. I hadn't known that Stout organized a program to discourage writers from using ethnic stereotypes in their writing. "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it over here."

Another highlight was David Naczycz of Urban Oyster on the history of beer in New York City, a subject very dear to Wolfe's heart, or taste buds.

But the major event was the Banquet. Terri and I were seated next to Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and James Lincoln Warren, good friend of this blog, and last year's winner. James had an official duty this year, presenting the first of five annual toasts. His was to Rex Stout which he delivered in rhyme. Here is a sample:
In our hearts, we all gather together to meet 
At the brownstone address on West Thirty-Fifth Street,
To drink milk or drink beer, or tonight imbibe wine,
To toast a great soul and inimitable mind.
And I can testify that a considerable amount of wine was indeed imbibed.

Another feature of the annual banquet is that each table is expected to compose and perform a song (set to a familiar tune) about the Corpus. These are always enthusiastic if not necessarily masterpieces. Ira Matetsky the Werowance (i.e. president) of the Pack said of one number "of all the song parodies I have heard, that was the most recent."

Having been warned about this feature in advance I provided my tablemates with seven songs to choose from. They selected this number, to the tune of "Ain't Misbehavin'." (That's a photo of Fats Waller, of "Ain't Misbehavin'" fame, not Ira Matetsky, in case you wondered.)
SOME BURIED CAESAR

I traveled upstate,
I don’t care to go,
I had a big date,
To show up a flower show
Some Buried Caesar,
I blame it all on you
Du-du, du-du-du, dudu-du
The car was loaded,
With orchids and me,
A tire exploded,
My Heron hit a tree.
Some Buried Caesar,
I didn’t hear you moo, Du…

Like Jack Horner

we were cornered
in the pasture,
I climbed faster,
That rescue’s what I waited for
Be-lieve me

While Archie first eyes,
the girl he’ll adore,
I won the first prize,
That’s what I went there for
Some Buried Caesar,
I solved a murder too, Du…
Some Buried Caesar,
That’s what detectives do

Matestsky gushingly described our contribution as "surprisingly competent."

One more thing. To fund unexpected expenses, the Wolfe Pack raffled off a seat for next year's banquet. I do not expect to be able to attend in 2013 but in the interest of contributing I bought one ticket.

Guess who won?

Must have been my lucky night.

05 December 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Black Orchid


Last week I mentioned that the Wolfe Pack was having their annual Black Orchid Banquet on Saturday in New York City.  One of the highlights of that event is always the announcement of the Black Orchid Novella Award.  Last year the winner was James Lincoln Warren and we published his acceptance speech here.

This year the winner happened to be, well, me.  "The Red Envelope" will be published in the July/August 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  My acceptance speech is below.

I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, back when the city had a lovely old Carnegie Library.  But there was a problem: by the fifth grade I had used up the children's room, wrung it dry of everything I wanted to read.  And that was a problem because children were not allowed in the adult section.

So I would make guerilla raids down the narrow book-lined hallways that led to the cathedral-ceilinged main reading room, keenly aware that if I were caught the librarians would banish me back into exile with Dr. Seuss and Mary Poppins.


I quickly figured out that the best place to hide was the area directly behind the reference desk, because the librarians there seldom turned around.  That happened to be the mystery section.

And so it happened that among the first adult books I read were The Mother Hunt and Gambit. Of course over the years I read all of the Rex Stout corpus.  And reread it.

The results was that I became a lifelong mystery reader and a mystery writer as well.  Which brings us to tonight.  So I would like to start by thanking Rex Stout, without whom, as they say.

And I  want to thank the library staff in Plainfield, New Jersey.  I don't hold a grudge, you see.  I even became a librarian myself.

I want to thank the Wolfe Pack, and especially the awards committee, which has shown such excellent taste.

And my favorite editor, Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Linda, I believe three of my stories are waiting in your slushpile.

Also, the librarians and staff of Western Washington University, where I did my research.  "The Red Envelope" is set in Greenwich Village in 1958, so there was a lot to check up on.

I need to thank my first readers, last year's winner James Lincoln Warren, and R.T. Lawton.  Who knows?   Maybe he will be next year's winner.  Couldn't have done it without you guys.

Finally there's my wife, Terri Weiner, who puts up with my work even though she really prefers science fiction.  Thanks, honey.

And to all the rest of you, please keep reading mysteries.

04 December 2011

Mrs. Swann Toasts Mr. Wolfe


James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
(photo credit: Reinhard Kargl)
by James Lincoln Warren

On the evening of December 3, 2011, the Wolfe Pack, the international Rex Stout fan organization, gathered for its annual Black Orchid Banquet in New York City, this year celebrating not only his works, but also his 125th birthday. One of the events during the banquet was the presentation of the Black Orchid Novella Award, or BONA, given to the winner of their annual competition for an original novella written in the tradition of Rex Stout. This year, I was honored to be its recipient for my story Inner Fire. Here are my prepared remarks for the banquet.

The old saw that being a writer is the most solitary of occupations is completely wrong. Honestly, I can’t think of a more social activity, because a writer is nobody without readers, and readers form a community, as this gathering tonight so clearly demonstrates. Along those same lines, Inner Fire would never have succeeded without the advice and feedback of several advance readers, most of whom are accomplished mystery writers themselves. The fine writers who provided that advice were Melodie Johnson Howe, Nora McFarland, Robert Lopresti, Steve Steinbock, and John M. Floyd. Additional thanks are clearly owed to Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, the members of the BONA selection jury, and to my wife Margaret. It would also be utterly remiss of me not to express my gratitude to the founder of the literary feast, the great Rex Stout.

When the BONA was first established a few years ago, Linda invited me to submit something for it. At the time I declined because I couldn’t think of anything good enough, but I paid close attention to the results of the competition in subsequent years. Although the rules of the competition state that the story shouldn’t be derivative of the Nero Wolfe milieu, I found the idea of writing a story using the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin model patently irresistible. (I note that it was irresistible to previous winners, too.)

I realized I needed my own spin on the Wolfe/Goodwin paradigm. So I asked myself, what if I Nero and Archie were women? And what if, instead of living in New York, they lived in my town, contemporary Los Angeles? I thought this concept was brilliant, and I was right to think so. It was so brilliant, in fact, that it had already been done twenty years before.

I mentioned that Melodie Johnson Howe was one of my advisors. In 1990, Melodie gave the world her first novel, The Mother Shadow, featuring Claire Conrad, her Wolfe character, and Maggie Hill, her Archie equivalent, the story taking place in L.A. It’s such an excellent book that it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

Knowing this, especially as Melodie is a dear friend, you might wonder how I had the gall to proceed with my own women-in-L.A. take. Well, I don’t know how I did, except to say that once I got my teeth into the idea, I couldn’t not write it. There could be no question, though, of not bringing Melodie into the loop, because I felt I needed her permission to carry on. So I enlisted her to advise me, hoping she would perceive that my story was almost as much an homage to her as to Rex Stout.

In the sequel, my female Nero and Archie weren’t much like Melodie’s. Erica (that is, my girl Archie) is younger and less cynical than Maggie, and Miss Enola (my female Wolfe) is not at all like Claire except in her analytical genius and immense self-confidence. It wasn’t difficult to separate my creations from Melodie’s at all.

No, the tough part was to make Erica and Miss Enola as credibly and convincingly female as the original Nero and Archie were so steadfastly male. I’m the the kind of guy who likes smoking cigars, watching football games clutching a cold beer, and occasionally playing dealer’s choice low-stakes poker with my friends, so writing male characters is easy for me. Female characters are hard. One of the characters in Inner Fire expresses my conundrum. “The biggest difference between men and women,” he says, “is that women think they understand men. Men know they don’t understand women.” So you can see that given my limitations, I had set myself a daunting challenge.
black orchid
I began by assuming a new identity. The byline on the story is “Jolie McLarren Swann”. That is ostensibly the name of a woman. As you have probably observed, I am not a woman. But if you look carefully at the name, you may discover that if you rearrange the letters, one of the possible results is “James Lincoln Warren”. By an amazing coincidence, that happens to be my name.

Inner Fire’s narrator is a callow and attractive young detective named Erica H. Wooding. By the same amazing coincidence as the byline, that is an anagram of “Archie Goodwin”. The senior stateswoman in the story is named “Enola Fowler”. The letters in her name can be rearranged to read “Nero Wolfe L.A.”

I thought that the anagrams would please the puzzle-minded of the tale’s readers, as well as serving to pay direct, if mildly covert, tribute to Rex Stout.

Erica and Miss Enola are not carbon copies of their progenitors, though, and I worked hard to give them their own voices. I have to say that I am especially proud of Erica, since I am categorically not a 23-year-old woman myself, and personally have very little in common with 23-year-old women, but I think she comes across as who she is. I confess I’m in love with her, but I honestly can tell you that having standards of her own, she would never be in love with me.

I’m more in tune with Miss Enola, a woman of my own age who shares many of my more pronounced prejudices about the world. She’s not so lovable as Erica, but in many ways she’s more interesting. Nora McFarland, another of my readers, pointed out to me that her first name taken by itself is an anagram of “Alone”, and that this is a quality essential to her character.

But of course Miss Enola is not alone. She has Erica to keep her company, even if she spends most of her time in her own head. Mostly, though, she will never be alone as long as there are people who love to read detective stories. I hope that when Inner Fire is published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mysterty Magazine this coming summer, you will all have the opportunity to read it. I wrote it for you, and I am deeply and humbly grateful for the honor you have done me in granting me this award. I tell you from the bottom of my heart that it is one of the brightest highlights of my career as an author of crime fiction.

23 October 2011

Friends and Family


black orchid 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.