28 November 2017
by Barb Goffman
"Oh fuck. I miscounted."
That was the essence of a text message I sent a few minutes ago, upon being reminded that my next SleuthSayers post was supposed to be uploaded in the next hour and forty-five minutes. I had thought I was scheduled for next Tuesday, not for tomorrow.
My cursing amused my dear friend Leigh, who had sent the friendly reminder. And it made me think a few things, first being how one phrase could be used in so many situations and as the starting point of so many stories:
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," Jessica said, holding up the positive pregnancy stick. This is the conflict from which a thriller is born in which Jessica goes on the run, determined to raise her child free from the murderous gang her boyfriend is a part of.
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the attorney who put a decimal in the wrong place, and now had to notify a client that he screwed up some documents, costing the client millions. This is the conflict that results in the attorney realizing that if he's going to be disbarred and have his life ruined, he might as well make the best of it, so he steals all his clients' money and goes on the run. That's another thriller.
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the hit man when he ran out of bullets. This is the conflict that prompts a thriller in which a hit man is sent after a hit man for failure to get the original job done right. (Wait, a hit man sent after another hit man who screwed up--that's the basis for Grosse Point Blank. Great movie. But I digress. ...)
These are all interesting premises, but they're also all thrillers. Couldn't the phrase be used in other types of crime novels? Especially if it's part of the story, not the source of the originating conflict? Let's see ...
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the cop on the witness stand, revealing he screwed up his review of some evidence thus tanking the case, making the prosecutor wonder if the cop is on the take. This could be a legal thriller. Damn, there's the word thriller again. But it's a legal thriller, so it's a bit different.
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the PI upon realizing he'd been videotaping the goings on in an apartment on the third floor of a building instead of the fourth all day, and as a result he'd missed the payoff he'd been hired to document. Okay, this is better. A PI novel isn't necessarily a thriller.
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the burglar after he'd broken three fingers, two toes, and one tooth in his quest to steal an expensive ring, only to realize after he made it home that he'd grabbed the wrong ring and would have to do the job again. Now we're getting somewhere. This could be a caper.
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the gray-haired grandma, explaining how she'd made eight salads for her house guests, seven with peanut dressing and one oil and vinegar, but had accidentally set the wrong salad down in front of the guest with the fatal allergy. Oops. I'm tempted to say this could be a cozy, but the fuck throws the book into traditional mystery territory. Real-life grandmas might say fuck, but in cozy novels--nope. That's not gonna happen.
"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the man when confronted with evidence of his bigamy, right before both his angry wives start kicking him in the ... I don't know what kind of book this is, but I know I want to read it.
Okay. That's nine solid plot ideas stemming from "Oh fuck. I miscounted." I wish I could come up with a tenth, but I have just a few minutes before I have to get this post uploaded, and I still have to figure out photos to go with it. Aaaah. So, what about you, dear reader? Can you come up with a solid tenth for me? Bonus points if you can figure out how to work the phrase into a cozy.
30 January 2016
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
The title of my column sounds like I'm talking about days, doesn't it--or maybe types of ribs or chicken. What I'm referring to are the stories we fiction writers dream up, put on paper, submit to markets, and (occasionally) get published. Their sizes vary from flash to novella-length, and their moods are everything from Walter Mitty to "The Lottery." For some reason, many of my writer friends these days (not necessarily my mystery-writer friends) seem to produce long and/or grim, somber stories--but others have focused on short, funny pieces. Still others bounce around from short to long and from easygoing to profound, dabbling a little in everything and specializing in nothing. I'm one of those people. As Joe Friday would say, deadpan of course, "That's my job."
Several days ago I received a pleasant surprise: I sold my 75th story to Woman's World. All the stories for that magazine--whether they're mysteries or romances--are both short and lighthearted. But the crazy thing is, most of the stories I've sold over the past few years have been neither short nor light. They're been longer, usually 4000 to 8000 words, and more serious. One of mine that's coming up this year in Akashic Books' Noir series is around ten thousand words, and heavy in mood as well as weight.
Why do I dream up stories that are so different from each other? I truly don't know. Maybe I suffer from the same thing as one of my old friends: he could never seem to hold a job, and his excuse was that he just never found one he was comfortable with. Maybe I'm still trying to figure out what I'm good at. (Besides ending half the sentences in my paragraphs with prepositions.)
Also, I think that fiddling around with different lengths and different subject matter keeps the whole writing process from becoming boring. I like knowing that I can finish a thousand-word, low-key, down-home, Aunt-Maude-and-Uncle-Billy kind of story one day, and the next day begin one about serial killers and mean streets and SWAT teams that might run fifty pages or more. It gives me a delicious sense of freedom.
When asked by the students in my classes, I usually say that I write in different genres. I also point out, though, that I've written far more mystery/crime/suspense stories than anything else. I think the reason is that I prefer reading that kind of story. But I also occasionally read Western or SF or horror or literary fiction, and I've written some of that as well. Once more, the variety makes it more fun for me, and keeps me from getting stuck (at least too deeply stuck) in a rut.
What I usually don't like is knowing that I have to write a particular kind of story. That mostly happens on the rare occasions when I'm fortunate enough to be invited to send a story to a genre-specific or themed anthology. Producing those kinds of stories isn't as easy for me as it seems to be for others. My ideas usually come unbidden, out of nowhere, and the resulting stories take shape on their own; they might result in a science fiction tale of 500 words or a Western of 2500 or a young-adult fantasy/adventure story of 5000 (which I just finished writing, and submitted yesterday). Plus, I'm not fond of externally-imposed deadlines--or, for that matter, deadlines of any kind. Don't get me wrong, though. When an opportunity presents itself, especially via a personal invitation from an editor, I'll do it. I'm always grateful, and I try to consider it a challenge rather than a chore, and I do my best to contribute a worthy entry.
The first of those "create-a-story-to-these-specs" projects happened to me ten years ago, and wound up being a lot of fun. An editor/publisher from Georgia named Tony Burton put together a 49-story antho called Seven by Seven, which consisted of seven different authors writing seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. As I told Tony at the time, the only thing I remembered about the Seven Deadly Sins was the movie starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman--but I dutifully did my research and wrote my seven stories, as did the other six participants, one of whom was our own former SleuthSayer Deborah Elliott-Upton, and the book turned out well and sold well. Even if it hadn't, I would've been pleased, because I had a great time and met friends like Deborah and B.J. Bourg and Frank Zafiro and Gary Hoffman, friends I still keep in touch with. But--again--I'm usually more comfortable coming up with my own ideas for stories.
How do the rest of you feel, about this kind of thing? Do you gravitate toward shorter or longer pieces? Is your subject matter usually lighthearted or serious? Do you consciously inject a bit of humor into your fiction regardless of its length? Do you like to have some outside incentive to kick off your story ideas, or do they come to you quietly in the night? Do you regularly seek out "themed" anthologies to submit to? Do you write in one genre and stick to it, or branch out occasionally into others? Do you think it's better to specialize and develop a "brand"? Inquiring minds want to know.
Unfortunately, my SleuthSayers columns tend to run longer rather than shorter, so it's time to wrap this one up.
I wish you short workdays, long vacations, light hearts, dark chocolate, and good writing.