Showing posts with label flash fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label flash fiction. Show all posts

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com








22 March 2020

Flash Fiction


I owe John Floyd for the impetus of today’s column, further examples of flash fiction.

Here is a bit of silliness first published in SleuthSayers…

WhiteWash
by Leigh Lundin

Bubbles was a slippery one. She tried to soft-soap me, but I strangled her in the bathtub, no trace, no prints, no evidence.

Me, I hate wet work, but the cops, they said it was a clean kill.

Clearly I had much to learn. This early tale is one of my two favorites…

A Night Out
by Leigh Lundin

"Darling, doesn't this hankie smell like chlorof…"

One of my first, an educational mini-lesson, appeared long ago on Criminal Brief.

The Power of Prepositions
by Leigh Lundin

Aladdin was getting along in years and found that he was unable to pitch a tent as he had done in his youth. Smart as well as lucky, Aladdin still had his magic lamp and, frugal with his wishes, he had one wish left.
He rubbed his lamp and the génie appeared. Aladdin begged him, “My camel can no longer thread the needle. Can you cure my erectile impotence?”
Genie said, “I can whisk away your problem.” With that, he rubbed his hands, evoking a puff of billowing blue smoke. Genie said, “I’ve dealt you a powerful spell, but at your age, you’ll be able to invoke it only once a year.”
“How do I use it?” asked Aladdin.
“All you have to do is say ‘one, two, three,’ and it shall rise for as long as you wish, but only once a year.”
Aladdin asked, “What happens when I’m exhausted and I no longer want to continue?”
Genie replied, “All you or your lady have to say is ‘one, two, three, four,’ and it will fade like a Sahara sunset. But be warned: the spell will not work again for another year.”
Aladdin galloped home, eager to try out his new powers of the flesh. That evening, Aladdin bathed away the dust of the desert and scented himself with oil of exotic myrrh. He climbed into bed where his resigned wife lay turned away, about to slip into Scheherazadic dreams.
Aladdin took a deep breath and said, “One, two, three.” Instantly, he became more aroused than he ever had in youth, a magnificent happenstance of tree-trunk proportions.
His wife, hearing Aladdin’s words, rolled back toward him and said, “What did you say ‘one, two, three,’ for?”
And that, dear readers, is why you should not end a sentence with a preposition.

A story inspired by a friend's comment…

Justin Goes to Jail
by Leigh Lundin

Police arrest Justin Bieber and send him to lockup. Dismayed but not disheartened, Bieber writes “Free JB!” on the walls in protest.

That’s when he learns his cellmate is dyslexic.

Following is my other favorite, but the story behind the story is wistful and runs far longer than the super-short piece itself.

My Pal George
by Leigh Lundin

I'm excited! For the first time ever, I'm taking my friend George shark fishing. Some might not understand how I could be so forgiving finding out about him and Joan, but he's my best pal, my chum.

Which did you like?

20 January 2020

Santa Noir


Everybody has too many Christmas parties and get-togethers in December, so the Connecticut MWA members threw a procrastinator's bash on January 11 in Middletown. Middletown is, of course, in the middle of the State, home of Wesleyan University and several fine restaurants, so we gathered at Esca, three blocks from the college and on a main intersection.
Chris Knopf addresses the motley crew. He mostly obscures Mark Dressler.
Bill Curatolo and Mike Beil are at the upper right.

Chris Knopf and Jill Fletcher, who organized the event, suggested that in addition to the usual gift grab bag, drinks and meals and catching up on everyone's accomplishments for the year, people write a 200-word story on the theme of Santa Noir to share with their accomplices. Alas, loud hungry patrons mobbed the eatery on a Saturday evening, so we abandoned the readings. Some of our recent predictions on this blog have made the upcoming year look a little bleak, and I agree, so the stories seemed like a definite counterbalance.

Here are four of them.

Santa Claus and Me by Mark L. Dressler
Jill posted this graphic, which inspired Mark's tale

I stared at that red Santa Claus outfit for several minutes. The lifeless man inside sent an eerie feeling through me matching the bitter night chill. I knew I'd never see that costume again.

Year after year, it was a never-ending journey, make-believe to many, but I knew differently. This was the night it would finally end. No more toys, no more nagging kids, no more workshops with elves, no more agonizing trips to the ends of each continent...and no more reindeer slaves.

I took another glance at that red uniform before walking away. I had no idea who that homeless man inside it was, but his clothes fit me perfectly. It was time for me to find a new home because I couldn't go back to the North Pole. I'd cleanse myself of this long white beard in the morning and become a free man. My name would no longer be Kris Kringle.

(Mark Dressler has published two novels featuring Hartford cop Dan Shields.)

At Burke's Tavern in Woodside, Queens, December 24, 1969 by William O'Neill Curatolo

Recently discharged marine Luis Martinez, high bar champion of the 43rd Street playground, sits alone on the broad windowsill across from the end of the bar nursing his fourth beer. He looks in need of cheering up. It's possible, no, it's certain, that the only advantage of having left his right leg back in Vietnam is that he now never has to pay for a drink, ever, in any of the watering holes up and down the length of Greenpoint Avenue.

Burly cop Georgie Corrigan bursts through the barroom door, dressed as Santa Claus. "Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!" Santa Georgie moves along the bar clapping people hard on the back, and turns over to a couple of friends the bags of pot he took from a kid on his beat in Brooklyn a few hours ago. As he makes his way along the bar, he notices his old friend Luis, glassy eyed, staring off into space. Georgie sits down next to him and uses a burly arm to clamp him in a headlock. "Semper Fi, Jarhead!" and then, "Get up off your ass and onto those crutches. We're going outside to smoke a joint. Santa wants to see you smile."

(Bill Curatolo has published two novels.)

Santa By a Nose by Michael D. Beil

Christmas Eve at the Subway Inn, a dive bar that's a dead possum's throw from Bloomingdale's. Beside me is a bag with Isotoner gloves and a faux-cashmere scarf for the old lady. Three stools down is a schmoe in a Santa suit. The line of dead soldiers on the bar tells me the poor bastard is trying to forget how many brats had pissed their pants on his lap. For about a second, I consider sending a drink his way. But when he lifts his head, I realize he's the SOB I've been chasing for a week about a B&E in a bike shop on Second Avenue. No doubt about it. Eight million people in New York, but there's only one nose like that one. Fill it full of nickels and he could buy everybody in the place a drink.

I'm reaching into my coat pocket for my shield when a blast of frigid air blows in a tired dame in a coat that probably looked good during the Clinton administration, with three kiddies in tow.

"Daddy!"

I throw a twenty on the bar and nod to the bartender on the way out.

(Michael Beil was an Edgar finalist for Best Children's Novel for the first of five books in the Red Blazer Girls series.)

I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus by Steve Liskow

Detective Angel Noelle looked at the body, a fat man with a white beard and a red suit, underneath the mistletoe. Wrapped presents, grungy with fingerprint powder, lay under the tree.

"Your first, Noelle?" That was Detective Shepherd.

"Violent night," Angel said. "Got an ID yet?"

"We're waiting on fingerprints, but we've got a suspect and a witness."

Noelle turned to the woman in the green robe, the slit revealing black fishnets--previously hung by the chimney with care--and four-inch stilettos.

"I'm a dancer," she said. "All my son wanted for Christmas was his two front teeth..."

The small boy peeking from the stairs nodded.

"But instead, he brought..." The prancing vixen buried her face in her hands. "He deserved it..."

Noelle turned to the tech filling out the evidence label.  "What was the weapon?"

"Well, right now it looks like a fruitcake."

"Fruitcake?"

"Yeah, been re-gifted so many times it's hard as a Jersey barrier. The label on the can says, 'Do not sell after 2004.'"

Noelle looked at the body, deep in dreamless sleep.

"The contusions fit?" The open fire crackled in the fireplace.

"Yeah. Really roasted his chestnuts."

Outside, the black and whites rolled by.

(Steve Liskow practices piano about fifteen minutes a week.)


30 April 2019

To Flash or Not to Flash


Jorge Luis Borges
Flash Fiction seems to be very popular these days. It’s short, it’s punchy. It usually ends with a twist.

I haven’t written much flash fiction, really one story.  Fade Out at Akashic’s Mondays Are Murders: http://www.akashicbooks.com/fade-out-by-paul-d-marks/

But one of my favorite short stories of all time can be considered flash fiction: Jorge Luis Borges’ Two Kings and Their Two Labyrinths. This parable hit me hard when I first read it. And I read it over from time to time.

I think it runs about a page, maybe a page and a half. Because it’s so short, I wanted to print the whole story here, but because of copyright concerns I’m not going to. So here’s what Wikipedia says about it – Spoiler Alert:

“A Babylonian king orders his subjects to build him a labyrinth ‘so confusing and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way.’ When an Arab king visited his court, the king of Babylon told him to enter the labyrinth in order to mock him. The Arab king finally got out and told the Babylonian that in his land he had another labyrinth, and Allah willing, he would see that someday the king of Babylonia made its acquaintance.’ The Arab king returned to his land, and launched a successful attack on the Babylonians, finally capturing the Babylonian King. The Arab tied him on a camel and led him into the desert. After three days of riding, the Arab reminds the Babylonian that he tried to make him lose his way in his labyrinth and says that he will now show him his, ‘which has no stairways to climb, nor door to force, nor wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.’ He then untied the Babylonian king, ‘and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst...’”

It ends on the line, “Glory to the Living, who dieth not.” Yeah, the one who does not dieth gets the glory all right.


The irony of the ending gets me every time and it’s not like it’s a chore to re-read it because, well, because it’s so damn short.

I think what this story illustrates is that flash fiction can boil down the essence of a short story into a very small space. And what you end up with is the essential ingredients to what I think every short story, novella and novel must have. And what are these elements: a beginning, middle and end. Intriguing characters, a brief set up of the situation, a twist or turning of the tables, a conclusion and most importantly, a point.

Have you ever had a friend that starts to tell you a story and never seems to get to the punchline? At the end of their speech they say something like “well I forget the point I was trying to make.” Isn’t that frustrating? Well the same thing happens in short stories. An acquaintance once asked me to read a story they wrote and while the writing was technically good (grammar, punctuation, descriptions, etc… all well-written) the story never got to the point. It just meandered about, so and so meeting so and so and they went to such and such a place and did this and said that. Nothing ever happened and I was bored. I know that some schools of thought believe this is what literary writing should be ;-) . Just slice of life and the writing and descriptions are all that matter, but I just don’t get it. I understand that some stories are more subtle in the way they evolve, but in my humble opinion (and maybe it’s just my personal taste) I want something to happen and I want to feel a sense of the character having been changed or seeing something in a new way.


The most successful stories come to a point. There is a climax and a conclusion, sometimes an irony or a lesson, though not a preachy one. Sometimes the fulfillment of some quest or goal, but always a point. Borges’ story makes a very ironic and clear point while telling a tale of revenge. Now if the Arab King just invited the Babylonian king to his palace and murdered him, would you feel satisfied?


So, while I’m not personally into writing flash fiction on a regular basis, I see the benefits. It can help you hone your craft and learn to build stories that are lean, spare and pithy, and that can ultimately help you write a more compelling longer story or novel. It is the story/novel stripped down to its bare bones.

What do you think?

PS – Other favorite Borges stories include, The Circular Ruins and The Garden of the Forking Paths.

~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

My short story House of the Rising Sun and lots of other great stories are in Switchblade - Issue 9, available on Amazon (Kindle version) now: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07QW5GVZF. The paperback version to follow in May.



GoodReads Giveaway: I'm giving away 10 signed paperback copies of my Shamus Award-Winning novel White Heat. Hurry, the giveaway ends on May 1st. Click here to enter to win: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/291413-white-heat



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

22 January 2019

I've Crossed A Line -- Warning: Rated X for Expletives


You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take the New York out of the girl. That's my explanation for why I often pepper my speech with expletives. Anyone who read my 2017 column  titled "The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing" knows I'm quite comfortable with the word fuck. I've used it and other curse words in my stories without issue.
How often? I just ran a search of my published stories, and here are the results:

  • Asshole -- used in two stories (6% of all my published stories).
  • Fuck -- used in two stories (6%). A surprisingly low number. I'll have to work on that.
  • Shit -- used in four stories (12%).
  • Bastard -- used in five stories (16%).
  • Bitch -- used in fifteen stories (48%!). I might have to tone this one down.
Given these results, you'd think I didn't often write light cozy stories. And yet there's one big curse word missing from the list. One word that, until last week, I had never used in a published story. Can you figure out what it is? Here's a hint: it rhymes with the word for the smallest animal in a litter. See, I have so much trouble with this word, I'm squeamish about even typing it here, in an academic (ish) discussion about using curse words in my fiction. The word is ...

Cunt. There I said it.

And I'm cringing.

There is just something about this word that, to me at least, crosses a line. I know some of you are reading this thinking I must have no lines. But I do. And cunt crosses it. That's why I never say it. And until now I've never used it in my fiction.

So why did I make this exception? And was it a good choice?

To answer these questions, let's turn to the story in question. It's my newest story, "Punching Bag," which was published last week in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries, an e-zine that showcases crime flash fiction. I'm delighted that not only did editors BJ and Brandon Bourg choose to publish it, but they also chose it as the cover story and as the editors' choice story for the issue. It's the story of the darkest day in an emotionally abused teenage girl's life.

Let's stop here for a moment. I'm afraid that anything I say from here on will ruin the story for you if you haven't read it. So please go do so. The story is only 748 words long--the equivalent of three double-spaced pages. You can read it really quickly by clicking on the title in the prior paragraph. Then come back.

Okay, you've read it? Good. (I hope you liked it.)

You'll notice that the use of curse words is minimal. Toward the end the mom says the daughter is stupid and calls her a "disappointing, ungrateful bitch," and other unspecified names. That was all I planned to say about the matter originally, figuring readers could extrapolate from there. But one of my trusted beta readers told me she didn't think the girl was justified in killing her parents. She thought the girl came across as spoiled and selfish. I was surprised. I definitely didn't want that. I wanted readers to understand this girl, to be on her side, despite that she does a horrible thing. So I felt I needed to up the ante. That's when I added the part about her mom calling her a "self-centered cunt."

I figured if anything in this story was going to turn readers' perception of this girl from spoiled to sort-of justified, it would be that. If the word cunt crosses a line for me, I hoped, it would cross a line for readers, too--at least any readers whose line hadn't already been crossed by the mom's behavior.

So I submitted the story. But I worried. Was the use of the word cunt too much? Would it keep the story from being accepted? Then, once the story was accepted, I worried about readers. Would the word turn them off? Especially readers who know me primarily for my lighthearted, funny stories? The answer: So far, so good. I've gotten some feedback on "Punching Bag," and it's all been positive, with no one mentioning my use of that word. This response has helped me feel better about my choice, despite that the word still makes me cringe.

What do you think? Would you have been on the girl's side at the end if I hadn't included the "self-centered cunt" line? Or did the line push you onto the girl's side? Or do you think I went too far? What words cross your line?

One final note to my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti: Last week you wrote briefly about your newest flash short story (which is fewer than 700 words long), saying you were keeping things short because only English professors could get away with writing something about a story that is longer than the story itself. Ha ha, Rob! I have proven you wrong, because this blog about "Punching Bag" (excluding this paragraph) is 29 words longer than the story itself, and I am no English professor. Do I get a prize? Please don't make me become an English professor. I wouldn't last. I'd surely get written up for cursing in front of my students.

09 November 2018

The Power of Prepositions


Far away and four times a thousand and one nights ago, this tale appeared in Criminal Brief. Dial in a little Rimsky-Korsakov and read on.


The Power of Prepositions
by Leigh Lundin

Aladdin was getting along in years and found that he was unable to pitch a tent as he had done in his youth. Smart as well as lucky, Aladdin still had his magic lamp and, frugal with his wishes, he had one wish left.
He rubbed his lamp and the génie appeared. Aladdin begged him, “My camel can no longer thread the needle. Can you cure my erectile impotence?”
Genie said, “I can whisk away your problem.” With that, he rubbed his hands, evoking a puff of billowing blue smoke. Genie said, “I’ve dealt you a powerful spell, but at your age, you’ll be able to invoke it only once a year.”
“How do I use it?” asked Aladdin.
“All you have to do is say ‘one, two, three,’ and it shall rise for as long as you wish, but only once a year.”
Aladdin asked, “What happens when I’m exhausted and I no longer want to continue?”
Genie replied, “All you or your lady has to say is ‘one, two, three, four,’ and it will fade like a Sahara sunset. But be warned: the spell will not work again for another year.”
Aladdin galloped home, eager to try out his new powers of the flesh. That evening, Aladdin bathed away the dust of the desert and scented himself with oil of exotic myrrh. He climbed into bed where his resigned wife lay turned away, about to slip into Scheherazadic dreams.
Aladdin took a deep breath and said, “One, two, three.” Instantly, he became more aroused than he ever had in youth, a magnificent happenstance of tree-trunk proportions.
His wife, hearing Aladdin’s words, rolled back toward him and said, “What did you say ‘one, two, three,’ for?”
And that, dear readers, is why you should not end a sentence with a preposition.

16 July 2016

I Like Short Shorts


Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a rocker on the back porch of a beach house on Perdido Key, with sand in my shoes and "Margaritaville" on my mind. In fact I was half-dozing to the soothing sound of the incoming waves when I also heard the DING of an incoming text message. This was the sixth day of our annual family getaway, but since we never completely get away from technology I dutifully dug my cell phone out of my pocket, checked the message (from one of our kids, a hundred yards up the beach), and replied to it. I also decided to check my emails, which I hadn't done in a while. I was glad I did. At the top of the list was a note that had only just arrived, informing me of the acceptance of my 80th story in Woman's World magazine. Not a particularly round number or notable milestone, I guess, but I'll tell you, it made my day. It also reminded me how fortunate I am--a southern guy raised on cop shows and Westerns, who in school liked math and science far better than English--to have sold that many stories to, of all places, a weekly women's magazine based in New Jersey.


WW, as some of you know, has been around a long time. What makes it appealing to writers of short stories is that it features a mystery and a romance in every issue, it pays well, and it has a circulation of 8.5 million. Since I'm obviously more at ease with mysteries than romances, most of my stories for that publication have been in the mystery genre. I've managed to sell them a couple of romances too, but the truth is, I'm the great pretender: my romance stories were actually little twisty adventures that involved more deception than anything else.

Figures and statistics

Although I've been writing stories for Woman's World for seventeen years now, 50 of those 80 sales have happened since 2010, and I think that's because I have gradually become more comfortable with the task of telling a complete story in less than a thousand words--what some refer to as a short short. (At WW, the max wordcount for mysteries is 700, and mine usually come in at around 685.)

Many writers have told me they find it difficult to write stories that short. My response is that it's just a different process. I think some of the things you can do to make those little mini-mysteries easier to write are: (1) use a lot of dialogue, (2) cut way back on description and exposition, and (3) consider creating series characters that allow you to get right into the plot without a need for backstory. My latest and 79th story to appear in WW (it's in the current, July 25 issue) is one of a series I've been writing for them since 2001.

Remember too that stories that short are rarely profound, meaning-of-life tales. There's simply not enough space for deep characterization or complex plotting or life-changing messages. They seem to work best when the goal is a quick dose of entertainment and humor.

I should mention that writing very short fiction doesn't mean you can't keep writing longer stories also. To be honest, most of my stories lately fall into the 4K-to-10K range. My story in this year's Bouchercon anthology is 5000 words, the one in an upcoming Coast to Coast P.I. anthology is about 6500, and my story in Mississippi Noir (from Akashic Books, to be released in August 2016) clocks in at 10,000. Magazinewise, I've had recent stories in EQMM and Strand Magazine of 7500 and 8000 words, respectively, and my story in the current issue of the Strand (June-September 2016, shown here) is around 4500. (NOTE: As we are all aware, publication is an iffy thing at best, and I'm not implying that everything I write, short or long, makes it into print. It doesn't. But I'm a firm believer that the practice you get writing short shorts can help improve your longer tales as well. It certainly teaches you not to waste words. Besides, it's all fiction; some stories just take longer to tell.)

Current Events

As for Woman's World, there have been a couple of significant changes at the magazine that, if you decide to send them a story, you should know about.

First, longtime fiction editor Johnene Granger retired this past January. That's the bad news, because Johnene was wonderful, in every way. The good news is, I also like the new editor, Patricia Gaddis. She's smart, professional, and a pleasure to work with.

Second, WW recently changed over to an electronic submission system. As we've already seen at AHMM and EQMM, this makes it far easier for writers to send in their work. I'm not at all sure it makes it easier for editors--emailed submissions always means more submissions, which means more manuscripts to read--but that's another matter, for another coiumn.

Questions

To those of you who write short fiction: Do you find that you gravitate toward a certain length or a certain range? Are you more comfortable with a long wordcount that leaves you room to move around in, or do you like writing shorter, punchier stories? Does the genre matter, in terms of length? Do you already have certain markets in mind when you write a story, or do you prefer to write the piece regardless of length and genre and only then focus on finding a place to which you might submit it? Do those of you who are novelists find a certain pleasure in occasionally creating short stories? When you do, how short are they? Have any of you tried writing "short shorts"? Has anyone sent a story (mystery or romance) to Woman's World?

Final question: In the Not-So-Current Events department, are any of you old enough to remember that "I like short shorts" was a line from Sheb Wooley's "Flying Purple People Eater"?

Unfortunately, I am …

24 January 2016

Flash Fiction– The Gamble


Leigh Lundin
Imagine a game I invite you to play. Here are the rules:
  1. You put down $1. Me, nothing.
  2. We flip a coin.
  3. If you win, you get 50¢ back.
  4. If I win, I get your $1 bill.
In a nutshell, I’ve described exactly how lotteries work. Simply substitute ‘the state’ for the first person pronoun and ‘the public’ for the second person ‘you’.

Astonishing, isn’t it? You could make it more accurate by substituting ‘the poor’ for ‘the public’, because that’s the lottery’s primary target.

The lotteries like to tout the advantages. “It allows people to dream for a little while,” says Florida’s own lottery commissioner.” “It pays for education (sorta, kinda)” insists New York’s. “It allows the public to join in a social exercise,” claims a professor.

But for all that, the lottery has one, sole purpose: It’s a cynical tax on the poor. Do politicians honestly believe states implemented lotteries to entertain the masses? Or even benefit their citizens in some way? They’re put in place to shift taxes away from those who don’t want to pay– the wealthy.

A young woman named Cinnamon represents the lotteries’ prime target. Convinced she couldn’t lose, she blew her family’s $800 (or much more depending upon the source) rent and grocery budget buying tickets. I feel sad for the girl, even sadder for her family, victims of the lottery culture.

But she’s got chutzpah. She went on Go Fund Me, where some of us might donate a little to people with serious medical issues. (Consider helping writer Kevin Tipple’s wife Sandi for her cancer treatment.) Our plucky girl Cinnamon wrote this:
Please help me and my family as we have exausted [sic] all of our funds. We spent all of our money on lottery tickets (expecting to win the 1.5 billion) and are now in dire need of cash. With your small donation of at least $1.00, a like, and one share, I’m certain that we will be able to pick ourselves up from the trenches of this lost [sic] and spend another fortune trying to hit it big again! PLEASE, won’t you help a family in need. DONATE NOW.

The rational among us might have expected her to have learned a lesson, but notice the words bolded by me.

As you might imagine, people were scathing, but– surprise– some donated until Go Fund Me took down her donations page. Now she claims it's all a joke, ha-ha. Thing is, I've personally known desperate people who empty their wallet at the local lottery store.

My friends Sharon and Cate, seldom at a loss for words, managed a few choice ones. Inspired by them, this little bit of flash fiction came to mind. Our colleague Vicki Kennedy tells me this form is called a ‘drabble’. Please don’t confuse our fictional Nutmeg with the real Cinnamon whom we prefer to believe is much classier.


The Gamble
by Leigh Lundin

After the lottery tops a stratospheric billion dollar pot, Nutmeg wagers her family’s rent and grocery money. To her surprise, she loses. Even her car’s repossessed. She visits the local charity, which shoos her out the door.

Matters go from bad to worse after she’s arrested for prostitution. Police visit charity officials.

“Miss Nutmeg claims you sent her to WalMart to peddle her ass.”

“For a job, sir. I told her to pedal her ass to WalMart.”

09 March 2015

Me and the Derringers. (Maybe.)


At the end of my emergency room shift, I got a Twitter message that looked like this:

Quoi? Dr_sassy and the Derringers? That's never happened before. Sounds like a good band title, though.

My first thought was, Did someone tag me by accident? As in, they want me to know about the Derringer Award, which honours the best short mystery fiction published in the English language?

But another tag-ee, Britni Patterson, was already celebrating, so my heart kicked into high gear, just wondering if I was a chosen one.

And if so, which story was it? I had two eligible tales. “Because,” a biting tale of 490 words published in Fiction River: Crime, and “Gone Fishing,” a 12,000-word serialized Hope Sze novella commissioned by Kobo and kindly mentioned by Sleuthsayers last year.

I clicked on the link and found this Derringer short list:

For Best Flash (Up to 1,000 words)
  • Joseph D’Agnese, “How Lil Jimmy Beat the Big C” (Shotgun Honey, May 12, 2014)
  • Rob Hart, “Foodies” (Shotgun Honey, May 2, 2014)
  • Jed Power, “Sweet Smells” (Shotgun Honey, July 28, 2014)
  • Eryk Pruitt, “Knockout” (Out of the Gutter Online, August 31, 2014)
  • Travis Richardson, “Because” (Out of the Gutter Online, May 15, 2014)*
  • Melissa Yuan-Innes, “Because” (Fiction River: Crime, March 2014)*
Ah. Because.

I do love that story.

Warning: it’s extremely noir. I don’t find it scary, but then I face blood, guts, vomit and potentially Ebola every day in the emergency room. I’ve already alerted the SleuthSayers powers that be that I’m not especially cozy. I’ve written what I consider cozies, and I love Precious Ramotswe and Agatha Raisin, but I also regularly stare into the darkness and take notes. When I attended the Writers of the Future winners’ workshop in 2000 and turned in a pitiless story about werewolves, the Grand Prize winner, Gary Murphy, stared at me and said, “I can’t believe that such a sweet-looking woman wrote this!"

I laughed. I adore werewolves. And good stories of any stripe.

But Cozy Monday may need a new name. Any suggestions? Cozy or Not; Cozy and Noir; Alternatively Cozy Mondays (because I’ll bet Jan Grape can stick to one genre better than literary sluts like Fran Rizer and Melodie Campbell and me); Cozy and Crazy…hmm.

Back to the Derringer. Until now, I never really understood why awards have a short list. Well, I understood whittling down the list so that celebrity judges don’t need to plow through a mountain of stories.

But now I get the glory of the finalist. I’ve won other prizes in a binary announcement. Either I win the award or I don’t. But right now, the uncertainty makes it all the more treacherous and exciting!

If you're curious, I’ve published “Because” for free on my website for the next week only. You can download it to your friendly neighbourhood KindleKoboiBooks deviceSmashwordsor any format for a whopping 99 cents. That price will triple in a week. Please admire the cover photo by 28-year-old French photographer Olivier Potet. The non-cropped version is even better.

If Because tickled your fancy, you can also download Code Blues, the first Hope Sze novel, for free, as part of a bundle on Vuze, until March 16th.

And please tune in on March 23rd, when I plan to write about how medicine trains your mind for detective work. Watson, anyone?

09 February 2014

Bieber Shot


Music is almost as important to SleuthSayers as mystery. I like classical, blues, dark, smokey songs, and so-called progressive rock before alt and acid became respectable. And I listen to other rock, even pop, like Coldplay’s dysphoric Viva La Vida and Imagine Dragons’ foreboding Demons. Meanwhile my cockatoo, Valentine, likes to dance to Lorde’s Royals.

It should come as no surprise I know next to nothing about Justin Bieber. Justin Beiber? Wait, don't leave. There's a flash fiction payoff at the end.

Sure, I’m aware he’s a teenager, at least for the next three weeks. It’s difficult not to have heard his name, thanks to true Beliebers. I well remember adults despised our rock ‘n’ roll, so I'm not too judgmental and he's probably harmless.

I’m not familiar with his songs and couldn’t identify his voice if I heard it, but he’s played at the Apollo and appeared on CSI where he was, er, gunned down. Of course there were those disappointed that happened in fiction.
Bieber

Bieber

My impression is fame and fortune outstripped his ability to handle celebrity, but that’s happened to many supposedly far more mature. But he has a positive side.

In my blog records, I noted a tear-jerking article about ‘Mrs. Bieber’, a six-year-old with a fascination for the boy. She ‘married’ him in a ceremony shortly before her death from a fast-growing cancer. Even if his publicist made the arrangements, Justin gets high marks for classiness and sensitivity.

Like a lot of teens but on a worldwide scale, Bieber’s been getting in trouble recently with graffiti, vandalism, reckless driving, assault, and… $21,000 egg-throwing hijinks. Although Bieber wasn’t present, police in Sweden and the US found marijuana and apparently other drugs in his home and tour buses. On a flight from Canada to the US, Daddy Bieber, Justin, and their entourage of ten smoked so much dope on board and refused to stop despite repeated requests, the crew wore oxygen masks so they wouldn't test positive for THC. Whew! Talk about getting a mile high!

This tarnish on his image has prompted jokes:
“Police found drugs but less than an ounce of talent.”

Mother hears “Baby, baby, baby, oooooo…” from her daughter’s bedroom. “What are you doing?” “Having sex.” “Oh, thank goodness. I thought you were listening to Justin Bieber.”

Conan O’Brien said, “The police report described [Bieber] as 5’9 and 140 pounds – or as his cellmate put it, just right.” Which brings us to today’s flash story, inspired by a quip from a friend who went on to add, “The teacher in me finds this wickedly funny.”


Justin Goes to Jail
by Leigh Lundin

Police arrest Justin Bieber and send him to lockup. Dismayed but not disheartened, Bieber writes “Free JB!” on the walls in protest.

That’s when he learns his cellmate is dyslexic.

27 October 2013

Stranded and Kwiked


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.

21 April 2013

Flash Fiction– Great Minds


Punishment for writer's conceit strikes in insidious ways. When I reply "I'm a writer" to the so-what-do-you-do? question, rarely do I receive that sought-for adoring gaze I crave to bask in. More often, authors hear, "Oh, yeah, I'm gonna write a novel too," as if they might say, "Oh, yeah, me too. I'm also gonna build a backyard shed."

Worse for most authors is the response, "I've got a great idea for a story…" The rest of the sentence can unfold in predictable ways, such as, "Would you read it for me?" Or "Would you finish it for me?" "Will you recommend a publisher?" Or "I'll share my idea for 50% of the box office– I've done all the work already."

Companies like Disney fear lawsuits stemming from unsolicited ideas, so when letters with ideas or manuscripts roll into their offices, they return them unread to avoid lawsuits, which Disney defends vigorously. Coming from the software industry, I practice a simple solution: I advise an unsolicited sharer not to reveal their plots without a nondisclosure agreement.

While this usually deters unwished-for sharing, it unfortunately feeds the public Murder She Wrote perception that authors are a hideously bloodthirsty lot, stealing one another's plots. While I find gimmick ideas interesting as murder devices or potential clues, ultimately a plot must be my own.

Hard Swallow

From time to time, ideas I concocted have shown up in other stories, twice by John Lutz, which is one reason I admire his work so much. It's inevitable, so many creative minds poring over material. But three days ago, well…

Last year, the flash fiction muse sat on my shoulder while I cranked out a few stories, two that I shared with readers (here and here). Cate thought another of these flash fiction stories was so unique and good, she urged me to find a buyer for it.

I consulted those masters of flash fiction, John Floyd and R.T. Lawton, asking them about markets. John advised that FF pieces are often used as filler and the market is sparse. I tucked my piece away for a day when I might stumble across a buyer.

On Thursday, Cate and I found ourselves killing time in a government office. Cate had brought along her Kindle loaded with a multitude of free reading and I packed along my Android loaded with sudoku. She handed me her machine and said, "Last night, I read this short story and didn't want to tell you. From the first sentence, I knew how it would end."

There in 500 words (mine was only 37), lay my concept right down to the punchline.

I didn't know if it made me feel better or worse, but this story, J.A. Konrath's 'The Big Guy', published in Crime Stories and a 2004 anthology, Small Bites, won a Derringer award. I took a deep gulp. It was eerie to see another tale– an award-winning one– so similar to my own. I think Cate felt sicker about it than I did.

After a short reflection, I felt an odd gratitude: Had my story been published, sooner or later someone would have remarked upon the similarity and I could not have come off looking good. No matter how much proof I might muster, there would always be a whiff of suspicion I might have copied another's work.

Mine's a flash fiction I remain proud of and one I'm pleased to share with you. Be sure to read Konrath's 500-word version, now a PDF. And here is mine:


My Pal George
by Leigh Lundin

I'm excited! For the first time ever, I'm taking my friend George shark fishing. Some might not understand how I could be so forgiving finding out about him and Joan, but he's my best pal, my chum.