Showing posts with label mystery magazine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery magazine. Show all posts

31 May 2020

How It All Came Together


At the time, I had eleven short stories in my Holiday Burglars series. That's my humor series, at least as far as I'm concerned. All eleven stories had been sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and all of them had seen print in their magazine. Now, it was time to write another story in the series.

10 of the first 11 stories are
now available in paperback

So there I sat, with a list of holidays in one hand and a list of potential valuables to steal in the other hand while staring at a blank computer screen. No title, no plot. Just two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, impatiently waiting for me to tell them what shenanigans they are up to for in this next episode. I can hear Beaumont saying, "Get a move on, bud. We don't like being unemployed. We need to go steal something."

Okay, they need something to steal. Preferably an exotic item or an object which is out of the ordinary and reader-attention-getting. We'll have to work on that part. Normally, the holiday comes first in the brainstorming process and that leads to the item to be purloined which leads to the weird situation our two burglars subsequently find themselves in.

So far, we've used up eleven different holidays in previous stories. What's left on the list? Cinco de Mayo? Nope, no current ideas for that one. How about Chinese New Year or Vietnamese Ahn Tet? Sorry, nothing there for now. Well, St. Patrick's Day is on the horizon and you do know some people from your old Texas Street neighborhood in Rapid City, friends who really liked to party. Yeah, of course, the Texas Street Hereford Society.
L to R: Scott, Dan, Fast Eddie, R.T. (holding the tail) and Bob
L'il Tex is the bucket calf in front.
(he just got run through the car wash at the dealership
and doesn't have a clue what's going on)

Let's tighten the focus down to Fast Eddie in the middle. (How this five-member society came into being and some of its subsequent antics can be saved for another time.) Fast Eddie was the heir apparent to a car dealership, a Registered Black Angus ranch and a working commercial cattle ranch. He was also well known in all the bars in Rapid City. The rest of us society members always said that if Eddie died first, we would bungee cord his body to a refrigerator dollie, put a drink in his hand and wheel him through all his favorite bars for one last Grand Tour.

That gives us drinking, St. Patrick's Day and a story character like Fast Eddie after he has passed on. Time to brainstorm the story plot.

What if Yarnell has just entered an Irish bar on St. Pat's Day to meet with his partner in crime, Beaumont? Over green beers and loud Irish music from the jukebox, Beaumont informs Yarnell that they now have a contract to steal a body.  Yeah, that should grab the reader's attention.

Moving on. It seems that a fellow burglar (Padraig, or Paddy as he is known to his associates) has died and his widow has arranged to have the wake at a funeral home. Some of the deceased's long-time drinking friends got into the party spirit, stole the corpse from his coffin while the widow wasn't looking, bungee corded the deceased to a refrigerator dollie and took him on a bar tour. The widow then hired Yarnell and Beaumont to find her wandering deceased husband, steal him back and get him to the funeral home in time for scheduled services, else the contract is void and thus no payment. The story is now open for anything to happen.

As a side note, while the widow may have thought Padraig (Paddy) was a potential saint while he was living, by the time he is returned to the funeral home, there may be evidence that his reputation is tarnished beyond repair.

The resulting story, "St. Paddy's Day," 12th in the series, was submitted to AHMM on 06/13/19 and accepted by their editor on 04/16/20. If I had to guess, I'd say it will probably see print in their March/April 2021 issue.

And there you have it. Another brainstorming session turned into a salable story.

Wish they all turned out that well.

BUSINESS NOTE:   Normally, the acceptance e-mail says that a contract will be coming via e-mail in about 30 days, but I usually get the e-contract in about two weeks, print and sign two copies and immediately mail them to DELL Publishing's contract person. Then, I wait for the check. However, due to the pandemic, the e-contract for the above story took about 42 days to arrive and the instructions were different. For this contract, I printed out and signed one copy. This signed copy was then scanned and e-mailed to DELL's contract person. Saves me postage on mailing the signed contract back to them. We'll see how long it takes for this check to arrive. Hey, I'm just glad to still be selling.

29 April 2020

Robbing Victor to Pay Shanks


As I mentioned  here not too long ago, I think one of my writing strengths is premises and one of my weaknesses is plots.  A result of that is a notebook full of ideas which will probably never bloom into short stories.

Several pages of said notebook are devoted to Shanks, the crime-writing character who has appeared in a bunch of my stories.   Years ago I dreamed up this idea: Shank is on a committee trying to restore a Depression-era opera house in his city.  It would be called the World Theatre, which would let me use the title (snicker) "Shanks Saves The World."

I liked it a lot.  Only problem: What would my hero do to get the money for the restoration?

Sort of a big plot gap, right?  And so the story sat in my notebook for years.  But then I had a breakthrough.

I have mentioned before here that I also wrote a series of stories about Uncle Victor.  He is the elderly, eccentric relative of a crime boss.  His nephew reluctantly tolerates him because doing so was the last request of  the previous godfather.  So when Victor decides to become a private eye, nephew Benny pulls strings to get him a license.

Several stories about this odd duck made it into print but then my market for them, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, went the way of all periodicals and I moved onto other things.

However, I remembered that I had written a story in which an aging music producer hires Victor to hunt down some musicians he cheated and now wants to do right by  The draft was still sitting in my files.

So what if we offer Uncle Victor a well-deserved retirement and send Shanks to the producer instead, asking for a big donation for the theatre where, by a wonderful coincidence, some of the old man's bands used to perform?  And the producer says, to get my money you have to find these musicians I ripped off decades ago...

Suddenly I had a plot.  The result, titled (as you probably guessed) "Shanks Saves The World," is featured in the current (May/June 2020) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  It is my 31st appearance there, and Shanks' tenth.


I am especially glad the story made it into this issue because another Shanks story, a sort of sequel to this one, will coming out this summer in an anthology.  More on that in a later installment.

And speaking of more, if you want to read a completely different essay I wrote about "Shank Saves The World," you will find it at Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.

And I hope you enjoy the story.  Now back to my notebook...

26 April 2020

Pride, The Fall, Redemption



PRIDE:
They say that Pride goeth before The Fall. That's me. For a lot of years, I was a man of consequence, but lately, Father Time has found it humorous to saddle me with age and thus remind me of the limitations I now have. Used to be, I lived the life, whether it was kicking doors,riding roundup, scuba diving, ziplining, branding calves, over the road on Harleys, coming in hot in Hueys, traveling to exotic lands and places... It was a rush.

And then came The Fall.

THE FALL:
In the beginning, it was more a series of little trips and stumbles. A health thing here, a degenerating vision thing there. Sorry pal, you're going to have to slow down to a walk, no more running for you. I was never a top athlete, one who was going to run a marathon, but c'mon knees, ankles, feet, wind, where'd you go? Yeah, I know, I never acted my age, especially in later years, but that was a good thing. It kept me going. Sure, I saw others in my different groups slowing down with age, but that was them. This was me. For a long time, even the mirror was on my side. What the hell happened?

And then, about three weeks ago, Father Time decided that the art of multi-tasking should now be beyond my capabilities. I should no longer be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Of course, I swear I was not chewing gum at the time of the trip, stumble and fall, but down I went anyway. The sidewalk won that bout. I came off second with scrapes, bruises, stitches and a nicked temporal artery. Man them things leak a lot of red stuff. Even the mirror said it didn't like me anymore. Something about if I had bolts in my neck, then I'd have a pieced-together face like Frankenstein's monster. I tell you, I gotta get a new mirror.

The ER doc sewed me up and I figured I could go home and be done with this fiasco. Much later, a nurse came in with discharge papers and explained which direction to walk to get to the ER waiting room where I could wait for my wife to collect me. Cell phones don't get reception in the ER rooms themselves, so I had to wait patiently until I got to the ER waiting room to call my wife for a ride home. AND, since I had no other clothes, AND since relatives are not allowed in ER rooms these days to even bring you fresh clothes, AND since the hospital will not loan you one of their fashionable backless gowns, I had to wear my long-sleeve, denim shirt which was thoroughly soaked with O-Positive, in order for me to leave the ER and go into the waiting room.

Fortunately, there were only two people sitting in the waiting room. Don't know how they got in as neither was a patient. Both had the appearance of street people. However, it was a large waiting room, so no problem keeping my social distancing. Then, I start listening to their conversation which consisted mostly of two related topics; cocaine and overdosing. Seems they had a friend in the ER as a patient. Guess the security guard must've had a soft spot in his heart to let them wait inside and occasionally inquire of the admission staff about their friend. But wait, it gets better.

The door from the ER rooms and into the ER waiting room opens and in strolls a "gentleman" with a long braid of hair hanging down his back and a lengthy key chain hanging from his belt down to his knees and back up into his front pants pocket. Obviously he doesn't have a cell phone because he goes straight to the free, old-style phone on the wall. I have no idea who he calls, but some of the first words out of his mouth quickly grab my attention. Words like: "No, I'm not escaping." Yeah, I know I was supposed to be outside the house at noon for them to pick me up." "No, I'm not trying to escape." "Look, just stall them." "No, don't tell them I'm at the hospital." "I told you, I'm not escaping." Then, he hangs up. Since the door back into the ER automatically locks after it closes, one of the two armed security guards has to let him back into the ER

This particular armed guard, who has previously been content to drink coffee and chat with the admissions people at the ER front door now turns and notices me in my slightly wet, drying from red to very dark red shirt. Coffee and chit chat go by the wayside. He casts a wary eye on me and immediately takes up a position against a nearby wall, with his arms crossed over his chest and a hard look in his eyes. I am now a person of interest.  It must be the company I've been keeping. Thank God my ride soon showed up so the guards could relax and go back to drinking coffee.

REDEMPTION:
Home at last. Fresh clothes. A pocketful of extra strength Tylenol. Yes, we did stop at the scene of the crime on our way home, but still can't figure out how or why the fall happened. It will just have to remain as one of those unexplained mysteries, but I can tell you there won't be any gum chewing in my future, for sure. I'll also have to avoid the mirror for a few days (we aren't getting along lately), but hey, everybody's got some problems these days.

And then.

I did what? You got to be kidding me.

Well then, forget all that other stuff.

I JUST SOLD ANOTHER STORY TO ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE.

That makes 46 short stories they've bought from me.

Hey, I'm almost good again. I'll see what the mirror has to say about it.

22 February 2020

No More Downer Books! (aka Does anyone else out there hate unreliable narrators?)


I’m tired of downer books. I don’t want to be depressed after reading for three hours. Bear with me: I’ll explain further.

The problem is, most of the downer elements of grim books involve women who are victims. Either victims of crime, or victims of a patriarchal society. Scandinavian Noir is full of the first. In fact, most noir novels include a female who is murdered and often hideously mutilated. That’s so much fun for women to read.

So here goes:

I don’t want to read any more books about women who are abused or downtrodden. I know there are several good books out there right now featuring such women. Some are historical. Some are current day. It’s not that they aren’t good. It’s just that I don’t want to read any more of them. I’ve read enough.

Imagine, men, if most of the books you had read involved men who had been victimized, or relegated to second class status by another gender. One or a few might be interesting to read. But a steady diet of these? Would you not find it depressing? Not to mention, discouraging?

I don’t want to read any more books about neurotic women, or women who can’t get it together.

I dread more ‘unreliable narrators.’ Salient point: did you notice that most (okay, every single one I can think of) unreliable narrators on the bestseller lists recently are women? Does that say something to you about how society views women? It does to me. No more ‘girl’ books.

I don’t want to read any more books this year with female protagonists that are written by men. Yes, that means some of the bestselling crime books out there. They may be very well written. But these rarely sound like women’s stories to me. They aren’t written with the same lens.

What I want: books with intelligent female protagonists written by women. I want more women’s stories. Books that I can be proud to hand on to my daughters, and say, see what is possible? She isn’t a victim! She’s someone like you.

Trouble is, I can’t FIND many books like that. The bestseller lists today are filled with protagonists who are unstable, neurotic women. Let me be clear: a lot of people enjoy these books. They may be very well written. They wouldn’t be on bestseller lists, otherwise.

But I’m tired of them. I want a ripping good story with a female protagonist, written by a woman. I want a strong, admirable protagonist I can relate to and care about. Hell, I want to *be* the protagonist for a few hours.

And not come away feeling downtrodden.




Bad Girl writes loopy comedies to blow away the blues. And she guarantees that the women protagonist and secondaries in her books kick butt.

THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS - latest in the "Hilarious" (EQMM) mob goddaughter series - no blues allowed! On Amazon

08 February 2020

Why The Detective Stopped By


Somehow I managed to get a fantasy tale into the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Detective Who Stopped by Bedford Street” tells the story of an unnamed New York police detective who uses an unusual method to crack stubborn cases. When he’s stumped, he visits a quaint vintage shop in Greenwich Village and listens to a beat-up old radio that the proprietor has vowed never to sell. When tuned correctly, the radio broadcasts critical moments in a case. The clues are often vague, but our detective is a clever sort, isn’t he? With the mysterious radio and the unstinting support of the shop’s mysterious proprietor, our nameless hero closes an impressive number of cases, and becomes a legend in the department, to his everlasting embarrassment.
 I can remember the exact moment the idea popped into my head. It was right when I was trying to finish another story that was resisting easy closure. Two years later, I can see that the few strands of the radio story—what Robert Lopresti wisely calls a “magical shop” story—were inspired by two different things.
The first is a famous John Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio.” It first ran in the New Yorker in 1947, but I first came upon it in 1981, when a paperback collection of the writer’s work (The Stories of John Cheever) was published and became a huge hit with people like me who’d never heard of Cheever. I bought my copy off a mass paperback stand at K-mart.
You owe it to yourself to check out the story. Current subscribers can read it at the New Yorker website, but for some reason you can also find the entire text online. In the piece, a New York couple discovers that their brand-new radio picks up conversations of people living in their apartment building. And so ensues the kind of sordid middle-class drama that Cheever was famous for. I don’t want to say more because it’s not my place to do so. It’s bad enough I swiped Cheever’s premise; I’m not going to give his ending away.
Back to our cop and his magic radio. I was probably a few hundred words into my story when I realized my biggest plot challenge: I needed to come with as many different audio clues as possible for our detective to grapple with. As I quickly figured out, it’s tricky to do that. For example, the most obvious clue is having a victim mention the name of his or her murderer. You can only trot that one out once.
Here, two classic movies were instructive, if only to remind me just how slight audio evidence can be. In the 1974 Coppola film The Conversation, everything hinges on the various shades of meaning of a recorded chat between two people. We know exactly what the two people say, but the meaning is unclear because we aren’t privy to the subtleties of context. In DePalma’s 1981  Blow Out, the critical sound of a car tire blowing out isn’t fraught with meaning until our hero finds audio of the sound that immediately precedes it.
In my story, I dispensed with the long-hanging fruit first, then worked my way up the ladder of audio complexity. The detective’s greatest triumph comes when he identifies a murderer based on the killer’s strange tic.
And now, since I’ve annoyingly danced around the plots of three, no, four creative works, I should probably be more forthright about the origins of the second big element in this story: the so-called magical shop itself.
Weirdly, I have always been a sucker for such shops, ever since I was a kid. For few years in my youth my father rented an office space above an Italian deli in the New Jersey town where I grew up. The office building was strangely trapezoidal, which meant that one window in my Dad’s studio jutted out like the bow of a ship, overlooking the main drag of my hometown.
My hometown’s business district, as depicted in an old postcard, long before I arrived on the scene. (The Blue Onion not pictured.)
I used to like sitting in that window and drawing pictures of the impossible cute gift shop across the street. If I’m not mistaken, it was called The Blue Onion, and its blue-painted, shingle roof and gable were anomalies in an otherwise boring Jersey town filled with pizza joints, strip malls, sanitized stucco buildings, and yes, that Kmart I mentioned earlier. I must have sketched dozens of versions of the Blue Onion, in all seasons, but its Christmas appearance—two front windows decked out with twinkling lights and faux snow—was probably my favorite.
In the 1990s, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took the train across the Hudson to New York City each morning to go to work. From the PATH station to my job at Scholastic, I walked past a charming shop on Bedford Street. It was the sort of place that sold antiques and “vintage” objects side-by-side with beautiful new objects carefully curated by the proprietor. I never went in, but I imagine that everything in it was ridiculously expensive.
 (credit: Denise Kiernan)
Later, when I went freelance, I conned my way into writing a twice-monthly “destinations” column for the now long-gone New Jersey section of the New York Times. All I did for these pieces was chase down places in the state that trafficked in, as my gruff editor once put it, “quaint shit.” I know it’s got a gritty reputation, but Jersey has lot more of these sorts of places than Tony Soprano would like to admit.
I now live in a town in North Carolina that has quaintness in spades—shops and entire barns devoted to relics from another time. Emporia like these always seem to promise a hell of a lot more than they deliver. But foolishly, if I have a few minutes, I still go peek inside them. I don’t know why. I can’t afford anything in them half the time, but still I browse. I suppose, like my detective, I go looking for the magic.
 josephdagnese.com


30 October 2019

The Last Lesson: Queen vs Hitchcock



Two weeks ago I reported that I had been invited to speak to the Northwest branch of the Mystery Writers of American on the subject: "Ten Things I learned Writing Short Stories."  I listed nine of them and promised to deliver the last one this week.  Here goes!

10.  What's the difference between Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine?  That's the second-most common question I hear about my writing.  (The first is the dreaded WDYGYI?)

For many years my reply was simple: AH buys my stories and EQ doesn't.  But since EQ has surrendered to my dubious charms several times I have to come up with some better distinction.  So here are a few.

Origin stories.  I mean the origins of the magazines themselves.  I think they are useful in thinking about how the editors think: What is in the magazine's DNA, so to speak?  Because as the old saying goes "What's bred in the bone, comes out in the flesh."

EQ was started in 1941 under the editorship of Frederic Dannay, one half of the author Ellery Queen.  Besides being an author and editor, Dannay was an anthologist and a historian of the mystery field.  He was determined to cover all aspects of the field (as opposed to Black Mask Magazine, for example, which had focused on hardboiled) and to stretch the definition of the mystery as well.  Therefore it was not unusual for him to print stories from around the world, stories from "literary" authors who were not considered mystery writers, and reprint stories that had been forgotten or that no one had previously thought of as belonging to the crime field at all.  EQ, for example, was the first American magazine to publish the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.  EQ retains a keen sense of the history of the mystery field, which leads to publishing parodies and pastiches.

AH, on the other hand, was founded in 1956.  The film director had no direct role in the magazine, simply licensing the use of his hame and likeness.  For many years the introduction to each issue was written in his voice.  The magazine was not inspired by his movies as much as by his very popular TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which actually filmed some stories that had originally appeared in the magazine.  Like the TV show, the magazine leaned toward suspense, twist endings, and a macabre sense of humor.  It still does.

Distinctions today.  EQ has regular departments.  Going all the way back to Dannay's day it has featured the Department of First Stories, which has premiered the work of up-and-coming artists who went on to fame such as Harry Kemelman, Henry Slesar, Stanley Ellin, and Thomas Flanagan.  Every issue features Passport to Crime, a story translated from another language.  EQ also owns the rights to the Black Mask name and often features a story in that magazine's hardboiled style.

My description of the beginnings of AH may have left you with the impression that their selection of story types is narrow. In fact, the opposite is true.  You can find examples of westerns and science fiction in its pages, as long as crime is front and center. Fantasy elements  may slip in.  (The rare ghost story can show up in either magazine; for some reason ghosts are the one bit of woowoo that is allowed in the mystery world.)

And some more quick generalizations.

EQ seems to lean more toward the grim, the longer, and the fair-play detection stories.

AH appears to favor the lighter, the shorter, and the twist ending.

It is important to be clear that everything I am saying here is about tendencies, not absolutes.  You can find exceptions in every issue, but if you are trying to decide which magazine to submit a story to first, this might help you.

One thing both seem to insist on, is high quality, which may explain why my overall sale record at AHMM is only about 33% and much worse at EQMM.

Your mileage, needless to say, may vary.


02 October 2019

The Long Treason


Approximately 1979
This month is a special anniversary for me.  Forty years ago I became a published author.

After three years of submitting to various markets I sold a story to the late, and not particularly lamented, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. I learned this fact when an envelope arrived in the mail with a check for $30 and a slip of paper with the title of my story on it. No contract, no letter of acceptance.

To say I was pleased would be a distinct understatement.

I was not the only person affected by the tale.  My wife brought a copy into the office where she worked and the next time I visited her co-worker Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened afterwards?"  I assured her that I had no idea.  I got so tired of her asking every time she saw me that I finally told her that the day after the story ended the main character won the lottery and lived happily ever after.  Oddly enough, this did not satisfy her.

By the way, the story was inspired by the title, which popped into my head one day.  Where that came from is anybody's guess.

I just reread the story and can honestly say that in the forty years that followed I have been paid more for worse.  So, just in case your complete set of MSMM's is in storage, I am reprinting it here.  I have changed nothing, although it was physically painful to leave that horrible adverb: "suddenly."  Ick.

I hope you enjoy the other words.  And thanks to Leigh for catching a few typos.


THE LONG TREASON
by Robert Lopresti

The old man had lived on the hill beyond the village for as long as Pablo could remember.  When Pablo was learning to walk he had seen the foreigner, already old, walking alone through the jungle.  Three years before, the old man had stood outside of his shack, watching when the soldiers came to take off anyone old enough to carry a gun.

Pablo's brother, Felipe, had been sixteen and had cried as they led him off to fight some war for El Presidente.  He hadn't returned.  Pablo's father died two years later, and at the age of twelve Pablo had become the man of the family.

To help his mother feed the younger children, Pablo went to work for the old man.  In that South american country it was widely believed that all foreigners were rich, except the missionaries.  The old man was a foreigner, but he was neither rich nor religious.

The work was easy: odd jobs and chores, repairs to keep the old shack livable.  The old man was too weak to do them himself.  He didn't pay Pablo much, but who else in the village could afford to pay him at all, still too young to do a man's work?  The job would keep Pablo's family alive till he grew up.

Pablo was running an errand for the old man when he first heard about the visitor.  The visitor was a foreigner who drove up into the hills in a rented car, dressing too warmly, bribing too richly.  Most foreigners, especially wealthy ones, would have been robbed and killed on their first night out of the city.  However, there was something about this man that made even the hungriest ladrones put their knives away and keep their distance.

On his third day in the mountains he reached Pablo's village.  That night, while they made stew for the old man's dinner, Pablo told the old man about the stranger who was asking questions.  The old man just shrugged and went on cutting carrots.

When the stew was ready, the old man invited the boy to join him, as he often did.  He always accepted, because it meant one less meal his mother had to stretch out of their meager food supply.

Although they ate in silence, neither of them heard the approaching footsteps.  Suddenly the door burst open, almost torn off the hinges by a powerful kick.  The visitor walked in, holding a pistol.

Pablo had jumped up, ready to run, but the old man touched his shoulder and gestured for him to sit down again.  The old man had shown no other reaction to the stranger's sudden entrance.

The visitor spoke a name which Pablo had never heard before.  The old man nodded. "So you have found me at last.  It's good to see you again.  You have grown older."

The visitor glanced quickly around the one-room shack before closing the door and approaching the small table.  He was about fifteen years younger than the old man, just leaving middle age.  His voice was so gentle that it surprised the boy.

"You have gotten older, too.  I can hardly believe that you are still alive."  They spoke in their own language, but Pablo had been exposed to many languages, and could follow most of what they said in that one.

The old man gestured, like a host to a guest.  "Sit down and talk for a while."

The visitor's lips compressed into a thin line.  "You know why I am here."

The old man shrugged and for the first time in several minutes he noticed Pablo.  "Let the boy go."

The stranger's eyes ran over him and the boy shivered.  "Go where?  To tell who?"

"He'll go home to bed, and tell no one.  Don't worry, old friend; there's no one here who would rush to my rescue."

The visitor's lips turned up in a tiny smile.  "That doesn't sound like my old teacher.  Do you really care what happens to the boy?"

The old man got angry.  "I don't care about him, or anyone else. And no here cares whether I live or die. I've made sure of that.  But why does the boy have to see it?"

The foreigner looked hard at Pablo.  "Will you go straight home, and say nothing to anyone?"

Pablo nodded.  "All right.  Go."

The boy ran out.  Once outside, he stopped and looked in all directions.  Then he crept around the outside of the shack.  At the rear was a spot where the wall was so low that by standing on a barrel he could climb silently onto the roof.  He had tried once to do some thatching up there for the old man, but the roof was in such bad shape that the patchwork was useless.

He crawled up slowly.  Some spots were so rotten that he almost fell through.  The rain must have poured through the cracks, but the old man never complained about it.  He seldom complained about anything.

Finally he reached the center of the roof.  Peering through a crack he saw both men, directly beneath him, seated at the table.

Straining, he could her the old man speaking. "...so many years I thought that I had been forgotten.  I'm almost glad to see you."

"Many others have looked for you.  Am I really the first to succeed?"

"Oh, there were others, years ago.  I suppose the trail has become colder with time, and it takes someone with your persistance to follow it now."

"Where are those early searchers now?  Buried in the jungle beyond the village?"

Pablo saw the old man's face twist into a smile, or perhaps it was just a baring of teeth.

"This is a dangerous part of the world, old friend.  Death comes suddenly here."

The visitor gestured with his gun.  "I do not intend to die in this hellhole of a country."

"Suit yourself.  It's good enough for me.  I'm not as particular about things as I once was."

"I have some questions I'd like to ask you."

"Feel free.  If you become tedious, I'll stop answering and you'll shoot me.  So ask away."

"We know that your new friends lost track of you, and that they are angry with you.  Why?"

"After I changed sides I lived in my new country for three months.  I saw nothing but the inside of two bare rooms and did nothing except tell their top spies about our top spies. After three months I decided it was time to leave."

"Because of the accommodations."

"Not that.  I wanted to leave before they discovered that they had paid me for false information."

The visitor stiffened.  "False?  You mean you didn't betray us?"

"I changed sides for money.  Isn't that betrayal enough?  I simply chose not to give them the information they wanted, so I had to get away before they found out."

The visitor scratched his head with the hand that didn't hold the gun.  "If we could be sure that that was true, that the secrets you held are still secret--"

"It would change a lot of plans, perhaps a national policy or two.  Agents you thought were known would be usable.  Codes, programs, and operations that were cancelled when I left could be dusted off."

"But--"

"But you can't be sure, can you?  I might be lying to you.  Once a traitor, always a traitor.  I taught you that."

The visitor nodded.  "But it would be just lie you to sell out and then double-cross the buyers.  After you left we tracked down all the little betrayals you made along the way to the big one.  Have you always had a price?"

The old man smiled and said nothing.

"It was very interesting, you know, this hunt for my old teacher.  All the time I wondered whether natural causes had already finished you off.  Or someone from the other side.  You know there are several countries that put a bounty on you, alive or dead?"

"Who are you working for, by the way?"

Pablo watched the visitor's face go white.  "You know who I work for.  Just because you're for sale doesn't mean that everyone is."

"A patriot, are you?  You don't sound like a student of mine."

"But I am -- they never let me forget that.  Do you know what your selling out cost those of us you trained?  A black mark on our records forever.  Every time our name comes up for assignment or promotion, they remember our teacher and feel a touch of suspicion.  When you betrayed your country you betrayed each of us."

"When I had influence you were willing to ride on my coattails.  You should know by now that there are free rides are always expensive in the end."

The visitor was trembling with fury.  "It wasn't like that.  You know it wasn't."

The old man sat in silence for a moment.  "Is this interrogation over?"

"One more question.  You mist have been noticed around here, as a foreign on the run.  How come the beloved Presidente of this country didn't turn you in?  It would be just like him."

"The fool thinks that I'm a Nazi.  There's a lot of them down here and they've poured gold into his Swiss bank.  So, accidentally, I fall under their protection."

"In that case, why aren't the Israelis hunting you?"

"They were.  When they found me I convinced them of the obvious fact that I wasn't a Nazi, and won their silence about who I really was."

"How?"

"I sold them the location of a few real Nazis/"

The visitor shook his head "You sell them out while their bribes are protecting you.  You really are amazing.  I think that betrayal is compulsive with you.  It comes as naturally to you was breathing."

Pablo had never seen the old man look so ancent.  "Breathing isn't as natural as you might think.  Sometimes I have to force myself to take the next breath."

"Look at me, teacher.  Look at me!  I s there one thing which you have not betrayed?"

The old man struggled to his feet. "I have always been loyal to my own interest."

The visitor's laugh was cracked and angry.  Pablo hadn't realized how tense the visitor really was.

"Your own interest? Look at you!  Dressed in  rags, waiting in the jungle to be hunted down and killed, living in this hole with no one who cares enough about you to bury you when you die.  You've done very well for yourself."

The old man leaned against a wall, trying to stand straight.  The foreigner got to his feet.

The old man spoke, and his voice was cold and hollow.  "Do what you came to do."

"You betrayed us all."  The foreigner raised his gun.  Remember that."

As fast as a jungle snake, Pablo turned over and hit the weakest spot on the roof.  The wood gave, then cracked, and he fell through with a crash.  The wood didn't hit the visitor, but as he darted aside in confusion he lost his balance.  As he fell to the ground he fired one shot.  When Pablo was able to get up he found the visitor lying unconscious, and the old man bleeding from a bullet hole in his leg.

****

The old man groaned as Pablo tightened the rags around his leg.  The wound had started bleeding again while they were burying the visitor.  The body was deep in the jungle with its neck broke, all identification and money taken.  When someone came looking for him they would assume that he had been killed by robbers.

Pablo had been surprised at how easily the old man had recovered once there was a specific job that needed doing.  He had tied up his leg, and then killed the unconscious man, showing none of the exhaustion that had weighed him down a few minutes before.

But now that the work was done he lay on his cot in the shack and moaned.  "I'm going to die."  He tried to sit up and the effort sent tears down his cheeks.

Pablo pushed him back with an gentle hand on the shoulder.  "You will not die, old man."

The old man looked at him, and finally  asked the question that had hung between them for hours.  "Why did you do all this?  You mist have heard what he said about me.  What makes you think that I'm worth saving?"

Pablo smiled.  "I will take care of you.  You will get well."

The old man closed his eyes.  For hours he lay there he lay there trembling, and Pablo never left his side.  At one point, late in the night he began muttering: "Loyalty... a second chance... loyalty."

Three years, thought Pablo.  He must live for three more years.  Then I will be sixteen, old enough to be taken by the army, like my brother Felipe.  Old enough to be treated like a man.  I will go to the city then and sell the old man to the highest bidder, and Mama and the children will never be hungry again.

"You will not die, old man," he said softly.

25 August 2019

My Small Business Plan


I'm not getting rich from my writing sales, so I'm grateful I don't have to rely on writing for my main income, otherwise my office would be a cardboard box in some alley with a long extension cord running up to someone's outside electrical outlet. You know, for a coffee pot and a computer.  In any case, regardless how you look at your writing, it's probably best in the long run if you have a business plan. For one thing, you want to keep track of your income and expenses (lots of expenses) so as to avoid paying too much to the tax man. Seems he always has one hand in your pocket.

So, having said that, here's the accounts receivable part of My Small Business Plan. It's got to be a small plan, you see, because I only write short stories, which don't pay much over any one year period, and the occasional cowboy poem, which doesn't pay at all. The important thing is, I have a plan and I'm finally using that Business Degree which Uncle Sam paid for after I responded to that nice letter draft he sent me way back in 1966.

Mine is a three-part plan

Part 1 - Short Stories
     I write short stories for paying markets. First submissions go to the higher paying publications. In case of a rejection, I work my submissions down the payment ladder until the story sells or goes into inventory. All of this is common sense and most writers already know this part. Moving on.

Part 2 - Reprints & Other Secondary Markets

   I was surprised one day to read about a market call from a company named Great Jones Street for reprints. This was a startup venture to put short stories on cell phones where readers paid a subscription to read the stories. I sold them seven reprints for $500 while they were collecting a base inventory. Ultimately, they got on the wrong side of the ledger and went out of business.
     In a different situation, Otto Penzler paid me $250 to use one of my reprints in one of his many anthologies. Since then, I've seen other markets for reprints. It's like found money.

     Another good use of short stories, whether they were previously published or not, is putting them into e-collections. So, after I had a list of previously published stories, plus an inventory of unpublished short stories, I started looking at Amazon for Kindle and Smashwords for other e-readers. Both of them are free to setup your e-books, all you need is to figure out how to format e-books. It is a different setup for each of the two companies, but due to advances in software, it is now easier than it used to be. Fortunately for me, I had a Huey pilot friend who made the mistake of saying, "I can figure that out." And he did. In 2011, we turned some of my short stories into four e-collections: 9 Historical Mysteries, 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond Mysteries, 9 Chronicles of Crime and 9 Deadly Tales. Kindle paid royalties by EFT and Smashwords paid via PayPal. Then in 2018, we added two more e-collections: 9 Holiday Burglars Mysteries and 31 Mini-Mysteries. These last two led to Part 3.

Part 3 - Paperbacks
     Kindle Direct Publishing recently acquired Create Space, which published paperback books. It was while uploading one of my last two e-books that I was faced with a new situation at the end of the upload. The Kindle software inquired if I wanted to also publish my e-book as a paperback. What the heck, one more form in which to offer potential buyers a choice to spend money on my books? I immediately checked yes only to discover that I needed my cover in a different format for this option. After all, an e-book only needs a front cover, while a paperback needs a front cover, a spine and a rear cover.

I went back to my Huey pilot friend. He is now figuring out the requirements for a paperback and we are working on the final details. The paperback has a fixed charge, plus a very small charge for every page, none of which the author pays upfront. It's all covered by the buyer when he purchases the book. First, you need to decide what size of book you want and the size of font you prefer. Those two items and the length of your manuscript will determine how many pages your book will have. Then, KDP has a program where you enter the number of pages your book will have and the program will tell you the minimum price you have to put on your book, which is also the cost to KDP for printing your book. Naturally, you want to make a profit, so you also enter the price you want to charge and the program will tell you your royalty profit. Simple, huh?

Well, we'll see. Seems there's a bleed factor on the cover when it comes to cover size. My friend says he's got it figured out, and while he did teach me how to fly OH-6 and OH-58 observation helicopters, I think this cover and formatting thing is over my head. It's nice to have friends.

QUICK UPDATE: A week and a half ago, the 1st paperback went live. We are now working on the conversion of the other five from e-book to paperback.

You've now heard about My Small Business Plan. Do you have your own plan? Feel free to share. Or are you still working on one? We'd like to hear about that too.

13 August 2019

Strange Impersonation


I was looking for a movie to watch and Strange Impersonation, directed by Anthony Mann, sounded interesting, so I put it on.

And since I’m going to use this movie to make a larger point I’m going to give away various plot elements. I could use other, better-known movies, but as this is less-known and will work just as well illustrating the point, I figure it’s better to give the store away here. I’m using this movie to make a point about most, if not all, movies that do this.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Here’s the basic plot as told by Bruce Eder on All Movie: “Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is a dedicated research scientist who is very close to a breakthrough in her field of anesthetics. She allows herself to be used as the subject of an experiment, and becomes the victim of sabotage by her jealous assistant (Hillary Brooke), who is her rival for the affections of the same man (William Gargan). Nora is scarred by the accident, but fate takes a hand when a vicious blackmailer (Ruth Ford), part of an extortion scam that was being worked on her, breaks in to her apartment. In the ensuing struggle, the lady grifter is killed and then mistaken for Nora, while the real Nora goes into hiding. Taking the identity of the dead woman, she realizes how she has been betrayed and maimed and plots an elaborate revenge, undergoing reconstructive surgery that changes her whole appearance. She then reintroduces herself into the lives of her former associates, in her new guise, and begins her revenge. Before her plans can be concluded, however, her masquerade backfires on her, when she finds herself accused by the police -- of the murder of Nora Goodrich” (https://www.allmovie.com/movie/strange-impersonation-v111934#ASyuCJD6Q4IVUJxw.99)


Okay, it sounds pretty convoluted, but just go with it, ’cause that’s not the point of this post.

It started going along pretty well. Nothing great, but I didn’t turn it off either.

So, after the ‘accident,’ and after the blackmailer dies and is mistaken for the scientist, the scientist leaves her fiancĂ© and her life behind. She heads out west. Has plastic surgery to look like the woman who was blackmailing her. She then returns to the city as that person and begins on a course of revenge against her former assistant. She insinuates herself back into her former fiancĂ©’s life, trying to steal him back from his new lover, her former assistant. Before she can pull it all together, everything backfires on her and she finds herself accused of murder—the murder of herself (though really, as we know, the blackmailer).


Okay, still convoluted, but interesting.

EXCEPT…

…that all of the revenge part of the plot turns out to be a dream. Everything after the explosion/‘accident’ didn’t really happen. It was all a dream in the scientist’s head after the accident. So all the emotion and excitement and concern that we invested in the character/s was for nothing. Because none of it was real. There were no real consequences. The assistant didn’t really make an explosive compound that disfigured the scientist. The scientist didn’t really get plastic surgery, return to exact her revenge, which was thwarted before should could finish it and she wasn’t really arrested for the murder of…………herself.

None of it happened. Because it was a dream.

And because it was a dream it’s a cheat. And it makes me angry and it makes me feel like I wasted 68 minutes of my life. I don’t like movies where major plot elements turn out to be dreams. I’ve invested myself, I’ve given over my suspension of disbelief. And then none of it matters.

I won’t name other movies or TV shows where things have turned out to be dreams, because I don’t want to give them away for those who haven’t seen them (with a couple exceptions below). But I can’t think of one that I like once I learn the events that took place were just a dream and didn’t really happen. There are, however, a couple of exceptions: one film noir that I like fairly well where much of it turns out to be a dream, but even that one which, if there is an exception to the rule is it, disappoints me in the end because again, there was no real jeopardy. There were no real consequences. So what did it all amount to? Nothing. The other exception is The Wizard of Oz, but that whole story is a fantasy. We’re not supposed to buy it as a real story as we are with other movies.

(Just as a side note here: I’m not talking about movies like Spellbound, where dreams are used to analyze a character and figure them out. That’s fine. I’m talking about movies where we learn that much of the action was a dream and thus didn’t really take place within the context of the story.)

Freud might have loved dreams and found them useful in psychoanalyzing people. But in my opinion, in a movie they’re nothing but a cheap cheat.

What do you think? Do you find movies based on dreams a cheat? Do you feel deceived after you’ve seen them? Let us know.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.



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

23 July 2019

The Future of Writing


Many of us have nostalgic, warm feelings of curling up with a book in the rain. For a lot of us here at SleuthSayers it’s more than likely a mystery or a thriller, though I’m sure we all read many different kinds of books, mainstream fiction, non-fiction, a little of everything.

But how many of our kids have that warm feeling? How many of our kids enjoy reading just for the pleasure of it? How many people read paper books anymore? And are young people reading these days? They do seem to read YA books, maybe on Kindle and iPad but not often in paperback. But they are reading less than previous generations and spending more time playing games on their phones, texting and watching movies instead of reading. More distractions and shorter attention spans. They’ve grown up with everything being faster and getting instant gratification. Do they ever read classics or history or something that’s a stretch for them? And how many never read anything longer than a  Facebook post or Tweet?


My wife, Amy, who takes the train to work, says, “I notice on the train a lot of people staring at their phones. Some are reading, but the really serious readers have paperbacks or Kindles and don’t read on their phones. Most are texting or playing games. And it’s time that could be spent reading but they don’t. And that’s scary. I understand wanting to do something mindless and entertaining for a little while, but we also need to exercise and stretch our brains and imaginations sometimes, too.”

It seems to me that, while there are still some places to buy books besides Amazon, and that people still read, I’m not sure how many people read or what they’re reading. So the question is, is fiction a dying art? And how does that affect our writing?

Many people, of all ages, would find Don Quixote slow to come to a boil. Nothing happens for too long. That’s the way it is with a lot of books from earlier times and not even all that earlier. Hemingway was known for his “streamlining” of the language, but many people these days find his books slow going.

The same applies to movies. Even movies made 20 or 30 years ago are too slow for many people today. And when they watch movies they often watch them on a phone with a screen that’s five inches wide. How exciting is that? And many movies today are of the comic book variety. I’m not saying no one should read comic books or enjoy comic book movies, but it seems sometimes like that’s all there is in the theatres.

And novels have become Hollywoodized. I like fast paced things as much as the next person, but I also like the depth a novel can provide that movies or TV series often don’t. And one of the things that I liked about the idea of writing novels was being able to take things slower, to explore characters’ thoughts and emotions.

In talking to many people, I often find there’s a lack of shared cultural touchstones that I think were carried over from generation to generation previously. That also affects our writing. Should we use literary allusions, historical allusions? If so, how much do we explain them? And how much do we trust our audience to maybe look them up? The same goes for big words.

Way back when, I was writing copy for a national radio show. Another writer and I got called on the carpet one time and dressed down by the host. Why? Because we were using words that were “too big,” too many syllables. Words that people would have to look up. So, we dumbed down our writing to keep getting our paychecks. But it grated on us.

But in writing my own books and short stories I pretty much write them the way I want to. I’m not saying I don’t stop and consider using this word instead of that. But I hate writing down to people. When I was younger I’d sit with a dictionary and scratch pad next to me as I read a book. If I came on a word I didn’t know I’d look it up and write the definition down. And I learned a lot of new words that way. Today, if one is reading on a Kindle or similar device, it’s even easier. You click on the word and the definition pops up. That’s one of the things I like about e-readers, even though I still prefer paper books. But I wonder how many younger people look up words or other things they’re not familiar with.

And what if one wants to use a foreign phrase? I had another book (see picture) for looking those up. But again, today we’re often told not to use those phrases. Not to make people stretch. I remember seeing well-known writers (several over time) posting on Facebook, asking if their friends thought it was okay to use this or that word or phrase or historical or literary allusion because their editors told them they shouldn’t. That scares me.

So all of this brings up a lot of questions in my mind: What is the future of writing? Are we only going to write things that can be read in ten minute bursts? And then will that be too long? What does all this mean for writers writing traditional novels? Will everything become a short story and then flash fiction?

In 100 years will people still be reading and writing novels? Or will they live in a VR world where everything is a game and they can hardly tell reality from fantasy?

So, what do you think of all of this?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.




Also, check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus Award-winning novel, White Heat.



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

03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore


An author out standing in his field
If you have time for only one blog in your busy life obviously it should be SleuthSayers.  But if you can fit in more, you might want to consider Something Is Going To Happen, the blog of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.*

They recently featured an interesting piece by Dave Zeltserman in which he described his "personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers."

It's a fun concept.  Can you reduce the pantheon of the greats down to four?

I'm not going to reveal Mr. Z's choices, because you should definitely go read his piece for yourself, but I will list my own and invite you to do the same in the comments.  You will find that I overlap with his, but we are not identical.

My monument is arranged in the order I discovered the writers.

Rex Stout.  The first adult mystery writer I found after Conan Doyle.  He was the pusher who got me hooked.  Stout is all about character and voice.

Especially voice.

Nero Wolfe: "Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth."

Archie Goodwin: “When the day finally comes that I tie Wolfe to a stake and shoot him, one of the fundamental reasons will be his theory that the less I know the more I can help, or to put it another way, that everything inside my head shows on my face. It only makes it worse that he doesn’t really believe it.

Occasionally Stout has moments of plotting excellence (e.g. Too Many Cooks) but more often Wolfe and Archie have to carry him over bumps in the road.

Donald E. Westlake.  I first read his story "Come Back, Come Back," in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks.  It was a dead serious story about a cop suffering from a possibly fatal heart condition trying to convince a wealthy, perfectly healthy business executive not to commit suicide.

In high school I discovered his early comic classics, what David Bratman  called "the nephew books," in which some luckless schmuck finds himself in deep doodoo (The Spy in the Ointment, God Save the Mark, etc.)  By the time Dortmunder tried (and tried and tried...) to steal The Hot Rock I was hooked.   Westlake was the master of chaos, crisply described.  Movies based on his books usually failed because they couldn't capture his narrative tone.


Dashiell Hammett.  I confess I am not a fan of most of his novels (the exception being you-know-what).  But the Continental Op is everything the private eye story wants to be.  And could that man write an ending!  I'd give several toes to write a last paragraph as good as the one in "The Gutting of Couffignal."

Stanley Ellin.  Like Hammett, he had one great novel.  Stronghold is about a young man who grew up bitter on the outskirts of a community of modern Quakers (Ellin was one).  As a full-fledged adult psycho he brings back a gang to kidnap all of their women, yearning for either ransom or a bloody shootout with the cops.  But the Quakers won't cooperate with violence, even by calling the police.

Ellin's genius was for the short story.  "You Can't Be A Little Girl All Your Life" was a story about rape a decade before its time.  "The Question" is a quiet reflection by an executioner that turns into a stunning social comment.  And "The Payoff," well, the ending is just a punch in the gut.

So, while I brush away the stone scraps and clean off my carving tools: Who would you put on your mountain, and why?

*Also, Trace Evidence, from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

02 July 2019

Tess Gerritsen: What Makes Books Fail?


In my last post for SleuthSayers I briefly mentioned Tess Gerritsen and her keynote speech at the California Crime Writers Conference. Leigh asked if I could talk a little more about what she said, so here goes:

I really enjoyed her speech, it was funny and relatively short—about twenty minutes. And it kept my interest. Much of what I say here is quoted or paraphrased closely from her speech. But I think I misstated her premise in my last piece, saying she talked about What Not to Do. More accurately her speech was about What Makes Books Fail. She started with some anecdotes and wound her way around to that topic.

She opened talking about how happy she was to be in sunny SoCal. Though it hasn’t been as sunny here as it normally is. But I guess coming from Maine anything above 50 is sunny.

She segued into Delia Owens and her phenomenal success with Where the Crawdads Sing. She also talked about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece  Annie Barrows which spent many weeks on the NY Times best seller list. Delia Owens was 70 when her debut novel came out. Shaffer, author of Potato Peel was 74 …and died before it came out. The point was it doesn’t matter how old you are or what you look like. You just have to do it. And you don’t even have to be alive to be a debut novelist!

Delia Owens
Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows
She moved on to talk about something we can all relate to. One day, while in her local grocery store, the butcher smiled at her over the meat counter. Then came running out after her—hopefully not with a butcher knife raised over his head.

“I knew you’d be in here eventually,” he said. “I want to give you this.”

Three guesses as to what he wanted to give her. Okay, time’s up.

He brandished a manuscript—what else? She took it. And to cut to the chase it never got published, at least not traditionally.

Another time she was in a restaurant. A man across from her jumped out of his chair, dashing out of the restaurant. He returned 20 minutes later with a briefcase…holding, well, you know what it was holding.

And then she talked about love, at least Shakespeare in Love. But rather than try to retell what she said, this, from her website, pretty much covers it:

“Young Shakespeare writes ‘Romeo and Juliet’, falls in love, and tries to stay one step ahead of the Queen’s guard. The scene that had me laughing hardest? When a ferryman finds out that Shakespeare’s a writer and asks him, ‘Will you read my manuscript?’”

Do you notice a theme here?

But the real theme of her talk was why some novels get published and others don’t. Why didn’t the butcher’s novel get published? The real theme was:


What Makes Books Fail

Ms. Gerritsen said that there are certain mistakes that are made often that keep one from breaking out or getting a traditional contract. By way of illustration, she talked about Uncle Harry. We all have one, right?

Uncle Harry and Aunt Maude both experienced the same earth shattering event. Harry will talk your ear off, telling you everything that happened, blow by blow, and bore you to death. Maude will tell you the same story and keep you on the edge of your seat. What’s the difference? Maude gives you the high points of the story.

Tess says we need to identify where the emotional high points are. It’s not that Harry isn’t intelligent, but he needs to get a sense of the dramatic. That’s why Maude’s version is better.

She told the story of Michael Palmer’s agent taking him on, even though the agent didn’t like the book, because they thought he had a sense of the dramatic. And when she and Palmer, both doctors, taught a course in writing for other docs who wanted to be novelists, they discovered that most of them, intelligent as they are, and as understanding of all the tech aspects, couldn’t tell a good story because they didn’t have that sense of the dramatic.

Tess Gerritsen at the 2019 California Crime Writers Conference
And her heart dropped when an attorney-friend of hers wrote a book and wanted to talk to her about it. But, she thought, he does interesting stuff so maybe it would be okay, and agreed to meet for lunch. And this is what she said:

“His book was about a man who comes of age in the turbulent 60s and moves to Maine. ‘And what happens,’ I asked. ‘It’s about self-discovery, about the journey, about coming to grips with life,’ he said. ‘But what happens,’ I said, ‘where’s the conflict? Where’s the struggle?’ And he said, ‘life is a/the struggle.’ And I thought okay, we’re in trouble. So the more I pressed him on the plot and the characters, the more I heard about actualization and personal journeys and maximizing relationships. And in a fit of frustration, I finally just said, ‘you’re thinking too hard. You should be feeling the story,’ and that’s what I’ve come to conclude, is that what makes most stories fail is that people are thinking too hard and they’re not feeling their way. In a nutshell, writers really shouldn’t be cerebral, shouldn’t be logical. We should be thinking about the dramatic points in our lives, the emotional centers in our lives.”

And one more example: Another man wrote a scene about a family preparing a BBQ. He wrote it in great detail, the cooking, the salads, every little thing. And then his grown child telling the dad that “we’re going to have a baby.” That’s great, the dying dad says, congratulations, and they go in and have dinner. But the author didn’t let the characters chew on that. Didn’t play off the emotional core of the scene, the dying man becoming a grandfather. It was just glossed over.

Tess said she remembers the day she was told she was going to have her first grandchild. Her son, who has a flair for the dramatic, showed her a sonogram on the rim of the Grand Canyon. She and her husband started sobbing. She doesn’t remember the hike or how she got to the rim. She only remembers about the baby, now her five year old granddaughter. So, she told the man writing about the BBQ he shouldn’t pass over the emotional center so quickly and spend so much time on the steaks being medium rare. She couldn’t remember the trip to the Grand Canyon. Every bit about the salad or how the steaks were cooked wasn’t what was important.

How a book fails, she said, is that we fail to remember that we’re human beings. It’s all about emotions, not about telling. And a large part of our skill is choosing the scenes—which scene/s are you going to point out? What are the details that matter to you? And even though we sometimes have to deal with technical aspects of what’s happening, we still need to find the emotional things there.

She used her book Gravity as an example. She had to explain the technical aspects of a spacewalk. But she didn’t have the heart of her story until she read Into Thin Air, where one of the climbers, who knew he was doomed to die on the mountain, called his wife to say goodbye. That brought Tess to tears and gave her the spark for the emotional center for Gravity. What is your last goodbye going to be like? Make your story interesting by bringing in your emotions.

So, even when you do need to tell, as we sometimes do, you need to find the emotions of the scene. Show something from the point of view of what you and your characters are feeling.


The bottom line:

What she’s learned is: trust your heart. That’s where your story needs to be. Don’t tell, but show. Choose the scenes that have the highest amount of gravitas and angst, and maybe we’ll all be Delia Owens someday.
~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Also in this issue are fellow SleuthSayers Janice Law, R.T. Lawton and B.K. Stevens. Hope you'll check it out.



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