01 August 2015
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
As some of you know, I write mostly short fiction. I've done SF, fantasy, romance, Westerns, horror, and all kinds of combinations, but most of my stories are mysteries, and for good reason: that's what I prefer to read. My favorite books, stories, and authors have always been in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.
I have also come to realize that a mystery story can sometimes fit into a non-mystery market. It probably won't surprise you that most of my mystery/crime stories are submitted first to either (1) themed anthologies or (2) magazines like AHMM, EQMM, and The Strand. If you're a writer of that kind of fiction, I suspect that you do the same. But occasionally it makes sense to also send mystery stories to other kinds of magazines and anthos.
A few months ago, I wrote a story called "Saving Grace," that was sort of a sentimental paranormal mystery. In fact I wrote it with the mystery mags firmly in mind, and planned from the start to submit it first to Hitchcock because they sometimes seem a bit more receptive than the others to stories with otherworldly plots. When I finished it, though, it had a "literary" feel to it as well--it dealt heavily with family relationships and the main character changes his outlook on life in the course of the story, etc.--so I decided to send it first to The Saturday Evening Post, which has been kind to me lately anyway. I was pleased to find that they liked it, and it wound up being published in their current print issue (July/August 2015). It will also be released online on August 7 at their web site--I'll try to remember to post a link to it in my next SleuthSayers column.
The idea for that story came to me years ago, from a Sidney Sheldon novel--I can't remember its name--that included what I considered a clever way to emotionally "connect" the reader to a protagonist. In that book, as I recall, an always-reliable female prison inmate had been asked by the warden to watch over his small child each day, out in the off-limits area near the prison gates. As any fan of crime fiction knows, routines can be risky, and sure enough, the inmate winds up planning an escape via the laundry truck that departs through that area every morning. But on that particular day, as she prepares to jump into the truck and hide on its way out of the prison grounds, the child she's babysitting slips and falls into a water tank and is about to drown. The inmate abandons her escape attempt, dives into the tank instead of into the truck, and saves the child. This happens early on and is not really that big a plot point in the novel, but it's one that stuck in my memory. After all, few things are more endearing to readers than the sacrifice of personal gain--the prisoner's freedom, in this case--in order to perform a noble and selfless act.
With that idea in the back of my mind, I built a story that begins with a situation happening in the present, goes back twenty-five years to tell a different story with a different plot, and then flashes forward again to the present for the conclusion. I sort of like that kind of "framed" story-within-a-story construction anyway, where the events of the past connect directly and unexpectedly to the protagonist's current dilemma. That of course doesn't work for every story, but for some it does--and when it does, it creates a "circular" ending that seems to appeal to readers.
The long and short of it
My point is, I think there will always be places to sell mystery/crime stories, short or long, lighthearted or profound, straight or diluted--and not just to the mystery pubs. All good stories need conflict, and I believe one of the two advantages of crime stories is that a degree of conflict is always there, already built in. (The other advantage is that in crime stories justice usually prevails, and readers are attracted to that.) If you don't like that kind of story, if you prefer reading/writing only "literary" fiction, so be it--or, as Arthur Fonzarelli might've said, Go sit on a watchman. Seriously, as for myself, having now read both of Harper Lee's novels, I've decided that one of the many reasons I prefer Mockingbird to its sequel (prequel?) is that TKaM was, at its core, a mystery story. It was of course many other kinds of fiction as well--Southern, coming-of-age, historical, courtroom drama, literary, etc.--but I think the mystery/suspense element involving Boo Radley was what made it special, and enduring.
Let's hear it for crossing genres
All of you are readers, and many of you are writers. To those of you who (exclusively or occasionally) write short mysteries: Do you always have certain markets in mind when you craft your stories? Do you write them and only then think of where they might be sent? Have you tried submitting any of your mystery/crime stories to a non-mystery publication? I'm a firm believer that some mystery stories and novels can be just as "literary" as the Zhivagos and the Cuckoo's Nests and the Grapes of Wraths of this world; in fact I would put crime/adventure novels like Mystic River and Deliverance and The Silence of the Lambs up against any of them, literaturewise. Pet peeve alert: Why should the fact that a crime is central to the plot (the widely accepted definition of mystery fiction) make it any less literary? Over the years, my mystery stories have sneaked in under the wire at Pleiades, Thema, The Atlantean Press Review, and several other so-called litmags.
The only advice I would presume to give, about all this, is (1) write the story or novel you want to write, without worrying much about the category; (2) submit it to an editor or publisher who'll make you proud if it's accepted; and then (3) forget it and write something else. I've been doing that for twenty-one years now.
God help me, I love it.
02 May 2015
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
In his book Story, screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says:
"Because a story is a metaphor for life, we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day after day and we become bored to the point of ennui, and need therapy. As a result, we also desire challenges, tension, danger, even fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles."
We all know that in a short story or a novel, the proper pacing is vital to its success. And in the case of mystery/crime fiction, the pace has to be fast. Nobody likes being bored, and nothing is so boring to a reader as a story that drags along and doesn't do something.
Ideally, this building of suspense has to happen throughout the narrative. A good, exciting opening is always important, but the challenge is then to keep up that pace afterward as well. Personally, I'd almost rather read a story or novel that starts slowly than one that starts strong and then bogs down in the middle; if it has a poor beginning I can at least stop reading sooner. As I've said before, there are too many good books and stories and movies out there for me to waste my time reading one or watching one that doesn't hold my interest.
So yes, good pacing is essential. But--as the little boy said to the magician--how do you do it?
At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three ways that we writers can control the pacing of our fiction.
- Dialogue speeds things up; description slows them down
- Short, simple sentences speed things up; long, complex sentences slow them down (think Hemingway vs. Faulkner)
- Action verbs speed things up (sprinting vs. running, slamming vs. closing, gulping vs. eating, stomping vs. walking)
- The overuse of certain kinds of punctuation (commas, ellipses, parentheses, etc.) slows things down
- Active voice speeds things up; passive voice slows them down
- Short scenes/chapters speed things up; long scenes/chapters slow them down (think Patterson vs. Michener)
I'm a big fan of plot twists--and by that I don't just mean O. Henry-type surprise endings. I love it when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn at any point, even near the beginning. It keeps me guessing and therefore keeps me reading. (Or watching. Reference the shower scene in Psycho.) I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing here, but if you're the writer and you think things might be moving too slowly, that's a good time to have someone burst through the door holding a gun.
Those are just a few thoughts--please feel free to contradict them or to add to the list.
Finally, no discussion of pacing would be complete without at least mentioning the concept of "scene and sequel." Scenes are units of story action, and sequels (in terms of writing) are breaks in the action--rest periods when the hero/heroine takes a timeout to think about what just happened and to consider what might happen next. Properly alternating scenes and sequels is a pacing mechanism, to allow the reader to--along with the protagonist--catch his breath and calm down a bit before facing the next challenge.
If you want to read some really fast-paced mystery fiction, I suggest stories and novels by the following authors: Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jack Ritchie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard.
It won't take you long.