Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts

07 September 2019

LOST in Africa


by John M. Floyd


I love reading novels and watching movies--sometimes I wonder which I enjoy most. And what's really fun is reading a novel and then seeing the movie adaptation. Usually the book is better than the movie (The Hobbitt, Dune, Bonfire of the Vanities, The Stand), sometimes the movie's better than the book (The Godfather, Dances With Wolves, The Graduate, Forrest Gump), and occasionally--not often--they both turn out great (To Kill a Mockingbird, Lonesome Dove, Deliverance, The Green Mile, Mystic River, Eye of the Needle, Goldfinger, The Silence of the Lambs).

I recently re-read a novel I'd discovered in high school, and then re-watched its movie adaptation, which I'd seen in college. The book is The Sands of Kalahari, and the movie (with a relocated "the") is Sands of the Kalahari. It's another of those rarities that, despite the title change, came across well on both the page and the screen.

I've always thought some of the best movies are adapted from novellas--The Shawshank Redemption (from Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), Apocalypse Now (from Heart of Darkness), Stand by Me (from The Body), and so on--because a novella's length tends to correspond more to a 90- to 120-minute film. Short stories have to be embellished, novels have to be condensed, but novellas are aa a good fit. That theory seems to hold true for Kalahari. Most sources refer to it as a novel, but it's a short one--my ratty old hardcover copy is only 192 pages. Probably because of that, the film version was able to stick pretty close to the book's storyline.

Quick facts: The novel The Sands of Kalahari was written by William Mulvihill and published in 1960; the movie Sands of the Kalahari, released in 1965, was directed by Cy Endfield and starred Stuart Whitman, Stanley Baker, and Susannah York. Trivia: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were originally scheduled for two of those leading roles.

Here's the basic plot. When a private aircraft crashes in the vast Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, the six survivors--five men and a woman--are left in a place where few humans have ever set foot. They finally stumble onto a barren valley of cliffs and caves and manage to locate enough food and water to keep them going. Their only companions in the valley are bands of curious and sometimes-savage baboons, and the six soon realize that no one's coming to rescue them. As the pilot of their ill-faeted plane sets off alone across the wasteland to try to find help and the other five hole up in a cave and try to keep from starving, one of them decides to improve his odds of survival by eliminating the rest of the men in the group. To say more would give away some great twists and revelations, so I'll stop there.


I can't help seeing some similarities to the TV series Lost, here. A diverse group of travelers find themselves stranded and on their own in an unfamiliar and dangerous place, and have to deal with (1) their harsh environment, (2) each other, (3) their own faults and fears and insecurities, and (4) the deadly beasts that live in and around their new home. Along with love and friendship and heroism there's plenty of danger, despair, lust, jealousy, betrayals, illness, violence, racism, etc., and--as we writers well know-- the more levels of conflict there are, the better the story.

This is a good one. I've now read the novel three times and seen the movie at least five or six times, and it never seems to get old.

The next time you have an urge for a wilderness survival tale, give one or both versions of this story a try. And if you do read it or see it, let me know what you think. Meanwhile, may all your flights be safe and your adventures baboon-free.

Keep up the good writing.






31 August 2019

A Guide in a Strange Land


by John M. Floyd



That's what a good agent can be. And if you don't believe publishing is a strange land, you probably haven't been wandering around in it very long.

I'll start this discussion with four questions and answers:

1. What kind of writing do I do more than any other?
    Short stories.

2. Do I have a literary agent? 
    Yes.

3. Has my agent sold any short stories for me? 
    Yes.

4. Do most short-story writers need an agent?
    No.

Number four doesn't make sense, right? If an agent can help you market your short stories, why shouldn't you try to find one to represent you?

The answer has two parts: First, very few agents (including my own) specialize in short stories. There's not a lot of money to be made writing shorts--and 15% of not a lot is even less. Second, most short-story writers can easily find and approach story publishers (magazines, anthologies, etc.) on their own. There's no need for a middleman.

Getting there from a different direction

So why do I have an agent? That's pretty simple. I acquired an agent to try to market my novels. I've written three novels, two of which are out with my agent now; I think they're pretty good and he does too--but they haven't sold. I suspect that's more my fault than his, but that's another matter. Meanwhile, my current novel agent wound up selling some of my short stories to places that I would've had trouble finding and approaching, and that's been a good thing--but, again, I wouldn't have had those stories represented at all if I hadn't already had that agent for my novels.

Bottom line is, I've wound up making some money for my agent from my shorts, and he's wound up making some for me--but I have a feeling those short-story successes wouldn't have been enough to entice him to take me on as a client. We already had a relationship, he saw some potential places to send my stories that I didn't know about, and as a result I've sold stories that helped both of us (me more than him).


My background

I've actually had three agents in the 25 years I've been writing. The first was one of those rare folks who DID represent mostly short-story writers. I found out about him from a fellow writer back in the late '90s, queried the agent, got a response that he'd like to see some of my work, and he eventually signed me on. Over the next several years he sold some stories for me and I learned a LOT from him--about writing, editing, and publishing--so I considered our relationship a positive experience all the way around. He was an elderly gentleman and died in 1999, and I then inherited agent #2 because he had been the junior partner of agent #1.

That second agent I kept for a few years, but he made it clear that he specialized in novels only. He helped me to make my first novel better and was truly excited about it, but alas, it never sold and we eventually parted company. I'm the one who asked to end our relationship, but I also suspect he wasn't sorry to see me go. After a certain point we both knew we were probably wasting each other's time.

My current situation

My third and present agent was also suggested to me via another writer, several years ago. This agent too represents mostly novels, and despite his enthusiasm for the two novels I have with him now, both of us know my passion is short stories. Like many of my writer friends, I tend to write more shorts than anything else, and like a very few of my writer friends (R.T. Lawton is one) I write almost ONLY shorts. I simply love 'em.

So, you might be asking yourself, are those few short story sales that my agent handles enough for me to want to stay on at that agency, and for him to want to keep me on? Until recently, yes, that was enough, for me and for him--and then something else happened, early this year, to make me even happier that I'm still under his tent. I was contacted by a producer in L.A. who had seen one of my published stories and was interested in optioning it for film. I referred him immediately to my agent, who handled all the negotiations--some of them complicated--and we finally signed the contracts in June. He was so helpful I will always be confident that I received a much better deal by not trying to handle everything on my own. He didn't find the project, but he efficiently steered the ship on my behalf once the project presented itself.

More questions

As you can see from all the above, I'm not the best person to try to discuss whether most writers should seek out literary agents. I've seen only one end of things, from the POV of a short-story writer and a so-far-unsuccessful novel writer. Do any of you other shorts writers have agents? For those of you who write novels, what's your opinion? Must you have an agent to get the best deal? Should you try to secure an agent before ever looking for a publisher? Should you forget the whole traditional-publishing thing and self-publish via Amazon? Have any of you used an agent to option stories or novels for film? Does anyone out there have an agent who deals only in shorts? Bermudas? Boxers?

I welcome all your comments and insights. And whether you choose to comment or not, keep writing, keep submitting, and keep publishing, whatever route you take to get there.

See you again in one week.




03 August 2019

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Very Long Titles


by John M. Floyd



I've always been fascinated by titles. It's usually a case of Whoa, what a great title, and then Why couldn't I have thought of one like that? And, thankfully less often, What was the author thinking?--I could've done better than that. The truth is, the titles of movies, novels, and stories come in all categories--good, bad, and ugly.

The good

I think some are so well done they're worth mentioning: The Guns of Navarone, Atlas Shrugged, The Eagle Has Landed, The High and the Mighty, The Caine Mutiny, Watership Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, "The Tin Star," Something Wicked This Way Comes, Jurassic Park, Lonesome Dove, The Grapes of Wrath, The Silence of the Lambs, Blazing Saddles, The Princess Bride, The Maltese Falcon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, "The Gift of the Magi," Ben-Hur, Sands of the Kalahari, Dances With Wolves, East of Eden, Back to the Future, A Fish Called Wanda, The Seven-Year Itch, Our Man Flint, The Usual Suspects, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Gypsy Moths, No Country for Old Men, The Sand Pebbles, Fail-Safe, Gone With the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and so on. The one thing all these have in common is that they are unique--each is one of a kind.

An aside, here. I also love the way some authors of fiction have used their titles almost as marketing trademarks: Janet Evanovich's numbers: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly; James Patterson's nursery rhymes: Jack and Jill, Three Blind Mice, Along Came a Spider; Sue Grafton's alphabet: A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar, C Is for Corpse; Martha Grimes's English pubs: The Old Silent, The Dirty Duck, Jerusalem Inn; John D. MacDonald's colors: The Green Ripper, The Deep Blue Good-by, A Purple Place for Dying; Robert Ludlum's three-word titles: The Bourne Identity, The Matarese Circle, The Rhinemann Exchange; James Michener's one-word titles: Centennial, Chesapeake, Hawaii; John Sandford's "prey" titles: Night Prey, Winter Prey, Mind Prey; etc.

Does length matter?

A question I've often heard writers ask is, "Does my title need to be short?" Or, in other words, "Is a long title a disadvantage?" I don't know the answer. Looking back at my own short stories, I've found that almost all my titles are short--between one and three words. But I don't remember making a conscious effort to keep them short. I just try to come up with something appropriate and--if possible--intriguing. I'm not always successful at that, but I try. And I love titles that turn out to have double meanings, or meanings that are revealed only in the course of the story. Like my one-to-three-word titles, I have far too many four-word titles to list, but here are some of mine that are five words or more: ""On the Road With Mary Jo," "The Red-Eye to Boston," "A Nice Little Place in the Country," "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," "The Moon and Marcie Wade," "Take the Money and Ron," "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," "Turn Right at the Light," "A Message for Private Kirby," "Can You Hear Me Now?" "The Browns and the Grays," "A Surprise for Digger Wade."

One thing that I find interesting is that there are a LOT of movie and novel titles that are long--some of them extremely long. And some of those titles are surprisingly good. Another thing that's interesting, at least to me, is that some of the longest titles aren't that hard to remember; they're just long. In fact I can recall some titles that aren't very long but are hard to remember, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, etc.

Title contenders

As you might've expected, I've put together a list of some very long movie titles. They're in no particular order, but my favorites are at the top of the list. As you also might've expected, some of the titles farther down the line are bad and some are ugly. I'll leave it to you to decide which are which.

Note: Only titles of eight words or more are included. (I hated to leave out It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and, yes, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I had to draw the line somewhere.) I also didn't include any documentary titles or any titles containing colons, parentheses, or "or." Examples:
- Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Shoot First and Pray You Live (Because Luck Has Nothing to Do With It)
- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes

Here, then, after my lame disclaimers, is my lineup:



A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (1995)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012)

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995)

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991)

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)

Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forgive Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mom's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (1967)

Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God . . . Be Back by Five (1998)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996)

Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)

To Woo Fong, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)

The Ranger, the Cook, and the Hole in the Sky (1995)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (2002)

A Quiet Little Neighborhood, a Perfect Little Murder (1990)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2011)

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993)

It's Better to Be Wanted for Murder Than Not to Be Wanted at All (2003)

I Could Never Have Sex With a Man Who Had Such Little Regard for My Husband (1973)

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957)

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991)

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013)

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973)

What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013)

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charente Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1967)

The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure (1916)

What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body? (1972)

The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Super Bad About It (2010)

I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney (1993)

You Gotta Walk It If You Like to Talk It or You'll Lost That Beat (1971)

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady From Outer Space (1965)

The Heart of a Lady as Pure as a Full Moon Over the Place of Medical Salvation (1955)

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)



Since I've neglected them so far, here are some long-titled novels and children's books:


Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell

Grab Onto Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way, Bryan Charles

The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, Charles Bukowski

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It, Lisa Shanahan

The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle, Edgardo Vega Yunque

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won Off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game, David Forrest

Sheila Devine Is Dead and Living in New York, Gail Parent

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To Do List, Janette Rallison

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judie Viorst

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente


Okay, back to the movies

The best (in my opinion) one-word movie titles: Vertigo, Giant, Shane, Fargo, Goldfinger, Tombstone, M*A*S*H, Goodfellas, Unforgiven, Psycho, Nashville, Crash, Rocky, Papillon, Casino, Platoon, Holes, Ghostbusters, Splash, Memento, Twister, Witness, Deliverance, Seabiscuit, Chinatown, Sideways, Titanic, Hondo, Flashdance, Poltergeist, Network, Spartacus, Jaws, Signs, Aliens, Misery, Casablanca.

And, last AND least, some two-letter and one-letter titles: Pi, Go, RV, It, Up, If . . ., F/X, I. Q., Da, E.T., M, G, W., Z, O, $.




Had enough of this? Good, because those are all I can think of. As always, please let me know of any I've missed, and maybe some of the titles of your own stories and novels. Do your titles tend to be long or short--or does it matter? Do you have any that are very long or very short?

I'll close with the longest movie title of them all (I think). Brace yourself:

Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh-Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead, Part 2 (1991).


Don't you wish you'd thought of that one?






23 July 2019

The Future of Writing

by Paul D. Marks


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

24 June 2019

The Times, They Are A-changing

by Steve Liskow

Some time ago, I pointed out that writers have to change with the industry, especially if they're self-pubbed.

About ten years ago, I attended a conference where an agent warned the audience that he and his colleagues wouldn't even look at submissions from writers who had self-published. At that time, prevailing wisdom said writers were self-pubbed because their work couldn't meet industry standards.

Mystery writer Joe Konrath and others disputed that claim, saying they were treated badly by the traditional monopoly and could make more money on their own. That argument gained weight when NYT bestseller Barry Eisler turned down a half-million-dollar advance from his traditional house and began publishing his books himself. It's worth noting that because of his successful track record, Eisler had thousands of followers, an advantage the average writer can't claim.

Everything influences everything else, and sometimes that's not a good thing. Self-publishing continues to grow, and it takes a substantial bite out of traditional sales. Last year, nearly a million self-published books appeared. Even if they each only sold one copy, that's a million books that the Big Five didn't sell, and it affects their bottom line.

Traditional markets have consolidated or disappeared. Since there are fewer paying markets, the remaining ones are swamped, for short stories as well as novels. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine receives over 1000 submissions a week. Even if you read only the first page, 1000 minutes is over 16 hours, which means the slush pile grows more quickly than the rejection letters can go out.

The numbers hamper novelists, too. There are five independent book stores within thirty miles of my condo, and while they all say they support local writers, they do it by charging fees for shelf space and offering consignment splits that range from generous to usurious. They have two reasons for this.



First, self-pubbed authors won't offer the same 60% discount and free shipping and returns for a full refund that traditional publishers do. Bookstores need that break...unless they can stage an event that guarantees lots of sales. If it rains, snows, is too hot, or another event nearby falls on the same day, audience may not show up. a large audience doesn't mean large sales anyway.

Second, traditional publishers take manuscripts that have already been vetted by an agent and will edit them professionally, maybe more than once. It's no longer true that all self-pubbed books are terrible (see Eisler, above), but the only way to find the good ones is to read them. How long would you need to read one million pages to make your choice?

Most libraries follow the same reasoning. I offer a discount and free delivery for libraries that order several of my books, but few accept my offer because their guidelines in the face of annual budget cuts insist they focus on Lee Child and Stephen King because they know the demand is there. It makes sense, but it deprives the patrons of finding new authors to enjoy.

I suggest to those libraries that they buy digital copies of my work because the price is lower and people can borrow several copies simultaneously. That's not making headway either, but I'm trying to offer more options so my work gets read. Besides, if more people read my stuff, I might get more workshop gigs. Those have tapered off because of those same budget cuts.  I'm finding new venues and splitting fees, but nobody is making out like Charlie Sheen here.

If your book is on a shelf somewhere, it needs an eye-catching cover. My cover designer does brilliant work. He's also my largest set expense, and I'm not selling enough books at events to break even.

More change...More adjustments...

My next novel, due out at the end of this year, will probably be my last paper book.

I have four stories at various markets and four more in progress. By the end of the year, I may be releasing the unsold stories in digital format. I'm studying GIMP so I can design my own covers.

When you're a writer, you always live in interesting times.

What are you doing differently now?

02 June 2019

Setting the Hook… or the Barb

by Leigh Lundin

100 Best Novels
An article by Barb Goffman prompted today’s column. Barb comes up with wonderfully catchy opening lines and, as she explains, imaginative openers determine whether your audience will read beyond the first sentence or two.

Once upon a time, The American Book Review came up with a list of American classics. From this list, they pulled the opening sentence from each. In the days of Criminal Brief, I made a game of it, trying to identify the novel… or author… solely from the first line. Rather than skip back and forth with the answer sheet, simply pop the menu to grade yourself or refresh your memory.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I scored (ahem) in low double digits. I blame that on the paucity of mystery titles. Where’s Dashiell Hammett? Raymond Chandler? Mickey Spillane? John MacDonald? Michael Bracken? O'Neil De Noux? John Floyd? Steve Liskow? LarryMaddox? Barb Goffman herself? Yeah, so there.

It’s 13 o’clock. Let’s begin…

100 Best First Lines of Novels
Selected by American Book Review
Call me Ishmael.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
A screaming comes across the sky.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
I am an invisible man.
The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
124 was spiteful.
Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.
Mother died today.
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.
Where now? Who now? When now?
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.
It was like so, but wasn’t.
—Money . . . in a voice that rustled.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
All this happened, more or less.
They shoot the white girl first.
For a long time, I went to bed early.
The moment one learns English, complications set in.
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane;
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Elmer Gantry was drunk.
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
It was a pleasure to burn.
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.
I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
It was love at first sight.
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson.
Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.
She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.
Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.
Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue.
In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.
Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen.
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

How did you fare? Our enquiring minds want to know.

18 May 2019

East Texas Tales, Part 2


by John M. Floyd



Have you ever discovered an author whose novels and stories you like so much you want to find and read everything he or she has written? I've found a few. Looking at the bookshelves in my home office, I can see just about every published piece of fiction by Carl Hiaasen, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Michael Crichton, Nevada Barr, Larry McMurtry, Nelson DeMille, Greg Iles, Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Arthur Hailey, Martin Cruz Smith, James Michener, John Grisham, and Ken Follett--and I have almost everything written by several others: Robert B. Parker, Colleen McCullough, John Sandford, Fredric Brown, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, Dick Francis, Tom Wolfe, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, Frederick Forsyth, Lawrence Block, Scott Turow, and . . . Joe R. Lansdale.

I wrote a post about Joe Lansdale here at SleuthSayers four years ago, called "East Texas Tales," and talked about some of his books that I especially enjoyed. At the time I posted that column, though, I had not yet read most of the novels in his Hap and Leonard series, I had not yet seen any of the movie/TV adaptations of his work, and I had not yet met Lansdale himself. I've now done all three of those things, and my respect for him has continued to grow.

Pulpwood fiction

I can't remember where I first heard that term, but I recently found a blog called Pulpwood Fiction, and it defines PWF as "good old-fashioned noirish pulp fiction with a Southern twist." I think that's a good summary of the kind of stories Joe Lansdale writes. Most of his tales are set in rural eastern Texas, in and around the fictional town of LaBorde. My absolute favorite novels of his are standalones like The Bottoms (an Edgar Award winner), Edge of Dark Water, and The Thicket, but I also love his series of novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, two of the toughest and most interesting characters in modern crime fiction.


Without going into great detail, let me just say that Hap is a white, straight, liberal redneck who doesn't like violence and Leonard is a gay black Republican war veteran who doesn't like much of anything except Dr Pepper and vanilla cookies. These two have been best friends since childhood, and despite their mostly-good intentions and Hap's dislike of firearms they regularly wind up in deep trouble and have to shoot their way out.

So far, two feature films have been made from Lansdale's writing: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) with Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis and Cold in July (2014) with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. Both movies are worth watching--and Bubba Ho-Tep is hilarious. There's also a Sundance TV series called Hap and Leonard, starring James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams. I've watched two of the three seasons of H&L and I'm about to start the third. Like his words on the page, Lansdale's movies and TV episodes are smart, funny, and action-packed.

Reading list

For those who might be interested, here's a fairly extensive Lansdale bibliography:

Standalone novels:

The Nightrunners (1987)
Cold in July (1989)
Freezer Burn (1999)
The Big Blow (2000)
The Bottoms (2000)
A Fine Dark Line (2002)
Sunset and Sawdust (2004)
Lost Echoes (2007)
All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky (2011)
Edge of Dark Water (2012)
The Thicket (2013)
Black Hat Jack (2014)
Paradise Sky (2015)

Hap Collins and Leonard Pine mysteries:

Savage Season (1990)
Mucho Mojo (1994)
The Two-Bear Mambo (1995)
Bad Chili (1997)
Rumble Tumble (1998)
Captains Outrageous (2001)
Vanilla Ride (2009)
Devil Red (2011)
Honky Tonk Samurai (2016)
Rusty Puppy (2017)
Jackrabbit Smile (2018)
The Elephant of Surprise (2019)

Short-story collections:

High Cotton (2000)
Bumper Crop (2004)
Mad Dog Summer (2004)
Hap and Leonard (2016)

I've left out a few items, but the ones listed above I can vouch for because I've read them and I have them lined up right here on my (groaning) shelves.

Coming up soon: the movie version of The Thicket, to be directed by Elliott Lester and starring Peter Dinklage.

I can't wait.




18 March 2019

Terra Incognita

by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I saw a submission call for "Detective Mysteries" in the 2000 to 4000-word range, and with what now passes for a generous pay rate. Alas, the deadline was only two weeks hence, and I know how I work well enough to know I couldn't produce a salable story in such a short time. My stories rarely go out in less than the sixth draft, and the first one usually takes me about a week.

I went through my colossal file of unsold stories and WIP. Of 23 unsold stories (some of which were heavily revised into something that did sell), several were "crime" stories, but only two or three involved detection and a sleuth. That holds true for my published short stories, too. Two or three feature Trash and Byrne, who star in my roller derby novels and support Zach Barnes in his series. Two others feature Woody Guthrie from my Detroit series. But most of my stories, sold or not, are one-offs, and they tend to focus on people who get away with something...or not.

My novels include six featuring Connecticut PI Zach Barnes, four featuring Woody Guthrie (a fifth is in a complete second draft), two roller derby novels with Trash and Byrne, and two standalones, one a quasi-police procedural and the other a coming-of-age novel that revolves around a crime.

The point was brought home to me strongly this past weekend when I presented my short story workshop, one of my most popular offerings.

In that workshop, I point out that one of the advantages of the form is that it gives writers the chance to experiment with new characters and techniques without committing a huge amount of time or effort. A novel takes me about 15 months in several installments, and with revisions, between 1200 and 1500 pages. That's a major undertaking.

My average short story runs about 4000 words, between 15 and 20 pages. Even with revision, that's several weeks and maybe 100 pages. I seldom print ANYTHING out until the third or fourth draft because it's not worth the paper yet.

That means if you don't want to use the same characters or setting and try something different, this is your chance to do it. Try that unreliable narrator with the odd speech pattern. Try the factory or sports setting you've avoided. Introduce that young, old, or opposite-gendered point of view. Try humor or present tense. Try second person or a new genre.

"Little Things," which eventually won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award, came from a failed story featuring Max and Lowe, two homicide cops from the Woody Guthrie series. The first part was in the point of view of a seven-year-old boy and the rest came through Maxwell. It didn't work, but the kid was a revelation. He was bright, but he lacked the life experience and sophistication to understand what was happening. Not long after that, I overheard two children arguing at a miniature golf course and Brian and Amy, two bright kids who don't understand the significance of Amy's innocent chatter, materialized on the spot.

"Susie Cue" was an experiment that came from meeting a former classmate at my high school reunion. None of the characters is at all like a real person, but the name "Susie Cue" popped into my head after meeting a real Susie. Johnny, a mentally challenged 19-year-old, fought his way to the front of the line, and he had a crush on Susie. It took me a long time to find what made him tick, and eventually I found that all his images were either tactile or edible. A fellow writer praised me for giving him such a limited internal life, and it worked. Nobody seems to notice that the 3600-word story only has ten words that are more than two syllables long, and that four of them are proper names. The story took me over a year because I didn't recognize Johnny's potential at first.

"Teddy Baer's Picnic" is an exercise in low comedy, which you can see from the title. I enjoy irony, but seldom aim at outright humor. Here, puns and rimshots fly like bees in a rose garden. All the characters have names that are puns on different kinds of bears: Bronwyn, Grizelda, Ursula, Kodiak...The story is a comic mass murder. I wrote it for a particular submission call, but the market didn't take it and Mystery Weekly grabbed it last fall. Several readers left positive comments, so maybe I should try something like that again.

Brian, Susie, Johnny and Teddy Baer's daughters and ex-wives couldn't sustain a whole book. Some techniques don't, either. Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights Big City" is a novella rather than a full-length novel because you can only sustain second-person POV and present tense for so long.

But in a short story...

28 January 2019

Questions, I Get Questions

Introducing the author who needs no introduction, guest star SJ Rozan

SJ Rozan
SJ Rozan
January 2019, I'm baaacckkk. Okay, only partially back. I pleaded, bribed, blackma… Really, I begged SJ Rozan if she would write something for me and she graciously agreed. Then I forgot to remind her and she forgot, but then I remembered to remind her and she promised she would and she did.

I've known SJ for close to thirty years. I had read her first published short story with Lydia Chin and Bill Smith in a little magazine, the name escapes me now. PI Magazine, maybe? Then her first book came along and I was blown away again. She not only writes a Lydia Chin book, then a Bill Smith book, she also writes stand-alone thrillers. Her books are as different as Lydia and Bill are, yet you know when you pick one up you are likely going to stay up all night reading.

In case you didn't know the "J" in her name stands for Jan (kidding) which is why we get along so well. Almost forgot she's a big basketball fan and she plays pick-up games every week. And she has a beautiful cat named, "Bella." Another reason we get along so well.

SJ Rozan has won Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Nero, Japanese Maltese Falcon, and the Private Eye Writers of America Life Achievement Award. Her new, highly anticipated book comes out in time for summertime reading.
— Jan Grape

Questions, I Get Questions

by S.J. Rozan

I have a book coming out this summer.

This is a sentence I've said fairly often; this book is, after all, my 16th. I've never quite gotten used to it, though. Every now and then I look at my shelf and think, Good grief, who wrote those? The other thing I've never quite gotten used to is the experience of writing.

People – non-writers and new writers alike – tend to assume two things at once. The first is, as someone once put it to me in the form of a question, "Do you figure everything out in advance, or do you sit down and it just flows?" Er, neither.

I don't outline, except in the vaguest of terms. In SHANGHAI MOON, for example, I knew what and where the jewel was, and that the situation went back to the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai during World War II. Those two things were the foundation of my interest in creating the world of SHANGHAI MOON. What I didn't know was the nature of the person who had the jewel, or anything else about the actual story that became, in the end, the book. I had to write the book to find all that out.

On the other hand, it certainly doesn't just flow. Oh, no, it doesn't. My process – and I believe this is true for many, many writers – is start-and-stop. When E.L. Doctorow famously said that when you're driving at night you can only see to the end of your headlights but you can get all the way across the country that way, he didn't mention how sometimes in a heavy fog you can't see anything at all and you have to stop and wait for it to clear. Or that you can take a totally wrong turn and find yourself at the edge of the swamp, and then you have to U-turn and go look for the road again.

But that's me: I'm a headlights-at-night writer. The way I deal with it is to have something in mind – say, the truth about the jewel, and what that means to the people around it – that glows through the fog and the dark like a neon sign up ahead. I aim for it.

The second thing non-and new writers tend to assume that it gets easier. Come on, the book I'm working on now is my 17th. It's called Paper Son, and it's in my Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series, of which it's the 12th, and though the publisher Pegasus Books, is new to me, I've worked with four previous publishers, so even this new-publisher thing is something I'm having to get used to. Each book is as hard as the first one. You just have to work through it.

Think of it this way: if you insist, as I do, upon driving across the country at night again and again, why would any trip be easier than the one before it? There's still the fog. There are still the wrong turns and the swamps. There's still each mile to be covered, no shortcuts – the distance doesn't change, nor the hills nor the blizzards, just because you've done it before.

But here's what has happened: I've learned not to panic. As bad as the weather, the road, or the wrong turn is, I've made this trip before. I can't get in any trouble I haven't been in already, lions and tigers and bears oh my, and somehow I've always managed to get out. Whatever the wall I've just hit (and in fact I've hit more than one in this book) there's a way over, around, or under it – or it'll dissolve when the fog lifts. That's what I've learned, and it's the most encouragement I can offer new writers: There's always a way. You just have to find it.

15 December 2018

A Series Conversation


by John M. Floyd



Today's column is about reading and writing. On the reading side, I've lately found myself reading more novels than short stories, for some reason, and more standalone novels than series installments. Some novel series, though, are close to my heart, and when I discover new ones that I enjoy, I usually buy every book in the series and consume them like a chain-smoker, lighting another from the butt of the one I just finished and forging ahead until I'm done. Sort of like watching those maddeningly addictive Netflix and Amazon Prime series. (I just started on the latest season of Westworld.)


The reading list

Not that it matters, but here are twenty of my absolute favorite novel series:

1. character: John Corey -- author: Nelson DeMille
Plum Island, The Lion's Game, Night Fall, Wild Fire, The Lion, The Panther, etc.

2. Jack Reacher -- Lee Child
Killing Ground, Die Trying, Trip Wire, The Visitor, Echo Burning, Without Fail, Persuader, The Enemy, One Shot, etc.

3. Hap Collins and Leonard Pine -- Joe R. Lansdale
Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, The Two-Bear Mambo, Bad Chili, Rumble Tumble, Captains Outrageous, Vanilla Ride, etc.

4. Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call -- Larry McMurtry
Dead Man's Walk, Comanche Moon, Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo

5. Hannibal Lecter -- Thomas Harris
Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Hannibal Rising

6. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch -- Robert B. Parker (and successor Robert Knott)
Appaloosa, Resolution, Brimstone, Blue-Eyed Devil, Ironhorse, Bull River, The Bridge, Blackjack, etc.

7. Roland Deschain (the Dark Tower series) -- Stephen King
The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizards and Glass, etc.

8. Penn Cage -- Greg Iles
The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, The Devil's Punchbowl, Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree, etc.

9. Arkady Renko -- Martin Cruz Smith
Gorky Park, Polar Star, Red Square, Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin's Ghost, etc.

10. Anna Pigeon -- Nevada Barr
Track of the Cat, A Superior Death, Ill Wind, Firestorm, Endangered Species, Blind Descent, etc.

11. Spenser -- Robert B. Parker (and successor Ace Atkins)
The Godwulf Manuscript, God Save the Child, Mortal Stakes, Promised Land, The Judas Goat, etc.

12. Stephanie Plum -- Janet Evanovich
One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, Four to Score, High Five, Hot Six, etc.

13. Myron Bolitar -- Harlan Coben
Deal Breaker, Drop Shot, Fade Away, Back Spin, One False Move, The Final Detail, etc.

14. Jason Bourne -- Robert Ludlum
The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum

15. Jesse Stone -- Robert B. Parker (and successors Michael Brandman and Reed Farrell Coleman)
Night Passage, Trouble in Paradise, Death in Paradise, Stone Cold, Sea Change, High Profile, etc.

16. Lucas Davenport -- John Sandford
Rules of Prey, Shadow Prey, Eyes of Prey, Silent Prey, Winter Prey, Night Prey, Mind Prey, etc.

17. Dave Robicheaux -- James Lee Burke
The Neon Rain, Heaven's Prisoners, Black Cherry Blues, A Morning for Flamingos, A Stained White Radiance, etc.

18. Alex Cross -- James Patterson
Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, Jack and Jill, Cat and Mouse, Pop Goes the Weasel, Roses Are Red, etc.

19. Katniss Everdeen -- Susanne Collins
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay

20. Travis McGee -- John D. MacDonald
The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox, A Deadly Shade of Gold, etc.

NOTE: I didn't like all the film adaptations of these series--some were great and some were disasters--but that's another matter, and a post for another day.

And yes, I left out Rowling, Connelly, Chandler, Hammett, Christie, Doyle, Clancy, le Carre, McBain, Forsyth, Larsson, Wouk, Paretsky, Wambaugh, Westlake, Leonard, Tolkien, Follett, and many, many others whose series novels I've truly enjoyed. But I had to stop somewhere.


The writing list

Meanwhile, on the writing side of things--and on a much smaller scale, in both wordcount and dollarbillcount--I have tried to use what I've learned about series and series characters to write five different series of my own short stories. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Angela Potts and Charles "Chunky" Jones

This series is about a bossy retired schoolteacher and a guy she taught in the fifth grade, a lazy and not-too-bright kid who grew up to be the lazy and not-too-bright sheriff of their small southern town. She enjoys helping him with cases, correcting his grammar in front of his deputies, and stealing goodies from the candy jar in his office. Most of these stories have been published in Woman's World magazine.

2. Fran and Lucy Valentine (the "Law and Daughter" series)

In this series of stories, former teacher Frances Valentine feels it's her duty to help her happily unmarried daughter Lucy, who's a sheriff, (1) solve crimes and (2) find a husband. One of these appeared in Woman's World several years ago, but most have been published in Flash Bang Mysteries, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mysterical-E, and Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.

3. Private investigator Will Parker

This Old West series stars a former gunfighter/Pinkerton agent who now works for a PI firm run by his brother in San Francisco. The first story in this series, "Redemption," appeared in a 2013 collection of my mystery stories called Deception; the second story, "Gun Work," was chosen for the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea (Down and Out Books) and was later selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2018. (By the way, this might not qualify as a series, since it so far consists of one story and its sequel. But I do plan to write more of them.)

4. Katie and Anna Rogers

This series features accountant Katie Rogers and her younger sister Anna. Since Anna's a police chief, they of course team up to solve crimes in their small town. (Do you see a trend, here?) Woman's World published the first installment of these a few weeks ago and the second and third stories have been accepted and will appear within the next month or so. Several more are in the queue and awaiting a decision.

5. Sheriff Ray Douglas

This is a series about Raymond Kirk Douglas, the practical and easy-going sheriff of Pine County, Mississippi, and his super-smart girlfriend Jennifer Parker. The first two of these stories, "Trail's End" and "Scavenger Hunt," were published in AHMM in 2017 and 2018. The third and fourth installments, "Going the Distance" and "Quarterback Sneak," have been accepted by AHMM and are upcoming, and the fifth and sixth installments are finished and sitting in AH's to-be-read queue.


Pluses/minuses

Advantages of writing a series (at least to me):

- Series installments are sometimes easier to sell. When writers, readers, and editors are familiar with a certain set of characters, those stories are a known quantity, and less of a financial risk for the publication.

- Series stories can be less work for the writer. When and if characters and their setting become well known, less time has to be spent on things like backstory and description. A writer can get the reader quickly into the plot.

Disadvantages of writing a series:

- If the publication that's running one of your series decides to reject the latest installment that you've submitted, that story will need major renovation (and possible demolition and rebuilding) before it can be sent to a different market.

- Publications that have successfully featured one of your series might be reluctant to have you write a non-series story for them.

Questions

For those of you who are authors of novels and/or shorts, do you prefer writing standalones or writing series? Which have been more profitable for you? Which is more fun? Have you ever had pressure from an editor, publisher, or agent to stick to one or the other? Of series stories and standalones, which do you most enjoy reading? What are some of your favorite book or story series?

And that's it. Keep writing--and have a great Christmas!