Showing posts with label professional tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label professional tips. Show all posts

09 November 2018

The Power of Prepositions

by Leigh Lundin

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


The Power of Prepositions
by Leigh Lundin

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

08 August 2017

The Writer Unplugged

by Paul D. Marks

MTV and Palladia often do “unplugged” shows of various bands, where they go acoustic instead of electric. And it’s fun to see acoustic versions of songs we know and love. In fact, sacrilege as it might be, I prefer Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of Layla more than the electric version. So I’m not opposed to going unplugged.


However – and you knew there had to be a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you? – we went unplugged a couple of weeks ago, not by choice, and it wasn’t any fun. Of course it’s not the first or only time this has happened. But it did make me think of some things that I’d like to share here.

There was a fire relatively near us, though not near enough that we were concerned about evacuating, which we’ve had to do two or three times in the past, so I guess that was a plus. But this fire caused both our internet and cell service to go out. We did still have satellite TV and our landline. And luckily we had electricity – nothing’s worse than having that or water go out. So we weren’t totally unplugged. But we were largely disconnected from the world. It’s like in the unplugged concerts when they still have the bass plugged in but everything else is acoustic.

So, we couldn’t check on the fire to see if it was coming our way. TV and radio news don’t give you a lot of info. And when there are fires near us we mostly rely on the internet to know what’s going on. But since we had no internet (via cable) and since the cell service was out too, we really felt “blind” and disconnected. And couldn’t get updates on the fire. That wasn’t a good feeling.

But since we did have electricity we could continue to work on computers or do other things. And here’s how this connects to writers and writing: I was working on rewriting a story. Normally when I do that I’m flying all over the internet, researching this and checking that as I write. And playing hooky from writing, pretending that the “extra” research I’m doing is really necessary. But I couldn’t do that that weekend. No internet research – no playing hooky on the net. And that was beyond frustrating. I have a pretty good reference library but you get spoiled with the ease of finding things without having to leave your desk. So, while I could continue to work on the story I had to leave a lot of things blank to be filled in later, once the net came back on. This disrupts the flow and the “zen” space of writing and can get very frustrating. It also shows just how dependent we’ve become on all of these modern conveniences.

On top of that, our microwave “blew up” around the same time. And we’ve now been without a microwave for a while. And that’s been very frustrating too. How do you quickly reheat that cup of coffee that keeps you up all hours while doing those rewrites? How do you warm up leftovers? And a million other things?

In ye olden days, of course, we did things differently and in a pinch we can go back to them, but it isn’t the same once you’ve tasted the “good life” of the modern world. When I began as a writer I was on a typewriter. And when PCs first came out I thought who the hell needs this? I was happy working on the latest incarnation of a typewriter, the Selectric that had a ball that you could actually change fonts with. Wowser! And moving a paragraph from page 3 to page 93 was simple. All you had to do was get out a scissors, snip snip snip, move the paragraph, Scotch tape it to the new page, white out the lines, Xerox it and hope the lines where it was taped didn’t show too badly. So who needed a computer to write? Then, my then-writing partner got one of the very early PCs and I went over to his house one day and saw him magically move that paragraph from page 3 to 93 and I was hooked. I was the second person I knew to get a computer, one of those fancy shmancy things with two floppy drives, no hard drive, a thimble full of memory. But it was, indeed, Magic. No literal cutting and pasting. No Liquid Paper (“white out”) – and supporting Mike Nesmith and his mother 😉. It was liberating. You felt more creative because now you could move something and just try it out. You could cut and paste and re-cut and re-paste to your heart’s content. You could change a character’s name on a whim and not worry about it. It really freed the imagination. Hard to believe now how we made things work before. Before you would be hesitant to make changes because it was so hard to make them. Time consuming and impossible to do.

But not only have we become uber dependent on computers, we’re also dependent on “mini computers,” like cell phones with Skype and Uber and that can search the net and TVs that are largely running on computer chips. I just downloaded a pedometer to my phone and can track the number of steps I take every day.

My wife and I can communicate at almost any time, especially in an emergency. She takes the train from work and just the other day got stuck in a flash flood. If it weren’t for e-mail, texting and voice calls on the cell phone we would never have been able to communicate.

So, while we can still do things the way our parents and grandparents did, and even we did in the olden days, we’ve become accustomed to the plugged in conveniences of modern life. We might still like to read a paper book or love to eat a slow cooked meal when we get tired of microwaved food. And we still need to unplug sometimes, turn off the cell phone, log out of Facebook and even take a break from writing and let our minds drift. But we want to do it at our convenience. Let me tell you it was no fun when we lost most of our communication with the outside world.

As writers, and in general, we’ve become so dependent on these devices that it becomes very difficult when we don’t have access to them. Of course our pioneer forbearers would laugh at what we find inconvenient, but a hundred years from now our great grandchildren will think about how primitive we are.

###

And now for the usual BSP.

My short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the December 2016 Ellery Queen is nominated for a Macavity Award. If you’d like to read it, and the stories of all the nominated authors, please check them out at the links below. If you like my story I hope you’ll want to vote for it. And thank you to everyone who voted for it and got it this far:

Lawrence Block, “Autumn at the Automat”: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP
Craig Faustus Buck, “Blank Shot”: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck
Greg Herren, “Survivor’s Guilt”: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/
Paul D. Marks, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” http://pauldmarks.com/Ghosts-of-Bunker-Hill
Joyce Carol Oates, “The Crawl Space”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N6INC6I
Art Taylor, “Parallel Play”: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/

If you want to read a great article on the Macavity nominees, check out Greg Herren's blog: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/24/beatnik-beach/

My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse – just in time for the real eclipse on August 21st. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.



04 October 2016

How to Kick @ss: Tami Hoag Edition

by Melissa Yi

I'm fascinated by successful writers. I've decided to launch a new series where I examine authors I admire and try to unlock their secrets to success.

I met Tami Hoag at Writers Police Academy in August. Yes, that Tami Hoag. The one who's hit the New York Times bestseller list thirteen consecutive times, including five separate books within 20 months. #livingthedream

I happened to sit with Tami on the bus, chat with her over lunch, and listen to her speak at the banquet. Here are five pearls from Tami Hoag.

1. “People say I look like a nice woman. And I am. But I am a competitor.”
I love this. All of us, especially women, are socialized to be nice and kind and “After you” and “Don’t mind if I do.” That makes for a smooth society. But if you want to be a #1 international bestseller, you will have to throw down like Tami Hoag.

Well, maybe not exactly like her. In an interview with myPalmBeachPost, she said, "I could knock [you] out with a single punch and can talk about serial killers all day long.” She got into mixed martial arts for stress relief, and rode horses competitively, although she had to heal up five fractured verebrae after a dressage accident in 2003.

The killer instinct doesn’t mean you have to assassinate your competitors. Just get ready to put your shoulder in it, because…

2. “Writing is a mental full-contact sport.”
This may be my absolute favourite line. That was when I realized I have to read more of Tami's books. She is so passionate, so committed to writing, her body reverberates when she talks about it. There are famous authors who want to sit back and enjoy the money and adulation, and I don't blame them, but Tami is still throwing herself into the ring with everything she's got.
Just bought it.


3. “Commitment is a four letter word to me. I am a total pantser. In all other areas of my life, I am highly organized."
The sweet, sweet sound of someone who writes my way, which is to say, flying through the darkness, making it up en route. As Tami put it, "I know what the central crime is. A third of the way through, I say, ‘I don't think he did it.’ I call the editor and say, 'That's not who did it. Do you want to know who did it?’”

4. “You can't please everyone. It dilutes the quality.”
She does get people contacting her to complain that her characters are swearing, but she said she writes exactly how she sees real police officers talking. "I use the vernacular." When readers complain, it "makes me want to go around my office and say #@#%^@# @#^ )()&.@#@"
That made me laugh. Of course, I also like to swear.

5. “Somehow it's all there. Somehow it's all good.”
In other words, trust the process. In the end, even if she has to get her editors to tell her whodunit, or she has to take back a book to rewrite it to her satisfaction, at the end of six or nine months, she's once again created a brand new, character-driven thriller that has a bajillion readers clamouring for more.

Do any of these pearls speak to you? Are you a competitor? Is writing or reading your mental full-contact sport? Sound off in the comments. And if you'd like to hear more about Writers Police Academy, I'll be blogging about it at my own personal website. Cheers!

08 December 2015

Public-Speaking Tips for Authors

by Barb Goffman

Every autumn the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime runs two programs we label Mystery Author Extravaganzas. Chapter authors who've had something new published that year can stand up and tell the audience about their new works, and a local bookseller (usually Mystery Loves Company from Oxford, Maryland) is on hand to sell the authors' works. The first Saturday of each November, we appear at a library in Columbia, Maryland. The first Saturday of each December, we appear at a library in Reston, Virginia. In our promotion, we remind people that this is a good time to do your holiday book shopping, and it's also a way to support local mystery authors and a local indie bookstore.

Our events are open to the public, and the libraries promote the heck out of them. We usually get fifty people at our Columbia event. At our event this past Saturday in Reston, more than ninety people showed up--standing room only--including the twenty authors who spoke. We started having these events annually when I was chapter president nearly ten years ago. And I've had the pleasure of organizing them nearly every year since. My experience has taught me a few things about how to succeed as a speaker, and I thought I'd share them here:

  • Keep it snappy, i.e., don't feel the need to use all the time allotted to you. Short story writers have long known to get in and out of a story as fast as you can. Don't meander and go into unnecessary detail. This is good advice for public speaking, too. The authors who keep the
    A different kind of high point
    audience's attention best are the ones who don't describe all their characters and drill down into a lot of the plot. They hit the high points, the exciting stuff, the information you'd find on the back of a book, and they leave the audience wanting more. If you're a person prone to meandering, consider bringing a cheat sheet with you with bullet points so you can occasionally look down and see the high points you want to address. (More on bullet points below.)
  • Consider if you have something particularly interesting to share--not just about your story, but perhaps an interesting research tidbit or what prompted you to write the story. A good tale can entice an audience. For instance, on Saturday, when speaking about my story "The Wrong Girl," I shared how my fifth-grade teacher tried to get me to stop speaking quickly, and how that humiliating experience finally became useful when I wrote this story about a girl who went through the same thing I did, but unlike me, my character doesn't plan to let her teacher get away with it. I heard from audience members who enjoyed learning the story behind the story.
  • Don't write a speech and read it. I know public speaking can be scary, and writing down
    My story made the cover!
    what you want to say can help you feel more comfortable. But I've seen too many authors read their speeches with their heads down, barely making eye contact. Don't do that. You want to connect with the audience. So practice at home. Get a feel for what you want to say. And if you'd still feel more confident with notes, bring them, but have them address only the high points, so when you look down, you'll be reminded of what to talk about, and then you can look up and do it. For instance, if I were talking about my short story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" my bullet-point notes might say:
    • Title and publication
    • Main character
    • What's her problem?
    • What's her solution?
  • If you're considering reading aloud from your book or story, practice first. And have someone you trust--someone not afraid to tell you the truth--listen to you read so they can tell you if you are a good reader or a bad one. If you read in an animated fashion, looking up regularly and making eye contact with the audience (see the prior bullet point), great. If you read in a monotone voice without looking up at all, then don't read. The last thing you want to do is put your potential readers to sleep.
  • Briefly (for a few seconds) hold up a copy of your book as a focal point. But don't leave it
    propped up there while you talk. That's distracting, and it might block someone's view of your face. (This applies to panels at conventions, too.)
  • If you're a funny person, don't be afraid to be funny while you're speaking. But if you're not funny, don't force it. There's nothing worse than someone bombing because he felt the need to come up with a joke. You're there to sell your books and yourself. Do it in the way best suited to your personality.
  • Keep in mind how much time you have. If you think you'll fill your entire allotted time, practice at home so you can be ready to wrap up when the timer dings. You don't want to hear that ding and know you never got to talk about the third story you had published this year because you meandered talking about story number one.
And since I have your attention, I'll tell you briefly about my new stories from this year. There's "The Wrong Girl" mentioned above. It's in the anthology Flash and Bang, which is the first anthology featuring stories from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. It's available in trade paperback, large print, and e-book format from Untreed Reads Publishing. In "The Wrong Girl," a fifth-grader humiliated by her teacher plans revenge.

My second story is the aforementioned "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In this story, my main character is the head of everything magical that happens in New Jersey. It's two weeks until Christmas, and Santa says he's skipping Jersey this year because a murderer is on the loose. So my main character sets out to find the murderer and save Christmas. Can she do it? You can find out by reading the story--it's available on my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/A_Year_Without_Santa_.html

Do you have any public-speaking tips for authors? Feel free to share in the comments.

15 February 2015

100 in the Dark

by Leigh Lundin

Lawrenceville Stories
For your enjoyment, here are links to the full versions of 100 in the Dark’ (radio broadcast) and 100 in the Dark’(short story). Notice how the author enhances characterization through sly observation and dialogue.
Also try the audio versions of 'Murder through the Looking Glass' and 'The Cave of Ali Baba'.
Murder in any Degree
A Mystery Story and Lesson in One

I enjoy articles that give good value and today SleuthSayers offers you not merely one, but three short stories for your enjoyment, capped with a tiny bit of the philosophy and psychology in the art of the mystery.

Whether reading or writing, my strange brain takes peripatetic perambulations (a polite way of saying it wanders). Today’s article started as a side comment by Steve Steinbock who drew my attention to a 1943 classic short story, 'Murder Through The Looking Glass'. He went on to mention it had been part of that wonderful, long-lived radio series, Suspense.

The program enjoyed an amazingly long run. Many of the early stories were written by the famed mystery writer John Dickson Carr who appears to have been part of the broadcast team.

I found the story, listened to it, and followed that with other Suspense tales. One turned out to be a chilling Lord Peter Wimsey adventure I don’t recall previously encountering, ‘The Cave of Ali Baba.’ The drama brought to mind scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. (See side bar.)

Listening in the Dark

I moved on to 30 September 1942, a story with an intriguing title ‘100 in the Dark’. The author was Owen Johnson, apparently a playwright. As might be expected, "Owen Johnson" is one of those glaring holes in Wikipedia where anything older than its editors’ limited realm of knowledge fades from flimsy prior to 1990 to almost entirely forgotten antiquity by 1950, where history becomes suspect or even disdained. So I dug further and identified Johnson as Owen McMahon Johnson, author of the once popular Lawrenceville Dink Stover prep school hijinks series.

Owen wrote plays and short stories, and ‘100 in the Dark’ occurs as both with minor differences between the two. This parable appears in the book Murder in Any Degree. ‘Murder’ in this case is allegorical, not the usual interest of mystery readers. The book is a collection of literary stories mostly set in a Manhattan club around the turn of the previous century. By Jove, the members speak like acquaintances of Lord Peter Wimsey, old Top. It’s a window into 1900s New York – New England society such as Edith Wharton might have written about. Like Wharton’s agonizing 1905 novel The House of Mirth, Johnson’s stories present an insightful peek both into the human psyche and a forgotten window of that time and era, but if you’re looking for the crime genre, only ‘100 in the Dark’ fills the bill.

I enjoy stories-within-a-story and included a small one about a little thief in my own '8 Across' in Alfred Hitchcock. Today, I’ll give you not only a small dissertation about detective fiction, I present Dark’s embedded mystery, which is curious in its own way: The riddle isn’t so much who stole the coin, but why did the stranger refuse to empty his pockets?

Ladies and gentlemen, I offer you …
The Vanishing Coin

“There are only half a dozen stories in the world. Like everything that’s true, it isn’t true.” He waved his long, gouty fingers in the direction of Steingall, who, having been silenced, was regarding him with a look of sleepy indifference. “What is more to the point, is the small number of human relations that are so simple and yet so fundamental that they can be eternally played upon, redressed, and reinterpreted in every language, in every age, and yet remain inexhaustible in the possibility of variations.”

“By George, that is so,” said Steingall, waking up. “Every art does go back to three or four notes. In composition it is the same thing. Nothing new, nothing new since a thousand years. We invent nothing, nothing!”

“I’ll cite an ordinary one that happens to come to my mind,” said Rankin. “In a group of seven or eight, such as we are here, a theft takes place; one man is the thief– which one? It certainly is an original theme, at the bottom of a whole literature.”

“Detective stories, bah!”

“Oh, I say, Rankin, that’s literary melodrama.”

“I shall take up your contention,” said Quinny without pause for breath. “Admit at once that the whole art of a detective story consists in the statement of the problem. It appeals to our curiosity, yes, but deeper to a sort of intellectual vanity. Here are six matches, arrange them to make four squares; five men present, a theft takes place: who’s the thief? Who will guess it first? Whose brain will show its superior cleverness, see? That’s all; that’s all there is to it.”

“Out of all of which,” said De Gollyer, “the interesting thing is that Rankin has supplied the reason why the supply of detective fiction is inexhaustible. It all comes down to the simplest terms. Seven possibilities, one answer. It is a formula, ludicrously simple, mechanical, and yet we will always pursue it to the end. The marvel is that writers should seek for any other formula when here is one so safe that can never fail. By George, I could start up a factory on it.”

“Of course, of course, my dear gentlemen,” said Quinny impatiently, for he had been silent too long. “Now quite the most remarkable turn of the complexities that can be developed is, of course, the well-known instance of the visitor at a club and the rare coin. Of course every one knows that? What?”

Rankin smiled in a bored, superior way, but the others protested their ignorance.

“A distinguished visitor is brought into a club where a dozen men sit down to dinner at a long table. Conversation finally veers around to curiosities and relics. One of the members present takes from his pocket what he announces as one of the rarest coins in existence. He passes it around the table. Coin travels back and forth, every one examining it as the conversation goes to another topic, say the influence of the automobile on domestic infelicity, or some other such asininely intellectual club topic you know? All at once the owner calls for his coin.

“The coin is nowhere to be found. Every one looks at every one else. First they suspect a joke. Then it becomes serious: the coin, immensely valuable, is missing. Who has taken it?

“The owner is a gentleman, does the gentlemanly idiotic thing, of course, laughs, says he knows some one is playing a practical joke on him and that the coin will be returned to-morrow. The others refuse to leave the situation so. One man proposes that they all submit to a search. Every one gives his assent until it comes to the stranger. He refuses, curtly, roughly, without giving any reason. Uncomfortable silence… the man is a guest. No one knows him particularly well but still he is a guest. One member tries to make him understand that no offense is offered, that the suggestion was simply to clear the atmosphere and all that sort of ballyrot, you know.

“‘I refuse to allow my person to be searched,’ says the stranger, very firm, very proud, very English, you know, ‘and I refuse to give my reason for my action.’

“Another silence. The men eye him and then glance at one another. What’s to be done? Nothing. There is etiquette, that magnificent inflated balloon. The visitor evidently has the coin but he is their guest and etiquette protects him. Nice situation, eh?

“The table is cleared. A waiter removes a dish of fruit and there, under the ledge of the plate where it had been inadvertently pushed, is the coin. Banal explanation, eh? Of course. Solutions always should be. At once everyone’s in profuse apologies! Whereupon the visitor rises and says:

“‘Now I can give you the reason for my refusal to be searched. There are only two known specimens of the coin in existence, and the second happens to be here in my waistcoat pocket.’”

07 September 2014

Behind the Scenes

Jackie Sherbow
Jackie Sherbow
by Jackie Sherbow

We SleuthSayers are very fond of the ladies at Dell’s mystery magazines. A name that often arises is that of Jackie Sherbow. Jackie works as the Senior Assistant Editor for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. She's been exclusively employed by the magazines since 2011, and her previous jobs at Dell Magazines spanned from customer service to subsidiary rights. She also writes poetry and her work has appeared in Newtown Literary and at Go Places.

Today’s article is aimed more at writers than readers, but readers might find themselves enjoying the insider's view. Please welcome Jackie Sherbow here to provide tips about submissions.
— Leigh Lundin

Behind the Submissions Scenes at AHMM and EQMM

As the senior assistant editor for AHMM and EQMM as well as a writer, I have firsthand experience with both sides of the submissions process. My time working at Dell Magazines predated my first experience with sending work anywhere, so I’ve always tried to remind myself when addressing the unknown editorial staff of various publications that they are—like myself, Janet Hutchings, and Linda Landrigan—human. That doesn’t always assuage the hesitance, anxiety, and general unease (“just click send!”), that can come with submitting your work and waiting for a response, but hopefully my experiences shared here can help demystify the operation behind the scenes, at least at EQMM and AHMM.

I’ll start off by saying that it’s hard to proclaim any hard and fast commandments about what not to submit. Every submission (depending on the targeted magazine) is read either by me, our Editorial Administrative Assistant, Linda, or Janet. So if the plot works and interests us, the characters are intriguing and believable, or (yes, or) the voice is compelling, your piece is likely to get at least a second look.

Here are some words about the types of stories that we see a lot of but are less likely to make it through. Sometimes after a few hours of slush reading I feel like I need to take a hot shower. Why? Well, mysteries and thrillers are bound to have violence. But the violence needs to be purposeful, not gratuitous. Violence for violence’s sake—and violence that outweighs what we know about a character and their motivations—usually doesn’t cut it. A piece that reads only as a twisted, gory revenge fantasy isn’t likely to make it through.

The same idea goes for supernatural, fantastical, and science-fictional elements. Both magazines have published plenty of pieces with these motifs. But the rules of the tale’s world need to make sense and remain consistent, and there still needs to be a crime or mystery. The otherworldly elements need to fit in with and enhance the mysterious, puzzling, or criminal aspects of the story, not overwhelm them.

The types of characters who appear most often in the submissions piles are criminal and/or adulterous spouses. For AHMM, we see a lot of hardboiled private eyes and genius serial killers, and for EQMM, we see a lot of hit men. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to see these folks, and they certainly do appear in the magazines, but they can’t just be a reiteration of what we’ve already seen. Invoking genre conventions can work well in homage or as pastiche, but it can’t be all there is to the narrative.

What we don’t see a lot of, by the way, are classic mysteries. (How’s that for a clue?)

About those cover letters: If you’re comfortable with it, good marketing probably doesn’t hurt you. But if you’re spending a lot of time thinking about that special “thing” that will get you through the door, it’s better that that “thing” be in your work itself than in your cover letter. There are no magic words or pass codes to figure out. A clever or friendly letter is fine, and of course feel free to let us know where you’ve been published and if someone sent you our way. But spend more time polishing your piece’s prose than coming up with a way to woo the editors. That can feel like wining and dining, and in the end, your yarn ends up in the same place as the rest of them.

One among the myriad of evolving norms in the game is the growing popularity of e-submissions. While EQMM was already on-board with electronic submissions when I began as editorial assistant, AHMM is currently making the transition. The e-subs process makes it easier (and less costly) to submit and also makes it easier for us to keep track of submissions. Ultimately, though, the effects are broader.

For one thing, since it’s easier to submit, it’s easier to submit … a lot. That’s fine, and it’s good to try and try again. But if you have dozens of stories stuffed in the pipeline, ready to send in every week or so, your writing might instead benefit from some time spent editing and getting feedback. It’s not unheard of that Janet or Linda might write back with some criticism or suggestions, or offer to look at a revision, but even a form rejection tells you something about the way your writing could (or couldn’t) fit in with a publication. Revisiting your work before continually submitting takes thought, and that thought is fruitful and necessary.

Another change that e-subs systems brought is the visual homogenization of every offering. While small identifiers and quirks of style are discernible with hard-copy manuscripts, submissions seen on a computer screen or an e-reader look basically the same. This could be taken negatively, since brightly colored paper or a fancy paperclip won’t catch our mail-opener’s attention (please refer to above notes about cover letters and marketing!). But it can also be a good thing. Your story is judged by … your story! Bare bones, and your words only.

Speaking of your words: Be aware, in your writing, of your voice. As much as a “hook” of an opening line can make us want to keep reading, so can an authoritative and authentic tone. Plenty of interesting characters and creative plots that crop up in the submissions fall flat when that’s missing. On the other hand, authors whose stories are lacking in plot or character might receive an extra look and perhaps a personal response if the voice is gripping enough.

As some final advice, I’ll iterate something that has proven true for me as both an editor and a writer: The best way to ready yourself to submit to the magazines—or wherever you’d like to submit—is to read them. Better than I could explain, those pages will tell you what sort of work fits in, as well as provide influences that will only help out.

To read more by Jackie on the topic, visit Alfred Hitchcock's Trace Evidence  and Ellery Queen's Something is Going to Happen for Tuesday, the 9th of September.

23 August 2013

The Immortal Timing of Elmore Leonard

by Dixon Hill 

Buddy Hackett said, “Ask me what’s the secret of comedy.”   

Johnny Carson started to say, “What’s the secret of. .. ” and Buddy yelled, “Timing,” very loudly, right in his face. It killed me. Timing is important — Johnny Carson has a throw pillow in his house that has embroidered on it, “It’s All in the Timing.” 

The excerpt above is from How To Play In Traffic by Penn Jillette and Teller, published in 1997 and reportedly now out of print. But, whether or not the book’s out of print, this excerpt deftly demonstrates comedy timing.

Or, perhaps in this case: counter-timing.

Timing isn’t only important in comedy, of course; it’s crucial in many sports, such as archery or running (when should a runner add that final burst of speed, for instance?). And, in my opinion, timing is also often crucial to the success of a story.
In Memoriam

Whether that story’s a suspense, mystery, romance, or even literary, timing often makes as big a difference between “hit” or “miss,” as it does on the archery range. Just the right “oomph” has to come at just the right moment, after a long period of climbing tension, or everything can fall flat and lifeless.

This is one problem I don’t believe the late Elmore Leonard suffered from.

In fact—comedic timing or suspense timing—I think he had a great sense of both. How else could he have turned out a work like Get Shorty?

Frankly, I believe folks will be reading Elmore Leonard for decades, if not centuries to come. And, though the reasons they sight for reading him may change over time, I believe his “timing” will be a major ingredient for his writing’s longevity, perhaps even immortality.

How did he do it? 

A comedian can physically stop speaking, wait a beat or half-beat, then deliver the punch line. But, how does one accomplish the same thing in the written word?

A writer can’t very well write “Stop and wait a beat before reading the next sentence, please.” Yet, Elmore Leonard’s timing was terrific.

I believe Leonard gave us a pretty good hint, four years ago on Criminal Brief, when he wrote: “I’m a believer in white space, the setting off of text (and illustrations) with surrounding ‘emptiness’ to lend readability and visual attraction. William Morrow and HarperCollins charge dearly for white space. …”

He wasn’t necessarily talking about timing when wrote that. But, I strongly suspect his belief in the “white space” had a lot to do with his success in timing.

Think about it:

How often does a comedian wind along on a story, raising the comedic tension — only to suddenly drop into silence for a beat, before delivering a verbal snap-kick that sends the audience reeling?

That silent beat, or half-beat, is timing.

And, in the written word as Elmore Leonard dished it up, I think the printed equivalent was often hidden in the white space he so revered.

If white space, alone, did the trick, of course, I’m sure we’d see far more books with two or three lines of blank space between certain lines. And, that’s not terribly common, even in Elmore Leonard’s work. In fact, thumbing through four of his novels while researching this column, I found that he only did that to denote scene changes — a pretty common practice, I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, how does white space help with timing?

I think the answer is that it works in the interplay of other elements. In that same post on Criminal Brief, Leonard posted his ten tips for writers as follows:
  1. Never open a book with weather. 
  2. Avoid prologues. 
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. 
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said,” he admonished gravely. 
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." 
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. 
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. 
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. 
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. 

Taken together, and in conjunction with a statement he made around the same time: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” we’re left with a clear understanding of his desire to achieve spare or stripped-down writing.

I took the opportunity to examine this list on a few other sites, and found it interesting, however, that Mr. Leonard made it clear: There is room for compromise.

As he pointed out at one point: these are ten rules that work for him; he’s not suggesting they work for everyone. In one case he explains, “If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.” 

More importantly, he adds: ‘There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."’

Reading what a character says, translating that into the “the way he talks” and using this to create a visual construct of the character may seem to be asking a lot from the reader. But, in an Elmore Leonard work it seems only natural.

He writes the character so that a reader can hear the cadence of that character’s voice, the “beat” of his words. Sometimes, it’s a staccato beat. At others, it’s a languid throb. But the beat is there! And, injecting abundant white space, which is the natural outcome of spare writing, in just the right way, can then create a gestalt of sorts that results in remarkable literary timing—right there on the page.

Is this idea crazy? 

According to the New York Times, Mr. Leonard said: “The bad guys are the fun guys. … The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.” 

Of course, timing has to fit naturally into the voice that’s present, or the slight gear-change required to assure proper timing may signal a ‘heads-up!’ to the reader. This might work on occasion, but I suspect a more subtle manifestation of timing renders a bigger response on the part of the reader. 

And, Elmore Leonard was a master of this.  Perhaps that's why so many of his narrative view points seem to stem from the so-called 'bad guys;' perhaps they provided voices with the requisite cadence for successful timing.

Or, maybe I'm wrong.

One final comment on Mr. Leonard’s timing:

He passed away in his Bloomfield Township, Mich. home on Tuesday. And, the timing of his passing—from the viewpoint of this reader was:

“Too Soon! Oh, far too soon.”

13 January 2013

Professional Tips – John Lutz

by Leigh Lundin

At Bouchercon in Baltimore, several of us from Criminal Brief were going out to dinner. Along for the ride was a couple I didn't know, so I introduced myself.
John Lutz
John Lutz

If I could have picked any one person to meet, it would have been John Lutz, and here I was with my hand in a frozen clasp and my jaw unflatteringly prolapsing.

Gushing– I detest gushing. I hope I didn't gush. Gushing would have been the ultimate uncool. But I may have prattled on a bit about Nudger, maybe Frank Quinn or the Night series. Maybe a little. Or a lot.

Carving a Place for Himself

John Lutz rose to the top of my favorite American mystery authors long before I began writing and long before I realized how much he was honored by his colleagues. This man manages not only to be a prolific writer– both short stories and novels– but he avoids the death trap of an occasional contractual dud.

Usually writers excel at either characterization or plot. John Lutz handles both with ease. His protagonists are real, they're accessible, they're ordinary people with extraordinary barriers to overcome. Jack Reacher they are not but neither are they Tom Cruise.

Nudge, Nudger

My favorite is Nudger, a gentle PI with a carnivorous ex-wife, crushing debts, an unreliable car and a very reliable girlfriend. Indeed, he has a few very good friends even when, like Danny the doughnut man, they can be too much. Nudger doesn't bounce out of his rut, but he manages to climb up a centimeter at a time. That's good enough for most people.

My favorite novel plot comes from the Fred Carver series. Carver has a bad leg and bad enemies… one of them a corrupt police lieutenant. Carver finds an ingenious way to keep the lieutenant in line.

And premise? Imagine a cameraman taking time lapse photos of an office building and realizes one person doesn't move… all day long. Dum, de-dum, dum.

John Lutz's Top Ten Tips

While I was in South Africa, I received an eMail mentioning John Lutz'stop ten tips for writers. I haven't provided famous author tips in quite some time, so I was pleased to see this. Recently published by The Strand Magazine, I paraphrase here for the purposes of discussion.

What can we learn from John Lutz? Let's recap and study his recommendations.
  1. Appeal to a broad range of readers.
    This should be obvious, but clearly many would-be authors miss the point. We've all known writers like that. When others question who their intended market is, they become defensive and talk about artistic merit and avoiding the crush of the mainstream– no problem there.
  2. Write characters your readers will enjoy, likable and interesting. Bear in mind the importance of chemistry between characters.
    You'll remember an outstanding plot for a long time, but if you keep coming back to a book, a series, or an author, chances are it's for the characters.
  3. Know the ending before beginning. John calls this a 'magnetic north' that keeps the writer from meandering.
    I'm relieved John makes this point. So many of the start-writing-and-see-where-your-story-takes-you school eschew having a fixed plot that I started wondering if I was the odd duck out. I may sketch a scene and then dream up the circumstances surrounding it, but I like to have a goal when I start writing. That doesn't mean an initial target can't be revised, but I have to know the ending first.
  4. Build your characters as if you were to act them on stage. In other words, what is the motivation of each? Corollary: How can you make them distinctive?
    John asks what drives a character: respect, love, wealth, power, forgiveness, revenge? Figure that out and turn to method acting. Then give your players distinctive characteristics in looks, speech, and catch phrases.
  5. Practise your craft in the same place and time each day. John says this makes it easier to lose yourself in your writing so readers might lose themselves in your work.
    This is where I fall short. I like to work at night because it's quiet where I can think and paint pictures on the dark screen of my mind. Unfortunately crazy people (merchants, schools, government offices) think I should remain available during the day. Ah, the privations and tribulations of an artist!
  6. Read chapter endings and beginnings. End each chapter with a question, actual or implied.
    I believe John is suggesting making chapters sort of cliffhangers. In chapter 33, the good guy breaks away from the bad guys who were chasing him and turns onto the mountain road just as the brakes fail… turn the page to chapter 34.
  7. Concentrate on the particular. Make the smallest details singular and real.
    This is somewhat related to (4) above. Romance writers recommend employing all five senses when describing, but good genre writers of any stripe should follow suit. Consider an amazing paragraph from Sue Grafton:
    As a child, I was raised with the same kind of white bread, which had the following amazing properties: If you mashed it, it instantly reverted to its unbaked state. A loaf of this bread, inadvertently squished at the bottom of a grocery bag, was permanently injured and made very strange-shaped sandwiches. On the plus side, you could roll it into little pellets and flick them across the table at your aunt when she wasn't looking. If one of these bread boogers landed in her hair, she would slap it, irritated, thinking it was a fly. I can still remember the first time I ate a piece of the neighbor's home-made white bread, which seemed as coarse and dry as a cellulose sponge. It smelled like empty beer bottles, and if you gripped it, you couldn't even see the dents your fingers made in the crust.
  8. Read dialogue aloud.
    I am a believer in reading not just dialogue, but everything aloud. There's something about the exercise that catches errors and rotten writing like no other tool. And to vary the equation, I sometimes instruct my computer to read to me.
  9. Let your writing 'cool off' before re-reading and revising.
    Again, I 'm a believer. Days, weeks, even months later, the brain sees a story in a new light. My reaction is often disgust. Only when I reach a point where I no longer detest what I've written do I begin to think it might be ready for someone else.
  10. Double check you're satisfied with the four elements: character, situation, setting, and theme.
    If you're not fully comfortable with your writing, others won't be comfortable either. It all has to fit and work together. Don't 'make do', find a way to make it all work.
  11. Pat yourself on the back.

Now you know why John Lutz is a favorite of mine.