Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

29 May 2024

44 and Counting


Last month R.T. Lawton did a piece crunching the numbers on his 51 stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I thought it would be fun to do the same thing with my more modest collection, especially since "Professor Pie is Going to Die" arrived this week in the May/June issue.  "Pie" is #43 and there is another novella awaiting publication, so my current total is 44.

R.T. made his first sale to AHMM in 2001.  I made mine in 1981 so not only has he sold more but he did it in a much shorter time.  He has made $21,376  while my stories earned $16,415.  His stories average out to 5,065 words while mine come in at 4,280, with a meridian of 3,400 words.  (I tend to write very short, but a few novellas bump up the mean considerably.)

I am doing far worse than R.T. on percentage of stories sold: 94 rejections give me a sale percentage of 32%.  Under the current editor, Linda Landrigan, I have been hitting 54.4%, which may have to do with her preferences but I hope is also because I have improved as a writer.  

R.T. also has more AHMM reprints to his credit than I do, but that depends on how you calculate them.


Here's the easy way to figure mine:

    Black Cat Weekly: $50

    Japanese Mystery magazine:  $350

However, I also self-published a book, Shanks on Crime.  I lost a couple of hundred bucks on it, but then a Japanese publisher bought the rights to translate it and paid me $3,600. Nine of the fourteen stories were from AHMM so: 3,600 x 9/14 =   2,324.

But, wait! There's more.  The book sold well enough in Japan that the publisher decided to put out a book of my otherwise uncollected stories, five of which were from AHMM. So: $3,600 x 5/9 = 2,000.

Since those books were published they have earned some royalties and the percentage from AHMM stories turns out to be $585.


Which brings us to:

AHMM: $16,415

Reprints: $400

Japanese books: $4,909

Total: $21,714

That's for 43 years worth of work. You will notice R.T. is still ahead of me.   He would probably agree that  it's a slow way to get rich.  But I've had fun.

31 January 2024

BSF (Best Stories Forever)



This is my fifteenth annual review  of the best short stories of the year, selected from my weekly-best choices at Little Big Crimes.  Feel free to cite this list but please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti's Best of the Year list at SleuthSayers" or similar phrasing, NOT "SleuthSayers Best..." because my fellow bloggers are stubbornly independent souls who occasionally disagree with me, as foolish as that seems.

There are sixteen winners this year, one more than last time. Thirteen of the stories are by men; three by women.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is the big winner, with six tales.  Black Cat Weekly scored two, as did an anthology from Random House. Five were written by my fellow SleuthSayers.  

Six of the stories are funny.  Five have fantasy or science fiction elements. Two are private eye stories.  Two are police stories.  Two are by foreigners.  Seven of the authors are repeat offenders.  

Enough. Please pass me the envelopes.


AymĂ©, 
Marcel   "Martin, the Novelist," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023. 

Martin is a successful novelist with one great flaw.  He kills off his characters. His publisher  extracts a promise that no one important will die in his next book, or no money.

That's hard enough for Martin to bear but even worse is a visit from one of his characters, who is very unhappy with the plot.  Everybody's a critic, right? 

Cody, Liza, "Never Enough,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

This is Cody's third appearance on my best list.   

Sheena, the narrator of this tour-de-force novella, is a horrible person.  She never refers to her only child  as anything but "the annoying kid."  She has nothing but insults for her only two friends, one of whom she says "I don't like much."

But worse, when she decides that "the marriage was worn as thin as the hall carpet," she set her sights on an artist.  The fact that he had been in a  relationship for decades only made it more of a challenge. Sheena is a scary, narcissistic, probably delusional, menace.  You wouldn't want to meet her, but she makes a fascinating protagonist.


De Noux, O'Neil, 
"Of Average Intelligence," in Black Cat Weekly, #85.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer is a retired police officer, and it shows.

"No offense, Office Kintyre.  But I'm smarter than you."

Have you taken offense yet?  I certainly have.  Attorney Matt Glick is the speaker and he has recently killed his wife.  The cops have a ton of circumstantial evidence against him and he has a ready explanation for every bit of it.

In fact the only thing Glick doesn't have  a ready work-around for is his own smug superiority,... 


Dean, David, "Mrs. Hyde,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2023.

This is my friend and  fellow SleuthSayers' fifth appearance on this list, which makes him champeen of the world.  No one else has been in more than four times. 

Dr. Beckett Marchland  is an alienist, which is to say, a Victorian-era psychologist.  He receives a troubling letter from a woman who reports that her once loving and kindhearted husband is being changed for the worse by a bad companion.

The woman is Mrs. Edward Hyde.  The wicked friend is Dr. Henry Jekyll.


Faherty, Terence, "The Incurious Man,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This is the fourth appearance here  by yet another .SleuthSayer alum.

Owen Keane is a private detective starting a new job.  On his first day, taking the train from New Jersey to New York City, he encounters something very strange.  Every day for a week a woman near Rahway has held up a sign for people on the train to see.  The signs seem ominous, if not threatening, and refer to Giovanni and Elvira, whoever they are.

Everyone on the train is fascinated by the signs except one man who ignores them.  His lack of interest interests Keane...

Finlay, C.C. "The Best Justice Money Can Buy,"  in The Reinvented Detective, edited by Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, Caezik SF and Fantasy, 2023. 

What if the whole justice system was for-profit?  Crimes would not be investigated unless the victims, or someone else, pay for the police time.  Criminals could shell out dough to get out of prison.  (Well, today we call that hiring a good lawyer, don't we?)  And so on.

Detective Chung is not a fan of the for-profit system but today it works in her favor, because she eye-witnessed the son of the wealthiest woman in the country committing a hit and run.  And this gives her leverage, if she can figure out how to use it...


Helms, Richard, "Spear Carriers,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

This is the third time   Helms had made my best of the year list.

Dave and Sam have bit parts in a Broadway play, as policemen.  They only show up at the very end which leaves them with a lot of time on their hands.  One night Dave goes out for a bite in his police uniform-costume and the clerk gives him his food for free. "Thank you for your service."

This happens because Dave is wearing his costume - which is to say, something that looks very much like a police uniform. . That gives Sam an idea...


 Hockensmith, Steve, "The Grown-Ups Table,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,   January/February 2023.

This is the third best-of-the-year appearance by SleuthSayer Hockensmith.  2023

It's Christmas dinner at a dysfunctional family.  Uncle Dan  can't stop spouting the philosophy of his favorite right-wing radio host.  And there is Cryptique who, until we turned goth a few months ago, was named Bobby.  

But the main character is Tia who has just graduated to the Grown-Ups Table.  And she is carefully orchestrating the dinner conversation to reveal who murdered the family matriarch, Gammy Bibi.   


Linn, Ken, "A Flash of Headlights,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

Brody does yard maintenance.  A year earlier he was charged with a DUI.  He has been sober ever since, just barely. He makes a casual spur-of-the-moment decision to do what he considers a friendly gesture.  This leads to a tragedy which affects people he cares about. Every move Brody makes feels like it will make things worse. 

Narvaez, Richie, "Shamu, World's Greatest Detective,"  in Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West, Down and Out Books, 2023.


Shamu is an orca at SeaWorld (the eighteenth to bear that name) and thanks to new technology she is able to communicate with people.  Turns out she is, as the title says, a brilliant detective.  The story is narrated by her assistant, Angie Gomez.

One of the pleasures of this story is Shamu's dialog.  Here she is talking to her police nemesis: "I can solve the case in time for you to get home and rest your minuscule human brain."


Petrone, Susan, "The Silent Partner,"  in Cleveland Noir, edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

It's 1970.  The narrator writes about baseball history for the Cleveland Press.  He has to cover the 50th anniversary of the day a Cleveland player was killed by a pitch thrown by a Yankee.

The more he investigates  the more it appears that something weird happened.  Weird, like the beanball being deliberate?  Much weirder than that.

Roanhorse, Rebecca, "White Hills,"  in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

White Hills is everything Marissa ever wanted, right down to the welcome sign by the community mail drop reminding everyone of the HOA rules. Some people don't like HOAs, but Marissa loves them. 

Marissa is perhaps a bit shallow and self-satisfied with  her wealthy new husband.  She constantly rattles off  popular cliches and mantras.  But does she really fit in in White Hills?

One night she springs two surprises on her husband.  The one she is excited about: she's pregnant.  The one she didn't give a thought to before mentioning: she's part Native American.  And suddenly things change...


Sheehy, Edward, "Lavender Diamond,"  in Crimeucopia: Boomshakalaking! Modern Crimes for Modern Times, Murderous Ink Press, 2023.

I'm done writing first-person point-of-view stories.  My latest saga of a modern family stretching back several generations, voiced by 72 first-person characters including pet dogs and cats and a crow circling the narrative dispensing omniscient commentary, had been soundly rejected by dozens of publishers.

So says our protagonist.  But it gets confusing he visits a library where he encounters...

A tall dude, six-feet-four with a shaved head, wore a gold chain over a tight turtleneck that showed off a thick musculature gained from years of pumping iron at Cumberland Correction on a narcotics charge.  Inside the joint the dude known as Craz had been the leader of a brutal and murderous prison gang.

How does he know all this?  Have we wandered into third person omniscient narration?  Hmm...

 


Thielman, Mark,  "Steer Clear,"  in Reckless in Texas: Metroplex Mysteries, Volume 2, edited by Barb Goffman, North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, 2023.

 This is the fourth time  my fellow SleuthSayer has appeared in this list.  

 As punishment for an indiscretion with his boss's ex-wife  Detective Alpert of the Fort Worth Police has been assigned to look into the disappearance of a steer.  Funny story with a satisfying solution.

Van Camp, Richard, "Scariest. Story. Ever," in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

The narrator has just made it to the finals of the "Scariest. Story. Ever." contest using a story he learned from a village elder.  Tomorrow he will be flown to Yellowknife for the finals.  He needs to find an even better story to tell, so he goes to another elder, his Uncle Mike, and tries to convince him to tell him a properly horrifying tale. Is this a crime story? Sort of. Definitely.  Read it and see. 


Walker, Joseph S., "A Right Jolly Old Elf,"  Black Cat Weekly, #120, 2023.

This is the third story by my friend  to make the best of the year list.  

Marty is a no-talent who manages to marry into an influential family.  Sounds good, right? Alas, the family happens to be the Irish mob.  They get tired of him being useless and decide he has to become part of a robbery.  He will attend an office party dressed as Santa while his two brother-in-laws, dressed as elves, slip off to rob another office. What could possibly go wrong?


18 October 2023

My First Century


 


 Monday was the publication date for Happiness is a Warm Gun: Crime Stories Inspired by Songs of the Beatles.  My story is the lead-off, because "I Saw Her Standing There" appeared on the Fab Four's first album.

I am particularly delighted by this publication because it marks my one hundredth published story.  This seems like an excellent opportunity to crunch some numbers and look at my oeuvre, so to speak.

So let's get crunching.

 

 

As you will see here the majority of my publications have been in print magazines.  Of course, "print magazine" is a phrase that would have been completely unnecessary when I first got published, like "conventional produce" or "analog clock."




And now I feel like I am designing an annual report for a very small niche corporation.  

I was surprised to find that fully one quarter of my stories fall into the amateur sleuth category, largely because of my character Shanks.

The Other category is consists mostly of stories with so many characters I can't identify one as the protagonist and use her/him to identify the category.


 
Here we get to characters, with Shanks taking the lead.  He is still very much alive (with at least two stories coming out next year).  Unfortunately the next two,  Marty Crow and Uncle Victor, seem to be retired.  

We will probably hear from the other series characters, if the editors are willing.




 
Here are the decades in which my stories are set.  Since 8 of my tales get listed as fantasy/science fiction I was surprised that only one is set in the future.  Some were set in the future when I wrote them, but time has rolled past them.  I guess that makes them Alternative History stories by default.






 
 
And here we have publication dates.  So far the 2010s are in the lead but the 2020s are still young. 




Speaking of the future, as I was a couple of paragraphs ago, what does the future hold for my writing? 

Well, the day after the Beatles book was published the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine appeared, featuring "When You Put It That Way." It's my 101st story, so the next century is on its way.  

Let's see how far I get...

26 March 2023

A I on Short Story


robot reading

Artificial Intelligence once was a concept of science fiction, a thing of the future. Now, it's a creature of the present and we are still learning how to use it.

With the right AI software, anyone can type in "write an article on the elements needed to write a great short story" and then hit ENTER. The software will proceed to write an article on what the software considers to be the elements necessary to write a great short story. If the submitter doesn't like the article for some reason, then he or she can enter the same information and hit ENTER again. The A I software will turn out a different article, ad infinitum.

Okay, so let's see what the software wrote for the first inquiry.

Writing a great short story can be challenging, but it is also an incredibly rewarding experience. Short stories can be powerful tools for exploring complex themes, capturing a moment in time, or simply entertaining readers with a well-crafted tale. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newcomer to the craft, there are several key elements that can help you create a compelling short story.

   1. A strong opening: The first sentence or paragraph of  your short story should grab the reader's attention and set the tone for what's to come. It should establish the setting, introduce the main character or characters, and hint at the conflict or tension that will drive the plot forward.

   2. Compelling characters: In a short story, there is limited space to develop characters, so it is important to make every word count. Create characters that are unique, interesting, and relatable. Give them clear motivations, distinct personalities, and flaws that make them feel like real people.

   3. A well-developed plot: Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The plot should be structured in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested. Avoid predictable or cliched storylines, and strive for a unique and surprising twist or resolution.

   4. Conflict or tension:  Your story should have a central conflict or tension that drives the action forward. This could be a physical or emotional obstacle that the main character must overcome, or it could be a moral dilemma that forces the character to make a difficult decision.

   5. Effective pacing: In a short story, pacing is critical. You need to keep the reader engaged and interested from beginning to end, without rushing or dragging the story out. Use pacing techniques like dialogue, description, action to create a sense of momentum and tension.

   6. A clear theme: A great short story should leave the reader with a clear sense of what it's all about. It should explore a theme or idea that resonates with the reader, whether it is a universal truth about the human condition, a commentary on a current issue, or a personal reflection on life.

   7. Skilled language: Finally, a great short story should be written in skillful and precise language. Choose your words carefully, and use imagery, metaphors, and other literary devices to create a vivid and engaging story. Avoid cliches and overused phrases, and strive for originality and creativity.

In conclusion, a great short story requires careful attention to many different elements from character development and plot pacing, theme, and language. By honing your skills in each of these areas, you can create a story that is both memorable and powerful. Remember that the most important element of any story is its ability to connect with readers on an emotional level, so be true to your own voice and vision, and strive to create a story that will resonate with your audience.

Personally, other than some repetition, I would say the A I software did a good job and covered all the necessary elements. At  this stage in my career, I tend to write instinctively without consciously thinking about the basics, however there are times it probably would not hurt for me to be reminded what the basics are. I think I'll keep this article on file.

I have not played around with having the A I software write a short story to see how well it does. What do you think, will A I programs eventually acquire the ability to put us human writers out of business?

And, if an Artificial Intelligence program does write a short story, who then owns the copyright?

04 July 2022

What Are The Odds


Over the past 15 years, I've won a couple of awards and not-quite won a few others. RT's discussion of his Edgar-winning story last week made me think about what that really means. This is a completely unscientific assessment, but maybe there's something you can take away from it anyway.

If you're barely published, some of these figures may apply to your chances of making a sale as well as your winning an award. The salient feature in either case is that you have to write the best story you can. You've heard that before.

Gamblers know the odds before they toss money on the table, and here are some of the numbers for publishing. They keep changing, but this will give you the idea.

Years ago, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine received over 40,000 story submissions a year, and published about 75 of them. If all the stories were of equal quality, which, of course, is not the case, your chance of being selected was one in 533. I don't know how many stories come in now, but the magazine now publishes six issues instead of ten, and roughly the same 75 stories. If there are fewer submissions, the odds are slightly better. 

This morning, the Mystery Writers of America Edgars site lists 173 books eligible for the Best Novel of the year and 166 stories for the Best Short Story. The eligibility period runs from December 1 to December 1, so it's slightly more than half over. The year I was a finalist, there were 408 short stories, which meant the chance of becoming a finalist (again, all things equal, which they aren't) were 81 to 1. Theoretically, the chance of winning from those finalists was five to one. Getting there was the problem. The weeding out is the same in other awards, too, the Agatha, Derringer, Shamus, and all the others.

In the 1990s, Connecticut introduced the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) in high schools. I've never been a fan of standardized tests, but the Language Arts portion of that test had the clearest and most concrete set of criteria I've ever seen for evaluating writing. When my colleagues and I used it for grading practice tests, we almost never disagreed on a score. I liked it so much I've used something like it for a rubric when I edit or judge even now. 

Several years ago, I was a judge for the Al Blanchard Award, sponsored by MWA New England. I read all of the 141 stories submitted because only a few came in early and 41 were submitted the last day of the three-month deadline. Really. I rated each story from 1 (low) to 10 (high) and kept a spreadsheet of why: too much backstory, unbelievable or impossible ending, inconsistent character, good/bad dialogue, etc. It was inspired by the CAPT test from the 90s.

I gave 50 stories--over 1/3 of the entries--a grade of 1. Only a dozen earned a grade of 7 or higher, one of them an 8.

Now, the important part. I was one of four judges who had to turn in their top ten stories so the others could read the top 40. I'd already read every story (No, I don't have a life), so I already had notes on the other stories already. I looked at my notes and re-read the stories, but changed no scores. NONE of my top twelve stories made the cut from any other judge. In fact, the eventual winner only got a five from me. 

I've had a similar experience judging the Derringers for the last two years. I read many of those stories before they're nominated because I subscribe to several of the source magazines. Stories that I consider brilliant seldom make the cut. Obviously, I have tastes that run outside the lines. But in judging the Flash Fiction (the only length I can judge because I don't write in it), three of my top five stories have been finalists both times I've judged because the other nine judges agree. 

We can objectify and quantify only so much, and it's true of both judges and editors. People with experience and (maybe) training can narrow down a group of stories that are "better" or "worse" than others, but within that select sample, it's a matter of individual taste and preference. One person doesn't like noir. Another wants a surprising plot twist. Yet another pays more attention to prose style than the others. And so on.

How do you stand out? You write a damn good story. MAYBE you include something a little exotic that readers can latch on to. RT's Edgar winner involved a landmark in Hawaii. People know it and it's unusual. That's not the only reason he won, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Remember to add a little bit of yourself. THAT will make the story unique so the editor or judges notice it. You've got to be noticed.

Easy, huh? Sure it is.

Now forget about all the odds and go write that damn good story.

29 December 2021

My Adventures with the Fiction Elves



Something weird happened to me.

Back in 2018 I thought up an idea for a short story.  That wasn't weird.  It happens, though not as often as I would like.

So I wrote the story. But I was editing it a year later (I take a long time to edit a story, usually going through at least ten drafts) and I saw a fatal flaw.  I was basing it on technology that was out of date.  Setting the story in the past would not work as a solution.  I could not think of a way around the problem so, with a sigh, I left the story on the virtual pile of never-to-be-published tales.  Too bad, because I really liked parts of it.

Dimitsana

Jump ahead to 2021, and I am visiting Greece.  Somewhere around Dimitsana I found myself thinking about my poor dead story.  And suddenly I saw a solution to the problem.  It meant ripping out half the story and writing some more, but I could keep the best parts.

So back in the good ol' USA I pulled up the last version of the story and started reading it.  And I got a shock, because that's when I found something weird.

On page two there were a couple of paragraphs I didn't remember.  I had no idea why they were there or what they had to do with the rest of the story.  I kept reading and on the next-to-last page I found another addition, completely unfamiliar to me.  It tied into the first and together they solved my technology problem!  In fact, it was a better solution than the one I had thought of in Greece.

I felt like the shoemaker in the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, who entered his shop one morning and found that overnight elves had finished the shoes he had left half-made.  

Not a big believer in the fae I assume that I must have solved that problem in a bolt of inspiration and then forgotten about it.  The additions appeared only in the last (twelfth) draft of the story.  (Lucky for me that I didn't pull up version 11 by mistake.)

So now I have to start editing and polishing my newly recovered tale.  Only the future will reveal whether the elves provided me with a pair of Manolo Blahnik Gold Grosgrain Crystal Buckle Mules or a couple of cheap knock-off tennis shoes.  Either way, I would be happy if they show up again.

20 December 2021

Looking Back


Between the lockdown and various health issues, I lost track of time for most of 2021 (although I have managed to finish my Christmas shopping. Wrapping? Um, no way), so let's try to put the clock back on the wall.

2020 was a blur. I had a mis-diagnosed stroke (I told them is was only a pinched nerve!) in January, then got my second cancer diagnosis in March, only days before the lockdown commenced. Between heavy meds, stress, and lockdown agoraphobia, I could no longer concentrate on complex projects like planning a novel anymore and turned exclusively to short stories. I wrote over a dozen in the last six months of 2020. Before then, I never produced more than four or five in one year. 

I published four stories, two of which I'd written years before and finally found submission calls that they matched.

Now 2021, very good and very bad, swinging like Poe's pendulum. The cancer, apparently vanquished through chemo and surgery the previous summer, staged an encore in March. Doctors, including one of my former students, inserted a stent in my kidney and started me on immunotherapy treatments every three weeks in April. They've worked, and I generally feel pretty good. No diet restrictions, I can drive  to the health club two or three times a week in a futile effort to restore my rippling six-pack abs, and I can still play guitar badly and piano even worse. Age, the family arthritis, and getting needles stuck in both arms every three weeks make music and typing harder, but I can still do them. The worst part of the year was saying good-bye to Ernie, our Maine Coon, who lost his four-year battle to kidney disease and left us in June. 

The sunny side:

This year, I wrote eleven new short stories and self-published Alma Murder, an early version of the book that eventually evolved into Blood on the Tracks about 70 rejections later. Five short stories appeared, and I sold seven others, a new career high.

Two will appear in Spring 2022, maybe within days of each other. The new MWA anthology Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan, will feature one of them. SleuthSayers' own Michael Bracken edited the other.

The rest will appear over the next year or so, but I don't have definite release dates. Fourteen submissions are still active, and I suspect that two or three have been accepted even though I don't have official word from the markets. 

I helped judge the Derringer Awards last year and will do it again this year. The best way to learn to write good stories is to read good stories, and I read a lot of them. I only judge flash fiction because I never write that short, but it's good training in what you can leave out of a story. It also means that if I stumble on a useful idea, I have to treat it very differently anyway.

The most positive change this year is that two different editors approached me about submitting work for an upcoming anthology. One was because of a Sleuthsayers blog I wrote earlier this year. Talk about an ego boost. I'm doing research on two other stories, too. If those stories don't sell to the anthologies, they're flexible enough that I can send them to other markets, too. Always a good thing. 

Am I getting rich (Cue uproarious laughter)? Of course not. But I'm getting somewhere, and that beats the alternative.

So, Merry Christmas, happy Channukah, Kwanzaa, and new year. Oh, and a belated happy birthday to Keith Richards.

15 November 2021

Making An Impact


It may take me a while to respond to comments on today's blog for the best of reasons: I'll be hanging out with readers. The readers are students in Professor Ken Wishnia's Intro to Lit class at SUNY Suffolk, and we'll be talking about my story, "Never Again," in Me Too Short Stories, an anthology I edited. Ken is himself an accomplished crime fiction author, whose anthology, Jewish Noir II, including my story, "The Cost of Something Priceless," will appear early next year. The students are a truly diverse group in age and socioeconomic status as well as ethnicity, race, and gender. Some come from troubled families; many must struggle to achieve a community college education.

"Never Again" is a challenging story. We learn on the first page that Valerie's father abuses her sexually from the age of four. For ten years, her attempts to speak out and get help fail. We also meet Frances, abused by the preacher's son at age nine in her close-knit churchgoing community. She hides her pain in compulsive overeating and obesity and marries an alcoholic who abuses her physically, verbally, and emotionally. Two intolerable situations, one girl, one woman who say, "Never again!" and embark on a collision course. What will happen when they collide?

I've visited Ken's classes, whose students have not only read the story but written a one-page paper on it, several times, both virtually and in person. Ken has said, "These stories [in the Me Too anthology] are the first pieces of fiction to truly come alive on the page for some students." He and I have discussed how academic assignments had changed since our own youth, when Shakespeare and Victorian novels were the norm, and how the first wave of "relevant" reading material, beginning in the Sixties, ran to books like Catcher in the Rye, whose protagonist these students would see as a bored rich white kid with no problems worth mentioning.

Last year, to illustrate the students' visceral response, he shared with me some comments from their papers.

Not a lot of literature has really brought me to tears, but her story had me close to fully crying.
This story had me genuinely tearing up and putting the book down after the first few sentences, which is something that has never happened before.

Sometimes the writing in a story is so good that you physically react and that’s what happened.

Never Again demonstrates the lack of voice that women have when speaking up about sexual abuse. People question why victims exposed to any abuse cannot speak up. These victims want to tell someone that they are suffering, but it is hard for them to confide themselves to someone who will listen to their story.

Do I write in the hope of moving readers this powerfully? You bet I do. Did I write "Never Again" to make an impact? Absolutely. I'm awed and grateful that these young readers were so receptive.

One more comment, from a young man whose opinion I'd rather have than a New York Times reviewer's:

I cant even compare this short story to the others because this one is by far my favorite. By the end of the first page i was instantly hooked, the darkness of this story is absolutely wild. The way how the author describes so specifically the dark twisted things that go on in Valerie's household puts me on the edge of my futon that i was reading this on. The fact that i wanted to rip the father out of the pages and beat him up for touching and treating his daughter like that was a feeling Ive never felt before reading a story.

I can hardly wait to find out what this year's crop of students have to say.

18 August 2021

A Trend, An Anecdote, and an Exhibit



Sometimes I get a story idea in one nice neat package, a blast from the muse.

More often it comes in pieces.  I call some of those tales mash-ups.

It isn't that one type is necessarily better than the other.  Two brands of cars, but they both get you to the same place, if you're lucky.

Take "Taxonomy Lesson," my story in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which was published yesterday.  It is a definite mash-up of three elements:

A TREND.  I worked as a librarian in academia for more than three decades.  Like any other field, higher education has its trade publications that talk about what's new in the biz.  

And one trend I've been reading about for a decade has been sexual harassment.  The reports started long before the #Me Too movement. 

The classic scenario is a male tenured professor pressuring a female grad student with promises of support if she gives in and threats of punishment if she doesn't.  The power differential between, say, a Ph.D. student and a professor on her dissertation committee is extreme, the ability to make or break a career.  

There has long been a whisper network in academia (as in many other fields) in which women warn each other not to do field research with Professor X or, if you must go to a conference with Professor Y, don't go to his room for a chat, or even get in an elevator with him.

Dr. Karen Kelsey created a website called Sexual Harassment in the Academy: A Crowdsource Survey.   She eventually closed it to new entries due to trolls and hackers, but you can read enough to spoil your lunch.

I was ignored in meetings when I was the most knowledgeable about the content (in favor of a male new hire with less experience/education); inappropriate comments made about my body while pregnant; a female colleague was called a slut by our chair when she reported a job candidate had stalked her while they were in school.  When issues were reported to HR/Title IX/ Dean's Office, grossly inept responses were provided (Female Dean invited me to meeting to talk about these issues and then said "do you want to hear my stories? It could get worse" and proceeded to suggest that I do not fit in at my institution.  Ultimately, I was denied a promotion on the grounds of my pregnancy.

I knew I wanted to write about  this sort of thing in fiction someday.  But a premise is not a plot, and I needed more.  It turned out I needed...

AN ANECDOTE.  Back in 2015 Bouchercon was held in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A tiny but riveting  event happened there which I witnessed and the moment it happened I grabbed my notebook and started writing.  "That's going to go into a story!" I announced.  Amazingly enough, I was right.

I can't tell you what happened that day, but when you read my story you will probably have a pretty good idea.  

But I still didn't have my story yet.  That required...


AN EXHIBIT.
  My family enjoys visiting the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.  One of the parts we always explore is the Butterfly House which has live insects from around the world.  The last time we visited I noted an exhibit just outside on scientific names.  Homo Sapien. Helianthus Annuus.  Gorilla Gorilla.

And bingo.  That was the one missing piece.

My story is about a taxonomy professor - that is, an expert on how species are biologically related to each other, and on  scientific nomenclature.  He is at a conference where he will receive a major award for his work.  But alas, his relationships with  students haven't been as excellent as his research.  And that is about to become a big problem...

I hope you enjoy it.

 


16 June 2021

Keeping You in Suspense


 

I was thinking recently about suspense and the fact that many people these days seem to use the terms "suspense fiction" and "mystery fiction" interchangeably.  There is an overlap, but they are not identical.

I think we can all take a swing at defining mystery, but what is suspense fiction, exactly?

Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, famously differentiated between surprise and suspense.  If two men are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off under it, we are surprised.  But if we see the bomb beforehand and hear it ticking as the men sit casually talking about the weather -- that's suspense.

Worldcat defines suspense fiction as "works whose prime purpose is to produce a feeling of frightened anticipation."  While any author of stories or novels wants the reader to feel impelled to keep reading, with suspense fiction that nervous urge is the main - or at least a main - goal.  

As I said, though, not all crime fiction is focused on suspense.  But does all suspense fiction involve crime? 

A few years ago I asked on Facebook and again on the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list for suggestions of great suspense short stories that do not involve crime.  It led to some interesting discussions.  First of all, I received a lot of suggestions that were not short stories: novels, plays, and even a poem.  ("Casey at the Bat" certainly is suspenseful, although it doesn't have that "frightened" aspect Worldcat mentions.) 

But about half of the actual stories that were suggested were subject to arguments.  Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is great suspense fiction, but is it  crime fiction?  Apparently what happens in it is legal in that community.


Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a story of a man sentenced to die for sabotage during a war, but since he is a civilian, does that make it a crime rather than a war story?

Someone argued that Edgar Allan Poe's  "Murders in the Rue Morgue" qualifies and I scoffed that at first.  But I'm damned if the nominator didn't have a point.  By most definitions what occurs in the story is not a crime.*  However, since it unquestionably a detective story I am leaving it off my list.

The biggest category of non-crime suspense story I could find is people-versus-nature, which makes sense.  See, for example, Jack London's "To Build A Fire."  


Another tale in that category is "The Drover's Wife," by the great Australian writer Henry Lawson.  His simple tale involves a ranch woman left alone with her young son, a dog... and, as it turns out, a very large snake.  An Australian actress named Leah Purcell has recently adapted it into a feminist novel, play, and movie, none of which I have yet encountered.

What you see below is my personal compilation of Great Suspense Stories Without Crimes.  Please add your own suggestions.

Bierce, Ambrose - "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

DuMaurier, Daphne - "The Birds."

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins - "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Jackson, Shirley - "The Lottery."

Kinsella, W.P. - "Pius Blindman is Coming Home."

London, Jack - "To Build A Fire."

Lawson, Henry - "The Drover's Wife."

Saki - "The Open Window."

By the way, there was a great radio show called Suspense and Bob and Ray used to mock it with... Anxiety!

* Although I argue otherwise in my short story "The Street of the Dead House."


15 March 2021

The Waiting


 by Steve Liskow

Lately, I've seen writers posting at various sites that they're having trouble writing now. The lockdown has made them stir-crazy or they miss their friends or the family is becoming too needy. They need interaction to get ideas or to keep the energy flowing, and their output has suffered.

I'm not writing much now, but for a different reason. Up until last year, I usually produced a novel and three or four short stories during the year. Last year, for the first time since about 2004, I wrote no novel. I wrote a novella and sixteen short stories. This year, I wrote two short stories in January and have finished a novella, but I haven't writen any other fiction in several weeks.

I have vague ideas for two or three anthology calls, but they aren't coming together the way they usually do, and I think I know why. At least, I know where I'm casting the blame.

Last year, I sold more short stories than usual.

BUT...

Sanford Meisner once defined acting as characters responding to each other's actions. When there's nobody out there reacting, it's hard to act...or write. You write a story, polish it, send it out, then...nothing.


Waiting for a response that never comes is like playing racquetball into Jell-O. If someone rejects a story, I can react by sending it somewhere else, but when nobody responds, I can't do anything. Since last July, I have sent out 22 submissions (a good week for John Floyd or Michael Bracken). Four were rejected and four were accepted, but after eight months, fourteen are still in limbo and it's paralyzing me. 

I used to work on a novel between submissions but  without that big project to occupy me, time crawls by like a glacier. I respect the markets that say "no simultaneous submissions"--which may be stupid or naive, and is certailnly counter-productive--so I don't send a story out again until I get that first response. A few stories are at anthology markets where the deadline is still in the future, so I won't hear about them for a while. And a few are at a market that is notorious for slow responses. Others are at a market that only responds "if interested." 

Significantly, both those two are PRINT markets. I usually send stories to them first, then sent the stories to other markets if they're rejected. That's going to change soon, though.

Two online markets that reply quickly--and have bought several of my stories--have raised their pay rates significantly in the last few months. I've moved them to the top of my submissions list. It's also true that many stories I write for anthologies get picked up elsewhere. 

Yes, I sold two stories ten days ago (A personal first: two sales in one day), but it's even worse than when I used to audition for roles in theater. Then, if you didn't hear anything in a week or so, you could assume you weren't cast and move on. 

As Tom Petty said,  


The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you get one more yard/

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part.

21 December 2020

Report to the Shareholders


In 2020, I wrote 16 stories and sold seven. That's nothing compared to several other SleuthSayers, but it shows how I reinvented myself in the year of Covid and other misadventures. I received 14 rejections, too, which means I'm not submitting often enough. 

In spring of 2004, I was struggling with two different novels and heard that you could get attention from agents and publishers by selling a few short stories. I've always liked shorts, but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writers' Conference that summer. Alexander Chee, Roxanne Robinson and Chris Offutt gave me good advice and great writing prompts, so by year's end I submitted seven stories to various markets. None of them sold, but they taught me a new process. The following year, I wrote and submitted ten more stories. None of those sold, either, but each rewrite sucked a little less.

Between then and 2017, I only submitted 13 new stories, mainly because I sold my first novel late in 2009 and published it in 2010. By then, I had six or seven versions of various other novels on my hard drive. I sent some of the older stories out in revision (some sold), but I concentrated on those novels in various degrees of development.

Late in 2019, I published Words of Love, my 15th novel, and it changed my landscape. For the first time since 2003, I had neither a new idea nor an old manuscript loitering on the computer. My writing workshops earned more than my book sales, anyway.

Then came 2020. In late January, I had a minor traffic accident that aggravated a pinched nerve in my neck. My left arm went numb, and the ER doctors thought I'd had a minor stroke. They prescribed blood thinners, pain-killers and other meds for a month, then decided it wasn't a stroke after all. I'd said as much, but the drugs scrambled my concentration. I went off them at the end of February, but by then the pandemic was shutting us down and I had two workshops cancelled. I wrote a novella for a contest, but that was the only fiction I produced in the first half of the year. More about that in a minute (Like the foreshadowing?).

In March, I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time (I hate reruns). Between April and July, I had eight sessions of chemotherapy, followed by surgery in August. The chemo didn't give me the nausea I heard so much about, but my hairline is higher now, and my remaining silken silver locks are a lot thinner. I also have enough unused meds in the bathroom to stock a small CVS.

Fatigue and the new pills disrupted my thought process even more. By May, I didn't think I could plot out a novel again even if I had a decent idea, and it seemed clear that I had to write shorter.

So I did.

Since May, I have written 15 new stories, and the seven sales doubles my personal best for the year.

Between chemo treatments, I self-published a novella that won Honorable Mention for the Black.

Orchid Novella Award last December. Last week, I learned that the novella I wrote last spring earned Honorable Mention again for 2020. The announcement will appear in the Wolfe Pack newsletter, but I receive no certificate or any other proof of the honor. It won't even be mentioned in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which publishes the winner. Novellas are a hard sell, which is why I self-published last year's near-miss in July. Both other markets turned it down...

I also won my fourth Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award. Again, no money or publication, but I get an impressive certificate and I was recognized at this year's virtual New England Crime Bake, where I've appeared often enough so they know I pronounce my name with a long "O." Eventually, I sold all three of my previous winners, so this story should find a good home, too. 

Since I'm reinventing how I write, I've examined my output for this year much more carefully than I would have a few years ago.

Four of the sales were to anthologies, one a story I wrote in 2007 and another in 2009. Both those stories were fewer than 3000 words, short for me. Another story will appear in a bundle next year, and two stories became only the third and fourth I've sold on the first submission.

Excluding the novella, my average word length was about 4700 words, which didn't surprise me. For years, my comfortable length has been between 4K and 5K. That seems to be my attention span.

Three new stories are between 3K and 4K, seven are in my usual 4K to 5K, and two fall between 5K and 6K. One is over 7K, and the novella is not quite 17K.

All those stories involve a crime but only six of them involve someone solving a mystery. The others feature the protagonist getting away with something or deciding that justice has already been served. I don't describe myself as a noir writer, but many of my stories tilt in that direction.

It's been that kind of year, hasn't it?

I'm doing a desultory edit on a novel that received 50 rejections between 2006 and 2008. Five different agents asked for the full MSS and passed on it without explanation, but I think I finally figured out the problem. If I publish it, it will only be as an eBook.

I am working on two more short stories and one that feels like another novella.

If it gets to a point where it's not fun anymore, there's always piano.