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

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.

19 September 2020

Who Are Those Short People?


A few weeks ago I did a column here about obscure movies. The point was, all of us have seen good movies that everybody knows about, but there are some good ones that almost nobody's heard of--and those can be fun to find and watch.

The same goes for short stories, and their authors. Just as we're familiar with the names of famous novelists, a lot of us also know the names of famous short-story writers: Chekhov, Munro, Cheever, Bradbury, O'Connor, Poe, Welty, Doyle, Saki, Twain, Hoch, Dahl, Serling, Asimov, Jackson, Kafka, Joyce, Carver, Oates, O. Henry, Lovecraft, Baldwin, Ellison, etc. (And yes, most of them are famous for novels as well.)

But . . . there are some lesser-known writers of shorts who I believe were equally as talented. Here are a few I happened to discover, later in my writing life than I would've hoped.


Richard Matheson -- A master storyteller, and one of the writers (along with Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, and others) for the original Twilight Zone. I first became award of Matheson when I found out he wrote the book that became the movie Somewhere in Time (which, God help me, I still love). I have here on my shelves two collections of Matheson's stories: Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The title stories of those two books are among my favorites. Others are "Steel," "Prey," and "Third from the Sun."

Jack Ritchie -- My favorite short-story writer, period. He wrote many, many stories for EQMM and AHMM. I have only one of his story collections--Little Boxes of Bewilderment--but only because they're extremely hard to find. Some of my Ritchie favorites: "The Absence of Emily," "Traveler's Check," "The Green Heart" (adapted into the movie A New Leaf), "Shatter Proof," "The Operator," "Play a Game of Cyanide."

Augusto Monterroso -- A Honduran writer who, like Ritchie, wrote only one novel. Everything else was short stories, some of them flash-length and some of them humorous. Here are a few that I think are worth finding and reading: "The Eclipse," "The Outdoor Poet," "Dinosaur," and "Mister Taylor."

Cornell Woolrich -- A great writer who led an incredibly sad life. Known mostly for the movie Rear Window, which was adapted from his short story "It Had to be Murder." He also wrote many novels that were made into movies. I own one of his story collections, Night & Fear, but loaned it out years ago. (If the guy who "borrowed" it is reading this, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your Fruit of the Looms.) My favorites, of Woolrich's stories: "New York Blues," "Detective William Brown," "For the Rest of Her Life," "Endicott's Girl."

John Collier -- A British novelist, Collier is best known for his short fiction, much of which is witty, dark, and full of plot twists. He wrote or contributed to a number of screenplays, and more than a dozen of his stories have been adapted for TV, radio, and film. I have only one collection of Collier shorts--Fancies and Goodnights--but the stories in it are wonderful. My favorites: "De Mortuis," "Youth from Vienna," "Over Insurance," "Bottle Party," "Squirrels Have Bright Eyes."

Charles Beaumont -- An author of mostly short science fiction and horror stories, and another of the many writers of episodes for the original Twilight Zone. He wrote only a couple of novels, early in his career, but wrote a lot of screenplays, including 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and The Masque of the Red Death. I have one of his short-story collections--Perchance to Dream--and I've enjoyed every story of his that I've read. Favorites: "The Jungle," "The Beautiful People," "The Howling Man," "Night Ride."

Fredric Brown -- My second-favorite short-story writer. Brown's story output was almost all crime and science fiction. Among other things, he was a master at what's now called flash fiction, and he wrote several novels that later became movies. I own three of his collections--From These Ashes, Miss Darkness, and Nightmares and Geezenstacks. I think his standouts are "Arena," "Nightmare in Yellow," "Voodoo," "Rebound," and "The Laughing Butcher." I'm always amazed that so few readers know about this writer.


Have any of you read these seven authors? If so, what do you think of their stories, style, etc.?

NOTE: Two years ago I posted a SleuthSayers column about both Ritchie and Brown, in case you want to know more about them.


Changing the subject, here– If you're interested in reading some excellent lesser-known short stories by the better-known writers, here are my suggestions:


"The Last Rung on the Ladder," Stephen King
"Never Stop on the Motorway," Jeffrey Archer
"Strangers on a Handball Court," Lawrence Block
"The Last Night of the World," Ray Bradbury
"The Blood Bay," Annie Proulx
"Torch Song," John Cheever
"Dead Man," James M. Cain
"Fetching Raymond," John Grisham
"A Retrieved Reformation," O. Henry
"Perfect Timing," Bill Pronzini
"Not a Drill," Lee Child
"Carrera's Woman," Ed McBain
"Survival Week," James W. Hall
"Poison," Roald Dahl
"Come Dance with me in Ireland," Shirley Jackson
"The Last Good Country," Ernest Hemingway
"A Happy Man," Anton Chekhov
"Running Out of Dog," Dennis Lehane
"A&P," John Updike
"The Mule Rustlers," Joe R. Lansdale
"Tenkiller," Elmore Leonard


I can't finish a discussion like this without mentioning the many other short-story writers whose work regularly appears in magazines like AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Strand, etc. I won't try to list them because I would probably leave someone out, but many of those fellow writers (and friends) are famous as well, and some have oatbags right here in the SleuthSayers stable. I hope you're already reading their stories.


In closing, who are some of your favorites short-story authors, known and unknown? (And some stories to point us to?)


Keep writing, and be safe.

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com








06 July 2020

Second Best


Anybody remember a golfer named Craig Wood, big in the 30s and 40s? He was the first golfer--maybe still the only one, in fact--to come in  second in all four major championships (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship) by losing a play-off. He eventually won two of those tournaments, too, and finished with 21 career victories.

He once said, "It takes a pretty good guy to come in second."

Besides bartenders, who remembers the guy who comes in second?

Writers do.

In 2006, my daughter told me about a short story contest she heard about from, of all people, her ex-mother-in-law. I'd never heard of the Crime Bake Writers Conference or the Al Blanchard Story Award, but mere days before the deadline, I sent them a story.

A few months later, Leslie Wheeler, the coordinator of the contest, emailed to say my story placed in the top 10. She urged me to send it to Level Best Books the following year because that fledgling publisher, which featured the Al Blanchard winner in their annual volume, would surely take it. I did, and after 356 rejections for various novels and short stories, that story became my first published work.

In 2007, I entered another story in the contest and won Honorable Mention. That meant neither money nor publication, but I attended the conference and got my picture taken holding the cool certificate. Over the next year, I sent that story to 21 other markets that turned it down. Then I sent it to Level Best again and they grabbed it.

I hate the way I look in pictures, especially when they shoot before
I even know they're going to do it.  
 In 2008, I entered another story in the contest and won another Honorable Mention. I sent that  second-best to 22 markets, and they all turned it down again.

Are you sensing a trend here?

I sent it to Level Best (again) and they took it (again). At that year's awards ceremony, Leslie announced that I'd placed in the top ten three years in a row. Level Best published my first four works to see print. Since then, I've sold stories and novels elsewhere, but the consistent close calls show how subjective judging is for prizes, or even for regular sales. Once you get beyond basic grammar and formatting, it's all a matter of taste.

Fourteen years later, I have published three stories that won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard, the third appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That story was also accepted for an anthology that I withdrew from because the contract rang alarm bells. Everyone liked that story, but most of them not quite enough. Go figure.

I've had other near misses. Last winter, I got a letter telling me my third entry in the Black Orchid Novella Award competition (My first two both won) earned--you guessed it--Honorable Mention. I didn't get a certificate (How is that a mention?) and was left with a story nearly 17,000 words long. That's going to be a hard sell somewhere else, but who knows? Opinion and taste, right?

In 2013, Blood on the Tracks won Honorable Mention for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel Award. It finished in the top ten of over 1500 entries, but all I received were the judge's glowing comments. No money, no mention in the magazine. I did sell four copies of the book over the next two months, though.

That same year, MWA named me a finalist for the Edgar for Best Short Story. At the banquet, I met Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter, who were in the anthology with me, and they both autographed my copy of the book, which made the trip worthwhile all by itself. Lehane, whom I'd met before, won the Edgar for Best Novel that year. Slaughter turned out to be even more fun than Lehane, even though she beat me out for the short story award. There are worse fates than losing a writing award to Karin Slaughter.
I hate this picture even more than the other one, but Karin Slaughter
was fun to talk to. So was Teresa Soldana, who lost to her, too.

The following year, I asked Laura Lippman for a blurb and mentioned my near miss. She told me that my Edgar nomination was "huge" and that I would surely find someone who was in a position to help me out.

The next year, I was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel, a category that no longer exists. I lost there, too, but that book sold three copies in the next two weeks.

Since 2006, I have been short-listed for nine awards that I have not won. Seven of those stories sold somewhere else eventually, and the other two are still floating around in submission purgatory. One is that Black Orchid novella.

I currently have stories entered in both the Al Blanchard and the Black Orchid contests. I need one more certificate to fill the top of my book case. And, who knows? Maybe Laura Lippman or Karin Slaughter is dropping my name somewhere...


01 July 2020

Steal This Vote


STEAL THIS VOTE

by Leopold Longshanks

I'm honored to be your guest blogger today.  I understand that this would usually be Robert Lopresti's turn, but he is apparently too busy to write something.

Don't ask me what he's filling his hours with.  He somehow managed to write while carrying on a day job, but now that he's retired he seems to be too busy to do his duty.

But enough about him.  As I said, I am happy to talk to you about my latest adventure, which appears in Low Down Dirty Vote 2, a new anthology of crime stories.  It will be published this Saturday, the Fourth of July.

Of course, the date is no coincidence. Voting is basic to what this country is supposed to be about, part of what we celebrate with dangerous fireworks, rowdy parades, and suspiciously undercooked hamburgers every Independence Day.

Each story in this book involves a violation of that most precious right.  And Mysti Berry, who conceived and edited this book, is putting her money where her mouth is.  The first volume raised more than five thousand dollars to help the American Civil Liberties Union fight voter fraud.  Funds from the second book go to the Southern Poverty Law Center for the same purpose.  I am proud to be involved in such a good cause.

And I am not alone. Among the authors contributing are Gary Phillips, Travis Richardson, Sara Chen, and James McCrone, to name a few.

You may notice I am not on the author's list.  Make no mistake: I am a distinguished author of crime fiction, in my world.  But in your universe I exist only through the work of that other guy, lazy Lopresti.  My story in the book is his 17th effort at recording my adventures, and I admit he got the details right this time.  Most of them, anyway.  That makes a nice change.

"Shanks Gets Out The Vote" concerns an election for the board of the nonprofit that runs the World Theatre, a beautiful depression-era opera house in my New Jersey town. My wife, Cora Neal (award-winning author of women's fiction), ran for president and, as you no doubt guessed, dastardly deeds were afoot.


This may seem like small potatoes compared to other crimes in the book.  I haven't read all the stories yet, but I assume some are about elections to government offices.  I am perfectly okay with being on the trivial end of the scale.

First of all, the subtitle of this book is "Every stolen vote is a crime," so my story fits in beautifully.  Second, I firmly believe that amateur sleuths should stick to the small stuff.  I can modestly admit to helping the police with a couple of murders, but I much prefer the tales in which I solve puzzles too minor for our noble law officers to deal with.  I have explained my preferences to Lopresti, but does he listen to me?

Seldom.

Well, I need to get back to my own work.  I am told writers at SleuthSayers are not supposed to give the hard sell, so I will merely say that if the second volume of Low Down Dirty Vote is as good as the first you will enjoy it a lot. And it's for a good cause.

If you see Lopresti before I do, tell him to put his butt down and write me something to do.

LEOPOLD LONGSHANKS is the award-winning author of the Inspector Cadogan series, as well as standalone novels such as A MAN OF YOUR AGE.  His books are available in the imagination of Robert Lopresti.

17 June 2020

Fancies and Goodnights


The July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstands yesterday (are there still newsstands?) and I am delighted to report that I have a story  in it.  (After I typed that I saw the cover.  Wow!  AHMM has really been on a roll the last few years with great covers.  I am proud to benefit from that again.)

"The Library of Poisonville" is full of literary references, appropriately enough.  The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges' great story "The Library of Babel," which inspired my piece, and also to a work by Dashiell Hammett.  Most of the references are obvious, but I thought I would write about an author who my story only touches on tangentially.

John Collier was born in London in 1901.  He was reading Hans Christian Andersen by age 3.  As a teenager he told his father he wanted to be a poet.  Believe it or not, that was fine with dear old Dad, who never required him to get a job or even go to university.  (His work contains several  odd father-son relationships.)

By age thirty he had switched his emphasis to fiction which gave him the chance to show off his, um, unique imagination.  (In what way unique?  Well, his first novel was entitled His Monkey Wife, or I Married A Chimp.)  His story collection Fancies and Goodnights won both the Edgar Award and the International Fantasy Award.    And how often has one book scored both of those?

My favorite Collier story - which I list among my all-time favorite fifty crime tales - is "Witch's Money." In spite of the title this is no fantasy, but rather a tale of cross-cultural misunderstanding in which the arrival of an American painter in a village in southern France leads, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, to utter destruction.

His writing style tended toward the flowery and sardonic, reminding me of Saki, Roald Dahl, Avram Davidson, and James Powell.  His work has been adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays for the Hitchcock show and movies; most importantly he was part of the team the wrote The African Queen.

Of all of his works the one that has been adapted for other media the most is probably "Evening Primrose," about a poet who rejects society by living what might be the ultimate consumer dream: dwelling secretly in a department store.  It was even turned into a TV musical starring Anthony Perkins, with songs by Stephen Sondheim!

"I sometimes marvel," Collier once wrote, "that a third-rate writer like me has been able to pass himself off as a second-rate writer."

Here are some of my favorite lines from this first-rate writer:

"Alice and Irwin were as simple and as happy as any young couple in a family-style motion picture.  In fact, they were even happier, for people were not looking at them all the time and their joys were not restricted by the censorship code." - Over Insurance

"How happy I might be if only she was less greedy, better tempered, not so addicted to raking up old grudges, more affectionate, with slightly yellower hair, slimmer, and about twenty years younger!  But what is the good of expecting such a woman to reform?" - Three Bears Cottage

Actress and screenwriter: "I think I'd like to play Juliet."
"It's been done."
"Not as I shall do it.  You shall write a new script, especially for me." - Pictures in the Fire

"So Mrs. Beaseley went resentfully along, prepared to endure Hell herself if she could deprive her husband of a little of his Heaven." - Incident on a Lake

"Annoyed with the world, I took a large studio in Hampstead.  Here I resolved to live in utter aloofness, until the world should approach me on its knees, whining it apologies." -Night! Youth! Paris! And the Moon!

"As soon as Einstein declared that space was finite, the price of building sites, both in Heaven and Hell, soared outrageously." -Hell Hath No Fury

"The young man was greatly taken aback to hear a gorilla speak.  However, common sense reminded him that he was in a city in which many creatures enjoyed that faculty, whom, at first sight, or at any hearing, one would hardly credit with sufficient intelligence to have attained it." -Variation on a  Theme

"It is the fate of those who kiss sleeping beauties to be awakened themselves."  -Sleeping Beauty

"The first cognac is utilitarian merely.  It is like a beautiful woman who has, however, devoted herself entirely to doing good, to nursing, for example.  Nothing is more admirable, but one would like to meet her sister." - Old Acquaintance

If you have read this far I have an offer for you.  As I said, my reference to Collier's work in "The Library of Poisonville" is obscure, but it should ring clear to any fan of the man.   If someone can tell me which of his stories I referred to - and where - I will send that person an autographed copy of the magazine or something of equally dubious merit.  First responder only!


15 June 2020

Heartbreaks & Half-Truths


That's the anthology coming out June 18 with one of my stories in it. John Floyd has one in it, too, along with several other people I know. Kate Flora, who founded Level Best Books, accepted my first short story for publication fifteen years ago. K.M. Rockwood suggested the name of a band that appears in one of my novels. Crime writing is a small world.

The back cover copy gives you a good sense of what's in store:

Lovers and losers. Whether it's 1950s Hollywood, a scientific experiment, or a yard sale in suburbia, the twenty-two authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of "heartbreaks and half-truths" in their own inimitable style, where only one thing is certain: Behind every broken heart lies a half-truth. And behind every half-truth lies a secret.

According to my spreadsheet, "Ugly Fat" received fourteen rejections between the end of 2008 and early this year when Judy Penz Sheluk selected it for the anthology. One market told me to re-submit it--and rejected it again. That did wonders for my self-esteem. I assume another market rejected it because I sent it in April 2018 and haven't heard from them yet. That's not unusual, though. I still have seventeen unanswered queries from agents to whom I sent The Whammer Jammers in 2011. That's a major reason I started self-publishing my novels.

I've always loved short stories but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writer's Conference in summer of 2004. Alex Chee, Roxanna Robinson and Chris Offutt were all excellent teachers. Chris also gave me helpful feedback on an early version of what eventually became Blood on the Tracks (Interestingly enough, so did Kate Flora at Crime Bake a year or two later, on a very different draft). I wrote eight or ten short stories in the months after that one-week workshop, and four stories that have seen print came from writing prompts or other suggestions I picked up there.

"Ugly Fat" is different from many of my stories, but similar to a lot of them, too.

Like many of my stories, it has a female protagonist. I worked theater with strong, organized, creative stage managers for thirty years, and most of them were women. My wife is smarter than I am, too (Yes, I grant you, that's no big deal). My novels feature strong women like Valerie Karr, Megan Traine, "Shoobie" Dube, and Svetlana Melanova. Weak or dumb women don't do it for me, and that bias shows up in my writing.

Connie, the protagonist in "Ugly Fat," has been dumped by her cop boyfriend and is now visiting the gym to get back in fighting trim. She stops at a tag sale and finds that her problems are nothing compared to the woman running the sale. Molly's husband dumped her for his secretary and they eloped to Mexico. Now Molly is selling all the guy's clothes, books, and sports gear. She divorced his sorry ass and refers to it as a great diet, in which she lost 170 pounds of ugly fat in one day. Connie sympathizes, but figures out there's more to the story than meets the eye.

The story has dark humor, which I like, and a few music references, also a staple. Telling more would spoil it.

Now, you ask, how is it different from my other stories?

If you don't ask that, you missed your cue.

Well, it's only 2400 words long, one of my shortest published stories. My comfort zone seems to be about 3500--or, if you include my two novellas--about 4300. Excluding the novellas, my two longest stories are roughly 6000 words.

I've always been a process kind of guy, maybe because I taught for so long. More often than not, I know when, where, why, and how I got the idea for a story. I've discussed that before. I try to help people in my workshops realize that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, sometimes several places and ideas at once.

I remember nothing about when or where this story came to me. The draft I sent for the anthology is "Version S," which would be the 19th version. That's far more than usual, and I don't know why there were so many. I usually do five or six drafts over a span of three or four months. Since I sent the story out the first time around Thanksgiving 2008, I probably wrote the first draft in July, most likely after seeing a tag sale or ten within walking distance of my condo any given weekend.

Who knows? Who cares?

Connie's found a home. And she's in good company.

03 June 2020

Time Share


I have a story in the June issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine, and for that I must thank Barb Goffman, who was my inspiration.  Sort of.

I came up with the idea and the title for the story decades ago but I couldn't see a market for it so I never bothered to write it.  Then, last year, Barb announced that she was going to edit an anthology called Crime Travel, featuring crime-related tales of time travel.

And I realized my old idea fit. Sort of. It was about a physicist who hoped to invent time travel, only to discover that that is impossible - however, it turned out that he could travel through an apparently infinite number of universes.

I asked Barb if that concept might fit in her book, and she said it might.  So I wrote the story.  And Barb rejected it, as she had every right to do.

But heck, I had my story now.  Might as well look for a market.  Mystery Weekly Magazine had published one of my stories last year, a tale with a science fiction bent.  So I sent it to them and voila.  Decades after it was first dreamed up, "In Praise of my Assassin" is available now for your reading pleasure.

It's about time.

29 April 2020

Robbing Victor to Pay Shanks


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

14 March 2020

How It All Happened For Me


After work and dinner one night, I sat down in my bedroom, door closed, and wrote in longhand for one hour on a novel I’d begun years earlier. Several months later, when I wrote “the end,” it came out to 105,000 words. I transcribed it onto a computer, and then did nothing for a couple of years.

Finally, I decided to try writing some more, this time directly onto the computer. I also decided to write short stories because they were short. And for me, a lot easier and more fun to write. I also thought it would be a good way to try out different types of stories, using male protagonists as well as female, occasionally even stepping away from mystery to write a speculative story, or even something “literary.”

The local newspaper had a short story contest—1,000 words. I wrote one, submitted it, and didn’t win first place, but was one of four other authors out of fifty submissions who won a dinner at a fancy local restaurant. To say I was surprised and pumped is a huge understatement.

Next I decided to look for a critique group. I ended up joining two. One had three short story published writers who had all attended a community college class together and then started the group. I ate up all their knowledge about point of view, adverbs, other good advice, and specific thoughts about my stories.

I ended up placing a few of my stories, all work-shopped by either or both of the groups, and started on another novel. That also went through one of the groups, and within eight years, I had many short stories and three novels written.

I tried getting an agent for each of the novels. No luck. Then my husband retired, and we hit the road in a motorhome to travel to the United States lower 48. In eleven years, we hit all but four.

And I hardly wrote at all.

But in 2004, I decided to submit one of my novels to a new, small publisher. Several people I knew had signed with the press and were raving about it. I was given a contract for three novels. They first published Sara’s Search on time and with a cover I loved.

Sara's Search
When the month of June came around to publish the second novel, though, it didn’t happen. Several months went by. Promises were made to publish it in October. It had a cover (I didn’t love it as much as the first one, though), it had been edited, and the galleys had been proofed. Christmas came and went, and all of January. I found out that several other writers with the same publisher were having problems. Royalty checks stopped. The publisher no longer answered phone calls or emails.

We all, about fifty of us, became quite concerned. And unfortunately, as a group, we decided to pull our books and ask for the rights back to those already published. Of course, the publisher’s reputation was ruined, but he did the right thing and gave us the rights back, and even gave me the rights to the cover for Sara. All but one author left, sadder but wiser.

Some writers went with other small presses, and several had bad luck with them, as well. I wrote some more novels. I sent them to NY agents. Nothing happened. I was reluctant to try another small publisher. (Another one, WriteWay, had shown interest in another of my books before I placed Sara’s Search, but they went bankrupt before any contracts were signed, so I was leery—authors there, as far as I know, never got their rights back. If they ever did, it took years.) By this time, I had the one published novel and over fifty short stories as publication credits. Didn’t matter.

Revelations
Then something unexpected happened. Electronic books, thanks to Amazon, started to become popular. Writers who had no luck with NY publishing decided to strike out on their own and get their books up for ebook readers. This was not too difficult to do. I watched and waited. I saw that some readers were unhappy with the books coming out because they were poorly written, had glaring spelling and grammar mistakes, and were badly formatted. I also noticed that many of the covers did not look very professional, and many were too dark to be able to read the title and/or authors’ names on the tiny thumbnails used online. So I decided to hire a professional cover artist, and between us, this is what we came up with:

I still like it. Next, the authors I read about who were successful hired professional editors and proofreaders to go over their manuscripts. And finally, if they couldn’t do a good job themselves, they hired yet a third person to format the work for them.

Someday I may change the cover for Sara’s Search because it’s too dark to show up well in a thumbnail. I also want a new paperback version, so that would need to have a back cover

Now I have eleven novels published and over seventy short stories (only one of those self-published). Beginning is the hardest part. After that, persistence and patience will do the job.


And that’s how it all started. I’m open to questions, and if they’d need a long-enough answer, that could become another blog post. So, ask away.

My website: www.janchristensen.com and find me on Facebook: https://bit.ly/2QfNNIr

02 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue Part 1


My wife Barbara claims she has acted in about 80 productions, but I'd say it's at least twice that many. Since we met, she has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, several Shakespearean roles including Feste in 12th Night and Paulina in The Winter's Tale (I directed both of those) and one of the neighbors being spied upon in the Hartford Stage Company's world premiere of the stage adaptation of Rear Window starring Kevin Bacon. She also had a cameo in the remake of that film starring the late Christopher Reeve. Since she also has a reputation for being very good at learning lines, we found ourselves trying to explain what makes dialogue effective...or not.

Last Wednesday, we earned a little extra cash by acting in a training video for caregivers. We've worked with the director and crew before, and they're great: patient, organized, funny, and very good at what they do.

We met the "nurse" in our scene Tuesday for a read-through and shot the six-page, eight-minute scene the next morning. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. for make-up (They had to age me ;-))) and finished a little after noon.

People who aren't used to the routine say, "JEEZE, why so long for eight minutes?"

Well, we had to do five camera set-ups, one on all three of us at a table, one of Barb and me, and one of each of us, which will be edited together later for the best flow. That meant moving the camera and furniture in a small space and tweaking the lights and microphones for each different angle.

Another problem was that because the video is for training caregivers to follow specific guidelines, the nurse's lines had to correspond to the language on a checklist and a training manual. They don't flow trippingly off the tongue and they get repetitive. That means actors can get lost, especially when you start and stop a few times.

I had two speeches that were completely different, but my cue lines were 22 and 20 words, 18 of them the same. For one take, the director wanted to start at one of those cues, and I had to ask, "Is this my first or second response?" because that was the only way I could keep them straight.

If you're writing a short story or novel, that's not a big deal, but if you write for the stage, it becomes crucial. You need to write lines the actors can learn. Remember, we had only one rehearsal and a four-hour shoot to get everything correct five times.

Most of what we say today is geared toward plays, but you can apply it to stories and novels, too.

There are two ways to link (connect) lines so an actor can remember them. When Character A reacts or responds to Character B, it draws the audience into the scene and gets them involved. You can do this with either an ACTION CUE or a LINE CUE.

An ACTION CUE is an event that prompts the character to speak. For example, there's a knock on the door, and the character asks, "Who is it?" If you're writing a story, you can use an action tag here.

When she heard the knock on her locked door, Sarah asked, "Who is it?"

A LINE CUE is the word or sentence the actor talks back to. KIND playwrights (They are rare) often repeat key words in consecutive speeches between two characters. Repetition is best if it's an important verb or noun in the first sentence. If it's not a repeat, a synonym will help.

Sometimes, Character B's speak begins with a sound or letter that was prominent in Character A's speech.Strong Consonants like "P" "T" or "S" are common because they're so audible.

Questions and answers are usually easy to remember. So is cause and effect, where B says something as a response to what Character A did or said. This is a lot like the ACTION CUE.

Chris Knopf uses repetition and synonyms when his series character Sam Acquillo talks with local cop Joe Sullivan. The two paraphrase and mangle each other's previous lines, sometimes turning them into puns or malapropisms. It's funny, but it also adds tension and energy because it shows the two are listening to each other while they butt heads.

American English gains its meaning and nuance from rhythm. In dialogue, the two strong positions are the beginning or the end of a sentence, especially the end. That's where you should put the speech's main point (see what I just did there with the slightly unusual word order?).

I'm afraid the case is past human skill. Prayer is our only resource now, John.

That's weak. The important word (prayer) gets buried in the middle. Try this instead:

I'm afraid the case is past human skill, John. Our only resource now is prayer.

Can you hear and feel the difference?

I saw another such face a year later is weaker than A year later, I saw another such face. 

If you use names--usually direct address--in dialogue, a name at the beginning of a speech tends to make a stronger line, probably because it focuses attention more quickly. It helps indicate the relationship (power) between two characters without the audience being aware of it.  A name at the end tends to be weaker because it creates a falling rhythm.

Henry, please pick up that book      is stronger than      Please pick up that book, Henry. 

If you're writing comedy, put the point or punch at the end. If you want a laugh, you need the joke in a strong position.

Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
That was my wife; that was no lady.                                    (Why aren't you laughing?)

Let's be practical, too. If, in spite of the weak position, the punch gets a laugh early, that laugh will drown out the rest of the line. The audience might miss information. It's also hard on the actor. Think about the action/line cue when you're setting up a joke, too.

Dialogue helps everyone understand what the goal is and how the character tries to achieve it. It also can show the nature and magnitude of the obstacles.
A:  What time is it?
B:  Two thirty.                      
A asks the question to get information. B answers because she has the information and wants to help. There MAY be more going on here– flirting, a power game, whatever. Maybe one character is suggesting that the other one is late...again.
A:  Are you hungry?
B:  Yes.
Is A a nurturing mother, a sadistic torturer, a waiter, or something else?
Is B a child, a captive, a customer, or a potential love conquest?

An indirect answer can add tension.
A:  Can I go in and see him?
B:  Over my dead body. (Or, Not without a warrant, Or, Not until he regains consciousness, Or, Haven't you done enough damage already?
Using specific words and images will make it easier for an actor to learn his lines and develop his or her character, too.

We'll talk more about dialogue and character next time.

07 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner, Part Two


I published the first half of this story on Wednesday.   Better start there or you won't have any idea what's going on.

Here is the big finale...


The widow agreed to talk to them, against Wyngood’s adamant objections, but she insisted that Forillo had to be present too.

“There must be some mistake.”

“You figure this was somebody else’s death card that your husband just happened to tuck into his safe? Have you and Mr. Forillo killed other people?”

“No! But Arthur told me—“

“Did you ever see his death card?’

“No, but—“

“Did you, Mr. Forillo?”

The assistant shook his head. He hadn’t said a word since the safe had opened.

“But you knew he was supposed to died in a fall,” said Staney.

“That’s what he told us.”

“And where were you when your employer died?”

“We already told you. Ms. Duplessis and I were in one of the anterooms on the other side of the hall, finishing the paperwork.”

“That’s what you said,” agreed Merritt. “Funny thing is the techs didn’t find any sheets of paper in that room. They did find a bed sheet in the closet. Apparently it had been on the couch and there were bodily fluids on it. We’ve got a court order to see if the fluids belonged to you and Ms. Duplessis.”

‘They did,” said Forillo.

“Ed,” said the widow, alarmed.

“We’re in love,” he said. “Her husband was a viscious old bastard, but we didn’t kill him.”

Wyngood said “If they were together there they obviously didn’t push someone down the staircase.”

“I don’t know how long they were spreading fluids,” said Merritt, “but we have a twenty minute hole for Mr. Duplessis to die. That’s plenty of time. Plus, Mr. Forillo found the body.”

“Speaking of fluids,” said Staney, “have you two used the death machine?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked the lawyer.

“We’ve already got a court order for blood, counselor. The courts say we can run it through the death-box.”

“Diabetes,” said Forillo, still blank-faced.

“Breast cancer,” said Ms. Duplessis. “Are you happy now?’

“We’re sorry, ma’am,” said Staney. “But the question remains: If you didn’t kill him, how did your names get on that card?”

“Oh god,” said the widow. She buried her face in her hands. “Don’t you see what happened?”

“Why don’t you tell us?”

“Arthur must have found out that we were having an affair. He killed himself out of jealousy. That’s what the death card meant.”

“That makes sense,” said Wyngood. “The machine meant he killed himself because of Talia and Sam.”

“Nice try,” said Merritt. “The problem is juries don’t like complicated stories. If the machine says shot by your uncle the jury is going to assume your Uncle Mike came with a gun, not that Uncle Sam came with a tank.”

“That makes no sense,” said Wyngood.

“Then try this. You’re both under arrest.”



“Machine-gunned by rebels.” Merritt was driving.

“No.”


“Sex with beautiful twins on your ninetieth birthday.”

“That’s it.”

“Hah. You wish. Drowned in a butt of malmsey.”


“A what of what?”

“Barrel of cheap wine. Some English king killed an enemy that way. Katy’s studying Shakespeare.”

“Smart kid. She must take after her mama.”

“Thank God for that.” Merritt pulled into a parking space.

Staney tapped his fingers on the plastic envelope that held the death card. “Give me a couple of minutes. I want to drop this at the lab.”


They decided to let Talia and Ed, as they called them now, stew in separate rooms at the station. After two hours they decided it was time.

“Divide and conquer,” said Merritt. “I’ll take the stud.”

“Knock yourself out,” said Staney and entered the widow’s room.

She looked like hell. Her eyes were red, her face was grim. “I’m not saying a word until Charlotte gets back. She’s arranging bail.”

“That’s fine, Ms. Duplessis. I don’t have a single question for you. I just want to tell you what’s going on. Detective Merritt is in the next room talking to your lover, who has not reached a lawyer yet. Merritt will tell him that there are two ways this can go. Either the jury is going to hear about the poor abused wife who was seduced by her husband’s evil assistant--”

“That’s not true!”

“Let me finish. The other choice is that the jury will hear that the black widow talked the innocent young man into killing her hubby.”

He shrugged. “Whoever confesses first frames the story and gets the best deal. My partner is telling your partner that Ms. Wyngood will convince you to sell him out before his lawyer finds the precinct house.”

Talia banged her hands flat on the table. “But we didn’t do anything!

“The death machine says you did and no one has proved one wrong yet.”

“Ed is not going to betray me. I have faith in him.”

“The real question,” said Staney, “is whether he has faith in you.”



Wyngood came back, swearing about the evil incompetence of judges, none of whom apparently saw the wisdom of holding emergency bail hearings for wealthy murder suspects. The lovers were still holding out an hour later when the detectives stopped for a coffee break. Staney had just had a first sip when his phone buzzed. He read the ID and looked at his partner. “Back in a few.”

He hurried to the crime lab where Roma, the questioned document man, was waiting for him.

“Why this one?” Roma held up the envelope with the death card. “You see hundreds of these things a year. Why did you send this one to me?”

“First tell me what you found.”

Roma shrugged. “Card stock is one hundred percent legit. Ditto the ink and font.”

Staney scowled. “So it’s real.”

“Not so fast. It’s time to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson.”

“Who’s he? A coroner?”

“Nope. He was an English dude who wrote dictionaries hundreds of years ago. But he also reviewed a book – not a dictionary – and he said ‘this is a good and original book, but the good parts are not original, and the original parts—”

“Are not good. I get it. But what does that have to do with the death card?”

Roma brandished the item again. “The card stock is used by all the Cassandroid machines. The ink and font are standard for the Mortellis Corporation.”

“So they shouldn’t be on the same card.”

“Bingo. This is the first serious forgery of a death card I ever saw. It took someone with access to good equipment.”

“How about a publisher who also owns art galleries?”

“Jackpot.”



“About time you got back,” said Merritt. “Forillo’s lawyer says he’s ready to cop a deal. You’ll never guess, but it turns out it was the widow’s idea and he was practically an innocent bystander.”

“No deal on the deal,” said Staney. “Get him into Conference Room C. I’ll fetch the ladies.”

The widow was crying and her lawyer looked ready to commit grievous bodily harm on somebody.

“Your partner was just in here, gloating,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of lie you talked Mr. Torillo into—“

“Ms. Duplessis can walk out of here with a clean slate in half an hour,” said Staney. “Or you can lecture me. What’s your pleasure?”



Room C had a long table, but it wasn’t long enough for the former lovers, who wanted nothing to do with each other. They sat at opposite ends, refusing to look in each other’s directions.

Wyngood and Forillo’s lawyer – fresh from the bar exam, by the look of him – were at their clients’ sides. Merritt sat between like a referee.

Staney stood. “You were right about one thing, Ms. Duplessis. Your husband somehow discovered you two were having an affair. He decided to kill himself.”

“Out of jealousy?” asked Merritt.

“I imagine that was the last straw. Did you know he had MS?”

Talia’s eyes went wide. “The doctor’s office called once about a test for MS. He said it was a mistake.”

“We can check his medical records, but I think we’ll find that he did. He knew it wouldn’t kill him – I’m guessing his death card really did say he would die in a fall – but out of a desire for vengeance, he decided to frame you two for murder.”

“Actually,” said Ed, “I’m surprised the old bastard didn’t try to kill us.”

Staney shook his head. “Breast cancer. Diabetes. Remember? He already knew how you were going to die.

“So he printed a false death card and killed himself where there would be plenty of people to notice that you two were conspicuously absent. I’m guessing he waited until he saw you sneak off to your hideaway. Then he headed for the staircase.”

“What about the blow to the head?” asked Merritt.

“Did it himself with his cane. One blow, hard enough to draw blood. Takes determination but he had enough hate in his heart for it, don't you think? Then the tumble down the stairs, which he had every reason to believe would be fatal.”

“So that’s it?” said Wyngood. “They’re free to go?”

“With thanks for their cooperation.”

Ed stood up, moving toward the widow, arms outstretched.

Talia stepped back like had had rabies. “Don’t come near me, you – you – backstabber! You were ready to perjure me into prison!”

Ed stammered something. It didn’t do any good.

“Listen,” said Staney. “Listen!”

Everyone turned to him,

“Mr. Duplessis’s last wish was that you two would be miserable for the rest of your lives. Are you going to going to give him the satisfaction?”

Talia turned to Ed, who was ready and waiting.

“Guess not,” said Merritt.



“What made you think it was a frame?” Merritt asked. They were at their computers, closing up files.

“A matter of character, I guess. We were supposed to think Duplessis knew his wife and assistant were going to kill him, but that he didn’t tell them, or try to do anything about it.” Staney frowned. “From what we knew about the guy, I didn’t think he would go that route. Frankly, I don’t think most people could. I mean, knowing someone close to them was going to be the cause of their death and going on like nothing was wrong? That’s got to be hard as hell.”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t sound so difficult.”

“When was the last time you went to a domestic disturbance?”

“Okay, you’ve got a point. I admit that was a good piece of detective work. Just don’t get a swelled head over it. Hey! There’s your cause. Swelled head.”

“No.”

“Nibbled to death by ducks.”

“Seems like it sometimes.”