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

30 January 2019

Besty McBestface 2018

by Robert Lopresti

I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is my tenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year, as determined by me.   I will have to do something to celebrate that  in a month or two.  I should remind you that these reviews are taken from the longer weekly summaries I do at Little Big Crimes.

This year was 16% worse than last, insert political joke here, based on my best-of list dropping from 18 to 15.  Writers, was it you or was it me?   Speaking of writers, eleven were men, five women.  (One story had two authors.)  Two authors were British, one Canadian.

The big winner this year was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, with four stories.  Three other sources supplied two each: Akashic Press's Noir Cities series, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and the anthology Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace.

Three stories are historical, two are funny, and one has fantasy elements.   Six have surprise endings.  Remarkably, five of the authors are making repeat appearances.  All right, let's dig down into the data.

Brookmyre, Chris, "The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle,"  in Bloody Scotland, edited by James Crawford, Pegasus, 2018.

There's a historical reenactment going on at Bothwell Castle in Scotland and the place is crowded with tourists.  Some very bad people take advantage of the confusion, and soon they are taking hostages and making demands.

The cops arrive but the hostages's best chance for rescue might be Sanny and Sid, two young sneak thieves who were scooped up with the tourists.

Brosky, Ken. "The Cold Hunt," Mystery Weekly Magazine, August 2018.

Roxy is a young American biologist, studying tigers in Siberia.  She and her mentor, Dr. Siddig, have been called to investigation what appears to be a killing by a big cat.  The evidence of footprints and corpse show that the tiger had a big meal of the flesh of a local man.  But the evidence does not prove that the man was alive when the tiger arrived.

The villagers are ready to hunt and kill the beast.  Can the scientists prove it is innocent of the killing - if indeed it is?

Day, Russell, "The Icing on the Cake," in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.  

Gareth is a gofer for Mr. Driscoll, a British crime boss.  Today his mission is to drive a Jaguar dow to a prison where the car's owner, Harry the Spider Linton, is being released after seven years for robbing a post office.  It turns out that Harry thinks he owes his incarceration to the stupidity of Mr. Driscoll.

Harry's rage is so feverish that it seems like the trip may end prematurely.  Gareth might be in danger.  What will happen if/when Harry arrives at his old mate's mansion, and encounters the man he sees as the cause of his lost years?


Greenaway, R.M. "The Threshold,"  in Vancouver Noir, edited by Sam Wiebe, Akashic Press, 2018.

The publisher gave me a free copy of this book.  

Blaine is a photographer.  Perhaps a bit obsessive about it.  And one morning, just at sunrise, he's out snapping pictures at the Vancouver waterfront and he find a very fresh corpse.  Of course he knows he should call 911, but the lighting is perfect for capturing the corpse, and how long will that last?  Surely it won't hurt if he just changes lenses and takes a couple of artful frames...

And then the body twitches, and things get complicated.



Hallman, Tom, Jr. "Kindness,"  in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.

Phil's family moved to an inner city neighborhood that is gentrifying.  Great house, nice neighbors.  But then the old man across the street dies and his house is inherited by a jerk who parties all night The jerk is a huge guy who "reminded me of one of those men featured on cable shows taking viewers inside America's roughest prisons."

When this guy takes an unhealthy interest in Phil's teenage daughter things seem really desperate.  But  then Phil meets Deke, a member of a criminal motorcycle gang, and helps him with a problem...  Twice I thought I knew where this story was headed. Twice I was wrong.

Lang, Preston, "Top Ten Vacation Selfies of Youtube Stars," in Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Ron Earl Phillips,  Shotgun Honey, 2018.

Michael Roth used to be a reporter.  Or maybe we should say he is currently a reporter without a job, struggling to survive as a freelancer, writing Internet clickbait. (See the title of this story.)

He gets a call from somebody named Brack who used to be a hitman.  Would he like to meet and talk about Brack's illustrious career?   He would.  But Brack, as it turns out,  has another, more dangerous offer to make...


Law, Janice, "The Crucial Game,"  in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.

This is the fourth appearance on my annual best-of list by my  friend and fellow SleuthSayer.  No one else has made it to the top of the heap more than three times, so far. 

Since his wife died Frank has been lonely and somewhat obsessed with hockey.  Walking through Manhattan he sees a "little makeshift stand offering sports CDs and DVDS..."  The merchant is "thin, almost gaunt, and very dark so that his large eyes gleamed above the bold cheekbones and the wide, and to Frank's mind, somewhat predatory nose."  Sounds a bit spooky?  How about when he calls out: "I have what you need"? 


Neville, Stuart, "Faith," in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.

The day I lost my belief was the same day Mrs. Garrick asked me to help kill her husband.

The narrator is an Irish clergyman, five years a widower. Mrs. Garrick's husband was brutally maimed in a terrorist attack.  Our protagonist tries to comfort her and one thing leads to another.

Classic noir, right?  But Neville has a surprise or two up his sleeve.

Page, Anita,  "Isaac's Daughters," in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.

This is Anita Page's second appearance on the winner's list.

The narrator is an old woman, relating  how she came to America from Russia at the age of fourteen in 1911.  The reason for the voyage is that her mother has just received a message that "your Isaac has taken up with a whore from Galicia."

They start out on the difficult voyage, and things happen. The family is divided between the father and narrator who you might describe as new-world rationalists, and the mother and sister who are subject to old-world superstitions, believing in demons and lucky charms.  Which side, if either, will win? 

Perks, Micah, "Treasure island,"  in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.

The publisher gave me a free copy of this book.  

Mr. Nowicki is, he tells us, "a seventy-two-two-year-old retired middle school assistant principal who has lived in Grant Park for forty years."  He is furious about what is happening in his neighborhood so he has gone to a website called Good Neighbor!(tm) to report what he sees.

And he has strong opinions about that.  For example he has a problem with his neighbor who is (the internal quotation marks are his): "a 'writer' who 'works' from home.  ('Writer' always takes morning tea on his porch in his pajamas and at five p.m., takes cocktail on porch, still in his pajamas.  You've probably seen him on your way to and from actual work.)"

Pronzini, Bill and Barry N. Malzberg, "Night Walker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2018.

This is Pronzini's second appearance on my annual Best-of bash.

Henry Boyd's life changed forever when a moment of his own carelessness destroyed his family.  He hoped to be sent to prison but the courts thought otherwise.  He can't face the thought of suicide so now he walks through the night, hoping some criminal will do to him what he lacks the courage to do to himself.  But something else happens.

Richardson, Travis, "Plan Z," in Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace, edited by Chris Rhatigan and Ron Earl Phillips, Shotgun Honey, 2018.

This is a simple story of three guys who "decide to up their game from B&E and liquor stores."  We don't learn much about them except what positions they played in Little League.

So, not a lot of character development.  What the story has is a wonderful way of unwrapping the adventures of our luckless trio.  Plan A is to rob a check-cashing joint.  They throw that over for Plan B which is to rob an armored car that Uncle Arnie drives.  But Arnie gets fired which leads to Plan C.  When Arnie shows up drunk we move on to Plan D...


Rusch, Kristine Kathryn, "The Wedding Ring,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.

Rusch is making her third appearance in Best-of Land.

Serena is a classics professor and after a bad breakup she goes to Las Vegas for what she calls her Liberation Vacation.  There she meets the man of her dreams.  Shortly after that they are married.  Shortly after that he disappears, taking her cash, self-confidence, and much more.  One cop says about the crooks: "They're not in it for the money.  They're in it to destroy their marks."

Serena replies.  "They didn't destroy me...  I'm right here. And I'm going to destroy them right back."


Rutter, Eric, "Hateful in the Eyes of God,"  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2018.


This is Rutter's second appearance in my best-of lists.

It is London in the 1830s.  John Alcorn is a freelance reporter, a "penny-a-liner."  His specialty is the criminal courts because, then as now, scandal is always popular.  He is in the gallery when Charles Stanbridge is brought into the courtroom.  This fine, outstanding married gentleman has been accused of indecent assault, which is a reduced version of the charge of "the infamous crime,"  alias, homosexuality.  That greater offense could get a man sentenced to exile or even death.

Alcorn offers to sell his story on the case to the defendant rather that to the press, a form of extortion which was perfectly legal.  But when Stanbridge apparently kills himself the reporter feels guilt and tries to learn more about the case.  And so he, and we, find out a good deal about the secret life of what we would call gay men, but what in this era were called sods or Mary Anns.


Thielman, Mark, "The Black Drop of Venus," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2018.

This is Thielman's second appearance here, both for historical mysteries that won the Black Orchid Novella Award.

It is 1769, deep in the South Pacific.  Our narrator is Joseph Banks, chief naturalist on the HMS Endeavour, which has been sent on a scientific investigation to observe the Transit of Venus.  When one of Banks's assistants is found with his throat cut just as they arrive at Tahiti, Banks is ordered to investigate the crime by none other than Captain James Cook.  He is handicapped by his lack of knowledge of navy ways and nautical  vocabulary, but he brings back the facts which allow Cook to cleverly determine the identity of the murderer.

22 January 2019

I've Crossed A Line -- Warning: Rated X for Expletives

by Barb Goffman

You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take the New York out of the girl. That's my explanation for why I often pepper my speech with expletives. Anyone who read my 2017 column  titled "The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing" knows I'm quite comfortable with the word fuck. I've used it and other curse words in my stories without issue.

How often? I just ran a search of my published stories, and here are the results:

  • Asshole -- used in two stories (6% of all my published stories).
  • Fuck -- used in two stories (6%). A surprisingly low number. I'll have to work on that.
  • Shit -- used in four stories (12%).
  • Bastard -- used in five stories (16%).
  • Bitch -- used in fifteen stories (48%!). I might have to tone this one down.
Given these results, you'd think I didn't often write light cozy stories. And yet there's one big curse word missing from the list. One word that, until last week, I had never used in a published story. Can you figure out what it is? Here's a hint: it rhymes with the word for the smallest animal in a litter. See, I have so much trouble with this word, I'm squeamish about even typing it here, in an academic (ish) discussion about using curse words in my fiction. The word is ...

Cunt. There I said it.

And I'm cringing.

There is just something about this word that, to me at least, crosses a line. I know some of you are reading this thinking I must have no lines. But I do. And cunt crosses it. That's why I never say it. And until now I've never used it in my fiction.

So why did I make this exception? And was it a good choice?

To answer these questions, let's turn to the story in question. It's my newest story, "Punching Bag," which was published last week in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries, an e-zine that showcases crime flash fiction. I'm delighted that not only did editors BJ and Brandon Bourg choose to publish it, but they also chose it as the cover story and as the editors' choice story for the issue. It's the story of the darkest day in an emotionally abused teenage girl's life.

Let's stop here for a moment. I'm afraid that anything I say from here on will ruin the story for you if you haven't read it. So please go do so. The story is only 748 words long--the equivalent of three double-spaced pages. You can read it really quickly by clicking on the title in the prior paragraph. Then come back.

Okay, you've read it? Good. (I hope you liked it.)

You'll notice that the use of curse words is minimal. Toward the end the mom says the daughter is stupid and calls her a "disappointing, ungrateful bitch," and other unspecified names. That was all I planned to say about the matter originally, figuring readers could extrapolate from there. But one of my trusted beta readers told me she didn't think the girl was justified in killing her parents. She thought the girl came across as spoiled and selfish. I was surprised. I definitely didn't want that. I wanted readers to understand this girl, to be on her side, despite that she does a horrible thing. So I felt I needed to up the ante. That's when I added the part about her mom calling her a "self-centered cunt."

I figured if anything in this story was going to turn readers' perception of this girl from spoiled to sort-of justified, it would be that. If the word cunt crosses a line for me, I hoped, it would cross a line for readers, too--at least any readers whose line hadn't already been crossed by the mom's behavior.

So I submitted the story. But I worried. Was the use of the word cunt too much? Would it keep the story from being accepted? Then, once the story was accepted, I worried about readers. Would the word turn them off? Especially readers who know me primarily for my lighthearted, funny stories? The answer: So far, so good. I've gotten some feedback on "Punching Bag," and it's all been positive, with no one mentioning my use of that word. This response has helped me feel better about my choice, despite that the word still makes me cringe.

What do you think? Would you have been on the girl's side at the end if I hadn't included the "self-centered cunt" line? Or did the line push you onto the girl's side? Or do you think I went too far? What words cross your line?

One final note to my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti: Last week you wrote briefly about your newest flash short story (which is fewer than 700 words long), saying you were keeping things short because only English professors could get away with writing something about a story that is longer than the story itself. Ha ha, Rob! I have proven you wrong, because this blog about "Punching Bag" (excluding this paragraph) is 29 words longer than the story itself, and I am no English professor. Do I get a prize? Please don't make me become an English professor. I wouldn't last. I'd surely get written up for cursing in front of my students.

11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)

By Art Taylor

In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:


  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 


Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!



05 January 2019

Short Memories: 2018 in Review


by John M. Floyd



Happy New Year! I realize I'm a little late, and that the new year's almost a week old now--but since it's my duty here at the SleuthSayers office to post a column every first, third, and fifth Saturday, and since December had five Saturdays, well, here I am again, and I'm finding that I'm not yet in a 2019 frame of mind.

Looking back, 2018 had its ups and downs, but on the literary front things held pretty steady. Readingwise, I consumed several good novels: Past Tense, Lee Child; The Reckoning, John Grisham; Bluff, Michael Kardos; The Outsider, Stephen King; Gravesend, William Boyle; Escape to the Biltmore, Patricia Gaddis; Blind Spot, Reed Farrell Coleman; Give-A-Damn Jones, Bill Pronzini; Elevation, Stephen King; and eleven books in the Hap & Leonard series by Joe R. Lansdale (I really like Joe Lansdale). Writingwise, I produced no novels of my own, just more short stories--and, as I did at the beginning of last year, I've put together some statistics on those.


The 2018 story board

According to my hi-tech method of recordkeeping (a three-ring binder I rescued from the office trashcan when I retired from IBM years ago), I had 32 stories published in magazines and anthologies this past year and 30 more appeared in a collection from my publisher Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press, in October. And if you're interested in short-story markets--especially mystery markets--I've also noted the publications that these stories appeared in. Here's my list:


"Scavenger Hunt"--Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Jan/Feb 2018 issue
"Lights Out"--Flash Bang Mysteries, Jan 2018
"Molly's Plan" (translation)--Inostrannaya Literatura, Jan 2018
"Two in the Bush"--Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Issue #2. 2018
"While You Were Out"--Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring 2018
"True Colors"--Kings River Life, April 14, 2018
"Mockingbird Thief"--Woman's World, April 18, 2018
"Cornbread Cookoff"--Woman's World, May 21, 2018
"Fun and Games"--Woman's World, June 11, 2018
"Runaway Bouquet"--Woman's World, June 25, 2018
"A Musical Clue"--Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer 2018
"Too Good to Be True"--Woman's World, July 16. 2018
"Diversions"--Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Issue #3, 2018
"The Blue Delta"--Sanctuary anthology, Darkhouse Books, July 2018
"Foreverglow"--The Strand Magazine, June-Oct 2018
"Easy as Pie"--Woman's World, August 8, 2018
"Lucy's Gold"--Saddlebag Dispatches, Spring/Summer 2018
"The Winslow Tunnel"--Bewildering Stories (serialized, Issues 767-768), 2018
"According to Luke"--Children of the Sky anthology, Aug 2018
"Home Delivery"--Woman's World, Aug 20, 2018
"The Music of Angels"--The Saturday Evening Post, Sep/Oct 2018
"Lightning"--Mystery Weekly, Sep 2018
"Frontier Justice"--Florida Happens (Bouchercon anthology), Sep 2018
"Half-Baked Plan"--Woman's World, Oct 1, 2018
"Gun Work"--The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, Oct 2, 2018
"Ye Olde Crime Scene"--Flash Bang Mysteries, Fall 2018
"Lucifer"--Under the Full Moon's Light anthology, Owl Hollow Press, Oct 2018
"Lucian's Cadillac"--The Strand Magazine, Oct 2018-Jan 2019
"Getting Out Alive"--Landfall anthology, Level Best Books, Nov 2018
"Cracking the Code"--Woman's World, Nov 19, 2018
"Annabelle"--Deep South Magazine, Nov 2018
"Disorganized Crime"--Woman's World, Nov 26, 2018

And . . .

The Barrens--a hardcover collection released Oct 30, 2018, by Dogwood Press. It includes two of my original stories ("Dawson's Curse" and "The Barrens") and 28 of my previously published stories.


NOTE: I also had two stories published in December--"On the Road With Mary Jo" in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and "Poetic Justice" in Woman's World--but I didn't count them here because the issue dates are Jan/Feb 2019 (EQMM) and January 7, 2019 (WW).


Behind-the-scenes numbers

Of my 62 stories that were published in 2018, 19 appeared in print magazines, 6 in print anthologies, 7 in online publications, and 30 in the collection mentioned above. Of the 32 stories published outside the collection, 28 went to paying markets, 24 to repeat markets, and 8 to new markets. One was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories and all the rest were unsolicited submissions. Genrewise, one story was a western, one was science fiction, one was fantasy, one was a romance, and 28 were mysteries (although some were cross-genre--mystery/western, mystery/fantasy, mystery/romance, etc.). Of those 32, 25 were original stories and 7 were reprints. As for settings, 17 took place in my home state of Mississippi and 15 were set elsewhere, and 16 were installments in a series (five different series, actually) and 16 were standalone stories. POVwise, 29 were third-person and 3 were first-person. Finally, 14 of the stories were less than 1000 words, 9 were between 1000 and 4000, and 9 were more than 4000.

As of this moment, 15 other stories have been accepted and will be published shortly and 36 more have been submitted and are sitting in various to-be-read queues and slush piles, awaiting a decision.

In the "alas and alack" department, I also received 28 rejections last year, from 17 different markets. Sad but true.


Questions

To any writer friends who might still be reading this post, how was 2018 for you? Did you sell a novel or a collection or a short story, or have one (or more) published? What great stories/novels did you read? Do you write an ongoing series, in either novels or stories? Do you have specific writing projects in progress, or upcoming in 2019? If you're a short-story writer, did you try to target only markets that pay professional rates?

Also, and selfishly: Do any of you know about mystery markets that I'm overlooking? As always, I try to check Sandra Seamans's wonderful blog My Little Corner regularly to find targets for my submissions. If you don't use that resource, you should!




That's it for this column, and for my literary memories of 2018. Best of luck to all of you, and may this new year be your best ever!







21 December 2018

The Best of Brittain

by Josh Pachter

One spring day when I was in the ninth grade, my English teacher — Mary Ryan — handed me a copy of the June 1966 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and told me she thought I might find it interesting. She was right, and her thoughtful gift wound up changing my life.

That first EQMM basically dropped into my hands, like manna from Heaven. The next month, though — and every month thereafter until I graduated from high school and went off to college — I had to pedal my bike up Old Jerusalem Road in Levittown, New York, to the candy store a mile away to buy a copy of the new issue (along with the latest Mad, of course) from their magazine rack.

My second issue, dated July 1967, contained a delightful story called “The Woman Who Read Rex Stout,” by someone named William Brittain. It was the fourth entry in a series that had begun the previous year, with Brittain’s “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr” and “The Man Who Read Ellery Queen” appearing back to back in the December ’65 issue.  (The third “Man Who Read” story, intriguingly titled “The Man Who Didn’t Read,” came out in May ’66, just before I became a regular reader.)

A fifth story, “The Boy Who Read Agatha Christie,” was published in December ’66, and the next year Brittain created a new series character, Leonard Strang, science teacher at Aldershot High School. Mr. Strang featured in three 1967 stories, and a fourth case for the science teacher and a sixth “Man Who Read” story came out in 1968.

Mr. Strang’s fourth adventure was in the December 1968 EQMM, and that was a very special issue for me, since it also included my own first-ever published piece of fiction, “E.Q. Griffen Earns His Name,” written when I was sixteen years old and published shortly after my seventeenth birthday, when I was a high-school senior.

Since I was now officially a “professional” author, I was eligible for membership in the Mystery Writers of America. I joined, and — though I was too young to drink the cocktails — began taking the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan for the MWA’s monthly cocktail parties in its offices in the shabby old Hotel Seville. The membership — all at least a couple of decades older than me — treated me with amused tolerance, and I became friendly with an assortment of people who, over the previous couple of years, had become my heroes: Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Hilary Waugh, Lawrence Treat, Robert Bloch, Hans Holzer, Chris Steinbrenner (who tended the bar and could be counted on to slip me a couple of those cocktails I wasn’t old enough to drink), and others.

Four married couples — in each of which it was the husband who was the crime writer — took me under their wings and made me feel as if I was truly a member of a warm extended family: Ed and Pat Hoch, Stan and Marilyn Cohen, John and Barbara Lutz … and Bill and Ginny Brittain.

Bill wound up writing a total of eleven “Man Who Read” stories and thirty-two featuring Leonard Strang, all published in the pages of EQMM between 1965 and 1983. Between ’64 and ’77, he also penned twenty-nine standalones, eight (including a pair credited to “James Knox”) to Queen’s, twenty to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (which ran his first-ever story, ironically titled “Joshua,” in its October ’64 issue, fourteen months before Bill cracked EQMM), and a single tale, his last published short story, “The Ferret Man,” to Antares.


After that, Bill decided to try his hand at writing books for younger readers, beginning with All the Money in the World in 1979 and ending with The Wizards and the Monster in 1994; bookended between those two were an even dozen others, including the Newbury Honor winner The Wish Giver in 1983.

Meanwhile, I went to college and grad school, taught for a year and a half at what was then Slippery Rock State College (now Slippery Rock University) in — I’m not making this up — Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, and in 1976 I moved overseas, first to The Netherlands and eventually to Germany.

Bill and Ginny and I exchanged transatlantic snail mail for several years, but eventually lost touch.

And, to my regret, I never picked up the thread of our friendship after returning to the US in 1991. By then, Bill — himself a teacher, though he taught English at the junior-high level, not science to high-schoolers like Mr. Strang — had retired, and he and Ginny settled in Asheville, North Carolina, where they lived until his death on December 16, 2011, his eighty-first birthday. Not long after he passed on, Ginny returned to upstate New York to be close to their daughter, Sue Brittain Gawley.
 
Two years ago, in 2016, Dale Andrews and I decided to co-edit The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, a book I’d originally proposed to Frederic Dannay — who was half of the Ellery Queen writing team — in the early ‘70s. The book (which was published by Wildside Press earlier this year, and which you can order in hard cover, paperback, or for Kindle apps and readers here) consists of three sections: Pastiches (which are serious recreations of the Ellery Queen characters), Parodies (which poke fun at EQ, turning him into such bizarre incarnations of himself as Celery Keen and Elroy Quinn), and Potpourri (which includes stories inspired by Ellery the author, Ellery the editor, and Ellery the character).

One piece I knew had to be included in the Potpourri section was my old friend Bill Brittain’s “The Man Who Read Ellery Queen.” So I did some sleuthing of my own, and came up with a phone number for Ginny, who doesn’t use email. I called her, and we talked for an hour, our first conversation in decades. We had a wonderful talk, and she was happy to grant Dale and I permission to use Bill’s story in our book.

So happy, in fact, that I asked her how she’d feel about a possible collection of only Bill’s stories. That idea rocketed her straight up to Cloud Nine, and as soon as we got off the phone I emailed Doug Greene and Jeff Marks, the publishers at Crippen & Landru, to suggest a book I wanted to call The Man Who Read Mr. Strang: The Collected Short Fiction of William Brittain.

Within an hour, I had enthusiastic yesses from both of them, and I got to work.

A volume containing all eleven “Man Who Read” stories and all thirty-two of the Mr. Strangs would have been prohibitively expensive to produce, so we ultimately agreed to include all of the “Man Who Read” tales and seven of the Mr. Strangs (three from the ‘60s and two each from the ‘70s and early ‘80s).

Janet Hutchings, Jackie Sherbow, and Deanna McLafferty of EQMM graciously scanned and emailed me most of the stories, and Charles Ardai, Jon Breen, Mike Nevins, Bill Pronzini, and Arthur Vidro provided the rest of them. I typed them up and edited them lightly and wrote an introduction, Sue Gawley wrote a nostalgic afterword, and at Robert Lopresti’s suggestion I researched and compiled a comprehensive checklist of all of Bill’s publications for the back of the book.

In June of this year, I took my brand-new Kia Sportage out for its first road trip and drove from my home in Northern Virginia up to Rochester, New York, to have dinner with my old friend Patricia Hoch. The Hochs and the Brittains had been friends in Rochester before either Ed or Bill began to publish and had remained close for many years after both writing careers began, but they, too, had lost touch after the Brittains moved to North Carolina. So the next day I took Pat to Buffalo to have a splendiferous Italian lunch with Ginny and Sue., and this was the first time Pat and Ginny had seen each other in thirty years.

The original plan was for my book of Bill’s stories to come out in September, and I was eager to hand-deliver copies to Ginny and Sue. The book wound up delayed by a couple of months, though — due to no fault of the fabulous folks at Crippen & Landru! — and, by the time it finally came out last month, now titled The Man Who Read Mysteries: The Short Fiction of William Brittain, it was Thanksgiving weekend and I couldn’t get away. If you’d like a copy, you can order it directly from C&L here; I’ve arranged that whatever income I would normally receive for having edited the book will go directly to Ginny, so I hope you’ll buy lots of copies! It is now also available on Amazon.

I’ll go up to Buffalo and Rochester again in the spring, to share more time with Ginny and Sue and Pat and schmooze about the old days when I was a punk teenager just getting started in this crazy business and Ed and Pat and Bill and Ginny were much kinder to me than I could possibly have deserved. I’m looking forward to that.

Meanwhile, Dale and I are working on The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, and Doug and Jeff tell me that, if The Man Who Read Mysteries sells as well as they think it will — according to Doug, Bill is “one of the authors most requested by Crippen & Landru readers throughout its 25-year history” — they’d like me to do a second volume, including the rest of the Mr. Strangs.

I can’t wait!

15 December 2018

A Series Conversation


by John M. Floyd



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


The reading list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The writing list

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

1. Angela Potts and Charles "Chunky" Jones

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

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

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

3. Private investigator Will Parker

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

4. Katie and Anna Rogers

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

5. Sheriff Ray Douglas

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


Pluses/minuses

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

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

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

Disadvantages of writing a series:

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

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

Questions

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

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




28 October 2018

The Rashomon Effect

by R.T. Lawton

In 1922, a short story titled "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa was published in the January edition of the Japanese monthly, Shincho. This short story tells a tale about the rape of a samurai's wife and the subsequent murder of that samurai from the point of view of several different characters, and with contradictory information from one character to the next.

Twenty-eight years later, movie director Akira, Kurosawa (famous director of The Seven Samurai) used Akutagawa's short story as the basis to make his 1950 film, Rashomon. Similar to the short story, Rashomon is a tale told by four witnesses to a rape and murder: the bandit, the samurai's wife, the murdered samurai who tells his part through a medium, and a woodcutter who appears to have no bias in his telling. All of the witnesses seem to agree on some facts, but disagree on others. These disagreements on the same incident though, may be subjective, self-serving or due to the ego of that witness. Because of the contradictions in the stories of each witness, the actors in this film asked the director which version was the truth. Kurosawa replied that his film was meant to explore multiple realities rather than just one truth.

Then along comes Martin Ritt, who remakes the Japanese Rashomon into a 1964 American western titled The Outrage. Paul Newman is cast in the role of the bandit Juan Carrasco, William Shatner as a disillusioned preacher, Howard Da Silva as an unsuccessful prospector, Edward G. Robinson as a cynical conman. and Paul Fix as an old Indian shaman. Laurence Harvey plays an aristocratic Southerner married to Nina, who is played by Claire Bloom. At the bandit's trial, Juan (Paul Newman) claims he killed the husband (the Southerner) in a duel. The wife claims she stabbed her husband to death because he blamed her for encouraging the bandit, which led to the rape, while the dead husband (through the old Indian shaman) claimed he committed suicide as the manner of his death. The prospector has a fourth version for the trial.

In later years, television and movies used The Rashomon Effect to reveal "the truth" in the final version of some of their stories, which put a neat and tidy ending on those Hollywood's stories. However, in real life, a Rashomon effect is more like what cops deal with on the street whenever an incident happens, especially one that involves the emotions or prejudices of the witnesses. By the time interviews start with an incident involving law enforcement, the recollection of the events and timeline, descriptions of perpetrators and vehicles, types of guns or if there actually were any guns and/or the type and color of clothing worn by alleged suspects can vary quite a bit.

For our purposes as writers, The Rashomon Effect may be defined as a story told by several witnesses or alleged witnesses to the same incident. Each story as told by a separate witness and from their Point of View, will have some of the facts straight, but their story may also be colored or influenced by their personal biases, opinions, or even flavored to benefit themselves or others. Each witness story will contradict some of the alleged facts in the stories of other witnesses. The final version may be "the truth." Or not.

Curiosity led me to research The Roshomon Effect. And now that I have, I'm intrigued enough with the process to attempt a short story using that method. I already have the main characters and a skeleton plot mapped out. Now, I merely need to write my six-part story and see if all the contradictory parts fit.

But then, it's always something, isn't it?

#

And now for a little Blatant Self-Promotion:

The November/December 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine has my story, "Vet's Day," 11th in my Holiday Burglars series. As with many of the titles in this series, I like putting double meanings into the title. In this episode, Beaumont finds himself compelled to do a favor for his old Army First Sergeant who once had Beaumont running an off-the-books NCO Club in a Muslim country in exchange for an early out from the military. Due to a lack of personal funds, Beaumont figures the only way he can complete the favor now asked by his old sergeant is for him to commit a strange burglary. And, in order to talk his partner Yarnell into going along with him on this job, Beaumont must agree to something that Yarnell wants in return.

NOTE: Fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and Rob Lopresti also have short stories in this issue.

Catch ya later.

09 October 2018

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected

by Barb Goffman

Whether you're a seasoned writer or a first-timer, submitting a short story to any publication probably involves anxiety. You wouldn't have written the story if you didn't enjoy doing it. You wouldn't have submitted the story for publication if you didn't hope it's good enough and want the editor to say yes.

Hearing that someone else likes your work is validating. Knowing that strangers will read your work is invigorating. Telling your family that you made a sale is good for the soul.

But not every story sells, especially on first submission. Editors usually try to be kind in their rejection letters, at least in my experience. They might say that they got a lot of submissions, and  many of the stories were wonderful, but they simply couldn't take them all. Or they might say that your story just wasn't a good fit for the publication, but please don't take it personally. Or they might say that they received a very similar story from someone else and simply couldn't publish both in the same book. It's this last type of rejection I'm going to focus on here. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Like an excuse.
There are all kinds of rejection.

And yet ...

I can tell you from personal experience that authors sometimes get very similar ideas. Sometimes this might be expected, especially when anthologies have narrow(ish) themes. For instance, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin' (which I co-edited) received a bunch of submissions involving revenge. (No big surprise.) A call for stories for a culinary anthology might result in a bunch of submissions involving poisoning. A book that wants weather-related short stories might receive multiple submissions about folks who are snowbound and someone is murdered.

But even when an anthology's call for stories is broad (let's say, the editor wants crime stories with a female protagonist), you can still end up with several similar stories under consideration. One reason could be that authors are subject to the same national news, so it would make sense if several might be inspired by the same news story, especially a big one. For example, I'd bet there are lot more #MeToo-type stories being written and submitted now than three years ago.

Authors also might be inspired by other industry successes. For instance, when vampire novels were all the rage, I knew several short-story authors writing about vampires, too. These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.

I imagine that when novels with unreliable protagonists became big, more than one editor received short stories with unreliable protagonists, too. Perhaps some authors were following the trend, but I bet others simply were inspired and wanted to see if they could pull off an unreliable narrator, as well.

There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, but you can see how editors might end up with two similar stories to choose from. Or more. They all might be great, but an editor likely will only take one because he doesn't want the book to be monotonous.

And then, of course, there's the weird scenario, when two authors respond to a very broad call for stories with an oddly similar idea that isn't inspired by the news or trends or, it seems, anything. These two authors were simply on the same wavelength. This scenario is what made me decide to write about this topic today.

When Bouchercon put out its call for stories last autumn for the anthology that came out last month (Florida Happens), they asked for stories "set in, or inspired by, Florida and its eccentricity and complexity. We want diverse voices and characters, tales of darkness and violence, whether they are noir, cozy, hard-boiled or suspense. Push the boundaries of your creativity and the theme! Note: the stories don't have to actually be set in Florida, but can be 'inspired' by itso a character can be from here, it can be built around a piece of music about Florida; etc."

That's a pretty broad theme. With that theme, I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bunch of submissions involving older people, since Florida is where many people retire. And I wouldn't be surprised if they received a lot of submissions involving the beach or the ocean, since Florida is where so many people vacation. But what are the odds that two (or maybe more) authors were going to submit stories about missing cats?

And yet, that is nearly what happened. Hilary Davidson wrote one such story. Her story in the anthology, "Mr. Bones," is about a missing cat. My story in the anthology, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," involves a missing pot roast. But as originally planned, that pot roast was going to be  ... yep ... a cat.

If you've read my story, you can imagine how changing the pot roast into a cat would make the story incredibly darker. It was the darkness that got to me. When I was writing and reached page two of the story, I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't write the story as planned with the object going missing being a cat. (Sorry for being vague, but I don't want to spoil things if you haven't read the story.)

Thank goodness for my unease, because I like the story much better with the pot roast. It makes the story lighter. Funnier. And it turned out that using the roast likely increased my chances of my story being accepted because I wasn't directly competing with Hilary Davidson (who wrote a great story). Indeed, imagine if I had gone through with my story as originally planned. The people who chose the stories would have had two submissions involving missing cats! And they likely would not have taken both stories.

So the next time you get a rejection letter and the editor says, please don't take this personally, take the editor at her word. You never know when someone else has an idea quite similar to yours. The world is funny that way.

07 July 2018

Unsung Heroes


by John M. Floyd



Today I'd like to talk about two deceased writers whose stories still delight and inspire me. One of these authors I heard about from an agent I had long ago and the other I discovered when I happened to stumble across one of his stories in an anthology. Both wrote mostly short fiction and were widely published, but almost no one seems to know their names.

The first is Jack Ritchie (born John George Reitci, in 1922, the son of a Milwaukee tailor). Over a period of 35 years Ritchie wrote and published almost 500 short stories, almost all of them mystery/crime/suspense tales, and--like O. Henry--his endings often had a diabolical twist. His fiction appeared regularly in Manhunt, Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, The New York Daily News, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many other publications. (He once had two stories in the same issue of AHMM.)

The only book I own by Mr. Ritchie is Little Boxes of Bewilderment, a collection of 31 of his stories--but I think I've found and read most of the stories that he published. As I've said, a lot of them were featured in mystery magazines, but many can also be found in anthologies, including more than fifty Alfred Hitchcock anthos.

One of Ritchie's stories, "The Green Heart," was adapted into the feature film A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May, and another of his stories, "The Absence of Emily," has been filmed twice and won the Edgar Award in 1982. Several of his stories were also adapted for TV series iike Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.

I actually have a connection, of sorts, to Jack Ritchie. His longtime agent, Larry Sternig, was also my agent for several years, until Larry's death in the late 90s. He was one of that rare breed of literary agents who represented short stories, and was in many ways a mentor to me back when I was just getting started in all this. (Larry once told me he talked Robert Bloch, another Milwaukee native, into writing Psycho.) Soon after agreeing to represent my stories, Larry said to me, "One of the things you should do to become a better writer is to read the stories of a guy named Jack Ritchie," and he mailed me two of Ritchie's collections, with an additional note telling me to send them back to him when I was done. I binge-read them both and returned them as requested, and it was only years later that I located a copy of Little Boxes of Bewilderment on Amazon and snapped it up. Ritchie's collections--and his only novel, Tiger Island--are mostly out of print and hard to find.

The other short-story writer I dearly love to read--and whose work has taught me a lot--is Fredric Brown. I had no idea who he was before finding one of his stories, "Voodoo," in an anthology years ago. That story, like many of Brown's, is only about 300 words in length--but it's brilliant.

Fredric Brown was born in Cincinnati in 1906, the son of a newspaperman, and worked as a journalist himself for most of his career. He wrote many novels and hundreds of short stories, and--oddly enough--his work was almost equally divided between mystery and science fiction. (His first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint, won an Edgar Award in 1948.) I own several collections of his, including Miss Darkness (31 mystery/suspense stories), From These Ashes (116 science fiction and fantasy stories), and Nightmares and Geezenstacks (47 short-short stories, which Stephen King called a "particularly important work"). Interesting note: Brown seemed fond of punnish titles, like "Nothing Sirius," "A Little White Lye," and "Pi in the Sky."

Fred Brown's short story "Arena" was used as the basis for the episode of the same name in the original series of Star Trek, and was voted by Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the top twenty SF stories written before 1965. His short story "Naturally" was adapted into Geometrics, a short film by director Guillermo del Toro, and another story, "The Last Martian," was adapted into "Human Interest Story," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His novel The Screaming Mimi became a 1958 movie starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee.

These two writers had one thing in common, besides their love of the short form and their talent with mystery/crime stories: both had a minimalist style that was long on dialogue and humor and short on exposition and description, and almost always included surprise endings. In their stories, things started out fast and never slowed down. I love that.

If you're interested in trying new authors, here's a list of some of my favorites stories by these two writers:

Jack Ritchie:

Shatter Proof
Traveler's Check
The Absence of Emily
The Green Heart
For All the Rude People
Play a Game of Cyanide
The Best Driver in the County
Memory Test
Number Eight

Fredric Brown:

Nightmare in Yellow
The Laughing Butcher
A Little White Lye
Rebound
The Arena
Voodoo
Answer
Placet Is a Crazy Place

I encourage you to find some of these stories--reading them won't take long. I think you'll like their authors.




21 May 2018

Sticking It Out

Guest starring Brendan DuBois
Jan Grape invited a guest whom we are honored to have with us today. Brendan DuBois is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and nearly 160 short stories. His latest mystery novel, HARD AGROUND, was published this past April by Pegasus Books. His next novel, THE NEGOTIATOR, is set to be published this August by Midnight Ink. He's currently working on a series of works with bestselling novelist James Patterson, with publications set for early 2019.

Brendan's short fiction has appeared in Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies including THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE CENTURY, published in 2000, as well as THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY, published in 2010.
His stories have thrice won him the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Barry Awards, a Derringer Award, and have also earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations from the Mystery Writers of America.

Brendan is also a Jeopardy! game show champion.
— Jan Grape and Rob Lopresti


Sticking It Out
by Brendan DuBois


Last month I had the fun and privilege of going to Manhattan for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards ---- or as we call them in our house, Passover (hah-hah-hah) --- and had a fabulous time. The best part of Edgars week is catching up with old friends and making new ones, hobnobbing with agents and editors and other writers, and reinvigorating ones sense of being part a great writing community.

On one afternoon, I attended a wonderful reception at Dell Magazines --- publishers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine --- and among the attendees were two old friends of mine, writers Doug Allyn and S.J. Rozan.

As we talked, laughed and gossiped with editors Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan, assistant editor Jackie Sherbow, and authors Jeffrey Deaver and Peter Lovesey, it was a just reminder of how far I’ve come in publishing. When I was just a kid, writing short fiction at the age of twelve, I dreamed about coming to Manhattan and hanging out in publishing offices.

At some point, some of us realized that three of us --- Doug, S.J., and myself --- had all gotten published by either Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock within a year or so of each other back in 1986. I think the three of us looked at each other and all thought the same thing: thirty years! And look how good we all looked! And we are still getting published in both magazines, as well as novels and other works.

Later that week, I joined up with S.J. and Doug at the Dell Magazines table during the Edgars banquet, and as part of the ceremony, there’s a slide show depicting past Edgar winners, and when it came to the 1980s and 1990s, the three of us commented on fellow short story authors who had won Edgars, had published for a few years, and then… disappeared.


What happened?

The three of us discussed this a bit, talking about these past friends and co-authors, and while a couple of them had died over this time period, what of the others?

I don’t know about Doug or S.J., but I felt a slight shudder pass through me. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and to be a published author back in 1986 was one of my greatest accomplishments. How could someone just… stop? Give up? Never return again to writing?

And what could someone do to prevent this from happening?

What are the keys to having a lengthy writing career?

Some thoughts:

You have to possess something more than just talent. You need drive. Something inside of you pushing you. Many years ago, when I was in college, a good friend of mine had submitted a short story to The New Yorker magazine. It was rejected, but it was a personal rejection, a typewritten note from an editor, encouraging her to submit again. And what did she do? Nothing! She just shrugged and went on with her life, finding joy and satisfaction in something else.

I’m still gobsmacked that she had done that. But you know what? Her life, her decision.

You have to have a thick skin. Rhinoceros skin? Try two rhino skins. Writing is a hard, tough, and lonely business. Here’s a news flash: nobody cares if you write or not. Nobody. It’s all up to you… and you have to realize that in the outset, you’re going to get rejected. Lots of times. Rejected in creative ways you never knew possible.

And some of those rejections will be harsh and deeply personal. And you have to smile, shrug it off, and keep on writing.

Then… you get published! Yay!

And then you really need a thick skin… maybe three rhino skins. The reviews will come in, and some will be great, and some will be awful. And as humans do, you’ll tend to ignore the good reviews and obsess on the negative ones.

Don’t.

As someone once said, opinions (and reviews) are like certain bodily orifices. Everybody has one. There are a number of fine, dedicated and thoughtful reviewers out there, but alas, it’s the mean ones that stick in your mind.


My trick is this: good reviews come from reviewers who know exactly what I was trying to do in a piece of writing. And bad reviews come from ignoramuses who missed the whole point of my story.

Still, again, you need a thick skin. Maybe even four rhino skins!

You have to be willing to stretch yourself, try different things, different approaches. My first published short stories were of a kind, following certain tropes and approaches. But as months and years went by, I decided to experiment.

You can’t keep plowing and re-plowing the old fictional fields. Editors and readers then get bored. So I wrote first person. Third person. Even a couple of second persons. Then I wrote from the point of a view of a woman. A young boy. A… dog! Yes, a dog.

You need to be trying new things, new ways of telling a story. Sure, there’ll be rejections, but in the end, you’ll be your stretching your talent.

You have to seek out new markets, new opportunities. Back in the days when I first started writing short stories, I used a typewriter. Found my markets via Writer’s Digest Guide to Markets. Sent out my stories in a nine-by-twelve manila envelope, with an SASE contained within. And I’d walk up to my mailbox, shooing away the baby dinosaurs as I did so.

Now it’s all electronic. And there are lots of new markets out there, lots of new publishing opportunities. When I first started out, self-publishing was considered icky, the sign of a loser. Now? I self publish novels that I’ve retained the rights to, and have self-published a number of original anthologies of my own short fiction.

Opportunities had changed, and so had I.

And, lastly, you still have to love it.

Not to mention that there aren’t setbacks, or disappointments, or career plans that founder on the shoals of reality and publishing.

But still, I can’t go without a day without writing.

More than it’s what I do, it’s what I am.

My friend Doug mentioned this at another ceremony during Edgars Week, where Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine gave out the Reader’s Choice Award. He said something to the effect that decades later, he still loved being in the writing game, that he still loved it.

And so do I.